Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Photo of the Week

Let the trees of the forest sing, let them sing for joy before the Lord, for he comes to judge the earth.

- 1 Chronicles 16:33

Monday, January 22, 2018

Quote of the Week

"If you are who you should be, you will set the world on fire."

- Catherine of Siena, 14th-century Christian writer, a member of the Catholic Dominican order

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Saturday Synaxis

Bodies dead to sin and souls alive by faith,
Grant us, Lord, grant us.
Holy fear and true love,
Grant us, Lord, grant us.
Lives that please you, deaths you can approve of,
Grant us, Lord, grant us.
Ourselves and all that we have we owe to the Lord. 
He gave them, he increased them, he gives us the means to keep them. 
To his mercy we commend them, and to the judgment of his providence.

Lord, have mercy.

- a Roman litany

Friday, January 19, 2018

Glimpses of Grace: Baptism, Spirit, and New Creation in Noah's Ark

In this final post on Noah's Ark, we'll tie up the loose ends of a few remaining symbols. Once again, the most important, overarching theme that the early Christians saw in the story of Noah's Ark was a foreshadowing of God's plan of salvation through Christ Jesus. The reason for this, as we've seen, is that the theological problems of sin and salvation are addressed in much the same way in the Ark and the Cross. Further, the Old Testament writers themselves saw something significant in Noah's boat, something that struck to the deepest part of God's plan, because they named it after their most sacred symbol, the Ark of the Covenant, rather than giving it the name of a conventional boat.

But there are a wealth of other symbols that the early Christians noticed, too, and we'll deal with them quickly here. One major point of connection was the symbol of water--just as God's cleansing of the world's sin comes by way of water (the Flood), so also God's cleansing of our sin is symbolized by water (the immersion of baptism). And if you might think that this is something of a stretch, you ought probably to consider that there are other stories in the Old Testament that relate to salvation from destruction, divine healing, and inheriting God's promise that also include stories of passing "through the waters" (the parting of the Red Sea in Ex. 14, the parting of the Jordan River in Josh. 4, and Naaman's healing in 2 Kings 5, just to name a few).

The conclusion of the Ark story has echoes of the idea of a "New Creation" all through it. In the same way that the Old Creation began with Adam and all the animals, and in the way that the New Creation story begins with Jesus amid the animals of the stable, so too here we have a foreshadowing of that New Creation, with Noah and his animals. It is worth noting that in the Christian conception of God's New Creation through Christ, although it begins with humanity, it will one day extend to include all of creation, including the natural world: "The creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God" (Rom. 8:21). The fact that the natural world is represented as being among the recipients of God's salvation from the flood is no accident; it foreshadows the cosmic extent of God's coming salvation in Christ Jesus. Further, as noted before, early Christians would have pointed out that the total number of people saved in the Ark was eight, and eight was the symbolic number pointing to New Creation (being the number of the first day of the new week after the seven days of creation, the day of Christ's resurrection from the dead).

In the conclusion of the Flood story, there are also two prominent symbols of the Holy Spirit's activity: the wind and the dove. Genesis 8:1 tells us that God makes the waters recede by "sending a wind over the earth." Now "wind" is one of the most common symbols for the work of the Spirit (it appears also in the Pentecost story, for instance), because in Hebrew the same word stands for "spirit," "breath," and "wind." One wouldn't want to stretch it too far and make every windy day in the Bible a symbol of the Holy Spirit, but the conjunction of God sending a "wind/spirit" over the waters that covered the earth is almost an exact throwback to Genesis 1:2, where, at the beginning of creation, "the Spirit of God was hovering (or 'blowing gently') over the waters." This striking parallel does appear to amount to a symbol of the Spirit's work in some sort of new creation. And if, as we postulated earlier, the Flood story also contains a foreshadowing of baptism, it's worth noting that the early Christian ritual of baptism was immediately followed by chrismation, a symbol of receiving the Holy Spirit. So, just like the pattern of God's salvation in the Flood was water-and-Spirit, so too the pattern of symbolically receiving God's salvation as a Christian was water-and-Spirit.

