Hi, Everyone

This blog is going to close down. Instead of writing about issues, I want to write about life,
about living with God and having a relationship with Him. I will leave the blog up for a while, for
anyone who wants to read the articles, but I will be concentrating on a different blog: longwalkwithchrist.wordpress.com
Please feel free to visit me there.

May God bless you all. Thank you for reading.

One of my favourite books in the Bible is Ruth, because it tells the story of my favourite missionary: Naomi.

Naomi is a strange and unlikely candidate for a favourite missionary. First of all, she did not go to school or receive training, and I am an advocate of the scholarly life. Secondly, her beliefs might have been heterodox, if not outright henotheistic and universalist (Ruth 1:15)—again, qualities I tend to find most irritating in believers. To further complicate the matter, she does not strike the reader as terribly positive or as possessing great faith (Ruth 1:11-13, 2:20-21). She wants to change her name to “bitter”! I confess, I cannot judge her on that one. Lastly, she did not travel very far to an exotic location. She basically went to the country next door, Moab, and ended up only converting one person! And her daughter-in-law Ruth at that! Not a stranger she actively met on the street and proselytized, not an influential, intellectual or wealthy man who could have planted a new community of monotheists in pagan Moab. Not even a poor beggar, to show the power of charity and to set a fine example for later generations. No, just someone she happened to live with under the same roof. In the history of missions and conversions, she is even less successful than David Livingstone. Moreover, Naomi makes the mistake of bringing her convert home with her, instead of leaving her in the target country as a missionary apprentice to teach her own people about the Lord. She should have handed things over to the local before retiring.

None of that matters to me, and missions is not about our models, standards, and criticisms. Missions is defined by the type of spirituality we read about in Ruth. I love this story and everything in it. I love to imagine their journey out of Moab, how they might have skirted the pale blue waters of the Dead Sea, how they crossed the lush Jordan and arrived in time for the harvest. The golden barley covers the hills, and the young maidens of Israel are out working to gather grain.

The key to this deeply spiritual and, in my opinion, typologically prophetic book, lies in what is not said. For years, Naomi had to live side by side with Orpah and Ruth, foreign women with different gods, customs, and speech. She was an outsider, a sojourner, but she made a home warm and peaceful enough that both her daughters-in-law wept twice when she resolved to go home (Ruth 1:9, 14). How many times did she patiently endure something culturally bewildering? How many times did she gently advise or encourage her daughters-in-law with words of wisdom planted by the Lord? How many nights did she weep and pray? How did she strive day by day to be a role model for them? It is not written directly into the narrative, but it is there from beginning to end. Ruth is about Naomi. It is perhaps out of concern for their well-being and safety that she tells them to go back: travel was dangerous in antiquity. She would gladly bear more sons if she could and give them in marriage to these women, but she knows this is impossible, and would be impractical even if it were possible (Ruth 1:11-13). She wants them to have a good life. Her good will and love are so powerful that, although Orpah returns to Moab, Ruth exclaims: “For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God” (Ruth 1:16). It is in the character of Ruth herself that the spirituality of Naomi is written. Ruth can trust Naomi and follow her, because Naomi–despite life’s hardships—is seeking what is good.

That is the heart of missions: wanting others to have a good life. A good life is a life filled with love, truth, righteousness, holiness and enduring peace. The good life is life in God (John 14:6). Naomi may not have had her theology completely straightened out, but she knew enough about God to want to be a blessing to others and to want God’s mercy for others: “May the LORD deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. The LORD grant that you may find rest, each of you in the house of her husband!” (Ruth 1:8-9). Of course, Naomi is also an unwitting prophetess, for the blessing she bestows is deeply Christological: where else can we find rest and the kindness of the Lord other than in the Bridegroom?

Ruth is filled with Gospel typologies; it has to be, it is the story of one of David’s ancestors, and the Messiah is the Son of David (Matthew 1, Mark 10:46-47). Thus, Naomi, the bereaved “mother” of David (in one sense) wants to be called “Mara”, or “Bitter”–which is one of the meanings of the name Mary. The gentleman Boaz who feeds grain and wine to the sojourner (Ruth 2:14) is surely a type for Jesus, who feeds physical bread to the hungry, while promising to become a banquet of spiritual bread and wine to those who believe (John 6).

What, then, is Naomi’s role in this narrative? She advises and prepares Ruth for marriage to a “redeemer” (in this case, a legal term relating to inheritance and perpetuating the family name). Naomi’s words to Ruth are very significant: “My daughter, should I not seek rest for you, that it may be well with you?” (Ruth 3:1). Isn’t a missionary precisely like this: a person who seeks rest and well-being for others, serving to introduce them to their Redeemer who will wed them to Himself in unbreakable, immeasurable love? Just as Boaz weds Ruth both out of lovingkindness and so “that the name of the dead may not be cut off from among his brothers and from the gate of his native place” (Ruth 4:10), Jesus weds us because He loves us and wants our names and our souls (body and spirit) to be perpetuated among our fellow saints in heaven for eternity.

To have a heart like Naomi’s! To live in such a way that others are attracted to the truth, and throw down their gods and homelands willingly, regardless of the risk, to cling to the saints and follow God! To journey the extra mile, advising and sharing, to ensure that the outsider comes into the Kingdom and finds the good life! That is what it means to be a real missionary.

In “The Grand Inquisitor”, a chapter of The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky, the returned Christ is accused of having rejected miracle, mystery and authority during his temptation in the wilderness, the very three things that the Church must use to make people happy. Dostoevsky did not mean God-given miracle, mystery and authority, but specifically the kind of demonic perversion of these that Satan intended, where miracle is reduced to something carnal, mystery to spectacle, and authority to enslavement in a twisted logic that is supposed to create a utopian society.

Miracles are a fascinating subject, because they are biblically and practically a paradox and a problem to this very day. The rationalists who reject miracle and mystery appear to have gutted the faith and made it void. Those who openly accept miracles, and indeed seem to need them and thrive on them for their Christianity today, strike some as being deluded by wishful thinking—if not downright dishonest in their faith. The paradox is this: a faith that is embarrassed about miracles is as conflicted as a faith that demands miracles. In the closing pages of A Life of Jesus, Shusaku Endo suggests that the miraculous birth at Bethlehem occurred not in a historical or divine way, but because humanity wanted it to happen. It is probably safe to say that not all of humanity wanted it to happen, if for no other reason than that most of humanity was unaware of that corner of the globe in the first century. Moreover, wishing something hard enough does not make it any more real. I mention this only as an example of the kind of academic embarrassment modern Christians often feel about the miraculous in their faith.

And, perhaps they have good reason to be embarrassed. Our television programming and Christian bookstores are cornucopias of miracles, healings, and spectacles, most of which are quite probably untrue, and even if they were, they are presented in such bad taste that we would have to wish that they were not true. Besides this, we also want to uphold the miraculous elements in the Bible by appealing to scientific speculation, pseudo-science, or questionable scholarship that mainstream science ridicules or ignores. Our consciences and hearts must be very tortured to find ourselves in this predicament. I once was asked what I thought about “intelligent design” and God’s creation. I said I thought that “intelligent design” was a poor and disrespectful term for describing what the Almighty has done and will do. My response was dismissed as superficial or irrational, but I insisted. God is too great to be merely “intelligent”; it is we mortal humans who by grace occasionally have intellect. What God has defies words. That He designed and created the universe is abundantly clear to me; I know this through revelation in Scripture and I know this through logic, but more importantly I know it through faith. I do not believe that God used evolution to create life, but at the same time, I see something very much like evolution at work in the world—the universe is not static. Moreover, if God did use evolution to create life, who am I to argue with God? The debate is pointless. I believe what the Scriptures teach me. Although I find their opinions very valuable for my life, I do not need the consensus of the academic community to regulate what I think or believe. We should be embarrassed about faux miracles, but we should never be embarrassed by the miraculous. I believe that a lot of our problems with faith today center on a misunderstanding of what miracles are. Without some clarity regarding miracles, we cannot approach the Scriptures honestly, nor can we claim in good faith to be sealed with the Holy Spirit and empowered for the divine life in Christ.

