Category Archives: Theology

Don’t You Care That I’m Dying?

Yesterday, I attended an  ethics talk on the potential issues of merging Secular and Religious healthcare organizations. It was an extremely interesting discussion and one that’s far too complex to try and detail here1.

For anyone who’s been living under a rock for the past few years, the US healthcare system is undergoing a tremendous amount of change and reorganization. Changes in treatment reimbursement and shifting regulations regarding electronic health records and such have seen many smaller hospitals consolidating into larger Accountable Care Organizations (ACO). This has inevitably resulted in religiously affiliated hospitals (primarily Catholic ones) merging with or associating with secular institutions. With these new agreements come another set of governing documents known as the Ethical and Religious Directives (ERD) which are handed down by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. These directives are an attempt to elucidate Catholic Social Teaching within the context of medicine and healthcare and provide a framework for not only reasoning about critical decisions, but also for defending existing doctrine. Of course, these documents don’t stand on their own, they are products of a current political and cultural climate and thus deal with extremely delicate topics centered around both the beginning and end of life. And it’s these stances that are proving to be problematic.

As the session opened the panelists each gave their perspective on the topic and attempted to explain the issues at stake. This is where things began to get interesting. Like any old fool, I’d originally assumed that in a discussion of both Catholic teaching and Catholic hospitals, there would be representatives from some of the respective organizations. Silly me, in fact, not only were they not in attendance, they were purposefully not invited, in order to keep the discussion focused on ‘the ethics’2.
The problem with this approach, is that catholic3 teaching is focused within a larger religious framework that makes it impossible to split off and analyze as a piece of secular health policy. Consider this section from the ERD Introduction:

The mystery of Christ casts light on every facet of Catholic health care: to see Christian love as the animating principle of health care; to see healing and compassion as a continuation of Christ’s mission; to see suffering as a participation in the redemptive power of Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection; and to see death, transformed by the resurrection, as an opportunity for a final act of communion with Christ.4.

As a religious person, I find this statement to be incredibly powerful, beautiful in its hopefulness for a world renewed, and invigorating in its extortion to us as agents of healing and change. To a non-religious individual, this statement is at best completely inaccessible, and at worst extremely offensive.

Consider Directive #61, which ends with:

… Patients experiencing suffering that cannot be alleviated should be helped to appreciate the Christian understanding of redemptive suffering.

When trying to evaluate this as a piece of health policy it largely reads ‘let them suffer until the bitter end, and maybe preach at them until they pass out’.  Which brings us to the crux of the forum, the prevailing opinion is that the merging of secular and religious hospitals is unethical because Catholic teaching is inconsistent with moral care of both the dying and the soon to be born, or accurately scheduling those soon to be born.

A religious person would bristle at this statement, and rightly so, but that fact remains, this is the perception of a huge swath of the American populace.

But why is this the case?

While there are most likely a myriad of reasons, the one that stuck out to me was the fact that religious views on health and ethics are inextricably rooted in a larger religious system. The reason Catholics oppose abortion, is not some form of uterine control, but a deep understanding on the meaning and value of life. Likewise, this concern is extended to include those whose time on earth is drawing to a swift, though painful, close. Thus, when you simply strip all that away, you’re left with a series of cryptic one-liners which seem to simply regurgitate the last remnants of some medieval council.

But this misunderstanding goes even further. Consider the recent supreme court case Sibelius v. Hobby Lobby, here the court wants to know why the actions and choices of an individual must be made subject to religious doctrine. A fair question, but one that’s inherently misguided. To a religious person, the question is not about why actions may be held to account for religious teachings, but if these specific actions can be held to such a standard. Religious people understand the concept of self-surrender, whereby our wants and desires are made subject to the perfect will of God. So, while you may argue over specific cases, it makes logical sense that there would be situations in which our own wants and desires would have to be surrendered for some larger purpose5. Of course, without a theological framework to lean on, this explanation holds little to no weight.

At this point, there are probably quite a few people who would take issue with my characterization of religious doctrine, in that God’s truth extends beyond simple metaphor or liturgical ritual, it indeed resounds in the night and shines in the light of day6. This is absolutely true, and one need only take a cursory scan of places like The Public Discourse,  or First Things in order to find logical, well reasoned discussions of Christian ethics and thought within the public realm; however, these discussions seem to be relegated to the back-burner of public society and have ceased to light the way forward.

But again, why is this the case?

I would hold that the fault lies not with the secular world, but with those of us who profess to hold such believes. We have failed. We have failed to translate the spiritual to the physical, not only in our explanations of truth, but in the way we model and reveal the glory of God in this world. We have become a Church defined by what we’re against, not what we’re for. A Church in which ‘not as you are’, has replaced ‘what you will become’. Is it any wonder people are pushing back against us? If the Church was really what they perceived it to be, would you want to be a part of it?

This is what I hear people rebelling against. Not our forms of worship, or our personal moral codes, but our perceived abandonment of mercy and compassion. The Church is seen not as a field hospital for those cast about by the waves of post-modernity, but as a wall with which to break upon. In discussions such as these, I hear less the mocking laugh of atheism, then the heartbroken pleas of those left behind. And while the Church’s truth on death and dying may hold together from a logical perspective, it seems a cold comfort to those on death’s door, without any hope of what lies beyond.

In the end, this is not a doctrinal issue, it’s a language issue, it’s a relational issue. Perhaps it’s an issue that will never be solved, perhaps the chasm is just too great, but if the Church ever hopes to regain its place in the public sphere, it needs to shift is language7, it needs declare its support for those in life’s most vulnerable states. It needs to show (through words and actions) how it values all people and that the truths it extols are, in fact, those most consistent with human flourishing. Only then, will people begin to understand the crux of the religious arguments, which are built upon the idea of a loving savior, and a world broken but longing to be renewed. Until then, we’ll all just be talking past each other and we’ll keep running down this same road, and I find it highly unlikely that things will simply work themselves out over time.

