Examinations

Examine your heart, whether you be in the faith.
What lurks in those depths, once called still waters?
Many old ghosts, hauntings from the past, wraiths
And darker things too—
Examined, the heart perplexes.
How can faith be where resides such depravity?
How can God coexist where so many faults still linger?
But he gives more grace.

He gives more grace, and dredges up the past
Only to cleanse it,
To banish old ghosts and make old things new.
He gives more grace, and takes on my nature
Swallowing up death in life, and me in love.
He gives more grace.

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To Pray is to Change

To pray is to change.
I know not what I am, nor indeed was or will be;
My heart is thick, my dreams cloudy,
My mind is sick, my soul drowsy.
I can scarcely see with these weak eyes,
Nor can I feel your rain when I lift my face to the skies.
But to pray is to change.

To pray is to change,
Breathing out old habits and breathing in new graces,
Breathing out old corruptions and breathing in new life,
Breathing out the old me that is ready to expire
And breathing in the new You who is the same consuming fire.
To pray is to change.

Jesus of the Scars

If we have never sought, we seek Thee now;
Thine eyes burn through the dark, our only stars;
We must have sight of thorn-pricks on Thy brow,
We must have Thee, O Jesus of the Scars. 

The heavens frighten us; they are too calm;
In all the universe we have no place.
Our wounds are hurting us; where is the balm?
Lord Jesus, by Thy Scars, we claim Thy grace.

If, when the doors are shut, Thou drawest near,
Only reveal those hands, that side of Thine;
We know to-day what wounds are, have no fear,
Show us Thy Scars, we know the countersign.

The other gods were strong; but Thou wast weak;
They rode, but Thou didst stumble to a throne;
But to our wounds only God’s wounds can speak,
And not a god has wounds, but Thou alone.

–Edward Shillito, “Jesus of the Scars” (1919)

On Divorce

I keep seeing people on social media attempt to draw equivalence between theological conservatives’ seeming embrace of divorce and their rejection of same-sex marriage.  Although I often wonder if it isn’t simply a tu quoque (“you did it too”) fallacy, in the interests of dialogue, here are my thoughts.

The United Methodist Church’s Book of Discipline does not endorse divorce (see our Social Principles).  Much like Jesus’ response to the Pharisees pointing him to the Law of Moses about the divorce issue, the UMC (and theological conservatives, specifically) say, “It’s for the hardness of your hearts that we allow this.”  Likewise, Jesus clearly says that divorce in a case of infidelity is perfectly justified, and our justification for remarriage is based on an understanding that covenants are not inviolable–if one party breaks covenant, the other party is not bound by it any longer.

From Scripture, the lone condition which justifies divorce in Scripture is adultery.  If one party commits adultery, then it justifies divorce.  Some may argue that Jesus’ statement in Luke. 16:18 (“Whoever divorces his wife and remarries commits adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery”) excludes the possibility of any divorce, but this is a standalone statement in a section that has little to do on the surface with divorce.  It does not take into account Jesus’ parallel words in Matthew 19:9 (which is in a larger section about divorce and remarriage)–“Whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.”  So it can be inferred that if a person were to remarry after the justified ending of an unfaithful marriage, they are not committing adultery.  I think, comparing Lk 16:8 with Mt 19:9 and other verses, that it’s safe to say that one party breaking a covenant ends the covenant.

Meanwhile, on the issue of homosexual behavior, even relatively liberal-to-moderate pastors have to admit, much like my old senior pastor once did, that “the Bible never says anything good about homosexual behavior.”

One possible outlier scenario with divorce, though, is how that affects the position of a person who is divorced for reasons other than adultery/immorality.  I personally think that such a divorce becomes justified after the first person remarries or has sex with someone other than their divorced spouse–at that point, one party has committed adultery (see Luke 16:18b).  The alternative line of thinking would be that the spouse who remarries is living “in a state of adultery” (like the Roman Catholic Church talks about in their discussions of divorce and remarriage), but in the end this goes back to whether Jesus said a marriage covenant could remain binding upon one party even after it was broken.  Again, I think Mt. 19:9 (among other places) points toward marriage covenants only being valid for as long as both parties are faithful, since implicit in the statement “whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality…commits adultery” is the corollary, “whoever divorces his wife, in the case of immorality…does not commit adultery.”  If a marriage covenant is soluble, then one does not ‘remain in a state of sin’ should one remarry.

