The personal reality of Christ’s death

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August 12, 2020

Galatians 2.20: “the life I now live in the flesh I live by the Son of God’s faith, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

Jesus died for me, a sinner. This familiar phrase resonates deep at the heart of God’s love and Christ’s atoning death. Jesus came to save sinners, he came to put to end the works of the devil, he came to give life and give it abundantly.

However, from a personal point of view, I have always had some resistance to the common evangelistic message that turned Jesus’ death into being about me. It felt a bit narcissistic and self-absorbed to make Jesus’ death all about me. Of course, that is how love works; that you as an individual are important. When someone loves you, the person you are matters to them. Your wellbeing, your feelings, your thoughts, they all matter. Not necessarily in the sense that you get what you want or that there is no hope for you to change, but in the sense that love does not invalidate you as a person. Yet, this love does promote a positive change for one’s life, as the Apostle Paul says about his own life being lived by Jesus’ faith. If there is a passage that affirms our personal significance to Jesus, Galatians 2.20 is it.

Nevertheless, there is still something potentially narcissistic about the me-focused nature of some evangelistic appeals. For Paul, Christ’s love for him is connected to the inclusion of Jews and Gentiles together, no longer being separated by the Torah. To be in Christ is not simply about one’s own spiritual connection to Jesus up in the heavenly realm, but to be in Christ is to be connected to God’s People through the Spirit who baptizes us into Christ and brings forth our confession that God is our Father alongside believers from all peoples. To be in Christ is to belong to the people that Jesus Christ has redeemed. To live our life according to Christ’s faith is to take on the same purpose that Christ has in loving and sacrificing ourselves for others.

Christ died for me a sinner, not simply that I can go to heaven, but that I can participate in the type of life with fellow believers here in the present in such a form that will be our future in the full inauguration of new creation, where we will all live together in the presence of God. For Paul, it is relevant that Christ loved and gave himself for Paul because Paul was a persecutor of the Church; by all accounts he should be disqualified from any sort of proclamation of the Gospel for the Church, but yet it is Christ’s mission and purpose that unites Paul with those who believe in Jesus. Jesus’ death radically redefines the enter of Paul’s life to live with Christ’s purpose for God’s people, rather than as a persecutor of them.

So, when we think of Christ dying for us, it has a social dimension alongside the temporal dimension of eternity. In the body of Christ, the reconciliation of all things and all peoples are coming together from their prior state of being hostile to God and in conflict with each other. To allow the life of Christ into our lives in the flesh, this means that we in our lives live out this purpose of God’s reconciliation, both in our own relationships and in our proclamation to others about the Gospel. That Christ died for ‘me’ is a deep, Spiritual call away from the narcissism that evangelical appeals can often times be heard as and instead to be united and participate with with the other people who have received the love of Christ, who gave Himself for them.

The Lord is the physician, servant, and teacher.

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August 11, 2020

Matthew 9.11-13:

When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” But when he heard this, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”

Matthew 20.25-28:

But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

Matthew 26.18:

The Teacher says, My time is near; I will keep the Passover at your house with my disciples.’

Jesus is Lord. These three words are at the core of the Christian confession and hope. These three words have fueled a religion that has spanned 2000 years and will continue until the day the New Jerusalem comes down to the earth and we will direct reside in the light of God, being able to move beyond the religion we have just as we the early Jewish Christians were no longer bound to Torah now that God had drawn near in Christ and through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.

Jesus is Lord. Beyond this simple phrase in the New Testament, however, lies something quite profound: a resistance to Roman power. However, it wasn’t a resistance to the rule of Roman power, as the Apostle Paul recognizes a qualified place for political government when it acts in a morally surpassing way in Romans 13. Rather, “Jesus is Lord” was a resistance to the way people understood power. Nothing about the stories of Jesus exude anything we typically associated with power, kingship, and rule from an earthly frame of reference, but yet it was His resurrection that demonstrated he was God’s Son. So, to say Jesus is Lord is not to say “Jesus is the real King and Caesar is not.” Whatever criticisms Paul would have of the Roman Caesar, “Jesus is Lord” was not the statement of an anti-imperial agenda. Rather, it was a way of redefining the nature of God’s power and rule over the world that can be seen when one knows the story of Christ. God and Jesus did not rule over the world like Caesar did. Knowing who Jesus is, we can know that God’s Lordship is not at all like human rulers.

In Jesus’ ministry, he was incredibly hesitant to associate himself with Messianic and Kingship claims. Rather, Jesus was more forthright and upfront about his ministry through other images, such as that of a physician or as a servant. Jesus saw the life He sought to bring to the world coming not like image of a mighty warrior king whose power the people and his opponents would be in awe of and surrender to. When Jesus describes the kingdom of heaven in the parables, he doesn’t describe the kingdom operating in some sort of swift, cataclysmic power that many would hope for in a Messiah, but rather he uses images that convey the slow, gradual emerge of the kingdom. He casts Himself with very different from the kings and kingdom of the world.

Imagine Jesus saying “Do this and you will live.” How do you hear this phrase? Do you hear it with a sense of demand and maybe with an implicit sense of a threat? Do you hear it like a king demanding subservience of his subjects? Or, do you hear it with a sense of concern for your well-being? Do you hear it like a physician trying to treat your problem or like a servant trying to seek out your best interest?

