Kindergarteners, Heroin Addicts, & The Gods


This morning I sent off my son to his first day of kindergarten and headed off to work. Upon arrival, I met Eric retrieving a needle from the roof to add to the cookie jar of despair. The bus is filled with hope and futures, the jar with hopelessness, futures buried alive.
I left this morning watching my son’s mother offering up to God the kind of tears that somehow prove the goodness of the world and the meaningfulness of life. But I wonder about the mother’s tears that are falling to the ground today from a heart that needle has pierced. I wonder, with dread, what it is like to see a child bury his future alive, what it is like to anticipate burying a child dead. How does a mother hang on to hope as she watches her son let it go, when her hope is so bound up in the future of her children?
Maybe she couldn’t hold on. Maybe she just couldn’t produce enough tears to fight back the famine claiming her family’s future. Maybe she was fighting alone, no father’s tears wetting her son’s heart, no husband guarding hers. Perhaps her heart, chapped and exposed, over time cracked open with so many sorrows that her soul has fractured into sand. The tears she so faithfully offered up for so many years, alone, never yielded a future in the life on whose behalf she offered them, only more God-damned thorns, only more of that entangling thicket slowly wrapping around her son’s neck, crowning its victory over his future, her future. Her tears never found their way to a Garden. The all-consuming ground is dried up of any goodness, fertility, newness. It’s all just burial ground.
Who among the gods will come to such a world? Let him come.
Who among the gods will come to such a mother? Let him come.
Who among the gods will come to such a son—as a man caught up in the thickets, to wear his crown, to be damned into the desert floor? Who among the gods will come to this world, to be chapped, broken, buried?
For there can be no other world for this mother and her son, so there can be no other God for this world.
“The wilderness and dry land shall be glad; the desert shall rejoice and blossom like wildflowers. It shall blossom abundantly and rejoice with joy and singing…And they shall see the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God” (Isa. 35).
Yes–but only if that glory rains down in a veil of tears, only if that majesty is crowned with a curse, buried with all futures lost. If a new song of rejoicing is ever to arise from the parched ground of this disheartened world it will have to enter at first in tune with a symphony of sorrows.
Who among the gods is so willing? Who among the gods is there with a heart like that for a world like this, a God of sorrows, Man of sorrows?
Then let Him come. Jesus, come.

The Covenant on The Mount: One Sermon to Damn Us All

I’m becoming convinced that one of the most common (and perhaps willful) fallacies with regard to the Gospel is manifest in two exactly opposite ways, which together hold in tension the opposition between liberal Christians and conservative Christians, speaking here of the hyper- sort. Both groups need to protect the fallacy as a means of self-preservation, because neither group could exist as such without the ‘other’ group to exist against. But, unfortunately for both groups, the Gospel provides no basis to support their opposition as such and therefore neither for their strange and codependent relationship and therefore neither for their group identities as such. The Gospel strips its adherents of any rhetoric that requires a sustained grammar of opposition against a “them” in order to define, and preserve, an “us.”

The Gospel came to all, Jews and Gentiles alike, conservatives and liberals alike, from the Other side of enemy lines. It is only in hearing it declare us its enemies that we can hear it declare us its allies–only the accused can hear their Advocate–because those apparently opposite categories of identity are held together in the Gospel’s one Word of declaration in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Easter Sunday survives only to the degree that it remains staked to the Friday before. The Gospel thus indeed preserves the language of opposition but transforms it within its unique grammar of reconciliation (established in principle in the hypostatic union from which pours forth a new and holy grammar on all flesh, cf. Acts 2:17). 

But Conservative Christians tend to sanctify the language of opposition simply by sanctifying themselves, that is, by moving “us” onto “God’s” side and thereby dramatically demonizing the “them.” It is Easter Sunday untethered from Friday’s cross and staked only to an eschatological “us.” And therefore Sunday is no longer Easter and Friday is no longer Good.

