thinking needed during difficult times

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.

Philippians 4:8

Right now in the United States and across the world we’re facing a pandemic. This naturally intensifies stress, and is affecting all of life. So why would I point myself, and all of us to this word from Paul, and actually this Scripture, God’s written word?

First of all, it’s always good practice, something not just recommended, but prescribed for us Christians. And when you turn the pages of Scripture, you’ll find plenty of good in the midst of reality. Scripture is not couched in an alternative, imaginative, make-believe world, but in the all too real world, the world in which we live. Of course across different cultures and time, to be sure. But much of what we see there, we see here. And Paul’s word here actually refers to good found anywhere, all a part of God’s common grace given to humankind.

To be sure, we practically have to turn our faces, or ignore so much right in front of our faces that is less than good, and too often is bad, or even evil. We don’t ignore such things. To focus on what is true is probably more in the sense of what is true in a good sense. But what is true, noble and right includes taking seriously that which is not. To engage in this process requires discernment. It’s all too easy at least for me to descend into something that is less than good in reaction to what’s not good.

During this crisis, we will do well to find what is good in the sense of fitting and helpful. And to have discernment to see what is not. Paul’s words here necessarily mean that we’re going to want to be constructive in our critiques, beginning first with ourselves, if we’re going to help others with the kind of help that’s needed.

May God help us to think thoughts which impact us in ways that are uplifting in the sense of edifying, so that others too may be helped. And especially that we might all look to the one who can lift us beyond what we can imagine, or experience ourselves. In and through Jesus.


in what are our thoughts steeped, and what follows?

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice.And the God of peace will be with you.

Philippians 4

We steep teabags in water (I, strangely enough, in coffee water) to let the leaves soak in the heat for the brew. Day in and day out, what do we soak our thoughts in?

This passage written by the Apostle Paul tells us to be occupied with that which is good and helpful. It clearly seems to include good from any source, though one has to be discerning, and separate the good from the bad. Of course the emphasis would be on God’s special revelation in scripture, while certainly including God’s general revelation which might well include a Greek philosopher like Plato, and any number of writers or people, not Christians themselves. Again, we need discernment. There is actually much good to gather in from sources which are not explicitly Christian.

I think we know the difference from what is good and what is not. Though sometimes we might become somewhat numb to that distinction. There is much that passes for entertainment and information which at best is questionable and at worst is unhelpful and downright demoralizing. What is especially challenging, though, is that which is couched as good, yet would not fit into any of the categories in Paul’s list above. It is one thing to expose the fruitless deeds of darkness (Ephesians 5). But it is quite another thing to fight fire with fire, to essentially enter into that darkness, ourselves. We can become immune to that which is objectionable, and even begin to participate in it ourselves.

Interestingly, Paul follows up the list of what we are to reflect on with the instruction to do not only as he said, but as he did. His example in his life day in and day out was seen by some who were recipients of this letter which we entitle Philippians. Maybe he was seen by all the believers there, and surely especially so by the leaders of the church. That example is passed down from generation to generation, hopefully, and at any rate, the same Spirit who helped Paul and others to live in the Jesus way, is present to help us in becoming followers of our Lord.

So our thoughts, what we dwell on impacts how we live. Not that this passage is actually saying that, though we know from other passages and in life that this is true. What is fundamental for us includes both what we occupy ourselves with, and what examples we follow. Something we need to concern ourselves with as we seek to live with others and in the world in the full will of God.

think biblically

In the firestorm of today’s news, some of which is exceedingly sad, and perhaps all the more in the political climate of today, and any day, for that matter, we need to aspire to learning to think biblically.

Just to look at the Bible alone, as if we could do so, as it were, in a vaccum, which is impossible, but again, just to consider the Bible alone is challenging. I resort to what has been called a redemptive hermeneutic (hermeneutic essentially means interpretation), so that the Bible is a story which points to an ultimate conclusion, which is a fitting end to the beginning, but takes seriously everything in between. So that, while there’s harmony in the sense that the story follows a certain path, we find unexpected twists and turns along the way, even in the First Testament alone, but especially so in the Second, Final Testament, when Jesus fulfills all of scripture in ways which were not anticipated by those who lived during that time, or prior. But the seeds of which one can arguably clearly enough find in the First Testament.

