the gift of life

July 25, 2008

I’m beginning to think that the whole purpose of life is to posture oneself in a way to receive God’s gifts.  Life itself, its complexities, sorrows, joys, frustrations, and lessons all can have a positive outcome if understood as gifts from God.  The whole of reality, the whole of creation, the whole of the cosmos is good and meant to allow us to participate in the communal life of God.  That is the genius of the Trinity.  This concept of God being three-in-one is something that was put upon the followers of Christ as a gift.  Nobody thought it up.  It came at the end of a long struggle for the church to define what the Bible meant by God being Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  This triune life is a community of love that invites the creation to share in that loving oneness.  That’s why Jesus came and died and rose again.  That’s also why we have a hope of salvation.  It’s not merely being carted off to a spiritual clean, happy, wonderful place to be with God when we die.  Rather, our eternal life begins here and now in this creation that God declared good.  He is coming again to put things back in order, and we can look forward to being part of this new heaven and new earth.  The trick is not to look anywhere than within ourselves and all around us for God’s movement.  God’s kingdom of restoration, transfiguration, and resurrected hope is glimpsed in the present created order, but will fully and completely take over reality.  That’s the program I want to be a part of.  Hell is rejecting this.

Anyway, enough sermonizing.  Here’s the quote by Merton that got me thinking about all this:

“The things we really need come to us only as gifts, and in order to receive them as gifts we have to be open. In order to be open we have to renounce ourselves, in a sense we have to die to our image of ourselves, our autonomy, our fixation upon our self-willed identity.”

Thomas Merton
Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander


the reason for god

This interview with Tim Keller is pretty, pretty good (c Larry David)…..

Here’s a quote that resonated with me:

“C. S. Lewis says somewhere not to believe in Christianity because it’s relevant or exciting or personally satisfying. Believe it because it’s true. And if it’s true, it eventually will be relevant, exciting, and personally satisfying. But there will be many times when it’s not relevant, exciting, and personally satisfying. To be a Christian is going to be very, very hard. So unless you come to it simply because it’s really the truth, you really won’t live the Christian life, and you won’t get to the excitement and to the relevance and all that other stuff.”

Rilke on God

June 9, 2008

“When I saw others straining toward God, I did not understand it, for though I may have had him less than they did, there was no one blocking the way between him and me, and I could reach his heart easily. It is up to him, after all, to have us, our part consists of almost solely in letting him grasp us.”

Rilke and Benvenuta: an Intimate Correspondence


June 5, 2008

I’ve come to appreciate Roman Catholicism as the potential via media for all branches of Christianity. While the Orthodox argue (quite persuasively) that Rome isn’t the “Prince of the Apostles” and that the Pope isn’t the only “Vicar of Christ”, and the Protestants argue (pretty well) that there are other ways of determining authority, we still owe some respect and reverence to Rome.

The Orthodox should not forget that Rome was the prima inter pares, the first among equals, of the first thousand years of the church. Rome was the capital of the West, even years after Constantinople became New Rome. Rome had to keep the crumbling empire together, often faced by near constant attacks or threats from the Germanic tribes, Huns, and others. The Roman church was the only de facto institutional vestige of the Empire in the West. No wonder the church developed the way it did in the Middle Ages. It’s easy for Orthodox to criticize Rome for theological deficiencies, but they should have more of a balanced view of how these things came about. The schism should not be a permanent state of affairs — “Western Christianity” isn’t a permanent whipping boy. Orthodox seem to care more about preserving their traditions than uniting followers of Christ from outside their tradition.

Protestants berate Rome for a whole host of other reasons, but these too are quite often overstated. Rome is not a false church, forcing legalism and false doctrine down the poor, unsuspecting throats of mindless, lifeless masses. Rome is a living church with a checkered, very human past, but it is also constantly reforming and renewing itself.  Protestants owe so much of their understanding of the faith to their Roman heritage. Our views of heaven, hell, sin, the Trinity, the Bible, justification, original sin, etc. have all come to us directly from Rome via such luminaries as Augustine, Aquinas, and Anselm. The Reformation produced a Counter-Reformation in the Catholic church that has not yet ended. The Vatican councils and much ecumenical dialogue have been extremely helpful in uniting Rome with many other Christian traditions in more visible ways. I do not believe that Martin Luther would have been excommunicated from Rome had he lived in our time (Hans Kung?). That’s why many prominent and unknown Protestants — Lutherans, Mennonites, even Reformed Christians have gone back under the ecclesial authority of Rome. The Reformation was only temporary.