Today, I don’t really have any good answers, like everyone else, I’m still trying to figure out what it means to be a Christian in 2014, living in the community I’ve found myself in. I’m trying to figure out how my faith and beliefs work themselves out in the public life I live. And, like everyone else in that room yesterday, I’m trying to work towards alleviating the pain and suffering from those in this world who seem to have too much of both. But while I don’t have any direct answers, I do know one thing for sure. The way things are right now, does not bode well for the future of religion and American Christianity. Living in Seattle we find ourselves not in a post-Christian world but a post-post-Christian one, one in which the the forms and frameworks of religion have faded quietly into the past. Unless we change the way we communicate hope and truth people won’t understand. And unless we change the way we live out that truth in the world, they won’t listen.


  1. The tax issues alone require at least a month to go through, but that’s probably because everyone would be falling asleep with regularity. 

  2. In case you’re worried that this would cause a slant in the dialogue, fear not, the ACLU provided all the necessary expertise. 

  3. Notice the small C spelling, from here on out I’m going to use Catholic doctrine as a model, but I think the issues are largely transferable between faiths and denominations. 

  4. Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services, 5th Edition (2009). 

  5. Some questions will, naturally, be raised as to what type of freedom we’re promoting, but I would dodge that whole debate by simply stating ‘positive freedom’. Yes it’s a simplistic response, but it leaves a little something for next time. 

  6. I love that UW’s motto is Lux sit ‘Let there be light’ 

  7. notice I said language, not doctrine. 

Love, Fire, and Blaise Pascal

There’s a passage in scripture that we all know, in fact, it’s probably so common that’s simply faded far into the background. It’s the story of the woman with the purfume, and while familiar, it’s worth quoting in its entirety:

36One of the Pharisees asked him to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table. 37And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was reclining at table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment, 38and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head and kissed his feet and anointed them with the ointment. 39Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner.” 40And Jesus answering said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” And he answered, “Say it, Teacher.”

41“A certain moneylender had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42When they could not pay, he cancelled the debt of both. Now which of them will love him more?” 43Simon answered, “The one, I suppose, for whom he cancelled the larger debt.” And he said to him, “You have judged rightly.” 44Then turning toward the woman he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. 45You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet. 46You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. 47Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.” 48And he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” 49 Then those who were at table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this, who even forgives sins?” 50And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

– Luke 7:36-50 (ESV)

The first question that comes to mind is: what just happened? She poured what where? Followed quickly by: that seems like quite a waste. It’s true, this is a strange passage, it’s rooted in the customs and moires of an ancient culture and can be a bit obtuse to modern readers. It also seems a bit irrational, why would she waste so much money on a trivial action? Aren’t there better ways to spend ones resources in service of the kingdom?

The problem is, this isn’t a story about rationality, it’s a story about love.  This is what all those endless country songs are about. This is the ending to all those movies. This is every drawn out metaphor that Mark Helprin ever concocted. If you’d asked this woman why she did what she did, she would’ve stared back at you, puzzled, and ask: why wouldn’t I?

But it also goes deeper, this is not simply a woman in love, this is a woman forgiven. This is a woman who has been redeemed from the depths of despair and given a new hope. For her, there is nothing in the world that can even possibly compare to the gift she’s been given. If I may dip into pop culture for a moment, and decidedly coarsen the dialogue, it reminds me of this.

Actually, that doesn’t even come close to what it means, but it’s a funny distraction. The real problem with this scene, is that we’re not supposed to see it. This is not a public act for the enjoyment of all, this is a private moment. A gesture of deep love that resonates strangely with the other people in the room. But Jesus responds. He doesn’t condemn her, he defends her. He doesn’t suggest improvements as to how she might better frame her emotional responses within the accepted sociopolitical context, his response is simple.

“Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

– Luke 7:50

For whatever broken, painful, awkward form her love took, whatever emotional baggage, or unrealistic expectations she brought with her, Jesus didn’t care. He saw her heart, he knew her love.  If people could simply wrap their minds around the idea that God takes our imperfect, weirdly dysfunctional love and affection, and welcomes us as we are, here and now; well, I don’t think things would quite be the same.

As I was reading, my mind immediately went to two other stories from the annals of time. Two other stories of drama, and emotion. Two other expressions of love, two other glimpses into hearts renewed. While they may be familiar, even over played at times, they’re worth quoting in full. As you read them, don’t let them simply be more words on the digital page. Imaging the words as pouring from the hearts of the authors. Or if it helps, imaging Hunter Hayes singing it. Or you know, someone better.

Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you! You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you. In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created. You were with me, but I was not with you. Created things kept me from you; yet if they had not been in you they would have not been at all. You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness. You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness. You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for you. I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more. You touched me, and I burned for your peace.

– St. Augustine ‘The Confessions’

 

From about half past ten in the evening until half past midnight.

Fire

‘God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob,’ not of philosophers and scholars.
Certainty, certainty, heartfelt, joy, peace.
God of Jesus Christ.
God of Jesus Christ.
My God and your God.
‘Thy God shall be my God.’
The world forgotten, and everything except God.
He can only be found by the ways taught in the Gospels.
Greatness of the human soul.
‘O righteous Father, the world had not known thee, but I have known thee.’
Joy, joy, joy, tears of joy.
I have cut myself off from him.
They have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters.
‘My God wilt thou forsake me?’
Let me not be cut off from him for ever!
And this is life eternal, that they might know thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent.’
Jesus Christ.
Jesus Christ.
I have cut myself off from him, shunned him, denied him, crucified him.
Let me never be cut off from him!
He can only be kept by the ways taught in the Gospel.
Sweet and total renunciation.
Total submission to Jesus Christ and my director.
Everlasting joy in return for one day’s effort on earth.
I will not forget thy word.

Amen.

