Two Realities

On the eve of Good Friday, and in the midst of the tragedy of this pandemic, I want to reflect on Jesus’ statement from the cross, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46).

This question is a quote from the opening verses of Psalm 22 and is a cry of abandonment. The words express what I will call the reality of Jesus’ experience. On the cross, in his awful suffering, Jesus felt completely abandoned by his Father. These words are the truth of what he felt. However, the reality of what he was feeling was not the reality of what was happening.

For he has not despised or scorned
the suffering of the afflicted one;
he has not hidden his face from him
but has listened to his cry for help.
Psalm 22:24

Psalm 22 which begins with the lament of forsakenness actually states the exact opposite in this later verse, that God did not reject nor turn away from the one suffering. God hears our cries for help always, which is why Jesus can also say from the cross “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46). The Father will not be unfaithful to the Son. God the Father cannot separate himself from God the Son, somehow dissolving himself and no longer, even for a brief moment, not being Father, Son, and Spirit, one God.

We are seeing two realties which Jesus was experiencing and which we do as well. We will often feel absolutely alone and forsaken by God. The feelings are real and honestly we cannot perceive any Holy Presence near to us. At the very same time, we are within the reality of divine love and care. The limitations of our capacity to sense the ever-present love of God is a harsh trial of the soul, sometimes called “the dark night of the soul.”

If we are faithless, he remains faithful— for he cannot deny himself. 2 Timothy 2:13

As strange as it might seem to some, we can and should talk about what God cannot do. God cannot abandon himself, but will unfailingly be true to himself. The Father cannot deny himself, which would happen if the Father abandoned the Son on the cross. That same eternal loving divine essence cannot abandon us either, even if we are not faithful, so says Paul. The reality of our feelings and limited perception is fortunately not the reality of what is true. God will never forsake us, but will be with us to the very end of the age (Matthew 28:20).

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Raised to Hope

Last Sunday we looked at a couple passages, Psalm 30 and Ezekiel 37, which used resurrection imagery to describe what God does. Being raised up from seemingly hopeless situations was the theme for both David and Israel centuries before Jesus. Lest you think that we exhausted all references in the Hebrew scriptures which speak of God being the one who raises the dead . . .

The Lord brings death and makes alive; he brings down to the grave and raises up. 1 Samuel 2:6

See now that I myself am he! There is no god besides me. I put to death and I bring to life, I have wounded and I will heal, and no one can deliver out of my hand. Deuteronomy 32:39

A time to kill and a time to heal, a time to tear down and a time to build, Ecclesiastes 3:3

Notice the order is always death then life (or healing). These texts are not talking about birth and death, as if they are saying God determines the beginning and end of our lives. They talk about death and life in that order. This is resurrection language! Though God may metaphorically bring down to “death”, this is in order to raise us back to “life.” The end God is planning and creating is always resurrection and life! He is the One who brings new beginnings out of apparently lost causes. The first passage is Hannah praising God for having conceived even in her barrenness.

The spiritual insight in both these verses and from Christ is that only the dead are truly prepared to live. This is why we are called to die with Christ, so that we will be raised with him (Romans 6:8, 2 Timothy 2:11). A losing of self, dying to self, or giving up our lives is how we move from futile attempts to hold on to what cannot be kept to having what cannot be lost. Jesus would call this indestructible gift treasure in heaven or eternal life. Death in this spiritual sense is essential for the move from the false to the true, from trusting what is untrustworthy to relying on what is real.

It is better to go to a house of mourning

    than to go to a house of feasting,

for death is the destiny of everyone;

    the living should take this to heart.

Ecclesiastes 7:2

The writer of Ecclesiastes is not advocating some depressing and morbid focus, but rather obverting how we must know our own finiteness in order to live well. Paul says the same by pointing out that strength is found in weakness. Until we know our inescapable vulnerability, we cannot live freely, joyously, or courageously. To live as children of the resurrection we must first die because real hope is born out of disappointment. Unless we become disillusioned with false hopes, lose confidence in temporary things, we will never hope in and hold onto what lasts.

Our capacity to thrive despite the current crisis and its threats to our health and economy is proportional to how much we have moved from death to life. Fortunately, this is the very gracious work which God has always been doing. In the “deadness” of our own weakness and limitations is exactly where believers have always discovered unconquerable hope by grace. 

