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The Weakness of Love

March 20, 2009 4 comments

There are times when the symbols, the dreams, the vision of our world comes crashing down. We look for God.

But He is silent.

Throughout much of the Bible He is silent. We can remember when He spoke the Word of Life that woke our heart to love. This Word came as a fresh spring, as pure joy, as heaven’s bounty. But then in the dire anguish of suffering: silence. Nothing. Where did He go?

We grope. We ache. We wonder. We grieve. We grow weary. We may even curse and shake our fist at the heavens. Or in the blinding grip of life’s struggles, we may simply turn away and look for lesser gods. The gods of technology. The gods of sexuality. The gods of spirituality and religion. We turn to gods of our own making for comfort and satisfaction.

Strangely, these self-made gods have real power. But the power is not freeing. It does not lead us to deeper and truer love. It stirs in us lust for power. Power to control. Power to protect.

I will never hurt again if I can control this situation, this person, the job, this group, this family, this church. We seek refuge in the slavery of other gods, other pharaohs.

Sadly, the gods of our making really do enslave us. Really do cut us off from the freedom of love. Enslaved by the passions, we can no longer love or be loved. We simply lust to consume, and so we are consumed. The gods of our making not only enslave, they eventually kill us. Our families may die. Our friendships may die. Our churches may die.

Everything we once held dear may be sacrificed to the idols of our making. Our beautiful homes are filled with beautiful furniture and broken people. Families, marriages, children that have been offered to the gods of our consumption, to the ravages of passion, to the coldness of convenience.

In the pain of great loss, we may brood and rage and then repeat our deadly rituals to new gods of death and indifference.

Into the darkness of our self made tombs, the shuddering silence pierces us. The Lord extends an invitation of freedom. He speaks to the entombed heart, “Come forth!” He does not invite us to a life void of suffering. We awake to a world where hurts still hurt and pain is still very real. And His Silence is still Present.

But instead of control. Instead of a method or a god to control the pain, we are asked to simply trust. Let go of control. Let go of trying to live pain free and sorrow free. Let go into the promise of God’s faithful love.

This complete love is revealed Word-made-Flesh. Jesus the God and King who embraces our suffering, who bears our sorrows, drinks full the cup of pain and suffering that floods our world. And yet, He continues to love. Hanging from the cross of shame, He looks upon those who are taking His life and cries out, “Father forgive them.”

Some suggest this was weakness. And that our God is weak and frail and the Creator of weaklings. They are right. It is weak but not powerless. There is power in brute force and power in absolute weakness.

Brute force requires someone else to sacrifice for my satisfaction. Brute force will master and control for a short season. But it is no match for the power of absolute weakness.

Jesus reveals the absolute weakness of love.

Love completely trusts the Lover and in so doing becomes all power and all glory and all wisdom and all strength both now and forevermore.

Following the call of Jesus, does not mean learning how to control this world and avoid all pain. It means trusting in the love of the Father. The unfailing love. In this mystery of trust, we might, by His great and wondrous grace, learn to love. We might become the true and complete images of God that have moved beyond the childlike power of creating and controlling to the uncontainable power of loving relentlessly.

Then the call of God and the cry of our soul become one: “Let me love God with all that I am and love other people with all that I am.” May love prevail in thought, words, deeds.

Have mercy Lord. We are weak. Make us weaker still.

As I wrote this meditation, I was think about a quote from a book I read several years ago called, The Heart of the World by Hans Urs Von Balthasar. I think this quote is worth reading and rereading as we traverse along the Lenten byways.

