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“Virtue signaling” is a new term aimed at those whose social action never extends beyond the outrage they express. The person is satisfied with the signal of justice – the posting of an informative article, an expression of outrage or biting criticism of people who deserve it – rather than all the appropriate actions that could do actual good in the world. “Virtue signaling” is difficult to detect in others. In my mind, it is most appropriate when self assessed. I know what “virtue signaling” is because I know myself.

I know that Facebook gives me the illusion of justice when I express my outrage – just enough to satisfy my anger but not enough to produce any real change in myself or motivate myself to real action. Just enough to produce likes or comments but not enough to produce change in me. Anger has its place; it can wake us up from ethical slumber and call us to action. Yet, in merely signaling where injustice occurs, do we avoid the more difficult path self-reflection that could lead us to the development of character God requires from us?

Our own proper outrage resounding in the echo chamber of our internet communities provides us an illusion of our own righteousness. I can only speak for myself when I say that I’ve let my own anger drown out my responsibilities to personal and social righteousness. I’d like to pat myself on the back and say I’ve loved my family, my neighbors, and my God, but I know that I’m just as wicked as I was before the crisis began.

We live in a time where we don’t have to give up something to participate in Lent. Lent has pressed its borders on us. Lent uncovers our hypocrisy. We substitute the Holy Spirit’s call with empty actions meant satisfy our lazy consciences. The only path is the one Jesus blazes for us. Yet, we find a desire to go our own way and make a name for ourselves. In Lent, we follow Jesus in desperation. In the wilderness, there’s no other way. We need  Jesus to lead us because we are frail. The wilderness hasn’t made us frail. We have always been frail because we have always been evil.

Like the disciples, I’ve struggled in groggy prayerlessness and been more focused on the shifting news of the day than on the eternal words of our Lord.  I believe my anger is appropriate. I believe our leaders have committed serious error and then tried to cover it up with pompous political self-congratulations while thousands of Americans are sick and millions of others have applied for unemployment. What did I actually do in the light of this injustice? All I did to help the matter was post something or comment on something or like or hate something. I indulged my own pride. I added my small contribution onto the big mountains of wrongs in this world.

In Isaiah 5, God calls Israel to judgment for their failures to produce the kind of fruit that God expects his chosen people to produce. They call evil and good and good evil. They exact justice on the innocent and accept bribes to acquit the guilty. Isaiah 5 paints the picture of constant unbearable evil where the wicked succeed and good withers and dies. An almost unimaginable scenario in our country where we like to think that we value justice. At least it was a few months ago. Now, it is hard to imagine good succeeding. Isaiah 6 paints a different picture: unconquerable holiness. Angelic creatures flying around eternal proclaiming holiness of the universe’s king who has never given up his heavenly thrown and has never stopped watching. What can bring the realities heaven to earth?

God gives us the words to pray: “As your will is done in heaven, so let it be so on earth.”

I’m sure many of us have, like I have, worn down our phone’s battery life updating Twitter or checking news sites for any new information on the status of the fight with this virus. I’ve been grieved by the stories of how the sick suffer. I’ve read where and how our leaders failed. I’ve seen the bleak projections of the months ahead. As we find new sources of anger and uncover more injustice, let us not look at the waves and storm, but to the man who personally knows what kind of evil this world can do to a person. Jesus will lead us through the troubled waters. News shifts, the world turns, hope lives one moment and dies the next. All the while there is one who watches with unblinking eye who leads us through the wilderness. We should endure in watchful prayer – the night is dark but it is also short. Evil will end. Good will triumph. We know the most powerful being in the universe, and more importantly he knows us. He knows we are weak. Our weakness is God’s strength because in our weakness we turn to the only one who can really do anything meaningful about our crisis. He will not leave us with scars too deep for grace to heal. Through his grace we can support each other’s feebleness.

 

 

 

We are all familiar with Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam where the man dares to reach toward the extended finger of God. Michelangelo freezes the frame with just a tiny space between the two fingers making us wonder at the eternity that exists in the space between the fingers. Is there any analogy more appropriate for the space between last Friday and now? As the pathogen known as COVID-19 reshapes the entire world – halting the world economic engine, stretching and breaking national healthcare systems, and altering and ending human life at catastrophic rates – we sit in relative uncertainty of what the world will look like tomorrow let alone what it will look like when this finally ends.

Speaking for myself, my chest hurts from the anxiety of adjusting to new life at home, worrying about every trip I make into public space, figuring out what daycare looks like, and trying not to think of the economic impact this will have as it draws on. This past week has been the most stressful week of my life in recent memory. Beyond my own circle, there are many worse than I am – they have no job or maybe they are one of the currently 200,000+ people who are sick with the virus. In weeks like this, the only certainty is that the worst is yet to come. Every good outlook is beyond our vision. As we float aimlessly through the open ocean with nothing but a piece of driftwood holding us above the surface, we can only hope that the next wave that breaks on us doesn’t drown us.

I had planned to write about uncertainty and faith prior to the world crisis, but I was going to focus on the modern obsession with certainty. Human certainty is elusive – we could always raise some philosophical question to cast doubt on anything we hold certain. We live in a world where morality is relative, scientific consensus on many issues shifts regularly (as it should), God is basically unknowable, and we can’t even know for sure if our senses are geared towards discovering truth or just tell us what it takes to survive another day. Yet, most of us act each day as if there are certain laws in the universe that govern what we do. We do without knowing but not merely as a matter of pragmatism. We believe that there is good and bad. We believe in gravity. We trust our senses enough to act according to what we perceive.  I think we do this because there are laws built into the universe that we recognize almost by instinct that causes humanity to act this way. I think we’re designed this way.

Christians are not immune to uncertainty. Every believer goes through the wilderness of doubt with some regularity. Abraham had Hagar. Moses had stammering lips. David had Bathsheeba. Thomas, disciple known for his doubt, refused to believe his friend’s witness of the resurrected Jesus. When Jesus appeared to Thomas, he rebuked him for his idolization of certainty: “blessed are those who don’t see and believe.” Faith never completely squelches doubt until it is made sight.

