Friday, December 28, 2007

Blanket of Snow

A soft blanket of snow peacefully wraps up the city. Harsh edges are cushioned, dark corners covered and light magnified. The resplendent paradox of a city clothed in snow evokes reflection on the cultural enigma of Christmas. It is a time, more than any other, that our thoughts are turned toward giving, blessing, gifting. Yet, we attempt to grasp and control this practice of grace, and in so doing, create something other than grace - something all together different.

Smells - oh, the smells associated with our celebration. Turkey, roast beef, ham, potatoes, onions, dressing, pies, apples, oranges, coffee, cinnamon, and peppermint all combine in the aromatic sense of the season. As our olfactory center soaks in the joyful smells, we're surrounded by the commotion of the day. Bells ringing, music playing, conversations with rarely seen relatives, kitchen noises culminating in the table fellowship and then the ripping of paper, surprised responses, expressions of gratitude both heart felt and politely mandated by the mores of the gathered community.

There is a joy and awkwardness in our family gatherings. Family - it is a received reality. We don't control our identity. We have shared experiences, but our lives are so different, our personalities so foreign to one another. As was often said to me in adolescence, "You can pick your nose and you can pick your friends, but you can't pick your family." What a wise proverb.

It seems to me that our desire to control increases with age, which causes strain in our familial relationships - in all of our relationships for that matter. We live in a culture of control. The customer service counter is exceedingly busy today. The line is wrapped back and forth like a python full of grumpy people. If a gift is not to our liking these days, we simply exchange it for something more suited to our tastes. Rather than run this risk, it is more common to simply give our loved ones a gift card. We must have control over what we receive. It is no surprise, then, that we have difficulty understanding grace in this culture.

We attempt to control the Gift - to exchange it for something more palatable to our senses, something more to our liking. He came to His own and His own did not receive Him! I've found that the Christian mystics tend to understand grace in deep and robust ways. They have something significant to teach us. Though they say it in different ways and in different languages, yet with a common voice they describe the person at peace as one who is utterly empty. Only an empty soul has room for the fullness of Divine Love - which will be poured into it.

Empty. Open. I'm reminded of the common posture of prayer among early Christians. It was one of openness, expectancy and reception. They would typically look toward the heavens, anticipating the coming of Christ, with their hands raised, palms open and facing up ready to gratefully receive the Gift from above. As Christ-followers, we receive and participate in the grace-filled life of God, we don't control and manipulate. We in-dwell. We abide. We breathe. I think this is one of the most difficult things for us to comprehend. If we go to the exchange counter, which is always an open option, we will only exchange truth for a lie, hope for despair, peace for chaos, and life for death. The Gift is not exchangeable, no matter how difficult it is for us to swallow His flesh and blood.

It is hard to become empty and to open our hands because in so doing we relinquish one of the deepest human desires - control. With an open hand, we cannot grasp. We simply receive and give as life flows through us. The snow falls into our hand and melts away, a simple pleasure, a momentary joy. Yet, more and more we come to realize that this is who we were created to be - a means of grace, a channel of life. And that this open poverty is the place of beauty. Until next time - Blessings in Christ ~ RLS

Friday, December 21, 2007

Prayer Wall

David Brush pointed this out over at his blog. I think it is a really interesting and unique use of technology. Check it out. Until Next Time - Blessings in Christ ~ RLS

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Come, Thou Unexpected Jesus

Come, Thou unexpected Jesus,
Interrupt our spending spree.
Shopping malls hold all that pleases;
Why would we then look for Thee?
In the midst of all the bustle,
We've lost the most important part.
Teach us that our lowly Savior
Is not found in a shopping cart.

Come, Thou unexpected Jesus,
Teach us Thy Nativity.
Teach us what true want, true need is.
Bid us champion poverty.
Break through our self-serving natures,
Please forgive our wayward hearts.
Show us those who need Thee, Savior;
Help us each to do our part.