And now God’s Word saw that his descent could entail nothing but his own death and ruination—that his light must sink down into the gloom—he accepted the battle and the declaration of war. And he devised the unfathomable ruse: he would plunge, like Jonas into the monster’s belly and thus penetrate death’s innermost lair; he would experience the farthest dungeon of sin’s mania and drink the cup down to the dregs; he would offer his brow to man’s incalculable craze for power and violence; in his own futile mission, he would demonstrate the futility of the wolrd; in his impotent obedience to the Father, he would visibly show the impotence of revolt; through his own weakness unto death he would bring to light the deathly weakness of such a despairing resistance to God; he would let the world do its will and thereby accomplish the will of the Father; he would grant the world its will, thereby breaking the world’s will; he would allow his own vessel to be shattered, thereby pouring himself out; by pouring out one single drop of the divine Heart’s blood he would sweeten the immense and bitter ocean. This was intended to be the most incomprehensible of exchanges: from the most extreme opposition would come the highest union, and the might of his supreme victory was to prove itself in his utter disgrace and defeat. For his weakness would already be the victory of his love for the Father, and as a deed of his supreme strength, this weakness would far surpass and sustain in itself the world’s pitiful feebleness. He alone would henceforth be the measure and thus also the meaning of all impotence. He wanted to sink to low that in the future all falling would be a falling into him, and every streamlet of bitterness and despair would henceforth run down into his lowermost abyss.
No fighter is more divine than the one who can achieve victory through defeat. In the instant when he receives the deadly wound, his opponent falls to the ground, himself struck a final blow. For he strikes love and is thus himself struck by love. And by letting itself be struck, love proves what had to be proven: that it is indeed love. Once struck, the hate-filled opponent recognizes his boundaries and understands: behave as he pleases, nevertheless he is bounded on every side by a love that is great than he. Everything he may fling at love—insults, indifference, contempt, scornful derision, murderous silence, demonic slander—all of it can ever but prove love’s superiority; and the black the night, the more radiant does love shine.
Hans Urs Von Balthasar from “The Heart of the World”

Thoughts on Interpreting the Text (Psalm 119)

October 16, 2008 1 comment

I’ve tried to sketch out a few ideas out about how modernism and postmodernism influenced the reading of the Bible. After I wrote up a few thoughts on some of the ways I might think about the text, I thought began to think of simply highlighting how the text tells us to interpret itself. As with anything I write, I am not trying to provide an exhaustive study but rather a sketch. So I might simply take one passage that explores the idea of meditation in some depth: Psalm 119.

As I reflected on the Psalm and listed out the various forms of meditation mentioned, I discerned that the list might be considered in three seperate categories: hearing, speaking and seeing.

1. Hearing – In verse 33 the Psalmist prays, “Teach me, O Lord, the way of Your statutes, and I shall keep it to the end.” This request is part of a larger pattern that reappears throughout Scripture. The Spirit of God teaches us the Word of God. At the very beginning of the Bible, God is speaking.

Hans Urs Balthasar taught me that hearing is the position of humility. I exert less control over hearing than seeing. While I can easily change me gaze or attention from one spot to another, when I am addressed, I cannot so easily change the focus of my listening. To change the focus of my hearing would require me to physically interfere with my ears through headphones or earplugs. Thus to refrain from listening suggests active resistance.

Whereas to hear, to listen is to submit. So like the Psalmist, I approach the Word with a listening ear, and ask the Lord to teach me. The Psalm is filled with entreties to God to teach, comfort, come, revive, and so on. The Psalmist models the position of prayerful listening. As I humble myself before the Word of the Lord, I ask the Lord of the Word to speak, “for your servant is listening.”

This reflects an attitude of trust, which is reiterated thorughout the Psalm. I listen and trust in the Word. The Psalmist prays,

Forever, O Lord,
Your word is settled in heaven.
90 Your faithfulness endures to all generations;
You established the earth, and it abides.
91 They continue this day according to Your ordinances,
For all are Your servants.
92 Unless Your law had been my delight,
I would then have perished in my affliction.
93 I will never forget Your precepts,
For by them You have given me life.
94 I am Yours, save me;
For I have sought Your precepts.
95 The wicked wait for me to destroy me,
But I will consider Your testimonies.
96 I have seen the consummation of all perfection,
But Your commandment is exceedingly broad.
NKJV – 119:89-96

The Psalmist acknowledges that the Word is faithful, good, trustworthy, delightful, and stands over all people. He writes “all are Your servants.” Whether we aknowledge the Lord or not, we are His servants and stand under His Word.

