C.S. Lewis On the Threshold of a Mystery

May 25th, 2016

The following is the meditation I gave during this past Sunday’s Evensong service.

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This is the beginning of a new series I am introducing for our time of meditation called, They Still Speak, where the meditation I offer will be primarily comprised of a voice from the past whose living faith still speaks to us today. My first voice for this series is from beloved author and lay theologian C.S. Lewis. What follows are a few words from Lewis on the Trinity, in which he does a remarkable job of following Saint Anselm’s motto regarding faith seeking understanding, which is basically a call for believers to explore the realities they confess in hopes of deepening their love and devotion to God. About the Trinity Lewis states,

You know that in space you can move in three ways – to left or right, backwards or forwards, up or down. Every direction is either one of these three or a compromise between them. They are called the three Dimensions. Now notice this. If you are using only one dimension, you could draw only a straight line. If you are using two, you could draw a figure: say, a square. And a square is made up of four straight lines. Now a step further. If you have three dimensions, you can then build what we call a solid body: say, a cube – a thing like a dice or a lump of sugar. And a cube is made up of six squares.

Do you see the point? A world of one dimension would be a straight line. In a two-dimensional world, you still get straight lines, but many lines make one figure. In a three-dimensional world, you still get figures but many figures make one solid body. In other words, as you advance to more real and more complicated levels, you do not leave behind you the things you found on the simpler levels: you still have them, but combined in new ways – in ways you could not imagine if you knew only the simpler levels.

Now the Christian account of God involves just the same principle. The human level is a simple and rather empty level. On the human level one person is one being, and any two persons are two separate beings – just as, in two dimensions (say on a flat sheet of paper) one square is one figure, and any two squares are two separate figures. On the Divine level you still find personalities; but up there you find them combined in new ways which we, who do not live on that level, cannot imagine. In God’s dimension, so to speak, you find a being who is three Persons while remaining one Being, just as a cube is six squares while remaining one cube. Of course we cannot fully conceive a Being like that: just as, if we were so made that we perceived only two dimensions in space we could never properly imagine a cube. But we can get a sort of faint notion of it. And when we do, we are then, for the first time in our lives, getting some positive idea, however faint, of something super-personal – something more than a person. It is something we could never have guessed, and yet, once we have been told, one almost feels one ought to have been able to guess it because it fits in so well with all the things we know already.

Though this explanation from Lewis is mildly heady, it is capable of inspiring devotion because it brings us to the threshold of a mystery, or better still, to the threshold of The Mystery: the nature of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Lewis’s explanation gives an orientation to this mystery in that we come to realize the limits of our understanding, that we are mere three-dimensional creatures trying to make sense of a multi-dimensional, perhaps infinitely dimensional Creator, and we do so with the resources of our three-dimensional imaginations. The other way Lewis’ illustration inspires devotion, is that it prompts us to consider that there are realities we participate in, about which we are only vaguely aware. Again, drawing from Lewis, the one dimensional line participates in the formation of two-dimensional figures, which participates in three-dimensional bodies. Applying this illustration to our lives, we are forced to consider the fact that our desires, decisions, and actions are influenced by, participate in, and affect realities beyond our immediate awareness, for we are attuned to three-dimensional reality, and thus we assess our lives and actions primarily within the confines of this dimension. Accepting Lewis’ illustration enables us entertain the idea that perhaps even our most mundane decisions and actions have greater significance than we typically ascribe to them.

Having said all this about the mystery of the Trinity, I want to be clear from a Christian perspective, that mysteries are not primarily problems for us to solve, or riddles that beckon our explanation in the hopes of gaining better understanding. Rather, a mystery is a reality that calls us to intimacy and close proximity. It is a reality that is best understood, perhaps only understood, by entering in. This bears witness to the fact that the deepest truths are only known through love. The beloved disciple John once made this simple, yet deep confession, “God is love.” The mystery of the Trinity brings clarity to this confession because it demonstrates that the one God is an eternal, loving relationship of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Likewise, the mystery of the Trinity gives shape and purpose to our lives as Christians, for through this confession of who God is, we understand that the Gospel is essentially the good news that we were created and redeemed to enter into the very relationship that is God. There is no other reason for our existence, and everything we do as Christians participates in this reality that is God. May it be that through faith perfecting itself in love, we may more deeply enter into the mystery of the Trinity, that our entire lives become a living witness to John’s bold confession that God is love.