And Liberal Christians, on the other hand, tend to, with inexplicable immediacy, stand on the grammar of reconciliation without any word of definition, topsoil for an entirely new language, categorically refusing grounds for any accusation whatever by moving “God” onto the side of “us” thereby erasing the possibility of “them” and gently annihilating the “other.” So the liberal speaks of “acceptance,” not “forgiveness,” of “inclusiveness, not “repentance,” an ever-widening and -accepting circle of “us.” It is a fusion, not a union. But, ironically, an opposition must be maintained, namely against any word of accusation. As such, none are excluded except the excluders, none are judged except the judgmental, none are rejected by God except those whose God rejects anyone. And, it turns, each group ends up balancing out, equally exclusive, and–as a group–equally antichrist.  

The underlying fallacy of this circus has to do with a misunderstanding and/or misappropriation of the grace of God under the New Covenant, namely that either:

(a) the grace of God under the New Covenant lowers God’s standard of righteousness (e.g., the sloppy liberal confession that is willing to say “we’re all sinners” in general, according to God’s Word, but unwilling to allow God’s Word to define any sin in particular);

or (b) the grace of God under the New Covenant is an entirely separate category from God’s standard of righteousness (e.g., the militant (but equally as sloppy) insistence that grace means “Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, and no one comes to the Father except though [‘us’, ahem, we mean ‘Him’]”, on the one hand, and, on the other, that his righteous standard is still based on a Law he established with Israel that the rest of the world should be obligated to apply in principle (or at least a carefully (re: conveniently) selected adumbration of laws), regardless of whether or not they recognize the Law-Giver, which of course suggests that the world needs godliness but doesn’t really need God).

If I may, to both groups, recommend a sermon once preached that addresses this fallacy and both its manifestations found in the Gospel according to Matthew, chapters 5-7. Actually, it is not a sermon. We only call it a sermon, even giving it the formal designation “Sermon on the Mount,” because of a refusal to acknowledge that under the New Covenant God has, in fact, descended to the Mount Himself as the Law, to issue the commands in Person, and thereby reveals an infinitely higher standard of righteousness. As long as we can codify the words uttered on the Mount as mere sermon principles, we can avoid the terrible prospect of hearing them as the codification of a New and binding Commandment. They are nothing less and, indeed, much more.

God’s standard of righteousness, this side of the New Covenant of grace, is no longer defined and established by the Old Covenant of Law—God’s commands to a nation. God’s standard of righteousness is now defined and established in the Person and Work of Jesus Christ—God’s love for the world—who fulfilled the righteousness intended to create a just society and exceeded it with a righteousness intended to create a gracious society. That excessive righteousness is the only way to the Father, which is precisely why Jesus, not Christian fundamentalism, is the the only way to the Father. Only the Grace that comes from the Father can take us back to Him and make us gracious like Him.

So the New Covenant of grace does not effect a decrease in the righteousness God requires but an infinite increase. That is why Jesus said, in effect, the righteousness required to enter his kingdom exceeds the righteousness of the Law-keepers (Mt. 5:17-20); why not-love of another, whether enemy or neighbor or neighbor’s wife, is tantamount to murder; why under His standard all of us are “liable to the hell of fire”; why in the burning light of His love all of us should become one-eyed and dismembered (Mt. 5:21-30); why the self-righteous polarizing rhetoric that identifies one’s own group as sheep by wiping its bloody hands on the forehead of some homogeneously identified other group as goats (whether “liberal” or “conservative” or “fundamentalist” or “skeptic” or “Muslim” or “Christian” or perhaps even, quite ironically, Christ Himself) is tantamount to the kind of scapegoating that can demand holy justice in the world only by permitting the one small exception of its own injustice, the kind of scapegoating the Law revealed was provisionally necessary because it simultaneously revealed that all fall short of its righteous standard, the kind of scapegoating that can be embraced only if the Gospel is rejected.

