Archive

Archive for March, 2013

God on trial?

You know it’s a bad sign when you can’t write your final paper that you’ve been thinking about all term because the answer you have emerged from your research is simply and utterly wrong.

So I am now seated in the library that my grandfather’s company built with a stack of books that is almost as high as the floor I’m on desperately trying to sort out my random thoughts that need gathering very soon. And one of the ways I sort out my thoughts is through writing. So here I go.

I’ve been thinking a lot of Jesus’ trial this Holy week.

My suffering will never be as great as Christ’s and I will never suffer as one who is completely innocent. But I have been touched by a Saviour who understands what it is like to be put on trial, to have to give a justification when you have stood for love and life, being mocked, misunderstood, rejected.

If you read my long reflection on Following Christ, you will see that I have also been touched by Christ drinking the cup – the wrath of God against all humanity – in his suffering and death.

As I have been reading for my paper, and been thinking about the “sinned-against”, I have been repeatedly found myself at the cross.

It seems to me, that anyone who has been a victim of violence or abuse, ultimately has to wrestle with God. As I’ve said before on this blog, violence demands an answer. Not just an intellectual answer, but an embodied one. The cost of the wounds need to be paid.

My stepfather cannot do this. The best gift he can offer me is a humble and repentant “I’m sorry”. No amount of suffering, jail time, money, community service is honestly sufficient to pay the price of what he has done.

And even if it were, he is a sinner no greater nor lesser than I am. The same grace and forgiveness showered in my life will be offered to him. Vengeance is the Lord’s. And when one truly gives that to God, who knows what God will do. There are times I have had to suffer for what I have done, and times when God’s grace has allowed me to “get off lightly”.

What kind of love is this? That gave itself for me. I am the guilty one. And yet I go free. – Steve Bell, What Kind of Love is This

We are in bondage to sin. Sin runs so deep within us that we cannot get through a day without being unfaithful to God. In many ways, we are helpless. By this I do not mean we are not culpable – rather, we are sinners and continue to sin and without Christ, we have no hope of changing this. So at the end of the day, I can only feel sorry for my stepfather.

But God? The omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent God does not get off so easy. Where was he when I cried out to him? Why did he not save me? Why did he allow it in the first place?

So many questions. Violence demands an answer.

And so, God is on trial.

Offensive? Perhaps. So is the prayer in Psalm 137 to dash the Babylonian babies’ heads against the rocks.

Misdirected? Perhaps. I know all the free will arguments. I also know that the trial Christ actually endured is not quite the same thing I am saying when I think God needs to be put on trial. I also know I am in dangerous territory when I interchangeably use God and Christ and am well-aware of the theories around God abuse of Christ (while some of these theories have some helpful things to think about, I do not seek to advocate for them).

Am I losing faith? No. I know God can handle this. I know God will love me through the process even when I say offensive and angry remarks. I know he has a way of orchestrating beauty and truly working all things together for his glory.

Somebody’s gotta pay for this. ‘Cause none of us gets away unless somebody dies and there’s been pain enough to satisfy the rage of the losses she’s sustained by age thirteen. Only then can the rest go free.

Nothing will suffice. Unless you stumble upon it like a dream I had last night. About a man who chose to pay the price, on a tree, silently and still, just long enough for me to kill. – Steve Bell, Somebody’s Gotta Pay

Darkness has come

Image

 

In the upper room, Jesus ate a meal – his last meal – with his twelve friends and disciples. He washed their feet, an act of love and humility. He knew they would all betray him in one way or another in the coming days. And yet, his love for them shines through the Gospel readings.

He takes them to the garden. He shares his heart – his grief stricken heart – and asks them to stay awake and pray.

He then steps a little further into the garden and throws himself down. This cup – the wrath of God against all humanity – made him cry out to his father. Not once, but three times. His love for the Father and for all humanity made him submit and drink this cup.

His friends could not stay awake for even one hour. In Christ’s moment of asking them for something, they slept.

The time had come.

Judas kissed Jesus. Betrayed – with a kiss. How that must have stung like salt poured into a wound.

Jesus was arrested.

His friends deserted him and fled.

Tonight I feel the darkness and sorrow of this night long ago.

Following Christ: A Cultural Reflection on Matthew 16:24-26

Image

For my theology course, we had to do a reflection on a biblical passage interacting with the ideas we have been discussing in this course. This is an edited version of the paper that I will be submitting tomorrow. The introduction in the actual paper provides the context for how this paper came about – a context that I am cautious in sharing because it involves conversations that my readers may be able to identify while my professor would not.

