Friday, April 30, 2010

Why I am an Ag-NOSE-tic

An Interview with the Wheel’s Creator

So, what’s the story behind this weird wheel?

In creating this wheel I’ve played two roles and pitted them against one another. Like C. S. Lewis who, “thought in reverse for months” while writing the Screwtape Letters, I’ve played two roles, neither of which I ultimately believe. First, I play the role of Aromatician putting forth evidence and rationale for belief in the sense of smell. I do this by faith since I am indeed olfactory impaired. Second, I play the role of Ag-NOSE-tic, debunking the arguments for smell. I do this by faith since I do indeed believe that smells exists.
And the point is?

The strained and probably too obscure point of this double charade is to illustrate the futility of a type of Christian apologetics. The Aromatician (True Believer) represents a rationalistic and evidence based Christian apologetic. Regardless of their well crafted “proofs,” the Ag-NOSE-tic remains unconvinced. Furthermore, I hope to illustrate to the Ag-NOSE-tic (real agnostic/atheist) the pointlessness of their refutations. So what if the Ag-NOSE-tics (agnostics/atheists) can debunk rationalistic and evidentiary arguments for the existence of smells (God)? As long as our planet contains odors, Ag-NOSEtic disputations remain folly.

You’re saying Christians shouldn’t offer reasons to believe?

No, I’m saying embracing Christian truth is neither empirical, evidentiary, or rationalistic. Faith is existential. Just as one’s experience of enjoying an aroma is subjective (so I am lead to believe), enjoying the confidence of faith is subjective (which I in fact do enjoy). Jesus himself, in so many words, said evidence isn’t sufficient for faith.

  • Luke 16:31 "He said to him, 'If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.' "

  • John 6:36 “You have seen me and still you do not believe.”

  • OT Israel saw miracles in the desert yet longed to go back to Egypt.

Couldn’t this wheel tweak the faith of some Christians?

Yes, there are risks in creating this wheel. The Christian who bases his/her faith on rationalistic arguments (such as Aromaticians make on wheel side one), may be disappointed to see how easy it is for the Ag-NOSE-tic to refute them (on both sides of the wheel). A faith based on rationalistic “sight” rather than existential “faith” could conceivably be thrown into doubts by this wheel. I take that risk in the hope that other’s Christian faith will be strengthened.


By taking an existential leap of faith. Faith isn’t strengthened by getting better arguments, or refuting agnostic/atheistic refutations. Faith is strengthened when it shifts from evidence, rationalism, logic, and reason, to a commitment. I believe that many Christian apologetic arguments for belief are not only ineffective but ill-conceived. One cannot be argued into faith. God isn’t a theorem. Even if He were, how much faith is necessary to embrace 2+2=4? None, “and without faith it is impossible to please God.” Agnostics and atheists refute rationalistic straw men. Warrants for belief require other treatments (other wheels?). So while this wheel is indeed “anti apologetic,” my apologetic intent is to shift the debate away from an unbiblical ground.

Please compare and contrast Aromaticism and Biblical Theism.

One can’t choose to smell if their olfactory senses are impaired, whereas one can choose to believe in God (arguments regarding freewill and sovereignty notwithstanding). The evidence for aromas are convincing to those with a working nose. Warrants for faith are convincing to those with a working faith. How to get a nasally impaired person (such as myself) to experience smells is as mysterious as how to get a faith impaired person (such as an agnostic/atheist) to experience God. Unlike aromas, where there is no psychological bias for or against aromas, Christian theology suggests that there are psychological (spiritual) biases against faith. Attempting to overcome those biases with evidences frames the God question on faith-weakening rationalistic terms. Attempting to rationally convince an olfactory impaired person that smells exists is equally futile.

Don’t you have anything better to do with your time?

No. New priorities at home necessitate limited social life. Yet my inner world expands. All that pent up creativity must leak out somewhere. Why not roll all the things I love—irony, humor, wisdom, philosophy and the fear of the Lord—
into one (to me) highly entertaining volvelle?

Team Preaching

How Good and Pleasant When Pastors Preach Together

Pastor Bob: “As pastors of large churches, not only do Grant and I deal with many of the same issues, we deal with many of the same people! A lot of you are ‘double dippers,’ going back and forth between our two churches.”

