‘How to Think’: A Summary

The goal of the book is to help us learn to interrogate our instincts and intuitions by examining the social, emotional, linguistic, and (necessarily) reductionistic way our intuitive thinking works.

Introduction
Takeaway: How we are incentivized not to think.

Using psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s terms from Thinking, Fast and Slow, Jacobs outlines two ‘systems’ of thinking: ‘System 1’ is ‘intuitive thinking, the fast kind (p. 16). ‘System 2’ is ‘conscious reflection’, the slow kind of thinking (p. 16). ‘We go through life basically running System 1; System 2 kicks in only when we perceive a problem, an inconsistency, an anomaly that needs to be addressed’ (pp. 16-17). Psychologist Jonathan Haidt compares ‘intuitive thinking’ to an elephant, and ‘conscious decision-making’ to a ‘rider’; ‘intuitive thinking is immensely powerful and has a mind of its own, but can be gently steered— by a rider who is truly skillful and understands the elephant’s inclinations’ (p. 17). The aim of the book is to help us understand the way ‘System 1’ works, the inclinations of our intuitive thinking, so that we can employ System 2 properly to evaluate it.

Why we don’t want to think (exact words from p. 17):

  • Thinking troubles us
  • Thinking tires us
  • Thinking can force us out of familiar, comforting habits
  • Thinking can complicate our lives
  • Thinking can set us at odds, or at least complicate our relationships, with those qw admire or love or follow
  • Thinking is slow

Marilyn Robinson, writing on why Puritans are almost always referenced in a negative light, suggests that we have a ‘collective eagerness to disparage without knowledge or information’ ‘when the reward is the pleasure of sharing an attitude one knows is socially approved’ (pp. 20-21).

T. S. Elliot wrote that ‘…”when we do not know, or when we do not know enough, we tend always to substitute emotions for thoughts” ’ (p. 22).

‘The person who wants to think will have to practice patience and master fear’ (p. 23).

Chapter 1: Beginning to Think
Takeaway: How thinking is social and emotional, not just analytical.
 
Thinking is necessarily social.
 
Thinking is not simply analytical.
 
Thinking is emotional.
‘…one must have a certain kind of character: one must be a certain kind of person, a person who has both the ability and the inclination to take the products of analysis and re-assemble them into a positive account, a structure not just of thought but also of feelings that, when joined to thought, can produce meaningful action’ (p. 43).

‘…when your feelings are properly cultivated, when that part of your life is strong and healthy, then your responses to the world will be adequate to what the world is really life’ (p. 44).

Chapter 2: Attractions
Takeaway: How the desire to belong makes us lazy or evil.
 
Haidt argues that ‘moral intuitions’ bind and blind. ‘ “People bind themselves into political teams that share moral narratives. Once they accept a particular narrative, they become blind to alternative moral worlds.” “Moral matrices bind people together and blind them to the coherence, or even existence, of other matrices” ‘ (p. 55).

C. S. Lewis’ ‘Inner Ring’ is a helpful way of describing how the terror of being excluded from a desired group makes a person ‘ “who is not yet very bad…do very bad things” ‘(p. 56).

Friendships are different than an ‘Inner Ring’ because they are not formed for the purpose of being exclusive; the exclusion is a by-product. They do not view their bond as making them superior.

Friendships matter, especially in formative seasons.

‘The genuine community is open to thinking and questioning…’ (p. 59).

‘The only remedy for the dangers of false belonging is the true belonging to, true membership in, a fellowship of people who are not so much like-minded as like-hearted’ (p. 62).

Chapter 3: Repulsions
Takeaway: How the will to survive leads to the hatred of others and closes our minds. 

Sometimes we are pushed to a way of thinking because of a repulsion to a particular group. The ‘desire to punish the outgrip is significant stronger’ than ‘the desire support the in-group’ (p. 73).

Avoid what C. S. Lewis calls ‘Bulverism’: ‘ “Assume that your opponent is wrong, and then explain his error, and the world will be at your feet. Attempt to prove he is wrong or (worse still) try to find out whether he is wrong or right, and the national dynamism of our age will thrust you to the wall” ‘ (p. 78).

