Category Archives: theology

A Faith that Practices: Advice for the Good Life

The message in Scripture isn’t just about some isolated religious issues as expressed by an ancient people. It was expressed by an ancient people, but more than a limited cultic set of temple acts, it’s really an expression of how the world is, how life is supposed to be, who we are supposed to be in light of that. It’s a narrative that took place in the past, and takes place even now. Indeed, this story of God is an orientation. We are invited into a way of life that can be expressed in any setting, at any time, as it is about living in light of the way this particular world is supposed to function. It involves our faith, and our faith involves our whole self, our emotions, and our five senses. In the book of James, he highlights the spiritual through emphasizing the sensory, using these together to point to how we can find hope and peace in the midst of a complicated world.

I preached more on this in my sermon on James 1:19-27.

Here’s the complete teaching notes on James 1:19-27.

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There’s a tendency to assume faith and facts are somehow opposites.  That facts are based on proof and faith rejects such mundane realities.  A quick google search turns up this definition: “strong belief in God or in the doctrines of a religion, based on spiritual apprehension rather than proof.”

Based on spiritual apprehension?  I’m not even sure what that means.

Proof is a loaded word, of course.  It’s not a binary, all there or all not there.  Maybe in a strictly mathematical sense, but very few of us live our lives in a strictly mathematical sense.  We assess and predict, using our experiences and reason to gauge the world around us. When I come to a stoplight and the light is green, I keep going fast because I know the laws and I have experience in how these laws are followed.  I don’t have proof everyone will follow the laws, but it’s a good bet.  Though, not absolute.

We go by incomplete proof all the time, it’s how we make our way through life.  In Hebrews we have this definition of faith: “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.”

There’s nothing about a lack of proof here, as if our confidence just erupts wholesale from our hearts.

Faith isn’t the absence of proof, not at all, that’s defining it in a way that doesn’t match either Biblical testimony or religious experience. People base their faith on something after all. Whether that proof is enough to convince everyone is a different matter, but that doesn’t negate the fact there’s a driving proof for a particular person to live in a particular way.

Faith isn’t believe in absence of facts or proof. Faith is a trajectory, an orientation in life based on a variety of proofs, towards a not-yet-experienced future. Understanding faith as a trajectory rather than a kind of wish is central to Scripture, where God, we say, works in a variety of ways and then expects the people to continue to believe that he will work in ways not yet seen.What's on the other side?

Maybe this is why I wrestle with the idea of doubt. It’s become trendy to emphasize doubt, to celebrate doubt.  But doubt isn’t really conducive with faith.  But just writing that sounds so… religious and old-fashioned.  But when I think of faith as trajectory, it’s an important statement to make.  Because if I’m always doubting, I’m not moving forward towards the goal, I’m not pressing onward, stopping and pausing and checking the map every moment, getting sidetracked.

But, here’s the problem. People assume faith means absolute understanding or at least wholehearted confidence. It doesn’t mean that either. Faith may be the opposite of doubt but it welcomes questions and concerns. It invites query.  We want to understand, even if we don’t. Doubt suggests there’s maybe no point to asking.  Faith assumes there’s an answer ahead, even if we can’t know what it is or even if we’re asking the right questions.

That’s probably why I liked this quote from Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy:

“There is no power nor virtue in this travesty of faith, which makes it mean the taking of all things on trust, the folding of the hands and the bowing of the head, the spiritless submission to the lie that whatever is is right. Faith does not mean that we cease from asking questions; it means that we ask and keep on asking until the answer comes; that we seek and keep on seeking until the truth is found; that we knock and keep on knocking until the door is opened and we enter into the place of God’s truth.”

God calls us to this trajectory of faith, where we persevere in an uncertain and sometimes discouraging present based on what we know of God’s work in the past. We hold onto this work, in faith, because this is the only way to fullness.  It’s a risk, to be sure.  How do we truly know?  We don’t.  That’s the very challenge. What do we do with what we have experienced? What we’ve heard from others? What we’ve read in Scripture?  Faith is build on such proofs and calls us into a trajectory where our lives reflect taking a risk on these truths.

It’s the uncertainty in the midst of conflicting possibilities where faith comes alive, grounded in proofs that we risk are true so that we can see the truth blossom in full in the future.  It is being willing to move forward past the seemingly crushing denials because of the proofs that sustain our hopes in God’s future. Christ may die.  But he does not stay dead.  Christ may leave, but we are not left alone.

