God’s (un)Awesomeness

…he who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see. To him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen.

1 Timothy 6:15-1(ESV)

Thus, Paul describes Jesus Christ — awesome in every sense of the word. King of kings and Lord of lords, dwelling in unapproachable light. We sense Isaiah’s vision of the temple in chapter 6 of his book. We see John standing before the throne of God in his Revelation. Mind-blowing, face-melting awesomeness.

This is awe-inducing and inspiring and is certainly a part of God’s revelation of himself to us. But it is not his only means of revelation. This past week, on February second, the church commemorated Jesus’ presentation in the Temple. Jesus was 6 weeks old, still an infant. Cute and cuddly perhaps, but not shield-your-eyes amazing.

Yet Simeon and Anna recognized him and said some amazing things.

“Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace,
according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation
that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and for glory to your people Israel.”

Luke 2:29-32 (ESV)

But part of the awesomeness of God (and particularly Jesus) is that he became unawesome.

Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? And are not all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all these things?” And they took offense at him.

Matthew 13:55-57a (ESV)

God became so “normal” that he was offensive by his claims. The mystery of the incarnation is that Jesus was fully divine and fully man at the same time. Yet the divine didn’t show all that much, except during his healings and the transfiguration before Peter, James, and John. It is this normalcy that allows us intimacy with God. God thundering from fire and smoke on top of Mount Sinai is scary; the Israelites were terrified and refused to go up. But we can relate to a God we can pray to in our sweatpants on the couch on a snowy Sunday afternoon.

The phenomena is not unlike meeting a popular or powerful person only to discover that they are “down to earth” in real life. In my life I’ve had a few of those encounters. There was the commanding general who attended chapel and would often invite the two chaplains to join him and his wife for lunch after service.

I also remember a Rich Mullins concert where acquaintances had backstage passes for after the show. The passes didn’t do them much good, because Rich was out in the lobby talking to people and signing autographs. I later learned that he was known for not playing the part of pop music star very well.

Jesus also meets us where we are and is not put off by our ordinariness. Yes, he is the Word who is with God and is God. But he is also an itinerant rabbi who led a group of 12 men around the Judean countryside, fishing, boating, walking, and talking. He is with us in just the same sort of run of the mill circumstances today.

That’s pretty awesome.

You Did Not Have a Home by Rich Mullins

Leave a comment

Filed under Jesus

Making the Cut

We’ve been purging a bit around our house lately, clearing out some stuff from our shelves that we no longer need. It’s a fairly common practice for us. We like to keep things down to manageable levels. The less we have, the less there is to clean, store, and move.

It’s a practice that needs to catch on. A new self-storage facility opened recently just down the street from us. According to statistics, we have enough self-storage space in the US for the entire population of the country to comfortably fit inside. (And this while the average size of an American home has tripled in the last 50 years.)¹

But how to decide what to keep and what to get rid of? That is always the question. For my wife and I, sentimentality does not play a very big role in our decisions. While we were in the midst of our latest round, I came across this prayer by the patron saint of Switzerland:

My Lord and my God, take from me everything that distances me from you.
My Lord and my God, give me everything that brings me closer to you.
My Lord and my God, detach me from myself to give my all to you.

St. Nicholas of Fluë

That’s a pretty concise prayer, and one that gives us insight into how to decide what stays and what goes, whether we’re discussing our possessions or our pastimes. It’s very similar to the prayer of an earlier saint:

Let me neither rejoice nor grieve at anything, save what either leads to Thee or leads away from Thee.  Let me not desire to please anyone nor fear to displease anyone save only Thee.

Let all things transitory seem vile in my eyes, and all things eternal be dear to me. Let me tire of that joy which is without Thee and to desire nothing that is outside Thee. Let me find joy in the labor that is for Thee; and let all repose that is without Thee be tiresome to me.