Why A Friend Is Suing Me

May 4th, 2016

I’ve read about incidents like the one expressed in the article I linked below, and I’ve resisted sharing them or participating in the brouhaha that surrounds such issues and events, because I don’t like getting near the vitriol that too often attends how people engage and process issues related to sex, gender, and identity politics. All this said, I am sharing this because I am disturbed by what appears to be an absolutist tendency on the part of those who support same sex marriage.

According to the article (which at the moment I am taking at face value) this lady had an ongoing relationship with this gentlemen that was both professional and friendly. Nevertheless, because she couldn’t endorse his marriage, by providing her services, she has been subjected to both a lawsuit, and, according to another source, some degree of harassment. Regarding the absolutist tendency I mentioned, it seems that those who support same sex marriage will not allow any reservation from others. This lady did not withhold professional services nor friendship from this man because he is homosexual, yet she is not allowed this area of reservation, which is rooted in her religious beliefs about sexuality and marriage. This seems absolutist because when it comes to homosexuality there are no degrees or nuances allowed in how one might respond to this issue.

Wrapping up this brief post, I want to finish by saying I realize that sexuality is a complex issue, as is biblical hermeneutics, and the relationship between religious conviction, politics and the public life, but I am disturbed because in the broader culture’s response to all of these matters I am seeing an absolutism that will not countenance complexity, and neither will it allow for any measure of reservation.

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Why A Friend Is Suing Me

Templing In Jesus’ Word

May 3rd, 2016

The following is my reflection from this past Sunday’s Evensong service.

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Hear these words from Brother Lawrence, a 17th century monk whose sage words on the spiritual life posthumously became a book titled The Practice of the Presence of God:

He does not ask much of us, merely a thought of Him from time to time, a little act of adoration, sometimes to ask for His grace, sometimes to offer Him your sufferings, at other times to thank Him for the graces, past and present, He has bestowed on you, in the midst of your troubles to take solace in Him as often as you can. Lift up your heart to Him during your meals and in company; the least little remembrance will always be the most pleasing to Him. One need not cry out very loudly; He is nearer to us than we think.

In these words, Lawrence has given us many ways we can remind ourselves of God’s presence, but at the heart of all his practical advice are these words, “He is nearer to us than we think.”

Likewise, the heart of today’s reflection is the grand metaphysical claim that God is with us, “is nearer to us than we think.” In today’s lectionary in Joel, we hear of a time when God’s presence will always be with Israel, and by his presence Israel will be kept from shame. In the reading from Acts we hear how the people of Lystra had come to believe that the god’s had come to be with them in the persons of Paul and Barnabas, and though they we wrong, their belief about Paul and Barnabas expressed a legitimate longing: that God should live with humanity. In the Psalms it is proclaimed that the nations will know of God’s saving work, a knowledge that can only happen when God is present. And now, turning to today’s Gospel reading we will also see that the presence of God is the backdrop of this passage.

Today’s Gospel is essentially Jesus’ response to a disciple who asked him, “Lord, how is it that you will reveal yourself to us, and not to the world?” As is often the case with Jesus, his response seemed to dodge the question, and if I was that disciple I would have been thinking, “Hold on, I didn’t ask you ‘How will you know I love you?’ I asked you, ‘How will you reveal yourself to me?’” As is also often the case, upon further inspection we find that Jesus was responding to the question, but not in a manner that we expect.

