The Wide-Eyed Foundation of Marriage

July 26th, 2014

Here is another letter that I am sharing because having the opportunity to respond to these concrete, heart-felt, and existential questions gives me the opportunity to unpack the implications of the Gospel to the realities of every day life. As always, I hope reading this is thought provoking and edifying.

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Dear Ms. O,

Regarding your questions about marriage, Wow! That’s a lot to process particularly in trying to give such a subject its proper due. I would say that marriage is one of the basic elements of society, as it takes a natural reality, the biological impulse for procreation, and it directs it toward something greater: the development of civilizations and all the good it can bring into our life. I would also say that from a Christian perspective it is a profound theological reality, as it potentially mirrors the dynamics of the life of the Trinity, and is a kind of living parable of Christ’s relationship to the Church. With this context in mind, the character of a potential mate is one of the key factors to consider, and by character I don’t mean perfect moral character, but rather qualities that are critical for a person to have in order to be open to growth and to sustain good relationships. I suppose good conversations could be had about what these characteristics are, but off of the top of my head a person should be relatively humble, honest, at least moderately considerate of others, principled and yet open-minded. If two people possess these qualities I believe that on the whole they will be able to navigate the promises and pitfalls that two imperfect people face when living the challenges of life together.

You asked why it is that people get married and what is marriage’s purpose. In some ways these questions are intertwined. Of course the personal reasons why people get married are diverse, with some reasons being more noble than others. I think on some basic level we have a deep drive to connect with others in an intimate way, and marriage is the avenue for expressing the deepest intimacy, body and soul. Often people approach marriage seeking self-fulfillment, which is not bad, but it can become idolatrous, and in the world often is idolatrous. I mentioned marriage mirroring the dynamics of the Trinity, which specifically is being-in-communion, a deep sense of one’s self in the giving of one’s self to the well being of the other. In the Trinity this is the Father eternally begetting the Son, and the Father eternally processing the Spirit, and the Spirit intimately moving through the Father’s begetting of the Son, as well as the Son’s response of self-giving obedience to the Father. This means that the Father knows himself in and through the Son, and the Son in and through the Father, and the Spirit in and through the Father and the Son. I could go on, but the point is that each distinct person has himself in and through the self-giving relationship to the other. In other words, the fulfillment of each is found in self-giving to the other, and in God this distinct self-giving is so complete and without reservation that they are substantially one, one being. Marriage, in a limited human way is supposed to be this reality in time and space, and marriage goes awry or dies when the two involved either become enmeshed, which means the loss of distinction of the two members, or when the two members never really give of themselves to the other in a self-sacrificing way, which is the loss of communion. Most often marriages die because the two people of the marriage are using the other for their own self-fulfillment, which, from a Xian perspective, goes against the most foundational law of the universe, the law based on the very being of God. This is the problem of sin, and this is why in marriage much grace is needed.

Regarding how you know you are ready for marriage, I am not sure how to answer that. Throughout my dating life I lived in great ambiguity and uncertainty about these things. This uncertainty about readiness and finding “the one” is in part because of the complexity of relationships, but at a deeper level, it was about my own brokenness. Fortunately, graciously, God acted in my life by confronting an idol I had long been laboring under, and that confrontation freed me so that I knew I loved Paula, and soon after I proposed. I don’t think my experience is common, nor do I think it should be, as it is more likely a testimony about my brokenness and God’s grace, than it is an expression of how God moves in people’s lives to bring them together. During the time in my life that I was dating Paula, I remember having a discussion with a brother about marriage and making the right decision, and I remember him telling me that “It’s not about making the right decision, but about making the decision right.” Obviously that stuck with me. As I see it, this notion frees us from the search for “the one” or “the soul mate” who is going to bring self-fulfillment, and moves us toward considering whether the person we are attracted to has the qualities to face the challenges of life together, as well as opening us to the grace we will need to overcome our own brokenness, however it has taken shape in our life. It is this kind of wide-eyed perception of both the realities of human sinfulness, especially our own, as well as the promises and possibilities of marriage, as a reality patterned after the Trinitarian life of God, that provides a good foundation for marriage.

Peace be with you.

Love, Anthony

To Raise the Body Is To Heal The Soul

July 23rd, 2014

Below is a letter I sent to a friend who had a question about the relationship of body, soul, and spirit with respect to human nature. I offer this letter as a post, for a few reasons: it’s been too long since I have posted anything, it provides some clarity regarding a subtle aspect of human existence, and I found that in the process of writing I experienced some grace for myself, and I hope that it might provide grace for others.