St. Thomas Aquinas

These lines from what is reported to be Aquinas’ daily prayer echo the same sentiment. If it draws me to God, keep it. If it does not, get rid of it. This is useful, though it helps more for categories of stuff than individual items. It’s hard to know where a particular T-shirt falls in relation to these questions, but it’s easier to decide if a particular hobby or interest does. So, my hangers are all backwards in my closet again.²

Trying to cut stuff from our lives isn’t just about organization; it is ultimately about focus. The less we have to deal with, the more we can focus on what matters — loving God and loving others.


¹ Statistics from http://www.becomingminimalist.com/clutter-stats/

² The closet trick is to turn all of your hangers around backwards. When you wear an item, turn the hanger back around. After a few months, the hangers that are still backwards give you a pretty good indication of what you could get rid of.

Leave a comment

Filed under Priorities, Simplicity

No Place to Aspire to

desert-island

It is startling how often desert (or deserted) islands come into play in questions of theology and ethics. How many times have you heard the desert island scenario proclaimed as a possible counter-example against some doctrine or practice?

There are two significant issues with the desert island trope. First, it tries to establish normal practice by means of an exceptional one. None of us live on desert islands. We live on continents with millions of other people. We have resources of family, friends, church, healthcare, education, and much more. It may be an interesting thought experiment to consider some situation in light of a desert island scenario, but we should be careful drawing any sweeping conclusions from such.

The second, and more distressing, issue with desert islands is that they reveal who we are and what we value as westerners, particularly Americans.

Self.

When we place ourselves on a desert island for the sake of argument, we are revealing that not only are we supremely interested in ourselves, but that we also see ourselves as the ultimate authority in our lives as we alone make our own decisions. These scenarios reveal how we really think. They strip away the distractions and isolates what we see as the crucial variables in the discussion.

A problem this can cause, however, is that the desert island can serve as a distraction. By eliminating so much from the discussion, we can cut out inconvenient (to our cause) factors. Consider a classic example: “If you were alone on a desert island with only a Bible, is it possible to be saved?” For much of the Protestant world, the foregone answer would be, “Of course.” And therefore, we see church as an aid, not as an essential. But there is a serious problem with this line of reasoning.

We are not alone on desert islands. We are on continents, and those continents have churches — even Antarctica. We must factor the church into our questions on faith because it is a significant variable which exists in our set of things to consider.

A more accurate phrasing of the question above would be, “Can we ignore the church and be saved by our own efforts?” I daresay we may garner a different answer if we posed that query to a selection of theologians.

Some would still affirm that yes, we can. Some would not. The Church Fathers would certainly look askance at such a stance. Cyprian of Carthage argued this point by writing, “He can no longer have God for his Father, who has not the Church for his mother.”

A desert island is no place to seek to dwell. It is to be alone and left solely to our own devices. We should seek to live in community with our fellow man and in submission to the authorities which God has established. To seek to be our own supreme ruler is to place ourselves in bad company. Lucifer was cast out of heaven for such action.

Leave a comment

Filed under Authority, Questions, The Church

Take and Read

Sola Scriptura folks like to point to Augustine of Hippo’s experience in a garden in Milan as an example of the power of Scripture. He heard what sounded to him like a child chanting, “Take and read; take and read.” He picked up a copy of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans he had with him and read:

Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.

Romans 13:13-14 (ESV)

These folks, however, forget that this is the climax of the story. Book VIII of Augustine’s Confessions tells the whole story — about 20 pages in my edition. Augustine did not just hang out in a garden, hear a voice, read, and become converted. It was a much longer road than that. Indeed, the entire book of Confessions up to this point chronicles the long, twisting road he had been traveling to true faith.

It was not merely two verses of Scripture that worked such an effect on his life. He knew saints and he knew of saints — Ambrose, Anthony, and Victorinus among others. He had at least some of the Scriptures available to him and he studied them. He resisted the drawing of the Holy Spirit but eventually came to surrender. His story reveals that he had already surrendered before he heard, “Take and read,” and repented in tears before God in the garden. The passage he read in Romans was more of a confirmation than a call.

Scripture is important — vitally so — in the life of the believer and the church. But it is not magical. It is not a spell book to read incantations out of in order to command the divine to our will. It is a gift of God, by the Holy Spirit, through the church.