– Blaise Pascal ‘The Night of Fire’

Both these men saw God. And they saw him in their own way, in their own language. Pascal came to the end of his reason, truly saw Jesus, and suddenly everything around him paled in comparison. In fact, he sewed this vision to the inside of his coat, so it would be with him always. Augustine came to the edge of the world, to the end of everything this earth could provide, and found nothing. Except, him who his heart had been searching for all along.

But the story doesn’t end there, in all three vignettes, the beloved do not remain the same, they are changed. Though they came with broken hearts, twisted love, and captive minds, they left changed by the person and love of Christ.

This is a powerful story. This is a stunning story. This is a transformative story. As we read it, we cannot allow the text to become dry and dead. This is not a factual recounting of mythic history, this love as real as anything the great romantics ever dreamt of. When you read it, feel the heartbreak, feel the passion, and feel the overwhelming sense of peace, joy, and awe that comes in the glorious presence of Jesus Christ.

Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you!

Let me never be cut off from him!

“Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

He is Risen

Sing aloud, O daughter of Zion;
shout, O Israel!
Rejoice and exult with all your heart,
O daughter of Jerusalem!
15 The Lord has taken away the judgments against you;
he has cleared away your enemies.
The King of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst;
you shall never again fear evil.
16 On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem:
“Fear not, O Zion;
let not your hands grow weak.
17 The Lord your God is in your midst,
a mighty one who will save;
he will rejoice over you with gladness;
he will quiet you by his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing.
18 I will gather those of you who mourn for the festival,
so that you will no longer suffer reproach.[c]
19 Behold, at that time I will deal
with all your oppressors.
And I will save the lame
and gather the outcast,
and I will change their shame into praise
and renown in all the earth.
20 At that time I will bring you in,
at the time when I gather you together;
for I will make you renowned and praised
among all the peoples of the earth,
when I restore your fortunes
before your eyes,” says the Lord.

 

– Zephaniah 3:14-20 (ESV)

 

 

Let heaven come

Last night at my Discipleship Community (or DC if you’re in the know) we sang a song during worship with the bridge:

 

Let heaven come

 

Throughout the night I kept coming back to that line, let heaven come. What a terrifying, terrifying thought. Do we really want heaven to come down? Are we actually ready for that?

 

We like to think about God coming back. Riding down amongst the clouds, proving wrong all those annoying atheists once and for all. I told you! I told you he was real! Then we get to the sinners, oh boy, now they’re in for it. God’s gonna come in and show them a thing or two, John Cash was right all along! Maybe while he’s here we’ll get one of those super ‘Jesus highs’ you get from going to Christian conferences, only this one will last longer then 3 days. Boy, that’ll be awesome.

 

But that phrase means so much more then what we think it does.

 

Your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.

– Matthew 6:10 (ESV)

 

 

Your will be done. Right there, everything changes direction. His will? Really? Is that how that works? I thought heaven coming down only meant something for those people outside the Christian club! Nope. Heaven is God’s territory, what he says goes, no negotiations, no pleadings. If we really want heaven on earth, then we have to realize that the end result will be us being in total submission to the will and desire of God, that’s what heaven’s like, are we alright with that?

 

For most of us, we really like to have our own way. We like religion, just not too much. We like obeying God, but only until we start to look like ‘those people’. We desire holiness, but our sin is pretty fun too, and as long as God hangs out up there in heaven we can get away with just enough sin and disobedience to have a little extra fun while we’re here in earth. I mean, come on, he couldn’t have meant all my sin, some if it’s not really that big of a deal, everyone does it, and some people do way worse. So I’m sure God would be fine, it’s like par for the course. Again, nope.

 

Really, it’s not even about sin, it’s about all those things you know God asked you to do, but you didn’t. It’s about all those times you feel those pangs in your heart to give something extra in the offering plate, sign up for the 3am prayer slot at Church, or invite that weird guy from accounting to lunch (they’re always from accounting). All those things you know you should be doing but find some sort of excuse not to. Now, imagine God is really here, heaven has actually come to earth, somehow those excuses don’t seem to cut it anymore.

 

Let heaven come, but maybe not just yet. 

 

The second thing about heaven coming around is that God will be here, for real. Really here, and historically, that’s been a big deal.

 

And whenever the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to him who is seated on the throne, who lives forever and ever, 10 the twenty-four elders fall down before him who is seated on the throne and worship him who lives forever and ever. They cast their crowns before the throne, saying,

 

11 “Worthy are you, our Lord and God,
to receive glory and honor and power,
for you created all things,
and by your will they existed and were created.”

– Revelation 4:9-11 (ESV)

 

 

…“I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name ‘The Lord.’ And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. 20 But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.”

– Exodus 33:19-20 (ESV)

 

The presence of the Lord is unlike anything we can imagine, it is great and glorious, beautiful and mighty. When heaven does come to earth, the physical presence of the Lord will come with it, and it will be incredible. Don’t think for a second that you can enter the presence of the Lord and not be changed. Don’t pretend that all your righteousness, pretenses, and excuses won’t be stripped bare in front of Yahweh of Armies. The presence of the Lord is both glorious and terrifying. Glorious, that’s why people immediatly fall to worship. Terrifying, that’s why the arrival of angels, mere wisps compared to the living God, announce their arrival with fear not, because the fear is real. We don’t know how to handle such awesomeness, we’re only human.

 

Let heaven come

 

We should absolutely desire the coming of heaven, and desire for it to come soon, but my question is; are we really ready for it? Are we ready to surrender ourselves to the perfect will of God? Are we truly ready to stand in the presence of the King of Kings? Is that really what we want? If not, we have no business praying for it. This is not a joke, our worship means something, our prayers matter. If we don’t mean it, we shouldn’t sing it.

 

I wait for the Lord, my soul waits,
and in his word I hope;
my soul waits for the Lord
more than watchmen for the morning,
more than watchmen for the morning.

