Blog Posts

Getting Intimate with the Almighty

I first came across a book by Greg Paul several years ago. I was new to urban ministry and the stories, people and insights of Greg Paul’s God in the Alley were well worth it, though frequently heartbreaking.

This book was different. It was not about justice and while a few of the stories were about sanctuary and the neighborhood his church is in, this was much more personal. He told the stories of his relationship with his parents, his children, people he was privileged to walk along side. He told the story of God’s relationship with us. The stories of Greg and the people he loves dovetail with God’s story and he sees in them the God he loves and who loves him even more passionately.

Greg Paul uses the framework of Creation, Fall, Redemption and Consummation to tell God’s story (a helpful framework given to him by Rod Wilson of Regent College). At each point, Greg’s life and metaphors converge to tell the story of God’s love. We are created by a loving God. God looks on our sinfulness not with anger and judgmentalism, but with sadness of seeing the pain we are in. God in Christ is our great redeemer. The God of love holds our future.

I would suggest reading this book slowly and devotionally. As someone with ‘pastor eyes’ reading this, I love how Greg Paul is able to share how biography intersects theology. The truth of Grace is not a doctrine, but a lived reality. We all need to know this more.

Can you Dig it? A review of Joshua Harris’s Dug Down Deep

I am not a big fan of Joshua Harris. I haven’t read his book on dating (more accurately not dating) or anything he’s written on relationships and marriage. I did read his book on the Church (“Stop Dating the Churc”h re-titled as “Why Church Matters”). I found it mediocre and insensitive to where people are coming from when they are ambivalent to church. I also found him theologically narrow.

So I was surprised that Harris’s book on doctrine and theology was something I actually enjoyed. In this book, Harris describes his ‘conversion’ to the sort of Christian who cared about doctrine. Then he reviews various different doctrines, in sort of an autobiographical survey of systematic theology. This is really what makes this book work. The theological weight of this book is rather light, though he does point readers to deeper places (and Wayne Grudem). What you get instead is Harris’s wrestling with doctrine and the story of why he thinks certain truths matter. This is autobiography as theology which endears it to me, even if I do not sign off on all of Harris’s generally reformed model of the faith.

I think doctrine matters and this is a passionate defense. More than that, Harris comes across as likable. His last chapter about ‘humble orthodoxy’ is the best part of the book. Harris is not arguing for a narrow and intolerant orthodoxy; rather he is arguing that Christians hold on to truth without compromising. This doesn’t mean they need to be judgmental and narrow-minded. Point well taken.

I received this book for free from WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group for this review

Looking for work in all the wrong places.

I want a job as a pastor. This is hard to get. Particularly when I see problems with how churches have done things. I don’t want to be an Emergent church-planter because by-in-large, these are reactionary white guys hating their mega church background (I’m sympathetic but not my issue). I care about justice and would love to pastor an urban church. However given this economy urban churches are not hiring, or I am not connected with their denomination, or I don’t have as much experience as other applicants. And still I feel called. Lord show me where you are leading, go before and prepare the way.

Readings- By Czeslaw Milosz

Czeslaw Milosz, Bells in Winter. New York: Ecco Press, 1978, 10.

Readings

You asked me what is the good of Reading the Gospels in Greek.
I answer that it is proper that we move our finger
Along letters more enduring than those carved in stone,
And that, slowly pronouncing each syllable,
We discover the true dignity of speech.
Compelled to be attentive we shall think of that epoch
No more distant than yesterday, though the heads of Caesars
On coins are different today. Yet still it is the same eon.
Fear and desire are the same, oil and wine
And bread mean the same. So does the fickleness of the throng
Avid for miracles as in the past. Even mores,
Wedding festivities, drugs, laments for the dead
Only seem to differ. Then, too, for example,
There are plenty of persons whom the text calls
Diamonizomenoi, that is, the demonized
Or, if you prefer, bedeviled (as for the “possessed”
It’s no more than the whim of a dictionary).
Convulsions, foam at the mouth, the gnashing of teeth
Were not considered signs of talent.
The demonized had no access to print or screens,
Rarely engaging in arts or literature.
But the Gospel parallel remains in force:
That the spirit mastering them may enter swine,
Which exasperated by the sudden clash
Between two natures, theirs and the Luciferic,
Jump into the water and drown (which occurs repeatedly).
And thus on every page a persistent reader
Sees twenty centuries as twenty days
In a world which one day will come to its end.

