Category Archives: theology

Letter to Thyatira

We are very “just the facts” sort of people, we want facts, and figures, and statements that give us intellectual content. That’s how we have been taught to approach religion.  We have worship, sure, that part that is supposed to get to our heart.  But then we get to the head stuff.

The head stuff is separated from the heart stuff.  We’re not supposed to think about worship and we are supposed to think about the content of Scripture.  How can we bullet point each passage?  How can we make it clear the right things to believe and the wrong things to believe.

Revelation isn’t like that.  It’s not about what to believe, sorting it out like a puzzle. It’s meant to provoke an emotional response that affects our commitments and actions. Are we with God or are we against God?

Do you know  Modern Art?  It’s infuriating because it’s not about anything, not portraying anything, but that was the point. It wasn’t about making a copy of something in the real world, it was intended to bypass that intellectual part of ourselves, to hit our emotions.

That’s what movies do? Right?  If you boil a movie down to its essence, just the bare plot, you often are left with a much weaker impression.

Or, if you spend so much time on details, you likewise can lose the point, trying to figure out the symbolism of everything.  Then arguments develop as people disagree, and people who aren’t interested in such detailed examination move on.

That’s why most of us don’t like movie critics.  There’s symbolism in movies and it helps to know some details, but if we get caught up in the details we lose the sense of the emotion.

CS Lewis once noted a similar thing about love. What is love?  Well, it’s a complex chemical interaction in our brain that evokes a sensory response when around particular people or things.  We can get into the scientific or philosophical nature of love.  Go on for hours.  But who would stay for that? No, love is an experience that in the experience defies analysis.

I suggest that’s how we should approach Revelation.  There weren’t movies or television shows in these centuries. What they were was story tellers and they were masters of the craft. We have letters and we have histories, which are useful, but the goal of apocalyptic literature was something different, it was using the context of the time to evoke an emotional response, and in that response get us to go beyond mere intellectual analysis, which often leaves us agreeing but not really changing.

Revelation is intended to lead us towards transformation, to take hold of our mind, but also our heart and soul, to get a holistic response from us that actually leads us to become more in tune with what God is doing and what God will do.  It’s like what we see with Nathan and King David: 2 Samuel 12:1-6

We’re meant to get the message but get the message with an emotional response that is driven by the imagery and allusions, the references to other parts of Scripture and contextual connections the readers would know.

So, our goal should be to get to know the allusions and the context, but not get so caught up in the details we lose the message. We should be emotional about this, God is trying to stir up some kind of passion, a passion that would lead the audience to turn from their ways and turn towards God.

READ PASSAGE:  Revelation 2:18-29

“And to the angel of the church in Thyatira write: These are the words of the Son of God, who has eyes like a flame of fire, and whose feet are like burnished bronze:

The core issue in Revelation, like with Genesis, is who is in charge?   Now in Genesis we had images of Creation, as nature was the way people saw who was in charge.>thyatira-clean

Here, the nations and empires had created cults, the gods were expressed through statues, the guilds in this city were themselves centers of both craft and idolatry.  Caesar was often worshiped in other cities, but here we have Apollo, who was often represented on coins and statues.  Thyatira was known for its metal working artisans who were initially supported for their ability to make weapons and armor, then broadened their appeal.

Christ is depicted as being in charge, and using the imagery that put Christ in the place of Apollo, that reflected elements of metal working—furnaces and products, images those in the city would see this in both an emotional and contextual way.  Jesus, the real God, is in charge of all the materials, he is the one who has the ability to judge and condemn.

“I know your works—your love, faith, service, and patient endurance. I know that your last works are greater than the first.

They’re on the right track. They seem to have the right priorities for the most part. Love, faith, patient endurance (which suggests hope).  Faith, hope and love.  1 COR 13:13.  These are the things that matter, the things that will last forever.  And they’re putting it into practice with service.  They’re getting a lot right.  And they’re getting better.

But I have this against you: you tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophet and is teaching and beguiling my servants to practice fornication and to eat food sacrificed to idols.

I gave her time to repent, but she refuses to repent of her fornication.

1 Kings 16:29-31

Jezebel was famous for leading astray because of religious syncretism. Religious justification for the wrong direction and wrong identity. Who is in charge?  Who decides what is right and what is wrong? Syncretism mixes the messages, saying God is in charge of some things, other gods are in charge of other things, and we’re able to decide who is in charge and what we get to do.

That’s the core issue in Genesis too.  Remember the temptation, the serpent told Eve that God was trying to keep something from them, that if she ate the fruit, Adam and Eve would have complete knowledge, complete insight, they could do what they wanted, they didn’t need a relationship with God, and in fact God was keeping them from their fullness.

That continues to be a religious argument. It’s not justifying based on giving into our worst selves, its appealing to our pride, to our sense of supposed religious maturity.

We think we can get away with more because we’re better.  And we end up following people who lead us astray, who mimic spiritual maturity but in fact are false prophets.

But what about eating food sacrificed to idols?

1 Corinthians 10:14-23

Not all things are permissible

In Thyatira, we learn about religious justification for going astray. A prophetess was teaching the people that, apparently, God didn’t mind their behaviors.

Missing the mark can involve going too short or too far.

Too much devotion can lead us astray. If we’re devoted to wrong gods, wrong prophets, wrong ministers. We can put our stock in someone’s seeming spiritual or earthly authority and be led far away from who God is calling us to be in every area of our life.

Too little respect for the limits God has set, saying that one part of our life can be left out of this religious stuff.

Putting stock in the wrong person, letting our identity be shaped by prophets instead of by the Spirit.

What’s the sin here in Thyatira?  Well, the audience knew, no doubt, who and what John was talking about, but we don’t.  Maybe sexual immorality—and there certainly was a lot of that in both the culture and the religions of the day.  We also, however, have echoes of Old Testament prophets.  When the people of Israel worshiped false gods they weren’t just choosing a different way to worship, they were committing adultery with them, they were having an affair.

