Rosary rosary

I had restrung my rosary countless times (well, probably fewer than ten) and finally figured out the best way to knot it so that it would stay tight, and the best thread so that it wouldn’t just wear and tear in two weeks, and then snagged it on a wire fence. By this time I had run out of good enough leftover beads (many of these stone beads are dimpled on the side or chipped at the holes). Couldn’t find any more at the area craft stores, hemmed and hawed, and decided on these two strands — red tiger eye and fancy jasper. Right now I like the jasper better, but the hematite crucifix is kind of heavy and large.

Rosaries and supplies.

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Pentecost

This week’s readings from the Revised Common Lectionary.

This coming Sunday is Pentecost.

The passage in Acts describes something rather spectacular. The followers of Christ were together, and suddenly there is a sound like a mighty wind, and tongues of fire come to rest on each believer, and they start talking in other languages, so that foreigners nearby understood their speech.

I wonder — did one speak in one language, and another in another? Or did the Spirit so move that each foreigner heard his own language from the lips of all the believers?

Either way — they heard, and understood, and the theme of all this talking was “God’s deeds of power” (Acts 2:11).

Some thought they were drunk, which doesn’t make sense, since drunkenness rarely confers the ability to proclaim theology fluently in another language.

At this point Peter gets up and speaks to the crowd.

He could have just said “No, it’s just the Spirit making people speak in your languages.” He could have figured it was just something special for the believers, to mark them as set apart, the chosen ones. But even now, so soon after they were all so confused, he understands that this phenomenon is part of their being witnesses to the ends of the earth (end of Matthew’s gospel), part of bringing the blessing to the whole world (as promised to Abraham in Genesis), part of opening the gate wide for all who would come in. As he quotes from Joel, “Everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

Peter recognizes that what has happened is the pouring out of the Spirit, as Joel prophesied. The Spirit would be given to all kinds of people — men and women, slaves and free, old and young. Joel wrote that those receiving the Spirit would prophesy, see visions, and dream dreams. In other words, they would obtain more and more truth — to speak truth about God and people and reality, to see truth whether waking or sleeping. He spoke also about signs and wonders that would herald the “day of the Lord” to come. This is apocalyptic language, marking the spiritual significance of what it describes, emphasizing that God is going to act decisively, is doing so even now. It is interesting that the list of portents includes fire; was it partly the tongues of fire that brought this passage from Joel to Peter’s mind as the people prophesied?

The Psalm echoes the themes of God’s sovereign activity and inclusion; all that he created looks to him for food, and he sustains and watches over all the natural processes he created and set in motion. The bit about death and dismay is uncomfortable. Do we want to go so far as to say dismay implies that God has hidden himself? Or is it plausible to say that the underlying idea is that it *feels* that way when we are dismayed? Likewise, is it that God takes one’s breath away and thus one dies? Or is it that death, as one of the natural processes, is under God’s care and not something he is ignorant of or indifferent about? In the same way I think we are to see God’s sovereignty over nature as a blessed letting be — natural processes under his general care rather than each event being the result of a specific intervention on his part. I don’t mean a deism in which God started everything up and then left; he is somehow deeply, widely, richly involved in all these things that happen — but not in a literalist or interventionist sort of way either.

1 Corinthians picks up these themes and expands on them. It is by the Spirit that anyone can proclaim such truth as “Jesus is Lord.” It is the Spirit who knows each individual and gives a fitting diversity of gifts and vocations. However different the gifts, the vocations, the personalities, the situations, the one Spirit is the giver, the caller, the maker, the sustainer; Christian unity does not consist of homogeneity, but of diversity under and in one Spirit.

The two Gospel options both look back to times when Jesus spoke of the coming of the Spirit: one before the cross, the other after. In the former, Jesus quotes Isaiah calling all the thirsty to come to the Lord, the spring of living water, the Spirit. In the latter, he sends the disciples out as he was sent by the Father. In both cases, it is clear: those who follow Jesus are called to a whole transformed life beginning right here and now. We are to drink — to be united with him, incorporated in him, one with his purpose, like him in love and goodness and truth. We are to be in the world to continue his work, to implement it as we may now, and in anticipation of its coming fulfillment; to bring blessing, to invite repentance, to announce the kingdom, to work for reconciliation.

