The Practice of Prayer

27 January 2020

I had the opportunity to speak this week at Faith Community Church in Littleton, CO, on “The Practice of Prayer.”

 


The Ninth Day of Christmas: Junk on the Mirror

2 January 2020

In the beginning, God made the world as a temple, and no temple is complete without the image of the deity inside. As His last act in creation, God installed man and woman in the temple as His image. You can’t escape this; it is the very core of who you are. Mystics and meditators the world over testify that if you dig far enough inside yourself, if you can peel back layers of ego and shame and damage, you will find, deep within, a light so bright you will consider worshipping it. What you are seeing is what the Desert Fathers and Mothers described as the Created Light — the very image of God, a mirror that reflects the beauty of God Himself. 

It’s very hard to find that beauty in some people, isn’t it? If we’re honest, it’s often very hard to find in ourselves, too. We excel at piling all kinds of junk on the mirror, and we’re not good at cleaning it off. On top of that, we’re really good at rationalizing the junk we pile up for ourselves. Maybe this is what we’re supposed to look like….

The incarnation of God as His own image — the coming of Jesus — blew away all our rationalizations. He reflected God’s beauty Himself, and He never failed to find it in others. Jesus showed us a whole new set of possibilities. Possibilities that only become visible to us when we hear them from God directly, as He did.

So listen. What would the day be like if it were one long, running conversation between you and God? 


Axial Tilt and Incarnation

24 December 2019

At Christmas, the Divine Word became flesh. Blasphemy to the Jews, foolishness to the Greeks, and sedition to the Romans, but it happened all the same. The very fact that such a thing is even possible demonstrates the central promise of Christianity: that we human beings, just as we are, can partake of the divine nature, just as it is, without any fudging, equivocation, or dismal compromises. Any and all of the resources of heaven—whatever you might need to face the challenges of your life—will fit into a human being.

We know this, because it has already happened.

And when Jesus proved it possible, He also invited you to join Him in the dance. Want in? Ask, and it will be given to you, like the Man said.

Axial tilt is the reason for the season, but the incarnation of God is the reason we celebrate.


Pevensie Epistemology

3 December 2019

At the beginning of the Narnia series, in the opening chapters of The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, C. S. Lewis uses the four Pevensie children to teach us an important lesson in how to behave in the face of varying degrees of uncertainty. Lucy has gone into the wardrobe, experienced Narnia, and met Mr. Tumnus. Edmund has also gone into the wardrobe. Peter and Susan, the older siblings, have not yet experienced Narnia.

Lucy is maintaining that her experience is real. Edmund is saying it was just make-believe. Peter and Susan don’t know what to do. Lucy doesn’t lie, and yet her story can’t be true. They all know Edmund is a liar, and yet his story is entirely plausible.

Were the roles reversed–Edmund talking about Narnia and Lucy saying it was make-believe–they would blow it off without a second thought. In fact, without Edmund’s contribution to the situation, it would be easy: perhaps Lucy dreamt the whole thing. This would be a promising line of reasoning, except for the fact that Edmund gives an alternate account. If Edmund said he didn’t know what she was talking about, that would be one thing. But since Edmund says they were playing together and made the whole thing up…no. It wasn’t a dream. They were both involved together in something. But what? How do we know?

The professor’s answer is simple: you know the people better than you know the world, so trust your knowledge of the people. The dishonest one is lying, and the honest one–however implausible her story–is somehow telling the truth.

Of course Peter and Susan are still unsure. Further events demonstrate the wisdom of the professor’s counsel, but I want to consider the question of everyone’s duty during that period of uncertainty. Obviously Edmund’s duty is to come clean. Obviously Lucy’s duty is to tell the truth, but we’ll come back to that.

What about Peter and Susan? They are wise enough to seek counsel, but that doesn’t really settle the matter in their minds. Their temptation would be to rush to judgment too soon, to make a premature decision about who is telling the truth and then declare the problem solved. Their job is to hang with the problem until there’s a real solution. They do–and the thing gets decisively settled. Eventually. In the meantime, everyone is profoundly uncomfortable.

That discomfort brings us back to Lucy’s duty. Doesn’t her continued insistence on her Narnian experience create tension and difficulty for everyone? Doesn’t Lucy also have a responsibility to family harmony? (Sure, so does Edmund, but everybody knows he doesn’t care, so the shortest road to family harmony is for Lucy–the dependable one, the one who cares about her duty–to change her story.)

In situations like this, there is a great temptation for the Peters and Susans of the world to put incredible pressure on Lucy to just cave. Change your story, admit that you mighta’ dreamt it, and everything can go back to normal. But let’s talk about this harmony that Lucy has a duty to help create: should that harmony be founded on truth, or on lies? On truth, of course–and so she has a duty to keep telling the truth, and let the chips fall where they may. 

Suppose you were a servant at that wedding in Cana. You poured the water into the jars yourself, and then drew out the wine. You know what happened; you were there. What is your duty? Keep it to yourself? Or bear witness to what God has done?

To ask the question is to answer it. Of course you are responsible to bear witness.

The harder problem is the one confronting Peter and Susan. What do you do if you weren’t there? You didn’t see it for yourself, and now you have to decide what really happened–tricky business, that.

At one level, it’s a very easy question. The story can’t be true, it just can’t. Wardrobes have backs, not whole worlds secretly hidden in them. Water does not spontaneously turn into wine in a stone water jar. It just doesn’t happen. Besides, we all heard about that wedding–good wine, and lots of it. So much that the servants got into it and got a little confused, apparently. A couple drunk guys misjudging reality. It happens every day. Simple as that.

But Occam’s razor doesn’t apply to history. The real world is full of bizarre coincidences and baroque chains of causality, particularly where people are concerned. And especially where God is involved.