COVID-19 introduces a different kind of doubt. The things we thought we controlled slipped beyond grasp in only a couple days. We don’t know when we will be safe. We don’t will happen to our money. We don’t know when this will end. We don’t know what normal will look like when this is over. Uncertainty is our horizon. Jesus teaches us that none of the “guarantees” of this present life are worth our worry. We can’t change anything by worry. The security that we gain in this world is limited to this world and is vulnerable to all invisible threat. The security Jesus offers through faith is eternally protected, and our Father knows what we need (better than we do).

In Lenten season, we choose to fast earthly pleasures in order to relate to Christ who gave up everything when he came to earth. The current crisis brings Christ’s willing deprivation into sharper focus and brings us westerners who don’t often struggle with uncertainty of material well-being into closer relationship with many Christians presently and historically who experienced regular deprivation. Many of them are persecuted. Many of them are ostracized. Many of them are destitute. They all, however, share a common faith that God holds onto them. We can learn from them. This world is fleeting, but God doesn’t change. As we continue to worry over this global crisis, certainty eludes us, but faith doesn’t depend on our certainty. Our faith depends on our Father who gladly supplies it. Our faith doesn’t have to be big; it just has to be present. And faith is present because God is present. Michelangelo’s God – a finger outstretched without touching man – is not our God. He holds us. Though we worry and doubt, he is bigger than both. The world will almost certainly be different after this crisis, but God will not be. He is our guarantee. So let us with feeble faith trust him.

Lent and Lament

In Lent, we join Jesus in the journey through the wilderness. We join him in self-deprivation where we can rediscover our truest need – our need for his constant abiding grace. Lent is not our journey alone
as individuals. Lent reminds us that our journey is collective. We as the church travel together. Through the journey we encourage each other, confess our sins to each other, pray for each other, and mourn with each other.

Lament is uncomfortable and unpredictable and, in some cases, constant. The longer we live the more likely we are to accumulate grief. Grief comes in various forms: tragedies, secret sins, bouts of depression, doubt, loneliness, broken relationships, hateful words, physical ailments, persecutions and injustices. Sometimes, God removes the reason for grief completely. For others, grief leaves scars and impressions that can’t quite be shaken. They may fade over time but don’t always leave us.

In the community of faith we celebrate our healing in Christ, but for those of us who suffer, our celebration is limited by grief. Our grief can make us feel less human. Rejection and bitterness distort us. Grief deforms us and shames us, so we hide it. In our Lenten journey with Christ and the church, we discover our griefs together. We have a need to be seen, and we are seen. Like Switchfoot’s ecclesiastical hymn The Blues, we say:

It’ll be a day like this one
When the sky falls down and the hungry and poor and deserted are found

Jesus is not unacquainted with sorrows. Jesus did not try to escape grief. He went through it, and he still bears those marks. He never refuses compassion to those who need it. Together in the wilderness, we embrace the discomfort of your griefs and weep. Joy will indeed come, but until it does we mourn with you and you mourn with us.

Our hope of course is that at the end of our wilderness journey, we finally find the kind of joy that erases the memory of our grief. Until then, what do we do? Why does God allow us to carry such deep wounds? One of my favorite reflections comes from Marilynne Robinson’s novel Lila. Lila is a forgotten woman. Treated so poorly through her hard life that she had no idea how to respond to the kindness she received from an old pastor who himself carried deep sorrow from a personal tragedy. The pastor’s compassion won out despite Lila’s best attempts to reject his acts of kindness. At the end of the novel, Lila reflects on the wounds that she carries in the view of invincible grace:

There was no way to abandon guilt, no decent way to disown it. All the tangles and knots of bitterness and desperation and fear had to be pitied. No, better, Grace has to fall over them.

We cannot bear our griefs on our own. We cannot self-heal. We know this. Jesus must heal us. Our griefs remind us to extend our open hands drawing sharp attention to our desperate need for grace. Jesus meets us here and fills our need abundantly.

Though we still lament loss, we are given grace to bear it. Not only to bear it, but to extend the same grace which has fallen on us to others. We share what we have received because in the wilderness of this world we all have the same need for the same grace. By partaking in the cycle of grace, the humanity we’ve lost through grief is restored.

Wednesday this week marked the beginning of Lent season for Christians around the world. My own worship tradition, the free church, doesn’t participate in Lent. We can probably trace our non-practice through the Puritans and Baptists both of whom rejected many church traditions in order to practice worship that is more mindful of God and directed more explicitly by Scripture. In my mind, their concern was warranted. Human beings produce idols out everything. Our tendency is to create easy button replacement of true worship – something that requires just enough devotion to satisfy our consciences and is easy to repeat. No form of worship is free from tradition either. Free churches either settle with  a “we’ve always done it this way” or a “jettison anything that appears decrepit” approach. Neither approach is necessarily directed toward God and more than likely rooted some human-made form of false worship.

I am not arguing in favor of incorporating the Lenten season in free church worship calendar (we do actually practice an abbreviated version with Good Friday and Easter). I do wonder if a proper reflection on Christ’s life and sacrifice through the season of Lent wouldn’t help us with one of our treasured idolatrous traditions: privatization of our lament and worship. We could cite typical examples of private practice: devotion, praise, confession, repentance – all our appropriate and necessary – but I’m talking about our corporate worship. Our corporate worship is almost certainly instructed by and built in service of our private practice. Worship music is left with just enough meaning for us to fill the gaps with our own interpretations. Ethical applications from Sunday School and sermons are directed toward personal, private practice. Even our most corporate act of worship, the Eucharist, is taken in mournful silence combined with private reflection and private repentance (I think there is something wrong with a mournful Eucharist, but that’s another story). If we’re not mindful of our individualizing tendency, we could all sing the same songs, hear the same prayers, be exhorted by the same sermon but relate everything back to our private experiences.