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Peace be with you

Peace is a difficult topic. Not because it’s hard to describe, but because it’s hard to realize, and in light of the news, it’s hard to believe.

Yet, peace, shalom as it is called in Hebrew, is a Promise from God, and this promise continues in the New Testament.

We begin to see as God sees, love as God loves, hope with God’s hope, and that transforms how we live in this world in all sorts of ways.
Peace is part of the Spirit’s freedom for us.

Rather than conflict, we have peace. Rather than chaos, we have peace. Rather than frustration or anxiety or domination we have peace. This is not the peace of the world, but a deeper peace, a lasting peace, a thorough peace. It is not just the ceasing of violence and war, it is more, it is an entering into a rhythm with the Creator of all that is, and living in light of this rhythm.

This is truly, thoroughly, good news. This is the Gospel, in which we see not just a message about heaven but a message about all of reality, a re-integration into life with God that transforms our experience of this world.

It is this peace Jesus promises to us. Do we want to live in this peace?

Hear more on the hope of Shalom in my sermon preached at The River Church

And here’s my complete teaching notes.

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Of course I am still an Evangelical

Over the last few months, there’s been a flurry of folks stating they are no longer Evangelicals, leaving behind that label for supposedly better appellative pastures.

Almost all that I’ve heard doing this are responding to the recent election in which a very high percentage of Evangelicals aligned with Trump.

That sentence is fraught with commentary potential, so much so that the very point of my post has already been sidetracked three and a half times. Erased sentences, one passionate rant now entirely subdued, and a google search history notwithstanding, I’m going to press on to my purpose.

Hi, I’m Patrick and I’m an Evangelical.

No, I’m not going to add any “yes, buts” or “howevers” and there will be nary a “post-” prefix to be found.  I’m owning the label, come what may.

Why so bold?  That’s who I am. I’m an Evangelical, and there’s just no getting around the fact without having to deny some significant aspects of my reality that I have no inclination to deny.

And if the label fits…

Before I get to why it fits so perfectly, I will add that I refuse to let others define the label for me, especially those whose motives are not in keeping with either the definition or the history of Evangelicals.

There are those who claim the label Evangelical that are nothing of the sort, and there are those who want to recast the label so as to undermine its history and contributions. I refuse to be cowed by either species and so enter the lists in defense of the title and myself.

I’m an Evangelical.

Three reasons:

  1. I’m an Evangelical because of Confession.
  2. I’m an Evangelical because of Tradition.
  3. I’m an Evangelical because of Obligation.

All of these are important and together they lead me to an inescapable conclusion.


Posted in church, everyday theology, personal, politics, religion, theology | 3 Comments


Let me admit something that isn’t very popular in my theological circles. I struggle with Lent. I get Lent. I respect it. But I struggle with it. A big reason why is for most of my life I’ve had to give things up for the rest of the year. Giving things up isn’t new. It’s just October or any given Tuesday or the third week of any month, or any other random season of my life.

That’s not me being unthankful, as I am truly and entirely thankful for the many blessings God has given me. Rather, it’s being honest about the regular experiences of loss and letting go embedded in much of my experience of life so far. Lent is a great discipline, but I wonder if it is appropriate for those who live in such uncertainty and loss. As Ignatius of Antioch put it, “Every wound is not healed with the same remedy.” Yet so often we generalize an experience and a remedy as appropriate for everyone.

Loss and letting go define my experience of Christianity. I’ve learned to trust and hope along the way, so I don’t see these as absolute negatives, just a sense that my liturgical journey with Christ never quite matches the Christian calendar.

I’m not alone in this, of course. Maybe that’s why low-church traditions don’t emphasize Lent, because they are often arising from communities of struggle and loss. I’m not saying anything conclusive here, just wondering out loud.

This isn’t a new struggle for me. Every year I find myself wrestling with the same thoughts. In 2007, I made a curious choice to give up giving up things for Lent. The previous five years had involved me giving up almost everything that made for a normal life in our day and age, so I decided to give up giving up things. And that, oddly enough, was the year that the light switch came on and the bounty of God began a radical rebuilding process in my life, a wave I am in many ways still riding. Not without struggles and certainly not without a radical call to live in faith all the while. Life is still quite tenuous. But there was a fundamental change that happened that went counter to the previous 25 years. I didn’t give up on God in 2007, I gave up assuming that God demanded a life of loss for me. That I had to give up at every turn. He sparked new life into my journey, giving me a testimony that I share in a lot of my classes.

