Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Incarnation

Reading through some of my favorite sections of Irenaeus and Athanasius it struck me again how full of wonder they were over the incarnation. They did not think of the incarnation as a means to another end. The gift is Jesus himself. The Father’s Son became a human being, one of us. The simple point of such an amazing move is that he wanted to be with us, and to share life with us. Immanuel, of course, means just that. Although technically Immanuel means ‘God with us,’ the God who came to be with us is a God of relationship. The Son did not come alone. He became human as the Father’s Son and as the One who dwells in the Holy Spirit. So he brought his relationship with his Father and his relationship with the Holy Spirit into his incarnate relationship with us, and indeed all creation.

Being so preoccupied with legalities has largely blinded us in the West to such an astounding gift. We have separated the gift from the person. The cross has become more important than Jesus. The incarnation has become a means to another end. But it is not the cross or the death of Jesus that is central to the gospel. The heart of Christianity is Jesus himself. To be sure, it is Jesus as crucified, resurrected and ascended. But these aspects of Jesus life are just that, aspects of his life and existence and being, and they are aspects of his incarnate relationship with us.

It may be helpful to note that the incarnation is not to be confused with the birth of Jesus, as if it were only one part of his life. The incarnation is all inclusive, involving his birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension. To be with us, to include us in his own life and relationships, sin had to be addressed and overcome. The death of Jesus figures into the larger event of his incarnate relationship with us, of his bringing heaven and earth together in relationship. Given the fall and sin, how could there be a real incarnation without the death and resurrection of the Father’s Son? For how could Jesus have a real relationship with us without meeting us as we are as fallen creatures? And how could this Son and this anointed One meet us as we are as fallen creatures without overcoming our sin?

And given that Jesus is the Father’s Son and the one anointed in Holy Spirit, how could there be a real incarnation without the ascension as its fulfillment? For how could this Son and this anointed One become what we are without including us in his world and life and relationships? And how could he include us in his world and life and relationships without the ascension, without lifting us up into the arms of his Father and the embrace of the Holy Spirit? The ascension is the finishing, as it were, of the process of establishing real relationship with us, wherein the Trinitarian life of God opens itself up and fully accepts, embraces and includes all that we are in our human existence.

Stretching from the Father’s dream of our adoption to the virgin birth into Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, the incarnation finds its ongoing fulfillment in the ascension. In the ascended Son heaven and earth, all things divine and human are together in real relationship forever. This is the meaning of the incarnation. The gift of the Triune God to the human race is Jesus himself, and in him real and everlasting relationship with the Father and the Holy Spirit. Immanuel. Salvation. Reconciliation. Adoption.

As the great Irenaeus put it, ‘our beloved Lord Jesus Christ became what we are that He might bring us to be what he is in Himself.’ And Athanasius, ‘the Son of God became Son of man to make us sons of God.’ And John, ‘the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, glory as of the one and only from the Father, full of grace and reality…of His fulness we have all received grace upon grace.’ And Paul, ‘For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, that you through His poverty might become rich.’

And Jesus, “In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in Me, and I in you.’

Merry Christmas

Monday, December 8, 2008

The Shack in Australia

The cat is out of the bag—and it is a big cat. I just got home from a two week tour of Australia with Paul Young, author, as most of you know, of the international best selling book, The Shack. It was my great joy and privilege to introduce him to brothers and sisters and seekers in Adelaide, Melbourne, Brisbane and Sydney. It felt like we were watching Luther nail his ninety-five theses on the door of Wittenberg, except the door here is the whole world. To date well over four million copies of The Shack have been sold, and it is now being translated into 40 languages. The wild popularity of Paul’s book shouts to us that people across the world are seriously thirsting for something beyond the Western god. Hallelujah.

As Paul says, ‘the shack’ is a metaphor of the wounded soul, the inner world where we bury our hurts, traumas, and the terrible pain of our personal tragedies. In contrast to religion—which is our endless attempts to try to heal ourselves—the book is about encountering Jesus, his Father, and the Holy Spirit in our shame and darkness and fear, and finding real healing. One of my favorite scenes in the book involves the Holy Spirit and Mackenzie digging together in a garden, which is both a wild mess and beautiful at the same time. Mack comments,“ I feel strangely at home and comfortable here.” Then comes some rather stunning words from the Spirit—and this is the heart of the uprising.

And well you should, Mackenzie, because this garden is your soul. This mess is you! Together, you and I, we have been working with a purpose in your heart. And it is wild and beautiful and perfectly in process. To you it seems like a mess, but to me, I see a perfect pattern emerging and growing and alive—a living fractal (p. 138).

Note carefully that the Holy Spirit is inside Mack’s brokenness. When is the last time you heard a sermon on the freedom of the Holy Spirit to meet you and to love you in your shame? And then Papa (God, the Father) comes walking down a path in the garden with a sack lunch. Herein lies the glorious crisis The Shack creates across the world. Is God this good? Is God this accepting, this comfortable with us in our brokenness? It is a question of the character of God. Could it be that Jesus’ Father is free to love us as we are, free to accept us in our disasters and pain? Could it be that Papa has embraced us—the real us— forever?

As I listened to Paul tell the story of his own great sadness, which is the story behind the story, and as I watched the tears flow, it struck me that in desperation for real solutions to his own pain he discovered the trinitarian God of the early Church. The healing vision of love that fires The Shack, contrary to some reports, is not new, but ancient. And, blessedly for us, Paul has found a way—in the genius of the Holy Spirit—to pierce the veil of our legal darkness, and help us see the truth all over again. The Shack is a fundamental book. In ways almost inexpressible, it shares the beauty and goodness of God with us, and in doing so it quickens our hearts with hope. But it also exposes our ingrained beliefs, leaving us with a way too personal question, which God? Is it the unapproachable and unaccepting god of Greece, or Jesus’ Papa cooking breakfast for us in our shame? It is that simple, and that huge. Which God?

C. S. Lewis said that as he read George MacDonald’s, Phantastes his imagination was baptized. He went on to say that it took 18 years or so for his baptized imagination to reach his head. I suspect that such a baptism is what happens to most people who read The Shack. The Holy Spirit bears witness with our spirits that it is true, that Papa is this good, and that we are truly loved and embraced forever. This divine witness gives us permission—surely fleeting at first, but nevertheless real—to question the largely philosophical, legal god we have inherited. And even though we have a plethora of underlined bible verses to prove the truth of this god, the baptism of our imaginations—the witness of the Spirit—haunts us with the notion that we may well have misread the book.

For my money, we have been intellectually trapped by a vision of God that owes as much, if not more, to Greece and Rome than it does to Jesus. Thus, without knowing it, we have had to live in fear, ashamed of ourselves and our brokenness. We have had no real choice but to pretend that our religion actually works, while our souls remain riddled with fear and pain. The questions posed by Paul Young are this, ‘Is God ashamed of us? Is he aloof, watching us from the infinite distance of a disapproving heart? Is law more important to God than real relationship with us? Are we left to ourselves to find healing? Is heaven a place we go to avoid hell?’ His answer and mine is a simple, yet resounding, ‘No!’

The good news is that Jesus has moved in and set up house inside our darkness, and he brought his Father and the Holy Spirit with him. Christianity is about getting over our vision of god and letting Jesus teach us about his Father. In the midst of our shame the blessed Trinity has come to dwell, to love us, and to heal us from the inside out. Heaven is not so much a place as it is the sheer free-flowing life that emerges in us when we meet Jesus’ Papa inside our shacks. Can you believe in this God? Why not? Who told you about God?

In the belly of the Western, deistic and legalistic beast, the baptism of our imaginations is happening again. The fleeting hints of permission are being rumored in the dark places of our souls. We dare to hope. With the hints come freedom to question our inherited vision of god, to risk believing in Jesus’ Papa and his goodness. For Lewis it took 18 years for the Spirit’s witness to convert his mind. No one knows how long it will take for us, but the baptism is very real and it is not going away. The vision of The Shack stuns us with Papa’s love. Could it be?

Of course.

Permission granted. It is okay to believe in the overflowing goodness of the blessed Trinity.

When we meet the Father, Son and Spirit face to face I would lay odds that our response will not be, ‘forgive me, I overestimated your goodness.’

For more on Jesus inside our darkness, see my book Across All Worlds, and my free essay, “Bearing Our Scorn: Jesus and the Way of Trinitarian Love.” Both are available at our web site

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Faith of Christ

Way back in the 50’s a debate started regarding the translation of certain key passages in Paul that had to do with justification by faith. The question was whether or not we should translate these passages as referring to Christ’s faith or to ours. Of course, most post-reformation translations take these passages as obvious references to our faith in Christ. In the Greek language, however, the construction could be translated either as a subjective genitive (Christ’s faith) or as an objective genitive (our faith in Christ). Interestingly, the King James translates them as referring to Christ’s own faith. Over the decades the debate grew intense and scholars from around the world joined in. In fifty or so years a decided shift has taken place. At first the burden of proof was on those who thought the passages should be translated as referring to Christ's faith, and not to our faith in Christ. These days it is the other way around.

