Advent Reflection 14: Desert

[Special guest post by my sister, ChristiAnna Coats. Check out her new book here!]

Desert

“The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad; the desert shall rejoice and blossom like the crocus; it shall blossom abundantly and rejoice with joy and singing” (Isa. 35:1-2)

The year is approximately 700 BC and Israel is under captivity once again.  After the miraculous exodus through the Red Sea, the tribes are scattered and hope is fading.

The year is 2010. Land has been donated in India for a children’s home and discipleship training center, but the water in the region is so scarce, it seemed impractical to continue what God had called the ministers to do. The task ahead seems hopeless.

Is there any emotion quite as debilitating as hopelessness?

Hopelessness is the papers, the final papers, for a broken promise. Forever had seemed so possible. When did that change? Neither one could pinpoint exactly how. She wanted to blame his job, but if she were really honest, it really began before that. Way before that. It was probably the first time she chose to wallow in being right. It had felt so good not to concede that time; compromise had become so uninteresting….

Hopelessness is the fateful oncology report. “…nothing more we can do.” The doctor’s words both before and after didn’t seem relevant. He had been so sure of the trial. Even his practiced eyes shifted when he broke the news to the child’s mother. Not this child, he had assured. Not this time. And now he had nothing more to offer them. He couldn’t do anything…

He who made a way through the sea,

a path through the mighty waters,

who drew out the chariots and horses,

the army and reinforcements together,

and they lay there, never to rise again,

extinguished, snuffed out like a wick:

Forget the former things;

do not dwell on the past.

See, I am doing a new thing!

Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?

I am making a way in the wilderness

and streams in the wasteland.

Isaiah is bringing hope to his people, a foretelling of the coming Messiah…a promise of a NEW thing coming.  The new thing would be Jesus. And hope would shatter convention, time, and space and would make his dwelling among us.

It would be that same Jesus who would soften the woman’s heart toward her husband. It would be that same Jesus who would grant perfect peace in the pit of the despairing, grieving mother.

It would be the same Jesus who would provide literal streams in a wasteland in India in 2010. He would make a way where there was no way. There seemed to be no way, but they prayed anyway. There was no hope, but they hoped anyway.

What they did not perceive was that across the globe in Trinity North Carolina, a Sunday School class had been urged by that same Jesus to raise money for a well in a developing nation. The two groups made a most unlikely connection, and they began to prepare for the well. Here is an excerpt of the email from the pastor in India to the Sunday School class in North Carolina shortly thereafter:

“Finally we could do the bore well in the place where the Lord enabled to buy the land.  It would be easy to do it in another place, but we wanted to put this bore well in this land because there was so much water scarcity and it was amazing what the Lord did. Yesterday by the grace of God, we found a Bore well company and also a Pastor of ICA who is gifted in finding the water resources.  He came and we all prayed and trust[ed] the Lord to start the machine.

“To God be all the Glory and Honor, we could find water in less than 15 meters (40 feet) and we did up to 100 meters (301 feet). The neighbors of the land came and saw in awe and asking how is it possible, this place is known for dry ground. That’s the reason the land doesn’t produce hardly anything and the prices of the land have dropped. Also the neighbors have dug the ground more than 600 feet (200 meters) and still there is very little or no water.. How come?! We could point them to heaven and said: with Jesus all things are possible.

“He promised we will have water, water in abundance and He did what He spoke. Praise to the Holy Name of the Lord.

“All of them are Hindus, still under the bondage of idolatry, but all they could say was, “Yes, its true. Only Jesus could do that!”

When hope is fading, trust in Him. He’s the kind of God that restores marriages, even when the papers have been signed. He’s the kind of God that offers peace, incomprehensible peace, to grieving mothers. And he’s the kind of God that still makes water spring up in the desert. And it’s the kind of flowing Spring that will never, ever run dry (John 7:38).

Advent Reflection 13: Low

“The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down” (Ps. 146:8b).

I don’t know why Jesus came for me, but I do know that Jesus loves low. And I know it because he came for me.

—-

I met Joyce on Monday evening at Embrace United Methodist Church. Each month I take a group of students to Embrace to help serve the community meal, to feast together, and to worship. Over the past few years we’ve developed some great relationships. Mary is my best friend there. She always takes my picture and holds up her phone next to a yellowed wallet sized photo of her late husband, Dave, and asks (re: tells) everyone about the resemblance. This past Monday she used the word “reincarnation.”

But this was my first time meeting Joyce. I think Joyce is young, perhaps in her late thirties, early forties, but it’s hard to say. The age of her hair doesn’t match the number of years under her eyes. I’m afraid she has the quality of a face that has learned to love everyone but herself. She is quick to smile, even quicker to look down. Her eyes sink with her shoulders, low.

When I sat between her and Mary on Monday, she was accommodating. Mary did the ritual with the phone and the picture. “I can see it,” Joyce convinced herself. (I look absolutely nothing like Dave.) We then began sharing our stories across the table. It turns out Joyce “grew up in this church. This is my church.” A number of churches had in fact passed through the building, but she knew her church as this building. Despite the popular criticism against identifying a building (rather than the people) as a church, the fact is the faithfulness of a building almost always outlasts the faithfulness of the people. Such was the case with this building, this “church.” So this was Joyce’s church.

She spoke about her early days in the way you hear parents talk about children growing up so fast. What I mean is she spoke about those days as days she just couldn’t get back. Her words ached. They made me ache. I’m not entirely sure why, but I think it had to do with the thought of Joyce-the-little-girl running up and down the halls and playing in the sanctuary. It had to do with the thought that there was a time when Joyce had a sanctuary. And it was the awareness that at some point along the way something happened to her, and that sanctuary was gone, or at least the girl who used to play in that sanctuary was gone.

And maybe it also had to do with the memory I have of running up and down the halls and playing in the sanctuary of the place I called “my church” growing up. The church I grew up in is now part of an irretrievable past I have often thought of with the same ache in the deep part of Joyce’s eyes and the lost part of Joyce’s words. There was a time when I had a sanctuary, when I was a little child in God’s big house. But at some point along the way something happened, and that sanctuary was gone, because the little boy decided to leave and grow old. I have so longed to go to that little boy and reassure him, to get him to turn around, to stay, but I cannot. He is back there with that little girl. And now, here we are, older, lower.

