Who Am I?

Praying with the Church 1

Posted: July 14th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Praying with the Church | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Praying with the Church 1

I’ve mentioned Scot McKnight‘s book, Praying with the Church, several times in different posts. After reading it the first couple of times in 2006, I wrote a series of reflections for a few friends of mine. I’ve decided to publish them here only lightly edited. Since they are four years old, they don’t necessarily reflect exactly what I would say today, but they do accurately capture my reaction at the time.

This book by Scot McKnight is a short one and I’ve already read it twice. It makes the millenia old tradition of set prayers, first established by Yahweh to order the time and lives of his people, accessible to the large swathes of Christians who long ago lost this aspect of our faith.

McKnight opens by noting that most Christians are not happy with their prayer lives. It’s my observation that he appears to be correct. Certainly my prayer has often been less than formative. In fact, I’ve often lacked words to pray, and through that lack and a deep desire to pray accidentally rediscovered one of the oldest Christian prayer traditions (which we’ll see later in the book). I believe I also read somewhere (don’t remember if it was in this book or not) that many pastors are less than satisfied with the quality of their own prayer life.

It’s important to understand the title and focus of the book. The sort of prayer many Christians know is that of praying alone in the church. Scot paints a picture of praying alone in the church “whenever an individual prays exactly and only what is on his or her heart.” That’s true even when the prayer is public or with a group of Christians. When it is our prayer and our thoughts alone, we are praying alone *in* the church. There is nothing wrong with that. In fact, Scot notes that it is essential to healthy Christian formation and is modeled on Jesus and the Apostles. We cannot do without it. However, it is not the only sort of prayer we find modeled in Scripture and throughout the early church. It is on this latter sort, widely forgotten and ignored, that Scot focuses in this book. As the title would indicate, he calls this sort of prayer praying *with* the Church.

Praying with the Church consists of praying set prayers from Scripture and from the pens and hearts of some of our greatest writers at fixed times during the day. This creates a sacred rhythm of prayer joining with millions of Christians around the globe who pause to pray the same prayers. This is variously called liturgical prayers, fixed-hour prayers, the Divine Office, the divine hours, the hours of prayer, or the Opus Dei (“the work of God”). Whatever it is called, it is joining hands and hearts with Christians around the world as we pray together as the Church. Praying with the church requires that we order our lives around prayer rather than ordering prayer around our busy lives — something which often ends up as very little prayer indeed. As with children, the quality of time is not more important than the quantity of time. Without a regular and reliable quantity of time ordering our lives and relationship, the quality inevitably suffers. We are body, soul, and spirit. As any part of us goes, so goes the rest. I have been adding things slowly, essentially feeling my way, but I can already attest to that truth. As I have allowed even fairly simple prayers to order my life, the quality of the rest of my prayers have dramatically improved.

Ours seems to be a tradition that finds saying the prayers of another somehow dangerous. We even go to tremendous lengths and exegetical gymnastics to avoid actually saying the prayer Jesus personally designed for us to say during set prayers. I’m not really sure why this is the case, but it clearly is. We need to get over it. Whatever it is we’re trying to do in its place clearly isn’t working. I’m not even sure what, out of the practices we do encourage, is really supposed to take its place.

What about people who say fixed-hour prayers and don’t mean them? That’s an objection Scot says many raise. I don’t know that I’ve heard it myself, but my answer would be similar to his. What about them? We all have a knack for turning just about anything into meaningless acts. That doesn’t invalidate the act itself, otherwise we could find plenty of examples for anything and be left with nothing we could actually do. (I’ve heard N.T. Wright note that even if you do nothing but sit perfectly still during ‘worship’ somebody will leave the service pleased with themselves for sitting so very still.) More importantly, when teaching Jesus never seemed to use the poor practice of others to invalidate a spiritual practice or discipline, especially those like this one given us by God. I recall lots of statements that included the phrases “When you … don’t do as … but instead do …” or a form similar to that. And when it comes to prayer, we need both the set prayers with the church and our own prayers in the church. This is an instance where we definitely need both to attain any sort of sustainable balanced prayer life. At least, most of us do.