Here are the key passages. I will quote first from the New American Standard Bible.

ROM 3:22 “even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe, for there is no distinction.”

ROM 3:26 “for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who as faith in Jesus.”

GAL 2:16 “nevertheless knowing that a man is no justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we may be justified by faith in Christ, and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law shall no flesh be justified.”

GAL 2:20 “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me, and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me, and delivered Himself up for me.”

GAL 3:22 “But the Scripture has shut up all me under sin, that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.”

EPH 3:12 “in whom we have boldness and confident access through faith in Him.”

PHIL 3:9 “and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith.”

As you can see, far from being peripheral, these passages are at the center of Paul’s thought. The issue at hand challenges both the Roman Catholic and Reformation doctrines of justification at a fundamental level.

I first discovered the debate when I was in seminary working on an exegetical paper on EPH 4:11-13. Verse 13 reads, “until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fulness of Christ.” In my paper, I argued that ‘of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God’ were to be interpreted as referring to Christ’s own faith and knowledge, as surely as ‘the fulness of Christ’ refers to his own fulness and not ours. Looking back I can see how this issue opened the door for me to understand the theology of J. B. and T. F. Torrance, with their powerful and beautiful emphasis on the vicarious humanity of Christ. Over the years I continued to follow the debate, which reached its peak in the 90’s, but is still brewing. Strangely, the theological significance of this transition is yet to be appreciated.

Three factors convince me that Paul is not talking about our faith in Christ, but Christ’s very own faith, such that we are justified by the faith and faithfulness of Jesus himself.

(1) It seems clear enough, as even the NASB translation reads, that Paul (in EPH 4:13) is speaking about our participation in Jesus’ own faith, knowledge and fulness. In his earlier prayer (EPH 3:14-19) Paul prays that we would come to comprehend and to know the love of Christ, that we “may be filled up to all the fulness of God.” In Colossians Paul says, “For in Him [Christ] all the fulness of Deity dwells in bodily form, and in Him you have been made full” (2:9-10). Clearly the fulness belongs to Jesus, and is then shared with us. Jesus himself tells us that he came to give us not simply peace, but his own peace (JN 14:27), and his own joy (15:11). And, of course, in his famous prayer it is abundantly clear that Jesus envisages the very love and glory of the Father and Son themselves dwelling in us personally (17:22-26). In Matthew, Jesus claims not only that all things have been handed over to him, but also that he alone knows the Father, and anyone to whom the Son wills to reveal Him (11:27). The heart of the gospel is the fact that Jesus alone knows the Father, and he alone is filled with the fulness of God, and that he has come to share himself and all that he is and has (fulness, knowledge, peace, joy, glory, love, and faith, among other things) with us. Sharing in Jesus' own life and relationship with his Father and the Spirit is the point.

(2) The genitive construction in ROM 3:26 (ek pisteos Jesou) is exactly the same in ROM 4:16 where Paul is talking about Abraham’s faith (ek pisteos Abraam). The NASB does not translate the Abraham passage as 'our faith in Abraham,' but as “those who are of the faith of Abraham.” If the NASB were consistent, ROM 3:26 would read, “for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who is of the faith of Jesus.

(3) In Galatians 2:16 we have a perfect illustration of what is called a chiasm. The verse reads,

“nevertheless knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law, but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we may be justified by faith in Christ, not by the works of the Law…”

A chiasm or chiastic structure fills the Psalter. It is very Hebraic. It is named after the Greek letter ‘Chi’ which looks like an X in English. If you take away the right part of the X you are left with an arrow pointing to the right. In terms of a chiastic argument, the first point in the argument starts with the top left of the X, or arrow. The next point, which is the heart of the argument is the tip. The last point is a repeat of the first point and starts at the beginning of the bottom of the left side of the X. If this is all too confusing to you, let me put Paul’s argument in chiastic sequence.

knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law
-----but through faith in Christ Jesus
----------even we have believed in Christ Jesus,
-----that we may be justified by faith in Christ
not by the works of the Law.

Three times in this verse, Paul, allegedly, speaks of faith in Christ, which is rather redundant and superfluous, unless a chiasm is being employed, and he has in mind not our faith in Christ, but Christ’s faith or faithfulness. The verse works perfectly only when we understand that Paul is thinking about the faith of Christ. It would then read,

knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law
-----but through the faith of Christ Jesus,
----------even we have believed in Christ Jesus
-----that we may be justified by the faith of Christ
not by the works of the Law.

The first and the last clauses speak of not being justified by the works of the law. The second and next to the last speak of being justified by the faith of Christ himself. The middle clause speaks of our trusting in Jesus’ faith and faithfulness. The point of Christian faith is not in the efficacy or power of our own faith, but believing in the faith and faithfulness of Jesus himself, who stands in our place. We believe in Jesus and in his faith. This is the center, the tip of the arrow, of Paul’s chiastic argument. Jesus has taken his place on our side of the covenant relationship with God. And in our place he has offered the perfect response of faith and faithfulness, wherein we are justified. We take our stand, according to Paul, upon his vicarious offering to the Father, upon his faith and faithfulness, that we may be justified not by our own works or faith, but by Jesus.’ We choose to be justified by Jesus’ faith and faithfulness, not our own.

The fruit of taking our stand on Jesus’ faith is peace, the cessation of striving to find a way to justify ourselves through anything that we may do, whether our own faith or works or religious activity of any sort. We cling to, hope in, and pin all our hopes on Jesus, and upon who he is and what he has done as our vicarious representative.

Failure here is simply to doom ourselves to live with ourselves and our faith and religious performance. To not believe in Jesus—and in his faith and faithfulness—is to sentence ourselves to believe in ourselves and in our own efforts, and it is to suffer living with the failed assurance of such a way of believing. So for Paul, we rest in Jesus himself, not in ourselves, and in resting in him, in believing in him, his own glory, knowledge, peace, joy, love and faith begin to have room to come to personal expression in us.

If we translate the key passages as references to Jesus’ faith in our place, it would look something like the following.

ROM 3:22 “even the righteousness of God which comes through the faith/faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all those who believe, for there is no distinction.”

ROM 3:26 “for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who is of the faith of Jesus.”

GAL 2:16 “nevertheless knowing that a man is no justified by the works of the Law but through faith of Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we may be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law shall no flesh be justified.”

GAL 2:20 “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me, and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith/faithfulness of the Son of God, who loved me, and delivered Himself up for me.”

GAL 3:22 “But the Scripture has shut up all me under sin, that the promise by the faith of Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.”

EPH 3:12 “in whom we have boldness and confident access through His faith/faithfulness.”

PHIL 3:9 “and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith.”

At every point and at all points in between Jesus and his life and faithfulness is the point

Remember, every translation is a translation of the original text through the lens of a particular theology. The Reformers made a great step forward, away from works based salvation. It is time for us to stand on their shoulders and take the next step in their journey into a faith of Christ salvation, which, I suspect was what they were saying all along.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

The Wrinkle in Time

The Bible is the story of God’s relationship with his creation. And like most great stories there is a wrinkle in it that no one saw coming. Something unprecedented, indeed unthinkable happened. And once it happened the story itself changed forever. Well, that is not exactly true, because the story itself did not change—we did. And in particular our understanding of what the story is about, of who God is, of why God made the world and history suddenly found themselves confronted with God’s wrinkle. Catching the entire world by surprise, God came in person to be with us. As John said, “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14).

Why? The most obvious—but almost unbelievable—answer is that God wanted to be with us and wanted us to be with him. From the beginning of Genesis all the way through the story of the Jews it is clear that the Lord wants relationship with his creation. But relationship of what kind? Early on we have God giving commandments to Adam and Eve, and then later the law was given through Moses to the people of Israel. So it would not be unreasonable to think that the relationship God wants with us is more or less legal. The older Calvinists structured their entire theology around the idea that God relates to us on the basis of law. But the shocking fact at the heart of Christianity is that God—without ceasing to be God—became human. We either think that such an event was in order to fulfill the law or we see it is a revelation of the kind of relationship the Lord wants to have with us—personal, so personal that everything even hinted at in the law is not only fulfilled but taken into new worlds of intimacy.

Paul, in Ephesians, says that God “chose us in Him to be holy and blameless before Him. In love He predestined us to adoption as sons” (1:4-5). At first glance, such language sounds awfully distant and legal, given that most of us innately hear ‘holy’ and ‘blameless’ and ‘adoption’ as legal words within a deistic worldview. But consider the other phrase in sentence, ‘before Him.’ The NIV translates ‘before Him’ as ‘in His sight,’ giving the impression that what Paul has in mind is that we are to be objects in God’s sight, as my computer or a candle are objects in my sight. But I think this is far too non-relational and pale and insipid for what Paul has in mind. Note Markus Barth’s comments on the meaning of ‘before Him.’