From there, we have to consider present day thinking, where that came from, how it is entrenched in society, and in our own thinking. If we’re beginning to get the first goal of arriving to good Biblical thinking, true to that text and its fulfillment in Jesus, then we are ready to consider how we really think in everyday life, what our thinking actually is, which likely will be a reflection of the thinking of the world in which we live. And we have to critique that in the light of biblical thinking.

Where I live, the United States, our language and thinking is derived from the Modernist Enlightenment. Even how we think biblically is in large part impacted by that, so that we actually end up imposing the understanding of the age upon the text of scripture. Rather, we need to remain in the text of scripture, so that we can more and more think truly biblically, and be able to critique our present day thought.

Does that mean we expect the world to conform to biblical thinking? Certainly not. But we in Jesus are not to be conformed to this world, but rather, transformed by the renewing of our minds, so that we might come to understand what is the good and perfect will of God (Romans 12:2). That is not something we’ll arrive to overnight, indeed it involves a lifelong process together with other believers.

I believe this is critical, mainly because I think we think in ways that are not so much informed and thus formed by the Bible, but more by society, with especially profound, and too often, I think, egregious/tragic results, especially seen in the political realm. Like everything else in life, this is surely a mixed bag. We do get some things more or less right even on this track, but are amiss in other things, I’m afraid. A big problem from our inheritance of the Modernist Enlightenment on which the United States was largely built, is the emphasis and insistence on individual rights. So that the rights of the individual, however that is manifested politically takes priority over everything else. While “rights” and the individual surely arguably have their place, we have to ask ourselves if that has the same place in scripture that it has in our world. And if not, then what informs it, or what context in scripture might we say it exists, its place.

This is not a proposal to imagine that biblical thinking can be imposed on the world, but to seek to be true to it ourselves, so that we can better live in it, through learning to think and therefore live according to what scripture teaches, and its fulfillment in Jesus, rather than what any political party of this world insists on. The new way of thinking and living in the grace and kingdom that is ours in Jesus.

piece by piece

Not many of us readers read as much as we would like. And even if we do we can only scratch the surface of all that is out there. Which is one reason I like to read writers who themselves are broad readers. Then hopefully I can pick up something of the breadth of their learning.

When reading scripture and books we can be content with the idea that we gather piece by piece. And that somehow out of that can come something of a whole that is both satisfying to us and more important, reflective of reality.

We want our sources to tell their own story. In time we become acclimated to it if we don’t resonate with it sooner. Along the way there may indeed be a paradigm shift or two of major proportion, and likely a host of smaller such shifts. Those can be times of discomfort to say the least when the ground under us is shifting and we seem to have something less steady to stand on. That is when we need all the more to hold on to our faith in God through Jesus. I speak as one both committed to and convinced of the faith of the gospel of Jesus.

Being unsettled can be good. It is a sign of change which is a part of life, indeed a part of growing. It is also good when we have the sense that things are coming together so that we have more of a complete, integrated understanding of the whole.

In this we shouldn’t at all “despise the day of small things.” No, we add the pieces or let them come and we keep working on them. A little bit done well is good. We keep adding to that and trust the Lord for a good outcome.

reserving judgment

“In a lawsuit the first to speak seems right,
until someone comes forward and cross-examines.”

Proverbs 18:17 (NIV)

Although this proverb applies to legal matters, there is a principle we can gather from it for all of life. How often in the course of our lives have we been convinced by a presentation or argument without investigating the matter thoroughly or even at all? We fail to take into consideration other factors which may tip the scales the opposite way. What we’ve heard sounds right and conclusive so that we are taken in.