Our word “miracle” comes from the Latin miraculum, an “object of wonder” and mirari, “to wonder at.” I like this term precisely for its vagueness, even if it is much abused today. Strong’s Hebrew and Greek Dictionaries shows that one of the Hebrew terms for “wonder,” found in Exodus 3:20, is pala, or something that is too hidden, too great, difficult, distinguished and marvellous. Another term in Deuteronomy 7:19 is mopheth, which comes from a root yaphah meaning “bright” or “beautiful” but “in the sense of conspicuousness; a miracle; by implication a token or omen:–miracle, sign, wonder.” In the New Testament, we have other terms. In Matthew 24:24, the Greek term is teras, which means a prodigy or omen, but it is paired with semeion, which means “an indication” or a sign, and is an ancestor of our modern words semiology, semiotics, and semantics. This latter term is prevalent in the Gospel of John, which was thought by Raymond Brown to contain a “Book of Signs” and a “Book of Glory”. The “Book of Signs” contained the seven miracles performed by Jesus in this Gospel, each one signifying a spiritual mystery or teaching about the nature of God or the Kingdom. The contexts of miracles throughout the Bible are even more varied than the etymological richness we see, suggesting that we should never treat the subject in a simplistic manner as a matter of merely suspending the “laws of science” or “proving” the divine and so on. This will take us nowhere on our journey of faith or our cultivation of reason.

To save time, I would like to use the word miracle as an umbrella term for the various hyponyms we could potentially assign to the various types of miracles in Scripture and everyday life, and briefly look at the contexts of these different types as well as what the Lord or the faithful say regarding these events.

Epic Miracles
The Bible abounds in miracles on a grand scale. The creation of the world, the cataclysmic flood, the parting of the Red Sea during the Exodus, the sun and moon standing still over Gibeon and Ajalon, fire coming down onto Mount Carmel, the virgin Mary giving birth to Jesus, and the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, to name a few. These miracles reveal the awesome power of God, and show how God shapes the narrative we find ourselves living in. Modern scholarship doubts these miracles, but we lose cohesion and meaning in the Bible when we strip them away. Regardless of what liberal theologians or the scientifically inclined might think, these epic miracles are essential to the form and content of our faith. As Paul said of the resurrection, “Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:12-15). It is true that some would have us view certain miracles of this nature as metaphors. The question remains, though: why would an Almighty God use mere metaphors to show His strength, when He can do anything He wants? What good is a metaphorical resurrection to me? If we speak of a metaphorical virgin birth, are we not being obscene, hypocritical, and not a little ridiculous? Some would try to argue that certain miracles can be explained by scientific phenomena. If this is the case, then the miracle is no longer a miracle—it is merely a natural phenomenon that did not receive the requisite scientific attention it needed. There may be some scientific explanation of the effects or vestiges of such miracles as the creation or the flood, which are logically completely possible (if not verifiable) and not at all contrary to reason, but it is unlikely that they will ever receive serious treatment in academic circles in our lifetime. On the other hand, with certain miracles—the virgin birth and the resurrection—science will not help us whatsoever, since here we have God performing what is naturally or humanly impossible—not just seemingly, but actually impossible, to remind us that “with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:16).

Testimony
Some miracles in the Bible are testimonies, either of what God has done, or of what God has empowered certain men and women to do. Thus, as horrible as the story may seem to us, she-bears maul forty-two of the boys who disrespect Elisha, calling him “baldhead”; his sanctity and authority as a prophet is confirmed by this portent (2 Kings 2:24). Jesus himself was given miraculous power to show that he had authority to forgive sins (Matthew 9:6). Likewise, to show that the apostles had the authority to speak about the Kingdom and Christ, they were given gifts by the Holy Spirit: “Behold, I have given you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall hurt you” (Luke 10:29). The miracles in these cases were testimonies of God’s power and his appointment of certain individuals to bear witness and to speak the truth in His Name. The ark of the covenant, one of the most enigmatic objects in the Old Testament, was in many ways a strongbox holding the testimony of the Lord (Exodus 25:16). In these instances, the testimonial aspect of the miraculous shows us that truth itself is holy, perhaps too holy for us to comprehend. The testimony demands, more than mere belief, a deep reverence for what is sacred.

Judgments
Not all miracles are pleasant, as we noted in the case of the she-bears. Many miracles were signs of God’s judgment. This is the case of the burning of Sodom and Gomorrha (Genesis 18, 19) and the Ten Plagues against Egypt (Exodus 7-12). This is precisely the type of miracle that James and John wanted to visit on the inhospitable village (Luke 9:54).

Invitations
Although the relationship of miracles to faith can be difficult to grasp in the New Testament, Jesus himself said that one aspect of the miracles was to invite people to belief: “Jesus answered them, ‘I have shown you many good works from the Father; for which of them are you going to stone me?’…If I am not doing the works of my Father, then do not believe me; but if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father.’” (John 10:32-38). When Jesus speaks of the consequences of faith, he deliberately employs motifs that strike us as exaggerated, impossible, and certainly miraculous: “For truly, truly, I say to you, if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you” (Matthew 17:20).

Rewards
In some instances, a miracle is not the invitation to faith, but the reward for faith. Jesus tells the woman with the discharge, “Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well” (Matthew 9:22). To the two blind men he heals, he says, “According to your faith be it done to you” (Matthew 9:29). To the Syro-Phoenician woman, he exclaims: “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire” (Matthew 15:28). There are numerous other examples. What is interesting is that the miracle does not create the belief; it crowns and rewards the belief that was already present.

Gifts
Many of the miracles are merely manifestations of God’s grace and good will towards human beings: “While he was in one of those cities, there came a man full of leprosy. And when he saw Jesus, he fell on his face and begged him, ‘Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.’ And Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him saying, ‘I will; be clean.’ And immediately the leprosy left him.” (Luke 5:12-13). We are reminded of Jesus’ teaching, “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Matthew 7:11). As James remarks, “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures” (James 1:17-18). Thus, on the night of Jesus’s birth, the angels sang of peace and good will toward men (Luke 2:14). God’s will is good for us; He wants to give us what is best, the good life that is Jesus Christ Himself.

Refusals
Sometimes, we fail to see the absence of miracle as a kind of miracle. God is unimaginably and incomprehensibly powerful. It seems that His nature dictates that He cannot do anything that is not miraculous. Because of His love, grace and power, He is always at work, pouring out the miraculous upon us. And yet, we see striking instances of God withholding the miraculous from humanity or taking away the miraculous. One interesting instance is that God promised the obsolescence and disappearance of the ark of the covenant: “In those days, declares the LORD, they shall no more say, ‘The ark of the covenant of the LORD.’ It shall not come to mind or be remembered or missed; it shall not be made again” (Jeremiah 3:16). Similarly, Paul prophesized the cessation of certain miraculous gifts from the Holy Spirit: “As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away” (1 Corinthians 13:8). During His ministry, Jesus did not perform many miracles at Nazareth, “because of their unbelief” (Matthew 13:58). In fact, on several occasions he chastised the Pharisees and others for demanding signs: “Why does this generation seek a sign? Truly, I say to you, no sign will be given to this generation” (Mark 8:12); “An evil and adulterous generation seeks a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah” (Matthew 12:39); “Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe” (John 4:48). Ironically, it is Jesus, and not the skeptics, who point out the very strange mathematics of “miracles”: “Truly, I say to you, no prophet is acceptable in his hometown. But in truth, I tell you, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the heavens were shut up three years and six months, and a great famine came over all the land, and Elijah was sent to none of them but only to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow. And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian” (Luke 4:24-27). To make matters even more perplexing, Jesus gives us this cryptic statement about his reign: “The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed, nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you” (Luke 17:20-21). The absence of miracles, the uneven distribution of miracles, and the outright refusal to grant miracles are miraculous instances in themselves; they teach us something about ourselves, about God, and about miracles. They teach us that miracles are not about human will and selfish expectation. Miracles are specific revelations from God that remind us of the great unknown that God wishes to make known—if by faith we are able to contemplate, to step out of ourselves, to seek—and not just seek the sign, but seek the Giver of the sign. Otherwise, miracles become nothing more than another class of idols we venerate.