Scot then tells a story of a trip to Italy where he and Kris visited the site of St. Francis’ little ‘portiuncola’. That small, humble building is now a building within a building. Its wholly contained in the grand basilica, St. Mary of the Angels. Scot uses this image throughout the book to contrast the two sorts of prayer. At times we need to move into our portiuncola and pray in the church, but at other times (set times) we need to step out into the basilica, join hands, and pray with the church.

Prayer is both small and private and quiet and all alone (like the portiuncola), and prayer is public and verbal and with others and in the open (like the basilica). Prayer is both private and public, both personal and communal. We may seek individual prayer, but the individual needs to be encompassed by the Church in prayer. We need both the personal and the communal — both are good; both are spiritually formative.

Scot then writes that we need this second type of prayer for two reasons. First, “we pray in order to come into union with God.” Secondly, we need to pray with the Church “because we confess the communion of the saints.” Let that sink in.

And as a Church we desperately need this. We live within a fractured church and joining in prayer at set times is something we can all both agree to do and actually do. Even if we are not otherwise able to heal the many divides, surely we can at least join in prayer to our God and our Savior, praying the Psalms, the prayer Jesus gave us, and the best prayers penned through the centuries. If we can’t even do that, then we don’t believe in one holy, catholic church, whatever we might say.

Scot concludes with a little of his own story and present practice and it’s a good conclusion to the introduction.


Heaven & Earth (& Hell) 8 – The Concentration Camp and Separation from God

Posted: July 2nd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Hell | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

There are two common interpretations of hell today that I think are particular troublesome. Both are variations of “the basement” in the two-story house metaphor I discussed in an earlier post. Both tend to be linked to descriptions of heaven and hell as “actual places” that are in some sense distinct and separate from our reality. And both portray God and reality in ways I find disturbing and inconsistent with traditional Christian views.

I tend to think of the first view as the “Concentration Camp.” There are a lot of variations on this view, but its central feature is that those human beings who are not “saved” (with differing definitions and sometimes different words used) will be relegated by God to some “actual” location or place where they will suffer in torment forever. In a common SBC version of this view, the earth is seen as fleeting and will eventually be destroyed. That reduces the metaphor of the two story house with a basement to just the second floor and the basement. Those are the only facets of reality that endure forever.

The problems with the Concentration Camp perspective of ultimate reality seem legion to me. The immediate question to me seems obvious. This view places a gulag in the middle of “paradise” where people we have loved are being tortured. In what possible sense is that paradise? Doesn’t that really just turn “paradise” into another form of hell?

This view also turns God into the Torturer-in-Chief. Instead of a God even vaguely like anything we see in Jesus of Nazareth, we see an angry God who has a problem with forgiveness. We see a God whose thirst for blood and suffering in recompense for “wrongs” committed against him can never be satiated. I’m unable to understand why anyone would worship this God. It makes no sense to me at all.

Probably in reaction against the above, I’ve often heard hell described in a similar overall framework, but with the torture characterized instead as the pain of “eternal separation from God.” This view is not as bad as the above and, as we’ll explore later, has elements of truth in it. However, the way it is typically explained has some serious problems.

The first problem is the way this idea is usually framed. A typical introduction to this idea begins along these lines. “God is holy and can’t be around evil.” There are a variety of ways this idea can be phrased, but that’s the gist of it. I’ve explore elsewhere what “holy” actually means, so I won’t go into that here. The idea that God can’t be around evil is deeply flawed and has no connection to anything I can find in the Holy Scriptures or Christian tradition. After all, if we see and understand God through Jesus of Nazareth, what do we see? We see Jesus embracing sinners and unclean people. We see Jesus eating and drinking with the people with whom you don’t dine. And he takes a lot of flak for it.

But that’s hardly a new image of God. One of the very first pictures we get of God in the creation narrative shows him seeking out the man and the woman, caring for them, and clothing them. God’s entire relationship with Israel is one of them being unfaithful and God seeking them out again and forgiving them. God has no problem being around evil. Evil undoubtedly has a problem surviving in God’s light, but God is not driven from the presence of evil. Evil and darkness do not have the same reality God has.

