October 5, 2007

Those Conservative Europeans…

Posted in The Church, The State at 7:34 pm by Caleb Winn

In March of 2006, I was doing some research and discovered an interesting article about global standards on abortion. I was astonished to discover just how liberal America’s abortion laws are, even compared to nations like Britain, Germany, Sweden, and other parts of post-Christian Europe.

A look at access to abortion around the globe:

EUROPE:Most European countries have legalized abortion, with limits. A representative sampling:

    Britain: Available with limits until the 24th week, after that if the pregnancy threatens the women’s life, may cause grave permanent injury to her physical or mental health or if there is a substantial risk that the baby will be seriously handicapped.

     

    Germany: Available in the first 12 weeks if the woman is in a “state of distress” and undergoes counseling.

    Spain: Legalized in 1985, available in cases of rape, fetal deformation or risk to the mother’s mental or physical health.

    Sweden: Legalized in 1975 and available on demand until the 18th week; after that social authorities must give permission.

AFRICA:

    Benin, Burkina Faso, Chad, Guinea and Mali: Recognize grounds for abortion as saving a woman’s life and protecting her health in cases of rape, incest and fetal impairment, according to the Center for Reproductive Rights.

     

    South Africa: Legal since 1997 on demand in first 12 weeks; from week 13-20 available if a doctor advises and after that only if there is a risk to the woman or fetus.

ASIA:

    China: Legal and common, as government birth control rules limit most urban couples to one child and most rural couples to two. Local officials accused of coercing abortions. Legal ban in place on aborting a fetus because of its sex.

     

    India: Legalized in 1971 and viewed as a way to curb population growth, although access is limited. Prenatal sex determination tests illegal.

    Indonesia: Illegal in world’s most populous Muslim nation except when the mother or fetus have severe health problems.

    Japan: Widely available since 1948; allowed before the 22nd week if mother’s health is at risk from physical or economic factors or if mother was raped or otherwise incapacitated at time of conception.

    Philippines: Illegal in predominantly Roman Catholic country.

LATIN AMERICA: In predominantly Roman Catholic Latin America, abortion is usually illegal, although many countries make exceptions for when the mother’s life is at risk. An exception is Cuba, where abortion is legal, widespread and free through universal health system for women over 18. There were 52.5 abortions for every 100 births in 2004, according to Cuba’s Ministry of Public Health.

MIDDLE EAST: Abortion is banned in Middle East nations from Morocco to Iran, in line with Islamic Shariah law, which strictly forbids the practice — though most allow it if the mother’s life is endangered. The sole exception is Tunisia, where abortion is allowed on demand during the first trimester. In Egypt, it is allowed before 120 days if doctor specifies reasons requiring it.

Sociologist Peter Berger famously stated that if Indians are the most religious people in the world, and Swedes the least, then America is a nation of Indians governed by Swedes. But when it comes to protecting the lives of the unborn, even Swedes would think that America is a little out there.

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September 9, 2007

Authentic Christianity

Posted in The Church at 3:17 pm by Caleb Winn

 

And I must be an acrobat

To talk like this and act like that

~ Acrobat, by U2

Christians are often called hypocrites because of the enormous gulf between what we believe and how we actually live. Straddling this gap requires a certain degree of acrobatic flexibility, as identified by U2. It is easy to grow angry at the man who praises God with the same mouth that he uses to belittle his wife. And it is easy to feel that our own worship is disingenuous when we see our own sin. I am an ungracious man, who claims to live for grace. How can I talk like this, if I know that I will turn around and act like that?

The problem is that God’s goodness and our own wretchedness stand in tension with each other. Hypocrisy is bad, so it seems as if we ought not speak graciously while living in sin. We ought not talk about morality and goodness and the glory of God if we harbor bitterness and lust in the secret places of our hearts.

In order to alleviate this tension and resolve this contradiction, there are two possible alternatives, both of which are wrong. These errors are the false righteousness of the Pharisees, and the despair of Judas Iscariot.

There is also a Biblical model of the correct response, which is the penitent humility of the Tax Collector in Jesus’ parable.

Whitewashed Tombs

The first error is that of the pharisees, who claimed moral perfection, and whose faith was about standing on their own merits before God. They spoke very highly of God’s law, but did not understand their own shortcomings. By claiming to be without sin, they escaped the clutches of divine forgiveness, and so resigned themselves to damnation. They did not realize that Grace lives in the gulf between sin and salvation.

We can be tempted to praise God, but ignore or disguise sin within our lives. Since we claim to serve a great redeemer, we want to appear to be greatly redeemed. Such an attitude says true things about God, but conceals the truth about ourselves. The “everything is ok!” Christianity is decidedly inauthentic, and it is problematic for many reasons.

First, we must recognize sin in our lives in order to recognize God’s grace to us. We have been forgiven much, and our gratitude and worship should increase proportionally as we recognize just how much we have been forgiven. Refusing to admit that we still sin is implicitly refusing to admit that we need God’s grace, and it hardens our hearts to the mystery and glory of the gospel.

Second, we must recognize sin in our lives in order to be sanctified, and freed from sin. Internal repentance and external accountability are essential for overcoming areas of sin. If I am an alcoholic or a bitter man, but refuse to admit that to myself and to my community, then I will not be able to repent and overcome the sin that damages my soul.

