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Archive for the category “Thoughts”

The King is Dead, Long Live the King

Something that has really stuck with me about the account of the events of Good Friday was probably best summarized in a talk given by N.T. Wright. He begins talking about this question of authority that Jesus and Pilate had a conversation about (what amounted to his official trial). There’s quite a bit of background to this question that, in the talk I heard, Wright doesn’t really have time to get into. Essentially, Pilate is trying to ascertain whether Jesus is guilty of sedition, of trying overthrow the empire to establish his own Kingdom. It turns out, Jesus is 100% guilty of that charge, but not in the way that Pilate had suspected. The whole dialogue is spread of John 18 and 19.

Pilate asks if Jesus is a King. Jesus responds by asking why he would think such a thing. Heavily implied in Jesus’s response is that Pilate actually has no authority, but does as others ask him. Yet soon it comes about where we have a key line from Jesus “My Kingdom is not from this (ek tos) world.” This is not saying there is a kingdom and it exists somewhere, but not here. Instead, Jesus is boldly declaring that his kingdom does not arise out of this world. It comes from somewhere else. Because it comes from somewhere else, it will be achieved in a radically different way. Jesus is basically telling Pilate that the Kingdom is coming from God himself, and Jesus’s death will only accelerate its arrival. This is why Pilate tries to release him.

The crowd having none of it, Pilate tries to make him king, in a mocking sort of manner, and in the cruelest way possible. Pilate seeks to make him a king completely according to the ways of this world, through violence and insult. Yet it is to no avail. Instead the people remind Pilate of Jesus’s claim, he claimed to be “the Son of God.”

There is a heavy nuance we often miss today in our modern sensibility. Jesus’s claim to be the “Son of God” was not, exclusively, a claim to divinity. There are other, much more explicit passages about that (“I and the Father are one.” “Before Abraham was, I AM (ego eimi)”). Instead, it’s important to note that, by this time, the Roman emperor had taken on a very specific title: son of the gods. It is for this reason Pilate became terrified. This is a true and unmistakable revolution. It also leads Pilate back to touting his authority, rebellions must be squelched, after all.

It is here that Jesus reminds Pilate of what authority actually looks like. Pilate claims to have authority, but any authority he has “comes from above.” The dual meaning here is that it comes only from Caesar, who is in authority over Pilate, but also that it comes from God. That is if he has authority. As it turns out, Pilate does not act like one with authority. His wish, at that point, is to be done with Jesus and not to crucify him, yet he succumbs to the will of the people, those over whom he claims to have authority. Pilate wants to release Jesus, but that is in violation of his authority from Caesar. Still he wants to to release Jesus, but his authority is taken away by the crowds.

And it brings me back to this line from the lecture by N. T. Wright.

“Pilate and Jesus have this debate about authority and who has authority and where authority comes from. Pilate hands Jesus over to be crucified, and Jesus wins.”

Pilate cannot let it go, and must admit Jesus is King, because he acted with authority. And there, on the cross, he is inaugurated. The Kingdom of God has broken into our world. The sorrow of the Friday will turn to joy on the Sunday. But let us not skip over the sorrow too quickly.

The King is dead, long live the King.

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The Cup

Today is Maundy Thursday. This is the day when the events of the “upper room” occurred. It is also the night of the Garden of Gethsemane and arrest of Jesus. Through this night the cup, used in passover, takes on a special significance. In this post, I’m going to attempt to briefly outline some of them.

Ancient Drinking Chalice

The Cup was a Marriage Proposal

In first century Jewish marriage proposals, wine took on a special significance. In the proposal, the tale end of it, after a marriage covenant was actually drawn up and agreed upon by the groom, father of the bride and the bride, it would be sealed with a toast between the groom and the bride. The groom would pour wine and offer it to his (hopefully soon-to-be) bride, with the promise that “This is a covenant in my blood” or something similar. To accept she would drink it. To reject the request (because hers was the final decision) she would simply return the cup.

20 In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you. (Luke 22:20, NIV)

The Cup is a Promise

The groom, after such a proposal was accepted, would promise not to drink wine again until he saw the bride again, on their wedding day. He would then go to make a bridal suite ready, which was a room attached to his Father’s house. He would stock it and prepare it to make everything perfect, returning to take his bride for their wedding day at a time she would not expect, to foster a sense of expectation and excitement everyday that today would be the day she would see her groom coming for her. In the meantime, the bride to be was encouraged to regularly drink small amounts of wine, each time reminding her that her groom would be coming for her. Today could be the day.

My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. (John 14:2-3, NIV)

“At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish and five were wise. The foolish ones took their lamps but did not take any oil with them. The wise ones, however, took oil in jars along with their lamps. The bridegroom was a long time in coming, and they all became drowsy and fell asleep.
“At midnight the cry rang out: ‘Here’s the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!’
“Then all the virgins woke up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish ones said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil; our lamps are going out.’
“‘No,’ they replied, ‘there may not be enough for both us and you. Instead, go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.’
10 “But while they were on their way to buy the oil, the bridegroom arrived. The virgins who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut.
11 “Later the others also came. ‘Lord, Lord,’ they said, ‘open the door for us!’
12 “But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I don’t know you.’
13 “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.”
(Matthew 25:1-13, NIV)

29 I tell you, I will not drink from this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom. (Matthew 26:29, NIV)


do this in remembrance of me.” (Luke 22:19b)

The Cup is Also Tragic

Jesus directly prays that the cup he is to drink, the cup of death, will pass from him. This is an honest and human response. If there is ever any doubt that Jesus knows what it is like to be a human, here it is. It is only because he became incarnate as a frail, finite, person–the infinite in the finite–that we can have life in his name. Maundy Thursday reminds us to prepare ourselves for Good Friday. Without the death of the cross there is no resurrection of the dead. And in Christ’s dying, we ourselves die, so that by his rising, we may find life abundant.

39 Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” (Matthew 26:39, NIV)

The name “Maundy” comes from the Latin for commandment. We are commanded to love one another in the same way Christ loved us. Even when, or perhaps especially when, we don’t feel like it.

34 “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:34-35, NIV)

Everybody needs to calm down about the Blood Moon (especially Christians)

I didn’t really believe it at first, but there it was, right on my Facebook feed. Someone talking about how the lunar eclipse that happened on Tuesday. Or, in their terms, the “blood moon.” I don’t really blame them, there are people who like to stir up hysteria and they make very convincing arguments with nice rhetoric. But they are mistaken about it, and usually don’t really care how often they are wrong (and if you look at the track record of the sorts of people who cause these hysterias they are almost always wrong). Nor was simply talking about the moon a problem. I mean everybody was talking about it. This was one of the clearest and fullest lunar eclipse of our lifetimes, and so it is a rare opportunity to view the moon looking almost entirely red. No, the problem was that the talk focused entirely upon a discussion of how the end of the world is about to happen at any minute. Now it may be the case that the end of world really is about to happen at minute, but it has nothing to do with the “blood moon” and here are three reasons why:

Someone get that moon a bandage. It's bleeding everywhere.

