Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Human Conditioning Doesn't Prepare Us for Grace

In his beautiful book, Addiction and Grace, Gerald G. May says the following about God's grace :

"Grace is only truly appreciated and expressed in the actual, immediate experience of real life situations...it can only be 'lived into.'

"Living into the mystery of grace requires encountering grace as a real gift. Grace is not earned. it is not accomplished or achieved. It is not extracted through manipulation or seduction. It is just given. Nothing in our conditioning prepares us for this radical reality. Some would say that early childhood experiences with our parents is important in determining how we come to accept grace in later life. If we had loving, trustworthy parents rather than rejecting or unreliable ones, we would grow up more willing to accept God's grace as a gift. I do not think this is so. We all have trouble accepting the radical giftedness of God's grace, no matter what our childhood experience. God's grace is simply not part of our conditioning. Nor can we make it so, though we are sure to try. All our attempts to control the flow of grace will be frustrated because, like God, grace will not become an object for attachment. 

"Because grace is a pure gift, the most meaningful of our encounters with it will probably come at unintended times, when we are caught off-guard, when our manipulative systems are at rest or otherwise occupied. But still we can pray for grace, actively seek it, and try to relax our hands to receive it..."

Jesus, you are full of grace; come to us by your Spirit and empower us to receive this radical gift of grace today and everyday!

Sunday, June 23, 2019

I Am His House (by George MacDonald)

The following is a poem by George MacDonald published in his book, Diary of an Old Soul. To get the impact of his words, I encourage you to take a little time to quietly ponder them. The form of English is a bit difficult but worth struggling to grasp:

Too eager I must not be to understand.
How should the work the Master goes about
Fit the vague sketch my compasses have planned?
I am his house - for him to go in and out.
He builds me now - and if I cannot see
At any time what he is doing with me,
Tis that he makes the house for me too grand.

The house is not for me - it is for him.
His royal thoughts require many a stair,
Many a tower, many an outlook fair,
Of which I have no thought, and need no care.
Where I am most perplexed, it may be there
Thou mak'st a secret chamber, holy-dim,
Where thou will come to help my deepest prayer."

Amen, dear Lord...may it be so.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Archeology and the False Self

The following is from an excellent little book called Daily Office by Peter Scazzero:

"Thomas Keating compares God's work in us to a Middle Eastern 'tell', or archeological site, where one civilization is built on another in the same place. Archeologists excavate, level by level, culture by culture, down through history. The Holy Spirit is like a Divine Archeologist digging through the layers of our lives.

     'The Spirit intends to investigate our whole life history, layer by layer,
      throwing out the junk and preserving the values that were appropriate to 
      each stage of our human development...Eventually the Spirit begins to 
      dig into the bedrock of our earliest emotional life...Hence, as we progress 
      toward the center where God is actually waiting for us, we are naturally
      going to feel that we are getting worse. This warns us that the spiritual 
      journey is not a success story or a career move. It is rather a series of 
      humiliations of the false self.'   (Thomas Keating)"

Sunday, April 07, 2019

Does God Crush Human Will to Force Us to Do What He Wants?

In his book, The Politics of God and the Politics of Man, Jacques Ellul looks at accounts from the book of II Kings and presents a case for a God who values human dignity so much that He allows us to freely be who we are. In chapter one Ellul writes about the healing of Naaman, saying that God used many different agents in Naaman's life. He points out that none of the people involved in the healing (Hebrew slave girl, king of Syria, Elisha, Naaman's servants) acted under coercion from God but they acted according to their own "bent", at their own "level" and with their own "personal decision."

Ellul goes on to remark, "If the story wanted to show us God crushing the will of man and forcing man to do what God wants, then things would have been very simple."

The God and Father of Jesus Christ takes the dignity and freedom of human beings seriously and will not "crush the will of man" and force us to do what He wants. He allows us to be who we are and to act according to our bent or inclination, and He takes our small free actions, combines them with the small actions of others and brings about goodness in a situation.

George MacDonald puts it this way in his book, Knowing the Heart of God:

"God does not, by the instant gift of his Spirit, make us always feel right, desire good, love purity, aspire after him and his will...The truth is this: He wants to make us in his own image, choosing the good, refusing the evil. How could he effect this if he were always moving us from within? God gives us room to be. He does not oppress us with his will. He 'stands away from us,' that we may act from ourselves, that we may exercise the pure will for good."

