About Me

Arborg, Manitoba, Canada
Married to the love of my life with whom I (and God - all three of us) have co-created three incredible sons. Interested in philosophy, theology, and how to live Truth. Love music but couldn't carry a tune to save my life.

Sunday, 21 December 2008

4th Sunday of Advent - Rejoice

Surprised by Joy is C S Lewis’ account of his childhood. In this book he outlines the experiences and circumstances of his childhood that he sees as formative for his intellectual development, and his preparation to turn from an early atheism to Christianity.
“It is this theme, the longing for a restoration of the joy he experienced as a boy, that permeates the entire volume. By “joy,” Lewis meant not mere pleasure but the sublime experience of the transcendent, the glimpse of the eternal that is only fleetingly available in earthly loves and aesthetics. It is, for Lewis, only finally received in heavenly glory at the consummation of the age, a joy to be found in the Creator who himself invented both world and word, person and personality. It is He alone who redeems his fallen creation and provides them joy. From his earliest intimations of this joy, Lewis depicts himself in Surprised by Joy as precociously oriented toward the metaphysical and ultimate questions. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Surprised_by_Joy)
For Lewis joy is not merely light-hearted mirth or pleasure. It is a deep connection to the transcendent, and to what are often referred to as the ultimate questions of life:
What is real?
What is truth?
What is the meaning/purpose of life?
Is there a God? And if there is a God what is He (or She) like?
In a fascinating way then, joy is related to eternity and transcendence, to the ultimate questions of life. These are things which we can never fully experience. The ultimate realization of eternity and transcendence always remains a step beyond us. If, as C S Lewis says, joy is related to these themes that always remain beyond our grasp, then joy can never be experienced as a final and complete realization. Every experience of joy then necessarily includes an infinite deferment of ultimate or final satisfaction.
Transcendence is by definition that which exceeds us. The joy that is connected to an experience of transcendence therefore cannot be the joy of that which we hold without remainder. Our deepest experiences of joy are always quite rightly accompanied, at times even troubled, by the sense that we now experience in part, and even our most sublime moments of joy are not an experience of joy without remainder. Our most exotic experiences of joy are experiences that include a remainder that also leaves us hungry for more. Hence, joy is not only an experience of satisfied appetite. Rather, it is in its highest expression an experience of an appropriate appetite that is experienced as joy precisely as an appetite, not as the satiation of appetite.
Our hunger for God, for example, is an appropriate appetite but it can easily be perverted into a hunger for a god we choose or make that satisfies our immediate felt needs. When our hunger for God is reduced to a hunger for immediate needs it becomes a chasing after idols, rather than God. Ironically, in the very process of reducing our appetites to that for which we can find satisfaction, we render such a god unsatisfactory. This god does not call us to exceed ourselves, leading to increasing appetites and the joy of hope for a future that is larger than our present. This god is reduced to our size, and becomes unsatisfactory for the very reason that he completely fills our anemic vision, but never challenges us to dream bigger dreams. This god never challenges us to follow him outside of our comfort zones, outside of ourselves.
The kind of joy that C S Lewis proposes, however, is a larger joy that offers a satisfaction that is more than can be held in the immediate moment. It is experienced in the immediate moment, but not as an end, rather that joy is experienced as a step in a larger journey. It is a satisfaction with remainder. It is, I think, the kind of joy that is promised us in Christmas, in the birth of God in human flesh.

Genesis tells a story that explains our insatiable hunger for a God that is bigger than we are. It is a story of human beings created in the image of the Creator. At first we enjoyed a relationship and communication with our Creator, repeated every evening in the cool of the day because once is never enough. But even then we wished to be more than friends of God, we wished to be like God ourselves. In reducing our appropriate appetite for God into an appetite for ourselves we broke trust with God and realized too late that satisfied appetites are ultimately unsatisfactory. We cut ourselves off from the only One who could satisfy our appetites with a transcendent and eternal satisfaction, the kind of satisfaction with remainder that is vital to continued satisfaction. Thanks be to the God we spurned, He does not give up so easily. Immediately, in the Garden, even before we were banished from that which might make our estrangement eternal (a banishment that was also an act of grace), God promised redemption (Gen 3:15 serpent will bruise, but the offspring will crush the head of the serpent).
Throughout the rest of the OT this theme is worked out and the plan is embellished. It continues with a promise to Abram (Gen 12:1-3), later ratified by a covenant (Gen 15). This covenant, it is significant to note was ratified by only God passing between the halves of the animals, while Abram was fast asleep.
Throughout the rest of Israel’s history the promises of God to redeem his creation were repeated time and again. These promises were experienced as redemption from slavery in Egypt, as salvation from other oppressors after they arrived in the Promised Land, and as return from captivity after the Exile. In Isaiah 9 the promise is repeated: In Isaiah 49:6ff the promise is expanded from all of Israel to all the world:
All of these experiences of redemption and salvation were significant and concrete instances of salvation by the hand of God, and merited the genuine gratitude of his children, though it could be argued that this gratitude was never equal to the experience. It was not the case that God’s salvation was somehow deficient. It is, rather, that finite humans are not able to experience fully the infinite salvation that God provides.
All these promises finally culminated in the birth of the Messiah, who was asked when He was here “When will you come? What will be the signs of your coming?” (Matthew 24:3). They looked for a Messiah, and they anticipated the coming of their Messiah, but even when they spoke to their Messiah face to face they asked “When will you come?” Their joy at the Messiah’s presence among them was muted by their failure to recognize a promise and an experience that was larger than their imagination.
This Christmas, and every Christmas, we rejoice as we celebrate the coming of the Messiah, the birth of God in human flesh. We rejoice as we celebrate a salvation that is rooted in history, and yet ineluctably exceeds history. We commemorate looking back, but we must also anticipate looking forward. We rejoice in the moment but we should recognize that the rejoicing that also longs for more is a reflection of a healthy appetite for a God who is bigger than we are. To the extent that disappointment reminds us to dream bigger dreams, to leave room for a transcendent God, it is an indispensable ingredient in our rejoicing.