During our conversation Joyce was texting back and forth with someone. With each text she seemed to be getting more anxious, and the more anxious she got the more troubled she seemed talking about ‘old times’. It was as though her cherished past was in confrontation with her heavy present. Then, out of nowhere, she announced, “I heard the voice of God in this church! I heard the voice of God in that room over there!” In tears, “I heard his voice…” She was now on the verge of sobbing.

“What did he say, Joyce?”

“I’m not done.” She said it resolutely. “I’m not done.”

I don’t know what that meant to Joyce, but I know she heard it. I know she believed it more than I think most people ever believe anything. I think she believed it more than she believed in herself. She believed it like she had to believe it, like if it weren’t true nothing were true, like if there’s no hope in God there’s no hope at all. I also know God said it to her, because that is the kind of thing God is always saying. But it’s something God says on a low frequency. It’s hard to hear the hope God offers when you’re on top of the world. But it’s the thing God came to say. It’s what God said to me, in no uncertain terms, when my life had sunk immeasurably low, out of touch with my past, out of the reach of any future to speak of. Long after I had left that child behind, Jesus came for me and took me as a child, just as I was.

Wherever he finds you, I know what he wants to say. He wants to say to you the thing he said to Joyce. It’s the message of Advent: I’m not done. Wherever that is heard, there is still a child, there is still a sanctuary.

And when it looked like the sun was never going to shine again, God put a rainbow in the clouds.

Advent Reflection 12: Homeless

Homeless

[Special guest post by my sister, ChristiAnna Coats. Check out her new book here! ]

“The Lord watches over sojourners; he upholds the widow and the fatherless, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin” (Ps. 146:9).

I had lied to my mother. I had lied to her about where I was going, who was with me, and what I would be doing. Those were the three questions she always asked and I had lied about each one in order to go on a double date…fully two years before I was permitted to do so.

And I regretted it immediately.

I thought it would be dinner and a movie. Like an episode of Saved by the Bell, where we ended the evening laughing at the diner drinking milkshakes. I was fourteen.

We had ended up at someone’s home. No. Someone’s house. But did anyone really live here? I couldn’t figure out what they were doing with the spoon over the fire. I remember feeling invisible. No one seemed to notice me and I tried not to look directly at any of them. Being invisible was the only solace I had. Should anyone have spoken to me, or attempted to engage me in whatever it was they were doing, I fully expected to become a puddle in the floor. It was the Saturday night before Easter.

I wanted to go home. I was 14, but I may as well have been 5. I longed for the scent of my mother, the creak in our wooden floor, and blankets that would envelope my shame. I imagined that she would be preparing our baskets and the morning would come and it would be the most glorious feeling in the whole world. I couldn’t wait. I looked around the room and knew that no one else there had a mother like mine. I was so close to home, but had never felt so far away. My gut had such a wrenching ache.

This was my first true experience of longing for home.

My second longing, however, is much different from the first. The second longing comes with an assurance that the first longing only dreamt of. There is no longer a hollow ache in my gut. My second longing is accompanied with hope. The second longing is accompanied with peace. The second longing is able to experience the kingdom already but not yet the kingdom to its fullest. The kingdom to its fullest is still yet to come. Until then, we sojourn on. Until then we are all foreigners here, strangers in a strange land. Even when the babies are tucked in tight, and there are soft carols playing, and the glow of the twinkling lights provide the only evening light we need, and I am in my home…I’m not home. Permanence here is illusive. Because for every child nestled all snug in his bed, there is a restless one with no earthly ear to hear his cry.

And in despair I bowed my head

“There is no peace on earth,” I said,

“For hate is strong and mocks the song

Of peace on earth, good will to men.”

I’m not home until there are no more homeless refugees, trying to makes sense of their plight. I’m not home until there is nary a need for a gun, nor a fence, nor a password, nor a calendar, nor antidepressants. I’m not home until the fatherless get evening bear hugs with real touchable beards. I’m not home until babies sleep from a full belly, rather than hungered exhaustion. I’m not home until there are no more orphans smoking in crack houses on the Saturday night before Easter. I’m not home until there is no more night. In his book, Longing for Home, Frederick Buechner writes, “be really at home is to be really at peace, and our lives are so intricately interwoven that there can be no real peace for any of us until there is real peace for all of us.”

——-

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:

“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;

The wrong shall fail, the right prevail

With peace on earth, good will to men.”

But there will come a Day!

Until that Day, we wait. We wait as Israel waited. And we wait with the promise that “The Lord watches over sojourners; he upholds the widow and the fatherless…”. Until that Day, we wait not as we wait in line at WalMart, passively biding the moments until we can get on with our day. We wait as we wait for Christmas. We wait in constant preparation and proclamation. We wait, all the while proclaiming to the orphan that she has a Father! We wait, all the while proclaiming to the addict that the void can be filled – filled to overflowing! We wait, all the while proclaiming to the hungry, and the weary, and the worn – hope! And we proclaim to the refugees – all of us longing for a home – there is a home with table prepared, and where everyone has a Father.

And the Father is always, always home (John 14:2-3).

 

Advent Reflection 11: Blind

For a reflection on spiritual blindness as it relates to unbelievers (as opposed to ‘half-believer’s, as here), click here: “A Letter to My Skeptic Friends.” 

“The Lord open the eyes of the blind” (Ps. 146:8a).

There are two types of blindness. Mark points this out in the way he arranges two stories side-by-side in the his telling of the Gospel. There’s a blind man. He couldn’t see things like the ‘E’ on an eye exam. That kind of blind. His friends brought him to Jesus. Jesus spit on his eyes and laid hands on him, naturally. “Do you see anything?”, asked Jesus, wiping the side of his lip. “I see men, but they look like trees, walking.” That’s kind of like calling the ‘E’ and ‘8’. He could see things now; he just couldn’t distinguish one thing from another. Maybe it was the spit? Jesus gave another whack at it, laid hands on him again and, “E!” (paraphrased).