‘BEFORE HIM’ denotes the immediate presence of God to man and the closest proximity of man to God. The image suggests the position and relationship enjoyed by the cream of society at a royal court, by children to their father, by a bride to a bridegroom…” (Ephesians: The Anchor Bible, p.80).

Here we have a staggering statement. Barth sees Paul as suggesting that what the Lord is after in creation is relationship, real relationship with us, relationship of the most personal and profound and intimate and hospitable order. Not legal standing, but fellowship, communion, indeed union with us and we with God—shared life.

What are we to make of this? On the one hand, we have a rather stunning vision of God coming to be with us in person and to share nothing less than His own life with us in the closest, most beautiful way. On the other, we have an implicit question. Is this sharing of life a mere happy coincidence? Are we simply lucky that Adam fell? Whereas he got the law, we get God himself? Is God’s personal coming an afterthought, plan ‘B,’ some kind of divine half-time adjustment, as it were, consequent upon Adam’s disobedience? Or is God’s personal coming plan ‘A,’ the one and only eternal and original plan of God before the ages? Was adoption the eternal point? While these are simple and straightforward questions, their implications are monumental. How we answer them determines the way we read the book. Does Jesus fit into Adam’s world, or does Adam fit into Jesus’ world?

For my money, the incarnation is in no way an afterthought The incarnation—and the shared life that comes to us in the incarnate Son—is the original plan before the first particle of creation was called into being. Paul reread the story I the light of God’s wrinkle, and so should we. The law, the covenant, the whole history of the Jews, and indeed, creation itself serves the larger purpose of the incarnation and the sharing of the trinitarian life with us. To borrow from T. F. Torrance, what we have in creation and in Israel’s history is the preparation of ‘the womb of the incarnation.’ Creation is thus the first step in an inconceivable divine dream in which the human race will move from non-being to dirt to the right hand of God the Father. Adam, Abraham, Israel are created and called by the Lord to be the divine-human relationship in and through which the Father’s Son himself will cross all worlds and become human, uniting in himself the human race and the very trinitarian life of God.

This gives us a three-part vision of human history. First, there is the preparation for the coming of the Father’s Son, the creation of the womb of the incarnation. Second, there is his coming and the fulfillment of his Father’s dreams for us in his own life, death, resurrection and ascension. Third, there is the coming of the God the Holy Spirit in and through Jesus. As Irenaeus said, in Jesus the Holy Spirit himself has accustomed himself to dwell with the human race and accustomed the human race do dwell in him. So we have the time of preparation, the time of fulfillment, and the time of the Spirit. Implicit throughout these times is the profound blindness of the human race. So one aspect of the time of the Holy Spirit is our education, which includes accepting and relating to us in our terrible darkness and gently giving us eyes to see God’s wrinkle in time, so that we can live in the anointing of the Holy Spirit.

Today I am most grateful that the Holy Spirit is passionate about our coming to know the truth, for it seems we are passionate about avoiding it. But blessedly, the Holy Spirit will not go away.

For more on this vision see my paper “On the Road to Becoming Flesh: Israel as the Womb of the Incarnation in the Theology of T. F. Torrance.” This essay is available on our web site as a free download.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

The Kingdom of the Triune God

Jesus has included the human race in his relationship with his Father, and in his relationship with the Holy Spirit, and in his relationship with every human being, and in his relationship with the whole cosmos. As Vanessa Kersting says in one of her songs, “You are the center of it all.” Jesus is the alpha and the omega, the one in and through and by and for whom all things were created, and are sustained, and are reconciled. I believe this is the early Church’s vision of Jesus Christ. I take it as our non-negotiable, our fundamental hermeneutic from which we are to rethink everything we thought we knew, from our vision to God to social justice, from our notions of God’s eternal purpose to our economics, from our concerns for human dignity to our freedom to play. The kingdom of the Triune God is, in my view, the life of Jesus himself (in its four-fold relation) coming to personal, relational, social, international, global, environmental, economic, political, spiritual, musical, playful and cosmic expression in us, in our world, and throughout the cosmos.

Viewing human history and our times in the light of Christ tells us that there is more happening on this planet and in our lives than we ever dared to dream. Jesus (and his four-fold life) is present, not absent. And Jesus is present everywhere. Moreover, the Holy Spirit is at work in every arena seeking to facilitate the emergence of Jesus’ life. If we have eyes to see we can see Jesus’ life emerging everywhere. But we can also see that something is terribly wrong.

In a nutshell, a dastardly and profound confusion has set up shop inside our minds. Biblically speaking, the human race is in the dark—blind as bats—and each of us brings the darkness, and our own particular blindness to the table of Jesus Christ. So much of life on our planet, from our marriages to our global politics, from our day to day work to our attempts to find glory, seems to be the incessant attempt to impose our wills, our blindness, our notions upon Jesus himself, upon others and his world. To me sin is the attempt to wrest Jesus into believing in us and in our notions. It is unbelief in Jesus and belief in ourselves. Sin is the belief that Jesus is dead wrong about God, about humanity and history, about how to live, and about the cosmos, and the insistence that he turn from his beliefs, repent and believe in us.

Jesus is present, not absent. He is sharing with us all his own four-fold life. The Holy Spirit is working to give us eyes to see and ears to hear, so that the kingdom of the Triune God continues to emerge. And humanity, as a race, as individuals, as governments and religions—while breathing Christological air and living in Christ’s life—is dead set on imposing its bizarre notions upon Jesus and his world.

History is the time and space given to us to dream our dreams, to think up our theories, to invent our own worlds, and to attempt to wrest Jesus and the cosmos into our vision. All the while, Jesus is sharing himself and his life with us, and we are haunted and inspired, thrilled and made malcontent by his presence in our darkness.

We know we are made for glory, but we still believe in ourselves and our endarkened dreams. We are, as Chaucer said, like the drunk man, who knows his has a house, but cannot find his way home.

Meanwhile there is more than a little of Jesus’ life everywhere you look and listen. Come, Spirit of truth.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Spin Master

Our Presidential election has become hype and sound bites with no reference to a larger reality as to why or why not we should act in any particular way. Most of the media has proven untrustworthy, embarrassing itself with its patronizing prejudice. Our post-modern, relativistic world has nothing real to stand on, and the ‘jesus’ of the modern church is so incredibly small he offers no answers to the ‘isms’ that are destroying us, to say nothing of international relations or of the great issues we face with the environment of our beloved planet.

So where does that leave us? The real battle in the United States today is the battle over spin. Who can become the Spin Master? Who is best at dazzling urgency? Who can touch the raw nerves of fear? Who has the best commercials, or personality, or style—today? Who can twist the filtered news unto their own agenda? What a sad tale. But what do we expect when our culture believes there is no ‘reality,’ and the church’s ‘jesus’ is little more than a tribal deity? I suspect most of us are so overwhelmed with the incessant crap, or so bored with the latest side-show, we just tune out and try to make the most of our lives. Who knows what to believe anyway? For my part, I would despair were it not for the Jesus of the early Church.

Here is my political platform: Jesus has included the human race in his relationship with his Father, and in his anointing in the Holy Spirit, and in his relationship with each and every human being, and in his relationship with the whole cosmos. The human race—including the Church—stands called to walk accordingly.

The basis for our concerns for social justice, for the health of the environment, for the end of poverty in all its forms (including the ultimate poverty of not knowing Jesus’ Father), for the end of racism, sexism, and all prejudice is Jesus himself—and the fact that he is sharing his heart with all of us. In him, the Father, the Holy Spirit, the human race, and the whole cosmos have been brought together in real relationship forever. His presence is therefore both a promise and a warning. Since he is the one in whom all created things have their being and life and meaning, any personal, racial, sexual, international, global, or environmental violation of the good and righteous relationships he has established in his own being is doomed to hurt like hell and to produce chaotic misery. And since he is the one in whom all creation has a blessed place—including each and every human being—to walk with him, to place our own ideas and agendas at his feet for light is to participate in his rightly-related world of wholeness.

Come, Holy Spirit. Give us eyes to see and ears to hear.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

The Embrace

You never know which moments, words or events will be important to people. A man buys flowers for his wife, for which she is thankful, but she remembers the smile on his face, and the fact that his shoes were untied. A child on a vacation to the Grand Canyon remembers the laughter of the family at 3 am on the way back. History is even more unpredictable. What moments, what events, what words matter in the long run? Who can know? Only time will tell. While our beloved media tries with all of its cunning to make certain moments weighty, there is something real that is larger than all of us, and somehow we know it when we hear or see it, and when we don’t.

While I would not claim to be a prophet, I would hazard a guess as to one of the great moments in our time—at least for the Western world. I have heard recordings of President Roosevelt’s address after Pearl Harbor, and President Kennedy’s famous speech as well. And I have listened to Martin Luther King’s freedom address, and watched in serious respect when Barak Obama spoke in the aftermath of Rev. Wright’s publicized diatribes, and recently I watched Sarah Palin’s amazing speech at the Republican convention, yet for my money the most important moment in the West in the last one hundred years was when a fictitious broken-hearted, angry, and cynical white man named Mackenzie met God face to face. And God—appearing as large black woman— ran to embrace him, lifting him in an eternal hug (See William P. Young’s, The Shack). That moment spoke and speaks volumes, and it speaks to places in our souls that we would rather pretend do not even exists. It is way to scary to let ourselves believe that God could be so good. So we settle. We just don’t have a theology to go with our heart’s knowledge.