There is benefit in taking and reading, but just as with prayer, humility is crucial. If we come to the pages of Scripture seeking support for what we think, we are on dangerous ground. We should come asking what we ought to think. What we ought to believe. What we ought to do. We should listen to Scripture, and to the Holy Spirit, and to the Church.

As Americans, we get excited when we hear stories of someone opening a Bible for the first time and being converted. This demonstrates our individualism more than our reverence for God’s Word. We are a nation of individuals who value doing things our own way. Our patron saints, from a cultural perspective, are John Wayne and Frank Sinatra. Pull yourself up by your bootstraps and do it your way. But this is not the way of Christ or his church.

Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is…. giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.

Ephesians 5:17, 20-21 (ESV)

We should hold up stories of those who come to Scripture and then walk into a church, saying, “Help me understand.” This, if we read the story, is much closer to Augustine’s actual experience than merely the “take and read” snippet at the end of the chapter.

Leave a comment

Filed under Bible, Humility

Prayer and Pride

We must be humble in order to pray. In pride, we may do things that are prayer-like, but they are not prayer. At its most basic level, prayer is either asking for something (daily bread, forgiveness of sins, healing) or thanking for something (God’s grace, family, health).

We cannot ask for something out of pride. If I have pride, then I either deserve it (at least in my mind) so I can order it, or I expect it. I may even think I can do it myself. Humility asks. Humility acknowledges dependence upon another. Even in human relationships, just because I am “in charge” or “superior” to someone in position doesn’t mean I can’t ask, or that by telling them to perform some duty I am not acknowledging my neediness. Leaders have staffs because they cannot do it all themselves.

We also cannot give thanks out of pride. If I am full of pride, then I deserve whatever it was that was provided. I expect such service or quality. To be thankful is to acknowledge the receipt of something from outside of oneself. Thankfulness is acknowledgement of a gift.

To petition God in humility is to acknowledge our powerlessness. We ask because on our own we cannot cause it to be. We cannot forgive ourselves of sin. We cannot provide all that we need for life. We may come to think that we are “putting bread on the table” but without God to cause the crops to grow and the rain to fall, there is no bread. We may have a part to play, but it is secondary to God’s, or even tertiary, since most of us don’t even make our own bread today. We are dependent; to acknowledge this truth is a prerequisite to prayer.

To thank God in humility is also to acknowledge our limits. We thank God for his character because if it were different, we would be doomed. We thank God for his deeds because we are the beneficiaries of them constantly. From the breathtaking grandeur of his creation to the blessing of a warm bed on a cold night, we thank God for providing us what we need and so much more.

There is a reason Christians have historically knelt to pray. It is a posture of submission, of humility. It reminds us that we come before one more powerful than ourselves when we address God. Standing is also a common posture for prayer and reflects this as well, especially in our contemporary society. We don’t have many instances outside of church where we are expected to kneel, but we may have superiors at work to whom it is appropriate to show respect by remaining standing until invited to sit.

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Luke 18:9-14 (ESV)

Leave a comment

Filed under Humility, Prayer, Pride

Obvious Advice for the New Year

We are a few days into 2017 and gym ads arrived right on cue in my mailbox this afternoon. Time to put some teeth to those resolutions (or at least extract some money from those who made them!) Another new year is as good a time as any to start afresh, to seek to right the wrongs, to improve ourselves and accomplish our dreams.

Of the various schools of ancient Greek philosophy, I have always had an affinity for the Stoics — ascetic, logical types, in sharp contrast to the hedonistic Epicureans. Stoics weren’t afraid to make the obvious explicit. Like this gem from Epictetus:

Whatever you would make habitual, practice it;
and if you would not make a thing habitual, do not practice it,
but habituate yourself to something else.

Isn’t this the core of most “self help/ self improvement” writing? Do what you need to do in order to be who you want to be. It’s so obvious as to be laughable. You can find thousands of people on the internet telling you that’s what you need to do to get where you want to be.