There is a total blindness and a partial blindness, but neither are safe behind the wheel (cf. Mk. 8:22-26).

The very next story Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” People were blind. They couldn’t see things like God or his Christ. “Some say John the baptist, others Elijah; one of the prophets.” Jesus spits, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter could see it: “You are the Christ!” Jesus calls him blessed, gives him the keys to the kingdom (Mt. 16:19). He was right, halfway. He could see in part. It’s just that as soon he could see that Jesus was the Christ, Jesus began helping Peter distinguish him from all the other “christs” who had come before him. Many had come and would continue to come claiming that title (Mt. 24:5; Mk. 13:6; Lk. 21:8), but only would be the kind of Christ he was going to be: “Yes, Peter! Now I’m going to go be murdered!” Peter pulls the God-Man aside and rebukes him, naturally. “Ehmm, actually Jesus, the plan was….” Jesus calls him Satan.

Peter was right about the Man, wrong about the Mission. He was partially blind, certainly not safe behind the wheel. He didn’t realize that “it was necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” (Lk. 24:26). So Jesus kicks him out of the driver’s seat: “Get behind me, Satan!” (cf. Mk. 8:27-38; Mt. 16:13-28) and take the keys back, for now.

The resistance to Jesus being the kind of Christ who will be crucified is that he is the kind of Christ who says, “Follow me.” Actually, he says, “Take up your cross and follow me.” And the first time he says it, in fact, he says it to Peter just at the end of this uncomfortable exchange: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me…” (Mk. 8:34).

The world is filled with blind people. The Church is filled with partially blind people. To confess Jesus is the Christ is half way there. But we can’t be right about the Man and wrong about the Mission anymore than Jesus can be the Truth without also being the Way. That’s like the guy who can just make the ‘E’-or-is-it-‘8? and yet expects to be given a license to drive. That’s a license to kill. There’s still some spit in his eyes. No keys for him.

The thing about the Gospel is that there really is no fine print. Jesus puts everything on the top line. “Yes, I am the Christ. Yes, my way is the cross. Yes, so is yours. No, there are no shortcuts. Hop in the back.” But our blindness is not a defect of the eyes to see or the mind to perceive. It is the defect of the will to see, to perceive, to obey. It is the exercise of the will to believe what cannot be true in light of the cross, things like: I am justified in holding grudges, keeping records of wrong, deciding to not like somebody, gossiping, calling gossip: “well, it’s the truth”, turning a blind eye…, not forgiving, wanting to remain the victim rather than choosing to trust, lying, hiding, not really believing Jesus is coming back, etc.

Popular opinion is like cataracts. It clouds the vision. It’s a safe assumption that the answer to “Who do people say that I am?” will almost invariably be a half-truth at best. But the only way to see Jesus for who he is is to follow him–down the path of humility to the place where we can see things for what they truly are in the light of the Christ, especially ourselves.

“Who do you say that I am?” (Mk. 8:29).

 

Advent Reflection 10: Captive

“The Lord sets the prisoners free…” (Ps. 146:7c)

It is “In the days of Herod, King of Judea” that the Luke’s narrative begins (Lk. 1:5). It’s a historical footnote for the modern day reader, but for Elizabeth and Zechariah, Mary and Joseph, the I-don’t-know-maybe-three wise men, the shepherds and the sheep and the innkeeper, Herod’s kingship meant that Israel’s king had not yet come.

Herod was a king in the way Moses might have been king had he ignored that burning Voice that spoke his name the day his conscience caught fire. Moses was adopted by the daughter of Pharaoh, the wealthiest man on earth, and possibly would have one day been put in charge of some region of grandpa’s empire, perhaps the region where all the Hebrew slaves were living. He looked like them, after all. In that case, he would have been a Hebrew “king” over Hebrew slaves under the king of Egypt.

Herod was something like that, except Pharaoh was Caesar and Egypt was Rome. Herod was a puppet king for Rome—with a Jewish tan. But let’s just say he was one chopstick short of being a fully functional human. So he had a favorite wife, Mariamne I. Then he murdered her. When he was made king over Judea, he made the brother he most respected high priest in Jerusalem. Makes sense. Then he had him drowned at a dinner party. When the two sons he had with Mariamne I grew up he promoted them to a track of royal succession. A nice gesture. Then he had them executed. He made his son Antipater the first heir in his will. Then, while lying in his deathbed, he decided, “Ah, what the heck…” and had him executed too. Then he died.

Oh, there was also that time the [not-so-]wise men inquired to him, the “king” of Judea, about the King of Israel being born in Bethlehem, so he had every male child under the age of two executed (Mt. 2:16-17)—a fallen apple not far from Pharaoh’s tree, it turns out (Exod. 1:22).

So it’s hard to say: did Israel need liberation from Caesar’s captivity or from Herod’s? Was it the ruler without or the ruler within that posed the more immanent threat of freedom? Is it Islamic radicalism or is it American consumerism? Is is American consumerism or is it my compulsory shopping habit? Is it corporate greed or is it my white knuckles? Is it civil strife of the kind that lives in my home, or the kind that lives in my heart? Is it sex trafficking in Thailand or is it the porn industry, or is it the iPhone industry, or is it the iPhone in my pocket? Or perhaps it is something about the fact that human heart is bent inward toward itself like an iron arrow.

Perhaps (re: without a doubt) the most severe form of human captivity on the planet is the human will. We all, deep down, have a Herod in our heart. We all want freedom from sin, except that part of us that wants the freedom to keep on sinning. We want to be healthy, but we don’t want to not feed our habits. We all want people to just love each other and stop firing missiles, except of course I’m going to keep a ‘record of wrongs’ on my wife (cf. 1 Cor. 13:5) and make sure to fire a comment back, right at the heart of her deepest insecurity. How else can I maintain control? Shame is the heaviest chain.

Come give us freedom, Lord Jesus: from death and hell, from hopelessness and fear, liberate us from our enemies and our obstacles. Amen, hallelujah! But don’t save us from our pride and from our selfishness. Don’t offer us liberation from our throne of independence.