Mackenzie’s daughter had been kidnapped and brutally murdered, and he had grieved his heart out. Blaming himself—and God—he lost life. Then he got a note from God to meet at the shack where his daughter had been killed. At length, and with not a little hesitation, he set out for the shack. With doubts whirling, he opened the door. The shack was a bleak as his absent god. The years of hurt proved their point. Mack left convinced that his absent, judgmental god was real. But something happened on his way back to his truck. To his shock, life blossomed. Amazed, he walked back to the shack and stood on the porch. Not knowing what to do…

Mack decided to bang loudly and see what happened, but just as he raised his fist to do so, the door flew open, and he was looking directly into the face of a large beaming African-American woman.

Instinctively he jumped back, but he was too slow. With speed that belied her size, she crossed the distance between them and engulfed him in her arms, lifting him clear off his feet and spinning him around like a child. And all the while she was shouting his name—“Mackenzie Allen Phillips”—with the ardor of someone seeing a long-lost and deeply-loved relative. She finally put him back on earth, and with her hands on his shoulders, pushed him back as if to get a good look at him.

“Mack, look at you!” she fairly exploded. “Here you are, and so grown up. I have really been looking forward to seeing you face to face. It is so wonderful to have you here with us. My, my, my how I do love you!” And with that she wrapped herself around him again (William P. Young, The Shack, pp. 82-83).

“My, my, my how I do love you!” Who doesn’t want God to be this way? Who doesn’t want to be so loved and embraced, so cared for and cherished? Yet who dares risk hoping in such in such a God, and in such love? So we settle, believing in the god of our broken imaginations, the faceless, nameless, judgmental, omni-being watching us from a distance. For the one thing we all know for sure is that we are unworthy.

Yet, nevertheless, somehow we know that the God Mackenzie met is the utter truth.

The one who bore our bitter scorn—suffering our abuse to meet us and to embrace us as we are—is the revelation of the Father confronting the god’s of our broken imaginations. Jesus says, “He who has seen Me has seen the Father” (John 14:9).

“And with that she wrapped herself around him again.”

It is okay to believe in Jesus' Papa.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

The Wonderful Exchange

“For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, that you through His poverty might become rich” (2Corinthians 8:9).

This short verse from the apostle Paul takes us out a merely forensic or legal view of Jesus’ coming and gives us a much richer and far more profound vision. Here, as throughout the early Church, the coming of Jesus is not merely about the taking away of our sin, but about the staggering life that he brings to us, the very life that he himself enjoys with the Father and the Holy Spirit.

Cleansing is certainly critical, but the taking away of our sin is unto a greater purpose, the sharing of his life. Jesus is, as the Baptist said, “the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” And he is also the one “who baptizes in the Holy Spirit.” The saving work of Jesus, in the New Testament’s vision, always involves both dimensions. As John McLeod Campbell argued, there is both a retrospective and a prospective dimension to salvation in Christ. There is the removal, the cleansing, the taking away of sin, and there is the giving or sharing of life.

But when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, in order that He might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons”(Galatians 4:4).

In the West we have been so thoroughly preoccupied with the retrospective dimension of Christ’s work (redeeming us from the law, taking away our sin, justification) that we have almost forgotten the prospective dimension (baptism in the Spirit, adoption, union, the sharing of life). Hence there are thousands of books on justification and only a handful on adoption, even though our adoption stands as the driving reason, indeed as the eternal reason, for Jesus’ coming (See Ephesians 1:5).

My point is not to denigrate the work of our Lord in taking away our sin—such a work is fundamental—but to bring us back to the early Church’s vision that Jesus both takes away our sin and shares himself and his own life with us. The great early Church father, St. Irenaeus, put it this way, “our Lord Jesus Christ, who did, through His transcendent love, become what we are, that He might bring us to be even what He is Himself” (Against Heresies, V, preface).

Note John Calvin here as well:

This is the wonderful exchange (mirifica commutatio) which, out of his measureless benevolence, he has made with us; that, becoming Son of man with us, he has made us sons of God with him; that, by his descent to earth, he has prepared an ascent to heaven for us; that, by taking on our mortality, he has conferred his immortality upon us; that, accepting our weakness, he has strengthened us by his power; that, receiving our poverty unto himself, he has transferred his wealth to us; that, taking the weight of our iniquity upon himself (which oppressed us), he has clothed us with his righteousness (Institutes, IV.17.2).

And James B. Torrance:

The prime purpose of the incarnation, in the love of God, is to lift us up into a life of communion, of participation in the very triune life of God (Worship, Community, and the Triune God of Grace, p. 21).

In Paul and Irenaeus from the early Church, Calvin and Torrance from more modern times, we see that salvation in Christ is about a wonderful exchange involving not merely legal standing, but life itself. For Paul, the One who was rich before all worlds became poor in order to take away our poverty and give us his own wealth. For Irenaeus, the Son of God became what we are to bring us to be what he is in himself. For Calvin, the Son of God became one with us to make us sons and daughters with himself, and to share with us his own immortality, strength, wealth and righteousness. For Torrance, the Father's Son became incarnate to give us a share in the very triune life of God.

For all four, not to mention the apostle John, Karl Barth and many others, the incarnation was not a mere prerequisite for a spotless sacrifice on the cross, but the way of union between all that God is as Father, Son and Spirit, and all that we are in broken human existence. Without the cross and Christ’s death on it there could be no such union, and talk of the incarnation would be a farce, but the death of Christ serves the larger purpose of the wonderful exchange of Christ taking all that is ours and giving us a real share in all that is his.

In a variation on Paul’s great statement, “For you know the stunning grace of the Father’s Son that though he was rich in the shared life of the blessed Trinity, yet for our sake he became poor, suffering our wrath to meet us, and now through his suffering we who were so poor have been included in Jesus’ own rich relationship with his Father and Spirit.”

As Professor Torrance insisted, the Christian life is about participation, about our personal participation or sharing in the very life of Jesus himself, and thus in his life and relationship with his Father, and in his relationship with the Holy Spirit, and indeed in his relationship with all creation.

May the Holy Spirit quicken us with hope that such a vision could be true, and may the Spirit of adoption give us the faith that yearns to know and experience Christ’s life within us, until the life of the blessed Trinity—shared with us all in Jesus—comes to full and abiding and personal expression in all the earth.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Jesus, Inclusivism and Dogmatism

For four or so lonely centuries there had been no prophetic word from the Lord to his chosen people Then, out of the desert of silence, a wild man stepped into Israel’s history. His message was as shocking as his appearance. Calling for a radical change of vision, John the Baptist proclaimed not only that the kingdom of God was at hand, but that he had been sent to prepare the way for the Lord himself.

The religious leaders of the Jews could not fathom what was happening, so they sent delegates to ask John who he was and why he had come. John’s response was simple and clear. I am not the Christ. I am not Elijah. And I am not the expected prophet. I am a witness, a voice crying in the wilderness, “Make straight the way of the Lord” (See John 1:19ff).

“Why then are you baptizing, if you are not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?”
“I baptize in water, but among you stands One whom you do not know. It is He who comes after me, the thong of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.” “After me comes a Man who has a higher rank than I, for He existed before me… I have beheld the Spirit descending as a dove out of heaven, and He remained upon Him.” He is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” He is “the one who baptizes in the Holy Spirit.” “I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God” (see John 1:25-2-34).

For John the Gospel writer, the incarnation of the Father’s Son himself was the most staggering event in all of history. He sees John the Baptist as the last of the great prophets, the final herald sent by the Lord to shake the world from its slumbers. Great as the Baptist was, the gospel writer sees him as a chosen witness to something far greater. “There came a man, sent from God, whose name was John. He came for a witness that he might bear witness of the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came that he might bear witness of the light (John 1:6-8). The fact that the Baptist was a mere witness is the writer’s way of letting us know that something extraordinary is happening in the coming of Jesus.

Note John the Baptist’s witness to Jesus.

• He is the Lord himself (v. 23).
• He is present, not absent, and you do not know him (v. 26).
• I am unworthy to untie his sandal (v. 27).
• He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (v. 29).
• He is a Man who has a higher rank that me, for he existed before me (v. 30).
• He is the One upon who the Holy Spirit himself descends and remains (vv.32-33).
• He is the one who baptizes in the Holy Spirit (v. 32).
• He is the Son of God (v. 34).

In an age of political correctness, inclusivism. and relativism many can scarcely relate to the Baptist, and certainly not to the gospel writer who is using him to wake us up to the utterly unique reality that Jesus brings into being. After all, how could one person be the Lord himself, the Lamb of God, the anointed One, the One who baptizes in the Holy Spirit, and the Son of God. So we quietly pat John the Baptist on the head and tuck him away as a fiery, but misguided simpleton. The problem is that the witness of John the Baptist is the foundation of the New Testament and the heart of the early Church. There simply would be no New Testament, no early Church, no Christianity, and no life without Jesus Christ and the utterly unique life that he brings to the human race.