– Psalm 130:5-6 (ESV)

 

In my own life there are days when that is my prayer, days when I wait with anxious longing for the Lord to come in glory, to put things right, to restore the broken, to bind up the wounded. He has promised, let him not delay! I know that I have fallen short of the glory of God but still I know that his lovingkindness will be sufficient and I long to made right and to submit to his perfect will.

 

For, though I knew His love Who followéd,

Yet was I sore adread

Lest, having Him, I must have naught beside.

– The Hound of Heaven | Francis Thompson

 

Then there are the rest of my days (most of my days if I’m being honest) when I’m pretty content with the way things are. I know that I’m in friction with God’s will, I know that I cling to my sin, but I’m ok with that. To me, it’s not really a big deal. I may stand in worship and sing let heaven come, but I don’t mean it, in fact, I may even be praying against it. I’m not ready to move on, I’m not ready to grow, I’m not ready to lay down my will. Those are the days when my worship is a lie.

 

We bandy religious word and platitudes like they’re simply phrases with no inherent meaning or worth, but they’re not. There’s a deeper meaning both beautiful and terrible. When we enter into worship we need to ask ourselves, do I mean it? Is what I confess with my mouth really what I believe in my heart? If not, then we need to do some serious work to get ourselves right before we come before the presence of the Lord. But the good news is, the Lord is faithful, he has great mercy and compassion, he longs to be gracious to us and meets us in our weakness, he stoops down from on high to work in our hearts and minds, to be continually bringing us into perfection. In a way, it’s a little taste of something greater to come.

 

On earth as it is in heaven

Let heaven come to earth

As it is in heaven

Let heaven come

– Our Father (Let Heaven Come) | Marcus Meier

 

 

Let heaven come….

 

 

Lent

Today marks the beginning of the Lenten season, a time of surrender and self-reflection. A time to purposefully create space to allow for the Lord to speak to us and to deepen our relationship with him.

 

Over the past few years I’ve taken the approach of instead of giving something up directly (like coffee, or TV, or sinning), I’ve added something to my schedule, usually in the form of spending more time in the word and reading religious writings. It’s truly been an incredible process and I look forward to it every year. It’s amazing what God can do when we work every day to spend time reflecting on him and on his truths.

 

In the past some of the books I’ve read have included such masterpieces as:

 

All of those come highly recommended and have been absolutely foundational in my faith and life. This year, I’ll be focusing on a single book, and I probably still won’t finish it:

 

tower.com

 

You’ve probably noticed this pop up from time to time in the ‘Currently Reading’ tab as I’ve been working through it (extremely slowly) for the past few years (Thanks Bob Harvey for burdening me with this!). It’s a monumental book and the summation of 40 years of Dr. Kass’ class on Genesis. Each chapter is mind blowing and challenging, continually refining my perspective of purpose, knowledge, sin, etc. Though Dr. Kass himself isn’t a Christian, more of a theist, there’s still a ton to be gathered from not only his reflections, but those of his sources, and the insights of his many students.

 

My current process is reading for 40 minutes, followed by 20 minutes of journaling and praying; journaling is a really new thing for me, and something I’m quite terrible at, but hopefully getting better. A number of years ago while I was in undergrad, my Pastor’s mother-in-law (Grandma Hickman) talked about leaving a legacy for her children and grandchildren in the form of 60 some years worth of journal entries and crafted prayers; that really struck me, leaving a written account of dialogues with God, maybe that’s something worth doing.

 

I know I probably won’t do a great job with keeping my Lenten commitment but that’s what grace is for! I’m praying that the Lord will assist me in keeping my routine and being faithful to what he’s teaching me, I’m praying for answers, and new questions. For guidance, and peace.

 

My the Lord bless you also in this coming holy season with new insights, new revelations, new mercies, and new joy.

 

Jesus Christ, Hope

Today is Christmas Eve and the 4th and final week of Advent, during which the ‘Love’ candle is lit to signify God’s love for us in sending his son Jesus. For me personally, this week (what has elapsed thus far) has been about something different, hope. In the light of the turmoil of past several weeks, both corporately and personally, it seems a bit crass that things are continuing as they always have, the sun rises and sets, the days are getting colder (finally), the snow’s beginning to fall and yet, the world around us seems to be spinning out of our control.

Against this chaos is arrayed the mystery and the promise of Advent, the arrival of the great King who would set all things right, or so it is proclaimed.

As I began this week I was reading and reflecting on the story of The Tower of Babel:

 

Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.”

– Genesis 11:4 (ESV)

 

A tower to the top of the heavens, lest the earth flood again. A city to protect themselves, lest the world overcome them. A name to remember them, lest they fade into history. We will build, and we will build away our doom. Progress out of fear. Even the great philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau in considering what could be the root cause for men to abandon their own liberty and freedom concluded it could only be out of fear of safety and wrote:

 

But, as men cannot engender new forces, but only unite and direct existing ones, they have no other means of preserving themselves than the formation, by aggregation, of a sum of forces great enough to overcome the resistance. These they have to bring into play by means of a single motive power, and cause to act in concert.

– Ch. 6 ‘The Social Contract’

 

Immediately we see, out of fear rises power and violence. And indeed, the history of humanity is written in blood and war. Homer’s great epic opens:

 

Sing, Goddess of the wrath of Achilles….

– ‘The Iliad’ Book I

 

The Harvard historian David Landes in discussing the Spanish conquest of the Incan empire writes:

 

It is a bloody story, full of cruelty and bad faith, condescension and sanctimony; but one must not judge these events in terms of the good, the bad, and the ugly. They all deserved one another.

– ‘The Wealth and Poverty of Nations’ Ch. 7

 

Indeed, history has been man’s quest for glory, whatever the cost. H. Richard Neibuhr observes that:

 

…man strives for glory, lest no glory be had.

– ‘The Responsible Self’ Ch. 5

 

Here we are, at the beginning of the 21st Century still grappling with the same questions, which seem to have no answers.