Some of the more public expressions of our faith our found in the things we fight against.  I’m not talking about sin and temptation. Our doctrinal purity, our apologetics, and our politics are very public. In response to an opinion piece in a popular Christian magazine which argued for empathic treatment of polyamory within the church, one Christian leader wrote: “These are soft men, writing soft words for a soft magazine, published in a soft generation, and all of it guaranteed to go down softly.” Not to say we shouldn’t comment on public sins, but are we open about our own struggles? Do we guard our own rights so fiercely that compassion and mercy appear like second class virtues? While I certainly disagree the original article, I am not sure calling out an entire generation for being soft the same as calling someone to repentance. It sounds angry rather than mournful. It leaves  spiritual wounds open and untreated.

Lent is a fast; a willful denial of basic needs in order to recover the most basic need: Christ. In the Lenten season, the church follows Christ into the wilderness. We face our failures both personal and corporate. The Spirit leads us to repentance. Here’s my public confession. Faced with the temptation to wander or to follow, I have opted for wandering many, many times in my life. I chosen to follow my own way rather than Christ. I’ve preferred the easy life over full devotion. I’ve worried obsessively about things that I have no control over. I’ve failed to be generous. I’ve lost my patience and been angry. I’ve held on to the faults of others instead of forgiving them. I’ve failed to love my neighbor let alone my enemy. Frequently I’ve compromised. Often I’ve failed. Yes, I’m soft.

So I ask: forgive me. Mourn with me over my failures. Show compassion to me. Ask the Lord on my behalf for mercy.

I think Lent leads us to public confession of our guilt – not only to God in our private moments, but to each other our public worship. We ought to be mindful of the voices beside us. Each one making the same confession of sin. Each one proclaiming the same message of praise. Each one encouraging the other through song. Each one proclaiming that we are one in Christ in our struggles and our joys. As we journey through the wilderness of this present life, as we struggle with all evil, as we battle our inner demons, we can lean on each other as we follow Jesus who leads us and keeps us from wandering off. Let us be honest with each other, so that we can help each other be whole in Christ.

Dear sir,

I am writing to you from my wife’s hospital bedside. I have been here for 6 hours now; she has been here for 11. You should know first, she and baby are fine. The doctor required us to stay over night, which amounts to a mild inconvenience given how much greater damage the accident could have caused. I’m sure you have thought of it  as much as I have.

I am not writing to heap guilt on your head though. We each take our own daily risks by getting behind the wheel. In this situation, I’d rather meditate upon the real mercies than the potential tragedies.

If I may be forward, I can’t stop thinkng about you. I see your face. I hear your voice. I see the pain and distress. I know your illness paints a bleak picture of your future. And I, who am not prone to crying, am nearly moved to tears thinking about you.

Please receive some comfort from this letter. I was thinking about our vehicles. They were transformed in an instant from well-functioning, comfortable transport to permenantly disabled, mangled heaps of scrapmetal. They did their job. They protected their drivers and absorbed most of the force of the collision. Later this week, I will drive on this same road, and there will be no memory of this accident. The road will be clear. Thus, we can say that these vehicles became a sort of witnesses to temporality and fragility of our material lives with which you are no doubt already familiar.

The Psalms in several places have verbalized this idea by describing life as a vapor or grass that fades quickly in the wind. Our own experiences echo their “Amens” when we think of how short our lives actually are, how small we are in the history of time, how in end only God’s eternal memory, which has known us fully from the beginning of time, can protect us from the forgetfulness of time.

These witnesses, lying in the road, destroyed and useless, towed away before the hour had passed, only tell half-truths. For we also stood there alive and relatively unharmed. We have value, and God’s divine mercy is a better witness to our worth than worthless vehicles is to worthlessness of life.

For in his mercy, our deepest wounds which neither time nor medicine could not heal, find their healing. Our sorrows and pains find their end in his own sorrow and pain. Our tears are dried by his tears, and his weeping brings us joy.

For in all these things – in the cross -, divine mercy finds its fullest expression, and we find our deepest sense of worth. As I sit here by this hospital bed, memory of that divine mercy moves me to thankfulness and praise.

I’ve lost many things today. I’ve lost time and opportunity. I’ve lost money and possessions. I’ve probably lost some hair from all the worry. But all these things pale in comparison to the appreciation of God’s mercy that I’ve gained today.

Yes, our totaled vehicles bear witness to the brevity and sorrow of our lives, but His blood speaks a better word to us than does the guilt of our consciences and bears a truer witness to the reality of our worth before God than mangled mess of our vehicles.

In her book Lila, Marilynne Robinson writes, “There was no way to abandon guilt, no decent way to disown it. All the tangles and knots of bitterness and desperation and fear had to be pitied. No, better, grace had to fall over them.” Today, God has shown us mercy and that would have been true no matter what happened. I hope that for you, if you haven’t already, I hope you will find rest for soul in the kindness of Jesus Christ. That the same divine mercy which has held onto us today, would hold you as well. And that all of your being including those bits of lasting pain, sorrow, and sin are plunged into depth of God’s grace so that you would be granted assurance of your worth before him.

Warmest sympathies,

Nathaniel

My interest in scholarly philosophical and theological thought began in my youth. Much of it was driven by the concerns of the older generation who saw my generation’s waning faith as symptomatic of the subversive influence of our “antigod” culture.  The passion one develops in middle school and high school quickly fades when our professors present us with a rational alternative to the Christian story.

Apologetics became an essential part of my education. I love completeness and tidiness. I thought that with deep thought and good research I could answer almost any question opposed to my faith. My high school science textbooks diverged from time to time to address Creation vs. Evolution questions. I remember attempting to read Josh McDowell’s New Evidence that Demands a Verdict, which was at the time, an authoritative encyclopedia of apologetic evidence for Christianity. I attended conferences, debates, and lectures, and discussed them with my friends. I could listen to Stand to Reason podcasts for hours. Every activity I devoted to studying apologetics honed my thinking about Christianity, Scripture, and the world.

After many years and hours of listening, reading, and discussing, I finally had my fill of apologetic thought – the same questions, the same answers, hashed and rehashed. I was satisfied with the answers, and my interest shifted directed toward theology and biblical studies. After I graduated NC State, I took a half year before enrolling in Seminary. With the same appetite for knowledge and the same love for completeness I pursued academic learning.