Pastor Grant: “Bob and I asked ourselves a while ago, how can we send the message that our churches are not in competition with one other?”

Pastor Bob: “And we decided you can do ‘double dipping’ as long as you do double tithing!”

Pastor Grant: “Preach it!”

Pastor Bob: “I will, since you can’t fire me! I can say whatever I want in your church!”

Pastor Grant: “Hey, Bob, that’s not in my notes … but that’s good!”

One weekend a year Grant Fishbook, Senior Pastor of Christ the King (non-denominational), and Bob Marvel, Senior Pastor of Cornwall Church (Church of God, Anderson, Indiana) located less than three miles away, spend a weekend on each other’s stage . . . at the same time. Sitting side-by-side they team preach on an agreed upon topic. Staff pastors fill in at the home church while their senior pastor is preaching at the host church.

Whether taking turns covering specific sermon points, or engaging in humorous banter, Pastors Grant Fishbook (38) and Bob Marvel (42) model a serious truth—there’s no room for competition in the body of Christ. Being the two largest evangelical churches in Whatcom County (population 175,550) in Bellingham, Washington, with attendance in each church over 2,800, both pastors are keenly aware of the evangelistic work yet to be done.

As far as Grant and I are concerned,” says Bob, “there’s no room for jealousy or competition. We’re committed to getting rid of those things because folks are going to an eternity without Christ. Look at how many folks aren’t in an evangelical church.”

Grant adds, “Our state is the 49th least churched state in America and our county is one of the least churched counties in the state. There’s too much work to be done to worry about being in competition.”

The concept of guest preachers addressing a congregation is as old as Paul’s missionary journeys. But two preachers at the same time from two different churches with a reputation of being in competition with one another? These were the challenges facing Bob and Grant.

The idea for team teaching was birthed from our friendship,” recalls Bob. “Grant and I have traveled together, run a marathon together, we eat, pray and meet together. We often talk about the revolving door between Christ the King and Cornwall, and the perception that there is competition between us. Team preaching seemed to be a great way to defuse some of the ideas that were circulating.”

Sharing the stage is a better picture of unity than mere words,” says Grant. “When we sit shoulder to shoulder, sharing our hearts people believe that we really do care about the whole kingdom and not just our little territory.”

Team preaching affords another benefit, emphasis on “hard” truths. While neither pastor shies away from preaching truth, they both report advantages of their congregations hearing the same truth from different frequencies. It speaks volumes when the message is sent by one perceived as the competition.

Pastor Bob (addressing Christ the King): “Somewhere along the line you’ve got to land in a church and get committed. If Christ the King Church isn’t for you, or Cornwall isn’t for you, then find a Bible-believing church that is and get involved. At Cornwall I sometimes say, ‘If you’re here to heal, then heal. We want this to be a healing place. But some of you are coming as consumers and not contributors.”

Pastor Grant: “At Christ the King we say, ’If you’re just sitting here drinking our coffee and taking up a parking spot there’s someone who’s eternal soul is hanging in the balance who needs your seat.’”

Pastor Bob: “First time I told the consumers at Cornwall, ‘Go back to your own church,’ we lost 100 people. I’m not going be asked to speak at church growth events! But like Doug Murren, former pastor of Eastside Foursquare Church, says, ‘Every healthy body occasionally needs a good bowel movement.’”

Pastor Grant (to his congregation): “If you’re going to write a letter, write it to his church!”

We get to say tough things to the other person’s congregation,” Grant says. “When boldly stating truth, we have nothing to gain or lose in the other person’s environment.”

Bob adds, “Knowing that when I speak at Christ the King I don’t have to worry about how an elder, staff member, founding member or big contributor will respond to what I say is truly freeing. If my boldness blazes the trail for Grant to be more bold or vice versa there is an added benefit. Plus, there are people on the ‘conveyor belt’ between Christ the King and Cornwall and for them to hear the same hard truths at both churches let’s them know that there is no escaping it.”

Bob tells the congregation of Christ the King, “We hear complaints of those who leave our churches, ‘I’m just not growing, you’re not deep enough, it’s all about outreach.’ Instead of whining that your needs aren’t being met, why not grab someone new to the faith and help them grow? Get in the race and bring some brothers and sisters along with you!”

