Friday, December 30, 2011

Have you taken down your tree yet?

I am often accused, about December 1st, of being a grinch.

Usually it's my younger daughter, for whom any day after Thanksgiving should be filled with Christmas carols and decorations. Not surprisingly, the biggest conflict on this score centers around putting up the Christmas tree.

If I had my way, we would put up the tree around December 20th. Maybe as early as the 15th. But never sooner. However, recognizing that compromise is an important skill to learn as well as to teach, we usually put up our tree around the first weekend in December. And I'm okay with that.

My biggest gripe, however, my biggest frustration (besides the fact that by December 1st I am incredibly SICK of Paul McCartney singing that he is "simply having a wonderful Christmastime" which seems to invade not only the all-Christmas-all-the-time stations, but also every shopping mall (which I avoid), dentist's office, and restaurant soundtrack. Where was I? Oh, yeah, my biggest frustration. It's that during December, all the radio stations, all the stores, all the media outlets focus on Christmas. From at a minimum Thanksgiving weekend (and sometimes much earlier, but that's not my point) onward, everything is Christmas.

Then December 25th turns inexorably to December 26th, and the tidal wave stops. Just like that.

In fact, and here's one of the points of this rant, we've come to believe that the Twelve Days of Christmas begin on December 12th as a countdown to Christmas Eve. Originally December 25th was the first day of Christmas, and the season lasted twelve days until it ended on January 6th, or Epiphany. Decorations went up on Christmas Eve, and remained up until January 5th or so. (That's why the Norwegian hymn, "I am so glad each Christmas Eve" includes a verse that begins, "When Mother trims the Christmas tree ...")

Today, according to this way of thinking, is the Sixth Day of Christmas. I would love to be able to turn on a radio and hear Christmas carols, but you can't find them anymore. They stopped on the 26th. We've moved on.

Why have we made this switch? One simple reason. Retail. Christmas has become the mighty engine by which retailers make a large percentage of their annual profit. You can't very well hype the Christmas shopping season after the holiday now, can you?

If, however, the Christmas season is really about Jesus, then it is appropriate to have a season of preparation (Advent) during early December, then to celebrate the anniversary of his birth, then to have a couple weeks to reflect on what it means that he has come. Parents of newborns understand this rhythm. Preparation, birth, and reflection. Then on Epiphany we celebrate the coming of the Magi, or Wise Men, (see Matthew 2), when Jesus is revealed as King of kings, when he receives our gifts and our homage.

The world doesn't celebrate Epiphany.

So, if you can, leave your tree up for a few days yet. Take time to bask in the glow of the decorations and reflect on what it means for you that Jesus is born. Celebrate the Christmas season. Come into the New Year reflecting not on your waistline, but on the Word become flesh (see John 1) for us.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Christmas wars

In the aftermath of Christmas, I encourage you to read this article by Jim Wallis, posted on my friend Curt's blog. Whatever your political leanings, Wallis touches something deep and true about the tension between our culture's vision of Christmas and the Bible's witness to the incarnation of Jesus Christ.

Monday, December 26, 2011

New blog

Just read this amazing blog post. Wow. It's written by my daughter Erica, so I'm now both incredibly proud and incredibly convicted at the same time. But I'll take it.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Deep breath

I am taking a few moments in the middle of a pastor's Christmas Eve schedule. We've done two services tailored to children already this afternoon; currently a colleague is leading the 5 pm worship service, and at 7:30 another colleague will lead worship. I'll be back at 11 pm for my favorite Christmas worship time, complete with communion and candlelight and "Silent Night." I love it, and afterward I will be exhausted.

But for the moment, I'm caught in that little island of peace you can find sometimes -- just a few moments' worth. I've greeted some dear, dear friends and many strangers today; I've stood outside in sandals and a shepherd's costume holding the door for people and wishing them a hearty "Merry Christmas!" while they, and I, marvel at the fact that it's 40 degrees in Minnesota on December 24. Something wrong with this, but it feels pretty good.

In a few minutes I'll leave for my in-laws' place, a huge, boisterous family gathering and gift exchange and food and food and food.

In the quiet, I am a little overwhelmed taking stock of the richness of my life. I am so blessed with my church, my colleagues, my family, and most of all the Lord who took on flesh in the form of a tiny baby one night in a backwater town in Judea.

So much to be joyful about. May you have as merry a Christmas!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The one who started Christmas

This is one of those apocryphal stories that run around on the internet. An oldie but a goodie in these days:

Who Started This Christmas Stuff?

A woman was out Christmas shopping with her two children. After many hours of looking at row after row of toys and everything else imaginable; and after hours of hearing both her children asking for everything they saw on those many shelves, she finally made it the elevator with her two kids.

She was feeling what so many feel during the holiday season time of the year - overwhelming pressure to go to every party, every housewarming, taste all the holiday food and treats, getting that perfect gift for every single person on our shopping list, making sure we don't forget anyone on our card list, and the pressure of making sure we respond to everyone who sent us a card.

Finally the elevator doors opened, and there was already a crowd in the car. She pushed her way into the car and dragged her two kids in with her and all the bags of stuff. When the doors closed, she couldn't take it anymore and she stated, "Whoever started this whole Christmas thing should be found, strung up and shot."

From the back of the car, everyone heard a quiet, calm voice respond, "Don't worry, we already crucified Him."

For the rest of the trip down in the elevator, it was so quiet you could have heard a pin drop. This year, don't forget to keep "the One who started this whole Christmas thing" in your every thought, deed and words. If we all did it, just think of how different this whole world would be.

"For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son; that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life." (John 3:16)

Sunday, December 18, 2011

What is your role in the kingdom of God?

I've been thinking lately about Mary, the mother of Jesus. When Mary was growing up, her people anticipated the coming of the kingdom of God. They might have been more comfortable with the Old Testament prophets' language of the "day of the Lord," but they had a sense God was going to show up and do something amazing, radical, important, earth-shattering.

Lots of Mary's people had a pretty clear sense that they just needed to wait and pray. (Some, of course, ignored the possibility that God would do anything -- they just lived their lives and missed it when God eventually showed up. Sad.) They knew God would do his work. These faithful ones anticipated, waited, watched, and hoped.

Others believed they could make God's kingdom happen by force. They were the Zealots who took up arms to throw off the Roman usurpers and set up an earthly kingdom for God to rule through their power. They looked back to the Maccabean revolt against the Jews almost two hundred years earlier, when the military revolt of Judas Maccabeus and his brothers bought a window of partial freedom for his people and created the Hasmonean dynasty among the Jews, until the Romans came in and took over a century later.

Still others believed that if they moved out into the desert, purified their lives and distanced themselves from the pollution of this ugly world, God would come to them and rescue them. They believed that if they could just get away from sin and corruption, they could pave the way for the Messiah. These were the Essenes, living out along the Dead Sea.

Another group decided that they were really more interested in their own rule and authority because they saw themselves as the heirs of God's kingdom, whatever it meant. They had power and they meant to keep it. These were the Sadducees who ruled the Temple and the sacrificial system, who had the endorsement of the Roman authorities and lived well on the religious taxes they levied on their people.

What about Mary? We don't know a whole lot about her before Gabriel showed up to tell her she was going to carry the Messiah inside her body for nine months. We know, however, that when the angel showed up Mary heard what he had to say. And when he'd said his piece, she responded with willingness to be a part of God's plan. "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word."

Do we have ears to hear when God invites us into his plans? Or do we simply go our own ways and assume that's just more of the noise that fills our minds and hearts this time of year? The church invites us into a class or a program. A neighbor wants to sit and visit. A friend needs a caring ear or a helping hand. The Salvation Army is looking for bell ringers. The food bank needs donations. Which of these is the voice of God and which is just background noise? Do you even care?

If we are seeking to know God's voice, he'll help us discern when he is speaking. Mary must have known him to some extent before Gabriel showed up. Jesus said many years later, "My sheep hear my voice."

