Friday, December 19, 2014

Announcing my two books!

     For those few of you out there who are actually reading this blog -- first of all, thank-you, and second, I'd like to let you know about the two books I have written about Christian apologetics/doctrine. They are, admittedly, self-published, but I have been both challenged and blessed in the process of writing them, and I hope that what I have said will both challenge and bless others.
     My main purpose in writing was to take some spiritual truths and unpack them, so that the reader could gain a greater, more complete understanding of the topics. In churches today, some "controversial" topics are either only explained one way (according to the dogmas of a particular church group) or they are glossed over, so that very little is really explained and the resulting viewpoints are very shallow. I wanted to look at Christian doctrines a little differently by defining what the doctrine states and how it has been historically treated, what it means to the individual Christian, and carefully detailing the Scriptural basis for the doctrine. I am trying to set forth Christianity in terms of what I call "little 'o' orthodoxy," so that one may step away from denominational/philosophical boundaries and clearly see spiritual truth for what it really is.
     For example, I wrote a great deal about the topic of Creation, because, as the daughter of a scientist and the wife of a science teacher, I have been confronted by this subject for my entire life, and many people have asked me and my husband about it. But I did not want to just repeat a "canned" response to the issue. So I approached to topic from three angles. Chapter 2 of Christ at the Center looks at Creation from the Biblical viewpoint; what the Bible has to say about it. Chapter 3 of the same book addresses to biggest question Christians raise about Creation -- how should we approach the controversy between creation and evolution? And the Creation section in All Things in Christ looks at this topic from a theological point of view; detailing the truths we should affirm about the doctrine of Creation.
     I hope that if you decide to read the books that you will be informed and blessed. And please remember that I do not think that I have learned everything there is to know about Christian apologetics/ doctrine, or that I have given the best possible explanation for every subject. I am just trying to help you on your journey with Christ, a journey that leads, as we all know, to the place where "we shall know, even as we are known." 

Christ at the Center   paperback and e-book

Friday, December 12, 2014

Off the Grid -- Sunday sermon devotional -- 2

(This post is based on the 12/7/14 sermon at Covenant Grace Church -- the text is Acts 15)

     It's early in the first century AD, and the predominantly Jewish church in Jerusalem has a problem: Gentiles are getting saved. Not only that, they are beginning to live a distinctively Christian lifestyle, one that has never, or just barely, heard of the lifestyle imposed for so long on the Jews by the Mosaic Law. Some of the church leaders are disturbed by this inequity, and are demanding that the Gentiles start observing the Law; in fact, they stubbornly affirm that no one can be truly saved unless the Law is kept.
     So the leaders of the Jerusalem church did a wise thing -- they decided to get together to talk about the issue. They listened to arguments on both sides. They heard the voice of the Holy Spirit. They agreed, not to disagree, but to conform to the will of God, which had declared that the Gentiles would become co-heirs with Israel of the promises of God and their fellow citizens in the Kingdom of God. (Rom.10, 11) James summed it up well by saying, "It is my judgement, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God." (v. 19)
     But isn't it curious how, down through the centuries, how all sorts of people and groups have kept making Christianity difficult for their fellow believers? This rule, that requirement, my formula, his idea, a program, an agenda, etc. etc. and on and on it goes... In so many ways, at so many times, a grid has been superimposed on Christianity, a grid that tries to regulate how Christians should act or feel; a grid that stipulates what they should declare or believe or promote.
     I grew up under one such grid -- separatist fundamentalism. My church/denomination believed that we had a corner on the truth and that we alone were interpreting the Scriptures correctly. Therefore, we did not associate with any other Christian groups. We were also very legalistic about lifestyle rules and regulations. But this group made one very costly mistake when it came to preserving the ranks, at least among those of us who took it to heart. We were taught to read, study and interpret the Bible as it stands on its own, which is of course, outside of the grid. Once we heard the voice of the Holy Spirit speaking through the Word, the holes in the grid opened up, and we were set free to embark on the great pilgrimage that is the Christian life.
     I'll never forget the relief that flooded over me when I realized that I didn't have to keep all those rules or adhere to all those picky points of dogma any more. I could learn the truth that Jesus came to reveal to us, for "all truth is God's truth." (1) I could find remnants of beauty in things that were once forbidden, and come to appreciate the true beauty that energizes the universe. I learned to find the goodness of God in the myriad of places where it hides.
      But grids are slippery things, and they try to capture us unawares. They try to convince us that its safer to stick with a formula than to "test everything." (2) They lure us to sleep with the comforting thought that we're ok and on the right track. The grid can take over and give us a pseudo-spirituality that makes us feel like we're better that everybody else. But that is the sin of pride, the original sin, that takes us far from God.
      Jesus gave us the secret for escaping the tyranny of the grid: "If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free." (John 8:31,32) The secret lies in discovering the truth of the gospel as we grow in our understanding and application of the teachings of Christ. His life, words, death, burial, resurrection and ascension -- the Gospel -- is the key that unlocks the door onto everything that is true and real. When we walk through that door, we enter a life that is truly liberated.
     This freedom, however, does not mean that we can do or think whatever we want. That is just slavery to another grid -- selfishness. The freedom found in the Gospel of Christ is the freedom that chooses to do what is right, because we know what is right. It is the freedom that allows us to let go of ourselves in order to embrace the burdens of others. It is that freedom that instructs us to "take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ," that is to say, we are able to learn about many things and see it all through a godly, biblical perspective.
     In Psalm 91, the psalmist says that the Almighty will "save you from the fowler's (a birdcatcher) snare." A trapped bird cannot fly; it is not free. Grids are not imposed by God, instead he tears them away. When we "dwell in his shelter" and "rest in the shadow of the Almighty," we find ourselves in the quiet center of his will. Even though unrest and terror rage around us, as the Psalm describes, we find the peace that frees our souls. "'Because he loves me, says the Lord, 'I will rescue him; I will protect him, for he acknowledges my name.'" Delivered from the grid, we are freely loved by God and set free to to love and accept others with that same great love.
(1) quote from Frank Gaebelein (2) 1Thess. 5:21

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Do you know?

     I've been sick lately, so I've been listening to a lot of Christian "this-and-that" on the internet. (May I interject here that being sick is a wonderful excuse for not writing posts for this blog; and I'm certainly invoking it here!) I like to listen to and learn from the many voices that speak to our confession of faith and the great tradition, particularly those that are participating in conversations on topics related to science and faith.
     So, one morning I listened to a dialogue between a Christian science professor and an atheist science professor about whether or not morality is possible with or without God in a world that has come about through evolutionary processes. Both professors agreed that evolution has happened and that science should view human responses in light of evolutionary theory. Both gave credence to the idea that people can do good things with or without an appeal to God or religion. Both saw morality as a result of evolutionary effects in both humans and animals. Both professors kept saying the exact same things. I kept waiting for the Christian to say something significant, something challenging, or something thought-provoking about God. But, every comment he made just blended in with his opponent's with a sort of holistic niceness.
     Now, in all fairness, I do not know how the Christian professor was approaching this debate. Maybe he thought that religious questions should be left to religious debates, and since this was a scientific discussion, he stuck with the science alone. (And I'm ok with his assent to theistic evolution.) He admitted to having had dialogue with the other professor in the past, so one can only hope they dealt with theological concepts at that time. But, after listening to this banal give-and-take for over an hour, the thought that struck me was: as Christians, can we ever be passive about matters that are informed by our faith? When given the opportunity, should we not always stand up for God? If God has truly transformed us, should we not readily give way to transcendence?
     At the end of the discussion, during the Q &A, a man stood up and asked one of the hard, hard questions -- the one about outrageous suffering in this world and what we, or God, should do about it. And I thought, Oh, so now we're getting somewhere; now it's time to talk about who God is and what he so positively has done and is so incredibly able to do... But no, they only agreed that "religion" can be part of the problem, and we tend to mainly concern ourselves with the situations closest to us and shy away from addressing problems of staggering intensity. Having had my fill of this pathetic display of non-commitment, I decided to listen to something else.
     And then I had one of those Psalm 73 moments -- "...till I entered the sanctuary of God..."
     I listened to Penatonix' stunning arrangement of the contemporary classic Christmas song, "Mary, did you know?"

