Wednesday, January 31, 2018

The Evangeliad (3:46-52)

Section 3:46-52 (corresponding to John 1:7-13)

John came to bear witness unto the Light,
That through him all men might follow the right;
He was not, himself, the Light that dawned,
But came as a herald to speak thereupon.

The Light itself was the flame of truth,
Which illuminates mankind through and through;
He came into the world, the world he made,
But the world no recognition displayed.

Yes, he came to that which was his own,
Like a king returning to his throne--
But his land, his people, paid him no heed; 
Their rightful king they did not receive.

But unto the ones who received his reign,
The loyal ones who believed in his name,
He gave them the right to be children of God,
Born wholly of God, and not born of blood! 

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Photo of the Week

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,
And knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.

- Proverbs 9:10

Monday, January 29, 2018

Quote of the Week

“Do not think that as you grow in grace the path will become smoother beneath your feet, and the heavens serener above your heads. On the contrary, reckon that as God gives you greater skill as a soldier, He will send you upon more arduous enterprises; and as He more fully fits your barque to brave the tempest and the storm, so will He send you out upon more boisterous seas, and upon longer voyages, that you may honour Him, and still further increase in holy confidence.”

- Charles Spurgeon, the 19th-century Baptist "Prince of Preachers"

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Saturday Synaxis

Lord, bless us, if it may be, in all our innocent endeavors. If it may not, give us the strength to encounter what is to come, that we be brave in peril, constant in tribulation, temperate in wrath and in all changes of fortune, and, down to the gates of death, loyal and loving one to another. As the clay to the potter, as the windmill to the wind, as children of their sire, we beg of you this help and mercy for Christ’s sake. Amen.

- Robert Louis Stevenson

Friday, January 26, 2018

Glimpses of Grace: The Tower of Babel as Pentecost in Reverse

Sandwiched in between the biblical hero-epics of Noah and Abraham is an odd little story: the Tower of Babel. It tells the tale of how the the first civilization after the Flood sought to laud its own prestige by building a tower that reached to the heavens. And it also tells how God, in seeing the overweening pride of these people (and apparently also in wariness of their technical capabilities--see Gen. 11:6), halted their project and scattered their civilization by making them all speak different languages.

I call this story an odd one because it isn't really the most plausible scenario for God's judgment on that civilization. If God just wanted them to give up on monumental building projects, there are other methods at his disposal (as, say, having the earth swallow the tower up, or simply making the thing fall down). And if his goal was just to get that civilization to fragment and emigrate elsewhere, a little divine patience would have done the trick: humanity does almost nothing as well as fragment its own societies through the mindless stupidities of war and through the incessant call of claiming a territory to call one's own. Given enough time, the civilization of Babel would have disintegrated on its own. Further, if God is actually worried about humanity's power to build things, as this story appears to indicate, then he probably should be messing around with our languages right now, because computers and space flight are even more terrifying than giant mud-brick ziggurats.

Those aren't the only odd things about this story, either. Here's another one: what is portrayed as a punishment here (the inconvenient multiplication of languages) is now usually seen as a blessing. To linguists and to theologians who have done the hard work of learning to study in other languages, it is a self-evident truth that the diversity of languages has added to, and not detracted from, the power of humanity to think, dream, and build in marvelously creative ways. Different languages give us more than just different words to express our thoughts; they actually give us different paradigms for our thoughts to follow. That is to say, a second language will enable you to think differently about the world than a first language will, and vice versa. Languages foster their own distinct mental cultures. Any second-year seminary student can tell you about the richness that we gain in our theology from having a Bible that is written in two different languages (Hebrew and Greek), and that it is often the differences in those languages, the varying things that each set of grammar and vocabulary does well, that gives added depth, flavor, and power to the pages of holy writ. My linguistics professor used to say (of the Tower of Babel story) that even in his punishment, God was blessing the nations of the earth. 