Third, we must confess sin within the community of believers in order to strengthen and encourage each other’s faith. The honest confession of sin is an instrument of God’s grace within the church. If I pretend to have no sin, and hide that successfully, then the external, legalistic moralism will only spread poison within the church. If I praise God’s grace, but act ungraciously, that will hurt those around me. When that happens (and believe me, it does happen!) it is appropriate to confess sin, and seek forgiveness, and not to pretend that nothing is wrong.

Field of Blood

The other error is the one committed by Judas Iscariot who, having betrayed his Lord with a kiss, was so overwhelmed by grief that he took his own life. He was so aware of the depth of his sin that he could not conceive of redemptive grace. Though he would admit his sin, unlike the pharisees, he was incapable of accepting forgiveness. He was so focused on his own depravity that he could not see God, and so resigned himself to damnation as well.

I’ve already written about the dangers of engaging in self-destruction as a means of evading true love-based guilt and repentance. The idea here is that when we focus on our sin, and do not see God’s grace, we come to believe that we are beyond the power of divine redemption. We think of ourselves as all-bad, and do not claim goodness, nor associate ourselves with the name of God. In order to avoid the hypocrisy of trying unsuccessfully to be good, we simply give up, and wallow in our own depravity. This attitude is problematic as well.

First, it simply is not true. God’s grace is far greater than our sin, and to deny His grace is to deny Him. Recognizing our sin should drive us toward God, and not away from Him, for only through recognizing our dependence on God can we embrace the life of the Spirit.

Second, this self-punishment is completely narcissistic, and isn’t even really rooted in love or concern for those against whom we have sinned. Our inability to perceive God’s grace reflects an excessive, even obsessive focus on our own lives, which is itself a sinful state of self-idolatry.

Third, this despair is purposeless, leaving only physical and/or spiritual suicide as outcomes. There is no room for sanctification or spiritual regeneration if we think that any movement towards grace is a sinful act of hypocrisy. We cannot come to know life, if we think that we are essentially, irreparably dead.

The Middle Road: The Tax Collector

In Luke 18:9-14, Jesus tells the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector.

The Pharisee prays loudly, really praising his own virtue and external morality. He commits the first error I identified, in that he is unable to humbly recognize his need before God.

The Tax Collector, on the other hand, does recognize his sinfulness and depravity. But unlike Judas Iscariot, he does not commit the error of believing himself to be beyond redemption. This humble tax collector realizes his own sin, but simultaneously recognizes the grace of a glorious God. He cries out, “God have mercy on me, a sinner.”

This simple statement of a broken man is the essence of redemption. Unlike the Pharisee, he recognizes his sin. And unlike Judas, he recognizes that there is a God who will show mercy on him, a sinner. A God who is far greater than his own sense of remorse.

God, have mercy on me. A sinner.

The Redemptive Process

We ought to do our best to reconcile our lives with our beliefs. In order to do this, it is important to hold an honest view of both God’s goodness and our own depravity, and seek to bring out lives, attitudes, and actions in line with our belief and our worship. We must say true things about God, and also say true things about ourselves. Through holding these two in tension, we can become progressively sanctified.

I think that both the error of the Pharisee and the error of Judas lies in not recognizing that redemption is a lifelong process. It’s not about Being Good, or Being Bad, as if those were absolute and unalterable states. It is about Becoming good, progressively letting go of our shameful sin and turning to God for grace. I am not a static identity, but rather a person in flux, at times gracious and at times not. I am not defined by my virtue or my wickedness, but am the product of a dynamic interchange between the two, defined by turning to grace in the midst of sin, and praising God when I realize how far I have fallen. The sometimes enormous gulf between my words and actions does not represent true hypocrisy, but rather reflects the heart of a man in flux, showing who I am, and who I want to be.

September 6, 2007

Redemption: Erotic Guilt As The Motivation To Make Amends (4/4)

Posted in Personal, Philosophy, The Church at 11:12 pm by Caleb Winn

As I have thought further on the subject of erotic guilt vs. thanatotic self-punishment, I’ve realized that there may be no clearer image of this dynamic in action than in the character of Angel in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, specifically in the episode Amends.

To recap: Angel the vampire (with a soul!) is plagued with images of those whom he has wronged. Unable to bear his guilt, he instead concludes that he is unworthy to live, that he is in fact wholly worthless and evil, and attempts to take his own life. Through seemingly divine intervention, Angel’s life is spared, and he rededicates himself to a life of service in order to make amends for what he has done.

I have already blogged about this here, and Rebecca Card provides further exposition and analysis here. In light of my recent reflections on the nature of repentance, however, the redemption of Angel takes on new light for me. Here are my reflections on the nature of redemption in light of Amends.

Human Love Cannot Bring Redemption.

Buffy’s love cannot save Angel, nor can the forgiveness of everybody whom he has ever wronged. In the face of self-punishment, the soul simply cannot accept the idea of human forgiveness, and cannot recognize any self-worth.

This makes perfect sense if self-punishment is a means of evading real, love-based guilt. Because the torment is not motivated by love for the offended, the love of the offended cannot alleviate the pain. The aggression and hatred cannot be dissolved by the tearful kisses of another, nor by their angry pleas. If Buffy cries I love you! it falls on deaf ears, and if she calls him a coward it only adds fuel to the fire of his self-loathing.