Christ is either the Lamb slain for a world of goats, or we will simply have to convince God that “we” are of a kind of sheep more spotless than the Slaughtered Lamb and “they” are a kind of goat more stained than Pilate’s hand, the centurion’s hand, the hand not reaching out, the hand clinching tightly to control, to greed, to revenge, to unforgiveness, the hand clicking on the mouse, the hand that is ice cold to the spouse and children that so need its living and loving warmth. We will have to convince God to be more satisfied with a judgment of guilt that exiles the ‘other’ than the judgment of guilt that reconciles the world (cf. Romans 5 and the rest of the Bible).

“Judge not, lest you be judged” (Mt. 7:1).

“Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Mt. 6:12).

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 5:3).


The Voided Form: Why Evangelism Isn’t the Answer to Our Lack of Evngelism 

People will believe the Gospel can transform the world to the degree it has transformed them. And they will spread exactly what it is they believe.
If churches are in decline in America (while growing at unprecedented rates across the globe), the cause of decline is not a lack of evangelism. The lack of evangelism is merely symptomatic, the childlessness of a barren womb, the non-effect of a void, like the darkness that was over the face of the deep without the Presence that was over the face of the darkness (Gen. 1:2), “a form of godliness but the denial of its power” (2 Tim. 3:5).
It’s remarkable how much popular Christian literature pedaling various forms of “multiplication” strategies (that don’t work) have little to no semblance to Paul’s or Peter’s or James’ John’s letters to the churches, all of which have surprisingly very little to say on the topic of evangelism. They are far more concerned with theology, on the one hand, and then some conspicuous “therefore” that precipitates something in the vain of: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Rom. 12:2). People can’t help but talk about what’s on their mind, so if they know nothing of a power at work renewing their own mind, they’re not going to talk about the One who claims to be making all things, like minds and people, new (2 Cor. 5:17; Rev. 21:5).
Why should they? Better off talking about the kind of power they believe actually does work, even if it just means complaining it is not working well. I can’t think of anything that would encourage me more than if I stopped hearing Christians complaining about the politics that don’t work to change a country (whether in the past or at present) and started hearing them complain about the God who doesn’t work to change them. At least they’d be getting closer to a proper diagnosis. That righteous indignation over the moral decline of moral America or the social injustice of something unnamable but definitely systemic may very well be little more than a therapeutic (and not prophetic) lament about the moral decline of a bitter heart, the social injustice of a systemic porn habit. At any rate, if God were to show up to heal that heart or break that habit, they may not have succeeded yet in restoring their precious golden age (that never existed) or progressing to a utopian age (that once existed in Genesis 11), but at least they’d have something to stop complaining about. And that would be the sound of revival.
But I suppose it is far easier to tell people the problem we’re facing is a lack of evangelism in the world (by persons getting, ahem, paid to evangelize them (with their guilt trips)), the solution of which is more human effort (an easy sell to people who don’t believe in God’s present efforts), than telling them the much more likely scenario: that the more basic problem we are facing is not a lack of evangelism in the world but a lack of transformation in the Church, the solution of which is more human surrender–to a Power that always comes first to transform its captive, and then to those whom the captive tells about how they’ve been transformed and “by what power and by what Name” (Acts 4:7). When that happens, it won’t matter if the governing authorities run an anti-evangelism campaign, which have historically tended to be a most effective way to incentivize evangelism, because people who’ve witnessed such a Power cant help but bear witness to it. At least that was Jesus’s actual “Master Plan of Evangelism,” making people witnesses of his power by transforming them by it (Acts 1:8).
“So they called them and charged them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John answered them, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot help but speak of what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:18-21).
So maybe instead of speaking for God, we should encourage people to refuse to speak for God until they have witnessed his work in their lives, until their faith in the crucified and risen Christ begins to take shape as a “newness of life” that is replacing their “dead[ness] to sin” (Rom. 6:1-4). The apostles, after all, having gone through a three-year discipleship training program led by a certain Jesus of Nazareth (whose methods seemed frankly a little simplistic and repetitive, if not old fashioned…but who is going to argue method with the Guy who used to be dead?) and witnessing his resurrection, had still not yet earned their title as “witnesses.” They had one last thing to do: “wait” (Acts 1:4)–wait until they witnessed the “same [Power] that raised Jesus from the dead” (Rom. 8:11) do something new in their lives (Acts 2; cf. esp. Rom. 6:1-4). “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses from Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
Maybe the first step toward evangelism is to stand still, to wait until we have witnessed an act of God, indeed “the God who acts for those who wait on him” (Isa. 64:4), to wait until God shows up to act in the place we’ve most intimately learned to stop expecting him to act, and pray until he does: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me” (Ps. 51:10).

