Subjective Spirituality: The Romans Riddle

2 January 2018

Paul ends Romans 7 crying out for deliverance: “Wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me from this dead body?” Paul begins Romans 12 with a charge: “Present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, *acceptable to God*, which is your reasonable service.” The gap between those two passages presents one of the great riddles of Romans. What happens between the end of Romans 7 and the beginning of Romans 12 that qualifies “this dead body” as an acceptable sacrifice?

Mull that over for a minute. 

Paul answers that question in 8:9-11. The body is dead, and will remain unredeemed until the resurrection, but there is a divine thumb on the scales. Despite the body being unredeemed, He gives life to our dead bodies through the Spirit who indwells us.

Once upon a time, knowing that would have been enough for me–I solved the riddle! Yay!!!

But not anymore. I used to be an academic, but these days I’m a pastor and a bodyworker, and seeing people delivered from death is what I care about. I’m very much a practitioner first. So let’s apply it. If we take Romans 8:11 literally—and I don’t see why we shouldn’t—it means that there is a Person who is not me, indwelling me and enabling me to live in a manner that would otherwise be barred to me this side of the resurrection. That is not simply a matter of verbal contemplation; it is as experiential as it gets. So for example, suppose I find myself totally unable to forgive someone. This doctrine teaches me that what I cannot do in my dead body (Romans 7), God can make possible anyway. So I should cry out to God for deliverance, and see what happens.

In God’s providence, I experienced that deliverance long before I ever understood Romans 8.

I had labored to forgive a number of people who had wronged me. I had reached the point where I only had one person left to forgive–and I couldn’t do it. I understood all the doctrine, and I could say all the right words, but it just didn’t work. I hated her in my heart, and that was that. For days I tried. I could not forgive her.

Then, one afternoon, I got down on my knees and prayed a simple prayer: “God, I know you want me to forgive her. You know I want to, but I can’t do it. You have to do this, or it won’t happen.” Then I stood up. I don’t know how to describe what happened other than this: when my knees were on the ground, I hated her. By the time I was standing, the hate was just gone.

God answered my prayer; in Romans terms, the Spirit gave life to my dead body, enabling me to become an acceptable living sacrifice.

On a more recent occasion, I had someone on my table with a severe muscular problem in her leg. As I always do, I asked Jesus to show up and heal what needed to be healed in her. I released the muscles, but when the physical work was over, I could tell that we weren’t done yet. I anointed the area with oil and just held it, waiting. She got tenser, and tenser, and then the dam broke, and she began to sob. I kept holding and waiting. The storm passed, and when she was calm again, I asked for permission to move on. She gave it, and I finished the session. When a client has an emotional release like that, they often don’t tell you what it was about. In this case, she did. As I held that particular muscle, she realized she was harboring bitterness toward a friend who had betrayed her six months earlier. In that moment, she was able to grieve the loss of the friendship, and forgive the betrayal.

I knew almost nothing about my client’s situation; I could never have addressed it in that way. But God worked through me in ways that are well beyond my ability, and enabled her to see something that she’d been unable to see, too.

Another day, I sat across the table from a homeless man named Michael. Michael frequented a corner that I drove by often, and over the past several months, we had become friends. On this particular day, I’d been awake since 4 a.m., so at 9:30 I was having lunch, and buying him breakfast. As we ate, he told me about the several churches he would visit during the course of a week. He liked to go to these particular churches because they didn’t just give him stuff; they let him help out, so he was able to contribute something to them as well. “I go to four different churches, Tim,” he said, “and they tell me four different things about God’s plan for my life. What am I supposed to do?”

I laughed. “What, you want me to be the fifth person to tell you God’s plan for your life? How’s that gonna help?”

He chuckled.

“It sounds to me like you’ve heard plenty of people telling you what God thinks.” I said. “Now, you need to hear it from God.”

He shook his head. “You don’t understand,” he said. “You might live a life where God will tell you things, but I don’t live that kind of life. God isn’t going to talk to me.”

