Sunday, December 28, 2014

Meditation: Memento Vita et Mors

Here is a poem I wrote about nine months ago. I hope it inspires some meditation on gratefulness and the brevity of life.

Memento Vita et Mors

Gift upon gift, you grant us good things,
The Sun in the East, the morning bird sings.
Joy upon joy, the eyes of a child,
Young life with a will to love and be wild.

Gift upon gift, you grant us true things,
Wisdom and wine, an owl bearing dreams.
Joy till the end, eyes fade like a fire,
A sleep that has come, a sleep to desire.

Gifts over gifts pour out over us,
Countless they are, so we see it thus:
Love over all with hope grounded faith,
Gifts from Creator, a life full of grace.

I pray that upon reading this you are given pause to reflect on the incredible gift that life is and now, by the life and death of Jesus, what an incredible gift death is: union with God. 


Monday, December 22, 2014

An Incarnational Christmas

Around the Christmas season, it seems that there are generally two camps that develop among Christians in America. I say generally because I suppose that there are no clear categories really, only a spectrum of sorts. On one extreme of this spectrum are those that fully love and embrace all that is "Christmas-y". Santa, elves, trees, hot chocolate, shopping, wrapping gifts, etc. etc. and so forth. I don't want to knock this person because even in the chaos and tradition, there is beauty and can be much life. God can be glorified in these traditions if they are purveyed correctly. On the opposite end of the spectrum is the strict relgionist (for lack of a better term). This is the one who is adamant that all traditions about the holiday must somehow push and relate the Jesus story. I'll be honest, I hover more in this direction and tend to become something of a grinch about certain things. Nevertheless, I think that even for the person who is concerned with keeping Christmas a story about Christ (though it has incorporated many traditions that were not initially Christian but have been adopted by Christendom throughout the ages), there can be a point that is missed.

My purpose in this blog post is simply to point out this aspect of the Jesus story that is often overlooked; at least I have not heard much mention of it this year. I feel that sometimes we can be a little thoughtless when singing Christmas songs, talking about baby Jesus or anything of that nature. A few mistakes we make are when we fast-forward to the crucifixion/resurrection story, when we mess up certain historical facts about the story (e.g. wise men didn't visit until Jesus was about 3 years old, etc.) or when we elaborate on things that we don't know happened (e.g. "the little Lord Jesus, no crying he made..." I think he cried. He was a human baby after all). Of all of this, however, there is a point that I feel is missed most often in Christianity's attempts at keeping Jesus as "the reason for the season" and it is this glaring question:

Why the incarnation?

Why did God need to become man? Tradition holds that Jesus was indeed fully God and fully man, but we somehow tend to gloss over this incredibly key point in the story in favor of a simple "don't forget baby Jesus!" I feel like there are a number of reasons we avoid talking about this. Among them is the possibility that we don't want people to be turned off by the incarnation. After all, it is kind of a hard philosophical pill to swallow -- Creator becoming created thing? Another possibility is that we don't quite know how to reconcile this conundrum in our own lives so we don't want to invite the discussion out into the open. Whatever the reason for our aversion of pointing to the very key aspect of the Christmas story that renders it specifically Christian, we are not excused from understanding and conveying the reality that God came as man. That in and of itself is vital to the story, not simply a necessary step for the "real" purpose, his death and resurrection.

How Was God Human?

In order to explain why the incarnation of God's divine Word is so important for Christians, there needs be a little explanation of how this was possible without either overpowering Christ's humanity or diluting Christ's divinity. Now, I should say that what I'm about to write is merely one of a vast plethora of explanations within Christian thought. Be that as it may, it is the explanation that has rang most true theologically as well as practically in my life.

First and foremost, we must understand what makes up a person. I have written in the past about the constitution of a human and its relation to mourning and death. The basic takeaway, however, is that humans, aside from being some convolution of body/soul/spirit/mind (these are the general categories used to describe a human), are intrinsically relational. To this extent then we can conclude that we are essentially the sum total of the relationships that we have. So, Jesus was fully man and fully God. 100% human and 100% divine, not some 60%/40% combo or even a fair 50%/50%. To understand this, I find it helpful to take analogy from my own life. As an intrinsically relational person (like God), I am 100% father, 100% son, 100% brother, etc. I am no more of one than another though I may act in one mode at a time or several at a time. When we understand our personhood this way, the incarnation of Christ does not seem so odd. Jesus was fully God and related to all things fully as God. He was also fully man and related to all things as a man does. There could be much more elaboration on this point but I do want to leave space for the reader to ponder. Besides, a full fleshing out of this point would need a whole other post at least and a few hundred books at most!

Why Was God Human?

So here we come to the meat of the issue: the "why" question. Was it not enough for God to simply say "well, humanity, I know Adam messed up but, well, you're pretty good. All is forgiven!"? I mean, if God is a just God, why did he need to stoop so low (taking on flesh) and then go on to die (also critical to the story but remember our focus on the incarnation).

To first approach the topic, we need to frame the issue so that we understand what humanity's role was initially. Mankind was put on earth to act as medium between the created world and the uncreated God. Our ability to stand in both planes, physical and spiritual, allow us to fulfill this divine appointment like no other creature. So, when humanity fell so too did all of the created order of things; that is, creation's way to connect with God was broken. Eastern Orthodox theologian, John D. Zizioulas explains it this way:

"Creation came from nothing, and since it is permeated with the forces of dissolution, it always faces the prospect of reverting back to nothing."

So here we understand that our intrinsic problem  is not caused by sin at the fall but is inherent by our finitude. Death -- real death, metaphysical death and not just physical death -- is a basic creation problem. Humanity was meant to connect creation to God forever and thus facilitate enternality for creation. Sin blocks our ability to fill this role but ultimately there was always need for this mediator -- this perfect human. We are created and as such have no power to remain in existence forever; it is natural to revert to nothingness. There is an "out", however, and that loophole is found in communion with the infinite, the uncreated, the Creator. Before we could fulfill our role, however, sin had to be dealt with. Church Father, Athanasius says

"It was unworthy of the goodness of God that creatures made by Him should be brought to nothing through the deceit wrought upon man by the devil; and it was supremely unfitting that the work of God in mankind should disappear, either through their own negligence or through the deceit of evil spirits...what then was God, being  good, to do?"