The cure is to see a person not as an ‘other’ (who must be wrong), but as a ‘neighbor’ (p. 83).

The answer is not to eliminate attractions and repulsions and to be ‘purely rational’. Antonio Damasio argues in Descartes’ Error that ‘when people have limited or nonexistent emotional responses to situations, whether through injury or congenital defect, their decision-making is seriously compromised’ (p. 84).

Biases ‘reduce the decision-making load on our conscious brains’ (p. 86).

Chapter 4: The Money of Fools
Takeaway: How the power of words (keywords, metaphors, and myths) keeps us from seeing different worlds.

Don’t let words carry too heavy of a load. They can provide helpful shortcuts, but be aware of the work you’re asking them to do.

Use your opponent’s own words instead of restating it in “other words”.

Jacobs highlights two metaphors from Robin Sloan to help with this. The first is ‘method acting’, where you realize that ‘in different circumstances you could be that person’ (p. 111). The other metaphor is that of ‘dual booting’, where a computer can run two different operating systems. Jacobs writes, ‘Something similar happens when you try out someone else’s vocabulary: you experience the world from within that mode of describing it, with a new set of “terministic screens”, and some things you’re used to seeing disappear from view while new and different ones suddenly become visible’ (p. 112).

Chapter 5: The Age of Lumping
Takeaway: How taxonomies prevent information overload and create solidarity, but can lead to oppression if we don’t remember that taxonomies are provisional and if we fail to see the individual.

Taxonomies– the sorting of things into categories– is part of ordering the world. But the creation of social taxonomies is ‘a form of myth making’, so ‘we absolutely must remember what those taxonomies are: temporary, provisional intellectual structures whose relevant will not always be what it is, or seems to be, today’ (p. 119).

We must also practice ‘splitting’— the ‘disciplined, principled preference for rejecting categories whenever we discern them at work’ (p. 121). Be careful when you are tempted to explain something in someone as being because they are a member of a particular group and not because that is who they are as an individual.

Chapter 6: Open and Shut
Takeaway: How keeping an open mind is not possible, but closing it is dangerous. 

One cannot have a perpetually open mind. The object of opening one’s mind is not simply to have it open, but rather, as Chesterton noted, it is like ‘ “the opening of the mouth” ‘— the object is ‘ “to shut it again on something solid” ‘ (p. 126).

The goal is to be neither indifferent nor indecisive, but to have ‘the mental flexibility and honesty to adjust our views when the facts change’ (p. 127).

One of the biggest obstacles to being open to alternative views and narratives is the ‘sunk cost’ bias. ‘The more people have invested in a particular project, the more reluctant they are to abandon it, no matter how strong the evidence indicating that it’s a lost cause’ (p. 129). This eventually leads to doubling down, what scholars call ‘ “escalation of commitment” ‘ in the face of sunk costs (p. 129).

A fanatic is someone who avoids ‘considering any alternative to their preferred views’; ‘no matter happens, it proves [their] point’ (p. 136).

Look for signs of this in your group of friends. One giveaway that they are an unhealthy group (perhaps an ‘Inner Ring’) is if they have closed attitudes toward ‘ideas from the outgroup’ (p.138).

Chapter 7: A Person, Thinking
Learn fluency in another ‘dialect’. Imagine yourself in a different set of plausibility structures to see that your views are not necessarily inevitable.

Nevertheless, one cannot thrive in a constant state of evaluating the ‘truth-condusiveness of your social world’. Instead, follow the advice of W. H. Auden: ‘ “The same rules apply to self-examination as apply to auricular confession: Be brief, be blunt be gone.” ‘

The Thinking Person’s Checklist (pp. 155-156):

