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The Bible is full of instances of the supernatural. Demons. Healings galore, talking donkeys, water turned into wine. Visions. Forgiveness of sins; lives turned around.


Image: Wikimedia (Public domain)

You’ll note that I’ve included purely human events into the supernatural category. There is nothing natural about complete repentance (although we sometimes forget this and think we can repent in our own strength), yet in the case of Zacchaeus and of Paul, this happened both suddenly and in astonishing proportions. Yet we’re less uncomfortable with these events – we’re less uncomfortable with some types of healings, visions, and events affecting, primarily, humans. It isn’t because we are more familiar with ourselves – rather, it is because we do not know much, rationally, about our natural selves. It is easy, therefore, to treat any supernatural event as an unexplained natural event.

Common wisdom has it that where the territory of science progresses, the territory of faith regresses. This may be true of creation myths, but as far as supernatural events are concerned, the opposite is true. The more we know in science, the harder it is to consider that some of the miracles depicted in the Bible are not, actually, a consequence of natural coincidences. For instance, assuming the Legion episode was a case of epilepsy works only as long as we can imagine epilepsy has a carrier pathogen which can be transferred to the pig herd. Being kept in the dark allows us to accept the supernatural as part of the normal world order far more easily than knowing about it.

The vagueness that is prevalent in popular conceptions of mental health issues does not help. It is just as easy to dismiss an event as a consequence of psychological trouble as it is to dismiss it as a supernatural event. But whilst we can hope to be in control (through medical advances, for instance) of the former, the latter is, by definition, not controllable by natural means. So it’s unsettling. If we accept that there are supernatural events, it means that even our healthy selves can be affected by them. It means that we are no longer in control.

That loss of control – even though it was only an illusion in the first place! – is why I’m still fairly uncomfortable when the spiritual refuses to stay hemmed in to the spiritual and turns into supernatural events. I’m out of my depth when that happens. But rather than investigating it more deeply, I tend to either brush it under the carpet or leave it alone.

Discerning the supernatural from the troubling yet natural takes quite a bit of skill, I’m sure. But just as much as it can be disastrous to mistake the latter for the former, so can it be the other way around.

Yet I still feel uncomfortable even discussing these issues. I’m not sure that discomfort is a bad thing, but it should not keep me from envisaging the possibility of  supernatural (including demonic) activity. What do you think?

What does it mean… worship?


“Worship” is one of those words we use, and think we know… but it is also one of those I find really hard to translate into French. And that’s because there’s no equivalent: the French would tend to use “adoration”. So I have found myself in the situation where I have to explain what “worship” is. And I struggled. So I asked my friends on twitter and face-to-face, but their answers generally didn’t tell me much about the essence of worship. That should have told me I was looking in the wrong place, but I think I got there eventually.

Photo credit: Mauro Cateb, under CC license.

So here’s a few thoughts I picked up along the way:

  • The Greek word used for “worship” in most instances in the New Testament is proskuneo. The translation is a bit contentious: one I’ve read is “to lean forward to kiss”, which conjures up, in today’s society, images of two close friends greeting each other. Other translation guides seem to point towards lying down, prostrate, to kiss the feet of a sovereign; and towards the evolution of the word to mean simple submission.
    Regardless of the actual meaning, though, there are  two important elements:
    Pro at the root of proskuneo implies a movement and a direction.
    There is a definite closeness involved in kissing. That should also be the case in worship.
  • The Latin used in some hymns is colo, from which we get the word colony. The first meaning is to cultivate a land, but ultimately, it means properly inhabiting a place. Indwelling brings the idea of closeness to a new level which encompasses our entire being.
Most importantly, though, worship is relational. It is not something that comes from us – the only thing we bring is an attitude of submission which allows us to respond. Worship is then our response: “a feeling of awe and wonder, your mind gets blown away and worship is the response that you can’t control”. That was the first answer I got when I asked people how they defined worship. I wasn’t satisfied because I wanted to be able to look at worship separately from anything else. But I realised such a task is impossible: worship does not make sense in an empty space; it does not mean anything apart from God. It is, first and foremost a response.

This is where modern languages are less helpful. Worship comes from worth-ship: thus worship is about declaring God’s worth (as compared to other things). Worship taken literally is nothing else than magnifying God. The German word used for worship songs means “praise (and prayer)”. The French, as I mentioned above, is the same as “adoration”. None of these mean anything independently of God, but they can be performed in a vacuum.
And it looks to me as though we have lost something in the process. Worship can sometimes be understood as constricted to worship songs, which in turn can be limited to praise, and literally describing God’s worth. Now it is right to give God thanks and praise, but worship is about so much more than that!

How do you see worship?

And, even though I just said worship isn’t just when we sing, singing can help worshipping, so:
what is your favourite worship song?

The Great Commission

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“Winning the brother or sister isn’t – in the perspective of St Antony – a matter of getting them signed up to something, getting them on your side, but opening doors for them to God’s healing. If you open such doors, you ‘win’ God, because you become a place where God ‘happens’ for someone else, where God comes to life for someone in a new and life-giving way – not because you are good and wonderful but because you have allowed the wonder and goodness of God to appear (and you may have no idea how).”