Sunday, 14 December 2008

Reflections for the third Sunday of Advent: Repentance

Henry van Dyke tells a story of a Christmas angel. It begins with a gathering of angels who have just returned from various errands on earth. In the course of their travels they have witnessed the tangles and troubles, and wars and miseries of humanity on earth. Three of the leading angels are extolling their own particular vision of how to bring a triumphant end to those sorrows.
Michael is the first to speak, and he laments the oppression and injustice that prevails when the arm of the cruel is heavier than the arm of the kind. “Poverty is mocked by arrogant wealth, and purity is deflowered by brute violence.... There is no cure for this evil but by the giving of greater force to the good hand.” Michael is ready to lead the armies of God into battle against the forces of evil, and the angels, stirred by Michael’s rousing oratory, stand ready to follow, but the battle cry does not sound.
Instead, in the stillness of their waiting, Uriel, the second angel, responds. He fully endorses Michael’s purpose, but he proposes another way, for he has too often seen the power given to the good turned aside and used for evil. “Pride has followed triumph and oppression has been the first-born child of victory. Deliverers of people have become tyrants, and fighters for liberty have been changed into solders of fortune, because power corrupts itself and might cannot save.... The Earth is full of ignorant strife, and for this evil there is no cure but the giving of greater knowledge.” People give themselves to evil because they do not understand the end of evil. Injustice is the error of the blind. People destroy each other because they do not know each other. If there were more light of knowledge in the world there would be no sorrow. If only the great King would enlighten the world with wisdom the shadows of ignorance would be dispelled. The folly would fade away as a morning vapor, the sun of wisdom would shine on all men, and the peace of God would come with the counsel of angels.
Raphael is not convinced. He recalls Balaam, whose donkey was wiser than Balaam himself. He reminds us of Solomon, widely acclaimed as the wisest man who ever lived, concluding in despair “Meaningless! Meaningless! Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless!” Raphael knows too well that power corrupts itself and knowledge cannot save. “There is no cure for the evil that is in the world but by the giving of more love to people.”
As the gathered listeners ponder this question a frail voice is heard from a distance. It is a little angel, as substantial as thistle-down, flitting along in the breeze, who says “I know! I know! I know! Man shall be made like God because the Son of God shall become a Man!”
The little angel’s next task, the mission that brought him by the gathered throng, is to go and tell the chosen people the good news of the greatest story ever told. As the throng follows the little angel they are led past Rome, the home of the Emperor of the World, past Athens, the birthplace of philosophical inquiry, and past Jerusalem, the religious center of the Messiah’s people. They go to a quiet hillside outside of a little town called Bethlehem, despised for its provincial crudeness, to men engaged in the lowest of occupations, watching flocks by night, and these are the recipients of the greatest news flash ever to blaze upon this planet. The kingdom is upside down.
Two weeks ago, on the first Sunday of the Advent season, we reflected on how our desire and search for God is impacted by our understanding of the God who becomes flesh to live with us. Last Sunday Zach showed us how looking into our histories can be a spiritual exercise of finding the God who walks with us, and taking new notice of the God acts in our world. This Sunday we reflect on how the shape of our lives can be impacted by our understanding of the God who is born as a baby. At root, then, this Sunday we reflect on repentance.
Van Dyke’s story illustrates the fundamental notion of repentance. Far too often, I think, we think of repentance as an exercise in ferreting out another sin in our lives for which we conjure up feelings of remorse and guilt, engage in what we hope is an adequate form of self-remonstration and penance, and then we go on with fingers and toes crossed, hoping against hope that we do not too soon fall back into our old ways. I think that is a rather anemic misunderstanding of repentance. To repent is to implement a new understanding of things: of our world, of ourselves, and particularly of God. To repent is to see new opportunities for our lives because God cares enough, not just to judge us, but to show us love, and how to live. Christmas reminds us that God cares enough to make His dwelling with us, and not only with us, but in us.
Every one of the angels in van Dyke’s story proposed a solution that at a glance seems a reasonable and worthwhile correction to the troubles of humanity. Michael proposed a strong solution of overwhelming power, Uriel saw the answer in convincing wisdom, and Raphael saw a solution in teaching people to be generous with love for each other. Unfortunately, none of these solutions offer us anything radically different from the root of the problem, just more of it. If the evil use force to gain the upper hand over the good, then the solution is to use more force for good. If wickedness is rooted in a lack of knowledge, the solution is to infuse more knowledge. Raphael gets closest to the answer with his proposal of more love, but the intractable question that stymies him as well is how do you get selfish people to love more? You can’t just give them love and expect them to share it, because that is the root of their problem. Our problem lies not only in our environment of too much violence, or too much ignorance, or too much selfishness. The problem is that the environment is at least in part the result of what and who we are, and is largely the outworking of fundamental values that we never think to question. The solution requires change from the inside out, and only a God can do that for us.
And that, as van Dyke’s story reminds us, is the Christmas story. We have domesticated the story of Christmas and we celebrate it as a religious, and often a crassly commercialized event, and in our celebrating it we have tamed it. We too easily see Christmas as a highlight of the year, a celebration to break the monotony of our long winter, the time of year when days finally start getting longer and we hope again for Spring. Frequently we intersperse our celebrations with moments of reflection and lip service to the Christ Child whose birth we commemorate on Christmas Day, but too easily and too often we forget that everything was turned upside down when the Creator was born in human flesh. True repentance, I think, sees the world through the lens of Christmas and the Christ Child.
Matthew tells us that John the Baptiser came preaching in the desert to prepare the way for the Son of God, saying “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is near.” This call is commonly understood as a call to turn around, and that is indeed an integral component of seeing the world differently. To recognize a radically different structure as operative in our world should quite naturally be followed by a commensurately different way of living. If we think repentance is just about identifying a few more sins in our own lives we sadly miss the point. The kingdom of heaven is not about how well we purge sin from our lives. God knows we are not up to the task, which is precisely the reason Jesus came to save us. He knew we could never save ourselves.
To repent is to see our world and our God through different eyes. Christmas reminds us that God is not just a Creator who makes a world and sits back, waiting to pass judgement on our frailty. The sort of repentance that acts in fearful anticipation of such wrath is a very cheap imitation of the repentance that sees the world and its people as something that God cherishes sufficiently that He chooses to participate in our frailty so as to not only tell us to love, but to show us what love looks like, and what His love means for us.
A little later Matthew tells us that Jesus took up preaching where John left off “Repent, for the kingdom of God is near.” In both cases Eugene Peterson translates this phrase as “Change your life. God’s kingdom is here!” A few paragraphs later Matthew summarizes Jesus’ message again, using different words: He moved through the country preaching the good news of the kingdom. The revelation of God’s kingdom is good news. To be called to look for God’s kingdom elsewhere is good news when our search has been disappointing. The call to repentance is calling out to a people who are looking for the kingdom in all the wrong places. It is a calling out to people who are looking for love, and peace, and satisfaction where it cannot be found. The call to repentance is good news because it tells us our disappointments are not terminal. It is calling out “Turn around! What you are looking for is over this way.”
God became flesh, not primarily to change our world, though He did that. God became flesh not primarily to change us, though that too will happen when we catch a glimpse of Immanuel – the God who is with us. God became flesh because He loves us, because He desires to be in relationship with us, and He wants us to know that. God became flesh because He wants us to participate in His kingdom. God became flesh because He loves us too much to leave us in our own little world, whether we think ourselves comfortable or miserable.
Elie Wiesel survived the concentration camps of the holocaust as a young boy. In his memoirs entitled “Night” he recounts graphic stories of misery, cruelty, and the most diabolical horror. Along with the deprivation and forced labor, prisoners were frequently compelled to watch public executions. He recounts a time when a young lad was hung for a minor offense. The executioner did not correctly calculate the length of rope that would provide a clean execution (as though there could be any such thing) and the boy struggled frantically for several minutes, minutes that seemed an interminable eternity, while he was slowly asphyxiated. The prisoners were horrified and incensed by the spectacle, while the soldiers were amused. One of the prisoners cried out “Where is God when this lad is left to suffer so abominably at the hands of those who are far more guilty than he is?” The reply came softly from a man standing close to Elie “He is struggling at the end of that rope.”
Our world is not just an economy in turmoil, though the economy is currently an ominous threat for many. The world is not primarily a struggle between terrorism and democracy or capitalism or merely an alternate form of overwhelming power. The world is not only a place threatened by global warming or depleted energy reserves. Our world is the intersection of people and creation with opportunities to see God at work, loving His creation. God loving creation is the main play, the other distractions are the side acts. They are not to be facilely dismissed as insignificant, but they too are spaces for the love of God that turns the world upside down to be seen, to be experienced, and to change us all from the inside out. To recognize that, to see the world as such, that is the sort of repentance that brings life. That is the repentance that changes us from the inside out as we recognize Immanuel, the Christ Child of Christmas who is God with us.