We all want to do God’s will, except we never want to do “Not my will…” (Lk. 22:42).

But liberation by means of a cross means the world needs liberated from me, and that I need liberated from me. I need to be raised from the dead, but I first need to be “crucified with Christ” (Gal. 2:20-22). Most of us aren’t like Pharaoh, but all of us are a little like Herod. We all love ourselves a little more than our fellow man, our family; we love our way more than even our own well-being. And therein lies the root of all our relational brokenness.

We also tend to have this habit of holding people captive to our expectations of them; everyone is constantly evaluated according to how they treat me, notice me, benefit me, affirm me, congratulate me, like my facebook posts, heart my instagram pics, tell me that I’m right, amen my gossip, etc. We struggle to just let people be. We don’t like freedom. We like control. We don’t want God to give us an open field and say “Love me, love others.” We want a checklist. We feel ashamed in front of others–God, people–so we like to pile on exterior accolades, whether it’s performance, piety, the bandwagon of some noble cause, whatever, it can all be used as a hiding place for an imprisoned soul.

But sometimes we aren’t so disciplined, and the ol’ “lusts of the flesh” get the best of us, and we “liberate” our flesh from the captivity of self-discipline. But human freedom is not simply the power of the will to act; it is the power of the will to love, because love is the ultimate and essential human desire. With the will not oriented toward its proper end the power of the will to act is nothing more than the will to power, the drive of life toward infinite desire rather than infinite satisfaction. It attends to an indefinite future without ever reaching the present moment; it is the urgent now, not the eternal now. It is about survival, not life, the will’s appetite for more, not the will’s concern for life. The unfettered will will eventually find itself chained to desire’s shortest leash. Every addict knows this. Most people with instragram do too.

So perhaps today, just for one day, we could be uncomfortably honest with ourselves, like really question our own motives, and ask: who is living under the burden of my control? Have I enslaved myself to desire, to simply ‘my self’? Or have I enslaved others? Does it feel like “the days of Herod” around me?

If so, maybe it’s time to go ahead and announce the arrival of another King, even if it is a little early… A simple “Will you forgive me?” is a good start.

[To read an expanded discussion the freedom of the will, power, pride, love, and the Trinity (not in that order), click here]. 

God Killed Adam and Raised Love from the Dead

Triune Form—The Eternal Act of Being

 Aeternitatis est interminabilis vitae tota simul et perfefta possession (Boethius, De consolation philosophiae 5.6). “Eternity is the total, simulataneous and perfect possession of interminable life.”

The Triune God is the eternal act of being. God’s being and action are coinherent. “God is love” (1 Jn. 4:8).

Karl Rahner’s trinitarian axiom is a faithful guiding principle for reflection on the perplexing idea of Eternal Being acting in history: ‘the economic Trinity is the immanent Trinity and the immanent Trinity is the economic Trinity’. That is to say, God’s ‘showing forth’ of himself in the economy of salvation is (if held in the right Light) analogically transparent to the immanent life of the Triune God from eternity. In other words, God did not become the Trinity in order to restore the fallen world. It is not God who becomes himself according to the absolute principle of creation (re: becoming); it is creation that becomes itself according to the absolute principle of the Creator (re: Being). History is salvation history precisely because the God who from eternity loved creation into being is the same who from eternity loved creation into new creation. The Lamb was indeed slain from the foundation of the world (Rev. 13:8). This is indeed the “eternal Gospel” (Rev. 14:6).

This is the fullness of life revealed in the unity of the Godhead, whose potency is freedom (and hence true tri-personhood) and whose actuality is love (and hence true oneness). But God’s freedom is from eternity perfect in love, the single act of Being, and thus his life as such cannot be distinguished in terms of the potentialities of freedom (i.e., God could be other than love if he otherwise acted) or the determinations of love (i.e., God cannot otherwise act because he is not truly free). But this is precisely the way the qualities that constitute human life must be distinguished. Human freedom is the potency that makes love a human possibility. This is what makes an analogy of being between God and humankind simultaneously possible and impossible. God’s being and act are essentially one. Humans’ being and act are potentially one. But no man has ever realized his potential as such, with the exception of the Man who is God, Jesus Christ, who is as such both God’s being for man and Man’s being for God, and the only analogy of being as such between God and man.

Triune Image—Freedom in Potency

This is, I believe, the basis for understanding human life in relation to God, which is the only way of understanding human life in any of its tertiary relations. The potency of human freedom can be actualized in love, but it can also be actualized in the negation of love. Genesis 1 describes from a God’s-eye-view the creation of the human community of persons blessed with the freedom without which genuine love cannot exist. The grammar of God’s image is revealed in the oneness of a plurality.[1] God is the community that creates a community that is blessed to procreate a progenitive community that will fill the earth. This is God’s “very good” idea (Gen. 1:31). Genesis 2 describes from a worm’s-eye-view the creation of the human community, which actually begins as a not-good lone man, quite a remarkable contrast to the analysis of very good image-bearing community of Genesis 1. But this is simply because the man was not yet complete. The man is not yet fully human, at least not in the way that God is fully God. So God killed him, pulled out the bone that guarded his heart, then raised him from the dead—and with him the life he truly longed for: “Bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh” (Gen. 2:23). It was the first hypostatic union: the body of Adam broken for Eve; the blood of Adam shed for Eve.

I suppose this is an overstatement, but it serves to illustrate the point: the creation of a kind of image-bearing community that is reflective of God’s inter-Trinitarian love requires such a self-outpouring that the lover’s self-donation extends with such completeness as to appear as the form of death: kenosis. And yet, what appears as the form of death turns out to be very form love, which actualizes human life. From this kenotic self-donation of the individual’s life comes the life of his beloved. Indeed, kenosis makes perichoresis possible. And so was made the very good image-bearing community.

True love is predicated on true freedom and true freedom to love is predicated on persons having suitable objects to love, namely human subjects. But the potency of such a freedom is deeply powerful. It can know and feel personally. It can intend things to happen for others, or to others. It can organize and recruit. There is an impressive power in a beast with claws and fangs, but there is no prospect quite so treacherous as the beast with freedom and speech. No animal is safe in a pride of lions, but the world itself is unsafe in the pride of man.

