Tracts with Legs (moved by brains)

Do not let the men deceive themselves and others with the assertion that the “Man of the Lord,” as they call Him, Who is rather our Lord and God, is without human mind”…

…If anyone has put his trust in Him as a Man without a human mind, he is really bereft of mind, and quite unworthy of salvation.  For that which He has not assumed he has not healed; but that which is united to His Godhead is also saved…

…But if He [Christ Jesus] has a soul, and yet is without a mind, how is He man, for man is not a mindless animal?

St. Gregory of Nazianzus, 4th century

In the first few centuries of the church, some argued that the Christ came factory equipped with a divine mind so he automatically made the right choices, no big.  Yeah, he had flesh that could suffer and die, but the divine mind had it all under control.

Gregory of Nazianzus fought for the the position that Jesus, in order to save every aspect of human nature, assumed (took upon himself) every aspect of our humanity.  If he did not assume it, it couldn’t be healed and saved in Him.  He could not redeem our brain and transform it to know and carry out God’s will if he did not take it with him to the cross, through the tomb and back to the throne of the Almighty.

Across the millennia, Christians have from time to time disowned the mind.  Ecstatic visions, personal experience, ethnic/cultural/national traditions, feelings and other aspects of our humanity have been identified with the presence of God while the work of the mind has been discounted.

The tendency to disown the mind in our worship and service of God is a denial of the Biblical revelation of Jesus Christ.  It is to miss the reality that he saved us by taking to himself every aspect of our humanity, including our mind, with all of its challenges,

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.  (Hebrews 4:15, ESV)

To divorce our faith from the work of the mind is to deny the full import of the Incarnation of Christ expressed in John 1:14,

And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.  (KJV)

If we infer that he did not have our gray matter, or that our gray matter is irrelevant to our life as his disciples in this world and as his transformed brothers and sisters in the next, we deny the Incarnation and do the work of the enemy,

By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God; and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God; this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming, and now it is already in the world. (1 John 4:2-3 NASB)

I have a brother in Christ who is taking up this challenge in the context of contemporary American Evangelicalism, where cultural conventions and feelings-based-and-targeted techniques have disparaged the devotion of our minds to God.

He goes so far as to call this a sin needing the church’s corporate confession and repentance.

And he’s come up with a provocative approach to starting the discussion in our daily encounters…

Tracts with Legs

Give it a look.  (Even on Facebook). You might wind up a walking tract for our times.

Emancipation Population

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders.  Random House, New York, 2017

20170627_081048Well, this novel has an endorsement from Thomas Pynchon on the jacket.  Given that, I’m sure that the world is panting in anticipation of my review.

Lincoln in the Bardo unfolds over a single night as President Abraham Lincoln mourns the death of his young, much loved (even favored) son, Willie.  The story is a wild ride through the supernatural and paranormal – like a complex bottle of wine it has strong notes of Dante’s Divine Comedy, “Walpurgisnacht” from Goethe’s Faust, Wilder’s Our Town, Shakespeare’s Macbeth and a hint of Disney’s Haunted Mansion (the ride at Disneyland.  Can’t vouch for the movie).

The concept of Bardo is Tibetan and refers to a state of existence between one’s initial earthly life and a rebirth to new life.  It has affinities with Catholic ideas of Limbo and/or Purgatory.

In the cemetery where the emotionally crushed President has come to be near his son’s recently interred body, an array of the dead and buried (who have not come to terms with the fact that they’re dead and buried) spend the night in their active, interim state.  Three are the primary narrators and protagonists in the goings-on; many others appear.

The brilliant subtlety of the book is the interplay of spiritual bondage with the historic reality of “The Great Emancipator,” who is bound up in personal grief and the overwhelming national crisis.