1. This is not the first lunar eclipse and it won’t be the last

This point is really pretty obvious. It is true that most ancients and medievalists thought the red moon or “blood moon” was a bad omen, but they thought that because it occurred periodically. However, when bad things followed such an event, it was really just a case of confirmation bias. That’s a phenomenon where you only pay attention to observations that confirm your already held suspicion. It’s not proof, it’s selective observation. “But this one’s different” I’ve heard and seen people say. Well…

2. This lunar eclipse is not really that different

It’s different in the sense that it looks a lot clearer and more obvious than most lunar eclipses we will likely witness in our lifetime. But it’s not different in the sense of paying attention to specific dates and times, etc. Do you know who set about creating calendars and such? People did. They are a social convention. Now, it is true that they’ve conformed generally to some external phenomenon, like the revolution of the earth around the sun, or the lunar cycle (note: the current Jewish Calendar is somewhere between the two). Still, it is ultimately a human invention. The Holy Days enacted in Scripture are an example of God accommodating his revelation to us. At least that seems to be the opinion of Paul in the 2nd chapter of Colossians (NIV):

16 Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. 17 These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ. 18 Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you. Such a person also goes into great detail about what they have seen; they are puffed up with idle notions by their unspiritual mind. 19 They have lost connection with the head, from whom the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow.

In fact, the obsession with timing specific days and alignment with the planets as somehow an omen is not routed in Christianity. Instead, you would expect to find that sort of thing in Astrology and Paganism (both ancient and modern or neo-paganism).

“But” someone will object “what about those bible verses?”

3. Those Bible verses don’t necessarily mean what you think they do

There are, by my count, exactly three verses of the bible that refer to a red moon. And one of those is a New Testament passage explicitly quoting an Old Testament passage. So let’s look at that one first.

In Joel 2, it reads:

28 “And afterward,
    I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
    your old men will dream dreams,
    your young men will see visions.
29 Even on my servants, both men and women,
    I will pour out my Spirit in those days.
30 I will show wonders in the heavens
    and on the earth,
    blood and fire and billows of smoke.
31 The sun will be turned to darkness
    and the moon to blood
    before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord. (NIV)

Now that doesn’t sound so bleak. I mean, it does call it a “dreadful day of the Lord,” but the Hebrew text uses words in different ways than we do. I mean what’s with the prominence  of “Fear of the Lord” in Proverbs. Does that mean we should be scared and hiding from God, or does fear mean something else? Does “dreadful” mean something else? This becomes particularly clear in the context of the chapter. Immediately prior to this section, the prophet Joel describes the restoration of the land and provision from God, and immediately after Joel notes that all who call upon God will be saved. That’s not very bleak at all. In fact, if we look to the New Testament, we see how they understood its fulfillment.

At the beginning of Acts, immediately after the outpouring of the Spirit upon the Church at Pentecost, Peter gets up and starts shouting that this very passage has just been fulfilled. After all, the Spirit is being poured out on all of the church, not just an individual (as had been the case in the Old Testament). What’s more, he quotes the bit about the sun being black and the moon being blood during what, by all accounts, seems to be a pleasant day (people are outside celebrating this festival and no one is terrified). There’s no black sun and no red moon. What gives? It could be that the black sun and red moon mean something else entirely.

One more passage before I come back to that. In Revelation 6 we have the following appear:

12 I watched as he opened the sixth seal. There was a great earthquake. The sun turned black like sackcloth made of goat hair, the whole moon turned blood red, 13 and the stars in the sky fell to earth, as figs drop from a fig tree when shaken by a strong wind. 14 The heavens receded like a scroll being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place. (NIV)

It’s always interesting to me how different people treat the book of Revelation. (Sidenote: pet peeve of most biblical scholars: putting an “s” on the end of Revelation. If you know one, try it out and watch them squirm a little before apologizing). Everyone talks about taking it “literally” but what they mean by that varies.

-Revelation mentions that there will be two prophets against the city of Babylon? Well then, we better look for exactly two men who are prophesying against a pagan city, bonus points if that city is actually named Babylon.

-Revelation talks about a beast rising up out of the sea, a third of the stars falling from heaven? Well, I mean it’s not a “beast” but a person. And those stars are demons. Clearly a metaphor.

-Revelation mentions Jesus standing at the door and knocking? Well that is not bound to a specific time period in any way shape or form. Come on, give us some credit.

Here’s the problem with the above. How literal one takes Revelation depends upon how literal the one doing the reading decides to take it. And it usually is a personal choice, with little to no respect (or even awareness) of the genre in which the book was written. It’s read like a modern book, and one that the reader knows based upon a gut feeling (that gut feeling is not the Spirit, by the way. The Spirit is expressed in the full body of believers known as the Church). So we read it “literally” when it is convenient, and dispense with literality any time it is convenient or interesting to do so. That’s a problem. Revelation is a hard book to understand. I don’t claim to fully comprehend it, but while I’m willing to admit that, I do understand it on some level.

So what’s going on here?

Well John, the author of Revelation, is very adept at blending into Revelation and referencing a wide variety of Old Testament symbols. He doesn’t do so explicitly (partly because that would violate the genre in which he’s writing), but it is permeating by the Hebrew Bible. Given that the only reference to a red moon found in the Old Testament is in Joel, we should probably see if there is any overlap. For Joel, the use of the images of a black sun and red moon were indications of the end of the world. Not because Joel thought there natural occurrences would actually foretell the end of the world, but because this was an already established motif. Other cultures sure seemed to think that, but Joel didn’t (or, at the very least, Peter quoting Joel didn’t believe that). They are merely a more poetic way of talking about the end of history.

That fits pretty well with Revelation, but it doesn’t explain why Peter references it in Acts.

It helps if we understand that Peter was a Jew, not a Gentile Christian. As such, he had certain expectations about how the world would end. During the first century, this included a belief in the “resurrection of the dead.” Peter, and all the early church, wholeheartedly believed that Jesus was raised from the dead. For the early church, then, that meant the end of history wasn’t only eminent, but already present. The end of the world had come. Indeed, one question that 1-2 Thessalonians and Revelation are all trying to deal with is how the end of the world could have so clearly arrived, and yet the world not be over yet. It is then that the church began to make sense of Jesus’ statements that “A time is coming and is now here.” This is two Kingdoms theology. The end of the world has come, it has come in the Kingdom of God, which is the Church as it should be. It is at war with the kingdom of the world. Yet, in light of the resurrection of Christ and Pentecost, the kingdom of this world has already lost to the Kingdom of God. The end of the world has already happened. It’s coming, yes, but it’s already here. Maranatha!

6 Things for the Last Day of Women’s History Month

Rosie the Riveter

For those who are unaware, March is Women’s History Month. From a theological standpoint, women are created in the image of God (as Genesis says “in the image of God he made them, Male and Female he created them”). The creation accounts end with women, the crown jewel of creation. In light of the fact that yesterday was the UK’s “Mothering Day” (aka Mother’s Day) and that this is the last day of Women’s History Month, here are six things you can do to show women (and other women) you care.

1. Appreciate women you know

Only, don’t appreciate them in some awkward “you’re a woman, so, er, um, I guess I appreciate you for being born without a Y chromosome” way. Instead appreciate the women you know for the things they do as people because, you know, they are people. Kinda a prerequisite there. So really look at what they excel at as a human being and take the time to say thanks for that.

2. Read a little about women’s history

It’s fascinating stuff. Try to get past Amelia Earhart too. I mean there are tons more fascinating women. Since this is a Christian theology blog, I’ll point out Hildegard von Bingen, or Julian of Norwich, both amazing women who impacted through their Julian of Norwich Picturewritings, and in many ways continue to impact, the church, theology and, in Hildegard’s place, music, yet lived during a time when most people, not to mention women, were illiterate. Of course there are many more (really these are just two of so many more within Christianity and outside of Christendom), so go do some research and get reading.