From there, the “separation from God” view devolves into a sort of “concentration camp lite” idea. God can’t be around evil, so if your evil is not “covered” by Jesus so God doesn’t see it anymore, you have to be relegated to this actual place where you suffer not from direct torture but by being deprived of the light and presence of God – because God is not in this “hell”.

And that, of course, creates another problem. Tied to the idea that God can’t be around evil is the idea that Hell is an actual place where God is absent. But that utterly contradicts the true Christian view of reality. Nothing has independent existence. In the Christian view, as I’ve already explored, everything was created by Christ and is sustained moment to moment by him. As we see in Isaiah, all creation is full of God’s glory.

It’s not possible for anything or anyone in the whole creation to exist and actually be “separated” from God. There is no place where God is not present, filling, and actively sustaining it nor is it possible for such a place to ever exist.

These are hardly the only two flawed ideas about heaven, earth, and hell. But I wanted to highlight them because they seem to be very widespread in the circles in which I move. A variation of one or the other of these ideas probably describes what the majority of Christians I personally know in “real-life” believes. Many if not most of them practice our faith better than I do, so at the individual level these distortions do not necessarily create problems. But when they begin to dominate our collective proclamation, these ideas and the God they portray are often rightly perceived as repellent and easily dismissed.


Heaven & Earth (& Hell) 6 – Resurrection

Posted: June 28th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Hell | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Now that I’ve discussed death and the abode of the death, it seems appropriate to interject the Christian belief in resurrection, certainly one of the most central tenets of our faith. (If you missed my post on Rob Bell’s Resurrection video, now’s a good time to pause and check it out.) Resurrection means and has always meant a physical, earthly life with a body that is in some sense continuous with our present body. There seems to be a lot of confusion on that point today. As far as I can tell, prior to Christ’s resurrection, the idea of any sort of resurrection was unique to the Jewish people. And their belief was far from universal even among themselves and markedly different in a number of key ways from what became the Christian confession in light of Jesus’ resurrection.

I’ve practiced a number of non-Christian religions and explored many more than I’ve actually practiced. I’ve also studied a bit of ancient history. I’m not aware of any religion outside Judaism and Christianity whose beliefs include resurrection. Resurrection is certainly a central part of the view of reality that drew me deeper into Christian faith and which keeps me in it. There are a few facets of the Christian confession which I know with certainty if I ceased to believe they were true, I would abandon this faith and move on to something else instead. Resurrection is one of those key facets. I’m frankly shocked that Resurrection seems more like an afterthought or something peripheral to many Christians today. It’s not. It’s right at the very center of our faith. Without resurrection nothing about Christianity is appealing or even makes sense.

In Christ’s Resurrection, which is the first fruit of our own future resurrection, death was destroyed. Humanity was in bondage to death and God had to rescue us from the vice of its relentless grip. Moreover, death was the ultimate tool that Satan and the Powers used to enslave us. And in and through that dark power, sin swirled around and within us. One of the many images used by the Christian Fathers was the image of a baited trap. Death thought it had swallowed a man in Jesus of  Nazareth and discovered too late that it had swallowed God. Sheol/Hades was burst open from the inside and death was destroyed. The icon of the harrowing of Hades speaks louder than words. The abode of the dead now stands empty with its gates burst asunder.

It was only a part of the story and purpose of the Incarnation, but in his death and resurrection Jesus of Nazareth, Son of God, healed the wound of death in the nature of mankind. It is no longer our nature to die! We see that in the language of the Church. In the NT, those who have died are said to have fallen asleep in the Lord. God has accomplished all that he needed to accomplish in order to rescue us. Jesus has joined our nature with God’s and flowing from him are rivers of healing water. We are no longer subject to death and we live within the reality of the forgiveness of sins.

But God will not force himself on us. Jesus has truly done it all and offers us the power of grace, which is to say himself, in and through the Spirit for our healing. It’s in and through the mystery of the Incarnation that God can join himself with each of us. But in order to be healed, we must cooperate and participate with the Great Physician. We have to want God. Or at the least, we have to want to want God. (Sometimes that’s the best we are able to do. Not to worry, God came to us in the Incarnation and he will keep coming to us wherever we stand.) And thus we live in this interim period where the fullness of the work of Christ remains veiled.