I had a new questions to investigate. I had trained my mind through apologetics to seek answers, and theology and biblical studies asked plenty of difficult, interesting questions. At the end of my six years, I had satisfactory answers to many of the questions I initially asked. I also had way more questions to ask. When I started, young and naive, I thought I could discover answers to some of the nagging questions of the Faith – questions like continuity/discontinuity between the Old and New Testaments, Christian use of the Law, and the key to a proper Christian reading of the Old Testament, and other issues that only seem to interest scholars. At the end, less young and more naive, I could only answer those questions by discussing possibilities or providing an answer with a long list of qualifications. Apparently simple questions defied simple answers and required devotion to research with little guarantees that the research could provide tidy or complete answers.

Was I wrong to invest so much time an interest in study into something that provided very little in terms of satisfactory answers? If what I have left after so much study are questions that hold little to no interest to the lay public, what was the value of all those hours? Are my only options to seek information for its own sake? Shall I with Ecclesiastes say: “Vanity! Vanity!” and give up? What value did my academic pursuit add to my life and my faith ultimately?

These are the new questions I ask myself. I admit that I slipped into a mild depression as I sought an answer. These are soul-searching questions. I can only provide some reflections, but these reflections have comforted me lately and re-energized my pursuit of knowledge.

There is a conflict between the local church and the seminary.  We have opposing critiques about what’s significant, and we aim our critiques like canons at each other. One side rebukes the other for their lack of pragmatism and the other for their lack of theological interest. On the one side, we run into the danger of capitulating to cultural pragmatism and thus limiting our interest in Scripture to “how to’s” and instruction manuals. The other side risks a kind of positivism that fails to realize our limitations as human beings and diminishes the vastness of its research subject, i.e. God and Scripture.

How humorous would some passages of Scripture be if the author had substituted “Amen” for how we might actually be reading it? We could consider the many times Jesus spoke, “Amen, amen, I say to you…” as if Jesus were saying, “I have some advice for you. I think this could really help you out.” Or if Paul had said instead of “Amen” in Romans 11: “Oh the depth of the riches…Q.E.D.” as if he were summing up his proof of justification and election instead of concluding in benediction.

When we come to some understanding of God, for instance that God is Trinity, it doesn’t really dispel the mystery. If anything, it embellishes that mystery and we come to the limits of our understanding  (is there anything in the world like the Trinity?). If our concern in reading Scripture is limited to what we are supposed to do, what do we with the parts that are not as immediately pragmatic? In either case, we’re not really affected by the great truth Scripture reveals to us. Only if we end up at praise and benediction, we can arrive at an appropriate response: “This is how God really is. Amazing!”

Scripture often redirects our questions and provides us unexpected answers. Consider Job. He loses his children, his wealth, and his health and for many long chapters he is advised, questioned, and accused by his friends. Job seeks out an answer for his unjust suffering, and we wants God to give that answer. At the end of the narrative, God appears to Job and says basically, “I’ll answer your questions, if you can tell me answers to mine.” God asks Job many unanswerable questions. In effect saying, “if you can’t understand these simple questions, how can you understand why you’re suffering?” Job acknowledges his limitations and receives comfort from it.

Job receives an answer that doesn’t answer the original question. When God reveals himself, he realizes how small his world is and how vast God’s knowledge is. Job, wise as he is, does not have the capability to understand  everything that happens in the world. As readers, we know God makes a bet with the accuser that begins Job’s suffering. We may understand the cause Job’s suffering, but we don’t understand why God would allow or even be in some ways responsible for Job’s suffering. Scripture gives us glimpses of God’s decisions, but we cannot hope to understand the depth of God’s wisdom. He’s out of our league, and our tiny minds could not comprehend all the reasons behind God’s actions.

Personally, I tend toward positivism: Humanity can overcome its limitations through rationalism and science. Positivism has no patience for mystery for the only thing that is not limited in this world is the human capacity to discover and know. I considered all these theological and biblical questions answerable with more reading and knowledge. Our minds, however, were created by God, and our ability to understand and to fashion tools for discovery are gifts from the Creator.

If Job teaches me anything he shows me that I am indeed limited. Some types of knowledge exist in this world which the human mind cannot grasp. Moreover, the most important kind of knowledge is beyond the reach of our best tools to discover it. We learn this kind of knowledge through revelation, and our discovery of that revealed knowledge is subject to a will greater than ours. God decides where and how and what to reveal, and he opens our minds to understand it.

We, limited as we are, still discover great things. We learn, think, and understand, and we wonder, which seems to me to be the most appropriate response when we come to any kind of understanding of God, this world, or his Word. By doing so we avoid the temptation to think that by understanding we own the subject matter we have come to know. We avoid the mistake of pride which itself kills any true pursuit of knowledge. Pride limits the world and the questions we ask as if there are only a few gaps in our knowledge.

True knowledge directs us to worship. In knowing God we know that we are limited. When we come to know our limitations, we recognize the vastness of the knowledge of God. The only proper response is benediction – the pronouncement of “Amen.” With each discovery, our Amen’s ought to become louder and more frequent. For in doing so, we recognize knowledge as a gift, that our tiny minds have the ability to grasp something vast whether in science or Bible or theology causes us to wonder, and that One who willed us to know, revealed himself as an act of kindness toward we who are feeble-minded. This is a great mystery and a great mercy. Amen.

I was hoping to have a better explanation as to why I’m writing about death at the young age of 30. I confess: I was daydreaming about it. Unfortunately, that neither justifies the thought nor does it sound healthy, and I can also tell you that the third heaven was not involved in this dream. Maybe it is better that I was thinking about death as it relates to the Christian? I mean, is death different for us than for others? If it is, why is it different? Is it okay to be afraid of it, and why do we grieve if we’re going to see again the ones that have died?

Death is obviously different than saying “goodbye.” In our day of technology, we are not limited in our ability to contact others, but in the old days, saying “goodbye” may have been very much like death. I’m reminded of a story of a group Moravian missionaries (whether true or not, I don’t know) who sold themselves into slavery in order to evangelize a group of slaves away from their homeland. I can see how saying goodbye to their friends and family the moment before giving themselves away as slaves would be a kind of death. For the men who sold themselves, they would only be dead to whom they once were and alive to something else. I can’t see how that would be much different than the Christian belief about dying. Yes, goodbye to our friends here on earth and given the sheer mass of humanity soon forgotten, but we are alive to something else – a reality that we cannot imagine properly on this side of life.