It Takes A Mother to Carry the Gospel

As I’m thinking and praying through Luke 24 for my sermon this morning, I’m again struck by courage and faithfulness of Jesus’ most loyal disciples—the women, not least his mother. Not only was Mary the first bearer of the Gospel, which God knit together in her womb, but she and only a handful of other women can be counted among those who truly witnessed the historic Gospel in all its fullness.
If the Gospel truly finds its irreducible summary in “Christ crucified,” as Paul believed (1 Cor. 1-2), then it’s no surprise the risen Christ should first appear to the women and charge them with the task of preaching the Gospel. How could the men bear witness to “Christ crucified” when they had not witnessed Christ crucified? They were long gone. The Shepherd had been struck and the men had sheepishly scattered. They indeed would become witnesses of the resurrection, as well they boasted (Acts 2:32; 4:33), but with regard to the crucifixion they, like the Samaritans in John 4, depended on the “testimony of the wom[e]n” (cf. Jn. 4:39). The women alone are history’s firsthand witnesses to the love of God broken and spilled out.
It strikes me that in my own life I too have depended on the testimony of women to understand the Gospel in all its fullness. I have witnessed many men who carry the message of Jesus like Zeus carries thunderbolts, filling entire stadiums with exactly half the Gospel. Many of those same men have not stayed loyal even to that half. It’s the women in my life who have shown me what Gospel loyalty looks like, who have shown me how to carry the message of Jesus like Jesus carried his cross, who have demonstrated what it means, as Paul described, to “carry in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies” (2 Cor. 4:10). I suppose any mother could identify with these words more than even Paul himself could (I bet he got that line from Priscilla). Carrying the burden of life in the body always also means carrying the burden, the worry, of death.
Maybe it’s the nature of motherhood that trained the women in the Gospels and in my life in the kind of loyalty the Gospel demands, in sickness and in health, even in death never departing. Mothers learn how to carry crosses even if they don’t want to. Men can run away–they have a habit of doing so (Mt. 26:25; Mk. 14:50). Abortion clinics are filled with single women. It’s hard to carry two crosses on your own. Only Jesus, and every mother in history, has ever done so. So I guess it’s no surprise that the world would need to look to the women if they were going to see a full picture of the God-Man. The cross enters history and is carried throughout the ages cradled in the testimony of the women.
And indeed, it’s women who most exactly embody that testimony. I know I’ve seen the life of Jesus manifest in my own mother’s body. You know you’ve seen the life of Jesus in a person when you’ve witnessed a love for you that is greater than the love you have for yourself. That’s cross-bearing love, like the time my mother stayed awake all night at my bedside to listen to my strained breathing after a pill incident. She now sits at her father’s bedside like that, like the women in Luke 23. And I know of a time when my wife carried a little cross all the way to a misbegotten tomb. It wasn’t until her tears taught me how to grieve that I could help shoulder the weight of that disproportionately heavy cross–and my mother drove eight hours through the night that night to share the load with us. And day after day I continue to feel the very real presence of my wife coming up under the weight of my burdens, through her prayers and encouragement and help. She helps carry my whole life, nails and all, and so continues to teach me how to love Jesus with the women on Friday and not just with the men on Sunday. It’s whole Gospel loyalty, and if it weren’t for the women of this world we wouldn’t know the half it.
So thank you to the women, the mothers, in my life for preaching the Gospel to me in word and in deed, from the sermons of Francis and the prayers of Hazel to the compassion and care of Kathy and the loyalty and fortitude of Vicki, from the piercing and prophetic words of Gaye to the incarnate and living words of Christi Anna (both preachers in their own right), from the welcome and warmth of my bonus mom, Donalyn, who shared her treasure with me and who is continually willing to let us share our burdens with her, to the daily demonstration of Gospel-centered love from my amazing and forbearing wife for an often hard-to-love husband and a sprawling circus quiver of childlike monkeys. And a special thanks to my mother, the living, breathing, walking, presence and image of Jesus that is Janice Pierce Spainhour.