The marvel of God is not that He is able to get things done because we finally "get our act together" but that He is able to get things done through broken vessels who never really get our act together but who freely move and act according to our bent and personal decision.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

From Obedience to Praise (3): Discovery of What Matters Most Leads to Unabandoned Praise

This is the third and final post on the topic of the journey that the Psalter takes us on from naive obedience to unabandoned praise. (See part 1 and part 2)

Psalm 73 is where the paradigm shifts in the Psalter's journey towards God's presence being the reward rather than material blessing. Psalm 103 is the next psalm that Walter Brueggemann looks at in this pilgrimage. In it we see trust in God's 'hesed'* but the speaker hasn't yet arrived at pure doxology. Psalm 103 has moved past the harsh complaining of Psalm 25 but two problems are still lingering and presented in Psalm 103: guilt and mortality.

Psalm 103 is a psalm of confidence that God's mercy and compassion are greater than human sin and mortality. "In the end it is not human righteousness but the abiding trustworthiness of Yahweh that matters decisively."

God's faithfulness is everything and supersedes all else; it transforms human guilt, enabling humans to praise him in spite of circumstances that don't fit the premise given in Psalm 1. Glimpses, hints and hunches of God's good presence are what keeps Israel moving and hoping, moving from trustful naivete (Psalm 1) to trustful abandonment (Psalm 150). (By the way, Brueggemann makes the observation that this is not a one-time journey but is made over and over again in Israel's story, as in ours...)

In this journey Israel is impinged upon, impacted by life's realities; but not only is Israel impinged upon but "the God praised in the psalms is also impinged upon by Israel's assaults, summoned to change and impelled to risk..."

There are no words adequate for such a God and such good news!! His faithfulness is what matters most in the end, and it is discovering and embracing this that inspires faithfulness in his people. Any loss you might experience (and there will always be loss of some sort) by going outside prescribed religious boundaries to find God and his goodness is well worth it. All praise to him! I will close with the doxology of Psalm 150 (The Passion Translation):

Hallelujah! Praise the Lord!
   Praise God in his holy sanctuary!
   Praise him in his stronghold in the sky!

Praise him for his miracles of might!
   Praise him for his magnificent greatness!

Praise him with the trumpets blasting!
   Praise him with piano and guitar!

Praise him with drums and dancing!
   Praise him with the loud, 
      resounding clash of cybals!
   Praise him with every instrument you can find!

Let everyone everywhere
   join in the crescendo
   of ecstatic praise to 
   Praise the Lord! 


*'covenantal fidelity guaranteeing moral coherence'

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

From Obedience to Praise (2): Redefining What is "Good" through Protest, Candor and Communion

This is the second part in my 3-part overview of Walter Brueggemann's paper on the book of Psalms, "Bounded by Obedience and Praise". (See part 1 here)

By the time we get to Psalm 73, midway through the Psalter, we see more push-back to God's 'hesed'*. Brueggemann says: "honest faith cannot linger too long at the boundary of Psalm 1."
Honest faith requires us to push the boundaries of simplistic dogmatic ways of thinking; organized religion works to keep people inside its prescribed boundaries.

Psalm 72 directs the king (Solomon) to be just and righteous; we know from Israel's history that Solomon failed to be that. Psalm 73 is the response, a crisis of faith; it is a psalm of dispute and dismay after the abrupt ending of a season of "royal buoyancy".

Psalm 73 is crucial in moving from obedience (Torah piety) to doxology (praise). It begins with a restatement of Psalm 1's premise but immediately protests against it. But as the psalm develops, the protest is overcome with trust. Psalm 73:17 is the pivot point: "But when I thought how to understand this, it seemed to me a wearisome task, until I went into the sanctuary of God; then I perceived their end." In worship, the speaker re-perceives reality and affirms Psalm 1.

Brueggemann explains what has shifted: "Face to face engagement with God is finally what matters... 'Presence' is what matters more than the ostensive advantage of the wicked, even though the apparent advantage of the wicked described in vv. 2-14 was the very advantage promised to the righteous in Psalm 1....Now the goodness treasured is not material blessing but God's own self...the speaker has traversed, as Israel regularly traverses, the path from obedience to praise, by way of protest, candor and communion." 