What happens next? Mary responds, willing to be a part of God's work. Then she is mostly passive. The baby grows within her whether she focuses on it or not. Gestation and birth don't require Mary's consent. So often we think that our participation in God's work is about what we do, about what we accomplish, about how we help God out. Instead, more often God builds his kingdom in and through us when we are willing -- not through our hard work, most often, but through our willingness to let him do his work in us. Most of the best ministry I've done in my life I've felt more like a spectator on the fifty yard line watching God get his hands dirty, rather than like a quarterback throwing brilliant passes. The privilege of professional ministry for me has been that I have really good seats to watch the kingdom of God happen, and sometimes I even get to be in the game for a while.

What Mary does, more than anything, is to reflect on God's work. She ponders. She contemplates. She's a good example for us these Advent days when the world seems dark and we know we need God to come and make his kingdom a reality among us.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

One more Faaberg pic

This is a wider view of the sanctuary at Faaberg Lutheran Church where I grew up. Recently we had Dr. Skip Sundberg from Luther Seminary speak at Central, and he talked (among many other things) about these old churches that have the semicircle altar rail where you kneel for communion. The theology behind it is more than providing a convenient way for people to receive communion, of course. The circle is designed to be completed on the other side of the wall, in the church cemetery. As we kneel for communion, the whole communion of saints -- those living and those who have died and are with Christ -- are united. The older I get, the more people I love are buried outside in that church cemetery, and of course in other places as well. It becomes increasingly meaningful to me that Jesus transcends the barriers that seem so fixed, so firm, to us -- even the barrier of death.

This season of Advent is largely about anticipating the return of Christ, when he will erase that barrier of death forever. I find myself wondering what other boundaries, what other lines in the sand that seem so important to us here and now, will be erased on that day.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Meditations for Christmas

In a dozen days, the wrapping paper will be in the trash and very likely some of the presents will be broken already. But if you read one of these reflections each day, you will be richer in your own understanding of Christmas -- from a variety of perspectives! These are some Christmas reflections I wrote in December of 2009. If it's easier for you to access, they're posted in a link on the right hand side of this page.

Monday, December 12, 2011


My mother-in-law is part of a study of the New Testament book of Hebrews and recently asked me a question that got me going. Here's part of my answer, which a few of you history buffs and biblical enthusiasts may find interesting:

Okay. Let me see if I can do this question justice. First of all, it's important to note that there are lots of different understandings among Christians about how to view Judaism -- for example, is modern day Israel still included in the Old Testament prophecies, or do those now apply to Christianity? Or, are Jews saved through Jesus or are they subject to the first covenant outside of Jesus as Messiah and Savior?

I'm not going to settle any of those things.

But it is also important to say that Judaism has gone through many, many different changes. In fact, it wouldn't be accurate to even call the Old Testament religion "Judaism" or refer to them as "Jews" until the very last parts of the Old Testament after they come back from Babylon. Prior to the exile (587 b.c.) most religious scholars refer to "ancient Israelite religion". Prior to 587 b.c. the religion centered mostly on the priesthood and the prophets. The written scriptures they did have were not yet considered authoritative. After the return from Babylon (approx. 515 b.c.) Judaism gradually took shape. It centered in a few new elements that had developed during the exile in Babylon -- the written Torah became very important, gathering in synagogues became the primary social gathering (instead of the Temple), the rabbi rose in importance (overtaking the priests in influence) and so on. So what is commonly called "Second Temple Judaism" -- from about 515 b.c. to 70 a.d. -- was a both / and religion that focused on both the temple and the synagogue, both on the sacrificial system and the written Torah. After the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 a.d., the Temple was no longer available so the sacrifices ceased. Judaism came to emphasize only the synagogues, only the rabbis, only the written Torah.

Here's where it gets interesting. Some branches of Judaism grew to think that maybe God allowed the destruction of the Temple in order to get Jews to focus on scripture and prayer instead of (as one Jewish rabbi told me), "all those terrible bloody sacrifices." More liberal Jews -- what are usually known as "reformed" Jews -- take this approach, though they are still tremendously concerned about Israel because it is the homeland of the Jewish people and they see it as protection from anything like the Holocaust being repeated. The more conservative Jews, especially the "hasidic" or "orthodox" Jews, see things differently. Some of them, at least, believe that they cannot be truly reconciled to God without the sacrificial system, so they are looking forward to a day when the Jews possess ALL of Jerusalem and can tear down the Dome of the Rock and rebuild the Temple. (Some evangelical Christians also believe that this is necessary before Jesus can return, so the "Left Behind" books and others make a big deal out of this.)

Hebrews was probably written (according to most scholars) before 70 a.d. The book seems to speak about Temple rituals as if they are still continuing at the time of the book's writing. If we suppose a date for the writing of Hebrews around, say, 60 a.d., the author (whoever it is) writes to an audience of Christians who are a mix of Jews and Gentiles, all of whom have put their trust in Jesus. The author, though, seems to be speaking primarily to Jews (see Hebrews 1:1). At the time of this writing, then, the animal sacrifices, the grain offerings and all the festivals are still being practiced. So when the author of Hebrews speaks to these things, he refers to them as currently in practice. That state of affairs didn't last long -- maybe another decade until Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans.

Today, the Jews still practice the festivals, including the Day of Atonement (it's referred to as "Yom Kippur" on most calendars, which is just the same name in Hebrew). These festivals and the way they're observed has changed from the Old Testament prescriptions, though, since there's no place to bring animals or grain or oil to offer. Instead, these have become rituals to be practiced in the home and in they synagogue. (Probably the Passover, or "Pesach" is the most familiar of these since many Christians have experienced a Seder meal, a Christianized version of the traditional Passover meal observed by Jews.) Hanukkah, Rosh Hashanah, and other Jewish festivals are listed on many calendars and are still practiced by observant Jews today. For some of these Jews, it's just a cultural thing like Norwegians observing Syttende Mai. For others, these are deeply significant religious holidays. You see the same cultural / religious division among Christians when it comes to Christmas and Easter.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

A different take on the Magnificat

If you're looking for something to jar you into Advent, try reading this. I tend to think the author is pretty close to right on.

Faaberg Altar 6 -- The stained glass windows

To see the altar this post is talking about, click here.

Let's face it, the altar itself is pretty grim. Jesus in his dying agony, the women grieving, the sun hidden by dark clouds, the land barely visible for the darkness ... it's not much to cheer you up. Make you focus, yes. Make you ponder the death of Christ, yes. Make you aware of the seriousness of the faith, yes. But there is little joy in the central pieces of the altar.

That's why it is so important to include the stained glass. On either flank of the altar itself, the stained glass stands in brilliant tension. The resurrection is proclaimed every Sunday morning as the light shines through symbols of victory.

By the way, I remember as a child how intimidating it was to me to attend evening worship services. During Advent or Lent when we had midweek services the whole feel of the sanctuary was much darker, much more grim, and in large part this was because those stained glass windows were dark, and the crucifixion stood alone, without the resurrection. I remember many of those evenings sitting with a sense of grim foreboding.

Sunday mornings the greens and yellows breaking through the windows, the palm branches on the left and the cross and the crown on the right created a counterpoint of joy and promise. Christians always have to hold the cross and the empty tomb in tension. We need both the crucifixion and the resurrection. So often we get too much into the cross and our faith becomes grim and we see ourselves as worthless worms. Other times we get too exclusively into the resurrection and we think this faith is all about our victory and our power, without any reality check about suffering and sin.

I think having the stained glass windows and the crucifixion painting together at the front of the sanctuary all those years placed that both / and deep in my theological understanding. I've never been swept away by those, for example, like Marcus Borg or John Shelby Spong who deny the bodily resurrection of Jesus in favor of some spiritualized hope.

The cross was so real, so vivid, so historical to me growing up, and the resurrection was right there with it. It was two sides of the same event, two halves of a whole, two pieces of something that in its entirety saved me and redeemed all creation.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Faaberg Altar 5 -- the background

To see the picture this post is talking about, click here.

Lots of times when you look at a work of art, the background just fades away. It's easy in this painting to focus on Jesus, the cross, the women. But having spent over three hundred hours looking at this painting, I had lots of time to consider the background.