3. Acknowledge the fact that women get less credit, (and less pay) than men

This is not the product of a bygone era. Women still are regularly paid substantially less than men for performing the exact same task. They are also less likely to be promoted and generally have a steeper climb than men do. This is despite laws designed to prevent this sort of thing from happening. You may disagree about whether a woman should work out of the home or not, but if she is working, it is hard to make a case that her work is somehow less valuable for any reason other than the fact that companies can get away with it.

4. Realize that there is a negative double standard for women

This is related to the work issue, but goes beyond it. Women who spend lots of time in the office are considered neglectful of their families, while those who spend more time with their families are seen as less committed. In contrast, men who do these same activities are viewed as either driven or “family men.” Beyond the workplace, though, there is a different standard for sexuality. Men who are sexually promiscuous or who look at pornographic images are seen as subject to biology beyond their control or somehow just being manly. Women, however, are viewed as…well I try not to use that sort of language on this blog.

5. Understand that modern slavery disproportionately affects women

More people are kidnapped or born, bought and sold, or currently held captives as slaves today that at any point in history previously. Exact numbers are difficult to pin down, but roughly 80% of those in slavery are little girls and young women put into prostitution or other forms of sexual slavery. This is the disgusting and cold hard fact of our world. I currently live in Houston, the American Capital for human trafficking/slave trading/sex trafficking (with an international port, airport, and interstate highways close to an international border it makes it terribly suited for this sort of thing).

6. Work to end numbers 3-5

We should work to remove these disparities and end modern slavery. Not because these primarily affect women, but because they universally affect people. We are all created in God’s image and are all in need of God’s rescue. We should work to live out that equality in our lives.

For more on what you can do to end modern slavery see these organizations or find other reputable ones: Free the Captives, Free our City, and Houston Rescue and Restore.

The Value of Higher Education

So my other passion beyond theology, if you don’t know (and even if you do), is higher education. More specifically, higher education in the Western liberal arts tradition. There has been a lot of talk, on the news, in trade journals, and in blogs or on social media, recently about whether it is “worth it” to go to college–even the past two US presidents have been getting in on the action. I would argue that, in defiance of the claims and arguments about education and its value, there is a worth the liberal arts education completely excluded from the conversation; and this, while not a quantifiable worth, is nevertheless one of the most important aspects of a democratic society.

Frequently, the conversation is phrased in terms of ROI, or return on investment. That is, education is reduced to a mere utilitarian concept and is guaged useful if it leads to a greater level of material income, less lost costs of work, than if you went into work directly after high school. Most of these analyses show that, on a pure economics level, yes, the college degree is worth it. That is, if you factor in income lost over a 4 or 5 year period in a job without a college degree, and compare it to the increase in income from getting such a degree, and balancing this out with experience and promotions/raises associated with both scenarios, the college degree comes out on top. However, it is quickly noted that in general, especially if one takes 5 years to complete a degree and even moreso if you pick the wrong field, the ROI is not very high, and occasionally negative. In other words, college may only be “worth it” if you pick a utilitarian degree, if you graduate in 4 years, and if you take the highest paying job, ignoring all other factors. Also, usually included in these analyses, is the point that college tuition is going up, and soon it will not be worth it to go to college.

That’s all well and good, but I find myself looking at these studies and seeing a fundamental flaw in them. The assumption is that the only value in a degree, or a liberal arts education, is in what type of earnings it can potentially provide (and in the current economy, including future projections of it, that is not guaranteed). Here’s the problem: that’s not the only value higher education has. Such an analysis assumes that the college education is only a professional qualification; it claims that all education is vocational training. Implicit is the assumption that anything beyond vocational training is either a) easily done alone, or, more alarmingly, b) should only be undertaken by the elites of society. I would suggest that both assumptions are false.

The assumption by the first claim is that one does not need anyone else to learn. It implies an idealistic picture of a lone individual sitting in a room reading book upon book. While that may make for interesting movies, like “Good Will Hunting,” or compelling historical narratives, such as Bill Gates, such individuals are the exception, not the rule. Most learning requires a broader community and, along with that, an individual materially connected to that community who guides and leads it, giving it structure and substance. We learn from each other, and we learn best when we have a guide who is invested in our education on a personal level. In short, the best learning happens face to face, not through a book or on a video screen. Even though I value reading widely and rigorously, unless there is someone to guide us as to what we should read or watch, anything goes. “Zeitgeist” is an incredibly popular youtube video, but it is factually inaccurate throughout. Holy Blood, Holy Grail may be a bestseller on religion and Christianity with a compelling story, but it hardly qualifies as quality research. We need a guide, and we need a larger community to help us. As the biblical book of Proverbs says “As iron sharpens iron, so one person does another.” We learn from each other in dialogue, in disagreement, and through mutual struggle.

The second assumption, that learning beyond credentials is reserved for the societal elite, undermines the very nature of a democratic society or of a republic. Education should not be for the elite only, but for everyone. Soceities function best when all participants are educated as best as they can be. Only then can meaningful dialogue about the future direction of a country, or city, or state, occur. Only then can we actually discuss the merits and failings of various proposals without descending into angry animals barking at each other. Education, and in particular higher liberal arts education, encourages to see past empty rhetoric, to view the heart of an idea and evaluate its substance, and to see the point of view of those with whom we disagree. Only those who seek control and power over the masses would knowingly discourage such a practice or undervalue such education. The conversation in America should not be about the value of education, but about increasing access to it. And the increase in access should not focus on MOOCs, or the cheapest, or most cost efficient way to do so. Aside from the studies showing many of these forms fail when it comes to student success (MOOCs, Massively Open Online Courses, tend to show only 2-5% of students who actually learn the material or could pass with a “C”), such talk inherently encourages a two-tier system in education, with the elites (read: richest) getting direct interaction, and everyone else watching videos and left to struggle on their own. In other words, those least equipped to teach themselves would be those most likely to be required to do so.

Of course, both of these points I’ve made assume something about education. Namely: it is inherently valuable. To phrase discussion about education purely in terms of ROI is to miss the point completely. Let me argue by way of analogy. What is the value of having and/or raising a child? Unless you work on a farm in the middle ages, this has a terrible ROI. Yet most of us do not question that such a thing is valuable. Even if we do question it, the arguments tend to focus on more than return on investment. Or how about this: what is the value of voting? of giving to charity? of going to church? of reading beyond what is required for a job? of simply sitting and enjoying a cup of coffee/tea? These all have terrible ROI because you have lost opportunity costs (at the least, sometimes material losses as in donating to charity), and very little prospect of them producing anything to materially compensate them. Yet, are they valuable?

“Get wisdom. Though it cost you all you have, gain understanding.” (Proverbs 4:7)

On Waiting

So recently, I’ve been growing increasingly impatient with this waiting business. It seems like all I’ve been doing is waiting.

For those of you reading this who don’t know, let me give you some background:

As of the writing of this post I currently don’t have a job. It’s not that I’m lazy. I’m also a full time student.

Here’s the thing, though: I have no idea where my family and I are going to be. We may be moving across the country or around the world, but I have no idea where. In 3-4 months some big change is very likely, but I have no idea what it is going to look like. So I’ve been waiting.