I’m indeed honestly wondering about the role of Lent, even as I read very heartfelt essays on the importance and value of Lent. I believe those who write them. Maybe I’m wrong about it all. Maybe it’s just my low-church tradition revealing itself behind my attempts at sophisticated theological posturing.

This year, I got to wondering about Lent as is my wont, and wondered if the idea of “Lend” might be more liturgically appropriate. Not giving up things to give up things, but instead to give of my time, my energy, my efforts to help those around me. It’s a proactive orientation rather than a self-reflective task. That’s more a discipline I need in my life, as I easily become jealous and hoarding of my now sparse time. It seems that an exocentric reflection fits the pattern of Christ’s gift for us on the cross, not taking or demanding of us but offering himself for us and our salvation. We have been given life itself. And even in times of uncertainly and feeling overwhelmed I can trust in this more than I can ever trust in what I have or don’t have or can’t have.

I yearn for fullness of life, not yet more frustration and discouragement and loss. That’s my liturgical place these days and for as long as I can remember. But life is there and life given so that I can participate in and with the life of others around me. That’s a calling.

Anyhow, as I was thinking about my struggle on this topic I remembered I wrote something on this about six years ago. It’s nice when I find someone putting my vague angst into helpful words. Even if it’s me. Here’s what I had to say then and still affirm today:

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Talk to the Rock

A while back, I wanted to learn what the Bible said about the various types of spiritual expressions we commonly call gifts. And, I didn’t want to use the usual lists of various gifts that Paul talks about. Rather, I wanted to see how gifts were expressed in the Bible. What does it mean to be a prophet? Well, I looked at the prophets. What does it mean to be someone who has discernment? Well, I looked at the men and women who were commended for seeing truth even when there were shadows and mists. What does it mean to be a leader? I looked at the leaders in the Bible.

This latter study was more than a little bit disconcerting. There are a lot of leaders in the Bible, be it kings or priests or judges or generals.

Leaders of all kinds abound in the stories. The trouble is that the percentage of leaders leading the people to God is pretty small. Most of the leaders in the Bible did not serve God. The other trouble is that their negative example does not mean they were bad leaders.

For instance, we have someone like King Omri of Israel. First Kings 16:25 has this to say about him: “Omri did evil in the eyes of the LORD and sinned more than all those before him.” On the other hand, archaeologists and others who study the history say that as a leader, he was pretty good! He orchestrated a lot of building projects and otherwise secured enough wealth and support to pass the kingdom on to his son, Ahab.

How about an example from the New Testament? Paul had to confront Peter when he learned that Peter stopped eating with Gentiles (Galatians 2:11ff). Peter influenced Barnabas and others, and had to be corrected, because they, as Paul puts it, “were not following the truth of the Good News” (Gal. 2:14). The practice of Peter was not reflecting the call of God in or for the church.

With this in mind, I now turn to the topic of worship. It’s not uncommon for me to be singing along during a service and realize I’ve just sung something I didn’t, or shouldn’t, believe. This isn’t limited to singing, either. For the most part, many of the approaches, use of space, wording, and other aspects of our gathering together are more like Peter’s faults than Paul’s goal. They might be engaging, or they might be traditional, or they might be functional, or whatever reason under the sun, but they are not when examined more closely, “following the truth of the Good News.”

Now more formally, this “truth of the Good News” could be gathered together under the theme of theology. That’s what I think theology is and should be about, at least. It is the reflection on the actions of God and his declarations that point to a more cohesive expression of God’s work and being. It can be expressed using four syllable words or it can be expressed in a dance, or in a liturgy, story, or song. But, in being expressed in some ways it is saying that it is reflecting the God who is. Theology, then, should be a pretty important issue in discussions of worship.

God does not, we learn from Scripture, like to be misrepresented in word or deed.

This is probably most clearly expressed in the story of Moses. In Numbers 20 we read a very disturbing story. The people were complaining, again, about having no water (the nerve of them!). They rebelled, Moses prayed at the Tabernacle, and God told him what to do.