The cause of Angel’s torment is internal, and so the cure is also internal. He must learn to forgive and love himself. And, in his case at least, this process requires divine intervention.

Grace Is A Divine Concept

It takes an act of the divine to break through the cognitive and emotional barriers that keep Angel mired in self-pity and self-directed aggression. Though Angel sought death, the “Powers-That-Be” had other plans for him, and they spared his life. This action allows Angel to confront his guilt, to work through his guilt, and to no longer hide behind the lie that he is irredeemable. Redemption falls all around him, in the form of the blessed snow, and he is freed from his self-destructive despair. He finds purpose and hope in this redemptive act, and through it he understands that he has a higher calling.

The redemption offered by Christ’s atoning sacrifice, and the effective communion extended through the agency of the Holy Spirit, are far more powerful and meaningful. Though our sins are greater than we can imagine, God’s grace is even greater still! The knowledge that the Son of God became man, and that the blessed Godman took the penalty of my sin upon Himself, allows me to come to terms with my feelings of guilt and shame.

Repentance Seeks Restitution And Regeneration

Angel’s redemption is directly linked to his calling to “help the helpless,” as a means of making amends for his years of wrongdoing. He is called to bring protection and peace where he had brought aggression and destruction. This is appropriate and good, and is surely an example to be followed. True guilt is based in love for the object of our offense, and should compel us to change our actions and seek to repair any damage done. Therefore, wherever possible, we should respond to conviction by seeking to be reconciled with those whom we have offended. However, we must also be willing to accept grace if this is not possible.

The difficulty here is that those he killed were beyond the reach of his redemptive efforts. Try as he might, Angel cannot do anything to undo his misdeeds. The understanding that one’s wrong actions have caused irrevocable damage is damning, and allows for no possibility of earned redemption in the specific sense. Once he has killed a man, Angel can never restore that which he had taken.

This does not mean that Angel cannot seek personal restoration through performing good deeds. Through doing this, he can repair the damage done to himself, even if he can never undo the damage done to Ms. Calendar. His goal, then, is not to undo what had been done, for that is impossible, and attempting to do so will only lead to more despair, and in turn self-destructive penitence. Dwelling on specific past sins is neither healthy, nor productive. Instead, Angel seeks to become a good man. Even where restitution is not possible, Angel seeks internal regeneration, and a life of virtue.

I suspect that this depends on the idea that our sin is ultimately against God, and not our fellow men. (See Psalm 51, “Against you, you only have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight!”) If our sin is against God, and we feel an appropriate (love-based) guilt over our misdeeds, then we will be motivated to be reconciled to God through sanctification. Even if the particular expressions of our sin have persistent long-term impacts, we may still now the peace of redemption by grace, through faith, in the finished work of Christ.

In Time, Virtue Moves Beyond Catharsis

In a way, Angel’s actions are still motivated by narcissism. Though he makes personal sacrifices to serve others, he does so for the sake of achieving redemption. This is especially apparent in light of the prophecy that comes to light in the spin-off seriesAngel, in which Angel is promised restoration to a human state. This desire for personal satisfaction and the alleviation of guilt motivates much of Angel’s “virtue” throughout the series.

But this is not his entire motivation. Over the course of several seasons, Angel grows to fight more for Good than for personal happiness. By the end of Angel, he is even willing to give up the promise of humanity in order to fight against evil more effectively. He is content to go down fighting for what is right, sacrificing his life in the service of a worthy cause, and not because he felt himself unworthy to live.

Redemption In The “Real” World

Though Angel is a fictional character, his story contains lessons for anybody who, like me, struggles with the thanatotic impulse to self-punishment. When confronted with the realization of horrendous wrongs committed, it is easy to evade true guilt and wallow in self-torment. This is the path that Angel sought to take when he tried to end his life. But there is a far greater path, and Angel shows the way.

(1) Seek the grace of God, and not the approval of man. Even if everybody in the world loved me, that could never alleviate the self-destructive, thanatotic need for punishment. Only the redemptive love of a supernal God can break through and challenge an infernal hate!

(2) Seek restitution where possible, but ultimately move past the place of sin, pressing towards righteousness for its own sake, and not for the sake of easing one’s troubled conscience. A man’s life need not be defined by his greatest failures. Rather, he should seek to transcend those failures and pursue the good life, neither wallowing in past sins, nor being complacent to remain in them.

Through a committed reliance on God, and through practical efforts at sanctification through His strength, man is made whole, and freed from the self-punishment that accompanies the Law of Sin and Death. There is no more condemnation!

August 31, 2007

Sin: Idolatry as Excessive Love (1/4)

Posted in The Church at 9:56 pm by Caleb Winn

A few days ago, I blogged about what it means to be a Christian. I argued that Christ ought to be the center, but not the totality, of our lives. My position was (and to some extent still is) that we are created to enjoy life’s “lesser goods,” and that we ought not feel as if every waking moment should be consciously directed to the worship of God.

While I still maintain much of that position, I’ve also realized that it may place too little emphasis on the centrality of the gospel to Christian life. Surely man was created to walk in the garden, but when his love for the fruits of the garden grew larger than his love for God, then sin entered the worth, and death shortly thereafter. In like manner, we are created to enjoy God’s great world, and to delight in His gifts. We are made to live in community, and to love as friends, family, and partners. But the moment that any love looms larger in our lives than our love for God, then we run into the danger of idolatry.