Rowan Williams, Silence and Honey Cakes – The wisdom of the desert, pp. 104-105

The Eleven were sent off to make disciples of all nations. Not converts. Not “Christians”, not in the way the word is seen in today’s secular world.

Disciple-making is not about:

  • simply handing out leaflets or distributing bibles
  • hammering God into every conversation until you get a Yes or ruin a relationship
  • convincing others that our beliefs are true and simply going through a description of sin, penal substitution, grace and salvation.

And of course, that’s not what we do, not what we want to do. What we aspire to do is to build relationships with the people we talk to and, indeed, “open doors for them to God’s healing”. We want to restore that actual relationship with God, through us. And that has to be relational, so it’s not simply about getting more people to reach the same decision as you. But then…

  • why do we judge the success of an evangelistic event by the number of people who “became Christians” there and then?
  • why is the heart of visible evangelism event-based? (talks, debates, books, street evangelism, …)

And much, much more importantly… what are our motives when we pray for people to “become Christians”?

What does it mean… presence?

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It is easy to talk about God’s presence. I’ve heard it said many times that “the presence of God” or of the Holy Spirit was with us.

Until I heard a sermon about a month ago, though, I only took it at face value: God is in this place, He is ordaining what is being done, He is inspiring us. All three do hark back to God’s presence, yes, but in a way which does not do justice to the importance of God’s presence.

Photo credit: Mauro Cateb, under CC license.

As I’m starting to write this, though, I realise it is impossible to describe it theoretically, or with words. For, in fact, God’s presence depends on us – on our own response. Old Testament occurences of the word “presence” usually come hand in hand with our response. Talking of “God’s presence” as a mere indication of His physical, geographical location, independently of us, would be tantamount to saying that sometimes, He isn’t there.

So in order to write about God’s presence, I need to talk about how I feel it. To me, it is a deeply rooted knowledge that He is with me – that I can pray and He will listen. It does not always mean receiving divine inspiration or ordination; it is not always supernatural. But it is like having a housemate in the house, next door, with the knowledge that if I want a cup of tea, he’ll be there to have one with me; with the knowledge that if something is wrong with me, he will look after me. Ultimately, God’s presence is here whenever I turn to Him and remind myself that He loves me.

That’s important:

  • because God’s presence is everywhere, everywhen. A couple of years ago, as I went through a rough patch, I wanted to be left alone. I fled from God’s presence, in a way. But even during those few lonely months, I knew God was just a stone’s throw away.
  • but its benefits depend on us and our response. Even though God knows our every thoughts, we can still shy away from His presence. Knowing that makes it easier to tune to it.
  • because expectations of the supernatural to always happen in “God’s presence” makes us miss much of God’s presence.
  • because it puts God’s love right back at the centre of prayer, which is the pure expression of God’s love.
  • because it helps us understand Jesus’s plight when He cries out to God “why have you forsaken me?”

How do you feel God’s presence?

What other expressions have a deeper meaning than meets the eye?

Self-worth, hospitality and evangelism

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Today, when hearing about church action and church hospitality in the student context, something along those lines came up:

“When they come to a Christian circle, students find people who are genuinely interested in who they are”

My first reaction was “that’s great!” And true enough, without that, there can be no real relationship. No connection – and therefore no discipleship. I even blogged about the importance of relationship over argument-based evangelism some time ago.

In the context of today’s talk, though, it got me thinking that we’re considering “genuine interest” as something others are looking for – a magnet for lonely students*. But what if you have low self-esteem and feel your life is basically a succession of failures? Would you want people to be interested in that?
For instance: I’m a PhD student. People sometimes ask me what I’m working on. It is a question I dreaded – and yet people were only trying to be nice by asking it. The reason I dreaded that was that I felt my research was (a) boring (but that can be overcome by people who show genuine interest) and (b) completely worthless (methodological nitpicking). It is the famous impostor syndrome. This happened to me, and yet I don’t see myself as a particularly insecure person. It can genuinely happen to anyone, and not just about worklife. To people in that situation, regardless of how genuine interest is, it is scary.

In other words, the question I’m asking is where does genuine interest turn into scrutiny – not in your own eyes, but in the eyes of the person you’re trying to welcome?

Self-worth issues within Christianity can be seen as “covered by grace”: we’re not worthy anyway, but then, none of us are, not even “to gather the crumbs under God’s table”. No, we’re not deserving of God’s love – and it’s quite healthy to remember that. But it does not mean we are not worthy of each other’s love. Yet I would assume (and I’m saying that without any qualification on the topic, so please do correct me if I’m wrong) that for people already struggling with self-worth, that particular message will echo in a very strong way, and ultimately be harmful both to the person’s health and to their access to the Gospel.

So how do we make sure that, when we’re trying to build up a relationship, it stops short of unwelcome scrutiny or does not bring about undesirable feelings of worthlessness?

*ok, that’s a caricature, and the interest is genuine. But there’s a reason why we mention it when we talk about outreach…