Monthly Archives: June 2012

Teach us to pray O Lord


The disciples asked their Rabbi ‘Teach us to pray’, and it’s a very important question indeed. If our good news of salvation means, among other things, being redeemed into in unbroken relationship with our Creator again, and prayer is communication with God. (Both are very standard ideas I’ve learned as a Christian) then we can’t underestimate the role of prayer. You can’t have a relationship if you don’t have communication, and if you have a relationship with someone you love one of the things you want to do is communicate with him/her.

So prayer is very important to us as Christians. Paul even says somewhere that we should ‘pray without ceasing’, which does not seem like a very simple task (quite impossible even), especially if you have ADD like me, but it’s undeniable that the salvation that Jesus brings, lived out in all its fullness, means a life that is in every moment connected to God, that is in every move informed by the spirit, and that results in the coming of Gods Kindom through our lives, on Earth as it is in heaven, as the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples when they asked him that big question.

But, like I said, I’m a human who is very easily distracted. I struggle with prayer, even though I know and feel that I need it. I know I need to find more dicipline, and some kind of prayer rhytm, but at the moment I’m not there. So, ironically, one of the things I pray very frequently these days is ‘teach me how to pray’.

Here is a beautiful prayer from Christine Sine that expresses my struggle, and what I would want to see in prayer much better than I do:

Teach us to pray O Lord,
Draw us closer to you, to your world , to each other.
Teach us to pray, O Lord,
With compassion and love and forgiveness.
Teach us to pray, O Lord,
Until all that we are and all that we do,
Becomes a gift of prayer to you.
Teach us to pray O Lord,
Draw us closer to you, to your world , to each other.
Teach us to pray, O Lord,
With compassion and love and forgiveness.
Teach us to pray, O Lord,
Until all that we are and all that we do,
Becomes a gift of prayer to you.

what do you all think?

shalom

Bram

musical interlude: dissapointed in the sun (dEUS)


When I was a teenager, I didn’t try much to rebel with music at first. As a young teenager I kinda liked the music my parents were listening (a CD collection that included U2 and Bob Dylan) and I always tried to find decent music on the radio, which was harder than it seemed, since the commercial radio here in Belgium in the nineties seemed to mostly play euro-house and boysbands at that time. every rocksong, every song with  real instruments even, was a pearl between the trash for me…

Later on I got more interested in ‘alternative’ music, and one of the biggest names in althernative music at the moment here in Belgium was dEUS, a then quite weird band from Antwerp. Rock’n roll and arty-fart weirdness went together with strange sounds and a lot of different musical styles that were mangled together. Their biggest hits are songs like suds and soda, roses, and theme from turnpike, which are very unlikely hits, but even now they still have 4 songs of that era in the timeless list of stubru, the alternative radio station. The first albums ‘worst case scenario’ and ‘in a bar, under the sea’ remain unique and unlike anything I’ve ever heard before or afterwards.

They still make music, but for me thy lost most of the vibe around the time of their third album, and became a more regular band afterwards. Which does not mean that their later hit ‘nothing really ends‘ is not a good candidate for the best slow ever written in Belgium.

Todays song is a title-song in disguise, for their second album ‘in a bar, under the sea’. Unlike most songs on the album it’s not experimental or weird, and neither are the lyrics completely weird and cryptic. It’s a song about escapism, running away from all life’s problems in a bar under the sea.  It is alleged to be inspired by Captain Beefheart who commented after visiting an exhibition of Vincent Van Gogh, remarked that he was disappointed in the sun.

dissapointed in the sun (written by Tom Barman and Piet Jorens)

Who could tell the story better
About the things that I went through
Some were great but most were terrifying
And so spooky too

Had to get out of there, to hide away
Had to get out of there, to find my way
I troubled everything too soon
Now where I want to be is…

Need I say my only wish was
To escape my earthly life
High skies were no option whereas
Diving deep in oceans wide

Was the way for me, to hide away
A possibility, to leave today
I troubled everything too soon
Now where I want to be is…

Under the sea, is where I’ll be
No talking ’bout the rain no more
I wonder what thunder will mean, when only in my dream
The lightning comes before the roar