Before I continue, I want to share that when I first read this passage I was disturbed by how Jesus response connected a disciple’s love to a disciple’s keeping of Jesus word, and to compound the matter he further connected the love of the Father to a disciple’s keeping of Jesus’ word. In short, these series of connections induced anxiety, and seemed to me like an aweful invitation to somehow prove myself, and perform for the Father’s love. So, in response, I cried out, and I let my anxiety be known. I prayed, read commentaries, and wrote, and I prayed and wrote some more, as I have come to find that often when I write clarity happens.

As I said, in Jesus’ response to the disciple’s question, he made a connection between love and keeping Jesus’ word, but as I have come to see it, this keeping is not so much a disciple’s efforts hang on to Jesus’ words, or worse, live up to them, but rather to live within them. In other words, Jesus is saying that the one who abides in his word is the one who loves him. This idea is reinforced when Jesus states that he and the Father will abide with those who keep Jesus’ word. In this passage it seems that the author, John, is developing his meaning through the use of a parallel. On the one hand those who abide in Jesus’ word are the ones who love him, and on the other hand those who abide in Jesus’ word are the ones with whom Jesus and the Father will abide. The word “abiding” has the connotation of a place in which one remains, and in which one becomes familiar: relationally intimate. Given the original audience, this word “abide” is important, as it would have evoked the Temple, the dwelling place of God. So, perhaps what Jesus is saying here is that those who love him will temple themselves in his word, and they will temple themselves in his word because they will find his word to be a temple of God’s presence where they come to know the life and love of God.

At this point in my reflection, you may have noticed that I have not yet mentioned the passage from Revelation. I did this because of all the passages this passage is the clear climax of today’s lectionary. Prior to the verses we read today, an angel takes John to see the Bride of Christ, who is none less than the heavenly Jerusalem, where, as we see in the passages we did read, there is no temple for the presence of the Lord will be the temple, and the glory of his presence will be light of the Bride, the heavenly Jerusalem. In the overarching narrative of Scripture, the thing to realize about this heavenly Jerusalem and the presence of God, is that it is a reality we come to participate in now. Moreover, as John makes clear in many ways, the glory of God, which is the light of God’s people, is the Lamb crucified. The glory of God is God sacrificially pouring himself out through the Son to become the very light and life of his people. It is this self-sacrificing, out-pouring glory that animates the Word of Christ in which we abide, and why we are called to temple in his words.

The Mighty Deeds of God

April 24th, 2016

Below is the reflection I gave this evening at an evening prayer service I have been leading called Evensong. Read and be enlightened!

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In the Psalm reading today the Psalmist proclaims these Words:

Great is the Lord and most worthy of praise;
his greatness no one can fathom.
One generation commends your works to another;
they tell of your mighty acts.

A littler further he states…

They tell of the power of your awesome works—
and I will proclaim your great deeds.

Listen to these words: worthy, greatness, mighty, awesome. The Psalmist used all these words and generally when we hear such words our mind fills with images of power, and we perhaps think of conquering, changing circumstances, making things happen. It is ideas such as these that populate our understanding of the divine and why it is we should pay homage, fall to our knees, render sacrifice, and obey. Our tendency is to think that because God is powerful: all powerful, he is glorious: all glory. The Gospel, however, forces us to reconsider our understanding of glory and power. Listen to Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel reading:

Now the Son of Man is glorified and God is glorified in him. If God is glorified in him, God will glorify the Son in himself, and will glorify him at once.

Prior to speaking these words Jesus washed the disciples feet as an example of service, which in the Kingdom of God is the very substance of greatness. In these words Jesus is connecting the glory of God to his impending death, which is the absolute example of service and greatness, the example of greatness which is at the root of all genuine service of all the saints throughout the ages, and it is this glory that will forever crown all God’s saints in the age to come. In connecting the glory of God to his death Jesus reveals that God’s glory is his self-giving love, a love by which he made himself vulnerable, allowed himself to be broken, so that he could meet us in our brokenness, and in our brokenness intimately bind us together and bring us home to Him. This connection between glory and service, a connection which displays God’s heart for all to see, is the very heart of the Gospel.