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The Peace of Christ

But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”  Mark 4:38-40

How do we read this story in a time like the present, when events have made us aware of our vulnerabilities, weaknesses that we would rather pretend do not exist? We are not facing greater calamity now than ever before, but instead, despite all our apparent strength, ingenuity, and technology, our true frailties are laid bare. Naturally, we are afraid of our susceptibility to disease and economic calamity.

Matthew and Mark (who is actually giving us Peter’s version) tell us this story from hindsight, many years after that fearful night. I believe they are sharing this because it was an event which formed them, enabling them to live through many trying times that followed. If this is the case, what is the peace that they gained from the experience?

I do not believe that they are telling us to rest assured that Jesus will calm every storm that arises in our lives. Nearly everyone who was in that boat died as martyrs. Jesus himself was the first. By the time they are writing their accounts, storms had arisen and they were not instantly stilled. Reading this as a promise that God will command all the waves and winds to cease is to have a false hope, and one at odds with the lives of the ones who are relaying the story.

I believe the disciples retold what happened that night on the sea, in the middle of a violent squall, because they learned something that enabled them to face and live through all the trials and difficulties that would come. What they are teaching us centers on the question which they asked fearfully, “Don’t you care if we are perishing?” The point was not that Jesus calmed that storm, and could command the waves and winds to stop. They did not conclude that Jesus would cause every problem to disappear. Instead, that night they learned that God does care when we are perishing. Jesus stilling the storm showed that God does care, not that every trial would be removed. 

Notice how Jesus asks why they doubted and did not have faith. What were they doubting? Jesus had not told them, as far as we know, that he could calm storms. If he had told them he could command the wind and waves, then they would have been doubting his claim to be able to exercise power over the natural world. I think what they were doubting at that moment was that he cared. Jesus had told them he loved them, that his Father loved them, and this was what they were not trusting. They did not have faith in the ever-present love of God. Jesus is not saying ‘why did you doubt that I could stop a storm’, but ‘why did you doubt that I care when you are perishing?’

If that night taught them to not lose hope in the love and care of Jesus, which is the love and care of his Father, then this is the peace of Christ that they in turn share with us. I believe they were able to live through all the difficulties that lay ahead and ultimately go to their deaths because they knew they were loved. In all circumstances, and certainly in the current situation, the knowledge of the steadfast and unending love of God is the strength of the body of Christ. 

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid . . .the Father himself loves you because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God. John 14:27 & 16:27

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Faith and Fear Revisited

Last Sunday I said that fear is not an indication of an absence of faith, but that faith is how we respond to fear. Sound good? Maybe you think so or maybe you don’t, but what do I actually mean? Honestly, I would not fault you for being unsure because we tend to view faith as something which takes the place of fear, getting rid of it. The question is, if I am correct, how faith is a response if fear remains.

The theologian Paul Tillich, in writing to a disillusioned world after World War II, defined faith as “the courage to be”. In other words, faith is the daily courage to get up and keep going in the face of great difficulties, questions, and the temptation to utterly give up. Faith is therefore the choice of life rather than death, to be or not to be, in as much as that is a metaphor of our options. Faith in these terms only exists against a real and present threat, refusing to succumb to an opposing force.

This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. 1 John 1:5

Why is there no darkness in God? Is it because darkness cannot possibly be in God? If that is true, then to have no darkness is not any accomplishment, neither something to be admired nor emulated about God. But what if no darkness is in God because God refuses to be anything but Light? Maybe the Light of God does not make darkness impossible but keeps darkness at bay! In every nanosecond God is shining forth against the darkness. God is choosing to be who He is, having the courage to be. God is being the antithesis of darkness, and it is in him we have our being. God has the courage to be, and faith is our emulation of that courage.

Tillich described God as having this type of faith, continuing to create, sustain, and do good despite all the energy of evil seeking to undo God’s being. He loves despite all the hate, forgives even though sin multiplies, creates though many try to destroy, and remains true to himself, not because he must, but because of his faith . . . the courage to be who he is. Perhaps this is the same faith that we are called to have: to live the resurrection in the face of death, to be the leaven of a world not particularly wanting to be leavened, and to love those who love us not. The courageousness of faith does not banish and obliterate the forces against it, but continues to overcome.

