Faith in God Justifies.

Faith in God is a justifying thing, and faith is not your feelings.

But let all who take refuge in you rejoice; let them ever sing for joy, and spread your protection over them, that those who love your name may exult in you.
For you bless the righteous, O LORD; you cover him with favor as with a shield. Psalm 5:11–12 ESV

Some would say that the Old Testament lacks instances of justification by faith, but I’m not so sure that’s the case. God is the same yesterday, today, and forever, and if His plan was to see the righteous live by faith, and to be justified by their trust in God, we should see the idea in writings before the time of the incarnation.

In fact, that is what we see. One such point is something I recently came across in my morning Bible reading. In Psalm 5, we see the above couplet where the psalmist prays that God wouldcause rejoicing to come to all people who take refuge in Him. For our purposes, the reasoning the psalmist uses is important. He says that it is because (for) God blesses, not just those who take refuge in God, but the righteous.

There are two implications here for the Christian life: 1) putting your trust in God is righteousness. It is the fact that we put our ultimate value and trust in God that centrally makes the believer righteous. While this will result in right action (as if we trust God, we will trust what he says, and see his commands as good), it is not primarily the action that makes one righteous, but the ground for the action, namely a trust in God. 2) by the implication that the Psalmist to give joy to those he has implicitly defined as righteous, we can learn that faith is not in itself joy. Indeed, it can and should ground joy, but the fact that you aren’t “feeling” something every moment of every day is not in itself a sign that you are lacking faith or that you are outside the will of God. Since we are sinful people, our feelings do not always function properly, and sometimes we need to face periods of feeling empty through our faith. The proper response to a lack of joy in our lives is not primarily to seek the joy itself, but instead to seek God for the joy that He gives. Even more to the point, our failure to feel joy all the time is not a point at which we should say “well, I guess this taking refuge in the Lord thing isn’t working”, but instead an opportunity to drive deeper into refuge in God, because that is where joy is to be found, even if you don’t actively find it every moment.

Keep seeking your refuge in the Lord, and I will pray with the psalmist that God would grant joy to you and all who are righteous because they take refuge in the Lord.

Keep me in coffee

The author is often highly caffeinated. Keep him that way!

C$2.00

Is it really beautiful?

One of the problems I’ve tended to have with materialism is how it seems to place into my own (subjective) mind (actually brain… and hence render them largely delusional as it relate to the universe itself). This isn’t only the case with my religious ideas, but also the ideas I have of good and evil, and even the idea of me.

How do I get there? After all, I don’t doubt that some materialists have every bit as high a moral code that they live by as I do, and even arch-materialists can work to do great things in the social sphere based on what they seem to think is a call to justice that is demanded of all of us. Heck, when Christopher Hitchens subtitles his book “How Religion Poisons Everything”, I think he is claiming that religion is, objectively and independent of subjective opinions on the matter, a bad thing.

The problem is, ironically, best exemplified by the use of Occam’s razor in materialism to deny the supernatural. Occam’s razor (which nicely trims Plato’s beard) is the principle that, all things being equal, the simplest explanation for a phenomenon is most likely the correct one. The result is that since science is more than capable of coming up with material explanations for most things, that it is rational to assume that science will come up with material explanations for all things.

What then of ideas and concepts that do not seem to be solely material, such as the existence of subjects other than me, or transcendent morality, aesthetics, or even the idea of “me”? Materialism would claim that all of these are simply the result of material processes in the brain reacting to external stimuli. ie. whatever these things are, they exist only in brains, and any seeming transcendence is simply the commonality of human experience.

This means that a painting is not itself beautiful, but instead makes me feel good (whatever “me” is). It means that torture is not independently wrong, but simply something that I find abhorrent. It also means that my most directly experienced object, since it cannot be materially experienced (namely the “I”), is simply something “I” mistake for a person when in fact it is noting more than the collocation of atoms. (at this point, if “you’re” following me, you might be giggling, as “I” am…”I”‘m guessing most people rightly find this silly).