 

Against this dispair the hope of Advent arrives. But is it enough? Is it more then just pithy words and vacuous promises that people put on to insulate themselves from the pain of reality?

 

Hear it every Christmas time
But hope and history won’t rhyme
So what’s it worth
This peace on Earth

– ‘Peace on Earth’ | U2

 

But the story of Christ’s birth is truly something different. Christ was born in a stable, not in a palace. His was immaculate conception, not divine intercourse. At his birth no comets appeared, the mountains did not shake. Zeus remained in Olympus. Heroes are always born into conflict, born to fathers fearful of usurpation, or absent mothers. His was an uneventful entry into the world unheralded by strife or paternal jealousy. People at the time would have know the ancient stories, they would have known the patterns of divinity and monarchal inheritance. They would have known strife, war, and fear. The Pax Romana (if it can even be called that) was just beginning, ending unrest, conquest, and civil war. Yet, this was different. If this truly was the messiah, if this was God incarnate, he would represent a decisive break from the patterns of old, he would not be a god they knew.

 

But that’s the point. He is something different, his divinity is not the divinity they’re used to. He’s not the same old god, he hasn’t come to do the same old things. This is not cyclical time, this is a great leap forward (to co-opt the phrase). But this still doesn’t answer the question, is this merely a hope only for the salvation of the believers? Does this have anything to offer for the world at large? Did God come to do more then save us from our sin or make us moral people?

 

For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given;
and the government shall be upon his shoulder,
and his name shall be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
7 Of the increase of his government and of peace
there will be no end,
on the throne of David and over his kingdom,
to establish it and to uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time forth and forevermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.

– Isaiah 9:6-7 (ESV)

 

‘… and the government shall be upon his shoulders’. This single phrase smashes through the walls of the religious circles and pours out into the streets proclaiming that yes, this hope is for everyone. The Kingdom of God is at hand and it is not for the elected few. Christ is different, he represents a break from the scars old, from the strivings for glory and power, and a chance for something new. The arrival of Christ is the ushering in of the kingdom of Christ, not in the sense of a government of man, but a chance for the redemption of man himself through a divine presence the like the world has never seen before. No longer will man be made ‘good’ through submission to the law, the limits of power observed by all the great thinkers will finally be overcome by making each man accountable to a perfect source of laws and his innermost desires, his inner strife will be made right through the perfect love of a divine savior. Man has nothing in him to save his soul, but Christ will do that for him.

 

I am the voice of the past that will always be
Filled with my sorrow and blood in my fields
I am the voice of the future
Bring me your peace
Bring me your peace and my wounds, they will heal

– ‘The Voice’ | Eimear Quinn

 

We stand in tension with the past, we cannot undo the pain, we cannot unlearn what we know, and we cannot expect new life when standing squarely in the traditions and mindsets that brought us here in the first place. Humanity does not have the answer to the world’s ils, we’ve tried and nothing seems to work. Man will never be at peace, there is too much resistance.

 

In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.

– John 16:33b (ESV)

 

Take heart, the world has already been overcome, in him there is not more resistance. The kingdom of God is at hand. Those living in darkness have seen a great light. Something different has come into the world. Christ the king, hope of nations, hope of man.

 

As we celebrate the Lord’s entry into this world know that we celebrate not simply our salvation from sins, or the fulfillment of years of waiting, but we celebrate the one true answer to the pain and bloodshed of the world around us. Christ is coming! Christ is here!

 

18 For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. 19 For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. 20 For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.22 For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. 23 And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

Romans 8:18-25 (ESV)

 

Girl, Interrupting

Tonight, during my Intervarsity small group we looked at the healing stories from Mark 5:21-43, which is a two-for-one healing of both Jairus’s daughter and the bleeding woman.

If you’ve been in the church for any amount of time you’ll have been exposed to a myriad of sermons on this passage, which is appropriate considering there’s a lot going on in these few verses; but for now I want to focus on one specific issue. Imagine you’re standing in Jairus’s shoes, your daughter is dying, you frantically find Jesus and beg him to come and heal your poor girl. Being the gracious God that he is, Jesus agrees to come with you and off you go as quick as you can, after all, she could be gone at any minute. Then Jesus stops and gets involved in some brouhaha with another person. Yes, she may be suffering, but this has been going on for 12 years, it’s unlikely she’ll be gone in the next 15 minutes, you’re girl on the other hand….

Finally, Jesus wraps it up and the journey resumes. Unfortunately it’s too late, the bad news arrives, she’s dead Jim. Perhaps if Jesus hadn’t stopped things might have been different, perhaps he never intended to heal her in the first place, perhaps he just didn’t understand the urgency. Of course, this being history (and not our first time around this chunk of scripture) we know that Jesus does in fact heal the daughter, thought the healing looks more like being raised from the dead. So all’s well that ends well, right? The gift of the omniscient narrator means we get to see the whole picture at once also, the fact it’s called ‘Jesus Heals a Woman and Jairus’s Daughter’ gives some hint to the ending as well. But Jairus doesn’t get omniscience and for a period of time his entire world has come crashing down around him, his daughter’s dead, Jesus failed him.

Many times in my own life I believe I’ve been promised something by God, only to see the opposite come true. I’ve prayed for nights on end and when the morning comes nothing’s changed, in fact, it’s often worse. And I often wonder how we reconcile scripture such as Isaiah 45:19

I did not speak in secret,
in a land of darkness;
I did not say to the offspring of Jacob,
‘Seek me in vain.’
I the Lord speak the truth;
I declare what is right.

which seems so precise and clear, with our own experiences. Did God lie to us? Is scripture wrong? The nice tidy answer is quote back Isaiah 55:8 and claim a sort of sovereign immunity:

For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord.

While it’s absolutely true that God is sovereign, divine and high above us, sometimes the answers just don’t seem to be enough. After all, God claims to be a God of Justice and Mercy, he says he longs to be merciful to us, so what gives?