~ by Jenn Kipp (with apologies to Charles Wesley)

Monday, December 17, 2007

Incarnation & Atonement: A Reflection

Where do we even begin when reflecting on the deep mystery of the Incarnation and our atonement? Given the paradoxical nature of our central Christian confession, it is difficult to discern a distinctive starting point for this reflection. As Christians we do not begin with anthropology, hamartiology, theodicy, or even history instead we begin and end with Christology because it is through Christ that we understand God, creation, humanity, sin, and redemption. However, to give a sense of coherence to our reflection we must maintain continuity with our narrative which begins in the beginning. Berashieth barah Elohim et ha-shamaim va-et ha-eretz. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” (Genesis 1.1) En arche en ho Logos, kai ho Logos en pros ton Theon, kai Theos en ho Logos. “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” (John 1.1)

This paradoxical point is precisely where St. Athanasius begins his reflection and articulation on the Incarnation. In De Incarnatione he says, “We will begin, then, with the creation of the world and with God its Maker, for the fact that you must grasp is this: the renewal of creation has been wrought by the Self-same Word Who made it in the beginning.” Therefore, the starting point for us as Christians is the identity of Jesus, for He is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. (1 Corinthians 1.15-20)
We begin with the confession, ‘Jesus Christ is Lord!’ Yet, we also move in the order of our narrative knowing that He is the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End of all things.

Even if we attempt to be Christocentric in our reflection, we still must wrestle with the mystery of our Christological language. Do we begin with a Christology from above? In this sense, does the climax of Heilsgeschichte come in the incarnation, ‘the word became flesh and dwelt among us,’ as the East tends to emphasize? Or, is the cross and resurrection the central act in God’s revealing and reconciling work? As James Denney says,

It is not in His being here, but in His being here as a propitiation for the sins of the world, that the love of God is revealed. Not Bethlehem, but Calvary, is the focus of revelation, and any construction of Christianity which ignores or denies this distorts Christianity by putting it out of focus.

Yet, the Eastern Fathers tend to give more attention to the incarnation itself and less emphasis on the crucifixion of the Lord. The un-assumed is the un-healed, but is it not precisely in the broken body and shed blood that we are made whole? Thus, even in a Christocentric soteriology, or maybe precisely because of our centrality on Christ, these tensions endure.

The paradox of Christology gives us no full resolution for these tensions, except to say that the two cannot and must not be separated. The person and the work of Christ are inextricably linked together. In the confessions of the Church, we are given a language which enables us to faithfully encounter and witness to these mysteries, but not to fully comprehend or control this Personal Truth. Recognizing the inadequacy of such separations, nonetheless in order to give a coherent reflection on this great mystery, I will attempt in this very short reflection, to remain in continuity with the narrative, parabola, and our confession, which all faithfully witness to our atonement in Christ. As a result, my reflections will take its shape from the central part of the Nicaeno-Constantinopolitan Creed (381).

We believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all ages, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father...

Jesus Christ is of the same being as the Father, homo-ousion to Patri. The Father, Son, and Spirit are all homoousion, of the same being. The mystery of our confession points to the reality that we cannot know the Father, Son, or Spirit independent of their onto-relations with each other. Attempts to separate, grasp after, and control the being of the Holy Trinity has lead to many and various heresies and inadequate models of atonement. We participate in this confession for it is revealed gift, not something we constructed within our own human ingenuity. When we understand the redemptive work of God using Irenaeus’ model of the two hands of God, then we recognize that the economic and immanent Trinity are identical, the way that God is toward us in revelation and redemption is the way that God is in God’s inner relational being. It is our confession, then, that God is reconciling the entire world to Himself in Christ by the Spirit. In this model of God’s being it is impossible to imagine the Father as a vindictive power-monger who simply pours out His violent anger onto the loving Son; instead, it is the Father, Son, and Spirit working together to redeem and recreate us, drawing us back into the oikonomia of love, which is the life of God. Moreover, this is not of our own doing, it is the gift of God, so that no one should boast.

by whom all things were made; who for us and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary, and was made man...

The Word became flesh! In this confession we recognize that this first century Jew was and is God. He graciously became incarnate for us. This is where the theological language in the East has flourished. Jesus, as God, came and assumed our broken and fallen humanity so that He might heal us. God became by grace what we are by nature so that by His activity and being for us we might be transformed into the imago Dei. The One by whom all things were made assumed our humanity and by doing so He forever bound Himself to creation. In this act, He ministered the things of God to us.

and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; and suffered and was buried; and the third day rose again, according to the Scriptures; and ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of the Father; and shall come again, with glory, to judge both the living and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.