First of all, it's dim. It's hard to see the hills of Judea, the rocks Jesus said would cry out in praise if the children were silent. These are the same hills that watched Abraham nearly kill his son Isaac on the hilltop just to the east. These same ravines sheltered David and his soldiers when they put Jerusalem under siege. These are the same rocks that Solomon considered as his workmen built the temple. There's a deep history to this landscape.

Look at the sky. It's gruesome. The sun peeks out of a tear in the clouds, red as blood. The very cosmos is engaged in what's happening on this cross. The New Testament tells us that this is in fact the case -- that all creation, not just human beings, was involved in this sacrifice. From this moment, from Jesus' sacrifice, comes not only our redemption but the redemption of all creation. Jesus is not only our Lord, but also Lord of the earth, of the heavens, of the rocks and the hills and the trees and the ravines.

Romans 8 tells us that all creation waits in eager expectation for the church -- those who have been adopted into God's family through Jesus -- to be revealed. This is precisely because through the church God is unfolding his plan for that creation. He uses his church to give creation a foretaste of what it will be like to be made new.

It should not surprise us that the sun was darkened and that an earthquake shook the ground when Jesus died. We so often minimize Jesus by making his life, his death, and his resurrection primarily about us. It has a huge impact on us, yes, but God was redeeming not just us but all of his creation, which had become infected by sin. Sin's impact goes far beyond what we usually understand. We think of sin as "something I've done wrong." Rather, sin is a power that is opposed to God's rule, not just in our lives but throughout creation.

The painter has captured the cosmic nature of Jesus' death. Take some time to consider Colossians 1:15-23 and ponder what the Bible says about these things!

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Faaberg Altar 4 -- the inscription

To see the altar this post refers to, click here.

Underneath the painting is an inscription in large gold letters on a dark background. It is mostly hidden by candles, a chalice and paten, and most of all a large hymnal on a stand, all in front of it on the altar table. It reads, "Se det Guds Lam". It's Norwegian, which is no surprise on the altar of Faaberg Norwegian Evangelical Lutheran Church, as it was originally known. (The Swedes, not numerous in this particular community, had their own church a few hundred yards to the southeast. The story goes that when my great grandfather was cast out of the Norwegian church for working on the Sabbath, he caused a minor scandal by attending the Swedish one. I have relatives in both cemeteries.)

The inscription is a quote from John the Baptist in John 1 -- "Behold the Lamb of God!" The full quote is, "Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world." John the Baptist says this to two of his disciples when he is pointing out Jesus as the Messiah. This becomes a sort of bookend to the gospel of John, an idea that John develops throughout his gospel to help the reader understand what it means that Jesus is the Lamb of God, the one who is sacrificed for the sins of the world. In John 6 Jesus goes on at length about his followers needing to eat his flesh (like the Passover lamb) and drink his blood (unthinkable under Jewish law even for the blood of animals) in order to have life. In John 12 Caiaphas, the high priest, points out to the rest of the Jewish rulers (the Sanhedrin) that it is better for one man to die for the people than for the whole nation to perish.

The timing of the sacrifice when Jesus goes to the cross coincides with the Passover festival when the lambs are killed to remember God's great act of deliverance, freeing the Israelites from their bondage in Egypt. In the temple while Jesus was dying, preparations were under way for the people to reenact the Passover once again. Jesus goes to the cross as our Passover lamb, the one whose blood is shed (like the lamb's blood was smeared on the doorposts) to save us from death.

On Sunday mornings as a child I didn't notice the inscription much. I remember, though, as a teenager how we would break into the church (for a few years it was kept locked and we had to figure out how to jimmy the side entrance door) to play ping pong, to hang out in the basement and talk. A few times we went up into the sanctuary and even went inside the altar rail. I suppose at the time we were pretty casual about being in that space, but somehow there was always a sense of something holy about it.

I suppose I was thirteen or fourteen when I spent some time pondering that inscription. "Guds lam" was not hard to figure out, and I had a pretty good sense what the words meant. I had two equal and distinct reactions to the words.

First, as in the biblical summary above, I pondered why the artist chose those particular words to sum up the painting. I spent time thinking about the Passover stories, pondering how Jesus was like and unlike the Passover lamb. This pondering added biblical and theological depth to an idea I had heard preached and sung for years -- that Jesus' death was not just some cosmic atonement (more about that in the next post), but it was personal, that it was for me and for the family, household, and community to which I belonged. I had a very clear sense that the words were for us, for my natural family and for my Christian family. The artist was imploring us to reflect on the painting, to "behold the Lamb of God" as we worshipped.

Second, I thought about the fact that though I didn't speak more than a word or two of Norwegian, the inscription was in the language of my grandfather and my great-grandfather and the old country from which they came. Granted, this inscription was one of a thousand tiny ingredients of my childhood that tied me to an ethnic enclave of Norwegians. But the centrality of these words carried a significant weight. This altar, this painting, this inscription was the focal point of the sanctuary, which was the focal point of the community's life and of my family's faith. The fact that these words were in Norwegian rooted me to a particular tradition of a particular history and a particular kind of Christianity. In later years when I learned about King Olaf ("Saint Olaf") and how he Christianized Norway, and closer to my own upbringing about Hans Nilsen Hauge and his lay-led revival, I had a deep sense that this is my heritage, these are my people, this is my past.

Following Jesus is both being tied to him, to the history and the specifics of first century Palestine, and also being tied to these people, the ones right here and the generation immediately preceding that have passed on this faith to me, to us. We cannot neglect either one. All Christians hold Jesus and his particular history in common, but we each have unique stories of the ethnic, cultural, and personal contexts in which we have been brought to trust in Jesus. This is a gift.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Faaberg Altar 3 - The women

To see the painting this post talks about, click here.

Grief is real.

I looked at the two women many, many times as a child, pondering something I didn't very much understand. They were hanging around at the base of the cross, watching one they obviously loved die an excruciating (literally, "from the cross") death. Why did they stay?

Love and grief are two sides of a coin in the face of death. I didn't understand that then.

Watching a woman stay by the bedside of her cancer-ridden husband, watching a man throw himself on the coffin of his dead wife, standing in the hospital corridor after the vital signs have stopped, waiting with the family for the funeral home to come and collect the beloved body, I have observed the grief of others. Sitting hunched over in the hospital waiting room aching with pain and fear for someone I love, I have known the aching abyss of my own grief. More times than I can count I have stood in front of a room full of people whose lives have been shattered by loss, who sit in a pool of terrible grief, stomachs churning, hearts empty, tears running, minds numb, aching to turn back the clock and change something, anything, to prevent this loss. I have wrestled to be able to speak a word that pierces through the heart of grief and brings hope.

Grief is probably the most personal emotional process we go through. It wracks our bodies and beats our spirits into the ground. We will do nearly anything to numb the pain, to get away from the dull knife that pierces our hearts, the constant bleeding of the minutes and the hours without the one we have lost.

These women lived in a brutal time. Death was no stranger. Violence was all too common. Disease was a familiar foe. This was not the first time they sat with the dying. They waited faithfully, holding vigil and keeping their own pain at bay so that Jesus would not die utterly abandoned, so that after his death his body would not be simply thrown on the trash heap and eaten by stray dogs. I remember a sense of disappointment and shame that there were no men at the foot of Jesus' cross. I grew up among strong women who were often more able to handle the hard emotions, the difficult situations, than the men. Men buried themselves in work and ducked away from grief if they could. As I grew older I saw these strong women -- my mother, my aunts, and many others -- broken by grief, picking themselves up and doing the necessary things to arrange the funeral, to serve the coffee, to arrange the lunch, to hold each other while they wept, to make it possible for life to begin again.

So there are two women kneeling at the foot of the cross. They waited to wash Jesus' body and wrap him for burial. They waited to hear any words that might escape his lips in these last horrible moments. They waited because grief is part of love, at least this side of God's new creation.