All of the denizens of the cemetery are bound – bound by their lack of insight into the fact that they’re dead (back to my bottle-of-wine simile; here’s a taste of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave); bound to whatever dominated them at the moment of death (they manifest with physical exaggerations, such as one character who lived so much through his sensual appreciation of the world that he appears as a living mass of eyes and hands); bound by past excesses requiring acts of atonement; bound by the iron fence of the cemetery and by the arrival of daylight; bound up in the ultimate illusion that continuing fruitless old habits will result in a hoped for outcome.

Lincoln and Willie are arresting figures who break through the binding boredom of the Bardo.  The cemetery residents are as taken with the Lincolns as is the divided nation.  Coming first to gawk at them as a diversion from the nightly routines, the spirits are moved by the Lincolns, and, to the very limited extent that they are able, move them.

This sets the stage for a wild matrix of possible liberations.  Can the spirits accept the feared burst of light that hearkens a new existence?  Can Abraham and Willie Lincoln, if only for a moment, reach some kind of peace across the separation of death?  Can the nation out in the dark beyond the cemetery emancipate those it oppresses and free itself from its devouring battlefields?

The book unfolds almost as a play, with the narration carried by succeeding character voices, and scenes set by historical quotes from Lincoln contemporaries and subsequent historians’ works.  Saunders’ distilled breadth of reading on Lincoln and the culture of the times is a treasure within the other riches of this novel.

Saunders does a masterful job of leaving open the spiritual questions while engaging them with refreshing respect.  A key Christian character must grapple with the fearful mystery of a sovereign God, yet never doubts the tenets of the faith and… well, I need to stay away from a big spoiler on this.  I’ll just say that while this is not a Christian novel, a Christian operating as a Christian has an honorable impact upon what unfolds, and what unfolds honors his faith.

This is a great novel on so many levels, including imagination, history, spirituality, engaging characters (even the plethora of minor ones who show up), emotional punch (I was reading it in the break room at work and had to hide that I was weeping at one point) and wit.

Once you follow Lincoln into the Bardo, you’ll be hard put to do anything but keep reading.

Don’t click away just ‘cuz it’s about “love”

As I reflect upon Sunday’s Gospel from the Revised Common Lectionary, I think that Televangelists with great hair are a better testimony to the majestic power of God,

And even the hairs of your head are all counted,

20160529_091828<<<<< than am I. Oh well. Just a musing, not my main point.

Back to Sunday’s Good News,

Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.

It is a troubling passage. After all, the Lord also says that our love of others is part and parcel of the Great Commandment, as necessary as loving God if we are to please God. Sure, he calls love of neighbor the “second” but it is “like the first.”

Love for others is fruit of the Holy Spirit, by which Jesus says those who truly represent him can be identified.

The Apostolic letters of Christ’s New Covenant command love within families and among church members.

We can wax glib (which really means we’re on the wane, IMO) and say, God first, family second, work third.  But such slogans run the risk of Christ’s rebuke, Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 

The Father’s will is revealed in the Greek word for love that Christ speaks here.  It is philon, the word for affection between equals, as between siblings or friends.  It’s not about passionate feeling or over-the-top sacrifice or miracles,  but about the work-a-day bonds of life that manifest our priorities.

This is continued in the Apostolic teaching of James 4:4,

You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship (philia) with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend (philos) of the world makes himself an enemy of God.

Leading “normal” life attentive only to the people and stuff we enjoy, without attentiveness to Christ as a friend alongside us, is the adulterous friendship with the world against which James is warning.

So our ueber-friendship with God is not to plunge into religious zealotry, manifested in public displays of piety or “spirituality.”  Rather, it is to take up the cross (daily, as Luke reveals), walking in sometimes uncomfortable friendship with Jesus with the same attention to efforts, empathy and reactivity that we invest in family relationships and friendship bonds.  It is to treat our friendship with Jesus with at least the same intensity that we have for those we enjoy most in this world.