Signs
Let us take a moment to think about John’s very specific use of the semeion in his “Book of Signs”. In changing the water into wine, Jesus is showing the mystery of grace—the ceremonial Law is replaced by the best wine, Jesus Himself. In feeding the five thousand, Jesus shows his power to create something from nothing (and if you really believe this is just a metaphor about learning to “share” and “build community” in the church, then I ask you what exactly the impoverished masses had to share) and to feed us with the bread of heaven. In raising Lazarus, Jesus points to His own resurrection and the realized eschatology we have through faith in Him while we live—even before the final day when all the dead rise. All of these “signs” seem to echo a major them of the Gospel: “In him was life, and the life was the light of men” (John 1:4); “I am the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25); “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). The signs in the Gospel of John function almost like parables, revealing to us the mystery of the Kingdom of Heaven and the nature of its glorious King, Jesus Christ.

Commonplaces
Some of the greatest miracles, however, are the miracles that we take for granted. Our very existence is a miracle, a gift. We did not make ourselves, and we did not make the world we live in. Whether we like this gift or hate it, we cannot deny the fact that existence comes to us as a gift from a Giver, however you choose to define that Giver. The Scriptures reasonably show us a wonderful Giver, a Giver who gives every day, to the good people and to the bad people: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:44-45). In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches us not to take the gift of existence for granted and not to worry excessively, as though we were the givers and not the receivers of this gift: “Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?” (Matthew 6:26-30). In one sense, Jesus echoes the line of reasoning presented at the close of Job. All of nature is wonderful and the thoughts of its Creator too high for us—who are we to judge and pontificate? Who are we to question? Are we not blessed just to have been given the gift of existence in this miraculous universe? And yet, Jesus does not use epic things like the Leviathan or the Behemoth (Job 40, 41) to reason with us. Jesus speaks of the miracle of existence by pointing to the little miracles, the commonplace things: birds and flowers. It is the world captured in haiku rather than in spectacle. The smallest pebble or sparrow is something to be wondered at.

Mystery
All miracles, in my opinion, point to the mystery of salvation. They take us beyond the binary obstacle of spectacle and rational justification. As Paul said, “For Jews demand signs, and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified” (1 Corinthians 1:22). The Cross is the great mystery that all miracles relate to.
All things come from God, and God is reconciling all things to himself (Romans 5:11, Romans 11:15, 2 Corinthians 5:19) to manifest His love and glory (Romans 8). John Macquarrie has said that we live in a sacramental universe. The greatest miracles, then, are the gracious and mighty things that God is doing through the ministry of Jesus and the work of the Holy Spirit. As Hippolytus of Rome taught, the supernatural is discerned in the normal ministry of the word and sacrament; instead of pursuing spectacular gifts, healings, and prophecies, we would do better to cultivate those miraculous attributes of Jesus our Saviour: the virtues, the fruits of the spirit, and more importantly, faith, hope, and love, the “more excellect way” (1 Corinthians 12:31) of rising up into God’s life.

What are the greatest miracles? Genesis 1:1. John 3:16. John 20:22.

Miracles are real, and they do exist today, albeit probably not in the much publicized way. Miracles are not necessarily what we expect or want. They are not about us. They are not the cheap tricks of television, nor are they scientifically identifiable phenomena of laboratories. They have a much deeper nature and purpose. They are about God. Without the miraculous, there can be no faith; without miracles, our faith miraculously grows. It is impossible to fully define a miracle, because we cannot define God. God reveals Himself to us. I do hope, however, that this discussion will aid someone in understanding the complexity and rich beauty of the miraculous—especially the fact that our mere life is a miracle, one that is preparing us for the greatest miracles of eternal life lived face-to-face with God.

Now and then, I read an article on missions or hear someone’s theory about what makes missions work. What surprises me is that few of these theories have any relation to Scripture. At first I thought that these ideas were just the products of academics with little experience in field work. Then, I came across a few articles written by seasoned missionaries who had worked in very difficult places, and I was quite shocked that they would espouse—in print—ideas that I knew they could not possibly agree with themselves. Perhaps they caved in to the pressure of their church climate, or perhaps in desperation they decided to embrace methodologies and ideas as a way to rationalize their own dissatisfaction with their mission experience. It is hard to say, and I am not at all interested in attacking any people, because it does not seem like a good way to edify them or the work they do. Moreover, I am not setting the world on fire, either. Whether I agree with them or not, I have a lot of respect for missionaries that have been through considerable difficulties in hostile terrains. On the other hand, I also think it might be worthwhile to present what I believe to be a very Biblical answer to the question: Why do missions fail?

Before we begin the discussion, I would like to define the terms. I think of all churches, at home and abroad, as missions, and the main contributors to those communities as missionaries. Most missionaries have some sort of sponsoring church or organization. All missionaries, unless they are hermits (and yes, this does happen, and possibly for good reasons at times) have a specific audience which will include new converts , seekers, and unbelievers—this is the mission field. Lastly, all missionaries, churches, and audiences will exist in particular areas of the world that have their unique Zeitgeist or cultures that potentially influence the missionary, the missional church, and the mission itself or the mission field. I am not going to define success or failure at this point; it is something I would like to elicit along the way, or present at the end of this discussion.

Now, then, why do missions fail? I would have to argue that they fail because of sin. This is the most basic, universal, and Biblical explanation that I can find. In some cases, it is perhaps the sin of the missionary that causes a failed situation. In other cases, it might be the church that sends out the missionary. In many cases, it is the sinful audience that prevents the spread of the Good News. Lastly, there is the possibility that a severely irreligious or intolerant Zeitgeist is in the process of destroying or damaging whatever good works the missionary, the missional church, and the converts and seekers on the mission field are trying to achieve.

Missionaries who fail are not alien to the Old and New Testaments. In the Old Testament, we read of the prophet who disobeyed God, and was eaten by a lion (1 Kings 13). Though he successfully delivered the message from God to Jeroboam, he himself failed to obey God, and lost his life and the chance to serve the Lord further on this earth at a time when prophets or missionaries were much needed in Israel. Again, we see a similar situation in the case of Hananiah the false prophet, who broke the yoke-bars around the neck of Jeremiah, and died because of it (Jeremiah 28). One of the most egregious cases is the story of Jonah, the prophet who tried to run away from his mission (Jonah 1), and even when he finally did preach, lacked the requisite compassion and humanity one would expect in a successful missionary (Jonah 4). Jesus himself warned about wolves (John 10) and wicked servants: “Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom his master has set over his household, to give them their food at the proper time? Blessed is that servant whom his master will find so doing when he comes. Truly, I say to you, he will set him over all his possessions. But if that wicked servant says to himself, ‘My master is delayed,’ and begins to beat his fellow servants and eats and drinks with drunkards, the master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he does not know and will cut him in pieces and put him with the hypocrites” (Matthew 24:45-51). In one of his most biting sermons, Jesus said: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves!” (Matthew 23:15). Paul later complained to Timothy of co-workers who had abandoned him: “Demas, in love with the present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica.” (2 Timothy 4:9).

Those who send missionaries can also fail. In the dark ages of Judah, the priests and Levites were so negligent that they did not even have the Book of the Law until they found it among some old things stored in the temple, and brought it to Josiah (2 Kings 22). Sometimes, I wonder if some of our churches have not forgotten the Good Book as well. We do not view or treat missionaries according to what is taught in the Good Book; we do not even view our neighbours and congregants in the right way. Though some of the kings were better than others, we read of Jehoshaphat who actually provided that the Law be read in all of the towns of Judah, and sent a number of men to carry this out (2 Chronicles 17:1-10); what were the earlier and later generations of kings and priests doing? Not much; like Israel before her, Judah drifted into deeper darkness, and suffered Exile in Babylonia. During the time of Jeremiah, it was the religious establishment as well as the king who persecuted Jeremiah the most. Many missionaries have suffered untold troubles because of irresponsible or frankly sinful sponsoring congregations. I know of a missionary, who has long since passed away, who on furlough went to raise funds, traveling from town to town in the United States. One rainy evening, he called on an elder of one of the churches. Instead of inviting him in, the elder allowed him to stand out in the rain, while the already seasoned missionary explained the purpose of his visit. He never did get invited in. I know of another missionary who, at great cost to himself, traveled from the Far East to a Christian school in the United States for an appointment–only to be stood up and ignored–despite having repeatedly done numerous favours for this school–again, at great personal cost. Today, we can see advertisements that treat mission work as though it were a type of tourism or leisure activity, making a mockery of the Good News and the work that missionaries have done for centuries. In the New Testament, we often think of Antioch as the great success story as a sponsoring church for missions. It sent out Paul, Barnabas, Silas, John Mark, and probably others. And yet, Paul tells us that this church was a moral failure at one point: “But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, ‘If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?’” (Galatians 2:11-14). A church can look very active and appear to be growing, and yet fester and rot from moral and spiritual decay. John tells us of a tyrannical church leader whose inhospitable nature was becoming an obstacle for traveling brothers in the early church: “I have written something to the church, but Diotrephes, who likes to put himself first, does not acknowledge our authority. So if I come, I will bring up what he is doing, talking wicked nonsense against us. And not content with that, he refuses to welcome the brothers, and also stops those who want to and puts them out of the church” (3 John 9-10).