Proverbs 2 also highlights this posture of listening:

Prov 2:1-9
My son, if you receive my words,
And treasure my commands within you,
2 So that you incline your ear to wisdom,
And apply your heart to understanding;
3 Yes, if you cry out for discernment,
And lift up your voice for understanding,
4 If you seek her as silver,
And search for her as for hidden treasures;
5 Then you will understand the fear of the Lord,
And find the knowledge of God.
6 For the Lord gives wisdom;
From His mouth come knowledge and understanding;
7 He stores up sound wisdom for the upright;
He is a shield to those who walk uprightly;
8 He guards the paths of justice,
And preserves the way of His saints.
9 Then you will understand righteousness and justice,
Equity and every good path.
NKJV

I believe this posture of listening continues in at least two other ways. One is listening to the actual reading of the Word aloud. Thus part of the tradition of God’s people is the public reading of the Word. This is a fundamental part of worship. Secondly, we need to listen to God’s people proclaiming the Word.

While Psalm 119 does not seem to specifically highlight this, we see the pattern again and again of God’s people listening to God’s ministers (his angelic flames) announcing the Good News of God’s Word. From Moses to the Prophets to the Apostles and Teachers, we see the consistent pattern of God’s Word being spoken, proclaimed, taught through the servants of the Lord.

In Ephesians, Paul writes the God has given each person on the body of Christ a measure of grace. And we are to offer back that measure in service to one another. One way we do this is by speaking what is “good for necessary edification, that it may impart grace to the hearers.”

So listening to the Word involves personal, prayeful listening, public listening to the reading and proclaiming of the Word, and listening to the saints around me speak and edify through the Word.

2. Speaking – The Psalmist not only writes about listening but about speaking the Word.

1 My lips shall utter praise,
For You teach me Your statutes.
172 My tongue shall speak of Your word,
For all Your commandments are righteousness.
NKJV – Ps 119:171-172

Throughout the course of the psalm, speaking seems to be part of remembering, which involves speaking, wlaking, running, obeying, studying, rehearsing, re-enacting, reflecting, and enfleshing. Deuteronomy 6 exhorts the people

6 “And these words which I command you today shall be in your heart. 7 You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up. 8 You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. 9 You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
NKJV

Speaking the Word seems to be a fundamental extension of listening to the Word. So speaking becomes a vital part of interpretation. Speaking is much more than just reading and preaching. It involves singing and rejoicing over the Word. Then working outward from this image of rejoicing in the Word, speaking seems to involve imaging the Word in my body (obedience) and in the world that I create.

So interpretion is enfleshed on many levels. In submission and obedience, I seeking to build the world of my family around and upon the Word of God.

3. Seeing – I won’t say much about this now (because I’m ready to stop writing), but it seems that the culmination of listening of speaking is seeing. The text moves to hearing to seeing. The Psalmist speaks of seeing and even the whole drama of Scripture starts with God speaking and ends with God’s people seeing.

Thoughts on Interpreting the Text – (Dougernism)

October 14, 2008 2 comments

Tired of hearing the angry voices competing for attention by increasing volume, I have often felt like the post-modern who says, “You’re both all right.” Silence seems golden when the only sound you hear is the sparring of two syllables in flight. But what is even more golden than silence is the articulate voice that creates the future in the midst of a world that seems to be crumbling.

Now more than ever I believe we need people to pay attention, to listen, and to respond with an articulation of wisdom from the Word. So how do we approach the Bible, the Word of God? What tools, what lenses, what frameworks can assist us in our endeavor?

This is not an exhaustive list but a few thoughts collected from writers and thinkers far wiser than myself. Karl Barth (via the great synthesizer Donald Bloesch) taught me that I don’t stand over the Word but it stands in judgment over me. So the first tool in my bag of interpretive tricks, is the grace, the gift, the challenge of humility. I come to the text realizing my own flaws, my own limited vision, my own sinful heart and deceptions. I humble myself under the mighty hand of God that He may lift me up in due time.

One of the dangers of critiquing modernism is the sense that I am finally here to save the day. Actually many a man far greater than myself lived and died in the school of the moderns, and I am grateful for the gifts of that generation. So in addition to humility, gratitude might also be helpful. We might learn to be grateful for our critics, our forebears, and especially for the heretics. I can learn from the successes and failures of others if I might learn to appreciate them and listen.