The potency of human freedom given to our progenitors was a power to rule over God’s very good creation in the order of love. Indeed, they were blessed to multiply and fill the earth through the act of sex, which is designed to be perfectly analogous to love’s essential form of self-donation and trusting reception. But that freedom for humans to love as God loves is precisely free not to. There is indeed a thin line between love and cosmic destruction.

Judgment and Grace—The Limits of Power

Death, the judgment for this abuse of freedom, is thus required to limit the destructive potential of human life and the will to power. However, it also serves to preserve the structure of human life, namely, the desire for oneness and our capacity to love, because the awareness of death has the power to awaken in us love’s eternal longing. It takes the mysterious experience of empathy, the basis of love, and amplifies is, indeed immortalizes it, in the experience of grief.[2] The nagging impulse to embrace others, however few, only swells in its gravity as the inevitable eclipse darkens the final days over clinching hands. Nothing reveals the terrible power of love like the reckless desire to forsake all this world affords and dive into the infinite abyss just to remain with one’s beloved in death. But death affords no withness. So what does it profit a man to forsake the whole world and forfeit his soul?

Thus death preserves the possibility of love in a world bent toward power by revealing the futility of all pursuits of power. It is the governor on infinite acceleration that drives even the most powerful men to create a place of respite where they can stop pretending, a place to be weak, to love and to grieve. A man may ascend to the “judgment seat” beyond the reach of even the gods, but Pilate is still under the judgement of his wife (Mt. 27:19). The deepest human longings are disproportionate to human limitation. And thus it is the awareness of death that turns all human longing for love into the longing for God. It is the gift of sobriety that reveals to us that the true nature of our confused longing to become God is, in fact, the more intoxicated longing to become a small inclusion within God’s universal embrace. We long for a God who will dive into death and bring all life up from the abyss. We long for God who will not merely save us from death but save love from death. We long for a God who can unite all things back together in himself, a God who will restore for us an eternal respite from power, a God who will be powerful for us, so that we can be free to love. Indeed, grief is God’s prevenient grace.

Sin—Enslaved to Death

And thus, the principle structure of human beings is construed quite simply as free persons created for love. That is to say, the human will is structured to give love the freedom to rule. But that is not as simple as making a list of obligatory rules and checking them off dispassionately. Love cannot rule by putting freedom in handcuffs. But neither can love rule as an accident of freedom’s passions. Love has to be a movement of freedom, but freedom has to be disciplined toward love. For this reason, sin must be brought into the light in a triangulation of definitions with freedom and love.

Every particular sin, no matter the color, has the same genealogy. Sin is always the product of (a) a desire (b) based on a deception (c) organized against love. All desires based on deceptions organized against love can be called temptations. Temptations are experienced as an appeal to freedom, but they are precisely the opposite because they ultimately function to enslave freedom to desire, not to satisfy desire through freedom. Such temptations are not an appeal to freedom but an appeal to pride. Pride always feels like the freedom because pride always gets to say, “My will be done.” But human freedom is not simply the power of the will to act; it is the power of the will to love, because love is the ultimate and essential human desire. With the will not oriented toward its proper end the power of the will to act is nothing more than the will to power, the drive of life toward infinite desire rather than infinite satisfaction. It attends to an indefinite future without ever reaching the present moment; it is the urgent now, not the eternal now. It is about survival, not life, the will’s appetite for more, not the will’s enjoyment of enough to share. Pride may draw a crowd, but it struggles to make eye-contact. 

“There is happiness in the love of labor, there is misery in the love of gain” (Abraham Heschel on Sabbath as ‘the architecture of eternity in time’).

The awareness of death gives occasion for freedom to be confused by pride. Despite the intuitive reflex of our awareness of death to open us up toward others in longing, and ultimately to open us up to that longing into which God can breath hope against hope in order to make a space into which he can breath faith, it also closes us up in fear. Life exists in oscillations—expanding, contracting, expanding, contracting, trusting and giving, closing up and self-preserving. It is always in process, but in the final analysis life in the face of death is bent toward pride, mistrust, self-preservation. Fear of death has more gravity than fear of God. Indeed, it is “through fear of death” that we are “subject to lifelong slavery” (Heb. 2:15).

And thus, pride is the counterfeit of freedom and the antithesis of love. Its essential structure is pure inwardness. It operates on a disordered appetite for power without aim according to a primal mistrust and withdraw. Its goal is isolation—by way of either retreat or triumph. It can be felt as hollowing shame or gasoline powers, but both are pride. Pride can wear crowns at the top of towers, but shame is merely pride in sheep’s clothing.

The eyes of the couple were opened and they are now naked and very ashamed. So they hide from one another. Bone of Adam’s bone is now just plain ol’ flesh of Eve’s flesh. No longer are they one flesh–it was nuclear fission in the nuclear family. They hear God-sized footsteps. They hide. God confronts Adam. He points away, to the woman, as if God would be judge at divorce court?! But Adam tries, as we all try, to distance himself from the greater guilt—as though human guilt can be separated; as though the two weren’t a hypostatic union; as though Eve were not bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh; as though we are not all the seed of Adam’s loin; as though it weren’t through one man’s disobedience that sin enters the world and death through sin; as though it weren’t through one man’s obedience that the many will be made righteous.

But God does not simply put the blame on Eve, nor does he simply put the blame on the serpent. Nor does he simply put the blame on all three, although he does condemn all three, because all three are guilty. But he finds a place to put the blame, a willing party. Looking down at the pitiful couple, hiding behind tattered fig leaves barely able to withstand the Garden breeze, he calls forth a lamb—the whitest lamb in the garden, a lamb without spot or blemish. It obeys. It comes in silence. They want to look away, but he does not let them look away. They need to see the cost of grace. “A Lamb of Sorrows: your transgressions, his wounds; his chastisement, your peace; his stripes, your healing. You have strayed, but he has come to be slaughtered for your iniquities; innocent, but numbered among sinners.”