Lots of Little Fires

29 November 2019

Reading assignment: Numbers 10, Psalm 68, Ephesians 4. Then let’s discuss. I don’t have time right now to draw this out in detail, so I’m going to sketch some suggestive high points, and see where that takes us.

In Numbers 10, Moses’ liturgy for the movement of the camp tells Israel what it means that the pillar of cloud/fire is moving: Yahweh is invading the world, scattering His enemies before Him.

David begins Psalm 68 with that same liturgy. The psalm is an extended meditation on its meaning.

Ephesians 4:7-10 shows us how Jesus fulfills a portion of that meditation in His incarnation, resurrection, and ascension, rising to victory at the Father’s right hand, receiving as His due the spoils of victory, and distributing the gifts He’s received to His people. A Christian functioning in the gifts Christ gave is what the Tabernacle/pillar was: Yahweh invading the world. There is no longer one pillar of fire lighting the darkness: there are tongues of fire above every Spirit-baptized person’s head — and like Samson’s foxes running two by two through the Gentile fields, we set everything ablaze as we go.

The invasion continues….


Not Talking Past

26 November 2019

I first encountered the egalitarianism/complementarianism discussion when I was in college. I’ve been away from the conversation for nearly 20 years–having way too much fun enjoying my rich relationships to waste time theorizing about them–but of late it’s come up again. Naturally I have many friends who call themselves feminists, others who don’t prefer that label but will cop to ‘egalitarian,’ and a stolid few who know what a complementarian is, and admit to being one.

I’ve noticed that in these complementarian/egalitarian/feminist conversations — as is common with any highly charged issue — the two (or more) sides are regularly talking past each other. Here are a few key starting points that I’ve found to be helpful.

1. Ask “Was Paul right to give that instruction to that particular audience in that particular time and place, or was he wrong?” This question accomplishes two purposes. The first is to tell you what sort of discussion you are in. The “Paul was right, but he wasn’t speaking to our culture” conversation and the “Paul was wrong” conversation are two entirely different discussions. The former is an exegetical and pastoral conversation among Christians. The latter is an apologetic conversation between Christians and moderns who happen to take inspiration from parts of the Bible — entirely different religions, as Machen pointed out a while back. In the latter case, it’s a much wider discussion about epistemology and authority — there’s really not much sense in talking about the specifics of Ephesians 5 until the more foundational issues are settled.
The second purpose of this question is to regulate the exegetical conversation. Many (not all) proposed schemes for understanding the passages under discussion would imply that Paul made a mistake, if the principles were applied consistently (not that they will be…yet). If we are seeking to obey the Scriptures, rather than simply avoid parts of them that we don’t like, then it’s not enough to propose an interpretation/application that yields the results we’re hoping for, like medical researchers that work for tobacco companies. For the proposal to be viable, it has to address what we should be doing now, but it also has to account for what Paul told the original recipients to do then. (For example, a number of complementarian schemes for evading uncomfortable applications like head coverings fail to meet this standard.)

2. If you’re in an exegetical/pastoral discussion, talk about a specific passage, not about “those passages.” When we lump passages from 1 Timothy, 1 Corinthians, Ephesians and other books together, we are assuming that they all have the same basic things going on exegetically. That is a conclusion to be demonstrated, not a bit of groundwork to be assumed. Papering over the differences between specific books, passages and audiences is no way to exegete. Deal with the specifics of each passage; “those passages” may have less in common than you think. Or more—but you don’t find that out by assuming.

3. Meet serious exegetical discussion with serious exegetical discussion, and rhetorical tricks with rhetorical tricks. A serious wrestling with the application of that rough passage in 1 Timothy should be treated with respect. An attempt to dodge the Son’s submission to the Father through appeals to the immanent vs. economic trinity ought to be met with a proposal of immanent vs. economic gender relations. Likewise, a serious consideration of how to map NT categories onto present-day pastoral ordination (which has no obvious NT parallel) is well worth discussing, but a knee-jerk rejection of ordaining women under any circumstances ought to be met with a challenge to demonstrate that we should ordain anyone to the position of pastor, as we presently define it. There’s not much point being serious with people who refuse to be serious…might as well have some fun.


A Twisted Path

19 November 2019

As conservative Christians, we have badly misunderstood the way depravity works.

Depravity doesn’t just make you want to be wicked in the ordinary senses that people think of as wicked — stomping on kittens, say, or talking at the theater. Depravity can’t force you to stop having the good desires that God put within you, desires for love, community, respect and admiration, acceptance, peace.

Depravity is relational. It is a rebellion against the God who alone can make those God-given desires a reality. We crave good things — peace, joy, love, and so on — that’s the image of God in us, and we can’t get rid of it, no matter how hard we try. But we want all those things on our own terms and for their own sake, apart from God — and that’s depravity.

We were made to accept love, joy, and peace as good gifts from a loving Father. When we won’t accept them as gifts, we seek to wrest them from the world under our own power. Depravity is taking a twisted path, thinking it will lead to a good end. Of course it never works. But if we admit that it isn’t working, that we aren’t really finding the soul-rest that God made us to seek, then we have to admit that ignoring God is not working. Depravity doesn’t want to do that, so instead it makes us forget what we really want.

We crave joy, so we take the twisted path of getting rich, thinking it will lead to joy.  Along the way, we forget that we were aiming for joy, and just get preoccupied with getting rich. Even if we succeed, we remain profoundly unhappy–but our depravity has long since caused us to think of wealth as the goal. We often don’t realize how unhappy we are until some circumstance in life forces us to face it. Others find a different twisted path toward joy, with the same basic result: first we give up everything for the sake of the twisted path, and then the twisted path fails to deliver what it promised, and in the end it kills us.