 

 

In deep sleep and deeper darkness

 

In deep sleep and deeper darkness dwells

An unease, a restlessness on the edge of thought;

That bedrock of Reality undiscernible beneath

The waters of life, the sands of time; which tells

A soul all its secrets, and puts the lie to all its delusions,

Saying that everything we know shall come to naught.

 

In deep sleep and deeper darkness that Being dwells

Whispering at the edge of hearing;

Still, small, quiet.  To each soul that pauses to listen he tells

Of how to pierce the murky miasma and meet Reality without fearing.

 

In deep sleep and deeper darkness that Being dwells

And sets to shepherds and kings primordial pacts,

Binding them with ironclad blessings in exchange for faithful acts,

And ending sad loneliness, binding heart to heart and sinew to sinew.

 

In deep sleep and deeper darkness He dwells

Setting out the road to life by a dimly-seen cross,

Bidding us cut off the old and say our farewells,

To count all things but His elusive presence mere loss.

 

In deep sleep and deeper darkness He dwells

Piercing silence with whispers and illuminating darkness with light;

He reaches out to touch with gentle hands,

And with that touch terminates our souls’ languishing night.

 

In deep sleep and deeper darkness He dwells

On a brilliant throne of dazzling emerald,

Dimly seen but only when faintly sought;

Flaring to true radiance only when we seek Him like we ought.

 

In deep sleep and deeper darkness He dwells

Calling out to his own,

Beckoning onward through the haze ‘til at last they see face-to-face, and bend the knee

To that King on his radiant throne.

 

 

Sowing For a Harvest: That’s Hilarious

Psalm 126:1-6
John 15:1-11

As a third-century man was anticipating death, he penned these last words to a friend: “It’s a bad world, an incredibly bad world. But I have discovered in the midst of it a quiet and holy people who have learned a great secret. They have found a joy which is a thousand times better than any pleasure of our sinful life. They are despised and persecuted, but they care not. They are masters of their souls. They have overcome the world. These people are the Christians–and I am one of them.”

Would you describe yourself as joyful? Would you say that you are happy? There is a false stereotype of Christians that “to find religion is to be made miserable.” And yet, we read it in our Scripture lessons this morning—joy is a fruit of the Spirit. It isn’t a weak word, either. It’s not a faint smile and the attitude that you just have to endure the bad in life; it’s not resignation. It’s not wearing a fake smile when you feel like crying or kicking a door in—there’s more to it than what my wife calls the “’happy Christian’ stereotype.”

The early church father Tertullian once said, “The Christian is hilarious.” In Latin, hilaritas (hilarious) is the answer to the Greek word chara, ‘joy,’ which is closely related to the word ‘charm,’ and also to the Greek word for ‘grace,’ charis. It’s true that following Jesus requires you to give up some things that other people (and you, too) enjoy; it’s true that following Jesus demands something more than the cheap grace that says, “I’ve show up in church on Sunday; now to go do my own thing for the rest of the week.” Jesus demands more than just lip service—he demands your whole life. Despite what you may think, though, the Christian is happy; smiling; boisterous; full of laughter. There are those who think that there is a touch of the unseemly in Christians’ joy; it goes beyond the propriety of their good manners. It “just isn’t the way things are done!” Yet there is no denying it. The fruit of the Spirit is joy.

Have you ever seen a crime drama, or a criminal proceeding? The defendant sits at his table, worry and anxiety gnawing at him as he awaits his fate. Will he be found guilty? The jury slowly files in, and takes their seats after hours of deliberation. The judge asks, “Has the jury reached a verdict?” And the jury foreman replies, “We have, your honor.” He opens the envelope which contains their answer. Every person leeeeans forward in their seats in anticipation….The foreman reads the preamble, “In the matter of so-and-so, on the charges of thus-and-such,” he starts, and declares that the jury finds the defendant, “not guilty.”
Instantly, the defendant leans jumps to his feet in joy, and hugs his lawyer. Tears run down his face. A huge weight has been removed from his back! He is a free man! Relief and, indeed, joy, flood his heart. There is no one who knows joy like the person who has been relieved of a great burden.