Psalm 73 is a paradigm shift..."good" becomes God and his presence instead of "good" being a coherent blessed life (as expressed in Psalm 1).

I'll complete this short series in the following post.

*hesed: "covenantal fidelity guaranteeing moral coherence"

Monday, March 18, 2019

From Obedience to Praise (1): Ingredients for Honest Faith According to the Psalms

I've observed over the years that a major obstacle to truly maturing in God is religion. In Christianity I find that a narrow and rigid view of God (which often comes from our way of interpreting the Bible) inhibits many from truly experiencing largeness of heart and mind because we fear that to be completely open and honest with him about perplexing issues of real life would displease him. Consequently, we bend over backwards to make sure we are "religiously correct" in our language so that God and religious people aren't offended by how we speak about life and God.

However, as I've soaked in the Psalms and tried to listen to them honestly, I've learned to value and desire "truth in the inward being" (Psalm 51), as God does; this has led me away from the confines of religious platitudes to increasingly more honest dialog and questioning with him.

Recently a friend shared a paper written by Walter Brueggemann in 1991 entitled "Bounded by Obedience and Praise, The Psalms as Canon".  Brueggemann, an Old Testament scholar and theologian who is widely considered one of the most influential Old Testament scholars of the last several decades, is probably best known for his book, Prophetic Imagination. I want to share some from this paper because it gives language and support to the point I'm making which is that to have a mature faith in God, we must be honest and authentic in our relating with God.

In this and two subsequent posts, I will summarize what I've learned along these lines through Walter Brueggemann...

Brueggemann presents four genres in the Psalter:
1 - Torah piety 
2 - Lament questioning of God's 'hesed'* 
3 - Hymn acknowledging God's 'hesed'  
4 - Hymn  

He looks at five particular psalms to present his case: 1, 25, 73, 103, 150. The Psalter leads us on a journey from the naivete of Psalm 1 to the maturity of Psalm 150.

Psalm 1 is an expression of "Torah piety" (i.e., the belief in God's 'hesed' which is "covenantal fidelity guaranteeing moral coherence"). In other words, life is a simple equation: God will prosper the person who is faithful/obedient to the law of God; the wicked/disobedient will suffer.

Psalm 25 wants to believe Psalm 1, but experience bears out that the formula of Psalm 1 doesn't actually work in most of life. God's 'hesed' has broken down for the psalmist, and this psalm shows the beginnings of questioning the positive assumptions of Psalm 1.

As you read through Psalm 25 you can sense the beginnings of struggle within the psalmist as he wants to remain faithful to the proposition of Psalm 1 and yet isn't seeing it play out in real life. He's introducing his troubles, afflictions and the treatment he's receiving from the wicked.

In the following post we'll look at Psalm 73 in the progression from "obedience to praise".

Saturday, January 12, 2019

The Man Jesus - Part 9: If Jesus is the True Picture of God, then God is More Truly Human, More Thoroughly Humane, than Any Human Being

Chapter 19: "Faith in Jesus"

This is the final chapter of Jesus Before Christianity  and the climax to Albert Nolan's book. After concentrating on looking at Jesus' humanity in all of the preceding chapters (1-18), the author focuses his final chapter on Jesus' divinity and the implications of His being God.

There are two primary implications to Jesus being God that the author proposes:
1) We must allow Him to define what God is like (i.e., the way Jesus lived shows us exactly what God is like).
2) Acknowledgement that Jesus is God and Truth means to live like He lived, understanding the world and times that we live in just as He understood the world and times that He lived in.

Speaking of the early church's response to Jesus after his life and death and resurrection, Nolan says, "The movement was pluriform, indeed amorphous and haphazard. Its only unity or point of cohesion was the personality of Jesus himself...Everyone felt that despite his death Jesus was still leading, guiding and inspiring them...Jesus remained present and active through the presence and activity of his Spirit...Jesus was everything...Their admiration and veneration for him knew no bounds. He was in every way the ultimate, the only criterion of good and evil and of truth and falsehood, the only hope for the future, the only power which could transform the world...Jesus was experienced as the breakthrough in the history of humanity. He transcended everything that had ever been said and done before. He was in every way the ultimate, the last word. He was on a par with God. His word was God's word. His Spirit was God's Spirit. His feelings were God's feelings...