I believe that because of its special historical and common-cause relationships with the Orthodox and Protestant traditions, Rome will be the center of any future rapprochement between communions. If there is one person whom Christians around the world could point to who embodies that unity and challenge, I would look no further than the Pope. He seeks to fulfill Peter’s role as the spokesman for the apostles, and I think he fits it better than anyone else. It’s not about who has the perfect tradition, even though tradition is immensely important; it’s about who is willing to bridge the gap between all who claim to follow Christ, and work to proclaim, embody, extend, and participate in His kingdom on this earth here and now.

does God care?

May 13, 2008

I hope so.

The Bible explicitly speaks to such a horribly unbalanced distribution of wealth.  Do we really realize that most of the world’s lives really suck, and we’re just feeding the problem?  WWJD?  I don’t know.


coptic pentecost icon

Here are my notes for my talk last Sunday (Mothers’ Day/Pentecost)

Some parts may be a bit random, but I’ll post it all for the heck of it:

I’d like to look at two things that on the surface might seem a bit unconnected, but actually have some interesting connections that reflect what Danny’s talking about relating to the kingdom of God.

Today, as everyone knows, is Mother’s Day, but it’s also Pentecost. I’m going to talk about some connections between the two.


Pentecost is a Jewish festival that falls on the fiftieth day of Passover. In biblical times, Jews from all over the Roman Empire gathered in Jerusalem for the festivities of Pentecost. On the Pentecost after Jesus’ resurrection—ten days after Jesus had ascended into heaven—the apostles and other believers were gathered together in one place, when they were suddenly empowered by the Holy Spirit to preach the gospel. They went out into the crowds and attracted attention by preaching in the native languages of all the people present. This created quite a stir. Peter seized the opportunity to address the crowd, preached Jesus’ death and resurrection, and won several thousand converts.

These events are recorded in Acts 2:1-41.

Accordingly, Pentecost is celebrated by Christians as the birthday of the Church by the power of the Holy Spirit. Since the Jewish Pentecost is the fiftieth day of Passover, the Christian Pentecost is the fiftieth day of Easter.

Pentecost is not the coming of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit made His first appearance in Genesis 1:2! Rather, Pentecost is the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on human flesh to give birth to the Church.


Pentecost signals the end of the Christian year. The season after Pentecost is the focus on the Great Comission.

I’d like to tie the coming of the Holy Spirit in Pentecost with Mother’s Day. It might be a stretch, but there are some powerful metaphors of the birth of the church on Pentecost, the Holy Spirit coming over Mary, and Mary being present at Pentecost in the upper room. I think the closeness of his mother to these major events shows how he sanctified the mother-child relationship, and that it is one of the purest human relationships we can have. Not only that, but it opens up a window into the kingdom of God. When Jesus mother and siblings wanted to see him, he said that whoever does his commands is his mother, sister, and brother. That wasn’t a dismissal of his family relationships. Instead, it was an elevation of every other relationship within the kingdom of God. Namely, that all of us who believe are part of his holy family.

1. The Spirit is creative: Genesis 1:22 Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. Hebrew rachaph A primitive root; to brood; by implication, to be relaxed — flutter, move, shake

2. The Spirit came over Mary to bring Jesus into the world.

3. The Spirit gave birth to the Church on Pentecost.

4. Mary was probably present there.

Acts 1:14They all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers.

Acts 2:1When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. 2Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. 3They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. 4All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.

5. Jesus had an amazing relationship with his mother.

6. Often, Protestants try to minimize Mary based on their understanding of Catholic teaching about Mary. This results, however, in seeing her as just an ordinary Christian, and not someone who can teach us much about God.

7. Luke 8-19-21. 19Now Jesus’ mother and brothers came to see him, but they were not able to get near him because of the crowd. 20Someone told him, “Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to see you.”

21He replied, “My mother and brothers are those who hear God’s word and put it into practice.”

This passage is often seen as a downplaying of Jesus’ relationship with his mother. However, I think it could be taken differently. Jesus is not saying that his relationship with his mother and family doesn’t matter. If we fast-forward to Jesus on the cross, giving his best friend, the “beloved” disciple the responsibility of caring for his mother,

(John 19:25) Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. 26When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, “Dear woman, here is your son,” 27and to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” From that time on, this disciple took her into his home.), surely he did have a close relationship with her. He did not simply hope that the community would care for her, he, as a responsible firstborn son, saw it as necessary that his mother be looked after in a normal human way. He did all of this while paying for the sins of the world. Surely it is important.

Paul elaborates on this concept of caring for your family. (1 Tim. 5:8If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for his immediate family, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.) He says that whoever does not care for the members of his family is worse than an unbeliever! Surely family has an important place in the kingdom of God.