Here’s the other thing: it feels like I’ve been waiting for much, much longer. While all of my peers have been out buying houses and “climbing the ladder” of their respective careers, I’ve still been in school. My wife and I have often commented on how it feels like we’re waiting for our “real life” to start. To stop living on a student budget. To get a decent car, and nice smartphones. To start putting money toward the purchase of a house. To finally be “adults.”

Common wisdom, and what we’re often told, is simply to be patient. To wait and see what wonderful plans God has in store for us. Now I don’t think that’s entirely off the mark. Yet something that my wife has been trying to tell me, but which has only sunk in little bits at a time, and something I’ve been thinking about has started to change my perspective. And here’s the result: I’m through waiting.

Changing my outlook

While it may be true that patience is a virtue, or at least one of the fruit of the spirit, we are mistaken if we assume that this means we are called to wait around. Patience, at least as I read the New Testament, is always in the context of relationships. We are to be patient with other people. It is a disposition toward someone, even if that is ourselves. It’s transitive (sorta), not intransitive.

Now, for the sake of my children, I’m glad I haven’t been just sitting around all day waiting for my life to begin before I acted as a parent. Clearly, they aren’t going to wait around for me to get my act together before they learn to ride a bike, or play their first board game, or learn how to read. I can’t patiently wait in that aspect of my life. In the past the result has been that my life felt disjointed. Things were moving so slow on one front (starting my “real life”), while moving so quickly on the other (my family). It seems I got it all out of order. But what if it wasn’t out of order. What if it was exactly as it was supposed to be.

Paul tells the Church, in the letter to the Roman Christians, that whatever it is we are doing, we should be doing to the glory of God. By God’s grace I hope I’m doing that with my kids. But can I be “waiting” for the glory of God. To say yes means that “waiting” is something that we do. But that seems to fly in the face of all experience. The thing is, when we wait we aren’t doing something. Now, granted, their can be purposeful waiting, but this is more of an anticipation of something that is going to happen. It seems to have purpose. So much of my waiting felt without purpose. But if I truly take Paul’s message to heart, what I’m doing can’t be purposeless.

Those drafts of chapters that seem to be bleeding red ink when I get them back. They aren’t wastes of time, they’re me glorifying God in my mistakes and in the small bits that somehow carry through to the next draft. The time spent filling out applications for places that will send me “dear applicant” letters aren’t me throwing time away. It is me pantingly following the course I believe God has laid out for me. If I’m mistaken, well as Martin Luther said “Sin boldly that boldly you may be forgiven.”

Waiting versus Waiting

In his, now infamous, play “Waiting for Godot,” Samuel Becket follows the experience of two hapless men waiting. They’re supposed to meet this guy, Godot, but neither of them knows who Godot is, or what he looks like. To complicate matters, neither of them are entirely sure as to when they are supposed to meet Godot, or even where the meeting is supposed to take place. However, they are both convinced they are meant to meet Godot, and so they wait for him.

Time is somewhat ambiguous in the play, but it seems that between the two scenes a considerable amount of time has passed. Yet the two men, Estragon and Vladimir, are still waiting, finding things to fill their time, and complaining they have nothing to do. At the end of each scene the pair decide that, rather than continue to wait, they will depart. Yet neither of them does. And so they wait, largely not doing anything.

Despite the similarity of sounds in English, Becket was adamant that Godot should not be understood as God (the play was initially written in French and the names largely unchanged; Godot does not sound like the French Dieu). Yet, given the highly spiritual and biblical discussion of the pair, it would be a mistake to assume that there is no spiritual commentary that might be garnered from this intentionally absurd play. For many Christians, we are told that waiting is a good thing. While waiting on the Lord is certainly praised in the Old Testament, perhaps e should be clear. There is waiting and there is waiting.

Waiting in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) seems to be not only purposeful, but active. Waiting isn’t sitting around and not doing anything, as is the case in “Waiting for Godot,” but involves seeking, preparation, service. When in Ecclesiastes 3 it says that God blesses those who wait on Him, it couples this with further declarations to seek after God. Waiting, in the Bible, isn’t just sitting around while nothing happens, but is our intentional seeking of God. We search and glorify God in the otherwise mundane, ordinary, and basic.

As Brother Lawrence said,

Men invent means and methods of coming at God’s love, they learn rules and set up devices to remind them of that love, and it seems like a world of trouble to bring oneself into the consciousness of God’s presence. Yet it might be so simple. Is it not quicker and easier just to do our common business wholly for the love of him?

and again

We can do little things for God; I turn the cake that is frying on the pan for love of him, and that done, if there is nothing else to call me, I prostrate myself in worship before him, who has given me grace to work; afterwards I rise happier than a king. It is enough for me to pick up but a straw from the ground for the love of God

So there is waiting, comprised of “doing nothing”, and there is waiting, comprised of seeking and following God, of honoring God in the little things, in the minutiae of life. That shift in perspective can mean wonders.

Now, I’m not saying I’ve got it figured out, or that I don’t get frustrated by the empty sort of waiting. I just pray that I can spend more days seeking God’s presence where I am, and fewer promising myself to abandon the empty waiting only to return to it the next day. The truth is, though, that we weren’t made for that empty sort of waiting. We were created to do something, and to wait differently. To glorify God in what otherwise seems like the in-between. We wait with purpose, and we don’t need to wait because God is here, his Kingdom is at work. Perhaps, we don’t really wait, but we act. Maybe my writing now, my failed attempts to get to a final draft of my dissertation, my research that sometimes hits a dead end, maybe it is all far more important than I can possibly fathom. Maybe it’s the same with you.

Into the Fray: The negative responses to tragedy

Nothing for a month and then back to back whoppers. I guess I’ve got a lot I held back.

I’ve hesitated to write this post. I really have. But I don’t think I can be quiet about it. It needs to be said, and people need to stop being made to feel like idiots or heretics because they don’t fall in line with a specific, narrow interpretation. I’m trying not to sound angry, but I am a little bit. Not at the Bible and not at God, but at the way people twist God’s word.

Some people respond badly to tragedy. I don’t mean they fall down and break down and sink into a depression. That type of response is normal. It’s expected. It means we are people.

I believe the desire to cry out “why,” to weep, to yell, to get angry, to shake our fists at the sky, to pound them into the ground, to tell God “no” while simultaneously asking him to lift us up and hold us is all evidence of God’s fingerprints upon us.

It means we are God’s children.

Maybe it doesn’t make our theology “pretty” but it makes it genuine. We need a messy theology because life is messy and we don’t have it figured out.

But it’s the neat and tidy theology, the one that has it all figured out, the one that has a sure answer for any difficulty, this is the dangerous theology; not because it might be right, because of how wrong and damaging it can be. And how blind it can make us.

We are fragile.

Weak.

Emotional.

Irrational.

And we certainly aren’t sure.

So how can we claim to have it all figured out? How can the finite claim to even begin to fathom the infinite? We can’t.

But that doesn’t stop the assurances of some.

