Tangled Web, Part 2

In an earlier post we saw that support for abortion is woven into a web of cultural values—self-creation, personal autonomy, sexual license, etc. It is not that abortion supports those values, but rather that abortion abets the free pursuit of them. Seeing this helps us see why some people are so committed to protecting legalized abortion; its loss threatens the sanctity of these deeper values.

Yet this tangled web of cultural values only describes the ideology of the cultural elites whose voices influence policy-makers. The truth is that the elites that champion abortion on demand very rarely have actually ‘needed’ an abortion. Statistics show that rates of out-of-wedlock pregnancy and abortion are far lower in higher economic and education brackets. In short, those who advocate for abortion don’t get abortions. Those who get abortions are no less tangled, they are just tangled in a very different web.

Those seeking abortions are often caught in destructive relationships. The baby’s father may be absentee, opposed to the pregnancy, abusive, or unknown. The mother’s family may be distant, or unsupportive. There may be no other network that the mother can turn to.

Those seeking abortions are often in precarious financial situations. They may have limited education and job prospects. They may be single mothers struggling to provide. The prospect of another child to care for is overwhelming.

Such relational and financial deficits are often accompanied by spiritual and psychological weariness and suffering. Depression, low self-esteem, substance abuse, are common. Pregnancy and motherhood seem unbearable to those suffering such mental health shortfalls.

Caught in such a hopeless web of destruction, abortion seems the only option. In a sad irony, however, abortion, grasped as a “solution” to the predicament, only serves to exacerbate the emotional imbalance as regret and guilt follow. Not infrequently that emotional decline only feeds further deterioration in relationships and economics.

Responding to these two webs requires very different approaches. Most of us are not in much of a position to influence the ideological web and its increasing grip on our legal system. Nevertheless, this is often the web that receives the most attention through protests, breast-beating blogging, and demonstrating.

As individuals and as a church, we are much better positioned to minister to those caught in the webs of sin and brokenness that often lead to abortions. It may be said that people are complicit in their compromised relational, financial, and mental health condition. And it is true to a certain extent. The fly caught in the web only complicates his situation by wriggling to free himself. But Christ came to us with salvation “while we were yet sinners”, while we were his enemies, to bring us to God. We were no less complicit in our death and brokenness than are those suffering the soul-crushing relational, financial, and spiritual conditions that give birth to the death that is abortion.

We may not be able to stop abortion; the legal tide seems unlikely to shift soon. But we will always be in a position to discourage abortions, provided we view with compassion those tangled in the web of death and deception.

Scripture Sandwiches

In our house we enjoy fried egg sandwiches: egg, cheese, and bacon or ham on an English muffin. There is some difference of opinion in the house about what type of cheese is best and whether the muffin should be spread with butter, Miracle-whip, or one on either muffin half. Otherwise, our appreciation is shared.

Fried egg sandwiches are a perfect example of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. Alone, eggs, cheese, and bacon all have their own glory, but together something new and greater arrives. That greatness even manages to shine forth, if only dimly, in the version of egg sandwich that one finds at the fast food chains. In a pinch, I’ll eat one of those. But attention to the individual ingredients repays the investment. Sure, you can use Aldi bacon, processed American cheese slices, and weeks-old defrosted English muffins. But a richer, more satisfying experience awaits the consumer who combines farm-fresh eggs, aged, sharp cheddar, and artisan hickory smoked bacon, nestled between slices of homemade sourdough bread. You’re already regretting that bowl of cold cereal you hastily ate this morning, aren’t you?

Throughout Scripture God has given us incredibly rich but compact summaries of key elements of his character, his plan, the person of Christ, and the substance of the Gospel. I think of verses like John 3:16, John 1:14, Psalm 103:10; 1 Corinthians 1:18; 1 Timothy 3:16 and phrases like Jesus’s “I am” statements, “God is love,” “Be holy as I am holy,” “Mercy triumphs over judgment,” “Be wise as serpents, innocent as doves,” or the Golden Rule. We might think of these summaries as soul sandwiches: portable, practical, spiritual nutrition.

Like the sandwiches that filled my lunchbox and me through my school years, these biblical morsels may be the substance of our spiritual caloric intake for periods of our life. Proverbs 3:5-6 is a PB&J that people rely on to nourish themselves day in and day out. And here’s the thing: there’s nothing wrong with that. God didn’t intend for us to need a 7-course spiritual meal three times a day any more than we need that physically. What would concern me are two spiritual sandwich scenarios: (1) if spiritual PB&J were all we ever consumed, or, (2) if, over time, the quality of our ingredients declined such that our spiritual sandwiches were unpalatable, or worse, not nourishing.

Tangled Web, Part 1

The last couple of weeks have seen shocking developments in abortion laws in several states. These proposals are driven in part by fear that conservative appointments to the Supreme Court threaten the future of legal abortion. Nevertheless, many are justly shocked at the extremity of these proposals and the macabre celebration of them.

Many Christians see abortion as simply a “pro-life” issue, (and of course there is a life vs. death simplicity to it). But to understand society’s dedication to it, it is helpful to see that abortion is woven into a broader worldview. Abortion sits near the center of a web of ideas that many people are committed to, even people that oppose abortion. And like a spider’s web, impact in one place reverberates across the web. Threats to abortion amount to threats across the thought system. Let’s identify a few of those threads.

Abortion is an expression of individual autonomy. One hears this clearly in the insistence that women must have control over their bodies. Absolute autonomy over our “selves” and especially our bodies is in view. Legal abortion ensures that women can act with absolute autonomy.

Abortion secures freedom of self-creation. Our culture believes that nothing should inhibit a person from self-actualization, of creating their identities. Whether and when to have children is an essential component of that self-creation and unwanted pregnancies threaten it.

Abortion undergirds sexual liberty. Prior to the availability of reliable birth control, all sexual activity carried the “risk” of pregnancy, creating a natural brake to sexual promiscuity. While birth control is widely available and effective, abortion serves as the ultimate backstop permitting people to engage in sex freely.

Abortion is crucial in the push for the equality of the sexes. That men do not experience the risk or demands pregnancy or the complications of motherhood, creates a situation of inequality which abortion “solves.” Women’s lives need not be interrupted by an unwanted pregnancy.

Abortion buttresses key economic values. To be fully human and a meaningful member of society requires contributing to the economy through productivity and work. Focus on this value has come at the expense of the meaningfulness of human reproduction and family life. Abortion ensures that women can contribute to the economy without fear of their careers being derailed by an unexpected pregnancy.

Productivity is coupled with consumption. We produce so that we can consume and there is a nearly equal emphasis placed on the value of consumption in modern culture. Abortion frees families from the financial burden of children allowing them to allocate their resources to consumption as they see fit.

So we should see that for supporters of abortion, much is at stake. If we are honest, however, we should admit that even if we opposed abortion, Christians are more committed to these same values than is biblically defensible.

As created and redeemed beings “we are not our own” (1 Cor. 6:19-20). Furthermore, we do not operate with absolute autonomy, but function within the collectives of family, church, and society. Though we participate meaningfully in the process of our becoming, we do not self-create but are to be transformed into the image of Christ by the work of the Spirit (Rom. 8:29; 2 Cor 3:18). Scripture clearly puts boundaries around sexual expression, confining it to the bounds of marriage and blessing it with fruitfulness. Scripture (and nature) teaches the equality of the sexes before God, but not their exact identification. Especially in the context of married life, difference of role is coupled with equality of value (Eph. 5:22-33; 1 Cor. 11:2-9). While Scripture makes much of humanity’s ability to create, it does not root human meaning in that ability. Rather, human meaning is found in being made in God’s image, an image that we manifest in various ways (Gen. 1:26-28). Finally, while Scripture makes it clear that God has given us the fruits of the earth to enjoy (Gen. 1:29-30), it also warns against greed (Col. 3:5), overconsumption (Prov. 23:1-5), inordinate affection for things (Mt. 6:19-24), and seeking to find our satisfaction in anything other than God himself (Ps. 73:25).

We should by all means oppose abortion directly because it is a simple life and death issue. But we should also spend time examining our complicity in the deeper cultural commitments that when taken to extremes manifest themselves in abortion.

The Faithful Few Many

A study of injuries suffered by cats falling from various distances arrived at an unusual conclusion: cats that fall from fewer than six stories and live, have greater injuries than those that fall from higher than six stories. Seeking to explain this unlikely finding, it was suggested that since it takes cats a few stories to right themselves, they can then relax, better enabling them to absorb the impending impact, thus minimizing injury. However, a later interpretation suggested that since dead cats are not usually brought to veterinarians, many of the cats that fell from greater heights were not included in the reports; only the ones that survived their falls were included, skewing the overall results.

This is an example of what is called “survivorship bias.” By only counting the cats that fell from higher heights and survived the study unintentionally distorted the actual likely outcomes of falling cats. Similar errors are made in the assessment of businesses and finance managers when studies only take into account those organizations still in business or traders still active in the market instead of including those that failed and quit.

A similar dynamic may be in play in how we assess the success of our Christian life. As we look at Scripture and Church history, we are far more likely to highlight and therefore compare ourselves against the success stories—say, Joseph, Daniel, or Ruth—than against the “failures”—say, Stephen.

A poignant example of this can be found in Acts 12. That chapter recounts the remarkable story of Peter’s escape from prison thanks to angelic escort, including the touching detail of young Rhoda’s excitement at his unexpected appearance. That the narrative concludes with the execution of the hapless soldiers and later, the grisly death of overweening Herod, only serves to underscore the victory.

However, the chapter begins by relating that Herod “killed James the brother of John with the sword” (12:2). While I have heard these divergent apostolic outcomes rationalized various ways, my point is that we remember Peter’s story and expect our story to be like his. No one imagines, hopes, expects, or even interprets their lives to be modeling the experience of James here.

But the truth is that across the whole of Scripture and Church history, far more have tasted martyrdom or lived a life of religious tedium than have experienced the angelic rescue of Peter, the dramatic prayer outcomes of George Muller, or the remarkable ministry productivity of George Whitefield. Yet we persistently look to these success stories, not as the individual acts of grace that they are, but as though they set the standard for our personal spiritual expectations. The predictable result is frustration or feelings of failure.

But for every Esther there are thousands of nameless but faithful Israelites. For every Elijah, “seven thousand in Israel who have not bowed the knee to Baal” (1 Kings 19:18). For every George Whitefield, a host of faithful pastors. To be sure, these “Heroes of the Faith” serve as examples for us, but they do so primarily in their faith, not in the temporal outcomes of it. How God distributes outcomes is up to him. May we join our daily, undramatic faithfulness to the long history of saints, known and unknown, celebrated and forgotten, who have gone before us.

Outside Your Head

Today we will celebrate Communion and in preparation I want to ask an odd question: Where does Communion happen? “In church, of course!” you answer. That’s true but hold that thought. What I mean is, where does the action happen that makes of Communion something more than just eating a very specific, small snack?

One answer is that it happens in the “snack” itself. Something happens to the elements themselves that transforms them and the consumption of them into something extraordinary. We might call this the Catholic approach. When the priest utters the words “This is my body”, the bread, or “Host”, is transformed in such a way that those who eat of it, quite apart from any belief on their part, are now taking of the body of Christ.

Our Protestant forebears reacted against this view of the Lord’s Supper though they did not achieve unity on the best way to talk about it instead. In the absence of a clear alternative, over time, the place of “action” for Communion moved from being located outside the one partaking to inside. That is to say that what makes communion more than just a snack is what happens in me as I take it. Do I believe it? Am I prepared? Am I sincere in my taking? Is it meaningful to me?

But can it be that my internal disposition is that which makes or breaks Communion? That I make it real for myself based on my feelings? If it is my thoughts that count, why do I need the bread and juice? One effect of this mentality is that Communion is no longer “communion.” If the meaningfulness of communion is in my own mind (or “heart”), it is personal not communal. The practice of Communion ceases to be an activity we share with the Church and becomes, instead a “vehicle for self-expression and self-fulfillment” (Ritual and Its Consequences, Seligman, et. al., 10). Something may be happening in me at the same time that it is happening to other people in the sanctuary, but we can’t really say that the same thing is happening because it is personal to you.

The meaning and power of Communion are outside your own head. The “action” of Communion has already happened. God has so ordained that the bread and wine present the body and blood of Christ. And he has given the practice of their consumption to the church as an act with a meaning attached. When we participate in this ritual, we “proclaim the Lord’s death” quite apart from how we feel about it. We cannot make it any more real or meaningful by our feelings or beliefs about it. In participating we assent to the meaning-making that God has already done. And we do so together with others who similarly assent.

So, you were right to say that Communion happens in “the church,” the church as the Body of Christ. Because it was in the body of Christ that the action of Communion first took place, and it is within the Body of Christ, the community of people covenanted to living out the reality of the symbols, that the “action” of Communion is re-lived.

Glorious Anonymity

Pop artist Andy Warhol once predicted, “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.” A look at modern culture suggests that Warhol was almost right. It would be more accurate to say that now everyone “wants to be” world-famous for 15 minutes, to “go viral.” To be famous, or even infamous, seems to be the pinnacle of individual achievement. Somehow we must set ourselves apart from the crowd.