Grant tells the congregation of Cornwall, “I’m going to say this because your tithes don’t pay my salary! Every once in a while people will come to us and say, ‘You aren’t feeding me.” To quote a favorite author John Ortberg, “If that’s your stance, take off your bib, crawl out of your high chair, come to the big people table, pick up a fork and feed yourself.”

A familiar truth told by a guest pastor has impact, especially when congregants watch their own pastor listen attentively and nod enthusiastically. He models openness to hard truth. Territorial rivalry is demolished before the congregation’s eyes.

Team teaching can’t be forced or contrived. The success Bob and Grant enjoy is due in large part to their respect for each other. Without it they’d never get away with the self deprecating humor (“If I fail at running a marathon I’ll become a sermon illustration at Cornwall,” says Grant) or the kidding (“I don’t like back seat drivers,” Bob tells each congregation, “so when Grant ran a stop sign I didn’t say a thing. I figured we’re both ready to go to heaven and besides, our churches could use a change”).

Grant says, “The most amazing outcome of this homiletic strategy is the impact our preaching has had on the unsaved community. It has become water-cooler conversation in the county and the thing that seems to intrigue people is the novelty of churches being on the same page and removing the competition card. It makes me proud to be a part God’s redefining of what church is!”

Bob summarizes the outcome of team preaching, “We send a message loud and clear that unity between our churches is not just the ‘party line’ but reality. Team preaching helps our congregations feel more unified. It’s like they are actually beginning to believe we are on the same team.”

And they are.

Listen to Bob and Grant team preach at these sites. (with video)

Latte Great Planet Earth


Who would have guessed that seven years of seminary and thirty years of pastoral ministry could be rendered totally futile in a matter of moments? Certainly not me. Yet it took only one five minute conversation with a post modern barista to convince me that all my years as a professional Christian communicator is not worth diddly in this new era. My apologetics mentors of the 1970s clearly did not prepare me for doing evangelism in the 21st century.

My wife and I recently arrived by train in downtown Portland on a Friday night for a four day, schedule free, wherever-our-whimsy-leads-us walking tour of the city. On Saturday morning we discovered a local bakery/coffee shop and I was delighted to see the barista--shaved head, soul patch and gemstones the size of walnuts in his earlobes--wearing a "Beam Me Up, Jesus" tee shirt. I thought to myself, "Nice to see a young person not ashamed of Christ."

Always eager to bridge the generation gap, I felt a guy in his fifties could easily engage this twenty-something. Everything went great, until I opened my mouth.

"Hey, we're new in town and want to attend church tomorrow. Got any recommendations?"

He stared at me blankly.

FUMBLE #1: Believing tee-shirt slogans are endorsed by their wearers.

"Your tee shirt," I said. "It mentions Jesus and I figured you go to church somewhere around here."

"No, dude," he said. "I got this shirt at the McMinnville UFO festival."

Now it was my turn to stare blankly. I said, "UFO festival?"

"Yeah, years ago there was a famous UFO sighting in McMinnville, Oregon and every year we gather to hear speakers and celebrate mutants. Both Marilyn Monroe and Darth Vader have made appearances. Check this out."

He turned around and showed me the back of his tee-shirt with words from 1 Thessalonians 4:17, "We who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air."

He looked at me brightly and said, “I believe in the Immaculate Abduction!”

FUMBLE #2: Assuming Bible verses mean the same to everyone.

I am an evangelical with a black belt in proof-texting, but I never met anyone who used Paul to prove the existence of UFOs. Call me naïve, but wearing sacred texts as irony, or absurdity, or both, simply is not on my radar.

Shaken but undeterred, I pressed on. "Well, if you were to recommend a church for us, where would you send us?"

He said, "Do you want a progressive church?"

"Yes!" I said with enthusiasm, grateful that one of his friends was probably affiliated with some hip, emergent, storefront church. "Where do they meet?"

"There's a group up on 10th avenue that studies the mysteries of the Mayan Calendar."

I blurted without thinking, "That's progressive?! The Mayan calendar is 3000 years old!"

FUMBLE #3: Thinking rationality trumps irrationality.

Being thoroughly modern, I try to juggle faith with healthy scientific skepticism. Being confronted with such bold, post modern proclamations of unscientific isms was unnerving. The ground beneath me shifted. How does a mystical Christian believer like me connect with a mystical nonbeliever like him? Where is the common ground for discussing eschatology and theories of the rapture in a coffee line?