Sunday, 30 November 2008

Knocking on the Brothel Door or Looking for God in all the Wrong Places

Reflections on anticipation for the first Sunday of Advent
In the centuries leading up to the birth of the Christ Child in Bethlehem Israel was looking for a Messiah, a Son of David, who would usher in an age of peace and liberty from oppression. Their father Abraham had been promised land and posterity two millenia earlier, and the family that became a nation occupied the land for most of that time but, except for a few brief periods, never entirely free of at least the threat of imminent oppression. If it wasn’t slavery in Egypt, where they had gone to find relief from famine, it was the Canaanites and Philistines taking their crops. When they survived the Philistines the Assyrians threatened and finally took the northern tribes into captivity. Babylon eventually crushed the Assyrian domination but carried the remnant of Judah that the Assyrians had left, into Exile far beyond the River that had marked Abraham’s early home. Seventy years later the Babylonians allowed the Jews to return to their homeland and rebuild their cities, their homes, farms, and reinstitute worship in the restored temple that had originally been built by Solomon. This was a positive development but still, they were never really free. They enjoyed periods of relative freedom but only to the point their overlords deemed appropriate. They were looking for a Messiah to come and restore the peace and liberty for which they had yearned for so many generations.
Yearning is not unfamiliar to us. We too, find ourselves frequently, if not constantly, longing for things that seem just beyond our reach. More time for work, more time for leisure, more money, more relationships, and we yearn for more fulfilment out of the relationships we have. We soon learn to discount even those rare occasions when we do experience moments of sweet satisfaction as fleeting apparitions that are as substantial as a passing breeze. Is this how we were meant to be? Always striving but never arriving? Always wanting more though commonly finding ourselves unable to ascertain precisely what it is that drives our insatiable hunger?
G K Chesterton said “Every man who knocks on the door of a brothel is looking for God.” We experience powerful desires that threaten to overwhelm us because we do not recognize the true nature of these desires. We think we want more money, faster cars, exotic cuisine, finer wine, more love, warmer winters, when what we really want is more of God. In their proper place all of these can be enjoyed as experiences of conversation with God, but pursued as an end in themselves they all become vanities, provocative sirens that lure us to shipwreck.
Advent is a season of anticipation. In our younger years, before we learn to obscure our raw desires to get stuff, we oh so eagerly anticipate Christmas morning - what presents lie under the tree for us this year? What will Santa (or our parents, for those of us who have already been cruelly disillusioned regarding the real source of Christmas presents) bring us this year that can catapult us into paroxysms of euphoria that exceed those experienced last year? Now those of us who have learned to suppress those lusts, in favor of desires more becoming to people of advanced maturity, anticipate good times with family and friends. We look for good food, good parties, a few days in which to put aside for a while the tedium of the mundane routines that rule our lives. We hope to capture, if only for a while, something that eludes us the rest of the year. Some of us learn to fear that the hope of Christmas is in fact only another smoke and mirrors charade and so we begin to dread the hustle. If the exuberance of Christmas is only a busyness that passes and leaves us more drained than we were before, then the whole charade becomes a tedium worse than the humdrum from which it pretended to promise relief.
And yet the yearning remains. In fact, the yearning is only aggravated by the realization that what we were told was to be the ultimate cure is only another fairy tale, and there is really nothing more. There is only the inexorable routines of life from which there is no escape. As long as the pretense of respite is empty we would rather not bother with the effort required to maintain the frenetic pace of the holiday season. If our ultimate hope is vanity, then there is, in fact, no hope at all. And so you have suicides peaking at the very time of the year that society at large portrays as, and takes to be, the merriest time of all, a time of good will and cheer for all the world.
Anticipation. It is an opportunity for hope, but hope that turns out to have been misguided only exacerbates the agony of despair. So what is the anticipation of Christmas? Do we anticipate more than the giving and receiving of things and, if we are lucky, relationships? Is Christmas just a grand orgy of an economic enterprise in which even relationships are reduced to economy of exchange? Is Christmas just about giving as good as you think you’ll get and hoping to break even?
We certainly claim more. We say that we commemorate the coming of the Christ Child. We commemorate nothing less than God becoming flesh. We tend to emphasize the commemoration of a past event, but it is no less the anticipation of a future event. It is a celebration of God moving into the neighborhood and making his dwelling with us, but it is also an anticipation of a new visitation every year. At least I think it should be.
When I was growing up I remember hearing time after time that Jesus is all you need. Once you find God you have everything you need. If you are not satisfied then the fault somehow lies with you because you can never need anything more than God. Proof was found in proof texts, like John 4:13,14 Jesus said, “Everyone who drinks this water will get thirsty again and again. Anyone who drinks the water I give will never thirst—not ever. The water I give will be an artesian spring within, gushing fountains of endless life.” You can’t argue with scripture, right? But what happens to anticipation if this is a one time event that satisfies forever? Does this not bring us back full circle to the agony of despair engendered by the promise of an ultimate hope that fails to deliver? Are those who promise everlasting satisfaction wrong? Possibly. Was Jesus wrong? Probably not. I do not think Jesus was wrong, though I do think he can be misunderstood, sometimes far too easily.
One of the most urgent human necessities is the need for hope. Your current situation matters less than your hope for tomorrow. Laying in the sun on a tropical beach in January is fine, but if you do not have some sense of anticipation even such a realized fantasy becomes a tedium far too quickly. On the other hand, even the most traumatic events of life are lightened by the promise contained in the hope of a better day to come. It is hopelessness of an ever diminishing future that is the cruelest torture of all. We cannot find satisfaction only in our past, we must have something in our future that draws us onward. We cannot be satisfied and fulfilled solely on the strength of an historical event. We need room to anticipate a hope for our future. I do not believe that we can find God –or even have God find us– once and be set for life forever. We need new and non-identical repetitions of God discovery on our journey. We cannot be satisfied with a one time God pill because we need a new fix every year, every day, every hour.
My suspicion is that the talk about God being all you need is a thinly disguised religious veneer for a crass individualism that tells us we need to be self-sufficient. The fact is that while God may be all you ever need, you will never have enough of God because you will never be big enough to carry enough of God. So this Advent season we anticipate a commemoration, but we also anticipate a new visitation. Dare we anticipate not only a visitation, but a new experience of an incarnation? I am not suggesting that God will take on flesh again in exactly the same way he did 2000 years ago, but do we not anticipate that Christmas will happen again in our time? Are we just looking back at Christmas past or are we also looking forward to Christmas again? And what does it mean to look forward to Christmas again?
Let’s take another look at what Jesus said. “Everyone who drinks this water will get thirsty again and again. Anyone who drinks the water I give will never thirst—not ever. The water I give will be an artesian spring within, gushing fountains of endless life.” The water He gives, he said, would be an artesian spring within, gushing fountains of endless life. This is not drink once and be forever satisfied. This is start drinking and you can never stop because the water keeps gushing. This is not a pill to make you feel alive, this is life that makes you be alive. God did not merely become flesh for a short visit so we could remember that He once was here. Jesus took on flesh and blood, not for a short time on earth, but he bears the scars of the crucifixion because He is still God in the flesh.
It is noteworthy that the woman at the well, speaking to the Messiah, yearned for the Messiah. John 4:26-26“The woman said, “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.” Then Jesus declared, “I who speak to you am he.”
There she is, conversing with the Messiah face to face, and wishing Messiah was there to explain everything. How often do we find ourselves knocking on the door of the brothel, looking for God, when He has been walking with us all the way? This Christmas may we celebrate with anticipation, but may we never allow our anticipation to blind us to the Christ who is already here.