When I listen to Christian’s speak about their relationship to God and Jesus, I hear so much language that signals the authority of hierarchal dominance: surrender and control are two key words used repeatedly. However, can this be revealed the subtleties of our own idolatry of human power that we then project onto Jesus as Lord? Do we try to fit Jesus’s life, ministry, teachings, death, resurrection, and ascension into this frame of hierarchical authority?

What if we were to reframe to way we saw Jesus’ authority as coming from one who is an expert on God and life, like a physician who knows what is necessary to bring health to a person, and from one whose life is dedicated to serving what is in our own best interest, like a servant who sacrifices himself for others? What if we heard the Biblical words like following, obedience, submission, etc. against the backdrop of a Teacher who knows what is necessary for us to have life and to have life abundantly, which is why he associates His role as a Teacher with the coming Passover that He will use to symbolized His life-giving death?

It would free us from the fear and the perfectionism that hierarchal dominance can instill in us. It would free us to not be loaded with shame and guilt everything we failed to do as Jesus’ calls of us, but rather recognizing that it is the following and submission and obedience that we give because we have faith in Jesus that we discover the Spirit of life welling up within us like a spring of water. It would free us from condemnation and judgment of people who aren’t as obedient as we are, but rather it would help us to look on with concern for them as they continue to experience the struggle against the powers of sin and death that ravage them as they do us all. It would instill within us the spirit of a healer, a servant, a teacher that would bring many people to repentance and life.

So, let us be free from the idolatry to human power that we have become so entrenched to and see the life of Jesus redefining what God’s power and Lordship looks like to us. Jesus is Lord, and so the Lord is the Servant, the Lord is the Physician, and the Lord is the Teacher.

Idolatry of human power

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August 11, 2020

Last week on Thursday, Donald Trump in his usual bombastic style made a comment against his presidential opponent, Joe Biden, where he said that Biden would “hurt God.” Now, somewhat predictably on theological twitter, people rose us to defend the doctrine of divine impassibility, where God can not be effected or harmed by anyone or anything. However, this focus on theological orthodoxy has perhaps obscured from view the deeper issue that Trump’s rhetoric is actually suggestive of. Trump rhetoric demonstrates a fundamental presupposition of the Western world about human power, that it is ultimately more powerful than God’s power.

If we go back to May of this year during the curbing of coronavirus in New York state, Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York, said “The number is down because we brought the number down. God did not do that. Faith did not do that. Destiny did not do that. A lot of pain and suffering did that.”

Since the Enlightenment, there has been a marked shift in the West about the way we think of God and humanity. Whereas God ordered the world that humans lived within according to the religious worldview, the worldview of Enlightenment placed human reason, knowledge, and, ultimately, power at center stage. If God even exists, He is like an absentee landlord who built the place but left it to the tenants to deal with. The Enlightenment was the first to propogate the idolatry of human power that was manifested in the intellectual history of the West, with liberalism, Marxism, democracy, nationalism, science, etc. all being built on the foundation of human power to accomplish the desired goals and ends for what it is deemed that like should look like.

To be clear here, by idolatry I do not mean the psychological desire or want for power. This is something different. Rather, I think of idolatry within a social framework where the various social institutions and social relationships we have encourage putting our trust in the future in something we believe has the power to better our lives. We as persons push towards and commit idolatry when we as individuals accommodate to these cultural and engage in the various liturgies and practices that lift up these idols. When we do this, our very ways of thinking, feeling, and acting are subtly shifted and conformed to the idol we give ourselves in service to.

However, because Christians have tended to treat idolatry as an internal, psychological state of affairs about what we desire or want, we overlook the interpersonal in favor of the intrapersonal. We see the war being waged inside of ourselves between our desires, which Paul referred to as the battle between the desires of the flesh and the Spirit, and are inclined to think that is idolatry. Consequently, we overlook the way our various daily practices that don’t seem to be in any immediate contradiction with our systems of righteousness but many of these practices actually enculturate us into a way of living that gives ourselves to the service and trusting of these idols, which in this case is human power.

How we have become enculturated to the idols is not the important thing to observe at the moment; modern idolatries are immensely more complex than ancient idolatries as there is no clear priesthood or temples that control and propagate the practices. The important thing to recognize is that the majority of West, Christian and non-Christian, have given themselves to this idolatry in often subtle ways in such a way that human intentions, knowledge, purposes, planning, designing, and implementation have crowded out our faith in God into the corners of our life that we find we are unable to successfully manage coping with.

The reason behind the idolatry is a misleading truth. It is certainly true that, as Andrew Cuomo said, that human efforts to contain the virus was responsible for the decrease in numbers. More broadly, it is certainly true that when humans have the resources, knowledge, planning, and implementation, that we are capable of having a dramatic impact on our world around us. Human power is often quite dramatic and breath-taking when you take it as a whole. The ability for human power to create a world with nearly 8 billion people, of whom about only 1/8 live in desperate poverty is quite a feat of human power. Compared to past history, this is quite impressive.

And yet, there is the side effects of human power that do not accord with human purposes and goals. The desolation and destruction of our global climate reveals that the impressive of human power can not deliver unmitigated goodness and life, but that there are always costs associated with human power. Human power can do impressive things, but it is often impressive because we have not seen the true costs that human action brings with it. We caught a visible glimpse of it in the 20th century, as nationalist dreams were being genocidally built on top of innocent blood that would cover the land. This is not to mention the centuries long atrocity of widespread slave-trading that the European powers built to satisfy their lust for money and status.