Moses gathered the people, stood before them, shouted at them for their rebellious ways, and then hit the rock twice. Water gushed out.

But God was not happy. “Because you did not trust me enough to demonstrate my holiness to the people of Israel,” he said to Moses, “you will not lead them into the land I am giving them.”

Moses, you see, was supposed to command the rock to bring forth water. He wasn’t supposed to hit it. God was not just interested in the result. His holiness is about the method, the act, the approach, the whole context. God’s revelation is holistic and he calls those who would lead his people to reflect this holiness in ways that match how he has chosen to reveal himself.

We can’t just hit the rock and say that’s God’s work, even if water comes out. Because the method is as much part of the message as the result. He’s telling a different story in the midst of this world and that means leading people to live in particular ways, ways that might not immediately make sense. But it makes a difference in the long run. Just as the method of the cross makes a difference not only in salvation but also in how we respond to the systems of this world.

We have to listen to God, reflect on his ways, and then we have to talk to the rock.

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Imaging Theology (part 2)

When I began teaching full-time I put together powerpoint presentations on various topics, so the imaging of theology and church history became a regular task. For the last class of my undergraduate theology gen ed class I wanted to pull all the themes of the Apostle’s Creed and theological method together.

For some reason, a particular image came to mind that I then spent quite a while trying to find in my archives.  I spent so long trying to find it because it so perfectly captured my sense of what we were about.  When I thought about the theological task for the sake of my students and myself, this is the image that came to mind:


I took this picture about ten years ago or so while camping on Santa Rosa Island. Santa Rosa is part of the Channel Islands National Park, five islands off the coast of Southern California. I first visited during my first quarter of seminary, and they remain one of my treasured places of discovery and renewal.

This picture evokes the theological task with its narrow winding path and brown grass, which becomes a lush green with rain. The trail seems in the middle of an endless field but I know that eventually one meets up with the ocean.  It also seems lonely, but I was with two friends at the time, walking nearby, just past the airfield on the island that drops off supplies for the national park service and occasional day-hikers.

With all that in mind, the task takes shape. A winding journey with memories and community yet still calling for a lonely kind of participation, a journey that may involve beauty and accomplishment or thirsty trudging through barren landscapes. Keep walking. It is mystical and it is wonderful. But I can’t prove it unless you go there yourself.

So, this image  has been with me for the last four years or so.  It is my longest stretch without visiting the Channel Islands and a very long stretch that has pulled me out of contemplation and into a frenzied busyness of teaching, where constant new courses have left me little time of focus or reflection.

It is a slog, but not without its own worth. And that worth pulls me back into a re-evaluation, a recovery in the midst of the busyness. A remembering. I’ve been trying to remember my own calling in theology.  I’ve gotten caught up in the images of others, the way they suggest things have to be in order to make it in this competitive world.

Today is the first day of Winter Quarter. I’m teaching another new-to-me class, my eighth since starting full time at Fuller in Fall 2015.  I’ve taught my other class a couple times before, so only have the regular tweaking and responding.  I got back from a trip to Oregon this past Friday, bringing with me a bad cold. Getting back into the swing of things hasn’t been easy. But rather than being a distraction, it’s part of the equation.

Theology isn’t separate from life, it’s how we engage in life, how we see the world and how we invest back into it at moments of success or defeat, focus or frustration.  It’s a Way and this way involves a cast of characters and experiences that might seem to pull us away from the rarefied world of theological reflection if we’re not intentional about keeping on task.

Only, what I’m learning, is that the task of theology is this cast of characters and struggles and investing the rarefied reflections into the mundane everyday.

Which isn’t an easy realization for me.  Because I’m a very strong introvert, struggling to establish a lasting place in my vocation, pulled this way and that by all sorts of forces that keep me from writing, reading, indwelling the theological depths.  I’m spread thin and while performing well in my teaching, keeping up with it all–and family, and all the demands of lived life–deflates the thrill of the quest, the renewal of the contemplation, the discovery of new vistas.

I want to seclude, to hide, to take up the pattern I’ve seen so many others in history adopt, the isolated control of time and space that allows for sustained research and complex integration of ideas. I want to drink deeply of the beauty and riches of God’s being and goodness and complexity.  I thrill in this, become alive in the exploration.