It was absurd that God should let creation go on reverting to nothing but sin was in the way so that his original plan was thwarted. God faced a two-fold problem then: 1. creation is "dying" 2. humanity cannot be the way they were intended to be. So, being ultimately wise as he is, God decided to step into the story himself in a way that he had never before done (though he had before in various ways through prophets, leaders of Israel and in direct modalities). He became that which always needed to be: the perfect human and, while there, did what ultimately needed done: the rectifying of a world out of balance, the ultimate destruction of sin. Though this ultimate reality remains to be seen, Jesus did what needed done to set the course right again and then invites us to take up the role that we always should have had as intermediate between Creator and creation -- this is the true Christian.

Conclusive Thoughts

In reality, there is much more that could be said about the whole human-creation-God story but, of course, that must be saved for another time and possibly another format. What needs said is that 

The incarnation of God is ultimately about connecting creation to Creator in the most ultimate way. 

It is God showing us the perfect route to be what we were always meant to be. Again, we listen to Zizioulas:

"The disease here is death, so a cure for death is what we are looking for. Salvation has often been set out in moral and judicial terms, in which death has been caused by man's act of disobedience. But it was not our disobedience that caused this evil; it just made its cure impossible. The problem cannot be put right simply by our obedience. Athanasius pointed out that if the problem could be solved simply by forgiving Adam his sin, God could have done so...God could have forgiven him, and all would have been well. But Athanasius showed that the heart oft he problem was not obedience or disobedience, because this was not a moral but an ontological problem. What was required was for the Logos to come to man, and indeed to become man, so that all that has been created can be united to the uncreated."

So in this Christmas season, let us have our presents, our feasts and our family time; these things are good when dedicated to God. Let us also push to remain conscious of the ultimate reason for the season, Jesus. But let us do those things with a mental "eye" to the cosmic aspect of this story. God reconnects creation to Creator and, in the Spring, we'll celebrate his making a way for us to fulfill this role as well. 

Have a blessed holy-day season,

*Further reading:
The Divine Dilemma and it's Solution in the Incarnation. (1998). In On the incarnation: The treatise De incarnatione Verbi Dei. Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press.

Zizioulas, J., & Knight, D. (2008). Creation and Salvation: Christology. In Lectures in Christian dogmatics. London: T & T Clark.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

"I'm a Bad Christian"

I was speaking with a man the other day who was asking about what I was getting my Masters degree in. I told him that it was in Theological Studies and a brief synopsis of what that meant and what I was writing my thesis on. He then said to me a phrase that I think resonates with many Christians in America:

"I just feel like a bad Christian."

This gentleman is quite a bit older than me (old enough to be my parent) and so for him to say this, I was a little taken aback. Surely he has been a practicing Christian longer than I have been alive! So I asked him to elaborate and his response was essentially that he felt deficient in a handful of ways:

  1.  He didn't feel like he knew how to pray out loud
  2.  He didn't feel like he knew the Bible well enough, much less how to read it
  3.  He didn't feel like he knew much about church history.
I tried my best to comfort him in his feelings of deficiency and point out that we're all on a journey but this got me thinking that there are probably many Christians who feel like they are only Christian in name. This could be from lack of proper instruction in the way of Jesus or else it could be in a personal lack of devotion to delving into what it means to be a Christian privately as well as corporately. In any case, there are a few things I would like to say to you if you feel like my friend feels.

You're not alone

I promise that as much as you could ever feel like you could know more, you're right. The beauty of the matter is that we could all learn more. In fact, it more or less took me a MA degree in Theology to find out that I didn't need a Masters degree at all in order to be a faithful disciple of Jesus. Many of us (yes, I said "us") struggle with feelings of inadequacy. Personally, I feel like I ought to have more Scripture memorized. All this aside, however, we need to embrace that fact that we have the rest of our lives to continue to nurture our Christian selves. When we reflect and feel deficient, we should waste no time in committing and re-committing daily to be intentional about learning more about our faith and heritage as Christians. Along with finding solidarity in your lacking, you should lean on the community of faith that is available to you at almost every corner of the city (in my city); there are churches everywhere and people who care about Christians inside of them. Don't be afraid to ask an elder or pastor for practical ways to learn more about being Christian.

It's not a clean thing

What I mean is that being a Christian - correctly - is intrinsically a messy business. Jesus shows us clearly that to take up the cause of Christ is to lower yourself and be okay with living sacrificially. This may mean that you need to take time out of your self-centered schedule to devote it to a Christ-looking endeavor. Feed the hungry and orphaned, care for the elderly and estranged, be a facilitator of the Kingdom of God. In so doing, you learn the meaning of Christ and you gain grounds for improving your faith life.  

You don't arrive

It goes without saying that I am speaking about our carnal lives as we know them but my point is that the Christian life is not about "arriving" or being done or suddenly being the perfect Christian. Think of whoever you idealize in your mind as the perfect Christian and then think of that person as "in process" because that is what they are. That is what you and I are. Until our full union with God, we can never say that we've arrived. This should lead us to two conclusions: 1. take it easy on yourself, but strive hard and 2. take it easy on others because they are likely having just as rough a go at it as you are.

Concluding Thoughts

Like most of my posts, I like to leave you with room to reflect. That being said, I also like to remain pragmatic so I'll leave you with the following:
  1. If you feel like you don't know how to pray out loud, I would encourage you to practice. Even in the privacy of your house, it's good to pray to God with your voice as well as your actions and thoughts. Along with this remember the analogy of God as our Father that Jesus uses when he teaches his followers to pray. Hold on to that idea because, as a father, I know that there is much grace necessary when a child is speaking to you. He is the giver of excuse and you can rely on his love to define the relationship.
  2. It is not strictly necessary to memorize Scripture ver batem. It is, however, essential to Christian development to so immerse oneself in Scripture so that it's beating heart - the heart of the Father - is evident in your mind. You may not know chapter and verse location at the drop of a hat, but you should know that Jesus is King, Prophet and Priest and at the same time is pure love. Do you see the distinction? Along with this, resolve to take the time to read the Bible for all it's worth.
  3.  Realize that Church history is both in the process of occurring and recorded in innumerable volumes in libraries around the world. It is both easy and essential to your Christian development to seek out a good overview resource in learning your heritage as a member of the universal Church. Heads up here, though, our faith family history is one of butchers and thieves so in all of your learning, remember that God struggles alongside humanity because he loves us. So be careful not to judge God's character strictly on the behavior of humans. A good first step is to call a local college that has a theology department and ask a professor to point you to a good church history volume set; this is worth the time and effort.
I pray that this post has been of some use to you, I know that at different points of my life I have felt inadequate as a Christian as well. In all of this remember that you are a child of God and, as such, are loved with a love that oozes patience and understanding. Share that patience and understanding with others as you struggle to work out your faith.


