The Gates Are Open

April 2014

Theology Land Excursions #2

Posted on April 27, 2014

Every Sunday, I post a number of great articles written by some of today’s best and most readable theologians. If you are afraid of Theology Land, or have never visited in the past, it is not exactly the happiest place on earth: But it is one place where your mind and heart can grow. Give it a chance.

Normally, I read about 60-70 articles a week of a theological nature. I am posting the best of the best from this week’s roster of excellent thoughts.

Best “Walk a Mile in Their Shoes” Essay: Elizabeth Esther does not believe in Gay marriage. She does believe in the traditional view on marriage as between one man and one woman. She disagreed with World Vision’s approach to allow gay adults to work there. But in her article, she explains why she is upset at the Evangelical world for their reaction to World Vision.  Read it here.

Best Theological Ideas about Theology: Roger Olson asks the question, “what is the future of theology?” His answer is intriguing and probably accurate. Here is an excerpt:

So what does the future of Christian theology look like? It will continue to perform its critical tasks. It will continue to explore traditional ideas/doctrines/models of God and attempt to make fruitful ones more intelligible and acceptable to faithful people of God. And it will attempt to find new ways to express traditional ideas/doctrines/models of God such as the Trinity so that they are understandable by contemporary people in many different culture.
The rest can be read at Greg Boyd’s blog.
Most Intriguing Question: So why did God creates mosquitoes? This has plagued bible students (and ardent scratching peoples) for centuries. Why did the most heinous of animals show up on our planet. RJS, writing on “Jesus Creed” blog quotes Wendell Barry in his essay on “Christianity and the Survival of Creation”:
“We must credit God with the making of biting and stinging insects, poisonous serpents, weeds, poisonous weeds, dangerous beasts, and disease causing organisms.” “That we may disapprove of these things,” Berry continues, “does not mean that God is in error or that he ceded some of the work of Creation to Satan; it means that we are deficient in wholeness, harmony, and understanding – that is, we are ‘fallen’.”
The entire essay on the God of the Whirlwind is here.
Best Holy Week Essay:  Adrian Warnock, always the deep thinker, asks the question: Did Jesus really die on a Wednesday? Maybe the question has you confused. His answer will mostly clear that up. Read about it here.
Best Re-Examination of Scripture: Over at Experimental Theology blog, there was a good discussion on Isaiah 53 and its role in understanding the atonement. Here is a juicy portion of this prize:
Today is Good Friday and we all know that the church has used this text to interpret the crucifixion of Jesus. Isaiah 53 has come to be an important text for atonement theology, especially substitution theories of atonement. “By his wounds we have been healed.” And later in Verse 12: “For he bore the sins of many.”

These associations–Jesus bore our sins on the cross and by his wounds we have been healed–are automatic for most Christians. But in our study out at the prison I wanted to go back and address the question about who the Suffering Servant was during the time of Isaiah. Who was Isaiah (or the particular writer or writers of Isaiah 53) speaking about in his time and place?

Who is this servant who is crushed for our iniquities?
For the answer, go to this full examination of this scripture. It is very thought-provoking.

The “Book” for Parenthood

Posted on April 22, 2014

ParenthoodMy wife and I do not watch television as a rule. But occasionally we will go on Netflix and slowly watch a series from start to finish. Recently, we have been watching the NBC show “Parenthood” from its beginning.

As a writer, I have had the chance to learn how a show is developed by its team of writers. For the most part, they follow the show’s “book”, which is a collation of the plot basics plus principles they want to maintain consistently.

Having watched Parenthood (and only Parenthood) for several months now, I think I have a pretty good idea of what principles guide the show. See if you resonate with these.

1. All main characters in the show will have conflict occasionally with all the other characters. These conflicts will always follow the same four steps:

  • Lots and lots of yelling
  • A cooling off period
  • Someone has a personal epiphany (see principle #3)
  • Apologies and forgiveness is exchanged.

2. If things are going too smoothly for a character, they will start an inappropriate sexual relationship with a non-Braverman. (E.g. Camille with her art instructor, Amber with Haddies boyfriend, Sarah and her boss, Crosby and Max’s Aide, Sarah and her daughter’s teacher, Amber with her boss etc.).