Well, what about when Jesus says he came to turn family member against family member ( Matthew 10: 34“Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35For I have come to turn
” ‘a man against his father,
a daughter against her mother,
a daughter-in-law against her motherinlaw—
36a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’

37“Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; 38and anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it). He seems to be emphasizing the fact that our loyalty is to him above any relationship, and if any human relationship, even a family relationship gets in the way of our relationship with him, our allegiance is to Christ. He’s not saying that family doesn’t matter, in fact, the best picture of that is the family caring for each other and dwelling in unity. (Psalm reference).

9. So back to Jesus’ mother… Sure, God could have chosen any other woman to be the mother of Jesus, but he didn’t. Think about it this way. God chose Abraham out of all the idol worshippers of Ur of the Chaldees. But, nobody would deny that God had a special relationship with Abraham. He’s even called God’s friend (23And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,”and he was called God’s friend.).

10. We may never know the reason why God chose Mary, but we can see that God saw her as special and blessed. As we look to honor our mothers this Mother’s Day, let’s remember a few things:

a. Jesus’ relationship with Mary was extremely special and shows total care of his mother.

b. Jesus’ talking about his family doesn’t downplay the importance of his own family. It actually elevates the relationships of everyone in the kingdom of God to a family relationship. It’s an invitation for the world to be part of God’s family.

c. As we celebrate Pentecost today, it’s extremely fitting that it’s also Mother’s Day. We’re celebrating the birth of the church through the coming of the Holy Spirit. We’re also celebrating the beautiful relationship of our Mothers, and especially seeing Jesus’ relationship with his mother as a door for us to all enter into a deeper relationship with him. One of the best examples of total devotion to Jesus was his mother. Jesus invites all of us into his family to have a relationship with him like he has with his mother. As followers of Christ, let’s celebrate the gift of our families, remembering that our families should point us to the kingdom of God.

This poem is a bit late for Easter, although it is still Easter season, both in East and Western Churches.  I read this poem a few years ago when I was taking Nancey Murphy’s Philosophy of Spirituality Class at Fuller Seminary.  At that time I was really thinking a lot about science and religion, resurrection, dualism/physicalism, and what it means for a human to have a soul.  I was also fortunate to see NT Wright debate Dominic Crossan at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary about the very issue of the resurrection.  There were some amazing speakers there as well, including Ted Peters and William Lane Craig.  A highlight for me was posing a direct question to NT Wright about his view on the nature of the human person, and talking to him afterwards about that in more depth.  I think he’s really in line with people like John Polkinghorne, Nancey Murphy, Ian Barbour, and Ted Peters about what it means to have a soul.  Ted Peters cited the following poem by Updike, which really brings it all together for me:

Seven Stanzas at Easter

Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body;
if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the molecules
reknit, the amino acids rekindle,
the Church will fall.

It was not as the flowers,
each soft Spring recurrent;
it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled
eyes of the eleven apostles;
it was as His flesh: ours.

The same hinged thumbs and toes,
the same valved heart
that–pierced–died, withered, paused, and then
regathered out of enduring Might
new strength to enclose.

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping, transcendence;
making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the
faded credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door.

The stone is rolled back, not papier-mâché,
not a stone in a story,
but the vast rock of materiality that in the slow
grinding of time will eclipse for each of us
the wide light of day.

And if we will have an angel at the tomb,
make it a real angel,
weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair,
opaque in the dawn light, robed in real linen
spun on a definite loom.

Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are
embarrassed by the miracle,
and crushed by remonstrance.

–John Updike


April 20, 2008

An ignorance of history is one of the most horrible and debilitating aspects of Evangelicalism. Sure, some of us know about the Reformation, but it gets pretty cloudy during the “Middle Ages” and back down to late antiquity. especially after (should I mention his name???) Constantine. Ecumenical councils…..?

Basically, the only Church Father many of us read or care about is Augustine. Then, history goes back to the time of the Bible, and that’s about it. We somehow assume that there’s overwhelming biblical evidence for a certain narrow sola scriptura stance and then take the Reformation formulation of Christianity (at least what we think the Reformers had in mind) and then go on labeling every other form of Christian belief that disagrees with us as “dead tradition” or “works righteousness”.

My question is: What about the 1500 years or so between the closing of the canon, i.e. the writing of the final book of the Bible — Revelation, and 1517, when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses on the Wittenburg Door? If Jesus had so much confidence in 12 men who would pass his message along for the redemption of the cosmos, primarily in a gathering of people, i.e. the ekklesia — the church, then why do we Evangelicals have so little confidence in this group of people living out its faith in the next few hundred years? We accept some things, such as the canon of scripture, which was finalized a few hundred years later by Athanasius in 367 AD and then by the African synod of Hippo in 393 AD. We also accept the Trinity and the Christological formulations of the first four ecumenical councils, but we don’t accept other things, such as priests, veneration of saints, veneration of Mary, the “real presence” in the eucharist, episcopal authority, etc. I just wonder what the early church would have thought about such picking and choosing. More often than not they simply labeled people who “went it alone” as heretics. I don’t think that being an Evangelical automatically nails you down as a heretic, but I think that an understanding of the way the early church saw itself may lead us to have a greater appreciation for other Christian traditions, especially ones which accept the first seven ecumenical councils as being authoritative.