Monday, 13 October 2008


What is thanksgiving? What does it mean to be thankful? Are you thankful when you feel thankful? Are you thankful when you think you are thankful? What are you thankful for? What is the most authentic form of thankfulness? Is a conscious thankfulness more thankful than an unconscious or unaware thankfulness? Is the most sincere thankfulness an oblivious appropriate action concerning that for which one would be most grateful if one realized an awareness of an unacknowledged blessing?
I have often been part of a group exercise that has us “counting our blessings”, listing all the things we are thankful for. A lot of common items can be expected to make this list - freedom, family, friends, food, love, churches, good weather, good health, and the list goes on. What strikes me is that some of the things we would be most acutely aware of their absence if they were taken from us are missing from this list. I do not believe I have ever heard anyone in such a setting express gratitude for oxygen, and very seldom does plentiful clean water make the list. It seems clear that oxygen would rate high on our wish list if we suddenly found ourselves deprived of it. Does the fact that we seldom express gratitude for it mean that we are ungrateful wretches? Or is appropriate, if unconscious, utilization of oxygen the most genuine form of gratitude? And if it really came down to a choice, would you choose family or oxygen?
There are many ways to be thankful, but I suspect the most authentic form of thankfulness is not necessarily that which verbally expresses gratitude, though such verbal expression is indubitably an appropriate aspect of thankfulness at some point. The most authentic expression of thankfulness is that which makes appropriate use of that for which one is thankful. Aerobic exercise, for example, is likely a more authentic expression of gratitude for oxygen than is sitting on the front porch, smoking and saying “Thank you, God, for the beautiful fresh air”, though that is a more authentic gratitude than is the self-righteous church-goer who passes by the smoker and can only wish the smoker would gain victory.

Philippians 4:4-9
Colossians 3:12-17
Psalm 107
Romans 1:21
Luke 17:11-19

Monday, 6 October 2008

John 3 in the context of John 1-3

We all know John’s third chapter.  Most every child raised in a religious context memorizes John 3:16 and we know that this is the chapter in which we are told we need to be born again, and we pretty much all know how that happens as well.  We have been enlightened beyond poor Nicodemus, who asked disbelievingly Surely a man cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born!  But do we really know what John 3 means to tell us?  Do we understand how John 3 fits into the narrative that John is painting for us?  In this posting I propose a journey of sorts which aims to arrive at John 3 by way of John 1 and 2.  I want to pay attention to the way John develops his story and how he gets to Nicodemus’ encounter with Jesus in the third chapter.  In doing so I hope we can be reminded of nuances in the born again discourse of John 3 that we could easily miss by reading it as an isolated incident.

John 1:1 In the beginning
echoes Genesis 1:1 and alerts us that John intends to tell a story of (re)creation.  There is a story of reality that we have misunderstood and John wishes to shed new light on our current existence with the help of an old story.  In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God....  Through Him all things were made In Genesis we find a phrase that is repeated time and again “God said ‘Let there be...’ and there was...”  This Word that John is talking about is God’s Word by which all things were created at the origin of all things.  It is God’s Word creating all things, and creating life.  John goes on to say In Him was life, and that life was the light of men.  The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.  We had the original light pouring illumination into our lives, but we didn’t get it.  We confused all kinds of other things and people (prophets, John the Baptist, religious structures and creeds? etc.,) with the light, but we did not understand the light when it shone on us.
Then The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.  God, Yahweh, the one whose name could not be mentioned because the Name was far too holy - this God, this Yahweh, became flesh, became one of us, and lived and walked among us.  This is earth-shattering news.  The impossible has happened.  The Holy, which heretofore had resulted in instantaneous death when not properly respected, has touched the mundane, has lived with us, and walked with us, and shared food and drink with us, and we live to tell the story.  What can this mean?  This introduction gives us the foundation of John’s gospel.

John’s first stories make it clear that everything has changed.  John the Baptist is asked if he is the Christ, and he says no.  He is just a nameless voice in the wasteland crying out for the way of the Lord to be prepared.  Expectations are not met.  The one who looks like he might be the Messiah is not the One.  In fact, He who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.  Things are turned around.  The one who comes later is first.  The one who we think looks like the Christ is a nameless voice in a wasteland, while the true Christ is ignored, until He can be ignored no longer, then He will be crucified.
Impetuous Simon who bends with every breeze, the one who makes sure that when he gets anything into his head he gets it out into the open quickly, before he has a chance to think better of it, is renamed Peter, which means Rock.  What is more dangerous than a Rock careening wildly about, ricocheting back and forth with complete unpredictability?  And yet Jesus later says “On this Rock I will build my church”.  Nathanael says Nazareth!  Can anything good come from there?  John intends to show us that the only hope of the entire world comes from Nazareth.

When Jesus is calling his disciples he tells them I tell you the truth, you shall see heaven open, and the angels if God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.  This quotation recalls Jacob’s experience when he is running for his life from his brother’s justice.  To this point in Jacob’s story we have not seen him do anything but lie and cheat, with the complicity of his mother, and now his brother has vowed to kill him.  Now Jacob may be a liar and a cheat, but he is no fool, so he hightails it out of there, finds a place to sleep with only a pillow for a stone.  I think I’d have nightmares, too, if I had a stone for a pillow, but Jacob’s dream really puts the fear of God in him.  He sees a stairway that rests on earth and reaches into heaven.  Yahweh stands above it, and angels are going up and down the ladder.  Now remember, Jacob does not know Jesus.  For all of the human desires to know God and be like God, the gods are also dangerous, and best kept at a safe distance.  It is good to have God on your side, but it is also good to keep a safe distance from God lest God turn and consume you (Dt 4:24 For the LORD your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God).  And Jacob has reason to worry about a holy God since he is, after all, running for his life because of his cheating ways.  In his dream God promises to follow him where ever he goes.  Is that a promise or a threat?  When Jacob wakes up he is thoroughly afraid, saying “God is here and I had no idea!  This is none other than the house of God.  This is the gate of heaven!”  He makes an altar of his pillow stone, and then he magnanimously promises God that if God does go with him on his journey, and brings him back to his father’s house safely, he will give God 1/10 of all that God gives him.  That is a wonderful thing to hear from a cheat.  I am sure God was thrilled.
So why does Jesus make reference to this story?  What is so significant about Jacob’s ladder?  It is about who Yahweh is, and where Yahweh is to be found.  For Jacob the ladder represented a place where Earth and Yahweh connected, and it was an awesome place, a frightening place.  It was a place one did best to make tracks away from.  It might be a good place for making deals with a Deity, but it was not a good place to live.
Jesus, the Word become flesh, tells us that he is the ladder.  The Word become flesh and making his dwelling among us means that all of life has become sacred.  The Holy touching the mundane does not profane the Holy.  It sanctifies the mundane.  So now everywhere is God’s place, and since God makes his dwelling among us, there is no special place on earth where we must go to connect with God, and there is no place we can go to get away from God.  Does that make a difference in our theology?

Two more stories before we get to John 3.  First, Jesus goes to a wedding party and turns water into wine.  Fine wine.  Not just any wine, Jesus makes the best wine, and then wastes it on those who have already had too much to drink and are unable to appreciate the vintage.
The other story is the only story in which Jesus becomes rambunctiously troublesome.  He walks about in the temple, sees merchants taking unfair advantage of his beloved sheep, and (much to my pacifist non-violent consternation) he braids a whip to drive them out of his Father’s house.  The bawling and the bleating and the hollering that ensued as animals and vendors were driven out of the temple area must have been a thing to behold.  How dare you turn my Father’s house into a market!  How dare you use my Father’s house as a place where you turn things to your own advantage?  It’s a good thing we never do that, right?