"To believe in Jesus today is to agree with this assessment of him...To believe that Jesus is divine is to choose to make him and what he stands for your God...By his words and his praxis, Jesus himself changed the content of the word 'God.' If we do not allow him to change our image of God, we will not be able to say that he is our Lord and our God. To choose him as our God is to make him the source of our information about divinity and to refuse to superimpose upon him our own ideas of divinity...Jesus reveals God to us, God does not reveal Jesus to us...if we accept Jesus as divine, we must reinterpret the Old Testament from Jesus' point of view and we must try to understand the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the way in which Jesus did..."

The author masterfully sums up the implications of Jesus being God: "We have seen what Jesus was like. If we now wish to treat him as our God, we would have to conclude that...

*our God does not want to be served by us, but wants to serve us; 
*God does not want to be given the highest possible rank and status in our society, but wants to take the lowest place and to be without any rank and status; 
*God does not want to be feared and obeyed, but wants to be recognized in the sufferings of the poor and the weak; 
*God is not supremely indifferent and detached, but is irrevocably committed to the liberation of humankind, for God has chosen to be identified with all people in a spirit of solidarity and compassion. 

If this is not a true picture of God, then Jesus is not divine. If this is a true picture of God, then God is more truly human, more thoroughly humane, than any human being...

"Jesus was immeasurably more human than other human beings, and that is what we value above all other things when we recognize him as divine, when we acknowledge him as our Lord and our God."

If we accept that Jesus is God then the way He lived His life on earth is how we must live ours: "In the last analysis faith is not a way of speaking or a way of thinking, it is a way of living and can only be adequately articulated in a living praxis...The beginning of faith in Jesus is the attempt to read the signs of our times as Jesus read the signs of his times...we can begin to analyze our times in the same spirit as he analyzed his times. We would have to begin, as Jesus did, with compassion - for the starving millions, for those who are humiliated and rejected, and for the billions of the future who will suffer because of the way we live today...

"Searching for the signs of the times in the spirit of Jesus, then, will mean recognizing all the forces that are working against humanity as the forces of evil...We shall have to try to understand the structures of evil in the world as it is today. How much have we been basing ourselves upon the worldly values of money, possessions, prestige, status, privilege, power and upon the group solidarities of family, race, class, party, religion and nationalism? To make these our supreme values is to have nothing in common with Jesus."

Nolan concludes his book with one final challenge: "There is an incentive that can mobilize the world, enable the 'haves' to lower their standard of living and make us only too willing to redistribute the world's wealth and its population. It is the same drive and incentive that motivated Jesus: compassion and faith...With this kind of approach to the problems of our time one will surely come to recognize the impending catastrophe as a unique opportunity for the coming of the 'kingdom.'...God is speaking to us in a new way today. Jesus can help us to understand the voice of Truth..."

Such a God wins our hearts, our allegiance, our all!

Wednesday, January 02, 2019

The Man Jesus (Part 8): Jesus' Silence - the Truth that Judges Every Human Being

Chapter 18  "The Trial" (Jesus Before Christianity)

This chapter is about Jesus' trial by Rome and the collaboration of the Jewish leaders with Rome. Nolan looks at the charges "which they could have brought against Jesus, the charges which they actually did bring against him and the real motives for wanting to destroy him...Jesus could have been charged with deliberately breaking the Sabbath or practicing magic (casting out devils by the power of Satan); he was actually charged with claiming to be the Messiah-king; and the real motive, according to Mark followed by Matthew, was envy or jealousy..."

He points out that because these distinctions aren't maintained consistently by the gospel writers, there is confusion about this. The author also distinguishes between the part played by Rome and the part played by the Jewish leaders in Jesus' sentencing and death: "Jesus was tried, sentenced and executed by the Roman court. But the gospel writers, like all early Christians, endeavored to make it quite clear that, in spite of this, the Jewish leaders were more to blame for Jesus' death than the Romans."

In the confusing reports by the gospel writers, there is one thing certain, which is that Jesus' claim to be the Messiah or king of the Jews is the only thing that He was charged with by Rome and it was Rome that carried out the crucifixion. (The Jews had no authority to do this.)