Listening is yet another key tool. Listening to the text. Listening to the writer influenced by the Greek philosophical world, the Roman legal system, the early medieval tribal world, and the late medieval scholasticism. Listening to the heart of the Reformers, the precision of the Enlightenment thinkers and the passion of the emergents. If we can develop the skill of listening to others across space and time, we might be forced to reflect upon and consider and grow from a different perspective.

All these initial tools might be captured in the words, “faith, hope and love.” The Word is not my word but God’s Word. So when I open the text, I must believe that God is speaking to me through Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit. Instead of critical distrust, I bring critical trust. As a good Protestant, I believe the Word stands over and above all human words. Yet, like the Reformers before me, I believe that this God Word echoes through the communities of faith across space and time. So listening intently to these communities is valuable.

Different times sound forth particular articulations that sometimes seem unrecognizable from our current milieu. This requires the discipline of sustained listening through the ears of love. In addition to speaking from vastly different cultural contexts, different Christians across time and space have read the Word through particular parts of the Word. Gerald Bray suggests that the early centuries of the church read through the lens and questions of John’s gospel. It should be obvious that we read the text today through the lens of the book of Romans.

This is why question of justification, faith vs works, law vs grace and so on are so readily in our discourse and our faith walk. Another book that has exerted a powerful gateway into the rest of the Bible is the book of Psalms. This collection of songs offers an interpretive lens for everything from the creation story to the end of time, and we would all do well to sing (listen twice) to the treasures of this hermeneutic aesthetic.

Growing up with an attitude of derision toward the law, I found parts of the Old Testament virtually unreadable. More recently, I’ve begun to discover the treasure that the law brings in opening up the stories, the songs, the provers, the gospels and even the epistles.

By moving back and forth between varying perspectives, am I not simply reflecting the post-modern conditioning of my culture? Unquestionably. On the bad side, this can lead to a position of having no tools to correct readings that damage the text, and having no ability to draw distinctions between Biblical revelation and the latest new age prophecies.

But seeing the Bible through varying perspectives does not mean that I give into a sea of subjective waves. Rather, I can draw from the tools of the ancient church realize that multiple perspectives can operate at the same time without canceling each other out. I can appreciate the narrative tools and rhetorical devices without denying the historical veracity of the stories. Both perspectives can teach me. This can begin helping me develop the Biblical skills I need to distinguish between subjective fluff and subjectively inspired revelation via an objective God who stands outside of my thoughts.

While I don’t like to really even use the terms objective and subjective, but for now let me suffice with the idea that the church has and still does offer the tools to distinguish between helpful and hurtful approaches to the text.

I might also suggest that objectively I can obey and embodying the words of the 10 commandments. Without faith in the historical Jesus and literal obedience to His commandments, I am still on the outside and all discussion of interpretation is simply theory. Stepping on the inside, I discover that I can listen and obey in simple childlike faith. And that many of the most simple will interpret the Word through their lives far more effective than me by listening, trusting and obeying the gentle (and not so gentle) promptings of the Holy Spirit.

Thoughts on Interpreting the Text (Post-Modernism)

October 14, 2008 2 comments

The post-modern critics learned one thing well from there modern mentors: to be critics. It seems the modern critical distrust is still present in the post modern except now I apply the skeptical eye of distrust to everyone, including myself. So in this sense, post-modernism might be better termed: late modernism or modernism unleashed. It seems the modern corpus has become a corpse, and we call this dead body post-modernism.

Post-modernism finally stuck the knife in the heart of modernism by taking distrust to the extreme and losing all potentiality of meaning or reality for that matter. In this sense, post-moderns finally freed form from content only to discover that content disappeared, leaving an empty shell of form like a discarded cocoon.

Post-modernism did actually recognize the imperialist tendencies of the modern voice, and so it welcomed other voices to the table. And it served distrust and unbelief to all voices, taking us from one dominating voice to many voices with a dominant insistence that there are no voices.

Post-modernism is more like a magic trick where the assistant in box A reappears in Box B (with a different headscarf). Post modernism rejects one prevailing idea, one prevailing narrative, and seems to affirm all narratives. Now the prevailing “narrative” is that there are “no meta narratives,” resulting of course in one meta narrative. If that didn’t make sense, it’s okay because it doesn’t mean anything anyway.