In any case, not taking it all the way, and assuming “I” exist, which is a properly basic idea if ever there was one. The

materialist conception seems to eliminate transcendent morality and beauty because those concepts exist only in human brains.

and were human minds to cease to be, so would those concepts. The result is that nothing is evil in itself, and nothing is in itself beautiful. There is no contrast in reality between the beautiful and the ugly (just personal psychology) or between the good and the evil (just personal taste).

Thus we come to a statement someone recently used on me to try to claim the rationality of his belief structure:

“Can’t we just say the garden is beautiful, without attributing faeries to it?”

He apparently wanted to mean that there was no need to credit a ground to the beauty of the garden, just the bare fact of it. But my response is that he has already appealed to “faeries” in claiming that beauty is a proper descriptor of the garden rather than simply his experiences of the garden. That I choose to think about that ground, and indeed have a name for it (God), has already been assumed in the statement.

Of course, no one needs to take my route. Maybe morality, beauty, subjectivity (and if you think about it, logic, mathematics, reason and even knowledge itself) really are just modes of human thought that are not true of the universe itself, but only categories we humans find useful. Maybe Occam’s razor really should be used as a law of reason, rather

than simply a priciple. Humanity has had large groups already in that camp (many forms of Zen Budddhism for example).

Such a route seems unlikely to further science or society, however, since the simplest explanation of the universe is still (as it was in first year philosophy) solipsism. In this case Occam’s razor seems to be instead a guillotine.

In the end, I think that our experiences should only be attributed wholly to delusion with evidence that it is, in fact, delusional.

It is for that reason that I would say that Handel’s “Messiah” really is beautiful, that evil really is fundamentally wrong, that reason really talks about the universe and not simply the categories of data that enters my sense receptors, and that there is real good in the world (not just things that are good on opinion).

Reflections on my First Year of Pastoral Ministry

This week marks one year since I first arrived in Korea and began to preach at the English Worship Service at Sangdang Presbyterian Church. I have to say that pastoral ministry is greatly different than I had imagined it to be, though I’m betting much of that has to do with the different kind of ministry I’m part of. I also know a little better why pastors give newbies like me the advice that they do. Here at the end of the first year, I figured I would say a few of the things I’ve learned (in no particular order).

1. Carry a pen and paper everywhere.

This has a few reasons, but the biggest is that pastors often get told the most important things as an aside halfway through a conversation. It’s a good practice to be able to write down, as soon as is practical, information you will need to remember so that you can pray for and better love your congregation. It also helps you keep straight the things people are expecting you to do. Remember to sync that information with your day planner.

2. Loving people is work.

Pastors are expected to love their congregation members, and that is not always easy. This is not just because the members of your church are sinners, but because you are at heart a sinner. Myself, I am often struggling with my desire to always be right, and holding my tongue over unimportant criticisms for the sake of the relationship is difficult for me. I often want to defend myself against (perceived) attacks, rather than see the Gospel as central. As a pastor, I am finding I need prayer and repentance more than I had expected. Honestly, it’s easier to see the grace of God now, since I know that any good done through my ministry is going to be Him.

The upshot is that pastors cannot do the easy thing and just hang out with the people who they find it easy to like. That is to be lazy, and is also a bad habit you don’t want your congregation to pick up.

3. Preach the Gospel!!!! be ready for change (and for no change).

It is the pastor’s job to, in season and out of season, preach the Gospel to people who may or may not be willing to hear it and be changed. Sometimes pastors face the difficulty of dealing with hard hearts who will simply show up Sunday after Sunday (or stop showing up). Other times, the Gospel will find soft hearts, but that is not going to be any less difficult. The Word of God changes people’s lives, and repentance can be messy.