  1. When faced with provocation to respond to what someone has said, give it five minutes…
  2. Value learning over debating…
  3. …avoid the people who fan the flames.
  4. Remember that you don’t have to respond to what everyone else is responding to in order to signal your future and right-mindedness.
  5. If you do have to respond to what everyone else is responding to in order to signal your virtue and right-mindedness, or else lose your status in your community, then you should realize that it’s not a community but rather an Inner Ring.
  6. Gravitate…toward people who seem to value genuine community and can handle disagreement with equanimity.
  7. Seek out the best and fairest-minded of people whose views you disagree with…
  8. Patiently, and as honestly as you can, assess your repugnances.
  9. Sometimes the ‘ick factor’ is telling; sometime’s it’s a distraction from what matters.
  10. Beware of metaphors and myths that do too much heavy cognitive lifting…
  11. Try to describe others’ positions in the language that they use…
  12. Be brave.

Seven Books I Read and Loved in 2017

I feel like I read a lot of books this year. But it would be more accurate to say that I read parts of a lot of books this year. Graduate and post-graduate education have ruined me as a reader. I have learned, among other things, how to read the first few chapters and the last few chapters, study the table of contents, and track the argument of the book without reading all of it. This works best with academic books, but it hardly passes for deep, immersive reading. But research reading is raven-like, scavenging whole books for the tastiest morsels, the bits most relevant to one’s current appetites and needs.

So. There weren’t too many books I read cover to cover in 2017. There were several sections of several books– and a fair quantity of journal articles too– which I really enjoyed and found immensely helpful as a pastor and as a scholar. But I’m not sure I could say, ‘You should read this!’ about all of them…not to mention the lack of integrity in doing so since I didn’t finished reading them myself! But, as I scanned my stack on my night stand and bedroom bookshelf, there were seven books that I not only read completely, but also enjoyed thoroughly, in 2017. Here they are, in the order I read them.

1. “Destroyer of the Gods”

I love books on the early Christian centuries, the period before Constantine, because of the insight it gives us into how Christians learned to flourish and bear witness to Christ from the margins of society and culture. Though this isn’t full of new insights (there are some notable sections) or written in riveting prose (it’s written by a historian!), it covers some of the key features of early Christian communities, with plenty of wisdom to offer our age.

2. “The Day the Revolution Began”

Though not quite as revolutionary as some might have liked— Wright defends a view of the atonement that would fit broadly within the ‘substitutionary’ views— it is still Wright’s longest and fullest engagement (in popular form) with the meaning of the cross. He blends his work from Jesus and the Victory of God with his work on Paul (his New Interpreter’s Romans commentary among other works), to sketch a multifaceted view of the atonement— one which works somewhat like a stained glass window, holding otherwise disparate pieces together in the right light.

Readers who are new to Wright will appreciate his strong connections to Passover theology and practice as a hermeneutical key in understanding the crucifixion. It provides a much more compelling picture, too, of sin, refusing to allow the Christian to say that humans broke rules so God had to do something about it. The result of this wider-angled lens on the cross is that the very core of God’s original vocation for humans becomes clear.

3. “A Walk in the Woods”

This was pure fun. Bryson is at his comedic best, especially in the early chapters. As the book goes on, the story starts to lose steam, but he held my attention with fascinating historical vignettes and a few beautiful reflections on the treasures of nature in a rapidly urbanizing world. You’ll learn a lot, and the best part is it won’t feel like it.

4. “The Challenge of Jesus”

This is vintage Tom Wright. It was fun to see his early attempts to take his work on the historical Jesus and translate it for non-academics. I think it is crucial, however, to remember that though Wright is constructing an approach to the divinity of Jesus and the historicity of his resurrection that may seem circuitous and cumbersome to evangelicals, he is doing so in response to the skeptic/atheist/agnostic historian. It forms a bridge to their world (and especially the academic quarters of that world), and it is a bridge not easily torn down.

5. “A Theology in Outline: Can These Bones Live?”

I had never read Robert Jenson before. But as the tributes and eulogies flowed in this the year of his passing, I felt compelled to start. This was a fabulous recommendation from good friends. It’s more or less the transcript of his lectures to a group of undergrads on “basic Christian theology”. But in Jenson’s artful hands, it is so much more than basic; it is narrative, it is comprehensive, and it is captivating. Like Wright, Jenson knows his (initial) audience may be mostly liberal (read: not Creedal per se), yet presents confessional articles of Christianity in clear and elegant prose. I see what all the fuss is about now.