That’s the imagery here too.  The Christians were being led into behaviors and practices that were adulterous.  They were excusing it based on some kind of prophetic ideal.

This means that we can become fornicators with anything that leads us away from finding our identity in Christ.  Life matters, every part of life matters, that’s what John is saying here, there’s no getting away from Christ, there’s no compartments in which life and religion are separate.ThyatiraMap2

For some, it means sexual activity, excusing immorality because the culture does it, it’s not a big deal, it’s just the body.  For others, there are other ways of fornication, and we continue to hear false prophets leading good Christians astray.  Money, food, power, relationships, things that are good in their place but can easily dominate our attention and lead us away from seeing Christ as lord. The trouble with idolatry is it puts up a false lord for us to worship.

Like with our society, work was tied very closely to identity for the Thyatrians.  What we do is who we are?

We can find our identity and excuses in work, or relationships, or money, or cars, or education, or music, or so many other things. Which isn’t to say those are bad but they become bad when we make them lords of our life.

But Christ demands that all parts of our lives are put under his lordship.

We’re to find our meaning and identity in and through Christ, and when we do that this lordship is involved in all parts of our life.

Our bodies matter and what we do with them.  Our time matters and what we do with it.  Our actions matter and what we do with them.  What we eat, drink, value.  These things matter and we can’t excuse our actions saying they don’t affect our faith. They do!  Even if we don’t want to admit it, they do.

Beware, I am throwing her on a bed, and those who commit adultery with her I am throwing into great distress, unless they repent of her doings; and I will strike her children dead.

This teaching seems to suggest it was appealing to people’s religious pride.  That there were deeper teachings that the “enlightened” people knew and so they justified their behavior from a false sense of spiritual maturity.  We see this a lot even today.  People indulge their passions for wealth, or sex, or power, or whatever and justify it by saying its part of God’s plan, a result of some faith.

But John argues that this is missing the point and leading people not only into error but real adultery with these things. Adultery. We’re having an affair with wealth, power, sin.  And we’re betraying God.

And God is letting it happen for a while, and seeing who betrays him.  There is still a chance for repentance, so there’s hope, hope for all of us, but the time is coming in which God is going to assert his power. That Son of God with bronze boots and eyes blazing fire is watching.

And all the churches will know that I am the one who searches minds and hearts, and I will give to each of you as your works deserve.

Psalm 7:9

God is in charge.  God cares not only about our thoughts, what we believe, but also our actions and motives and everything about us. We make religion into intellectual consent, we can get lost. God makes the lordship of Christ about everything, like in Genesis, so too here.  Adam and Eve had an opportunity and they had a temptation. Were they going to find paradise with God, or were they going to give into the deceit and try to indulge what they wanted, thinking they could determine for themselves right and wrong. They ate the fruit.  This prophetess in Thyatira was eating the fruit.  Others in the church were eating the fruit.

Do we eat the fruit?  That is the challenge for us even still.

But to the rest of you in Thyatira, who do not hold this teaching, who have not learned what some call ‘the deep things of Satan,’ to you I say, I do not lay on you any other burden; only hold fast to what you have until I come.

The warning here is pretty clear. The people who have stayed out of this problem, need to keep doing what they are doing. Hold on, keep at it, John is saying. The temptation is to make the issue a crusade or to over-compensate.

Church history is filled with this, someone doing something wrong, so everyone focusing their attention on it, and forgetting to do what they were called to do. Or someone doing something wrong, so everyone reacts by making their own behavior more severe.thyratira

The holiness movement had this response, over-compensating in so many cases and losing the emphasis that Wesley put on a holistic participation in this world. The worry, for instance, about how early Liberals were both rejecting the resurrection and emphasizing social works, caused people to reject social works and service thinking that it was some kind of package.

We tend to see movements or leaders as packages, either entirely right in every case or entirely wrong.

So, a prophetess has something good to say, and folks follow her wholesale even into the fornication. Then, people might see this error and dismiss everything, even the good. But that’s wrong too.  We need to see through the lens of Christ and Spirit, what is good and bad, fruitful and destructive, not package people as entirely right or wrong.

The issue of “no other burden” comes up in Acts 15:23-29.

To everyone who conquers and continues to do my works to the end,

I will give authority over the nations;

to rule them with an iron rod,

as when clay pots are shattered—

even as I also received authority from my Father.

Jeremiah 18:1-11

Psalm 2:8-9

Clay pots are shattered when they are not made right or they have been polluted.  Christ here shows who is in charge of determining this.  Christ is in charge, and those who hold onto his identity, his calling, are going to be saved, and not only saved, they are going to be the ones who are given authority to know true right and wrong as well, through God, not apart like Adam and Eve, Ahab and Jezebel, and us today.

To the one who conquers I will also give the morning star. Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.

The one who conquer the trials and temptations on earth will be given heaven.  Phil 3:12-4:1

It matters what we do.  We are called to live our whole lives in light of Christ’s lordship, not look for secret knowledge, or excuse our behavior or influences as not mattering.

There are those who will tempt us through our weaknesses, showing what the world offers.

There are others that will use our own religious devotion, leading us astray by making us feel like we’re part of the in-crowd, not limited, and able to use our freedom for sin.

Christ is Lord of all. Every part of our life.  He is calling us to live lives of love, faith, hope, expressed in our practices, not giving into being swayed by people who are tempting us away from who we are called to be in Christ. Some of those people tempt us through the world, some tempt us through spiritual sounding words and encouragement.