When Adam and Eve ate of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, they did not get a knowledge that was partly good and partly evil. No. They received a knowledge that did both good and evil, that both sustained life and destroyed life, that built up and tore down. It was this reality of what Adam and Eve could do that made God expel them from the garden. Yet, it is this reality of human power that we have come to idolize; it is this that the serpent worked to accomplish.

Meanwhile, God’s power is not frequently impressive on an earthly scale. While occasionally God does powerful signs and wonders, including most importantly the resurrection of Jesus, that bring about our sense of awe and faith, Jesus prefers to describe his disciples and the kingdom of heaven with metaphors that are slow processes, particularly with His agricultural metaphors. God’s sovereign power and work is demonstrated not in the impressiveness of human power according to human standards, but God is capable of bring about His purposes through the long-term orchestration and convergence of His plan throughout the long trod of the human lifetime and human history. God is so powerful, so sovereign that He doesn’t have to repeatedly glamor us and wow us to accomplish His purposes.

Yes, human power is quite fearsome in its own right, but it can’t deliver the progress we hope for it to deliver. It is built on a foundation that will not last when God shakes the heavens and earth once more. Jesus came to put to death the works of the devil and instead give and put within us the type of life that will last when God shakes everything again.

Last Wednesday, I wrote about awakening coming when people could discern the way they lifted up human power above God. I prayed to God three times to see if that was God’s word or my own, which I heard it was from God each of the three times, and then I opened myself to seek external, personal confirmation that it was God, which I recieved. Then, the next morning, Trump suggested Biden could hurt God, publicly confirming the very thing I spoke to. Hear my words on this; heed it not as my word but God’s Word through His Spirit to cleanse your minds from the idolatry of human power and all the things that human power seduces us to think we can obtain by it.

Traditions – Religious signposts or foundations?

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August 11, 2020

Growing up in Christian faith, I found John Wesley to be a vital source of theological thinking and understanding of the Scriptures. My spiritual growth was nourished by Wesley, especially early in my seminary education. However, even as I greatly appreciated Wesley and felt he was the best of the traditional theological options in Western Christianity to approach the Scriptures from, Wesley had his feet of theological clay. As I pressed forward in my exegetical studies, I found myself drifting further and further away from many of the ideas that Wesley taught, even as I considered myself a practical Wesleyan where the rubber met the road.

Traditions are an inevitable part of our growing up in faith. None of us come to God, the Scriptures, etc. without prior teaching and conventions that help to form our interpretations and practices. However, the fundamental question is this: how is it that our theological traditions function for us across time? Do they function like foundational ideas that we build our further knowledge about God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, the Church, etc. from? Or, are they closer to signposts that give us a sense of direction to help us begin to comprehend the Scriptures and the life we lived empowered and lead by God’s Spirit? Do our traditions restrict how we read the Scriptures or do they help us to generate understanding from the Scriptures, while allowing the Scriptures to at times push back and call our traditions into account?

It is this journey that I think is important for every reflective Christian to consider in their spiritual journey. How does your tradition function? Do you think coming to maturity in faith is about mastering your theological traditions? Or, do your theological traditions help you to investigate, perceive, and comprehend the ultimate object of our faith: God the Father who is made known in Jesus Christ, at work through His Holy Spirit, and is testified to by the Holy Scriptures? You can never escape your tradition as a starting point, but is the development and telos of our Christian lives and comprehension controlled by our traditions or by the God testified to in the Scriptures?

Theological traditions are a deep source of inspiration and understanding when they operate like signposts. Wesleyan theology has done me much good in trying to explores the contours of the lived out Christian faith according to the Scriptures. Even as my theology has diverged in some subtle yet significant ways from Wesley, I am deeply indebted to this theological heritage for where I have come to. At the same time, however, my Wesleyan theology has also cause me some hurt, treating the call to righteousness and godliness spoken throughout the Scriptures as some form of behavioral perfectionism, rather than as practices that through the Spirit’s leading can mold and form me in Christ. I had a bit too much of “methodological” approach to Christian faith.

Learning how to treat our theological traditions as signposts rather than foundations is a vital point for spiritual growth for the Church going into the future, I believe.

The potential pitfall of religion

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August 10, 2020

Matthew 7.13-14:

Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.

It is a commonplace to hear people describe their Christian faith as “It is about a relationship, not a religion” or for people to say “I am spiritual, not religious.” The word religion has a highly negative connotation in our world today. The reasons for this is complex, but I would say it ultimately amounts to the way in which we have become increasingly familiar over the years with the way religion has been used to justify horrible oppression and abuse of whole people groups and individual persons over the centuries. In addition to that, there is a negative view of religion because most religions, including particularly the Christian religion, tends to stand in distinction from the prevailing social and cultural values and practices of non-religious, secular society that are not address oppression and abuse; in virtue of religion having a lower tier social status, the tendency is for any blame in tension between larger society and religion to fall on religion. So, the negative reputation for religion is not entirely deserved in my opinion, but nevertheless, there is a substantive point to engage with in the critique against religion: religion is not an unqualified, universal good. In fact, it can often be corrosive and toxic.

Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 7.13-14 are perhaps best understood against the backdrop of religious practices and the destructive nature that many religious practices have. In Jesus day, there were many options for how to live out one’s Judaism faithfully. One could adhere to emphasis on purity and the traditions of the elders that the Pharisees and scribes prescribed. Or, one could follow the highly traditional Sadducees who allow little to no innovation within Jewish religious practice, especially when it came to doctrines such as resurrection. You could just in with the zealots that dreamed of God-lead a military overpowering of the Roman occupiers of Judea that took inspiration from the Maccabean revolt. Or, you could go out into the desert like the Essenes and dedicate oneself to a monastic-type righteousness until the day came that God would judge the world. There were a litany of ways to try to live out one’s Jewish faith. Yet, Jesus says the way to life is narrow, not broad. Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount presents the narrow way that distinguishes itself from all of the other forms of Jewish practice, including most particularly the practices of the Pharisees and scribes.

Often times in todays word, we translate Jesus teaching about His way against the backdrop of “there is only one way to God” and that all who do not find this way are destined for judgment and destruction. However, if we interpret Jesus’ words against the socio-religious background of the day, Jesus’ words are more so warning against the various ways the Jewish religion had gone off-track and off-course for God’s intended purposes for the people of Israel. Jesus wasn’t telling the world “If you don’t come to me, it is good riddance for you,” but rather “Get away from what you are hearing from all the religious teachers that is taking your life and come to me to find true rest and life.”

In other words, religion, if we are not careful, can become more of a source of harm than it is a source of life. There are a couple reasons for this. Firstly, religion is one form of a socio-cultural process in which certain human actions, whether they be specific types of behaviors, speech, thoughts, or feelings, are given greater value over others. In addition, religion like other socio-cultural processes tends to valorize certain figures as embodying these practices and deserving of praise and honor as opposed to other, evil persons who resist and refuse to adhere to their religious ‘truth.’ All socio-cultural processes reinforce the repetition of specific actions, external or internal, through the valorization and demonization of specific individual persons who embody those practices. Both valued practices and value persons who legitimate based upon specific value canons of judgments, such as the Bible, the scientific process, etc. that give us the criteria by which to differentiate the good from the bad. To that end, religion is not that much different from the social and culture process that forms nations, governments, institutions, communities, families, etc. as they all espouse specific value actions, honorable and dishonorable persons, and the ways to differentiate between them.

What makes religion unique, however, is the way that religion legitimates the valuation of specific figures and specific practices; religions typically appeals to specific types of canons to ground their judgments. The canons is usually considered to be the holy Scriptures of the religion, but it may be also emerge from other sources such as divine inspiration, events of a wondrous nature, etc. What is central though, particuarly within the monotheistic tradition, is that the canons are understood to come from a transcendent God who is not observable, at least not with any normal sense of perception. Consequently, the canons for religious faith are usually rooted in some sort of historical process of validation, such as the resurrection of Jesus Christ, which are not usually amenable to direct study and verification.

The pitfall of this isn’t that only religions that can provide clear, empirical proof of their validity should be considered valid. Rather, the problem is that when our religious grounding does not readily give us active feedback on the goodness or badness of our actions, we can readily begin to justify specific practices and valorize specific individuals without any real basis for it to be challenged in the adherents to that religious system. We can readily imagine all these various ideas and these various persons who we deem to be good or bad because we do not have an immediately recognizable source of knowledge to help us differentiate. Even Scripture does not serve this purpose, as the hermeneutical reality is that people can very readily interpret passages to justify specific types of values and persons as being good or being evil.

This is not to deny that there is no process of feedback that God may give to us, but only that the means by which we grow to learn from God and comprehend him more deeply can not be so readily derived from higher-end, cognitive reasoning that relies upon specific perceptual information and knowledge to justify one’s actions. Insofar as we rely upon specific rules, specific abstractions, specific models, etc. to make judgments about religious practice and valorized figures, we are highly susceptible to outside influences other than the inspiration and agency of God.

What this means is that we can begin to valorize specific practices and figures in a way that may not be truly representative to God’s purposes. This is often what happens within various Christian traditions, as the figures of the tradition, whether it be Augustine, Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Wesley, etc., are all taken in later history to be highly valorized figures whose teaching represents and gets to the heart of the Christian way of life. What gets overlooked, however, is how those figures were (a) influential for the day based upon the social and cultural issues of their time and (b) the different issues and concerns that we face in the present day. We laud these figures not just as significant reformers that opened up our eyes to the Scriptures and the way of God, but we begin to form traditions around their teachings that we then lift up as reliably representative of God’s way. 

For instance, I highly value John Wesley’s theology. However, there is a distinct different between Wesley’s time and today. Wesley was at unique point in history, where the Enlightenment was beginning to take hold of Western Europe and the Christian faith was beginning to emerge as something of a more ecumenical between various traditions rather than sectarian in nature between the religious traditions. In that world, Wesley could exposit the Scriptures in powerful ways that was instrumental in bringing people to come to Jesus to have their sins forgiveness and experience a powerful change in their life. Yet, we live in a very different day of wide-spread societal confusion, where sectarianism is more apropos to describe our secular society. Insofar as Wesley was getting to the hearts of the Scriptures, we need to hear his voice, but insofar as Wesley was interpreting the Scriptures against the backdrop of the social transformations of his day, it is important to be mindful of how the teachings of the Wesleyan tradition may not on its own ground provide a confident and reliable foundation for discovering the love and power of God. Indeed, the mass confusion and disagreement within churches and denominations of a Wesleyan heritage today demonstrates that attempted to extract some teaching and tradition from Wesley that is extracted from his social and intellectual context to be used for our day doesn’t necessarily lead us to the narrow way of life that Jesus speaks of.