      ...walk on water
                             ...deliver you
                                               ...the face of God
                                                                          ...the Lord of all Creation
                                                                                                            ...the Great I Am!

     Once again and mercifully, I encountered the astounding miracle of the Incarnation: "God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.And every year this miracle waits to be discovered anew, as Christmas rushes at us with thousands of frantic, glittery messages, tugging at the selfish desires of our millions of solitary hearts. It whispers on the busy streets and in the crowded stores and, most persistently, in the faithless heart, "I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full."
      In this world where the aching magnitude of Christmas has been reduced, blow by blow, to self-centered reductionism, Christmas still shines with the blinding light of transcendence. God became a baby boy. God walked on this planet, the one he has made. God encountered sorrow and wept. "'I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.'"
     The fierce light of the Incarnation calls us who have been made in his image and remade by his precious grace, to face the dark questions posed by this world with this radical declaration of Scripture: though it seems hidden and hopeless, God is redeeming his world. You see, although we so very much long to do so, we cannot give an explanation for the sin and evil that haunts our existence, because it did not come from here. Satan, the first created being to turn away from God, did so in the spiritual realm, far beyond our physical world in every way. The battle for earth was first fought in Heaven. "For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms."
     You see, Satan hijacked earth. He introduced an evil that is not terrestrial, a horror we will never understand, though we sinfully embraced it. This brand of evil can only be opposed by God himself who set aside his garment of glory only to be wrapped in swaddling clothes. Only God could conquer the sin that came from the darkness without, but in order to do so he had to come into our world as one of us."This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him."
     Just as the sin that seized us is otherworldly, so is the glory that has embraced us, "He died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.Therefore, we are called to a radical faith, one that reflects the light of heaven, our eternal destiny; so whatever we think or do or talk about should manifest that greater light. We must express a forward-looking point of view. We must yield ourselves to the self-less journey of spiritual formation. The things that concern us on earth must be the very things that will consume us in heaven.
     If this is our goal, if this becomes our earthy obsession, if we like Mary know and treasure the incarnation in our hearts, we can face a world of the hard, hard questions with one resilient, miraculous answer -- God knows and he cares and he loves. He died on the cross for every hardhearted and brutal sin ever committed. He embodied every pain of every tortured soul --"for the joy set before him he endured the cross!" And every time we tug on the curtain that separates the knowledge of this answer from the reality of this answer, a little light escapes; it is the light of the Incarnation, of Christmas.

Mary knew, as she stood before both the manger and the cross.

For the sake of all who walk in darkness, do we?

(Scriptures (NIV) -- 2Cor. 5:21, John 10:10, 8:12, Eph. 6:12, 1John 4:9, 2Cor. 5:15, Heb. 12:2)

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Apologetics 101-3 -- The Gospel

     While some may think it strange to classify "the Gospel" in the category of apologetics, I wish to do so here because if anything at all is foundational to the Christian faith, if our core beliefs must be defended in each and every contingency, we must know what the gospel is and why it plays such an important role in understanding our faith. We must, as well, be convinced that the gospel needs to permeate everything that the church does; as it is proclaimed, how it is explained, and by the way it is lived out. Without a thorough grasp of the gospel, the Christian experience rapidly disintegrates into a hollow shell, for what is vaguely known soon becomes greatly undervalued.
     The gospel is the "good news" of the Christian faith. It is the declaration that while our souls were dead in sin, Christ died on the cross to pay the debt for that sin and to bring us back into relationship with him. He was buried in a tomb, proving that his death was real and not an illusion. He came to life again on the morning of his resurrection, for he is the God who gives life and is ever alive.
     The gospel is the story of the life and work and passion of Christ the Messiah as told by the four evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. It is the account of his coming, or incarnation, his life of love in deed and word, and of the extraordinary events surrounding his last days on earth -- betrayal, agony, death, burial, resurrection, appearances, and ascension. It is the story of Christ and his Kingdom.
     The gospel is the eternal, present revelation of these accounts to our souls by the ministry of the Holy Spirit as he works through the Word to teach us God's truth. In Eph. 6, the gospel is described as a suit of armor that defends us against the negative onslaught of evil, which assaults us from all sides. 1Cor. 9 pictures the gospel as a message that must be proclaimed; a message that is so central and vital that preaching it must become the primary task of a believer's life. In Gal. 1, Paul begs us the preserve the purity of the gospel message. It must remain true to its original telling, for if it is changed or watered down it will lose its supernatural power. And in 1Thess.2, Paul emphasizes the fact that the gospel springs up and flows from God through us. He may appoint us to preach the message, but the mechanism that changes hearts is not what we say but what the Holy Spirit does.
    The first and primary task of the church is to proclaim the gospel, or good news of Christ. Just before his ascension, Jesus gave this charge (known as the Great Commission) to his followers: “Go [everywhere] and preach the gospel to [everyone].” The account of this commissioning is found in three New Testament passages, each one carrying a slightly different emphasis.
     Matthew 28:18-20, the focus is on teaching the gospel. The disciples were instructed to “make disciples;” to be the teacher to others that Jesus had been to them, to instruct new believers in the message and meaning of the kingdom of God. The Greek word used here (matheteuo) means to make a disciple by thoroughly and personally training someone in a way of life governed by the knowledge and information they are receiving. The instruction is rooted in the sacrament of baptism, which imprints the heart of the gospel, the death, burial and resurrection of Christ, upon the Christian's soul. It is Trinitarian in its aspect, connecting us to the entirety of the work of God in our lives and in the world. It is centered on teaching that brings about obedience to the commands of Christ, not merely the accumulation of intellectual knowledge.
     In Mark 16:15, Jesus tells the disciples to preach or announce the gospel. This word means to proclaim, declare or assert a particular message publicly. We generally think of this aspect of the Great Commission as the preaching ministry of the church, as Sunday after Sunday pastors preach their sermons or homilies. This is why the sermon is so central to our worship, for in all that is said the gospel must be lifted up, woven in, or clearly delineated in each and every presentation. If a pastor neglects or minimizes the gospel in his or her sermons, a red flag must go up in our hearts, for only the gospel, not good advice, or trendy platitudes, will transform us into the people God wants us to be.
     Another New Testament word used for preaching is “euaggelizo”, from which we get our word evangelize. It means to give an explanation of the good news of salvation, particularly to those who do not yet know it -- namely, that Christ died for our sins and rose again for our redemption and that one may be saved by placing faith in him. Evangelism is done through any means that proclaims this core message; audibly in sermons, visually in media, or informally in one-on-one conversation.
     Luke’s account of the Great Commission uses the term “be my witnesses.” This Greek word is “matoes”, which is the root of the word “martyr,” and, indeed, all of the disciples gave their lives for the cause of the gospel. This word denotes a person who is a witness to an event and can thereby give a true accounting of it. The disciples were eyewitnesses of the life and teachings of Jesus, so they were commissioned to tell as many people as possible about what they had personally observed.
     It’s interesting that the gospel writer who chose to use this word (Luke) may not have been a direct observer of the actual day-to-day ministry of Jesus. We know that he gathered information from many sources when writing his two books. He also received input from Paul, who also did not directly hear and know Jesus when he lived on this earth. This teaches us that we are all witnesses about Christ through the timeless channel of his Word. We may proclaim and teach the truth about the gospel because his Word has been given to us. The Holy Spirit, who indwells us, makes the Word real and living in our hearts and lives.
     When we think about our mission to proclaim the gospel both as individuals and as the church, we need to take care that it motivates everything that we say and do. We must ask ourselves these types of questions: 1.) Does this clarify the good news of Christ? 2.) Does this help a Christian to proclaim the gospel? 3.) Are Christians learning to live the good news in their daily lives? 4. Do the activities we do other than preaching also proclaim the gospel?
     A beautiful example of the centrality of the Gospel may be found in the Anglican tradition of bringing by procession a beautifully bound copy of the four gospels to the center of the church. There, a passage from the gospels is read, in the midst of the congregation. The gospel is glorious and awe inspiring, it is true, but it is also for us and meets us right were we are. It comes from God's heart to ours, and from ours to others. In every heart, in every Church, the gospel must come into the center of all that is done and be proclaimed as the truth upon which everything else is based.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Information God