I end with a question. What is Jesus getting at when he tells the disciples that the sins they retain or forgive will be accordingly retained or forgiven? Perhaps it is part of the sending them out as he was sent — that they have the authority to proclaim forgiveness of sins just as he did? Is there a sinister edge, implying that they had better be careful what they call sin, and who they condemn, lest they fall short of the full forgiveness God would offer?

Easter 7

Today is the day we remember the Ascension — when Jesus, after his resurrection, left earthly life to return to God the Father.

Readings from the Revised Common Lectionary for this coming Sunday

Between resurrection and ascension, Jesus spent over a month with his people, “speaking about the kingdom of God,” as he always did (Acts 1:3). N. T. Wright has written a lot about the kingdom and what it means. I am reading his Simply Jesus at the moment, for one example. The gist is that Israel was still waiting for the end of their exile; they were in the land, they had a Temple, but it did not seem that God had returned to dwell among them. What’s more, they were still ruled by foreigners. Jesus came into this situation speaking as one with authority to announce that God’s kingdom was at hand. Even at this point, after all the parables and sermons and conversations about the kingdom, some asked, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6) We still don’t know exactly how the kingdom is to come, exactly how to anticipate and implement it now.

The Psalm mentions the nations — in the beginning as being subdued, in the middle as being subject to God’s kingship, and in the end as assembling with the Jewish people. All along in the story of Israel, God has been known as sovereign over all the earth, including all people and nations. What has been a bit muddled is what God’s sovereignty over the nations would look like — conquest? or adoption? Some passages speak one way, some the other way. I suppose in a way we can see it as both. God conquers not through violence or coercion, but through self-sacrificial love, the undoing of evil, the removal of sin and falsehood, the making available of reconciliation and new life.

The Ephesians passage is about the kingdom of God and our growing into it.

The end of Luke, not surprisingly since Luke authored both, basically echoes the beginning of Acts.

Request

We all rather desperately need one another.

None of us is entitled to anything from anyone else (with the exception of young children, entitled to appropriate care from the parents that bring them forth).

It is sort of fascinating, that the existence of legitimate needs does not imply any entitlement. How often we explain it away — either it must not be a real need, or else we must have a right to the fulfillment.

Is it the hardest lesson of all to learn? How to ask for what we need without demanding it, even in established and committed relationships, and how to live well when our needs go unmet?

It starts with such little things.

Make eye contact and ask the baby if she wants to be picked up.

Ask before tickling. Stop instantly when asked to stop.

Speak to children not so as to display your wit to the other grown-ups, but to make a real connection.

No one, even a relative, is entitled to hugs or kisses.

This evening someone started teasing my daughter about her dessert. She didn’t catch on right away but was answering him seriously. When she started to seem confused, I mentioned to her that he was teasing. She told him, politely enough, “Besides, I don’t like being teased.” The guy said, “What, don’t you have a sense of humor?” He continued to tease her a while longer, until I repeated, “Amy doesn’t want to be teased right now.” He stopped talking to her altogether.

I get it — the guy wasn’t malicious or creepy or abusive. He was having fun. He wanted to include her in the fun. But no matter how friendly what you’re doing is, if someone asks you to stop, how is it possibly respectful to persist? I wonder if he would have persisted like that if he had been talking to a boy instead of a girl? Or to an adult instead of a child?

The vast majority of people don’t get violent with their sense of entitlement and unmet needs. On the other hand, the equation of unmet needs and entitlement is a pervasive problem — whether you’re a child or a woman or anyone bearing the brunt of someone else’s sense of entitlement, as mild as our dinner partner this evening or as threatening as the fellow in this comic. And it’s a pervasive problem we find in ourselves — and I think we all do, if we’re honest. We have all experienced moments when we felt we didn’t have all that we needed, and that it seemed so perfectly easy and reasonable for someone to provide it, and maybe we asked, or maybe we just expected, and we didn’t get it, and what do we do with that? What kind of friend or spouse or whoever wouldn’t do this thing for us? Is it not a real need? How often do we not even recognize this kind of thing as a sense of entitlement?

Merton reminds me that “The beginning of love is the will to let those we love be perfectly themselves, the resolution not to twist them to fit our own image.”

Willard reminds me to ask — to make a request — and not to demand.