While I may seem to be hard on post-modernism, I appreciate some of the gifts it has given us. It has suggested there is value in many perspectives, in many voices. It raised the question of meaning. I think it opens the door for a serious consideration of particularity vs universality. And it loves stories. Lots of them. Narrative rhetoric has been a great treasure for the church, helping us to recover the stories beneath layers of moralisms and judgments upon the texts.

Post-modernism is not a project, not a system, not a paradigm, and not a model. It is a series of noises that fill the modern void as we learn to articulate the coming era.

Thoughts on Interpreting the Text (Modernism)

October 14, 2008 1 comment

A friend of mine recently asked me the following question:

If so, I’d like to discuss modern vs. postmodern readings of scripture. And more to the point, I’d like for you to unpack your approach–can I say interpretive paradigm–for reading scripture. Here, I’d like to understand more clearly a) your handling of exegetical (original meaning) and existential (current meaning) horizons to a given text and b) what resources you might direct me toward that you feel best articulate and or model your preferred approach.

I like questions like this because it gives me a chance to put my ignorance to work. Instead of limiting it to one conversation, I thought I’d spread my ignorance around on a few other brave souls and glory in the half-articulations of thought.

Attempting to discuss any interpretive paradigm is fraught with risks much like boldly proclaiming the decision “not to vote” in a culture of passionate partisans. Since I like to fall flat on my face, I’ll take the risk and hopefully avoid wrecking anyone’s faith along the way. Now I might be clear that articulating an interpretive paradigm and using an interpretive paradigm are two different things. I will attempt to write about my understanding and approach to reading the text, but odds are I may clean up a much messier mind that responds to the text in ways that I have yet to grasp.

As I look over the modern landscape, I can help but noticing a rows and rows of identical houses, identical shopping centers, and lots of ipod-clad people shouting about their “individuality!” Modernism boldly steps into the void of metaphysical meanderings and declares a “clear plan” to solve the world’s problems through scientific discipline, clear thinking, and a battery of lawyers.

I’m grateful for this modern arrogance as I sit in the coffee shop, typing on my laptop and enjoying music piped in from somewhere over the rainbow. Way to go moderns! I love my luxuries!

Off the top of my head (and certainly not from the depths of research), I’ll a venture a few thoughts on modern approaches to the text. Moderns forced us to think seriously about the historical claims of the text. Of course, their own lack of deep historical resources resulted a many wrong-headed claims about the fool hardiness of the text that are finally beginning to subside. Modernism inflicted a critical distrust upon the text (and upon everything else). While criticism can be helpful, distrust can lead to the inability to believe anything (sounds a bit like post-modernism to me).

Moderns were on a plan to save the world from ignorance (and faith and hope and love). Taking their cue from the warring medieval lords, moderns exchanged guns for ideas and set about on a conquest (or dare I say crusade) to relieve the infidels of their blinding ignorance. Thus in addition to a critical distrust of any metaphysical idea, moderns also brought an imperialistic fervency that rejected disagreement with fierce ideological torment. Unlike their cruel medieval counterparts, moderns did not torture a few heretics in the courts of inquisition, rather they tried an entire class of people in the halls of academia, determining that ignorant people were heretical and a danger to the future of the world.

The poor common man who actually still believed the text and considered the supernatural an integral part of his natural life was consigned to the galleys of mental slaves with virtually no hope for his redemption.

Over time, the modern “enlightenment project” tended to flatten the text (insert Bible) from a robust, multi-layered and multi-voiced story to a series of principles extracted from a dangerous mix of contradictions and limitations. Thankfully, these few principles could be extracted and put in a course on “Morals for a better world” and in hundreds of congressional regulations.

Don’t let my comments betray me. I do believe the modernist project brought some good. It continued and refined the project that the medievals began of getting the text into the hands of the people, helping increase literacy in every culture where it appeared. Of course, once the people finally got the text, the moderns reminded them to quit reading it because they couldn’t really trust it.

Modernism has enriched us with a critical eye that helps us in some ways think more clearly about historical problems and historical contexts. This along with the improving of translations, the ready availability of texts in many languages, the practical/applied approach to Scripture all have a place and have enriched us, and for that I am grateful.