Friday, November 7, 2014

Thoughts on Life Transitions

Hello All!

So I have not been writing as often as I would like to due to my finishing up my Master's Degree in Theological Studies. I now stare down the tunnel with the degree on the far side and only my thesis in between us. Thankfully, I am confident that this will not be as daunting of a challenge as I once thought it would be. At any rate, I find myself two days between my last class and my thesis writing period and that gave me pause to think of transitions in life such as I am facing and some key things to remember as a Christian.

Thoughts on Transitions

  1. First and foremost, it is important to recognize that transitions in life are normal, even necessary for growth. The essential aspect of change in order to have anything close to what we would call life can be seen in both biology and spirituality. On the one hand, it is obvious that when a thing stops developing or changing (in a specific way, producing new cells), we call that thing dead. Similarly, we see in First Corinthians 13 that Christians are to mature spiritually in order to be truly alive. So, embrace change -- it means you're alive.
  2. Secondly, and related, keep a cool head. I'm preaching to the choir here a bit, but the truth is that when one encounters life transitions such as a death in the family, a child being born, etc. it can be tempting to have momentary panic attacks. Two things can be said here: on the one hand, it is normal  to panic; this is your biological response to spiritual/mental stresses. On the other hand, you can't live there; being so anxious about the future to the point where it is degenerating your quality of life in the present is not being a good steward of your time and energy in the now. The "now" is what you can affect. Freak out, but don't live there.
  3. Do not be surprised when things aren't as you expected. It's funny to me, to look at my life in light of this major transition and think "wow, in high school I didn't think I'd have two kids, a wife and be doing what I'm doing" but that is the beauty of life. As a reflection of the Godhead, we shouldn't be surprised when things in our lives are not as we expected. The great comfort here is in the fact that life would not seem worth living if it entirely went according to plan all of the time. So love the unexpected, it is of God.
  4. Fourth and finally (thought there is plenty more to say about this topic), don't stop trusting God when you don't have it all worked out. Part of being a child of God is to actually rely on him for your provision -- this is arguably the most uncomfortable part of the Christian life. To be clear, I'm not saying do nothing and wait for opportunity to land in your lap; what I am saying is to be attentive to opportunity and be diligent in what you are currently doing. The final piece to this is to pray. Pray unceasingly. Literally. Pray for God's provision and direction and to bring things to light that you may be missing. In this way, you wait openhanded and willing to fulfill your role in bringing God's Kingdom into reality.
Conclusive Thoughts

I know this is a short post and it is more or less a laundry list of thoughts on transitions but I hope you found it helpful in bringing some clarity. For those who are curious, what is coming next for me is graduation in 6 weeks or so and then I intend on setting out to write my first book. My hope is to go back through my blogs over the last couple of years, find some of the best-read posts and expand them into chapters for my first book. I'm thinking of e-publishing, but may try and go the traditional route also. So! here's how you can help: if you like reading my blog, go back through and read some of your favorites in order to show me which have the most hits.

Writing is truly a passion of mine and I hope to continue to write to the broader church for many years to come.


Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Scars of Life

Have you ever wondered what heaven will be like? Most Christians have. I remember as a kid fooling around with concepts of white light everywhere, getting my wings (all dogs go to heaven?), walking streets of gold and feasting on the jellybelly forest. Poor kid.

In all seriousness, the details about the afterlife, heaven, paradise or whatever you'd like to call it, have been the subject of discussion, debate and (sadly) division throughout the history of the church. When reflecting on the specifics of the resurrection, many look at verses such as 1 Cor. 15:23 and 1 Pet. 4:13 for a general encouragement about our sharing in God's glory upon our resurrection. But what does that mean? To what degree are we "raised" like Jesus was raised? Specifically, will we also bear the scars of our lives? or even worse, will we bear the scars of our deaths? It seems clear in the gospel accounts that Jesus did. Just ask Thomas.

Salvation as Deification

Deification is kind of a big word that, even as a "churched" Christian, you may not have heard of if you grew up in America like me. In the Eastern Orthodox tradition (arguably the oldest version of Christianity still functioning), it is a very much alive concept of salvation and it is one that I personally ascribe to.

You see, in this tradition, salvation is not merely a legal transaction to correct the faults of humanity (or one pair of humans, if you're into that whole hereditary guilt thing); instead, it is intrinsically concerned with two issues that are the result of the fall of humanity:

1.  The distortion of the Image of God in creation
2. The illness known as sin

Well that isn't totally disagreeable to our western ears. Let us press in by contrasting with the focus of our western, Augustinian understanding of salvation and the fall in which salvation is meant to:

1. Satisfy God's wrath towards sin
2.  Cleans us from the filth known as sin

Now we're starting to see some differences. I should also mention here that I am generalizing a bit for the sake of the scope of this blog. On both sides of the issue, the beliefs and development of the above, abbreviated conclusions are thorough, extensive and not nearly as simple as I'm presenting them here. 

So what's the big deal? Different Christians disagree on some minute points, that's par for the course in Christianity. Well, I would like to point out why I generally lean towards the East for this answer. In the first place, I think that it is more consistent with Scripture to understand divine salvation as a cure and restoration rather than as a payment and shower. We are sick with sin and it has caused us to have a distorted spiritual countenance; we are spiritual lepers who no longer look like the intended, good creature that God breathed life into. We did not choose this illness but we do self-inoculate on a regular basis. We keep ourselves sick and thus keep our image flawed. Sin is not merely some dirt that we are born with nor the breaking of some unsatisfiable list of laws; thus, salvation isn't payment to God (or Satan?) nor is it a bath (though we baptize, it's not to wash our spirits like some think). No. 