And when Christ has entered your heart, you have every reason to be joyful. Death itself has lost its power over you, as has sin. There is a reason that the early Methodists were accused of being “enthusiasts”—they were too happy about the work God had done in their souls to restrain themselves. The same can be said of the early members of the Salvation Army, the Salvationists, or the early followers of St Francis of Assisi, the Franciscans. There is a story told of an organist in England who pleaded with a Salvation Army drummer not to bang his drum so hard. The Salvationist replied, “Lor’ bless you, sir, since I’ve been converted I’m so happy I could bust the bloomin’ drum.”

Indeed, this describes the apostles themselves on the day of Pentecost in Acts 2. When the Holy Spirit descended upon their gathering and they were filled with the Holy Spirit, people thought they were drunk, they were so happy. It’s been happening ever since. When God saves someone and their happiness overflows, there are still some who scowl and glare—how dare religion escape the confines we’ve set aside for it! Yet that new Christian need not mind the disapproval. The early Methodists would understand.

So beyond outward appearances, what are the realities behind joy as a fruit of the Spirit? It’s not all laughter and emotional highs, after all. To get to the heart of what this supernatural joy is, we can first distinguish it from some of the things it’s commonly confused with.

Pleasure and a positive emotional state are often confused for joy. Some people probably think that joy is just a matter of getting enough endorphins in your system. And there are many people who think that they’re experts at joy as a result, even though they’re doing everything but following Christ. But joy is not simply a matter of “feeling good.”

Pleasure depends on circumstances. It’s hard to feel pleasure when you are sick or when those you care about are in poor health or unhappy. Pleasure can be stolen just by eating the wrong thing. Bang your shin or trip in the parking lot or get a toothache, and that “good vibe” you were feeling is gone. A Christian’s joy is much deeper than that. Joy as a fruit of the Spirit can be found in any stage of life, in all circumstances—even when you’ve lost everything. Joy is present even in the midst of persecution and pain. Father Brown, a missionary with the Oxford Mission in Calcutta was renowned for the overflowing joy of his heart; he would often speak of hilaritas, “gladness of heart,” and it showed in his own life, arriving at his appointments laughing—even as he limped along with a painful, incurable disease.

Pleasures are inconsistent. What gives you great pleasure in one stage of life will not give you any in a few years. When I was younger, I loved to eat mushrooms; yet, at some point, I lost my taste for them. Similarly, when I was younger I enjoyed playing soccer; yet I lost my interest in that as I grew older, too. You could practically write your biography based upon what things held your interest at different points in your life. But joy is constant. The youngest Christian, a ‘babe in arms,’ knows it. It remains there in a Christian’s 20s, when life is most unsettled—college and dating and trying to start a career—and it remains their strength. It is there for those in the Christian’s 70s and 80s and 90s, as well, their refuge in retirement.

It’s also easy to have ‘too much’ of things which give us pleasure. Once we hit that point, what once attracts us now repels us. For much of my life, I have loved honey-roasted peanuts. Not just any, but specifically Planter’s honey-roasted peanuts in a tin—it just loses something when it’s in a plastic bag. I used to often snack on them, getting my fingers sticky with the mixture of honey and salt that comes with handling those peanuts. There’s often a tin or two of them at my house as a result. My wife went and bought another tin recently, and reminded me of it. She was surprised when I said I just wasn’t that interested in them anymore. I hadn’t really thought to say anything to her before then, because it hadn’t come up—but I’ve slowly been losing my taste for them.

Similarly, I used to get my mother to go with me and my brother to a Japanese restaurant that opened up in Muncie. We actually ate there fairly frequently. It was precisely that frequency which came to kill my mother’s interest in Japanese food. She came to much prefer Mexican food for a while after that, and I would often go along with her to Mexican restaurants…which resulted in me developing a bit of an aversion to Mexican for a while. Pleasure satiates. It’s easy to have too much. But joy never satiates. The old commercial slogan said, “There’s always room for Jello”—but we all know that even that is a lie. Only the Christian can say, “There’s always room for more.”