6. “Our Secular Age”

If you’re like me, you’ve never read Charles Taylor’s tome A Secular Age, but you’ve read other works on its importance. I read Jamie Smith’s How (Not) to be Secular a few years ago, and this is a worthy companion. It’s less of a summary or re-articulation of Taylor (as Smith’s book is), and more of a “so what?” pastoral follow-up. Each chapter contains contributions from various pastors/thinkers/writers on the implications for ministry practitioners in this new secular age. It’s very readable and contains specific points of reflection for our American context. I wish every pastor would read it and take it seriously. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say, if you only picked one from my list to read in 2018, let this be it.

7. “Practical Theology”

This one is mostly for seminarians, methinks. But it is what evangelical seminaries need in order to overhaul the current approach to “practical theology”. I know: that’s a bold and perhaps brash statement. In my very limited experience, so much of what passes off as practical theology is nothing more than applied theology— preaching, pastoral care, and the like. Meanwhile, the tools and trade secrets of anthropology and sociology are quarantined to “cultural studies” and maybe a few “missiology” programs. But the (dominant) British model of practical theology places theory and practice in a dialogical relationship, counting both as theological. The goal is to parse the embodied and embedded theology of practice (along with its communities, culture, and contexts) and to allow it to critique and shape historical, biblical, and systemictheology— instead of only allowing the influence to flow in the other direction. To be sure, for some this is a path to abandoning orthodoxy. But in Ward’s work, the evangelical reader will find a guide she can trust amidst the myriad of models and methods. For pastors who have completed seminary education, there is so much in here that will help you utilize old tools you learned (along with some new ones) in fresh contexts. After all, we often find ourselves doing practical theology on the fly; we may as well learn how to do it better on purpose.

BONUS: “The Moral Vision of the New Testament”

 This is a ‘bonus’ because I didn’t read this one cover to cover. But, I think if one were to read the early chapters in which Hays lays out his foundation and hermeneutical methodology and then to skip to the topics which interest the reader (as I did), it works quite well. It was immensely helpful to me to watch Hays carefully work through a consistent rationale and arrive at conclusions to ethical questions in ways which honor the authority of Scripture and take seriously the particulars of our context.

Building the Currency of Trust, Pt. 2

This is a follow-up post to the previous one on the ‘Currency of Christian Leadership’. In that post, I made the case that the Old Testament model of leadership was based on a kind of ‘divine right’ to rule. The ‘man of God’ ascended the ‘mountain of the Lord’, received the ‘word of the Lord’, and came and told the people what to do. But in the New Testament, because every believer has the Spirit of the Lord not just ‘upon’ them but ‘in’ them, the ground is level in terms of access to God and to His word. The authority to lead within the New Testament church seems to come from trust– when a person’s gifts and callings are evident to all, and their character has been tested, they are set into a particular office of leadership.

So the question is…

How do leaders earn the currency of trust?

There are many ways of answering this, and different words may refer to the same concepts or core ideas. But in my mind…

Trust is the result of transparency, consistency, and kindness.

Transparency.
By transparency, I don’t mean that we tell everyone everything. I simply mean that we don’t try to hide things from people, and, where appropriate, we give them access. Take the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15– the most pivotal staff meeting in all of church history. The key leaders from both Antioch and Jerusalem were there. Each spoke freely– and sometimes strongly. Then James, the trust leader of the group, made a decision that was, in his words, a judgment call. Then, the decision was clearly communicated– it was written down!– and personally delivered— Paul and Barnabas returned to Antioch with members from the Jerusalem church who stayed for a few days, long enough to pray, prophesy, and encourage the church in Antioch. It’s also worth noting that the very contents of the council were disclosed to all– which is why we can read about in Luke’s volume 2, the Book of Acts!