Suffice it to say, at the beginning of lent, I was faced with questions of what it meant to follow Christ in a world in which Christ is not central to people’s lives. I will begin the version of the paper I share with you with these questions. (forgive the footnote commentary. this paper is already longer than it should be and I felt the footnotes were important for this particular paper.

Following Christ: A Cultural Reflection on Matthew 16:24-26

How do I share the gospel in a context that does not seem to want it? How do I deal with the discouragement and loneliness when resistance, rejection and persecution come? Is the call to follow Christ safe?

These questions have repeatedly led me to Matthew 16:24-26. This passage is a counter-cultural call of radical commitment to following Christ.

Context

This passage is placed in an interesting part of the Gospel of Matthew. Christ took his disciples to a place that was rampant with idolatry.1 He asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” Answers are offered. Then Christ makes the question personal: “Who do you say that I am?” Peter boldly claims that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. The theology drop-out fisherman offered an A-plus answer.

Jesus begins to teach his disciples about the suffering that he is about to go through. The road ahead was a cross and the road would be filled with suffering. Not quite the glorious and triumphant road Peter expected with his declaration of who Jesus was. Their beloved leader was going to be killed by the political and religious leaders of the day. It is Peter who speaks boldly again: “This shall never happen to you!” Maybe Peter was delighting a little too much in being the “blessed one” to whom God the Father had revealed who Christ is (16:17). Or perhaps he was crying in disbelief that something so awful could happen to his Friend. Either way, Jesus was clear – the cross was part of God’s plan (16:23).

And if that wasn’t difficult enough to swallow, Jesus then explained what it means to follow Him: Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for you to gain the whole world, yet forfeit your soul? Up until then, the disciples were simply told to follow Jesus (4:19; 8:22; 9:22). But these intense words of Christ call for something far more radical than sheep following their shepherd around all day. And it did not hold the glory and prestige of being in the company of the one who would triumph over the Roman Rule. Steve Bell describes this very poetically in a song that tries to capture Jesus’ prayer for the disciples (John 17:6-19):

They’ll argue who will sit next to the throne/ And I cringe to here them say “Thy kingdom come”/ They think they know what they’re getting into/ But we both know that they haven’t got a clue.2

It is easy to be enamoured by a miracle worker. Who wouldn’t want to follow one who can turn water into the best wine, feed thousands of people with just a few loaves and fishes, and who can raise people from the dead? One could be easily persuaded by His teachings that speak of blessings to those who mourn and are poor in spirit. However, the Christ who we are called to follow is one who was flogged, mocked and crucified. Again, in Steve Bell’s words:

Here’s something that they won’t like/Someone’s coming to take the life/ No one has to look farther than me/ For I am He/ Some will trust in the things they think they know/ They should think again and let them go/ Put away the sword and get behind/ And let me die.3

Desire to Follow

We are not forced to follow Christ. Those who are disappointed by a leader who walks through Jerusalem on a donkey to be crucified on a cross are free to find another who promises them the peace and goods that they want. In a consumeristic society, there are plenty of options for those looking for a thrill or a quick fix. Take out the cross and a few other messy things Christ said and preach a gospel of prosperity and you might even find your claim to fame with riches and followers galore. As Bonhoeffer writes, “Nobody can be forced, nobody can even be expected to come.”4 However, if you want to be Christ’s disciple, the cross is central.

As Smith claims, we are beings that are primarily motivated by what we desire.5 We order our lives around the things and people we love. After telling His disciples what kind of Messiah He is, Jesus speaks of desire – Whoever wants to be my disciple. Those who do not want to follow this Messiah need not read any further. Those who do not have a heart and mind for the “concerns of God” (v. 23) will make little sense of the words that are to follow. Yet those who do desire to be Christ’s disciple must be prepared to devote their entire lives to following. Christ doesn’t ask for a half-hearted allegiance to him, but a full-on radical commitment to following him. As we will see in a moment, there is no room for other desires when following Christ – it is Christ, and Christ alone!

Deny Ourselves

Once we desire to follow God, the next step is not optional: we must deny ourselves (16:24). There is no half-heartedness about this denial. We must abandon our desires, our will, our plans, and our security. Bonhoeffer writes, “To deny oneself is to be aware only of Christ and no more of self, to see only him who goes before and no more the road which is too hard for us.”6 Bonhoeffer rightly sees that Christ needs to be all-consuming and that attention focused on ourselves will ultimately lead to discouragement about how narrow this road is.