Learning the Love of God from Little Girls

I am the father of two beautiful little girls (3.5 years and 17mo.). When my oldest girl was a baby we were visiting some friends who also had two young children. I remember the father waxing eloquent in Christian cliches about the love he has for his son and daughter was like the love of the Father. I remember my friend saying something like, “I’ve notice that I am so full of love for my son and it got me thinking that that is a lot like God’s love for us.” Understand, at the time I was in the middle of theological education, trying to get an M.Div. But somehow I didn’t really warm to the fact that my friend was using the quality of his own love as an example of God’s love.

But sure I get the point. It is only natural to speak of parental love as a picture of God’s love. Jesus calls God, “Abba,” the Aramaic term for ‘father’ or ‘my father.’ The church has formalized the language, calling God: Father. Understandably the reference point for understanding the language of ‘father’ is our own earthly dads. The problem is that when our dad’s are abusive, absent or otherwise assholes, we tend to import that image into our thoughts about God (the same goes if we change the language to include God as mother). Even if our dads are good dads, they never love us perfectly and make mistakes. My own dad is great, but there are things about him that are not like God. I strive to love my little girls as God would, but there will be ways in which I wound them by failure to love them properly.

So where does that leave us? Some theologians argue that we should abandon the language of God’s fatherhood (and motherhood). Other theologians argue that we should keep the traditional formulation of God as father, but take care to not cast God in the image of our biological father.

I am quite comfortable with father language, but I know people who aren’t for various reasons (patriarchy, abuse). I personally am moved by the image of God as a loving Father who protects and cares for his children. But  I have come to see the love of God in them and wonder if the love of God is less like a parent’s love for a child than it is like the love of a child has for her parents.

Hear me out. In their book Good Goats: Healing Our Image of God, Dennis, Sheila and Matthew Linn assert, “the bottom line of healthy Christian Spirituality is God loves us at least as much as the person who loves us most” (11). While I think that this is underestimating God’s love when we consider that the Bible tells us that God is in fact, Love itself (cf. 1 John 4:8), looking to the person who loves us most is a good place to begin when looking for our metaphors for God’s love.

For me that my little girls (my wife too but in a different way). My girls think I am the best dad they can have (they will grow out of this, but let me live in their illusion for awhile). When they are scared or hurt, my presence with them makes them feel safe and comforted. Sometimes when I walk into the room, I get flashed smiles by both of them which would make your heart melt. My young one looks lovingly at me and chants, “Daddy, Daddy.” My older one loves when I read books or color with her. Both girls love when I lift them up over my head. Sure they will play with other people and love to do things with them, but they wouldn’t trade me for them. They are most secure and satisfied when my wife and I are home with them and they can spend time with us.

God loves me as much as little girls who haven’t seen the way their father will fail them. God wants to spend time with me and enjoys me as much as my little one. Does that sound sacrilegious? The image I have just shared is an image of God where he is the weak one, and I am the one with all the strength. I am the strong father, he is the weak little girl. Is this inappropriate? Is this not the way God comes to us at Christmas: A little child, weak and dependent on his mother’s milk. It is the God that comes in weakness, frailty and smallness whose coming we prepare for in the Advent season.

Therefore look and see in the eyes of a little child the coming of a king. When we learn to look and see children properly, we are not far from the kingdom of God.

Isaiah 11:1–9 (NRSV)

The Peaceful Kingdom
(Isa 9:1–7)
11 A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
2 The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD.
3 His delight shall be in the fear of the LORD.

He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide by what his ears hear;
4 but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
5 Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,
and faithfulness the belt around his loins.

6 The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
7 The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
8 The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
9 They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD
as the waters cover the sea.

On learning the Psalms

This summer I preached a sermon on Psalm 51 as part of a summer series my church was doing on the Psalms. You can listen to it here.

As part of the series, Mark Fox, our pastor challenged us to learn one of the psalms. As I was preaching on Ps. 51, I worked at memorizing that one. This has been particularly fruitful for me, especially as Psalm 51 is one of the great Psalms of confession. I have used it to focus and guide my own prayer life. Often I have said the psalm to God as I have taken my morning jog.

Then about six weeks ago, I read Mark Buchanan’s Spiritual Rhythm: Being With Jesus Every Season of the Soul. In this book Buchanan uses the metaphor of the seasons (Winter, Spring, Summer & Fall) to speak of the various seasons we each go through in our Spiritual life and suggests how in each season, we can cultivate our relationship with God in each season.