One should not forget the obvious fact that sinful obstacles to the Good News are very often found in the mission field. After all, this is where the lost are: the lost sheep, the goats, and the wolves. Reading First and Second Corinthians, we are amazed at the patience Paul had for this mission that suffered from divisions, sexual misconduct, false teachings, elitism, inconsiderate and vulgar behaviour towards the poor, arrogance and defiance towards apostles and the teaching of the Lord, and numerous other problems. When we carefully read all of the epistles, and Christ’s letters to the Seven Churches in Revelation, we quickly discover that there is no ideal mission field. God isn’t sending us into fields ripe with perfect little automatons we can harvest for our cookie-cutter churches. God is sending us into a broken world full of screwed up people who, but for the grace of God, are committing suicide in slow motion and facing an eternity in hell. Some of Jesus’ harshest words were directed at an unresponsive mission field: “Then he began to denounce the cities where most of his mighty works had been done, because they did not repent. ‘Woe to you Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You will be brought down to Hades for if the mighty works done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. But I tell you that it will be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom than for you” (Matthew 11:20-24). The Parable of the Sower also indicates that reception of the word will depend on whether people are willing to repent and accept it (Mark 4). People have the freedom to accept God’s grace or sinfully reject it: “And this is the judgment: the light had come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come into the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes into the light, so that it may clearly be seen that his works have been carried out in God” (John 3:19-21); “Whoever receives his testimony sets his seal to this, that God is true. For he whom God has sent utters the words of God, for he gives the Spirit without measure. The Father loves the Son and has given all things into his hand. Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him” (John 3:33-36).

Lastly, there is the issue of Zeitgeist. Wave after wave of missionaries taught in the Roman Empire. We often like to think of the early church as a miracle of church growth, but this is quite illusory. Most of the churches that were planted suffered from persecution or heresy. Thousands gave their lives. Nero, Domitian, Diocletian, Decius, and other emperors (even Marcus Aurelius, it seems), crucified and tortured Christians and forbid public meetings. In the 4th Century, Constantine legalized Christianity; the majority of Roman society had become Christian, at least nominally, by this point. And yet, the events of the 7th and 8th centuries wiped out churches in the Near East and North Africa in a genocidal bloodbath ranging from the Zagros Mountains to the Straits of Gibraltar. Meanwhile, an age of superstition and bad theology descended upon Europe. Our best missional efforts can be thwarted by the public policies of other countries, making it difficult to plant long-term churches or movements. During the late 16th Century, Christianity was the fastest growing religion in Japan. Thanks to the efforts of Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu, Japan officially closed its doors to Christianity until the Meiji Restoration. Thousands of Christians were tortured, crucified, burned, boiled alive, beheaded, or driven into hiding. To this day, Christians represent less than 1% of the total population due to social, cultural and perhaps even political factors. And sometimes, the Zeitgeist is perhaps less obvious. In the Christian “West” (already a demographic misnomer, since Christianity seems to have entered its Southern Phase below the Equator—primarily in South America and Africa), we may have a high rate of church attendance and lobby to get prayer back into schools, but do we live like Christians? Do we welcome people of other cultures and ethnicities in our communities? Do we share what we have with our poor neighbours? Are we willing to turn the other cheek, or would we rather litigate to ensure our rights are not infringed upon? Are we supporting true missions, or building and maintaining church buildings? A Zeitgeist can be filled with sin, and the degree to which we allow such an influence to shape our lives will be indicative of how much we let the Good News thrive or die in our own societies. The success of our religion has nothing to do with whether or not the President is a Christian or a Muslim, or whether or not gay marriage is legalized, or whether or not our “Christian” nation is number one economically, militarily and politically. Our religion depends on whether or not Christians are able to resist the Zeitgeist and persevere despite its ravages, resisting the temptations that come with it. Paul warns us this way: “And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled only to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Corinthians 4:3-4).

I have listed four areas where sin can become an obstacle to missions: the missionary, the missional church that sends out the missionary, the mission field, and lastly the political and social culture of the mission field and the missional church. I have not spoken about specific ideologies or methodologies, although there are many questionable “methods,” plans, strategies and even organizations out there for planting churches or preaching the Gospel, many of which seem more designed to accrue power, wealth, and easily manipulated or managed adherents rather than to live out the self-sacrificing agape we see in the Cross. Unless a method is expressly unbiblical, however, I do not see why a missionary is not free to choose what works best for him or her as guided by Scripture and the Holy Spirit. To quote Paul Feyerabend, “Anything goes”! In my innermost heart, however, I believe that the true method is the Gospel method—just living like Jesus and the apostles, and teaching exactly what they taught, even if it does not quite square with John Calvin, Martin Luther, Thomas Aquinas, John Wesley, George Fox, Sergei Bulgakov, the current Archbishop of Canterbury, the Pope, or even Barton Stone, Thomas and Alexander Campbell, David Lipscomb, or J.W. McGarvey. What should matter to us is what matters eternally to God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—as revealed to us in Scripture.

I would like to change directions, however. I have written so far on Why Missions Fail. I would like to argue against what I have written and say: Do Missions Fail? In one sense, in a very human sense, yes–they do fail. Some people fail to live as good Christians and are ineffective as missionaries. Some people are callous and inhospitable. Some people are immoral. Some people reject the Gospel. Some people even persecute the Gospel. There is a dimension of failure to our undertaking. Nevertheless, this should not overshadow the hope and joy of mission work. The Almighty knew what He had to work with when through His Son Jesus, He chose twelve poorly educated working class fishermen, tax collectors, and criminals to be the founding witnesses of the Kingdom of Heaven and the first leaders of the Church. Sin was there from the beginning—whether in the grumbling of the disciples (John 6:61), Peter’s three denials of Jesus (Luke 22:54-62), or Judas Iscariot’s blood-money grabbing betrayal of the Lord (Luke 22:3-6). We have already noted the trouble Peter got into later on at Antioch, and the problems of Demas and Diotrephes. The Church has had sinfulness in it from the beginning, because the Church was built by grace to draw sinners into the divine life of Christ. Jesus said: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:31-32). While I do think that brazen sin will cause churches, missions, missionaries and congregants to fail in some way–whether subtly or obviously(again, the Letter to the Seven Churches in Revelation seems to apply here), I do not think that missions in general, or the Church, or Christianity, will ever fail, because the Good News is the news of God’s grace and Christ’s victory over the earth. There is nothing wrong with the Gospel; there might be something wrong with what we call success and failure. Jeremiah preached to a largely unrepentant nation: was he therefore a failure? At the Cross, only a handful of women and one disciple seem to have been present—was there something wrong with Jesus’ preaching prior to the Cross? Aside from some Samaritans and one Ethiopian, Philip seems to not have done much church planting at all—was he less of a missionary than Paul? Time and again, we will see that our ideas of success and failure are not Biblical, because they are based on a worldly and materialistic understanding of both the Church and the Good News itself rather than on the will of God. At the end of the day, God’s word and His mission, of which our missions are only a part, cannot fail. Let us stop blaspheming in the name of “good stewardship” or “diligence” or “methodology”!! Let us put away all of this worldly nonsense and return to the real mission—the Son who died on the Cross and rose from the dead! God’s work cannot fail. As it is written in Isaiah: “Seek the LORD while he may be found; call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the LORD, that he may have compassion on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. For as the rain and the snow come from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55:6-11). Let us have faith in the word of God, and trust its power to change lives. Let us give glory to God for His words—for it is God, and not us or our little plans and strategies, who redeems the lost and brings them into the heavenly kingdom.

