Who are you, my God?

I love Augustine’s struggle to name God fully in the opening book of The Confessions:

Who then are you, my God? What, I ask, but God who is Lord? For ‘who is the Lord but the Lord,’ or ‘who is God but our God?’ (Ps. 17:32). Most high, utterly good, utterly powerful, most omnipotent, most merciful and most just, deeply hidden yet most intimately present, perfection of both beauty and strength, stable and incomprehensible, immutable and yet changing all things, never new, never old, making everything new and ‘leading’ the proud ‘to be old without their knowledge’ (Job 9:5, old Latin version); always active, always in repose, gathering to yourself but not in need, supporting and filling and protecting, creating and nurturing and bringing to maturity, searching even though to you nothing is lacking: you love without burning, you are jealous in a way that is free of anxiety, you ‘repent’ (Gen. 6:6) without the pain of regret, you are wrathful and remain tranquil. You will a change without any change in your design. You recover what you find, yet have never lost. Never in any need, you rejoice in your gains (Luke 15:7); you are never avaricious, yet you require interest (Matt. 25:27). We pay you more than you require so as to make you our debtor, yet who has anything which does not belong to you? (I Cor. 4:7). You pay off debts, though owing nothing to anyone; you cancel debts and incur no loss. But in these words what have I said, my God, my life, my holy sweetness? What has anyone achieved in words when he speaks about you? Yet woe to those who are silent about you because, though loquacious with verbosity, they have nothing to say.

The poetry of this is pleasing to me, but so is the ending where Augustine both acknowledges that all our words cannot adequately describe God and warns us not to let that stop of from speaking.

As a preacher, I am grateful for both parts of that word.

Believe in Christmas

Someone can always come up with a reason not to believe. We can always cook up a story that does not need God in it. We’ve been doing that from the start, but one of my favorite illustrations of this is in Matthew 28:

While the women were on their way, some of the guards went into the city and reported to the chief priests everything that had happened. When the chief priests had met with the elders and devised a plan, they gave the soldiers a large sum of money, telling them, “You are to say, ‘His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ If this report gets to the governor, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” So the soldiers took the money and did as they were instructed. And this story has been widely circulated among the Jews to this very day.

Indeed, the story is still circulated today. Some of our best-selling Christian authors even peddle the myth concocted to debunk Easter.

It happens because we want an explanation that does not depend on God. We like to run the world as if none of its truths depend on God being God. And so we set our sharp little minds to crafting godless stories and our greedy little hearts to believing them.

The lies about Easter get some traction in the church.

The lies about Christmas are in some quarters almost dogma.

They are taught to the wise ones in the pews as secret knowledge. The truth is dismissed as fairy tale and Sunday School pabulum. It is okay for the children’s pageant but not for adults. All this stuff about the virgin birth and going to Bethlehem and angels and shepherds and wise men catches in the throat of too many of our pastors who tell these stories with their fingers crossed behind their backs.

I don’t understand that.

If we believe Jesus died and rose on the third day, why is it so hard to believe he was born of a virgin?

Sure, people can dream up stories that explain the orthodox teaching away. There are lots of garden guardians eager to take the gold coins from the elders. But we have the testimony of the Spirit and the cloud of witness.

They say, “Believe.”

We say, “Amen.”

Hearing Jesus in the prophetic key

It sometimes feels to me as if we have spiritual amnesia. We have forgotten what we had once hoped, longed, and prayed for.

I was thinking this as I was reading the first chapter of Mark tonight. In that beautifully tight opening scene of Jesus’ ministry, we are cued in to the great hope of Israel that is fulfilled in Jesus. Mark points us to Isaiah and Malachi. These are the voices that prepare us for the coming of John and Jesus.

These are voices preparing us for the day of the Lord.

“Surely the day is coming; it will burn like a furnace. All the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble, and the day that is coming will set them on fire,” says the LORD Almighty. “Not a root or a branch will be left to them. But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its rays. And you will go out and frolic like well-fed calves. Then you will trample on the wicked; they will be ashes under the soles of your feet on the day when I act,” says the LORD Almighty. (Malachi 4:1-3)

The prophets promised a day of God’s justice for all the earth, a day when the wicked would be thrown down and the righteous raised up.

That is the hope that the disciples held in their hearts in Acts 1. Some of them had heard Jesus preaching of the coming kingdom from the first days. Now? Is now the time?

Then they gathered around him and asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6)

The words of Malachi and Isaiah and the other great prophets must have been ringing in their ears as they pressed the Lord with this question. They had such hope that evil would not prosper.

I wonder if we dare to hope as much.