The dangerous thing about idolatry is that the idol may be a good thing! It’s not that it is wrong to love a friend, a lover, or a noble activity such as education or the arts. The problem lies in loving excessively, to the point that our love for lesser goods overshadows our love for the Greatest Good. When we place another person, or an ideal, or a cause, at the center of our lives, then we shall surely meet ruin.

But God is faithful to prune our faithless hearts. At times I wish this were not so! When we try to build our lives around a false idol, God often takes those idols away, even though they are good things, so that we are forced to cry out to Him in our pain and be healed, to return to Him as our only basis for living.

I wonder if, more often than not, He does this by giving us exactly what we ask for. As in Dante’s Inferno, it quickly becomes clear that our sin is its own punishment. No person, or cause, is really equipped to provide us with purpose, meaning, or happiness. If we seek to build our lives around a lesser good, all God has to do is let us have our way. We will quickly realize just how foolish our desires are. Just as it is Satan’s self-pity and prideful rebellion that kept him trapped in an icy prison of his own tears, so my insistence on looking to others for happiness will always leave me frustrated and empty, for I turn to others for that which only God can provide.

But God is faithful to correct our fallen, frail, fickle hearts, and bring us back to Him. He disciplines those whom He loves. At times, we are required to give up that which we loved too dearly: an alcoholic ought not drink, even moderately, in most instances. In other instances, he may bring restoration and healing so that we are able to orient our desires rightly around His grace, and under His authority.

In either case, I suspect that we must be willing to let go completely of that which we desire, and to surrender it entirely to Him. If He chooses to bless us by restoring broken relationships or granting us financial success, or whatever particular idol we have turned over to Him, then that is a blessing. But if He never does this, then I think that we are still blessed.

None of this is to negate the idea that we ought to enjoy the love of a friend, or the beauty of a sunset. But although we are meant to enjoy these goods, and even enjoy them for their own sake, we must always enjoy God more. If we do not, He will correct our hearts. And it will be painful and difficult, but it will be worth it.

The Illogic of Psalm 51

Posted in The Church at 3:42 pm by Caleb Winn

King David cries out, “Against you, you only have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight!”

Surely Uriah the Hittite would have something to say about that? You know… the guy that David murdered? The guy whose wife David stole? Surely David had sinned against him!

How can I claim that I have sinned against God alone, when my sins so clearly hurt others? And how can I forgive myself when the scars of my sins are etched onto the hearts of those I claim to love?

(This is not to say that it is appropriate to demand forgiveness of others. By its very nature, forgiveness cannot be demanded. One cannot claim a “right” to forgiveness. And if one does demand it, attempting to guilt the offended party into forgiving him or her, is that not wrong? To say “I won’t be happy unless you forgive me” is both manipulative and selfish, and perpetuates the original sin. It’s the conversational equivalent of holding a gun to one’s own head and saying, “Love me or I’ll shoot!” God forgive me if I ever have that in my heart.)

And yet, it’s right there in the Bible. David seems to truly believe that His sin was against God, and not his fellow man. And by turning to God in repentance, David found the grace to be forgiven, to forgive himself, even, and to serve God in mighty ways.

This offends my sense of justice, which says that a reckoning must be made for all wrongs committed. In my heart, I feel that it is wrong to be happy once I have made others sad, and that sanctification is an affront against those against whom I have sinned. For if I have behaved wickedly toward a person, but simply move on and become a less wicked person, then surely I am lying, am I not? Isn’t it deceitful to improve, and deny that I am the person who hurt another, that my identity is wrapped up in that sin?

And yet I know that this is false. If man is created in the image of God, then his identity is rooted in the foundation of the divine, and sin is the inauthentic unreality. Neither physical nor emotional suicide is an appropriate response to conviction, for God seeks to transform us, not merely superficially, but inwardly. His demand for Justice is met through the death and resurrection of His Son, and there is no need for me to make impossible restitution for sin. Rather, He calls me to be transformed responsively, and to life a life worthy of the calling that I could not earn.

Perhaps the same is true of offenses committed against others? Perhaps justice does not demand that I remain in a state of depravity, but that I become a less depraved person. If I treat a friend cruelly, I ought not remain cruel, or loath myself for being cruel, but rather stop being so cruel. Perhaps this would bless them most.

But still, surely I have sinned against my friend? And yet David says otherwise, and The Word speaks truth. But I do not understand.

I am truly baffled, and do not know the answer.

A Psalm of Repentence?

Posted in Personal, The Church at 2:15 pm by Caleb Winn

(I am in pain, and out of my pain I turn to others for comfort. My expectations are so high, my demands for love so absurd, that they will always fail me, for I ask what only God can give. And so I lash out in my pain, and break the hearts of those who do their best to care for me. If man hath no greater love than to lay down his life for a friend, then surely man hath no greater hate than to demand the lives and love of others, only to spurn their heart, once given! And when my sin finally causes me to be alone, I turn to God in prayer, asking not that He change me, but that He make the pain go away.) 