Circumstancial situations, now I know what people meant
Beware of the implications, God I’ve had enough of them

Decided to be brave and hide away
Just picking out a wave and slide away
I troubled everything too soon
Now where I want to be is…

Maybe taking it another hour then taking away the pain
I troubled everything too soon, now where I want to be is…

Under the sea, is where I’ll be
No talking ’bout the rain no more
I wonder what thunder will mean, when only in my dream
The lightning comes before the roar
Under the sea, down here with me I find I’m not the only one
Who ponders what life would mean if we hadn’t been
So disappointed in the sun

And that’s why we’re thinking,
That’s why we’re drinking in a bar under the sea

enjoy

Bram

PS: more about Belgian music can be found here, in this post about the Gorky song ‘Mia’ which some have considered the best song ever.

The imago dei, or very very basic Christian humanism…


A Japanese orthodox Facebook friend posted something quite beautiful this morning, that fits perfectly with something that I’ve been contemplating lately:

Question: Do you know why Orthodox monastics bow to the ground when they meet someone?

Answer: Because they see all they encounter as Icons of God, and honor the image of God in every person by bowing to them.

I don’t think bowing for everyone would be very practical, but I love the idea behind it, and I think it points to something we should learn about more as Western Christians: honoring the image of God in every human being.

God created humankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them,
male and female he created them.

(Gen 1:27, NET-bible)

I would call this ‘basic Christian humanism': the idea that every human being is of infinite worth, because he or she carries the image of God. This idea of the imago dei was behind the first wave of what was called humanism in the Renaissance time (think people like Erasmus). It’s only much later that humanism and Christianity were disconnected from each other, and that ‘humanism’ became associated with atheism.

Every human might be fallen and affected by sin, but it’s also true that every human bears the image of God. From the mightiest president and the noisiest rockstar to the poorest immigrant and the tiniest baby. All of them. And that makes all of them, even the ones we can’t help but dislike or hate, worthy of respect. Even enemies deserve our love, as Jesus taught us.

No human being is worthless,
no human being is disposable.
Treating any human like that is blaspheming Gods image!

God, open my eyes,
let me see Your Image,
in everyone,
let me see Your fingerprints
on all of Creation
let me honor all glimpses
of Truth and Beauty
they are all Yours,
everything good and perfect
comes from You
praise to Father, Son and Spirit,
Three-in-one,
Amen

what do you think?

shalom

Bram

Not a post on sexism, but a post on the uncontrollable power of stories…


Don’t ask me what kind of narrative this picture communicates…

I’ve been following an online discussion between my feminist blogger friends Sarah and Dianne, and some guy called Cory Copeland, a Christian blogger that I don’t know much about. I basically agree with Cory that, whatever the story is, there is always redemption for the fallen sinner. And I agree with Sarah and Dianne that the described story is quite troubling, and full of abuse, and that the difference between consent and coercion is way too important to not be see here. I can even add from a masculist angle that I find it quite sexist to bring up the ‘boy as a dangerous sexual predator’ stereotype, and a flat character in the story. Is there any chance for redemption for him? (And I’m not even speaking of the weird ideas surrounding her virginity here)

But that’s not what I want to address here.  There is another problem, which is quite important, that comes up in the discussion under Cory’s post. Sarah comments on the part of the boy in the story, and I find Cory’s answer quite troubling:

The story wasn’t about the boy. It was about the girl and her struggles. That’s the story I chose to tell. Respect that.

The problem is that a story tells itself, and it can show things that even the narrator isn’t aware of. And the boy in the story is quite problematic:

This girl met a boy and that boy had a way about him. He scaled rooftops and smiled like the sun. He captured the good girl in his madness and she soon fell in the deepest of love. The girl held strong at first, tossing away her boy’s hands as they searched her body, seeking satisfaction. Again and again, she dissuaded him, turning a stone cold cheek and halting heavy breaths before they had pushed too far. But the boy was relentless and vile in his objections to her goodness. He bombarded her wits with fallacies of unrequited love and lacking attention. He had played this game before and he was good.