3.  All personal epiphanies will have tears and acoustic guitar music in the background. Then they go on to fulfill principle #1.

4. All financial crises will be temporarily solved by “dipping into savings”. Financial crises will be permanently solved by the writing staff, who will never mention the crisis again in future seasons.  (E.g. Zeke’s Real Estate fiasco, paying for Seth’s expensive rehab, Haddies’ Ivy League school, Amber’s rent, Crosby’s outrageous house renovation, startup costs for the Luncheonette, Max’s ultra-expensive doctor).

5. All children must go to the most expensive private/charter schools and must have private doctors – even though only one of the families has any money.

6. All family gatherings will feature the following:

  • Someone will claim they are not coming, but will show up late
  • Women will drink wine, men will drink beer…unless the women are sitting beside the men, and then they will sip their man’s beer.
  • Someone will let slip a deep secret followed by some kind of conflict (see principle #1)
  • Seth seems to be the only one everyone is concerned about regarding a drinking problem.

7. Zeke’s whims are law. But every character at some point must challenge one of Zeke’s whims and refuse to go along with it. When they do, Zeke will eventually back down.

8. Camille and Joel have perfect advice for everyone.

9. Any new person introduced on the show will either be:

  1. Someone a main character is about to make out with
  2. A complete mental case
  3. Someone about to offer a main character a job
  4. All of the above

Theology Land Excursions – #1

Posted on April 20, 2014

theologyDear Blog Readers:

When I read blogs, they almost always have one of three topics: Writing, counseling or Theology. I have decided for the foreseeable future, to give you links and summaries of the best I find each week. I will put these up each Sunday.

You’ll notice a lot of my favorite writers show up on these lists, but that should make sense if you think about it. So here are the best theological reflections from the week:

Best Holy Spirit Explanation: Roger Olson has an intriguing article about the Filling of the Holy Spirit. He makes the bold statement that this is something both he and John Piper agree upon. Here is a juicy excerpt from that article:

Appealing to experience, but connecting it with the pattern of Acts, I believe in subsequence of receiving the Holy Spirit in a new and special way–call it what you will. I observe that many, many evangelical Christians struggle to live Christian lives without joy, liberty, or power. Their attitude betrays that being a follower of Jesus Christ is a duty rather than a pleasure. Then I have often observed (and experienced) a quantum leap beyond that into passionate, joyful, inwardly committed, powerful Christian life following a special, personal outpouring of the Spirit–usually upon laying on of hands by Christians who live in that higher or deeper life of the Spirit…John Piper clearly believes in what I am describing here. See his 1990 sermon “You Will Be Baptized with the Holy Spirit”–easily found on the internet using a search engine.

The rest is well-written and worth studying.

Best Look at Phony Baloney: Sarah Bessey, one of my favorite female teachers and bloggers, has this article about a town that did a good job of PR and a bad job at actually living. Read it here:

The Best Apologetic of the Resurrection: As you would expect, a lot of bloggers took time to look at the resurrection of Jesus and craft a defense of the faith. Greg Boyd does an excellent job of this by penning “8 Arguments for the Reality of the Resurrection.” Greg is a deep thinker and a good writer, so this should stir your juices. Here is the link.

Best Look at Humanity: Though this came out about a month ago, I never got around to reading it until this week (today actually). This gives a great description of the uniqueness of humans in the world in which God created us to stand out. Here is where to read it.

Best Bible Study Help: Actually, my title for this is misleading. In this article, John Frye tells us how Jesus is teaching him how to study and exegete properly–but he’s not referring to the Bible. Read his article here to see what he is referring to.

Best Non-theological Theological Reflection: No one says things that get more response (positive and negative) than Rachel Held Evans. I personally like reading her posts even when I don’t agree with her. She is intellectually and emotionally honest and a good writer. That is a rare combination. Two weeks ago, she told the world why she is done with trying to sit at the table with other evangelicals. But then a couple of days later, she had this reflective moment:

That said, this has been a painful few weeks, and I think I’ve felt some (self-inflicted) pressure to speak from that pain rather than listen to it. 