Christianity has relatively little to say about what happens to us when we die or our “life after death.” Off-hand, I can think of only three places where it’s mentioned in the NT with virtually no detail offered. Our faith, however, has a great deal to say about resurrection, new creation, and re-creation. I like Bishop N.T. Wright’s phrase “life after life after death.” The Christian story is that we do not die. God sustains us somehow until that time when all humanity is resurrected as Christ is resurrected.

In light of that reality, perhaps it’s clear why I chose to place the post on Resurrection at this spot in the series. Sheol/Hades are no more. So where “hell” in Scripture is used to translate either of those words, it must in some sense be understood as referring to an aspect of reality that ended with the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. The enormity of just that one piece of Christ’s work is overwhelming to me.

Truly we can now shout, “Death, where is thy sting?


Heaven & Earth (& Hell) 4 – Sheol

Posted: June 23rd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Hell | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Heaven & Earth (& Hell) 4 – Sheol

Hell, of course, is an English word. While I’ve heard some say that it’s not necessarily helpful to examine the different words that are sometimes translated “Hell”, I’ve personally found it beneficial. So I’m going to spend several posts looking at each of those words. I’m going to start with the oldest, the Hebrew Sheol.

Sheol is the ancient Israelite name for the abode of the dead. At first it seems to have been an undifferentiated name for the abode of all the dead, but by the time of Jesus, Sheol had been divided into two parts. The “bosom of Abraham” or “paradise” described the part of Sheol that was the abode of the righteous dead. The part of Sheol set aside for the unrighteous dead was described in a variety of ways, but one such description was “the outer darkness where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth.” (That phrase might ring a bell for some.)

It’s important to stress that Sheol did not in and of itself carry any connotation of a place of punishment. It was the abode of the dead and all the dead, righteous and unrighteous were in Sheol. It’s a different way of thinking and is largely lost in many modern ideas of “hell.” That’s one of the reasons I think it’s important to understand some of the concepts behind the words that were actually in use before and during the time of Jesus.

I believe a better understanding of the ancient context casts at least some of Scripture in a different light than that of many of the current, popular interpretations.


Heaven & Earth (& Hell) 1 – Introduction

Posted: June 16th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Hell | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Heaven & Earth (& Hell) 1 – Introduction

I participate in (or sometimes just read) a number of different blogs as well as being active on twitter. It seems to me that there is a great deal of confusion surrounding the Christian perspective on reality. I’ve decided to go ahead and record my present thoughts in a series. I doubt I will say anything better than others have already said elsewhere, but I will probably express it a little differently. Or perhaps somebody will read what I write who wouldn’t otherwise read or hear anything that has shaped my understanding of what Christianity teaches.

I don’t intend to include anything that is a novel idea in this series. If anything I write appears to be a new idea to anyone reading, there will thus be two general possibilities. It may be that I have misunderstood or failed to properly express something in my particular synthesis of traditional Christian interpretation. Or it may be that what I write expresses a traditional Christian perspective that some of those raised within modern Christianity have never heard before. Or it could be some combination of both.

I could claim that I am writing to express the “scriptural” perspective, but that would be disingenuous of me. It’s a given that anyone who calls themselves a Christian believes and expresses an interpretation that they believe to be consistent with the Scriptures of Christian faith. So I am writing in order to try to express the traditional interpretation of the Scriptures on matters of ultimate reality. The sources that feed my understanding are many and varied, ranging from ancient Christians like St. Athanasius the Great, St Gregory of Nyssa, and St Isaac the Syrian to modern voices such as C.S. Lewis, Bishop N.T. Wright, Fr. Thomas Hopko, Dallas Willard, and Fr. Stephen Freeman. It’s not that they all say exactly the same thing. They don’t. But on key elements all those voices and many more through the ages are more similar to each other than not. And those elements are often different than those found in many popular modern interpretations of Scripture.