The dove also figures large in the conclusion of the Ark story. In chapter eight, Noah sends out a bird four times to see if the water has receded enough to expose dry land: first a raven, which apparently does not come back but simply keeps flying around aimlessly; then a dove three times--the first time finding no land, and returning; the second time returning with an olive branch; and the third time not returning, having found its home in the renewed creation outside. This sequence was interpreted allegorically as well, both by Jews and Christians. In much Jewish tradition, the raven was associated with Satan--a heavenly being who went out but did not return to his Master. The dove was taken by early Christians to symbolize the Holy Spirit (as, for instance, at Jesus' baptism). The three times it was sent out were interpreted in various ways, one of which I'll relate here: the first trip out represented the Holy Spirit's work among the Old Testament people of Israel (as, for instance, in the ministry of the Prophets), but it returns because the New Creation is not yet revealed. The second trip was taken to be the Spirit's work in the ministry of Jesus Christ, and it returns with an olive branch as a symbol of the reconciliation between God and mankind through Jesus. The third trip was taken to refer to Pentecost--the Holy Spirit goes out and takes up residence in the now-revealed first stage of the New Creation: that is, in the church of Jesus Christ.

The story ends with God making a covenant with Noah and all creation (and, once again, the Messianic "seed" is possibly referenced in Gen. 9:9). The symbol for this covenant is the rainbow. One of the most compelling views of this symbol is not an ancient Christian perspective (at least, not that I know of), but a contemporary one: in The Jesus Storybook Bible (quickly becoming an all-time classic children's Bible), Sally Lloyd Jones writes: 

"The first thing God did [after Noah came out of the Ark] was make a promise: 'I won't ever destroy the world again.' And like a warrior puts away his bow and arrow at the end of a great battle, God said, 'See, I have hung up my bow in the clouds.' And there in the clouds--just where the storm meets the sun--was a beautiful bow made of light. It was a new beginning in God's world. It wasn't long before everything went wrong again, but God wasn't surprised; he knew this would happen. That's why, before the beginning of time, he had another plan--a better plan. A plan not to destroy the world, but to rescue it--a plan to one day send his own Son, the Rescuer. God's strong anger against hate and sadness and death would come down once more--but not on his people, or his world. No, God's war bow was not pointing down at his people. It was pointing up, into the heart of Heaven."

Thursday, January 18, 2018

How to Be Miserable in Your Christian Life: Advice for Whizbang Workaholics

(Please note: the following is not entirely serious--it is written in the style of a satirical self-help book, somewhat in the tradition of C. S. Lewis' Screwtape Letters, that offers insight and encouragement in the life of Christian holiness by having my fictional narrator, who wants to adhere to the most popular form of Christian practice, advise the opposite.)

How to Be Miserable in Your Christian Life

Chapter One (continued): Just Do What You Like to Do!
(Section Two: Advice for Whizbang Workaholics)

Now, I’ve been speaking mostly to those who, like me, naturally enjoy taking life slow, not pushing ourselves too hard. But I know that there’s another set of folks out there: those who actually like to work, who find that they’re suited to keep going with project after project, and never give themselves time to sit and rest. One must be doing something, being productive, making things happen! If this is an apt description of you, my friend, don’t give in to despair just yet. After all I just said, you might feel like you’re fated to pursue a rigorously self-disciplined Christian life, and so, unfortunately, end up without any hope of being fashionably miserable. Well, I’ve got good news for you: there’s a way out of that trap.

You see, the classic Christian road of growing in holiness has always been understood as a balance: a balance between working toward growth and resting in God’s grace, between discipline on the one hand and simply “abiding in Christ” on the other. The secret to finding misery is to absolutely avoid the end of that spectrum of effort that you’re not quite as good at. So if you’re more prone to be slothful, then go all-in on slacking off, and avoid the work of discipline. But if you’re a workaholic sort, then what you need to do is go all in on the work, and absolutely avoid any intentional practice of resting in God’s grace.