Wisdom too often gained by failure (I speak for myself) comes into play here. We often need to slow down and even stop. Part of the fallacy is to proceed on. How many times in previous years would I have been better off to at least sleep on something overnight. But the ones who put together or do the presentation know that. So a special deal is offered if you sign now.

The importance of reserving judgment plays across the board in nearly every direction. The one non negotiable for me is the commitment to follow Jesus within the bounds of the orthodox Christian faith. Other matters may or may not become more or less settled over time. So that one can add to their understanding. While other things may by and by become less important or chucked altogether. I want to add here that Christian theology while settled in some ways is a living even growing dynamic.

A humble critical realist approach is really what’s needed. One in which expectations are set according to the weight given quantitatively and qualitatively in the matter. So that for example I can appreciate living in a liberal democracy while not equating it with God’s kingdom come in Jesus.

While appreciating lesser things for what they are, we can go full bore in our calling in faith, confident that what is of God will continue on and bear fruit in this life and the life to come in and through Jesus.


a beef I have (on the fullness of the faith)

There is something I like (well, a number of things, actually, without me personally entertaining the thought of converting to it) about Roman Catholicism in theory, and that’s how it includes diversity. Of course within the core commitment to scripture and tradition. Something of the same can be said for the Anglican Church or Communion, which is a large tent indeed. And this is true in significant measure I think of our church, the Evangelical Covenant.

I am amazed and perplexed at how narrow other churches can be as to what is allowed in the church. If you think differently at all, you’re walking on thin ice, or maybe on no ice at all. I think of such matters as faith and science, perhaps accepting evolution and not creationism. Or American politics in which one might not rubber stamp the Republican Party or be libertarian. Even matters like the evangelical doctrine of inerrancy of scripture. How about hell as eternal conscious torment being replaced by something else which actually might end up closer to what scripture says? While we’re at it, we might as well mention the charismatic side, which one prominent evangelical has cast aside as practically heretical.

There is the great need for wisdom in all of this. We don’t do anyone any favors by emphasizing the differences we may have with them. In fact the emphasis needs to be in the opposite direction, on what unites us in Jesus Christ and God’s good news of grace and the kingdom in him.

For those who think out loud and try to work through difficult areas, who are willing to think outside the box within the commitment to the orthodox Christian faith, there needs to be a safe place. That safe place is not on a Sunday morning in the pew or in teaching or even in sharing later, certainly not as a rule. But space is needed. If one is belittled for suggesting something which on later thought they may well reject, the danger is that they will become defensive and driven to defend a position which rather ought to be refined or even disposed of. Even if we strongly disagree with what is said, we need to listen well and ask questions, as well as respecting the other person. One such issue today is gay marriage and gay affirmation including ordination in churches. That is a fault line, maybe not breaking communion among Christians (I don’t think it does), but making it much harder for churches to be united. I studied that issue some time back, willing to change if I thought scripture warranted it. But I concluded that the traditional understanding is solid. Even if other matters surrounding the issue are not, like the reality that there are gay Christians, those who experience same sex attraction, etc. Simply for entertaining such questions or deviating from any norm makes one a “liberal” to many, or at least not one to take seriously.

As I get older I want all the more to concentrate on the gospel along with the Jesus Creed of loving God and neighbor. But that doesn’t mean I won’t keep on asking questions. Of course we need wisdom. Knowledge and wisdom might be nearly synonymous in wisdom literature, but not so in our culture. We might “know” something and yet not love, even getting a big head. No, we need wisdom both for ourselves and for others. But we also need a wideness, to be able to take in diversity and accept differences within the faith which we hold together in Jesus.

remaining inquisitive

As I get older I care less and less about matters which used to hold some interest to me. I am supposing and probably more like hoping that on central matters of life and of the faith I am growing in interest and/or understanding. Other matters I either don’t consider important at all anymore, of relatively little importance, or on which I am glad to remain agnostic since I think scripture may not really address the question or answer it in the way our theologies do. I am glad for the zeal of younger folks who go after some subjects which really are quite important in their place. I can appreciate and learn from them. I am not so inclined anymore to want to hash out some of the ongoing debates that are out there. For one thing I’ve sadly seen Christians tear into each other. Which ends up ruining the entire thing. But even when that doesn’t happen and a constructive dialog takes place, I pick and choose my spots much more carefully. The older one gets the more one realizes just how limited time is.