I smiled. “Michael, you’ve heard about Jesus dying on the cross, right?”

He nodded, and I continued.

“Lots of people know that it happened, but I bet nobody’s ever told you what it means. Jesus was perfect. He took every failing you have, all those things you are and all those things you’ve done that you think are the reasons God won’t talk to you, and He took them all to the cross with Him. When He died, all that stuff died with Him, and He took it into the grave. When He rose from the dead three days later, He did not come out dragging a Hefty bag full of your junk. He left all that behind, dead and buried. God loves you. He’s crazy about you. He wants to talk with you, and none of that stuff can get in the way.”

I could see that he didn’t really believe me, but he understood what I was saying, so I kept going.

“Let’s just try it,” I said. “Give me 60 seconds.” I waggled my watch. “You listen and see if God talks to you. If you honestly don’t hear anything, you can walk out of here and tell yourself that I’m crazy, and you’ve only lost one minute of your life. But what if I’m right? Would you want to miss out on that?”

He thought about it for a moment, and then nodded. “Okay.”

I didn’t bow my head or close my eyes. I just talked like God was sitting in the booth right next to Michael (because He was). “God, this is Michael. He doesn’t believe that you’ll talk to him. I’m asking you to speak to him now, and to make it really clear, so he can hear you.” And then I shut up.

Surgeon General’s warning: Asking God to speak to people may cause elevated heart rate and blood pressure, sweating, and anxiety. Of course, I was silently praying furiously for God to speak. Meanwhile, I was watching Michael’s face and my watch, and trying to be calm about it. He looked down at his plate, and sat quietly. 30 seconds passed. Nothing. 40 seconds. Still nothing. I was praying hard: “God, You taught me to do this. I crawled way out here on the skinny branches for You. Don’t You dare let me down.”

With a few seconds to go, suddenly Michael’s face changed.

“What did you hear?” I asked.

“You know,” he said, “I have some people that want to help me get off the street. But I haven’t let them because I can’t pay them back. I just had this sudden thought out of nowhere that I need to humble myself and accept the help they’re offering me. That it’s my pride that’s holding me down, and I need to be willing to be humble.” He looked up at me. “Was that God?”

I laughed. “You’ll have to decide that for yourself, buddy.” I told him. “But in my experience, the devil doesn’t usually tell me to be humble, you know?”

I could give many more examples, stories from my own life and others I know. You can probably think of your own, too. (If you can’t, let’s talk. You’re missing out on something important.) But these are sufficient to make the point: whoever calls on the name of the Lord will be saved, just like the man said. It even works in intercession, sometimes.
This is, of course, highly subjective. Since the deliverance in question is existential salvation from internal problems, I don’t see how it could be anything but subjective. But the problems were real, and deadly; the salvation is just as real. It’s life in the place of death, as promised in Romans 8:11.

 

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An Introduction to Spiritual Disciplines

17 September 2015

I had occasion to address Mosaic Church on the subject of spiritual disciplines. In this sermon, I don’t present a bunch of options so much as I aim for the heart of what makes a life of spiritual discipline that moves us closer to God instead of just building a better Pharisee. I hope you find it helpful.


Three Critical Questions on the Christian Life

18 May 2014

I had the privilege of going to the inaugural facilitator training course for the Paul Tripp/Tim Lane How People Change small group curriculum, several years back. One point that Tripp made over and over has really stuck with me. “If all we needed were principles, then God could have done everything we needed on Mount Sinai. If all we needed were principles, then why did Jesus come and die? Because we don’t just need principles; we need rescue.”

Indeed. I’d like to address that same line of thought at a slightly higher resolution.

1. If Sinai is sufficient, then why Calvary?

If principles/doctrine alone were sufficient, then God could have gotten it all done at Sinai. If that were true, then why Jesus? Because living by principles is never enough. We needed to be saved from ourselves, and this is something we simply could not do for ourselves, no matter how good the principles might be. The seeds of the problem are inside us, and we can’t excise them.