To close, I would like to quote the apostle Paul: “For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.’ Where is the one who is wise? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men…But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord’” (1 Corinthians 1:17-31).

It seems to me that our thoughts and beliefs have consequences, whether or not these consequences themselves are immediately obvious. The one who dwells constantly on what is good may suffer in this life, but he or she will have a type of happiness unavailable to the one who does not seek what is good with all of his heart. Marcus Aurelius notes, “The things you think about determine the quality of your mind. Your soul takes on the color of your thoughts” (Meditations tr. Gregory Hays, Modern Library, 2002, 59). Whether or not we truly live in a causal world, we certainly make decisions based on assumptions of cause and effect. If I dwell on a tempting croissant, I am much more likely to buy it than if I distract myself with other thoughts. The more I look at an appealing book on the shelf in a store, the more likely I am to purchase it. Wishing to avoid an argument with an obnoxious acquaintance, I take a detour and avoid walking down his street or frequenting the haunts in which he is likely to appear. To render this in even simpler terms: the sun shines, and we feel warm. It rains and the earth grows damp. The wind blows and the leaves start to scurry across the street. We think of loved ones, and we telephone them or cross the city to go meet them.

There are costs to our beliefs and thoughts, just as there are effects to causes, whether the consequences of our beliefs are good or bad. It is a good thing to have nice books. At one point I had several thousand of them. I have downsized my library, because my love of books made my living conditions cramped. Moreover, I found myself spending money I did not really have to cover my walls with volumes of poetry, history, art, literature and philosophy that I did not have sufficient time to read. Debt, as most people will agree, is not a good thing. A good desire and its fulfilment—the acquisition of knowledge and wisdom—came at a great cost, because I was careless.

Today, we have yet to admit the untold costs that various ideas have incurred throughout history on both social and individual levels. Our bloody wars, eroded cultures, and ruined societies are evidence of these costs. Perhaps we are too busy looking for the newest idea to stop and think whether or not our older ideas were worthwhile or not. Perhaps we are too addicted to bad ideas to consider whether or not it is time to jettison outdated thoughts and mature into new ways of thinking and being. As for new ideas, it is hard to calculate where they will lead, since we do not have the gift of seeing into the future. In this sense, we are all gamblers and debtors, racking up costs we have no way to properly measure or pay, and gambling with our lives and futures with ideas we may not have sufficiently examined.

In this light, Pascal’s Wager is not as insane as it sounds. What is striking to me about Pascal’s Wager is not the gambling aspect of it, but the fact that it is a philosophical model that considers the cost of belief. It is one of the early examples of game theory. In the New Testament, we see something similar in a parable that Jesus tells the people: “For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid the foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’ Or what king, going out to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and deliberate whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? And if not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace. So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:28-33).

Jesus, that wonderful man we applaud and ignore, puts forth an argument of stunning philosophical import. No matter what we believe, we will pay for it, and we should therefore calculate the costs before we commit ourselves to beliefs, thoughts, and opinions. In an age of science and convenient technology, we do not have time, motivation or necessity to calculate costs. We figure that they have already been calculated for us, or we believe ourselves to be above the herd of those “others” who do not think the way we do. What is especially amusing is that both the highly educated and the completely ignorant often share precisely this exact same mode of arrogant reasoning, if one can call it reasoning. It is not surprising, therefore, that we live in a world burdened and broken by debt.

Our souls are faced with the insurmountable problems of imperfection and death. No sane person believes he is perfect and can cheat death. If anything, the more disillusioned we become, the more ripe we are for enlightenment. Unless our reason has been severely compromised, with or without fault, we generally want this losing game of life to mean something to us before we die. As individuals and as societies, we have created a world of debits without credits. We are bankrupt. And still, we are busy trading our futures, selling our temporal selves, and gambling with our thoughts and actions. Only Jesus offers us a way out of the cost of living. It is true that believing in Him has its own costs—He was the first to say so and the first to pay the price. On the other hand, these costs are only temporal, while the benefits that outweigh them are eternal.

The great illusion today is that only temporal and material things matter. And not only in the marketing industry or politics, but also in Church. As long as our buildings stand, our collections are full, and we see tangible results—more people converting to our particular brand of Christianity—we are happy. What is ironic is that it is precisely this mode of thinking that seems to wreak the most damage on temporal and material things. Most bad ideas today, whether in the secular community or in the Church, derive in some fashion from the denial of eternal values in favor of temporal and material values, whereas the latter cannot be conceptualized, examined or lived out in any meaningful way without reference to the former. It is our bad ideas that have cost us so much. Through our bad beliefs, we have destroyed our environment, reduced millions to slavery or wage slavery, have murdered millions of unborn infants, we have murdered or tortured millions of men, women and children, we have sowed worldwide discord and blood-feuds through military, cultural and economic imperialism, we have prostituted and corrupted ourselves, we have traded beautiful ideas for cheap mass produced products and cookie-cutter lifestyles, and we have had the audacity to call our ideologies progress, evolution, or even freedom. Moreover, we have confused millions by teaching lies—suggesting that people are free to formulate their own morality, that life has no real meaning, that anything spiritual is obsolete, that our lifestyles are merely matters of personal choice, that freedom means being enslaved by the passions and letting them blaze away in chaotic unrestraint, that only materialistic solutions (whether liberal and socialistic or conservative and capitalistic) can have any effect on the world, and that happiness is a matter of satisfying our wants rather than our true needs on both a temporal and eternal scale.

In Immanuel Kant’s moral argument for the existence of God, one of the important premises is that we are rationally obliged to pursue the summum bonum (the greatest possible good). Because the summum bonum cannot be conceived or pursued without reference to eternity, the afterlife, and God, therefore—the argument concludes—God exists. Proving the existence of God is not my special concern here. I do believe God exists; I do believe logic points us to His existence, but I believe in the end that God is primarily approached through faith, hope and love by His grace and revelation. What interests me here is the notion of the summum bonum—the greatest good, the ultimate perfection, the good life, the true happiness. I do not think that we have the requisite imagination today to even conceive of a summum bonum. Perhaps too many decades of secular education, cultural and political disillusionment, and other problems have broken us to the point of being too scared to dream, imagine or believe in such a thing. We are down and out. Nevertheless, I believe that Boethius’ argument for God’s existence still holds true—if we see gradations of good and evil in this world—and it is ridiculous and hypocritical to say that we do not (especially when you visit the eye doctor or receive your grades back at the end of the school year)—then there is a perfect goodness, and that perfect goodness is the God who is the source of all goodness. Are we really willing to live our lives at the cost of losing the greatest good? Can we claim to be rational while dismissing our only chance at fully knowing ourselves, the meaning of our lives, and the meaning of others? Are we willing to deny this theodicy, and allow evil and pain to have the last word? Is this a cost we are willing to bear? Is it a cost we can rationally afford to bear?

It is with a Bible verse that Paul Virilio cites several times in Open Sky that I wish to close this little rant today: “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?” (Matthew 16:26).

One interesting thing I have learned recently while taking time off from graduate theology courses to train to become an English teacher involves how to present grammar. When teaching grammar, we are taught not to write on the board or give all the forms right away. Instead, we begin by teaching concepts. For example, in English we have countable and uncountable nouns. For my micro-teaching assignment, I had to teach the concept of countable and uncountable nouns without writing anything on the board until the very end. How to do it? I brought apples, bananas, oranges, grapes, tea, coffee, sugar and flour (ESL teachers call this realia). I held up each item, passed it around to the students, and made them count whether they had one apple or two apples. When it came to coffee or tea, I demonstrated through short phrases and gestures that these could not be counted or at least were not counted. Then I would place the countable items on one table and the uncountable items on the other table. By the end, they could view the two tables with two sets of items. Lastly, I drew two columns on the whiteboard. In both columns, I wrote a series of numbers: 1,2,3,4,5…Over the numbers in the second column (close to the table with the coffee, tea, sugar and flour), I drew a red circle with a slash, as you seen in No Smoking signs or No Parking signs. Basically, you can use the same method of teaching (concepts first, then form) for other topics. You don’t always have to do it with such simple language as I did (it was a test, and the target audience was at a beginner level, after all).