We are called to be conquerors with Christ, holding on to who he calls us to be in every part of our life, patiently enduring the trials and temptations, not veering to the right or to the left.  In the power of the Spirit, we can indeed find this way expressed in our lives.  Let us not listen to false spirits, false gods, false prophets, or anyone that tries to steer us away from God.  Let us hold firm to the fullness of truth in heart and mind and soul.  In this is the way of peace and true victory.

I was invited to preach at the PazNaz Saturday evening service last evening. These were my sermon notes.  I write things out first because I think better through writing, but then I use these notes more as cues, not reading it through just giving me a framework along the way. 

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Acknowledgments

Since only a small number of people will ever look at my dissertation (hopefully a much larger number look at the Fortress Press published version), I am posting here my Acknowledgment section that is at the beginning of the dissertation.  A way of more publicly to say thanks to the people involved in the process:

Acknowledgments

At the beginning is the end. The end of a long process of reading, writing, talking formally and informally with so many others. Along this way, I have had so many people who have influenced me in my thinking, in my faith, in my perseverance, pointing me towards a way of hope. Many of those I am not in regular contact with anymore and yet I would not be at this point if not for their influence. Thank you to my teachers at Wheaton for giving me the tools to explore theology and history, expanding not only my knowledge but also expanding my world, exposing me to the possibilities that Faith makes possible and giving me examples of how this can be worked out in the past and in the present. Thank you, dear friends who have walked a long or a little ways with me along the road. I value your friendship likely more than I ever expressed.

Others have had a more direct involvement in this process. Dr. Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen stands out in this regard. He was a significant influence during my MDiv studies and years later when I was at another crossroads of vocation he invited me to apply to study with him at Fuller for a PhD. His graciousness throughout has been inestimable, and more than this, a graciousness mixed with a sharp eye towards stretching, training, and sharpening me. In many ways his mentoring took the shape of what follows, he spurred me on and gave space for my participation, always encouraging and with a sincere excitement about my progress. His sense of humor mixed with a depth of insight and mastery of so many topics serves as a continuing example of the kind of scholar I seek to be. While I do not quote his own works extensively throughout this present work, his stamp of influence is profound throughout, in major and minor ways. He is my Doktorvater and my friend.

Along with Dr. Kärkkäinen, I wish to offer thanks to The Center for Advanced Theological Studies. The fellowships provided throughout my PhD studies allowed me to begin and press onwards in these studies, a task that was well beyond my means except for their generous support and validation each year. More than financial help, those in CATS have served as wonderful mentors, exemplifying the best theological education can offer, truly combining a substantive integration of faith and learning, never interested in an isolating ivory tower, modeling how a life of study can also be a life of faith.

Dr. James Bradley bears special mention in this regard as he helped shepherd me through a minor in church history. This subject is a love of mine and Dr. Bradley exemplifies why I love this field so much. His constant graciousness and his pursuit of academic rigor is likewise a model to me as I press onwards in my vocation and my faith. I want to also thank Dr. Bill Dyrness who was my second reader and whose class on Theology and Beauty helped to wonderfully initiate my PhD studies. Jürgen Moltmann also deserves personal appreciation. He was gracious in responding to notes and in encouraging my theological studies. He continued to be gracious in opening up his home for a few sessions of conversations in 2011. His openness to me was a great encouragement and is a great model.  He truly lives out what he writes.

My parents supported me through the ups and the downs, believing in me when I was confident about God’s work in my life, and believing in me when I wandered a while through a wilderness. They taught me to follow Jesus from my earliest days and have continued to be not only my family but my also my friends and a key part of my spiritual community. They are my mentors in life, in pressing onwards, in seeking after God in the good times and in the struggles, able to talk over the deep things of Scripture or theology, laugh together in considering the absurdities of life and celebrate together in the triumphs. I owe them much more than I can possibly say.

Amy has been my dearest friend, my constant encourager, my love of my life. She is a faithful follower of Christ, and I love being a team with her in this journey. I treasure her wisdom, her passion, her heart, the way she radiates the fullness of Christ, the way she hopes with me and for me, constantly pointing me towards God’s work. She is also much better at grammar than I am and helped me sort out many issues in what follows, fixing all manner of punctuation and being willing to tell me when something just plain didn’t make sense, as well as encouraging me when she read something that she loved. In big and small ways, her assistance is invaluable and I treasure beginning a new phase of life with her, our first that doesn’t involve PhD studies. We made it, my love.

This work is about the church. And while it may be wonderful to see transformative ecclesiology taking shape sooner rather than later, the reality is that any transformation of the church is like turning a cargo ship. It doesn’t happen quickly. With that in mind, I realize that what follows is an expression of hope for future generations. Along the way of writing this, one particular member of this future came into my life, my daughter Vianne, who was born very early in the morning on Easter, 2012. I continue to see the task of theology in all its forms as a way of helping provide for her a way forward in her own faith and hope and participation with Christ. She is a constant delight and a wonderful gift from God. I dedicate this dissertation to her, with hope and with expectation that she will see the wonders and promises of Christ become ever more present during the course of her life.

San Dimas, Maundy Thursday 2013                     Patrick Oden

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Levees of God

On the left side of this page there’s a sidebar, and on that sidebar are interspersed quotes. Like particularly pretty stones one might find by a riverbank, I’ve picked these up and have them displayed here, each pointing to a moment of insight or counsel, or reflecting a resource that pushed me farther away from the explicable and into some new course of life. Or gave me hope in the midst of a way that didn’t make sense to me.

Thus says the LORD: Stand at the crossroads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way lies; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls.
Jeremiah 6:16

Books have been my mentors my whole life. I’ve always been a reader and reading has generally caused me to lose focus on the present and lose focus on what I was supposed to be learning in a given context. I get distracted by books, and of books there is no end. One book leads to another, the rabbit trail leading to the rabbit hole, down we go.