Peter reminds me to cast all my cares, including the distress of unmet needs, on Jesus who cares for me.

Two books about Jesus

I am currently reading two books about Jesus. They are very different. One is Christus Victor by Gustaf Aulén. The other is In the Name of Jesus by Henri Nouwen.

Aulén’s book is about the history of atonement theories. He argues that today (he wrote in the 30s) we have what he calls the Latin doctrine on one side, and the subjective on the other. The Latin one is the form of vicarious substitutionary atonement in which Jesus, as sinless man, offers to God the merit of his sinless, obedient, faithful life, satisfying the requirements of God’s justice to remove the penalty due to sin. Aulén avoids the caricature of the angry Father who must be placated by the merciful Son, as if the Trinity were divided against itself. One of his issues with the Latin theory is that it is not one continuous work of God. God is the author of the plan, but the work is accomplished not by the divine nature of Christ but by his human nature.

So far he has not talked at length about the subjective theory, but from brief remarks in the first chapter, I gather that this refers to an understanding of the atonement involving only a change in people, and not any change in the whole situation or in the relation between God and people.

The main argument of the book is that there is another view, which he names the classic doctrine, which involves Jesus triumphing through his death over the powers of evil, including our own sinfulness as well as powers external to us. It is a work done by God from beginning to end, and addresses not just the penalty due to sin, but sin and evil itself. Thus, Christus Victor properly understood contains all that is really important from the substitutionary view — ideas of sacrifice, ransom, deliverance from guilt, justice — but without confining the atonement to a legal issue, and without putting the Father and the Son in conflict.

It is difficult, for me at least, to follow all the arguments clearly. Of course all interpretations of the atonement look to the New Testament for their support. Of course some of the same metaphors and concepts are common to them all. Sometimes the same language is taken quite differently by different theories. It is not always clear what one element of one theory is getting at, what it is reacting against or promoting. Nevertheless, it is fascinating, fruitful, and important reading. The Cross is central to our faith; we must have some understanding of what is going on with Jesus’ death and resurrection. How we think of the cross is deeply related to how we think of ourselves, others, the nature of the universe, the nature of God.

Here is a passage I read this morning that I thought especially  significant. Aulén is discussing how the Latin theory emphasizes the seriousness of sin — that it is not something that can be finally, fully, justly dealt with by simply forgiving it.

But while it is necessary to admit this intention of moral earnestness, we cannot forget that this doctrine of the Atonement grew up on a moralistic basis; and it can truly be said that the very fact that a satisfaction paid to God is regarded as making amends for man’s fault shows quite decidedly that the radical opposition of God to sin has become weakened down. If God can be represented as willing to accept a satisfaction for sins committed, it appears to follow necessarily that the dilemma of laxity or satisfaction really fails to guard the truth of God’s enmity against sin. The doctrine provides for the remission of the punishment due to sins, but not for the taking away of the sin itself. (91-92)

It is interesting that, according to this book, this atonement theory grew out of a legalistic outlook in which it is possible for people to earn merit with God — something that would be anathema to the Reformed and Calvinist folks who generally champion substitutionary atonement. I wonder to what extent current models of vicarious penal substitution are identical to Aulén’s Latin view, and to what extent they differ. I wonder the same about current models of Christus Victor — do some, as this Christianity Today column suggests, leave out too much, and would the columnist find more to support in Aulén’s version? After all, Aulén is at great pains throughout the book, at least thus far, to show that the classic view is not at all dismissive of the problem of sin and guilt, but sees the powers of evil as both our enemy captors and executors of God’s judgment against sin. Likewise he constantly reiterates that in Christus Victor God is both Reconciler and Reconciled, not alternately one or the other. (Which reminds me, beautifully, of the Abrahamic covenant story in which God passes between the sacrifices by himself, taking on both sides of the covenant, his and ours.)

The other book is a less heady endeavor, in a sense, and yet equally weighty if not more so.

What is needed in Christian leadership? To be free from the tyrannies of relevance, spectacle, and power, and instead to be grounded in the limitless and unconditional love of God through contemplation, confession and forgiveness, and theological reflection. I find Nouwen, in this and other books, breath-takingly in touch with the shadow side of life — loss, pain, fear, loneliness, brokenness, vulnerability, need — in ways that are alternately almost unbearably discouraging and passionately, soaringly hopeful.