Here is where the problem comes from all of this: our religious traditions may come to emphasize certain practices and persons as highly valued and extolled for reasons that may not representative of God’s ongoing activity and purposes throughout history as much as it is specific, socio-cultural identification with and attachments to those traditions. However, since our main ground for these traditions is historical validation, such as Wesley being instrumental in brining about a wave of Christian commitment and fervor that has dramatically changed the Western hemisphere, without clear and specific feedback to help distinguish between what to keep and what not to from our traditions, we are liable to emphasize things within the traditions that are deemed suitable for our specific concerns and purposes in our time and place in history.

To give an ancient example of this, significant portions of ancient Judaism under Hellenization began to emphasize specific practices that distinguished Judaism from the rest of the world, such as circumcision, Sabbath, dietary customs of the Torah, and maybe even sexual practices. The Jewish traditions developed and exposited many precedents and principles for obeying the various commandments of the Torah about circumcision, Sabbath, and diet. However, it was Jesus who split with these religious traditions as notably practices by the Pharisees. The Apostle Paul rejected this as a form of righteousness that wasn’t God’s righteousness. There was something important that was missing by Jesus and the early Jesus movement, even as Jesus and the early Jewish Christians went to the same religious canon of Israel’s Scriptures as the Pharisees did.

At the core, I would say the problem was this: that the traditions began to emphasize something other than the love of God, both as a practice and as one who was to be valorized. All the other practices from the other commandments were given center stage and those people who were deemed to embody these commandments were given high social preference and honor. In the midst of this, God and His loving purposes expressed in the Scriptures and, as Jesus goes on to speak about, that were being made known through the Holy Spirit were being missed. Instead of understanding the world and each other through the Word of God, they understood the world and each other through the specific traditions that were instrumental in trying to address specific social struggles and tensions of that day.

This gets me to the heart of true religion: where our valorized practices and valorize individuals are centered upon God. This is at the heart of the doctrine of the Trinity. While the doctrine of the Trinity may be taken as an abstract doctrine to give us something we know about God, at the heart of the Trinity is ultimately an expression of the way we know God through the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This epistemic basis of the Trinity grounds our understanding of the Father through the Scriptures, the central value we place on knowing Jesus Christ and His life, death, resurrection, and ascension, and the importance for the Spirit to help us to comprehend and love God throughout the course of our lives. The worship of the Triune God shape the practices, person, and canons that ultimately shapes our faith. While other ideas and other practices have their circumstantial place within the Christian faith in dealing with specific questions, dilemmas, situations, etc., none of these things should take the central place that the worship of the Triune God has in our lives as Christians. To do so risks putting the emphasis on the wrong syllable, making our religion to serve the purposes of those ideas and practices that we deem important for reasons that are more grounded in our own, changing socio-cultural circumstances than the ever-continuing purposes of God. It is here where religion can go off the rails from the God who gives life to the other things or persons who can not give life, as helpful and beneficial as they might be in certain circumstances.

The narrowness of the gate to find life that Jesus speaks of should be heard as a perpetual clarion call to continuously ground our religious practice and teaching on the God of Israel who made Himself known to the world in Christ and is actively at work in us through His Holy Spirit, with attention to whether the traditions we give are treated as the foundations for our faith or, rather, as signposts to help us understand the faith as it was given and passed down for two millennia. As foundations, our traditions can lead our religiosity astray. As signposts, however, it can help point us to the source that we then come to immerse ourselves in and comprehend through more direct acquaintance, perception, and comprehension.

So, it is about religion, but a religion grounded in the worship, love, and comprehension of the Triune God.

Coming to a fresh vision about my passion

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August 10, 2020

As I say in the Behavioral Observation unit this past week, I began to have something arise in my heart that I hadn’t felt in years. I began to have a passion for an idea and purpose that I hadn’t felt in a long time, but that will take some discernment over the next few weeks.

For the first few days I was relatively quiet and to myself, but I observed the other patients and watched how they acted and interacted with others. However, I eventually began to open up and engaged them in conversation, listening to their stories. I began to see and hear stories of heartache, of mental illness, or feelings like one is at the end of their resources. Amidst it, I heard many of them talk about Jesus and how He was guiding them.

To that end, I began to feel a passion begin to burn within me. I have a therapist’s heart, as I longed to help these people see the route towards a more whole life as they follow Jesus. Now, it may not seem like it if you know people personally, as I can come across as a bit like an analytical and somewhat socially reserved, but the stories of people’s struggles and hope to have a better life touch me in a way that many of the other life stories that I hear from others do not grab me at the heart. Perhaps its touches me because of my own life with its struggles, while at the same time having a mother as a psychiatrist who taught me about dealing with the struggles of life.

This therapist’s heart has been buried deep within my heart that had been plastered over with analysis and dissociation from the pains in my heart. Yet, when I think about analytic philosophy, I think of it like therapy for the heart, helping people to see the important things that they have missed. When I think about Jesus I think of a Great Therapist who healed with a power far beyond anything available to humans. When I think about Paul’s letters, I see a man who amidst the worship of Christ through the Spirit striving to help people to realize the right way to life one’s life before God that would reap therapeutic benefits in people’s lives. Even though Jesus and Paul were not therapists in the modern sense where introspection and talk therapy are the two key cornerstones, their lives and teaching exhibited a therapeutic telos, seeking to free people from the burdens they live under the oppressive religious teachings and autocratic political control.