When I think back on my life, I think of the books that were shaping my thoughts and assumptions during those various seasons. That would probably be the most effective form of self-biography, a list of books. To add to that, I probably could add writing I’ve done, self-biography that is not autobiography–telling my story directly–but telling of the deeper me through the guides that are compelling me further up and further in.

I wrote essays on CS Lewis and James Michener in high school, reading almost all of both of their works before I graduated. In my sophomore year of college, I was introduced to the early church Fathers, and more specifically to Tertullian. My Spring break of that year was filled reading through the two volumes of his writings in the Ante-Nicene Fathers. It took longer than that one week, of course, but it filled that week and expanded into all my life. The strange thing is that reading has never just been academic or intellectual for me. It has when required, but the reading I’m talking about–the kind that shapes and defines me–has been quite holistic. I loved the early church fathers, for instance, because they spoke of depths of faith, love, hope in the midst of trials, perseverance. Tertullian’s mix of brilliant exposition and sarcastic wordplay delighted me to the core of my being.

I did not, to say the least, have the stereotypical college experience. I was distracted the whole time, distracted by pressing problems and, more to the point, distracted by God. This is probably why, in my junior year, I resonated greatly with Wesley’s writings. He spoke of both my passions and my struggles.

This post isn’t about college, however. I’m in the midst of writing about my journey to and through PhD studies. The last post ended with me in the mountains.

I went there to write. Really. I was living in Pasadena, looking for jobs, and writing was the only thing that stirred my soul. That and answering “run a Christian escort business” when people asked me what I did for a living.

The mountains provided, even within their own modicum of chaos, a place I could be even more deliberate about my deeper quest. People thought I was running away from life. It was entirely the opposite. I was turning around and facing the always encroaching Void, letting its waves wash over me, no longer fleeing from it. If I did not have faith, I would not stand.

Hunting truth is no easy task; we must look everywhere for its tracks

Basil the Great

I continued to write, but more importantly for those first couple of years I began to read into the depths. Each season of my life has its theme books, and the four volume set of the Philokalia was the theme of those mountain years.

I found the early church fathers in college, reading through the ante-nicene Fathers set after graduating. I found John Cassian my first year in seminary, who radically upset my ability to subsist contentedly in the world as I knew it. The Philokalia was the progression of that reading, discovered because I wanted to read Wesley deeper, and sought out a source for his Makarios, a great influence in his life. I found Makarios in the Philokalia and also so many others. Niketas Stethatos being my favorite (if one is allowed to have such favorites).

Such writings showed me a map, a path to deeper places, deeper answers, deeper hopes. Also deeper restrictions, deeper limitations, stricter standards. I was like an Autopia car when the ‘driver’ lets go of the steering wheel, bouncing back and forth but making progress along the track. I was not good in so many ways. But God sought more for me, and in the flood of the Spirit’s work, there were levees that kept me isolated, kept me moving a determined direction. As much as I might have wanted to flood into other pastures, God established the way.

Hence I ought unceasingly
to give thanks to God who often pardoned
my folly and my carelessness,
and on more than one occasion
spared His great wrath on me,
who was chosen to be His helper
and who was slow to do as was shown
me and as the Spirit suggested.
And the Lord had mercy on me
thousands and thousands of times
because He saw that I was ready,
but that I did not know what to do
in the circumstances.

Patrick of Ireland

In the midst of this path, a path of both isolation and narrowed community, I found hope. I found renewal. I found a voice.

In the midst of this, I also rediscovered a couple of theologians I had first met in seminary. I read Pannenberg and his three volume systematic theology. I also read Moltmann. Both of which radically affected my understanding of God and this life and God’s work in this world. Moltmann affected me even more personally, becoming an actual mentor of sorts, and not just through his books.

Moltmann was the way God led me down the mountain and back into life.

Which is the subject of another post.

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Resurrection hope

In the experience of Christ, the resurrection gathers all people into the power of the messianic moment even now, as such people live in the light of the Spirit’s in-breaking of history. “Only the love which passionately affirms life understands the relevance of this hope, because it is through that that this love is liberated from the fear of death and the fear of losing its own self.”[1]

Rather than losing one’s own self, thus always anxious about the encroaching identity of others, feeling vulnerable and fragmented, thus easily subverted, the person who lives in the light of the resurrection is secure in their identity as being alive in Christ. The substance of Christ gives substance to each person, securing their future as participants with the open fellowship of God. This security frees people to live with openness in their particular contexts.

“The resurrection hope,” Moltmann writes, “makes people ready to live their lives in love wholly, and to say a full and entire Yes to a life that leads to death. It does not withdraw the human soul from bodily, sensory life; it ensouls this life with unending joy.”[2]

We can say yes to death only in light of resurrection hope, which allows us to no longer fear death nor be determined by false forms of identity that we think might protect us from death.

“In this resurrection dialectic, human beings don’t have to try to cling to their identity through constant unity with themselves, but will empty themselves into non-identity, knowing that from this self-emptying they will be brought back to themselves again for eternity.”[3]

The identity that Christ promises to his people, then, substantiates each particular person as a particular subject in God’s particular mission. They do not lose their identity, becoming a drone in a collective, rather the promise of resurrection is a process of becoming in full who a person was always intended to be.

The hope in God is hope in one’s own future in which identity is secured and blossoms into fullness. The resurrection leads a person past the work of the cross, in which history and the past finds resolution, and into the future where a person can truly be who they are in the community of others who are similarly becoming.

“Communion with Christ,” Moltmann writes, “the new being in Christ, proves to be the way for man to become man. In it, true human nature emerges, and the still hidden and unfulfilled future of human nature can be sought in it.”[1]

The goal of much oppression, to secure one’s own identity and power and position—to secure one’s self in a particular context and project one’s security into the future—invariably leads to death, and thus dissolution of that goal. That was the earliest deception of sin, the taking of the fruit to assert one’s own identity and bypassing God.

