Thursday, December 10, 2009
Christmas invites us to put on yet another lens by which to marvel. Part of what it means to be human is to yearn for a connection with God. We feel lonely, isolated, despairing that we dwell in an empty cosmos or worse - an angry one whose Creator frowns on us.
Into this solitude a baby is announced: "Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel (which means, God with us)".
In the incarnation God casts his lot with humanity. The "where are you?" of alienation at the fall becomes the "God with us" of solidarity in Immanuel's birth.
Sunday, November 29, 2009
Bonhoeffer posits in Life Together that the next most important step for us in a true church setting is disillusionment: "we must be overwhelmed by a great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and, if we are fortunate, with ourselves. By sheer grace, God will not permit us to live even for a brief period in our dream world".
Far from resulting in static, lifeless communities, true disillusionment with our ideals tills the hard ground of pride and pretense to make way for good fruit. First, we receive our local community as we ought, with thanksgiving. Second, "the very hour of disillusionment with my brother becomes incomparably salutary, because it so thoroughly teaches me that neither of us can ever live by our own words and deeds, but only by that one Word and Deed which really binds us together - the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ". Third, we cease hindering God with our petty complaints of disappointment and allow him to grow our fellowship "according to the measure and riches which are there for us all in Jesus Christ".
"He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter."
Tuesday, November 17, 2009
Christians take note - rubbing racial shoulders is still newsworthy! We're not even talking about whites and blacks liking each other. All they have to do is cordially share a waiting room and the Times will slot that phenomenon next to Obama's China tour as front page material. I guess those (white) people who think race doesn't matter in America probably aren't selling newspapers.
Ephesians 2 is vehemently pointed in its vision for race in religious life. On our best days, we as the church understand the first half of the chapter - Jesus' death and resurrection achieves vertical reconciliation. But we rarely venture into the latter half - Jesus' death and resurrection achieves horizontal reconciliation. In other words, 2.5% of American churches can be considered racially diverse.
In reality, a vision for blacks and whites outside the gospel can scarcely hope to achieve more than a waiting room reconciliation. Only the gospel grounds a fellow citizenship, a dwelling place for God made up of the awkward, uncomfortable, self-sacrificing joining of all races.
But I guess the Times makes much of racial hobnobbing in Henry County because they haven't found it anywhere else.
Monday, November 9, 2009
The issue of flags in the sanctuary begs some interesting questions about how design influences worship. Millner's point is valid, that, perhaps, in placing our flag on the "altar" of our respective church we are not worshiping the flag, but creating a visible reminder that if we love our neighbor we ought to pray for our country. This helps me come to terms with my church praying for the queen and singing the Canadian national anthem (once).
But surely there are times when the flag does become an object of idolatry. Where is the line? Why is a little flag next to the cross a helpful reminder while a large American flag in many evangelical churches seems so different?
Soon I think I will argue that this is an issue of ecclesiology as much as aesthetics, but this is enough for now.
Saturday, October 24, 2009
The question then is this: What is the role of tradition in interpreting Scripture? The Catholic position appears to be that Scripture and tradition are to be held on the same level. The mainline Protestant reformers clearly hold up Scripture as authoritative (sola scriptura) without dispensing with tradition, but (perhaps problematically) leave the question of its proper position unestablished. The radical reformers seem to completely disregard tradition as irrelevant, professing that one can really read Scripture unassisted by tradition. The result of this lack of articulation on the part of Protestantism seems to be partly responsible for the fractious milieu that has become one of its hallmarks.
At the risk of muddying the waters of discussion, I will go ahead and say that, on this point at least, I think the radical reformers were more than a little naive simply because nobody is able to completely divorce themselves from their own context (cultural, historical, denominational, etc). Thus, even in the most deconstructed traditions, such as the Quakers, you will find them to be just that–– a tradition. But how does one interpret Scripture in continuity with all of Christian (and Jewish!) history? Can we just appeal to the early church without looking at the less flattering parts that follow? Should we go so far as the Catholic Church and put the two on the same level?
Thursday, October 22, 2009
"...The members, I guess you could say, are born into it, they stay in it by choosing to stay, and they die in it..."
Taken from Hannah Coulter this Wendell Berry quote might well be mistaken for the book of Acts, thick with covenantal, ecclesiological, familial language.
Somehow we've made mutual generosity an event. Appealing for help is the crescendo of maxing resources, dead ends, burgeoning shame and awkwardness. Its broaching the sentence, "I can't..." And God-forbid never twice in one month. Meanwhile, fervency, outdoing, contributing, and seeking are the verbs marking love of Christians in Romans 12.