We live in a culture that is becoming further removed from a Christian worldview, an age I have heard referred to as post-Christian, which is to say that the dominant culture no longer assumes Christian beliefs and values. More and more what is emerging is a belief that plurality, and radical autonomy, are the paths of freedom and human flourishing. Our culture believes that everyone should have the right to determine and identify themselves, without any recourse to nature or any other determinates. In this framework the greatest virtue is tolerance, and the prophetic word is what we most deeply feel is true about ourselves. We must all tolerate, even affirm, each person’s chosen identity, for the chosen self is sacrosanct. We Christians, however, have a different view of self and a different prophetic Spirit.

In today’s reading from Revelation, just after the assigned verses we find these words:

And he [an angel] said to me , “These are true words of God.” Then I fell down at his feet to worship him, but he said to me, “You must not do that! I am a fellow servant with you and your comrades who hold the testimony of Jesus. Worship God! For the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy.”

Within this passage I want to draw attention to this sentence, “For the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy.” Often, when we hear the word prophecy, we envision one who offers words about the future, often a future of judgment, but here the testimony of Jesus, the Gospel itself, is the prophetic utterance. No doubt John has in mind a Spirit empowered testimony, but nonetheless the prophetic utterance is the Church’s proclamation of the mighty deeds of God expressed through the person and work of Jesus Christ, these mighty deeds wherein God made himself vulnerable to lay a hold of our depths, our sin, our brokenness and bring us back to our true selves. Selves not created by our own hands, not determined by our our limited and broken sense of what is true and good. Rather selves that were created by God’s wisdom and design. These true selves are purchased selves, purchased through God’s self-offering on the cross. These true selves are not autonomous but rather owned and they are selves that are formed and are being formed by nail pierced hands. This is the spirit of prophecy that we proclaim to an age lost in radical autonomy, and it is my prayer that God would empower his people with this prophetic spirit to boldly proclaim the mighty deeds of a glorious God who would pour himself out restore us and make us his own.

When Squirrels Attack

April 6th, 2016

I’m renting a nice car, which means that when I run errands I look for the long way to go from point A to point B, and in one of these excursions on a backroad I encountered a squirrel who was lollygagging his way across the street. Initially everything was going to be fine, as I quickly assessed the situation and decided to turn opposite of the squirrel’s initial trajectory, but then he caught sight of me and took evasive action, which ironically set him into the path of my evasive action. I was expecting certain death, but upon closing the distance nothing happened. I heard nothing: no sad thud. I looked in the review mirror to assess his state, and I saw nothing. I figured this ordeal was over, and that I would have to live never knowing with certainty what happened to that squirrel. I figured wrong.

Apparently, the squirrel, with the reflexes of a ninja that has reflexes like a cat, which is not unlike the reflexes of a squirrel, jumped up into a space in the engine compartment of my car, and there he planned his revenge upon his would be assassin. Ferocious Little MonsterThis is truly unfortunate, as his whole motive for revenge was based upon a misperception, as he mistook my evasive action (which I calculated in response to his initial trajectory) as an intention to strike him down. When I finally arrived home, and stepped out of the car, he, with those ninja-cat-squirrel-like reflexes, dislodged himself from the engine compartment and made a straight line toward me, up one of my pant legs, and right toward my most sensitive area, where he attacked with preternatural ferocity, and quickly brought me to the ground. Immediately I balled my right hand into a fist to bring down wrath and weight upon the squirrel, who, with those same ninja-cat-squirrel-like reflexes moved out of my pants and toward my head, and thus upon bringing down wrath I racked myself to the degree that my stomach and chest severely cramped and thereby greatly impairing my ability to breathe. Now, in my vulnerable state, the squirrel continued his preternatural rampage and had his way with my face, neck, and shoulders, and subjected me to an eternity of scratching and biting (Einstein is right about Relativity), all punctuated by the most heinous string of expletives, which decency prevents me from recounting. (Squirrels, though quite cute, have souls as black as midnight during a new moon.) Once the demons of revenge had been vented from his soul the squirrel promptly stopped, and skipped away.