Only the way of the cross includes the path to resurrection, and only by participating with the crucified God do we then have a substantive hope for not only salvation from but indeed and more importantly, salvation into.

This salvation into includes those ultimate goals for which oppressing tends to be concerned—issues of fulfillment, identity formation, security. Because the cross entails the loss of identity, the resurrection is about more than resuscitation of that old identity into becoming a more successful version of the same.

Jesus does not valorize who we were but awakens us to new possibilities in accordance with who we were always meant to be. “For freedom,” Moltmann writes, “is nothing else than being open for the genuine future, letting oneself be determined by the future.” Yet, while the Spirit of resurrection can thus be called the power of the future, the resurrection is not futuram but an advent, a novum of new life, a new way of living.

This new way of living involves participating not in our determinative future but participating in Christ, “from the knowledge and recognition of that historic event of the resurrection of Christ which is the making of history and the key to it.”[3] The cross opens a person up to be a new person, emptying and forsaking, the resurrection is the promise of filling, of new life.

Thus, the resurrection “means recognizing in this event the latency of that eternal life which in the praise of God arises from the negation of the negative, from the raising of the one who was crucified and the exaltation of the one who was forsaken.”[4]

Hope is not static. Hope initiates movement.



This was a couple of  wee excerpts from my dissertation



[1] Moltmann, Coming of God , 66.

[2] Moltmann, Coming of God, 66.

[3] Moltmann, Coming of God, 67.

 

[1] Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 196.

[2] Obviously a statement like this would raise objections concerning the historicity of the Garden narrative. Whatever the historical basis, the narrative intent of the story was to assert a particular kind of action/response that is at the root of human alienation from God and self. It is this narrative intent that is my concern.

[3] Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 212. Cf. Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 229.

[4] Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 211.

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Fragments

This is the sort of stuff that gets cut out of my dissertation:

If God is determined to liberate and God then promises this liberation, the issue at hand is not simply one’s own experience of suffering at a given moment but also God’s very identity as able to surpass the historical contingencies and fulfill the promise. God puts his own identity, essentially, at risk in making the promise. In other words, with the promise it is not only about us, but also about God being faithful to himself and in his faithfulness to himself he is faithful to us. It is in this accomplishment of faithfulness that God, then, can be identified as God, as it is only God who is able to surpass all in order to accomplish all. God becomes knowable through the promises he makes and the promises he keeps. “I am” becomes “I am the God who brought you out of Egypt.” This then expresses God’s intent to be known through the horizon of history as the promises and the fulfillments identify, clarify, and substantiate his revelation of his self.

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Entrusting

The process of embedding a transcendent reality within an imminent context is one of illumination, seeing reality for what it is and, in this, making the truly worthwhile stand in contrast to the wrong and misguided. Such a process for a person, or community, or context is not always easy, or welcomed. The whole problem with alternative identity systems is that they are forming identities, and our identities are who we think ourselves to be and orient us in how we act for ourselves and among others. This is why a person who is being illuminated by the Spirit, and seeks this illumination, needs a safe space in order to become who they are called to be—a space where there is encouragement to walk along the way of Jesus Christ and walk with fellow travelers accompanying them on this journey.

Such a community of people are becoming together who they are called to be in their lives and in a specific context, which it itself as a context and as a space filled with many people, called to redemption in the light of God’s immanent transcendence. As people resonate with this work of the Spirit they are both lifted up towards Christ and situated even more in their place—becoming incarnations of God’s reality with, for, and among a particular location. This is a work of transcendent immanence, participating with the Spirit in the redemption of a context, helping it to realize what it was called to be and helping those within it learning who to be.

This is, to be sure, a profound work, a work that we see most fully realized in the work of Jesus, whose incarnation resonated within his particular context, and then as people were transformed beginning to resonate in many other contexts, reaching all around the world. These pockets of resonance carry on this mission of the Father, which is the mission of Christ, which is the mission of the Spirit, gathering all of space and time into the resonance of God’s redemption and relationship. Put in such terms, it seems incredible that such a mission would be entrusted to people—all of whom are not yet fully who they are called to be themselves and yet are, in the midst of their own becoming, called to participate with God in the liberating work of the church. We are being formed as we are being sent. “It is,” as Jon Huckins puts it, “the only way to fully step into a vocation of Jesus apprenticeship. It is emulating our rabbi.”[1] Part of this emulation, then, is the posture of entrusting.

Just as Adam was intended as a mediator and to represent to it God’s identity and to steward it in submission to God, so to Jesus came among us, in part, to serve as a model and a mediator—for creation in general and for the misguided humanity in particular.[2] This role of mediator and representation was passed on by Jesus to his disciples, not staying among them but leaving and in this leaving, allowing the Spirit to enter into the life of the church with new power and authority. This is not necessarily something the disciples would have chosen on their own, as Jesus was, without a doubt, much more trustworthy in such a mission than they were. Indeed, one might say that entrusting such people—then and now—to such a task is dangerous.

Yet, this is the work of God, calling others to be who they were made to be in the midst of the mission each were called to participate in: being sent into this world for the sake of this world. This is a community task, as it is as persons within a community that we begin to represent God to this world. “God’s mission wasn’t designed to advance with a set of sent individuals. It was designed to advance through a faithful people living as advocates of the missio Dei.”[3]



[1] Jon Huckins, Thin Places: Six Postures for Creating and Practicing Missional Community (Kansas City: The House Studio, 2012), 133.

[2] See Huckins, 133.

[3] Huckins, 135.

(an excerpt from my dissertation)

Posted in dissertation musings, emerging theology, holiness, Holy Spirit, Jesus, missional, theology | 1 Comment

One way, many directions

This past Saturday evening, I preached at the PazNaz Saturday evening service. Here’s the page of notes I wrote up as a guide.