So I find myself second-guessing the “leaving evangelicalism” language, not because it’s an inaccurate representation of what I’m experiencing, but because Idon’t want anyone to think for a moment that this means walking away from the many, many people who identify as evangelical whom I love and respect very much. I have no interest in breaking fellowship with my brothers and sisters in Christ, be they Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, Methodist, Mennonite progressive or evangelical. After all, we share the most important “label”— the one God gave us—as beloved children of God. (I’m beginning to think any other label might do more harm than good.)

As I said, she is painfully honest with herself and others. Read the full article here.

The Real Problem with Sin

Posted on April 15, 2014

businesswoman-and-man-on-train-with-tabletStefan takes the 6:00 a.m. train out of Sacramento every weekday morning to travel to the Bay Area. He sits in the same car, reviews the same kind of work files, and thinks about the same subjects. He also shares that car with relatively the same people. They have come to know each other as work partners, even though each of them has different employers.

They laugh together and commiserate over the common problems of cubicle workers. They agree, as the train pulls into the station, to remember all the juicy bits of gossip from the day’s events for the ride home. It’s a harmless bonding of people. Nothing to see here. Move along.

Except this ride has become anything but innocent for Stefan. He has developed feelings for one of the ladies in the train car. At home, he fantasizes about her and dreams of how he will approach her with his desire to know her more intimately.

This is a problem, for Stefan is married and is a Christian. He knows adultery is wrong but is going along with the fantasy with great enthusiasm.

Once he began to think about her, she was all he could think about on the daily commute. His adrenaline increased when she entered “their” car. He experienced profound disappointment when she occasionally called in sick. He wanted her; and it occupied all his thinking.

Eventually, he started to single her out for conversation and often moved in conspiratorially to say things much more quietly. These were not sinful things he spoke about, but they were intended for her ears only. After a few weeks of giving her special attention, she began to indicate through words and body language that she was attracted to him. Because of this, he became bolder in his approach.

This conversation took several turns after that initial flush of discovery. More and more, they held little private talks with each other instead of the group as a whole. They exchanged social media addresses: Linked-In, Facebook, email and finally phone numbers. One day, she suggested they book another car once a week so the curious ears of the others wouldn’t be listening in.

The conversation now focused on their sex life. Each of them complained about how they weren’t getting their needs met. They shared details of what they considered the “perfect” intimate life, if only their spouses would cooperate.  

Eventually, they decided to take the 5:40 train instead, figuring it would be better if no one knew they were getting closer to each other.

They sent sexy messages to each other on Facebook. This was the point Stefan realized his fantasies could actually come true, and it bothered him. At the same time, every week, the pastor’s sermon seemed to center in on the consequences of sin. This was strange, since the pastor had rarely talked about sin with judgmental overtones. But he felt convicted and ashamed every time he left church.

Stefan began to have little fights with his wife and their finances were not doing well.

Here is where the real problem with sin came out. He assumed the fights, his uncomfortable feelings at church, and the financial problems were all the result of this emotional adultery he was playing with. He knew his actions were sinful. And he was convinced that it was about to bring devastation upon his life. The longer Stefan and this woman extended out their flirting, the more insecure he felt. Areas in his life he normally handled with confidence, he floundered in uncertainty.

One morning, the woman proposed they stay in the city overnight and make it appear to be work-related. Their plan was to do dinner together and then spend the night at a local hotel. As they went on the train that morning, she was giddy with anticipation. Stefan had a knot in his stomach that would not leave. When they walked off the train, she pulled him into a little alcove before he left and gave him a long, lingering kiss. Then she walked away humming a tune.

He was miserable all day at work. The closer he came to fulfilling his fantasy, the less appealing it appeared. He was now certain the judgment of God was going to rain down upon him. At the coffee break, he had to go into the bathroom and vomit. He knew with every part of his being he couldn’t go through with this. He called her several times during the day to let her know he wouldn’t be coming, but each time he chickened out and simply told her how excited he was they would finally be together.

That night he went to dinner, fully intending to tell her he wouldn’t go through with their adulterous plans. But he couldn’t break her heart. He said nothing and pasted on a smile.