It is to be “on” all the time, not in some “religious” venue apart from the rest of our daily lives.  This friendship with Jesus is loaded with honor,  support and practical direction supplied by the Word of God, 

No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends (philouos), for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.  You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you. These things I command you, so that you will love one another.

I bolded that last love because in this verse Jesus uses the term agapate, escalating from simple friendship to affection that manifests as self-sacrifice.  As Sunday’s Gospel puts it, Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.

The Good News is that if we walk as friends with Jesus, his power, not our anxious, straining will and effort, can take our love for other people to a supernatural level.

Have a bowl full

Then one of the four living beings handed each of the seven angels a gold bowl filled with the wrath of God, who lives forever and ever. The Temple was filled with smoke from God’s glory and power. No one could enter the Temple until the seven angels had completed pouring out the seven plagues. (Revelation 15:7-8 NLT)

Oh, sure, dive into The Revelation. You lose a bunch of potential readers just by that and then a bunch more who start to read it and leave when they realize you’re not following their favorite “end times teacher” and haven’t called Trump or Obama or whoever the Antichrist in the first paragraph.

We have angels loading up with bowls of divine wrath. The bowls are made of gold – that’s odd right there. Munitions should come in some baser metal, not precious material.

4 evangelists
From here, where there’s also good explanation and links about the symbolism.

The one who outfits the angel squadron is “one of the four living beings.” In traditional Christian iconography, the four beings represent the Four Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – that is, the four tellings of the words and deeds of Jesus that are recognized as authoritative, that is, directly inspired by God.

If that association is more than symbolic, can it be that the angels are being armed not with holy napalm but with the Word of God, which in and of itself inflicts judgement?

Jesus (in John’s Gospel – perhaps John is the one loading up the angels with golden bowl bombs), warns (emphasis added),

If anyone hears my words and does not keep them, I do not judge him; for I did not come to judge the world but to save the world. The one who rejects me and does not receive my words has a judge; the word that I have spoken will judge him on the last day.  (John 12:47-48 ESV)

And the words won’t just judge, they will execute, and do so as “the wrath of God,” as though in liquid form (in golden bowls?)

From his mouth came a sharp sword to strike down the nations. He will rule them with an iron rod. He will release the fierce wrath of God, the Almighty, like juice flowing from a winepress.  (Revelation 19:15 NLT)

This is unsettling imagery, because we speak of Christ, the Word of God, as Good News.  Perhaps we are onto Luke’s (there’s another of the four living beings) strange description of the preaching of John the Baptist (emphasis added),

John answered them all, saying, “I am baptizing you with water, but one mightier than I is coming. I am not worthy to loosen the thongs of his sandals. He will baptize you with the holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fan is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”Exhorting them in many other ways, he preached good news to the people.  (Luke 3:16-18 NAB)

The Word is Good News and wrath all at once.  Even in the midst of incendiary “last things,” those who those who hear the word, accept it, and bear fruit (Mark – another living being before God – 4:20 NKJV), are in the midst of Good News fulfilled,

When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near (Luke 21:28 NIV)

We need not wait on spectacular phenomena when the Word is in our hands, before our eyes, in our ears, on our lips and, God willing, in our minds and hearts.  To get Matthew, the other living being, into this, I’ll close with the simple symmetry of his parable of the sheep and goats,

Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world… “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. (Matthew 25:34, 41)

The seven plagues, in whatever form they manifest, are just the inevitable consequences of accepting or rejecting the gracious Good News of God in Jesus Christ.

Reflections on Retail

After a catastrophic season of burnout, I stepped away from parish ministry and took an available job in retail to help maintain insurance and pay the bills.  And to see if I was the POS (pardon the coarse self-reference, but it’s what I felt at the time) I’d come to perceive or if I really did have anything worthwhile to lend to other people and organizations.

Long story short, I’m back to active ministry within the structures of the church, and I’m still with the retail gig.  I’ve received a good bit of healing.  God’s had a hand on everything in this strange passage of my life.