Salvation is the miraculous healing of our illness, the correcting of our spirit into the likeness of God and the opportunity to quit self-inoculating our souls with more sin.

Now, to be sure, some take these ideas to varying degrees and get some odd beliefs, but our salvation - our participation in the glory of God upon our resurrection - is intrinsically and irrefutably (from a Scriptural basis) a deification of the human creature, that is a joining in divinity. This, however, does not place humanity higher than the rest of creation, but instead places humanity as the way in which God will restore his divine image to all of creation. Christ's assumption of humanity placed the rest of the human race as the intermediary for creation to become all that it was intended to be.

Back to the scars

I may have taken a while to get back to the odd question of our resurrected bodies, but I felt it necessary for you to understand where I'm coming from in order for you to understand what I mean when I say 

It doesn't really matter

I had a feeling that answer would not come across well, so I didn't want to lead with that, but under a deification-centered theology of salvation, it doesn't matter what our bodies are like. Instead, we are to be concerned with the restoration of creation and our own intended form as well as true freedom from the illness of sin. 

Perhaps Jesus bore his scars specifically for the purpose of convincing Thomas of the reality of the resurrection (after all, they are only mentioned once in the gospel accounts where we might expect there to be a greater emphasis placed on them before political officials or crowds). Perhaps Jesus scars were metaphorical and have gotten placed as a literary device to emphasize his true humanity. Perhaps we truly will bear the scars of our lives and deaths. At any rate, apophatic that I am, I contend that it is something we cannot know with any certainty on this side of the resurrection (not that we should necessarily seek certainty). Furthermore, it is not the point; whether you agree with my (and the Eastern Orthodox) views on salvation or not, I believe we can agree that if it were truly important, Jesus would have said something. True to form, however, Jesus continues to point us to the immediate world around us and promise us just enough to have hope for our reunion, restoration and cure.

grace and peace,

For a couple of different views, check out Scarytino's blog and The "Almost" Heretic, they should have some good thoughts. ;)

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Talking God

I've often times throughout my studies in theology come across times of crisis. What I mean by that is that on occasion, I find myself asking a paradigm building/breaking question. The one I would like to tell you about today is the question that came up while I was writing worship music and trying to discern what God had in store for the future of my family. The question was this:

Does God still speak to people in the same way that he did as recorded in the Bible?

So while I was thinking about this for the purpose of discerning what my life is to be about and for the purpose of writing theologically sound music, I think there is a potentially revolutionary outcome that can occur depending on how you answer.

The Relevance

This question is a big one because, depending on how you answer, you may find yourself viewing the stories of God speaking to humanity in Scripture a little differently or you may find yourself reevaluating how you may have thought God spoke to you in the past (present or future as well). For example, if you come down on the side of "yes", that is, God does still speak to us in the same way that he did in the Bible, then you must decide how you think that is. Often times in Scripture, we see God explicitly making verbal conversation with people (e.g. Abraham, Paul, etc.). If this is the case, then we must expect to hear of God speaking verbally to people today. This should push us to evaluate our own theophanies (God encounters) and see if we've heard from God in a clear voice. Without trying to find reasons why we may or may not have experienced this, one can reasonably see that this hypothetical would play out into your life in a much broader way than one might initially assume.

On the other hand, if one decides that God has ceased speaking in the same way that he did in the Bible then we are free from expecting God to be explicit with us in a verbal way. The issue here is that you are then left with figuring out how God does speak, since all Christians agree that he wants to know us and be known by us. Many have suggested that perhaps since the close of the Christian cannon (Scriptures), God uses the Bible as his mouthpiece or since the establishment of the Church as a corporate and formal entity that then is his speaking mode. While this may be a bit more palatable (for it excuses our lack of audible theophanies), one is then left with trying to draw lines between what is indeed divine message and what may be distorted due to human intervention. 

Some Clarity

Just as a spoiler alert, I should say here that I won't be able to give you the whole answer. Not only would that be presumptuous of me, but I would be shouldering a burden I'm fairly sure I cannot bear. So, let me tell you where I came down on this issue and perhaps that will help you to think through it yourself.
I personally do not agree with those who think God suddenly changed his mode of communication. I just cannot find any good reason for this to be done (not that my own reasoning is the highest of authority), I have not found it confirmed in Scripture (though I'm not a biblical scholar, so if you are, please let me know if it's there) and it has not been a unified belief throughout Christian tradition. I think that it makes all the sense in the world that God would still speak to humanity the way he did in the Bible. I, however, also believe that in the cases in Scripture where God is recorded as speaking his explicit will, there may have been literary liberty taken on the part of the writers. 

I believe that God could speak by auditory if he so chose, but from what I can tell in Scripture, Christian tradition and my own experience, God likes to work within the laws of reality which he established from the beginning of time. This means that in order for him to do so, he would have to commandeer a set of vocal chords and, gentleman that he is, God is not in the possessing people business.

So how does God speak? I think that God speaks through feelings and impulses but also through internal confirmations of ideas. For example, I felt that a while back (in answer to my trying to discern the future for my family) God gave me the phrase "eyes forward, hands on the plow" to hang onto for encouragement, direction and support. Now, this phrase is clearly playing from Scripture in which Jesus says that whoever lays his hand to the plow and looks back is not fit for the Kingdom. So I think that (in this case at least) God may have helped me to use the Scripture which I had hidden in my memory to speak relevance into my current situation. Was it audible? certainly not. Was it powerful in my life? definitely. 

You may be wondering how I know it was God at all and not just my own recollection. Furthermore, how does anyone know when God is speaking to them? I have found that there are a few ways one can seek confirmation. Some of them are:

  1. God only speaks when you're listening. I know that seems like a no-brainer, but in practice, we tend to say too much when we pray and not spend enough time listening.
  2. God's messages are usually (as I've experienced them) messages which I doubt I would come up with on my own. This is usually the case when I am being prompted inside my mind to love or sacrifice when I know I would rather be selfish.
  3. God's messages will always align with the Character of God as seen in Jesus. Notice I didn't say "in the Bible" but instead said "in Jesus". There is often misunderstanding when one uses the broad paint brush of all of Scripture instead of the narrow paint brush of Jesus; specifically, without Jesus as the key to all hermeneutics (Biblical interpretation), one can end up with a pretty scary god coming out of the Old Testament. All you need is love and all you need is Jesus; he is sufficient.
  4. God's messages will generally align with the Christian tradition. Again, we have to go back to Jesus ultimately (or first?) because Christianity has not always (or often?) looked like Jesus. But because the Church is the body and bride of Christ, we should find continuity between what we think God is saying to us and what he has said in the past to our sister's and brother's in Christ.