In the season which Buchanan calls Fall (colder season, but also the time of Harvest) he writes:

After my winter I knew I needed more. I needed more fat on my frame for the next time I found myself in a cold land with little shelter. So I began to memorize the Bible. I don’t mean bits and pieces of it, favorite verses to suck on like lozenges when my throat was a tad dry. Not that that isn’t useful. But I never found it much. It was for me a pocket of loose change, good for tokens and such, but not something you go trading with. (176)

Buchanan then goes on to describe memorizing Hebrews 12, the Sermon on the Mount, Romans 8 and Phillipians (177). He also makes passing references in the body of his text to Psalms he has memorized.

I decided to take up Buchanan’s challenge to memorize Scripture and since I already got started with the Psalms, I decided to continue there. My insane impossible goal is to memorize fifteen Psalms a year for ten years (which would mean I would learn the whole book of Psalms). This may not be attainable, but its worth a try and at the very least I’ll memorize a bunch of the Psalms. This has several benefits:

1. The Psalms teaches us to pray. In this I am just repeating what I learned from reading people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Eugene Peterson.
2. The Psalms speaks honestly about the human condition in relationship to God. There are Psalms that are pure praise songs (Ps. 100) and others which are full of sorrow and dread (Psalm 88). Walter Brueggemann in his Message of the Psalms usefully categorizes the Psalms as Psalms of Orientation (confidence in God), Disorientation (but there is a lot of crap we have to deal with) and New Orientation (looking back to God in the midst of our crap). [The parentheses in previous sentence are completely my own so don’t go blaming Bruggemann for them :)]. Therefore learning the Psalms should help me have words, no matter what Spiritual season I find myself in.
3. Psalms are the most referred to book of the OT in the NT, especially on the lips of Jesus. Thus learning the Psalms helps me enter more fully into New Testament Spirituality.
4. I have an M.Div and feel called to Pastoral Ministry. Because of the Psalms breadth and depth, they are a treasure trove for pastoral care and direction. That is, learning the Psalms will aid me to more fully live into my vocation as a pastor.

And so I have begun. Thus far I have memorized Psalm 31, 51 and 131. Which is a good start. My plan is to do all the Psalms ending in 1 this year and move up sequentially by number in the following years (that way I don’t have to tackle Psalm 119 for 9 years).

The idea is not just rote memorization, but to really learn these Psalms.

Creative Ministry #1: Teaching

In discussing the function of teaching for ministry, Nouwen distinguishes between violent and redemptive ways of knowing. Violent learning is competitive, unilateral (only from teacher to student), and Alienating. In contrast, redemptive teaching is evocative, bilateral, and actualizing. While actual teaching is usually a mix of violent and redemptive teaching, redemption should be the goal in ministry.

However there are several factors which make us resistant to redemptive learning. First, we operate from the wrong supposition that it is better to give than receive. This prevents us from seeing teaching as a mutual enterprise. Secondly, we operate under the false pressure created by the attention we pay to intellectual and academic accolades. Thirdly, there is the horror of self-encounter. In order to be able to grow in this redemptive mode, it is imperative that we face ourselves, our own weakness and frailty.

Nouwen closes his chapter by pointing to the example of Jesus as one who did not cling to His prerogatives but ‘became one of the many who have to learn. His life makes it clear to us that we do not need weapons, that we do not need to hide ourselves or play competitive games with each other.”
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    Nearly 40 years of educational theory have proven what Nouwen calls redemptive, is good teaching. People in our culture do not learn well when teaching is top-down and one sided. This is particularly true if we look at teaching in a Church context. People learn by sharing in the process. I think I first learned this leading a Bible Study in Inter-Varsity. The Bible study was inductive, all questions were welcome. A better example of where this has worked was the partnership class we have done at Kits. Four weeks of exploring the ideas of partnership and solidarity together, meant that it could not be a top down teaching. People needed to be guided somewhere but there also needed to be space for mutual self discovery.

    Yet I can see the violent method in me. Even a place as concerned with spiritual formation as Regent College, does bread an Academic Scotosis. It is interesting that the place giving me my M.Div and preparing me for ministry is also teaching me to care about degrees and grades and intellectual achievements without looking introspectively at what is appropriate for Spiritual growth.