Though we struggle to imagine conceiving of ourselves any other way, this striving for individuality and recognition is a relatively recent development in Western society and doesn’t exist in many other cultures even today. Just a few centuries ago, the individual was not the basic unit of society, groups and classes were.

One manifestation of this absorption of the individual into the collective is the anonymity in which clerks and artists plied their trades. Legal documents bear only the individual’s position not their name, or at best, an initial. The design and execution of major public works was accomplished without attribution. With exasperation, Walter Ullmann, a medieval historian rants:

Who conceived Ely Cathedral? Who was the architect of Strasbourg Cathedral? Who were the builders of the dozens of magnificent monuments? To be told that this work comes from the school of Reichenau and that work from the school of St. Albans, and so on, is really no substitute for an identification of the individual who composed and executed or illuminated this or that manuscript. (33)

For our self-soaked mindset, it seems impossible that these people would leave no trace of their involvement in these magnificent works. We must have recognition and we must have it now.

In general, Ullmann writes with an historian’s circumspection. But on this point, the stark difference between that time and our own prompts a brief, damning editorialization. He writes, “Today when a new apartment house goes up, the name of its architect is splashed all over the papers but in coming ages neither the architect nor his building will be remembered, while after so many centuries medieval productions still evoke justifiably great admiration” (33) Compared to the art and architecture of earlier ages, our modern world creates very little that anyone will still be marveling at centuries hence. But we always know who did it. We make plaques listing donors, name legislation after its proponents, and turn artists into household names.

There are two types of glory at work here. One is broad, brief, and evanescent. The other is lasting and deep, but anonymous. As Christians we are not immune to the thought practices of our culture. Are we looking for recognition now of who we are and what we’ve done, even religiously? If so, Jesus would say, “You have your reward.” Or are we willing to work anonymously to contribute to the building of a kingdom that will not fade away?

*The Individual and Society in the Middle Ages. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1966.

Weapons of Mass Confusion

I followed a car recently sporting a bumper sticker which stated, “Love is love” accompanied by several pairs of same-sex stick figures. The sentiment (and it is a sentiment, not an argument) is politically correct and culturally approved. It is also disingenuous, misleading, and cynical.

It is disingenuous because what it really means is “Sex is sex.” No one has ever had a problem with same sex couples loving each other. In fact, history suggests that many cultures in the past have been far better at it than ours is. We can’t read about historic, intimate same-sex friendships, such as David and Jonathan, without importing our sex-fixation and imparting sexual overtones to them.  It is also disingenuous because there are other “love” relationships that the people promoting same-sex relationships are reluctant to endorse: incest, bestiality, pedophilia, etc.

It is cynical because it knowingly co-opts and distorts language to suit its purpose. They know that “sex” is the issue, not “love”, but by framing the discussion this way, they can cast their opponents as being against “love,” something everyone is for. Further, it can make nearly immediate allies of unreflective people who are easily taken in by the slogan. A similar dynamic is at work in the “Pro Choice” movement. Who isn’t for “choice?”

The phrase is misleading because “Love is love” is just not true. We differentiate between all sorts of love relationships, weighing their values, and understanding their roles differently. Most of these relationships have some physical element in the expression of love—parents hugging children, say—but not a sexual element.

What the bumper sticker really endorses is not the freedom to love but the freedom to follow your sexual desire. Yet, except for a few die-hards, stating this ethic of absolute sexual libertinism so baldly leaves many people uncomfortable for reasons that they probably can’t explain. The slogan “Sex is sex” doesn’t sell as well. So, incapable of arguing honestly, they equivocate. “Love”, “equality,” and other such ideas get used in fuzzy ways that obscure and confuse, but comfort people into thinking it’s not just all about sex.

As Christians we are called to discernment. The term “discernment” comes from the Old French meaning “to separate, divide, distinguish.” That is, inherent in discernment is the practice of separating between concepts and ideas. Already in the paragraphs above we have “discerned” that sex and love are not the same thing. Gay sex and heterosexual sex are not the same thing. Marital love and parental love are not the same thing. The list goes on.

One of the Enemy’s chief weapons is precisely the opposite of discernment: namely, confusion. Confusion is the mixing and muddling of concepts that ought to remain separate. Sex, love, self, identity, gender, body, mind, etc. In all of these areas the Enemy sows confusion until it is impossible to see what is what. The thoughtful Christian recognizes that only the Word of God, that sword capable of slicing between soul and spirit (Heb. 4:12), is sharpened finely enough to dissect contemporary confusion into timeless truth.

Time will Tell

There is an old saying that there are three kinds of lies: Lies, damn lies, and statistics. It is a helpful reminder in a culture that attempts to prove or disprove everything through “scientific studies.”

It is tempting for Christians to overestimate the value of studies that purport to support things that we believe, like, say, a study that finds that children from intact families fare better in life. “See, the Bible was right all along,” we say.

But statistics cut both ways. In From Tolerance to Equality: How Elites Brought America to Same-Sex Marriage, Darel Paul chronicles how many studies showed that children raised by same-sex partners fared as well (or even better!) than children in heterosexual homes. This evidence was used to weaken arguments against same-sex marriage and parenting by showing that it had no deleterious effects on children. Critics of same-sex marriage and parenting were left to question the validity of the studies in some way or offer counter studies.

How do we think Christian-ly about this issue?

First, we should be circumspect in our appreciation or rejection of purported scientific findings. Reports of the health benefits of good marriages no more prove the truth of Scripture than those showing the resilience of children from single-parent homes disprove it. By using a scientific study as part of our “evidence” for the truth of Christianity, we place ourselves at the mercy of the latest “scientific” findings.

Rather than being discomfited by supposed scientific findings contrary to biblical ethics we should expect them. Why?

We are limited. While our studies may approach truth in the “hard” sciences, in areas such as psychiatry and sociology, we are simply incapable of taking in and evaluating all the relevant data. Findings are necessarily provisional.

We are sinful. Data does not interpret itself and our sinfulness implies that our assessment and evaluation of data is not just limited but distorted, sometimes obviously, other times not.

Truth is revealed over time. Scripture indicates that sinful ways can be seen to prosper for a time. Psalm 37:1-2 instructs: “Fret not yourselves because of evildoers; be not envious of wrongdoers.” The Psalm argues that while it may appear that their ways are prospering now, “They will soon fade like the grass and wither like the green herb.”

We believe that God’s judgment is final. The ultimate assessment of all things is not the current apparent status of behaviors and their outcomes. Rather, all things must be evaluated through a look back to the unchanging truth of God’s Word (his “judgments”) declared in the past and a look forward to “end of the story” when truth will finally be revealed (judged). It is then that those who have lived according to God’s word will be vindicated and those who did not will be exposed.

Only time will tell.

Problematic Presence

In a recent sermon, our pastor affirmed that “God is always with us.” He is on sure biblical ground: “He will not leave you or forsake you” (Deut. 31:6). “Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20). “I will never leave you, nor forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5).

In each of those cases, the expression of God’s sure presence with us is given to inspire action. In Deuteronomy God’s presence is the basis for the call to be “strong and courageous.” In Matthew, Christ’s presence undergirds the Great Commission. For the author of Hebrews, Christ’s presence should help us “Keep our lives free from the love of money and be content with what we have.” God is with us and knowledge of his presence enables action. So far, so good.

But there is a deep problem with the presence of God: it’s “absence.” It is unseen and unfelt. It is unapparent or transparent. We rarely if ever feel the presence of God. We live in an era that prizes seeing and feeling. But God’s presence doesn’t usually cooperate with our preference. Even moments that we interpret as experiences of divine presence—say a meaningful worship moment—leave us with the lingering suspicion that they could just as easily be interpreted as a nothing more than a “good feeling.”

And it has always been thus. Even though we think of the biblical times as a period of regular, obvious divine activity, actual manifestations of God’s presence were very rare and usually exceedingly uncomfortable (think Israel at Sinai or Isaiah 6). The fact is, throughout human history, most of God’s people, pre- or post-Christ, have rarely experienced the presence of God in a tangible way.

What are we to do? Must we just believe in God’s presence by brute “spiritual” force? Perhaps an image may help.

We might think of God’s presence like radioactivity. Its effects are present without immediately being seen or felt. It is powerful. It can even be dangerous. In certain contexts, say, Chernobyl, we ignore its presence to our peril. We don’t think about radioactivity all the time, of course, nor do we walk around with Geiger counters. But we know it exists and know that there are times and places when awareness of it and attention to it are advisable, (e.g. you wear that heavy apron when the dentist takes an x-ray).

Like radioactivity, acknowledging, assuming God’s presence in our lives and living in light of it has a cumulative effect over time. Obviously, in the case of God, the effects are positive as opposed to the often-negative effects of exposure to radioactivity. In fact, I believe living assuming the presence of God makes us increasingly able to identify those rare moments when He makes is presence especially known.

God is always with us. Will you often feel it or see it? No. But cultivate the practice of assuming it. You’ll be better for it.

The Ties that Bind

“Blood is thicker than water,” we say to indicate that family ties are deeper than any other human bond. This is often true even against our best efforts. In a time in which many people have conflicted relationships with their family, family obligations still manage to pull harder than any other.

But what is thicker than blood? A repeated theme in the NT is that bonds within the body of Christ supersede those of our families. Indeed, the image of the body—disparate parts held together in one whole—recalls Scripture’s affirmation that husbands and wives become “one flesh.” But what is it that binds us to one another as believers?

This is an important question in our current environment. Our society is increasingly described as “fragmented.” With the decline of community and the failure of family, people are desperately in search of collectives to be a part of. They turn to gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, or some other identity to find community. But these new collectives often fragment as quickly as they form, riven by yet more internal differences.

Like so many other areas of our lives, for many people today, what binds them to a church is nothing other than their choice. If they like the product being offered, accept the beliefs of the church, and have some affinity for a few others in the congregation, they will likely stay. For a while. With so little linking them with others, it is not surprising that people so easily separate from a congregation in search of a new one.

But what if something deeper is binding us? In Ephesians 4:1-6, Paul urges the church to “maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” Notice the two words regarding our connection: unity and bond. He goes on to specify wherein their unity was found: There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all (4-6).

The series of “ones” that we read here should give us pause in our casual attitude toward church affiliation. We are members of the one (body of) Christ. We are united in the one Holy Spirit. We are united by looking forward to one hope—the completion of God’s plan for humanity. We bow before the throne of one King. We all have faith in the same thing. We have been baptized into a single reality—the death and resurrection of Christ. We share a Father and so are one family.

One might claim that this is just talking about some hidden spiritual connection to the universal body of Christ. There is no doubt that this is true. But what use is something that we don’t feel or see and that has no material effect whatsoever? How should that “mystical, spiritual” reality manifest itself in our lives?

This deep, multi-faceted connectedness with the body of Christ should manifest itself in our relationship to our congregation and to individuals within it. It should be characterized by deep commitment to one another, shared joy and sorrow, generosity, and a great reluctance to quickly separate from one another.

What’s thicker than blood? Your “choice?” Or Gospel glue?

Firm Foundations

From humble beginnings in the solitary study of bean plants by the Austrian friar Gregor Mendel (1822-1884), the science of genetics has come to capture the imagination of our modern world, from the highest levels of science to the most casual cultural references. As we saw in previous articles, two psychologists studied how beliefs about the genetic basis of various conditions (e.g. sexuality, criminality, mental illness, and obesity) influenced people’s view of those conditions.* They showed that when people believe a condition has a genetic basis, they are more sympathetic and less judgmental of that condition. So far so good. But they also showed that belief in a genetic basis led people to believe that the condition was unavoidable. Our genes determine us.

This is just another version of an age-old discussion. Humanity has long wondered whether we are shaped more by our biology (nature) or our environment (nurture). This, in turn, is related to even deeper questions concerning whether our actions are truly free (autonomy), or if something—nature, biology, divinity—constrains us (determinism).

What study reveals is, that in believing that genes unfailingly produce certain conditions, people are accepting biological determinism; they accept that people’s choices about obesity or sexuality, are not free. They cannot help but experience these conditions. This is remarkable given our culture’s rhetoric about freedom and choice. In accepting a genetic explanation for behavior, it may occur to people that they, too, are subject to such genetic reduction.

Why do people so readily accept genetic explanations? As the authors make clear, it is manifestly not because “science” supports such conclusions. Very few of the most important things about us are simply the result of our genes; almost everything about us, from personality to disease, arise from a web of causes.

I believe genetic explanations are so appealing precisely because they seem to offer an explanation. They offer a reason behind otherwise inexplicable and uncontrollable things about us. For while we claim to prize freedom and autonomy, we also deeply want stable foundations for our lives. We are looking for security. But having rejected the rock of God’s character, we look for foundations in science, nature, and biology.

What is fascinating about this “genetic determinism” is that it reveals a willingness to sacrifice freedom in exchange for foundation. People will give up the power of self-determination for the “security” that being determined by their genes offers. In truth, we are caught. We neither like the guilt and shame that come from accepting responsibility for our behaviors nor the self-limiting that results from accepting our biology as determinative.