4. Sometimes critics are your best friends.

It’s very easy to bask in the good things people say after you preach a sermon that reached them in a good way. That said, not everything you say is going to be golden, and in your congregation may be people who see your errors faster than you do. With my own ministry (with a high turnover rate), catching your errors and misstatements can be more important, since you will have a very small window to correct your mistakes.

This is also why you need to train your congregation to see God as revealed through the Bible as the primary authority, not you. Ideally, people in your congregation should be learning to ask questions of the text and of your sermons, and then seeking the answers in the Bible as they listen to you. This may mean more work in dealing with criticism that may, or may not, be well-founded, but it also means that you get to learn from the congregation and how God speaks to them.

5. Do discipleship for the Kingdom of God, not for your own personal fiefdom.

Since foreigners are only going to be in Korea for a limited time, and the Koreans have a great system of discipleship in place, it’s tempting to simply see the worship service as a stopgap while people are here for a short time. After all, the fruit of work you put into discipling people will not accrue to your own ministry, but will instead be to the various places these people go after they are with you. But the scriptures say that one plants, another waters, and another reaps the harvest. Just because you have no reason to expect to reap the benefits of your work does not mean you have the right to shirk your duty to plant or water.

Besides, unless people are growing under your care, they are dying under your care. There is no 0 movement faith. You will still need to give an account for a short time of ministry with them as with a long time.

6. Make sure you have supports.

A pastor is human. That’s not always realized by the people in your congregation. You have all the same struggles regular believers have, and so like them, you need to have the supports you tell them they need. This means that you have to put time into developing “non work” friendships where you can be real, and where you can be corrected, or just have fun. Ideally, these would be the fellow members of a board of elders, but in any case, good Christian friends are just as necessary for the pastor as for the congregation. After all, a pastor is just an undershepherd, and will sometimes need to be shepherded himself.

7. Family is very important.

This might be a little controversial, but the Bible states that an overseer (or pastor) must be able to manage his own family well. This means that sometimes the congregation will have to take a back seat to your marriage, or to your children. Some say that if you take care of the Church, God will take care of your kids. I don’t see that in scripture, and instead see the command to provide for my family.

A pastor should never model the evil understanding that a job (any job) is more important than the Gospel reflection that is marriage. A pastor must love his wife as Christ loved the Church, or he is not serving his Church well, or the Gospel.

Some would say that’s easy for me to say, as I’m a single pastor. Well, if so, it’s one of very few things made easier by being a single pastor.

8. Pastors should, ideally, be married.

This one hurts to say since I am not married (and given my present ministry am unlikely to be married anytime soon). I am not saying that every pastor must be married, or that there are not benefits to not being married (I am able to place more effort into Christian service than married pastors), but I am saying that a married pastor is probably in a better position in many ways.

In the first place, the pastor can thus better model in his life what a Christian family should look like, and also get the sanctification that comes from being married (having a spouse means having someone who will know all your sin, so you won’t as easily be able to hide it, and thus will have to face it for the sake of the marriage). A wife is also a complement to your ministry, as she would ideally provide the emotional support a pastor will often need, as well as the sympathetic ear and a person who you can be perfectly honest with. Note: I am not saying that she needs to perform ministry duties in the Church beyond what other Church members provide. She should be a committed Christian, and thus a member of the Church, but there is no church office of “Pastor’s Wife”.

I don’t think this is a type of “grass is always greener” syndrome, as I am aware that marriage adds many stresses (and children many more). Nor do I think I am saying that being a single pastor is wrong (or else I’d resign). I am just saying that a godly marriage is usually beneficial for a pastor.

Anyway, that’s all the reflections for the moment. Comments anyone?

The Results of a Simple Theological Truth

For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. (Psalm 139:13-14)

Dad: We made a beautiful daughter

(4 year old) Daughter: God made me, and you are not God.

As I was walking out of Church on Sunday, the above-mentioned father related the above exchange with his precocious daughter. While it was an amusing exchange, it also reflects a correct, and I would say, very useful understanding of theology.