Interestingly, the Greek word for ‘deny’ (aparneomai) is only used to speak of denying ourselves and of Peter denying Christ. When Peter denies Christ, he places his own security, fears, and needs first. He forgets for a few moments all that he has learned about Christ, all that he has seen and all that Christ has promised. It seems that we can either deny ourselves or deny Christ, and that we cannot have one without the other. Earlier in the Gospel of Matthew we read, “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other” (6:24). Two thousand years does not change the candidates for masters in our lives – money, wealth, and the ‘security’ that they bring are still masters to whom we pledge allegiance.

In a culture that is “all about me” this is not a very ‘attractive’ invitation. In a consumeristic society, we are taught from a young age that we are what we buy, if we feel like it, we should do it, and that self-denial is a symptom of psychological disorder. Sadly, the church has not escaped this – many popular praise and worship choruses place ‘me’ at the center of worship. Consider the song “Above All”7 – a beautiful and catchy tune, a summary of how Christ was above everything with “no way to measure what [he’s] worth” and chose to be crucified. Then the last line betrays our individualistic mindset: “You took the fall, and thought of me, above all.”8 Is it all about me? Or is it about God?

The call is not an easy one. A few people in my life know that I am discerning a call to full time ministry. The responses have been either a commitment to pray or a statement along the line of “that’s a hard life, I don’t wish that for you.” The latter is one that perplexes me. Is there anything about following Christ that is not hard? Arthur Burt makes this even stronger: “The Christian life is not hard to live – it is utterly impossible to live! Only One can live it! Let Him! In you.”9 When we deny ourselves, we empty ourselves in a way that Christ can fill us and we become who we really are. Only when we deny ourselves are we able to see the “concerns of God” instead of being focused on our own ways and understandings. Or as Bonhoeffer writes, “Only when we have become completely oblivious of self are we ready to bear the cross for his sake.”10

Take up our cross

Back to the questions that began my lenten journey. As I look at what Christ went through, I am humbled by my own weakness in fearing a calling that is ‘unsafe.’ If the one I follow was mocked, rejected, scorned, bruised and crucified, should I be surprised as I am met with resistance and rejection today? Perhaps in an attempt to temper difficult words, I searched for an understanding of what exactly the ‘cross’ is that we are to take up. My quest was not met with easy answers. First, I sought to understand the cross of Christ. However, if there was something that Christ accomplished through the cross that was done for me, instead of me, and for all time, then any cross that I bear will be different.11 Thank goodness, because both John Stott and Douglas John Hall12 describe a pretty gruesome picture of what Christ went through. And then I read Bonhoeffer:

Jesus says that every Christian has his own cross waiting for him, a cross destined and appointed by God. Each must endure his allotted share of suffering and rejection. But each has a different share: some God deems worthy of the highest form of suffering, and gives them the grace of martyrdom, while others he does not allow to be tempted above that they are able to bear. But it is the one and the same cross in every case. (Bonhoeffer, pg. 79).

 

While I will never suffer as Christ did, I share in Christ’s sufferings when I live into the life that He has called me and am met with rejection, suffering and persecution. Again, Bonhoeffer is instructive: “The wounds and scars [the disciple] receives in the fray are living tokens of this participation in the cross of his Lord.”13 When I have been emptied of my own desires and filled with God’s, this becomes a joyful calling. Stott draws our attention to the martyrs who are described as radiant and joyful before they are killed.14 I have tasted this joy in this lenten season. Just as it is often to describe physical tasting or what makes something taste a certain way is difficult, so is describing the joy and peace that goes beyond my understanding.15 Sometimes words actually devalue an experience making it seem far less profound than it actually is. Bonhoeffer is helpful once again:

To go one’s way under the sign of the cross is not misery and desperation, but peace and refreshment for the soul, it is the highest joy. Then we do not walk under our self-made laws and burdens, but under the yoke of him who knows us and who walks under the yoke with us. Under his yoke we are certain of his nearness and communion. It is he whom the disciple finds as he lifts up the cross (Bonhoeffer, pg. 82).

 

This tasting is not constant, for I frequently allow my own desires and ambitions to fill me again instead of being filled with the ways of God. I am frequently tempted to consider my own security and deny Christ as Peter did. Here we can see why such a radical commitment to Christ is required to follow Him.16

Follow Christ

It is in denying ourselves and taking up our cross that we are in a position to truly follow Christ. It is in following that we find life. Bonhoeffer writes, “[Jesus’] commandment never seeks to destroy life, but to foster, strengthen and heal it.”17 Indeed, we become who we are meant to be. We become culture makers who create and cultivate beauty in the world18 and we become lovers who love fully and aright.19 The question remaining as I contemplate these verses is: how do we desire to be disciples of Christ?20 Many people look at the cost of following and turn away. Others don’t even make it that far and are happy serving the masters of this world.