Some Background

Earlier this week, evangelical blogger Rachel Held Evans reacted to what she saw as an insensitive tweet from Pastor John Piper. She reacted emotionally, but, at least on the whole, correctly. As it turns out, Piper hadn’t meant to send the verse that launched Evans reaction out of context and had actually tweeted two verses in succession. They are from Job. Here’s the first tweet:

“Your sons and daughters were eating and a great wind struck the house, and it fell upon them, and they are dead.” Job 1:19

That actually includes a bit of paraphrase from verse 18, but fair enough, there are 140 character limits. And the second

“Then Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head and fell on the ground and worshiped.” Job 1:20

Eventually Piper deleted the tweets because the first one held in isolation looks like a terrible condemnation on the people of Oklahoma, as if it says “you deserve this.” We can get into how imprudent it was to put the tweets out in this manner (without any indication of a multi-part tweet, and indeed, the appearance from the first one that this is the end; let’s just say an ellipsis could’ve saved a world of trouble), and Piper should have known better as this is not the first time he’s put his twitter foot in his beak. But nevertheless, at least this time, Piper hadn’t meant to be callous. In response to that, Evans issued an apology to her readers, acknowledging that she might have reacted imprudently as well. That’s all fine.

I’m not going to defend everything Evans says, in fact I think I disagree with a fair bit (that’s ok), nor am I going to discredit everything Piper says (Lord knows he has done some really good things). However, I would like to ask if this means that Piper’s previous responses to natural disaster, which Evans highlighted in her initial post, are somehow also excused? I don’t think they are.

The thing is, Piper has a history of blaming victims, telling them they deserved God’s wrath. On one level, yes it’s true, we all deserve God’s wrath. We all rebel actively and engage in open, and sometimes covert, warfare against our creator. But it is one thing to say we deserve God’s wrath, and quite another to imply, or explicitly state, that God is actively pouring out his wrath on people. That takes a level or either arrogance, callousness, or certainty (or all of the above) that I sincerely hope I’m not capable of. And certainly the relationship between Piper (and others) and Sovereign Grace ministries, which has a history of abusing children, something highlighted in Evans post, cannot be ignored. She has a very valid point and we ignore it to our detriment. Still, what I really want to talk about is the response that others have given to Evans.

Bad Theology breeds Contempt

On twitter and in blogs, a number of people rushed to Piper’s aid to condemn Evans, question her belief in Scriptures and God’s Word, and essentially tell her she was wrong. What struck me, though, was that the focus was not primarily upon the context of Piper’s tweets (though that was often mentioned), but rather to what Evans thought Piper was saying. The focus of Piper’s defendants has been that Evans is not wrong for misunderstanding Piper, but because she did understand him. Let me put it more plainly:

Most critics of Evans (this week) do so because they believe the people suffering loss right now deserved what happened and God sent the destruction. According to their theology: God didn’t just allow the tornado, he caused it because he was angry.

That’s not who I know God to be.

My God is patient, and faithful, and longsuffering. That’s what I read in the Bible

So where did their idea of God come from? It came from having it all figured out. This is the neo-Calvinist camp (the “young, restless and reformed” group). Now I may be painting with a bit of a broad brush, but not that broad. Their theology comes from a few key ideas.

1) The Bible is the complete revelation of God.

By this they don’t mean “complete” in the sense that the Bible points entirely to God (as I take it to mean), but that the Bible gives a complete picture of God. Wait a minute. The Bible itself seems to contradict that idea. What about John’s statement that he could not even hope to write down everything that Jesus did and its significance? What about the idea that God will reveal himself more fully when he returns, as it says in Revelation? What about Paul’s statement that “now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Cor 13:12)? God’s revelation isn’t complete in the Bible. It’s completeness is found elsewhere. It’s found in the historical person Jesus who was the incarnate Word of God and God himself. This revelation reached it’s height in the Resurrected Christ and there were glimpses of it at the transfiguration. But that kind of revelation is too deep for words, and we are still working it out, almost two millennia later. So how do the neo-Calvinists reconcile these types of Biblical statements with their theology? Simple

2) Only those passages that conform easily to their presupposed theology should be taken plainly, all others require some interpretive work.

Granted, we all do this to some extent. The difference is, and this is important, that most of us recognize we might not be right. We are resistant to other interpretations that contradict our own, but we are at least open to the possibility we could be wrong. Most neo-Calvinists, at least of the sort who follow Piper, will not admit to such an uncertainty. They are right and they are sure of it. The hermeneutical efforts that are made, though do not engage with literary genre or the culture of a particular part of the bible, at least not on a fundamental level. Instead they engage primarily with a particular view of Calvin that was articulated at the Synod of Dort (the five points or TULIP) and engage it in the form it comes in from Piper and Mohler and the like. In this form, all other voices must be silenced. Doubts are unacceptable. Why? Because to admit doubts is to give up ground to the secular culture, or to postmodernism (as if that term had meaning), or to liberals, or to atheists and agnostics. According to this sort of theology, Christians don’t doubt, or if they do they keep quiet about it because we can’t afford to show weakness. The result of this sort of thinking leads to the following:

3) The theology, which determines which passages are “literal” and which are not, is one that is systematic, direct, and simple.

I should probably explain what I mean by each of those last three terms.

First “systematic.” By this I mean their theology creates a system that informs all parts of their life, and all parts of their theology. The system goes together. If it falters on one point, the entire theology has to be scrubbed and reworked. It’s interconnected and linked.

It’s direct. It applies specifically and directly to everything in life. There is no uncertainty about a response. When something that would question a person’s faith comes up, there is a simple direct answer to it. No compromise.

It’s simple. I don’t mean that it’s naïve. I mean that it doesn’t allow for any “messiness.” It is applied in such an exacting way that emotion, that human nature, is taken completely out of the equation. It is entirely cerebral. In doing so, it often leads to callousness. Catastrophic events aren’t taken for the raw tragedies they are, but as pastoral problems to be solved. I recognize I have difficulty in not treating real tragedies and issues as problems to be solved, but when I worked with a hospital chaplaincy office I learned one thing very well. People aren’t problems to be solved. The things that happen to people are questions in need of answers. Some issues cannot be resolved before Jesus comes.

Simplicity is really a holdover idea from Platonism. Platonic, and Aristotelian, thinking guided advanced thought in the West (and mid-East) throughout the middle ages. It helped advance scientific understanding. Eventually, though, it had to be abandoned. It turns out planets don’t orbit in circles, nor are their elliptical orbits that perfect. It turns out that cells are pretty wild and unkempt. Yet what has been abandoned in the sciences has held steady in much Christian thought, particularly among neo-Calvinists. The idea that life is messy and often inexplicable is seen as an untenable compromise with the world outside of the church. So they build a tower and isolate themselves from a felt and a messy theology.

But God didn’t make the world as a machine. God made it alive and unpredictable. God doesn’t function like a robot, whose responses can be predicted and easily explained, but as a living, breathing God, an untamed lion, and infinite power who meets intimately with the finite. God understands our weakness, he sympathizes with our pain, he weeps at the grave of a friend. He does not say, “Well I guess old Lazarus deserved it, after all he was a terrible sinner. God must have killed him because he was rightly angry.” No. He weeps. Then he says that death does not have the last word. He violates the simplicity of our theology by offering alternatives we never even though possible. That’s what my God does. That’s who my God is. My God is the faithful one. The one who loves. The one who is slow to anger, abounding in love, long-suffering from generation to generation. That’s my God.