Soon, the good girl could take no more, so she stripped herself of the righteousness she held so close and took her boy into her bed. Now, she felt emptiness where love used to grow; loneliness where hope once flourished. (please read the whole story here)

You can say what you want, but this tells us a lot about the boy, even if he is just intended a flat character used as a plot device. It tells a lot about how boys are viewed, and (for an outsider) some very troubling things about American ‘purity’ culture. What is described here is a very problematic relationship. I would even say this story tells a lot of unintended things, because of all the unspoken stereotypes and expectancies that drive the 2 characters.

Stories are a powerful and even dangerous device of communication, because they’re not always tameable. If you tell a story, you have to listen yourself too. It might tell you things you didn’t know yourself. And people with other backgrounds might hear completely other things. Like with Jesus’ parables: we think we can pin all of their meaning down, and then someone from another culture sees a lot of details and makes conclusions you didn’t even know where there. And someone like Henri Nouwen has spent a whole life exploring Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son, and even he could go deeper.

So, with every text we write, we should be aware with every story that we use to convey a moral, that we create an ‘entity’ that will stand on it’s own, and that will lead a life of its own. We cannot control what it will communicate to other people. The story will just tell its own story. And people will recognise the nuggets of Truth in it, but different people will see different things in it. And there is the possibility that people will see problems in it that are in a ‘blind spot’ of the authors worldview. But that does not mean that anyone outside of that worldview will not see them very clearly…

I do think telling stories is important, and a very powerful way of communicating in postmodern times. But we as Christians don’t have to repeat the same stories of the world over and over again. We need to reframe the stories in the light of Gods Kingdom. We need to tell new stories. We need to go beyond the blind spots of the cliches, and tell stories of salvation, of fallen people of both sexes who find not just forgiveness, but shine redemption in the darkest places of our world. It is darkness that dissappears where light shines! How strong is the light that we posses?

And we need to consider the implications of what we are exactly saying with every story that we tell. We do need to not further propagate the lies of  darkness that bind and destroy people, but dismantle them, and destroy light with darkness. So I applaud Cory for using story to communicate, it’s what Jesus did. But I’d ask him to be more cautious about how powerful stories can be…

what do you think?

shalom

Bram

are babies evil?


My daughter Hazel-Lore Cools, picture by Jo Cools, She’s not an evil bundle of sin!

Sometimes I’m quite shocked to find out what people in other parts of the world consider to be normal Christian ideas. And at that moment I’m glad that I’ve grown up with not much influence of certain quite weird ideas that are endemic in for example certain strains of American fundamentalism. Sometimes ignorance is a bliss, and sometimes it’s better to learn about certain things when you’re old enough to look at them with discernment. (And I’m not talking about these things now) Yes, I am happy to bluntly restate that sometimes I’m really glad that I’m quite oblivious towards things certain things, that some have to battle with and unlearn all of their lives to retain what’s left of their sanity, and it’s actually a luxury that I don’t even understand some things I guess. (See also my post about not understanding complementarianism here)

So one of the things that is quite new and shocking to me, every time I encounter it, is fundamentalist ideas about parenting that are based on total depravity of babies and small children. When people insinuate that babies are evil creatures, the only reaction I feel is ‘what the bleeping hell?’. I try to understand, but as the father of a 20 months old toddler myself, I just don’t get it. And I don’t believe it would be healthy, neither for her nor for me, to try to get inside that way of thinking…

This post on the love, joy, feminism blog is a good example, as is the post on the latebloomer blog she quotes from. Let’s start with a quote from the first one:

I had been taught to see parenting as a contest, a contest in which I must defeat my child’s will. I was taught that my daughter when she was a babe in arms was “a little bundle of sin.”

I find this idea of a baby as a ‘little bundle of sin’ quite weird and inconeivable, an actually pretty offensive too. Even though my daughter has a very strong will, as was clear even before she was born, that’s not something evil. It’s something which needs to be guided, and sometimes blocked off, but not everything a baby wants is evil. Babies are helpless creatures that have a lot of needs (food, diapers, attention) and crying is their best way of getting attention and communicate that they need something. It’s very normal for them to need these things, and they cannot do anything by themselves.