For everyone born of God overcomes the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith. 1 John 5:4

Faith does not get rid of the world, but is the response to the world that truly overcomes. So I return to Sunday’s statement that faith is not the absence of fear, but our response to it. Perhaps this is a different way of thinking of faith for you, but if you remember it is consistent with how I’ve spoken of faith coexisting with doubt. The faith of the mind is trust as the response to doubt. The faith of the spirit is courage as the response to fear, and faith of the body is obedience as the response to self-will.

For this reason faith may not “feel” like faith . . . at least if we are imagining being carefree and unconcerned when deeply troubling things are happening. I would call that delusion and denial, not faith. Faith knows the dangers, understands the risks, is honest about the uncertainties, and yet continues with the courage to be as God is, a light of the Light against the darkness.

I know some will ask about John saying perfect love casts out fear, which is entirely true. However, the fear John is talking about is the fear of punishment, which is entirely different than being fearful of the unknown or terrible things.

There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. 1 John 4:18

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Walking By Faith

Last week I wrote about how ignorance always underlies our sinfulness. Because we do not comprehend enough truth, goodness, or the love of God, we live in ways that we would not if only we knew better. Unfortunately, we will not be completely rid of ignorance during our life in this age, so what are we to do? We are to live by faith.

So we are always confident; even though we know that while we are at
home in the body we are away from the Lord— for we walk by faith, not
by sight. 2 Corinthians 5:6-7

In the immediate context of this verse, Paul is saying that through the presence of the Spirit of God we can have confidence even though we are not as directly present with the Lord now as we will be in the life to come. Then he states this larger, general truth that we walk by faith and not by sight.

Walking by sight would require having knowledge and capability. To walk by sight would be to know and therefore be able to direct our own path confidently. But we do not have such knowledge nor are we able to find our own way. Unfortunately, we are unable to see and are most certainly blind with regard to so many things, our own selves, the fullness of God’s nature, and the causes of events which occur in our world. There is simply so much that we do not understand. We might think we can walk by sight, but we really cannot because of our lack of knowledge.

Walking by faith is what we must do. The sins we commit due to our ignorance will not cease if we acquire sufficient knowledge for ourselves. Instead, Jesus is our truth; not information that we can master but the reality of God among us. Walking by faith is trusting in God as he has revealed himself in Jesus. Being a Christian does not mean we are no longer living with ignorance. The human condition inherently involves limited understanding and knowledge. Our Hope is that Jesus is our truth; we do not possess him as knowledge but instead trust him for his knowledge. He has walked the way of faith, and now guides us in our walk by faith.

God knows that we must begin in trust. So until we have faith, God is not pleased (Hebrews 11:6). He will delight as soon as even the smallest speck of faith begins to emerge, for this is the gift that he is giving and he brings about its growth. The most basic, and indeed the necessary, first virtue of a spiritual life is trust. While we know that love is the greatest virtue (1 Corinthians 13:13) because it is the essence of God’s own character, we do not begin in love but faith. To trust is to implicitly admit that we do not know. Faith is looking to God because we are not able to handle things ourselves. We can only learn to trust God through accepting our own ignorance.

Ignorance, therefore, is not only the root of our sinfulness and destruction but also the beginning place for our faith and salvation. If we try and walk by sight we fall into sin, because we cannot do it. When we abandon our own efforts and trust God, living according to what has been revealed in Christ, we are healed.

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Sin and Human Freedom

We talk about having free will, by which we mean that we have the ability and responsibility to make choices, but is the human will truly free? Though no one is forcing us into particular decisions, we may be easily deceived into bad choices or circumstances may severely limit our choices. In either case, we are not totally free in our decision. With respect to making a choice, often a bad one, we are free, but with regard to the process itself we are not as free as we need to be. As the philosopher Jean-Paul Satre put it, we are “condemned to be free”.

The fundamental problem is that we must choose and bear the responsibility that goes along with our decisions, but we have to do so without sufficient understanding. We do not fully know the consequences of the options nor are we able to competently distinguish good from evil. Despite eating the fruit of that tree, we did not become like God. The serpent lied. To eat was a poor choice based on false information, and all our decisions since have been similarly affected. Our knowledge is fatally limited and so we are always making our choices without the freedom that true knowledge would give us.