But when I am hurt, the gospel should not be a mere band-aid that provides temporary comfort; it should be the blood that pours out of me, as love from the wounds of Christ. The gospel must not be a superficial salve. It must be the core of my very being, and the lifeblood of my soul. 

(But it’s not. No matter what I say, I love nobody so much as I love myself. I care little for the blood of Christ, when I feel the sting of pain in my own life. And I care so much for myself that I blow everything out of proportion, screaming and crying as if a small scratch is a mortal wound. All I want is a salve, a band-aid, a respite from my self-created misery. When I am hurt, I get bitter, and I get mean. I am not worthy of the Gospel, as I cry out for God to be my nursemaid, to come and take away my foolish, selfish pain.)

But God does not merely condescend to join us in a place of pain. He condescends to bring us up out of our self-centeredness and misery. He condescends to us, so that through him we may transcend our selfishness and self-pity. We shake our fists at God, holding out our bleeding fingers in agony, and He grabs hold of our hands and draws us up to Him.

(But how could He grab hold of my hand?! Even as I write these words, I remember my sin, and it grieves me. How can I praise God? I am unworthy to even speak His name, for these are the lips that have cursed those I love. These lips have broken hearts; how can they claim the heart of God? I understand now why Isaiah said, “woe is me!” for when He saw God’s glory He wanted to praise Him, and could not. Nor can I.)

But God had mercy on Isaiah, and cleansed his lips with fiery coal, purifying him by fire to be a messenger of grace. The Gospel does not make sense. God does not demand that we come to Him as those who are worthy. When I am most broken, He is most powerful. And He uses my brokenness to bring healing. “Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones you have broken rejoice!”

(But I do not want my bones to be broken, or my lips burned! God, give me chastity and charity, but not yet! Let me hold onto my comfort. Let me grasp tightly to my sin. Let the peace of God be kept at bay, while I retain lordship over my life. And let the kingdom of my soul remain in ruin while Christ the King waits outside the walls of my heart, for I am afraid of the fire! And surely a man such as me can never change.) 

But the greatest Christians are not the most moral people. Abraham, David, and Paul were absolute villians. But God has mercy on me, a sinner, and brings not only forgiveness but also restoration. He takes broken instruments of sin and makes them into signifiers of grace and redemption. He takes great sinners and makes them into His saints. Through the pain of conviction and the difficult, humbling process of repentence, he burns our hearts with fiery coal until we, too, can cry, Holy! Holy! Holy!

(But… I have no excuse. God forgive me for demanding a band-aid, and for caring about nothing but my own pain. God forgive me for lashing out at others, beating dear friends with my bloody fist.  God forgive me, and heal the pain that I have inflicted on those I claim to love. God forgive me, and draw my focus to you. God forgive me, and help me to forget myself. God forgive me, and help me to trust in your grace. Though I am not worthy, have mercy on me, a sinner!)

I am not a good person. Right now I feel like I may be the worst person in the world. I do not write this as one who has it all figured out. I am not saying any of this because I am good, but because I am wretched, and so overwhelmed that I would rather die that face the shame of my sin.

But I serve a great God. When I create idols in my heart, He breaks them. When I turn to false gods for comfort, He takes them away. He disciplines those He loves, and His grace drives out sin, slowly, painfully, and completely. For the gospel is not merely forgiveness, but redemption. The blood of Christ not only washes away the stain, but also the sin. God does not merely declare me “Not Guilty,” though I surely am guilty. He restores my soul, and through His sanctifying work transforms me into the image of His Son.

It is a long, slow, and painful process. I’m frustrated to see pereived gains evaporate in the space of a few days, and to see sins that I thought had been long dormant rear their ugly heads. But I know that God is faithful. (Please, God, be faithful!) And short-term retreats are not the whole story. For neither life, nor death, nor my own stupidity can separate me from the love of God.

Break my heart, oh God, that your love and mercy may flow through my veins, and pour out of me as a blessing to others.

August 29, 2007

Christ in all, and Christ alone.

Posted in The Church at 11:18 pm by Caleb Winn

All I Want Is You?

I have always had a problem with worship songs which proclaim absolute, exclusive, complete love and fervor and loyalty to God, and complete disregard for all else. We claim, through our worship, that we do not desire anything except to know God. And when I hear those words, I find it difficult to sing along, because they simply aren’t true. The Westminster Catechism states that “The Chief End Of Man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” Is it wrong, then, to enjoy other things as well?

The God of Grace is the center of my life, and knowledge of Him is my greatest desire, but it is hardly my only desire. I desire friendship, fellowship, companionship. I desire food and shelter. I desire the beauty of nature and of art. These are not theological desires, nor do I really desire these things with any theological intention in mind. I don’t say “I want fellowship in order to be exhorted to Godliness and to more perfectly reflect the glory of almighty God!” I desire human love for its own sake, primarily. Does that mean that I am discontent with God’s love? Is it some sort of moral failure?

As I’ve pondered this question in my heart over the past few weeks and months, a few different ideas have floated around in my head. I will try to outline three different areas of analysis, and try to understand the nature of human worship of the divine in light of them.

Why Are We Here?

I think it is helpful to ask ourselves, for what purpose was man created? Understanding how God created us to function is the best way to understand how we ought to live our lives. In order to do this, I think that we need to examine the beginning and the end, to see how we are made, and towards what we are working.