I draw from a recent experience to shed some light. In search for answers to my questions from the beginning of lent, I have been reading John Stott’s The Cross of Christ. Stott provides a very convincing argument for Christ’s death satisfying the wrath of God.21 He focuses on Christ’s agonizing prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane asking for the cup to be taken away from him. The ‘cup’ metaphor is used throughout the Old Testament to refer to the wrath of God. Therefore, Stott argues that prayer accompanied with bloody sweat was because Christ knew that he was about to drink the cup of God’s wrath against all of humanity.22 As I read this, tears streamed down my face and God’s love touched my heart deeper leaving me with only one response that is adequate – to love God more. As God’s love penetrates my heart, the cross I must bear is one I willingly take up, and perhaps, as I mature in my faith, I will count it as loss in comparison to Christ. The harsh words of those who reject the gospel will not discourage me as Christ will be my focus. And maybe, my fear will dissipate, for whoever loses their life will find it.

1Green, Michael. The Message of Matthew. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2000), pgs. 176-179

2Bell, Steve. This is Love

3ibid.

4Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. The Cost of Discipleship. (London: SCM Press Ltd, 1964), pg. 77

5Smith, James K.A. Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009).

6Bonhoeffer, pgs. 77-88

7LeBlanc, Lenny. Above All. Thanks to G.A. for first making me think about this song.

8Is there truth in this line? I think so. Throughout Scripture we see a God who hears our individual cries (e.g. Gen 16:11), who will spare a handful of people (e.g. Gen 18:32) and who is intimately connected with our formation, growth and needs (e.g. Ps 139). The trouble I have with this song is not that God thinks of me, but that God thinks of me above all. Nice sentiment and great words of comfort for someone who is struggling, but I wonder if God’s plans are bigger than me while they might include me. Also, in a culture that is all about me perhaps I need more of a reminder that it is all about God than words that provide self-assurance.

9Unfortunately, I cannot find the original source for this wonderful quote. It was used in the meditation for February 18 in: Raine, Andy & John T. Skinner (eds.). Celtic Daily Prayer: A Northumbrian Office. (London: Marshall Pickering; 1994), pg. 119

10Bonhoeffer, pg. 98

11I do not wish to engage in the various theories of atonement, sacrifice or salvation. I just want to highlight that there was something that Christ did on the cross that I will never have to do. Christ’s cross and our cross are not one and the same thing.

12Stott, John R.W. The Cross of Christ. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2006); Hall, Douglas John. The Cross in Our Context: Jesus and the Suffering World. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003).

13Bonhoeffer, pg. 79

14Stott, pg. 28

15I think this is the kind of “know-how” – the embodied, pre-reflective knowing – that Smith is wanting us to yearn for. Though I haven’t seen an explicit reference to this.

16Bonhoeffer, pg. 78

17Bonhoeffer, pg. 31

18Crouch, Andy. Culture Making: Recovering our Creative Calling. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2008), pg. 73

19Smith, pg. 125

20I think we are in a ‘chicken and egg’ situation here. Do we follow because we desire? Or do we follow until we desire? It seems to me we need to do both. A parent may not feel deep love for a screaming colicky baby in the wee hours of the morning, but out of love the parent will soothe the child to sleep. Thanks again to G.A. for this helpful analogy.

21This topic has been hotly debated and I have found evokes strong reactions in people. I need not defend Stott’s argument in order to make the point of how one learns to desire to be a disciple of Christ.

22Stott. Pgs. 66-86

Here by the waters

2013-03-26 15.31.35

After writing this post, I went down to the water to build an altar out of the rocks to praise Him.

I am writing this from my new favourite coffee shop, with a delicious cup of coffee beside me, listening to some awesome Steve Bell music, the sun streaming through the window, and a view of the lake.

Today, my to do list is shrinking. My cold is easing. My energy levels are increasing.

But I have a huge smile I can’t wipe off my face.

Things in my life are starting to come together. Slowly, but surely. Things for the summer program are getting more and more exciting as I continue to dream and contact people and explore possibilities. How amazing it is to be able to dream about doing what you love and then actually getting to do it!!!!

And my application to grad school is in. Finally. I could jump up and down in excitement. Not because it’s in or that I’m in yet. But because I know I am walking the path that God has called me to and that this is in his hands… and THAT my friends, is an incredible blessing and joy beyond anything that I have words for.