I noticed many times as a child that these women, especially the one on the left, don't look very Jewish. Her pale reddish hair looks much more Scandinavian than Semitic. We do this -- we paint ourselves into the picture, whether by portraying Jesus in our own racial image or by putting ourselves into the scene. In a sense we do this because we, too, wait at the foot of the cross. We live between realities -- Jesus has come, and by his death has defeated death. Yet we live with the presence of death all around us, believing and trusting in a future resurrection for ourselves and for those we love. Grief is still a reality.

Someday, the Bible promises, it will not be so. Death will be no more, and God will live with his people, and he will wipe every tear from their eyes. The women at the foot of the cross remind us of the now / not yet nature of our faith, and of strength in the face of our pain.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Faaberg Altar 2 - the titulus

To see the painting this post refers to, click here.

A "titulus" is the sign placed above the head of a convicted, crucified criminal. In Jesus' case the Bible says that the titulus read, "Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews" and that it was written in Latin, in Greek, and in Hebrew. The sign above Jesus' head in the painting is written only in Latin, and it reads "Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum."

It's in Latin.

I remember as a child asking my mother what the words meant, and she told me. I asked why I couldn't read it, what language it was in, why it was written in some other language.

Over time, as I looked at that inscription, I recognized that Jesus didn't speak English. He probably didn't speak Latin either, contrary to Gibson's portrayal of him conversing with Pilate in Latin in The Passion of the Christ. But what I took away from this was the understanding that the Bible didn't happen in my culture. I needed to do some work -- maybe some hard work -- to understand what was going on in this book that sometimes seemed so foreign. It IS foreign. We forget that at our peril. So we need to learn enough about first century Judea to be able to understand the original context and only then try to apply it to our own contexts.

I also realized dimly, over time, little by little, that this titulus was the criminal accusation against Jesus. It was the crime he was sentenced for, sentenced to death. Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews. His crime was to claim the throne of Caesar. The early Christians who claimed, "Jesus Is Lord" as their confession of faith were making a dangerous political statement. To say Jesus is Lord in the first century, or for three hundred years thereafter, was to state implicitly that Caesar was not Lord. The Caesars were good at proclaiming themselves Lord and did so regularly. Christians claimed (as in Acts 17) that there is "another king, namely Jesus."

Though I didn't understand with much depth, my pondering this painting included a sense that Jesus' death at the hands of the Roman authorities (and his resurrection, be patient, we'll get there) meant that he was Lord over all creation, including Caesar. In N. T. Wright's words, If Jesus is Lord, then Caesar is not.

The irony of the Latin proclamation over Jesus' head was not lost on me as a child. It was ironic because the crime was actually true -- Jesus was truly the King of the Jews -- and it was ironic because Caesar, whose authority put Jesus on the cross and put the titulus over his head, lost his authority to reign by failing to acknowledge Jesus as King of kings and Lord of lords.

The titulus in the painting also made me reflect on Pontius Pilate. I portrayed Pilate in an Easter pageant my mother wrote and many of us performed in about 1982. I thought of this man caught on the twin horns of Jewish rebellion and ironclad Roman rule. I pondered him saying, "I find no crime in this man" and desiring to release him, but then writing out the sentence and placing it over Jesus' head, writing that Jesus was king both as legitimation of the execution of this innocent man, and also as an insult against the Jewish authorities who had backed Pilate into a corner and forced him to kill Jesus. One of the many things I think Gibson did well in his movie was the portrayal of Pilate. He seems at turns sympathetic, and jaded, and exasperated, and mercenary.

In the end, Pilate couldn't surrender to Jesus as Lord because that would have meant not remaining ultimately loyal to Caesar. "If you release this man, you are no friend of Caesar's!" was the final threat leveled against Pilate by the Jewish leaders. Pilate's status as a "friend of Caesar" was an official Roman designation that guaranteed him political mobility and benefits. Pilate is the ultimate government functionary who puts his own 401K above the truth, above his own integrity. He knows the truth, he puts the truth out in plain sight for all to see, but by inscribing the truth -- "Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews" -- on a titulus, his has made a mockery of justice and he has compromised himself beyond hope.

How often do we do the same?

Friday, November 25, 2011

Faaberg Altar 1 - Jesus himself

(To see the altar this post is talking about, click here.)

As I stated earlier, I looked at this view every Sunday through my childhood. We almost never missed worship. Maybe three times a year we'd have to deal with cattle that escaped their fences or a fishing trip or (rarity of rarities) vacation that ran over a Sunday. But about forty-nine Sundays a year, I was looking at Jesus on the cross, picking out designs in the altar furniture, wondering about the imagery in the stained glass. Figure I lived at home for fourteen years after I was old enough to notice these things. Figure that about half the time I was actually looking at the preacher and / or paying attention to sermons and / or had my eyes closed or was looking at a hymnal or some such. That adds up to about 343 hours of looking at these images.

Believe me, it matters. As I look back on those years, and as I was recently looking again at these pictures from an adult perspective, I remember many, many thoughts that were in my mind and heart as a child, many intuitions and understandings that are attached to these images. In the meditations I write now about these things, I use adult language, but the ideas were there in the mind of the child. For example, I would not have used the word "cosmology" at the age of twelve. But I was certainly thinking about how the world all fits together and what was true and meaningful in it.

So how did this imagery affect me?

This will take several posts, but let's start with the center of it all. Jesus on the cross is the focal point of this whole altar, of the whole sanctuary. That in itself communicated a lot to my young heart and brain. Jesus' death is the center. The cross is the focus.

It's important, too, that this portrayal of the death of Jesus is not idealized. I remember many times as a child looking at the realism. Blood leaks from the wounds in Jesus' hands and feet. The crown of thorns looks painful. There is no beatific smile on Jesus' face. His gaunt ribs and the tension in his arms, his stringy hair and matted beard look realistic. The cross is not a pleasure, it is a device for torture and execution. The suffering of Jesus is not maximized in this painting -- we don't see, for example, the gashes on Jesus' torso that Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ took such pains to portray. But it is not minimized, either. It is obvious that Jesus is suffering, but the picture is not gory.

As I grew old enough to read the stories of Jesus' passion, I looked at the painting and appreciated the biblical accuracy of it. From Jesus' wounds (I noticed that this painting seized a moment in time before Jesus' death, since there was as yet no wound in his side) to the dark sky to the absence of any of his disciples -- only a couple forlorn women -- this picture rings true to the biblical accounts. I thought about the options the painter had to mess with the details, to change the story, and appreciated the fact that he had chosen not to do so. I thought about respect and reverence and truth and accuracy.

There is the merest hint of a halo on Jesus' head. The artistic glow of holiness is present in the painting, a dim reminder of Jesus' perfection, of his innocence. I remember wondering as a child if Jesus really had a halo when he was walking around Galilee, if the Roman centurion at the crucifixion would have seen it. It made me wonder what it really means to be holy, what it means to reflect the image of God with clarity and perfection.

Jesus' head hangs in weakness, perhaps in surrender. Though I don't remember putting these pieces together as a child, this image certainly prepared me to understand what Paul means in 2 Corinthians 12 when he says that God's power is made perfect in weakness. If the cross is the center (as well as the apex) of God's plan, everything else God does will ring true to what he has done in the cross. So when I struggle in my own weakness, Jesus has been there first. When I am beaten down by the world's violence, by the forces of darkness, by Caesar, Jesus knows what I am experiencing.

Perhaps most critical for my adult life -- I would never have thought to question these things as a child -- this painting communicated to me from a very early age that the crucifixion of Jesus was real. It was factual. It was historical. I know the painting doesn't prove anything, but the realism in it, its faithfulness to the biblical accounts, its refusal to idealize, prepared my mind to accept the historicity of Jesus. In the "Jesus wars" that have been waged within Christianity throughout my adult life (notably the antics of the Jesus Seminar and the likes of Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong, Lutheran professor Marcus Borg and many others who have played fast and loose with the historicity of the biblical accounts) I have sided with those who see the Bible as historically believable. I have rarely been tempted to dismiss the Bible as superstitious, idealized, or out of touch with the realities of human life.