I originally thought I would simply do a series on “Hell,” but as I considered it, I realized I couldn’t do that without writing about “Heaven”. And then I realized I couldn’t possibly speak about Heaven and Hell without discussing “Earth”. The specific format I chose for the series title has a meaning that should become apparent as we progress through the series.

Obviously, it’s not possible for me to cover every facet of this topic. As such, I will have to pick and choose the topics I cover and what I choose to write about each one. If you’re reading this series and have a particular question or issue I don’t address, or a particular text from scripture that troubles you, let me know and I’ll address it to the best of my poor ability.


What is the source of our oneness?

Posted: June 4th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Eucharist, Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments »

Once again, I would appreciate any thoughts, comments, or reactions my words spur in anyone who happens to read this. Incorporating and responding to the thoughts of others is one of the ways I process thoughts, and the thoughts in this post are certainly less than complete. I’ll start with the paragraph from 1 Corinthians 10 that lies at the center of my thoughts.

Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry. I speak as to wise men; judge for yourselves what I say. The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ? For we, though many, are one bread and one body; for we all partake of that one bread. (1 Cor 10:14-17)

The above is from the NKJV, which is generally the English translation I prefer. Before I continue with the threads of my thoughts on the above, though, I think I need to discuss the Greek word, koinonia, especially as Christians have traditionally used it (including the tradition of its usage in the Holy Scriptures). The NKJV usually translates koinonia as communion, the best English word for the sort of intimate fellowship or rapport that the text seems to be trying to convey.

Other English translations most often translate koinonia using other words like fellowship (without qualifying it with intimate or another similar adjective), participation, or sharing. I can only speculate on the reason. In some cases, it could be as simple as a belief on the part of the translator that our level of literacy as a people has declined so much that those reading won’t have any understanding of the text unless a simpler word is used. If that’s the case, I would say it is better for a text not to be understood at all than to have its depth and richness stripped from it.

While it might be possible to translate Shakespeare into “simpler” language, you could not do it and preserve the integrity of his writing. Nuance, richness, depth, and poetry — the very things that make Shakespeare’s works great — would all be lost. If I would not treat a great literary work in that manner, why would I do that to a text that, as a Christian, I consider holy and sacred?

It’s also possible that the modern, Western emphasis on individualism has increasingly led translators to shy away from the scriptural language of oneness and union — both with God and with our fellow human beings. If we use weaker language, we get to control the boundaries of that union. We can wade in the shallows and call it swimming.

I also note that much of the modern, English speaking Christian world consists of sects most heavily influenced by Zwingli. They have almost completely conceded to the modern secular perspective. With them the matter of this world is ordinary and while it might represent something sacred or spiritual the idea that the physical might actually participate in the divine is almost verboten. It’s possible that translators approaching the text from that perspective might, consciously or otherwise, wish to weaken the scriptural language of communion. (And to be honest, Calvin was also more on the side of Zwingli than he was on the Cranmer and Luther side of the Protestant Reformation divide. He refused to take things quite as far as Zwingli did, but he’s certainly closer to Zwingli than anyone else.)

It could be any of those reasons, a combination of them, or something else that has not occurred to me at all. I don’t know. But I do know that most of the translations use words that lack the particular oomph of the English word communion. I’ll provide an illustration of that point by providing the NIV translation of the same passage I quoted above.

Therefore, my dear friends, flee from idolatry. I speak to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say. Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf. (1 Cor 10:14-17)

It’s not that the translation is wrong, per se. It’s just weaker than the NKJV. It does not convey the same sense of intimate union.

How then are we to understand this intimate union, this communion, this koinonia? I think one image is that of John 15. We are all branches of one vine — the vine of Jesus. It’s a union that allows no independent or separate life — either from Jesus or from each other. We are all part of a single plant in that image. Does a branch participate in the life of the vine? I suppose it does, but is that really the language we would use to describe that relationship? I don’t think so.