I long to raise Judah and Amelie in this Membership. Being "born into it", as they grow to pray, worship, and trust Christ, they will learn there's more to our faith than family devotions. Our family is flanked by other families as one Family. "They stay in it by choosing to stay, and they die in it..."
Friday, August 28, 2009
One word of warning: it's a bit on the long side, so you may want to pull up a rolling stool, don a hospital gown, grab a decanter of good 20 year old rubbing alcohol, and make yourself comfortable.
Confessions of a Health Care Rationer
My favorite line? "People love honesty, but they hate the truth," Ah, how deep our depravity runs!
Friday, August 21, 2009
Throughout the novel, Steinbeck is determined to bury her simple fundamentalism by the burgeoning free-spirited, individualism of her husband Samuel, his friend Lee, and their curious reading of Genesis 4. Samuel remarks, "Give me a used Bible and I will, I think, be able to tell you about a man by the places that are edged with the dirt of seeking fingers. Liza wears a Bible down evenly." This begs the question, Who's reading their Bible rightly? The seeking fingers or the even wearing?
Ultimately, there is room at the hermeneutical table for both readers. The Word is relevant and timely, answering burning questions of burdened fingers. If I cannot approach the Word with my aches and fears and joys to whom else may I go? It has the words of life.
Contra Steinbeck, however, it is not the only way or even the best way to read. To paraphrase Newbigin, the Bible does not have answers to all our inquiries because more often than not we are asking stupid questions. Our reading and preaching today has joyfully joined the ranks of Samuel and Lee, hungry for individualistic, therapeutic, myopic tidbits. This Sunday morning snackfood energizes us for another week of living within our own story, the one untarnished and uninterested by the one in Scripture.
Joining Liza in evenly wearing our Bibles is crucial. What breaks to the fore from Genesis to Revelation are not anecdotes for our ailments but the thundering story of God gaining glory for himself by redeeming a people and recreating a world. And we are guests on that sacred ground.
Tuesday, August 18, 2009
“It is a Western conceit,” O’Donovan writes, “to imagine that all political problems arise from the abuse or over-concentration of power; and that is why we are so bad at understanding political difficulties which have arisen from a lack of power, or from its excessive diffusion.” He cites the example of Somalia, admitting that “such power as there has been has, as a matter of course, been abused.” But a more crucial problem is that “political power was never strong enough to cope with the daunting natural obstacles.”
Disease and famine, he suggests, are as crucial “enemies” as tyrants and invaders, since they are “depoliticizing forces” that “prevent people from living in communities, from coordinating their efforts to the common good; from protecting one another against injury and maintaining just order; and from handing on their cultural legacy to their children.”The above is a short blog post from Peter Leithart, where he is summarizing some of Oliver O'Donovan's thoughts from his 1996 book, "The Desire of the Nations." The skepticism of nation-state power that O'Donavan bemoans is relevant to the current debate over reforming health care. One of the main criticisms that is lodged against pursuing the option of a public health care plan is that health care is not a right, it is actually a commodity, or a privilege. Therefore, the American government, with a public health care plan, would be providing something that it does not have business or authority to provide. This has been shouted to the world via televised town-hall meetings with the threat that if we go this route we are wittingly lifting up the dust ruffle and inviting the boogy man with the S branded on his chest into our bedroom to have his way with us.
Beyond the obvious ridiculousness of such alarmism there is a more subtle problem with this warning. As O'Donovan is aptly pointing out, can it honestly be maintained that the tyrants that our military defends us from are more "depoliticizing" than the immobilization of our citizens from untreated disease? We have picked and chose randomly where we want government to interfere with our lives- a product of the post-enlightenment skepticism of everything authority. Yet, in the wake of increasing awareness of the things that threaten our health, and the technological wherewithall to combat them can these arbitrary distinctions be maintained? Why do we consider health care a commodity? Seriously, why? Why is this proposed plan any different from the preventative care I get from the United States Marine Corps? Why am I owed one (as a U.S. citizen) and not the other?
Monday, May 18, 2009
Monday, April 27, 2009
The point here is not to prove every word was accompanied by a miraculous deed, but that such deeds prompted right questions to which the gospel could respond.