     I recently listened to a podcast from Houston Baptist University featuring Dr. Phillip Johnson, author of the book Darwin on Trial. Dr. Johnson is a retired law professor and is considered to be the founder of the Intelligent Design movement. While he has been widely criticized for some of his extreme viewpoints, I think that he makes an appealing case for information forming the basis for the way nature works. Information seems to stand behind all scientific phenomena, consequently, the idea of God as creator points to the fact that he may be considered to be the ultimate source of that information.
     It seems that everything that exists exhibits some sort of relationship to information. Therefore, it follows that, in the physical universe, all natural things gather and emit information that can be connotated in a scientific context. Whenever we embark on a scientific study of nature, then, we must attempt to discover the twofold structure of this information: 1.) What is this particular thing listening to? and 2.) What is it saying?
     Everything speaks and understands a "language" by which the information is transmitted or received. These languages are almost always based on the primary language of math. Each particular branch of science speaks its own language, which is, in turn,  is some sort of dialect of math. To fully understand a scientific principle, we must figure out the language behind it and calculate the math behind that. (This is frustrating for people like me who struggle with math and excel at language. We can see the code, but we are unable to decipher what it means.)
     A few examples are:
  • All living things are based on the structure of their specific DNA code, which is always formed in the geometrical shape of a double helix.
  • Birds heed the "call" to migrate from one specific location to another based upon the hours of daylight.
  • A molecule of an organic chemical may be represented by an equation of letters and numbers or as a geometric model.
  • Ants lay down chemical trails for their brethren to follow leading to a food source.
  • The laws of physics that describe how the various forces of nature work are quantified by mathematical formulas.
  • When astronomers observe the light/energy from far-off galaxies, they are able to deduce complex mathematical formulas that detail the nature of the universe itself.  
     Scientific study addresses the questions surrounding what these languages are saying, how they are transmitted and the math behind them. Philosophy and religion ask questions about where the languages come from, who or what is causing them to be spoken, whether or not they have meaning beyond physicality alone and why we are able to perceive them. Once we begin to assess these questions, we have moved from mere scientific study into something that stands behind science, a tenuous locality indeed. If nature is all there is, the languages are allusions at best. But if something exists that is greater than nature, something that is so great as to cause nature to exist, someone who Christianity calls "God" -- then the languages represent reality as well as the possibility of communication between God and mankind.
     In John chapter 1, the Apostle John declares that Jesus Christ is the eternal Word of God, the one who has spoken all things into existence. "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God...Through him all things were made..." (v. 1,3) Genesis 1 tells us that God spoke the universe into existence -- "and God said." This speaking of God, this expression of truth, became physical reality. The information upon which physical reality rests came directly and ultimately from the mind of God; it is an enactment of the Plan or Will of God. The Apostle John goes on to say that "In him was life;" for the information, once spoken, was either vitalized by the life that God alone can give, or it contributes in some way to that life.
     Proverbs 8:22-31 details the way information (or, Wisdom) facilitates the created order. It originates with God -- "the first of his works" -- before the universe is made, because it is the foundation upon which all creation was to be built. This information delineated the specifics set for the oceans, springs of water, mountains, hills and soil. (v. 22-26) As God spoke the heavens and the earth into reality, Wisdom/information directed what happened or what came about in very precise ways. (v. 27-29) But verses 30 and 31 go on to describe this a little differently. Just like John 1 tells us, the information is God personified -- he is the "craftsman" who creates with joy; he is the one who delights in or loves the people he has made.
     And this is the point where we come full circle in this sort of "information theory" of creation. Because God created out of his love for us, he has bestowed upon us the ability and desire to read and understand the information. Though our image of God, our innate connection with God, we have been given the privilege discovering and interpreting the languages of the cosmos. We must be careful not to take this position lightly. Far too many of us live as if the information doesn't matter, or that it is not worthy of our attention. If we live our lives ignoring the things that God has said, we will be living in a small and dreary world. The light of creation shines on the soul through the lamp of the mind.
     In addition, God has given us verbal information through his word in written form, the Bible. The truths on its pages agree and correlate with words that formed the world, and we must learn to bring the two together. And through the power of redemption, God gave us himself -- Jesus Christ, the living Word, who brings us back into relationship, connection and communication with God. This spiritual connection gives us the greatest and most worthwhile information, the truth of God that sets us free to live unbounded and unfettered by sin and sorrow.
     Yet, in the end, it will all come down to the declaration of the resurrected Lord: "Behold, I make all things new!" A unlimited wealth of information waits to be revealed in the new created order. In Heaven, we will delight in, explore, discover and even develop the inexhaustible possibilities of a perfect existence. Our eternal life with Christ will be living in the ever present and new reality of "knowing and being known" by God who knows all, explains all, and loves without limits.    

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Ghost, Vampire or Resurrected Christians? Sunday sermon devotional -- 1

(This post is based on the 8/31/14 Sunday sermon at Covenant Grace Church; the text is Eph. 4:17-32)

     This passage is labeled "the new life" in my ESV Bible, for it describes in both theological and practical terms the life of the Christian who has been given salvation through the grace and mercy of Jesus Christ. When I looked at this passage, I thought of three descriptions for people who might be called "Christian;" which I will call "ghosts," "vampires" and "resurrected."
     The ghost Christians are given the most detailed description, found in verses 17-19. Perhaps this is because they are so common and insidious; floating about as they do at the edge of almost every church. They are characterized by futility of mind; they are empty thinkers, hollow shells of what they could be. They are unable to do the right thing, even though they try so very,very hard. They have become desensitized to truth and understanding, for they do not want to face the true facts about their deathly, shadowy lives.
     Obviously, ghost Christians are not true Christians at all. Paul calls them "Gentiles," meaning the pagans who were outside of the church and the Jewish nation. But it is interesting that he devotes so much time to their description, as if he knew that many people of this type would haunt the churchyard, so to speak. They claim to be Christians, but their dead souls merely flit about the things that are good and right. They cling to their sins while trying to put a Christian label on their lives.
     The vampire Christians are the ones who "put off [the]old self" -- but only half the time. They may try (in their own way) to do what is holy and true, but if and when they fail, they crawl right back into their old coffins. And even when they emerge from the old pine box, ready to start anew, they end up doing the same old sinful things because their residual carnal desires are tricking them into revisiting their old addictive pleasures again and again...
     Vampire Christians may be true Christians who have trusted in Christ and received his saving grace, but they keep trying to live the Christian life in their own strength. As a result, they are constantly being betrayed by their "old self" that keeps sending them back to their coffins where its very safe and very dark. Paul says that they need to "put off" this old self, in fact, it needs to be "buried with him in baptism," six feet under, never to come out again. This a work that we allow the Holy Spirit to do in us, causing us to live full-time in his power and revitalizing presence.
     Resurrected Christians are those who have received new life in Jesus, who destroyed their sins on the Cross. They live in the constant realization that their old life is dead and their new life is constantly being given to them through the grace and love of God. Their souls, which were dead because of sin, have been raised in what St. Augustine called "the first resurrection." When we receive salvation, the resurrection begins with the new life of the soul; one day our bodies will receive the same thing.
     Paul tells resurrected Christians to do two things. First, we must be "renewed in the spirit of your minds." This means that we must always be engaged in activities that cause us the think rightly upon God and his Word. Ghost Christians have "futile minds;" we must have active, robust minds, centered on righteousness and redemption. Second, we must "put on" our new life. This done by following the pattern of Christ's life. We should imitate Christ and grow in our efforts to be like him. We do not do this on our own, however, for the Holy Spirit is our guide, teacher and helper in our pursuit of the resurrected life.
     The rest of the passage lists some very practical characteristics of the resurrected Christian life. They help us to make direct application of our new life to our daily experience. I noticed these ten helpful guidelines:

  • Be honest and truthful
  • Don't hold on to anger
  • Don't get to the place where you may be easily tempted
  • Don't steal or be lazy. Work hard so that you may share your earnings
  • Don't engage in crude or derogatory speech
  • Speak gracious (loving) words
  • Don't do anything that would disappoint the Holy Spirit
  • Stop doing damaging things
  • Be a kind person
  • Forgive others
     In the next two chapters, Paul is going to address how Christians should act in their personal relationships. This list, therefore, serves as a practical reminder of Christ's golden rule -- treat others the way you want to be treated. (Luke 6:31) The purpose of receiving new life is living new life, sharing God's gracious gift with everyone we meet. May we pray with the Apostle Paul (to paraphrase): "I want to know Christ and the powerful difference his resurrection makes in my life." (Phil. 3:10)  


Friday, August 29, 2014

By his mercies -- Common grace

    This summer it rained twice here in southern California. (It rained all day long in fact; it was very shocking.) Usually, we have no rain at all in the summer. The normal amount of rain is .12". This season we have had .37"!  But we are also experiencing drought here in California, so our unexpected rain has had very little impact on the overall situation. The philosophical question here is, "Why did it rain in S. CA during a summer in a drought?" Was God trying to tell us something or help us out? Was the rain just a freak natural event? Did a group of native Americans intone just the right incantation? Why does it rain and what does it mean?
     Yesterday I read an interesting passage of Scripture about rain -- one I had never noticed before. Jer. 14:22 says, "Do any of the worthless idols of the nations bring rain? Do the skies themselves send down showers? No, it is you, O Lord our God. Therefore our hope is in you, for you are the one who does all this."  False gods, superstitions, or even scientific procedures do not bring rain and neither is it a purely naturalistic phenomenon. Only God sends the rain. Jesus said, "[God the Father] causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous." (Mt. 5:45)
     Only two groups of people inhabit this world -- the redeemed and the unsaved -- yet God graciously gives his gifts of sustenance to both. The righteous are not more worthy because they have received the gift of salvation. The unrighteous are not undeserving because of their sinful state. The graces of rain and water and sun and food are freely given to all Creation by the Creator-God. This grace is called "common" or "universal" grace.
     Through common grace God provides for our everyday needs. God gives us food (Gen. 1:29) and water (Deut. 11:11,12), air to breathe (Acts 17:25) shelter (Jonah 4:6) and clothing Gen. 3:21). He does this because we are his children, whom he created. We are physical beings and have physical needs. The fact that God cares for these needs points to the fact that he is the Creator; for he would not abandon us or turn us loose in the world without giving us the assurance and the knowledge that we are provided for.
     God also provides these things for the animals he has made. Ps. 104:27 says, "These [animals] all look to you to give them food at the proper time," and Jesus said that the foxes have dens and birds have nests to live in. (Mt. 8:20) One of the most amazing aspects of creation is that each animal instinctively knows what to eat and where to live. This is God's common grace acting upon their lives, for he made each in a unique way and cares for them accordingly.
     Now, immediately we might think that God does not continually pour out his care upon creation, because so many people lack the things they need to survive. People and animals die everyday because they do not have enough food or water. It seems like God does not care for everyone or that he does not care in the same way. But we live in a fallen world; and its fallenness often goes at cross-purposes with his care. Evil governments, bad practices and the sinful human spirit have generated circumstance where God's common grace is not fully felt. This is why God calls us who know and follow him to be his instruments of grace and justice in this world. We are called to bring healing and hope wherever we can. We are also called to trust fully in his gracious love.
     Just as we should not turn our backs on saving grace, we should not cast aspersions on common grace. We do this in more ways than we care to admit. We may be wasteful and use more food and water than we really need. This is the sin of gluttony, which entails, in addition to eating and drinking to excess, excessive desires to do and have whatever we want. It is opposed to love, which gives and causes us to think of the needs of others before our own. God gives us what we need when we need it; he does not, however want us to be selfishly needy.
     Lately there's been a lot of chatter about "what foods to eat" in both Christian and secular arenas. While it is certainly dangerous to eat foods that are chemically over processed or to eat things like fat and sugar in excess, no food in and of itself should be considered bad or wrong to eat. Food is not intrinsically evil; it does not suffer from a fallen condition in and of itself. All food (plants and meat) has been given to us as a gift from our loving God. (Gen.1:29, 30, 9:3) We are called to receive every food with thanksgiving and moderation. (1Tim. 4:4, Phil. 4:5, KJV) Also, and this is very important in today's debate over food, we are not to judge what another person eats, or forbid people to eat certain foods. (Rom. 14:13-18, 1Tim.4:3)
     I am planning to write more on this topic of food and the Christian life, but for now I wish to make this one point -- what we eat is covered by God's common grace. No matter what point in history we may examine, or what foods have ever come into question, God gives food to us as his gift and he covers whatever negative elements it might have by his powerful grace. "Bad" things can and have happened because of food, but it is not because any food is "bad." God works in this world to keep the negative effects of sin in this world from exercising their full power. We live in him, we shall die in him.
     Everyday that we live, we need to thank God for his common grace that "preserves our life from destruction." While thanksgiving, balance and discernment are in order, we also need to know that we can live at peace because God cares for us, even in a fallen, confused and frightening world. As the Apostle John declared, "From the fullness of his grace we have all received one blessing after another." (Jn. 1:16)  

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Apologetics 101-2 -- The three transendentals