We have no shortage of evil around us. The prophets name names for us:

“So I will come  to put you on trial. I will be quick to testify against sorcerers, adulterers and perjurers, against those who defraud laborers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive foreigners among you of justice, but do not fear me,” says the LORD Almighty. (Malachi 3:5)

Woe to you who add house to house and join field to field till no space is left and you live alone in the land. (Isaiah 5:8)

Woe to those who rise early in the morning to run after their drinks, who stay up late at night till they are inflamed with wine. They have harps and lyres at their banquets, pipes and timbrels and wine, but they have no regard for the deeds of the LORD, no respect for the work of his hands.(Isaiah 5:11-12)

Woe to those who draw sin along with cords of deceit and wickedness as with cart ropes, (Isaiah 5:18)

Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter. (Isaiah 5:20)

Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes and clever in their own sight. (Isaiah 5:21)

Woe to those who are heroes at drinking wine and champions at mixing drinks, who acquit the guilty for a bribe, but deny justice to the innocent. (Isaiah 5:22-23)

I could go on and on.

The promise of the day of the Lord’s coming is the promise of the day when all these wicked ones are punished. It is the promise of a day when accounts are settled and the justice of God repays the wicked for their evil ways.

I have to be completely honest here.

I don’t know how many middle class and upper middle class American Christians have that same hope. It does not seem like many do. What we seem to want more than anything is for God to help us through our family problems and to give us a sense of meaning in a world that often seems empty of meaning. We want something that will keep us from going hysterical when the cancer diagnosis comes in or the stock market turns south. We want God to tell us its okay to enjoy sex and drive sports cars.

But I’m not at all convinced that is what Isaiah and Malachi had in mind.

A few days ago, I argued that the church’s purpose is to bear witness to Jesus to the ends of the earth. If we would do that, we must do so in light of the prophets, who also bore witness to Jesus.

If we would speak of Jesus rightly, we have to learn how to speak the same language of those prophets.

Nouwen on incarnation

Henri Nouwen reflects on the nature of love and humanity in his wonderful little book Adam, which is about the man he cared for at L’Arche.

Adam’s humanity was not diminished by his disabilities. Adam’s humanity was a full humanity, in which the fullness of love became visible for me, and for others who grew to know him. Yes, I began to love Adam with a love that transcended most of the feelings, emotions, and passions that I had associated with love among people. Adam couldn’t say, “I love you,” he couldn’t embrace spontaneously or express gratitude in words. Still I dare to say we loved each other with a love that was as enfleshed as any love, and was at the same time truly spiritual. We were friends, brothers, bonded in our hearts. …

This experience cannot be understood by logical explanation, but rather in and through the spiritual bonding of two very different people who discovered each other as completely equal in the heart of God. From my heart I could offer him some care that he really needed, and from his heart he blessed me with a pure and lasting gift of himself.

Every time I read Nouwen carefully, I am reminded of a fundamental question: What does it mean to be human?

Like Nouwen, I am prone to think of humanity in terms of intellect and feeling. Our humanity, my gut tells me, is based somehow in the more evolved parts of our cerebral cortex. But such ideas suffer from the great fault of making the hallmark of humanity the things that I most value about myself.

Isn’t this a form of spiritual pride?

Adam with all his profound disabilities was fully human. For all the wonderful things I can do with my brain and my brain can do for me, he may be closer to God than I am.

The biggest difference between Adam and me is that Adam wore his disabilities on the outside where everyone could see them. Some of mine are obvious right away, but most of my more pronounced disabilities take time to discover. I am more skilled at hiding and denying my brokenness than Adam was.

When a friend came to visit Nouwen at L’Arche one day, he asked why the great writer and teacher was wasting his time by caring for Adam. Nouwen noted that his friend could not see Adam as the incarnated face of God. He could only see the disabilities, not the man.

For Nouwen, Adam was a teacher.

And while I, the so-called “normal” person, kept wondering how much Adam was like me, he had no ability or need to make any comparisons. He simply lived and by his life invited me to receive his unique gift, wrapped in weakness but given for my transformation. While I tended to worry about what I did and how much I could produce, Adam was announcing to me that “being is more important than doing.” While I was preoccupied with the way I was talked about or written about, Adam was quietly telling me that “God’s love is more important than the praise of people.” While I was concerned about my individual accomplishments, Adam was reminding me that “doing things together is more important than doing things alone.” Adam couldn’t produce anything, had no fame to be proud of, couldn’t brag of any award or trophy. But by his very life, he was the most radical witness to the truth of our lives that I have ever encountered.