Working in a retail environment provides considerable insight that helps me better understand and witness to the message of Christ.  This week, the Revised Common Lectionary appoints a portion of Matthew 9, including

When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.

customer-e1278861373711
Lifted from here.

Working in retail camps me out among the harassed and helpless, for whom Jesus feels compassion.  It’s helps me “sit in the pews,” mentally, recognizing more of the stresses and strains that people bring to church.  I still don’t like the toxic ways in which they act them out, projecting them onto the clergy in particular and very often onto the other lay people, rather than receiving the transformation that Jesus offers them.  But I have more compassion than I did a couple of years ago.

I know what it is to give a long week’s effort for a few hourly bucks.  Yes, clergy are way underpaid – but so many folks in the “secular” workplace toil under more stressful, less uplifting conditions for longer hours for as little or less compensation.

I recognize that it isn’t only churches that that suffer busts having little to do with the quality of their efforts.  Folks in retail can do sustained, quality work only to watch hundreds of customers and thousands of dollars leave for a flashy, cheap or geographically convenient place that opens up a few miles away (or on the internet).  And I see how the “losers” in such shifts are helpless against harassing feelings of failure.

I watch managers in the retail setting and realize how much more harassed they are than I was as a congregational pastor.  Pressure from “corporate” to bring in more sales; pressure from customers aggrieved by this, that and the other thing; pressure from well intended laws and policies that force them to be accommodating to even their most lazy and incompetent employees; the normal human pressures from within themselves and their relationships.

I’ve gained respect for the South Sudanese members of one congregation I serve, many of whom work in a meat packing plant for long shifts and still manage to clean up and get their families to church.  I know more of how a work week can exhaust people, and what a precious offering working folks make to take part in worship, let alone all kinds of mid-week church stuff.  And retail is especially guilty of the diminution of Sabbath in our culture – we’ve turned so many aspects of not working into a feeling of added work.

Then there are the experiences that give me thoughts like, “OK, maybe I went a little nuts, but it’s not like the church isn’t a bit of a crazy-maker.”

There’s the reality that “I’ll pray for you” means more when I say it to folks in the retail store than when I said it as the expected (and often unappreciated) thing in church.  I used to keep a discipline of calling church members on their birthdays and asking, “What should I be praying for in your life?”  It became one of my most deflating and eventually abandoned practices, as time and again the reply was something like, “Oh, nothing.  You save those prayers for the people who really need them.”

Now, when I offer to pray at the store, I find myself and the person who wants the prayer huddling between teetering pallet loads of merchandise as our sanctuary.  I see tears in others’ eyes.  I hear sincere “God bless you”s in return for my fumbling words.  I got a heartfelt “God bless you” just this morning for doing a minor favor to help out a coworker.  The apt sharing of Scripture seems to reach people at the store whereas it often bounced off of people in the church.

This Sunday’s Gospel goes on to reveal that where people are harassed and helpless is exactly where Jesus wants his church,

Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”

Working the retail job seems to drop me in that harvest field in a way that the church itself resists.

Now, let me be clear.  I’m not rejecting the church; I believe that it is Jesus Christ’s body at work, the Holy Spirit’s Temple on the earth; the royal priesthood ministering to the Heavenly Father. Christians affirm the church as an expression of the reality and mystery of God in our Creeds, and I’m not finding excuse to deny that (which would be heresy on the way to apostasy).

I guess what I’m saying is that this retail job continues to raise questions even as it gives fresh perspective.

I welcome your prayers that I see and speak more of what Christ calls forth, and that I do so as a living member of the church he desires.

Musings on messengers (a prelude to Trinity Sunday)

Dinka ground breaking
Yours truly (right), sent to bless the ground breaking for a Dinka family’s (dad on left) new home in South Dakota.

The Dinka title for the Book of Acts is Dutuuc (DuTOOCH), from a root meaning messenger or someone sent.