The Church inherits this mantle of powerful witness inasmuch as she marries deed and word. The Kingdom of God is not an abstract reality but a Person who we have encountered and whose new creation we have a forestaste in the Spirit. "To set word and deed, preaching and action, against each other is absurd. The central reality is neither word nor act, but the total life of a community enabled by the Spirit to live in Christ, sharing his passion and the power of his resurrection."
How do our lifestyles reflect a new reality? How do we proclaim "Jesus is risen" not just on Easter Sunday but in the company we keep at our table? In the hurt we mend? By the injustices we confront? Through aspirations for our children?
Sadly so much of our lives play out the script of this present reality. No wonder nobody's asking.
An example of this would be the way we exposit a doctrine of creation. Thiselton's position is that early understandings of human origins did not actually come from the question, "where did we come from", but rather from a gratitude for life, a sense of human dependence upon God, and a desire to rejoice in the great natural gifts that we experience. "My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth" (Ps. 121:2). The doctrine of creation, therefore, was sharpened at the dinner table, not in the study.
The issue is not then whether propositions such as, "God is creator" feature at all, but whether we engage these propositions detached from the way they originally arose. This gives a call to examine, as best we can, what context authors were originally asking their questions in. The answers to these questions will naturally have application built into them, because the questions were originally asked in a context where application was their jumping off point. The task of clearly articulating relevant Christian doctrine may not be as difficult as is thought. It is simply a matter of asking questions as they arise.
Saturday, April 25, 2009
But my self-righteous flight leads me into the jaws of the burgeoning beast of NT scholarship. Deep within its bowels I can't make heads or tails of what I came looking for - Was it the Jesus of history? Or was it Matthew's spin? Or am I really seeking the church behind the author behind the text? Or did it all get fuddled in transmission anyway?
There, the Jesus who so winsomely and authoritatively turned Torah interpretations on their heads now slavishly fulfills every whim of Second Temple Jewish literature. The Jesus who confidently butted heads with Pharisees and Sadducees now double checks his theology with Qumran. And the Jesus who recreated the world in his resurrection becomes Paul's plaything, a vacuous two-dimensional figure brought back to life and relevance by a stroke of creative genius.
Who will deliver me from this hermeneutical body of death?
"Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!" As I settle down to my English text, millenia removed from the events it contains, I encounter a present, abiding, divine Word. He neither sparkles like the gilded former version nor evaporates into the obscurity of the latter.
Jesus speaks. There is power in the written and risen Word.
Friday, April 24, 2009
There are the obvious reasons ... the narrator is female, one with whom I more comfortably identify than with Gilead's John Ames. And Housekeeping, while containing some of the most achingly lovely descriptions I've ever come across in literature, is just too dark for me.
But there's something deeper there, below the first impressions. I think at my very core I resonate with Home because it is a book about family.
As the story unfolds through Glory Boughton's eyes, I am given the rare gift of peering in on this woman's most private possession: the emotional inner-workings of her family. At times I feel the discomfort of an outsider, being made privy that that which is none of my business. And I wonder it if this is a gift I really want.
But I can't stop reading, partly because it is a story I want to know the end of, but mostly because as a human being I am swept up in my own story of family, and I identify all too well with many of the thoughts and emotions taking place within these pages.
This story gets at what is closest to the heart of all humans. To be in family is to be vulnerable. Aren't family relationships the most tenuous of all relationships? There is so much power there. A word can make or break them at any time. They can bring the most joy or the most pain to a person's life. A conversation about one's own family evokes feelings of enthusiasm or pain or anger, but rarely indifference.
As we live and work and play we are each living out our own version of the Boughton's saga - whether we interact with members of our family on a daily basis or never speak to them. Our own family's history, its patterns and wounds and victories and secrets often run too deep to be easily explicable to outsiders but they are part of the fiber of who we are - no matter how much we may try to run from it.
To really know another is to see him in the context of his family story. This is why Home is the most intimate of novels. And I think why it is my favorite.
Tuesday, April 21, 2009
“We’re sorry. It’s not us. It’s the monster.”
Grapes of Wrath, 45
In Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck paints a grim picture of the American economic landscape. His portrayal of the simple farmer who is closely tied to the land is contrasted against the leviathan-like qualities of a bank. The land managers roll up in their automobiles and roll down there windows, never making contact with the earth, to tell the tenants squatting in the dirt that they must leave because it is no longer cost effective to have tenants. Why deal with the messiness of tenant farmers when a machine can do just as much work in a fraction of the time? When the tenants protest, the manager simply defers to the “machine”. “It’s not us,” they say,
It’s the bank. A bank isn’t like a man. Or an owner with fifty thousand acres, he isn’t like a man either. That’s the monster….It happens that every man in a bank hates what the bank does, and yet the bank does it. The bank is something more than men, I tell you. It’s the monster. Men made it, but they can’t control it. (ibid)
The irony of the situation is hard to miss. If the men built the machine, who else but the men who built and comprise it would be responsible?