He asked where I was from and when I told him Bellingham, Washington he said, "Hey, my band played there once." Desperate to build some kind of rapport with this guy, his mention of music gave me hope. I am a guitar picker from way back always ready to leverage mentions of Hendrix, Clapton, and Garcia into opportunity for conversation.

I asked "What instrument do you play?" hoping like crazy he would say guitar.

"I play the didgeridoo," he said.

More blank stares from this aging rocker.

"The didgeridoo," he patiently explained to the clueless unhipster, "is a long wooden drone pipe played by native Aborigines in Australia."

FUMBLE #4: Imagining millennials are as interested in the 60s as I am.

My brain is loaded with thousands of arcane factoids not one of which helped me relate to a didgeridoo blowing, Mayan calendar affirming, UFO studying barista. I may as well have been talking to an Aborigines.

A line had formed behind us so my wife and I paid for our coffee and pastries and left, I in a stupefied daze. I have rarely felt so disoriented, incompetent or ineffective.

To add insult to injury and further my existential sense of irrelevance, later that day my wife and I stumbled onto a sandwich place called, Wrapture, the subtext being, "Spiritual or emotional ecstasy, joy or delight, experiencing great food.” I thought to myself, "Is this city mocking me, or what?!"

On Sunday we actually did stumble onto a hip, emergent, storefront church not far from the bakery. I made it a point to tell the leaders about the barista with the “Beam Me Up, Jesus” tee shirt. Surely they could relate to him better than I.

Monday was our last day in the city and we returned to the bakery to tell the barista about the evangelical church around the corner. Sadly, the barista was not there. In his place was a twenty-something woman and when I saw the message on her tee-shirt I was stunned.

Fumble #5: Expecting post moderns to categorize life like I do.

This new era blurs things previous generations kept distinct. The line between sacred and secular is muddled. What I so effortlessly compartmentalize—us/them, truth/error, in/out—is foreign to post moderns. Our walking tour of Portland taught me communicating the gospel in today’s world requires new strategies, new ways of thinking, new creativity. It is our job to learn to speak the language of our contemporaries since it is clear that they do not understand the language of evangelicalism.

The message on her tee shirt? “Prepare to meet thy baker.”

Visit to an Orthodox Church

Reflections on a visit to St. Tertullian’s Orthodox Church (4/25/2010)

My oldest daughter surprised us with a visit Sunday AM so I took the opportunity to return alone to St. Tertullian’s Orthodox church (not it’s real name). I drove to the chruch, parked in the lot, entered the lobby, a woman bustling about saw me, introduced herself as Sarah (not her real name) and said in part, “We’re mostly all former Protestants here. You can’t make any mistakes. Please join us. ”

Inside the sanctuary were about 20 adults standing and singing/chanting Bible texts (Matins?) that were somehow related to the texts to be used in the divine liturgy (I never made the connection). I entered @ 9:45 (15 min. before divine liturgy) and stood by a guy who introduced himself as Phil (not his real name). He volunteered to show me what’s going on. He said, “The first time I visited an Orthodox church I wanted to run for the door!” All during the liturgy he gave me a running commentary.

This orthodox church is connected to Syria so there’s a tinge of Arab flavor to the ceremony.” I had no idea what that meant.

St. Crysostrum, an attendee to one of the early church councils, wrote this liturgy based on the early church AND the Old Testament.” I believe it; the priests looked like SS flannel graphs of Levites. They swung censors with bells and smoke (or water?).

Phil had just returned from a three week vacation to Constantinople (I think he called it Istanbul?) to “study his spiritual roots.” There he bought icons and brought them home and during the liturgy the priests blessed them for parishioners use at home.

The four largest icons up front are (from left to right) St. Tertullian, Theotokos (Mary), Jesus, then John the Baptist.” All about the sanctuary were 150 smaller icons, portraits of famous saints. “See that painting on the ceiling? That’s Jesus coming out of the tomb with Adam and Eve on both sides. I saw the original of that painting in Constantinople last Sunday. This congregation here is more user friendly then that one.”

