19 November 2008

Alpha Course Day 7: How Does God Guide Us?

Dinner: I think they’ve just stopped trying. Dinner today was a completely insufficient quantity of store-bought egg rolls (they ran out before everybody got one), a watery stirfry, and rice. Dessert was little store-bought ice cream cups with the little wooden scoops.

Part 1: Sermon

This talked all about how God guides his followers. Relevant information includes:
1) That God promised to guide his followers in scripture.
2) God has a plan for our lives, and he’ll guide us as soon as we’re ready to be lead (humble and all that jazz).
3) That we need to consult God – by praying, of course - before making major decisions.

As for the actual methods God uses to guide people are:
1) Commands found in the bible. Note that these are more general instructions
2) Compelling spirit. Ie. You suddenly feel like you should do a particular thing that you may not have felt like you should do before, especially if you’ve been praying about it. However, Gumbel also allows for other, more obvious and supernatural compellings, such as prophesy, dreams and visions, angelic visitations, and the audible voice of God. Spooky.
3) Common sense. I fail to see how this is God guiding.
4) Counsel of saints. Ie. Gumbel thinks it’s very important to listen to the advice of Christians who have gone before.
5) Circumstantial signs. This is explained as God nudging probability to show you something, or to open new doors and close old ones. Gumbel also warns that sometimes God wants us to persevere despite circumstances, which in my view seriously compromised circumstantial signs as a form of communication. However, it remains that this is the big guiding method that everyone in the group talked about and that Gumbel focuses on in all of his stories. I’ll discuss a bunch of his circumstantial stories now.

Gumbel lead off the sermon with a story about the founding of the British suicide counseling hotline, the Samaritans. So goes the story, a busy country vicar had the idea for the Samaritans but was unable to pursue it because he was too busy. So he prayed that God would make available to him the services of a less busy urban vicar to institute this program. A little while later HE suddenly got offered a transfer to a less busy city vicar job. So he took this as a sign and accepted the job, thus enabling him to start the Samaritans. He then wanted to get an easy to remember, somewhat meaningful phone number, so he thought of one and set about trying to acquire it from its current owner. So he called the phone company from his near derelict new church and asked if he could get it. The phone operator then asked him what his current phone number was, so he scraped the dust off the old phone and saw that the old city church already had the number that he wanted. He took this as a big deal, that God had this plan for him long before he himself had thought of it.

Gumbel told another story of a Christian friend of his who was getting serious with his non-believing girlfriend but wanted strongly for her to turn Christian before they could get married. He prayed that she’d become Christian before the end of the school term. The day came and she was still undecided, so they set off on a drive together with her giving out random directions until they suddenly found themselves at a church graveyard with row upon row of crosses. She took it as a sign and became Christian just before midnight.

Gumbel also spoke of many instances where he was thinking about a particular problem he had, when, suddenly and repeatedly, he’d be bombarded with many similar bible passages addressing the problem.

Of course, I think all these coincidences are just that: coincidences. Any extra meaning is put there by the person’s own mind. For instance, my dad was considering buying a cool early ‘80s Jaguar sedan. I had never paid much mind to this particular model of car before, but once he mentioned it, I was seeing them everywhere. A friend of mine had the exact same circumstantial experience when he was thinking of buying a new (different model of) car himself.

I have also been thinking of a problem, and then suddenly find myself bombarded with tv shows, magazine articles, quotes, etc, that have to do with that problem. Thing is, my problems where this occurs aren’t theological, moral, or even usually personal; mostly, they’re about some sort of trivial knowledge. It’s just that because I’ve been thinking about these problems, I take special note of stumbling upon items addressing the issue. There is no guidance from on high.

Hell, there are even atheist coincidences.

Part 2: Small Groups

Whoa, boy, lots and lots of circumstantial signs here. And way too much discussion of foot fungus as a sign. And too many mentions of watching Oprah (this also involved foot fungus; hence the talking of foot fungus as a sign by some of the people). One guy even made business decisions based on the circumstantial guidance of foot funguses. It was loopy.

Some guys didn’t buy that God would guide through coincidence, as there is just too much uncertainty and randomness there. Most, however, thought coincidences were undisputable proof of God’s guidance. Thus, most of the discussion was just people telling stories about their coincidences.

That everything happens for a reason and that coincidences are always more than just coincidences are unassailable facts to these people, and, indeed, many people, regardless of religion. I doubt that I would have been able to change any minds here, so I held my tongue.

We had run overtime and there wasn’t much time for discussion anyway.

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At November 23, 2008 12:54 a.m., Anonymous Karen said...

Guidance is clearly in the mind of the beholder.

At November 23, 2008 3:55 p.m., Blogger King Aardvark said...


At November 24, 2008 1:28 p.m., Blogger Boring Midwesterner said...

thanks for your blog. very interesting. Are your views on Christianity based only on stuff like the Alpha course and books about the bible? would be interested in your reaction to the book of John.

At November 27, 2008 7:50 p.m., Blogger King Aardvark said...

BM, my views on Christianity are based on many things:

I went to a catholic highschool and had to take a couple of religion classes, go to mass, stand through daily prayers and stuff. We analyzed some bible chapters, dabbled in theology, etc.

I also have gone to church with my wife approximately every third Sunday for the past 3.5 years.

I've read chunks of the bible on my own, mainly Genesis, and a substantial amount of Luke and Matthew, though not specifically John, so I can't say anything specific about that at this time.

I've read books and many internet articles and blogs on Christianity from mainly skeptical but sometimes pro-Christian authors. Typically, I like to read about history and evidence, but I've also read more philosophical and ethical opinions about Christianity too.

I hope this answers your questions. Thanks for dropping by.

At November 30, 2008 3:01 p.m., Blogger Boring Midwesterner said...

thanks for the response. I'm always curious about why people believe what they believe. I consider myself a Christian, but that doesn't mean I don't ask questions. I don't want to believe in a lie--and it isn't enough for me just to go on feelings--or on what I've always been taught. I've also been involved with Alpha for the past 3 years, so I find your blog fascinating, and your honesty very refreshing.

At December 03, 2008 9:45 p.m., Blogger King Aardvark said...

No problem, BM. Thank you for reading.

At January 21, 2009 5:55 p.m., Anonymous Anonymous said...

By far the most annoying and downright imbecilic descriptions of "miracles" I have heard were based on "circumstantial signs" (that is, simple, ordinary coincidences, as opposed to actual physical phenomena the witness lacks the scientific knowledge to explain). "I was thinking of aborting when I met a happy, successful single mother - God performed His miracle!" as opposed to "what the fuck are those lights hovering over the Church? - miracle!".

Strangely, getting buried alive under a ton of rubble in some old Church that has collapsed in never taken to constitute such a "sign" or "miracle". It's just the laws of physics and clumsy architecture, man!

But whenever a forest fire winds down before burning down a chapel or a monastery, it's "Miracle! Miracle I say!".

Most religious people have no innate inability to think in strictly materialist, scientific terms. They simply choose to do so only when it suits them. Makes for horrible double-standards, but c'est la vie!


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