This captures the sense of the New Testament Greek apostolos. The church is apostolic, we say in the Nicene Creed. We are sent out by Christ, to make his appeal to the world.

A Dinka pastor friend explained to me, It means we are sent out to bring others in.  Jesus sends us out to bring others into the church.

I wonder if that is informed by the Dinka identity formed in cattle herding.  It would resonate, in that sense, with shepherding images of God such as Psalm 23, John 10 and Luke 15:1-7.

But what first came into my mind was John 20:21,

Jesus said to them again,“Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” (ESV)

Jesus was sent (apestalken in NT Greek) – that is, he was “apostleized” – and now he sends us.  But there is a big difference –

He is the one fully sent by God, the only complete apostle, according to John.  His mission is eternal, and we are sent temporarily.  The Greek used in so I am sending you is pempoa word of temporary sending like “run an errand” or, physically, “to thrust in.”  John emphasizes this by emphasizing the word disciple and avoiding the title apostle in his Gospel’s references to the members of the church.

The Son is the eternal expression (Logos) of the Father, as John preaches so beautifully in his first chapter.  Through the gift of the Holy Spirit (20:22) we are included, albeit in mortal expression, in the life and work of the Holy Trinity.

The Son is eternally begotten of the Father, says the Creed.  And we are mortal, formed of the dust, and to dust we shall return.  Yet we are thrust, full of life in the Holy Spirit, into a dying world as messengers of the eternal Word, that others will come with us to share his eternal life.

Defective Elephants

 

“Elephants never forget.”  There might be some truth in that:

African Elephant Amboseli Kenya
From the linked article.

Their superb memories help elephants stay alive in ways that go beyond just recognizing threats. Matt Lewis, a Senior Program Officer with the World Wildlife Fund’s Species Conservation Program, tells mental_floss that one of the best examples of elephant cognition “comes from desert-adapted elephants, where the matriarchs remember where reliable water can be found and are able to guide their herds to water over very long distances, and over the span of many years. This is a pretty clear indication that elephants have a great ability to remember details about their spatial environment for a very long time.”

Humans have impressive memory as well.  Just have a fight with your spouse, and marvel at your ability (and your spouse’s) to remember every bad thing (and many good things reinterpreted as bad) over decades of marriage.  We use our memory to exalt the self rather than build the common good. We are like defective elephants.

Right now I’m attending a church with a mainly immigrant population.  One of the groups there was asked to leave because they were getting into violent confrontations over issues in their homeland.  Both factions remembered all the details of the division – interpreting them differently, of course – vividly enough to demonize the other group.

Now that they are gone, the remaining group (a different ethnicity) is encountering the same problem.  My charismatic friends would suggest there is a malign spirit at work in the place.

Maybe so, but all that spirit would need to do is exploit our existing capacity to use our prodigious memories for evil.  Although made in the image of God, we are fallen creatures, as much as much contemporary thinking feeling would like to deny that.

We need to look to God, who has the ultimate memory but also a great capacity to forget.

God remembers with love:

Yet Jerusalem says, “The Lord has deserted us;
    the Lord has forgotten us.”

 “Never! Can a mother forget her nursing child?
    Can she feel no love for the child she has borne?
But even if that were possible,
    I would not forget you!
See, I have written your name on the palms of my hands.
    Always in my mind is a picture of Jerusalem’s walls in ruins.
Soon your descendants will come back,
    and all who are trying to destroy you will go away.
Look around you and see,
    for all your children will come back to you.
As surely as I live,” says the Lord,
    “they will be like jewels or bridal ornaments for you to display.  (Isaiah 49:14-18, NLT)

And God is practiced at forgetting bad stuff,

For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more. (Hebrews 8:12, ESV)

Christ Jesus uses his cross as an eraser so that much is forgotten,

Blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to his cross… (Colossians 2:14, KJV)

Let us pray that our memory be surrendered to the One who willingly forgets our sin and remembers us with loving favor.