For the Christian, security and freedom are not opposed. True security is rooted in the goodness of a Creator God. True freedom is found in the call to live out the image of God as manifested in Jesus Christ. We need not sacrifice one for the other.

* Dar-Nimrod, Ilan and Steven J. Heine. “Genetic Essentialism: On the Deceptive Determinism of DNA.” Psychological Bulletin, 117, no. 5 (2011): 800-818.

Damned if you do…

In an earlier post I looked at an article* about the search for “genetic” roots of human behaviors and conditions. While such reports suggest that certain behaviors like homosexuality or depression are “natural” and therefore shouldn’t have any stigma attached to them (what the authors call the ‘naturalistic fallacy’), the truth is that genes just don’t work that way. Most conditions are not linked to single genes, nor is the presence of a genetic marker a guarantee that the condition will manifest itself. Environmental and behavioral factors matter.

As psychologists, the authors’ main interest is in how these reports of the genetic basis of various conditions influence attitudes toward those conditions and the people who experience them. They look specifically at attitudes toward sexual orientation, obesity, criminality and mental illness.† The results are thought-provoking.

In the case of sexual orientation, exposure to the idea that sexual orientation has a genetic basis reduced prejudice toward homosexuals. Similarly, people showed an increased sympathy toward those manifesting mental illness and obesity when given a genetic explanation for the condition. Claims of the genetic basis of criminal behavior reduced people’s assessment of the criminal’s culpability. In general, they show that believing that a condition has a genetic basis makes people more sympathetic to those experiencing those conditions.

While increased sympathy is good, the results were not entirely “positive.” The authors summarize their findings: “[A]rguments for underlying genetic contributions elicit more fatalistic reactions than arguments for underlying experiential factors” (809). That is, people believe that the presence of the genes leave sufferers with no choice in the matter. Criminals will commit crimes. The obese will be obese.

In the case of mental illness, the increased sympathy was offset by other, less favorable responses. When they believed that mental illness was genetic in origin, people were more likely to regard the mentally ill as dangerous and unpredictable. Further, for some respondents, the presence of a genetic marker for mental illness set the sufferers apart as a separate “diseased” group, distinct from the unafflicted.

These results concern the authors. They worry that this poor grasp of genetics could lead to abuse, such as the sterilization programs applied during the eugenics movement in the early 20th century, or the way genetic screening has resulted in the abortion of almost all babies diagnosed with Down Syndrome.

While that concern is real, I was struck by the dismal view of the human condition on display here. The Christian doctrine of original sin has been mocked as a low view of humanity. But this view of the genetic inevitability of disease, mental illness, and criminal behavior is far worse. While we do affirm that sin touches every part of who we are as humans, we also hold out the hope of salvation in this life and the glory of resurrection to the next one. Genetic determinism offers neither.

* Dar-Nimrod, Ilan and Steven J. Heine. “Genetic Essentialism: On the Deceptive Determinism of DNA.” Psychological Bulletin, 117, no. 5 (2011): 800-818.

Born that way? Not so fast…

Fairly regularly the media touts the latest medical discovery of the genetic basis for some disease or condition. When the news involves the genetic roots of illnesses, it is generally met with praise. When, however, the genetic basis of a condition with some moral overtone is in view, say, sexuality, alcoholism, or obesity, the responses are often mixed, especially among Christians. When the discovery of a “gay gene” is announced, supporters respond with acclaim and detractors dismay. Hey, if it’s genetic, it’s natural, and if it’s natural, it can’t be wrong, right?

In a fascinating article*, two professors of psychology, Ilan Dar-Nimrod and Steven J. Heine, unmask the hype around such genetically based claims and expose the unhelpful responses these claims elicit. Several of their arguments are illuminating.

First, the authors point out that, contrary to the media’s presentation, most diseases and other heritable conditions are not “monogenetic” in origin, that is, their presence cannot be traced to a single gene. While there are a few such conditions, they are extremely rare.

Second, the article points out that for most genetically based conditions, the presence of the genetic marker is not causative, that is, merely having the gene does not guarantee that the person will manifest the disease or trait. Genes present a probability of the occurrence of a trait or condition, a probability influenced by environment and other factors.

These two points alone relieve much of the anxiety felt by Christians by so-called genetic proofs. Genes just don’t work that way. While there may be some genetic predisposition toward obesity, depression, or homosexuality, the presence of such a genetic marker does not destine the carrier to contract that disease or manifest that condition. We can’t say, “My genes made me do it!”

But even the idea that there is be some physical, genetic basis for behaviors that Scripture censures could be disconcerting for some, even if that basis isn’t determinative. However, this is where an understanding of the doctrine of sin is important. With humanity’s fall into sin, we should not be surprised to learn that a propensity to sin is embedded in us even at the deepest physical level. Scripture makes clear that while our body is not in and of it self a problem (as was held in some Greek philosophy), in its fallenness, our flesh is not on our side in the fight for purity and holiness. Paul testified to beating his body into submission because it did not want to behave as he knew it ought.

The upshot is this: Christians need not fear that further genetic discoveries will ultimately condone that which Scripture condemns. On scientific grounds we can say that no genetic reality on its own compels sinful behavior. Genes don’t work that way. On biblical grounds we understand that our propensity to sin is woven deep within us and should not be surprised to learn of genetic links to sinful living. All the more reason to proclaim with Paul, “Who will deliver me from the body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Rom. 7:24-25)

* Dar-Nimrod, Ilan and Steven J. Heine. “Genetic Essentialism: On the Deceptive Determinism of DNA.” Psychological Bulletin, 117, no. 5 (2011): 800-818.

The Morality of Manners

“Chivalry is dead,” it is often said and, apparently, civility was right behind it. The savagery that hid behind anonymity in the online comment sections in the early history of the internet, has metastasized first to public posts on platforms like Twitter, and then to the public square as seen in the recent disruptions in the Senate confirmation hearings. People are angry, vicious. The word ‘incivility’ doesn’t begin to capture it.

“Whatever happened to the Golden Rule?” we might ask. The Golden Rule was stated by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them” (Matt. 7:12). That much is frequently quoted, often in the simpler, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

But have you heard the rest of the verse? The verse concludes, “For this is the Law and the Prophets.” For Jesus, the Golden Rule was not a stand-alone principle but, rather, rooted in the rich soil of God’s revelation of his covenant relationship with humanity. You may recall that Jesus summarized the Law and the Prophets in a different way elsewhere: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:37-40). Love for neighbor is dependent upon love for God. And love for neighbor is based upon seeing ourselves and our neighbors as made in the image of God and therefore deserving of dignity (James 3:9). The roots of the Golden Rule are in all of God’s instructions on how to live in harmony with Him and others.

Common civility is a fragile flower that cannot survive on its own. Cut from the root of a deeper system of morality and nourished by little more than the water of cultural sentiment, it was destined to fade in time. You cannot cut the summary of the Law and Prophets off from the Law and the Prophets and hope that it will still bloom. If the prevailing philosophy is of self-advancement, self-preservation, self-creation, the Golden Rule and civility more broadly can only function self-servingly. It will be about me rather than about you.

Manners manifest morality in miniature. Courtesy, civility, gratitude, patience, and deference are the fragrant bouquet gathered from plants rooted in a right understanding of our relationship to God, a deep appreciation of the value of others, and an honest assessment of our own frailty. That is to say, these virtues find their most natural root in the message of the Gospel. The glory of God, the brokenness of humanity, the elevation of human worth implied by Christ’s sacrifice, and the invitation to live out the unmerited “civility” of God.

Trust Fall

In his book The Problem of Trust, Boston University Professor of Religion & Society Adam Seligman analyzes the condition of modern social interaction. One of the major shifts in modernity is the weakening and multiplication of social roles. That is, compared to earlier ages, there is increasing flexibility in how we behave in social roles such as employee, citizen, spouse, etc. and we inhabit a broader range of such social roles.

A unique feature of modern social interaction under these conditions, he argues, is the number of interactions that require trust. Trust, for Seligman, is needed because our interactions are increasingly “free” in that they are not clearly structured by shared social expectations of specific roles. The people we interact with are free to do just about anything. To interact with them we either must prepare ourselves for a range of responses, or we must trust that they will interact with us in mutually beneficial ways.

We all know this by experience even if we wouldn’t have put it in Seligman’s terms. We have experienced the unexpected explosion of rage from what we thought was a simple social interaction. We have seen the list of taboo topics grow from politics and religion to include race, gender, holidays, and even the weather (think environmentalism).

The effects of all this are many. We increasingly isolate ourselves (often with headphones). We view interaction with others as uncertain if not dangerous. We retreat to safe relationships (tribalism). We signal our affiliations quickly to control interactions (MAGA hats). We seek to have interactions controlled by externally applied codes of behavior rather than courtesy (campus speech codes).

These shifts in interaction have an impact on the church as well. As a church we are called to be the body of Christ, to be the family of God, to be united, to bear one another’s burdens, etc. But we bring relational exhaustion to church with us. Wearied by the uncertainty of daily interactions we come to church relationships trust deprived. Add to that deficit of trust any history of having had our trust abused and the stage is set for church to be nothing more than a series of surface, guarded interactions—just like society.

What must we do? Every age of the church has had specific ways in which the cultural climate challenged their efforts to live out the faith. This may be one of ours. G.I Joe used to say, “Knowing is half the battle.” Just being aware of our trust fatigue can help awaken us to the need to push back against this minimalist-relationship tendency both within the church and without. Within, because we cannot be the body of Christ effectively without meaningful interaction with each other and without, because we cannot hope to evangelize without pushing beyond the safety of minimal social interaction.

Binary Opposition

One of the terms that the transgender movement has popularized in contemporary speech is “binary” or more often, “non-binary.” The computer savvy may point out that the term had already infiltrated the vocabulary with the proliferation of computer jargon in the modern world. In computer terms, binary usually refers to the computer code made up of only two digits: 1 and 0. It is “bi-nary”, because there are only two (bi-) options. In the broader cultural discussion about sexuality, “non-binary” was first used to refer to people who did not identify exclusively with either of the two sexual behavior choices before them: heterosexual and homosexual. They rejected the tidy division of humanity into these two categories. Now the term is more frequently applied in talk of sexual identity and gender to refer to people rejecting the simplistic categorization of humanity into male and female. To be “non-binary” is to reject being simply labeled as male or female.

Much could be said about this state of affairs, but for now let us make an observation and a diagnosis. First, we should observe that these are not the first binaries to come under assault in our world. The spread of the theory of evolution broke down the binary between animal and human. There is no longer any hard break between animals and humans; we are merely the next link on a chain. Postmodern philosophical thinking has undone the strict binary of truth and falsehood and even between reality and irreality, suggesting that everything is a human construct. Society has similarly dismantled the binary of single and married. Of course, many still identify themselves as one or the other but the prevalence of premarital cohabitation, the practice of “serial monogamy”, and the general disconnection of love, sex, and child-bearing from marriage have all contributed to the creation of a range of relational categories. Other examples could probably be adduced.

How might we explain this rejection of binary thinking? I believe these high-profile rejections of either/or options exemplify deep dissatisfaction with other binaries over which we are powerless. Human existence, never mind Scripture, present us with key binaries that fundamentally label us as humans. There is the Creator-creature binary. There is the God-not god or Divine-human binary. There is the alive-dead binary. And we might add the spiritual alive/dead binary we call saved-not saved.

Sinful humanity is absolutely powerless to undo these binaries and so, is diametrically opposed to them. However, since we are totally powerless over them (despite our best efforts), we exert energy in either establishing our own binaries not underwritten by divine authority (e.g. master/slave, racial distinctions, and social classes) or, more commonly, seek to control or undo the binaries that God has ordained.

Humanity is desperate to control the terms of its own identity and, as the transgender movement reveals, is willing to head into absurdity to do so. By contrast, Scripture invites us to have our identity defined on God’s terms. That he will “make our name great” like he did for Abraham. That we can find our identity in Christ by sharing in his sufferings. That he will call us by his name. What he asks in return is that we embrace the ultimate binary—He is God and we are not—and live it out in daily worship.

Rebel Territory

One of the disagreements between the North and South during the American Civil War was the status of the Southern states. Southern politicians believed themselves to have completely severed themselves from the Union and proceeded accordingly, establishing their own government. For his part, President Lincoln did not believe that the Constitution granted states the right to secede and so, treated with the Confederacy not as a free-standing political entity but rather as an insurrection. He even went so far as to approve the formation of a “Unionist Government-in-exile” in Virginia and installed “military governors” in several Confederate states to carry on government business as if secession had never occurred. And, of course, when he issued the Emancipation Proclamation, he exercised the authority he believed he had to free slaves throughout the Union, not just in the North. This distinction in the South’s status was no mere political quibbling. Southern ambassadors pressed their case for official state recognition before European governments even as Northern dignitaries urged foreign powers to regard the South as in rebellion.