We are made to be corporeal beings, by our very nature. We are not souls trapped inside bodies, nor are we a soulless bundle of chemical and biological processes. We are ensouled bodies, and corporeal souls, a dual existence intertwined and essentially inseparable.

We are made to work. We are made to live in a garden, tending the trees and caring for creation. Unlike the Angels who reside in the throne room crying Holy, Holy, Holy, man is made to live apart from the direct presence of the beatific vision. God certainly “walked with Adam in the cool of the day,” but the image of Eden is not one of an uninterrupted worship service. Eden is a place of activity and service, wherein we fulfill a role within creation.

We are made to love. God created Eve for Adam, because “it is not good for man to be alone.” Surely man was not “alone,” for God was there with him. But direct communion with God is not, it seems, the totality of human relational capacity. Our desire for companionship, for friends and for a lover, is God-given and appropriate. Though some may be called to a life of celibacy and monasticism (see 1 Corinthians 7), this is not the norm.

We are made to return to Eden. Though we often speak of “going to heaven,” the Bible speaks clearly of the resurrection of the body. Salvation provides restoration and glorification, but it is not clear that we will be essentially changed. The resurrection of
Jesus Christ enables us to also be resurrected, in Spirit now and progressively, and in body at the end of the age. But we shan’t be transformed into Angels. We shall remain as we essentially are: corporeal beings, living in a corporeal realm. The idea that we will spend eternity literally within an incorporeal heavenly realm, praising God, seems problematic to me. I find it far more likely that we shall be restored to what we were meant to be like, rather than that we shall be transformed into something wholly new.

In light of all of this, it seems appropriate to desire, and even enjoy, the “lesser goods” that come with corporeal existence. We are created to be corporeal, active, social beings, and we ought not deny that God-given nature.

A Beautiful Creator

As I consider specifically the beauty of the physical world, I’m reminded of the idea that The Heavens Declare The Glory of God. Does this mean that my experience of the heavens must always be quickly transformed into theological contemplation? Or is there something deeper going on here?

It is helpful for me to think of creation as an expression of God’s character, rather than as a random jumble of signs pointing back to Him. There is a purposefulness to creation, if we understand that it necessarily shows us who God is. This helps me to escape overanalyzing and rationalizing everything that I see.

This means that beauty of creation is not an academic construct, or an intellectual category that points to abstract ideals. It is a very real expression of a Very Real God, and experiencing beauty in my soul enables me to love God in my soul, even if I do not construct a theological argument in my mind every time I see a rainbow.

Indeed, constructing theological arguments can be counter-productive if it stands in the way of appreciating the real beauty, and standing in awe at God’s glorious creation. If we understand that creation is necessarily reflective of God, then falling in love with creation necessarily causes us to fall in love with God. Appreciating beauty means appreciating Beauty, and ultimately the author of Beauty.

Becky wrote an interesting post on the subject, if anybody is interested in reading her perspective. She expresses what I mean to say far better than I possibly can, so it is certainly worth the read.

What Is The Greatest Commandment?

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this dilemma is the oddly exclusive of The Greatest Commandment, and the fact that it seems to be contradicted by the next commandment, which is “like the first.”

We are told that we ought to “Love the LORD your God with all of your heart, soul, mind, and strength.” Surely if my entire heart, soul, mind, and strength are committed to loving God, I have no more heart, soul, mind, and strength left for anybody else! If in fact God demands my exclusive adoration, there is no room for deviation. I cannot love God with all my heart, and also love my friend, can I?

But then the second commandment, which is tied inextricably to the first, urges the reader to “love your neighbor as yourself.” How is this possible? If I have truly committed all of myself to loving God, I have nothing left with which to love myself, let alone others! How can this commandment possibly make sense, in light of the first?

In fact, I would argue that it only makes sense in light of the first, and that the link between the two is key to understanding either. Like the concepts that they embody, the commandments themselves must always exist in conjunction with each other. The commandment to love others is a means of fulfilling the commandment to love God. It is through loving others as ourselves that we are able to love God with our whole heart, soul, mind, and strength. For loving my neighbor is an ineffable expression of divine love and grace.

All I Want Is You!

The bottom line is that I am unable to see God perfectly, and He allows me lesser, intermediary goods through which I can see His glory reflected. I am created to enjoy these blessings, and in so doing to worship God.

So in the end, I’m left wondering if there is really a conflict at all. If I desire companionship, I am fulfilling the role for which I have been created. If I delight in beauty, I am really delighting in the creator who chooses to manifest Himself through this beautiful world. God is in the sunrise, and the sunset. Life isn’t about structured worship. It is about living as we were made to live, driven by love and grace under the sovereignty of a great and glorious God.

I can sing “All I Want Is You!” to God, then, and mean it. For when I want friendship, when I want to be diligent at my job, and when I want to sit and experience the beauty of a sun’s slow descent into the Pacific ocean after a long day of laughter and fellowship, these are all ways in which I want to worship God.

As with Adam tending his garden, as with Noah beneath the rainbow, as with Christ pouring Himself out lovingly for an ungrateful people, LORD, so let it be with me.