As 10 AM rolled around the attendance picked up but with no discernable shift in the program. It was an effortless slide into divine liturgy, the only difference was the attendance grew to about 70 participants, 20 of which were noisy kids. It wasn’t raucous, but it wasn’t silent and somber. It was just a bunch of noisy worshippers. Chanting scripture, singing scripture, antiphonal songs, prayers, blessings, creeds.

Phil handed me an order of service with the prayers, songs, chants, printed out. I followed along best I could but mostly enjoyed the notion that Jesus was listening to all this, even my halting participation. Seemed like everyone knew when to cross themselves (they did it in sync) but I couldn’t tell what cue alerted them to do so. Like Sarah said, nobody paid any attention to my gaffs and I bumbled through—frequently out of sync--indicating with my hand my faith in the trinity.

Father Vladimr (not his real name) gave a short homily that would have fit in any fundamentalist Baptist church. The text was about Jesus healing the cripple at the pool of Bethsaida, “Many today don’t know they’re in need of spiritual healing.” He went on to lament the deplorable spiritual state of our country today. “Back in the 50s stores were closed on Sunday, what was seen as scandalous porn then is bland by today’s standards. When communists took over Russia they dedicated themselves to stamping out the church. They closed the churches. That didn’t work. They arrested priests and bishops. That didn’t work. They even martyred Christians. That didn’t work. Then they got the idea to put school activities on Sunday morning and Wednesday evenings—sports, debates, trips. They took the kids out of church and in 20 years the Albania was the first fully atheist country.”

After the 6 minute homily there was much kissing of icons, Bibles, the hand of priests, and goblets. Remember all the while there’s no silence. It’s continual quoting (singing) scripture and prayers. 5 pre-chrismated (candidates for membership) went forward for a blessing during the service. As time for Eucharist drew near, it seemed like some sort of crescendo was coming.

Phil said, “Before we celebrate the Eucharist we must fast from food, sex, water. Then after the service we go home for lots of fun. In the Roman Catholic Church the Priests turn the elements into the body and blood of Christ. Here, it’s the job of the Holy Spirit.” In the sacristy (holy of holies?) the priests and bisops were doing some sort of incantations.

I asked, “How does the Priest know when it happens?” He said, “That’s between him and God. Once we had to wait about a half hour for it to happen.”

He continued his commentary, “My wife bakes the bread for Eucharist…she sings hymns while kneading, saying prayers over each ingredient (yeast, etc). I once came home in a surly mood and angrily griped about something … and the bread fell flat. She had to start over.” I said jokingly, “Shame on you.”

The priests treated the elements like they were radio active --- paraded around the sanctuary holding the transformed elements in carefully wrapped containers--held bibs over the communicants so nothing spilled, offered plain bread to all after eating the Eucharist so as to soak up all the blood of Christ in one’s stomach (I’m not clear what that’s all about). “If a drop of the blood of Christ falls on the carpet they have to burn the carpet. We take this very seriously.”

I went forward to receive a blessing. Was offered and took a piece of the non-Eucharistic bread.

As the service drew to a close I asked Phil, “No walking around building? We did that the last time I visited.” “No,” he said, “that only happens on certain occasions.”

By 11:30 the service was over. I was invited to stay for lunch (they break their fast together). I declined.

Concluding reflections: Protestant churches are way more cerebral….exegesis, outlines, illustrations intended to grip the imagination, tight logic and points for application. The Orthodox experience is just that, an experience that touches the senses. This liturgy kept folks educated in the faith for 1400 years before the printing press so the faith is passed on kinesthetically (we stood the whole time), auditory (sweet singing, bells, chants), visual (icons, paintings, symbolism galore), olfactory (I don’t have a sense of smell so I can’t speak to this), and tactile (kisses, hugs, jostling about like in a crowded airport). Like an aerobics class forcing my body to go through its paces, the liturgy forces me to focus on Christ for 90 minutes. (I recently read an Oprah chit lit book Eat, Pray, Love wherein the author spent hours in meditation despite bodily aches and pains—figured I could do at least that for Jesus). Repetition like this is intended to transform minds. Taking Eucharist is “partaking of the divine nature” (being non Orthodox I only watched). I’m not sure how much this liturgy enhanced my encounter with Jesus (I’d like to think a lot…I wept at times) and how much was the sheer novelty of it all. But I came away with a mind marinated in Jesus without doing the heavy cerebral lifting I am wont to do. He is risen. He is risen indeed!