     God is the source of all reality, the ground of being and the creator and sustainer of life. Therefore, in order to properly understand what is real, what is (i.e. what has being and existence), and what is alive, we must begin with the bedrock beneath it all -- God, our Father. We must know that he exists and that he lives and loves. He must be at the beginning and at the end of our quest for belief. Without God, we are adrift in an empty sea.
      From God come the three transcendentals, or fundamentals, or absolutes that form the foundation for a proper worldview. They are truth, goodness and beauty. If we do not understand them (even if we know God) we will be shortsighted in the way we perceive life, especially in the way we make connections between Christianity and the world around us. For many years I knew of truth, goodness and beauty only as abstract terms; I did not grasp their reality and importance. I knew that these were godly qualities, but I did not realize that they are manifestations of God. God is truth. God is good. God is beautiful. Any created thing that transmits these things is touched by God -- it is revelatory of God. In Phil. 4, Paul tells us not only to consider "whatever is true...whatever is right and whatever is lovely," but to "put it into practice" as well. Then the "God of peace" will be present with us. We will live in the contentment that the interrelationship of these three outpourings of God brings into our lives.
      The first thing to understand about the three transendentals is that they exist as real things in their own right. They are not merely add-ons to other things. We may say that the Bible is true, but we must realize that the truth conveyed by the words of Scripture is far greater than the book itself. We may say that a saint was good, but the goodness came from their connection to the heart of God. We may say that a cathedral is beautiful, but, in the humility built into it, it only captures a glimmer of the glory of God. We are humanly inclined to think of them as descriptive of physical things, but because the three are so intimately connected with God -- indeed they are who he is -- they are as real as he is and transcend this material world.
     Truth, goodness and beauty come into our lives as gifts from God. James phrased it this way: "Every good and perfect (beautiful) gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change (truth) like shifting shadows." (James 1:17) We pick up on these things because we have been made in the image of God. He is truth, goodness and beauty; we know them through him. When the image of God is corrupted by sin, the perception of them is darkened as well. Those who do not know God know very little of the three absolutes. Either they do not recognize them at all, or they fashion them in distorted ways. Without God, truth is relative and lies are truth, good is personal and selfish, and beauty is disfigured or ignored. Anyone who wishes to appreciate them must have his soul reoriented to God as the source of truth, goodness and beauty. Even Christians need to stop periodically and check our position; it is easy to get carried away by the banalities of this world.
     Because truth, goodness and beauty are real and since they come from God, mankind has always known about them to a greater or lesser degree. They are known to all cultures, in all places and at all times. Even if they are not known, or if they are dismissed, or even corrupted, a feeling that they do exist remains. Depending on one's position in the world, this causes conflicting emotions to arise in the soul. Those who have cast them aside may feel angry, disillusioned or conflicted. People who have not really thought about them may feel empty or confused. And people (like I once was) who don't understand them, feel as if they are missing out or unfulfilled. Truth, goodness and beauty were designed by God to be guideposts for the spiritual life of the soul. But, in our fallen world, great tension exists between these ideals in their true intent and their corruptions that are so common to our everyday lives. We will only be able experience the benefits of truth, goodness and beauty by fostering our relationship with God, and allowing him to reveal them to us.
     The three transendentals have great value for this life by opening doors into the true spirituality that nourishes the life of the soul. But because they are spiritual, godly and real, they are eternal. They have always existed, for they exist in and through God. They exist now, seen through the eyes of faith, hope and love. They will exist forever in their true forms, for God will re-create all things. In heaven, truth becomes real, for all communion will be genuine and understood by the wisdom of God. Good will overcome all evil and falsity to the extent that we will experience it so fully that good will be the ground of all existence and anything else will be imperceptible. Beauty will be lasting; it will have lost its capacity to fade away. It will be eclipsed into glory as it brings healing to our ransomed souls.
     Imagining this kind of reality gives us great hope, but living into their reality, as we are called to do, gives us great insight. Paul wrote, "'No eye has seen (beauty), no ear has heard (goodness), no mind has conceived (truth) what God has prepared for those who love him' -- but God has revealed it to us by his Spirit." In order to experience the three transendentals -- to see them and know them and practice them -- is to live in tune with the Spirit of God, living in our souls, who teaches us all that is true, gives us all that is good and shows us all that is beautiful.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

"Thy kingdom come"

     In Matt. 6, Jesus instructed his disciples (and, through them, us, as well) to pray that his kingdom would come. Jesus is our king; he has a kingdom, but the kingdom is in flux. In one way, it has come, but in another, it has not. His rule and reign have been long established, yet we know so little of what this means.
     I used to dismiss the paradox of the kingdom by thinking that it was all in the future. Whatever it was that God was planning had something to do with the Jewish nation and something called the "millennium." But that never felt quite right. Jesus seemed to be teaching his followers that the kingdom is all encompassing -- it is "within you," it is coming, it is "not of this world," it "fills the whole earth."
     Generally defined, the kingdom of God denotes the rule and reign of Christ over all things. His rule is his authority; what keeps us on the straight and narrow, as it were. It provides our guidelines for living, writes the laws of nature, and speaks through the voice of natural law. The reign of Christ is the overall atmosphere of leadership and relationship that we find when we are (or will be) brought into the reality of the kingdom. It is the spirit of living a fulfilled life in peace, holiness and justice. As Christians, aka kingdom-citizens, we have been called to experience the governance of God in three ways: the kingdom within, the kingdom that comes, and the kingdom that will be.
      First, the kingdom within is our experience of salvation from sin that comes by grace through faith in Christ. Jesus, when pressed by the Pharisees to explain the nature of his kingdom, said, "...the kingdom of God is within you." (Luke 17:21) He told Nicodemus one-on-one that " one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again." (John 3:3) This kingdom is necessitated by need, founded on faith and forged by a love so powerful that it nailed Christ to the cross, only to resurrect him from the grave. When we, as aliens, are given access into this inner kingdom, we receive a birth certificate sealed in blood, our citizenship papers, which will one day grant us entrance into heaven itself. It all begins in the heart. It starts now in our physical being, where our eternal soul abides. The kingdom within is the territory of pilgrimage, for all is not what it shall be, so we must walk by faith, overcoming obstacles as we go. In Eph.3:16 and 17,Paul prayed that the Spirit of God would strengthen us in our "inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith." Jesus must establish his rule and reign in our hearts, and we must allow him to do what is best for us.
      Second, the kingdom that comes is the life and love of God being lived out in the world through the church. Jesus said that as the church is being built as his kingdom in the world, the gates of hell, that kingdom of darkness and evil, will not overcome it. There may be war between Christ's righteous kingdom and the forces of sin, but the church will go out into the world in every age and in every place as conquerors. Jesus said, "This gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to the nations, and then the end will come." (Matt. 24:14) The first priority of the church is to preach the message of salvation, to bring the kingdom of God into individual lives. Next, believers must be instructed in the fundamentals and practice of the faith. And the church must stand for truth against all the evil forces that are trying to tear it down. In many ways, the activities of the church pursue an unseen end -- as the Christmas carol reminds us: "for hate is strong, and mocks the song of peace on earth, goodwill to men." But she is called to be faithful to Christ in every dark hour. The deeds of justice and righteousness done here will remain forever.
     Finally, the kingdom that will be is the restoration of all things in Christ. We commonly think that this kingdom will be in heaven or just heaven itself. But it is far more than that. It is what will be when Christ makes everything new, and this includes all energy, matter, time, space, our physical bodies, as well as what is "now" heaven. All things will be united or fused into one great, eternal reality. This reality will be, of course, quite different from the reality we now experience, in either the physical or the spiritual sense. It will be greater, bigger, truer and far more beautiful than anything we can ever know or experience in this life, for it will find its source in the infinite love of God.
     The apostle John wrote, " we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is." (1John 3:2) He perfectly captures the "now and not yet" tension inherent in the kingdom of God. Even though we have received the love of God in all its fullness, we are not fit to enter heaven's door. We must be remade in order to enter in. And that fact gives us our greatest clue as to what heaven will be like. It is a never-ending remaking, restoration and redemption of all things, and when the kingdom finally comes, we will be called by God to participate in that great work of reconciliation. We will be given, one by one, all of the incomplete stories of this life, and with Jesus by our side, we will write the happy endings, as the kingdom, forever, comes.      

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Church -- What's in it for me?