Wesley on division

From John Wesley’s “A Plain Account of Christian Perfection”:

Suffer not one thought of separating from your brethern, whether their opinions agree with yours or not. Do not dream that any man sins in not believing you, in not taking your word; or that this or that opinion is essential to the work, and both must stand or fall together. Beware of impatience of contradiction. Do not condemn or think hardly of those who cannot see as you see, or judge it their duty to contradict you, whether in a great thing or a small. I fear some of us have thought hardly of others, merely because they contradicted what we affirmed. All this tends to division; and, by everything of this kind, we are teaching them an evil lesson against ourselves.

The purpose and power of the church

He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:7-8)

The purpose of the church is to be a witness to Jesus Christ to the ends of the earth until the Lord comes again.

The power to be the church comes from the Holy Spirit.

These may not seem like remarkable statements, but they are helping me form my own understanding of the nature of the church and the relationship between the Methodist movement and the institutional church.

The primary purpose of the church is to bear witness to Jesus Christ. It exists as a form of testimony and to testify to what we have seen and heard. It also bears the testimony the stretches back to Israel and through the history of the church. Our new testimony is contiguous with and of a kind with that previous testimony.

When I began to think about the church as witness, it changed my reading of scripture. For instance, I had not really ever paid much attention to these words from Peter before:

You killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead. We are witnesses of this. (Acts 3:15)

And this is why the gospel as described by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 includes great detail about who witnessed the resurrected Christ. These acts of witness are important because the church exists to bear this witness to the ends of the earth — across space and time.

This conception of the church as witness stirs up for me recollections of things written by Walter Brueggemann and Stanley Hauerwas, two contemporary writers and scholars who have had a significant impact on me. Brueggemann writes quite a bit of scripture itself as a form of testimony. Hauerwas grounds ecclesiology on the way the language the church uses shapes both how we see the world and how we understand ourselves. His narrative and cultural-linguistic theology strikes me as very much in keeping with the claim that the purpose of the church is to bear a testimony, to make witness, about the true nature of our existence.

And — just to be clear — I do not believe that witness is merely about what we say, although it is certainly about that. It is about what we do and how we live together. We catch a glimpse of that in Romans 1 when Paul is celebrating the existence of the Roman church.

First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is being reported all over the world. (Romans 1:8)

The one piece that I’ve always felt was sorely lacking in Hauerwas was the Holy Spirit. Hauerwas’ descriptions of the church always feel — at least to me — rather naturalistic, as if sociology and psychology could account for the church by themselves. But in Acts 1, we get the corrective to that.

Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 1:4-5)

If the purpose of the church is to bear witness to Christ, the Holy Spirit is the source of the church’s power to do so. It is the life energy of the church.

Since that is the case, the church is called to “wait” for the promised Spirit in prayer and worship and works of mercy. The church is called to make itself fit to receive and bear the Holy Spirit through confession, forgiveness, and repentance. We must wait on the gift of the Holy Spirit and receive that gift if we are to be the witnessing church.

And this insight has helped me in thinking about John Wesley and Methodism.

The purpose of Methodism was to reform the church by spreading scriptural holiness. It was, in the language I’m using here, a movement trying to reconnect the church to its source of power, so that the church might have the strength to achieve its purpose, bearing witness to Christ in all things. The reason Wesley was correct to resist breaking away from the Church of England was because the mission of Methodism was to revitalize the church not to be the church.

If you read Wesley, you discover pretty quickly that he did not see the church achieving its purpose. He often said you cannot judge true Christianity by the conduct of those who call themselves Christians. In other words, a lot of church people in his day were bad witnesses. They had neither seen nor heard the gospel, and yet were passing themselves off as representatives of it. Wesley movement had the intention of helping the church achieve its true purposes by connecting it back to the source of its power, the Holy Spirit.

In our day, no less than in Wesley’s, the church is in dire need of the Holy Spirit. Too many of us left Jerusalem before Pentecost. We try to bear witness when we have not received the power to do so. The Methodist mission is still necessary today. We still need a vigorous ministry connecting us and our churches to the Holy Spirit, the source of life, through faith in Jesus Christ.

But we also need to understand that the power serves a purpose. We are to bear witness to the ends of the earth. We are to declare and to embody the living witness to the truth that Jesus was killed, but on the third day he was raised.

These thoughts of mine are not as coherent as I would like them to be. Blogging for me always is a kind of work of process and a first-draft kind of writing. But I think there is much fruit in those first two statements:

  • The purpose of the church is to bear witness to Jesus Christ to the ends of the earth until our Lord comes again.
  • The power to be the church comes from the Holy Spirit.

This is at least the beginning of my ecclesiology.