Empty Rhetoric

To garner support for their position, many neo-Calvinists garner the best rhetoric they can muster. If they run out of arguments they declare an honest seeker to be a heretic and wash their hands of them “fare well” is the cry. So sure of themselves are they that they cannot fathom being wrong. Often there is a resort to quick and pithy rhetoric that is entirely empty.

Such was the case with one particular blog post I want to address; think of it as a case study. One of the more notable critics of Rachel Held Evans’s recent blog post was Douglas Wilson, who is most well-known for his debates with the late Christopher Hitchens. Wilson quotes from G. K. Chesterton and then applies it to the recent hub-bub. The salient quotation from Chesterton is as follows:

If it be true (as it certainly is) that a man can feel exquisite happiness in skinning a cat, then the religious philosopher can only draw one of two deductions. He must either deny the existence of God, as all atheists do; or he must deny the present union between God and man, as all Christians do. The new theologians seem to think it a highly rationalistic solution to deny the cat

Wilson goes on to say that Evans has, in effect, “denie[d] the cat.” As I said, rhetorically it sounds great, not to mention the air of smugness that seems to accompany it; the one that seem to say “I’ve got it figured out and you’re an idiot.” In the context of the blog, the rhetoric is such as to shame you away from questioning it (whether or not this was consciously done). But if we push past that and actually examine the argument we see that there is either a case of begging the question or a false dichotomy, depending on how you analyze it, both logical fallacies.

The post assumes, in this scenario, that either there is no God, or God is the cause of suffering. That is a false dichotomy. Incidentally, it’s the same false dichotomy set up by the atheist. Many in the neo-Calvinist camp seem content to say that God is the cause of suffering, and not in an indirect sort, but directly; because God is angry with us; and he is just in being so.

Then we have the callousness. Wilson says “The sovereignty of God is a hard shell case that carries and protects the tender heart.” See that. We’re supposed to be callous. We need it in order to be protected. After all, why would I want to be hurt by someone else’s suffering? There’s a selfishness behind such callousness, though we shouldn’t be entirely surprised by a theology that glorifies hedonism. But that’s not how “agape” works. Agape is, of necessity, self-sacrificing. It is altruistic. A theology built around hedonism assumes that God is selfish and we are selfish and those are good things because, somehow, they drive us close to each other. It’s no wonder there is a reluctance among many neo-Calvinists to help the poor, unless it be from duty (which is selfish after all), or to glorify the capitalism preached by noted atheist Ayn Rand. Again, I’m willing to remove the intellectual insulation from my heart to let it broken by what breaks the heart of God. Doing so, however, does not mean I deny that God is enthroned. God is still King of the cosmos, even when we weeps with us.

To see Wilson’s argument as begging the question we simply need to reframe the dichotomy. The option is either that there isn’t or there is a God. That is a valid dichotomy. The “begging the question” comes in when we say, as Wilson seems content to say, that if there is a God, then he must be the cause for suffering. Hang on a second. That’s exactly what is at issue here. I am under no obligation to accept that scenario. By refusing to accept I am not, as Wilson indicates, denying the reality of suffering (or “denying the cat”). I am simply saying there is another cause for the suffering. It might be the case that some suffering, maybe even most suffering, is indeed senseless. That doesn’t mean God isn’t sovereign or helpless or surprised. It does mean I don’t have it all figured out though.

And I don’t.

I don’t have it figured out.

And that’s ok. I’m still learning. I’ve got all of eternity to learn.

God teach me.

Weep with those who Weep: Responding to tragedy

I’ve been radio silent. I announced it ahead of time, but still I feel like I should’ve said something. In the weeks since I’ve gone on hiatus several tragedies have happened. There was the Boston bombing, the plant explosion in the town of West, Texas, the factory collapse in Bangladesh, the huge surge in intentional violence in Iraq. Then there was this this:

AP photo

The tornadoes and storms that swept through the American Midwest, disproportionately affecting central Oklahoma. In all of these tragedies, this one seemed to hit closest to me. I went to school in Shawnee. My wife and I lived in Oklahoma City. I still have relatives and friends in the Moore/Oklahoma City area. Maybe that was it. Maybe that’s why I’ve been a little shaken. Then there’s also the fact that I could see no cause for it.

A friend of mine recently asked me to respond to the tragedy in extended form, preferably on this blog. I wasn’t sure that was needed at first. After all many people could respond to it. They could offer the explanations or the comfort needed. Ultimately, I thought, that comfort and the answers to the “why” should come from God. But I was reminded gently that all of us need signposts sometimes to show us the way, or a mirror because God can’t be looked at face to face in our present bodies. So I hope that I can serve as a signpost or a mirror. This is my effort at that.

My personal Response

Before I get too involved in arguments about evil and so forth, I first want to give my response (if you want to argue with me, skip this section, I’m not offering arguments here). Not only to the Oklahoma tragedy, but to all of these tragedies, and others, this is my response:

This is not the end.

This tragedy does not have the final say. It is not over yet. The end is much better, much more joyous, and will make all past wrongs become right. God is changing this world, and the wickedness and evil and tragedy of the present world will be revealed to have never been. They are real and true and genuine right now, but they won’t always be. God is changing that. There is something else I want to convey:

You are not alone.

Suffer. Weep. Wail and moan. But know that you do not do so alone. Whoever you are, wherever you are coming from, know that God weeps with us. The beauty and joy of Emmanuel is that God comes along side us. Recall that Jesus wept over the death of his friend and wept over the city of Jerusalem. Know now that he weeps over the loss of these tragedies, and weeps for the towns and cities of West, Boston, Shawnee, Oklahoma City, Moore, and others. God is with you, as are others. God has given us a desire for community because these communities help sustain us in the midst of tragedy. When you are lifted up by your neighbor, that is God helping you as well. Above all else, understand that a key message of the cross is that outrageous suffering and pain is not foreign to God, but is something with which God is intimately acquainted. Jesus cried out “Why have you forsaken me” before declaring “It is finished.” Suffering is not something just to be explained away, but is at the heart of the Christian message. Finally, let me say one more thing:

You are not being punished.

God doesn’t seek the death of children. Tragedy is not the result of divine retribution. That was the mistake of Job’s friends. Something we need to understand is that sometimes, quite often actually, senseless evil is just that, senseless. As Jesus said, God “causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” This isn’t a divine indictment, or punishment that’s been withheld until now. It just is. And it is tragic. And it is not right. But that doesn’t mean God is absent, and it doesn’t mean that this is the final word.

If you are in the midst of a tragedy, I hope that offers a word of encouragement and hope for you. The Christian hope is not just that things will get better, but that the past will be made right, and we will see God face to face.

My intellectual answer

We ask “why” in the midst of these tragedies because of an emotional need. But the answer to the why demands an intellectual response. That doesn’t mean the question isn’t valid, only to illustrate that our felt desire is for our mental questions to be answered. Know, however, that such an answer is unlikely to satisfy while we are still grieving. So grieve first, and then contemplate. Find comfort in God and friends and family.

With tragedies that are clearly man made, we can usually point to an argument that says freedom is so important that God allows us to make mistakes, or even people to intentionally or callously harm others without interfering. But what about something like a tornado? It may be tempting to argue, as some have, that this is the result of man made climate change and so, ultimately a question of free will again. While there may be some connection between the frequency and intensity of these sorts of disasters to such kinds of change, they can’t explain away all the tornadoes and hurricanes and earthquakes and tsunamis in the world. The thing is these things happen and will happen no matter how good of a steward we are of God’s creation. So we are seemingly confronted with this dichotomy:

Either God causes/approves of these natural disasters, or there is no God.