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Dear Ms. R,

Regarding your response to Beth Moore’s presentation of the tripartite model of human nature, I think typically it is not the most biblical way to understand human nature, as it owes more of a debt to Greek philosophy than it does to the Scriptures, but neither is it completely off, or outside the bounds of orthodoxy, and in fact, it is sometimes a helpful model to use. Before continuing, let me say that theological language is analogical in nature, and so when we talk about spiritual things we are always going to construct models to represent the reality as it is in-and-of-itself, however, this representation means that there is some functional semblance between the models we use and the reality they point to, and this furthermore means that some models will be better, and in our case, more biblically sound, than others.

Going back to Beth Moore’s presentation, I think it is helpful to make this distinction, particularly in a pastoral setting, when we can help people understand that their emotions, which the tripartite model equates with the dynamics of the soul, is not the touchstone to determine how things are in one’s relationship with God, who is Spirit. One could have feelings of elation and yet not be in union with God. Likewise, one could be in the dumps emotionally, and yet be in a state of gracious union with God. Again, our emotions are not the touchstone in discerning this. However, this does not mean that emotions should be ignored. We are, after all, not Stoics, and so, emotions should be addressed, but on the right foundation, which most essentially is the grace of God uniting us with God through the Cross by the Spirit. Our emotions reveal our perceptions, and patterns of thought about such things as our identity, the nature of God, and the nature of the world in which we live, and often our patterns of thinking are diseased, sometimes horribly so. (Can I get a witness?!?) So, a part of maturity requires that we address these patterns and perceptions, and allow the Spirit of God, who works at a level deeper than our thinking (spirit to Spirit)  to renew our minds through the Word of God, as it leads us into the gracious ministry of the Living Word.

Now that I have communicated a little about how this model can be helpful, let me address where it can go wrong. In short, under the influence of Greek metaphysics, this tripartite model can lead us into thinking that human kind is some kind of composite of three substances: body substance, soul substance, and spirit substance, that are somehow integrated yet, when push comes to shove, completely distinct. From better biblical minds than my own, I have heard that the Scriptures tends towards a model of human nature that has been referred to as holism, where these three parts of human existence are more a matter of angles of approach than substances. Humankind is one unified, holistic reality that can be viewed as body, as soul, as spirit, and each of these factors of human existence are essential to human being. Teasing this out with you, I posit that we could say that the body is the surface and empirical dimension of the soul, and the soul is the depth, and intangible dimension of the body, and the words “body” and “soul” are useful in referring to different perspectives of a singular whole. Likewise, the spirit is depth dimension (can I say depthest dimension?), but specifically denotes that aspect of human existence that is capable of communion and union with God. This is why the spirit is dead when the person is alienated from God, because the meaning of spirit, from a biblical perspective, is that relationship with God: we have ourselves in relation to God, and outside of that relationship we don’t have ourselves. Instead what we have is something we call the self that is really the sum total of biological and socio-cultural forces, with the spirit, such as it is, making limited choices within a closed and constricted system that is perishing. This is why, outside of Christ, we perish with the world, we literally lose ourselves, because in a real sense we never had ourselves.

After all this, you may be thinking, “Okay, fine, I get the difference, but how does it matter with respect to effective Christian living?” Even if you aren’t thinking this, I am still going to address it, because as you know, ideas have consequences. First let me say that it is not completely clear to me what are the consequences in failing to make this distinction between the tripartite model and the model of biblical holism. Rather, I think we, on principle should go with the model we best perceive in Scriptures, and trust that our understanding of the consequences will follow. That said, one critical, indeed very critical, issue that comes to mind is that the significance of the Resurrection is more clearly seen in the holistic model, for in this model Jesus’ bodily resurrection means our total salvation. In the other model one could think, “I accept that Jesus was bodily raised, but what does that have to do with righting my soul, and bringing life to my spirit?” Keep in mind, however, that this question can only be asked in the tripartite framework, for in the holistic framework body, soul, and spirit are different facets of one whole. Thus, to raise the body is to heal the soul, and this resurrection is the sign that the spirit is in communion with the Spirit of God.

Now my mind is racing, and there is so much more I want to say about sacramental realities, incarnational spirituality, and the sanctified senses and imagination, as well as how all this ties into cultural engagement and culture making, but grades are pressing, and I think enough has been said for the present moment (Jesus, help me live in the present).

 

Peace be with you.

Love,

Anthony

 

The Hands That Shaped You

April 29th, 2014

Perhaps in the end the final question is: “By the work of whose hands do you live?” Are you going to live by the work of your hands, and be the sum of all you’ve done? Or, are you going to be the work of God’s hands, hands that were pierced to embrace you, remake you, and make you His own? Perhaps in the end God will merely look for the hands that shaped you.