We have sinned “in thought, word and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone,” as the Anglicans say. We simply could not resolve the problem for ourselves; it took Jesus dying our death on the cross. We participate in His death, and in this way we are reconciled to God.

2. If Calvary is sufficient, then why Pentecost?

If Christ’s finished work on the Cross was all that we needed, then why send the Holy Spirit? Isn’t the work all done? No, it isn’t. Calvary reconciled us to God, but reconciliation is only the beginning of what God wants to give us. He wants to give us life.

Through our union with Christ, we participate, not just in His death for us, but also in His life. Ongoing participation in the life of Christ is a continuing miracle of the Holy Spirit, who indwells us and comes upon us in anointing for service just as He came upon Jesus for His earthly ministry. It is through the guidance of the Spirit that we advance God’s Kingdom here on earth.

3. What does it look like to live Sinai, Calvary, and Pentecost?

If we mess up the first question, we make the moralistic mistake of trying to earn God’s acceptance. Life turns into a never-ending round of “service” that is much more about our need to see ourselves as useful than it is about meeting actual needs. We become the sort of person that C. S. Lewis was talking about when he penned the epitaph, “She lived her life for others. Now she has peace…and so have they.”

If we mess up the second question, then we make the mistake of trying to seek God’s Kingdom and His righteousness without taking advantage of all His guidance for us. We’ll operate based on the general principles in Scripture — which (to be fair) give far more guidance than most people think. But the Scriptures also give far less guidance than is needed for the life that God would have you to live.

If we get both questions right, if we live into Sinai, Calvary and Pentecost, then we live a life that is guided by the Scriptures. Our character becomes deeply aligned with God’s character as He has expressed it in the Scriptures. And our lives become masterpieces, unpredictable works of art. Just applying the principles on our own would generate a decent life, but it would never yield the beautiful surprises that come from a living relationship with God.

For example, God used me to help a homeless guy named Michael last year. The biblical principles would lead me to helping homeless folks–the stranger in your gates, the least of these, and all that. But I have no shortage of opportunity to minister to homeless folks, and Michael was not hanging around the places I would usually go to minister. What led me to Michael was that God literally told me to turn the car around, go back to that exit ramp, and give him $5 and a message: “God has not forgotten you.”

I did. As the relationship developed over subsequent conversations, it turned out there were certain truths Michael needed to hear, and then to live. It just so happened that these were the same truths God was teaching me right then.

Was the guidance to engage that specific homeless guy at that specific time biblical? No. It was far more specific than I could have gleaned from the Torah, or from the Old Testament, or even from the completed canon. But it didn’t conflict in any way with Scripture; it just went further than general instructions to the whole Body could go. Was it God? Of course, and the good fruit bore that out, as Jesus taught us that it would.

In other words, to add to Tripp, we didn’t just need principles; we needed rescue. And we don’t just need rescue; we need relationship.


Neighborhood Sacramentology: What the Table Does

31 March 2013

The first Neighborhood Sacramentology post on the Table considered the priesthood and the validity of the Eucharist, which raised the question of when we ought to observe the Table. The second post enriched the question by recasting it in liturgical terms, and that left us with three questions.
1. What are we doing/representing at the Lord’s Table?
2. How can we do that effectively in a given context?
3. Are there contexts where the Table should or should not be observed?

This post will tackle that first question.

Whether in a high-church Anglican service in Canterbury Cathedral or a secret meeting of a Chinese house church in a nondescript apartment in Beijing, the Lord’s Table will be the highlight of Christian worship around the world today, and rightly so.

On this day, we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.

A human being died, was buried, and on the third day, and was raised to new and incorruptible life.

But so what? It was 2000 years ago, in an obscure corner of the Roman Empire, and nobody’s successfully done it since. Other than being a candidate for Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, what does it have to do with me?

Nothing at all…unless somehow, I could participate in it. If the same thing could happen to me, then the resurrection of Christ is not just a historical oddity. It’s proof that new life and immortality await whoever follows in His footsteps, whoever partakes of Christ.