Our theological thinking and teaching also involves concepts and forms. It occurred to me that over the years, perhaps I had been too concerned about teaching the “form” of our faith before giving Bible students and non-Christians the “concept”. How do you teach salvation to someone who doesn’t understand that they need to be saved? How do you teach morality to someone who doesn’t think they do anything wrong? How can you teach sound doctrine to someone who neither comprehends the importance of “sound” teaching or “doctrine”? Both forms and concepts are important. In grammar, you cannot choose either forms or concepts. Concepts alone communicate nothing; likewise, forms without concepts. Perhaps this is what we need to remember when we try to present Christ to people. Proof-texts and easily digestible axioms alone do not produce faith. They cannot stand alone in the presentation of the Gospel. The English language is one of the hardest languages in the world to teach. There are several reasons for this. First, it has sounds that are almost nonexistent in other languages throughout the world. Secondly, English has a total vocabulary of about 1,000,000 words as of 2009—this is far, far above the number of words in any other language in the world. If English is so difficult to teach, and it has a finite number of words—imagine how hard it is to teach the Bible and the Christian faith to people! In its most basic form, Christianity has only One Book to present, and therefore a limited vocabulary. And yet, this finite set of words is the key to the infinite. Our God is infinite and perfect and without end! If we must be well-educated, dedicated, responsible, and careful to teach a limited, mortal language, how much more educated, dedicated, responsible and careful we need to be to teach the timeless spiritual truths of our infinite, omniscient and eternal Almighty God!

There is nothing new in asserting that faith has its own unique language. A cursory reading of the mystics or even of the Biblical writers themselves shows us the paradoxical in-breaking of divine truths from the immortal God into our mortal and ambiguous language. Mystic after mystic and theologian after theologian has struggled to define or express the depths of their spiritual experiences and readings of Scripture. One branch of theology, apophatic theology, denies the ability of human language to express total truths or meanings about the existence of God or the nature of faith, because of the sheer impossibility for human words to convey what is divine. In other words, faith plays a larger role than we would often be comfortable with. The Bible, likewise, is filled with paradoxes that challenge us to think, to believe and to trust without the normal comforting pillars of everyday language. The Bible is a diamond mine of rhetoric, metaphor, poetic contemplation, dogmatic argumentation, parable, historical narrative, philosophical discourse, and impassioned lyrical discourses of faith–all expressing the humanly inexpressible. The moment we try to transpose this richness into the terms of another discipline without due consideration for the unique ways in which Biblical writers speak or think, we lose the content of what is being conveyed. This does not mean that the Bible is ahistorical or unscientific or irrational or incompatible with epistemological systems or other methods of enquiry. In the spirit of Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas, I think that faith and science can coexist quite well. On the other hand, to force one discipline to speak in the language of the other is often pointless and detrimental to both thinking and believing.

In an earlier post, I have written of the dangers of the pedagogical paradigm in our churches. To some extent, I still believe that there is a great difference between kerygma and pedagogy. In its basic meaning, pedagogy is a good thing. On the other hand, we are not meant to be children forever, and quite often the manner of teaching children today is totally unsuitable for teaching mature adults. In its worst form, modern pedagogy is condescending, micromanaging, disrespectful, dehumanizing and completely geared towards the destruction of the individual and his or her traditions to ensure his or her fluid conformity to the dominant social norm. Classical pedagogy, on the other hand, stressed the importance of the learning itself, the subject matter, as well as the development of the human being, and is far more relevant to the Biblical life. The modern concept of pedagogy, with some wonderful exceptions, is linked to statecraft, industrialization, and social engineering, and has been since the Transatlantic Revolutions, which in true masonic spirit, sought to replace God, authority, and tradition with an anemic and completely irrationally understood concept of “Reason”.

Nevertheless, my recent experience has opened my mind to the possibilities of learning from another discipline and trying to apply this knowledge to mission work. In our churches, we often have this notion that everyone should aspire to be a Bible teacher, preacher or missionary—that this is the way churches, especially Churches of Christ, grow. James said: “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness” (James 3:1). Paul speaks of those “desiring to be teachers of the law, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make confident assertions” (1 Timothy 1:7). In other words, from the beginning of the Church, it was understood among the apostles and elders who penned the New Testament that teaching was not formulaic—i.e., something easily reduced to trite statements, methodologies, formulae, or proof-texts without context. For a denomination without creeds, however, we are very creedal in our approach to teaching, forgetting that the ancient Creeds were the product of labour-intensive discussions at councils, theological investigations, and lives of prayer, asceticism, and self-sacrifice—whether we agree with those creeds or not. In other words, the answers in these creeds did not come easily. For the Early Church, teaching was a burden, a serious responsibility, one that was meant to be guided by the Holy Spirit; it was a vocation tested by serious trials, as witnessed in the life of Paul. And not everyone was called to carry that burden: “Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers?” (1 Corinthians 12:29). It is true that it is good to have as much involvement as possible from your congregants. Perhaps, however, it is important to remember that even those who have no set “role” in the Church are fulfilling their divine role by being there worshipping and praising God! They are being sheep, which is what the Shepherd wants them to be! We would libel these poor people as “pew-warmers” or something of the sort, when in fact there is no Biblical reason to believe that every member of the Early Church was a teacher, preacher, or member of some committee. This approach to understanding unity and involvement in the church is again another by-product of corporate mentality and modern pedagogy. It is the notion that only what happens within or in association to the Church Building (Corporate Headquarters, the School Building) is of any spiritual value, whereas Sunday is meant to be a reflection and celebration of God’s work in individuals throughout the week! You don’t need to be “invovled” to be involved. You need to be a good sheep listenign to the Good Shepherd to be involved.

As usual, I have strayed into many tangents. I really just wanted to write about concept and form. I believe our current trials involve an idolatrous attachment to formalism without concepts. We’re too worried about How to Do Worship. How to Do Missions. How to Grow Your Church. Has anyone ever stopped to ask: How should I live for God? How should I follow the Scriptures? How is the Spirit changing me and leading me? How can I pray? How can I love my neighbours as myself today and show them the Good News? How can I introduce them to Jesus who is living in me?

To truly grow as disciples of Christ, we need to remember the very basic concepts before we can even begin to work out forms. As one New Testament writer says, addressing what I believe to be the literate congregants in leadership roles: “For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God” (Hebrews 5:12). What are some of these basic concepts or principles? What are the ABCs? The ABCs of Christianity are: God’s truths (Not mine). Grace. Agape Love. Virtues, or the Fruits of the Spirit. The Beatitudes. The Life of Christ. Praying Faith. Self-Sacrifice. Sharing. Kindness.Hope. Our Purpose and Destination as Christians. And all of these must be grounded in a personal relationship with God—Father, Son and Holy Spirit-without Whom we cannot even begin to grasp a single one of these concepts.

“Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (1 Corinthians 10:17)

The apostle Paul constantly reminded the early Christians to be of one mind, to pursue unity, to remember that there is one Lord, one faith, one baptism. His words have been central to my understanding of a universal church and Christian tradition. On the other hand, it is interesting and important to note that Paul separated from Barnabas, after quarreling over Mark (Acts 15:35-40) possibly due to theological matters, that Paul recommended the sending away of an immoral brother from the church at Corinth and the avoidance of fellowship with immoral Christians (1 Corinthians 5), and that he warned against “false brothers” (Galatians 2:4) and any preaching of a “different gospel” (Galatians 1:6-11).

These are serious caveats that are probably largely unheeded today. Some of the faith groups historically renowned for their strict reforming tendencies and refusal to acquiesce to man-made traditions have completely abandoned their former vigilance in order to embrace immoral teaching or unbiblical ideas. What has become of the Waldensians and the Moravians? How is this sort of thing even possible? Names are only names of course, and never tell us much, but generally speaking, can these churches even call themselves Moravians or Waldensians? What went wrong?