Of course I could say more on this topic, but I'll leave the rest to you. Also, read this guy and this guy's blogs as they may have things to say on the matter as well.

Think well, love well and listen well to the Spirit of God which is in you.


Sunday, July 6, 2014

Who is Your God?

I have found on my short journey through life that, while I believe there is properly only one true God, there are many versions of him (see, I said him...) in people's individual understandings. By typing that sentence, I have already disclosed that I refer to God as a male, though of course there is no gender associated with the supreme one. I'll go further and admit that the idea of God being a Father is also part of my picture of God, but this is not so helpful for other people.

My purpose in raising this issue here is to simply "shake up the dust", if you will. I want to issue a challenging question to all who may read this. The question is this:

Who is Your God?

Now, you may be wondering why I would ask something so basic and ambiguous to Christians (as that is my audience). My purpose is to spur you on to press in a little and find out if the picture of God that you have in mind actually looks like Christ; more poignantly, does the image of God in your mind look like Jesus of Nazareth, being tortured by Romans for no obvious reason? If not, I hope that you will consider the possibility that you may have a less-than-accurate picture of who God is and, thus, what he is like.

Why is this important?

  I feel I should explain why I think that it is important to evaluate and, periodically in life, re-evaluate our picture of God. For those that believe in God (any God really), it is found that the picture that they have of God will always dictate their actions to one degree or another. The most obvious manifestations of this effect is in worship. So, for example, if my picture of God is the "buddy God" which is often resultant of over-emphasizing the Abrahamic claim to be a "friend of God", then one might be less inclined to view our relationship to God with reverence and humility; after all, if God is my pal, then I can drop the formalities.

Another example might be the EMS or Butler God. This is when people only turn to the divine when things go wrong in their lives. A loved one is sick, the bills aren't getting paid, a new boat sounds nice...then and only then do they call upon God. The Bible is full of examples of Israel doing this; they would start to live like every other people group around them but when things went wrong, they would call upon God for help. The big issue here is that it becomes an abusive relationship where we want all of the benefits of the relationship without any of the sacrifice.

The final lacking picture of God that I want to point out is what some who conducted a study on youth between 2003 and 2005 termed "Moralistic, Therapeutic Deism". If we break this term down we see a picture of God that I'm afraid we find all-too familiar. This picture of God is moralistic in the sense that all that we derive from this picture is concerned with our morals; specifically if we're behaving in such a way that it deems appropriate. It is therapeutic in the sense that it makes us feel good and is always concerned that we live comfortable lives and is thus there to get us out of tough spots and comfort us. Finally, it is Deistic in the sense that it assumes that God is more or less uninvolved unless he necessarily must be. I don't have to go on much further to point out that this is not the passionate, paradigm-breaking, challenging and personable God that Jesus shows us by calling us to the cross of Christianity. 

Concluding Thoughts

In all fairness, there is usually some room for each of the ideas we have about God in small amounts; that is, it's ok to seek help from God, he does love us; it is ok to see him as our friend to the extent that we can confide in him and discover companionship in that relationship. Also, it is true that God does care about our righteousness and wants good things for us. Where things go wrong is when we try and take any one facet of God and build our whole image of him on that small revelation which leads us to a picture that looks different than Christ on Calvary.
We must always keep the centrality of Jesus' sacrifice for us in our hearts. To hold another picture leads us to a misconstrued relationship which will have rippling effects in our lives and the lives of those that follow us. So, spend some time reflecting on how you understand God; if it is anything other than Jesus, I encourage you to press yourself to discover why and perhaps search out clarity in this matter. Your picture of God will dictate your relationships, your worship and your life so we must ensure that it is a picture of as much clarity as possible. 


"When Christians realize that we have an intrinsically Jesus-looking God, what follows next is a deep-seated longing for an intrinsically Jesus-looking Church. This alone has the power to yield and intrinsically Jesus-looking world and that can only be a good thing."

Thursday, June 19, 2014

What is the Kingdom of God?

Ok, so here's a little thought piece...

I'm sitting down to write this with no book in hand, no goal in mind and very little forethought. I want to try and give my best answer to the question "What is the Kingdom of God?"

Let's go...

I think that, in its essence, the Kingdom of God is about connectedness; not necessarily some well-planned, formal relationship as one might expect to find at a church or small group, but something more natural, more raw. The Kingdom of God happens when two people connect on a metaphysical level; it's when good beats evil in any given situation; it is light.

wow...this is harder than I thought. Let's try this route: I'm going to list things that are red flags, indicating that the Kingdom of God is at work.

1. There is always humility involved. The Kingdom of God is marked by the way that people purposefully lower themselves in relation to others. When someone decides that another person's wants or needs should trump their own in any given situation -- even in a small way, like conversation -- there is the Kingdom of God.

2. The Kingdom of God is peaceful. As a pacifist, this probably resonates with me more deeply than my non-pacifistic brother's and sisters but regardless of our feelings on the matter, one can't get around the fact that Jesus taught and demonstrated unto death a lifestyle of peace. Thus, his rule and reign is apparent when peace is made in any given situation, be it civil, professional or internal.

3. The Kingdom of God looks like sacrifice; specifically, God's reality looks like the creator of all existence being brutally murdered like a political revolutionary even though he was the most innocent of men. When we give a bit more than we can afford to, when we stick our necks out for the undeserving a bit more than makes sense and when we choose to lose we reflect our maker. Martyrdom is the Kingdom.

Well this was my quick attempt at what would probably take a doctoral dissertation to flesh out. My hope in this weak endeavor is to stimulate your mind; think, reflect and tell what you think the Kingdom of God is like. You may be one who finds that you need to do a little research in order to start answering this question. You may be one who has begun already (and likely found that there is a long way to go). In any case, my conclusion is this:

Our life is to be about learning how to answer this question and we do so with our lives.

I'd love to hear from any and all who read this. What is the Kingdom of God?