This is Paul’s point in Romans 6. We who believe in Christ participate with Him in His death and resurrection, and because He is raised, we also are raised to new life. Hebrews shows us Christ as our forerunner, the High Priest who leads us into the Presence behind the veil of the heavenly Tabernacle, going before us, whose ministry never fades because He always lives to intercede for us.

When we come into the Presence in worship, we find Him there ahead of us, blessing and breaking the bread and pouring the wine. “This is My body,” He says, and “This is My blood.” There in the throne room of His Father, He invites us to His victory feast: “He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has everlasting life, and I will raise him up on the last day, for My flesh is food indeed, and My blood is drink indeed. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in Him.”

You are what you eat. We who eat and drink Christ are Christ’s Body, His hands and feet released into the world to do the works that He did, and greater works still. As the bread and wine are broken down and incorporated into our bodies, so He is incorporated into our hearts, as the Eucharistic exhortation also says: “Feed on Him in your hearts by faith, and with thanksgiving.”

This is what the Table does, and what the Table represents.

Christ is risen! Alleluia!


Experiential Knowledge

9 September 2012

Naw, I don’t think life is a tragedy. Tragedy is something that can be explained by the professors. Life is the will of God and this cannot be defined by the professors; for which all thanksgiving.
-Flannery O’Connor, letter to Beverly Brunson, January 1, 1955

I remember talking with a roommate of mine in Bible college about our Spiritual Life class. He pointed out that 90% of what is taught in classes and books on the spiritual life is not actually anywhere in the Bible. Upon a little reflection, I agreed. We began to kick back and forth examples of things we’d heard that were nowhere in Scripture. I don’t remember most of them, but I vividly remember our contemptuous discussion of praying, “God, show me my sin” — a prayer we could find nowhere in the Bible. The real need, we felt, was to strip away that 90% — all the folklore that surrounded walking with God — and just stick to what it actually says in the Bible.

How silly we look in hindsight, all these years and miles later! Of course we should start there; that’s our foundation. And also of course, there are a tremendous number of superstitious fables grown up around the Christian life that actually serve to conceal biblical truth, and these weeds ought to be pulled out of the garden and burned before they cause any more trouble. But coming to understand how to apply that biblical foundation well is a skill at which we grow, and in growing, we pick up a great number of helpful hints and bits of folk wisdom.

God is a person, according to the Bible. Or three, if you like. How much of my know-how about living with my wife is written down anywhere? Much less than 1%, surely. Even if I set about to write it down, how much could I realistically write down? Maybe 5%, maybe? So despite my best efforts, 95% of my know-how about living with my wife will remain unwritten. It will come out, when it comes out at all, in a piece of advice to a friend in a particular situation: “Let it go, man. You’re not going to get anywhere with that right now.” Or “That’s a good question. Why don’t you ask her?” If my friend responds in that situation by saying, “Where is that in the Bible?” he’s going to miss some good advice.

So the astonishing thing is not that 90% of the advice about walking with God is not written anywhere in the Bible. What’s so very astonishing is that 10% of it is. It’s a testament to how much God wants us to know Him that we have so much guidance written down. But as with any other person, walking with God is an art. In the end, the know-how is experiential; we learn not by reading, but by doing it ourselves, and watching it done by others.

That “Show me my sin” prayer that my roommate and I so criticized? When a relationship is going sour and I need to come to grips with my own responsibility for it, asking God to expose my sins in the relationship so I can confess them and forsake them is a great idea. I am very glad that I have the freedom to do that, and I am delighted that He answers such prayers. I don’t need a specific verse to hang it on for it to be helpful.

I have heard “listening prayer” criticized on the grounds that there’s no Bible verse that says God speaks to us in prayer. That may be the case, but there’s certainly no verse that says God doesn’t speak to us when we pray, and when I come to God in prayer, ask my question, and then shut up and listen, well…He speaks to me. So there it is. Is this biblical? Well, yes. God did it with Abraham, didn’t He? Am I not a son of Abraham by faith, invited to share in the Triune fellowship by Jesus Himself through the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit? Why shouldn’t my prayer be a two-way conversation?