Here’s your gameplan, my self-motivated, always-active friends: you need to seriously take to heart the parts of the message that you hear from preachers where it talks about how seriously God regards sin. (And again, as with the other folks above, you can safely ignore any further subtlety your pastor might try to work into this point.) When once you understand how serious a thing sin is, then you’ll likely develop a deep awareness of your own sinfulness, and a dominant image of God as a perpetually-disappointed father. (If the “Disappointed Father” image doesn’t work for you, there are others, too: try one of my other favorites, “Frowning Judge” or “Hard-Grading Professor”). This will set you very readily on a quick road to Christian misery.

In order to please this implacable God, you’ll work really hard at overcoming your sinful habits through sheer willpower alone. And, marvelously, you’ll fail in spectacular fashion every single time. (The reason for this is that sinful habits aren’t overcome by sheer individual willpower alone; but for our purposes here, since we’re aiming for a bit of misery, we’ll just set that aside for a moment.) This will create a self-sustaining cycle of (1) sinning, (2) hating yourself for sinning, (3) promising God that you’ll do better next time, and then (4) sinning again. Talk about a surefire road to misery! It doesn’t get much better than that.

Now, you might be tempted to include Scripture and prayer as part of your program of spiritual self-flagellation, but it’s generally safer not to. For some Christians, they might be able to fit their Bible readings into their overall scheme of trying vainly to earn God’s favor, and they might be able to keep their prayers at the agonizing level of perpetual self-pity—but most Christians who try that road eventually wind up letting a little bit of grace in the back door. And if that happens, your misery is a goner.

Here’s a cautionary tale for you: the famous leader of the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther, was one of these grind-it-out-and-hate-yourself kind of Christians, and boy was he miserable! But then he started studying the Bible in-depth, and you know what happened?—he became one of the most unfashionable, wild-eyed fanatics in all of history. So be careful about the Bible.

Better than Scripture reading and prayer, then, is a steadfast program of trying to fight your sinful habits, all alone, by your own force of will. This will come naturally to you, because you’re a worker, and you’re geared to try projects like this. So just go all-out and work on your sin as hard as you can. The truth is, you might actually see some progress in gaining a bit of discipline over your sinful habits. But even if you do, don’t worry—just hold onto an overriding mindset of trying to please your deeply-grieved Heavenly Father and an acute awareness of your own sinfulness, and that will keep you in the sweet spot of popular Christian misery.

For you spiritual workaholics, though, you have to be careful to avoid any subversive message of “resting” or “abiding” in Christ. Following those roads will quickly lead you off your preferred course. There are several classic Christian writers who harp on this point a little too fervently—François Fénelon, Madame Guyon, and Andrew Murray, just to name a few. Their works might not put in danger those Christians who are already prone to enjoy a little bit of resting, but they are kryptonite to workaholic Christians seeking to confirm their justification through their own fervent efforts. Any idea that you should simply quiet your mind, rest in what Christ accomplished for you, and just drink in the love of God—run away from such things! They’ll make quick work of dispatching your miserable Christian lifestyle and replace it with a rich contentment that (clearly) very few Christians are choosing nowadays.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

The Evangeliad (3:30-36)

Then in the Temple they found him at last;
There with the teachers and scribes he had passed
Three days of questions and study and talk,
While down from the town his parents had walked.

And all those who heard him marveled at him,
At his words, full of grace and richest wisdom.
But his mother, she asked, "Son, why are you here?
Why have you driven your parents to fear?"

"But did you not know," said Jesus to her,
"That you need not make so desperate a search?
Where would I be but my Father's own house?'
And when he had answered, then he went out.

Together with Mary and Joseph he went,
Following them in obedience.
His words they had failed to grasp in full,
But Mary remembered, and treasured them well.

And Jesus, he grew from boyhood to man,
Higher in stature, in wisdom more grand;
He rose in the favor of men near and far,
And in favor of God, the highest of all.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Photo of the Week

Let the morning bring me word of your unfailing love,
for I have put my trust in you.
Show me the way I should go, for to you I entrust my life.
Rescue me from my enemies, Lord, for I hide myself in you.

- Psalm 143:8-9