These days, and indeed throughout the history of the Church, there is serious temptation to fudge on the uniqueness of Jesus. Who isn’t tired of religious bickering, dogmatism, and the ubiquitous ‘us-them’? But does the uniqueness of Jesus necessarily promote exclusivity, intoleration and dogmatism. Historically speaking, belief in the uniqueness of Jesus has lead to all manner of arrogance, division, mistreatment, and even to bloody wars. So it would seem that if we believe that Jesus is the Father’s Son, the Lord, the anointed One, and the Savior, then we are drawing a line in the sand which necessarily creates and promotes a ‘we are in, they are out,’ black and white mentality, within which a dogmatic, intolerant spirit thrives. While I am all for toleration and inclusiveness, I don’t think we have to throw out the truth of Jesus Christ to have them.

The witness of the two John’s to the utter uniqueness of Jesus Christ is not the basis of exclusiveness, but the foundation of real inclusivity and tolerance, patience and love—and dogmatism. As the unique and only Father’s Son, as the One in and through and by and for whom all things were created and are sustained, as the One anointed with the Holy Spirit himself without measure, Jesus is the One who has established a real and abiding relationship between his Father, the Holy Spirit and the whole human race. He has included us in his unique relationship with his Father. He has included us in his unique anointing in the Holy Spirit. He has included us in his unique relationship with all creation. The vision of the apostles is that Jesus’ own relationships—in which we have all been included—would come to personal and abiding expression in us and in our relationships.

Strange as it may sound, those on the right and those on the left, within the Christian community, are actually kindred spirits at a fundamental level. Both operate with the assumption that Jesus has not included the human race in his own life. On the right, this assumption takes the form of a hard and fast line between those who are in and those who are out. On the left, this assumption takes the form of promoting inclusivisim without, and even against, Jesus.

What is the basis of being inclusive, or of being exclusive? From my perspective, the two Johns are shouting to us across the centuries that the Father’s Son, the One in and through and by and for whom all things were created and are sustained, the One anointed in the Holy Spirit has come, and he has included us in his own life. So in Jesus we have a reason for being both inclusive and dogmatic. He has included the whole human race in his life. If we must be dogmatic, then let us be dogmatic about the inclusive humanity of Christ. If we must be inclusive, then let us see Jesus as the real basis for our inclusive spirit. The truth is, the very identity of Jesus commands us to both dogmatism and inclusivism. So let us stand with the truth of Jesus that he has embraced the whole human race and given us all a place in his own life, and live accordingly.

Stop and think. Jesus is the Father’s only Son. He is the one anointed in the Holy Spirit. He is the one in and through and by and for whom all things were created and are constantly sustained. He is the lamb of God who has put all things right. And he has given us all a place in his world, and indeed in his own life and relationships. The Church is called to be the place within this world of confusion where this reality is taken with the utmost seriousness. It is the uniqueness of Jesus that gives (or should give) the Christian community the freedom to embrace, to relate, to tolerate, and to love, knowing that Jesus has embraced us all, and that the Holy Spirit (sent through Jesus ) is steadily at work doing what none of us can do—give people eyes to see and ears to hear Jesus himself.

It is hard not to be haunted by the Baptist's words: "Among you stands one whom you do not know." When we finally meet Jesus I suspect that none of us wiil say, "I overestimated you and your place in the whole scheme of things."

Lord Jesus, beloved and faithful Son of the Father, have mercy on us in our darkness. Holy Spirit give us the Baptist’s eyes.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Keys to Marriage?

Last week I was having a conversation with a young couple and they asked me what I thought were the keys to a good marriage. My immediate response was that I did not know since I have only been married for 26 years. We had a good laugh, and then they said, “seriously, what are the really important things that make a good marriage.” I asked leave to ramble for a moment before I gave them a more direct answer. Then I told them about my friend Ken Blue’s statement. “There is nothing better than a good marriage, and there is nothing worse than a bad one.” This is the dice we are all wired to roll. Somewhere inside (the new covenant written on our hearts) we all know that we are made for life and that life, real life, comes in relationships. So we fall ‘in love’ and get married and all is well. Then we wake up (probably gradually) with a pain that is more brutal than an August day in a Louisiana swamp. Then we find 101 ways to avoid our pain. When our coping mechanisms quit working we face the crisis of our lives.

My parent’s generation did the English ‘stiff upper lip’ thing and just ground it out. There were probably as many miserable marriages then as there are now, but ‘divorce’ was a brand that few were willing to accept. My generation throws in the towel way too quickly, in my opinion, reloads and remarries the same problem all over again, postponing the crisis for a few years of ‘love.’ These days ‘divorce’ is almost a status symbol. But splitting up is not like trading cars. There are ties and connections—body, soul, emotional and many other connections—that get ripped apart, and that hurts like hell, even if the bonds have been dying for years.

But, I told my young couple, there is something about a covenant, about an unconditional commitment, that creates the space and freedom for the proverbial ‘shit’ to hit the fan. Our wounds, as my friend Bruce Wauchope says, come through relationships, and so does our healing. But if we break up and move on, we may be being counter-productive, post-poning our own healing. Don’t get me wrong, the Holy Spirit is a redeeming genius. He takes whatever relational mess we give him and works endlessly to bring healing and life. I love that about the Holy Spirit. So in the genius of the Holy Spirit splitting up is a real opportunity for grace and healing—and so is staying together. The disaster we bring on ourselves in either case is the steadfast refusal to look at ourselves. We can stay together because it is the right thing to do and continue to blame everyone in the universe for our pain, and never find the healing we crave. And we can get divorced and continue to blame everyone in the universe for our pain, and never find the healing we crave. The critical thing, as I told my young friends, is that whether we stay together or split up, each person must be willing to face the mirror and have his or her fundamental way of thinking shattered and recreated in the light of life. And if that is the only way forward—and it is since we are fallen and all blind as bats—then why not hang on and go through it together?

In my experience such a commitment takes two, and it takes the real hope that there is one who knows love and loving who dwells within us all. So, theoretically speaking, the first key to a good marriage, if there is such a thing, is willingness to look at yourself, and willingness to have the Holy Spirit (He is the Spirit who loves us and is passionate about us coming to experience real life) reveal your own issues to you and lead you into healing. Forget blame. Accept that you are in the dark and need help. Realize that if you don’t find healing for yourself there will never be happiness in your marriage. Ask the Holy Spirit to bring revelation and healing to you. This is the way of life.

There is always hope, because Jesus is in all of us, and it is his love that drew us together, and thus submission to his Spirit allows his love to flourish in us. But, blind as we all are, this is a lesson that takes a long time to learn.

Now, within this personal willingness to submit to the Holy Spirit, there is a willingness, to enter into your partner’s way of seeing, and especially into his or her way of seeing you. I am not saying that you have to agree with what you see when you see with their eyes, but real relationship means that you enter into their way of thinking. This requires openness to communication. Communicate, quit blaming and listen. Intimacy is all about feeling what your partner feels, seeing what they see, even if what they feel or see is not necessarily ‘right.’

This is the heart of the gospel of the not-angry-but-Trinitarian God. The Father sent his Son into our darkness to experience our life—and our god—with us. While never agreeing with us or our way of seeing his Father at all, Jesus submitted to our darkness and suffered from our bizarre judgment. There and then, the Triune God met us as we are and established a real relationship with us in our darkness. Now the light of Jesus—his knowledge of his Father’s heart—is within us, and not a person on the planet can escape the crisis of vision that Jesus’ presence creates. When we enter into our partner’s way of seeing—and into their way of seeing us—the same crisis emerges. It is a crisis of communication and healing and intimacy, or a crisis of self-defense and rebellion.

As a freebee, I will throw in two words from my Dad. The first is what he passed onto us as the eleventh commandment, “Thou shalt not take thyself too seriously.” Enough said. The second is related, but more crude, so hang in there. When I was a teenager he would sometimes ask me if I had a case of ‘seeitus’ (pronounced c-eye-tus). He steadfastly refused to define what seeitus meant. True to his word, he finally told me what it meant when I turned 40. “‘Seeitus,’ he said, “is the attitude that develops when your optic nerve gets crossed with you sphincter muscle and gives you a shitty outlook on life.”

So, what are the keys to a good marriage.
(1) Know you have issues and ask the Holy Spirit to bring healing to you.
(2) Quit blaming others.
(3) Thank Jesus for sharing his experience of love and loving with you.
(4) Communicate your feelings.
(5) Don’t take yourself too seriously.
(6) Listen to and enter into your partner’s way of seeing, especially into their way of seeing you.
(7) Remember the 11th commandment too often.
(8) Pray for a cure for ‘seeitus.’
(9) Laugh.