Just let me be and my mind comes alive, my hopes renewed.  But my very engagement with theology, the work of God in my life and in those around me, leads me outwards not inwards, involved not isolated.  My batteries are nearly always on the edge of empty.  But rather than run away from this, I’m learning to run with it.  Somehow.

I can’t escape the earthiness of a Christian theology that not only calls for community but highlights participation with others as a central theme.  It leads me away from what I want towards what I know I need, even as I struggle with how this might work out in that nagging interest in a permanent position.

I hate that nagging.  The future should be one of hope not frustration, of earnest expectation, not nervous agitation about what might go wrong or not work out. If my vision is of the Living God, then I should be living in freedom in the midst of this present opportunity.  I’ve misplaced that joy, that waking up with excitement about the tasks at hand. I’ve forgotten the love of theology that animated all my best steps over the years.

Which isn’t exactly the truth either. I’ve poured myself out in my teaching and in my family, trying to be faithful to these callings in ways that I’ve not always seen in theological/ministry, where teaching is deprecated and families are ignored.

It hasn’t resulted in substantive writing and publishing over the last couple years, however.  So, in my low moments, I’ve pondered needing to isolate, to put up walls, to invest in more obviously professional tasks, the kind that also animate my love of writing and sense of self in accomplishment.

I ended the year with this tension. And begin this new one with it unresolved. That’s probably why I was excited to bring back from Oregon a new image of theology, one that brings together my developing sense of my own calling and goals in this new year.  I saw this picture and it helped me recover a sense of both my calling and my love, renewing a sense of the theological task in my personal and professional life.

I stand before an endless ocean, full of bounty and danger.  It extends beyond the horizon, yet meets up with me in varying depth.  I can stand or walk forward or along the beach, expanding what I experience at every step.

But I’m not alone. It’s not just me and the ocean.  I stand with my little girl, Vianne, whose love for life explodes onto the scene every morning and extends through her day.  She is brave, willing to stand with me, yet scared when the waves crash and overpower. I’m responsible for her in this place. Yet, she’s responsible for me too, calling me out of my selfish isolation. We stand together, learning with each other, each in our own way.

The image speaks more deeply than what I can write, a new image that has only begun to work in my sense of calling and efforts as this new year, and new quarter, begin.  I can likely reflect more on it but I’ll end with Vianne’s refrain that calls out to life and reminds me of what I’ve been missing about theology for a while.

“Bring on the fun!”

Today is also my eight year wedding anniversary. God could have worked in a lot of ways, keeping me focused in isolation, in solitude, in asocial discovery.  Only that’s not the work God did in my life. He opened the door to life with Amy, whose love for God led her likewise down winding paths and challenging seasons.  Our trails joined up and in this we find a daily discovery of God’s inviting promise, doing more and more in our midst than we can imagine, even as we struggle with holding onto that sense of focus that we assume we need in order to pursue our calling.

This is our calling, together, now with Vianne and Oliver. And that’s part of the fun. I’m thankful for it. Bring it on.

Posted in academia, adventures, everyday theology, seminary, spirituality, teaching, theology | Leave a comment

Imaging Theology

What do you see when you think about pursuing God?

I remember the professor in my first theology at Wheaton asking a similar question.  He asked what image of God do we find most appealing: lord, king, savior, and so on, drawing from different expressions of God in the Bible. I answered, “King,” reflecting my sense of calling at the time to go questing in search of light, wisdom, pursuing obedience. I was reading a lot of Stephen Lawhead back then too and I found his King Arthur trilogy particularly inspiring.  So, I liked the royal attributes of God and the associated chivalry of the Christian life. At least as I understood it.

A lot was uncertain in life, then, and I wanted to make sense of it, and make sense of it in a way that brought meaning and hope in the midst of overwhelming and impossible struggles. Clinging to the stories of great adventures, purpose, meaning, helping me navigate the great swath of senselessness  and yearning that had characterized my life up to that point.  Life almost kept working out, doors just about opened, opportunities mostly resolved. I was drawn just far enough to keep on, always defeated enough to prevent satisfaction.   It had to mean something, because I knew there was something more drawing me onward.

It was chivalry of Quest not battle. I knew there was truth and falsehood, good and evil, heroes and villains. But I didn’t want to conquer others or really even debate them.