Monday, June 9, 2014

On Worship and the Freedoms Therein - Part 2

Continuing my thoughts from yesterday...

What does freedom look like in worship?

 In my last post, I talked about how true worship necessarily leads to freedom in the inner person and (in our context) this should manifest itself in our outer worship practices. So what does this look like? In what way do we see the inner develop outward? In order to stay focused, I will avoid listing specific practices. Instead, I'll elaborate on one observation:

When one has experienced God, one realizes how trivial many traditions are.

Again, I feel the need to say that I love tradition; there is a very healthy and vital place for traditions in religion. The word tradition basically means "to be handed down" and we would know nothing of Christianity if it weren't for the traditions of (mostly) the Roman Catholic Church. So, I'm not saying that traditions are bad at all. What I am saying is that, in terms of worship, our specific reactions to the realities of God may look differently than what has been most commonly accepted as "the way to do it".

So, we should not only feel free to physically worship how we will (within reason and orthodoxy, of course), but we should also not feel the need to impose on others any specific form of worship. I would never ask a brother in Christ to pick up a guitar and play it well for God though this is one of my favorite ways to worship. Worship, remember, is attributing worth to God and, as such, can be any activity throughout our day (if you haven't read The Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence, you should; he gives multiple expositions on this idea). 

The benefit of freedom

The immense benefits of the freedom of worship are found both internally and externally. The former of the two are manifest in a final laying-aside of mental and spiritual hindrances. There are some who aim heavily at this point, like this company. People who experience God in their lives often are more able to overcome addictions and self-loathing and finally see beauty in life where they once saw only darkness. Attributing the utmost worth to God is about justice - about homeostasis in our soul. It is finally recognizing things as they truly are.

This freedom can also be seen externally in the development of church history. Starting with the Hebrews, we see animal sacrifice as normative. Then, there is foot washing and selling of possessions for the benefit of the poor with the New Testament Church. Moving forward in history, there are the highly ritualized practices of the ornate Coptic Church; hymns, tent revivals, organs and rock music have all found their way into our worship practices throughout the years. My point in this is that we ought not be too concerned with a change in practice when the heart of why and whom we worship remains the same. True worship happens in the spirit - our spirits - and is only sourced in truth (otherwise it is no true worship). The truth is that Jehovah alone is worthy and, sandals on or off, this holds true.

Conclusive thoughts

Like most of my posts, there are many more things that we could say about the freedoms that come from true worship, but I like to leave room for thought. If I were to extensively spell out all of my thoughts, I feel I'd be robbing the reader of the chance to work some of this out on you own and discover your own conclusions.

Worship is a dynamic thing; we should never assume that it is over or we have done it perfectly. As Christian leaders, we need to hold ourselves (and each other) responsible for communicating true theology and right praxis but we should keep it in perspective. If we hinder others from expressing their worship to God the way that feels most natural to them, we are guilty of misleading. Now, this doesn't excuse us from correcting and guiding Christians in knowing when it is appropriate and inappropriate to express in that form (think exuberant worship that is disrupting others from worshiping), but we should never crush a person's worship - this is detestable.

If you have ideas or elaborations, please share. If you disagree with me, say why, I'd love to discuss :) In all things, I hope that this blog benefits your faith and gives you a challenge that you might grow.


Sunday, June 8, 2014

On Worship and the Freedoms Therein - Part 1

This morning, I have managed to carve some time to write again; I do feel like I've been slacking on this as the summer has rolled in so this is my attempt to regain my momentum. Thank you for your patience if you are one who follows on a regular basis.

So a few months ago, I wrote a blog post which seemed to garner a lot of attention; I guess it hit a nerve in the church to some degree. It was about what kind of music ought to be played in a corporate worship gathering. I don't want to fully recap my ideas on that since you can read it here, but the jist of it was that

Our theology ought to drive our worship

in all situations but especially in the corporate gathering where there may be others who are younger in the faith than ourselves and looking for guidance on proper practices of a Christian worshiper. So, in thinking about worship and how we conduct our corporate gatherings, I'd like to continue my thoughts about that so to speak. 

Today I want to write about the freedoms (or lack thereof) that we find within a worship setting. From a theological standpoint, our worship ought to necessarily lead to freedom - of heart, of soul, of mind and of strength. Worship is simply attributing a measure of worth to something and when we attribute worth to something, we lend energies of our will and affections, our mind, our emotions and actions to the object of worship. Logically, it is only right that we attribute the most worth to the greatest of beings, namely, Jehovah, Yeshua, Jah, Christ, etc. This is why the command to worship God with all that we are is a necessary command; by definition of worship, it would be illogical to do otherwise. 

So why freedom?

 In the past (and I do hope to keep the issue in the past), I have been told multiple times that I cannot lead a congregation in musical worship with my flip-flops off. Now, I feel the need to pause here for a disclaimer: this blog is not a rant, nor is it a bashing session of any kind. The Church leaders whom asked me to replace my sandals are brothers to me and I love them both dearly; I could never wish any ill towards them and I know that their decisions are based on a pastoral care for what God has entrusted to them. My being asked to not go barefoot does not offend me in the least, but it does concern me because of what is lacking in the decision-making process. Similarly, I'm fairly certain that I've been turned down for at least a few pastoral positions because I had long hair, tattoos and a handlebar mustache.

Freedom of the inner and outer person is a necessary end to recognizing the Creator for what/who he is; specifically, supreme. When we recognize our true state and condition in front of a loving and just God and truly keep this idea at the forefront: 

God looks like Jesus dieing on a cross.

Then we are liberated from the trappings of rote or tradition for tradition's sake. We are free to worship God how we will. We are able and empowered to act on the pastor's call to worship God however you feel led. We are truly free even if we are not. This is why Paul and Silas can sing in prison; their prison does not define their freedom. This is why progressive Christians who feel trapped in non-progressive churches can labor on; their freedom is not strictly external, but it is a condition of the soul. Their service is more important than their comfort and this is more often true than not of the Kingdom of God.

A Soft Conclusion
Having run out of time to write, I will continue this thought in another post. Before I go, I would like to remind the reader of my purpose in writing this blog at all. This is my epistle. This is where I write to the church, the bride of Christ. I pray that anything I write here will be received in love as that is where my thoughts are sourced: in Christ himself.