Easter Eve


Lying here, trying to stop thinking about how I wish I could stop thinking about not being able to fall asleep, I keep circling back to another unsolicited thought: Is the news of tomorrow really good news? Do we really want a risen Lord?

If Jesus stays in the tomb, it means that the world can continue on its course, unaccountable, free of any Absolutes–other than death–shrugging off that nagging Voice of its conscience time and time again. If Jesus stays in the tomb, there is no Lord to answer to, no Voice from without, only fleeting (if competing) echoes from within, and at any rate all voices are moving toward a finality of silence. 

That, to me at least, seems much easier to deal with than is the prospect of the destruction of death. It’s much easier to imagine death brings a certain finality to all that I have done and not done, all that I have said and not said, to missed opportunities to love and help and give and forgive, to my violence, my greed, my self-indulgence… I can’t help but think it is easier to make peace anticipating closure to all that than anticipating that my life and my will and my secret thoughts and intentions are wide open to an infinite future, a future in which I am not Lord and death is not an option, a future from which that nagging Voice is issued from a throne, a Voice that alone is Absolute. 

There was terror that first Easter (Mt. 28:1-10; Mk. 16:1-8; Lk. 24:36-43). And I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised. The world has lost its autonomy. Death no longer affords any escape routes. Life is laid bare to an infinite future that we know now only as a Voice, often just a faint Whisper–but then we shall see Him face to face. 

What a glorious–and terrifying–day tomorrow will be.

Levi Ryser: Born in the Shadow of the Savior (12/26/13)

“And Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, ‘Behold, this child will be laid down for the fall and the resurrection of many, and for a sign that is opposed, (and a sword will pierce your own soul also), so that the thoughts from many hearts may be revealed” (Lk. 2:34-35). 

The baby was born. They called him James.

There’s not much to say about James. He doesn’t say much about himself in the letter he left for us. The only other thing the Bible says about James is that he was the brother of Jesus (Gal. 1:19). All we get from Church history about James is in fragments, no cohesive narrative. A guy named Hegesippus called him James the Just. It stuck.

But it’s no surprise there’s not much to say about James, because all that is said of him is said under the shadow of his big Brother. James the Just, brother of Jesus the Judge, born in the shadow of the Savior. A hard act to follow.

I wonder if Mary felt guilty. She was found to be with child, again, but not by the Holy Spirit again. This time by plain ol’ unholy Joe. This child surely would not be so godly as her First. I wonder if she felt guilty before James was born, knowing that she could not love him as much as her Firstborn (of all Creation)?

But even more than that, I wonder if she felt guilty after he was born. I wonder if she felt guilty when she realized that she loved her second-born just as much.

I remember when we were expecting our firstborn. All Keldy thought about was the baby. She loved him in I suppose the way only a mother can love an unborn child. I on the other hand felt guilty. I could not relate. For those nine months my reaction to her pregnancy was a kind of surprised “Oh yeah…”, coupled with a nagging fear that I wasn’t going to love him like a father is supposed to love his son. I literally feared that I would love my dogs more than my son. Babies just hadn’t been all that impressive to me, because I am not a woman. The honest men out there know what I’m talking about. Women have no clue.

Except for maybe Mary. Mary knows. Mary had, after all, held at her bosom the one who came from the bosom of God the Father (Jn. 1:18). Mary had indeed “kissed the face of God.” But this second-born would be just another face in the shadow of the Almighty. Mary wasn’t yet used to having children who weren’t God. Middle children already have a syndrome named after them, but what of the one that comes second to the Savior of the world. Mary knows.