I saw Christ as King, and myself as a dogged, if imperfect, servant.  So now, when I think about what my image of theology was in my earlier years, this one probably fits, though I wouldn’t have understood the question the same way then.

It’s not very sophisticated. It is quite earnest. And it was an image that kept me going through uncertainty and a myriad of distractions. I identified with Galahad and his search for the grail, so maybe this one is even more particular.

It probably didn’t help I read books like The Interpretation of the New Testament with its mentions of champions, and entering the lists, and suchlikes. Made it feel like a struggle worth fighting for. Though not initially in theology.

That was an image that sparked my interest in law school–fight for justice–through my senior year and onwards. Only after continued reflection on that direction did I make left turn into seminary, as the Quest kept driving me. The image stayed, mostly, the same. AA service. A sacrifice. A goal. A noble path.

A Quest.

Theology was about doing, performing, accomplishing, advancing, discovering and transforming.

I saw the grail. But I couldn’t take hold of it during my seminary years.

Toward the end of that season, I was feeling burned out by church politics and dysfunctions.  I was enthralled by the depth and hope in my study of theology and Scripture.  What I was seeing as the possibilities in and with God was finding expression in ministry but kept running against a wall of something that I couldn’t address or even name.  Every time the grail would near it would dissipate. I was nearing exhaustion in the Quest and went to the Getty museum to find some restoration.

I wandered through the halls, letting my thoughts wander amidst the art and scenery. Not seeking anything, just wanting a break from the usual.

Then I saw this small painting by Caspar David Friedrich:

It was like a cool pool of water on a hot day.  I dove into it.  Stood there for a while taking it in before moving on to continue my museum wandering. The painting stuck with me, tugging at me well after I got home. This was it, I realized.  What? I asked myself.  I don’t know, I replied.

I have a lot of conversations like this with myself.  The thoughts morph into a prayer of sorts, asking for wisdom.

It came to me after a while. Be, don’t do.  God is asking me to be with him, not do for him.  To rest in him, to walk with him, to seek him, not perform or accomplish. Being, not doing. The image clarified a driving whisper in my soul to enter into prayer, restoration, amid nature. I found myself drawn away from the city and the busyness of social expectations. I visited the mountains and found the same melody played by wind and trees and raven calls.  A theologian is one who prays truly, Evagrios once wrote.  And that was the call that came through that painting.  It was my new image of theology that replaced the quest.

So, I moved to the mountains beginning an extended season of theological refocusing, a neo-monastic approach to life and theology that was alternately breaking and exhilarating, renewing and frustrating, all of it exposing my self to my self, no longer offering distractions to avoid dealing with the inner chaos. The wave crashed over me, carried away a great deal of clutter, leaving me emptier and free.  A walk in an extended dusk, sun always on the horizon, never setting, risking being for the sake of being.

The light switch turned on in 2007.  I felt drawn back to the world, back into a form of busyness without chaos. Doors perpetually closed began to swing open, paths revealed themselves, opportunities awakened.  Yet the theological task was not fully illuminated.  I was being called to go, but to where?  To what? The old assumptions of the Quest tried to marshal their forces, but that wasn’t the image I had anymore.  It was more of a Way, a journey, a walk into the mists.  The images were also now more my own. As I thought about how I conceived this new season a picture from a hike came to mind:

I walked along this dirt road fairly regularly during my time in the mountains, with it also often one of my jogging trails.  Forests have moods and on this foggy day it was a somber place, wet and still.  I couldn’t see too far, but kept walking, knowing there was beauty at every step.

I went off trail, to places I hadn’t gone before, trusting in what I did know to orient my journey.  I didn’t have a goal besides the journey itself, entering into the mystery with expectation.  This is the image of theology I had through my PhD studies, and one that in part continues to call to me.

More recent imaging of theology in the next post.



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Will I notice?

A little more than two thousand years ago a baby was born. We throw parties in his honor. We give gifts. We feast. We sing. We make merry, yearning for that spirit of his birthday to infuse our souls; if only for a season, if only for a day.

We celebrate this particular birth because of what this birth means to this world. We honor this baby for the miracle of being born, for the life he lived, for the death he suffered and for being reborn from the dead to embrace life eternally. This rebirth from the dead gives us the chance to be reborn as well, moving from death to life and from darkness to hope.