Now we come to John 3.
Nicodemus is a man of the Pharisees and he comes to Jesus by night.  He enunciates a recognition of Jesus a teacher who comes from God, a recognition that Nicodemus premises on the miracles that Jesus has been doing.  Jesus responds I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.  Why?  What does this response mean?  Why does Jesus mention the kingdom of God?  Nicodemus question is “What do you mean ‘born again’?”
Jesus responds I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. 6Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. 7You should not be surprised at my saying, 'You must be born again.' 8The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.
Water and the Spirit may recall John’s baptism of water for repentance, and John’s statement that Jesus would baptize with the Spirit (1:33).  Repentance is an important part of a changed life, but repentance alone will not change a life.  For a life to be radically changed requires something more.  It could be argued that the form of genuine repentance that is part of a radical life change is also possible only on the basis of an act of God such as Jesus indicates by everyone born of the Spirit.  Water and Spirit are then not two different events, but a singular event with several integral component aspects.  To be born of flesh and Spirit means one has life that is more than just physical life.  “Born from above” may be a better translation than is “born again”.  This is insinuated by Jesus’ analogy of the wind.  We don’t know where the wind comes from, or where it is going, but we know it is.  We recognize its effects, and we know how to read the signs, and we know when the wind is blowing, even if we know neither its origin nor its end.
In a similar way, the one who is born again, or born from above, is one who knows how to read the signs of our mundane world with a frame of reference that is rooted in the Holy.  Life is not just a body with functional lungs and a beating heart, it is a gift of God.  Life is not just an ongoing physical process, it is a miracle that gives evidence that God is here.  We neither determine the genesis and the processes of life, nor can we adequately define it.  We may not know when life begins, and are not always certain when it ends, but as long as life is, we know God is here.  We cannot always be certain what constitutes a reading of mundane life that is rooted in the Holy, but we know there is such a thing, and we yearn to explore it more fully, to experience it more vitally, and we begin to recognize that the experience of the Holy is itself a taste of the eternal life, the gift which is God sending His One and Only Son.

We do not define the new birth, and we do not determine how it functions.  The new birth is an act of God, and it passes understanding.  We see its effects, and we should learn to recognize its signs, but we should not become unduly distracted by how well it accommodates itself to our accustomed definitions.  We should celebrate the new life where ever we see it, and when we do so we will begin to appreciate it enough to look for it in unexpected places.  Who knows, if we really get carried away with this we might even find ourselves hob-nobbing with prostitutes and tax collectors.  It’s happened before.

Saturday, 13 September 2008

Romans Gospel - Part V

Paul’s intentions in Romans 11 are hotly debated.  A pivotal question is the relationship between Israel and the church.  Are God’s intentions for Israel relayed to the church?  Or do God’s promises to Israel remain Israel’s alone?
In the larger context of Paul’s writing it seems clear that the promises made to Israel are not founded merely on natural inheritance.  Paul has already said “For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel.  Nor because they are his descendants are they all Abraham's children.  On the contrary, ‘It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.’  In other words, it is not the natural children who are God's children, but it is the children of the promise who are regarded as Abraham's offspring” (9:6-8).  Romans 11 is about a remnant within Israel who do go beyond the parameters of their religion to find God, and he cites himself as an example (11:1).  This is because of God’s sovereign grace by which our opportunities are not simply limited by our choices, but by God’s grace.  God’s grace does not dictate our choices, but it does not easily allow our selfish choices to obstruct the flow of God’s blessing into our lives.  When Elijah complained that he was the only one in Israel who remained faithful to Yahweh he was told there were 7000 others who had not bowed to Baal, and God would not facilely categorize those along with the children who continued to rebel.  We have all rebelled and all deserve the same judgement of wrath, but because of the grace of God we find ourselves basking in God’s favor.
The original context of Paul’s quotes again makes it clear that the blindness and deafness that Paul attributes to Israel (11:8f) was not the result of God’s choosing.  The tone of Deuteronomy (29:4) and Isaiah (29:10) is that in spite of all God has done to show Israel a better way God has not yet gotten through to their stubborn hearts and minds to turn them from their selfish ways.
Even in the face of the continued rebellion of the people of Israel Paul says they are even now not beyond hope.  Yahweh still stands ready to redeem those who will come to Him for salvation.  The failure of Israel to be the instrument that channels God’s blessing to the nations results in God’s direct action to do so.  This should generate a certain jealousy among the Israelites that prompts them to return to the God who had first called them to be the intermediaries of that blessing.  How much richer would the entire world be if the objects of God’s mercy and the channels of that mercy could be united in their appreciation of the bounty of that salvation!  Given the way that trouble in the Middle East reverberates around the globe it takes no great imagination to understand how such unity could multiply the dividends of such peace and harmony.
This promising and encouraging discourse is followed by stern warnings regarding presumptuousness in one’s evaluation of one’s position in relation to God.  If those who were God’s original choice to be the instruments of His blessing can find themselves under a judgement of wrath by the God whom they claim as their special benefactor, then we must never presume to be beyond that risk ourselves.  It is always only by grace that we stand in God’s favor.  The moment we begin to find satisfaction in our own structures for salvation our security is fatally compromised.  Our only hope is God’s grace.
In fact, it is because of God’s grace that all people are bound over to disobedience (along with Adam), so that now God can have mercy on all people (because of the work of Christ 11:32).  The enormity of this grace on God’s part calls forth the only available response from Paul - a doxology of thanks and praise to God whose salvation is beyond understanding.  If our soteriology does not evoke the same response from us then we miss the point.
In view of this magnificent salvation Paul tells us that offering our bodies as a living sacrifice to the God who offered Himself as our sacrifice is eminently reasonable, and it is our spiritual act of worship.  Offering our bodies is a spiritual act of worship.  How this is done is fleshed out in the rest of Romans.  It is done by living a life consumed by an authentic love that permeates our actions in our communities with our neighbours, with political authorities, and in our communities of faith when we run into fundamental disagreements regarding right and wrong.  In the latter Paul enjoins a profound integrity that neither runs roughshod over the convictions and dearly held opinions of others, nor allows one’s own values to be facilely disregarded.

Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!
How unsearchable his judgments,
and his paths beyond tracing out!
“Who has known the mind of the Lord?
Or who has been his counselor?”
“Who has ever given to God, 
that God should repay him?”
For from him and through him and to him are all things.
To him be the glory forever! Amen.

Sunday, 31 August 2008

Romans Gospel - Part IV

This salvation that only God can provide is precisely what Paul wishes for Israel, God’s chosen people. Paul had no doubts regarding the zeal of his people, but their zeal was getting in the way of their salvation, rather than facilitating a salvation. Had they been willing to submit to God’s righteousness rather than being set on achieving their own they could have realized everything they hoped to achieve in their religious observation of the law, and more, in Christ.
Paul recalls Moses’ words that those who keep the law will live. The context in Leviticus gives this the sense that those who keep the law will realize an enhanced quality of life, as well as a likelihood of a longer and better life. It is noteworthy that this notion is repeated no less than three times in Ezekiel 20, when God recounts how He has dealt with Israel over the generations of their rebelliousness. God’s sentiments in Ezekiel 20 (and throughout the prophets’ warnings and admonitions) resonate in Paul’s words here regarding Israel’s choices as over against God’s choices. God chose Israel to be an instrument of God’s grace to the world. God’s desire was to bless Israel, and to bless the whole world through Israel. Israel repeatedly refused to obey. Israel repeatedly rebelled, and brought well-deserved curses on themselves and their children, but just as repeatedly God wooed them again, not because of Israel, but for the sake of God’s own name He restored them again, and instructed them again, only to have them rebel again. Were it not for God’s choices in favor of the human race whom He loves self-sacrificially we, like Israel, could only be cursed. Because of God’s grace we, like Israel, are not irretrievably cursed, in spite of our sinfulness, but we are given new life and a call to serve our Maker and Saviour. When we respond in obedience we enjoy the blessings of the salvation God freely provides for all. When we stubbornly insist on our own way we break the Father’s heart and eschew opportunities that cannot be realized by any other means then out of the incredible grace of God.
The righteousness that is by faith has already been introduced in the Old Covenant, as Paul reminds us. The context of his quote is the culmination of an extensive recapitulation of the covenant (Deuteronomy literally means second law). It is a long and detailed set of instructions for how to live, how to worship, and how to live as God’s children in God’s world. It is indeed an intimidating instruction manual and the children of Israel could be excused for saying “This is all far too much!! How can we ever hope to observe all of these laws? Who will go to the distance required to ensure we keep all of this in mind and walk in perfect obedience to this formidable book of the law?” To this concern God’s reply is that this law is neither too much nor too strange. All that is really required is the law of the heart that loves God with an integrity that is displayed in the life one lives in God’s world and with God’s children. That is the message that Paul was proclaiming. If you hold God in your heart, if you know Jesus as Yahweh and live the life of God in your daily walk, you will not be disappointed, even though not everything will be as you wish.
A narrow evangelicalism that sees Paul as referring only to a salvation consciously recognized as being in Jesus Christ, through a deliberate naming of Jesus Christ, is not warranted, as is clearly indicated in Paul’s quotes from the Old Testament. These passages could not refer to an explicit message of Jesus Christ, though they do anticipate that gospel in a prophetic sense. Paul recounts passages that revel in those who bring good news, but not all who hear the good news believe what they hear. In disbelief that anyone could hear the good news and reject it Paul asks “Surely, they have never heard, have they?” and his response is “Indeed they have”, again supported with scripture, this time from the well-known words of David: “Their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.” Paul’s intent is clearly not to limit the hearing to those who hear the name of Jesus, but it includes all who hear and see the truth of God expressed in God’s creation. It is impossible not to recall that this is how Paul begins his letter to the Romans (1:19, 20) “what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.” It is a monumental error to understand Paul’s reference to the name of Jesus to be a technical reference that ultimately underwrites a name and claim it prosperity gospel. What Paul has in mind is not only a technical naming of Jesus Christ, but a recognition of Jesus Christ, and the God who is revealed in Jesus Christ, through the work of God in His Person and in His creation. Indeed, in the time of Israel, as in the time of Jesus Christ, and in our own time, it is not those who speak loudest and most explicitly about God who are necessarily those who honor Him most. It is frequently those who quietly go about their lives looking only to do the right thing who are the ones who walk closest to God though they are unaware of it. “I was found by those who did not seek me; I revealed myself to those who did not ask for me.” But concerning Israel he says, “All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and obstinate people.” (10:20f quoting Isaiah 65:1f). Evidently God’s invitations are not always cherished, and His call is not always obeyed. Israel did not walk in the ways God laid out for them, in spite of His pointed instructions, and in utter disregard for His pleading invitations. God did not sovereignly determine their actions, though He did reserve the right to be gracious to those who did not merit such favor. That is the God we see in the Old Testament, and that is the God who deigns to take on creatureliness in order to show us His indomitable love.