Because we cannot see what we will be on the other side of death, dread and fear may be proper reactions. It is the moment where we cease to control anything. It’s actually one of those funny things about age. When we’re young, we take pride in ourselves – our strength, intelligence, and potential. We think we can change the world by sheer willpower. As I’ve aged, I’ve found I have very little power to will whatever I want into being. I’m less convinced of my overall usefulness. God doesn’t need me for anything. He could make a rock or donkey or anything he or Walt Disney can make speak do what I do.

What is my value then? My truest value is that I give and receive love. I am valuable in as much as I love God, my friends, and my family and that I receive such love in return. Love doesn’t happen in a vacuum; it grows in communion with others. The more deeply we love, the more deeply we are needed. Maybe that’s why we grieve those whom we will eventually see again. That expression of love unique to that person is no longer present in our lives…I’m really just thinking aloud at this point.

God is different from us in this aspect. He doesn’t need our love. We not only need his love but we need to love him. The ancient hymn “O Sacred Head Now Wounded” helps me in this expression. One verse reads:

What language can I borrow
To thank thee dearest friend?
For this thy dying sorrow
Thy pity without end?
O make me thine forever
And should I fainting be!
Oh let me never, ever
Out live my love for thee!

The hymn writer makes a request to God that the value of his life be tied to the greatness of his love toward his Savior. That is the greatest value we have as human beings – to be loved by God and to be able to love him back. Flip side is also true of course. Human beings that aren’t loved become less than human. People who lack the ability to love are monstrous, and some of ugliest humans are those who try to obey God’s laws without love for him. We fear death because it limits the expression of our love in the relationships we’ve built, but for people who cannot love, their life is a kind of death.

We also fear death because it brings us face-to-face with the unknown. Death is like a fog (is that cliché?).  Driving through a thick fog on a fall night can be dreadful. Who or what could you run into? Can you react in time if something does get in your way? It can control what we see and how we act. The thicker the fog, the more it controls us and the more resigned we are to whatever may happen. Yet, fog cannot cannot impede our journey; we just pass through it and find clarity on the other side.

As age wears down our wills and death closes in like the fog, we have a hope that is as certain as the Sun. Though the world around us changes and we change, he does not change nor has age worn him down at all. Our self idolatry fails with age, but we have something greater to revere, someone better to love for he does not fail.

Death has no ultimate control though it may control our senses as we pass through it. One day the Son will shine so brightly and hotly that death will be burned up and forgotten. Everything that we ever loved will be revealed by the light of day, and we will be known by what and how fiercely we loved. I want to be known as a person who loved truly. A love that desperately desired to love more and more fiercely. That I loved God deeply, and that he supplied me when I lacked love for him and others.

 

Stanley Kubrick’s classic film, Dr. Strangelove, features a rogue general ordering a nuclear strike on Russia. While the bomber moves closer to its destination, the president and his advisers attempt to recall the bomber before its payload. The incompetency and lunacy of the  council cannot recall the bomber in time. The film satirizes, among other things, the Cold War policy of the proliferation of nuclear arms as the greatest deterrent to war with Russia. Kubrick’s point was that the proliferation of nuclear weapons can only lead to their use and not to their non-use. To underscore this point, Kubrick uses numerous sexual references and symbols throughout the film signifying that we will eventually give in to our base urges and use these weapons.

That an event that would lead to the end of the world could be satirized in such way is simultaneously humorous and repulsive – and Kubrick is a genius for it. I’m sure you’re wondering what Dr. Strangelove has to do with The Shack.

I get that The Shack was intended to be read as a serious piece of allegorical fiction, and that the book supposedly aligns itself with the mission statement (at least at the time of this article) of Windblown Publishing, which published the book: “to provide creative and intellectually honest literature for those seeking a renewal of love and faith.” A noble goal that I believe The Shack fails to meet.

Yet, when interpreted along the same lines as Kubrick’s classic (i.e. as a satire), The Shack becomes a work of genius. If you’re repulsed by this point, I consider my case is already made. For those of you still unconvinced, I’ll designate this satirized version of the book with brackets – [The Shack] – and present my case.

I know that many of my friends have read The Shack, enjoyed it, and been impacted by its message. I’m not trying to diminish that impact. God uses many means to get a hold of us. You have been honest with me about your love for this book. Please let me be honest about what I feel about this book. Before we anoint it as a “Christian classic,” we ought to consider its message seriously.  It purports to break the mold of rigid religiosity and intellectualism to bring biblical concepts to a lay audience. I believe it does none of that.

But the Shack’s satirical alter ego does. Presenting us with a poorly thought-out theodicy encased in shoddily written narrative with little emotional depth, [The Shack]  is a beautifully composed, yet biting critique of the Contemporary Christian Subculture (CCS) that generates this type of media commonly represented in popular sermons, music, books, blogs, and magazines. By adjusting our lens to see the book behind the book, we will find that [The Shack] calls us to a higher standard, and we ought to get behind its message.

How I Learned to Stop Worrying…

I think the key point was the moment the main character described his view of Scripture. The letter that Mack receives from God flies in the face of what God was supposed to do:

[T]he thought of God passing notes did not fit well with his theological training. In seminary he had been taught that God had completely stopped any overt communication with moderns, preferring to have them only listen to and follow Sacred Scripture, properly interpreted, of course. God’s voice had been reduced to paper, and even that paper had to  be moderated and deciphered by the proper authorities and intellects. It seemed that direct communication with God was something exclusively for the ancients and uncivilized, while educated Westerners’ access to God was mediated and controlled by intelligentsia. Nobody wanted God in a box, just in a book.