The Mere Melody

April 24th, 2014

In thinking about why I am a bit uncomfortable with fundamentalist Christians, even though they share many of my theological convictions, an analogy occurred to me wherein the Christian faith is much like a symphonic piece, and the Fundamentalists, as well as a whole host of Evangelicals, are singing the basic melody, but are missing the whole symphony, a wonderfully complex orchestral piece that has a clear melody, but a melody that throughout the whole of the orchestration is repeated with a slight variation on a consistent theme, and where there are echoes of the melody, counter-melodies (which heighten the tension of the melody) and where there is vocal and instrumental harmony, all of which provides texture, depth, and breadth to the song that is Christianity. The main problem, however, is not that they are merely singing the melody, but that they too often think that the mere melody is the whole orchestration, and too often they are suspicious of those parts of the larger orchestration that go beyond the basic melody. In short, its like their souls have become attenuated by only listening to the pop version of the Christian faith.

May Sumatra Be With You

March 27th, 2014

I love coffee. I love it more than I should. This I know, because my sensitive digestive system often tells me so; nevertheless, I love coffee so much I often ignore what it says. This post, however, is not about my physiological responses to coffee, but about a disparity in my experience of coffee, which is that coffee never tastes as good as it smells at that moment when it is being ground. That smell is like heaven crashing my senses, like God has said, “I will enter the world as an aroma” and when that aroma hits, I am suddenly lulled into a deep sense of contentment, peace, and that everything is aligned, both in the world out there and the world within. It’s almost a mystical experience, a sudden sense of oneness, but the problem is that this sense passes all to quickly, and I am left bereft with only a faint memory to sustain me.

Now that I think about it, this post is about my physiological responses, as I am convinced that body and spirit are two-sides of one coin, and when the aroma of coffee hits my senses, catalyzing a whole series of hormonal responses, I am certainly expressing both the psychosomatic dimension of human existence, as well as the capacity of these physiological responses to engage my spirit at a deep level. Again, the aroma hits, and I am one with God, everyone, and all things. This phenomena reinforces my deep sensibility that ultimately all things are sacramental, that God ordained in the structure of creation that the material can participate in the spiritual, and that the senses, when rightly trained, can lead us into the presence of God.

So, in thinking this through, I’ve decided I’m gonna start carrying around a battery powered coffee grinder, and some fresh coffee beans in a vacuum pouch, and when I start getting, anxious, frustrated, or angry, which is far more often than I want any of you to know, I am going to pull out those beans, grind them, and be one with all things and everyone.

May Sumatra be with you…

sacramentally of course, as only God can give peace.

Anxious Face

March 24th, 2014

Every morning I wake to see the top picture above hanging on the wall just to the left of my bed, a picture of an Italian village near a river. And every morning through the lens of anthropomorphising imagination I see, amidst the buildings of this village, a little face expressing something like anxiety with a touch of fear. It’s as if this building, in a moderately high-pitched, cartoon-like voice is saying,  ”Uh… anyone see those approaching storm clouds???”

Why Millennials Long for Liturgy

January 17th, 2014

Below is a link to a good article on why some Millennials are leaving mainstream Evangelcial churches and crossing the liturgical threshold into Rome, Constantinople, or Canterbury. In short, they are looking for historical rootedness and tradition, a deep connection between the spiritual and the material, and an intimate connection between truth and beauty. Personally, I resonated with the testimonies of the people who were interviewed in the article, particularly when it came to the concerns expressed by one gentlemen regarding the move by many Protestant churches to incorporate more liturgical styles in their own worship. In his words, “such stylistic treatments dodge the real question: the issues of church authority behind the traditional liturgy.” It seems to me that the traditional liturgies are organic in nature, having emerged from the common life and wisdom of the Church as it moved through and developed over time, and in my experience these liturgies have more presence, as if they act sacramentally to communicate the work of the Spirit amidst the multigenerational work of the people. By contrast, the modern move among Evangelicals and Protestants to recover aspects of ancient liturgies for their own worship is at risk of treating liturgical history as a buffet to choose from without submission to a greater reality than their own theological sensibilities and convictions. As the above gentlemen said, such an approach too often evades questions regarding the authority of the Church. I don’t see this evasion as necessarily intentional, however, as the nature of both the Church and authority are complex and sensitive issues.

However you weigh in on this issue, I recommend reading the article, which is titled “Why Millennials Long for Liturgy” and was written by Gracy Olmstead, who is the associate editor for The American Conservative.

Your Heart Stopped Beating

December 15th, 2013

Lord Jesus,

Your heart stopped beating for me, so that my heart might start beating for you.

May my debt of gratitude be forever outstanding.