But one thing in this regard I want to be is simply inquisitive. To be interested to pursue important questions. For example, recently I noticed from Galatians 5 that the NIV 2011 changed the fruit of the Spirit patience to forbearance. Of course I love the simple word patience. And I want to push away a word like forbearance. Who uses that in everyday life? And yet I can see in that word a richness of meaning which can be helpful in understanding patience in terms of relationships which the passage is all about. To forbear is to put up with each other, which to some extent we have to do and are called to do in love. But I would want to go to a Greek lexicon and perhaps more than one to see what meaning they would give to the Greek term so translated (my transliteration: makrothumia). I see in my BAGD lexicon that one definition given for the word is “forbearance, patience toward others” and that Galatians 5:22 is listed as one of the passages with that meaning. If I had more time I’d like to study this thought further (and I intend to later). I would do so by looking up good evangelical and other Christian commentaries on Galatians, especially those which might get more into the language itself.

So it’s good and surely a vital part of our humanity to continue to explore. Yes, to read, to ask questions. As we remain in the Truth in whom all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden.

the art of critical thinking

There is something somehow in which I think I’m lacking, and that’s the art of critical thinking. Maybe I do think critically, but I tend to do so only when certain buttons are pushed. Critical thinking I would define in a simple way as challenging assumptions by asking questions. It is actually part and parcel of a learning process which is likely rooted to some extent in our western, modern mindset, finding precedent perhaps in Socrates, the Socratic method, from Plato. But the Bible itself is not without something of this method. Job may well be a good case in point, and I think of Ecclesiastes, as well. In the former, God and God’s ways are the focus, while in the latter the focus is life on earth, “under the sun.”

Thinking which is good is beyond the “ivory tower,” and tied to life, to living. We live thoughtfully, or think in terms of life. As followers of Jesus we want our minds to be renewed in God’s image. It has been said: to think God’s thoughts after him. Scripture does say we have the mind of Christ. By the Spirit we all have something to contribute as humans, and part of that contribution comes from the mind. But it will be as different as each of us is different.

It seems that a weakness in some forms of education is the expectation that all adhere to one standard, when the standard itself may not take into account all the gifts which make up humanity. While seeing value in establishing some standard of evaluating education and learning, I am rather skeptical of the outcome. No doubt many do benefit, but many others who I see as equally gifted seem to fall through the cracks. One of the priorities which education ought to set is an emphasis which takes better into account the full range of giftedness in humanity. Just because someone doesn’t like college doesn’t mean that they don’t have an equally good gift which can contribute well to society.  Getting back to scripture, it points to thinking in terms of God’s will in life. One might say the mind or psyche is what drives us, what drives our bodies, how we do this and that, how we live day to day and over the course of a lifetime.

Back to critical thinking. Probably a good philosophy in my book through which to engage the world is something like what is called “critical realism.” It is both mind and life oriented. It takes into account reason and experience, along with tradition passed on from generations gone by. We test words and life itself both in what we receive and observe in others, and by our own experience. This philosophy seems to have inherent in it a healthy acceptance of both the strengths and weaknesses, or limitations of human thinking. How we both can’t see everything that should be taken into account, and how that puts into question to some extent what we actually do see. We have to think and arrive to any conclusions with utmost humility.