Pleasure is also shallow. It’s only “skin deep.” Pleasure can’t exist in the same room as the “hard questions of life,” like why people suffer and die or why life is so ‘unfair’—it has to ignore them. Pleasure is the Christmas party thrown by a family that doesn’t know Christ; a party without a purpose. But joy goes to the very core of our being. Joy is a smile that reaches the eyes and the heart as well as the lips. There may be times when joy is accompanied by laughter, by cheering and by ecstasy, the ‘emotional highs.’ But there are times when joy sinks into quiet contentment and peace. Pleasure is skin-deep—but joy? Joy goes to the very core.

Joy goes to the very core. It possesses the whole person.

The person with the joy of God in their hearts cannot worry. They don’t need books like Philip Yancey’s Where Is God When It Hurts? They don’t need to understand in order to believe, but like St Anselm of Canterbury, they say, “I believe that I may understand.” They believe it when the Bible says “God is love.” They also believe the Bible when it says that God is all-powerful. The All-powerful is the All-loving, and thus they cannot worry, because they trust that even when they are in the dark, God is still working in the world to bring about his purposes.

The joy-filled heart is also free of guilt. Christians from the newest, the ‘babe in arms,’ to the most spiritually mature (regardless of their age) are always aware of the wide gulf separating human beings from God. The spiritually mature are even more aware than the new Christian, in fact—they see their own sin more clearly who have. The most holy saint is painfully aware that all of his or her holiness is derived. “Though the darkness hide thee, though the eye of sinful man thy glory may not see / Only thou art holy, there is none beside thee / Perfect in power, in love and purity.”

And yet for all of that painful awareness of their inadequacy, the joy-filled heart does not dwell on that. Instead, it knows the relief of the death-row prisoner who hears at the last minute that his sentence has been commuted, the defendant who hears the verdict, “not guilty” at her trial. They are sinful and impure—but there is no condemnation in Christ Jesus. Only God is holy—but he fills us with his Spirit to make us holy too. The hymn speaks for them when it says, “Long my imprison’d spirit lay / Fast bound in sin and nature’s night / Thy eye diffused a quickening ray / I woke, the dungeon flamed with light / My chains fell off, my heart was free / I rose, went forth and followed thee.”

The joy-filled heart is painfully aware of his or her own sinfulness; yet the same heart is free of guilt. Because even though they know that God is holy, and that they are not, they do not dwell on that. Instead, they accept God’s forgiveness and trust God to make them what they cannot make themselves. Even if they find it hard to forgive themselves, they nonetheless accept God’s forgiveness, and dwell on that instead. As the saying goes, “They love heaven more who have seen hell.”

The person with the joy of God in their hearts is free of worry and of guilt. There is a third thing which the joy-filled heart is free of: fear. Many people go through life with the fear gnawing at them that their life is meaningless. They want to know the answers to the questions that we all want to know: Is there a God? Does he want to hurt me or help me? Is there meaning to life?

They want to be a part of a cause, of “something greater than themselves.” Yet they find all too often that these causes are transient, and they become disillusioned with them—it wasn’t “greater than themselves,” after all.

I read a study recently that showed that where there was a substantial increase in the number of people who identify as “not religious” or who do not identify as Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, etc. These people are the so-called “nones”—as in, “none of the above.” Yet this study found that despite the decline in religious affiliation, the percentage of people who believed in a God or in a “Higher Power,” and who prayed, remained much higher. The “nones” are afraid to follow Jesus, but many of them still want to find meaning in life, which they are attempting to find through such groups as the Juniper Path, which offers space for discussing issues of life-after-death and of personal transformation and accountability.

They seek to find meaning in life because they haven’t found it. And they won’t find it with these “personal transformation” businesses, either. But the Christian is free of that fear—he knows in whom he has believed, and because the God who reveals himself in Jesus Christ knows him and is known by him, he has found the meaning to life. Built upon that foundation, joy fills his heart. “All realities sing—and nothing else will,” as the poet Coventry Patmore wrote.

The Christian knows God’s love and his miracle-working power, and she cannot doubt. Even in the midst of the worst life has to offer, he still trusts that “God’s in his heaven; all’s right in the world.” A ship may be caught in a terrible storm, with sailors terrified that the ship will sink and they will all drown. Yet the Christian says with St Paul, who endured precisely that in the book of Acts, “Be of good cheer, for I believe God.” Christians are ‘of good cheer’ for that reason alone—they believe God.