Many people, when faced with the idea of a God who, at the very least, approves of such horrendous activity, turn to atheism. But I’m going to offer another alternative. That is to say these aren’t the only two options. In order to understand what this alternative means, I’m going to get a little bit technical.

The Philosophical Side

In philosophy (and in quantum physics to a lesser degree) there is a concept known as ‘contingency.’ The term goes back at least to Aristotle, but it was really in the middle ages where it came into its own. Although Leibniz is often credited with advancing the concept of contingency, I consider his work with “possible worlds” to be a bit lacking. The basis for his work, and indeed the more robust interaction with the concept, can be found in the philosophy of John Duns Scotus.

Scotus argued that there are two categories under which everything falls: contingent and necessary. Primarily this is spoken of existing things. That is things like objects or actions, because to speak of necessary or contingent ideas, things that don’t have any real existence, seems bizarre. So we are talking about things with an ‘ontology’ or being or existence. Necessary things either necessarily exist, or necessarily don’t exist. If it necessarily exists, it always was, is, and has been. If it necessarily doesn’t exist, it never was, is, or will be. An example of the latter category would be a square circle, because by definition he two terms are mutually exclusive. In the former category we might put in certain mathematical concepts (though as I said, that gets trippy and into complex philosophy of mathematics), or, as Duns Scotus put it, God. Now I’m not going to argue that Scotus was correct on that point, or that Scotus wasn’t, that would take too much time and get very technical, and may be difficult to prove either way. What it does do, though, is illustrate that, for Scotus, there wasn’t a “possible world,” in Leibniz’s terms, where God doesn’t exist because God is a necessary being. It’s impossible for a necessary thing to ever not exist, thus there is no “possible world” without God.

If we now move to the contemporary engagement with the concepts of necessary and contingent, which takes place primarily in continental philosophy (the branch of philosophy with historical roots in Continental Europe and distinguished from Analytic philosophy with roots in Britain and America), we find some compelling arguments. These arguments relate to the necessity or contingency of certain objects or actions, but particularly things that have a causal influence upon the world (i.e. an impact beyond themselves).

If a causal influence, or an object/action that exhibits a causal influence, is necessary then the cause of that influence must also be necessary and the effects of that influence must likewise be necessary. This is because the necessary object/action that exhibits a causal influence must exist (there is no “possible world” where it doesn’t exist), so it’s causes and effects must likewise exist. This extends outward to the various other objects as well. In other words, it leads to a deterministic stream of events, at least if something is necessary by its ontos (existence) with respect to its causal influence.

Likewise if something is contingent (essentially “undetermined”) then all of its causes and effects are likewise contingent. This means that a contingent event is linked to all other events/objects upon which it has causal impact in that each event/object is likewise contingent. That leads to a string of contingent events.

When we talk about human freedom, at least how we usually think of it, this assumes something. It assumes that a person’s actions are non-trivial, that is they have a causal impact, that they are intended, as in non-random, and that they are contingent. (It should be noted that quantum physics uses contingency and randomness almost interchangeably and this is where it deviates from the philosophical concept.) So contingency, it turns out, is a prerequisite for human freedom.

In the context of what I’ve been arguing, then, if people are to be free, then that means everything that caused the existence of a person, as well as everything that a person does, must be contingent, or not necessary. It exists contingently. Further everything that affects a person as well as everything that a person affects causally must likewise be contingent. The result of this is inevitable:

Either everything in the created universe is contingent, or none of it is. Either certain events, like tornadoes, are random, or humans are not free. The cosmos is either entirely free or it is entirely bound and determined, and that necessarily so.

Admittedly I’ve simplified the argument a bit (we could get into the longer argument that speaks to things acting as wholes and so something cannot be necessary with respect to ‘x’ without being necessary with respect to every other aspect, but that would be much longer). If you want to get into the longer argument pick up some of the contemporary work on Duns Scotus, or some of the more recent German metaphysicians or non-Barthian theologians.

The Theological Side

Given that argument above (the bolded, italicized one), let’s move from philosophy to philosophical theology. The message of the bible is pretty clear on this point. The created universe must be contingent. If God created the world “in the beginning” then that means that the universe is contingent. If it were not, then God would be bound to create it and, therefore, not genuinely free. But even the most staunchly deterministic Calvinist will agree that God must be considered free if we are to believe that God is truly omnipotent.

Second, all will agree that God does not cause sin, and that, at the very least, the initial act of sin was a free act. If it was a free act then the entire universe must also be contingent. It’s too interconnected. This brings us to the crux of the argument, then.

If the universe is contingent, which the Bible says it is, then we can expect random events, like tornadoes, earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis, etc. to occur.

This may not help us understand why this or that disaster occurred, or even why it occurred in a specific way, but it does help us begin to understand why disasters of this sort occur at all. And that is a big step toward reconciling our faith with the reality of the world in which we live.

Why, though, did God not stop this particular disaster?

I’m afraid I don’t have any easy answer to this question. To offer such an answer would be to claim to know the mind of God, and I am finite while God is infinite. We have to acknowledge that while God didn’t cause the disaster, at the very least God didn’t intervene to stop it, at least not in any way of which we know. While I can see the appeal of Open Theism here, that God was just as surprised by the disaster as we are, I cannot affirm it, for I believe God is more sovereign than that. I can affirm a few things though.

At history’s end, God will make untrue every vile and wicked thing, everything that should be a lie will be shown to have always been just that.

God has already shown himself to be victorious in the resurrection.

Suffering and evil will be overcome and have already been overcome.

Terrible things happen. They will happen. That’s entailed in conscious existence. Just because they’re unnecessary, or without a point, doesn’t mean they won’t have a point. The pointless can be turned into purposeful things. If we take to heart the proclamation that we “are coworkers with God,” then we realize that a disaster is not merely a potential crisis of faith, but becomes a potential to partner with God in “making all things new.”

Act

How can we participate with God, “following God’s example” by “redeeming the time because the days are evil”? Suffering and pain don’t have the final say.

Here are some ways to get involved:

You can donate. Donate, time, money, food, yourself, whatever you are able. Here’s a list of ways/organizations to do that related to the tornado.

You can Pray. Never underestimate prayer. God still intervenes and still responds. God’s heart is moved by the cries of his creatures.

You can be available. Sometimes we just need someone to hold us up when our strength is gone. We need that physical touch also. Often the best thing we can do is just sit, listen, affirm, and hug.

Dust and Transformation: Ash Wednesday and Lent Reading Plan

Ashes and Death

Well this has, in some ways, been a rough year (in many others it has been fantastic, but that’s not the point of this post). I’ve been to too many funerals (by the way, one is too many), and had friends and acquaintances nearly be killed instantly by cars, or be diagnosed with aggressive forms of cancer, and with it the looming specter of death. When I really thought about it, rarely are we ready or prepared for people to die. Even when we say we are ready, we always wish for one more conversation, to tell them about this one thing they missed, to say I love you one last time. Yet we cannot.