Although many have argued that The Shack is steeped in Scripture and that it’s the allegorical nature of the book that enables the “unorthodox” pictures, I believe this statement from the main character is what enables Young to break from traditionally formulated doctrine in a way that doesn’t require him to tie whatever statements and caricatures he makes back to Scripture. The difficulty in writing allegory is making clear what real thing the allegory refers to. The Shack doesn’t do this. Whatever theological concept or Scriptural reference it has a backdrop for the allegory was extremely unclear. If the book isn’t establishing its ideas about God on heretical beliefs (I am always willing to extend grace), it’s nearly impossible to pinpoint which orthodox ideas the author is allegorizing.

Read from the point of view of [The Shack], however, the above statement takes a different significance. The CCS and its community, whether they acknowledge it or not, possess a shallow knowledge of Scripture. Any interpretation, philosophy,or theology is fair game as long as it matches the expectations of  CCS, which has become the interpretive grid through which to learn about ourselves and about God. Impersonal, irrelevant theological thinking and interpretations are perceived as generated by cold-hearted “intellgentsia” and are easily deposed because they limit God to the proverbial “box.”

[The Shack]  enables us to see how such views have become prevalent in the CCS. What follows in [The Shack] is a slightly less than heterodox presentation of the Trinity and the inner working of their relationship. The Father can be a grammatically-challenged African American woman, Jesus, a migrant worker from the Middle East, and the Spirit, an Asian woman who possesses the wisdom and clarity of a fortune cookie. The Shack intends these pictures to challenge our notion of God. [The Shack], however, challenges the lack of interest in theological thought by presenting the Trinity in highly stereotyped human forms. All the attempts of the CCS crowd to imagine a God “outside the box” are just skin deep. CCS’s God still retains the classic stereotypes that restrict him from acting in a way appropriate to his character as described in Scripture.

God does not “have” to punish sin, sin is its own punishment. Everyone is his child already. God really wants relationship with everybody with no responsibilities or requirements and no strings attached. The notions of penal substitution as the ultimate solution to sin and evil and the call to sanctification through the power of the spirit, both explicit in Scripture, are placed in a box and set aside. We might expect a Scripture-saturated allegorical story dedicated to exploring the problem of evil to make mention of these important points. [The Shack] leaves them out in a conspicuous manner declaring that if one has an inadequate view of God, theodicy naturally suffers.

The “bare-bones” story might have the potential to explore the topic of grief and pain as long as the details are fleshed out properly. Mack is a man who was abused as a boy by his Bible-wielding father. Although his faith is not the strong faith of his wife, he loves his children and is himself a decent father. He decides to spend some extended quality time with them by taking them on a camping trip through the Northeastern United States. Each day is better than the last until two of his children accidentally capsize their canoe. When Mack rushes to the water to save his children, his youngest daughter, whom he left to save the other children, was kidnapped and eventually murdered by a serial killer.

The story is not, however, well told. The characters have little depth. There’s almost no feeling. Mack’s struggle with grief, the “Great Sadness,” is portrayed linearly. He struggles early in the story. Mack then encounters a Mormonesque version of the Trinity, eats pancakes with God, plants a garden with God, walks on the water with God, and delves into highly questionable theological thought…with God. The “Great Sadness” is all but forgotten until the narrative decides that Mack needs to let it go. The Shack deals with the issue promptly with some emotional flourish. I thought the expression of grief was flat and inadequate especially in contrast to books like the Psalms, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and Job which all deal with the concept of enduring grief and pain.

[The Shack] quickly and shallowly deals with Mack’s grief and thus demonstrates the inadequacy of CCS to deal with sorrow. Grief and pain have a weak presence in the life of the Christian who knows that God is “quite fond” of him or her. [The Shack] further underscores this foolishness by narrating the story in a poorly-written style: A Scripture-less culture is simply incapable of expressing grief and pain in a thoughtful and honest way. [The Shack] limits its expression for the sake of expediency – keep the story short and flat, keep the words small and the theology vague. The reader can choose to stop and think and confuse himself or move on quickly to find out “what happens next” – always moving from comfort to comfort.

…And Love The Bible

Obviously, I didn’t like the book. I didn’t like any of the book. I thought it mocked Christian thought, sold itself short on Scripture, and left me extremely confused. Don’t get me wrong though. I think we need more books like The Shack. Well, we need books better than The Shack. We need books that can actually be what the The Shack was supposed to be. G.K. Chesterton has said, “A great man knows that he is not God. The greater he is, the better he knows it.” We may never possess the brilliance or greatness of Kubrick or David, but let our work aspire to be great by making something worthy of God. Great Christian novels should not be characterized by weak storytelling and shallow theology. Learn the art of expression, and make it good. Most importantly, learn how the Bible expresses itself, and love it. The Bible expresses itself truly and deeply. Since that’s our first and best book, maybe we should start there.

I hesitate to write this post because I don’t want to spark an endless debate or add wood to the ongoing conflagration that everyone sees once they log in to Facebook. I’m not a huge fan of politics and social media. I understand that it can be done intelligently and respectfully, but often politics are reduced to pithy “truisms” with a URL to red meat articles that lambastes the opposing side. Thankfully, God in his kindness and foresight blessed us with the “hide” option.

I’m not writing to comment on this vitriol. I’m much more interested in the trend among both sides of the political spectrum to invoke the Bible as a defense of a political position and often in contradictory ways. I think this trend has to do with a misunderstanding of the politics of the Bible. The interaction of biblical politics and our own American context is a complex one, but I hope to encourage more thinking and less cherry-picking in this short post.

The Problem of Improper Reading

One of the greatest temptations we as Christians face is to overread a biblical verse or story based on our own context. For example, sometimes Jesus’s saying about himself in John 12:32, “When I’m lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself,” has been interpreted to mean that when God’s people really worship Jesus, he’ll save people through his people’s example. This statement may be true in some way but not based off this verse. The next verse tells us that Jesus is actually speaking of his “lifting up” (i.e. death) on the cross.