Soft field of clover/ Moon shining over the river/ Joining the song of the river/ to the great giver of the great good.

As it enfolds me/ Somehow it holds me together/ I realize I’ve been singing/ Still it comes ringing/ Clearer than clear

And here by the water/ I’ll build an altar to praise Him/ Out of the stones that I’ve found here/ I’ll set them down here/ Rough as they are/ Knowing you can make them holy

I think how a yearning/ Has kept on returning to move me/ Down roads I’d never have chosen/ Half the time frozen/ to numb to feel/ I know it was stormy/ I hope it was for me learning/ Blood on the road wasn’t mine though/ Someone that I know/ has walked here before.

– Steve Bell, Here by the Water

Ride on, King Jesus! No one can a-hinder thee!

Ride on King Jesus! No one can a-hinder thee!

Today was Palm Sunday, the beginning of Holy week.

For many of us – students and servants of the church alike – this begins a very busy time. I have often heard the words “once we get through holy week…” I recently told someone that the week after holy week is even worse for me. Having spent the past four days sulking in my room fighting a fever that would not break and going through enough tissues that would have killed a small forest, I have had ample opportunity to think about the week ahead.

Holy week is really the crux celebration of our faith. Our Lord was crucified, buried and risen again. Liturgical churches do this week best and invite you to participate in the week’s events in ways that touch the heart as well as the mind. I remember in one service in a rather large church, the passion story was read and then it came time for the crowds to yell “Crucify him! Crucify him!” I felt like I was there. That I was part of the story. Not in a proud way. But in a way that implicated me in the story that brought Christ to the cross.

Liturgical churches also draw out the week and make time slow down for a few days. The vestments are removed, the church is dark, there is no Eucharist. And one must sit in the Christ has died part of the story in a way that no comfort is brought by the services. Time stops or at least slows down during Holy Week.

I have often thought it interesting how the crowds could go from yelling “Hosanna” and praising Jesus to yelling “crucify him” in only a few days. And then I look at my own fickleness from the days of dancing around my apartment to the days of forgetting to pray and turn to the one who gives me life.

But today, as I reflect on the triumphant entry into Jerusalem, I am struck by the words of this traditional song sung by Steve BellRide on, King Jesus! No one can a-hinder thee! I am struck by these words because I have been studying John Stott’s Cross of Christ in which he lays out the deliberate choice that Christ made as well as the ways in which the evil one tried to thwart his plans.

I wonder what it would have felt to ride into Jerusalem on a donkey and being praised by a people who were about to betray him. I wonder what it would have felt to know that nothing could a-hinder God’s plan – something that probably factored into the joyful praising of the king riding on a donkey that day. I wonder what it would have been like to ride on as King, knowing your acknowledgement of kingship would be nailed above your head in several languages for all to see in mockery that here is the one who is the so-called king of the Jews named not to honour him, but to display his crime.

And so I walk, on this Palm Sunday, singing Ride on, King Jesus! No one can a-hinder thee! As I enter this week, with an admittedly shallow understanding of those words, may I and may we together come through this week with a greater understanding of what it means for Christ to ride on to a kingship that takes him to the cross, yet that no one can a-hinder him.

 

http://stevebell.com/2007/06/ride-on-king-jesus/

Only he who sees

Earth is crammed with heaven,

and every common bush afire with God,

but only he who sees

takes of his shoes.

– Elizabeth Barrett Browning (Celtic Daily Prayer Meditation for March 23)

Categories: Uncategorized

Slow Down

Two weeks left of the semester. I have so very much to do. Books to read. Papers to write. Dishes to clean. Applications to fill out. Moving. Presentations to prepare.

My to do list is multiplying faster than fruit flies.

Thursday morning – I woke up with no voice.

That’s right. Sick. Completely out of nowhere. Chest cold, fever, headache, fatigue.

For the past two days, life continued with its busy-ness while I came to a full stop and crashed. My overwhelming to do list now had to be ignored. There is no pushing through.

Today I am reminded to slow down. That trying to do all things is not necessarily the right thing. Nor is it something that I am capable of sustaining for very long.

Rest. In the name of productivity, I have sacrificed rest. And now I’ve had two days full of it to the point that I want to do anything but rest.

Trust. In the name of self-sufficiency and pride, I have allowed myself to create a to do list that rests on me while at the same time is beyond my capacity.

Slow down. I don’t have to be all things to all people in all ways.

Funny, writing a paper that includes Sabbath liturgies in the Qumran community didn’t seem to grab my attention. Maybe being sick will.

Categories: Uncategorized