After they were done eating, they carried through on their plans and spent the night together. By 2 a.m., Stefan realized he had never felt this miserable in his entire life. He had destroyed his wedding vows and brought misery and judgment onto his soul. After spending the night awake and despondent, Stefan went out for a walk. When he came back, he did what he wanted to do the night before. He told her he had made a mistake and this wouldn’t be happening again. She cried. He apologized and cried as well.

I could tell you a lot more details of their relationship, but it wouldn’t be necessary. I shared this much so you could see the pattern Stefan followed, a pattern that many people have also lived. As a follower of Christ, he didn’t want to sin. As a man attracted to a woman, he wanted intimacy with her. The two forces do not co-exist. He was miserable because he tried to appease both desires. You cannot do that.

But the real revelation came a month after his tryst. His daughter was swinging on the monkey bars at school and fell off. She broke her arm, her pelvis and suffered severe hemorrhaging in the brain. They had to keep her sedated so the swelling could recede.

The entire time Stefan sat by his small daughter’s bed, he endured three agonies. First, of course, he feared for his daughter’s life and future. Second, he worried for his wife and the trauma she was facing. Third, and heaviest, he believed deep in his heart that his affair was the reason his daughter had been injured. With that came guilt, pain, anger, bitterness, resentment, self-loathing and suicidal thoughts.

Preachers and writers often teach a false idea that God hides his face from us when we sin. This has no biblical basis and actually defiles the character of God. After all, when Adam and Eve sinned, they hid from God and God came looking for them. In Isaiah 59:2, we read:

But your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you, so that he will not hear. (Isaiah 59:2 NIV)

It is we who are separated from God. It is our sins which have blinded us from seeing God and experiencing his presence. God has not done any of this and rather yearns that we be reunited with Him. Jesus told the parable about the Prodigal Son, where the son spends his inheritance on wild living. At one point–penniless and destitute–the son realizes his father would forgive him and take him back in. So he resolves to head on home.

But a long way off, his father spies him and comes running toward him. This is only possible if his father had been waiting for him, watching for his return. This is a picture of God that is much more accurate than the petulant, wounded Law-Giver who is looking to reject and annihilate us.

Stefan and I spent many hours praying together in one of the waiting rooms at the hospital. I explained that his insecurity was the direct result of his sin. The Accuser was having a heyday bringing shame and self-loathing into his mind. It was easy for Stefan to grab hold of these things and to wrongly assume God also felt that way.

I convinced him to admit to his wife what he had done and ask her forgiveness. Then to ask God to cleanse him from the self-loathing. He actually found the God part harder than the confession part. It took several sessions of counseling before he accepted God’s intimacy again.

This is why sin is so awful. It leaves us guilty, shamed, cut off, insecure, lonely and assuming that all disasters are aimed at us. His daughter took months to recover from her fall, but it took dad almost as long to recover from his mistakes. Fortunately, his wife forgave and they are working toward a better relationship between them.

He now drives his car to work. Nothing to see here now. Move along.


Posted on April 3, 2014

Has there ever been an Accusing Look more devastating than the one your dog gives you when he smells the remnants of another dog you petted three hours before?

Blue J'accuse

Dissecting Layered Communication

Posted on April 2, 2014

My friend Charlie and I had to utilize all our geek abilities, but we finally got the turntable to make sounds as we played the LP slowly. It was the Beatles album “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”. We had heard through a reliable source there were hidden messages in some of the songs. We played it for an hour and then we found one. At the end of “Strawberry Fields Forever” there was some funky background music and then a creepy voice made an announcement.

Charlie was sure the voice said “I BURIED PAUL”. I believed the ghastly voice said “CRANBERRY SAUCE”. Stephen King I’m not.

Whatever it was they put on the album (John Lennon claimed it was “Cranberry Sauce”…I feel vindicated…), they masked some of their messages deep in the midst of their music. I know they probably did it to create buzz about the album, but that is ludicrous to me. They were one of the greatest rock bands of their day. They didn’t need the gimmicks. Apparently, someone in their decision-making circle felt they did.