Saturday, 19 July 2008

Romans Gospel - Part III

Romans 9 is Paul’s review of Jewish history, and is too often misunderstood because it is not read as being of a piece with Paul’s experience of his own Jewishness. His people are a chosen people, and his heart is broken at their cavalier recklessness and presumption regarding their favored status. He could wish himself accursed for the sake of his people (9:3). All the benefits of being God’s chosen people - God’s adopted children, no less - the covenants, the temple, and the promises were their’s for the taking, but they despised their birthright, and forfeited many of the blessings of being chosen. It was not God who broke His promise, but the children who blocked the fulfillment of the promises in their experience. As it turned out it was those who sought the God who made the promises who were reckoned as His chosen children (9:8). This is evident in the inclusion in the Messianic line of several people who were not descendants of Abraham. These people were welcomed into the family of the chosen on the strength of their choice to cast their lot in with the Israelites. Their inclusion is not based on the merits of their choice though their choices are pivotal, but on the merits of God’s promise.
Abraham had two sons, but not all of the sons are included as the children of Israel (9:6). Abraham messed that up with his machinations intended to help God fulfill His promise. When that caused familial squabbles Abraham had to send Ishmael and his mother away. Hence God is reduced to giving Abraham children as numerous as the stars in the heavens, or the sand on the seashore, through one solitary son, but God does not give up on His own promise. He told Abraham he would be blessed and He will bless Abraham, and the world through his family.
Both of Isaac’s children turn out to be shysters and hooligans. The younger brother cheats the elder out of his birthright and the blessing, and the elder bother vows to kill the younger for his shenanigans. The younger brother flees for his life and trades cheats with his uncle for 14 years. There is still no meritorious material for making a family who will be a channel of blessing for the world, but still, God does not give up. He will bless the world through Abraham, and since there is no obvious candidate based on honorable conduct, God chooses the younger to emphasize that his blessing falls undeserving on all who will submit to His blessing. God’s purpose in choosing the Israelites as a vessel of blessing for the world will stand, even though He must repeatedly covenant to do so through reluctant vessels (9:11f in order that God's purpose in election might stand: not by works but by him who calls).
Throughout the rest of the chapter Paul emphasizes that God’s choices are always in our favor.
“I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” (9:15) “I will call them ‘my people’ who are not my people; and I will call her ‘my loved one’ who is not my loved one” and “It will happen that in the very place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ they will be called ‘sons of the living God.’” (9:25, 26)
God’s choices are not to bless some and damn others. God’s choices are always to have mercy and compassion, even when there is no justification for such. God’s choices are always to include as many as will heed His call among those whom He calls His chosen people. God’s choices are always good news for all people. Left to our own ways we would quickly bring on ourselves the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (9:29), but because God chooses otherwise we have the opportunity to make choices we do not deserve to have, and we are inundated with blessings we do not merit. When we would justly be the objects of His wrath He is patient and continues to call (9:22-24). Thanks be to God!!
God gave Pharaoh an opportunity to be part of his redemption plan for His children (9:17). Pharaoh chose to work against God’s purposes and suffered for it, but God continued to work out his plan for the redemption of His children. Pharaoh would not be unchanged in this experience. He would come out the other side of this experience a changed man, battle hardened, but whether that hardening would be for good or evil would depend in large measure on how he chose to respond to the opportunity God sent his way.
Paul continues with quotes from the prophets in which God warns His chosen children that their ways constantly lead them to ruin, but he also tells them that He will, because of His grace and mercy, institute remedies far beyond what their imagination could conjure in order to work salvation for them. Those who seek a salvation which they control will not find it. Those who go about their life not worrying about their salvation will realize a salvation that only God could provide.