The whitest wool now forever stained in a dark crimson that would forever remain: the color of guilt and the color of grace, the color of the intersection—the intersection where God unites with sinners. Love wears thorns at the top of the intersection: it is grace in sheep’s clothing.

Triune Image—The Act of Salvation

The Word of God, Jesus Christ, is the vantage point from which the Church views itself, the world, and God. Christ is the revelation of God that is transparent to the truth of God’s being in eternity and to the truth of human beings in history (John 1:1-14; Col. 1:15-20). If we have seen the Son, we have seen the Father (Jn. 14:9), and if we believe the Son is indeed God’s Son, then we are “given the right to be called children of God” (Jn. 1:12; Rom. 8:29; Col. 1:18; Heb. 1:6; 2:11). Thus, the Gospel claims that human beings participate in the divine life in Jesus Christ; that is, we participate in the divine life through Christ’s “interior” (immanent) relations within the Godhead and his “exterior” (economic) relations within creation (cf. Jn. 17). And this is so precisely because the “Word made flesh” does not signify a change in the (indeed impassible) divine life, but which rather signifies an essential change in human life. Indeed, the absolute made contingent relativizes the contingent according to the absolute. (Hence above: It is not God who becomes himself according to the absolute principle of creation (re: becoming); it is creation that becomes itself according to the absolute principle of the Creator (re: Being).)

This becomes transparent to us only by means of the Holy Spirit, who makes divine perception a human possibility, for he is the divine Subject, the Spirit of Truth, who reveals Christ interior to human subjects (1 Cor. 2:6-16) in the light of his exterior revelation as human Object. It was indeed better for us that Jesus should go and send the Helper (Jn. 16:7), for creation is not in its essential form apart from our sharing, however limited, in the intersubjective life of God: “…I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth…You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you” (Jn. 14:15-6).

Thus, the God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, who is “I AM who I AM” from all eternity (Exod. 3:14), stands at the center of every “I think, therefore I am” in history as the “Word made flesh” (Jn. 1:14). Indeed, “I AM, therefore i think” is the more appropriate formula for Christian thought and speech. Absolute Being relativizes all contingent beings, and to the degree we can speak of the revealed form of Being as such, which is precisely what Christian proclamation presupposes, we must speak of Jesus Christ as the particular historical truth whose self-objectification delineates absolute and eternal truth for humankind, eternal truth become historical truth.

Christ is the Light that is come to me without ceasing to remain above, the union of the eternal Subject and created subjects without either losing their proper names; he is God’s gift to me and my gift to God (2 Cor. 5:21; Rom. 8:1-4). Christ is in us, but Christ is not us; we are in Christ, but we are not Christ. Human life in Christ by the Spirit is nothing less than the subjective participation in the divine life as coheirs of salvation with Christ, the firstborn of creation (Col. 1:15) and thus the firstborn from the dead (Col. 1:18). And thus from a well that is deeper to us than we are to ourselves and extending up into infinite heights, “We cry Abba! Father!” (Rom. 8:15). And he hears us—his children.

The Church thus abides in history according to its message heralded as the “eternal Gospel” (Rev. 14:6): (a) from the vantage point of the divine Subject: “the mystery of [God’s] will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph. 1:9-10); (b) from the vantage point of the human subject: to “make known among the nations…the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Col. 1:27); (c) and thus the principle relation that can be described as the actuality of human participation in the divine life:

“Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation of our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us” (1 Jn. 4:7-12).

The Gospel thus opens us up both to receive God’s life of love and to extend our lives in love. This is indeed the Alpha- and Omega point of creation, of salvation, of new creation–and thus necessarily too of our proclamation.

“And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.

On that day, indeed, God will again raise his Image from the dead.

Footnotes 

[1] Hence: “”Let us (pl.) make man (sg.) in our (pl.) image (sg.), after our (pl.) likeness (sg.)…So God (sg.) created man in his own image (sg.), in the image of God he created him (sg.); male and female he created them (pl.). And God blessed them. And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over [it]” (Gen. 1:26-28).

[2] Indeed, the first experience of empathy that I remember distinctly was the moment it dawned on me, around the age of five, that my father, whose hand I was holding at the time, would one day die. Upon reflection, it was an experience that suggested, in an uninterpreted immediate sense, that my subjective life could not be entirely separated from the objective life of others. Empathy, like grief, is the intersubjective space wherein love is possible. This was also the first time I remember crying.

The News

Would it be fair to say that every Christian should know both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are kind of the devil, and that it doesn’t take faith, hope, love, or courage to say so? It just takes partisanship or anarchy, the willingness to tell people bad news.

If so, wouldn’t the bold thing to do in this heyday of very recycled and highly predictable anti-[__________]-rhetoric be to use nounish sentences like “Jesus is Lord.” or tell people real news like “Jesus saves.” and “Jesus makes things new.”? We’ll all get a chance to make our statement in the voting booth. In the meantime, can we just be resolute not to get carried away in the mainstream current of a ‘gospel of Ecclesiastes’ without even including the last line of Ecclesiastes.

God is sovereign. Kingdoms rise and fall. Cast a vote, and make disciples of all nations. Jesus is coming back. Good News.

“The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.”

~ Eccles. 12:13-14

‪#‎adventisforreal‬

Advent Reflection 9: Absence

“Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the LORD his God, who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, who keeps faith forever; who executes justice for the oppressed, who gives food to the hungry” (Ps. 146:5-6).

The troubling thing about God in a nation that is so overstuffed with stuff is that God seems to prefer to come when and where nothing else is coming. Advent is the season that the Church points to the One who came out to the open air. There was no room in the inn when he arrived (Lk. 2:7), so Life was born out of doors, in a manger. There was already a king in Israel (Lk. 1:5), so Christ was enthroned outside of Jerusalem, on a cross. He was born and he died in no man’s land, because the God who comes cannot be contained in one one man’s land, or one nation’s land. He came to every man, to every mother, to every child, but first to a Virgin.