Of course, the ultimate image, I think, comes from John 17 when Jesus prays that we be one with each other as the Father is in Jesus and Jesus is in the Father. And he prays we have that degree of communion so that we might then be one with God. In other words, the image of koinonia given to us is the koinonia of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. That image is beyond my ability to grasp, but the edges of it tantalize and fascinate me. It’s been pulling me ever deeper into Christian faith for more than fifteen years now. And I have a feeling it goes well beyond the sort of thing we use the word fellowship to describe. I have fellowship to some degree with my guildmates in World of Warcraft. Fellowship describes the relationship in fraternal orders and bowling leagues. It’s the language of voluntary association.

The scriptural image of koinonia runs much deeper and is enormously more intimate. It’s the language of one plant, one body, and the oneness of marriage. It transcends our images of unity, yet is very different from other transcendent paths of oneness. In some forms of Hinduism, for example, the ultimate goal is to lose our personal identity in union with Brahman. In Buddhism, the goal of Nirvana also involves relinquishing personal identity. But the Christian God exists as complete union without any loss of personal identity. God is revealed in three persons — Father, Son, and Spirit. Everything that can be said about the Father other than the ways he is uniquely Father can be said about the Son and the Spirit as well. And yet in that complete unity, they never lose their own unique personhood. Similarly, as we seek communion with each other and with God, it’s a union that preserves our own unique identity. Christianity is an intimately personal faith, but it is not at all an individual faith. I think many today have confused the two.

When I think of this passage from 1 Corinthians 10 in light of John 6, I find I simply don’t understand why so many Christians today accept the framework of Zwingli’s secular division of reality. Yes the bread and wine is and remains bread and wine. But when it is the cup of blessing and the bread we break, it is also the body and blood of our Lord. How else can we understand the language of communion without distancing God from our world and from ourselves?

And it is ultimately the communion of the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ that is the only source of our own oneness with each other. There is a seriousness surrounding it. As Paul also mentions in 1 Corinthians, some are sick or have even died because they were participating at the table in an unworthy manner.

Thus, those who seek to find ecumenical common ground by reducing the faith to its lowest common denominator and glossing over the differences in the ways we use what are sometimes even the same words will ultimately fail. Any oneness we have lies in the bread and wine, in the body and blood. But when we approach the table, we need to be approaching the same God. I find that’s what most modern Christians don’t want to admit — that they actually describe different Gods. Some are more similar than others, but they are all different. And some are so radically different from each other that there’s no way to reconcile them.

Maybe it takes a true pluralist to look at modern Christian pluralism and call it what it is. To the extent I have any role or function, maybe that’s my role. I don’t understand why other Christians don’t seem to see that truth when it’s so blindingly obvious to me. I honestly don’t get it.

If nothing else, maybe someone reading this post can explain that to me.


Four Hundred Texts on Love 24

Posted: May 20th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love 24

95. When the sun rises and casts its light on the world, it reveals both itself and the things it illumines. Similarly, when the Sun of righteousness rises in the pure intellect. He reveals both Himself and the inner principles of all that has been and will be brought into existence by Him.

The sun is often used (in Scripture and by the Fathers) as an image for Christ. No, Christians never confused the two. They weren’t sun worshipers. But the sun is a good image. As with the sun, the uncreated light of Jesus reveals himself and illuminates all it falls upon. Darkness is not the equal and opposite of light. Darkness is driven out and destroyed by light. It’s darkness that cannot bear the presence of light, not the other way around. We need to always remember that.


Funeral Reflections

Posted: April 30th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Personal, Resurrection | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Lately I’ve attended too many funerals and seen too many people in our family’s extended circle of relatives and friends die. You could respond that even one such death is too many and I wouldn’t disagree with you. I’ve recognized death as the enemy from that day long ago when my eight year old self watched my beloved stepfather’s lifeless body wheeled out to a waiting ambulance and my reconstructed life fell apart again. But as I’ve listened to and read the things people tend to say today when faced with death, I’ve reflected on what I would want said at my funeral.

There are a number of things I know beyond any shadow of a doubt that I don’t want said. I don’t want those who might be grieving for me told that my body is not me, that it’s just a discarded shell. My body is most certainly part and parcel of who I am and is the only part of me with which anyone has directly interacted. No, I do not believe I am merely my body, but I also do not believe that my identity can somehow be extricated or separated from my body. I have believed things like that in the past, when I believed in the transmigration of souls, but that is not what I believe today.