Made Clean – July 29, 2012

“The Best Thing and the Worst Thing” – Acts 15:36-16:5; Galatians 2:11-13

Our Context: Those of us who have been in churches a while have almost certainly been hurt by being a part of churches.

When there’s clear sin happening, it makes sense, right? People are intentionally moving away from God’s work so of course there is evil. There’s a famous heretic Marcion who lived in the second century. He has this famous quote, “I’m going to tear your church and make a rent in it forever.” He wanted division because he thought the church was wrong and he was right, and he intentionally sought ways to destroy the church and lead a new group in a new direction.

When someone clearly has the church’s worst as a goal, we know where to stand.

It’s like Moses and Korah.

What if there are differing opinions, however, on what direction the church is to go, conflicting opinions on ministry or how things are to work, resources? That’s where, I think, the most church issues come into play because with those we expose fissures, cracks of faith and commitment to each other.

We might say we trust each other but when disagreements come, we want to be right and if we’re right the other person must be wrong and if their wrong we need to do something about it.

So many church problems come from people who are sure they are serving God coming into disagreement with others who are sure they are serving God—each person thinks they’re right and each person thus thinks the other people must be opposing not only them, but also God. How many denominations do we have because people split off into different factions because of often very minor issues of mission or doctrine?

My story—working in a church, young adults, spiritual gifts, getting people involved.
Their goal, mission, door to door evangelism. They thought it had to be one or the other.

We alienate people when we generalize our own calling.

This isn’t new. READ PASSAGE
Some background: Galatians 2; Acts 13:13

3 characters

Paul – Paul’s mission was the churches and the message. He wanted to build churches. He was a missionary and an evangelist who often got in difficult circumstances, so he needed to know who to trust. Life was unsafe, and he needed safe people around him.

Barnabus – Barnabus’s mission was the people. He wanted to raise up new leaders and invest in people. He did this with Paul, remember, using his own reputation to help Paul transition into a trusted role. John story?

John Mark — John Mark wanted to serve Jesus. But he was immature. He had failed and stumbled. Was there grace? He wasn’t trustworthy, that’s true, but he wanted to be. Help my unbelief, Lord.

God’s work –Did I say three characters, I meant 4. We have to have God’s heart.

Discernment
Personal experience – NewSong—God had put something onto my heart, God had put something on other people’s hearts. How do we know which direction to go?

How do we go forward when others want to go left or right or up or down? That might be forward for them, but not for us. Like the universe, however, God’s work is expanding in all directions.

At the heart of this passage is the reality of the stress and strain of learning how to live as a body—if each of us have been given different gifts and passions and callings—which we have—then we’re going to have different priorities and perspectives and goals. How do we learn how to listen in a way that celebrates this diversity instead of erupting into division?

In this text we have forms of redemption: Barnabas and John Mark go to Cyprus.

Paul takes Silas and later Timothy—two helpers who were much more suitable to minister to Gentiles.

We shouldn’t idealize the early church, because we see the problems there that we still experience. What we should do is trust in God, who works all things together for good because at the end of the day it is his mission, and we’re just part of it. We also need to remember that we’re not the only bearers of God’s mission and our part isn’t everyone’s part.

I like the story of Narnia where Aslan won’t tell other people’s stories—we’re not told everyone’s stories, we’re just told our own and called to join with others not as same people but as diverse people with a shared mission and savior. Rather than causing division, we should celebrate that we have different gifts, different places and ways of influence.

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Acts 14:8-20

Last evening, I preached at the PazNaz Saturday Service. The passage this weekend was Acts 14:8-20. I spoke from more of an outline/cues than a text, as I’m trying to get better at speaking like this. I said more than what’s in the notes, including some extra points and a bit of personal touches/honesty.

Here’s my notes:Acts 14:8-20

The Story of God in Contrast to other Stories.

Luke is establishing the story of the followers of Jesus as the continuing story of the story of God.

We can’t attach our own story to this story, we have to listen to the story God is telling so that we interpret everything right.

Perspectives in Lystra:
Characters—Putting ourselves in each characters shoes to observe the passage from different perspectives.

A. The healed man – asked for alms, and got his legs.
Types of needs – healing, jobs, protection, financial
Types of salvation

The man needed healing, and that’s he got. Let’s not overlook this.
God is a God who heals. Who provides. Let’s not get distracted by all the wrong ways of responding to this moment and forget the power of the God we serve. We get so distracted by being nervous about being wrong, that we forget that God is a God of salvation who is reaching out to us.

When God works that’s a testimony. For us and for others. It’s a testimony for us because God working helps us think about how God will continue to work.
But how do we interpret this work?

Story of God — Exodus (Red Sea) — Exodus 14 Pharoah had the signs of the plagues, but then dismissed them and attacked Israel.

This story echoes Acts 3, establishing Paul as approved by God, with Barnabas.

B. The crowd
What is the story they know?

Olympian deities roaming the earth – Ovid

Types of hopes – gods, work, money, health

Types of devotion – transactional, religious, financial, influence

Types of leaders—CEO, priest, king—we want to put our identity in the one who saves us.
Most enthusiastic and most fickle—they support you until you disappoint them, then their passion is still as great, in the other direction.

New Atheists—disappointment with God turns to antipathy with God.

Desperation is a dangerous drive, it drives us into the arms of supposed heroes and often against God, who we only judge based on how well he is meeting our needs.

Fickle servants for a fickle god—they acted in the way their worship formed them.

Looking for incarnations, mistaking the servants for the master

Don’t trust in Egypt – (Isaiah 30) fickle masters make fickle people, blowing with the wind

(Exodus Golden Calf—Egypt) – Exodus 32

C. The Jewish leaders

Devoted to God—jealous for God—heresy hunters

Takes advantage of ignorance

We know these people, people so sure about their interpretation of God that they won’t allow any other expression, and often drive away healing and salvation in doing so.