Friday, 13 June 2008

Paul's Romans Gospel - Part II

Romans 4 is an important key to the rest of the book. Paul expounds at length on Abraham’s experience of justification by faith apart from works. He also calls Abraham “the father of the circumcised who not only are circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised” (4:12). Abraham is the father of those who live their faith. Faith is not only a confession, it is a way of life.
What is crystal clear in Paul ’s exposition is that the favored status of Abraham and his descendants rested not on their keeping of the law, but on the promise. “It was not through law that Abraham and his offspring received the promise that he would be heir of the world, but through the righteousness that comes by faith. For if those who live by law are heirs, faith has no value and the promise is worthless, ... Therefore, the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham's offspring—not only to those who are of the law but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham. He is the father of us all” (4:13-16).
In Galatians Paul premises the covenant on the promise even more explicitly. “What I mean is this: The law, introduced 430 years later, does not set aside the covenant previously established by God and thus do away with the promise. For if the inheritance depends on the law, then it no longer depends on a promise; but God in his grace gave it to Abraham through a promise” (Gal 3:17-18). The covenant which Paul is here extending to all those who follow in the footsteps of Abraham is based not on the Law or law-keeping, but on the Promise made by God with no consideration whatsoever for any worthy action on the part of Abraham and his descendants. This is not to say there were no expectations of Abraham and the Israelites. The iterations of the covenants are laced with entreaties to obey God and walk in His ways (Deut 6), and some of the benefits of the covenant were linked to obedience (Lev 26, Deut 28), but the promise was extended solely by the grace of God.
Then Paul links the righteousness attributed to Abraham with the righteousness attributed to us who believe in Jesus (4:24). We are reconciled without regard to our merit by the death of Christ who died for the ungodly, for us who are sinners, and how much more shall we be saved through the resurrection life of Christ! (5:9,10). Paul frequently gets side-tracked in his enthusiasm. He begins exultantly “Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned” (5:12) and then he digresses for a while “for before the law was given, sin was in the world. But sin is not taken into account when there is no law. Nevertheless, death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses, even over those who did not sin by breaking a command, as did Adam, who was a pattern of the one to come” (5:13-14). Evidently he was going to draw a comparison (indicated by the use of “just as”) that got lost. Nevertheless, he gets back on track, and the comparison turns out to be not only a simple comparison, but a comparison of superlative. “But the gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God's grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many! Again, the gift of God is not like the result of the one man's sin: The judgment followed one sin and brought condemnation, but the gift followed many trespasses and brought justification. For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God's abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ” (5:15-17). While there is a comparison in how we all sinned in Adam, and are all made righteous in Jesus, the comparison is not strictly equal. The gift is far greater than the trespass. “For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God's grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many!” The parallelism in terminology makes it clear that the many who died in Adam are superlatively the recipients of the grace and gift of God through Jesus Christ! Lest there be any misunderstanding Paul reiterates “Consequently, just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men” (5:18). If one trespass brought death for all, Christ’s one act of righteousness superlatively brings life for all. Again, to emphasize “For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous” (5:19). The parallelism is unmistakable - those who sinned in Adam are restored in Jesus. There is no hint here of any difference in the extent of the curse in Adam and the extent of the blessing in Christ. The only difference Paul allows is that whatever happened in Adam is more than reversed in Christ.
However, lest anyone mistake this as a free ticket to sin more so that grace would also increase, Paul emphatically declares “What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? Or don't you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life” (6:1-4). We should consider ourselves dead to sin, because that is what the gift means. We have been given an incredible gift but we must beware squandering this gift by returning to our old ways for “the wages of sin is death” (6:23). That Paul is under no illusion about the reality of the struggles we continue to face is reflected in his confession “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it. So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God's law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God's law, but in the sinful nature a slave to the law of sin” (7:15-25). Paul experienced excruciating disappointments in his inability to live according to his deepest desires to do good, and found himself time and again doing the very things he did not want to do. Paul was a saint, but he was a real saint who lived a real life engaged in the daily struggle to live the life of Christ in his flesh.
Paul continues with the life we live through the Spirit. It is an incredible opportunity, but it is also an obligation (8:12). It is something that is given to us, but it is also something we must choose, not just by an intellectual assent, but also by a way of life (8:13). Our choice is not simply a decision, it is a life. We, and all of creation, waits in eager expectation for liberation from our bondage to decay (8:19-20). And we know that God is always working for our good (8:28). In fact, God does everything required for us, and with God on our side, it matters not who is against us (8:29-32). We are God’s, and nothing can ever separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord (8:37-39).

Tuesday, 3 June 2008

Paul's Romans Gospel - Part I

The Gospel of Romans

I have been issued a challenge by some of my Reformed friends to explain certain passages that they take to be a clear endorsement of their theology. I want to make clear at the outset that I have great respect for many Reformed thinkers, and certain aspects of Reformed theology. Some of what I value most of my own journey of faith and education has occurred as a beneficiary of Reformed mentors, and for what I have learned from them I am eternally grateful. Hence, I am well aware that Reformed theology is a broad stream, and my quarrel is not with Reformed theology per se. I do, however, see certain formulations of Reformed theology as ignoring the clear statements and the simple message of scripture in several very important ways. Some of those issues will become clear to those who are acquainted with Reformed theology. For those who are not familiar with Reformed theology, and especially for those who find such disagreements unsettling and intimidating, I invite you to read on. This will not be a dense theological treatise (though some will certainly consider much of what I say to be "dense" in a pejorative sense). I read Romans as a beautiful and exciting reflection on the salvation we are gifted in the Person and work of Jesus Christ. I invite you to journey with me, and to be drawn to worship again, as we reflect on our so great salvation.
The challenge was specifically with reference to Romans 9 and 10, but it is my considered opinion that these chapters must be understood in the context of Romans as a whole, as well as Paul's thought as a devout and learned member of God's chosen people. For this reason this will be a unworthy skimming of the whole of Romans.
Paul’s letter to the Romans is commonly recognized as a theologically dense piece of work. The readings of his theology are almost as abundant as are the commentators. One critical factor that is easily overlooked in current popular readings is the integral connection to Israel’s history that is formative for Paul’s writing. Paul lived and breathed Judaism, which is not only a theology but also a history. However his earlier understanding of Judaism was radically transformed by an unexpected encounter with Yahweh.
Large volumes have been written in an attempt to explicate Paul’s theology as laid out in Romans. I will not attempt do justice to his theology here, but I want to show how an awareness of the context of Paul’s thought has significant ramifications for an understanding of some very specific aspects of his theology. The first rule of scripture reading is to let scripture speak, so we will note some phrases that seem to be a significant departure from orthodox Christian theology. In those instances we will do our best to take Paul at his word, and save the theologizing for later.

Paul identifies himself as an apostle sent to “call people from among all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith” (1:5). Those whom Paul addresses are “among those who are called to belong to Jesus Christ” (1:6). Paul is “not ashamed of the Gospel because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes . . . . For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: The righteous will live by his faith” (1:16-17).
Then Paul outlines why the wrath of God against godlessness is being revealed. The root of this godlessness turns out to be a refusal to recognize some of the basic knowledge about God that is clearly shown in creation (1:19,20). After nearly whipping the reader into a frenzy over the degradation and debauchery of these godless infidels, Paul turns the tables on the reader, saying “You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge the other, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things” (2:1). Paul makes it abundantly clear that everyone shares the same judgement for failing to adequate recognize God’s holiness and our sinfulness. Those who do not repent will all have to face the wrath of God’s judgement (2:5).
Then he makes some startling statements: “God ‘will give to each person according to what he has done.’ To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life” (2:6-7). And “For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God's sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous” (2:13). Paul says both that righteousness is by faith from first to last and that the declaration of righteousness and the reward of eternal life are based on what is done, not only what is heard. However, the ensuing passage indicates that keeping the law is good, but not enough. In fact, “no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin” (3:20). We are tempted to complain “Come on, Paul. Make up your mind!!” He says both that “it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous” and that ““no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law.” He also says that eternal life is a reward for those who seek glory, honor, and immortality by persistence in doing good. Those are troublesome statements for people who have always been taught that salvation is by grace, through faith, not of works (Ephesians 2:8-9). The problem is only exacerbated by the knowledge that it is the same Paul who makes all of these statements. I propose to leave these statements in tension while we go on to hear more of Paul's thought. It may be that we will learn how to resolve these statements, but in any case, pre-understanding is both necessary and detrimental to understanding. In order to really hear Paul we need to avoid knowing what he is saying before he says it. Let’s listen some more.
Paul then makes his well-known statement that most children who go to Sunday School learn early. “There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (3:23-24). Paul says all have sinned, and there is no limiting qualification on who is justified. The basis of justification is God’s grace. Immediately following Paul again says that justification happens by faith in Jesus, apart from works (3:26,28,30).

Friday, 23 May 2008

What have we forgotten?

I heard Alan Hirsch speak at a church planting congress in Ottawa last year. It was an incredible experience. His talks indicated a passion for God and the church that was refreshing. He has written The Forgotten Ways as an exploration of the essence of the church as the missio Dei.
I came across an interview with Alan Hirsch done by Christianity Today. He has some helpfully provocative things to say regarding small groups and their relation to the church.
He endorses the Evangelical Manifesto, which is an attempt to reclaim the good Evangelical name from the excesses with which it has become associated.
I love what Alan Hirsch brings to the evangelical world. He is a breath of fresh air with his willingness to take a critical look at where we are and how we got here, and then where we should be and how to get there. I am often nervous when I hear nostalgic comments about the apostolic church, but he uses the term in its original sense of being people sent into the world with the good news (evangel) of Jesus the Christ. Theology is an important part of this good news, but we have too often made our particular version of theology the core of the gospel, when the core must always be Jesus Christ.