Notably, I am not and have never been a Platonist, which is what too many modern Christians sound like. I forget who told the story, but I remember hearing one about a professor at a prestigious university. He was a thorough-going Platonist and, for example, would not say, “I am going for a walk.” Instead he would say, “I am taking my body for a walk.” When Christians speak of our bodies as vehicles that we discard and trade up for better models, that is exactly the sort of thing they are saying.

I also do not want my loved ones told that death is a natural stage of life, that I am happy now, and basically that it’s their own selfish pain and sense of loss causing them to grieve. Standing outside Lazarus’ tomb, Jesus not only wept, we are twice told that he was “groaning in his spirit”. He faced death and embodied God’s sorrow and anger at the death of the image-bearer. If anyone has loved me and is grieving, I want them to know that God grieves with them — that this isn’t how things are meant to be. We do not grieve as those who have no hope, but we do still grieve in the face of death.

I want everyone to hear somebody give voice to the story of God’s victory over death. I want Resurrection proclaimed! However, the words alone are not enough today. The uniquely Christian understanding of resurrection has become so distorted and obscured that most people don’t even know what it actually is anymore.

Christian resurrection does not involve trading in our physical body for some spiritual body after death in another realm of existence. That sort of story was common in the pagan world and would have posed no threat to Rome. It would not have been a “scandal to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks.” It would have just been another story about what happened to you when you died.

No, resurrection means the resurrection of this body in this world. Yes, the body will be transformed (as will the world), but it will be recognizably continuous with the body I have now. After all, the message of Easter is that the tomb was empty, not that Jesus left his old body behind and got a new one in a place called “Heaven”. Although Jesus was certainly different in resurrection and was not always recognized until he willed it, those who had followed him did indeed recognize him. His body still bore the marks of the nails and the spear. And once again, the tomb was empty! It was that same body which had hung on the cross and been buried that was raised and transformed. And the promise of Scripture is that as he was raised, so shall all humanity be raised. In the Resurrection of Jesus death, the last enemy, was forever defeated. The gates of Hades were burst asunder.

Moreover, Christianity does not proclaim some two-story universe with a basement. That’s a variation of some of the old (and new) pagan stories about the nature of reality. No, heaven and earth are overlapping and interlocking aspects of our one reality. Heaven and earth are not intended to be separate, but for our salvation a veil currently stands between the two dimensions of reality. But heaven is never more than a breath away. And in places where worship has been valid, the veil can be thin indeed. In the divine liturgy, the Orthodox would say it has been pierced. One day the veil will be dropped entirely and the glory of the fire of God’s consuming love will be fully revealed as all in all.

As such, “heaven” is emphatically not our final destination. Yes, God sustains us in the interim between our deaths and the final resurrection. Yes, as John 14 says, Jesus has prepared rooms for us. But those are not our permanent homes. The Greek word used is the one for a temporary dwelling place, like a room in an inn. It’s a way station in our journey.

The language of Christian Scripture for death is the language of sleep. Our bodies repose until God awakens us again in resurrection. In the interim, God somehow provides himself to sustain us in lieu of our bodies. But that’s a temporary measure and one that Scripture says very little about. And in the context of the eschaton, the language of Scripture is also as clear as I find any of the Jewish apocalyptic writings. The city of God, the New Jerusalem, is seen coming from heaven to earth. And we have work to do healing and caring for creation. (The leaves of the trees are for the healing of the nations.)

Our permanent home is here, on this earth. And our bodies on this earth will, however transformed, be continuous with our current bodies. Once again, it is this body which is resurrected in this reality. That is the truly and uniquely Christian hope of resurrection. That is what was (and is) foolishness to the Greeks. If that is not true then, as Paul says, my faith has been in vain. I remain Christian because of its promise of resurrection. If there is no true resurrection, then I’ve been wasting my time.

I want Resurrection proclaimed at my funeral. I want everyone to hear about the life after life after death. But I’m not sure there will be anyone available who can or will do it.