That was pretty easy. Let’s take a look at a more relevant example from 2 Chronicles 7:14: “If my people called my name humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, I will hear them, forgive their sin, and heal their land.” This verse has been applied to Christians in America countless times. The idea of Christians praying for America so that “America can be great” in the eyes of God “again,” however, is an improper application of this verse. If anything, the promise of 2 Chronicles 7:14 is fulfilled in Christ. Th previous verse (7:13) echoes the curses of the law found in Deuteronomy and Leviticus. Verse 14 is God’s way of saying, “Just because you’re under the curse, doesn’t mean you’re permanently stuck under the curse. There’s a way out, and it’s through repentance.” Of course, the “way out” of the curse is ultimately fulfilled in Christ. America is not God’s people. The church is God’s people.  Jesus did not die for the US; he died for his people. Even if America continues its long history of committing evil against God, God’s people are secure in Christ, safe from sin and curse.

The Explicit and Implicit Nature of Biblical Narrative

Before I get to the beef, I think I need to address an important hermeneutical (i.e. interpretive) point. The Bible is a subversive book. It’s subversive because it undermines humanity’s corrupt way of thinking about the world, and it does this in two ways: explicitly and implicitly.

Explicitly, the Bible tells and shows us that we are sinful. We are incapable of loving God and doing what he tells us to do. We are incapable of repentance. We are stiff-necked, hard-hearted, dead in our sins kind of people. We are told because of God’s faithfulness to his promise and his kindness toward us, he gave his Son as a sacrifice for our sin, and he gave the Spirit to call us to his Son, convict, sanctify, and live in us. The Bible is clear about these facts. Jesus is Lord of all and Savior of his people.

Implicitly, the Bible speaks to a great many other questions. Because we must receive these answers from Scripture by means of implication, we must work hard to ensure that we are not misusing Scripture. This can be really hard and really frustrating. Sometimes, Scripture does not give an answer to a particular question. That’s okay. The Bible is not an instruction manual for everything. It’s not an instruction manual at all. It’s a story or a history of God’s dealings with his people. Actually, it’s more than narrative, so maybe we can call it “theological and ethical instruction through reflection on history, poetry, epistle, and apocalypse.”

Well…okay, it’s difficult to really sum up without generalizing too much. The point I really want to make is that the message of Scripture is cohesive and unified around God and his dealings with his people. Everything that we glean from Scripture – our hermeneutics, our interpretations – should be submitted to the main point: Jesus is Lord of all and Savior for his people. Without that point, Scripture loses its cohesive nature, and we end up doing what we want with Scripture, which is what got us into trouble way in the beginning of things.

So Where’s the Beef?

My complaint is that we pick without reflection verses to justify this or that political policy or democratic, socialistic, capitalistic idea. I’m not saying that Christians can’t use their reflections on the biblical message to justify policies on immigration, healthcare, racism, or environmentalism. The more biblical we are, the better. I’m not convinced, however, that the Bible cares about where “America” comes out on the issue.

As far as the Bible is concerned, America is as good as Rome (or rather as wicked as Rome). In the beginning of several gospels (Mark in particular stands out to me), Isaiah 40 is quoted in reference to John the Baptist. It’s the “prepare the way of the Lord” passage. Isaiah 40 declaring the coming rule of Yahweh to save and to judge the earth. If John is preparing Jesus’s way, the gospels are declaring the Jesus is both Yahweh and king of the world.

In a world where Caesar rules over everything significant, a king comes who is greater than Caesar. One of the only times Jesus mentions Caesar is when he is asked if it is lawful to pay taxes. Jesus famously takes a coin with Caesar’s face on it and says, “Give to Caesar what belongs to him and to God what belongs to him.” Explicitly, it appears that Jesus is saying there are two kingdoms and one is not concerned with the other, but there are other implications to Jesus’s words. They raise other questions. Why mention God’s belongings at all? What actually belongs to Caesar?  Doesn’t everything belong to God? Jesus appears to be saying it doesn’t matter what Caesar claims for himself. If Caesar wants you to pay taxes, pay them. Be concerned with what God wants from us because he owns everything.

Imagine how political that message actually is. Caesar is not lord, Jesus is lord. Jesus, amazingly, rarely mentions Caesar despite the obvious contrariness of Jesus’s message with Rome. This is intentional. Jesus isn’t merely focused on replacing Caesar’s temporary kingdom. Though Caesar rules today, there will be a time when his kingdom is no more. Jesus’s kingdom is now, and not yet, from now and forever.  God already passed judgment on the kingdoms of the world in the Old Testament. We know that God’s rule isn’t limited geographically by borders or by ethnicity or by time or by money or by progress. Caesar’s rule, and by extension, any other non-Jesus kingdom, including one whose borders extend from sea to shining sea, is limited.

It would be great if America or any other country submitted itself to God, but there will be a time when America will no longer exist. Why should it? God’s kingdom is better.

Where the Rubber Meets Route 66

The difficulty for Christians is that we live in two societies. We have a dual citizenship. One society is a democracy or something resembling it. We have a say in how society is run, and we play a part in its success. Our choices and hard work matter for the society and ourselves. The other is an autocracy. We submit lovingly to the One who commands us how to live and supplies us with whatever we need in order to fulfill our purpose in that society – we work, but in the power of the Holy Spirit. One society is incredibly individualistic. The other, while concerned with the individual, emphasizes unity with each other as brothers and sisters.

Can you see how this might cause conflict and how it makes reflecting on Scripture for political guidance difficult? Here’s a harder question: when what’s good for America contradicts what is right for a Christian what stance will we take? Besides that, a lot of America’s values line up with Enlightenment values rather than Christian ones. At the end of the day, Jesus calls people to himself in submission to his Lordship. America attempts to preserve the right of the individual to believe and act as they want as long as it doesn’t hurt others. America has defended slavery, butchered natives, developed and implemented eugenics programs, and still battles with racism and poverty and abortion. America is postmodern, agnostic, pagan, and so on. Worst of all, America doesn’t submit to God but in many ways still invokes God to bless it.

The answer is absolutely political. Jesus is Lord of all and Savior for his people. Christians, our dedication to our first and best citizenship is the answer. Our faithfulness to Scripture and to our Lord is the best political action we can take. The obligations we have as a church to preach the gospel, take care of each other, and live lives that have been redeemed by God takes precedence. In some cases, we may end up having to take political action in the American context. But we must be humble when we do. We don’t know everything, and the Bible is as concerned about America’s rule as it is for Caesar’s. America is a part of the world that is passing away, let the work we do in it have eternal value. Let it be honoring to God. Let us be prepared to work hard and pray that our reflections on Scripture cohere with its central message.