August 27, 2007

The Kingdom Of Heaven Is The Kingdom Of Christ

Posted in The Church at 11:36 pm by Caleb Winn

Chiastic Structures and Christological Symbolism in Matthew 13

 Welcome To The Kingdom

Throughout His ministry, Christ speaks often of the “Kingdom of Heaven.” Matthew 13 provides one of the clearest examples of this, where Christ tells a series of parables that each examine a different aspect of what exactly the “Kingdom of Heaven” entails. At first glance, there seems to be little uniting the various parables and illustrations. Each of them may be understood individually as making a particular claim about the Kingdom of Heaven, and each seems to make sense apart from the others. I would argue, however, that the entire section of scripture (from 12:46 to 13:58) is one single, coherent – albeit subtle – argument for the Kingship of Jesus Christ over the throne of Heaven! 

Chiastic Structure

In the interests of conserving blog space, I have not posted the entire chapter here. I would highly recommend reading the entire passage in order to follow the flow of my argument.

The key to understanding this passage is the structure of the parables and the events surrounding them. In this section, I believe that Matthew employs a sort of chiastic structure, wherein events and illustrations mirror each other in order to highlight the central point.  For example, a simple chiasm might be diagramed as 

A           B           C       B        A

In this structure, the C point is central, and the A and B points on each side reflect their counterparts. In most cases, understanding C enables us to better understand A and B, and vice versus. This is essentially what Jesus is doing with His parables in Matthew 13, but on a much grander scale. 

An Introductory Parable About Parables 

Jesus begins Matthew 13 with a parable about a man sowing a field, and seeing that some of his seeds grew and flourished, while others were chocked by weeds, or scorched by the sun (13:1-9). 

Immediately following, Jesus’ disciples asked Him why He speaks in parables, and he provides a lengthy explanation for why He uses parables (13:10-17) followed by an explanation of this parable in particular (18-23). 

Christ’s justification for the use of parables is longer than His explanation for the parable itself, and it ought not be glossed over. It is also sandwiched between the parable, and the explanation, which should pique our curiosity as well. This may function as a miniature chiasm. The distinction that Christ draws between those who truly see and hear, and those who do not, mirrors the distinction between the seed which flourishes and the seed which dies out. 

The point here is that some will understand the truth, and others will not. 

Note that this parable, uniquely among those in this chapter, does not say “the Kingdom of Heaven is like…” It simply begins “A man went out to sow.” This seems to set it apart from the rest of the parables, which follow. Note also that the subsequent parables bear a striking resemblance to this first one. It seems as if this first Parable of the Sower is an introduction to those that follow, so we ought to keep it in mind as we move forward. 

Six Stories 

After the first, long parable, Christ then launches into a series of 6 shorter parables, with an explanation sandwiched in the middle as a sort of chiastic structure.

To briefly summarize, the parables argue that “The Kingdom of Heaven is like . . .” 

(1)  A Man Who Sowed Good Seed – But the enemy plants chaff with the wheat, so the man will separate them and judge the chaff at the time of the harvest (13:24-30). 

(2)  A Grain of Mustard Seed – It is small, but becomes great (13:31-32). 

(3)  Leaven – It causes bread to rise greatly (13:33). 

(4)  Treasure Hidden in a Field – It is worth selling everything you have (13:44). 

(5)  A Merchant In Search Of Fine Pearls – He sells everything he has. (13:45-46). 

(6)  A Net – It catches good fish and bad, which will be separated and judged in the end, back on shore (13:47-50). 

Parallels, Couplings, And Chiastic Reflections 

There are a number of points to draw here regarding the structure of this section. 

First, Jesus inserts an explanation of the first parallel right in the middle, between the image of the leaven and the image of the buried treasure. He also ends the explanation with “He who has ears to hear, let him hear,” before moving on to the next parable. This is important in light of the introductory parable, and hearkens back to 13:9 and 13:14-17. The centrality is important, and should capture our attention as it dramatically changes the tone and pace of the passage. 

Second, the 1st and 6th parables are different similes for essentially the same concept. In both, the image is of good and bad thrown together indiscriminately, and allowed to grow and live together until the end of time, at which point they will be judged. 

Third, the 2nd and 3rd parables (mustard seed and leaven) are almost identical to each other, as are the 4th and 5th (buried treasure and pearl of great price). They can really be understood as a pair of couplets. Furthermore, the fact that they are so coupled, and that they are bookends for such a substantial break in the narrative flow, means that we ought to understand them as reflecting each other. 

Fourth, note the great parallels and contrasts of meaning between the 2nd/3rd parables and the 4th/5th parables. In the first couplet, the image is of humility. Mustard seeds and leaven are not impressive. They are very mundane, everyday objects. But the passage draws out a comparison between these boring images and the images of the buried treasure and the pearl. This makes sense in light of the way that Christ uses the images: the mustard seed is small, but grows great. Yeast is a minor ingredient in bread, but it makes the bread grow great. 

So the 1st and 6th parables reflect each other, while the 2nd and 3rd (as a single couplet) reflect the 4th and 5th (as a single couplet), highlighting the central point of the passage, which is the explanation that takes place in the middle.As a Chiasm, it could be graphed:

A              B1/B2           C              B2/B1                 A

Taking A Closer Look To See… What’s At Stake. 

In light of this, it is important to understand what this central passage says, both for its own sake, and in light of the surrounding parables.