We might see in this situation an image of the relationship between the Kingdom of God and his enemies. Though God has apparently ceded a certain amount of authority and power to “The Prince of the Power of the Air”, and though the Enemy thought highly enough of his power to offer Christ “all the kingdoms of the world” (Mt. 4:8), the absolute affirmation of Scripture is that “the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein” (Ps. 24:1).

Like Lincoln, God does not actually believe that any created reality—human or spiritual—has the authority or right to secede from under his authority. Each exorcism in the ministry of Jesus reclaimed human territory from the enemy that belonged to God.

Continuing the analogy, we might see the church as those “military governors” or as a “government-in-exile”, living in compromised territory but under orders from the true Lord of the land, to carry out his business. In Jesus Christ he has announced an Emancipation Proclamation that applies to all those enslaved in sin throughout his many territories, a proclamation he calls the church to promulgate. This seems to be the imagery at work in Ephesians as Paul exhorts the church to clothe herself in the armor of the Lord and to stand.

The earth is the Lord’s. He has no intention of giving it up. Though the advances and retreats of the Kingdom of God on earth are at times as disconcerting for the faithful as were the defeats and losses of the North during the Civil War, we should take great comfort in the fact that though we reside in rebel territory, no defeat is final, and victory has been secured through Jesus Christ.

Reverse Renaissance?

In The Discovery of the Individual 1050-1200, Colin Morris discusses some of the effects of the growth of education and rediscovery of classical and Patristic texts during the “French Renaissance” of the 11-12th centuries. One was the discovery of a theological subtlety not characteristic of the simple creeds of the day. He writes:

The reading of the Fathers in the light of the better knowledge of logic revealed that the Augustinian doctrine of the Trinity, for example, was immensely more complex and sophisticated than the simple creeds which had been accepted as adequate in the immediate past, and that it raised a variety of issues which required consideration. (58)

He notes that theological and practical reform movements arose in response to the now obvious conflict between these sources and the present thought and behavior of the church.

Morris notes another, related challenge. That is, 12th century readers of these ancient sources discovered that in many cases, the ancients did not speak to issues that they themselves were facing. This left them in the position of needing to think things through on their own.

As an example, Morris notes the development during this time period of more sophisticated theories of atonement, like those of Anselm and Abelard, in contrast to the less precise conceptualization of the Patristic period.

Morris notes the most distinctive difference between the periods: “The doctrine and discipline of the Western Church was modified to meet a new situation…presented by the fact that Church and society were now identical in membership” (59). In contrast to the Patristic period and the time in which canon law had first been formulated, there was much greater continuity between church and society by the 12th century. So much so, that Morris quotes Otto of Friesing (c. 1114-1158) to the effect that Augustine’s Two Cities have become one.

Morris had earlier noted that as the church came to dominate society, she found less resonance with the biblical presentation of the situation of the early church and turned increasingly to the Old Testament depiction of Israel as a religious society. What is clear is that the striking change of fortune necessitated a deep reconsideration of certain aspects of the church’s thought and practice.

For some time now, the Western Church and especially the church in America has been experiencing the reverse of the Medieval trend. Whereas at one time one could reasonably consider citizenry more or less coextensive with religiosity, that is no more the case. America remains “spiritual” in its unique way, of course, but the direct relationship between Christianity and society that some like to imagine was once the case is no longer tenable.

What doctrinal and practical challenges might this reversal present to the contemporary church? To be sure, changing cultural norms and intellectual fashions have frequently forced the church to clarify or nuance its positions on various topics. Issues of human and personal identity, gender, and marriage are obviously much to the fore currently.

But the shift away from a predominantly Christian culture in the West will force more specific questions about the relationship between church and society, church and magistrate, than the West has had to negotiate for some time. In such a situation, we should not be surprised if the best resources to understand our situation are found in the historical experience of the church in other eras and in the contemporary experience of the church in hostile areas.

Personality Pastiche

Early on in The Saturated Self, Kenneth Gergen suggests that our relational saturatedness, especially that experienced through mass media, means that we increasingly “know how” to act in certain stereotypical situations. He writes,

If a mate announces that he or she is thinking about divorce, the other’s reaction is not likely to be dumb dismay. The drama has so often been played out on television and movie screens that one is already prepared with multiple options. If one wins a wonderful prize, suffers a humiliating loss, faces temptation to cheat, or learns of a sudden death in the family, the reactions are hardly random. One more or less knows how it goes, is more or less ready for action. Having seen it all before, one approaches a state of ennui (71).

Of course, we have always been habituated by our culture in these things; there is nothing new about that. But in the past one would have been “trained” in these reactions by a much smaller and closer community. Now, as Gergen’s quote indicates, the narrative that informs our reactions in these situations is far more often the product of a distant media rather than a local community. This both homogenizes responses as it depersonalizes them.

Gergen argues that, somewhat ironically, in this age in which we increasingly tout our powers of personal expression, “as the century has progressed, selves have become increasingly populated with the character of others” (71). That is, as we are confronted by more and more people and ideas, we pick up more and more information that gets subsumed into our behavior.

From a Christian perspective, this reality challenges us to think hard about the “dramas” that we expose ourselves to and points to the importance of inclusion of the biblical narrative and characters in the biblical drama in the panoply of “relationships” with which we are saturated.

Self-understanding: It’s a messy business

Early in his The Last Days of the Renaissance & The March to Modernity, Theodore K. Rabb discusses the dramatic impact of the decimation caused by the plague on social and economic structures in the centuries following. Further he suggests that the rise of the use of gunpowder caused significant shifts as well by eroding the socio-cultural codes of knightly valor while concentrating military power with those with sufficient financial means to make and maintain the artillery associated with gunpowder. It goes without saying that these changes impacted not only social structures but also the contexts in which people conceived of themselves as persons. That is to say, that these social and cultural events forced changes in self-perception, changes that unfolded over the ensuing centuries.

But Rabb’s indication of the devastation of the plague and the technology of war prompted thinking about how often our sense of ourselves and the world is changed by dramatic events rather that pure philosophical abstraction. Much is made of the anthropological impact of Rene Descartes’ reasoning to the foundation of the thinking self–“I think, therefore I am.” But many philosophical shifts have been born out of more traumatic events. A few examples came to mind:

  • In Evil and Modern Thought, Susan Nieman re-reads the history of philosophy as a coming to grips with the problem of evil out of the devastation of the Lisbon earthquake of 1755.
  • Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club addresses the impact of the American Civil war on the deeply influential philosophies of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., William James, and Charles Pierce.
  • Many have observed the impact of The Great War and to a lesser extent WWII on subsequent human thought and self-understanding.
  • Nieman and others have discussed the impact of the Holocaust on all philosophical thinking thereafter.
  • And we are understandably still exploring the impact on our self-understanding of the existence of weapons of mass destruction.

Other examples could likely be adduced. But these suffice to warn us against attempting to write the history of philosophy and especially the narrative of shifting notions of the human person as merely a progression of philosophical developments from Descartes to Locke to Rousseau or whatever. Rather than a peaceful, logical narrative, our shifting collective self-understanding is often moved forward by paroxysms of terror or violence.

Back to School

In Psalm 27:11 the psalmist asks God, “Teach me your way, O LORD.” We may not often think of God as teacher, but it is a frequent them in the Psalms. Nearby Psalm 25:8 says that God instructs sinners in “the way” because He is “good and upright.” In Psalm 119, the psalm so focused on God’s word, God is repeatedly depicted as teacher, perhaps most directly in v. 68: “You are good and do good; teach me your statutes” (see also 12, 33, 66, 124, and 135).

While perhaps not common to us, this view of God is not surprising when one considers that the word “Torah”, the textual heart of Israel’s relationship with God, means “instruction” as well as “law.” We tend to regard the Torah as Law in a legal sense and therefore see God as Lawgiver and Judge. But the Hebrews saw the law as God’s divine gift of instruction for peaceful living (Deut. 4:7-8) and God as its ultimate teacher. The teaching of the Law held an important place in the life of Israel and was one of the key responsibilities of the Levites.

The view of God as teacher makes further sense when one considers the NT. One of the most frequent designations for Jesus in the Gospels is “Teacher.” This described what Jesus did—and he did a lot of teaching—but also defined his relationship to his followers. They were his students, his disciples. “It is enough for the disciple to be like his teacher” (Matt. 10:25). Not only was Jesus an authoritative teacher, one of the main roles that he indicated that the Holy Spirit would fill was that of teacher: “He will guide you into all truth” (John 16:13). Interestingly, Jesus warned his Disciples against vaunting themselves over others by calling themselves teachers (as the Pharisees did) precisely because there is only one True Teacher: “But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers” (Matt. 23:8).

As God’s Word himself, Christ has much to teach us by his Spirit through the written word. God IS both Lawgiver and Judge, but it can be stifling to interact with him primarily in that way, especially in prayer. While the Psalmists certainly related to God in that way, they also presented present an alternative: Engaging with him as Teacher, his word as the instruction, and themselves as his students.

I believe the Psalmists invite us to share this perspective. We should pray with them, “O Lord, teach me your ways.” In fact, all the more so. For in Christ the curriculum has become more clear, and in the Spirit the Teacher more accessible.

Embracing Death, Transcending Death

In a 1973 Pulitzer Prize winning work of psychology, The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker argued that much human effort is spent grappling with the reality of death and attempting to overcome (deny) it. Becker traced this frustration to humanity’s duality: “Man is literally split in two: he has an awareness of his own splendid uniqueness in that he sticks out of nature with a towering majesty, and yet he goes back into the ground a few feet in order blindly and dumbly to rot and disappear forever” (26).

Much of the book is given to Søren Kierkegaard and Sigmund Freud’s differing analysis of this duality and its effects. Becker discusses the ways that humans push back against this fear of death—sexuality, relationships, heroic accomplishments, etc.—and chronicles the psychological effects of most people’s recognition of their failure to cheat death. Principally, he notes, we deny death by producing various shields to block or distract ourselves from really reckoning with it, often to damaging psychological and spiritual effect.

Kierkegaard concluded that the way through this impasse is to confront directly our dependence upon the Ultimate Power, and our fundamental inability to transcend death or make our lives eternally meaningful. Becker summarizes: “One goes through it all to arrive at faith, the faith that one’s very creatureliness has some meaning to a Creator; that despite one’s true insignificance, weakness, death, one’s existence has meaning in some ultimate sense because it exists within an eternal and infinite scheme of things brought about and maintained to some kind of design by some creative force” (90).

The psalmists’ model just such a response. Living lives far less buffered against the reality of death than we, they confront death directly. They speak of the “cords of death”, the pit, and Sheol. “What man can live and never see death? Who can deliver his soul from the power of Sheol?” (89:48). Their confrontation with death and the meaninglessness of life is raw and honest. Yet they do not confront death alone. Nearly as frequent are affirmations such as, “Bless the Lord, O my soul…who redeems your life from the pit” (103:4).

That said, the psalmists rarely seem to have a clear picture of how God will redeem them, nor how their lives will be made meaningful in the larger scope of God’s dealings. This confidence can be seen in the final verses of Psalm 102 where the psalmist both stands in awe of God’s utter vastness and unchangeability and yet also affirms “the children of your offspring shall dwell secure.”

“Full humanness,” Becker asserts, “means full fear and trembling, at least some of the waking day” (59), a daunting prospect no doubt. But denial, distraction, or defiance provide no way forward. Rather, we can be schooled by the psalmists in embodying a humble embrace of our frailty trusting our transcendence of death to God’s mysterious grace.

Feeling Badly

In a recent opinion piece in the Hedgehog Review (Spring 2018), James McWilliams ponders the significance of the recent removal of public monuments honoring Confederate heroes such as General Robert E. Lee. He worries that, for many people, endorsing the removal was a way support a popular cause without probing more deeply their own complicity in the legacy of slavery or contemporary racism. Atonement, he fears, came too cheaply.

Protests of such removals confirm that racism is alive in America, he maintains, and still tightly linked with the nation’s past. Rather than papering over that history by removing its memorials, McWilliams insists that today’s whites need to connect personally and emotionally with past and present racism by feeling shame. White shame over the racist past and present, he claims, is necessary for progress in justice. “Before justice and history merge on the landscape, they will first have to merge in our hearts. Without shame that cannot happen. Taking on shame is a process that will inevitably ask whites not only to feel that emotion, but also to live in it, and to harness it for the cause of righteousness” (16).

The author is surely correct that progress in racism and justice requires both rational and emotional engagement. If people don’t feel badly at some level about the existence of injustice, it is unlikely that they will be moved to remedy it. But in advocating shame he has misidentified the feeling that is needed.

First, shame is the wrong emotion because it cannot be easily conjured. No doubt many people foster racist attitudes. But most people find it difficult to link themselves with the extreme racist actions of the past even if they are knowingly direct descendants of slave owners. And while McWilliams’ own shame may be linked to his belief that he, by virtue of his whiteness, “benefits daily from the legacy of slavery,” that complicity is generally too opaque for most people to conjure shame from. At best one might be able to develop a general shame at human malignance.

Second, shame is the wrong feeling to foster because it is not productive. Contrary to McWilliams’ hopes, shame is not easy to “harness for the cause of righteousness.” Shame does not unify; it isolates. Shame does not motivate; it debilitates. One need only consider the shame of Adam and Eve in the garden to recognize shame’s limitations. Like them, faced with shame, we cover.