Okay, I’ll stop here and take up some more mis-informed thoughts on post-modernism before I finally lay out my own ideas on reading and responding to the text.

Stories upon Stories upon Stories

June 15, 2008 Leave a comment

The Bible is not simply one story but many stories. And these stories form patterns that are repeated again and again. For example, the creation story appears in Gen 1 and Gen, but then variations of the creation story reapper throughout the scripture in places like Job, Proverbs 8, John 1 and Romans 1. Each story reflects a different aspect of the pattern.

Some of the many stories appearing in the Scriptures include:

The story of the Law

The story of Sojourn

The story of Slavery and Exodus

The love story between a Groom and Bride

The story of Father’s and Sons

The story of rebellion and redemption.

These are just some of the many stories that appear, reappear and reappear again. All these stories might and probably would have seem disconnected. But Jesus comes and fulfills/embodies every story. All the stories are flowing in and out from Him.

These stories might also be thought of as bardic songs. The ancient Celtic bards would sing songs of adventure and love and nature and war to the people. Their songs not only entertained but also helped forge a common memory of the tribe.

As we read the story (and sometimes realize we are acting in some of the story patterns), we also discover that we are being forged into a common memory of a family that spans time from beginning to end.

Hans Urs Von Balthasar speaks of the complexity of interwoven stories. He calls this a “symphony,” ” a dance fo sound.” Here are few of his thoughts on symphony from the classic treasure, Truth is Symphonic – Aspects of Christian Pluralism.

In his revelation, God performs a symphony, and it is impossible to say which is richer: the seamless genius of his compositions or the polyphonous orchestra of Creation that he has prepared to play it. Before teh Word of God became man, the world orchestra was “fiddling” about without any plan: world views, religions, different concepts of the state, each one playin gto itself. Somehow there is the feeling that this cacophonous jumble is only a “tuning up”: the A can be heard through everything, like a kind of promise. “In and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets…” (Heb 1:1). Then came the Son, the “heir of all things,” for whose sake the whole orchestra had been put together. As it performs God’s symphony under the Son’s direction, the meaning of its variety becomes clear….Initially, (the musicians) stand or sit next to one another as strangers, in mutual contradiction, as it were. Suddenyl the music begins, they realize how there are integrated. Not in unison, but what is far more beautiful–in sym-phony.

Teach the Bible in Public School? Time Magazine says. “Yes”

March 26, 2007 2 comments

Religion editor David Van Biema looks at the growing trend of teaching the Bible in public schools as a cultural document. While some objects (both conservatives and liberals) other people see this as an opportunity to help contextualize American culture. From the founding fathers to the Martin Luther King and modern politicians, biblical images and ideas have influenced our national rhetoric as well as our national imagination. 

Some biblical literacy may help shine light into American history as well as the current cultural conversation. I agree with Biema that this is a positive development. I think the Bible has played a particular role in our history and it is worthy to explore that connection.

The kind of class Biema discusses is not a comparative religion class but sounds more like a class in cultural literacy. And yet, I also see the value in comparative religion classes.

While I am an Evangelical Christian, I think students should have some basic knowledge of various world religions, including the tremendous influence of some ancient religions such as Zoroastrianism. I am opposed to the idea that faiths which have shaped people groups and nations should be completely excluded from the public conversation.

If we truly embrace diversity, we should be able to listen to one another,  and still feel free to disagree.

Lamentations of Job

February 20, 2007 1 comment

The book of Job recounts the dramatic suffering of Job. Yesterday while reading a litany of Job’s troubles and pains, I ran across the following complaint:

“My breath is offensive to my wife…” (Job 19:17)

Yipes. I think I’m suffering from this same torment!

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Web 2.0 goes to church

October 24, 2006 2 comments

What does Web 2.0 have to do with church? Well, that’s a question I’ve been pondering some lately, thinking about how the world of social networking has interesting implications for people of faith. Turns out someone else has been thinking about this. Dawn sent me a link for Church Marketing Sucks: a blog look at church, Seth Godin, word of mouth, and more.

Google Standard Version

August 8, 2006 Leave a comment

I guess now there’s a Google Bible.

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