We do not simply confess the Inhomination of the Word, the centre of our confession is the cross and resurrection. Redemption is not the result of the Incarnation, but this One as the representative for all humanity became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. He not only ministered the things of God to humanity, but also ministered the things of humanity to God. Jesus is not only God incarnate, but is also the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Through His obedience He offers up the perfect sacrifice to God on behalf of all creation. This language of our atonement is beautifully illustrated in Charles Wesley’s hymn, ‘Arise My Soul Arise’:

Arise, my soul, arise; Shake off thy guilty fears.
The bleeding Sacrifice in my behalf appears.
Before the throne my Surety stands;
Before the throne my Surety stands;
my name is written on His hands.

He ever lives above For me to intercede;
His all redeeming love, His precious blood to plead.
His blood atoned for all our race,
His blood atoned for all our race,
And sprinkles now the throne of grace.

Five bleeding wounds He bears, Received on Calvary;
They pour effectual prayers, They strongly plead for me.
“Forgive him, O forgive,” they cry;
“Forgive him, O forgive,” they cry;
“Nor let that ransomed sinner die.”

The Father hears Him pray, His dear Anointed One;
He cannot turn away The presence of His Son.
His Spirit answers to the blood,
His Spirit answers to the blood,
And tells me I am born of God.

My God is reconciled; His pard’nign voice I hear.
He owns me for His child; I can no longer fear.
With confidence I now draw nigh,
With confidence I now draw nigh,
And, “Father, Abba, Father,” cry.

The surety of our atonement is in the life, death, and resurrection of the Mediator and in His continuing Priestly intercession for us. The sin of humanity has been to grasp after equality with God, yet this One who was of the same being as God did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped after, but instead He emptied Himself of all but love and became obedient unto death. In this we see that the actual image of God is one of poured out love. We are now reconciled to God and called His children because of the self-emptying love of God in Christ. It is through the parabolic movement of God in the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Christ that we are united back to God. We, then, are caught up in this parabola of self-giving love by the power of the Holy Spirit at work in the redemptive community of faith. ‘Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again,’ and those who have died with Him in the waters of baptism, who are nourished by His body and blood through the Spirit, will be raised with Him to new life in the house of God. Hallelujah!

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

As Cold As Ice

I would hate to be a meteorologist in the MidWest. We have such crazy weather patterns, it would be like trying to predict one's pregnant wife's mood for the day - hypothetically speaking, of course. The complexity of those patterns only seem to be increasing with the current problem of climate change.

Today we are experiencing rain and ice in Kansas City. Who knows how long it will continue. But we endure it all because it is simply a part of the season. It is par for the course and we're an enduring people.

The hard, cold reality of winter has caused me to once again stop and reflect on the mystery of the Incarnation - the way in which God brought His presence to us. We could read the entire story of God, as the story of One who comes. Throughout the Old Testament, we read of a God who continues to come closer and closer to His creation - revealing more of Himself with every step. Then we read those powerful words, "The Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us. We have seen His glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth." (John 1:14)

It is in this season that we celebrate that reality - God's coming in the body of Christ. He assumed and took up all our brokenness and humanity that He might heal us and make us like Him. It is a powerful mystery. Yet, I think we often romanticize this whole Christmas thing. When I think about Christ's coming to us...I think about His coming to Bethlehem. He stepped into the dark, cold reality of our broken world.

Bethlehem is still a dusty little Palestinian-controlled town. When people go to visit the place of Jesus' birth, it seems that they get off the bus and hurry over to the Church of the Nativity, take their pictures, get back on the bus, and then head back to Jerusalem. You don't want to hang around in Bethlehem too long. It is small, poor, dirty and caught between two warring groups. This is certainly not the place we would have chosen for the birth of our Lord, but it is where Christmas happens.

The Advent season is the time that we talk about the Prince of Peace. We sing songs about peace on earth. I mean, isn't shalom the very thing that the angels proclaim? Peace on earth and good will toward all human beings on whom God's favor rests! But then we read in the actual story that Jesus birth elicits a reaction from the political ruler of this territory, King Herod, which results in a blood bath. Children being murdered. Families broken. Rachel weeping over the death of her children. Peace on earth?

We don't like to talk about that part of the story. That's Bethlehem - that is the real Christmas. We mean well. It's not that we want to lie. It is just really difficult to face the truth about Christmas because it is the truth about our world, which is also the truth about us. We want to hide our festering wounds. But God came. He came to Bethlehem. He came to Egypt and Nazareth. He came to Galilee and to Golgotha - exposing our wounds in His body that we might be healed.