For me, then, it seems to me that therapy is the passion of my heart. Not necessarily to simply be a therapist in the traditional sense of the term today, but rather a fresh bringing of the Gospel and the Christian message to the way we seek personal healing through the worship of the Triune God. My studies in exegesis and theology have taught me that many of the traditions we have presented about living the Christian life doesn’t always square away with a close reading of Jesus, Paul, etc., and that my understanding of psychology has helped me to see that many of these traditions may in some cases cause more harm than good when the traditions are taken as the firm knowledge we have about following Jesus rather than signposts that help us to make sense of the Scriptures. My therapeutic heart wants to help people become free from the burdensome aspects of these religious traditions and to show them the simple way of Jesus, even as the way of following Jesus can be difficult at times.

I say this autobiographically as I am convinced that part of the reason that my healing from my trauma was delayed was the way I used my religious understanding to try to fix the problems. Insofar as religion was a system that I thought mastery of would help to repair me rather than a way of life lived by faith, my religion got in the way more than it helped. In many ways, these past few years have been a pulling the veil of religiosity back. Seeing that even as Jesus is the source of life and true religion that is concerned about those is needy is life-giving, religion often has a way of messing things up psychologically and spiritually.

So, my heart, my vision, my hopes for the future are becoming fixated on bringing a vision for Christian therapy and healing that is in line with my refined reading of the New Testament from the past few years. This vision puts more education back on the table, but at the same time, it also takes me towards the part of being a pastor that I increasingly found joy in over time: helping people in their own struggles to find the pathway that God has set before them. I want to help the poor in spirit, those who mourn, those who are meek come to have a fresh desire for righteousness, to find the place or mercy in their lives, to seek to come to a place of purity of heart, and to become the peacemakers that God calls us to become.

So, we’ll see, God willing, what comes of this. I have much discern over the coming days, weeks, and months and I would covet your prayers as I do this.

Christ dwelling in us by faith

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August 9, 2020

Ephesians 3.14-19:

For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

Asides from the Lord’s Prayer and the High Priestly prayer, this prayer may be one of the most spiritually insightful and theologically rich prayers throughout the Scriptures. There is must that can be said about this prayer and how Paul frames the spiritual life of believers and what it ultimately means to be a follower of Christ.

However, I want to highlight one key passage for consideration. Paul prays that “Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love.” This may be one of the most concise summaries of how God’s purposes, later described as the fullness of God, come to be realized.

It is often the case that we think that Christianity is about “love.” After all, Jesus said loving God and loving neighbor are the two most important commandments. Consequently, we are inclined to think that love is the foundation for what is means to be a Christian. However, Paul’s prayers runs up against that notion. Being rooted and grounded in love is something that happens as Christ dwells in people’s hearts through faith. It is then in the next line of the prayer that Paul expand on this love as something that people begin to comprehend and know love, as if it is the depths of wisdom.

For Paul, love is the telos; something we grow and progress into. This is evident in Ephesians 4.15-16. Love is what brings maturity to the body of Christ. However, it is by faith that one comes to have Christ dwell in one’s heart. It is faith that provides the place of transformation of the person so that they can then grow into and exhibit this love into its full maturity.

What is it about faith that brings this about? In part, it may be what specifically Paul has talked about that is specifically being trusted: that God has broken the barrier between Jew and Gentiles and has included the Gentiles into His promises in Jesus Christ even though they were originally on the outside of the covenant (Ephesians 2.11-22). In this faith that God is joining people together, this faith would naturally point people towards the love that would bring and keep people together. Those things that we trust and hope in readily become the things that define our lives and, in the case of faith in Christ, the faith and hope to be joined together in Christ through love brings about the characteristic of love that begins to define us.

However, trusting and hoping in love is not by itself how Paul causes the union with Christ in Ephesians 4.15-16. Rather, the body of Christ mutually builds up people together in love. As we place our faith in God’s reconciling all things and people together in Christ, it opens us to both give love and receive love. Faith sets the stage for the divine drama of love that we participate in with the other actors.

God's direct self-expression in John 1.1

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August 7, 2020

John 1.1: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

These familiar words have been regarded as perhaps the most explicit statement of Jesus’ divinity. Whenever you get into a discussion of Jesus’ identity, John 1.1 is inevitably brought to discussion as it is one of the clearest, most resounding statements about Jesus being God.

There is one little problem. This isn’t exactly what John 1.1 says. Certainly, Jesus being God is true from what we read in John 1.1 insofar as it goes. The problem however is the way that orthodoxy has controlled the reading of John 1.1 to be a proof-text for Nicene Christology. While any reading of John 1.1 that rejects the Nicene Christology is off track, John 1.1 isn’t directly about saying that Jesus, who is the Word, is God. It is about something different and more profound that when taken to be true entails the divinity of Jesus.

Much emphasis is taken on “The Word was God” (θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος). However, if we take a closer look at the Old Testament, it is not unusual to identify various figures with God/YHWH, such as the man who wrestled with Jacob or angels who proclaim messages from God. To that end, it would be fitting to suggest that these figures were also ‘God.” However, it is best to understand these figures as mediating God rather than directly God, as if they are extension of God’s authority and power. Where the real crux of the matter is in “the Word was with God” (ὁ λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν θεόν), which removes any notion of mediation. The Word was with God; He was not an extension of God that crosses over the barrier between the heavens and the earth, but He was with God in the beginning of creation.