I am tempted to go on and on, because I cannot overstate the importance of this image for my own faith, for my own intellectual development, for my sense of the importance of Jesus. But let's leave it there. I encourage you to look again at the picture, to ponder it if you will, to take in the details of Jesus himself, hanging there on the cross. Imagine -- as I imagined so many times -- that he hangs there for you, that in this picture he is carrying the weight of your sins on that cross in some way that is beyond our understanding.

Shortly after I wrote the bulk of this post, I ran across a Jesus Culture song called "See His Love." The first verse goes like this:

"See His love nailed onto a cross
Perfect and blameless life given as sacrifice
See Him there all in the name of love
Broken yet glorious, all for the sake of us"

Then the Chorus starts with this line:

"This is Jesus in His glory"

So often we are tempted to see beyond the cross, to see Jesus' suffering as a necessary evil but then move on to the great glory that he earned through his death. Truth is, Jesus hanging on the cross is Jesus in his glory. He is enthroned here, where he gives himself for those who are helpless without him. Jesus, blood-spattered and dying in weakness, is the glory of God. In the same way, Mother Teresa hunched over a dying leper was the glory of God. A husband who sacrifices and serves his family is not earning some future glory, but he is in that sacrifice participating in the nature, in the glory, of God.

We do not see beyond the cross to some greater truth. Jesus' suffering is the truth. This is the self-giving love of God. This is his glory. It's the way he lives, the way he loves, throughout eternity. If you read the Old Testament carefully, you see that this is the way God has been loving Israel -- and all creation -- all along. Jesus doesn't somehow change the way God presents himself; instead Jesus reveals the unfathomable love of God that has been lavished on creation since the beginning. The cross is just the clearest revelation of God's amazing love that will stop at nothing to heal his broken, beloved creation.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Faaberg Lutheran Church

Last weekend I went north for my uncle Cliff's funeral. Funerals are so often a rough mix of grief and renewed relationship. Cliff was 88 and lived an incredibly full life, so his funeral was much more a celebration. It was such a joy to be with so many family I hadn't seen for a while -- some of them blood family, cousins and aunts and uncles on the Krogstad side of things. One of the greatest treats for me was seeing my aunt Doris from Kansas, her son Keith and his wife Micki, and her daughter Nita Kay. When we were kids, they made the trip north once every year or two and Nita Kay and I spent a lot of time together. Now it had been twenty years since we really caught up, and we had a great conversation. What a gift!

There was also a lot of family there for Cliff's funeral that I am not related to by blood, at least not by Krogstad blood; rather I am related to them by the blood of Jesus. I grew up at Faaberg Lutheran Church from my earliest days, and I have rarely been back for worship services or funerals there. It was so wonderful to reconnect with so many of the people I grew up with! I think often about having left home so far behind, and the truth in Jesus' words in Matthew 19:29. That has been my life for the last three decades.

Here is a picture of Faaberg, not taken last weekend but swiped from my friend Eric Bergeson's archive. The picture is taken across Cliff's field, across the cemetery where Cliff and a whole lot of my ancestors rest. If you were standing where this picture was taken, you could look over your right shoulder across the creek pasture, up the hill to the farmstead where I grew up:

The following pictures are not the best quality; I took them inside the sanctuary after the funeral with my cell phone. Here is the baptismal font where I was baptized June 5, 1966. The memorial plaque you can see in the picture names Peter Pederson (my mother's father) and Fritz Wahlin as those memorialized:

Here is a picture of the 110-year old organ. Dorothy, the organist, told me after the funeral that they finally had to do some repair work on the organ last year. The cowhide on the bellows had cracked after 110 years and had to be replaced. That's the first major repair work she knew of that had ever been done to it!

This is the altar at the front of the sanctuary. I stared at this view Sunday after Sunday through my childhood, and in the next few days I'll post some reflections on what I learned from various parts of this view. For the moment let me say it is unusual in a Lutheran church to have a depiction of Jesus on the cross so central, and I am very blessed to have grown up with this picture before me every Sunday.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

What is the church?

This is one of the questions that has been under the surface of my thinking during much of the second half of my sabbatical, and now that I'm back in my office it has leaped to the fore. By the way, here's a picture of my first day back, the welcome balloons (only three had water in them and I found 2/3 of them before I popped them) and you can begin to see the very cool redecorating work that many people did for me while I was gone. Many thanks to Pam who headed up that project and made my office look AMAZING!

So what is the church? When Martin Luther and Philip Melanchthon answered this question in the Augsburg Confession in 1530, they said the church is "the assembly of saints in which the gospel is taught purely and the sacraments are administered rightly" (Augsburg Confession Article VII). This statement has led Lutherans to argue and angst over the years about what it means to do word and sacrament "rightly". So we have had a nasty tendency to exclude from our fellowship other churches that have slightly different views of how to teach the gospel purely or how to administer the sacraments rightly. We have set the bar pretty high for what it means to be the church. The very next article goes on to say that the church is "the assembly of saints and those who truly believe" but the reformers also acknowledged that "in this life many hypocrites and evil people are mixed in with them" (Augsburg Confession, Article VIII). One wonders if, by our scrupulous church-dividing attention to the pure gospel if we have not crossed over the line from being saints to being hypocrites. When we divide churches because of tiny, minor points of doctrine, this is a real problem. But it happens every day.

However, I want to come at this question in a slightly different way. My question is this: Is it possible to be a Jesus-follower -- a Christian, saved, "in Christ," whatever terminology you want to use, though they all come with baggage -- is it possible to be a Jesus-follower and not be part of a church?

Maybe it's more accurate in this sense to talk about "the" church instead of "a" church. Instead of a whole bunch of little clusters of like-minded believers who meet in Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Methodist, Foursquare, Assemblies, Nazarene, Independent, Bible-believing, Lutheran, Community, or other kinds of churches, maybe it's better to talk about the church of Jesus. This church is composed of all those who "are justified as a gift on account of Christ through faith when they believe that they are received into grace and that their sins are forgiven on account of Christ, who by his death made satisfaction for our sins" (Augsburg Confession, Article IV). The Protestant Reformation claimed that all of Christianity hung on this article, Article 4 in the Augsburg Confession. We have emphasized this piece of things -- this act of putting faith in Jesus -- to the exclusion of all else in Christianity. Instead of saying, "This is the entrance by which one comes into Christ," we have made the mistake of saying, "This is Christianity." Justification -- being made right with God through faith in Jesus -- is hugely important. But it is not biblical to say that it is the whole Christian faith.

If justification was everything, why then does Paul talk so much about "maturity", about growing into the whole fullness of Jesus, about learning to imitate God, about sanctification, about working out our salvation with fear and trembling? Take a look, just for example, at Ephesians 4 and see how Paul speaks to those who already believe. Read how he says that the reason for the church's existence is so that we might grow toward maturity in Christ. God's plan is far more than just saving sinners. Read the New Testament and you'll find that God's plan goes so far beyond that. Saving sinners is just the start. God wants to not only save us, but re-create us, grow us into the image of Jesus so that we begin to grow into the image of the God who created us. (See Colossians 1:15 -- if A=B and B=C, then A=C, right?) The way we grow into the image of Jesus is to be incorporated into a real-life group of imperfect believers who are on this same journey, and God -- by the presence and power of his Spirit -- works in the community to re-create us all. Then God gives us jobs to do in this church (NOTE: I am NOT talking about managing the church's need for new carpet. Church buildings and their furnishings are at best a necessary evil in this church that belongs to Jesus, and they have WAY too much potential to turn into idols and derail God's agenda). Not only does God give us jobs in the church, but God also gives us work to do through this church in the world. So the church goes on mission trips or opens a food shelf. Or better yet, the "church" -- remember, it's not the organization but rather that diverse collection of people who do God's work in a million -- a billion -- tiny ways that transform the world.

If you want to see a good example of this church in action watch this video, that I received via email from literally the other side of the world, from believers I have not met.

The thing is, it's not about our agendas or our work. The church belongs to Jesus, and it is his Spirit that coordinates and guides the work that is being done. We don't get to see more than just our tiny corner.