On December 25 we celebrate the birth of the baby Jesus, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father. Through him all things were made. For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man.

The birth of this man is the glory we celebrate on Christmas. Pageants, musicals, songs, decorations, gatherings of family from across the nation, all because this man was born.

What if he had not been born? Where would we be today?

How would we live? How would we worship?

We would be without a way to encounter God directly. We would be without an ever present hope and without the peace of trusting God who works. Instead of being free, we would all be slaves. Where would we look for our salvation? To gods of stone and wood? To patterns of philosophy? To rules and laws? To ourselves and our own abilities to conquer this world?

Without the birth of Jesus we would be caught in a web of insecurity, never knowing how the vagaries of the gods might move in our lives. We would be looking for something, for anything, to bring us some security and hope and light.

Where would we look?

What if the Holy Spirit waited and didn’t bring forth Jesus until this year?

If Jesus was born today I wouldn’t even notice. He wouldn’t be born anywhere I was looking.

The details of his birth likely wouldn’t be too much different. He would be born to Jewish parents, as the delay of two thousand years wouldn’t change the Old Testament prophecies. He’d likely even be born in the Middle East, where the strife and terror and chaos of our current era is shockingly similar to the strife and terror and chaos then. Instead of traveling because of a census, Joseph and Mary might make an untimely trip because of a UN mandate or an agreement with Lebanon to close a northern Kibbutz and move the families back within the settled boundaries of Israel.

I would be looking at powerful leaders and charismatic prophets. I would keep my eyes on New York or London or Beijing. I would be following the lives of great people and care about the children they have. In my library would be books by men and women detailing how to interpret the symbols of the age.

My eyes would be on the things that clearly mattered. An obscure baby, born to an obscure Jewish family, during a this time of great chaos and uncertainty, wouldn’t appear on my radar. Who would think of looking there? Except for the wise men, of course.

I would be obsessed with the looking I imagine, desperate to see the hand of God in the midst of the world’s misery. In the book of Exodus he brought plagues and freedom. In the books that followed he brought great victories to his chosen people and established a great earthly kingdom for them. Wars and rumors of wars, along with miraculous intervention in these wars would be a sign. The Holy Spirit is filled with power so I would look for that power to be manifested in great events that would obviously change my life and bring real order to this present world.

If Jesus was born today I wouldn’t celebrate. I wouldn’t give presents. I wouldn’t sing songs or take time off from work. I would stay obsessed with the chaos and keep my eye on those people I knew mattered to this world

No doubt about it, if Jesus was born today I wouldn’t even notice.

Thank God the Holy Spirit brought forth Jesus in Mary two thousand years ago. Now, after many centuries I build my trust on the faith of millions of others who came before me. I build my trust on those who wrote about the obscure birth in an out of the way Israeli town. I celebrate not because of how Jesus was born but because I know the end of the story. The Holy Spirit worked long ago, so now I know where to look on this Christmas day.

And yet…

The Holy Spirit still works. In much the same way. Jesus is born on this day. No, he is not making another appearance as a defenseless baby destined to be baptized by the Baptist and die on the cross. Still, he is born on this day. This is the ever active work of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit who visited Mary fills men and women all over the world. When the Holy Spirit descends, Christ makes an appearance in all manner of circumstances.

I would not have noticed when Jesus was born two thousand years ago, and I certainly would not notice if he was today born to a virgin. However, because of Christmas I have been given an opportunity to believe and look with new eyes. I have been called to notice the present work of Christ’s presence in this world.

I’m going to put aside my magazines, shut off the news, ignore the popular and the great. I’m going to look at the obscure and the troubled and those who are persecuted. I’m going to look around the room at folks who seem entirely average and unimpressive. The Spirit works through such people to bring Christ in this world. In recognizing, honoring, and supporting this work maybe I too can become a wise man.

So, on this Christmas I celebrate the birth of Christ two thousand years ago. I also celebrate the birth of Christ today, a constant birth that changes the world through outlandish people every day until his return. For in all those the Spirit fills, Christ is indeed born.

Will I notice?

(Something I wrote in 2006)

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Right Passions

I begin each week of my online courses with a reflection on the theme of the week. It is a devotional beginning, a way of getting the students to think about the topic in light of Scripture, often more pastoral and personal than specifically theological. Of course, the theological is part and parcel with those elements, even as the conventional approaches to theology these days are more academic in tone.