So there must be vacancy for God to come, not like an empty room in an otherwise room-filled inn, but a place where the living God cannot be confused with any of the ordinary gods. Ordinary gods aren’t laid in mangers and in tombs. Only the living God can come where there is no life. God acts where there is no other activity, lives where there is no life. God’s presence is learned by way of God’s absence, but it’s hard to know God’s absence when everything else is stuffing the presence of the present.

I’m learning to be thankful for seasons of absence. I’m learning that absence is the place where God’s hand can be most clearly seen. I’m also learning that God’s absence is evidence itself of the reality of God (see excerpt below).

Convict me, Lord. I want my absence to remain empty until you fill it, rather than keeping a steady an influx of alternatives to get me by. Lord, help me into–into–the desert, even if help only feels like heartache, even if your presence feels only like a vacuum filled with infinite longing, even if seeking you leads to an endless search, let me search for you forever rather than find all the treasures of Egypt. I know full well the cost of returning to Egypt.

Only keep me from settling for anything less than all of you.

Today’s reflection concludes in deference to a man who speaks on absence with authority–from the other end of life:

From Anthony Bloom’s Beginning to Pray

Advent Reflection 8: Barren

Luke 1:6-7 “[Zachariah and Elizabeth] were both righteous in the sight of God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and requirements of the Lord. But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and they were both advanced in years.”

Barrenness is of course a fertility problem. Biologically it refers to a womb that cannot support embryonic life. Agriculturally it refers to a land that cannot support crop life. Metaphorically it proves to be a most portable word. It was evidently a favorite of the Victorian poet Alfred Lord Tennyson, who spoke of barren efforts and barren shores and barren crags and barren lives and ultimately of a barren Death:

Wiser there than you, that crowning barren Death as lord of all,    

Deem this over-tragic drama’s closing curtain is the pall!

Lord Tennyson is right. Barrenness finds its way into every nook and cranny of this world and our experience of it. And that is because theologically barrenness is the state of creation this side of Eden.

The world is duplicitous in its grandeur and its terror, its beauty and violence, in its capacity to provide for the unseen sparrow and its capacity to turn to ice. Creation is groaning in labor and in suffocation, the sign that is more than a sign that Mother Nature is ever losing her battle with Father Time. We live in a world and in bodies and in communities that simply cannot support life. Every home so rich with memory will slowly start to lose touch and eventually will be left alone. No more children giggling their way into the master bedroom on Saturday morning. No frenzy of life in the kitchen on Thanksgiving Day frantically filling every dish and basket and platter with an attempt to keep the past alive. No one to say “Mom” or “Dad” or “You’re grounded!” or “Pass the jam”–just the occasional “Mr.” or “Mrs.” when the phone rings. Then calls come only for “Mrs.”, with condolences. Then the phone just stops ringing.

Life inside the walls gives way to a damningly exact proportion of grief. But soon no one is even left to cry. What was home will now house only an empty memory, maybe a few moths. Every birth certificate already shares its name with a death certificate. The world is our womb, and it is barren, every life a miscarriage.

But God creates ex nihilo, out of nothing. And he does not just hurl the world into a space sufficient to sustain it. He creates formless void (Gen. 1:2), a barren womb, a world that he would himself have to fill in order to sustain life, a world that would have to be filled with him and so could be filled with joy. Apart from him this world will always return back to the joyless void, but with him always back to a feast of life. So God creates from the very beginning a world in which he can be born, and thus a world in which we can be born again.

So as we wait upon the Lord, we should not look for him to come to places full of strategy and competence and men in dark suits. He comes where the efforts are barren and the ground is chapped. Slaves in Egypt became a nation in the desert. God had come. Out of barren wombs the child of promise is born to Sarah, the child of prophecy to Elizabeth, the “Voice in the Wilderness” born to a father who could not speak. God had come.

Out of nowhere the substitute came to Abraham for his son on Mount Moriah. Out of the Virgin the Substitute came to Israel for all sons on Mount Calvary. God has come.

And God is coming again. Isaiah says we’ll know it is God because the cracked desert floor will begin blooming like a daisy field in springtime; the groaning ground of the curse will suddenly burst into song (Isa. 35). Scorched war fields will become spring-fed gardens (Isa. 58); swords and spears will be beaten into the shape of life and kept in the barn (Isa. 2). He said that lions and tigers and bears would go vegan and siesta with lambs and yearlings (Isa. 11). There will be life where there can be no life, peace where there can be only blood, a symphony filling canyon winds. Paul says we’ll know it is God because when he comes he will lay death down to sleep, pray the Lord its hell to keep. We’ll wake up one day without aching joints and pressing deadlines. We’ll see mirrors we’re not ashamed of (1 Cor. 15).

John says we’ll know it is God because of what happens to the brokenhearted. The little boy whose dad was sent home in the form of a flag; the young mother of that boy looking helpless at his searching eyes; the little girl who never wore white. We’ll know it is God not because the brokenhearted will suddenly stop crying but because their tears will be wiped away (Rev. 21:4). They will be touched by a real Hand and there will be a resurrection of real hands. Those searching eyes will find what they never stopped looking for. It will be like a world ruled by the real religion that James talked about (Ja. 1:27).

John also says we’ll know it is God because it will be like a Bridegroom and a Father and a Son and like a world full of siblings (Rev. 21-22), like wedding reception and a family reunion all at once (Rev. 19:6). It will just be a mess of an overflow. Loneliness won’t even fit in a crack on the floor. There will be no storm shelters or panic rooms, no sirens or seatbelts, no temples or mosques, no shut doors or closed countries, no walls, no gun control, no guns, no abortions, no greed, no partisanship, no voting booths, no border patrol, no arrogance, no bumper stickers, no child soldiers, no fatherlessness, no websites, no shrapnel, no midnight calls, no divorce, no mistrust, no shame, no shadows, no small caskets, no more God-damned goodbyes: only God, only Light, only peace, only joy, infinite joy drowning the void beneath the weight of the “glory of the Lord that fills the earth as the waters cover the sea” (Isa. 11:9; Hab. 2:14), and us—with a Table there at the center to keep the past alive for good (Rev. 21:21-23).