As often as we can let people into the process, we should. Even if they aren’t weighing in on the decisions, it can be helpful to let them know what what into the decision. Provide context. Admit the limitations of your logic or even of the decision-making process. Acknowledge the inherent risks. Give them space to wrestle with it and to process it on their own. The worst thing to do is to keep people out or in the dark, and then try to serve up some spin or to try to manipulate them into feeling how you want them to feel.

Thus, transparency = humility + vulnerability.

Consistency.
Nobody likes to be boring, but a certain measure of predictability is associated with being trustworthy. For example, the faithfulness of God is likened to the surety of the rising sun. The sun does the same ole predictable thing every day (more or less!), and that is a sign in creation of the dependability and faithfulness of God.

For leaders to gain trust, their responses need to be consistent. We can’t say ‘Yes’ one day to a certain kind of thing, and then ‘No’ the next day to that same sort of request. They can’t change course every year, chasing a new trend or fad in church life. This doesn’t mean that we can’t listen to the Spirit or discern new vision or direct a new course. We can and must do those things. But it must fit within an overall framework of consistency. Paul’s frustration with Peter (as evidenced in Galatians) was that Peter would act differently around Gentiles depending on if members of the Jerusalem church were around! Paul thought it would cause confusion and instability to Gentile converts– and that it demonstrated a lack of integrity on Peter’s part.

Thus, consistency = reliability + integrity. 

Kindness.
I chose this word because, for one, a leader may be transparent and consistent, and still not good. Psyco-pathic serial killers can be the first two things! Kindness is not ‘niceness’; it’s a Christ-shaped kind of love that manifests in forgiveness that flows from a tender heart toward others.

Paul, writing to the Ephesian church, urges them to work toward unity with one another by being ‘kind, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ Jesus’ forgave them. If we want people to trust us, we have to show them that we are safe places for their questions, fears, doubts, and disagreements. If every time a person raises a question or expresses a concern, we shut them down and tell them to just ‘submit’, we may gain power, but we won’t win trust.

Thus, kindness = tenderness + safety.

One final question that might come up: How does a leader who is new to a community gain trust when they are given a position first?

First of all, there is nothing wrong with placing a person in a position of trust before they’ve had time to earn it themselves. This happens all the time, and to some degree it happened with Paul after his conversion. It took Barnabas vouching for Paul before the church began to trust him.Which leads to the second thing…

When a new leader is placed in a position of leadership before they have earned the trust of the people, they are borrowing the trust of established leaders. When I first arrived at New Life, I was allowed to lead worship before people really knew who I was. But the worship pastor at the time, Ross Parsley, was implicitly vouching for me by placing me up there. I was conscious that I was borrowing his trust– the trust that the church had in him. That meant I was a steward of the currency that he had earned. Let me say that again: A new leader is a steward of the currency of trust that the established leaders have earned. So, steward it well. [See ‘Figure A’ below (like my fancy sharpie drawing?)]

Figure A

And, work hard to earn trust for yourself. After all, the best case scenario is when you have earned the trust of new people that the established leaders never had, and in doing so expand the sphere of trust for the established leaders. [See ‘Figure B’ below]

Figure B

 

Anyway…these are just some musings paired with a really bad sharpie sketch. And again, there probably a half dozen other ways to say the same thing. I welcome your input as you wrestle with these ideas.

The Communion Liturgy at New Life Downtown

Every once awhile, I am asked what our liturgy is at New Life Downtown. Our service flow (in general) can be found HERE. But the most ‘liturgical’ part of the service– i.e. the part that uses the ancient prayers, practices and sequence– is when we come to the Lord’s Table.

While I am an ordained Anglican priest, I serve as a pastor at New Life Church, a non-denominational, charismatic church, where I have been on staff for over 14 years. Fortunately, a trademark of Anglican worship is its adaptability to different contexts.

Almost all these words are from the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. The only tweak I’ve made is in the way I announce forgiveness in the ‘absolution’ section. We have the band on stage during all of the below, providing a soft, worshipful bed of music. Once the invitation is given (the last section of the communion liturgy), the worship leader begins the song she has chosen for that week. From Easter to Advent, this is the longer section of musical worship, where we sing 4 songs.