God forgive me for speaking so crassly and thinking so unkindly of one of his creatures, but that squirrel was a mean bastard with an exponent of ten. Regarding the purpose of this post, I guess it’s part therapy, as I am venting the wounds of my soul even as I patiently wait for the wounds of my body to heal. Also, I want to warn my fellow brothers and sisters of the human race to not be taken in by the cute, furry exterior of these ferocious little monsters.

 

Genuine Humanity

December 31st, 2015

We humans have a deep and awesome need to become more human, to become fully human. It is not possible to become fully human under the pressure to become more human. Grace is the foundation of all genuine humanity.

My Unique Matter-ing

December 8th, 2015

I was created to be a unique home for God, a home in which He expresses Himself in a unique way. I matter because I am a unique creation, but the completion of my significance is found only in that I should be a dwelling place for God. This means that my significance is a mystery to be discovered in my relationship with God, that I cannot look directly at myself, for my essence is found in depths beyond my comprehension, in depths of soul known only to Him. This also means that I am not a blank conduit to God’s Spirit, as I am unique habitation for God, a unique and living manifestation of his glory and thus the creation that I am if unredeemed can be a loss avenue of his glory, even though my loss would not ultimately detract from his glory. The creation that I am is an irreplaceable, God-willed existence, and thus I have particular significance in God’s orchestration of creation. In short, I matter, but my unique matter-ing is only complete in God.

If Not Those Near Then Not Those Far Away

September 16th, 2015

In reading commentary about the passages where Jesus states that no prophet dies outside Jerusalem, and that the religious leaders of his day are of the same ilk as those who killed the prophets in previous days, it struck me how dire is the problem of sin. Israel had every advantage, as they were called of God, were formed by his call, and by his saving actions on their behalf. Israel was the recipient of God’s covenant, wherein they received his instruction in righteousness, and they were the ones from whom the prophets arose, and the ones to whom the prophets were sent. They received prophetic words to remind them of God’s goodness,  words about his saving actions, unlimited mercy, and the hope they have in God’s covenant love, and yet for all this, Israel strayed. They did not really know their own God. The problem this reveals is that if Israel with all its advantages did not really know the Lord, how much more so all the Gentile nations who had no such advantage. As Paul would say, if those who are near did not understand, how much more so those who are far away.

The thing about sin is that it is a reality present in all of creation, Jew and Gentile alike, and it is a reality that perverts every good thing, and actually takes goodness and works it against God. So, though the Jews had every advantage, their advantage in many ways actually worked against them because of the reality of sin, for no law, no teaching in righteousness, no prophetic utterance could ever get at the root of sin. Thus, through Jesus’ death in Jerusalem, God expressed a great judgment against all religious hopes born in this world. Through Jesus’ death God said “No!” to the very religion he created, and all the more so those religions created without the benefit of his direct action. But, and this is a blessed but, through the death of Jesus God also gave a resounding “Yes!” for through Jesus’ death God put an end to sin by condemning it in the body of Jesus. Moreover, by bodily resurrecting Jesus from the dead,  God offers life beyond the reach of sin. In this light, as Paul would also say, there is an advantage to being a Jew, for theirs is the heritage that was designed by God to ultimately bear witness to the work that God would do to renew creation and redeem humankind. As Jesus said to the religious leaders of his day, “You search the Scriptures for in them you think you find eternal life, but they are those which testify to me.” This is Israel’s true heritage, and this is our heritage as well when we come to faith in him who always was the true heart of Israel.