The second and third statements of John 1.1 combine to say something: the Word spoken in Genesis 1 is not some figure that represents God, but He is God’s own direct self-expression. The Word exactly represents God. This is what allows John 1.14-18 to make sense: God’s direct self-expression comes in the form of flesh, allowing people to move from Torah to grace through Jesus the Son as the one who makes God’s known. No longer does one need a of knowledge about God mediated through Moses because in Jesus Christ God directly expresses Himself.

Here Word/λόγος is more than just a reference to a specific ontological entity or even a literary reference to the God’s speech in Genesis 1, but it provides a description of Jesus’ ultimate identity as God’s expression. This idea, then, frames the whole of the Gospel of John which seeks to teach one overarching idea: in demonstrating that Jesus is the unique Son of God, one can now come to know the shape of God’s love in the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The very love of God that is testified repeatedly throughout the Torah and the rest of the Old Testament has been given flesh and become tangibly understandable and known through the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

Jesus is God, most certainly. But for the Gospel of John, it is trying to say something even more profound with tremendous implications: Jesus is God’s direct self-expression of who He is. Jesus’ personality is God’s personality. So, believe in Him so as to listen, learn, and follow Him. In believing in Him, one will be ushered into the life that is had with God, just as Adam and Eve originally enjoyed.

Truth, the devil, and cogito ergo sum

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August 7, 2020

2 Corinthians 10.3-5:

Indeed, we live as human beings, but we do not wage war according to human standards; for the weapons of our warfare are not merely human, but they have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every proud obstacle raised up against the knowledge of God, and we take every thought captive to obey Christ.

There is a common portrayal of demons that is diffused throughout Christian thinking as these spiritual entities who torment people by taking them over and possessing them and making them think bad thoughts. Demonic possession and attack is the primary way we have been trained to think about demons.

However, I would put forward that the realm of the primary realm of the demonic is in the intellectual and expertise than it is anywhere else. In apocalyptic literature such as 1 Enoch, the demonic forces of the Watchers are said to have revealed knowledge and skills to humanity. More importantly, when we see the serpent’s seduction to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil leading to the fall of Adam and Eve that then contributes to human life diffusing various skills and crafts that overlap with the rise in violence. Far from just simply being figures who possess and emotionally torment people, it seems the demonic in the Old Testament and apocalyptic work through the knowledges and skills that are propagated through human society that lead people astray from God’s purposes.

The Fall narrative actually encodes one way knowledge leads people away from God. When God commands Adam to not eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil in Genesis 2.17, the command can be taken as one of at least two ways: 1) the day one eats is the day one will die or 2) the day one eats one’s fate will certainly be to die. As the narrative and the logic plays out, the second options is shown to be the meaning. Then, the serpent comes along to Eve and says “You will not die.” On one level, this statement is true if one is referring to the specific day they eat, but is false as it pertains to the realization of mortality.

This is how misleading knowledge works. It provides a truth that is not otherwise reliable for what it is taken to be about. This is different from other falsehoods, such as half-truths, rationalizations, etc. With the serpent, everything he says is absolutely straightforwardly and experientially true: they did not die the day that they ate. Yet, what gets left out is that they sealed their fate with mortality. Eve believed a truth that marked out the eventual end of their lives.

What happened is that the words of God and the serpent can be framed differently so that both can appear to be true and both can appear to be false. God speaks about the very thing he created, but the serpent seduces with a truth that simultaneously seems to be saying the same thing at the verbal level but yet this is only true with a different way of framing it from God’s warning. Yet, for the relationship of God with Adam and Eve, it is His word that is the important truth to consider. The deceptive seducer manages to speak a truth that frames it differently from the intentions of God and thereby becomes a death-dealing truth that takes people away from God’s life giving and sustaining purposes.

We see something similar happen all the time in communication. A person says one thing that is true for what they intended it to mean and another person interprets another way that makes what the first person said seem to be false while they also give their account that may seem to be true. We readily shifts the frame of realities and perspectives of what is spoken to suit other interests and purposes rather than the one who spoke. This is what is happening with the serpent.

So, with the serpent’s deception, a whole array of knowledges gets unleashed into the world that contributes to its spiral into widespread violence and evil. With the acceptance of one truth, but not God’s truth, God’s life-giving purposes are resisted and the world is plunged into evil and chaos.

I tell this story to set up the story of the Enlightenment and how it produced a similar form of seduction that set up our global society towards widespread violence, chaos, and disorder that threatens the whole of human life: cogito ergo sum. With this simple idea, the world of interior, navel-gazing to find truth was unleashed into the world, whether it was through gazing at our reason, at our emotions, at our desires, etc. There is a certain, apparent truth to cogito ergo sum, our thinking really does seem to suggest that we really do exist. But yet it misleads us to think the betterment of our life can be found from within ourselves, by looking inward. It has lead to the presumptive entrenchment of the idea of cognitive internalism, where we understand the world by reference to our own internal experiences. It has become diffused into all the ways we think and talk about ourselves, as the truth of our own internal experiences does seem to give us some short-term ability to better our lives. Yet, at the same time, it has left us focused inwardly into a mortal body whose fear of death controls the way we think, feel, and act. Cognitive internalism has lead to the entrenchment of the fears of death, along with the host of the desires of the flesh as our persisting look inward only reinforces within us what we observe of us over time.