What could they do for the lame man? They could be right. How does that help anyone?

And they weren’t even right! Being right with God comes with power, with hope, with thanksgiving, not destruction and stoning.

(Korah) – Numbers 12, 16 (Moses did not need to avenge himself)

D. Paul and Barnabas

Parallel with Peter (Acts 3:8)
serving God according to God’s story. First came healing, then preaching, then stoning?

The speech. A very succinct summary of the story told in the early chapters of Genesis (see also Romans 1)

The power of God
The testimony of God
God the creator – in charge of all—rejected the deities
God the provider
God the patient restorer—asserting God’s promises

The humility of serving God – testify to God’s power, not our own abilities.

Doing right does not mean all goes right and things going wrong does not mean we did wrong
Models for ministry, turn a misunderstanding into a moment for preaching

Reminders of Moses – as a Leader and the Creation/salvation narrative.

We can’t take Jesus out of his context, out of the context of the story of Scripture, because then we start attaching to him our own perceptions of the kind of Messiah we think we need.
Acts 14:21-22 “going through considerable suffering”. Speaking from experience!

What kind of hopes to do we have? What kind of savior are we looking for? What kind of story are we a part of. We must get deeper into God’s story so that we know who we are.

***Now the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that you may abound in hope, through the power of the Holy Spirit. Romans 15:13**

Let us go forth an live in God’s story and celebrate the story that he is bringing to fulfillment in this world.

Posted in church, ministry, notes, speaking, spirituality, theology | 1 Comment

Truth, Beauty, and Yodeling Pickles

Peter, “It’s just a bit of silliness really.”
JM Barrie, “I should hope so.”

~from the movie, Finding Neverland

There’s something about theology and ministry that makes me serious. Now, that’s not a comment about how seriously I take it, or these are topics of great concern that merit only very serious attitudes.

It’s more that these topics, for whatever reason, seem to cause a shift in my personality. I become very serious. Don’t believe me? Read this blog. It’s very serious, mind-crushingly serious, alienatingly serious. I can’t even remember the last whimsical post I wrote here. I can’t remember, for that matter, the last whimsical anything I wrote. I try to post on what I’m thinking about, but since this is an entirely sporadic blog (liberally sprinkled with “sorry I haven’t written for awhile” sort of posts), I’m not really even sure what the goal of this blog is and it’s certainly not a cross section of what I usually am thinking about.

This has become my serious side. It’s the side of me that doesn’t let itself out in most social situations, and the side of me that, for whatever reason, is both an integral part of who I am and the choices I have made, yet I don’t express in other situations.

Remember the pensieve from Harry Potter? It allowed one to store memories, pulling them out like threads then storing them in a bowl.

This blog, and writing in general of late, has been my pensieve for seriousness. Scroll down, read the earlier posts. Very serious stuff. The writing at least. The pictures are more about beauty.

Truth and beauty, that’s the stuff of life, yeah?

Only for the longest time whenever I’ve had to describe myself or add a tagline I’ve used the phrase “a lover of truth, beauty and occasionally silliness”.

That really does sum up my personality. Only there has been a plain lack of occassionally silliness in my writing. And honestly, I miss it. I’ve been thinking for a while about how to get it back in but, of course, as my main writing task these days is my dissertation and dissertations are, as a rule, especially soul-crushingly serious even within the already serious genre of academic writing, I’ve not a lot of mental space for indulging my whimsy.

I say I don’t have a lot of mental space for whimsy, but isn’t it a matter of making space?

Did I post that part of my dissertation, the part I talked about making space is a significant part of our relationship with God and with others, not only something we do but something that reflects the image of God? I don’t feel like looking now, because that’s tedious, and as there’s few things more serious than tedium, I’m going to dodge looking for the requisite link.

Making space is good. But making space for whimsy and silliness? That’s something the desert monastics would certainly scold me about. Such a serious lot. And the trouble is that I have long taken them very seriously so while I disagree with their scowling about laughter and fun, I realize that there’s was often a depth of spirituality that I, in my best moments, really would love to discover. Maybe my blog has become an unintended reflection of my inner suspicions that theology and the Christian life really are, and should be, quite serious endeavors.

“A hermit saw someone laughing, and said to him, “We have to render an account of our whole life before heaven and earth, and you can laugh?”

That’s from the Desert Fathers. Not all those desert monastic really knew God, but the ones quoted in that book did, and much more than I do.

And yet… to a person, every mature Christian I’ve met or heard speak in person–those whose walks with God are deeper and longer and more thorough than my own–have a sense of humor. That’s always high on a list of relationship ideals, right, that the other person has a sense of humor? That was a big part of my attraction to Amy. She made me laugh.

“And you can laugh?” Yeah, I think so. Precisely because we have to render an account. And there are parts of my rendering that will be, to be sure, pretty ludicrous in the re-telling.

Theology and the Christian life are serious, to be sure, so merit a degree of somber interaction. However, when it comes down to it, both are also pretty ludicrous. We’re trying to come up with words that describe the creator and sustainer and ultimate identity of the universe, who we say is one but also three, God but also man, but not just a man, a man that isn’t like other men but is so much like other men that our very orthodoxy is dependent on testifying that this man is a man as much as other men but not like other men in all sorts of pretty specific ways, like the fact that he didn’t sin and like the fact that even though God incarnated as a man, this man didn’t exhaust all the identity of God even though he was fully God in every way, but since we also have the Father–who was with but not identical with this man, but be careful about using qualifying identical because then you have three gods instead of one; and this third one, or part or mode or person (but not separate person, more of an identity within the threeness of the oneness) is tricky because it’s not really a person, only it is, but more of a wind, or a breath, or a tempest, or a bird? or maybe a force but also a person because our trinity needs three persons and isn’t the beginning of a joke in which a son, a father, and ghost walk into a bar. So, the man died, really died, but didn’t die because he was raised from the dead and is now alive but not alive with us, with the Father, and with us in Spirit–which isn’t a pretty phrase meaning we’re thinking about him but he’s literally with us in Spirit–only to return again at some point which is always just about to happen for the last 1988 years or so.