When Christ comes, he comes to dethrone the one called “barren Death” crowned “lord of all” by burying the crimson of His crown in a deeper crimson bloom of roses. Yes, every knee, Death–so Death, be not proud (Donne)! For He is the “firstborn of creation” (Col. 1:15) and therefore the “firstborn of the dead” (Col. 1:18), so he will again descend into this barren womb, but this time to give birth. When “the Lord descends from heaven…the dead in Christ shall rise” (1 Thess. 4:16). And on that day, the world will be an ultrasound devoid of any dark, born again into the womb of eternal life together with the eternally Begotten Son of God. No more miscarriages.

When he comes…

Deign at my hands this crown of prayer and praise, 

Weaved in my low devout melancholy,

Thou which of good, hast, yea art treasury,

All changing unchanged Ancient of days,

But do not, with a vile crown of frail bays,

Reward thy muse’s white sincerity,

But what thy thorny crown gained, that give me,

A crown of glory, which doth flower always;

The ends crown our works, but thou crown’st our ends,

For, at our end begins our endless rest,

This first last end, now zealously possessed,

With a strong sober thirst, my soul attends.

‘Tis time that heart and voice be lifted high,

Salvation to all that will is nigh. 

     ~ John Donne, La Corona 

 

Advent Reflection 7: Reorient

 

“But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Mt. 6:33).

The first half of life we long after a vision of the Kingdom. The second half of life we long after a dream of Home. Those who stop short of the kingdom of God and his eternal homecoming will discover only restlessness instead of joy and only nostalgia instead of peace.

—-

Why is the high school student aimlessly charged with a need to just “get out of the house”? Why does same high school student twenty years later find himself trying to recreate the home he grew up in? Why do boys resent their moms more than anyone when they are young and love their moms more than anyone when they are old? Why is it that in childhood we long for adulthood and in adulthood we long for childhood? Why do young girls and old women both want to be twenty year-old models, even though twenty year-old models don’t want to be themselves? Why does life teeter between restlessness and nostalgia?

Why does Christmas make us feel the way it does?

The number one problem concerning the Kingdom that was about to enter Zechariah’s world–in a manger–was not that it was too small but that it was too large. The grand vision of the kingdom of God had been reduced to the grandest vision of the kingdom of Israel. And that just wasn’t grand enough to accommodate God’s vision for the world. But this is always the rub.

Visions of national sovereignty satisfy enough the kingdom-shaped longings of our youth and protect enough the home-shaped longings of later life. So we settle, indeed, for the small. We want peace in our nation, absolutely, but world peace is reserved for the wishful thinking of hippies on earth and religious thinking about heaven in the hereafter.

Maybe that’s why the angel gave Zechariah’s son a name that came out of nowhere (wasn’t a family name; the neighbors thought it was odd, Lk. 1:60-61) and why John never went by his given name. He simply called himself “A Voice.” He was “the Voice crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord’.” Indeed, that voice came out of a nowhere called the wilderness.

God brings life forth through Elizabeth’s barrenness and “A Voice” forth through Zechariah’s silence, because this life and its voice were preparing the world for a kingdom-shaped world as big as the earth and a home-shaped life as eternal as heaven. The world had given up on such a grandiose hope. A truly new Voice was required to proclaim the infinite horizons of a kingdom that should be too good to be true. This required a reorientation.

Advent is our reorientation to the Voice of the one who tells us to listen to our deepest longings and announces the Gospel of God’s infinite kingdom as our eternal home. But this Voice always has to come from the silence, because even the Church tends to lose its Voice on occasion. Advent silences that old cynicism and says listen up! There is One coming! Prepare the way! Don’t sell yourself short! The world always wants to give up on that grand of a kingdom but God always raises up a Voice that refuses to let hope be silenced.

There is a Voice that calls out in the wilderness of your heart, the same wilderness that leads you looking for a vision of the kingdom but too often leaves you aching with a dream of home. That Voice comes to the wilderness to announce the One who is greater than us because he is before us, whose shoes we are unworthy to untie. It is the Voice that comes in opposition to our righteousness, that tells us to bear fruit worthy of repentance. It is the Voice of Advent that says: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make straight his paths in the desert?’ (Isa. 40:3; Mt. 3:3; Mk. 1:3; Lk. 3:4; Jn. 1:23). And it is the only Voice that will lead to the Kingdom that won’t leave you in the desert without a home.

I think the words of Frederick Buechner’s echo that Voice well. I’ll end in their wake…

The world floods in on all of us. The world can be kind, and it can be cruel. It can be beautiful, and it can be appalling. It can give us good reason to hope and good reason to give up all hope. It can strengthen our faith in a loving God, and it can decimate our faith. In our lives in the world, the temptation is always to go where the world takes us, to drift with whatever current happens to be running strongest. When good things happen, we rise to heaven; when bad things happen, we descend to hell. When the world strikes out at us, we strike back, and when one way or another the world blesses us, our spirits soar. I know this to be true of no one as well as I know it to be true of myself. I know how just the weather can affect my whole state of mind for good or ill, how just getting stuck in a traffic jam can ruin an afternoon that in every other way is so beautiful that it dazzles the heart. We are in constant danger of being not actors in the drama of our own lives but reactors. The fragmentary nature of our experience shatters us into fragments. Instead of being whole, most of the time we are in pieces, and we see the world in pieces, full of darkness at one moment and full of light the next.

It is in Jesus, of course, and in the people whose lives have been deeply touched by Jesus, and in ourselves at those moments when we also are deeply touched by him, that we see another way of being human in this world, which is the way of wholeness. When we glimpse that wholeness in others, we recognize it immediately for what it is, and the reason we recognize it, I believe, is that no matter how much the world shatters us to pieces, we carry inside us a vision of wholeness that we sense is our true home and that beckons to us. It is part of what the book of Genesis means by saying that we are made in the image of God. It is part of what Saint Paul means by saying that the deepest undercurrent of all creation is the current that seeks to draw us toward what he calls mature humanhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ….Joy is home, and I believe that the tears that [come] to our eyes [are] more than anything else homesick tears. 

Buechner, The Longing for Home: Recollections and Reflections