From a biblical perspective, a better emotional response is sorrow. Sorrow over one’s own sins blends naturally with sorrow over the sins of others, past and present, and sin’s effects. And sorrow unifies more than shame because we can share each other’s sadness. Lament is communal. Further, sorrow motivates better than shame. Whereas shame moves us inward, sorrow can move us outward toward others.

There is certainly room for shame in the story of slavery and racism. Each of us needs to work out the shameful prejudices that mark our interaction with others. But that shameful history will not be solved through the multiplication of shame. It should be met with shared sorrow and shared resolve.

Textual Tourism

Though most people think of him as a writer of children’s fantasy, for his familiar Chronicles of Narnia, C. S. Lewis’s true area of expertise was Medieval literature. In one of his studies on the topic, The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature, he makes some comments that are equally applicable to the study of the Bible. He mentions the reader’s tendency to consult expert literature only when the reading is forbiddingly hard. “But,” he warns, “there are treacherous passages which will not send us to the notes. They look easy and aren’t.” Part of the reason for this difficulty is the vast difference between the reader’s world and the world of Medieval literature, and by the same token, the world of the Bible. We all know about passages in literature or Scripture that are difficult because of the concepts or strange vocabulary that is used (Agh! High school Shakespeare!). When the vocabulary is familiar we can easily be lulled into thinking that we know what the writer is talking about. But medieval and biblical authors alike lived in very different worlds than we do and speak of common things—nature, souls, love—from perspectives very different than ours. We cannot merely read their writing through the lens of our world.

Lewis cleverly depicts the difference between readers that, recognizing the difference between worlds, seek to enter the world of the author, from those who take their world along with them in their reading: “There are, I know, those who prefer not to go beyond the impression, however, accidental, which an old work makes on a mind that brings to it a purely modern sensibility and modern conceptions; just as there are travellers who carry their resolute Englishry with them all over the Continent, mix only with other English tourists, enjoy all they see for its ‘quaintness’, and have no wish to realise what those ways of life, those churches, those vineyards, mean to the natives.”

Just as readers could take their “modern sensibility and modern conceptions” to the works of medieval which are the focus of Lewis’s book, so too readers of Scripture can come to it with their contemporary ideas. Rather than trying to enter the world of Scripture on its terms, marveling at the strange and at times incomprehensible features that we find there, we come to it with our ideas and expectations. The result is that we manage to find exactly what we expected to find in the literature. It is not Scripture and its authors that are speaking to us, but our own ideas.

There is no doubt that there can be some pleasure from reading literature this way. Lewis concludes of these readers, “They have their reward.” But when it comes to Scripture, we should wonder whether the reader, reading in this fashion, heedless of the world from which the text has come, has truly read the word the author has written. And if he has not really read the word that was written, will he really encounter the voice of God in that word? Let us not take our “resolute American Christianry” with us on our journeys on the Continent of Scripture. Let us enter that world eager to engage with its strange culture rather than settling for quaint postcards.

I am the great and terrible Oz!

Image result for world without mindIn his book World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech, Franklin Foer examines the impact and dangers of technology giants such as Google, Facebook, and Amazon. Many of his warnings should be of interest to us as Christians, parents, and consumers.

Of particular concern are the god-like goals that many of these organizations pursue. One of these is exhaustive knowledge of their users through the amassing of data. On the basis of a user’s likes Facebook can predict their “race, sexual orientation, relationship status, and drug use” (76). Knowledge, as they say, is power. And this knowledge is amassed specifically to manipulate the users. Foer records how Facebook has used its power to control people’s newsfeeds in order to run tests on human emotions. One team member admits, “Anyone on the team could run a test. They’re always trying to alter people’s behavior” (75). He explains how Amazon and Netflix use recommendations in exactly opposite ways: Amazon steers buyers toward the most frequently bought products because volume means profit for them while Netflix recommends less well-known movies which cost the service less to stream.

Foer concludes: “Facebook would never put it this way, but algorithms are meant to erode free will, to relieve humans of the burden of choosing, to nudge them in the right direction. Algorithms fuel a sense of omnipotence, the condescending belief that our behavior can be altered, without our even being aware of the hand guiding us, in a superior direction” (77). Foer even envisions a scenario where Facebook uses geographic and demographic information to selectively influence users to vote, thus deeply impacting an election.

These revelations give me pause on both practical and intellectual levels. Practically, as Christians we should strive to be aware of the forces that are at work upon us. We are enjoined to be ruled by the Spirit of Christ, not by external forces nudging us toward their vision of human flourishing. We do not operate with wholly libertarian free will. Google, Amazon, Netflix and the like are deeply invested in manipulating our decisions and doing so in a way that preserves the illusion of free will. On an intellectual level I find it ironic that the very atheist/agnostic folk that reject as invasive and immoral the idea of an all-knowing, all-powerful God mysteriously meddling in human affairs, have no problem exerting their growing knowledge to mysteriously meddle in human affairs.

The background for all of this is still the ancient account of humanity’s fateful reach beyond itself for divine knowledge. “But the serpent said to the woman, ‘You shall not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’” (Gen. 3:4-5). We need to keep our eyes open to see the forces shaping us, our children, and our world. They are not ultimately out for our good, only their own.

If it walks like a duck…

A friend recently expressed frustration at feeling unprepared in a conversation with a Jehovah’s Witness concerning the deity of Jesus Christ. Under discussion was Colossians 1:15 which describes Christ as “the firstborn of all creation.” This is a convenient verse for Jehovah’s Witness doctrine, which denies the full deity of Christ. It is therefore a discomfiting verse for the Christian defending Christ’s full divinity. More to the point, many Christians can be disarmed in discussions like this because they are not as readily equipped, as many Witnesses are, to cite specific references supporting orthodox positions.

In the case of Col. 1:15 the defense is pretty simple; reading verses 16-20 makes clear that someone more than a mere human is being described. But the deeper problem is the very use of Scripture. Sadly, Witnesses use our own proof-texting methods against us, and often more effectively. But there is another approach to this question that is not only truer to Scripture but also easier to remember.

It begins with this question: What does Scripture depict God doing because He is God? So much of our focus on who God is centers on the divine attributes of omniscience, omnipotence, and so on. But Scripture is far more taken up with divine action than divine essence. In fact, God frequently refers to himself as “the God who brought you out of Egypt.” This is true of the way that we think of ourselves as well. We don’t usually trot out adjectives to describe ourselves or others; we describe who we are by what we do.

So, what does God do as God? While God does many things in Scripture, there are several key actions that are uniquely ascribed to Him. God creates. God reveals himself. God gives the law. God establishes covenants. God redeems. God forgives sin. God gives life. God judges. God reigns. These things are definitive of who God is as God and set him apart from humanity and the gods of the nations.

Can you see where this is going? That’s right. Scripture depicts Christ engaging in each of the God-defining activities. It is arguably the whole goal of Scripture to make precisely this point. Christ is the Word of the Father at creation (John 1:1-3). He reveals the Father (John 1:18). He gives a “new commandment” (John 13:34). He institutes a “new covenant” (Luke 22:20). He saves (Matt. 1:20-21). He forgives sin (Luke 5:20-24). He raises the dead (John 5:21). He will judge (Acts 17:31). He reigns (Eph. 1:20-22). He is, in short, Emmanuel – “God with us” (Matt. 1:23). Christ is God because he does those things that only God can do.

Perhaps the greatest power in this approach is the fact that it focuses less on what texts say about God and Christ and more on who they are by what they have done. And ultimately, we want people to know Christ himself, not just the texts about him.

Idolatrous Word

Early in Royal Priesthood: A Theology of Ordained Ministry, T. F. Torrance addresses the tight link between the cultic role of the priest and the word of God. The divinely ordained priestly tasks were not efficacious in themselves but rather witness to God’s promise to be faithful to the covenant and gracious in forgiveness.

All priestly action within the place of meeting was by way of acknowledgment and witness to God’s testimony of himself in the Covenant. God is not acted upon by means of a priestly sacrifice. Priestly action rests upon God’s Self-revelation in His Word and answers as cultic sign and action to the thing signified (3).

However, Israel tended not only to pursue gods more in keeping with their desires but also to detach their God-given liturgical actions from the word and action of God. Torrance explains this as a “temptation to escape from direct meeting or encounter with the living God” in and through the liturgical practices. The effect is that the liturgical acts themselves become idols. Rather than signifying the gracious, covenant-keeping actions of God, they become humanity’s idolatrous acts of self-righteousness. Torrance again explains this as an effort to avoid an encounter with the divine: “The more the liturgical forms are turned into idols, the less men are disturbed by a speaking God” (5). That the sacrificial act be a repeated declaration of the Covenant God’s Word that He forgives freely though He has the right to judge is too close to the terrifying thunder and lightning of Sinai. And so the sacrificial system is domesticated by becoming human actions appeasing a distant deity.

One might be tempted to draw parallels to the view of the sacraments in some sectors of the church, and may by justified in doing so. But an equally valid parallel may be drawn to the relationship to Scripture in more Word-centric sectors of Christianity. Scripture can be centralized, analyzed, and doctrinalized and yet in such a way that it ceases to be a conduit for hearing the voice of God.

As Psalm 29 attests, when God speaks, things happen. Cedars break, fire flashes forth, forests are stripped, the wilderness shakes. And yet, in the very churches that claim to have a high view of Scripture, the Word of God rarely speaks, nor is expected to. Like a dumb idol, it says and does exactly what we expect it to. Perhaps we are equally fearful of an encounter with the Speaking God.

Ears to Obey

There is a textual curiosity in Hebrews 10. As is his practice, the author quotes from the Old Testament to make his case, in this case Psalm 40:6-8. Interestingly, he quotes from the Greek translation of the OT called the Septuagint. This is important because if you compare his quote in Hebrews 10:5 with Psalm 40:6 you will see what appears at first to be quite a difference:

Psalm 40:6b       But you have given me an open ear…

Hebrews 10:5b   But a body you have prepared for me…

To be more specific, the phrase in Psalms is literally “ears you have dug for me” in the Hebrew. Ears and bodies seem rather different! What’s going on here?

First, let’s consider why they might be different. In truth, the phrase “ears you have dug for me” is unusual even if evocative. F. F. Bruce thinks that when faced with this odd expression the translators of the Septuagint took it as a case of ‘part for the whole’, that is, “[T]he ‘digging’ or hollowing out of ears is part of the total work of fashioning a human.” Accordingly, they generalized the expression to “a body you have prepared for me.” That’s a possible explanation, though there may be more to it.

Let’s ask, “How is this phrase functioning in the psalm?” The phrase “ears you have dug for me” is set in contrast to “sacrifices and offerings.” What is the intended contrast? The psalmist is contrasting the practice of sacrifice with…what, exactly? A clue is found in v. 8: “I have come to do your will, O my God.” The psalmist is contrasting obedience to God’s will with the performance of sacrifices. This sounds remarkably like Samuel’s icy indictment of Saul when he tried to explain his failure to destroy the animals of the Amalekites as he had been instructed: “To obey is better than sacrifice” (see 1 Samuel 15).

What does this have to do with ears? There is a consistent theme in Scripture that true hearing of God’s word is shown in doing God’s word. By saying that he has been given divinely prepared ears, the psalmist is saying that God has prepared him to hear God’s word and to respond to it in action. If this is the sense, then the Greek translation’s adaptation of the phrase to “a body you have prepared for me” makes sense since obedience would be enacted bodily.

What does this have to do with Hebrews? First, we should not find it surprising that the author is using the Greek translation of the OT. The Septuagint was far more accessible in the early days of the church than the original Hebrew. Paul, for instance, quoted from the Septuagint sometimes and sometimes offered his own translation of the Hebrew. And since most of the Mediterranean world spoke Greek, the Septuagint was the preferred option.

Further, it is not surprising that the author liked the Greek rendering (whether he was aware of the original Hebrew or not) because of the way he uses the concept of “body.” The quote “a body you have prepared for me” (10:5) results a few lines later in the conclusion, “We have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (10:10). The author understands the words of the psalm to come ultimately from the mouth of Jesus whose body—a clear reference to Incarnation—was prepared by God for the ultimate sacrifice on our behalf.

So, is this a case of the author Hebrews choosing willy-nilly what translation he uses so he can make his point? Ultimately, I don’t think so. Yes, the word ‘body’ proves more useful to the author’s purpose than ‘ears.’ But the original point of the psalm was that God was not so interested in the sacrificial system as he was in whole-person obedience to his will. The author has made the point that Jesus did just that; he lived a sinless life (Heb. 4:15; 7:27-28). Further, Jesus’s bodily sacrifice was a piece of that whole life obedience (Heb. 2:17-18). With the ears God had given him he heard God’s word and with the body that was prepared for him he obeyed what he heard.

In the end, there is a deep irony between the psalm and Hebrews. For the psalmist, whole-life obedience was set in contrast to the sacrificial system. In Christ, whole-life obedience culminated in a whole-body sacrifice. As Bruce writes: “Wholehearted obedience is the sacrifice which God really desires, the sacrifice which he received in perfection from his Servant-Son when he came into the world.”