I can only pray that both father and daughter remember it.

I pray that dad remembers it when in a few years his daughter begins to show her intelligence and beauty to the world, and he thanks God for her, instead of pegging his own value on how well she performs in the world.

I pray he remembers it when this same daughter cries at some failure, which will seem huge to her. That he then avoids piling on to her disappointment, and instead reminds her that the good and wise creator of the universe made her, and he does not make mistakes.

I pray he remembers it as she rejects him at different times. First as she leaves him for her new friends, and later as she rejects him for being embarrassing in her teenage years, and finally if she walks down the aisle to begin a life together with another man.. He will need to remember the gift of God that she is, and that she was his gift only for a time.

I pray she remembers the truth at the same time, when she realizes that her dad is not perfect, and he will let her down, but she is made for greater things than simply her father’s decision or desire, and while her genes are a mix of her dad and her mom, they are not simply random ones.

I pray she remembers it as she gives birth to her first child, who will be beautiful, and full of potential, and yet blemished and imperfect in some eyes in the world. God will have made her child too.

I pray also that she remembers it (by God’s grace) many decades hence, when with tears in her eyes she buries the earthly father who loved her well, confident that the God who made her and him, and brought them together for a time by his grace, is trustworthy to take care of him until time ends and all tears are wiped away.

A Word on Using Logic

One of the main topics dealt with on this blog is Religion, and especially Christianity. Now, I do not expect all (or even most) of my readers to agree with me on this topic. It’s a highly debated one. That said, I have noticed a disturbing trend when it comes to this topic as its debated on the internet.

Among some factions, it has become almost axiomatic that religious people are irrational. From this assumption, they then leap to the (unfounded) conclusion that because they are not religious, they are automatically more rational than a religious person. This further leads to a further unfounded leap that such means that an irreligious person thus automatically understands both formal and informal logic better than a religious person, and especially a conservative Christian religious person. This leads these same people to lecture them on how their arguments are illogical using logical terms of art, often incorrectly.

Now, I am not saying that irreligious people always do this, but it is clear that some irreligious people do, and for some reason I seem to usually get them writing me posts about how I am falling into a “no true scotsman fallacy” or how my argument is “non-sequential” at 6:30 in the morning when I haven’t had my coffee, and am already irritable.

This is the reason for the rule that you explain yourself when you use a term of art (and I consider logic terms, terms of art because in normal conversation eyes glaze over when I use the terms). This serves two major purposes. 1) It keeps all reasonably educated readers in the loop of the conversation even if they haven’t taken a course in logic and 2) it keeps misuses of the terms to a minimum.

When I say “explain yourself”, I mean that you should first define the term of art you’re using, and then show how the argument in question fits that definition. This makes it easier for us conservative Christian religious people to check the logic textbooks on our desks to see if we can learn something here. It also means that you will have to do the work of linking the argument to your accusation, and in my experience, not all accusations survive that process. As examples, I offer the following three terms of art, with an explanation:

“non sequiter” – Often best tested for by using the question “so what?”, it’s a fallacy involved in giving information or arguments unrelated to the argument being discussed. For example:  When pro-life advocates say that a foetus in the womb is a person deserving of full legal protection as such, the response that a woman has a right to choose what happens to her own body is a non-sequiter. The question is the moral status of the infant. After that point, the rights balancing can be done, but not before dealing with the claim at hand (that a foetus is a person deserving of legal protection).

“ad hominium” – This is a form of a non-sequiter. I also call this the “yeah, well, you have cooties” fallacy. It is frighteningly common in most debates, despite its illogicality. It is essentially when a person is attacked directly rather than attacking their arguments. An example is when an atheist makes the statement that there is no positive proof for the existence of God, and a theist responds with: yeah, but you atheists are immoral. Besides not necessarily being true, it really doesn’t speak to the claim being made. Now, this is not happening when the conversation moves to the moral (positive) argument for the existence of God, and the theist makes the different claim that atheism has no account for objective morality (a claim which does not impugn the atheists’ morals, just consistency of the underlying reason for those good morals).