I taught several weeks ago about the kingdom of God and used Mark’s characterization of the kingdom as an example. In continuation of the theme of my last blog post, I wanted to provide a short discussion on the nuances of Luke’s characterization of the coming kingdom of God in his gospel. I have two topics I want to address in this post. First, what does the kingdom of God look like in Luke and how does Jesus’s mission fit into it? Second, what does life in the kingdom of God look like and what kind of people are in it?

What Kind of Kingdom is the Kingdom of God?

We should understand that when Jesus and others refer to the “kingdom” of God, they do not refer to a chronologically- or geographically-bound entity. Kingdom refers to wherever God carries out his will against opposing powers and for his people. Whether he casts out demons, rebukes the Pharisees, heals diseases, or forgives sin, Jesus is bringing all things under subjection to God’s rule. For Luke, God’s rule on earth means salvation has come for the marginalized people of society.

Luke and Role-Reversal

God’s rule is counter-cultural. The Messiah did not come to be considered among the elite. He did not come to raise an army agains the Romans. He came to lift up the humble and to bring low the proud. We can see this role-reversal theme from the beginning of the gospel:

His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty. (1:50-53)

The proud and rulers are humbled, but the humble are lifted up. The hungry are fed, but the rich are sent away with nothing. God’s salvation reaches out to society’s lowlifes and includes them. The kingdom of God has different boundary markers than the kingdoms which rule this world.

Luke carries this theme throughout the gospel. The Jewish people at that time focused on renouncing idols and keeping themselves clean from anything that could defile them. They kept the Sabbath in a strict fashion. They studied the Law. They fasted and prayed. Are they not Abraham’s children? Are they not entitled to the kingdom of God? John the Baptist answers this question: “God can raise up children of Abraham from these stones!” (3:8). They do not have the birthright to the kingdom. Their actions demonstrate that they are not truly Abraham’s children. In fact, they are children of snakes (3:7) because they do not act consistently with repentance.

Jesus also answers this question through his actions. He heals people and casts out evil spirits. He saves a leprous man – healing him and restoring him to society. He demonstrates his authority to heal by completely restoring, physically and spiritually, a paralyzed man. He calls a tax collector as a disciple and eats with sinners. The kingdom of God is made up of people whom society has regarded as outside the bounds of God’s community.

Salvation as Jubilee

Luke characterizes the kingdom of God as a kingdom of release. Jesus’s first act after coming home from the wilderness was to proclaim the fulfillment of the Isaianic Jubilee. He conflates two passages from Isaiah (61:1-2 and 58:6) and leaves out the clause about God’s judgement. Both modifications emphasize the role of “release” in Jesus’s own mission:

The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
    and recovery of sight for the blind [Is 61:1],
to set the oppressed free [Is 58:6],
    to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor [Is 61:2] (Lk. 4:18-19)

This “release” is both spiritually and physically oriented. Jesus heals physical ailments and forgives sins. This “release” is for all kinds of people, and often, the lowest rungs of society are the ones who benefit from the message. They are released from bondage of sin and societal marginalization. The lowly are the ones who experience the blessing of the Lord. The only way to attain this “release” is by entering the kingdom of God through repentance and faith.

One prime example of improper grasping of the kingdom of God comes in the following verses of the same passage. Jesus’s direct audience reject Jesus’s message. They identify Jesus as Joseph’s son (instead of God’s son). They say, “Jesus will bring these blessings into effect especially for us since he is a local boy.” They misappropriate Jesus’s message for themselves by laying claim to Jesus’s heritage. No one owns the kingdom by right; it must be entered by repentance (24:46-47). Only the humble can obtain entry. Thus, the poor, already brought low by society, are in prime position for entry.

Who Needs the Kingdom of God?

Jesus says: “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (5:31-32). If Jesus’s ministry is oriented around society’s outcasts, do the rich need a savior? Luke answers that question with a resounding “Yes.” Recall Jesus’s interaction with the rich ruler (18:18-29). He came to Jesus to ask how he may enter God’s kingdom. He claimed obeyed every law of God from his childhood. Jesus, however, identifies his need. The ruler was dependent on his wealth and status in society. Jesus calls him to renounce his dependence on his wealth, but the ruler is unwilling to do so. The lowly and marginalized recognize their need for a savior because they lack everything society values. The rich possess those things (one might say are possessed by those things) and have trouble leaving them behind.

He further illustrates this principle in the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. The Rich Man enjoys life now while Lazarus suffers. When they die, the Rich Man ends up in torment and Lazarus is comforted. This role reversal occurs because the Rich Man valued his possessions and current comfort and despised the message of Moses and the Prophets (the same Moses and Prophets that testify about Jesus [see 24:25-27]).

In Luke 13:1-5 Jesus says that just because a person avoids evil things happening to them, doesn’t mean that they are in any less danger of hell. No one can escape the coming judgement who does not cling to Jesus. Everyone needs to enter the kingdom of God through repentance. Jesus does not limit his community to any boundary marker that society sets up for itself. Jesus breaks those societal rules and reorients society around himself. Thus for Luke (and for Jesus) the Kingdom of God is for anyone regardless of social class who renounces everything that God does not value and places their trust in Jesus. The poor do not gain entry because they are poor, and the rich are not barred entry because they are rich. Everyone who enters the kingdom enters by faith in Jesus.

Rule of the Kingdom

Jesus did not found a social club or a Facebook group where people could gather an commiserate over the wrongs of society and their pitiful state at the lowest level of society. He established a community of women and men who had been released from the bondage of sin, disease, and oppression. In laying out laws for living in God’s kingdom, Jesus continues the theme of role reversal: Love your enemies, lend freely without expecting anything, and perform acts of love toward everyone (6:27-36). They are not to set up artificial boundary markers. They are a community that is marked by God’s mercy and hold to God’s truth. They who are under the rule of God experience true life and live as humanity was supposed to live: oriented around loving God and people.