Here are some of the lines I read this morning that especially moved me:

The question is not: How many people take you seriously? How much are you going to accomplish? Can you show some results? But: Are you in love with Jesus… Do you know the incarnate God? In our world of loneliness and despair, there is an enormous need for men and women who know the heart of God, a heart that forgives, cares, reaches out and wants to heal. In that heart there is no suspicion, no vindictiveness, no resentment, and not a tinge of hatred… (37)

Through the discipline of contemplative prayer, Christian leaders have to learn to listen again and again to the voice of love and to find there the wisdom and courage to address whatever issue presents itself to them… when we are securely rooted in personal intimacy with the source of life, it will be possible to remain flexible without being relativistic, convinced without being rigid, willing to confront without being offensive, gentle and forgiving without being soft, and true witnesses without being manipulative. (45)

Echoing Aulén’s criticism of the moralistic legalism and reductionistic rationality of the Latin view of the atonement, Nouwen closes this chapter thus: “For Christian leadership to be truly fruitful… a movement from the moral to the mystical is required” (47).

Further reading on the Christus Victor theory:

Tony Jones
Greg Boyd
Derek Flood
And, on the opposing side in a way,
Mike Wittmer

Easter 6

Acts 17:22-31, Psalm 66:8-20, 1 Peter 3:13-22, John 14:15-21

Once upon a time, oh, maybe twenty some years ago, I was a creationist. The Old Earth variety made more sense to me than the Young Earth kind. I had no problem with the six days being metaphorical, and it seemed silly (and deceptive) to imagine God creating things with the appearance of great age, including fake fossils. My acceptance of scientific consensus and various aspects of the two creation accounts in Genesis brought me to a version of theistic evolution in which Adam and Eve were specially created in the midst of the stream of hominid evolution. Then a Christian friend shared his coming to think that there is good reason to suspect there was not a literal historical Adam and Eve. His idea seemed to hold up and to make sense of even more of the data, while opening up some new problems. Then another Christian friend — perhaps a year ago — shared that in reading and thinking over these things, he found one must let go also of a literal historical Fall from perfection into sin. Sin must arise from the increasing complexity involved in human evolution; something having to do with increasing self-awareness and thus the ability to even think of evil, which leads to the ability to choose to do evil.

My thinking has similarly been in transition on a number of other issues relating to Christian faith, theology, and the Bible. It is uncomfortable and threatening. It is also immensely appealing — what if new ideas make it more possible to be faithful both to God (and his revelation in Scripture) and to what new information we have about reality beyond the Scriptures, in an integrated way?

It was jarring this week to read one sentence in particular from Paul’s sermon before the Areopagus. He is commending the Athenians for their devout concern with religion (note he is commending religious thought and practice that is not at all Christian at this point). He had noticed an altar dedicated to an unknown God, and he proceeds to explain to them that our God is that God, and to share with them God’s call to rethink everything in light of the resurrection of Jesus. The sentence that particularly struck me says this:

From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him–though indeed he is not far from each one of us (emphasis mine).

Leaving aside the “one ancestor” bit, notice the italicized portion. It seems to speak directly to the possibility that much of the revelation given through the Old Testament is a matter of finite and flawed human beings trying to make sense of their experience of God. Some people have argued that God can only speak to us in terms we can understand where we are right now, even if it means the images and analogies are partial, imperfect, imprecise. Or what if God revealed himself completely and in fullness, but people were unable to comprehend the full revelation, because we never receive anything whole and unchanged but only through the filters of our culture, personal history, psychological capacity, senses, and so on? Whether God gave his revelation to the OT writers in partial form, or whether they were only able to grasp his revelation partially, the end result is that their writing gives us a partial revelation.

Does it mean the whole thing is just made up? That God has hidden himself, if he exists at all? No, I don’t think so. But I admit it is uncomfortable to consider the OT a partial revelation. It is easier to accept the whole thing as a unit. Except that approach has its problems, too, which is what has led me down this road. What is more uncomfortable — to think that God really did, for example, command Israel to destroy Canaanite men, women, and children? Or to have to wrestle with what parts of the OT are historical narrative, which parts have been subject to legendary accretions, which are stories never meant to be taken as history but meant to reveal truth in the same way that an excellent novel or poem does?