You don't join this church by taking a membership class or signing a pledge card or membership covenant. Instead, you join this church when you put your faith in Jesus and he in turn puts you into himself, like putting a letter in an envelope or putting a document in a file. In this sense you can't be "in Christ" without being part of his church, his body, the collection of people who live by trust in him.

So what is the church? It is the collection of all those who are "in Christ," who belong to Jesus, who have put and continue to put their trust in him. Jesus lives and breathes in this body of scattered people across the world, living the new life of his resurrection, confronting evil, healing hurts, bringing freedom and light into the enslavement of a dark world. I don't believe you can be saved without being part of this church, and I don't believe that you can be part of this church without being saved.

Which means, by the way, that those who say that they have faith but are not part of a church are fooling themselves. One way or another.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Last day thoughts

Today is the final day of my sabbatical. Tomorrow morning (I'm kind of excited!) I get to go back to work, see my colleagues and start the long processes of 1) catching up on what's going on at Central, and 2) catching up on the emails and projects I need to be pursuing.

Today I am evaluating. Part of tomorrow will be a conversation about this time, what it's been like, what I have gained or lost or learned.

About a month ago I walked into a favorite coffee shop -- Dunn Brothers in Elk River -- and Micki behind the counter asked me, "How is the hunting sabbatical going?" I suppose I have been guilty of thinking and talking about this sabbatical in those terms, giving myself and others the impression that this was an extended two month hunting vacation. This morning I'm realizing that's not entirely fair and not entirely accurate. (If it was accurate, I would hopefully have more meat in the freezer than I currently do. But bowhunting season runs through December, so hope springs eternal.)

I realized early on -- as I've said before on this blog -- that God's priority for me during this two months seemed to be "rest." I have tried to honor that by taking time to be outdoors (my most restful place), hunting, being physically active in the fall in Minnesota, which has to be pretty close to heaven now that the mosquitoes are gone. The only thing that could make Minnesota this time of year better is if the Vikings had a record like the Packers, but I guess it's still a fallen world. There has to be something left to yearn for. Vikings fans, you need to be praying for the game tonight at Lambeau Field. Packer fans, your team doesn't need prayer.

So I've spent some time hunting, and I've spent some time at home, both quiet and working on a few projects, both necessary and just-for-fun. I've spent a lot of time driving, which has allowed another pursuit: Along the road I have (as I've mentioned before) listened to a ton of great theology -- mostly N.T. Wright but also a lot of other people. I tallied it up and realized that in the last two months I've spent about forty hours listening to theological material. It's been incredibly fun to be affirmed and challenged in my own thinking as I listen to some of the evangelical world's greatest current thinkers in theology and history and missions and more. I've also invested a lot of time along the way reading the Bible. During these two months, I read through the gospels twice, read the book of Ephesians four or five times, and spent good chunks of time on other passages, notably Romans 8. One of the things I could easily do, if I happened to have another two months, is spend more time in scripture. Lately I've been thinking I'd love to do an in-depth study of Romans. So much of the theology I've been listening to lately has come to roost one way or another in the book of Romans, and it would be fun to re-read it with a fine-toothed comb to consider some of the claims and counter-claims.

Hopefully in the next month or two, some of the topics I've been thinking and learning about will make their way into this blog. Here are a few of the big questions I've been thinking about in the last few days:

What is the relationship between salvation and the church? Does a person become "saved" by God's grace (Ephesians 2:8-10) and then go out and decide to join a church? Or is there something else going on? What, in fact, is the church? Is it a voluntary association of all those who choose to join themselves together? Can you be "in Christ" (to use Paul's phrase) and not be part of the church? Can you be part of the church and not be "in Christ"?

What is the legacy of the Reformation? What needs to be recovered from the 1500's that has been lost? What needs to be lost that has dominated protestant churches in the last 500 years? For example, is salvation mostly (as Luther seemed to assert) about individual guilt? Or is there more to it than that? How did the Reformation get derailed by the Enlightenment and by rationalism, and what can we do to recover a biblical Christianity that is not dominated by these ideas?

Related to that, what happened to some of Martin Luther's early idealism about the church? For example, at Central we've talked a ton about "Luther's third preference for worship." This is an extended statement Luther wrote in (I think) 1523 about the three forms worship should take. The first was the Latin Mass, the second the German Mass, and the third sounds remarkably like the house churches that are such a rage today. Yet later in his career -- after about 1527 or 1528, perhaps coincident with the Diet of Speyer, Luther's visitation to evangelical churches in Saxony, the publication of the Small Catechism, or other related events -- Luther seems to pull back from this idealism about ecclesiology. So the church that came out of the Reformation was not so much an outpost and forerunner of the kingdom of God as it was an institutional lowest common denominator with princes in the place of authority instead of the bishops of the Roman Catholic Church. This led to the state churches of Europe and eventually to the incredible drought of authentic faith that pervades northern Europe today.

Taking a page from Phyllis Tickle for a moment, what will the church look like in the next 500 years? Phyllis claims (on good authority) that we're in the middle of a huge transition of authority in the church, and that we go through this kind of transition every 500 years. What will be the source and vision of the church's authority in the next centuries? How will it relate to the surge of Pentecostalism in the global south? How will it relate to the waning individualism of protestant northern Christianity? How will it relate to the burgeoning house churches and informal leadership of China and others like them?

So you see, I don't feel like I got all my questions answered. There are lots more -- these are just a sample. These are huge topics and all focus laser-like on where the church is headed today and how we can best pursue the mission Jesus has put in front of us.

In some ways, it might be a relief to go back to work and not have to think so much about these things.

Seriously, thank you all for your prayers these last eight weeks. It has been such a privilege and a gift to have this time to rest, renew, and learn. I am very grateful!

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Reading at depth

Over the last several weeks I've been struck how often I read the Bible at a totally surface level. It's sort of like tasting one item from a gourmet meal, eating it (glazed carrots, maybe) in isolation and saying, "Yeah, I like glazed carrots." Here's an example of what I mean.

I know that when I get back to work, one of my first duties will be to prepare a sermon for November 27th on the text near the end of Ephesians that deals with the Armor of God. I've read and studied and heard that text for decades. It's one of the favorite texts of those who concern themselves with spiritual warfare. We love to quote the part about how our warfare is not against flesh and blood, and we use this text as a dire reminder that we are operating in the spiritual world against unseen powers and principalities. For those who remember the book, it's a lot like the invisible world Frank Peretti unveiled in his book This Present Darkness a few decades ago.

That's all well and good. But on this sabbatical, I've taken the opportunity a few times to read through Ephesians start to finish, and I've listened to other teachers -- notably Chuck Swindoll and N.T. Wright and some others -- work through the text of Ephesians. What has reared up and smacked me in the face in this process is that the "spiritual warfare" text in Ephesians 6:10 and following is totally enmeshed with the rest of the text of Ephesians. Every chapter of this book alludes to the spiritual powers and their mischief (as a colleague of mine likes to call it). There is a parallel text in Ephesians 3 where Paul states that the purpose of the church is to reveal God's mysterious plan to the powers and authorities. Yet instead of seeing how the entire Christ-following life -- from being seated with him in the heavenly realms (chapter 1), to being saved by his grace as an act of his artistry (chapter 2), to being united in his church as a new temple to be his presence in the world (chapter 3) to being called to unity and diversity as we grow toward maturity in Jesus (chapter 4) to living lives of holiness in imitation of God's compassionate love for us -- all these things are spiritual warfare, intimately engaging us with the world of principalities and powers. Yet when we want to talk about spiritual warfare we open up to Ephesians 6 and read the part about the armor of God and call it good.

How much of the Bible have I missed because I read prooftexts rather than reading at some depth, reading for the interconnectedness, reading the whole argument rather than one or two verses?

It's tragic.

Thursday, November 10, 2011


I just reread an earlier post near the beginning of this sabbatical time in which I was struggling with the whole idea of rest. Those words were certainly descriptive of the upcoming weeks. I have returned again and again to God's directive to rest, and whenever I've gotten a head of steam to pursue some agenda or other, I've been brought quickly to a halt.

Not to say I've succeeded in resting very well. I do think, though, that I have finally let go of the need to accomplish something. It's a little frightening to think about going back to work at this point!