Original Sin 11 – God & Israel

Posted: March 4th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Original Sin | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Original Sin 11 – God & Israel

Obviously, an exploration of the arc of the narrative of Scripture, even when trying to focus on a specific topic, could go on forever. I still have a good bit to explore in this series after I finish my “quick” look at the narrative, so I’ve narrowed this part of my series down to three more posts. These three posts will primarily shift over to the prophets. The prophets are an intriguing bunch. They were given a message from God to proclaim on behalf of God. And often that involved not just speaking it, but living that word in and through their bodies. When we look at the prophets, we get some of the clearest pre-Incarnation portraits of God in terms we can understand.

Yesterday, I explored how God’s rescue mission for mankind turned when God called a people for himself. And God’s relationship with that people can tell us a lot about his attitude toward all mankind. After all, the people of God are ultimately intended to spread through the nations like yeast (as Jesus notes), heal Babel (as we discover at Pentecost), and bring all peoples into the one people of God (as we see especially in Paul talking about the Church).

I’ve listened to many different Protestant denominations speak about God and man as informed by their perspective on the doctrine of original sin as inherited guilt. And that perspective seems to require that God not only condemns mankind for their inherited guilt, but is ‘separated’ from man. A common image is one of a gulf or chasm between man and God. There seems to be this sense that unless you are repentant and “covered” by the blood of Jesus so that God can’t actually see you at all, but can only see Jesus, then God is repelled by your sin, condemns you, and is probably pissed off at you.

But does that really describe God? I would submit it can’t describe God as revealed in Jesus of Nazareth, since the entire Incarnation denies it. God draws completely near to us. He becomes one of us. And he seeks out the unrighteous and the unholy. In fact, that’s one of the complaints levied against Jesus, that he eats and drinks with tax collectors and sinners. But that image of God is not just denied in the Incarnation. I noted earlier in the series that God has always drawn near to us in the story of Scripture. And once he calls a people, he continues to draw near despite their unfaithfulness.

The clearest picture we see of God’s faithfulness to Israel in the face of her unfaithfulness is Hosea. Hosea is told by God to go marry a prostitute, love her, build a family around her. And when she returns to prostitution, laying with other men, he does not leave her in that state. No, Hosea goes to her, buys her back, and brings her home once more. Yes, Gomer suffered the consequences of her own actions. Their children also suffered the consequences of her actions (as told by the story of their names). But there is no sense that Gomer is judged for inherited guilt. And she is ultimately not condemned. Hosea redeems her, rescues her from the conditions in which she has placed herself.

So it is with God and Israel. God calls a people. And they remain his people. He draws near to them before they were his people and he keeps coming near to them even when they turn from him. Ultimately, of course, God comes completely near by joining his nature with ours in Jesus of Nazareth. This God doesn’t easily align with the image of a God who attributes the guilt of ancestors to descendants. It’s my observation that people tend to end up with some pretty distorted ideas about God when they try to simultaneously hold both images of God in their heads. There is just not sufficient correspondence between the two narratives.


Evangelical Is Not Enough 9

Posted: February 13th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Evangelical Is Not Enough | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on Evangelical Is Not Enough 9

Thomas Howard’s ninth chapter, The Liturgical Year: Redeeming the Time, focuses on the Western version of the Christian calendar. (I’ll note here that it’s different from the Eastern version.) I believe evangelicals struggle with this idea because they have some confused ideas about the nature of time from a Christian perspective. For instance, I hear things like “when time will be no more” and I wonder what is even meant by that.

Time is fundamentally the ordering of events, an expression of doing one thing and then another. I don’t get any sense from Scripture that we will stop doing things, rather the eschaton paints a picture of man restored to his proper function and vocation. Time is a part of creation and like all creation, God is concerned with redeeming and restoring time. Time too will be made new.

And as in everything in Christianity, we are engaged in the business of making present, of manifesting, what will be in the present. A part of that process is to begin to reorder our lives into God’s time. We will all order our lives in some way. The question is never if we will do it or not. The question is rather how we will do it. And the Christian year provides a redemptive answer to that question.

Let us once again build time around that which is eternal, Christ and His kingdom, and not merely around that which is passing away.