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