Yes, a baby can be hard to deal with (especially if she kills your sleep) but I fail to even see how it is possible to interpret babies as evil. But it seems like there are whole traditions that completely disagree with me, like the one latebloomer came from.

If I believed that my child had a sin nature that predisposed him to evil, that would certainly predispose me to interpret his actions very negatively.

When he insists on exploring the world and touching everything, I could see it as stubbornness.  Instead, I am free to see it as healthy curiosity and a drive to discover the world.  …

When he fights sleep at bedtime, or wakes up multiple times during the night, I could see it as defiance.  Instead, I am free to assume that he has a real need.  …

When he takes toys from other children, I could see it as selfishness.  Instead, I am free to notice that he also spontaneously gives his toys to others. …

When he screeches for me to pick him up, I could see it as manipulation.  Instead, I am free to see that he is just learning to feel and communicate, and crying is one of his main tools of communication right now.  …

My child is not depraved.  He is a good person with a lot of potential.

The extending of the theory of total depravity to babies to me sounds quite problematic. I am more into ancestral sin than strict Augustinian original sin, and therefore inclined to believe that children learn evil from the broken world around them, than that they are evil in themselves.

I don’t think my daughter is totally depraved. She is a like everybody, a flawed person with very good tendencies nonetheless (she already shared stuff when she was a crawling baby, she even shares her pacifier with me sometimes!) and unhealthy egoistic tendencies too, that need to be restrained. But totally depraved and an evil bundle of sin? Can anyone look at a baby and really believe that???? I don’t get it, and I hope I never will.  Com’on, what evil nonsense is it? And it leads to quite violent ways of parenting too, as Elizabeth Esther, a post-fundamentalist woman, recalls in this very interesting post:

Sometimes I wonder what motivated such harsh discipline. Was part of it the rigorous meeting schedule that required all children to sit through 5 hours of meetings on Sundays? I mean, how else do you get a 2 year old to sit quietly through 5 hours of meeting? Lots of spankings, of course.

But I wonder if the other part, the part that gets to the deeper root of why there was so much harsh discipline was due to our deeply ingrained assumptions about who we were. We believed in the inherent evil of all humans.

Isn’t it easier to repeatedly spank your child when you believe she’s inherently evil? In our group, parents started spanking their babies when they were around 6 months old because this was when babies started trying to “manipulate” their parents by exerting their “rebellious will.”

Apparently there’s a very popular method or parenting, based on a book called ‘to train up a child’ by Mike and Debi Pearl, a method that even cost lives of children! (Find more posts by Elizabeth Esther on the subject here) If we are to judge the tree by its fruits, then I would say that this method is a very good candidate of the words ‘total depravity’, actually…

So I restate I’m glad that I’ve never encountered this kind of stuff. Really glad. It is really destructive. I think I grew up with a vague idee of the ‘age of accountability’ theory, which probably isn’t without its own problems. But at least it affirms that babies are not evil ‘bundles of sin’. They are imperfect and flawed, like we all. But I would agree with love, joy, feminism, that there’s a very big blind spot in it:

The Pearls explain how to exact immediate obedience from your children. And you know what? Immediate obedience sounds really nice. The Pearls promise that if I follow their spanking method my daughter will do whatever I want when I want it. If I followed the Pearls, my daughter would never embarrass me in public. I would never have to wait on my daughter while she tries the stairs one more time. Instead, it would be whatever I said, the moment I said it. That’s very appealing, but you know what? If that’s not pure selfishness, I don’t know what is.

I’ve used this experience as a reminder to better listen to my daughter and her needs. I’ve also used it as a reminder of my own selfishness. My daughter and I aren’t enemies or opponents, we’re just two flawed humans stuck together by blood and deep affection. We’re a team, and we need to treat each other with mutual respect and make sure to consider each other’s needs and feelings. And sometimes I guess I need a reminder of that

That last paragraph could be from my wife, and sums up quite good how I see parenting… But I suppose that that’s another sign that neither of us is even capable of thinking hierarchically in the way some people do… Yes, a child cannot do much by herself, and needs to be guided, restricted, led in the right direction, and disciplined sometimes. But the goal is to initiate her in life as a human being, not to train her up like a dog, or program her like a computer.