So why do we have such a hard time pulling it off?

Take this blog for example. I’ve had it for years, but for most of those years I just wrote on it when I felt like it. Posts were sporadic and widely spaced. 1 January 2016 I decided I wanted to write more, so I set myself a goal to write 500 words a day. The first 6 months, it went pretty well. Then we moved and it has been an uphill climb ever since.

Maybe Europe is just a more inspirational place to write than the Pacific Northwest. My schedule has played a bit of a role, but I have been able to adapt so as to have the time. Even so, I still find it increasingly difficult to get to 500. Part of it is the struggle for material. Finding things to write about seemed to come easier during the first half of the year.

Proficiency comes from sticking with something after the initial thrill wears off until mastery is attained. It is hard. It takes a lot of self discipline. It requires intense effort for seemingly small gains. This holds true whether you are training for a marathon, learning an instrument, or in just about any other pursuit. There is a desert between novelty and mastery that we must cross. It is long, arduous, and often lonely. It can feel barren and dry. But on the other side is the real goal — the attainment of the skill or ability that caught our imagination in the first place.

This applies also to our journey of faith. In an age where people binge-watch television programming like it was their job, it seems we should be able to put that same effort into our own salvation. If we truly want to become holy, we must cultivate holy habits. This takes a lot of work, but what else is worth our greatest effort, if not knowing God?

Leave a comment

Filed under Discipline, Priorities, Sanctification, Writing

Listening to Suffering

In the liturgical calendar, Christmas is followed immediately by the Feast of St. Stephen, whose martyrdom is recorded in Acts 6 and 7. In the midst of celebration, we are reminded that suffering is interwoven in the tapestry of our faith.

In the Christian West, we have all but lost the sacrament of suffering. To even suggest that suffering may have benefit is to invite scorn in most quarters. While it can be a laudable service, the alleviation of suffering is a tyrannical and merciless master.

The advance of euthanasia in the West is an stark example of this. In our efforts to minimize suffering, we instead seek — and increasingly impose — death. As we increasingly commodify our very bodies, there is increasing pressure and apologetic for aggressive organ harvesting in order to supply the demand of those awaiting donation.

All of this seeks to avoid the sacrament of suffering. Pain is unpleasant, but it often clarifies our vision and prunes our priorities. Intense pain makes it difficult to focus on much else, but lower-intensity chronic pain is wearying. In this weariness, the unrelenting constancy of chronic pain, we learn what it means to lay our burdens on our Lord. Pain prompts us to prayer — not invariably, but if we are already formed in the faith it ought to.

We can ignore even pleasure. But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.

C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain

Increasingly, we silence that megaphone by treating all pain as the enemy and warring against it with the tenacity that should be leveled against sin.

I still remember, in the aftermath and recovery from a ruptured appendix, lying in a surgeon’s office to have my wound repacked and reattached to a wound vac. I carried the portable vacuum pump with me for weeks to aid in pulling the hole in my side back together for proper healing and drainage. Having the adhesive dressing ripped from my skin and the foam packing similarly removed from my side twice every week was a spike in the low-grade pain of healing.

As I lay on the exam table, staring at the ceiling in the earth-toned room, I closed my eyes and prayed, “Jesus, don’t let this pain be wasted.” Though I didn’t know it at the time, it may have been one of the most profound prayers I have ever uttered. A decade later, I still reflect on those two months of my life. That experience — from the sickness to the pain of the rupture through the surgery and the long recovery — is a defining moment in my life.

Throughout most of the history of the church, suffering has been viewed as a means of sanctification. It is the uncontrolled version of asceticism — voluntary denial in order to increase attention to God. Suffering finds us; we do not have to seek it. It may be a headache or the discomfort of a long car or plane ride. Occasionally it is more intense, and eventually, it marks the way to death.

We are right to be cautious about intentionally seeking pain, but we should also be cautious in always viewing pain as an enemy. It can be God’s means of speaking to us.

Leave a comment

Filed under Asceticism, CS Lewis, Sanctification, Suffering