It is possible that what is happening with the Moravians today is merely a repetition of the earlier history of the Waldensians. Forced to flee from their native lands, the Waldensians eventually joined with the Reformation and became a Reformed Church. The example set by Peter Waldo and his friends was replaced by the highly organized and unbiblical theology of Geneva. Today, the Moravian Church has entered into communion with the Episcopal Church. This has forced the Moravian Church to adopt extremely liberal teachings on morality. Is “survival” of this sort the real goal of the Church? What is the spiritual or even cultural value of such survival?In the years to come, if Churches of Christ are too low in number to maintain their buildings, assemblies, and ministries, are we going to join with other churches to abandon the good things we hold dear? Today it seems unlikely. We are still quick to condemn other churches and their doctrines, even denying them salvation. This might not be as horrible as it sounds.

There are two paths we can take. The first possibility is that this somewhat vicious tendency to withhold fellowship from other Christians or to deny the validity of their doctrines will transform into the virtue of keeping our Christocentric identity and refusing to join other liberal or unbiblical groups—no matter what the costs (and hopefully with a better sense of grace, tolerance and good will towards other groups). The second possibility is that a reaction to decades of judgmental thinking will produce a generation of very liberal churches who, disgusted with their past, will prefer liberalism and communion with unbiblical churches, if only just for the sake of escaping the stigma of being too conservative, too judgmental, too narrow-minded, or too remote from the Zeitgeist of the day.

I would like to believe that we can continue to be transformed by love and by truth, and remain committed to truth, even if our numbers dwindle down and our buildings disappear from the landscape. I would like to believe that we can be committed to the truth in love, still appreciate the greater tradition of Christianity, continue some sort of dialogue with Christians of other denominations, allow God to be the judge in our soteriology, and pursue our pilgrimage of being Christians who have tried to follow Scripture more closely than any other denomination in modern history.

I think dialogue is dialogue—I do not think it necessitates joining with other churches. Breaking with other denominations was one of the things that enabled Scott and the Campbells to live more Biblically. They found freedom and cohesion, truth and hope. Brokenness and isolation in this sense proved very spiritually productive. In a similar manner, the Waldensians were a better church when they were cut off from the world, hiding out in the valleys between France, Italy and Switzerland. Perhaps we will look back some day and say that the Churches of Christ were better when they minded their own business and did not pursue entanglements with other denominations. I do not know. It is tragic, though, when for the sake of “survival”—a very materialistic understanding of spirituality to begin, especially in a religion that was built by martyrdom on faith in a Saviour who died on a cross for His teaching, we are willing to give in to the voices of the world that demand conformity at the expense of dogma and pluralism instead of truthful love that requires high moral standards, correction and repentance.

It is clear from Paul’s teaching that there is only one bread. On the other hand, there are many things that are simply not bread. Sometimes what we see as “brokenness” or lack of unity may actually have a virtuous aspect to it. I do not want our churches to live in quarantine, but I see no reason for us to join the ecumenical orgy, either. Ecumenism is only as good as the theology it embraces. Most ecumenical actions in recent history seem to have a very low regard for the sovereignty of God, the authority of his Word, and the function and purpose of the moral teachings the Creator of life has handed to us for our own good. The Church must be the one bread and nothing else. When it ceases to be bread, it ceases to be filled with Christ.

The second story in Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron provides a short but powerful picture of the Holy Spirit at work in the Church. The story is about a virtuous man named Abraham. Gianotto, his friend, wants him to convert to Christianity. Abraham politely listens to his friend, but never accepts the invitation. Finally, Abraham says he will go to Rome and see how the Pope and cardinals live. If they are virtuous, then he will convert and become a Christian. Gianotto feels that all is lost, thinking, “If he goes to the court of Rome and sees the wicked and filthy lives of the clergy…he will not change ” (Giovanni Boccaccio The Decameron Tr. Mark Musa and Peter Bondanella. Signet Classics, 40). So, Abraham goes to Rome, and sure enough, he sees more vice than he has ever seen in his life. When he returns, the friend asks him if he liked Rome and the Church officials of the Holy See. Abraham’s answer is surprising, funny, and very encouraging:

“I don’t like them a bit, and may God condemn them all; and I tell you this because as far as I was able to determine, I saw there no holiness, no devotion, no good work or exemplary life, or anything else among the clergy; instead, lust, avarice, gluttony, fraud, envy, pride, and the like and even worse (if worse than this is possible) were so completely in charge there that I believe that city is more a forge for the Devil’s work than for God’s: in my opinion, that Shepherd of yours [he means the Pope here] and, as a result, all of the others as well are trying as quickly as possible and with all the talent and skill they have to reduce the Christian religion to nothing and to drive it from the face of the earth when they really should act as its support and foundation. And since I have observed that in spite of all this, they do not succeed, but on the contrary, that your religion continuously grows and becomes brighter and more illustrious, I am justly of the opinion that it has the Holy Spirit as its foundation and support, and that it is truer and holier than any other religion” (41-42). In the end, Abraham is baptized and becomes a virtuous Christian. It’s a great story–comical, but able to combine pointed criticism with a hopeful vision.

The Church seems to always be in dire need of a great house-cleaning, regardless of denomination. And yet, we need to make a clear distinction between the Church and the impostors who seem to live in and use it for ungodliness. This may seem like a No True Scotsman fallacy, but theologically speaking—it is not. It would be if the Church were merely a human institution. The Church, however, is neither an institution nor an organization. It is the body of Christ and the reign of God in which we are one. It is not ours to define or manipulate, try as we might. Only Christ defines what the Church is. Jesus warned that hypocrites would be rejected from the Kingdom: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness’” (Matthew 7:21-23). On the other hand, we also need to make a distinction between the Church and our own sinful works. Much of our theology is flawed; many of our practices are unspiritual. Nevertheless, it is not we who build the Church, it is the Holy Spirit working in our lives who builds it, and He builds it on Jesus, the Son of God, not on our works or on our human thoughts. The Catholic Church is not the Church. The United Methodist Church is not the Church. The Churches of Christ are not the Church. The Church is greater and holier than that. I imagine there will be Catholics, Methodists, Baptists, and Campbellites in heaven—but it won’t be because they were good Catholics, good Methodists, good Baptists, or good dyed in the wool Church of Christ Campbellites. It will be because of their faithfulness to the grace of God through Christ and their doing of the will of the Father who is in heaven by the power of the Holy Spirit.

In the Churches of Christ, we have prided ourselves on a long history of studying the Scriptures logically. It is a wonder we have not interacted more with the Thomists. In our literature, you might frequently encounter terms like necessary inference or argument from silence used in conjunction with command and example. Thomas Campbell, Alexander Campbell and Walter Scott were very strong in Lockean and Baconian logic, and we have inherited their Scottish Renaissance obsession with rationalism. To this day, we have gathered numerous Scriptures to support our reasoning approach to the Bible (Isaiah 1:18, 1 Peter 3:15, Acts 17:2, 18:4, 19:8, 28:23, Hebrews 5:14, etc.).  Combining Scripture with certain modes of reasoning, we have compiled a long list of what we can do and what we cannot do, what we can believe and what we cannot believe. We have made logic into our tradition.

Reason is indeed very vital to the life of faith, since God endowed men and women with reason so that they would seek their Creator and find true happiness in Him. On the other hand, we need to seriously ask ourselves a few questions. First of all: which logic should we use?
Aristotelian? Lockean? Euclidean or Non-Euclidean?  Baconian? What about Hegelian logic, Frege, Wittgenstein, Heidegger, truth functional logic, QL, and so on? What about the logic of Zhuangzi, or the Zen attemts to break through logic? G.K. Chesterton argued for a revival of Thomism because of its use of Aristotelian logic, which he called the universal “common sense” logic that all people could relate to. Perhaps. Nevertheless, it is still shocking to me that after the post-modern experience, we are still speaking of a rational approach to the Scriptures without specifying clearly what we mean, and why mean it. It seems clear to me that we are narrowly defending one logical culture that may not necessarily reflect the wider and more complicated experience of human logic. I recall reading Francis Schaeffer’s The God Who is There and Escape from Reason when I was an adolescent. It started to bother me that for someone so committed to rational thought, one of his favourite targets was one of the greatest philosophers of the middle ages: Thomas Aquinas. Are we any different?