When Kezek was born, I started treating my dogs like dogs. I loved my firstborn so intensely that I was afraid I loved him more than God. I was afraid that if anything were to happen to him I would hate God. That fear lingers.

When Keldy told me we were expecting again, I was doubly guilty and doubly afraid. Not only did I love my firstborn more than or as much as God, now I feared that I would not love my second-born as much as my firstborn, perhaps only as much as the dogs.

The baby was born. We called him Levi Ryser. There was no sound. He was blue. The voices of the people in white raised an octave. They stopped looking us in the eye. They were looking at some protocol that was visible only to those who knew some unspoken “code.” Ryser needed decoded.

The doctor handed him to me to carry as I was paced at an uncomfortable pace en route to the NICU. It seemed far too much like a formality for my first embrace of my second-born son, like it was a consolation, a mere gesture, the beginning of some process necessary for some Contingency Plan Z. It felt like I was greeting my newborn son with a goodbye. 

There are no words here that will do.

I held him as close to my heart heart as humanly possible. I tried to hold him as close to my heart as humanly impossible, or as inhumanly possible. I tried to pour my life into his. I tried to empty myself to fill him up. I tried to breath for him. I wanted to cut out my heart and put it into his body. I wanted to die so I could raise him from the dead. Anything. Just please…

I think that was the first day I ever actually interceded for someone. I beat on heaven’s door like one of those old grandmothers who’s earned the right to act that way. I was pleading, then I was demanding, then I was crying. I had felt the joy of a father’s love with my firstborn but with my second-born I was brushing up against the prospect of a father’s grief. I was feeling the very sharp other edge of love for the first time. I learned that day something about the sword Simeon told Mary about (Lk. 2:35). 

Four days later, he was stable. Over those four days I started to understand what I suppose Mary had come to understand with her second-born: that the love of God and the love of a son are not two separate loves. The sword that pierced Mary’s heart and the spear that pierced her Son’s were felt first in the love that was laid at the foundation of the world (Rev. 13:8). God is love in a very nounish sense, like the nounish sense of the word creation or the Word Incarnation. Mary couldn’t compare her love for Jesus with her love for James, because her love for James came from the life of Jesus. There is no love apart from that Life. Indeed, there is no life apart from that Love. If it is in God that we “live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28), then Love is the ether of all our relationships. To love is merely an act of alignment.

His name has become more fitting than I had intended. Levi Ryser means, by my assignment, death and resurrection, or offering and acceptance, or more simply “Gift of God” (with the intentionally ambiguous genitive). It is the second-born of Mary, after all, by whom we discover ourselves, since we all are second-born of the dead. We discover that unto us a Child is born, to us a Son is given, in order to restore love to its proper form, that we might love our own as we love God, because he loves us as though we were his own. That is the meaning of yesterday’s Birthday and therefore every birthday in the light of its shadow.

Levi was born on the altar, where all gifts are born. He was born without breath, blue. But while he was yet unknown and unknowing, en route to the NICU, he was already being born in the bosom of his father. I think in that moment, if for only that moment, I understood Mary. I think I understood something about motherhood that day. I understood what it was like to carry a life that could not carry itself apart from my own. I understood what it was like to carry life with a sense that if one dies, we all die, if one lives, we all live. I think I learned something about being the Mother of God that day. I’m certain I learned something about being a father that day, maybe even something about being a Son.

We had decided to call him Ryser before he was born. But Levi was Ryser before he was born. He was raised in his mother’s heart for nine months. And he was raised in his father’s for four days. He is now growing up in both. And all this is from God, because he has been raised from eternity in the heart of Love. And my only plea for his life is that through our feeble hands he will continue to be held in that Love. God, help us.

Ryser is our number two, but he is loved just as much as the Firstborn, even if he was born in His shadow, even if we did use leftover nativity scene wrapping paper for his birthday presents this year.

Happy Birthday, Ryser. You are loved with an everlasting love, my son.

“How precious is your steadfast love, O God! The children of man take refuge in the shadow of your wings.” 

~ Psalm 36:7