-Amen

Is Pope Francis a Universalist

October 5th, 2013

The following is an email that I wrote to a friend and dear sister in Christ, who expressed some concerns about recent words of Pope Francis wherein he was accused of being a universalist. I thought I would publish it here to share with my family, friends, and fellow pilgrims.

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Dear Ms. C,

I read a few articles on the Pope’s reported universalism, and I think the following quote from a recent sermon of his, is what has caused the brouhaha:

The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! ‘Father, the atheists?’ Even the atheists. Everyone! And this Blood makes us children of God of the first class! We are created children in the likeness of God and the Blood of Christ has redeemed us all! And we all have a duty to do good. And this commandment for everyone to do good, I think, is a beautiful path towards peace. If we, each doing our own part, if we do good to others, if we meet there, doing good, and we go slowly, gently, little by little, we will make that culture of encounter: we need that so much. We must meet one another doing good. ‘But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!’ But do good: we will meet one another there.

Of all that he said in this passage I think what is most challenging with respect to the charge of universalism is where he said, “And this Blood makes us children of God of the first class!” To explain I will begin by saying that I’ve read that the emphasis of redemption in a Roman Catholic and I think Eastern Orthodox framework is on Jesus’ identification with the whole of the human race wherein his union with us, and his crucifixion and resurrection for us actually changes the status of the whole of humanity. By contrast, we Protestants when it comes to redemption tend to focus on the individual’s appropriation of the work of Christ. Another way of saying this is that Christ has won redemption for all of us. Likewise the blood of Jesus has given all of us abundant blessing, beyond what any of us deserve, and all of us, whether we know it or not, partake of those blessings. With this in mind I think that the Pope is saying that all partake of the blessing of redemption by virtue of sharing a common humanity with Christ via incarnation. The question then being whether all will partake of the full benefit of Jesus’ redeeming work such that all will be saved in the final sense of the word, by which most people usually mean that one will go to Heaven, and not go to Hell. With respect to this question, I would bet that the Pope would say that not all will be saved in that sense, that God will respect people’s freedom and will let them choose to not partake of the full benefit of Christ’s redeeming work, and that though all will have received some benefit, ulitmately some will refuse to submit to the full work of redemption and will die lost.

You will also notice that in the above passage Francis states that we all have a duty to do good. For many, particulary Protestants, the duty to do good would be heard as a command of Law, which would therefore be a work of judgment. By contrast, I think, and I admit this is speculation, that in his framework the duty comes from being a creature made in God’s image, which is itself a grace, and being a redeemed son, which is an even further grace. Again, one could fall short of this duty that is a grace, and having fallen short of this grace, one could lose the status of sonship and thereby be be lost. In this economy of grace, one could begin by fulfilling this duty as best as he or she understands, and would thereby go further into the redemptive work of Christ, a going further which would eventually require faith for the redemptive work to come to completion in one’s life, a completion which Paul, in Romans 8:23, refers to as the adoption as sons for which we eagerly await.

Having said all that I said above, I understand why many have accused Francis of being a universalist, but I think he is a nuanced thinker that speaks very pastorally, and who wants to put an emphasis on the mercy and love of God as the foundation for a call to repentance and moral renewal. Also, I think he is a person who frustrates religious expectations in a good way, and is perhaps called by God to school people in the abundance of God’s grace that frustrates such expectations. Again, I am being speculative. In the end, I continue to read him and read about him with eagerness.

Finally, I have to share that a part of me feels a bit odd, or even wrong assessing his theology. I realize that he is not perfect, that he is a man who is also in need of redemption, a fact he openly confesses, and so his theology is apt to fall short in some ways. That said, I think it is a kind of Protestant pride that says, “Hmmm I’m gonna size this man up and identify where he falls short.” I guess I say this, because we Protestants tend to be suspicious of heirarchy and religious authority except for the authority of Scripture, which in some measure is right, but a bit simplistic, and in reality tends to work itself out in our lives in such a way that we really respect the religious authority of those who read the Scriptures in the same way we read the Scriptures. Having said this, I realize I have opened up a whole other can of worms, but I will save that for a latter conversation.

Peace be with you.

Love,
Anthony

100 Words – God’s Holiness

September 24th, 2013

Throughout my life I’ve heard that God’s holiness is the reason we sinners cannot stand before him, that his holiness is the measure of moral perfection against which we are compared and found greatly wanting. Lately I’ve been thinking this notion misses the heart of what holiness means. Instead of judgment, God’s holiness is about the purity of his love, a love utterly untainted by egoism, a love that utterly gives of itself to redeem the beloved. In this manner holiness is not essentially about judgment, but about the certainty of a sinner’s hope in the depths of God’s love.