Maybe the difference -- the potentially very healthy difference -- is that I don't feel so much need to accomplish something for myself. Is it possible that I'll be able to go back to work and just do what needs to be done for the sake of others, for the sake of the task, and not for the sake of finding my own sense of self through my work?

That would be something.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011


I've been pretty restless all day today. My wife noticed it within moments of getting home from work. This restlessness has continued through a four mile walk, a delightful time wandering in the woods with hunting partner Jason and helping him put up a stand, time sitting in my recliner reading Scripture, time sitting in my recliner reading a novel, time standing in the kitchen cooking supper, and time working on household projects. I've just been antsy most of the day.

Usually that means God is getting me ready for something, or maybe that there is something coming up I need to be ready for. It could be just that I'm coming to the end of my sabbatical and feel the need to make the most of the last few days. But I'm paying attention.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Worship and atonement theology

Enjoyed the opportunity this morning to worship with my family at Bethlehem Baptist and hear John Piper preach -- a first for me. The worship service was well done, focused, Jesus-centered. The preaching was excellent, on John 12:1-8. Piper used the text to contrast Mary of Bethany and Judas Iscariot -- Mary, who recognized Jesus' true value and gave herself unreservedly to him, and Judas, whose interest in money obscured Jesus' true value and sent him down the road toward suicide, five or six days later.

In many ways I appreciate Piper's Calvinist theology. I think he does a great job of upholding biblical integrity and the Christian tradition. I was struck this morning, though, but an undercurrent I've noticed before in Calvinist circles -- a preoccupation with the wrath of God, a focus on God's wrath almost to the exclusion of all else. Certainly there was a lot of talk and a lot of singing this morning about God's love expressed in Jesus. But that love shows itself in Jesus going to the cross to placate (guess what?) God's wrath.

There is certainly a biblical thread that legitimately emphasizes God's wrath at sin. However, I think this theology overemphasizes that thread beyond the Bible's own emphasis. The exclusive attachment in Calvinist circles to viewing the cross as "propitiation" -- a sacrifice that placates a righteously wrathful God -- forces this teaching to start with the wrath of God and emphasize it all out of proportion to the biblical text.

I certainly do believe that Jesus died in the place of sinners (including me), that he took on himself the punishment of our sin, and that his death is legitimately understood as a "vicarious atonement," to use a technical term. This is one good and legitimate way to understand the cross and resurrection of Jesus. However, my problem with this theology that is so dominant in American Christianity is that it excludes many other legitimate ways of viewing the cross and the resurrection. If we see Jesus' death only as a vicarious atonement, we miss a lot of the Bible's hints at what else it might mean.

Why else is it so hard to piece together texts -- many from the Old Testament -- to support this understanding of the cross? The New Testament itself seems to use five or six different -- but not contradictory -- ways of viewing what Jesus accomplished in his death and resurrection. The emphasis in the New Testament is not on exactly what it means, but rather on the fact that it happened, and somehow (even if we don't quite understand exactly how) Jesus' resurrection -- and thus his death -- changes everything.

We shouldn't be too quick to nail down what the Bible allows to slosh around the deck a bit.

All the same, I was richly blessed by our visit to Bethlehem Baptist this morning. We even got to share in communion, which was all the more meaningful for being handled in a slightly different format than we're used to.

Here's a picture from our recent badlands trip. If you look closely you can imagine how challenging it can be to hike silently up and down through this landscape, how easy it is for mulies to sneak in under a shady spot and watch you coming from miles away. It is a starkly glorious place, one of my favorite retreats on earth.

As an exercise in imagination, here's today's forecast for this landscape: "Cloudy with isolated snow showers in the morning...then partly sunny in the afternoon. Windy. Highs in the mid 30s. West winds 25 to 35 mph. Chance of snow 20 percent." Ouch.

To help your imagination, here is a picture from the last day of our hunt in 2009, early in the morning after a snow. The temperature was in the low 20's and every surface took on a surreal kind of softness that was all illusion.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Back from the Badlands

I've been offline for a few days on a hunting trip to western North Dakota. Every couple years my brothers and I go hike around the badlands and sit on top of windy buttes with binoculars, searching out elusive mule deer, painstakingly stalking them through the coulees, watching in frustration when they see us coming and bound effortlessly over the hillsides. It's a grand life and one that I love when I can get it. This year we camped in a tent (as we usually do) in a tiny little pocket of trees at the head of a draw. We'd rise an hour or more before daylight, grab a few handfuls of cold breakfast, and head out into the darkness in order to be in a good watching spot by sunrise. Temperatures were in the 20's most nights, so things were pretty frosty until 9 or 10 in the morning.

Snow is coming soon -- you can feel it out there, you can see it in the cirrus clouds hanging like wisps of cotton candy ice sculptures at 60,000 feet up in the atmosphere, and the weatherman confirms that sense. The ranchers are scrambling to get their cows off the National Grassland ranges and under cover before the first snowstorm hits this weekend.

We saw lots of deer, even a few decent bucks, during our time out there. Didn't bring any venison home, unfortunately. My brother Darin got a shot, the only one of the hunt, but things don't always end up like you want them to.

I was amazed by the amount of training I had to do. I always forget how hard it is to see a bedded mulie, how tricky it can be to see them before they see you, how impossible it is to walk silently through the rough grasses of the semi-desert. I spent the first two days in frustration, peering into dark hollows in the hills, trying to pierce the shadows under juniper bushes and cedar trees on the north-facing slopes, trying to think like a mule deer and look for them high on the slopes where the wind comes over the top and they can see the valley in front of them. After three or four days, my mind and my eyes and my body begin to adjust to this hunting. I spotted far more deer the last two days of the hunt than the first two. My body began to enjoy the grueling hikes, eight or ten miles across the twisted, fractured landscape. I began to pay more attention to wind direction, and thus I had a much better sense of where those deer might be bedded.

Just a thought, not to put too fine a point on it: How often we fail to see the things of God because our eyes, our minds, our bodies are not trained! We don't listen, watch, or think in ways that help us perceive what God's Spirit is up to around us. He's moving and active, but we totally miss him, not because we don't want to see him but because we haven't trained ourselves to perceive, to live in the world in a way that we see his presence and his activity.
What if we took three days and focused, hour after hour, trying to understand where God is moving, what he's up to, how he's present around us? What if, metaphorically speaking, we spent three days looking for tracks, trying to see the landscape, the world, the people, the traffic, the neighbors, the churches, the schools, the students, the businesses, the bankers, the way God sees them? What if, again metaphorically speaking, we spent an hour or two each day sitting still with binoculars watching the world and trying to catch a glimpse of God? What if we bent every muscle, every movement, to try to stalk him?

I wonder what would happen to us? I wonder how we would change?

Very little changed for the mule deer while I was out in the badlands. But a few things changed for me. The doors of perception in my mind and my heart opened in a different way. Back in my living room, in my recliner, that's what I want.

Monday, October 24, 2011

God, Time, and the unknowable future?

Theologically astute blog reader Bruce flattered me by asking my opinion on Open Theism. One of the advantages of being on sabbatical is I have both the time and the inclination to dig into questions like that.

Before I say ANYTHING about this debate. let me say first off that both sides of this debate (if you're not aware of the debate, it's got a couple major voices from the Twin Cities area, namely Greg Boyd on the Open Theism side and John Piper on the Classic Theism side) have been defended and articulated by people who are way smarter and more articulate than I am. I do not presume to settle the debate on this blog. However, I do think it's worth saying a couple things that may pull us back to a good place for the average Jesus-follower to stand. That is my goal, at any rate.

First, a couple basic (if simplistic) definitions. Classic theism states that God exists outside of or beyond time. God is classically defined by several "omni-" words --

Omnipresent means God is everywhere present.
Omniscient means God knows all things, including the future.
Omnipotent means God can do anything, is literally "all powerful."

Classic theism teaches that God is immutable, meaning unchanging, and impassible, meaning God can not suffer. Some classic theists say the cross is remarkable precisely because in the cross, the impassible God suffers; others say God the Father retains his impassibility but the Son suffers on behalf of the entire godhead. Entire books have been written about this, so don't think I'm accurately summing up all the arguments here.