This is the picture I lead with to help you understand Layered Communication. As I said in the previous article, Layered Communication is one reason there are so many misunderstandings in human interaction.

If we committed ourselves to single-layered communication as often as possible, we would eliminate most of our fighting.

Why do we hide so many messages within simple statements? There are probably many reasons for doing this, but I find five categories for these reasons.

1. Fear: We fear saying some things so we hide them among the words of another piece of information. This motivation sits at the heart of most passive-aggressive communication. One person is angry and wants the other person to know it. But they don’t want to be seen as angry. Or maybe there are afraid of retribution. Or perhaps they believe the person will reject them when they express their anger. So instead of letting the other person see their anger clearly, they let it color otherwise simple communication. If you’ve ever had a friend say something innocent to you and it didn’t feel innocent at all, you know this practice. Fear drives more layered communication than any other factor.

2. Revenge: We hide some of our communication so we can get even with other people for recent occasions when they have not communicated properly with us. If you won’t be straight with me, I won’t be straight with you. This game can go on for years.

3. Intimidation: People sometimes cloak the information they want to share so that those close to them will feel less confident. For instance, a husband may want his wife to appreciate him more, so he tells her all about the pretty women at work, hoping she will feel like he is a great catch without him having to say it. Unfortunately, this approach often backfires.

4. Calculation: Often, when one person wants to win an argument with another person, they will say things in order to get certain reactions. Then, they have a plan how they want to respond to those reactions. In this way, the layered communication is calculated to bring a certain result.

5. Ignorance: Many times we layer our communication because we are not aware, or have not acknowledged, that those layers are even there. Nothing surprises us more than someone who asks “What do you mean by that?”when we really thought we were being straightforward.

With those motivations in mind, let’s define each of the 8 possible layers that can be added to simple communication:

Emotions: Even those people who are in touch with their feelings often do not know how to express them. So they combine them with other pieces of information. This can be confusing. A person who says their day was fine, but the voice and body language speak “frustration”, can put the conversation on the wrong footing.

Bitterness or Resentment: I won’t seek to define either of these, and though they are different, they look the same as a sub-layer. If you are bitter or resentful, even simple information comes across as complex. Resentment is very hard to talk about, especially with the person we resent. Resentment is a decision where we have decided we cannot change a situation but we will not let go of the hurt. This hurt often bleeds over into many other things we want to communicate. When resentment has been in residence for a long time, it evolves into bitterness. The Bible tells us that bitterness then becomes ” a root which grows up to harm many people.

Sarcasm: This is often the front layer in a conversation. Sarcasm is masked anger. But it is a more societally acceptable way of expressing anger without having to admit you’re angry. This layer shows up to disguise the anger underneath. In this way, it creates a smoke screen and prevents two people from getting further into the truth of their relationship.

Body Language: Social Scientists have studied this layer for decades and still cannot come up with a definitive way to tell how to read the body language of another person. But when a person says one thing and their body seems to say another, it confuses the issue and negates much of what is being said.

False Beliefs: This layer is numerous and often the person who has these is blind to them until they make it to the top layer. For instance, a wife may be frustrated for months that her husband spends little time with her. But because he seems to be working hard, she feels like she can’t bring it up. In a conversation, she blurts out “You hate spending time with me, don’t you.”Then she feels embarrassed she said it this way.

She may be revealing a false belief. Perhaps she believes that everyone will find her to be boring, or unimportant, or that her significant friends are always going to find something better than her. Any of these “universal” beliefs can form a layer underneath what we’re trying to say.

Distraction: We often say one thing while our mind is on another thing. Or, in this distracted world, we have too many things we want to say to other people and we make the mistake of trying to say them all in one statement. This is overwhelming to both parties.

Hatred: After years of not properly dealing with anger and frustration, a person can decide they hate another person. Every time they try to communicate with this other person, the hatred layer is transmitted. This layer will often poison every piece of communication. With hatred, we hurt other people and do not even feel badly for doing so.

After looking at this list, you may wonder if there is any such thing as a simple single-layered communication. In fact, there are many ways we can communicate in single layers and the next article we will discuss how to talk to other people in this manner.