In my class on the Holy Spirit this week, we’re looking more closely at the topic of orthopathy, which means “right passions” in theological parlance.  Along with orthodoxy (right beliefs) and orthopraxy (right actions), it is one of the ways the Spirit works to orient our self, in our community, with God.

In case you’re interested in what I’m up to in my teaching, here’s my reflection that begins this week’s discussion:

Consideration of Week 4

Read: 1 Kings 19:1-18; Jeremiah 20:7-18; Acts 16:11-34; Ephesians 5:15-20

When I was in college, I experienced a roller coaster in my relationship with God.  I went to a Christian school in the Chicago area because I felt God leading me there. And God had plans for me while there but they didn’t seem to fit into the expected college experience. It was a place of training and training often involves breaking.  Which came. Harshly. Before that there was an awakening.  Moments and days in which I felt my heart and mind and whole being opening up in a new vision of God’s work, a deep awareness of God’s presence, an assurance of God’s being.

There were moments of theophany, of discovering a deep truth behind the apparent truths, a perception of complete coherence. I didn’t have words for these experiences even as I knew they were real. I felt my very being stretch and expand, feeling at times both loosely connected to this world and utterly embedded, a part of God’s creation.  Then a turn.

Everything crumbled, the light went from on to off, the presence of God departed.  At least that’s how it felt. A turn to loneliness deepened by even the absence of God’s encouragement and hope. I felt destitute. Empty.  Prayers extending into shadows and emptiness.  Feeling lost in my faith, my being, my hope.

Carried on by that earlier divine presence. There’s something there. I knew it. But could not see it or feel it.  All was dark.

I refused to let go, even in the pain and frustration.  I read more, sought answers, asked for counsel.  Reading helped but only to show that my experience was not unique. It was a common experience through Scripture, throughout the stories of women and men in history. They were close to God and then they encountered a wide ditch of God’s absence. No way forward. No way back.

I knew the facts about God, the story about God’s work in Scripture and history, the doctrines of faith.  But where was the life?  I missed it but knew there was something there.  I pressed on, not giving up, not running away.

A path was there but it was surrounded by dangers and thorns and troubles.  Encouragement came in fleeting glimpses, the fifth door on the left slightly ajar. Just enough sense of joy to become bread crumbs of discovery, a persistent discouragement at every other turn to prevent me from walking down distracting roads.

God kept me on the path, but did so by a dynamic interaction that led me through ups and downs, through college, into seminary, at churches, in the mountains, back for more study and then teaching.  The ups and downs were not required by God, but were my experiences of being buffeted in too many directions, competing narratives and goals pulling me left and right, out and in, up and down, rather than steady in my faith and patient in the journey.

My heart variously strangely warm and strangely cold, a roller coaster turning into a refined palate, increasingly able to attune myself in God’s grace, centering in Christ, navigating in the whispers and moves of the Spirit.

Such dynamic experiences tend to resist intellectual analysis, resulting in those groans and utterances of tongues or music, trying to express that which is indeterminate at first, then indescribable.  Trying to find the words leads deeper down the path. I discovered and was given words not so that I can manage God but so that I can come alongside, able to be a voice of comfort, hope, counsel, a heart transformed by the Spirit better able to participate with the Spirit in my context.

The presence of God is indeed more than a validation for us. The Spirit calls us and is shaping the whole of our being to be renewed in light of God’s life and mission.  Becoming attuned to this mission reaches into the deepest parts of ourselves, places we are most vulnerable and broken, places we may also be the most strong and full of meaning. Our spirit in the presence of God’s Spirit.

What are your desires on this day? What is your mood? What are your passions and hopes and fears?  Lay these out, call them by name, seek wisdom about what is oriented in God and what needs redirection towards God. Let the Spirit comfort, let the Spirit transform.  It is not easy, o difficult, though sometimes it is wonderful.

The promise of this journey is peace and stillness, even in troubles, hope in times of mystery, rest in times of comfort.  When our desires and emotions match the mission of God in the moment we begin to dance, no longer tossed and torn by the storms. We become effective in the moment, in the place, in the purpose.  At the end of all things, still standing (Eph. 6:13).

Posted in academia, Holy Spirit, spirituality, teaching, theology | Leave a comment