Below, the bold are the ‘movements’ or sections of the Eucharist liturgy; the italics are an abbreviated version of the instructions I give.

————————-

CONFESSION (All):
Take a moment and let the Holy Spirit nudge you about ways that you can surrender, ways that you can turn away from self-reliance and toward a dependence on God. Now, let us pray this prayer together:

Most merciful God,
We confess that we have sinned against You in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.

We have not loved You with our whole heart;
We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.
We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.

For the sake of Your Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us;
that we may delight in Your will, and walk in Your ways, to the glory of Your Name.

Amen.

[UPDATE] WORDS OF ABSOLUTION/FORGIVENESS (Me):
May the Father of all mercies cleanse you from your sins and restore you in His image to the praise and glory of His name, through Jesus Christ our Lord.

[UPDATE] THE PEACE:
The peace of the Lord be with you! Now turn to one another, and pass on the Lord’s peace, speak His life and His love to one another.

EUCHARIST PRAYER:
Me:             The Lord is here
All:              His Spirit is with us.

Me:             Lift up your hearts.
All:              We lift them to the Lord.

Me:             Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
All:              It is right to give Him thanks and praise

WORDS OF INSTITUTION (Me):
On the night he was handed over to suffering and death, our Lord Jesus Christ took bread; and when he had given thanks to you, he broke it, and gave it to his disciples, and said, “Take, eat: This is my Body, which is given for you. Do this for the remembrance of me.”

After supper he took the cup of wine; and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, and said, “Drink this, all of you: This is my Blood of the new Covenant, which is shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins. Whenever you drink it, do this for the remembrance of me.”

MEMORIAL ACCLAMATION (All):
Christ Has Died, Christ Is Risen, Christ Will Come Again.

THE EPICLESIS– ‘Come, Holy Spirit’ (Me)
Stretch your hands forwards as a Kingdom of priests:
“We pray you, gracious God, to send your Holy Spirit upon these gifts that they may be the Sacrament of the Body of Christ and his Blood of the new Covenant.”

Lift your hands up in surrender:
“Sanctify us also that we may faithfully receive this holy Sacrament, and serve you in unity, constancy, and peace; and at the last day bring us with all your saints into the joy of your eternal kingdom.”

THE INVITATION (Me):
“The gifts of God, given for the people of God. Take them in remembrance that Christ died for you, and feed on him in your hearts by faith, with thanksgiving.”

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Proclaiming our Faith in Worship: How the Creed Tethers Us to Our Story

One of the main reasons we gather as the people of God is to remind ourselves of who God is, what He has done to make us His people, and what it means to live as the people of God here and now. One of the key ways we do this is by proclaiming things that the Church has proclaimed throughout the centuries. When we rehearse these truths about God together, we remembed that we aren’t the first ones to travel thie Way, and that we aren’t the only ones who are following Christ now. In making these proclamations part of our worship, we keep ourselves tethered to the Story of God and His people.

Watch this 2-minute first:

Excerpt #1 from Chapter 3 of “Discover the Mystery of Faith”:

        The object of our faith is a Person, not a proposition. We do not place our lives in an idea or a doctrine or a system or a set of values. We place ourselves in the personal God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Proclaiming the creed, then, is an act of worship, not a recitation of doctrine. Faith, after all, is not simple agreement or the acknowledgment of certain propositions or hypotheses. Faith is the placing of your whole life within God, the only One who is faithful enough to hold your life, redeem it, and save it.

        There is no worship without faith, and there is no faith without worship. It is faith that leads us to worship and worship that enlarges our faith. Why should our greatest, most central and unifying profession of faith, the Nicene Creed, not be part of our congregational worship?

        …Early Christians spoke these words of worship and belief in the face of ridicule and scorn, confessed and clung to these words even when they knew that they could lead to their death. The creed, after all, didn’t form out of thin air at the Council of Nicaea. The words and phrases show up early in the Church’s life, early enough for Paul to say that he himself was only passing on what had been given to him.

        The question we must ask is this: “What sort of faith will we hand down to our children?”