What do you think?

shalom

Bram

God cannot be around sin?


According to contemporary evangelical ideas that some people seem to hold, God cannot be where sin or evil is. I have encountered this idea several times in my life preached as a ‘biblical truth’, but I’m afraid that, like more ideas in  ‘radio orthodoxy’ (Oh man I’m glad we don’t have commercial Christian radio over here!) it’s neither truth nor biblical .

I would personally assume it quite obvious that the said idea is in itself a bit weird, and unbiblical, even without posing the question of how to rhyme this idea with Gods omnipresence, and God being ‘the Almighty’ (quite a powerless Supreme Being that would be, scared away from a little bit of sin, especially in a world that is filled with it…).

I do think that Scott Morizot offers a very good commentary with the following paragraph:

I’ve always been incredulous about the often repeated modern assertion that God is holy and can’t be around sin or evil. Nowhere do we see that in the story of Jewish and Christian God, but it’s absurd whenever we look at Jesus. He sought out the “sinners” and those considered ritually unclean and acted as though he could make them clean through association rather than the opposite. Jesus certainly had no problem “being around” sin. In fact, that was one of the major criticisms levelled at him. At one point, he almost shrugs and says he didn’t come to the healthy, but to the sick. And in the fullness of that revelation, in case we missed the point of a God who goes looking for man from the moment in the story of the garden when he asks Adam where he is, Jesus shows us a God seeking out “sinners” and always facing man wherever we might flee.

- Scott Morizot (click his name for the source)

Another remark would be that we can inverse the idea: sin cannot be around God. God, who is all-pure and an all-consuming fire, will not at all be affected by sin, but sin and evil itself might kinda suffer the same problem as darkness when exposed to light… (But here we can discuss the role of Satan in the book of Job, which might be quite a discussion!)

I do think that this issue will deeply influence the way we view atonement, but I let my readers think about that… So what do you think?

shalom

Bram

Meditating on sexy models


Note: I write as a straight white male, and I do write from my own perspective. I do think a lot of what I say could be relevant to other readers that are not straight males, but for readability I don’t make everything gender-inclusive. If you are a person who is visually aroused in a sensual way by male bodies, or by both sexes, just read the sex you’re attracted to instead of female and your own gender instead of male.

I’ve been thinking a lot about some discussions I had on my facebook wall after I posted this next cartoon:

(Probably irrelevant note on this cartoon: I must confess that I do find sunglasses more unattractive than the Niqab the woman is wearing. I also find that sunglasses + bikini make it easier to turn a woman into something abstract than anything that shows the eyes)

I have the creepy idea that both our Western pornification and the Eastern way of hiding women are 2 sides of the same rotten coin, in which women (and more generally humans) get reduced to sexual objects that can be either pursued as such (in our heads or in real life) or should be avoided as a cause of sin, and this covered up and hidden from sight.

I’m not a fan of what I’ve just called the ‘Eastern’ view because I find it completely dehumanizing. I’ve read about ‘bleeding Pharisees’ who were alleged to be so afraid to see a woman that they did look away all the time when walking on the streaky and so bumped into everything that stood in their way in the street. [I hope that this is just a dumb religious urban legend] I also remember a conversation with a Muslim colleague in a former job, who explained to me that women had to be covered up because men just can’t control themselves when seeing one.