It’s not just things ascribed to God that seem utterly unlike the Jesus who best reveals God’s nature to us, either. It’s also textual problems, like the several conflicting accounts of how David came to be king, or the differing chronologies and details of the exodus. Or the many “and that’s why X is the way it is” declarations in the first eleven chapters of Genesis. Or how about the temple sacrifices, allegedly commanded by God in great detail, while the Psalmist says in Psalm 40 (and 51) that God has revealed to him that God has not required or desired these sacrifices.

This week’s Psalm seems to reveal some similar issues of partial understanding:

For you, O God, have tested us; you have tried us as silver is tried. You brought us into the net; you laid burdens on our backs; you let people ride over our heads; we went through fire and through water; yet you have brought us out to a spacious place. (Psalm 66:10-12)

Doesn’t it sound like anyone trying to make sense of painful experiences and the presence and activity and purpose of God at such times? Does God deliberately cause our sufferings, each carefully orchestrated to most effectively refine us? Does it make more sense to think God uses and redeems our sufferings in his work of bringing us into greater and truer and deeper life with him? I wonder how he does his work, how exactly he is sovereign over all things AND allows all things to be exactly themselves, how he does anything with or in or for me at all. But even with many questions and many gaps in my understanding, I in faith echo the Psalmist’s conclusion:

If I had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened. But truly God has listened; he has given heed to the words of my prayer. Blessed be God, because he has not rejected my prayer or removed his steadfast love from me.

(Brief note on cherishing iniquity; I think the Psalmist is not claiming to be sinless, nor even to only sin unwillingly. To cherish iniquity is to make it a habit, a deliberate pursuit, a chosen value.)

The Epistle reading is from 1 Peter, admonishing readers to be ready and able to explain gently and reverently their faith, without fear, trusting Christ their Lord, to accusers or persecutors. They may suffer; let them take care not to provoke suffering by doing what is wrong, and when they suffer despite doing good, let them take comfort in knowing that Jesus suffered likewise. There’s a difficult bit following that discusses Noah and baptism. Maybe, just as in baptism we die to sin as Christ bore sin in his death, and we rise to life in him just as he was resurrected, perhaps in the same way those who died sinful in the flood will be raised to new life. Maybe the few persons who were then saved through the ark are a picture of the Church now — those whom God has chosen not to be his apart from all others, but to be his in such a way as to bring life to all others. (Yes; the flood story is another one that reads to me more like a great novel than like a historical narrative.)

Interestingly enough, my poem of last night is a little related to the topic of this reading. It is possible to be too careful about not provoking your own suffering through doing wrong. It is possible to adopt a scrupulosity that has an appearance of holiness but serves more to defend oneself from the pain of being wrong, causing harm, needing to repent and seek forgiveness, receiving correction, being scorned or held in contempt. Scrupulosity, however persistent and sensitive, cannot help anyone avoid all possibility of sin, sorrow, suffering, or other problems. Scrupulosity is driven by fear and / or pride; it is defensive and avoidant. The letter writer encourages the scrupulous, along with other readers, to not be afraid or intimidated, but “in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord.” However partial my understanding of revelation, however much I may be suffering, whatever I may fear, whatever information I may lack, I need not fear, because Jesus is my Lord and Good Shepherd.

The Gospel reading confirms all that. We have the Spirit abiding in us. One way to read “if you love me, you will obey my commandments” is that if we really love Jesus, we will want to follow his teaching because it is wise and good and practicing what he taught will please him. Another way is that it is through loving him that we come to be the kind of people who find it natural to live as he taught. I think both are true. I love the part that says “I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you” (John 14:20b). What a multiplicity of enfolding.

Life and death

For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. (Matthew 16:25)

I have come that they might have life, and life more abundantly. (John 10:10)

Some err pursuing pleasure at all cost;
I sometimes err pursuing death instead.
If gaining life requires life be lost
Then let me miss no chance for getting dead.

What consternation, finding death brings life;
Does it not mean life must be lost again,
Again, again? How does one cease this strife?
This winless cycle’s not what Jesus meant.

He also came that life abundant be.
Not all that feels like death does death require.
Not all that feels like life should make me flee.
Not death nor life the rule; let my desire

Be all to follow you who are the Way
Through death and life; with you, find peace and grace.