All that to say, this story is a little odd, at least in being counter-intuitive. We could readily imagine other ways that this story could have played out, rather than with God messing around with the insides of people's brains (which, truth be told, is certainly not the normal way he does things in Scripture). So what's going on here? Why are we faced with this rather strange solution to a problem that doesn't even seem to be a problem (because, after all, why would an all-powerful, omniscient God need to be worried about the heights of technical achievements open to man)? 

One of the answers might be that God, in giving this "punishment" (which was really a blessing in disguise), was both meeting a present goal as well as setting up a foreshadowing of something much greater, something to come in the future. His divine action at the Tower of Babel justly humbles the dangerous pride of humankind, and it sets the stage for one of the greatest moments of salvation-history in the future: Pentecost, the moment when the curse of Babel began to be undone through the power of the Holy Spirit.

You see, the Tower of Babel is really another story about the Fall. Just like the holy human beginnings of Adam and Eve in the Garden were disrupted by the sin of pride (Eve's desire to eat the fruit and "become like God, knowing good and evil") and by the brokenness of human relationships (Cain's murder of Abel); so too the holy renewal of human beginnings through Noah was also disrupted by the brokenness of human relationships (the strange story of the "curse of Canaan" in Gen. 9) and by the sin of pride (the desire of the builders at Babel to reach up to the heavens). In fact, God's strange concern about what humanity might be able to achieve, quoted in Gen. 11:6 ("Nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them"), is best interpreted as a parallel to the danger inherent in the original sin in the Garden ("They will be like God, knowing good and evil"). You have the same sin (the pride of wanting to be like God), and the same danger stated (that humanity actually can, in some way, become like God--an idea that finds its fulfillment, incidentally, in Orthodox Christian theology). All that to say, the story of the Fall in the Garden of Eden and the story of the Tower of Babel are meant to be read in parallel. They are both the stories of the Fall of mankind after a promising, holy beginning (first in Eden, and then again after the renewal of the Flood).

And, marvelously, there are hints of redemption in the brokenness that follows each story: the pain of the Fall is made manifest in the death of the holy son Abel; and many centuries later, God's redemption from the Fall would be made manifest in the death of another holy Son. In an exactly parallel way, the pain of the Fall at Babel is made manifest in the divisions in humanity that occur from the multiplying of languages; and many years later, God's redemption would renew humanity's unity from the inside out, bringing the languages of the nations together in one outpouring of proclamation and praise. At Pentecost, when the disciples were filled with the Holy Spirit and went out to publicly proclaim the Gospel of the risen Christ for the very first time, that proclamation was made in such a way that "every man heard it in his own language" (Acts 2:6). It was the undoing of Babel, the making right of an ancient sin, a redemption that brought healing to the divided body of humanity. Where once we were split apart by many different languages, identities, and agendas, now by the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit there is no longer Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female: we are all one in Christ Jesus. In the Christian church, inaugurated at Pentecost, Babel is being undone.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

How to Be Miserable in Your Christian Life: Advice for Measured Moderates

(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: Just Do What You Like to Do!
(Section Three: Advice for Measured Moderates)