I don’t have a simple answer to this question, people much smarter then I have built up sound theological and philosophical answers to suffering and the divine arrival (for a more complete explanation see C.S. Lewis’ The Problem of Pain) but I don’t think anyone will ever come up with the perfect explanation. And in the heat of the moment I doubt any logical answer can absolve the pain.

For me, I keep coming back to the words of my favorite hymn:

Here I raise my Ebenezer;
Here by Thy great help I’ve come;

– Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing

Ebenezer means ‘stone of help’ and comes from the Old Testament where after defeating the Philistines Samuel erects a monument and declares ‘Till now the Lord has helped us’ (1 Samuel 7:12). ‘Until now’, not ‘forever more’, not ‘always’, ‘until now’. In the midst of pain, in the midst of suffering it’s easy to forget what God has already done and easy to imagine what he won’t do in the future. To this, Samuel’s answer was to set a stone in the midst of the people and remind me that up to this point God has been faithful, he has delivered them. Remember what the Lord has done, write his goodness on your hearts.

Every week during communion the Anglicans remind themselves that he as a God who always delights in showing mercy. Every week, he is a God who always delights in showing mercy. We continuously remind ourselves:

God is good.
All the time.
And all the time.
He is good.

I also remind myself of the truth that scripture gives:

18 Therefore the Lord waits to be gracious to you,
and therefore he exalts himself to show mercy to you.
For the Lord is a God of justice;
blessed are all those who wait for him.

19 For a people shall dwell in Zion, in Jerusalem; you shall weep no more. He will surely be gracious to you at the sound of your cry. As soon as he hears it, he answers you. 20 And though the Lord give you the bread of adversity and thewater of affliction, yet your Teacher will not hide himself anymore, but your eyes shall see your Teacher. 21 And your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, “This is the way, walk in it,” when you turn to the right or when you turn to the left.

-Isaiah 30:18-21

That first verse is a promise, ‘the Lord IS a God of Justice’ and you can hold him to that. As the Psalmist cries over and over again, DO NO ABANDON ME, REMEMBER ME IN YOUR MERCY, COME LIKE YOU PROMISED. The truth of the character and nature of God is not circumstantial, what he has promised he will do and you can hold him to his word, Crying out for mercy is not a sin, even Jesus prayed ‘if it be possible, let this cup pass from me’ (Matt 26:39) but he finishes his prayer with a key distinction ‘nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.’

Maybe Jairus never had doubts as to God’s power, maybe he could see past the now into the great plan of God. If so, may we all have the faith of Jairus. Somedays I am confident in the face of adversity, other days I doubt not God’s power to save, but his desire. ‘Maybe he just doesn’t want to.’ I pray for increase in my faith to trust the Lord no matter what I see, to believe in truth and trust that he is who he says he is, a God of mercy, a God of grace, a God of justice. It’s not easy, it probably will never be easy, my world is very real and at times God can seem very far. Yet, Truth remains.

Remember that until now, God has helped you.
Remember the stories of other people’s triumphs.
Remember who He says He is.
Remember the promises He’s made.

City Conversations Part 1 – Knowing God

Recently I’ve been spending a lot of time in coffee shops, and in my quest to find the best Seattle has to offer, I’ve been spending a lot of time on buses. When I’m out and about I usually go without headphones, I like to listen to the people around me and be available in case someone needs some directions or has a question. Through this I’ve been privy to some very interesting conversations and a few have raised some interesting issues that deserve at least a passing response.

 

Tonight, while waiting an extra 15 minutes for the 49 bus from Capitol Hill I overhead most of a conversation between two young gentlemen regarding religion and spirituality in which the following statements were uttered:

 

  • ‘I hate when people use religion as something solely self-serving and only as a means to their own ends’
  • ‘I think religion is simply people trying to define the same force in terms that make sense and are relevant to themselves…. but only as long as it’s positive’

 

I hear this argument pretty regularly and I absolutely agree with the first one point, but the second, not so much. As I was listening and on the following bus ride a few specific points came up that I thought needed to be fleshed out:

 

  1. Isn’t defining spirituality on our own terms the ultimate form of self-service? Imagine, the ability to define the greatest force in the universe in whichever terms seem most convenient or applicable to yourself! Sounds like the plot to a new sci-fi show. Now of course, no normal person would ever attempt to use such a great power in nefarious methods, and indeed, most spiritual seekers are great people with a desire for good things, not evil. But history has shown that making god subject to the whims and emotions of man at best creates the society vilified by Tolstoy, and at worst the societies filling the pages of history textbooks (Constantine, the Crusades, the Caliphate, the lords’ resistance army, etc), power corrupts and the power to define the spiritual world may be the most corruptive of all. And if god becomes something unique to each person and in each situation, we lose the ability to relate to each other on truly important levels, which leads to point 2.
  2. If religion, or god, is something that only speaks in the positive then it’s completely stripped of its force as a moral compass. This isn’t really a new concept, traditionally gods have a tendency to start demanding things and placing pesky limits on what we can and cannot do. The Greeks struggled greatly with this issue, especially since their gods tended to be quite capricious and show favorites. Plato tried hard to get rid of them, but found them to be an unfortunate necessary in building any sort of ordered society. Even Rousseau, the great champion of equality and humanism, found himself stuck on the concept of natural law and order, finally admitting that the very idea of morality was extrinsic to our own world and reality. However, we has humans have done a marvelous job attempting to assert our independence from any sort of higher power and to do so we’ve worked to label spirituality, a thoroughly ancient and seemingly obsolete notion, as something that can only be affirming, never accusing, and thus we suddenly find ourselves staring into the eyes of Nietzsche’s Madman.
  3. If we try and combine all religious views as simply many sides of the same coin, then we eventually get into the realm of ‘semantic reconciliation’ trying to piece together all the things the various divinities say about themselves and come out with a coherent picture. The problem is, divinities tend to make fairly arrogant statements about themselves. For example, the God of the Bible has some fairly distinct statements about being the only deity on the block (Exodus 20:2, Isaiah 42:8, John 14:6, the entirety of the Creation story). Thus we come to the points of having to choose whether to accept these statements as they appear,  or pick and choose what parts of each god we like, which leads us into the next problem.
  4. The God of The Bible seems to be pretty unambiguous about who he is and where he comes from, as seen in Exodus 3. When asked his name the Lord respondes ‘I AM WHO I AM’, or directly translated from the Hebrew (the verb being Hayah) ‘I WILL BE WHO I WILL BE’. This self referential statement is annoyingly inconsistent with reality in that it states that the definition of God is God, an ontological contradiction that has been discussed ad nauseum in other places. Except for one thing, God is by definition infinite, meaning there is no beginning or end (this is not the proper medium for a fully discusion of actual infinities so you’ll just have to trust me), so there is no ‘ontologically prior’ being, God exists by the nature of who he is, not out of dependence of some higher order or outside necessity. To bring this back down to earth (pun intended), God exists outside our own perceptions, we can call him whatever we want, assign to him any number of attributes, but that doesn’t affect his person in the slightest. Naming is a form of creation but it’s at best the creation of an abstraction, not an actual entity. So, if we choose to think of God in a way that is contradictory to his own claims that what we have is not in fact God, but a fiction, a fignment of our imagination, which when viewed in the light of Rescher’s hierarchy of thought, means it could never actually be God.

