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.