We have logic. Good for us! The Catholics and the Reformed Churches have logic, too. In fact, Islam had its Aristotelian logicians before the Catholic Church did, and the Muslims likely got it from the Syriac Christians (for a discussion of this, you might enjoy reading Philip Jenkins’ The Lost History of Christianity).

I do not want our community of faith to abandon reason or logic by any stretch of the imagination, but I think we need to exercise caution here and ask ourselves how the apostles reasoned and how they taught.It is true that they seem to have employed some form of necessary inference.  I do not quite see how they ever employed an argument from silence (the refusals of Jesus to answer impertinent questions do not constitute examples of arguments from silence). Unless used in a form of abductive reasoning, an argument from silence is generally considered a fallacy or an invalid form of reasoning. A concrete example is the following. I have seen both Christian Church and Church of Christ articles use this same argument in one way or another to justify or condemn the use of musical instruments in worship. For example, you could reason that since the New Testament does not mention instrumental worship, it is therefore forbidden. Or you could say, since the New Testament never mentions it being forbidden, it is therefore justified. This relates also to the debate between Martin Luther and Huldrych Zwingli. Luther claimed that
whatever is not forbidden is permitted. Zwingli claimed that whatever is not permitted is forbidden. Which one was right? They were both right, because both statements are tautologies. Tautologies are always true, and therefore pretty useless. The sun is the sun. The moon is the moon. Whatever is not forbidden is permitted. Whatever is not permitted is forbidden. What now? They do not mean the same thing, and yet they do.  You can develop very different theologies based on one or the other, but if both are basically right, what is wrong? You can apply these tautologies all day long, but they will not get you very far in understanding the Scripture.

Logic is important in cultivating reason, but logic seems to bring us precisely to the kind of argumentation that Paul warns against: “For
Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross be emptied of its power” (1 Corinthians 1:17); “Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual. The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself judged by no one. ‘For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?’ But we have the mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2:12-16). In urging the “teaching that accords with godliness,” Paul enjoins us to refrain from “an unhealthy craving for controversy and for quarrels about words” (1 Timothy 6:3-4).

Logic needs to be secondary in understanding the faith. It is interesting that Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli were all heavily influenced by Augustine, and yet all three diverged considerably in their theology.  Etienne Gilson, Jacques Maritain, Karl Rahner and Bernard Lonergan all studied Thomism—yet their philosophical and theological methods and ideas are also strikingly different.Even Scott and Campbell did not always see eye to eye, despite having very similar cultural backgrounds. The Restoration Movement has divided time and again over how to interpret the Scriptures, using logic and the Bible to argue such points as whether or not to use one cup, whether or not it is right to go to war, whether or not it is proper to have slaves, whether or not missionary societies are scriptural, whether or not Christ will reign for 1000 years on this earth, whether to permit remarriage following divorce, whether to allow or forbid musical instruments in worship, whether or not Sunday School is scriptural, whether or not you can have a kitchen on church premises, and so on. Only a few of these are issues are key to the Gospel message; the others are shockingly trivial before the Cross. Clearly, something is getting lost in the logic or the application of Scripture.

To return to Zwingli and Luther, we might also say that they were both wrong. Not all things that are not forbidden are necessarily permitted. Not all things that are not permitted are necessarily forbidden. What is interesting is that we will not all agree on how to fill in these two
categories. The history of the Church is proof enough of that. It takes more than simplistic premises of this nature to get any further. I suspect we need the Holy Spirit and the Scriptures for that. Again, we come to the crossroads: What reading of the Scripture? What understanding from the Holy Spirit? How can we be of “one mind” (1 Corinthians 1:10, Philippians 1:27, 2:2)? How do we do this, while we let each one “be fully convinced in his own mind” (Romans 14:5)? I suspect the answer is to have “the mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2:16), and to seriously consider what matters pertain to salvation and the life of faith, and what matters do not, what keeps us close to Christ and what does not. When we start to take Jesus seriously as a theologian, as the theologian, who reasons to us from Scripture, the Holy Spirit, and the word of the Father, we might find that variety and unity can co-exist in Christ without departing from the written word or abandoning reasonable truth.  And, we might also receive a healthy shock.

The other day I was reading in Walter Kasper’s Jesus the Christ (Paulist Press, 1976), when I was struck by several of his statements. This happens quite often with this book. First, I learned that “Jesus’ arrival with God and through his new coming to us, is traditionally called ‘heaven’, borrowing from the language of myth. Heaven means originally the upper place, the floor which is above the earth (the empyrean). Usually this heaven is imagined as empty space into which Jesus was taken up and into which the saints will move in solemn procession at the end of time. These are more or less mythological ideas: theologically, heaven is the dimension which arises when the creature finally arrives with God…Jesus is not actually taken up into heaven, but in being finally accepted with God, heaven starts to exist” (152).

This paragraph is not only a grotesque oversimplification of myth; it also proceeds rather carelessly without regard to obvious concepts from Scripture. Many myths would not describe heaven as the empyrean; the Bible certainly does not reduce heaven to such a concept. Secondly, this new demythologizing trend in religion seems to abandon the concept that faith is an integral part of theology and that to speak theologically, we need to be able to start with theological terms and concepts: this involves some degree of faith, a belief in the supernatural, a concept of the sacred, a more than materialistic view of the universe, and a religious imagination that can explore realities beyond the narrow confines of secular academic discourse. Some argue that this is too naïve.I would argue that to jettison this risks losing religion altogether and belies a lack of good faith and honesty in scholarship and religious practice. At some point, we are going to have to formulate an ethics of hermeneutics and theological discourse. Otherwise, we will have to ask what it is about theology that is distinctive from common opinion or from, say, mythology. Nevertheless, to be fair to the Bible and to Christian tradition in general: If Jesus is not taken up into heaven, we are forced to ask where Jesus came from: “Truly, truly I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man” (John 1:51); “No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man” (John 3:13); “For Christ has entered,not into the holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things,but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf” (Hebrews 9:24).  I do not think the issue is merely one of scholarship.

What can a theologian say? It seems to me that in both mythological traditions and in the Bible, representatives of the divine were not given free rein to say whatever they wished. Reverence for the sacred and certain limitations on speech played a very strong role in the lives of the prophets and the apostles in the Bible. In the Law of Moses, very strong criteria are set forth for the prophet: “I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers. And I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him. And whoever will not listen to my words that he shall speak in my name, I myself will require it of him. But the prophet who presumes to speak a word in my name that I have not commanded him to speak, or who speaks in the name of other gods, that same prophet shall die” (Deuteronomy 18:18-20). This is probably a Messianic prophecy, but that does not diminish the argument. If Jesus is our model for faith, how much more should he be our model for theological discourse. Jesus only spoke what the Father permitted Him to speak: “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am he, and that I do nothing by my own authority, but speak just as the Father taught me” (John 8:28); “For I have not spoken on my own authority, but the Father who sent me has himself given me a commandment—what to say and what to speak” (John 12:49). In describing a visionary experience, Paul said: “I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows. And I know that this man was caught up into paradise—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows—and he heard things which cannot be told, which man may not utter” (2 Corinthians 12:2-4).

There is a strong relationship between what we say and how we view the sacred. Jesus warned us not to swear, indicating that some things are holy and require a respectful distance: “Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the City of the Great King” (Matthew 5:34-35). When Isaiah had a vision of God in the Temple, he exclaimed: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” (Isaiah 6:5).

This is not a justification of legalism. This is a deep concern about how we speak and write theologically. If the Word of God is truly inspired by the Holy Spirit, if we have placed our faith in heavenly things (Matthew 6:20) and spiritual things (Romans 8:5-16), then reverence for the sacred must be one of our great motivations to discuss the things of God. Heaven is not something easily written off with a few scribbles of the pen or clicks on the keyboard. Heaven is precisely that enigmatic and holy reality we are striving to reach through our life of faith, a reality more real than this one (Hebrews 11). Theology and spirituality devoid of such reverence seems bankrupt to me; the hermeneutics it produces may create many interesting “readings” of the Bible as just another literary text, but it will do nothing to lead souls to God or instill hope in the heavenly and spiritual that we seek.