There is surely way more to be said, but it is late and I am only 49.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Self-Referential Incoherence

I wish I could take credit for the phrase, ‘self-referential incoherence,’ but I cannot. I believe it was born in the mind of Professor Alvin Plantiga. Way back in the late 80’s, when I was in Aberdeen, Scotland, studying with Professor J. B. Torrance, Plantiga came to give the prestigious Gifford Lectures. After one of his lectures, several of us gathered for a beer and a follow up discussion with the famous philosopher. It was then, I believe, that he shared that great phrase with us. It stuck with me ever since. Over the years I have expanded it slightly into, ‘the latent deism of the Latin West and its ongoing problem with self-referential incoherence,’ as a larger statement about how lost we become when God is only watching us ‘from a distance.’ But I digress.

I think Plantiga meant to give us a thought to put in our back pockets for the days when the naysayers out do themselves during Q & A. Nonetheless, ‘self-referential incoherence’ is a profound insight into the problem of ‘the fall.’ For the most part we have been taught to think of sin as primarily a moral problem. I think sin is fundamentally a reference problem, followed, of course, by all manner of other rippling relational, social and moral issues. In the fall, Adam’s reference point moved from God to himself. He became self-referential, and thus developed a perception of himself, God and the world from a center in himself and his terrible fear. From that point the human race was trapped in its own way of seeing. If it does not ‘make sense to us’ it cannot be true. Our way of perceiving a person or a situation is the way it is. And that is the problem fraught with utter impossibility. Even the Lord’s presence and self-revelation, and indeed his way of thinking and saving, has to pass through Adam—and our—way of thinking, and thus the Lord himself and all his ways are subject to our judgment. He must make sense to us, or He is not correct, and thus dismissed. So we invent a god in the image of our own self-reference—which, of course, from the Lord’s perspective is utterly incoherent—and judge God’s presence and action by it.

So how could the Lord possibly reach us, and establish a real relationship with us in our self-referential incoherence? Everything the Lord does will be perceived, or misperceived, through our grids of judgment. Whatever he ‘says’ will be ‘heard’ through our ears. Who among us would ever suspect that our way of thinking or hearing could possibly be faulty? And even if we stumbled onto the idea that our judgment could be wrong-headed, what could we possibly do to escape our self-referentialism?

How does the Lord reach us? How do we escape our own way of seeing? How could we possibly perceive beyond our own perception and know the Lord as he is? How could we have real relationship with each other when between us stands our own judgment?

Saturday, July 19, 2008


In the two centuries between 1600 and 1800, the Church across Europe, America and indeed across the Western world suffered two direct and brutal blows, which shattered its confidence and left it in a crisis of irrelevance. The movement known as ‘The Enlightenment’ (also known as ‘The Age of Reason’) decimated the rational foundation of Christian faith and set forward an alternative vision of God, of the universe and of human existence and life within it. This new vision captured the imagination of the masses and led them as a pied piper into a brave new world that did not need the Christian gospel and certainly not the Church. The Church has yet to recover.

Such a secular movement did not develop in a vacuum; it was over one thousand years in the making, and as strange as it might sound has part of its root system in the Church itself and particularly in the great St. Augustine (354-430). The secular Enlightenment is, in my view, Augustine's stepchild, born of his unholy marriage between Greek philosophy and the definitive revelation of God in Jesus Christ..

In their combination of a sophisticated philosophy with religious aspiration, the pagan Neoplatonists had only one serious rival—Christianity, and, anti-Christian though they were, it was the incorporation of their ideas into Christian theology that ensured their permanent influence on European culture (John Gregory, The Neoplatonists, preface, viii).

The principal figure in the transmission of Neoplatonist thought into Christian theology is St. Augustine (John Gregory, The Neoplatonists, p.177)

It was a long time in coming, but the unconverted reasoning that Augustine allowed into the holy of holies of Christian thought finally came of age in the Enlightenment and broke free from the shackles of Christian authority altogether. Like a child who grew up to abuse his parents, pagan reasoning rose with such considerable force that the Christian vision of God and the cosmos was overthrown and a pagan vision of God and a radically secular world-view took its place.

There and then, the Western Church lost is position, its standing and prestige in the culture around it. We have yet to recover. Since that moment in history, the Western Church has been in survival mode, fighting tooth and nail to get back on its feet and find a place, a legitimate hearing in the larger secular culture. The last 200 years of Western Church history represents a long and frantic attempt to find an acceptable basis for Christian faith, and to establish the relevance of Christianity for human life, in a society that believes it is of little value. At the same time, the Church retreated into itself and its private Sunday spirituality, in a desperate attempt to protect its own turf, hoping that the storm would blow over and go away.

Today as the unwitting heirs of the Enlightenment's revolution, and as the sons and daughters of a saddened and beleaguered Christianity we are spiritually depressed, and light years away from the New Testament's vision of Jesus Christ as the true light of the entire cosmos and of the early Church’s magnificent vision of the Triune God. And we are a long way from the sheer passion and the unbridled confidence and the dreams that such vision stirs within the human soul. And we are a long way from moving out in that passion and confidence to explore the universe, to rethink human existence and relationships, to develop political, economic and scientific, medical, psychological and legal theories in the light of the fact that Jesus Christ, the Father’s eternal Son is the One in and through and by and for whom all things were created and are constantly sustained.

We have lost the fearless, confident boldness, the parrhesia, of the apostolic mind. We have lost, what my friend David Upshaw calls, “the apostolic swagger.” The apostles believed that they had seen the mystery behind all things—past, present and future. They believed that they had come to the heart of the universe itself, to the very secret of creation and of human history. In such knowledge, they set out to inform the whole world, and indeed the principalities and powers throughout the cosmos. They gave their lives in the service of the revelation of Jesus Christ because they knew that the cosmos was bound up in Him, and thus that coming to believe in Him inevitably meant the release of the kingdom of the Triune God throughout the earth and the cosmos.

Jesus performed miracles not merely to prove that he was God, but as the expression of the fact that as the Father’s Son, in and through and by whom all things were created and are sustained, the cosmos was already wired for him, already set up to respond to his every thought and bidding. What would happen, then, if the human race came to know Jesus, and believed in him, and brought its fallen and confused mind to his feet for conversion? What would happen if people threw their hearts and souls and minds into participating in Jesus’ world, and in His life with his Father, and in His anointing with the Spirit? Would it mean disaster for the creation? Would it mean great darkness and chaos? Would it mean evil? It would mean the personal, the corporate, the global, the cosmological manifestation of the kingdom of the Triune God. It would mean that the fullness of the Trinitarian life of God would flower in our humanity and express its goodness across the earth, releasing the great dance of life shared by the Father, Son and Spirit throughout the cosmos. For it is our darkness and terrible confusion that stifles the emergence of the present kingdom.

This is what the apostles knew intuitively in their encounter with Christ. This was the Jesus they encountered and worshipped and served with their lives. This was the Jesus Christ who blew their minds, thrilled their hearts and filled them with hope—and stunning confidence. But compared to the great apostles, compared to the martyrs and the fathers such as St. Irenaeus and St. Athanasius, the modern Western Church has retreated to playing shuffle board in a nursing home—when we have been given the secret of the universe, and the keys of the kingdom of the Triune God. It is time for us see again what the apostles saw, to encounter the real Jesus Christ, the Father’s Son, the anointed One, the Lord and light of the cosmos.

Come, Holy Spirit.

Monday, July 14, 2008


I was riding home a couple of nights ago when I noticed a bumper sticker. It read, ‘if you bought it, it was trucked.’ The next day I actually met a trucker as we stopped to get some ice and water. I got into a conversation with him about the bumper sticker. He said, ‘man, you don’t have anything in your house, including anything that went into building your house or out-fittin’ it, that was not delivered by one of us.’ His comment reminded me of a conversation I had had a few years ago in Toronto with a trucker. His job was to drive his truck from Toronto to Miami twice a week to pick up flowers and bring them back to Toronto. As I listened to his story it struck me how many people, and families, were blessed by his unknown work. Think about the weddings, the special occasions, the not-so, yet, quite critical moments in peoples’ lives that are directly influenced by the fact that this dear man gets up at 3:00am and heads south, by himself, to pick up fresh flowers for people he will never see or know.

Many years ago, I wrote a small booklet called, The Secret. In many ways I think it is my best work (The Secret is a free download on our web site). The point of the book was to help us realize how much of what we assume is our ‘ordinary’ lives is actually part of our participation in the Trinitarian life of God. That such a line of thought sounds somewhat strange to us is shocking proof of how profoundly lost we are in our religious darkness. God incarnate spent more time making chairs and tables than he did preaching, or doing miracles. Think about it. What did Jesus, the Father’s eternal Son incarnate, do for the vast majority of his earthly life? I don’t mean to say that we should give up on the miraculous, or, at least, what we might think is miraculous. I am all for miracles. My point is that there are stunning miracles happening in all of our lives everyday, but we can’t see them because of our religious prejudices.