As Christians, remember to let our worship yield freedom and let our theology drive our worship. What we know about God should lead us to a conclusion about reality. I pray that our conclusions never hinder another believer. Lead in love and humility.


Sunday, June 1, 2014

Church Authority and Excommunication

If there is one thing that has not changed over the whole course of Church history, it is that there will always be a tension between the Church and the world. Christ clearly tells us via his words and example to engage the culture around us, not flee from it. On the other hand, there is clear admonition from the Bible to take care to keep the Church holy and set apart from the world. By way of a case example, let's look at 1 Corinthians 5 in which Paul is rebuking the church in Corinth because of their embracing of some who are clearly "living in sin" (to borrow a churchy term). Take a second, if you can and read this 13 verse chapter...go ahead...

Ok, so now that you're back, we can stop and think through this critically.

Now, to be honest, Paul comes across really strong here with his rebuke. He says that the members of the church should be "mourning in sorrow and shame" for the behavior of some among them who were being sexually promiscuous to a degree that even the Roman pagans would not go to. While it would be easy to take this first section and write off a number of people for their sins (homosexuals, those living with their bf's/gf's, those who sleep around, etc.), let's read the rest of it and keep it contextualized.

The key conditional that Paul sets up in this section is whom exactly he's talking to. If you read verses 9 through 13 he is adamant and clear that the people he is talking about are not unbelievers. Get that? He specifically says that

it is not the place of a church leader to judge those that are outside of the Church. 

It is, however, his job to be concerned with those who claim to be Christians and to those - whom he is writing about - he says that the righteous Christians who are in fellowship and the leaders in Corinth are to disassociate with them. So why the harsh words, Paul?

If we read verses 5 through 8, we see his concern. It isn't so much that he doesn't want them to be a part of the church but that he is worried that their lax morality will become a new standard for Christian righteous behavior and that would be a degradation to the legacy of Christ who held his followers to the highest of standards (Sermon on the Mount, anyone?).

So what are we to do with this? What does the modern Church do with a passage like this?


We need to remember that our hermeneutic key is Jesus; all Scripture points to him and is a testament of his reality of God and what the Kingdom looks like. If we forget that Jesus is our starting and ending point, then we can read a verse like this and start to think of the church in exclusivist terms instead of universal terms. Christ came that all should be saved, not some. "God's people" are no longer limited to a small genetic pool but instead are characterized by the indwelling of God's Spirit and known by their love for one another.

If this is our truth, then we must immediately throw out the idea that this passage of Scripture supports in any way a practice of shunning or kicking people out of the church permanently. Instead we need to look at the heart of what this passage is concerned about which is the degree of influence that those intentionally living in sin have in our churches. To be more clear, it isn't so much that we should disassociate with those who know they're doing wrong as it is right that we ensure the safety of other Christians who might mess up also because of their poor example; this is done by being careful and stringent about who is allowed to lead or be influential in our churches, not by simply cutting them off or preaching against them (no ad hominems now).

The Church is to be a people who are about love, not hate; inclusivity, not exclusivity; nurturing and growth, not cutting off and excommunication. 


We also need to realize the context that this was written in; that is, there wasn't a church building on every other corner like there is in most American cities. In the U.S., if a church wanted to follow a literalist interpretation of this passage, they would run into a major problem of logistics. Specifically, if one were to be excommunicated from church "A" by Pastor A, then there is nothing stopping the excommunicated person from going down the street to church "B" who has little to no knowledge of Pastor  A's decision.

These are different times and the church look's differently. Does this mean that we're off the hook from keeping people accountable to the standard of Christ? Absolutely not! Verse 13 in this chapter comes to the sound conclusion that God will take care of the judgement of those who are outside of the Church, but it is the job of the Church to care for those within it's influence. So this means that Christians ought to feel free to speak truth in love about another person's life but not to condemn or cut off.


I would be selling this post short if I didn't give some clear direction as to what the modern Christian ought to do in response to brother's and sister's of the Church who are intentionally maintaining a life of sin.

Be Christ to them

This is much easier said than done, of course. It is, however, likely the only way that their heart (will and emotions) might be won back to Christ in the fullest way possible. So how do we treat them as Christ would? We love, we befriend, we affirm their immeasurable worth and after we've built up a reputation of love with that person, we can correct them and they will accept the correction because they know that it is only out of love that any correction comes.

It is not our job to be accuser (that's Satan's gig) nor judge (that's God's job) much less executioner. It is our job to love them and allow them to see the Kingdom in our lives; only in this way will they see that their intentional choice to live out of sync with Christ's Kingdom is an impoverished way of life. The Church is solely the people who make her up; the Church's authority lies in it's capacity to love the broken of the world.


For a couple more points of view on the same topic and passage check out this blog and this blog.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Justin Martyr

As promised, here is another brief history lesson about a man who is often overlooked in Western Christianity but should not be. Ladies and Gents, meet Justin Martyr.

Justin Martyr

Throughout the history of Christianity, there have been more killed for bearing the name of Christ than have been captured in the annals of history. Few, however, keep the name “Martyr” as part of their commemoration; so in this aspect, Justin of Flavia Neapolis[1] (modern day Nablus in the Samaritan region)[2] stands as an honoree in our Christian family history. Like many of the martyrs of Christianity, Justin went willingly to torture and death, but unlike many others, he blazed a trail for Christian apologetics and philosophy in life. For his writings and his character, he is remembered as Justin Martyr.

The life of Martyr

            Born between A.D. 100 and 103[3], Justin was neither Jew nor Samaritan, despite his hometown’s location. Instead, it is more likely that his Greek parents moved to the Roman colony shortly after its foundation[4]. His growing up in a culture and religious context that was not his own by birth seemed to have placed in him a natural itch to find religious truth. It was this urging that led him to make himself into a student of a diversity of Greek philosophies. 

            He began under the tutelage of a Stoic teacher which is unsurprising as Stoicism was largely the most popular philosophy of the time[5]. Finding no comfort in the cold and atheistic undertones of Stoicism, he found his way to an Aristotelian teacher but parted company when he realized that money was this man’s main motivator. Next he sat under a self-absorbed Pythagorean professor but was discouraged and unconvinced of the validity of such a philosophy when he was chided for not having preliminarily studied himself in music, astronomy and geometry. Finally, he found a teacher of Plato who won his intellectual heart by instructing him in the high ideals of Platonic thought. At last his thirst for spiritual exposure seemed temporarily quenched and he expected his wisdom to be supported by divine revelation soon after this education.