 

In some ways it’s surprising that this idea keeps surfacing in conversation, even in conversation amongst extremely intelligent people. I also wonder how people square a changing god with the idea of creation, what we see around us is ordered and uniform with the underlying systems showing a high level of orchestration and uniformity (the laws of gravity are the same in Tokyo and Calgary) and since nearly every religion claims some sort of creation mythology (even the Flying Spaghetti Monster) it would seem that at some point the spiritual forces were aligned and consistent, but since then have become capricious (maybe it’s a sign of them getting old?). But finally this type of thinking is fundamentally flawed in that it places us front and center, it makes religion and the spiritual world something that we control, that we interact with on our terms, which couldn’t be further from the truth. Religion isn’t about us but about God, about his mercy, about his saving power, about his glory.

 

I think it’s really sad that people have arrived at this point by thinking either a) the spiritual forces are so impersonal and remote that I must use whatever methods I can to make them into something I can relate to, or b) religion has been twisted into so many shapes and forms that can’t let it dictate my way of life less I become twisted as well. When I hear people talking I hear the searching in their voice, the desire to know the truth but a disparity that they feel so far from it.

 

Fortunately, we serve a God who desires to be known, a God who says ‘taste and see’, a God who does not change like shifting shadows. We may not be able to have God on our own terms, but it may yet turn out that the terms he’s set are the best in the long run.

The Problem with Sin

Why is being a sinner such a big deal? In our culture there are few things more condemning then accusing a person of sin. Which is really an interesting concept considering that ‘sinning’ is a result of breaking a defined moral code; however, if one does not subscribe to said moral code they should not feel guilty for failing to uphold all its standards, and especially the moral concept of ‘sin’, as it refers not simply to a moral system, but to an inherently religious one. Sin is an offense against a god, but if you don’t believe in said god, why should be concerned with offending it? I certainly don’t fear for the wrath of Apollos. In real life however, this rarely seems to be the case, walk up to any acquaintance, or random person on the street, call them a sinner and watch their reaction (please don’t do this), it will range from indignation, to rage, to that loathing we reserve for only the worst episodes of our favorite TV shows, or that one kid in class who always blurts out the answers (I am intimately familiar with this situation). Now, try this same action on a Christian acquaintance, invariably the response you’ll get is a slightly puzzled ‘yes?’, agreeing with your point but failing to divine the purpose of pointing out such an obvious fact.

 

So, why is this the case?

 

Aside from the high level of moral condescension, I am so holy that I am able to look down upon your sub-par level of moral compliance and point out your failings as such, calling someone a sinner is in fact condemning them to hell, and by extension condemning them to death. We know quite clearly from the book of Romans that the ultimate resultant of sin is death (8:2, 6:23) (we’re ignoring of course the fact that the ultimate resultant of life is death, here we’re concerned with death in terms of a larger spiritual dynamic), so being in possession of sin is being in possession of an express ticket to a place you probably don’t want to go. This isn’t merely a scriptural assertion, it logically follows that a perfect God would be unable to be in true relationship with imperfect objects without sacrificing a least a measure of his perfection, and since perfection for God is not a state of achievement but a state of being, he can no more give up his perfection as I can give up being a bit of a nerd, it’s innate to who I am (a quite poor example, I know). So, that explains the severity of the accusation of sin, but not the difference in the responses between the religious and the non-religious, or still the question of why a secular person feels some sense of obligation to a religious moral code.

 