I could go on and on. But you get the point. There’s an inherent ludicrous quality about theology that sort of inspires a bit of snickering when anyone tries to take it too seriously.

Yet people are very intent about taking it too seriously and if you don’t take it seriously they’ll be the first to remind you how serious to take it. But what do they know?

Really, all that seriousness is about trying to cope with the fact that much of theology, and much of our lives, and much of reality in general is ludicrous. Not because it’s meaningless. But because the meaning is so complex and intricate that our attempts to package it up in brown paper with neat little bows is ludicrous.

And because, I think, God has a sense of humor too, so whimsy is embedded in Creation. Our recognition of it is not dodging the main points of life, it’s indulging in them, recognizing and interacting with the world in a way that doesn’t take it as serious as many people want us to take it.

Finding the silliness, exploring the whimsy, letting go the absoluteness that seriousness seeks to impose, isn’t just a distraction. It is, I increasingly believe, part of our participation with God, part of recognizing the world for what it is–a ludicrous sort of place–seeing the contradictions and complexities as often displaying the ludicrous reality in which we now live.

Laughter is good medicine not because it’s a placebo, but because it helps us see the world rightly once more. Whimsy gives us perspective. And inasmuch as it does, it is, I think, holy.

“And you can laugh?” Yeah, I think so. Because we don’t just render an account our sins. We celebrate our salvation, and that is a feast, a joyous event, a reflection of the fact that this God, the God, our God, takes us seriously but not that seriously. He thinks us ludicrous too, and is willing to rectify our faults because of his love for us, not because we deserve it, because we’ve proven how serious we are about our salvation, but because he wants to. So he does. Ludicrous as it is, God saves us. It’s his whimsy to save the world. God is holy and God saves, becoming one of us so that we can participate with him. Foolish and scandalous as this might be, that’s what he does. And it makes me laugh, because it’s so thoroughly good.

Truth, beauty and occasionally silliness aren’t just a tagline, after all. They’re how I define holiness because they are how I see God’s identity expressed in this world.

They are, as such, also the expressions of love.

Which is, I think, what theology should also be about. Certainly it’s what I want to be about, and I think finding the whimsy and humor again in my writing is a necessary part of my becoming a more developed theologian.

A theologian who is always serious doesn’t really know God.

I could go on and on, writing serious words about whimsy and bogging down in existential introspection about my own identity as a theologian and the seriousness of silliness as part of the theological project. But, that would be ludicrous, so instead, let us end with this, a yodeling pickle.

This post is part of the May Synchroblog. Here’s a list of other participants in this month’s bit of silliness:

Posted in academia, contemplation, missional, musings, personal, silliness, theology | 13 Comments

Hope and Oppressing

Some (unedited) musings from my dissertation:

Those who are investing their identity within oppressor oriented models — models where competition and domination are considered positive rather than negative — tend to rationalize their behavior in the context of their wider philosophical and social milieus. By participating with the crucified one, however, such rationalizations are discarded, seen for what they are—forms of self-alienation in the guise of self-fulfillment. Participants in forms of non-infinite identity are, ultimately, anonymous — they are without identity because their attempt at identity is contradictory and transient. They lose themselves in the mass of other objects, all flailing to be unique in a morass of historically tired attempts to assert themselves as unique. They define themselves by what they do, how they compare, how they control – but ultimately they remain anonymous as they are not differentiated in their identity through their participation with the fullness of identity, loved and empowered as subjects in God’s particularizing mission.

They are nonhuman inasmuch as they are distant from the only source of substantive human identity—the God in whose image they were created. Oppression is the active negation of such an identity, self-imposed exile from Kingdom, participating as subjects in the crucifying rather than in being crucified. In other words, those who seek to establish identity through means of oppression are given the pronouncement, “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” There is no hope where oppressing promises hope, there is only hell.

That is precisely why a liberation of the oppressor is important. The oppressed realize there is no hope. The oppressors often do not. And in their deception they perpetuate sinful structures and behaviors, leading them and other inexorably towards death and dissolution.

Only the way of the cross includes the path to resurrection, and only by participating with the crucified God do we then have a substantive hope for not only salvation from but indeed and more importantly, salvation into. This salvation into includes those ultimate goals for which oppressing tends to be concerned—issues of fulfillment, identity formation, security. Because the cross entails the loss of identity, the resurrection is about more than resuscitation of that old identity into becoming a more successful version of the same. Jesus does not valorize who we were but awakens us to new possibilities in accordance with who we were always meant to be. The resurrection is not futuram but an advent, a novum of new life, a new thing, a new way of living.

The cross opens a person up to be a new person, emptying and forsaking, while the resurrection is the promise of filling, of new life. That is why salvation is described so many times as indicative of this new life, a new way of being in this world, rather than merely debts being paid or acquitting judgments. A person is “born again,” given a new start in who they are, as particular individuals no longer enslaved to the determinative history which preceded, but rather interpreting that history as a path of redemption that leads into, first, death of self, then resurrection of new self.

As this path gathers together people from all backgrounds, the blameworthy and the blaming, it entails another basic human need, that of community, non-competitive, non-authoritarian community where identity is not derived either by establishing identity over and against others, but by sharing in the identity of Christ so that each person becomes substantively able to participate as a free person among others, celebrating diversity in an infinitely complex unity.

Posted in academia, dissertation musings, Jesus, theology, writing | 1 Comment