“straw man” – This is the argumentative tactic of redefining your opponent’s position in such a way as to make it easier to attack when the redefinition does not actually express the ideas of the opponent. One example is when a person says that there is evidence for the existence for the Christian god, and an opponent begins to attack faith in a teapot orbiting the sun, flying spaghetti monsters, or invisible pink unicorns. The latter are far easier to attack, but they are conceptually different (none of the latter examples can be defended by the ontological argument, for instance).

In any event, the upshot is that when you want to use any of these things, think it through and do the hard work of applying your ideas.

A Return to Wordpress (and to blogging)

Well, seems that the mobileme hosting of my website is messed up, so now that I’m deciding to return to blogging, I’m also returning to using wordpress for my blogging. So here I am back blogging on my wordpress account.

In any case, my wordpress account has always had more traffic, so it’s probably best to stay here (cheaper too).

That said, I’m not the naive person who first started blogging years ago. I know that the internet has some strange people, and many who would never say a bad word to you in person can be downright mean from behind their iphones; especially when I use bad grammar or talk about politics or religion (my favorite topics) For that reason, over the next couple of days I’m going to write a few basic posts to explain the ground rules. They aren’t going to be up for debate, and I’m going to hold to them.

You may also notice a slight shift in focus over the next few months. I guess I am mellowing in my old age, and diversifying a little. I’m going to talk about whatever interests me, which will be wider than the Christian theological and apologetic rants. Those won’t vanish, but I’m going to talk about favorite hamburgers, experiences as a foreign pastor in Korea, and the frustrations of being a mid-30s single guy. If you are interested in the sermons I was posting on the mobileme website, you can get them via podcast from my Church website here.

Hope you all enjoy the new year with me!

In Him,

– Steve <><

Loving a Cipher

I meditate on your precepts and consider your ways (Psalm 119:15)

In my reading and experience in counselling, the saddest times are when people realize that what they had called love for someone else had been simply their need to love something, not really a love for the thing loved. In essence, the object of their love is nothing but a cipher; an empty vessel they can pour their affections into.

The result is that while they do nice things for the person, their expressions of love are based on what they themselves desire to give as love, not really what the other person would need to actually be loved. The result is that they then get frustrated when the other person doesn’t react to the love their showing… because all this time there wasn’t love of another person being shown, but the need to love……. something, anything. The other person wasn’t important.

This seems less selfish than at least the habit of humans to love the reflection of themselves in someone else, and hate whatever does not reflect them, but I’m not so sure. At least the “selfish” love actually reacts to something in the object of affection (if only because it reaffirms the lover).

I think this may also be part of what happens to Christians in some ways that they “love” God. C.S. Lewis hits on the point when he says:

“For my own part, I tend to find the doctrinal books often more helpful in devotion than the devotional books, and I rather expect the same experience may await many others. I believe that many who find that “nothing happens” when they sit down, or kneel down, to a book of devotion, would find their heart sings unbidden while they are working their way through a tough bit of theology with a pipe in their teeth and a pencil in their hand” (C.S. Lewis,”On the reading of Old Books” in God in the Dock, 205)

The reason for this difference is, I think, a simple one. In much devotional literature, there is an assumption that one has a close and real relationship with the God of the universe. However, we read devotional literature in the desire to actually strengthen that relationship, not because the relationship is already strong. Devotional literature often has trouble moving us to worship, because it so rarely moves us beyond the cipher-god of our own creation to a meditation on the real God. Heavy theology does just that, because it is only in the harder to understand ideas and revelations that our self-centered ideas of God and how He should be loved are questioned, and as a result where we can be moved to see God for who He really is.

The result of that vision for a heart renewed by the Holy Spirit, will always be worship.