I submit to you a theory, one that I have observed in my own experiences and validated through the experiences of others, as always, your mileage may vary. I submit to you the idea that most people believe in some form of god and most (though perhaps a smaller number then the first group) believe in the idea of hell. There’s a belief in an overarching moral-ethical system, and though they may not know what it is, most people will do their best to keep it. And here’s where the divergence occurs, a humanist system is incapable of separating a person’s actions from the person’s self. Congito ergo sum becomes Facium ergo sum I DO therefore I am (thanks Google), because the self, the person, has arisen out of chaos for no definite reason, its purpose, its value, must be generated by doing. You are what you eat, and your choices make you (so says a purely mechanistic system), and since sin is the antithesis of the divine (e.g. evil) saying a person does sin (or evil) is equivalent to saying they are, in their essence, evil. So while a person may not be ‘good’, no one is, but at least they’re trying, at least they’re not evil. But if their essence is evil (a scathing condemnation) how can they ever hope to enter into the presence of whatever divine entity ordered the world? How can they ever hope to be ‘good’ if they are evil? There is a sense of definiteness to sin, a seemingly unrecoverable situation. Is it any wonder people would take offense to being called sinners? And this illustrates the great divorce between the secular and the religious, Christians are quite comfortable with the idea of sin (perhaps too comfortable in many cases), again in Romans we see that sin is in fact the natural state of mankind (3:23), man was born into sin, his flesh is evil but his soul has hope for redemption. This isn’t a singularly Christian concept, much of ancient philosophy is concerned with the idea of redemption of the flesh; however, only Christianity offers a logically coherent system of redemption (another time, another place). Thus, to a Christian, being called a sinner is not a startling revelation, or even a condemning one, for we have the redemption of the flesh through the person of Jesus Christ. We are not eternally separated from the divine by our own failings, because we have been justified not by our own works (actions stemming from the sinful flesh) but by the actions of the Lord Jesus (Romans 3:23-28). Thus sin is not a pronouncement of death, but an observation of reality, and a reiteration of the need for redemption and the hope of true life. This however is only good news for those who choose to see Christ as Lord, without him there is no hope, so pronouncing sin on a person, devoid of the person of Christ, is pronouncing a death sentence, which  it seems to me, to borrow a lyric from hip-hop (I think I can do that in a religious post):

 

Well that’s a pretty bad way to start a conversation.

– Kanye West ‘Power’

 

Over the years the Church has done an excellent job placing sin front and center, at my Church the weekly liturgy helps us to realize that we are in fact fallen, we need Jesus, and he is always ready to forgive and to redeem.

 

Almighty God, you are always more ready to hear than we to pray, and to give more than we either desire or deserve.

– Daily Collect for the 16th Sunday after Pentacost

 

But without that last part, without the promise of redemption, we don’t speak the voice of hope, but the voice of death. If we approach people and start with death, how do we think we can get to the life? Or, if someone doesn’t believe in ‘our version of god’ why would the threat of spending eternity apart from him be any kind of incentive?

As I was discussing this idea with my Dad he pointed out the story of Zacchaeus from Luke 19, especially this verse:

 

And Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.”

– Luke 19:8 ESV

 

Awesome! Repenting of sin and making restitution, a glorious win against the power of the devil! But something is conspicuously absent from the preceding verses. Christ never called out his sin, never, go ahead, read the passage ‘in context’, it’s not there. Zacchaeus simply looked into the eyes of the Lord and was convicted of his wrong and moved to repentance. That’s it, no great sermons, no fire from on high, simply being in the presence of the Lord, looking upon the face of the Savior, was enough for him to renounce his former life.

 

Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.

– Philippians 3:8 ESV

 

As St. Augustine once said ‘Love God, and do as you please’. The idea being that as we come further and further into the presence of the Lord, as we continue to seek his face, as we begin to fully know the mind of Christ, we become less and less enthralled with our own sin, we desire less our own glory and more the glory of God. True relationship with God cannot but lead to a transformation of the soul, and it will always result in a change in our behavior and desires. In the words of the old hymn:

 

Turn your eyes upon Jesus,
Look full in His wonderful face,
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim,
In the light of His glory and grace.

– Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus

 

Christ is the hope of glory, being free of sin is the result of change it isn’t the end in itself. As Father Dan at Emmanuel says:

 

The Holy Spirit doesn’t convict us of our sin for the sake of sin itself, but for how we’re treating the Divine Majesty.

 

If this is truly the case, then our witness shouldn’t be sharing the power of death (which is nothing) but the story of life, the hope of Christ, and his transforming power in our lives. How do we do that? I’m glad you asked, by doing exactly what the Lord has commanded us:

 

In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.

– Matthew 5:16 ESV

 

The first chapter of Chuck Colson’s seminal book on apologetics is the story of the transformation of a prison in Peru, literally from hell to heaven. He starts his book with the end result, we stand and defend the faith because this is what it leads to, not because it will pass away if we don’t, but because the world needs what we have. What a powerful, powerful image of our testimony and witness in Christ. We share the power of life and the hope of the future, not the power of hell of the fear of death.

 

…always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, 16 having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame.

– 1 Peter 3:15-16 ESV

 

The famous ‘apologetics’ verse in the bible, a reason for the HOPE you have within you, and the intrinsic link between our witness and our actions. Elton Trueblood once wrote ‘no one has ever been argued into the kingdom of God’, but in scripture we see that merely a touch from God, a glance into his eyes is enough to change a person forever. Likewise, as the image of Christ in the world we are the reflection of his glory and his triumph over death, we must at all times, in all ways, live worthy of that calling and not allow our sinful nature to occlude that reflection. We must show the world that living a life pleasing to God is a worthwhile endeavor, that he is indeed worthy of our praise and obedience.

 

And now dear reader, I use the singular because I’m sure only my father has slogged through all of this to reach the belabored conclusion (and Lori of course). Through our actions and our words, let us always give glory to God above, the God of all peace who longs to pour out blessing upon us and redeem us from the chains of death. Let us not tell the story of death, but the story of life and in everything proclaim the mystery of faith, the truth of the only hope the world has for redemption and true life.

 

Christ has died

Christ has risen

Christ will come again

 

this is to mother you

this is to mother you, to comfort and to get you through
through when your nights are lonely
through when your dreams are only blue
this is to mother you

 

 

this is to be with you, to hold you and to kiss you too
for when you need me I will do
what your own mother didn’t do
which is to mother you

 

 

all the pain that you have known
all the violence in your soul
all the wrong things you have done
I will take from you when I come
all mistakes made in distress
all your unhappiness
I will take away with my kiss
I will give you tenderness

 

 

for child I am so glad I’ve found you
although my arms have always been around you
sweet bird although you did not see me
I saw you

 

 

and I’m here to mother you, to comfort and to get you through
through when your nights are lonely
through when your dreams are only blue
this is to mother you

 


The Opiate Mass Volume 2: Albatross