        If the rope is no longer tethered to the house, how will we find our way home as we wander about in the snow? And how will we lead our children there? What will keep their faith? Unless we remain tied to our Story, our faith is sure to flounder. Worse yet, it may die with us.

Excert #2 from Chapter 3 of “Discover the Mystery of Faith”:

        Proclamations like the Nicene Creed remind us that we are not the first and we are not the only. It is also important to remember that the Creed is not the only proclamation that does this for us. There is also “The Lord’s Prayer” and many of the aforementioned creedal formulas or statements in Paul’s New Testament letters. There are the old Hebrew prayers and the Psalms, as we explored last chapter. There are also the early Christian songs—songs based on Mary’s song (the Magnificat), Zecharias’ song (the Benedictus), and Simeon’s song (the Nunc Dimittis).

        All of these are old, well-worn words, prayed by mothers and fathers and sons and daughters in times of trial and on occasions of joy. These words form paths, a trail to walk on. When we say them, sing them, or pray them with worship and faith in our hearts we can remember how many others have prayed these words before us. We can think of the great church fathers, the Bishops and theologians, the peasants and farmers, the missionaries and martyrs. We can imagine all the saints around the world who gather each week on the Lord’s Day and say these very same words and sing them and pray them with one voice.

        All of a sudden, we are no longer alone. We are caught up in the great company of saints, praying alongside David and Jeremiah and Paul. We realize that we are not the first to face despair or hunger or fear. We are not the only ones desperate for mercy and redemption. Our joy of being found by God’s grace is multiplied in the praise of all the saints, in heaven and on earth.

        We are not walking up this mountain alone.

        The beauty of this truth came to me not in a Gothic cathedral or a remote monastery, but in a dusty cement building in the middle of an African village. I was on a trip to Swaziland—a country with the highest rate of HIV infection in the world—when we visited a community of orphaned and vulnerable children that our church supports through a partnership with Children’s Hope Chest. We greeted the local pastor who visited these children several times a week. We met the women who cooked them meals with the money that came in from our sponsorship.

        And then came the children. Singing. Dancing. Playing. Thrilled with stickers and face paint and games and songs and stories and lessons, they made the afternoon pass like a heavenly moment. When one of the local ministers stood to conclude our time, she told the children that it was time to pray together.

        I closed my eyes, waiting for a short, sincere prayer. Instead, in stumbling unison, their voices rose.

        Our Father, who art in heaven,

        Hallowed be Thy name.

        Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

        My eyes opened, blurring with tears. I caught the eyes of the others on our team. We gently shook our heads, all of us thinking the same thing: We pray this prayer…almost every Sunday!

        Give us this day our daily bread.

        Oh…what this simple, biblical phrase meant for these children. I could never say these words the same way again.

        Forgive us our trespasses
as we forgive those who trespass against us.

        Like the parents who abandoned them? Like the family members who chose a life that led to disease and ultimately to their demise, leaving these children to fend for themselves?

        For Thine is the Kingdom,

        the power and the glory,
        forever and ever,
Amen.

        Amen. There is a rope to ties us to our Story; it is the same rope that binds us to each other. It reminds us that even in the most fearsome storm, when faith is all we have to guide us for our sight has gone, we will not falter.

        Others have come this Way before.

        Others walk it even now.

        The Creed, the prayers, the Psalms, and the Scriptures…all of these bind us to the Story, tether us to the narrative of God’s redemption.

        May we all find our way home.

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Overview of Ephesians in 15 Minutes by N. T. Wright

For those already familiar with theologian N. T. Wright, this talk will seem a bit elementary– and much shorter!– than his normal lectures. For those unfamiliar with Wright, you may not see what all the fuss about this theologian is about. "Ephesians cannot be summed up in 15 years of study let alone 15 minutes," you may rightly say. But keep in mind that Wright is one of the rare breed of theologians who can write multiple 700+ page volumes on Christian Origins, a full-length 500+ page commentary on Romans, and yet write dozens of other books aimed at the general public, and succeed at both! That sort of excellent scholarship combined with accessible articulation are what make him special.