Note that none of these bold words are used in the Bible to describe God. These words come from Greek philosophical thought rather than from biblical study. Each of these words has become a shorthand way to refer to an entire teaching about the nature of God. Each of these words has received a firm place within the traditional teachings of Christianity.

Open theism is a little harder to get hold of. This article on Wikipedia (I know, I know) does a fair job of summing it up and giving some sense of the variety and intensity of the debate. Open theism basically teaches that God has not predetermined the future, or perhaps that God does not know which of many possible futures will actually come to pass. God is thus more open to influence (via prayer, for example) than in classic theism. Open theism strives to take the idea of relationship with God seriously. If we can't influence God in any way, it's tough to have a relationship with God, say open theists. If everything is predetermined by God's will, it is pretty difficult to believe our prayers could have any effect.

Greg Boyd spins open theism slightly differently, saying it's more about the nature of time and reality than about the nature of God. Simply put, the future does not yet exist to be known by anyone, including God.

Enough summary. Time for a story.

When I was in seminary, I asked two profs a question that had been troubling me for a long time. "I've heard," I said, "that the Bible presents truth in a Hebrew way of thinking. How long after the New Testament documents does Greek thinking creep into Christian teaching? How quickly was the church's way of thinking about Jesus polluted by Greek philosophy?" You see, I was frustrated that so often in our Enlightenment, rationalistic ways of thinking we separate fact from fiction, truth from lie, in a sense that we dissect a dead cat. We think by knowing the cat in this way that we understand it. However, the truth of a cat is also about the warm fuzzy independent creature that bats at a moth or curls up in a sunbeam or jumps up on the counter to lick the tuna can. Dissection is at best part of the truth. I wanted to know Jesus in the way that the biblical writers understood him, without the patina of Greek philosophy that made me misunderstand so much of who Jesus was and is, what his death and resurrection meant, and how his parables even begin to make sense. I blamed Greek philosophy for this way of approaching truth, and I believed Hebrew thought recognized Jesus as the Way, the Truth, the Life, in a way Greek thought couldn't understand.

The professors looked at each other and one, a New Testament scholar, said, "Greek thought is integral to the New Testament." The other, a teacher of Greek linguistics, chimed in. "The New Testament is written exactly at the intersection of Greek and Hebrew thought. Take Paul, for example -- he is educated in Hebrew school, studying to be a Pharisee, but he also knows the Greek poets and philosophers." The first one nodded. "The New Testament is both Hebrew and Greek. You could probably argue that Jesus is more Hebrew than Greek, but even there I don't know that you could make a convincing argument. The more we learn about first century Palestine, the more we realize that even in Galilee, the people were deeply influenced by Greek language, culture, and thought."

So much for easy answers.

The open theism debate takes mutually exclusive ideas and tries to argue for one side or another. One side says the future is an open question, full of freedom and possibility, even though God is, in some sense, sovereign. The other side says God is without doubt or question sovereign, and our freedom is debatable.

My problem is that while both sides use biblical texts to back up their arguments (see the Wikipedia article), both are, at their core, arguing a philosophical position rather than a biblical one.

Here's the thing. The Bible is an incredibly rich, variegated set of texts. The way Genesis speaks about God, for example, is in many ways slightly different than the way Luke or Romans speaks about God. Not only that, but the way Genesis 1 speaks about God seems quite different in some ways from the way Genesis 2-3 speaks about God. These nuances exist throughout the Bible. God is one moment passionate and weeping for his estranged people, and at another moment holding all the universe in his hands and making sure the stars spin on schedule. God gets furiously angry with the Israelites and says he's sorry he ever chose them, and then he says to Israel, "I have loved you with an everlasting love."

So Jesus shows up and settles things, right? The Old Testament is just freaky sometimes, but Jesus makes it okay.

Not so fast. Jesus says he has come not to condemn the world but rather so that the world might be saved; but then he spends dozens of verses condemning the Jewish leadership, repeating the phrase, "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!" over and over again. He compares them to whitewashed tombs, full of dead men's bones. Jesus takes time to braid a whip out of cords (John 2) and brutally drives people and animals out of the temple grounds. Then he turns around when they're nailing him to the cross and says, "Father, forgive them, for they don't know what they're doing." Possibly the best example is that in one place in Luke's gospel Jesus says to his disciples, "Anyone who is not against us is for us." A couple chapters later, Jesus says to them, "Anyone who is not for you is against you."

Reading the Bible beyond the most surface level is an incredibly rich, incredibly frustrating, life-changing pursuit. It's like marriage in many ways. It will not leave you unchanged. Probably it will not leave you unscarred. It will stir your deepest passions and expose your deepest faults. And, God willing, it will make you holy.

The Bible was written over roughly fifteen hundred years, in three different languages, in what today would be ten separate countries, by at least forty different human authors, addressing uncounted different historical contexts. It is an incredibly complex book.

Perhaps the miracle in all this is how consistent the Bible is. From the beginning to the end, the Bible speaks of a recognizable, personal God with whom you can have a dependable relationship. This God acts consistently, though not always predictably. Throughout the Bible, certain behaviors and attitudes -- idolatry, for example -- will get you in trouble with God. Other behaviors and attitudes -- repentance, for example -- without exception bring on God's mercy and forgiveness. God is consistently sovereign throughout the Bible, consistently jealous for the hearts of his people, consistently angry with those who teach falsehood as truth, consistently merciful to those who are beaten down, consistently vengeful to those who set themselves up as lords in their own right.

Not to say that good guys always win and bad guys always lose. The Bible is a book about reality, and so evil is part of it. The innocent suffer. The self-centered sometimes prosper in the short term. Disasters and famines and wars maraud over the land and people get hurt. But in all of it, a recognizable, consistent God is there, in the mix, yearning for his people to return to him.

The trouble comes when we try to take this incredibly complex text, this incredibly complex relationship, and reduce it down to a "systematic theology" -- a system in which we can say that Truth looks like this, God is always like this, evil is always like this, human beings are always like this. Cut the cat open and examine its organs and you will understand it.

If you have ever been in love, let alone married, you know relationships don't work like that. My wife is wonderfully consistent, but heaven help me if I ever begin to think she's predictable. The problem with both classic theism and open theism is that they're both trying to systematize God's relationship with the future, with our freedom, with his own sovereignty, with time. They are trying to define truth using one set of biblical texts to make sense of something that might just be beyond human reason. (Be honest -- have you ever thought maybe love itself was beyond human reason?) Each of these sides emphasizes one set of biblical texts at the expense of other biblical texts. Like with most theological debates, if you choose one side you alienate yourself, not only from the other theologians, but also from the Bible verses they prefer. As a classic theist, you'll be tempted not to read Exodus 32 much. As an open theist, you'll be tempted to ignore Isaiah 46. And the list of texts goes on and on.

Some theologians are wired in such a way that they just have to systematize God. They cannot rest until they have figured out a rational answer to the questions. I believe they are created this way for a reason, and that God is using their intellectual pursuits to help people come to know him. But don't make the mistake of pitching your tent in their camp. Read what they say, if you like, and let it spur your own thinking. But better yet, pursue the God who reveals himself in the Bible, in all his richness and complexity and frustrating personality. Realize that in the Bible, truth is often paradoxical. You will most often find the truth by being, not at one end of the spectrum or the other, but at both ends at the same time.

(An example: Is God sovereign over matters of people being saved? Or do we need to evangelize all nations? The answer, of course, is "Yes.")

In most of these debates I like to read until my head starts to hurt just a little, then I retreat to one of my favorite biblical texts. At the end of a life in which the Bible says he knew God better than anyone, as one friend speaks to another, Moses made the following observation:

"The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever" (Deuteronomy 29:29).

If you're going to focus your energy on anything about God, focus not on the things that are hidden from us, barely visible along the horizon of our deepest thoughts. Instead, focus on the things God has clearly revealed. His name is Jesus. The Gospel of John is a great place to start.