Life is fragile. As I drove in my car the other day I thought, any second I could be hit by another car and that would be it. Done. I don’t think of myself as ready to go, and I’m fairly certain it would be a heavy blow to my family. I know I’m not the only one. The same scenario would hold true for many people, and every day, at least one person in the world dies suddenly, unexpectedly, leaving a gap behind them. Not ready to go. It wasn’t her time. He was so full of life. A shock. Here as though there are years left, and gone in an instant. As J.R.R. Tolkien put it “It’s a dangerous business…, going out your front door.” And yet we do it every day. We think of ourselves as strong, as impervious. We make plans for upcoming years, yet actually have very little control over whether we will be around in those years to come. We are all of us ashes. Embers that burn quickly and then are no more.

Dust and Creation

As the bible puts it, we are dust. We are ephemeral, and cannot be gripped too tightly. We blow away in the wind. Here today, gone tomorrow. Yet the metaphor for dust, as I noted last year at Ash Wednesday, is not just for the fragility of life, but to remind us of our origin. God formed humanity from the dust of the ground and breathed life into him.

Dust you are and to dust you will return.

Rather than a statement of outright sorrow, though there is that, this is also a reminder of the new creation just around the corner. God makes something out of dust and breathes life into it. Lent is not a buildup to Good Friday, and the death of the Son of God. Lent is an anticipation of His Resurrection and the life that comes out of death. And by pointing to the Resurrection of the Son of God, it points to ours as well. In the midst of sorrow, joy. In the midst of death, life. As things are given up, new creation takes root.

Fundamentally, lent is also about something new, something creative, something constructive.

A Constructive Lent

This year, then, I’m not giving up something for Lent. I’m a Baptist and I have that option (we’re not really liturgical, just some of us pretend from time to time). Instead, though, I’m going to do something constructive. If you are going to celebrate Lent, and you haven’t decided what you will give up, let me encourage to you to instead do something constructive. Participate in God’s already present kingdom here on earth, and in so doing catch a glimpse of his return and the new earth he will refine out of this one. Don’t be legalistic about it, be constructive, building a picture of God’s Kingdom. Part of doing something constructive is something I did last year, a reading of a book of the bible for Lent. This year, we’re going to go through James (to look at last year’s where we went through Galatians, see the link at the top of the page). Below is the reading plan. If you just can’t come up with anything else to do for Lent, then perhaps you could join me in the reading plan (or if you want to add to what you have done).

James is a little bit shorter than Galatians, so the readings will be shorter. Also, I will try better this year to keep my own reflections relatively short as well. Most days it is 3 verses, sometimes 4, occasionally 2, and one day is only 1 verse. I think that should be manageable. I’ll be posting them shortly after midnight on the day marked, so if you do your bible reading in the morning it will be ready when you are. The other posts for this blog will come up later in the day, but if you only want to follow the lent readings you can either click the “Lent Series” Category marker, the tab at the top of the main page that will link to this year’s Lent reading calendar (also click here).

So is God the same?

Last week, I began a discussion (that went a bit long) on the meaning of Hebrews 13:8: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” In general, I focused last week’s discussion on what it does not mean. In doing so, I argued against the idea of the impassibility of God and the immutability of God, something that in centuries past was considered borderline (or actually) heretical, but which is overwhelmingly accepted today. My reasons? The primary one being the incarnation, bodily resurrection, and physical ascension of Jesus Christ. God the Son was not physical human stuff prior to the incarnation, but was and is now a (albeit glorified and transformed) human being in heaven.

So, then, what does it mean?

This World Changes, God does not

In my bible study where we were discussing this, one of the other guys said, “Well, to me, it’s good to know that in our world that is

By PZmaps [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

A changing world

constantly changing, where we keep having to adapt, Jesus is the same.”

Another way to put that is this:

We constantly need to adapt to our ever-changing world, but our ever-changing world is constantly adapting to Jesus. Jesus has inaugurated his kingdom already. This world was always God’s, but God has now begun to exert his rule more explicitly. And so this world is changing. But it’s not just changing for the sake of change. It’s moving toward Christ. Yes there are pockets of resistance, sometimes particularly stubborn ones, that crop up again and again. I’m not saying it’s a cakewalk, and I’m not saying it’s done by human effort. I am saying, though, that even when we can’t see how, God is in control of the uncontrollable world, moving it towards its goal; and that goal is Jesus Christ.

It’s like a parent to his or her child. I may change my exact wording, or my method, or how I approach my kids, but ultimately, I am guiding and moving them toward (I hope) becoming better people, good citizens, and, most of all, disciples of Christ. I am not changing that goal, they are having to adapt to it. Sometimes they resist it, hate it, throw fits. But they still move in that direction. However, I’m not a perfect parent, but God is. So God is moving us perfectly toward a perfect goal (Jesus Christ). And it’s comforting to know that God is constant and unchanging in that.

 Faithful and Faithless

Doesn’t come close to God’s Faithfulness

 

Here’s where I really get to what I think the Bible is trying to communicate to us when it says God does not change, or is the same.

What it is trying to convey is something about God’s faithfulness. God is faithful. That’s why it is comforting, why it is empowering, why it is so amazing. God is faithful.

“So what?” You might be asking. “Aren’t we all called to be faithful?” Well, yes. But we are also called to be holy like God is holy. We fail at that one without even breaking a sweat. “Yes,” you might say (you figurative verbal sparring partner), “but I’ve known people who are faithful. Spouses faithfully married to each other for years. Christians who remain in the church even under heavy persecution.” Are those people faithful? Sure. But not like God. Not like our God, Yahweh.

2 Timothy 2:11-13 has always intrigued me (here’s the NIV):

11 Here is a trustworthy saying:

If we died with him,
we will also live with him;
12 if we endure,
we will also reign with him.
If we disown him,
he will also disown us;
13 if we are faithless,
he remains faithful,
for he cannot disown himself.

It’s that last line that always sticks with me. Where we expect the equal counterpart (he desserts us), we are left with a surprise: “he remains faithful.” Why? That’s just who God is. He can’t help himself. If he’s not faithful, he wouldn’t be God because, as 1 John 4:8 tells us “God is love.” And as 1 Corinthians 13 tells us, love always hopes, always endures, never gives up, believes in us, and never, not-in-an-infinity-of-years, fails. Never. Even when we try to spit in God’s face, slap him and run away: He remains faithful.

God doesn’t just do it from now on, either. God, and Jesus, is faithful “yesterday” too. Before we were faithful. He loved us before we loved him. He was faithful before we even knew who God was, or that there was a God, or anything at all. He was faithful before we were born, before we were conceived, before the world began. God was faithful to you before there were a heavens and an earth (see Ephesians 1).

He was so faithful he came to where we are, because we could not go to where he was.

He remained faithful when we betrayed and denied him.

When we had him arrested.

And Beaten.

And mocked.

And paraded around so others could join in the insults.

He was faithful.

He was faithful when we nailed him down (literally!).

And let him hang naked.

So faithful, even when we killed him.

And was even more faithful than that. So faithful, that this couldn’t be the end. God was so faithful to us, the very people who killed him, that he couldn’t stay dead.

He was so faithful he came back to life. And became transformed.

So faithful he is our advocate before the Father.

And he sent his spirit.

That’s how faithful God was.

So faithful, one life couldn’t even begin to express it; from eternity to eternity. That’s what it means to say “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.”

Our God is the faithful God. Even when we are not. Even when we try to kill him. Even before we existed, and after we die. God is faithful because God is love. That’s just who He is.

What does it mean to you to know God is faithful?

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