While I utterly deplore the lack of expectation in our Western churches, it bothers me more that we cannot see how Jesus is involved in our ordinary lives. Let me put it this way: Don’t thank God for your daughter’s wedding if you cannot say ‘thank you’ to the trucker, or the cake designer, or the dress designer, or the gardener, or the architect, or the one who toils making sure the salad is perfect, as the ones who participated in the Lord's personal blessing. While the Father, Son and Spirit do not need any of us, the fact is they refuse, as Karl Barth has insisted, to be God, or to bless us, without the participation of others.

We all know—somewhere deep inside—that everyday we are blessed by people who do their jobs, by people who care, by people who grow or cut or dress the chickens, by people who meet, bless, care and teach our children, by people who make sure the traffic signals work, by people who work with shovels or atoms or gaze the stars to make things easier for all of us. But do we have a theology—or a Christology—that even hints at telling us who these people are who bless us so, or leads us to honor them for their participation?

Just remember: When you bow your head to thank God for the food you are about to receive, or to thank Him for your car, or your house, or the air-conditioning, or the health of your baby, make sure you thank him for the regular folks who He uses to bless you through. We don’t need to spend millions figuring out what is wrong with the Church or why it is dying. We need to see Jesus as he is—present, not absent—blessing his creation through ordinary people. And when the Church finally gets it, and starts refusing to recognize people according to ‘the flesh,’ and thus starts treating the truckers, farmers and workers, the gardeners, teachers and mechanics of the world as people who are participating in the Trinitarian blessing of creation, I suspect we will not have a problem with boredom or with an audience.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Jesus and Installing Pools

I Got back from a remarkable trip to New Zealand only to discover that our beloved Perichoresis' ministry is in the hole financially. We have struggled since we began in 1994, but we have always managed to make payroll. This month was different. For the first time in all these years we did not make it. So let me make an appeal. If our ministry has been a blessing to you, please consider helping us financially, so we can be a blessing to many more. Contrary to what you might think, Perichoresis is a very small ministry. Our outreach is global, and that is both stunning and beautiful to me, but the ministry of Perichoresis is almost exclusively privately funded, and the work boils down to me and my wife Beth. Until recently, thanks to a dear friend, we have operated out of our house. We now have our own offices. Scotty Rogers works one day a week helping us with administration. Scotty is a very gifted minister and therapist, with a passion for youth, and my prayer it to bring him on full time.

Ask the Holy Spirit to guide your heart. You can contribute online through our webs site. Just go to ‘donate’ on any of the pull-down menus. Or you can send a tax deductible check to us. Perichoresis • P. O. Box 98157 • Jackson, MS 39298. Every dollar counts.

Meanwhile, I have been working with a friend who just started an outdoor pool installation business. The 14-16 hour days in the Mississippi heat and humidity has been a challenge to me at 49, to be sure, but it has been a great experience. Installing pools is a dramatic contrast to teaching. The fruit is immediate and obvious. And I love that. And Pharisees don't hang out in the Mississippi heat! We hit the ground running around 7:00am, cut the sod and start carving the ground. By the end of the day another family is thrilled. The smiles on the kid’s faces alone makes it all worthwhile. (Yeah, I can hear it now, ‘Baxter, the pool guy’).

Most of the pools we have installed have been in rural Mississippi—not that there is any part of Mississippi is that not rural—and that has taken me back to my roots. One of the great strengths of Perichoresis is its ability to put complex theology in creatively simple ways. For my part this has its origin in growing up in a small town in the deep South. I reckon that the return to hard work in the farm lands of Mississippi is intended as a blessing from the Lord. I am grateful. It is exhausting, but good.

Everyday I think of Jesus asking the servants to get water to fill the ‘empty’ Jewish purification pots. It was surely hot, and the wedding party needed wine, not water, but the servants got the water and Jesus turned it into wine. The servants, doing something as apparently mundane as getting water, got to participate in the creative blessing of the Lord himself. Dignity. Meaning. Purpose. Our fleshly systems of evaluation are the fruit of sheer blindness. Participating in Jesus’ presence and blessing, whether it is through farming, putting in pools, helping a friend, or, I suppose, even preaching, is life.

The lesson for us all is this: There is far more going on in our lives than we ever dared to dream. We belong to the Father, Son and Spirit. We always have and always will. And the presence, not absence, of Jesus, calls us to throw our hearts and souls and minds and strength—and sweat—into participating in what he is doing. What we need is wisdom. So, Holy Spirit, please give us real eyes to see the presence and work of Jesus. Deliver us from our blindness and our sacred-secular dualism so we can see Jesus in the midst of our ‘ordinary’ lives.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Evangelical Repentance

Is forgiveness prior to repentance? This was one of the critical questions Professor James B. Torrance of Scotland (my professor in theology) used to raise to his students. It was, of course, a question calculated to stop us in our tracks and to force us to reflect upon some of our assumptions about the heart of God the Father and the reconciling work Christ. I am not sure that I ever heard anyone answer ‘yes,’ at least not before they heard Professor Torrance lecture on the subject. Torrance’s abiding point was that God’s forgiveness is unconditional and is to be proclaimed as such to the world.

Two of Torrance’s main influences on this point were John Calvin and Thomas Erskine (see his book, The Unconditional Freeness of the Gospel, in the ‘essays’ section on our web site). Calvin himself says that “a man cannot apply himself seriously to repentance without knowing himself to belong to God. But no one is truly persuaded that he belongs to God unless he has first recognized God’s grace” (Institutes, III.2). Yet how is one to recognize God’s grace if it is not proclaimed to him or her as a fact rather than a conditional promise?

Recently I had a conversation with a young man who was somewhat disturbed by my simple declaration that “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself” (2COR 5:19) and by the fact that I turned to the folks gathered at our meeting and declared that all without exception had been forgiven and embraced by the Father himself. In the conversation afterwards, I asked the young man, ‘what is the gospel?’ ‘what do you tell people to believe?’ ‘what is the good news?’ He answered, ‘I tell people to believe in Jesus.’ I then asked, ‘believe in what about Jesus?’ His response was telling, ‘I tell people that if they repent and believe in Jesus, they will be forgiven.’ ‘So,’ I said, ‘the object of our faith is not Jesus and our salvation in him, but the possibility that we can be forgiven, if we repent and believe in Jesus. So we are summoned to believe in a Jesus who may be our savior if we repent and believe in him correctly, and in doing so (which we can’t) we actually make him the savior?’

Either we believe in the fact of our forgiveness in Jesus, and thus have something real to believe in, or we believe in the possibility of our forgiveness, and thus believe in whatever it is (our faith, repentance or goodness) that makes the possibility a reality.

The gospel is not the news of what can be if we make it so; it is the news of what is, of what God has established in Christ. ‘God was in Christ reconciling the cosmos to himself.’ Torrance, Calvin and Erskine were right, forgiveness is prior to repentance, and indeed, prior to faith. For without the fact that ‘God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself’ there is nothing real to believe. And without the proclamation of this truth as truth we give people nothing to believe in except themselves and the existential power of their own faith and self-energized repentance.

Are we really afraid that there is someone out there who is not supposed to hear that they are forgiven, embraced and included, and thus may get into heaven without God’s permission?

Sunday, June 22, 2008

God and Greens

I am working on an essay on great lines from Paul Young’s book, The Shack. Given that there are so many, it will probably turn into a book. At the moment my favorite line is one that has to be among the most remarkable statements in theological history. It is spoken by Papa (God, the Father) to Mackenzie, a brokenhearted man who finds himself in a weekend conversation with the Trinity. They are eating breakfast with Jesus and Sarayu (the Holy Spirit). It is a breakfast of champions, to be sure, and the food is out of this world, so to speak. Mackenzie is enjoying some greens, when Papa returns to the table from the kitchen. Papa glances at Mackenzie and somewhat shouts,

“Whoa….. Take it easy on those greens, young man. Those things can give you the trots if you ain’t careful” (The Shack, p. 121).

This is a statement that not only speaks volumes, but also gets behind the ‘watchful dragons,’ as Lewis would say, of our religious defenses. Or as Larry the Cable Guy would say, ‘I don’t care who you are, that’s funny.’ And it is funny. Even the tightest brother among us would find himself smiling, at least to himself. But it is also serious in the way it instantly speaks to something very real within us, a hope, a longing that God could be so real and we could be so known and accepted as we are. I wonder what went through Mack’s mind when he heard God the Father warn him about overdoing the greens and getting the trots? Could God really be this real, this human, this aware of and comfortable with our humanity? While every Bible reader should know that God made us and is comfortable with our humanness, somehow our theology has betrayed us through the years and left us feeling that much of our humanity is unworthy if not shameful. When is the last time you heard a series of sermons on sex, or even wanted to?

Papa’s comment about getting the trots confronts us with the wonderful fact that God does know us, and like us and indeed enjoys us as we are. Such a thought is simply too hard for many of us to accept. It seems way too good to be true. And here is the rub. The lack of our acceptance of our Father’s acceptance, and of His enjoyment of us as we are leaves us in the boring and dreadful world of having to invent a ‘spiritual’ or ‘righteous’ or ‘acceptable’ self to offer to God. So we miss out on the joy of being known, accepted and enjoyed. What kind of Christian life does that leave us living, and who would want to hang with us in our falsely invented ‘spiritual’ and ‘righteous’ and ‘acceptable’ lives?

