Monday, August 25, 2008

Striving and Loosing in the Christian Life

Reading in Jonathan Edwards’s sermon "The Christian Pilgrim," I stayed on this statement for some time.

"When we are called to any secular business, or charged with the care of a family, if we improve our lives to any other purpose, than as a journey toward heaven, all our labour will be lost."

If Edwards is correct—and I have more than a passing suspicion that he is correct on some level—then this points to the fundamental and ineluctable paradox of the Christian life, that the very animus and character of our life consist in the dynamic of ever working to sustain that which we must strive to let go. Unless we should give up and resign ourselves to destitution or death, or both, ever must we grasp at this life even as God pries loose our grip to take our hand—and we must even will the loosing of our grip....

Friday, August 22, 2008

Some Thoughts on Acts 26:1-23

As we know from reading in Acts before and after these first twenty three verses of chapter twenty six, Paul had been arrested in Jerusalem for following and proclaiming Jesus. As a Roman citizen, he had been transferred to Caesarea for a formal hearing – first before Felix, the Roman-appointed governor of Judea, and then before Festus, successor to Felix. (Paul was in custody here for some time, totally at the whim of the governor for pursuance of his case.)

Festus decided to transfer Paul to Caesar for a hearing of his case, as Paul the Roman citizen had requested. Before he sent Paul on to Rome, Festus decided to have Paul speak before Agrippa, Jewish king in Judea, who was visiting Festus. Not one to refuse an opportunity to tell another person about Jesus – not even high political authorities – Paul passionately explained to Agrippa, Festus, and others in attendance why he devotedly served and proclaimed Jesus as savior and lord.

What Paul testified to was a life totally turned around by Jesus. From determined enemy of Jesus and Jesus-followers to ardent disciple of Jesus and brother to fellow believers, Paul “died” to one life and “was raised” to a new life. This he knew in the very core of his being – in all that gave him identity, purpose, and direction in life. This he proclaimed to Felix, Festus, Agrippa, and all he could reach. Jesus was life to Paul. Paul wanted to live this Jesus-life fully. He wanted to pass this life on to any and all, so stupendously worthy did he find Jesus and this new Jesus-life to be.

I am heartened by reading Paul’s testimony to his turned-around life. I am heartened because I tend to underestimate – or is it under-trust, and perhaps even under-desire? – what Jesus can do and longs to do to transform my life. If Jesus could do what he did with Paul, surely he can and will change me. How good this would be! May he knock me down, then, and pick me up anew, as he did to Paul. I need only say “Amen!” to Jesus, to turned-around life in him.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Why Do We Read the Bible?

Every week, during worship, we read a passage or passages from the Bible. Many of the churches with a more formal liturgy use several passages every Sunday. One lesson comes from the Old Testament; one from the epistles in the New Testament; and one from the gospels. A psalm or portion of a psalm is also read. Week in and week out, three lessons and a psalm. That is a lot of material from a very old book. Nothing in the Bible was written more recently than about 1,900 years ago, and much of it was written hundreds of years before that. What other book of comparable age do any of us read regularly, if at all?

Week in and week out, three lessons and a Psalm. Why? Why do we continue to read so much of this ancient book so regularly? It can seem so alien and baffling. Names of people and places, religious and cultural customs, historical events, political systems – these can seem so outlandish to us, sometimes incomprehensible or repugnant. How much of it do we understand and find meaningful when we hear it read in worship on Sunday mornings, even if a preacher preaches directly and extensively on it right after we hear it? Why not read something more contemporary, something more accessible and obviously relevant, if we are going to read anything regularly in worship? Surely we could each come up with at least one or two favored books, from a variety of styles and subjects, almost certainly written considerably more recently than the newest of the New Testament.

There are a number of possible answers why we read the Bible. Some might say we read the Bible just because it is old, a treasured artifact. Some, just because it is traditional to read it. Let me offer another reason, more vital and convincing, derived from Colossians 2: “As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith….”