For the first thousand years of Christianity, there was no question as to what church you belonged to, or which “denomination”. There was the church, and that was it.

Maybe it’s not the Bible alone (Protestant) or the Bible + Tradition (Catholic), but something closer to the Bible interpreted through tradition (Orthodox).

I don’t know, just some thoughts as I struggle to understand the fullness of my Evangelical faith. This article represents Robert Webber’s answer to my problem. People like him give me hope for Evangelicalism.

“The only alternative to Tradition is bad tradition” — Jaroslav Pelikan. I’m tired of bad tradtion.

what is salvation?

April 7, 2008

I know the typical Sunday school answer to this question, but it doesn’t seem to ring true anymore. Salvation, to me, used to mean that point where you “asked Jesus into your heart” and were guaranteed a place in heaven, or “justified”. The rest of your life was meant to be a working out of the consequences of the Holy Spirit being present in you, i.e. “sanctification”. Now, I’m not so sure I know what it means. It seems that the Bible uses the term “saved” more like the English word “saved”, but with connotations of healing, restoration, reconciliation, and rescue. It also seems like it can be a repeated thing where one is saved from many evils, healed from many sins, but not necessarily finished. In other words, I think a more biblical understanding of salvation would combine justification and sanctification.

How does it happen? It’s obvious that it’s a gift of God through Christ’s taking on of sin on the cross and being raised to victory in the resurrection. It’s also something that comes through faith. But what is faith? “Faith” is becoming such an unhelpful word. It’s only a religious word. I don’t think the Bible uses it in such a religious way as we do now. A more useful word might be trust. It would be interesting to substitute all of the words “faith” in the Bible with the word “trust”. Trust is not just a mental, emotional, inward thing. Trust is stepping out into the abyss, whether or not you feel that someone is going to catch you. It’s like being told you’ve got a parachute on your back, but never knowing it works until you’ve jumped out of a plane.

So, salvation seems to be the lifelong journey of trust as you learn to step out in every situation into the arms of God. Stepping out takes effort, dare I say, “work”, but God teaches us that he is our salvation. I think the archetype of this kind of relationship is God’s friendship and promise to Abraham when God says, “I am your shield, your exceedingly great reward” (Gen. 15:1). “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?” (Psalm 27:1)

The biblical authors saw salvation as one’s ongoing healing, restoring, loving relationship with God.


March 24, 2008

Protestants need to rediscover the sacraments. There are certain ways that God’s presence is made more real within a community of believers. God’s grace is his presence –his opening up of himself to us. We treat “grace” as some sort of substance that is “imputed” to people based on certain “merits”. It’s like a huge point system. Protestants don’t even recognize that they are taking on the medieval Catholic viewpoint that led to the theology of indulgences.

Eastern Orthodoxy has helped me see that the goal of our lives shouldn’t be to obtain some sort of “grace” based on a specific kind of “faith”, but rather we should follow God’s commands and ask for his presence to help us live within his divine life. That is salvation to me. I’m not looking for some sort of fire insurance anymore. Instead, I’m looking for God’s presence in everything and every situation, and praying for his mercy to help me to accept him in all of my life. God’s got enough grace for all of us, but his grace is his presence and nothing less. He came down to our level so that we could be raised up to his level and share the beautiful communion that the Trinity shares. That’s salvation, and that’s grace.

So how does this relate to sacraments? Well, sacraments (Greek: mysteries, or “divine mysteries” if you’d like) are ways in which God allows us to experience himself tangibly. It’s a whole worldview that needs to change. True, Christ is present in communion, marriage, baptism, etc. But he is also present in so many other ways if we have eyes to see him. How do we do that? By purifying our hearts by striving and putting forth effort in his power. In the Beatitudes in Matthew, Jesus says, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” At the same time it is “not of works, it is the gift of God.”

Evangelical protestants put huge emphasis on “preaching the word”. It becomes almost magical that somehow by hearing these divine ideas, our lives are changed. I wouldn’t want to disparage this viewpoint too much, but I’d like to point out that this is very close to what high-church people call a sacrament. I believe that God’s holy word rightly preached, explained, and used with a worshipful heart is a sacrament. But let’s not forget about all of the other ways in which God makes his graceful presence known.