As to the sin part, well, “the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us (John 1:14).” To be sure, Papa hates our sin for what it does to us and others, but He does not wait for us to clean ourselves up before He meets us. In Jesus, Papa has not only embraced our humanity; He has embraced us in our fallen humanity. Embraced in His love, He bids us to let go of our invented ‘spiritual’ and ‘righteous’ selves, and to accept His embrace of us as humans—and as broken humans. As we accept His acceptance, we experience His liberating love in all parts of our humanity. Then we know life in the freedom of the Father’s love.

By the way, later on in the day the Holy Spirit gave Mack another plant to eat to counter act the effect of the greens.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

New Zealand

I am just back from a fantastic trip to New Zealand. Jay Lucas, the director of YWAM (Youth with a Mission) in New Zealand, and his wife Erin, invited me down to teach at their national leadership gathering. We met at the YWAM base called Oakridge two or so hours north of Auckland, near Maungataroto. We had a long weekend of fellowship and focus on the gospel of the Triune God, complete with great music, skeet shooting, and slow roasted lamb (and I was told that the Ozzies were the b-b-q specialists in the Southern Hemisphere! Thanks Ross and the gang, it was awesome).

The focus of the conference was on the question, ‘who is Jesus?’ and I had two and half days to unpack his relationship with his Father, the Holy Spirit, and the human race, and the meaning of his life, death, resurrection and ascension, and what happened to the human race in him. For you cannot speak of Jesus Christ without speaking of his life with his Father and of his anointing in the Holy Spirit, or of the fact that he is the one in and through and by and for whom all things were created and are sustained. And thus you cannot speak of this Jesus’ incarnate life, death, resurrection and ascension without speaking of the new covenant relationship he has established in himself between the trinitarian life of God and the human race, and indeed with the whole cosmos. (By the way, when is the last time you heard a sermon or a lecture on Christ as the Creator? Why is such a central point of the New Testament proclamation so absent in contemporary preaching?) There were many questions and long discussions about the atonement, why Jesus died, the source of his suffering, faith and repentance, evangelism, heaven and hell, which thrilled me, for it meant that the stunning implications of Jesus’ very existence were being seen all over again.

From there we headed back to Auckland and to the hospitality center of New Zealand—Dale and David Garratt’s home—for an evening with new and old friends, several fantastic musicians, and Tom Hallas. It was one of those nights that I call ‘an event.’ There were great stories, lots of laughter, songs, long discussions and plenty of gratitude. Thanks Dale and David and Mindy. That was a large time.

After that I met with Mark Strom, the Principal of New Zealand Bible College, spoke at their Chapel service and spent the afternoon discussing theology with several faculty members. It was a very encouraging day. The gospel of the Triune God is well on its way to be recovered around the world. Thank you, Holy Spirit, we will have more please.

Then there was green lipped mussels, Belgian beer and more discussions, followed by rest and then a legendary fishing trip to the Great Barrier island. We flew out at 7:00am and hit the ground running, except for brief introductions and some crayfish (lobster) at the Orama Christian Center. Jay led Jamie R. S. Thomas (and Englishman who works with 24/7 prayer) and me on a two hour bush-wack across the island to Sandy Bay. The scenery was so breathtaking I felt like I was on the set of The Lord of the Rings. The beauty notwithstanding, I kept my eyes peeled, half expecting an Orc to jump out any moment, and I was quite relieved to know that there are no poisonous snakes or spiders or plants in New Zealand. We finally made our way down the ‘hill’ to Sandy Bay, and yes we caught fish, in fact, within 40 seconds I caught a huge snapper (pronounced, snappah), and yes I have witnesses and pictures. We fished until the tide threatened to take us away, and then made our way back up the hill through the bush and back across the island. We were greeted by the Orama staff and a wonderful meal, after which we had a beautiful discussion about Jesus and who we are in him. It was a great day, and I was very encouraged by the generous and informed hearts of the folks at Orama. Thank you. I will be back.

The next day we fished in a boat, while Jamie gave us a lesson on how to catch fish in the ocean with a hand net (it must be an English thing). We raced back to the airport and got back to Auckland in time to cook fish at the Lucas’ with friends. The next day I shopped for gifts for my family and saw some of the sights with Jay, Erin and their son Ezra. That evening I had the great privilege of speaking with a group of musicians, artists and writers. Saturday I got to see more of Auckland and talk all day and into the evening about everything theological with my new friend Adrian. Sunday, I got to speak at a great church called ‘the edge’ in Auckland, and even had Q & A afterwards. That evening I was invited back to the Garratt’s for another round of lavish hospitality, fellowship and communion. Most of Monday was spent with the Lucas’ before what turned out to be a long trip home.

While the popularity of Paul Young’s great book, The Shack, gives me hope for the West, my trips to Australia I have led me to believe that the awakening we so desperately need will come to us from the Southern Hemisphere. My trip to New Zealand greatly confirmed my hope. The Holy Spirit is up to his under-the-radar tricks in Aotearoa. May he shine the light of Jesus Christ on the world from the beautiful lands under the southern cross.

Monday, May 26, 2008

A Dead Man Speaks

Wouldn’t you like to talk with someone who died, and then was brought back to life after 4 days? I know I would. Of course, these days we hear of such things fairly often, and who knows what to believe? But to me, it is striking that John does not interview Lazarus after his 4 days in the grave and his astonishing resurrection. So many of our questions could have been answered, and fairly quickly, if John would have recorded for us the conversation Lazarus surely had with Mary and Martha. John is strangely quiet here. How could a man such as John miss such an opportunity? But his silence, I suspect, is intentional, very intentional. Think about it. Jesus calls a dead man back to life. John’s silence, with respect to the dead man’s experience, speaks volumes. Personally I don’t think it ever crossed John’s mind to interview Lazarus. Why? Because the One who is himself the resurrection and the life is standing right in front of him!

What happens when we die? What do we encounter? Where do we wake up, and in what condition? I think John’s answer is that we meet Jesus—who is our life. And meeting Jesus as our life is both the gospel and exposing judgment at the same time.

I suspect at least 3 things happen when we meet Jesus in death and resurrection. (1) We come to know (not simply to believe, but to know) that we do not have the power of existence. We discover in death—in an irrefutable way—that Jesus Christ is the living one, and that we are not. This is not the conclusion of our intellect after a convincing philosophical debate. It is the fruit of losing every semblance of power, of coming to an absolute end of ourselves, and then meeting the One who holds our very being in the palm of his hands, so to speak.

(2) Meeting Jesus—as the source of our life—reveals to us that our entire existence, from conception to our death has been a participation in his life. Our loves, our sacrifices, our ideas and burdens, our joys and sorrows, our beauty and courage, our laughter and creativity have all had their origin, not in us, but in Jesus and his relationship with his Father and the Holy Spirit. For there is only one circle of love in this universe, the circle of life shared by the Father, Son and Spirit. In meeting Jesus we come to know as we are known. We see ourselves as we truly are, people who are not, and never have been, separated from God, people who are eternally loved by the Father, Son and Spirit, and have been made joint-heirs with Jesus himself, adopted, included in the Trinitarian life in Christ. We see our lives as the long process whereby the Trinitarian life, shared with us in Jesus, has been emerging, through the Spirit, in us, and in our relationships with one another and the whole creation.

(3) Such a revelation is the most thrilling news in the world, but it is also withering. For to meet Jesus as our life, to see the Father’s love for us, to know that we are included in Jesus’ own anointing in the Holy Spirit shows us our real life, and it inevitably reveals that we have been a long way from living it. Only in the light of Jesus Christ—and of who we truly are in him—do we understand how far we have fallen short of living in the glory of the Triune God. The mess we have made of ourselves and our lives reveals, not that we do not belong to the Father, Son and Spirit, but that we have been participating in a terrible and terrifying darkness. We have followed, not the Spirit of truth and of adoption, but the spirit of error and separation. We have lived in and out of profound confusion. We have been terribly wrong. The great darkness, and our believing its lies, created pain, and while the Holy Spirit was a work within us leading us to believe in Jesus and to participate in the Trinitarian life, we were at work believing in ourselves and in our home-made pain remedies. Seeing ourselves included in Jesus and in his life, reveals that we have been proud, self-centered pricks, whose lives have been more a form of hiding and self-justification, sadness and pain management, than open-souled fellowship and simple joy. In meeting Jesus, as the real truth of our life, we come face to face with how we have hurt ourselves, and others, and creation in the great darkness, with how we have ignored the Holy Spirit himself and preferred our own judgment, and with the brutal, yet liberating, fact that we do not have a clue about life and living it.

Jesus said, and says: “I am the light of the cosmos, the one who follows me, shall never, ever walk in the darkness, but shall have the light of life” (John 8:12).