Faux Po-mo

One of the supposed effects of post-modernity was the deconstruction of all sure foundations for thought, un-writing of all “metanarratives.”  All interpretation and reason is theory-laden; all stances are contextual. Acknowledging this was supposed to lead to epistemic humility and that, to tolerance. To a certain extent it has.

But a casual glance at the rhetoric of most public political and moral debate reveals that apparently most people didn’t get the memo on the provisionality of their conclusions. As the following quote from Alasdair MacIntyre captures, there is no shortage of certainty in these uncertain times.

“For the modern radical is as confident in the moral expression of his stances and consequently in the assertive uses of the rhetoric of morality as any conservative has ever been. Whatever else he denounces in our culture he is certain that it still possesses the moral resources which he requires in order to denounce it. Everything else may be, in his eyes, in disorder; but the language of morality is in order, just as it is.”

Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, 4.

But…Swine flew

25990935-_uy200_In The Actuality of Atonement, Colin Gunton thoughtfully considers the role of metaphor in human thought and theology in particular before examining three specific biblical metaphors for atonement: the battlefield and the demons, justification, and sacrifice.

In his discussion of the victory theme he takes on the issue of the ontological status of the demonic. He concludes that talk of demons as personal forces is too mythical a take on the matter. Rather they are vivid ways of talking about social and moral forces at work in the world. He defends that far from being the result of ignorant myth-making, this sort of language is the best and perhaps only way to talk about forces that can only be described indirectly. He concludes: “The texts present us not with superhuman hypostases trotting about the world, but with the metaphorical characterisation of moral and cosmic realities which would otherwise defy expression” (66, emphasis original.)

I appreciate Gunton’s work here and there’s part of me that wants to buy in. After all, belief in the spirit realm is not easy to sustain in the modern context. And, being a bit of a ‘belief minimalist’ I don’t want to believe anything that I don’t have to believe. So if I could be convinced of such a position I might be tempted.

However, I wonder if Gunton’s presentation really does justice to the permeation of the spiritual forces theme throughout Scripture. This aspect of the ancient worldview is not merely retained as a light residue in a few Gospel stories and exhuberant statements in epistles. The thread of a spirit realm with its own narrative that intersects with the earthly story is shot through the biblical story.

Furthermore, it’s not clear to me how these apersonal, “moral and cosmic realities” are understood to have the effects that they do. I understand, I suppose, how one might explain sickness as a result of certain “moral and cosmic realities”, but the gospels show a clear awareness of a difference between sickness and demonic activity, though the categories can overlap.

Put another way, “moral and cosmic realities” might be able to explain the existence of swine flu, but I fail to see how they can explain why swine flew.

Piecemeal Peace

egg-nestRecently, prompted by Hebrews 3-4, I have been thinking and preaching about rest. These chapters make clear that God has made us for rest but experiencing that rest is no easy matter.

Concurrently I have been reading a biography of Gerard Manley Hopkins as well as revisiting his poetry. I was struck by this short poem on peace. As usual, Hopkins’ phrasing and word choice are initially daunting, but the piece rewards patient attention.

WHEN will you ever, Peace, wild wooddove, shy wings shut,
Your round me roaming end, and under be my boughs?
When, when, Peace, will you, Peace? I’ll not play hypocrite
To own my heart: I yield you do come sometimes; but
That piecemeal peace is poor peace. What pure peace allows
Alarms of wars, the daunting wars, the death of it?

O surely, reaving Peace, my Lord should leave in lieu
Some good! And so he does leave Patience exquisite,
That plumes to Peace thereafter. And when Peace here does house
He comes with work to do, he does not come to coo,
        He comes to brood and sit.

The first two and half lines express a desire for Peace to move from being a bird that flits around Hopkins to being something firm on which he can rest. It is not that he never experiences peace, he makes clear, but that the peace he experiences is fleeting and partial. The alliteration and wordplay of the fifth line almost comes out as stuttering: That piecemeal peace is poor peace. Piecemeal peace is his experience while he yearns for a perfect peace yet to come.

In the second stanza he considers both what happens in peace’s absence as well as in its coming. First, he expresses the expectation that if God withdraws (reaves) his peace, he doesn’t do so without leaving some good behind. And indeed, Hopkins explains that in the absence of peace, one may grow in patience. Recalling the avian imagery of the early lines he says that patience itself “plumes to Peace” in time.

By the last two and a half lines the imagery of Peace as a bird is fixed. And here is perhaps the most thought-provoking concept Hopkins offers. What happens when peace comes? We often think of peace as an absence of conflict or stress. But Hopkins imagines bird-Peace actively; it “comes with work to do.” It does not merely sit and sing–“coo“–in a tranquil, passive soul. Rather, it “comes to brood and sit.

What does Hopkins mean? The brooding and sitting bird broods and sits over an egg. Perhaps he is suggesting that Peace births something within us. It is not an end in itself but comes to create and bring some new thing, some new life within us.

Too often our images of peace and the way we pursue it is in terms of an absence and as an end in itself. But the rest into which God calls us is not a passive rest. It is an active and re-creative rest. The peace of absence–absence of conflict, of noise, of stress–is poor piecemeal peace. The peace of presence plumes beauty and lays and hatches new life.

 

Daily Office Lectionary

I have on and off found the reading schedule offered by the Daily Office Lectionary from the Book of Common Prayer to be a fruitful guide for daily Scripture intake (available here). Each day offers several Psalms, readings from both Old and New Testaments, and a passage from the Gospels. It is a two year cycle which begins on the first Sunday of Advent

One of the things I particularly enjoy is seeing links between the daily passages, though they were not really set together with such connections in mind.

Today is a good example. The readings were: Psalm 119:1-24; Psalm 12, 13, and 14; Isaiah 2:1-11; 1 Thessalonians 2:13-20; and Luke 20:19-26. I was struck by the following interconnections.

  • Psalm 119, of course, is an extended meditation on the Word of God, his law, statutes, testimonies, etc. Since the Word is such a central biblical theme, we probably shouldn’t be surprised that it is a significant feature in other of the passages.
    • And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God. (1 Thessalonians 2:13)
    • “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
      to the house of the God of Jacob,
      that he may teach us his ways
      and that we may walk in his paths.
      For out of Zion shall go forth the law,
      and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. (Isaiah 2:3)

    • In Luke 20:21 some of Jesus’ listeners say of him, “You speak and teach rightly, and show no partiality, but truly teach the way of God.”
  • Psalm 119:17 – Deal bountifully with your servant, that I may live and keep your word. ==> Psalm 13:6 – I will sing to the Lord, because he has dealt bountifully with me.
  • Psalm 14 speaks of the atheism and corruption of the nations. Isaiah 2 speaks of rich, godless nations.
  • Given that those quoted above were trying to catch Jesus out, Psalm 12:2 is apposite: “Everyone utters lies to his neighbor; with flattering lips and a double heart they speak.”
  • The following verse’s wish–“May the Lord cut off all flattering lips”–seems to be fulfilled in Luke 20:26 – “And they were not able in the presence of the people to catch him in what he said, but marveling at his answer they became silent.”

A one-two (three-four) punch

hebrews-logoMany commentators have observed that Hebrews is more of an oral document than a literary one, more sermon than epistle. Its introduction is not the beginning of a letter but rather a Christological shot across the church’s bow. The argumentation throughout the book is tight and this has wooed many an interpreter down many a rabbit trail to the loss of the coherence of the book and the sermon series.

To avoid such deviation, it is helpful to remind oneself that the author’s goal was the encouragement of his readers, a readership that clearly faced some measure of persecution and was in danger of falling away from the faith. Attending to this one can observe a deft pastoral hand in the first four chapters, in particular.

After the scintillating introduction, the author engages in an extended comparison of Jesus and angels on the basis of several Old Testament texts. As Creator, Son and Sovereign, Jesus is superior to the merely ministerial angels. This comparison, however, is in service of an exhortation made clear in 2:1-4. If falling away from the word brought by angels resulted in severe penalties, how much more so the superior Word that has come through the Son. In short, the ‘application’ of the author’s first ‘sermon’ is a warning: Don’t drift from the Word! We might call this encouragement of a negative sort.

However, the remainder of chapter 2 (5-18) continues themes from chapter 1 concerning sonship, sovereignty, and angels. Once again citing the OT, the author stresses the similarities between his readers and Christ. Christ shared in our fate and our flesh so that we might share in one family and in one future. That future is the fulfillment in Christ of the psalmist’s prophecy that God will put everything under the feet of the s/Son of man (Psalm 8). Whereas the angels compared unfavorably with Christ in chapter 1, humanity compares quite favorably. So much so that one upshot of the passage is that humans are superior to angels (2:16), not just Christ.

But again, this OT exegesis and theologizing is in service of a practical application and encouragement. Because Christ has shared in the full experience of humanity, he can be a faithful high priest for us. That is, Christ understands (2:18). We can call this encouragement of a positive sort.

Putting the two chapters together, we see the author offering a wagging finger of warning followed by a brotherly hand on the shoulder.

The author repeats this one-two punch of warning followed by encouragement in chapters 3 and 4. Having established the pattern, the flow of argumentation in chapter 3 is more cryptic than in chapter 1. Here he compares Christ to Moses rather than to the angels. Though both faithful in their callings, Christ is superior to Moses in a way similar to his superiority over angels: Moses is a faithful servant; Jesus is a faithful Son.

Once again the author turns to the OT and quotes from Psalm 95 concerning the failure of the wilderness generation to enter the promised land. Because they tested God with their faithlessness in times of testing, God swore that they would not enter His rest. The author brings application from this to his readers by pointing out that it was the very generation who had experienced the ‘salvation’ from Egypt that fell away and failed to enter the land. The argument is similar to that in ch. 1: if those who fell away from the faithful servant-leadership of Moses did not enter God’s rest, how much more will we not enter his rest if we fall away from the Son-leadership of Jesus? This is another warning, another negative encouragement.

However, as ch. 2 developed the themes of ch. 1 in a positive direction, so ch. 4 continues the themes of ch. 3 in an encouraging direction. Playing off of the Psalmist’s use of the word “today”, the author makes the case that there is a rest superior to the one offered the Israelites in the promised land. He sets this rest before his readers’ eyes as a motivation. The argument is that while the Israelites were motivated by a good rest in the Promised Land, we are to be motivated by the superior, eternal rest that God offers us in Christ. That greater rest should invite greater obedience. This is a positive encouragement to live into our greater calling.

If one imagines these as a series of sermons, one can appreciate the pastoral concern that the author of Hebrews brings to his listeners by speaking rich, biblically reasoned words of warning rooted in the Old Testament, and following them with even deeper words of encouragement rooted in the person and work of Jesus.

Prayer: It’s not rocket science

I517udw6am2l-_sy291_bo1204203200_ql40_n his interesting book Stuff Matters: Exploring the Marvelous Materials That Shape Our Man-Made World, Mark Miodownik examines the science and history behind many of the most common objects of our daily experience: glass, steel, cement, paper, chocolate, etc.

One of the main questions he asks is: “Why do these materials have the properties they do?” He often takes the investigation to the molecular level to explain why steel bends and why chocolate tastes and feels so good as it melts in your mouth. Today’s scientists understand why materials are the way they are with a precision never before known. It is impressive and fascinating.

At least as fascinating (to me at least), is the fact that humans figured out how to manipulate these materials long before they had the skills and equipment to examine what was happening at the smallest level. Long before we could understand the complex changes that are involved in the formation of steel from iron and carbon, sword-makers had developed the processes necessary to make steels of varying strength and flexibility. The same can be said for chocolatiers, bakers, and experts in any number of other fields. In the absence of precise scientific knowledge, humans were still able to develop impressive results with a variety of materials.

There may be a spiritual lesson for us in this. Our modern, scientific environment has trained us to expect precise explanations for most phenomena. We may not ourselves know the explanation but we trust someone does and could find the information if we needed to. (Just google it!). This expectation is frequently frustrated when it comes to spiritual realities. How does prayer work? How do miracles happen? Is there really a spiritual realm? The absence of satisfactory, precise answers to these questions disappoints the modern mind.

But as the examples above illustrate, the absence of detailed knowledge of a reality at the most precise level is not a barrier to fruitful use of that reality. We don’t need precise, technical knowledge of steel-making to benefit from steel or even to make it! The same is true of the spiritual disciplines and particularly prayer. We don’t need to know precisely how prayer works for prayer to do its work in our lives.

To be sure, we may desire deeper knowledge of these realities, much as ancient bakers may have wondered why some loaves turned out and others didn’t. But it can be freeing to know that our knowledge—or lack thereof—is no barrier to our benefitting from these divine gifts.

You can’t have it both ways

A further thought from Latour’s We Have Never Been Modern.