     It has often been said that one should not think that "church is all about me," and neither should one approach church with an attitude of "what can I get out of this?" The explanation is that church is about what we can receive from God or give to him, therefore, it is not about getting our needs (however nebulous) met.  But is this really true? In real life, how does the act of going to church impact one's life? In what ways are we changed, challenged or renewed -- and is it ok for that to be about me?
    I believe that even though church has many dimensions that extend far beyond one's solitary existence -- reaching around the world and into eternity itself -- church has to be about me because each Christian is called to an individual relationship with Christ. Jesus made this very clear in a discussion he had with Peter after the resurrection. (John 21) He addressed Peter intimately -- not only by his first name but by his last name as well ("son of John.") The things that he proceeded to talk about lie at the core of what church means to the Christian: love me above all others, display that love by ministering to both the young and the old in the faith, and be the one who will faithfully follow me at all costs. Jesus had already told Peter that he would be instrumental in the establishment of the church (Mt. 16); now he is telling him what will be required of him personally in that task.
     While much has been made about Peter's fault in admitting agape love for Christ, we all bring many types of love into our relationship with Christ and consequentially, to our relationships with others in the church. But, due to our humanity, much of our love for God and others is what C.S. Lewis called "need-love." In our redeemed-yet-sinful state, we long for a love which will bring us ever nearer to God and his perfect love. C.S. Lewis writes, "But man's love for God...must always be very largely, and must often be entirely, a Need-love...our whole being by its very nature is one vast need..." Like Peter, we are growing in our faith, and in our need we reach out for spiritual comfort to satisfy our heart's desire. It is this type of need that the church, by the power of the Holy Spirit, is called upon to meet in so many different ways.
     So it is with this intention, that the church has always found ways to reach out to people by providing "services" designed to meet both spiritual and physical needs. The church provides an opportunity for worship, a forum for learning and an environment for fellowship.This has been the mission of the church from the day it began, for Acts chapter 2 tells us exactly what went on when they met together. They were devoted to teaching, engaged in fellowship and worshiped God through prayer, giving, communion and praise. In all of these things they received spiritual power to meet their needs, and they then gave, by the grace of Christ, charity to others and heartfelt devotion to the Saviour. We must like them, approach church in the same reciprocal spirit. We need, and our brothers and sisters need; God inexhaustibly gives, enabling us to give Him the "sacrifice of praise" along with our acts of giving to those in need.
     As with so many other things in life, we must grow to maturity in the way we think about church. We may begin with many needs and slowly and deliberately come to the place where we regard others as more important than ourselves. We may find it hard to give at first, but as we learn, we will begin to practice a lifestyle that centers on giving and therefore on love. In making this transition, one must find their place in the church that makes the best contribution to the whole. Learning to use one's unique spiritual gifts is an important part of this process, as well as faithful participation and consistent focus. Church is a vital stopping place on our spiritual pilgrimage, where our needs are met and our love is given. In the end, it's not about me in a selfish way, but its very much about me growing into the person God wants me to be. It's not me giving all I can humanly give, but about my humble participation in God's "indescribable gift" that gives "world without end."

Lewis, C.S. The Four Loves. New York: Mariner Books, 2012, c.1960.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Christian poets: John Donne: Holy Sonnets 14

Batter my heart, three-personed God; for You
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o'erthrow me, 'and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurped town, to 'another due, 
Labor to 'admit You, but O, to no end;
Reason, Your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captived, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly' I love you, 'and would be loved fain,
But I am betrothed unto your enemy.
Divorce me, 'untie or break that knot again;
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you' enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.
     Donne begins this poem by making a strange appeal to God -- "Batter my heart". This is a far cry from our most common requests -- calm my heart, mend my heart, or keep my heart. To batter is to break down and destroy; to grind down to oblivion. It means that what the heart treasures most may very well be subjected to severe suffering and loss.
     I think that crafting a poem is very like creating a sculpture. One must carve with language to create not just a picture, but a thing. So, with this first word, "batter," Donne begins to chisel away at his thesis -- God must first work within our hearts to destroy the negative effects of sin before he can begin to work on rebuilding us into the likeness of his son. Philippians 2:13 reminds us that "it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure." God is performing a great remodeling project in our hearts, but first he must demolish the old and clear out the space before he can install the new and eternal.
     Donne appeals to Triune God ("three-personed God") to do this work within us. The verbs he chooses in the lines that follow illustrate the Trinity's individual efforts  as well as God's collective work. The Son knocks, the Spirit breathes, the Father shines. God begins to enact his plan to mend the fallen soul. His power then breaks sin's hold as Christ was broken for us, blows away our faults by the wind of the Spirit, and burns away the dross of our lives by the Father's refiner's fire -- all this to make us new. At last, the old is gone, the new has come. (2Cor. 5:17)
     Certainly our own resources are not equal to this task. Reason (correct thinking and the knowledge gained through learning) would seem to be able to affect change, but it cannot. It too is captive to sin and proves weak or unfaithful. Our best laid plans so often go wrong when we do not surrender to the wise and worthwhile plans of God to mold us into Christ likeness.
     Finally, Donne reminds us that the greatest desire of man's heart is to be loved by God: "Yet dearly' I love you and would be loved fain." But sin, whether we realize it or not, acts as a barrier to that love. In fact, we are engaged to it; our broken will has been unwittingly surrendered to a false lover. We must be divorced from sin so that we may be married to Christ. And in this love resides one of the great paradoxes of Christianity -- we are bound to Christ in love, which sets us free to love. We are only made pure by partaking of his true romance. The sculpture (but, in reality, the persons) God has formed us into comprise our new identity as his bride the church, which he has loved, renewed and redeemed "so that he might present the church to himself in splendor..." (Ephesians 5:27, ESV) In light of this glorious goal, may we (with Donne) humbly pray that we may be brought low. 

Monday, April 28, 2014

Christian Poets: John Donne, Holy Sonnets I

Thou hast made me,and shall thy work decay?
Repair me now, for now mine end doth haste;
I run to death, and death meets me as fast, 
And all my pleasures are like yesterday.
I dare not move my dim eyes any way, 
Despair behind, and death before doth cast
Such terror, and my feeble flesh doth waste
By sin in it, which it towards hell doth weigh.
Only thou art above, and when towards thee 
By thy leave I can look, I rise again; 
But our old subtle foe so tempteth me
The not one hour myself I can sustain.
Thy grace may wing me to prevent his art, 
And thou like adamant draw mine iron heart.

     John Donne (1572-1631) is known for his love poems; first, for his poems about his love for women, and second, for his poems about God's love for him. The poem above is from those collected after his death in the volume Divine Poems, and is the first of the 19 Holy Sonnets. These poems address the universal questions of life and death, creation and decay, significance and loss. Eternal life is contrasted against mortal brevity; human pain against the joy that never ends.
     Donne begins by asking a question about mortality: Does what God has made (particularly in the case of humanity) ever truly pass away? It seems as if anything God has formed with his hands should innately have an eternal quality about it, coming as it does from the Father of Lights. Mankind was given the breath of life on the day of his creation, and this breath will never cease to be. In Ecclesiastes, the Teacher reminds us that God has "set eternity in our hearts." Our souls will never die, but our physical bodies are quite another story. We are on a collision course with death.
     But, even so, we have a bigger problem: because of sin, our souls have already died and we cannot, in or by our mortal life affect its repair. Only God, through the power of what St. Augustine called the "first resurrection" can give our souls the life they lost so long ago. As for the body, Paul writes, "What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable." Yet Donne finds, as we all do, that the impact of sin, though forgiven, still lingers, and is subject to Satan's subtle temptations. On our own, he laments, we cannot sustain a holy life for even one small hour.
     Yet here it is that God's great movement of grace, as strong as that cosmic force of magnetism, flows from him into the feebleness of our lives. His grace is strong enough to overthrow evil powers and influences. His grace causes us to cling to him because he has bound himself to us. But in the church today we have co-opted a faded view of this grace. The word is tossed about like a tennis ball, the universal answer to every problem, physical and spiritual. Grace is being worn at the edges and its true meaning and power are fading even in its over familiarity. 
     We must, therefore, heed Donne's lesson -- never make grace into something less than what it is, something spread in a general and whimsical way over the Christian landscape.We must fly on the wings of the Holy Spirit to the place where we may receive and understand the truth of grace for what it truly is -- the power and presence of God that covers all our sin. There, grace never lets us go; it binds us to the heart of God by a power that eradicates our sin and raises both body and soul from death's decay. 