Steinbeck’s question is a deeply troubling one, particularly for the western Christian. Our own society has created something that historically has few direct parallels; whole businesses–– private enterprises–– that, to a very large degree, influence and even control the direction of the country and the world. Before capitalism, this sort of power resided almost entirely in the hands of the state (for better or worse). The Church was often better equipped to speak on issues of oppression and tyranny by the government because it has scripture that speaks directly to Christian’s relationship to the state (cf. Romans 13). Furthermore, it has an identity that is firmly established apart from the state (consider for instance, John 18:36), even if the men within the Church were prone to acquiescence. But how ought we as believers respond to institutions that are not the state and apparently reside outside of our scripture and our history? Specifically, how ought we regard those corporations that we know are causes of oppression? If an organization is responsible for indirectly killing a person, who is responsible?
It should be said first that if we affirm the authority of Scripture, then it must also be affirmed that the Bible and the Spirit have not failed to speak to this particular situation, so it is an artificial problem if we concede that somehow a scenario has arisen that Christ failed to prepare us for.
Where do we begin then? Should the corporation be regarded as the state, since it contains many of the same features as the state, minus the authority? Perhaps that is just it, since it possesses no real authority, should it be regarded at all? Should the Church support it or condemn it for its propensity keep one from loving his neighbor due to globalization (in which case our neighbor is not visible, but still there)?
Thursday, April 16, 2009
Both questions appropriately demand livability, an essential component of any conception of Christian life. Something may look great on paper, adorned with proof texts and Luther quotes, but does it work? Can it be lived?
If a pair of scissors was used in a brutal murder, no one would call into question whether or not we should continue to manufacture and use them for their other effective purpose. Just because something is abused does not undermine its validity. But what if we lived in a world where scissors were only ever without exception used not for cutting paper but stabbing victims? Every single time any well-meaning school teacher sought to conduct an art project, she ended up with a room full of bodies. We might begin to wonder if scissors were such a great idea after all.
Enter "just war". Has there ever been a just war? Even if you support war without the "just" part, has there ever been a war for which a Christian could fully support its cause and fully support its means?
This might sound like an unfair test. It might sound like asking, Has there every been a completely untainted democratic process? But that's not what I'm asking. I'm not saying that we throw out democracy because its always tainted. I'm saying we throw out communism because we always end up with totalitarianism.
Enter "war". We don't abandon war for the Christian because it involves non-Christians and its always tainted by evil on both sides. We abandon war because when we set out for justice on paper we always end up with injustice. We fight for unjust reasons, with unjust means, and get unjust results. Sure there might be some mixed blessings in there. I could name a few mixed blessings under Mao or Stalin or Hitler. But collateral blessings are cause for abandonment not embodiment.
And so the pragmatic challenge stands: Has there ever been a just war?
Thursday, April 9, 2009
First, the more Christian soldiers espouse just war theory, the more likely they may begin thinking through what they mean by it. Sooner or later protecting oil fields or killing Muslims is going to come up short. What are you going to do with a massive standing army who keeps asking, Should we be doing this?
Second, if a soldier obeys orders and kills civilians there's the nasty business of church discipline, handing them over to Satan. That's terrible for morale.
Third, Christians will (counter-intuitively) pray for their enemies. They will demonstrate mercy over justice. They will turn the other cheek. In fact, they may get confused and accidentally do corporately what they vigorously practice privately. Or they might just realize that's a stupid distinction anyway.
Fourth, they share a commission greater than capitalism. What happens when they begin to lose gospel credibility because they keep shooting everybody? They might be forced to choose baptizing over bombing, witnessing over water boarding.
Finally, Christian soldiers are ultimately under not the commander in chief but Christ. And worse, they are striving to become more and more like him. Which means they are becoming decidedly less and less what they are defending. Old wine skins can't hold the new wine.
Saturday, April 4, 2009
Our present aversion to the cross centers around a question posed by a friend: Is it a symbol of God's love or God's love itself? There is a world of difference. If the cross is a symbol it is a demonstration; it is a kind gesture (albeit confusing) out there. But if it is God's definitive act of love we invite two messy concepts right here, our sin and God's wrath.
