A Legalist of Sorts

May 6th, 2015

I am a legalist of sorts. In making this confession I am not saying that I can point to a specific set of laws or moral standards I ascribe to, and live by, and believe that upon this basis I have a good standing with God. I know what the Scriptures say about the false hopes of self-justification, and the sharp contrast between life under the Law and the righteousness that comes by faith. Moreover, I know full well that any good I do is infected with egoism, pride, and fear. So, this confession is really about how little I get grace, I mean really get grace, so that it digs into the marrow of my bones and releases me into the glory of God.

Earlier this morning, as I was reading Crisis in Masculinity by Leanne Payne (worth several posts unto itself) and was processing the relationship between righteousness and grace, I wrote the following words:

The righteousness of faith is the righteousness that comes when one leans upon the right-making, restoring action of God wrought in human hearts at Jesus’ expense when he poured himself out on the Cross.

I wrote this because I was trying to work out what I hope the Spirit was working into me as I was processing grace and righteousness. Honestly, I know so little of this right-making action in the heart, and for my entire adult life I have been morosely puzzled by this fact. I have read quite a bit about grace, holiness, and the process of sanctification, but mostly my efforts resulted in amassing information, and not in the transformation I was seeking. Regarding what I wrote, I think what the Spirit was speaking is that we can only experience this right-making action at that place where we are sinners. About this Saint Paul says, “And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness.” I have long taken heed of this verse, but being a Christian of the Protestant persuasion, I primarily understood this verse to be describing a new status I have before God on the basis of trusting that Jesus bore the judgment I deserve for being a sinner. What I didn’t see in this verse is an implication for how one spiritually grows through God’s action of justifying the ungodly through the work of the Cross.

Instead of merely receiving a new status, I am starting to think that this verse is also talking about discovering again and again that God meets people where they continue to be broken, fearful, resistant, rebellious, selfish, and unlovely, and rights them at that very place by administering the reality of Jesus being poured out on the Cross. In this way, when the Scriptures declare that “the just shall live by faith” it is saying that the just are the ones who live in the awareness that God is constantly covering them by pouring himself out through Jesus on the Cross, particularly as they find in new and deeper ways that they are indeed sinners. This means that the Gospel is not just a reality that we the “converted” preach to the lost out there, but is a reality by which we Christians continue to be converted. I imagine that this again-and-again discovery of the Gospel is what enables us to go from glory to glory, and to truly be transformed in to the likeness of the one who loves us, and in a manner of speaking, continues to give himself up for us. I think this is more akin to what Luther meant when he referred to Christians as simultaneously just and a sinner, for the Christian is the focal point where the ongoing justifying (right-making) action of God is happening.

I will conclude by saying that I hope what I shared above is near the truth, as I imagine this is the only way that I can stop being the legalist that I am.

 

True Joy

February 10th, 2015

True joy makes suffering its friend.

A Wanting Prayer

January 21st, 2015

Dear Father, I don’t want to want what I want; rather, I want to want what you want me to want. Amen

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Yes, the repetitiveness of this prayer is somewhat humorous, but along with this humor I offer it with sincerity. As far as the use of the word “wanting” as a modifier for this prayer, I primarily intend that it refer to the amount of want expressed. However, I like double entendres, and so I also want to cash in on the definition of wanting as “something essential that is lacking,” but I intend that the essential thing that is lacking refer to a heart that only wants what God wants, and not some quality of the prayer itself.

Sick Religious Consciousness

January 7th, 2015

I have developed a sick religious consciousness. This is not to say that this consciousness is the sum of who I am, or that it is dominant in my personality, but it certainly is prevalent. It occurred to me moments ago (and so, I of course have to blog about it) that this consciousness is like a person who receives a diagnosis of cancer and then becomes obsessed with cancer, and in his obsessive analysis of his cancer is surprised that cancer is so cancerous. In this analogy cancer is a good analog for sin because it is a destructive reality, and it seeks to dominate its host. Moreover, when one is in the process of being healed of cancer what happens is that the presence of cancer diminishes in the host. In other words cancer is always cancerous and healing is not about converting cancer into something healthy, but about its shrinking to the point that it vanishes. In the meantime, while one is in the process of healing, whatever remains of cancer is still cancerous, is still a destructive and ugly reality.