He spends considerable time exposing the clever way so-called modern thinkers both undermine nature and reify it. On the one hand, they are quick to denounce religious activities as being the projections of humans on nature rather than inherent in nature itself. On the other, they maintain that certain features of human society are ‘natural’ and therefore, unassailable. (Latour calls this the “double denunciation.”) (51-53)

In the first denunciation, objects count for nothing; they are just there to be used as the white screen on to which society projects its cinema. But in the second, they are so powerful that they shape the human society, while the social construction of the sciences that have produced them remains invisible. 53

It’s a clever trick and one can see it on display in contemporary culture. Two examples will suffice.

1. We are told both that sexuality is fluid and that genders are social constructs. On the other hand, we’re told that certain people are ‘born’ one way or the other. 
2. We read the reports that men are programmed by evolution to disperse their sperm as far and as widely as possible and that males are naturally more aggressive. Meanwhile we discourage sperm-spreading sex (use protection!) and encourage college men to attend seminars on taming their masculinity. 

And both of these points illustrate one of Latour’s broader points. He begins the book by pointing out that in spite of modernity’s supposed interest in segregating the spheres of science, politics, and ethics, “hybrid” issues (Latour’s term) proliferate. There is no tidy separation science and ethics or science and society. Grand social and political movements are being made in the areas highlighted above alternately appealing to science to shape the policy or the politics to fund the science.

In a dry and weary land

518era9qecl-_sx331_bo1204203200_In his book The Worst Hard Time, Timothy Egan chronicles the soul crushing reality of the Dust Bowl. The book is depressing and thought-provoking, equal parts cautionary tale and testament to human perseverance.

He narrates that after years of drought, when rains did come it was hardly helpful.

It rained fast and furious, but the water hit bone-hard ground and drained to long-dry indentations in the earth, filling ravines until they rose in a muddy torrent and smashed sheds and took a horse and then disappeared. It was as if it had not rained at all. 230

Might what is true of soil be equally true of souls? Might neglect and circumstance so parch a person’s soul that the refreshing rain of the grace does as much damage as good? I believe so and it stands as a lesson to ministers of the Word. What might this look like?

When someone has been cut off from life-giving truth from the Word and relationships with others, when truth comes they may not be able to receive it. Rather it may run swiftly through their minds only compounding the damage done by their drought. This could be in the form of reinforcing self-condemnatory thought patterns or highlighting what they already perceive to be their insensitivity to God’s presence and grace.

What can be done? Slow and steady rains are needed. Grace and truth must be ladled out consistently and in small quantities rather than unloaded in sermonic downpours. Ministers should be sensitive to the possibility that people in this condition are not helped especially by the sermon or the small group; the rush of water is too great. Rather, simple, personal watering of their souls is the remedy. In time they will be ready to receive the heavier rains.

Who’s speaking?

Much hay (and, frankly, money) has been made in recent years by authors playing the humanity of Scripture against its divinity. The human element in the production and preservation of Scripture is without a doubt a challenge to many Christians who hold to some concept of the “Inspiration of Scripture.” Most reject simple dictation but articulating the nature of the divine-human synthesis in the inspiration and canonization processes in particular is challenging and therefore open to reductionist critiques of the “the canonization of Scripture was a thoroughly political process oppressive of minority opinions” type and the like.

The source-book of science–nature–has no such convoluted origin, we are told. Rationalist scientists merely read the facts off the face of nature. Human involvement is purely observational. However, upon closer inspection, perhaps it is not that simple.

In We Have Never Been Modern, Bruno Latour reviews the conflict between Robert Boyle and Thomas Hobbes concerning the scientific investigation of vacuums (as narrated in Steven Shapin and Simon Shaeffer’s 1985 book Leviathan and the Air-Pump). Hobbes rejected Boyle’s ‘new’ scientific approach in which  phenomena were experimented on and observed in the laboratory. The fledgling scientists maintained that this was superior to previous science because it allowed the facts to speak for themselves. But is it as simple as that?

Latour picks up this notion of the facts speaking. He writes…

[Boyle] invents the laboratory within which artificial machines create phenomena out of whole cloth. Even though they are artificial, costly and hard to reproduce, and despite the small number of trained and reliable witnesses, these facts indeed represent nature as it is. The facts are produced and represented in the laboratory, in scientific writings; they are recognized and vouched for by the nascent community of witnesses. Scientists are scrupulous representatives of the facts. Who is speaking when they speak? The facts themselves, beyond all question, but also their authorized spokespersons. Who is speaking, then, nature or human beings? This is another insoluble question with which the modern philosophy of science will wrestle over the course of three centuries. In themselves, facts are mute; natural forces are brute mechanisms. Yet the scientists declare that they themselves are not speaking; rather, facts speak for themselves. (28-29)

Latour is calling the scientists’ bluff. In what meaningful sense can it be said that the facts are speaking for themselves without human involvement, when the very machine (in this case the vacuum pump) that created the ‘natural’ state being examined, was designed and manufactured by humans?

And we could go on. The systems of measurement used in science were defined by humans. The devices with which the measurements are taken were designed and built by humans. And, of course, the languages used to articulate nature’s facts are human artifacts. (This list doesn’t even begin to touch on the problem–so helpfully pointed out by our postmodern friends–of the effect of one’s human vantage point on observations–“there are no uninterpreted facts.”)

So perhaps with both Scripture and science there is an unavoidable “speaking together.” Humans speak and God/nature speak and defining precisely where the speech of one ends and the other begins is an impossible task.

This is humbling and ennobling. On the one hand it points up our limitations as humans. On the other, it shows God’s intention to catch us up in his creative, life-giving speech.

Consecrating Prayer

“For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer.”

This text from 1 Timothy 4:4-5 gives as close as we get in Scripture to a formula for consecration. In the coming weeks we will apply the formula to various aspects of our lives specifically. Here I want us to consider the significant role prayer plays in the consecration of God’s good gifts. Prayer is key in moving things from being ‘common’ to being ‘other.’

Attending closely to the verse we see that prayer plays a dual role in consecrating God’s gifts. First, God’s gifts are consecrated when they are received with thankfulness. How does thankfulness consecrate? Gratitude plays a role in consecration because in thankfulness we acknowledge the gift’s source in the utter otherness of God. As James says, “Every good gift is from above” (1:17). In being thankful, we are not so much making the gift other as recognizing it as being other to begin with.

Second, we consecrate God’s gifts when we pray over them. While in thankfulness we are receiving the gift as ‘other’, in prayer we are, in effect, yielding the gift back to God asking that he make our use of it and its effect in our lives ‘other.’

So there is a dual movement here. In gratitude we recognize that anything good has its source in the otherness of God. Meanwhile, in prayer we confess our tendency to ‘profane’ God’s good gifts and so, ask that he might make the use and enjoyment of them ‘other’ in our lives.

In prayer we move out of the realm of the common and acknowledge the existence of the wholly other. Accordingly, prayer is a key component of being and living ‘other.’

One Summer or One Reality?

I recently finished listening to One Summer: America, 1927 by Bill Bryson. It is a fascinating look at one busy summer which included a catastrophic flood of the Mississippi river, Charles Lindbergh’s historic solo crossing of the Atlantic (and the failed attempts of a few others), Babe Ruth’s record-setting season, a widely publicized murder trial, the invention of television, a highly anticipated boxing match, and a variety of other events of historic interest. Bryson’s writing is always brisk and informative. I thoroughly enjoyed the book. It did, however, prompt some thought both about how little things change and also about how blind we can be to our own era’s problems.

We have a tendency, I believe, to idealize the past. Conservative Christians can be particularly prone to this giving the impression that the whole world was Christian and holy prior to the 1960s. What Bryson shows, however, is that the 20s were no era of Christian family values. Tabloids purveying salacious material were booming. The trial of a woman and her lover for the murder of her husband captured the nation’s attention in a way quite similar to the celebrity escapades of today. And the politicians of the day were regularly engaged in corruption and relational improprieties. As they say, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

And things have changed. Though Bryson avoids editorializing much throughout the book, he shows a noticeable and justifiable disdain when writing about some of the eugenics rhetoric of the era. For a brief, sad period, many across the cultural spectrum were calling for the forced sterilization of those deemed unfit to reproduce, principally criminals and the insane, in an effort to improve the population and purge it of “undesireables.”*

While Bryson’s discomfort with this way of thinking is justified and would probably be shared by most of his readers, it is more than a little ironic that we live in a society in which doctors routinely advise parents to abort babies with Downs Syndrome or other birth defects. The arguments are different but the result is the same.

There is no Golden Era of the Church or humanity. Each age shows both the glory of humanity’s imaging of God and the shame of human depravity. Looking carefully at the past can help us see ourselves and our tendencies more clearly.

*Amy Laura Hall chronicles the unfortunate collaboration of the church in this movement in her book Conceiving Parenthood: American Protestantism and the Spirit of Reproduction

Spiritual IRA

This time of year it is common to hear people making resolutions about their personal habits. Among Christians this often includes the practices of prayer and Bible reading. These are often referred to as “Spiritual Disciplines” and traditionally include other practices such as memorization, meditation, silence & solitude, fasting, stewardship, worship, journaling, and serving. The list varies from author to author.

The term ‘discipline’ captures a part of the reality of these practices; most of them require dedication and perseverance to become part of our lives. But the term carries mostly negative connotations for most of us and may contribute to our lack of enthusiasm at developing them.

Developing these practices is further complicated by the fact that though we may call them disciplines, we often treat them as if they were transactions. That is, we want them to function the way most of our purchases do. We give the “payment” of prayer, reading, a donation, etc. and we expect to receive a “good” in return. The goods expected may be material “blessings” as we sometimes call them, but they may be more nebulous things like personal peace, or immediate insight, or a sense of God’s presence, or personal recognition. We seem to default to expecting a nearly one-to-one correspondence between our acts of personal piety and identifiable outcomes. Further, we want those identifiable outcomes to be nearly immediately recognizable. This usually doesn’t work.

It would perhaps be better to think of these practices as spiritual “investments.” With most of our investments we contribute a certain amount of money and hope to receive something beyond that amount at some later date. The length of time and the scale of increase are largely out of our control. But we know that, by and large, consistent contribution to these investments compounds the accruing benefits.

The analogy is imperfect, of course, but it holds true that the dividends of spiritual disciplines are paid out most often in the long term. Much like our retirement funds, Scripture calls us not to occasional, frantic, outbursts of spiritual passion, but to small, regular, honest acts of devotion submitted in faith to the market forces of the Father’s mercy.

Tolstoy is wrong

You have probably heard the quote from Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

The quote has everything a good quote needs: relevance (we all have families), pithiness, and the appearance of wisdom. But that doesn’t make it accurate. In fact, I think that Tolstoy got it exactly wrong, at least in the part that matters most.

Tolstoy is probably right from the standpoint of causes of happiness and unhappiness in families. The things that can cause unhappiness in families are manifold: selfishness, addictions, alcoholism, workaholism, marital disharmony, verbal, emotional, and sexual abuse, violence, isolation, suicide, bitterness, unforgiveness, ungratefulness, etc. Families can fail any number of ways. Families may have more than one of these, but often one is enough.

By contrast, those things that make for happy families are generally shared in common: humility, forgiveness, respect, stability, discipline, gratitude, sharing, praise, etc. Most happy families will evidence nearly all of these characteristics.

So by the standard of that which causes happy and unhappy families, Tolstoy may be correct. However, when one considers what happy and unhappy families produce he is dead wrong.

The variety of causes of familial unhappiness incompletely enumerated above may be diverse but they are remarkably consistent in what they produce: misery. Misery is relatively without character. Though the paths to the misery may be varied, the destination is the same.

By contrast, the characteristics common among happy families produce any number of unique effects. Some families are of the jovial, back-slapping, joke telling variety in their happiness. Others express their familial harmony in various artistic manners. In other homes the family happiness creates space for quiet reflection and study.

I would like to suggest that this is a richer, Christian and theological assessment than Tolstoy’s pithy maxim offers. As C. S. Lewis pointed out, the devil cannot create; he can only parody. What ‘creativity’ he has is spent in bending the varied tools on offer to him to his ultimate goal of spreading misery and death.

The grace of Christ, however, is endlessly creative. Resurrection brings life and life brings fruit. Happy, joy-filled families produce people that create and bless in all sorts of beautiful ways, not least in often creating still more happy homes. This is the essence of grace.

By manifold devices the devil creates a single effect: misery.

By a single effect—grace—the Savior creates manifold delights.

Going up?

Perhaps no image captures the concept of impatience better than that of someone repeatedly and agitatedly assaulting an elevator button. The delay between pressing the button and the elevator’s arrival presses the limits of our patience. What is going ON up there?

We are used to there being a close relationship between our acts and their effects. We realize that they can’t all be instantaneous, of course, but our experience teaches us to expect something to happen when we press buttons, whether literal or figurative.

This expectation is confounded in the kingdom. Kingdom realities, spiritual realities, eternal realities do not operate on a simple cause and effect principle. Yet we often want them to and are frustrated when they don’t. We pray and want there to be some discernible outcome from the effort expended. We serve and want to experience a commensurate return. We ask God, “What is going ON up there?”

But the kingdom works on a “secret” principle (Mt. 6:4). John Yoder says it powerfully, “The relationship between the obedience of God’s people and the triumph of God’s cause is not a relationship between cause and effect but one of cross and resurrection.”