God is love. And even though we deny it and don't like it, love involves pain and truth. To know this God of love requires our own crucifixion. We have gripped our own gods too tightly - the only way we will be free is if they are ripped from our hands. That is a painful process, which all began with a God who willingly comes to Bethlehem. May He come into the icy realities our our life today that we might die to experience real life in Him. Until next time - Blessings in Christ ~ RLS

Thursday, December 6, 2007

There's Something About Mary!

Like most prostestant evangelicals, I grew up highly skeptical of Mary. She was just a woman, right? I mean, of course God used her in a unique and powerful way to bring His presence into the world, but that didn't mean we should venerate her to the point of worship. Did it?

We believed that certain forms of popular Roman Catholic piety verged on the edge of idolatry. How could someone pray to Mary? Like prayers directed at anything other than God, it was just flat out wrong. Not that I gave the subject much genuine thought, it was simply the predominate opinion of those I respected. And it seemed to me that there was certainly some truth to this speculation based on brief bouts of outside observation.

But, there's just something about Mary that made it impossible for me to escape the allure of her character. Especially at this time of the year, my thoughts were continually driven back to the life of this young virgin. What a mysterious and awe inspiring story. Who is this woman that she would become so favored by the Holy One of Israel? Is she special or unique? Why her?

As with the calling of Abraham, Issac, and with the calling of Moses, Joshua, and with the calling of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezra - we're not really given any clue! It is simply the divine will of the Wholly Other to make this girl the Theotokos. The Almighty Creator freely chooses to bring His presence into the world through this simple, ordinary Galilean Jew.

She ultimately becomes the icon or image that controls and shapes our understanding of the prophetic community - the Church. The word of the Lord comes to us in similar ways. It is through our ears - our listening to His voice, His Word that we are impregnated by the Spirit. Yet, it only happens through a receptive heart. One that says, "I am the Lord's servant. May it be to me as you have said." The Spirit forms Christ within the receptive prophetic community so that we might birth Christ in the world...bringing the enfleshed presence of God, His salvation and His Kingdom into our ordinary everyday living.

If we reflect closely on Mary, then our understanding of what it means to be blessed by God should be turned on it's head. If this is what it means to be highly favored and blessed - many of us would think twice before praying for God's blessing. Her engagement almost falls apart. She hides out with Elizabeth because her pregnancy is not only suspicious, but down right scandalous. The labor and delivery happens in a cold cave. They have to flee the country for fear of their lives. This special Son goes around bringing shame on the family and constantly putting His life in danger. Ultimately, He gets himself crucified. Blessed? Of course there is more to the story, but our notion of blessing is greatly challenged by her living example.

Would I ever worship Mary, in the way that I worship and follow Jesus? No. Right worship is directed to God alone. But there is an appropriate respect, adoration, and love that we might give to others as an act of worship. There are many times in this journey that I ask other friends and fellow Christians to pray for intercede with the Father on my behalf. We don't seem to have a problem with that at all. I don't know, really, but I think asking Mary - or anyone else who has gone on before us - to pray for us is something like that. Simply asking a fellow Christian to pray for us.

There is certainly something about Mary. Maybe we protestants should reflect on her life and example a little more. Until next time - Blessings in Christ ~ RLS

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

T. F. Torrance

Another powerful theologian has gone on to be with that great cloud of witnesses. This is what Gary Deddo, President of the T. F. Torrance Theological Fellowship, sent out earlier in the week:

It is with sadness and a grateful heart that I am passing on the news that Thomas F. Torrance has died. His brother, David Torrance, sent out the notice below.

Dear friends

My brother Tom, although well and cheerful yesterday, passed on to be with the Lord very suddenly this Sunday morning at 3.30am. As a much loved brother and intimate friend with whom I have shared so much over the years, he is and will be a great miss. For his sake however we rejoice that weakness and suffering is now over and he is risen and rejoicing with the Lord, whom he endeavoured to serve throughout his life.

There is something appropriate that he passed over to be with the Lord on the day of resurrection, being the first Sunday in Advent. Thank you for your prayers for him and the family.


David [Torrance]

I would only echo the sentiment that it is certainly appropriate for all of His deep theological reflection on God's revelation in and through the incarnation of Christ, that Torrance would pass at the beginning of our corporate anticipation of that Event - as we also anticipate the coming of His Kingdom in its fullness. Until next time - Blessings in Christ ~ RLS