Nolan describes how ruthless Pilate was and why he was eager to be rid of Jesus: Rome executed all "prophets and potential Messiahs" for fear of an uncontrollable uprising against the government. The Jewish high priest was appointed by the Romans for the purpose of helping to maintain the peace, especially during the festivals in Jerusalem. Though there are a couple of  different reasons why the Jewish leaders sided with Pilate, "...In either case the decision of the high priest and his council was to collaborate with Rome. Political expediency demanded that this man be handed over and allowed to die. To attempt to save his life would be national suicide...they betrayed Jesus."

A remarkable thing about Jesus' trial is that He never defended Himself. No matter what He was accused of or who accused Him, He remained silent. "Jesus stood there without a word, putting everyone else to the test. The truth of the matter is that it was not Jesus who was on trial. His betrayers and accusers were on trial before him. His silence puzzled, disturbed, questioned and tested them. Their words were turned back at them and they condemned themselves out of their own mouths."

The chapter ends with a summary of all those who were tested and judged by the killing of Jesus:
- first, the High Priest Caiaphas and his associates who collaborated with Rome to save their nation and their own skin and positions rather than defend Jesus;
- next, the scribes, Pharisees and others who knowingly rejected His 'kingdom' of the poor;
- then, the disciples of Jesus who betrayed, denied, and forsook Him;
- finally, Jesus Himself was tested and tried severely in the garden before His death...

"Jesus alone was able to accept the challenge of the hour. It set him above everyone else as the silent truth that judges every human being. Jesus died alone as the only person who had been able to survive the test. Everyone else failed and yet everyone else was given another chance..."

Thursday, December 27, 2018

The Man Jesus (Part 7): Jesus Overcame all Forms of Authority-Thinking

Chapter 17 "The Man Who Emerges" (Jesus Before Christianity)

Continuing with the section on "Confrontation", we come to chapter 17, a powerful chapter on the uniqueness of Jesus. The opening paragraph reads,

"Jesus is a much underrated man - underrated not only by those who think of him as nothing more than a teacher of religious truth but also by those who go to the opposite extreme of emphasizing his divinity in such a way that he ceases to be fully human. When one allows Jesus to speak for himself and when one tries to understand him without any preconceived ideas and within the context of his own times, what begins to emerge is a man of extraordinary independence, immense courage and unparalleled authenticity - a man whose insight defies explanation. To deprive this man of his humanity is to deprive him of his greatness.

The author explores the meaning of the term "Son of man" that Jesus used for himself. Nolan argues that because of his teachings in general, Jesus would not have intended that term to be a title of any sort but to have more to do with his great esteem for humans as humans and his solidarity with all humans. He so identified with humans that he eventually acquired a 'bad reputation'..."even John the Baptist (was) scandalized by the way he mixed socially with sinners, by the way he seemed to enjoy their company, by his permissiveness with regard to the laws, by his apparent disregard for the seriousness of sin and by his free and easy way of treating God..."

Much of the chapter focuses on how, unlike all others, Jesus insisted on not using any titles for Himself...Jesus wanted nothing to do with the whole idea of acting and speaking 'with authority' (the right to be obeyed by others): "...did Jesus claim authority, any kind of authority at all, even implicitly? Would it not be closer to the truth to say that what makes Jesus immeasurably greater than any other human being is precisely the fact that he spoke and acted without authority and that he regarded the 'exercise of authority' as a pagan characteristic. 

"Jesus was unique among the people of his time in his ability to overcome all forms of authority-thinking. The only authority which Jesus might be said to have appealed to was the authority of the truth itself. He did not make authority his truth, he made truth his authority...(He) did not expect others to obey him; he expected them to 'obey' the truth, to live truthfully.  ...by avoiding all authority-thinking, he released the power of truth itself - which is the power of God and indeed the power of faith.

"Somewhere at the heart of Jesus' mysterious personality there was a unique experience of intimate closeness to God - the Abba-experience...We know that the Abba-experience was an experience of God as a compassionate Father..."

The chapter ends saying, "The secret of Jesus' infallible insight and unshakeable convictions was his unfailing experience of solidarity with God, which revealed itself as an experience of solidarity with humanity and nature. This made him a uniquely liberated man, uniquely courageous, fearless, independent, hopeful and truthful. What would make anyone want to destroy such a man?..."