            It was at this point in his life when the approximately thirty-year-old Justin met an old man who would change his life forever and send him on a road toward his eventual death. While at a lonely place near the sea, Justin encountered this man who, in Socratic form[6], engaged him in a dialogue. This meeting would eventually yield Justin’s Christian conversion and his conclusion that Christianity is the only “safe and profitable philosophy”[7] as it was only Christianity that could answer the questions asked of him. Justin never met this man again, so we know essentially nothing of him, only that this unnamed man would affect change in Christianity through Justin for centuries to come.

            What we have now are three major writings from Justin and some lesser ones that cannot be verified as authentic. His writings include Dialogue with Trypho the Jew, First Apology and Second Apology as well as an account of his trial and execution, Acts of Justin, which can be authenticated. His writings eventually led to his arrest and martyrdom around A.D. 165 under Roman Prefect, Rusticus[8]. It is to this legacy that we now turn.

Legacy of Justin the Philosopher

            While there are many far reaching effects of the writings of Justin, it will be most succinct to draw them out in his major areas of influence; that is, Justin as apologist, philosopher and martyr. As an apologist, he was absolutely a forerunner. While earlier writings such as Ignatius of Antioch were pastoral in content and voice, Justin’s novelty was his attempt at defending his faith and his Christian siblings in the face of the pagan, Roman Empire’s unregulated persecution. His First Apology was addressed to Emperor Antoninus Pius, though it is doubtful if it was ever actually read by the Emperor. Regardless of the eventual readership, Justin traversed a path through Greek philosophy in the name of Christianity in which many apologists would follow in centuries to come. Among the topics covered in his initial letter and his addendum, Second Apology, were issues of resurrection, basic philosophical credentials and a defense of the core tenets of the Christian faith. His letter seemed to have some positive effect as there was an edict in favor of Christians published shortly thereafter[9].

            One of the biggest issues he tackled with the purpose of sparing Christian life was the common practice of persecuting and distributing judgment against believers simply for bearing the name “Christian”. Also, he was able to clearly articulate orthodox Christian beliefs about Jesus and his divinity using the Platonic concept of the Logos which mediates between creation and Creator; like St. Paul, he made Christianity somewhat acceptable to his Greco-Roman audience by skillfully utilizing their own language[10].

            Justin is also remembered as the first true Christian Philosopher. Contrary to many modern Christian’s approach to various worldviews, Justin embraced his diverse background in philosophy in order to bring about a clearer knowledge of what he found in Christianity to be the truest philosophy. He believed that a seed of divine revelation was given to each philosopher and thus each contained a grain of truth. It was not until Jesus’ arrival that humanity was given the fullest revelation[11]. It was with this premise that he was able to engage Gnosticism, paganism and Judaizers on all sides of his context.

            Finally, we see Justin as his name sake acknowledges: a martyr. It is thought by most historians that it was an encounter with a Cynic philosopher named Crescens that eventually yielded his death[12]. After writing his Second Apology, the Cynic apparently found whatever ammunition was necessary to accuse Justin of Christianity. When brought before the Prefect and asked about his faith, Justin along with five male companions and one female companion, declared it unwaveringly. Rusticus mockingly asked Justin if he suspected that he would reap a reward for his death and Justin declared that he didn’t suspect it, he was convinced of it. It was after this that sentence was given and all six were flogged brutally before being decapitated[13]. While we cannot say that Justin and his companions were special cases in their context, we can see them as one record among many of Christians who not only professed Christ in life, but also through their death. So they contributed to the tradition of martyrdom in the early church.

Concluding Thoughts

            Justin is an incredible figure in Christian history; one for whom not enough space is available here to flesh out his contributions to the faith. What can be said is that he made it intellectually acceptable to some in the ancient world to be a Christian. Furthermore, he made a way for philosophy to not be entirely left to the way side and still remain orthodox to the faith. Justin squarely rested his philosophy and worldview on the person of Christ; this novel way to approach intellectual endeavor served him well. 

            For Christians today, Justin’s passion for intellectual honesty as well as his loyalty to Christ are points to be emulated. Apologists and lay-Christians alike can thank him for going against the stream of pagan persecution and Jewish conformism in order to more clearly and securely establish Christianity as its own religion. It is safe to say that without his contributions, it may have been much later if ever that Christianity would defend itself so well against those who would call it foolish, evil or logically irrelevant. This is the legacy of the one known as Martyr and it is a legacy worthy of our modern attention.

Chadwick, H. (1967). Justin and Irenaeus. In The early Church (pp. 74-79). Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Ferguson, E. (2005). The Church and the Empire: B. Justin Martyr as a Representative Apologist. In Church history (pp. 73-75). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
Foxe, J., & King, M. G. (1968). Account of the Fourth Primitive Persecution: Under the Roman Emperors, which commenced A.D. 162. In Foxe's Book of martyrs (pp. 17-19). Old Tappan, NJ: F.H. Revell.
Hall, C. A. (2002). The Resurrection of the Body and the Life Everlasting: The Contribution of the Apologists. In Learning theology with the church fathers (pp. 253-256). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
Litfin, B. M. (2007). Justin Martyr. In Getting to know the church fathers: An evangelical introduction (pp. 53-74). Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press.

[1] (Litfin, 2007, pp. 53-74)
[2] (Ferguson, 2005, pp. 73-75)
[3] (Foxe & King, 1968, pp. 17-19)
[4] (Litfin, 2007, pp. 53-74)
[5] (Chadwick, 1967, pp. 74-79)
[6] (Ferguson, 2005, pp. 73-75)
[7] (Litfin, 2007, pp. 53-74)
[8] (Litfin, 2007, pp. 53-74)
[9] (Foxe & King, 1968, pp. 17-19)
[10] (Ferguson, 2005, pp. 73-75)
[11] (Chadwick, 1967, pp. 74-79)
[12] (Foxe & King, 1968, pp. 17-19)
[13] (Litfin, 2007, pp. 53-74)