We are called to love God with all our being and doing, including with our minds, in other words it is relational at its core. Good thinking in the way of Christ is not mere intellect or high intellectual acumen, or something like high “IQ.” It is no less than a gift from God to be known within the gifts given to the church for living out God’s will in this world, a part of what it means to be Spirit-filled. It is completely dependent on Christ, the way of love in humble service, yes, even the way of the cross.


thinking something through

Something I routinely do on this blog is simply to endeavor to begin to think matters through. I say begin, because on most things, one can only begin to scratch the surface. We can’t have the full measure of understanding on anything, something which belongs only to God. God gives us what we need as human beings, by revelation, be it what theologians call “general revelation”- arguably in some measure, or in some way accessible to all, at least much of science being one example, and in “special revelation,” aspects of faith which are revealed in and through Jesus, and which find their true meaning somehow in and through him.

We often don’t know the end result or consequences of holding on to a certain outlook or stance. I try to educate myself from people who grapple with such things and may be in disagreement among themselves. Of course in many matters we hold only to provisional views which likely will change in our view over time for a variety of reasons.

I used to be rather mocked and a bit criticized for challenging thought that is cut and dried on issues which I thought were at least debatable. Actually by nature the world is full of factors which ought to be considered. To the point that I am not at all confident that we can have their full measure at any time in this life. Which makes me wary at best to draw hard and fast conclusions about a good number of things.

Of course there is revelation from God in and through Jesus and found in scripture which is clear enough. I am not referring to that, and indeed believe that to be part of what we have to figure into our equation, in fact matters which matter the most when we do consider anything. How does it line up with God’s revelation in Jesus, is always crucial to consider.

This is ongoing, and won’t end in this life. Our earlier thinking may be accurate, but may not take into consideration all that needs to be factored in. Hopefully our thinking later on will be more mature, and therefore taking in more of what ought to be considered. Christ is the full measure of any given matter, God’s revelation in him. So that we must continue to reflect, and never think we can have the full measure of anything in this life. Of course I’m not talking about matters which are clearly given to us, such as prohibitions to steal, kill, commit adultery, etc. Issues surround such matters, as well, but there is indeed black and white amidst all the shades of gray and difficulty we have in assessing matters in this life.

May we  who are committed to following Christ be committed to maturity in thought and life in and through him.

are we communicating clearly?

Even in the case of lifeless things that make sounds, such as the pipe or harp, how will anyone know what tune is being played unless there is a distinction in the notes? Again, if the trumpet does not sound a clear call, who will get ready for battle?

When I went to seminary, I often found myself speaking over the heads of people in church. Really, I hardly knew that, except the people would tell me. I think my own wife told me. Of course we were reading books which were hard for us to understand, and we were hearing lectures that at times were steeped in theologically technical language, known only to those who had studied it.

I had the blessing of doing children’s church for a time, and that helped me speak concretely in simple terms. I think I remember even then a helper remarking that I was speaking over the children’s heads. And so between all of this, and being (still true) a firm believer that scripture should be translated in the (heart) language of the people, over time I learned to speak with simplicity and clarity.

I think it is good to stretch people a bit, intellectually. But pastors and teachers in churches are supposed to feed the sheep with the teaching of God’s truth from scripture and in Jesus. So that must be first and foremost, front and center. If anything else is added, it should be secondary to that in any church setting.

Of course an academic setting is another story. Some good intellectual challenge is important there, indeed essential, although I also think that the best academic setting will bring the students along. And in a pastoral or church-oriented context, the best education will work at helping the students speak in a way that is understood by the hearers. Otherwise, as Paul remarked in the scripture cited above—what good is it? To be honest, I need to translate in my mind the technical language I am reading in such education, so as to try to understand it well, myself. This does open up other subjects, beyond the scope of this post.

Yes, I think those in my culture seem averse, or not trained to think well, logically. And we are not adept in critical thinking. In a church setting there’s a place, hopefully, to help people love God with all of their minds, as well as in every other way. We are so easily given to laziness, and to not being able to think well critically. Hence the sound bite culture we live in.

But when it’s all said and done, we must all speak to God, and listen for his word to us—in our own heart language. It must be kept simple, where we live (and beware of information overload, as well, another subject I suppose, beyond this post).

As we go on together in Jesus for the world.