Tuesday, 1 April 2008

The Shack

I am intrigued by the commotion over a novel approach to who God is and how She relates to the world and its people. In this blog I will not focus on The Shack and legitimacy of the provocative suggestions Young makes regarding the nature of God. I am here more interested in the background reasons for the furor that this book has caused.
Human beings are self-centered creatures whose view of the world tends to presume themselves to be autonomous deities in their own little universe, rather than as creatures accountable to a higher God. This view is not explicit, but implicit, which means that people will seldom enunciate this view, but this paradigm is operative in their function. They operate as though they were autonomous deities.
Another way of talking about this is to say that we all operate with certain frameworks in place. These frameworks are what allows us to make sense of our world, but we seldom pay any attention to the frameworks that structure our understanding of our world. When you wear rose-colored glasses your outlook is always rosy, but in a very short time you become oblivious to, and unaware of, the rose-colored glasses you wear. This problem is only exacerbated when all your friends wear the same shades.
However, when you meet someone who is wearing blue shades you encounter a worldview that presents a jarring contrast to the world you thought you knew. It is this stark contrast which alerts you to the rosy tint which your own framework imposed onto your view of your world, and genuine dialogue with your blue-hued friend shows you a whole new way of looking at your world. If you are willing to really listen to your new friend you are forced to recognize that the world is not only as you had understood it to be. Your world changes right before your eyes, because the way you look at your world has changed. Your experience is of a world that has radically changed, and as you allow new insights to change and correct the way you operate in your world, your world is radically altered.
This is both the promise and the threat of a novel approach portrayed in The Shack. We have read the Bible for many years, and we know what the Bible says. We know what it tells us about God. We know who God is because we know what the Bible tells us. It never occurs to us that we have been reading the Bible through a particular lens. We are completely oblivious to the ways in which these lenses have colored the way we see God described in the Bible. Our first reaction when someone talks about God in ways other than what we are used to is to cry “Heresy!!” We have come to believe devoutly that any characterization of God other than what we read in the Bible is idolatry, and any such other image presents the most sinister threat to our eternal well-being.
Young presents an alternative, not to biblical truth, but to our reading of biblical truth. The fact that his reading of biblical truth is different from ours does not mean that his reading, however provocative, runs contrary to biblical truth. That evaluation requires that we listen carefully to what he is saying, and become willing to get radical with our evaluation of how our own lenses have always colored our own reading of biblical truth.
In the final end, I believe that the allure of Young’s reading rests not merely on the merits of its own provocative suggestions of who God is, but it derives its strength primarily from the promise contained in its potential to broaden our understanding of biblical truth. It is powerfully appealing not because it presents an alternative to biblical truth, but because it presents a larger vision of biblical truth than our frameworks have allowed us to see. To the extent that we are comfortable with the truth we know and are resistant to larger truth, this is diabolically threatening. On the other hand, if we are willing to have an encounter with the God Who Is, beyond our feeble understanding of God as limited by our knowledge, such an alternative carries profound promise. It is the difference between having a god we can hold, or having a God who holds us. When we finally do realize that we can never hold God, it is in fact more comforting to know that it is God who holds us. This realization both relativizes previous frameworks, and it becomes a framework that facilitates a broader and deeper recognition of the God Who Is that must itself be relativized if it is not to become a similarly restricting framework as well as an enabling framework. That God will forever elude our confident grasp and exceed our anemic frameworks is our only hope, not a most threatening heresy. Thanks be to God!!

Saturday, 22 March 2008

Good Friday

Why do we call it Good Friday? I know it is good news for us in retrospect, but it certainly was not a good day for Jesus. And how did the cross, Rome’s symbol of the most ignominious defeat, get turned into the symbol of a victorious Christendom that ruled the western world for two millenia? There seems to be some odd reversal going on here, a paradigm shift of stupendous proportions.
Paul said as much when he told us that Jesus cancelled the written code by nailing it to the cross, and he made a spectacle of powers and authorities, triumphing over them by the cross (Col 2:14,15). What looked to be happening was the polar opposite of what actually transpired.
However, it is precisely this radical reversal of the obvious that is one of the primary reasons for keeping the cross front and center in all Christian theology and practice. (Please understand I am here addressing the place of the cross in our thought, not the place of the cross (and all it represents) in itself. I hope to make clear that the significance of the cross as an expression of the God who relentlessly pursues his children exceeds our grasp.) It is the cross that proscribes our becoming complacent in our theology and practice. It is the profound depth of meaning in the cross that remains a constant challenge to thought and life.
When Mary and I were returning from the obligatory Good Friday morning service we were talking about Jesus’ statement on the cross “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” There has been extensive discussion about the precise meaning of this phrase, and I do not propose to answer the question here, I simply wish to attempt a response that takes note of some of the issues which must be considered in any proposed answer, if any such thing as an answer is even possible.
Interpreting this phrase to indicate that the Father turns his back on his Son, as is often done, is illegitimate on two counts. In the first place, the word Jesus uses means God, not Father. Secondly, Christian theology devoutly holds that Jesus was fully divine and fully human, and that he is so eternally from the Incarnation. Hence this heart-rending lament means neither that the Father turned his back on his Son, and it cannot mean that Jesus’ divinity was diminished in this experience.
I read this statement as an expression of the profound cataclysmic and catastrophic experience of the Author of Life tasting death; of the Holy One becoming sin; and –thanks be to God– of final defeat becoming an eternal victory. We can grasp neither the holiness of God, nor the onerous repugnance of sin, how can we hope understand their intersection? We know not the meaning of life and cannot understand the significance of death, how can we hope to make sense of the earth-shattering magnitude of the clash that transpires when Life meets death face to face?
I cannot hope to adequately understand the significance of the cross for my thought and life, but I am beginning to understand the exigence of keeping the cross front and center in all my reflections about life and relationships. The cross reminds me of who I am, and it reminds me that I need a God who loves me immeasurably more than my paltry awareness of my need for love. The cross reminds me that the way to life is through death, and that things are seldom as they appear. The cross reminds me that I and every one of my fellow human beings stands radically equal before God, and that failure to extend prodigal grace to others is the greatest obstacle to my own experience of the grace I so desperately need for my own salvation. The cross tells me that even as I do not begin to understand the enormity of my sin and the terrifying specter of death as separation from God, so I catch but the faintest glimmerings of the promise contained in the hope of salvation and life with God here and now, as well as forever, because of the cross.
Thanks be to God!!

Wednesday, 19 March 2008

Check out my ego!

I don't really mean that, but it just seems so egotistical to blog, putting something out there for the world to read, as if anyone on the world would care enough to read it.
I think my only justification for blogging at all is that it is a form of discipline in which I am the main (and likely the only) benefactor. I tend to think more carefully when I translate my thoughts into written word.
The other benefit of blogging is the opportunity afforded for conversation and stimulation, but that requires a community, preferably a diverse yet respectful community. Those are a rarity in cyber-space, it seems to me. It it tough to find a blog that portrays either of those qualities, it is almost impossible to have a blog that conveys both. As to community, I return to my earlier query: Why would any one read my blog? I am not even sure I will.
My reticence in blogging is not due to any lack of material. My fascination with the why's and wherefore's of all things philosophical or theological (Ok, not all things, let's go with many things) means there are almost innumerable topics I could reflect upon, but again, why blog about these in a public sphere? Who cares what I think? Certainly not my kids, not always my spouse, some of my friends sometimes, maybe, but I have not told any friends about this blog, so how would they know to check it, even if they did care?
Ok, that's enough of indulging in angst and retro-hubris. Either I blog or I don't. Right now it's not.

Wednesday, 16 January 2008


Thanks for dropping by.