What does this mean? Kingdom causes like prayer, fasting, worship, etc. do not mechanistically trigger kingdom outcomes. We cannot bring the kingdom ourselves, even by dedicating ourselves to “kingdom” activities like prayer and fasting. Rather, prayer, fasting, giving, service, humility, etc. are each little “deaths”, little “crosses.” Deaths and crosses in and of themselves have no creative effect. They are dead ends. They rely upon the gracious resurrecting, life-giving act of God to become anything more. We must die to the idea that our actions in and of themselves bring good and in faith hope for the resurrection power of God to bring his kingdom.

This is a hard saying. It runs counter to our human expectations. It runs counter to the way we want the world to work. It even runs counter to the way many people preach about the gospel and the Christian life. But it is precisely that counter-intuitiveness that suggests to me that it is true.

“Thy kingdom come; Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

Jesus: True Teacher of the Law

In the early part of the Sermon on the Mount Jesus stakes out his position with respect to the Law by saying he came to fulfill it (Mt. 5:17). He then urged his listeners to pursue a righteousness superior to that of the legal experts of his day (5:20). He goes on to flesh out his understanding of the law by addressing six laws in particular, exposing misconceptions about them, and articulating the vision implied by them (5:21-48).

The six laws concern murder, adultery, divorce, oaths, eye-for-eye judgments, and loving one’s neighbor. Why did Jesus choose these six laws? Were they the most important to him? Were these issues a particular problem for the Jews of Jesus’s day? In the case of the last of the six—“Love your neighbor”—we can say with some confidence that it was one of Jesus’s ‘favorite’ laws. He repeated it as half of his summary of the Law and the Prophets. But what about the others?

Jesus was the consummate teacher. He was an expert at starting where people were at and moving them to what he wanted to say. The issues that these passages address—reconciliation, purity, fidelity, integrity, mercy, and love—were central to Jesus’s understanding of God’s character and therefore God’s design for humanity. That is to say, Jesus understood these things to be the essence of the teaching of the Law and the Prophets in a comprehensive way. I don’t think that the six laws that Jesus chose to highlight in the Sermon on the Mount were in and of themselves of special concern for Jesus. Rather, he saw in them an effective starting point to talk about the issues he saw as the heart of the law. He very well may have been able to start with any number of other laws, prophecies, or even OT people and events to make the same points.

Jesus was steeped in the Old Testament. More importantly, he was steeped in the essence of the law and the way it testified to God’s character. As a result he could move creatively from virtually any point of the law or any question people might pose him to the heart of the gospel and the heart of the Father. How adept are we at moving conversations toward the essence of the kingdom?

(This was posted simultaneously on the website of Union Christian Church of Tegucigalpa).

My kingdom for a comma!

The last verse of Psalm 20 offers an interesting glimpse into issues of translation without causing too much impact in interpretation.

Here is the Hebrew with a literal translation followed by the main English options:

יְהוָ֥ה   הוֹשִׁ֑יעָה   הַ֝מֶּ֗לֶךְ   יַעֲנֵ֥נוּ   בְיוֹם־קָרְאֵֽנוּ׃
Yahweh save the-king may-he-answer-us in-the-day-of-our-calling.[1] (Heb)
O LORD, save the king! May he answer us when we call. (ESV)
Save, O LORD; May the King answer us in the day we call. (NASB, KJV)
Give victory to the king, O LORD; answer us when we call. (RSV, NIV)

If you read carefully you will see that there are two points of difference, one in each half of the verse. In the first half of the verse there is the question as to whether the word “the king” is the direct object of “Lord, save” or the subject of the verb “May he answer us” in the second half of the verse. The ambiguity is created by the fact that Hebrew does not have punctuation to make the break in the thought clear. I think the KJV may have taken the option it does because it makes the verse more overtly Christological.

The second difference has to do with the subject of the verb “answer” in the second half of the verse. Who’s the “he?” The first two options follow the Hebrew in making the subject of the verb “He” as the verb form indicates.[2] The third English option above, represented by the RSV and NIV, makes the subject of the verb “answer” out to be “you”, referring to Yahweh from the first half of the verse. It is understandable why they have done this. Having made the first half of the verse a direct address to the Yahweh, “Lord, save the King” and not wanting to say “May the king answer us when we call” because it sounds like the people would be praying to the king, they opt to see the referent of the verb “answer” to be “The Lord” even though that necessitates changing the verb from “may-he-answer” to “may-you-answer.”

What do I think? Regarding the first issue, I think “Lord, save the king!” is the best because it fits best with the theme of the psalm and because it balances the lines in the verse into 2 three word phrases. Regarding the second, I think the best explanation is that the second half is a summary phrase that echoes the early verses of the psalm. This way the subject of “May-he-answer-us” can still be Yahweh not the king, just as those early verses were expressed to Yahweh. It also explains how the verse can shift from direct address to third person.

Does it matter? Well, from a NT perspective, not too much. Christ is Lord and Christ is the King!

[1] Hyphens indicate multiple words translating one Hebrew word.

[2] For Spanish speakers this is like the difference between estás, you are, and está, he is.

Praying the Kingdom

As if there aren’t enough other barriers to meaningful prayer, the question of how to pray ‘according to the will of God’ is a stumblingblock for many people. In one sense this is a good thing. It means that they have moved beyond thoughtlessly praying for the easiest things that come to mind. They genuinely want to pray, “Not my will but yours be done” but they get hung up on “What is God’s will in this situation?”

For example, they want to pray for someone who is suffering from some medical condition. It seems natural to pray, “Lord, please heal Jane.” So they start to pray that and then it occurs to them, “But what if it isn’t God’s will to heal Jane right now? Will I be praying against God’s will if I pray for healing?” Not surprisingly, this line of thinking often takes the life out of prayer.

Same Idea, Different Angle

Scripture certainly encourages us to pray in line with the will of God. The Disciples’ Prayer is representative: “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” But God did not intend this concept to paralyze our prayer life. In fact, a way forward may be found in the very context of those familiar words.

Directly preceding the call for God’s will to be done is the phrase, “Thy kingdom come…”. The concept of God’s “kingdom”, though not necessarily immediately clear to all of us, carries a bit less baggage than the idea of “the will of God.” While we may not be able to express exactly what the Kingdom of God is, we have at least a general sense of what it will include. At the very least we have some idea of what life will be like in the end when Christ’s kingdom comes in its fullness.

In fact, it is likely that these phrases are intended to interpret one another anyway in the prayer. What is God’s will? The coming of the kingdom? When will the kingdom come? When God’s ways are done on earth as they are in heaven.

Praying the Kingdom

So let’s return to ailing Jane. While we do not know what God may be intending for dear Jane in the near future, we are confident that when the kingdom comes in its fullness such things as physical illness will not be a part of it. Jane will not suffer in the kingdom. Accordingly, we can pray that God might make this aspect of the kingdom present now for Jane with confidence because we know that such things are in line with God’s ultimate plans. “May your Kingdom come upon Jane in physical healing.”

The careful prayer will also recognize that other, perhaps even more important aspects of the kingdom might be called for in the situation. We might pray that Jane perseveres or has peace in spite of her condition. These, too, are kingdom realities and ones that we can be more sure God intends for Jane in the present.

God’s kingdom WILL come. His will WILL be done in his timing. Don’t let fear of praying against God’s will keep you from praying earnestly for God’s vision of the future to become reality sooner rather than later.

Because we are all wisps

candle smokeI love to watch the tendril of smoke rise from a candle recently blown out. The smoke is so responsive to the merest whiff of air and the pattern is never the same. The remaining smoke from the still barely-glowing wick stretches to the ceiling and spreads farther than one expects. Then, without a sound the last glow winks out and soon the smoke disperses.

It is not all beauty, of course, especially if you do not like smoke. While the flame provided light or ambiance, the smoke just lingers and catches in one’s throat. Far easier to cut it short with a quick, sizzling squeeze with spit-gloved fingers.

This was brought to mind recently as I read Matthew’s quotation of Isaiah regarding the Messiah, “A battered reed he will not break off, and a smoldering wick he will not put out.” (Matthew 12:20 from Isaiah 42:3). It seems the Messiah is not into making quick, painless work of the wounded and dwindling.

Our society has not much time for the bruised reed and the smoldering wick. Euthanasia and assisted suicide are quickly becoming not only widely accepted but even socially expected. Doctors counsel abortion to parents of babies with birth defects. The prospect of an imperfect life and our final days of senility or illness are regarded as unproductive and noxious as the smoldering wick. The obvious solution is to cut the slow burn short with a quick, syringe squeeze with latex-gloved fingers.

In our quickness to dispense with the bruised and smoldering among us, we may be well served to recall that elsewhere in Scripture our lives are described as “a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes” (James 4:14). Perhaps we should not be too quick to clear our lives of the too-long lingering mists of the lives of others.

I was blessed to be with my grandfather in his waning days. Amazingly, as his wick smoldered, his memory re-fired and I heard stories from his youth that he had never shared in our many years together. To be sure, those last weeks were difficult. But the pattern of beauty that rose from the smoldering wick of his life lingers in my vision to this day.

The Gift of Prayer

I am slowly reading through Jacques Philippe’s small book on prayer: Time for God.* What I have read so far has been simple yet helpful, so I thought I would pass it along.

Philippe’s first declaration is that the life of prayer comes to us as a gift from God not as a result of our efforts nor the application of techniques. He contrasts Christian prayer with the meditative practices of other religions that seek to achieve mystical experience through the performance of specific practices. But these are based in the efforts of humans. Christian prayer is a gift from God. This does not completely remove a human part to play. He writes:

Although–as we shall see later–a certain human initiative and activity has its place, the entire edifice of the prayer life is founded on God’s initiative and on his grace. We must never lose sight of the fact that one of the constant and at times most subtle of temptations in the spiritual life is to base it on our own efforts and not on the free mercy of God.

I particularly appreciate that Philippe brings in the aspect of human personality. He notes that there are always some people who are much better at employing techniques, being disciplined, or forming ‘spiritual’ language (‘hermosos pensamientos’ in his phrase). But since the reality of a prayer life is a gift from God, these abilities are not the sum and substance of a good prayer life. “Each one, by cooperating faithfully with the divine grace according to their own personality, with all their gifts and weaknesses, is able to have a deep prayer life.” Each of us has a God-given personality that has features that both help and hinder our prayer life. We must learn to work patiently with our own graces and limitations to receive God’s gift of himself through prayer.

While there are not “tricks” or “techniques” for the Christian prayer life, Philippe suggests that there are attitudes, certain dispositions of heart that set us up to receive God’s gift of prayer more readily. About those anon.

*For the record, I am reading it in a Spanish translation of the original French. Therefore, any of the English quotes you read below are my clumsy translations. The book is available in English. Since I have not yet read the entire thing I cannot at this time make a blanket recommendation.

(This post was simultaneously posted on the website of Union Christian Church).

What’s the big deal?

I recently discussed the story of the woman caught in adultery from John 8 with some friends. The text is often used to suggest that Jesus dismissed the woman’s sin, excusing her. If Jesus had done so it would have been in defiance of the law. Would Jesus do that?

But Jesus does not dismiss her sin. Rather, the passage ends with Jesus instructing her to “Go and sin no more.” Jesus clearly regarded her and her assailants as sinners.

Perhaps we want to see Jesus overlooking the woman’s sin in this story because we are much more comfortable with having our sin excused than having it forgiven. C. S. Lewis once admitted:

When I think I am asking God to forgive me I am often (unless I watch myself very carefully) asking Him to do something quite different. I am asking him not to forgive me but to excuse me. But there is all the difference in the world between forgiving and excusing.

What is the difference?

We excuse people all the time with phrases like, “It’s no problem,” “No worries,” “Think nothing of it,” etc. We are communicating that there has been no offense, no violation.

When we ask God to excuse our sin we are asking him to act as though there has been no offense, as though no sin has been committed. We are asking that He see our sin as we do, as “no big deal.”

Asking for forgiveness, on the other hand, involves our recognition that there has been offense. There has been a violation. A party has been wronged. It cannot be merely overlooked. In asking for forgiveness we see our sin as He does.

On the part of the offended party, offering forgiveness requires grace. Excusing a behavior only requires personal flexibility or moral laxity.

Asking for forgiveness requires humility; we are at the mercy of the offended party to dispense grace or justice. Truly seeking forgiveness involves both our emotions–we are grieved over the offense–and actions–we ‘repent’, change direction. Asking for our sins to be excused includes no remorse and implies that there will be no change in behavior since “it was no big deal.”

Forgiveness is hard. It is hard to ask for; it is hard to give. No wonder we look for substitutes. But when we do, the loss is ours. Because both sin and grace are a big deal.

Sacramental Creation

When God took on flesh in Jesus Christ, the uncreated and the created, the eternal and the temporal, the divine and the human became united.  This unity meant that all that is mortal now points to the immortal, all that is finite now points to the infinite.  In and through Jesus all creation has become like a splendid veil, through which the face of God is revealed to us.
-Henri Nouwen