Holy Sonnet I, in The Norton Anthology of Poetry

Friday, April 11, 2014

Apologetics 101-1: Does God exist?

     Since this is a blog about Christian apologetics, I have decided to write some posts about basic apologetic questions. Every good apologist needs to be able to respond to these types of questions; yet for people like me who have been steeped in the faith since birth, we rarely stop to consider these types of arguments. We assume, instinctively, certain fundamentals of the faith -- "one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and father of us all" -- as Paul describes it. So I shall try to reason through some things which I find easier to assume.
     This first question -- does God exist? -- is particularly hard for the "life-long" Christian to address. After all, the knowledge of God has been a fundamental truth upon which our lives have been built. His existence has always been a part of our existence. We not only believe in God, but we have come to know him as well. To lose God, to enter a plane of being where God is absent would be incomprehensible. It's hard to imagine any life or any form of thought that excludes God. This makes it very difficult to address this question, for it is so foreign, so irrelevant to the thinking we have always known. Consequently, former atheists may be the ones to give better arguments for God's existence. They had to seek, and learned much along the way; we can only imagine their journey.
      The first thing that comes to my mind about this question is simply that the question is raised. Why are we asking the question in the first place? We do not (as those of normal temperament) ask if non-existent things exist. There is no reason to pose the question. For example, no one asks if,say, "oblonobos" exist. (Hopefully, this is a word I made up and not a real thing in another language! If it is, just bear with me.) The non-existence of oblonobos prevents us from spending our valuable time wondering if they're real. We ask existence questions about things that have proposed existence.
     Now, we may raise the question of whether or not certain imaginary things exist; for instance, we may inquire as to the existence of fairies. As children we are particularly able to frame such questions, for our imaginations are still pure and much of the realities of the world have yet to be sorted through. In our young imaginations, fairies dance among the flowers and hide in the grass; not to believe in them would rob us of a once in a lifetime wonder.The real question is: do fairies exist in flesh and blood reality? Is their reality of the same substance as mine? Things like fairies have a type of reality that enriches our imaginations, and this is necessary for a full life, but they do not have anything that is really real, no substance that possesses a life of its own.
     It follows, then, that the question of God's existence may be similar -- does God merely exist in the imagination? But right away we are confronted with the fact that the question of God's existence is universal, timeless and life-long. Practically everyone, everywhere and in all stages of life has asked this question. Are we all under some kind of universal illusion, as some philosophies suggest? Or, is there something that universally links us to God -- our very existence, perhaps? Solomon, the Teacher, exhorts us to "Remember your Creator in the days of your youth," implying that the existence of the Creator-God is something that was once known, but is prone to be forgotten, ignored or even lost. We were made by him, but our sin has driven us from his presence. The veil is drawn; we wonder if God was ever there at all.
     Hebrews 11:6 gives us a concise statement of how the question of God's existence is best addressed: "...anyone who comes to [God] must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him." First, we must make the effort to "come" to God. One must ask the question and sincerely seek the answer. Jesus said that those who seek will find, and this verse reminds us that an earnest search will be rewarded. Next, one must believe. The knowledge of God comes through faith, not observation. We do not collect the facts about God and see if they add up logically. Furthermore, faith is not a feeling; it is granted by God as "substance" and "evidence" of spiritual realities. (Heb. 11:1, KJV) And finally, the results of this search will be sound and substantial because we will be rewarded with confidence in what we have found, the connection with our Creator-God.  
     But the burden of proof for seeing or finding God does not rest entirely upon us. God had not kept his existence hidden; he has revealed himself or made himself known. The first verses of Hebrews tell us: "In the past God spoke...through the these last days he has spoken to us by his Son..." There would be no knowing God without his efforts to make himself known through Scripture and in Jesus Christ. So here we are given instructions for where to direct our search. We must study God's Word and attend to the teachings of the Saviour. (Nature also bears witness to God's existence, if one is willing to acknowledge his handiwork. Heb. 11:3)The Holy Spirit, whose mission is to reveal God's truth, will be faithful to open our eyes to the reality of God.
     Ages ago, the Old Testament saint, Job, responded to God's revelation by exclaiming, "My ears had heard of you, but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore, I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes." He had discovered God in the glory of Creation and the agony of suffering. In both, God's great grace had shone into his life. His response was humble; he saw how he was nothing compared to the infinity of God's greatness, and this knowledge was rewarded with blessings from God. And the results are the same with all who come to seek for God on the pathways of revelation -- we are found, and God forever becomes our everlasting and true friend.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Nature seeks the supernatural

     In his book, The Everlasting Man, G.K. Chesterton makes an interesting comment, almost as an aside: "Nature is always looking for the supernatural." And so it is; therefore, a concise statement such as this is easy to brush over. But, like so much of Chesterton, upon closer examination, this little phrase gives us much to think about and, when comprehended, is able to rock the very foundations of conventional thought about nature and its connection to God. (For most think that nature stands alone, unknowing, and even Christians think that nature stand aside, unneeded.)
     My first thought was admittedly a bit mundane -- "that's how God feeds the animals." Psalm 104 teaches us that God is the almighty caregiver to all of nature; he provides water for plants, plants and water for birds, fish and animals. "These all look to you to give them their food at the proper time. When you give it to them, they gather it up; when you open your hand, they are satisfied with good things." (v. 27,28) Nature is not conscious of God's person, as we are, but it operates under his presence, ever sustained by his rule. Because it was not blinded by sin, nature unrelentingly gazes upon its Creator; yet the veil of our sin often blurs that view.
         Still, the beauty of nature reflects the glory of God through its steady gaze upon him. It points to the Creator and calls to us to look upwards as well. "I lift up my eyes to the hills -- where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth," affirms the Psalmist. The prophet Isaiah tells us that trees do not merely sway in the wind; they "clap their hands." Mountains and hills do not just rise majestically above the landscape; they "burst into song." Nature praises God unknowingly, for all that it is, and all that gives to us is wrapped up in the Creator's work within it. If you take him away, all of nature disappears; it cannot stand alone. Nature reflects God's purposes on a cosmic stage, as the dialogues in the book of Job reveal to us: Elihu says, "[God] brings the clouds to punish men, or to water his earth and show his love. Listen to this, Job; stop and consider God's wonders." (Job 37:13,14) Nature has not only a supernatural view, but a supernatural revelation as well.
        And mankind, God's own, created for fellowship with him, yet fallen into alienation and disobedience, also seeks (sometimes purposefully, often unknowingly) for God. Blaise Pascal wrote, "There is a God-shaped vacuum in the heart of every man which cannot be filled be any created thing, but only by God, the Creator, made known through Jesus." This hole in our hearts was formed by the destructive forces of sin that distance us from God and fill us with an undefinable despair. We try to fill this void with other things; either created things that we have twisted to fit our dark purposes, or fallen ideas that rise from the dregs of our troubled selves. Even when we see a connection to God in nature, we try to strip that away because we do not want to face God. Like Adam and Eve, we are still hiding in a beautiful, but shabby garden.
      Jesus alone is big enough and holy enough to fill the hole in our hearts. As he, by faith and with grace, enters in, he pushes aside the emptiness within our lifeless souls, and fill us with a glorious re-creation of life. Our nature now has not only sought but been found by the Supernatural. Jesus said, "But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself." The gospel account adds that he said this to prophecy his death upon the Cross. A cross is a violation of nature; a tree that once rejoiced in the wind brutally twisted into a tool of destruction; a "cursed" thing as Paul said. But reaching high in hope and stretching wide with love, the Cross expands to fill all that we had lost. "But God forbid that I should glory," Paul declares, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world." (Gal. 6:14, KJV) We only regain our vision of God and see his vision for us through the Cross, and in seeing this, we look away from the natural world to see the supernatural.
     But this is not the end of the story. As believers, we know that a great resolution is coming, the redemption of all things, in which "the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality." (1Cor. 15:53) Nature, faded and torn, looks wistfully for that day. An unwritten longing hangs over creation, a desire to be delivered from death and decay, to be formed at last as new in a new heaven and earth. And we, who also now look towards heaven by the gift of grace, may articulate what nature cannot say, "Even so come, Lord Jesus." Make us whole again, give us rest in you as our eyes look to you -- "I wait for the Lord, my soul waits...more than watchmen wait for the morning." (Ps. 130:5,6)    