There’s one more type of Christian that I want to address, though. So far, I’ve advised you to find your comfort zone on the effort-spectrum, and then commit to going all-in on your end of that spectrum, since any measure of balance would be anathema to our goal. But there may be Christians out there who are naturally a little more balanced, who already know how to handle a good mix of both work and leisure without overcommitting to either. Such folks are already in a dangerous position, but, if that’s you, take heart, because there are a few simple tricks that can help you—yes, even you—to attain misery in your Christian life and practice.
One of the most effective ways is to ignore the effort-spectrum of Christian discipline altogether, and replace it with something that looks similar but which is altogether more effective for our present purpose. That is, find a substitute for Christian discipline, which may still fool the outsider but will leave you helpfully stunted in your spiritual growth.
            One of the easiest ways to do this is to read lots of books. If you’re the type who likes a good intellectual investigation, who enjoys taking sides in brainy debates and getting wrapped up in the technical minutiae that could prove your side right, well then you’ve got a whole world to explore in the exciting field of Christian systematic theology! But the same warning that applies to the Bible applies here: while it’s somewhat safer to read theology books than to read the Bible, they can still sneak in little points here and there that might frustrate your pursuit of misery.
The best tactic is to choose an arcane field of theological debate, one that will have practically no impact whatsoever on how you live your daily life, and devote yourself entirely to that: end-times speculation is one of the most popular choices these days. (Or, if you’re particularly good at limiting yourself to the technical aspects and ignoring applications to your daily life, you can also easily find helpful debates about divine sovereignty vs. human free will, or about which denomination’s view of baptism is right, or about what the best English translation of the Bible might be.) All of these are interesting, stimulating theological debates, matters of real value, but if you enter them with the intent of wrapping yourself up in a convenient distraction from your own Christian practice, they can be immensely helpful. You’ll look super-spiritual and brainy to everyone else, and you’ll get to keep your pursuit of the miserable Christian life all the while. As long as you ignore your own relationship with God, you can sink your teeth into as many wild and wonderful theological debates as you like. In this way, you’re substituting something that looks like Christian discipline for the real thing.
            Even if you’re not theologically-inclined, or if the prospect of learning about these debates makes you feel a wonderful sort of drowsiness, there are still other options out there for you. Self-help books, like this one that you’re holding, are a really great substitute for actual effort in Christian discipline. This is one of the easiest ways to perpetuate the cycle of fashionable Christian misery.
Step One: Your misery will probably convince you of the need to find some new answers for your life, so you’ll pick up a book purporting to have the answers.
Step Two: You read the book and talk about it with your friends. You discover lots of neat insights that really get you thinking.
Step Three: After reading the book, you get a recommendation or see a link for another book that can produce similar feelings of having found a neat insight. And so you start the next book.
As long as you keep to this easy-to-follow plan, you can keep reading self-help books your whole life, discovering lots of neat insights, while still, remarkably, holding on to your Christian misery! How, you ask? Well, because the only way out of your Christian misery is to actually apply some of the insights you’ve learned: to put some effort into the classic disciplines of the Christian life, or to practice soul-refreshing seasons of resting in Christ.
So the wonderful secret is this: as long as you don’t actually do anything, as long as you don’t intentionally try something to grow your daily walk with God, you’ll be fine. You can read all the books you want, and it’ll look to everyone else like you’re really spiritual and abounding in insights, when the fact of the matter is that you’ve been able to maintain, all the while, that under-the-surface discontent that is by far the most popular Christian choice these days. Just keep looking for that one next insight that will revolutionize your life, and as long as you keep looking instead of putting any of the insights into practice, you’ll be good to go.
            By now I’m sure you’ll agree: being miserable as a Christian isn’t nearly as hard as it’s cracked up to be. Remarkably, despite the joy of salvation and the delight of knowing God’s love, it’s relatively easy to maintain a fashionable level of Christian misery. All it takes is a little bit of dedication to ignore the right things.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

The Evangeliad (3:37-45)

Section 3:37-45 (corresponding to Luke 3:1-6; Matt. 3:1-3)

In Rome the Caesar Tiberius reigned,
And Pilate to barren Judea, he came;
The sons of Herod had their domains;
Annas and Caiphas were priests of that day.

Then in Tiberius' fifteenth year,
John, Zechariah's son, did appear,
There in the desert God's call came to him,
And he came preaching forgiveness of sins.

Down to the Jordan he carried his call,
And he summoned the people, one and all,
To baptism's water, in river's flow:
Repentance to ready their heart and their soul.

And preaching in wilderness ways he went:
"The Kingdom of Heaven is near! Repent!"
His message an ancient prophecy kept,
As Isaiah in centuries gone had said:

"A voice crying out in the desert waste:
Oh, prepare for the Lord our God a way!
All across the plains our roads curve back;
Make straight those paths for our God to walk!

Yes, fill up the valleys and deep ravines,
And level the hills and mountain peaks!
The rough will be smooth, the difficult calm,
And all flesh will see the work of our God!"

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