John Wesley is famous for remarking of his followers, the early Methodists: “Our people die well.” As Christians, it doesn’t just matter that we’ve started the race, or how we’re running the race at present. It also matters how we finish the race. The secret, of course, to dying well…is living well. The joy-filled life, the life filled with the joy of the Holy Spirit, is the very essence of ‘living well.’

The heart filled with the joy of God is less easily tempted by envy or by hatred, by lust or by greed. Joy is part of the armor of the Spirit, and a heart filled with the Spirit’s joy just doesn’t find reason to envy or hate anyone. She would rather give away that joy she has found in Jesus. That “joy down in her heart” doesn’t go away on the deathbed, either.

When the English missionary Temple Gairdner was dying and in a great amount of pain, people who came to visit him were often struck by the great joy which seemed to emanate from him. Even in the midst of his great pain, it seemed more like he was already in heaven than that he was slowly dying. When he finally passed away, his son looked upon his face, still emanating joy even in death, and said, “Your joy no man taketh from you.”

Tradition!

Roger Olson defines liberal theology as a paradigm where reason and experience are exalted above Scripture. Because Scripture is devoid of content until interpreted by a human being, liberal theology could also be defined as a paradigm where reason and experience are exalted above the Church’s tradition, or set in opposition to it. Because reason is tradition-based as well, liberal theology could be further defined as “a paradigm where the reasoning of those who are not regenerate is exalted above the Church’s tradition.”
Thus, a theological liberal would be someone who denies traditional doctrine or interpretations. The person who argues that modern science has “impartially” legitimated same-sex sexual attraction and because of this Scriptural prohibitions must be set aside exemplifies this attitude toward theology.

The issue of theological method comes down to the question, “Whose tradition?” Do we place authority with the Church, the people of God who have been regenerated and are in communion with God? Or do we place it outside of the Church, with those who utilize various other traditions to determine their place in the world and how they interact with the biblical text?

Scripture itself was formulated initially as traditions, first oral and later written, passed on from one early Christian community to the next. Tradition also determined which books would be canonized, though the canon itself would later help determine the Church’s tradition, that is, the Church’s interpretations and teachings which would be handed on to subsequent generations of believers.

But there is a real sense in which Scripture itself is tradition. It is apostolic tradition—which is to say, teachings received from the apostles and handed on to other believers, who eventually recorded them in written form—and tradition which the Church values for its connections to the apostles, and through them, its connections to Jesus Christ himself.

This does not take into account questions some scholars have raised regarding the authorship of a number of books of the Bible. Wolterstorff’s concept of “appropriation” seems particularly pertinent here—it matters less precisely who authored the text, and more that God has appropriated it for his own, saying in essence, “this text reveals something about me,” and the Church has recognized it.

In the end, whether we realize it or not, our knowledge of God is tradition-based. Reason is based upon an understanding of the world passed down from one person to another. The experience of assurance offers no new content, but instead outlines who can and should participate in shaping the tradition of the Church, and is likewise spelled out in the Church’s tradition.

The Church’s tradition itself is based upon teachings passed down from one Christian to another, and the Scriptures are likewise products of an oral passing-down which was eventually placed on paper. God’s self-revelation, or at least the record of it, is thus also tradition-based.

What is not realized as often, however, is that the methods utilized by theological liberals are themselves the products of tradition, and traditions with a short pedigree at that. When theological liberals engage the world, they likewise do so from within the context of a tradition, a passed-down set of teachings like any other, whether it be Rationalism, Empiricism, Deconstructionism or Queer Theory.

Our ability to make sense of the world is thus tradition-based. The only question is whose tradition we will follow. Even the Baptists, Calvinists and Pentecostals who decry “tradition” are themselves heirs to a tradition, and look to that tradition for guidance on matters of teaching and interpretation. Likewise the modern Liberal Protestant.

Whose tradition? Vincent of Lerins’ maxim says it best: “That which has been believed by everyone, always and everywhere.” Where there is a question to be settled within the Christian family, the appeal should go to the tradition of consensus Christianity—to look for a time when Christians were united in belief on the issue. A consensus in the present day would also have a measure of authority, but if that consensus did not exist in previous eras, it would still not be the consensus of the Church.