What is remarkable about this short talk, given not to seminary students but to the whole student body at a Wheaton College chapel, is how, in 15 minutes, he is able to show Paul's cosmic soteriology and how we fit into it. If brevity, as Shakespeare said, is the soul of wit (which for Shakespeare meant intelligence not humor), then N. T. Wright's wit and wisdom are both dazzlingly brilliant. The whole talk, only about 22 minutes long, can be viewed on iTunesU HERE.

NT Wright Gives Quick Tour Through Ephesians from Glenn Packiam on Vimeo.

 

 

What Makes A Worship Song Uniquely Christian?

[EDITOR’S NOTE: A few posts ago, I started the conversation about what our worship songs communicate about God and why that matters. Then, earlier this week, I was asked to write down some thoughts on songwriting for a booklet that will be distributed at a certain conference coming up in Australia. While I can’t be certain what bits of what I sent will make it and what won’t (it was rather lengthy!), here is an excerpt that I thought might be a nice follow-up to my earlier post of what is at stake in our worship lyrics.]

What do our songs and prayers say about God? If we were to construct our church’s theology solely based on the lyrics we sang, what kind of “God” would that be? And more to the point, could our lyrics be applied to a generic deity or is there anything uniquely Christian about the God they depict?

It is not enough to simply say “God” in our songs. Which “God”? The one Oprah describes, the one Deepak Chopra worships? People in America are filling in the blanks in their own minds of the “God” we’re talking about and the picture of God is often disfigured as a result. I can’t speak for what the view of “God” is in other countries and cultures, but one would think that in countries where many distinct religions abound—like in Malaysia, the country I grew up in—it only becomes more important that we are saying and singing things that are uniquely Christian.

So, what makes a song uniquely Christian?

1.    Christo-centric
This is a fancy way of saying our songs should focus on Jesus the Messiah. We need to sing about His pre-eminence, how He co-created the world with the Father, how He left His throne in heaven and became a man, how He suffered death and was buried, how he rose again conquering sin and defeating the evil that has infected the cosmos, how He ascended to heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father, how He will return in glory to judge the world and set it right and make all things new. (There. I have summarized what the creeds have said about Jesus!)

And in saying all these things we should name Him. We can do better than a generic “You.” His name is Jesus Christ, the Messiah, the rightful King of the World.

2.    Trinitarian
The Trinity is not a concept to be understood; they are Persons to be worshipped. But we are not helping that cause by not naming Them in our worship. And we make things worse when we get muddle “Who is doing what.” The early apostles went to great lengths to help us assign the right roles and functions to the right Persons of the Trinity (The Father as Creator, the Son as Savior, the Spirit as Life-Giver, etc). We would do well to pay attention to that in our writing.

This mysterious belief in God as three Persons is uniquely Christian. We are not praying to, singing to, or following an amorphous, monolithic Hero-God. We are drawn up into the Divine dance, the communion of the Tri-Personal God. If we’re looking for help in understanding the distinct roles, we can, once again, turn to the Nicene Creed—the only statement of Christian faith accepted by every stream of the Body of Christ, both Eastern and Western, Catholic and Protestant (and rejected by Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and other cults and religions that would like to be called “Christian”).

As I wrestle with this, I am not yet convinced that every song needs to be overtly Trinitarian by acknowledging all three Persons. A song could be aimed at one Person of the Trinity. (Think of a song about Yahweh as Creator-God, the Almighty Father, or about Jesus the Redeemer and King, or about the Holy Spirit as the Comforter or God’s “empowering presence” with us.) But even in doing this we are acknowledging the God we worship as three-in-one.

If you were to comb through the catalog of my songs (you might first need a powerful search engine to find them!), you would discover that many of my songs simply address “God” or “You”.  Many of them are not Christo-centric or Trinitarian, and some, worse yet, are not even uniquely Christian. Much of that I regret. This journey for me is only a year or so old. But I want to write songs that are uniquely Christian and that help people live our truly Christian lives as a result. Would you join me on the journey and embrace the challenge?