It happens all the time in Scripture that God speaks to people by a variety of means; there’s certainly nothing unbiblical about it. But as I coach someone in learning to listen to God’s voice, what I tell them will be a mix of biblical precedent and things I’ve gleaned from my own personal experience walking with God and hearing His voice myself. Mostly the latter, to be entirely honest.

Is there something wrong with that? Nope. “He who walks with the skilled will be skilled,” as the Good Book says, and I learned to hear God’s voice the same way — by being coached by people who had the skill. As I gain skill, I will coach others. This is the way God designed us to function in the Body of Christ.

Of course, if you think about it, it seems silly. Having given His inerrant and inspired Word, God then entrusts the task of teaching His people how to apply it to fallen, feeble, frail human beings. It’s amazing that it gets done, generation after generation. But that’s the mystery, isn’t it? The mechanism is us, and it looks like it will never work — but in spite of it all, Christ is building His Church into a glorious Bride without blemish or spot. A sensible, believable explanation for this eludes us — even the professors among us — but the fact of it is right there in front of us. In spite of all the good reasons that it should not be so, it is so. For which all thanksgiving.


Mystical Union: The Incarnation

25 December 2011

“Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and shall bear a Son, and they shall call His name ‘Immanuel,’ which is translated, ‘God with us.'”

That was true beyond what Isaiah could have guessed.  The prophecy was fulfilled, not by a child whose name reminds us that God is with us, but by a Child who was God with us.  The Word became flesh, and dwelt among us.

It took us centuries to think that one through.  All the Christological debates back and forth for years, the roads being filled with galloping bishops hurrying from one council to another, all the letters written and polemical sermons preached, were just to come to grips with this simple truth.

Why?

Because it’s extraordinarily important, and being so important, it was under constant attack by the enemy.  The Church was besieged by one idiotic scheme after another: “Well, maybe it worked like this….”  Unfailingly, it would turn out that at the heart of the scheme would lie one of two flaws.  Either Christ was divine, godish, but not really God, in the sense that the Father is God, or Christ was humanish, human in some respects, but not really man, in the sense that we are man.

What difference would that have made?

The center of the Christian faith, the promise on which we utterly depend, is that ordinary human beings may be partakers of the divine nature; that we, frail broken as we are, can come as we are, and enter into the fellowship of the Trinity itself.

How do we know this is true?

Because God promises it, of course, but also because we’ve actually seen it.  Jesus did it perfectly.  The Word became flesh.  He was a man as we are men, and very God of very God, as the creeds put it.

If Jesus was humanish, but didn’t really have all the traits we do, then whence our confidence that the traits He did not assume could be redeemed?  Without that confidence, we have no hope of being redeemed as human beings.  The Fall was permanent; humanity is ruined forever, and salvation lies in becoming something less than entirely human.

On the other hand, if Jesus was only godish, divine, touched by the Father but not of the same nature as the Father, then we could hope to be better than we are, certainly, but we can have no confidence of entering into true fellowship, true union, with God.  We can be good human beings, maybe even spiritual supermen, but entry into the fellowship of the Godhead is forever barred to us.  If even Jesus couldn’t manage it, how could we?

But the Divine Word, true and complete God, became the son of Mary, true and complete man, and in His person bore our every sin and frailty to the cross.  In Him dwelt all the fullness of the Godhead bodily, and therefore we may trust that we too can be partakers of the divine nature, and enter into the circle of the perichoretic Triune fellowship, as Jesus prayed that we would:

I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word;  that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me.  And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one:  I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me.