Returning to the passage from a couple of weeks ago, “you will know the truth and the truth will make you free” (John 8:32), Jesus is saying that we are not free, not yet. We may have a “free will” but it is imprisoned by ignorance. As Jesus continues to say, we are slaves to sin, which is by definition not freedom. We may be making choices, and in fact having to choose, but we are doing so within some degree of darkness. We do not know all truth, so we are not really free.

None of us sin in a truly “free” way, but limited by ignorance, with insufficient experience to give us wisdom, and under the sway of falsehoods. The essence of temptation is always a lie, a promise that will not be fulfilled. We are free to choose, but not free enough to make really good choices. Part of what Jesus means when he declares that he is the way, truth, and life, (John 14:6) is that through him we may do what we are not free enough to do on our own. This requires following him. We would have to be truly free to find the way, truth, and life on our own, but we cannot. Jesus is himself our escape from what imprisons us.

The truly free will no longer be slaves to sin, which is why John can make the bold claim that one born of God does not continue to sin (1 John 3:9). When Jesus says “Father forgive them for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34) he is not speaking only about those people on that day but about all humanity through all time. We have never known what we are doing, and yet we are doomed to choose anyway. When Jesus laments that the crowds are like sheep without a shepherd (Matthew 9:36), he describes the same problem. We need a guide, which is exactly who Jesus is for all willing to follow.

Because our ignorance enslaves us to sin, one aspect of the blessed hope is knowing fully as we have been fully known (1 Cor. 13:12). Yes, Paul is talking about knowing God, and this is precisely where our ignorance hurts us so badly. We do not fully know is who God is, which would grant clarity about what is good and what is evil. In the process of knowing God more, we will know more the truth which will utterly free us, and then our will and God’s will be one.

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Inhabiting Truth

As we approach the season of Lent, when during our practices of prayer and fasting we also reflect on the nature of sin and temptation, I offer some thoughts on this saying of Jesus.

So Jesus was saying to those Jews who had believed Him, “If you continue in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” John 8:31-32

The first question is to ask ourselves is how do we hear Jesus calling us to “continue” in his teaching? Too easily we may think of this as primarily an exercise of the mind, to know, remember, and learn more about what Jesus taught. However, this word which some translations render “abide” has the meaning of tarrying or lodging in a particular location. In other words, if we inhabit or live within the teachings of Jesus we truly are his disciples.

The connotation is certainly more holistic than primarily intellectual. He is not just saying we ought to think about his teaching. The force of what he is saying also implies a lengthy time, to “take up residence here” rather than only briefly stay before moving to some other place. Constancy and full participation are essential. The implication is that this must be a whole-life experience of mind, heart, body, and spirit engaged over quite a while. He offers no expectation of quick results.

The interesting promise that comes as a result of inhabiting his teaching is that we will know the truth which frees us. The term “truth” may also make us again think that he is speaking about the mind since in our modern world truth is very informational and factual. However, Jesus speaks in a similar way when he declares himself to be the truth (John 14:6). Maybe instead of “accurate information” we would do better to think of truth here as what is authentic and real, what has actual substance instead of being mere illusion. 

They answered Him, “We are Abraham’s descendants and have never yet been enslaved to anyone; how is it that You say, ‘You will become free’?” Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is the slave of sin. John 8:33-34

How appropriate that Jesus points out that their freedom is only an illusion! While they protest that they are free, Jesus insists that anyone who fails to act in harmony with God (sins) is in a very real slavery. Part of the “truth” which will set them free is the recognition of the reality that they are not free. Only those who know they are slaves long to be free. To make one’s home in the teachings of Jesus will convince us that, among many things, we are slaves of sin. This is not that we should despair, but that we should know our situation and need. Perhaps we could write a beatitude: blessed are those who know they are slaves, for they will be free.

Lent is a season when we choose to deny ourselves something treasured, enjoyed, or constant, often a regular pastime or favorite food. We quickly realize how difficult our fasting is. We are not even attempting to give up sinful things which have a greater hold on us, and yet still we struggle. The lesson learned is that we are more dependent on what appeals to us than we might think. If we can so easily be attached to foods and activities, how much more can we be ensnared by ungodly patterns and desires. This we learn early as we inhabit the truth of our own slavery as God moves us toward freedom.

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