 

I Am a Transcendent Sexual Essentialist

September 2nd, 2015

I am a transcendent sexual essentialist! Yes, this sounds like I am making a confession, perhaps a confession that requires the custom category for gender on Facebook, or that I’m coming out of the closet for some kind of gender related issue. Actually, in a way I am, but I am not making a statement of personal identity, but rather metaphysical conviction. By saying I am a transcendent sexual essentialist, I am saying that I believe gender is an objective reality that exists beyond mere social construction. I am saying that because gender is transcendent it exists in a dynamic relationship to cultures such that it can be encoded in a myriad of ways, and thus lend itself to the appearance of merely being socially constructed. The thing to be mindful of is that gender, being a reality in God, is an abundant reality that exceeds our cognitive and linguistic capacities to fully comprehend and express, and yet it is a reality present in the structure of creation, and more importantly, in the very constitution of our existence as humans made in God’s image. For this reason gender is a reality that cannot be ignored, as its presence in creation calls out for engagement, for inquiry, for “faith seeking understanding.” And yet, though gender is a reality present in creation, because its essence is beyond creation it is not something easily reduced to a set of readily identified characteristics. As I see it, since we are creatures made in God’s image, we are limited creators, and thus I speculate that it was God’s plan that we use our creative faculties to construct our understanding of gender as we engage the transcendent real ground of gender, a reality that will always exceed our constructions, and thereby invite further engagement. In an unfallen world this would have led to a plethora of beautiful ways in which masculinity and femininity could be incarnated and expressed, like many facets on a brilliant diamond. The issue to keep in mind in this engagement is that though there are a myriad of ways to express and encode masculine and feminine in culture, there is also wrong ways they can be encoded, and I would say that one of the wrong ways is to deny that there is any kind of objective foundation to the reality of gender. Yes, this reality is not always easy to identify and delineate, but again, this is not because there is no there there, but because it exceeds the frailty of our understanding.

The Stream of His Everlasting Self-Giving

August 26th, 2015

A common definition of sin is “missing the mark.” Generally speaking when us religious types talk about sin what we have in mind is falling short (“missing the mark”) regarding a moral standard. In essence, sin is viewed as a moral transgression. Though I acknowledge the validity of all this regarding the nature of sin, I’ve often found such a perspective to be too moralistic, a tad shallow, and perhaps ironically, it misses the mark regarding the full reality of sin, a reality which goes down to our existential roots, and which obtains its content in the light the of grace.

Ultimately, sin is not just turning away from God as lawgiver, it is turning away from God as self-giver, a self-giving most concretely seen in the giving of Jesus, who is Immanuel, God with us. In essence, sin is a turning away from having our being in and through God’s self giving, and instead living our lives as if we are from ourselves and are complete unto ourselves. In short, sin is anti-Immanuel, anti-God-with-us, and is instead God-at-a-distance, or God-not-at-all. The shocking thing about sin is that it functions, even thrives, in religious contexts, but what sin won’t tolerate in such a context is a God who comes so close and gives so completely that all sense of self-sufficiency is undermined, leaving only a naked, dependent, and vulnerable self. Sin will not tolerate this self.

The trespass of law by which people typically define sin is merely a symptom of this deeper alienation from and rejection of God. This is why faith is essential to Christian living and why, as the Scriptures say, it is impossible to please God apart from faith. Faith is the posture that aligns with how God made our being to function. We were made to have our becoming (our living development) and completion in the constant self-giving of God. Faith is that nakedness, that dependence, that vulnerability to God that seeks to have its all in him. It is the appropriate giving of one’s self to the self-giving of God.

In the Garden of Eden, when humanity, through its primordial parents, stretched forth its hand to eat the forbidden fruit, beneath the trespass of “thou shalt not eat,” was a belief that God was holding out, and a corresponding yearning to live a life on the basis of what we could secure for ourselves through that outstretched hand. In modern words, that out stretched hand declares, “I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul.” For this reason, it is very fitting that salvation happens when we cease to stretch out our hands to secure our lives, and allow the outstretched hand of God, pierced for our transgressions, to reach down and secure us in the stream of his everlasting self-giving.