The enemy has not stopped attacking our Christology.  We’ve weathered the storm of doctrinal defections, but having pure doctrine on paper never saved anyone.  It has to be lived, and the tragedy is that we simply fail to rise to the destiny Christ won for us.  We live not only as if the Incarnation did not happen; we live as though it could not have happened.  We settle for giving in to our flaws: “I’m only human,” we say, as though Jesus had not shown us what true humanity can be.  Or we settle for being merely good, moral people, as if Jesus had been merely a moral man rather than very God.  But we are neither called to be showcases of the sins of our flesh, nor showcases of the moral accomplishments of our flesh.  We are called to be the image of God in the world, the Body of Christ, and members of the Triune dance.  We are called to union with God, to know the love of God that passes knowledge, and this is not a thought experiment.  It is a real experience, or it is nothing at all.

Today we celebrate the Incarnation, the ultimate demonstration that such an experience is available to us.  Merry Christmas to you all.


Community

11 December 2011

I recently had occasion to hear from a disaffected pastor who felt that my talk about “community” was an affectation, an unnecessary flirtation with a popular buzzword.  That furnished me with an occasion to think a little more deeply (and theopoetically) about why community has become a pillar of my practical theology.  Below you’ll find some of my ruminations; I hope they’re helpful to you.

One person is a rotten image of the Triune God.

In the beginning, God saw that everything He made was good, except for one thing: a solitary person.  It wasn’t that there was anything wrong with the person: the “not-good-ness” was very specific: “It is not good that man should be alone.”  God is three Persons; one person is not a good image.

The fix?  God puts the man in a death-like sleep, tears him in two, and fashions woman — the crown and glory of man — from his very flesh.  She is different from him, other than him, not-him.  And yet, what does he say?

“This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.  She shall be called woman, because she was taken out of man.”

He sees her, and knows her for what she is.  She is his flesh — if you’ve seen her, you’ve seen him.  And then, you haven’t; they are different.

“Show us the Father,” Philip says to Jesus, “And it is sufficient for us.”

“He who has seen me,” Jesus replies, “has seen the Father.”  He later adds that He indwells the Father, and the Father indwells Him.  In big theological polysyllables, we call this perichoresis.  (That’s Greek for “dancing around,” by the way.)  In another author’s terms, “In Him dwells all the fulness of the Godhead bodily.”   This extends to the Church, and that’s only natural: we are the Body of Christ, of His flesh and of His bones, which is to say, His Bride.  And while He has ascended, the Body remains here on earth, a tangible witness to the Father.

A solitary person, no friends, no family contact, is a lousy image of God.  This is the image of the Trinity in the world: that we dwell in each other’s lives.  A lot.  In a husband and wife, this dancing around one another leads to nakedness and physical union, an intimacy so deep and glorious that it’s too dangerous to share with more than one person.  Too much glory can kill you.  On the other hand, that glory is also the ultimate picture of Christ and His church.

In other contexts, this dancing around leads to the shedding of masks and armor, so that we can see and love one another for who we are.  A different sort of nakedness, to be sure, but it’s still quite threatening, and we’re still tempted to start stitching fig leaves together.  Another person in my life is going to act like…well…not me.  He’s going to be himself.  In my life.  He might not like me; he might not do things like me.

That’s all true, and it’s my job to give him the freedom to do that, as a gift.  And to receive the same freedom from him, if he’s willing to offer it.  That mutual gift becomes a dance that lets us both be ourselves, in harmony, richer than we could be separately.  Sinners can’t do this naturally, but God never meant for us to be only natural; we were always meant to partake in the divine nature.  The dance depicts the Trinity, and the dance requires the presence and guidance of the Trinity, or it will never work.

When it does work…wow.  God has blessed me with this dance in a number of relationships, and I am rich beyond measure.  I can’t begin to express my gratitude adequately, but the very least I can do is name some names: my Sunday morning thinktank partners, Jim and Michele; my youth ministry partners, Joe and Becca; my “huddle,” Dave, Jody, Brad and Joe (again); my church family at The Dwelling Place, whose names are too numerous to list, but y’all know who you are; and saving the best for last, my Lady Wife, Kimberly.  I aspire to be the sort of blessing you have all been to me.

And you, gentle reader, wherever you may be: May God bless you with the same, and may you bless others with the same, that the world may know that the Father sent Jesus, and has loved us as He loved Jesus.