Understanding Layered Communication

Posted on April 2, 2014

Years ago, a man who had been married many more years than I told me some advice about wives.

He said: “If she says ‘Go ahead’ in response to something you want to do–and you notice she isn’t smiling and her arms are crossed in front of her–it isn’t permission, it’s a dare”.

Funny. Wise. Layered.

I owe much of my understanding of the dynamics of interpersonal communication to one of the greatest psychoanalysts of the 20th Century: Dr. William Glasser. What made Dr. Glasser so helpful to our society is he could take complicated subjects and make them so obvious and simple to understand.

Perhaps he is best known for his definition of communication. He defined all communication between two people as this: “It is only information. If you think it is more than that, you are self-deceived.”

Since marriage represents the most intimate dynamics of communication, they are also the most dangerous. If I misunderstand something a stranger says to me, it doesn’t matter that much. But if I make the same error with my life partner, it can be devastating. And after 30-plus years of doing counseling, I can attest that most marriage problems are communication difficulties.

We need to understand three things in order to make all communication easier.

First, what you are hearing is just information.
Second, if you believe otherwise, it is your problem, not the other person
Third, the main difficulty we have with what we hear other people say is that they have layered their communication and we often do not know it.

Let’s look at a standard marital conflict that illustrates all three parts.

Let’s say Jim has had a hard day at work. He was given an impossible task by his boss and it wasn’t going well. He is tired, frustrated, feeling abused and disrespected, and needing to rest and recuperate.

However, as soon as he comes through the door, his wife tells him all about how bad their two boys behaved at the grocery store after work. She never asks about his day, never notices the look of exasperation on his face.

Jim honestly can see that his wife is frustrated. At the same time, he needs support and rest. So, he tries to communicate all of this to Tonya his wife and says, “I don’t want to talk about this right now.” She is hurt by this and storms off to make dinner, slamming cupboards and huffing.

She assumed something Jim was communicating. She assumed wrongly. He was giving information about his desire to avoid more drama and the need to rest. She assumed he was communicating something about their relationship and his lack of caring for her. He gave her information. The rest of what happened was hers.

Taken at face value, his statement is fairly simple. He doesn’t want to talk about the kids at that moment. He didn’t say he would never talk about it. He didn’t say that he couldn’t care less about her feelings. His communication was a case of simple information. Tonya did not understand this or accept it.

This leads us to the second truth about communication. Her emotional reaction was her problem. Any time we react to information being given to us we are responsible completely for our reaction. The other person is only responsible for the information they gave us. In Tonya’s case, she carried the frustration of being the only care-giver that day in the household. She was angry that Jim seemed to be reticent to help her. She assumed his motivations. All of these assumptions and reactions are her responsibility. If she had been wise–and we will talk about how to use this approach with any other person–she would have asked Jim why he didn’t want to talk about it at that moment. She chose to be hurt and that was her choice. Jim did not make her do that.

Now for the most complicated part of this scenario: Tonya reacted to Jim’s dual layers of information with a multi-layered communication response. I define multi-layered communication as any information which is layered with one or more of the following:

1. Emotions
2. Bitterness or resentment
3. Sarcasm
4. Physical body language instead of words
5. Unspoken assumptions
6. False beliefs
7. Distraction
8. Revenge or hatred

Let’s analyze Jim and Tonya.

Jim had two distinct layers of information:

1. He didn’t want to talk about the current situation at that moment
2. He was angry and tired and did not state this up front.

Jim made the situation a degree harder by not giving the second piece of information before the first one.

Tonya had several layers of communication which she put across using passive-aggressive behavior:

1. Anger at the boys
2. Frustration that she was the primary care-giver and Jim did not seem to be interested
3. A desire to hurt Jim for the perceived hurt Jim had laid on her.
4. Perhaps a deep-seated belief that people would not assist her when she needed it.

Tonya only expressed the first layer and let Jim assume the existence of the other layers. Because neither of them had carefully dissected their own layers before communicating, they could not connect with each other mentally or emotionally. This is the type of fight that can linger for weeks, months or even years if not corrected.

In the next article, we’ll dissect the 8 layers and examine how to attempt to give other people information about each one.

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