All of this is not just sexist towards women, I’m also quite infuriated by the low view of man that is espoused here, and I am afraid that men who are trained to think like this might indeed grow into the type of man that cannot watch a woman without having wrong sexual thoughts about her. As a Christ-follower I do try to take the words of Jesus in the sermon on the mount serious:

 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery. But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to desire her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. Matthew 5:27-28

Yes, looking lustfully at a woman, using her as a sex-object in your head, is adultery of the heart. Auch; Note also: Jesus clearly speaks to the watching man as the responsible party, not about the woman. Our thoughts, and the way we look at women, are our responsibility. Jesus himself never practised the ‘run-away-from-everything-female-that-might-seduce-you’ tactics at all. He speaks with the woman at the well as an equal for example,  which goes against his culture. Even his followers are surprised by that. And in other places in the gospels we see that Jesus nowhere treats women as sex objects or dangerous sources of sexual sin, but as human beings.

anyway, let’s not blame just the oldschool guys and the Muslims faraway, and their Christian counterparts in certain more fundamentalist corners. We enlightened neoliberal capitalist Westerners are even worse. Billboards everywhere with sexy bodies on it, that are made to make us spend our money on completely unrelated crap. And I’m not even talking about porn here. The line of thought is scarily similar: men will not control their thoughts when seeing a sexy female body. Only we do not at all attempt to control it, we cultivate it, and some industries use it to make a lot of money. And I suppose the porn industry is making even more money than the advertisement industry that I’m criticizing right now.

Let’s go back to the billboards with half-naked women that I talked about. We are not able to avoid advertisements that are put there for everyone to see sometimes, and I do not believe at all that the ‘bleeding pharisees’ are a healthy model to copy at all…;We as Christians should exhibit a scandalous love towards all humans, including those abused sisters on those pictures!

The solution is not to always look away, we don’t do anything about the root problem then: women remain just something that makes us sin, instead of human beings made in the divine image. We have to learn HOW to look if we can’t avoid it.

Just running away solves nothing. Forming character is important. Which means sometimes that you actively have to form your habits, and that’s not always an easy task. But what I’ve been doing lately when I saw such female figures that I couldn’t avoid looking at was a small meditation, which did open my  eyes.

So here it is, as the title promised: a meditation on sexy models, to be performed while looking at a billboard of a sexy body that is used to sell something completely unrelated to the female human. And indeed, maybe it’s not very healthy to go looking for an occasion for such a thing, but when you’re already in the staring situation, this kind of meditation might be a good turnaround:

1.  first ask the Holy Spirit for guidance, for His eyes to look at people… Ask for forgiveness on any wrong dehumanizing thoughts (looking at her as either a sex object or a dirty slut!) if you have had any of those. Thoughts can not always be avoided, but they can be stopped. (The bible even speaks of ‘taking thoughts captive in Christ!)  And if the Spirit would say to look away, ignore this meditation. Your path might not be mine. But even then,

2. Look at her as a whole, as a person. Look for her eyes. Try to find the person behind it. (If possible) Maybe try to think about the photograph, how it was taken. About the fotoshoot, about how she was working and ‘acting’.

3. Think about her as a child, being with her grandparents. Or other very human situations. She is a person just like you, with friends and troubles, with hopes and dreams and little and big frustrations.

4. Remind yourself this: This is a human being, made in the image of God. Try to see it. She might be abused by a capitalist system, she might be abusing her body herself, but nothing of that will take away she still is a human being like you, incredably valuable since SHE IS CREATED IN THE DIVINE IMAGE, just like you are. Let that sink in. She should not be reduced to a sex object, but neither should she looked down upon as a ‘slut’ or whatever categories you have in your head for ‘sinful women’. She is your sister, and should be looked at this way.

5. Pray for her, for her life to be invaded by Gods kingdom.

6. Pray for God to help you look at every woman the way He does.

Remember that rewiring thought patterns is hard. But that does not mean that you cannot change and be modelled more and more to the mind of Christ.

This kind of exercises is also very good with other people that you tend to dehumanize in very different ways, like ‘your enemies’ (only if you love them and pray for them you will be ‘sons of god’ in Matthew 5:45-46)  those with, whom you disagree so much you don’t take them serious as a human being, those far away dying in wars on TV, etc… All of those are Human beings, created in Gods image, of immense worth! Even the worst criminal!

My question now: If those things are so important to Jesus in the gospel (loving our fellow humans, even loving our enemies) why aren’t these the things we train ourselves in as Christians, and train ourselves some more in it, and invite the Spirit to help us grow in it? Why isn’t this one of our top priorities?

so, what do you think? Am I crazy? Unrealistic? any other comments?

shalom

Bram