Friday, January 24, 2014


     On Sunday, we took a look at one of Chesterton's most well-known stories; "the Lamp Post", from his book, Heretics. In the introduction to The Everlasting Man, we encounter two more tales: "the boy who leaves home to find a giant" and "man meets horse." All of these stories are about perspective and how we see the world, especially how Christians should see the world or, as the Apostle John put it, the cosmos. ("The world and its desires pass away, but the man who does the will of God lives forever." 1John 2:17)
     The main premise of The Everlasting Man is that the world, as well as many who claim to be Christians, do not see the Church correctly, and therefore do not understand it or follow it, because they are viewing it from the wrong perspective. He writes, "The point of this book, in other words, is that the next best thing to being really inside Christendom is to be really outside it." (p. 9) And to illustrate this he tells a little tale about a boy who leaves his family farm on the hillside in search of "something, such as the effigy and grave of some giant." Having traveled far and long, he turns around to catch one last glimpse of home, only to see a gigantic figure carved in the hillside above the farm. The traces of the giant had been with him all the time; he had been to close to them to see it. Chesterton is telling us that, in order to get a firm grip on what Christianity is and what it means, we must every so often step back from it and see it from a perspective that is far removed from it or what it has become. Then we well see the faith with a renewed clarity -- we will dive again into the wonder of all the things we have yet to know, learn and experience.
     To further illustrate this point, Chesterton remarks that perhaps we should look at Christianity from some sort of alien viewpoint, say, that of a "Confucian." He is so sufficiently different from a Christian that his line of thinking on our faith will open up new vistas of understanding for us; he will, quite innocently, help us to see the Cross, "towering over the wrecks of time." Several years ago, when I was teaching a high school Bible class, I had an experience that illustrates this perfectly. In an attempt to get my students to see Jesus as the unique person who he truly is, I showed them clips from the movie Godspell. The music from this work had greatly influenced me as at teenager, when it opened my eyes to the greater world of Christianity beyond my rigid Baptist upbringing. ("All good gifts around us, are sent from heaven above -- So praise the Lord, Oh, praise the Lord, for all his love.) But when my students saw it, they laughed, nervously, really, because it was so unlike any  mundane Sunday School story of Jesus they had ever heard. They weren't ready to sing and dance and wear the colorful clothes of what redemption really is and to know the Christ who invites us into his unending joy.
      And herein lies Chesterton's most important point -- most of us are neither too close nor far enough way in our view of Christianity. We "...cannot get out of the penumbra of Christian controversy... [we] live in the shadow of the faith and have lost the light of the faith." (p. 10,11) Chesterton linked this to the theological controversies of his day, but this intermediate view, this preoccupation with minor persuasions, has dogged the Church from the beginning and follows us still. Everybody seems to have something fixate upon -- music, money, lifestyle choices, social issues, even the fundamental meaning of the fundamentals themselves. But to see the faith in the clear light of the Gospel, we must travel to a far-off point indeed, one that stands outside of this world, somewhere in the neither-land between here and Heaven.
      We should see this as a great, overwhelming vision of hope; a vision not unlike ancient man seeing a horse for the first time -- a great and powerful beast, looming above his head, yet inviting him to sit upon his back and go for a ride. As the cosmos presses in on us with ever-increasing intensity, we must with equal desire, as our Lord instructed us, "...lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near." If we are looking towards heaven, or taking the view from heaven, we will see life in the proper perspective. To do so is to repossess the hope of Christianity, the certainty of the Kingdom that comes, a treasure "still as new as it is old." (p. 19)
Chesterton, G.K. The Everlasting Man. San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 1993, 2008.  

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

No perfect families

     Someone has remarked that there are no "perfect" families mentioned  in the Bible. When my husband and I heard this, we immediately tried to come up with evidence to the contrary. Jesus' family must have been ideal -- after all, Jesus himself was a most illustrious member of it, and he is the most perfect person who ever lived! But, upon close examination of the text, we learn that his family lived in the backwaters of Israel (Nazareth), his mom and dad mistakenly took off for home and left him in the temple, and his brothers and sisters thought he was crazy and tried to do an intervention to keep him from spouting all that nonsense about God being his real father!
     We also thought of Noah and Mrs. Noah -- they stuck together through difficult and improbable circumstances, and Mrs. Noah heroically put up with her husband's boat-building hobby for all those years, and in the middle of the desert, for heaven's sake... And I thought of Isaiah and his wife (referred to as "the prophetess") who agreed to the crazy names he came up with for their sons -- "Shear-Jashub" and "Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz." (They don't get any better in English: "a remnant will return," and "quick to the plunder, swift to the spoil.")
     The Bible stories are littered with tales of imperfect, less than ideal families. We read about incest, polygamy, arguing, murder (in the very first family!), adultery, wayward children, sickness and sorrow. It seems that every family takes up a cross of some kind; the greatest being in the family of our Lord, for as the elderly sage Simon prophesied to Mary: "a sword will pierce through your own soul also." At the foot of the cross, newly adopted into the disciple John's household, she felt the sword of separation from her firstborn son, who was, at the same time, in the dark agony of separation from God, his Father.
     But, like so many things in the Bible, the point of the stories of imperfect families is not their brokenness, but their restoration, not their sin, but their salvation, not their failures, but their redemption. For Adam and Eve, it is baby Seth, the beginning of a long unbroken line to Christ, for Noah and his family, a second chance at life in this world, for Abraham and Sarah, a child so long-awaited, loved and unexpected that his birth resounds with joyful laughter. In every story, something comes along to wipe away the sorrow, even if it is only the promise of eternal life to come. Even in the story of Jesus's earthly family this rings true -- our last picture of them is found in Acts chapter 1-- "Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers" are gathered with his followers in the upper room, waiting for the Holy Spirit, who, as Jesus said, "will abide with you forever."
     Perhaps the greatest lesson we can learn from the Biblical families is that the child of Bethlehem, when born in our hearts, is the one who brings peace and hope into our chaotic lives. When we become a member of his family, we are born into an eternal oneness with him and partake in the blessed position of sonship with him. "How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called the children of God!" -- John writes with joyful pride. He will never abandon us, or make an unwise decision about our lives, or think of anything else as being of greater importance than his relationship with us. As children of God, we have truly found a forever home.
      And during those dark times, when we look at our own families and despair, for many and complex reasons, we must bear in mind that "there is one God and Father of us all" who "works in all things for our good." He is, in his own and perfect way, working in each life, in each family, with an eternal purpose in mind, for a time when we will all be related and living in true relationship. There is no better description of Heaven than "home," because it illustrates to the fullest degree how God will take the broken, disconnected things of this life and make them perfectly whole. Until then the greatest work of love we can do for our families is to be redemptive in our relationships; to take the things that go wrong and, by the power of God's love and grace, turn them into something touched by goodness, set free to love and be loved.