Continuing with this analogy, just as chemotherapy can provide healing for cancer,  grace does provide healing for, and deliverance from, sin. With respect to religious consciousness, and this is where the analogy breaks down, it seems to me that when one enters into grace one can either focus on the reality of grace, or the continuing reality of sin, and what I am starting to see is that what you focus on dominates your vision, which in turn powerfully affects how you live in the world. For whatever reason, I have developed the depressing habit of constantly analyzing myself to see if I am in grace (my consciousness is a weird hybrid of a cloistered, medieval monk and a dour Puritan. Keep in mind, not all Puritans are dour, but the Puritan in me is), and in this analysis I end up discovering all sorts of sin, and I run to the conclusion that grace must be absent or not working because sin is still so sinful. Going back to the analogy, it’s like I am in the midst of the healing process, and yet I run to the doctor and say, “The chemo must not be working because the cancer is still so cancerous, it’s still such a diseased and destructive reality”

To take all that I am saying and make it more specific, I currently struggle with anger, at times a dark anger, and when these feelings of anger well up and crash upon my consciousness I am very tempted to despair in the belief that grace cannot be present where such anger exists, yet what I am also experiencing is a still small voice saying, “You can either focus on the anger or you can focus on the grace.” In this instance I assume the grace of which the voice speaks is not a transforming reality, but an embracing reality, a reality that embraces me while I am angry, and what I sense is that this embrace is the foundation for any transformation that is to come. In this way grace is utterly gracious, and what I must learn to do in those darkest moments is embrace the grace that is embracing me, embrace the grace when its most clear that I don’t deserve it, which of course is the very nature of grace.

“Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me a sinner.”

Perhaps the above breath prayer is a bit odd to tack on at the end of this post, but somehow it seems fitting.

Where Our Inability Meets the Ability of God

December 19th, 2014

True repentance happens at the cross where our inability meets the ability of God.

True repentance happens at the cross for repentance is not essentially deciding to do better; it is not committing yourself to live by a righteous standard that you have previously denied or neglected. Repentance is most essentially turning to God to receive from God, for it is through his self-giving that you are able to change, be transformed, and recover the  lost humanity to which all genuine standards of righteousness bear witness.

True repentance happens at the cross for the cross is a threefold revelation. At the cross the false humanity we have become is revealed through the brutally broken body of the Son. At the cross the holy love of God is revealed in that he judges our false humanity, and offers himself to bear our judgment. At the cross our true humanity is revealed for there we receive the self-offering of God, and this is true humanity because God designed us to have our very being in his self-offering.

The cross is the end of sin because the cross is the end of the self-life (self-reliance and self-determination) and the beginning of life in God (life leaning upon God’s grace and goodness).

You Have to Be a Sinner

November 24th, 2014

If you want to be saved, you have to be a sinner. I realize that what I just said can be taken wrongly, but I imagine that a number people don’t get this rightly. Jesus really did come to save the sick and the sinners.

An Aching Desire for Exacting Control

September 24th, 2014

I get that doctrine is important to the life of the Church. Doctrine is part of the Church’s call to bear witness to the work of God in Christ, and it can be both an act of worship, as well as a catalyst in bringing the Church to it’s knees in worship. And yet, for all this, I often sense that beneath doctrinal articulations is a hard flexing of the will-to-power, that doctrine is itself the product of an aching desire for exacting control.

There Is A Way That Appears

August 26th, 2014

The sage of Proverbs states, “There is a way that appears to be right, but in the end it leads to death.” On the other hand it’s also true that there is a way that appears to be death, but its end is life. This is the testimony of the Cross. The hitch in both of these instances, is having the discernment to see through the appearance of things to the substance and end towards which they lead us.

Laughter Is Not Enough

August 13th, 2014

I know many people were surprised by Robin Williams suicide, but given the relationship between comedy and sorrow, was it really such a surprise? Comedy has its roots in tragedy, deep insecurity, and loneliness, and we laugh at comedians because they give us a socially acceptable way to vent our own insecurities and fears, without being so damn vulnerable in the venting. On some level I knew Robin was lonely, depressed, and hurting, for the hurting in me resonated with the hurt in him, and it is this resonance that caused many of us to connect with him. Like many, I am saddened by his passing, but I am also disturbed, because when a comedian dies by suicide it is a bracing reminder that laughter, as good as it is, is not enough. We need vulnerability because it is the key to connection: to genuinely knowing others and being fully known, and living in connection is the kind of creatures we are.

Having said this, I realize that depression, clinical depression, adds a biological depth to the relational dynamics I am describing, such that a depressed person can have many significant relationships, and yet the depression keeps them from meaningfully engaging those relationships. In rooting depression in tragedy and loneliness I don’t mean to undermine the biological aspect of depression. I just want to acknowledge how all of us, whether we are clinically depressed or not, have a share in Robin’s pain, because, living in a fallen world, none of us are unscathed.

As I am writing my way through this, it occurs to me that laughter points to compassion, and compassion is what we really need. Laughter is sometimes a blessed reflection of compassion, and sometimes its dim shadow. Like laughter, compassion connects us to one another through our pain and insecurity, but unlike laughter, compassion is always vulnerable. As I said before, this vulnerability is so hard to accept, and is likely why genuine compassion is hard to find. Yes, we all feel compassion at times, and express it here and there, but to live in compassion requires that we be at home in our vulnerability, and that is just too much.

So, where am I going with all this? Simply put, I’m just processing, and hopefully moving towards compassion even as I laugh along the way. I’ll just finish by saying, “God have mercy on Robin; God have mercy on me, and God help me to live in compassion by embracing my vulnerability, and thereby learn to laugh with unyielding joy.”

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