Yet, it is this cognitive internalism that has made us more hardened to other people by making us less attentive to others and, in the case of religious experience, rather presumptuous that our experience of God is had primarily in our own, internal experiences. Furthermore, it has created a form of religiosity within Christian circles that has taken the focus away upon the Triune God who creates, sustains, redeems, and restores and onto the way we try to relate to God and live out our lives before God. We have developed all these schemes about religious experience and the person by reference to our own internal experiences and how we have come to understand them, with the assumption that God leads us through this.

However, what if Descartes’ cogito ergo sum was a truth with something lurking underneath that made room for the devil? Descartes reasoning towards cogito ergo sum was in part built upon the argument that there was no decieving god who could mislead him on this basic point of his own existence. Descartes though that from this point of knowing that he existed, he could then develop a sure knowledge of everything that follows. Let’s suppose that Descartes was right, that cogito ergo sum is true. What if Descartes’ “deceiving god,” whom we can also refer to as Satan, works best from our own internal experience and beliefs? What if cogito ergo sum and the entrenched practices of cognitive internalism became the basis for a widespread deception of the world? This is something to think about, as a little bit of internal self-awareness may be fruitful, but regular and persistently deep inquiries into the self leads us into the realm of inner mental ambiguity and chaos where there is no real sure ground to set oneself upon: it is here that we are most susceptible to suggestion and seduction.

So, if this is the case, what is to be done? As the Apostle Paul says, we take every thought captive for Christ. The death-dealing truths of the world are not to be denied or overlooked. Jesus Himself commended being shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves in seeking to know how the world does things and yet using this knowledge for righteous purposes. Instead, we find where the ideas are true, but then seek to cut the carrot off from the stick that is pulling it, for it is the devil who uses truths to pull people away whereas it is God who gives His truths that are reliable on their own terms because of how God created them to be.

Follow. Don't lead

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August 7, 2020

Matthew 23.2-12:

The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear,a and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi. But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.

Follow. Don’t lead.

I would put these words forward as perhaps the most important message that Christians can hear today in the midst of our confusing world. We live in a world of leaders and influencers who try to convince us they have the insight and vision to bring about the needed changes towards a brighter future.

But, leadership is a path away from the cross. Having tried to walk that route of trying to be a leader and a follower of Jesus, I found my heart being in deep split between the two. Being a leader and being a follower are so antithetical, it is obvious just be simply the words that you can not do both simultaneously.

Notice what I didn’t say. I didn’t say “Don’t influence.” We all have influence, from those with the highest status and the most money to those who have little to give and offer in the eyes of the world. We all have the ability to influence people, although our statuses and resources will determine and shape what the nature of the influence will typically be like.

The problem with leadership is this: it sets up an interpersonal expectation that whose who “follow” will be directly influenced by the words and actions of the leader. This interpersonal expectation is then maintained by various forms of justifications and rationales that determine how one handles interaction, submission, and deviance. The more leadership becomes intertwined within the person’s sense of self and identity, the more the leader’s sense of who they are is determined by how their rationalize and justify themselves in relationship to others. This creates a feeling of perpetual vulnerability that will either drive the leader into deeper anxiety or they will learn to disconnect and dissociate from it. On top of this, as others covet those positions of leadership, there is often a competition that forms, leading leaders to need to protect themselves from would-be competitors. This results in what may ultimately may come to be a paranoid position about others in which they are highly inclined to judge and exaggerate the intentions, motives, and character of other people who provoke anxiety within them. Leadership can readily lead to the authoritarian personality insofar as leadership begins to define a person’s identity and enables a person’s well-being. In this world, all the leader can see in the world is his or her own desires, his or her own fears, his or her own expectations and is blind to see other people for who they are, both in their positives and in their blemishes.

The Pharisees were leaders. Jesus spoke of what ultimately lurked underneath their heart in the form of murder. They exaggerated the character of John the Baptist and Jesus. They reached for blatant rationalizations to explain away the exorcisms Jesus did. They schemed continuously to find a way to get rid of Jesus. They projected their own problems onto other people with great veracity. The Pharisees were leaders and they failed to recognize the goodness of Jesus and the goodness of the pathway that his disciples were following.

Leadership takes us down this pathway. It puts the world through the lens of our own eyes, our own expectations, and feels to urge to compel those under their leadership to comply simply without concern for reason, evidence, or understanding.

You can not be act as a follower of Jesus and be a leader simultaneously. You can follow and you may be put into positions where you have an influence upon others, but your influence is not about people doing as you or as you expect. Your influence is about people seeing the route you are following and ultimately finding WHO you are following. You allow God to be the potter who forms them, but it is up to the other persons to receive from God through your obedience to Jesus. 

You may obtain opportunities to have a remarkable influence upon other people, but the motivations that drive and motivate you is not the amount of influence you can cast but the life of the One who you follow. You are not concerned with how well your words or your action are being directly received and put into action by others, but you are concerned that others come to see and know Christ.

This is at the core of the words that Jesus gave right before pronouncing the Woes upon the Pharisees. Do not seek to be in the various ascribed positions of leadership, authority, and honor that so many people seek. Exalting oneself in terms of one social stature above others ultimately leads a downfall, whereas those who willingly accept a lower social status will be raised up by God.

Follow. Don’t lead.