If we are going to live in Jesus, if we are going to root and grow in Jesus, if we are going to establish ourselves in faith in him – we must know his life, his mind, his heart. The primary, definitive source for knowing the life, mind, and heart of Jesus is the Bible. The Bible is God’s gracious, authoritative gift for informing us about Jesus. Where else would we get to know the life, mind, and heart of Jesus? We read the Bible so much, then, to gain information about Jesus – not to mention the Father, the Holy Spirit, and much more!

At the same time, we read the Bible for so much more than information. We read it for transformation. We read it because God speaks to us in and through the Bible not so much to re-educate us as to re-create us, to renovate us in life, mind, and heart. In the beginning, God spoke, and creation came into being. In Jesus, God spoke to re-create us, to give us new being. The chief, definitive, authoritative way God speaks to us now is in and through the Bible. The primary purpose of God’s speaking to us in and through the Bible is to transform our life, mind, and heart into the likeness of Jesus. The power that God gives and that we receive for this is the power of the Holy Spirit, shaping us in and through the living Word incarnate (Jesus) and written (the Bible).

The question then is whether we read the Bible. To be sure we read and hear the Bible when we come to worship. This is good, very good. At the same time, we need to read it more. We need to read it on our own frequently, regularly, even daily, outside of church, outside of Sunday worship. We need to ground ourselves in the Bible if we are to grow in likeness to Jesus. Let each of us commit, then, to read the Bible – truly, deeply, regularly – that we may live in Jesus, that we may be rooted and built up in Jesus, that we may be established in the faith, according to Jesus.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Faithfulness and Effectiveness - The Dialectic

We are, by nature, actors—creatures who act, who do, who make things, who make things happen. As Tolkien remarks in an essay, we are “sub-creators.” So, making things come about—whether an object or an event or a result—is natural to us in both passive and active senses. Passive: by our very nature, we act. Active: by acting, we fulfill and perfect our nature—that is, potentially we fulfill and perfect our nature, for it is possible to act such that we negate, pervert, degrade, and destroy our nature. Effectiveness then is natural—right and good—insofar as it means (a) accomplishing or achieving what was intended, and (b) accomplishing and achieving that which is right and good, and (c) accomplishing and achieving that which is right and good by right and good means.

However, effectiveness has several temptations—all oriented around pride.

(1) The ignorance or refusal of humility as we act and seek effectiveness in our action. Effectiveness becomes an expression of the desire or will to dominate. The self confuses its will with God’s will. The self ignores or rejects God’s will. The self confuses its will with everyone else’s wills. The self ignores or rejects everyone else’s wills.

(2) Effectiveness can become our attempt to usurp Jesus as the lord of history. We seek to control history. We seek to determine history (what is true, valuable, useful, etc.).

(3) We lose the suffering character (the cross-centeredness) of faithful living and acting in history.

(4) In the quest for effectiveness, all other effects of acting are ignored, utterly subordinated, disparaged, or simply unconsidered.

(5) The legitimate recognition and application of effectiveness can lead to a myopia. In that myopia, realities and activities not easily susceptible to effectiveness criteria are ignored or dismissed.

I think the dialectic between faithfulness and effectiveness can best or most rightly and fruitfully be captured—though not resolved—in this way. God creates and calls us to act, as a fundamental part of our nature, but to act chiefly to be faithful to who God is and to how God acts, and to who we are and how we should act in God’s sight, with effectiveness as a part of the description of whether or not we are faithful (particularly if we apply senses [b] and [c] above as to what effectiveness means).

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Not Obedience but Devotion

Not obedience but devotion. Obedience certainly ought to be woven into our response to and relationship with God. Yet God calls us not to obedience but to devotion. God comes to us in Christ to secure not our obedience but our devotion. Obedience involves only a part of ourselves. Devotion involves the whole self. Devotion bespeaks the relation of being to Being, of person to Person. Devotion constitutes our truest, fullest, highest response to God.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

A Little Note on Beauty and Sorrow

Let X = great beauty.

Let Y = great sorrow.

These two coordinates plot the soul, locate it in the world’s ineluctable matrix. At every point, each coordinate must be plotted to perceive truly and accurately the structure of the world and the soul’s place in it.