There is no ambiguity in the Scriptures. Jesus died for sins. "For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God" (1 Pet 3:18). Language of imputation and balance transfers has the adverse affect of rendering what we mean by it as about as controversial as an accounting textbook. But as we approach Good Friday we are in a season to reflect very graphically and very precisely on what we mean.
On the cross, afflicted, bloodied, abandoned my God, naked, reeking of his own feces Jesus was a sexual predator. He raped women; he performed back alley abortions; he was an avid homosexual with multiple partners; he was strung out on coke; he was racist.
And just as the transition from Romans 1 to 2 indicts the self-righteous elder brother along with the prodigal, he was an online porn addict; he was anorexic; he said and did cruel things to his spouse; he insulated himself in the suburbs; he isolated himself in the city; he withheld the gospel from those who needed it most and collected trinkets for his modest home while others starved; he was proud, greedy, selfish, loving only people who were most like him.
For such a vile sinner there could be no humane execution, no heart attack in the garden or beheading before Pilate. The utter, vehement, violent wrath of God demanded abandonment, humiliation, horror, mocking, spitting, beating, whipping, thorns, nails, agony, desperation till Isaiah's prophecy could chillingly be fulfilled: "his appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of the children of mankind" (52:14).
Martin Luther said, "The whole value of the meditation of the suffering of Christ lies in this, that man should come to the knowledge of himself, and sink and tremble."
Monday, March 23, 2009
Thursday, March 5, 2009
Some would argue that this is the church's fault, not God's, that there are unreached peoples. This does not answer the question. Regardless of whose fault, if God determines someone to be born where he knows the church has and will continue to fail to bring the gospel, is he not still condemning them?
Others argue that all people have general revelation and those who respond to this will receive special revelation. Ignoring the fact that the Scriptures' most explicit language about general revelation is its rejection not its acceptance (Rom 1), there are still two problems with this. First, it harbors implicit racism. Certain ethnic groups have responded to God's general revelation and received missionaries, while other whole races have utterly failed to respond at all. Are there cultures and peoples more hardened to God than others? Second, it does not scratch an Arminianist itch of fairness. How is it fair that I heard the gospel a thousand times before I accepted it while someone else must obey God generally for a season to prove their desire to hear the gospel for the first time?
The illusion of Arminianism is that God's sovereignty is a sliding scale. But the moment you tamper with the dial, even just a hair, you lose everything. If God does not elect some for salvation, how can he possibly become untangled from the web of temporal, cultural, geographical, cultural, personal factors that formulate each person's decision to respond? If God retains any control at all his hands are instantly soiled in determining eternal fates.
God either elects who will be saved and ordains how this comes to pass or he sets creation in motion and butts out. You can't have it both ways.
Friday, February 13, 2009
There are basically two categories of warfare in the Old Testament. First, God used his covenant people Israel as an instrument of judgment on surrounding nations. It was generally total warfare, a nasty business of razing cities to the ground, sowing salt, executing survivors, kidnapping virgins, collecting foreskins, and dashing babies to bits. The second category of war was that of secular nations used by God to judge and then were judged by God for judging. It was live by the sword and die by the sword - no sooner did God judge Israel with Assyria than he judged Assyria for her wickedness in the matter (Is 10).
Contra wishful thinking, America is not the new Israel. In fact, Israel is not even the new Israel. If you are looking for support for a secular government to be used by God to judge another nation and in turn be blessed for her efforts you won't find it in the Old Testament. Try Greek mythology. If you are looking for a "just war theory" - taking the word war from the OT and baptizing it in some of the humanitarian kindness from the New - you won't find that either. Try Augustine or Geneva.
There's no space to cover Romans 13 here. Suffice to say that it would take some fantastic hermeneutical gymnastics to balance America's worldwide jurisdiction over sovereign states on the point of the sword mentioned there.
Generally a defense for warfare is drawn not primarily from the Bible but our predicament, concerning Hitler, Al Qaeda, Darfur. At best this is thinly veiled scorn for the naivety of our Lord who failed to foresee this. At worst its blatant disregard for everything he said about laying down rights and taking up the cross.
Jesus said "blessed are the peacemakers" and Paul, "for the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh"; and yet somehow we've spiritualized the peacemakers and materialized warmongers. Its long overdue for the burden of biblical proof to reside with the war makers.