Jesus explains that the sower is the Son of Man, and that the good seed are the “children of the kingdom,” which is the Church. As the weeds (”the sons of the evil one” or non-Christians) grow up among the good seed, the Son of Man allows them to prosper. But at the harvest (”the close of the age”) He will send his harvesters (”angels”) who will separate the righteous from the unrighteous, and cast the latter into that place where “there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” 

Though His explanation is limited to the parable of the weeds, the analysis applies perfectly to the parable of the net, as well. Good fish and bad fish are caught up in the same net, and are not separated until they reach the shore. To cement the parallel, He even uses the same language: the “angels” will separate the fish, and cast the bad fish to the place where “there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” 

This much is clear, then: the explanation makes sense of the parables of the sower and of the net, and argues that there will be a reckoning at the end of time during which the Godly will be spared, and the wicked punished.

But how does this apply to the reflected couplets? How does this image make sense of the mustard seed and the leaven, or the buried treasure and the pearl?

The answer to this question requires us to take a step further back and look at the context surrounding all of these parables. In so doing, I think that we will discover that these parables show us how to be a “good fish,” by recognizing the supremacy of Jesus Christ. 

Taking A Step Back To See… Christ The Unappreciated 

The first clue is the way that the events surrounding this series of parables seem to reflect each other. It makes sense to group this section together from 13:1 (The parable of the sower) to 13:50 (the conclusion of the last parable) or 13:52 (Jesus final statement of reflection about the parables). But in expanding our focus to include the surrounding passages, we can see a clear parallel between 12:46-50 and 13:53-58. 

In the former section, Jesus rejects His mother and brothers while speaking to the people. While the passage is not explicit on why they came to get Him, Jesus’ response seems to imply an assertion of His divine calling. While His mother and brothers represent His domestic attachments and home life in Galilee, Jesus rejects that identification and instead proclaims that His family is composed of all who serve His Father in heaven, rather than His earthly father. From this, it seems as if the passage is a repudiation of those who would consider Him a mere man, and a statement about His divine nature and holy calling. 

This is a clear parallel with the events that transpire immediately following this series of parallels, where the people of His hometown do not recognize His authority and respond in astonishment. To further reinforce the connection between the two passages/events, they even make reference to Jesus’ mother and brothers (13:55)! And just as in the earlier incident, Jesus’ divine calling is not recognized, for the people of His hometown cannot see Him for who He truly is. 

Taking It All In To See… Christ As King 

Understanding this context allows us to make sense of the entire passage, then. At the end of time, Christ will send His angels to separate the wheat from the chaff, and the good fish from the bad. And those who shall be saved from the fire are those who “have ears to hear” and recognize Jesus Christ as Lord. They are not fooled by the diminutive nature of the mustard seed or the leaven. They recognize a great treasure when they see it, and they will give their all in the service of Almighty God. 

The mustard seed that is overlooked because it is so small becomes the greatest tree; it is the buried treasure, worth selling everything to find! 

The leaven that seems so small and unimportant can leaven three measures of flour; it is the pearl, worth selling everything to find! 

This is where understanding the chiastic structure of these parables really pays off, in that it causes us to grasp the full meaning of each parallel as a part of the greater whole. By understanding how the mustard and leaven are mirrored reflections of the buried treasure and the pearl, both sets of images gain greater power. The passage calls us to recognize the value of the mustard seed, and the glory of the leaven. 

The people of Jesus’ hometown could not recognize this, for they saw only a carpenter’s son, born and raised among them. Their eyes were blinded by familiarity so that they could not perceive the glory of the Son of Man. It is this attitude against which Jesus warns, through the Spirit-fueled gospel writing of Matthew. 

A Final Note 

I did not include this earlier, because I am not entirely certain of my extrapolation, but it occurs to me that the tree of bitterness and the leaven that raises three measures of flour may be images of Christ’s death on the cross, and His resurrection after the third day. This adds greatly to the already rich symbolism of the passage. For Christ’s death was a humble, even humiliating one. It was seen as a final defeat. But where men see defeat, God sees victory! The agony of the Cross has become the joy of our salvation! The seemingly worthless mustard seed and leaven are the means by which we may approach the throne of God, free from condemnation. It is this that will enable us to escape the harvester’s fires at the end of days. 

Praise be to God, who shows us “what has been hidden since the foundation of the world,” and gives us eyes that can see, and eyes than can hear! By His grace, and His grace alone, we are able to hold fast to Christ, and to sell all that we have for Him, our pearl of great price, our treasure that was buried in a field, and yet rose again!

July 24, 2007

What does it mean To Make Amends?

Posted in Culture, Personal, The Church at 9:08 am by Caleb Winn

In season 3 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the character Angel is brought back from Hell by some mystical power. Upon his return, he finds himself haunted by images of those whom he has wronged.

You see, Angel is a vampire — but one with a soul. For hundreds of years, Angelus delighted in torturing and killing innocents, taking sadistic pleasure in driving helpless men, women, and children, out of their minds.

As a demon, Angelus has no conscience. But when he is reensouled, Angel begins to feel remorse beyond anything a mortal man could experience or imagine, for his sins were far greater than any that a mortal man could commit, and they stretched across centuries. This awareness of his sins drives him to despair.

And as his despair reaches its highest point, the faces and voices of Angelus’ victims call out from centuries past an accuse him of his crimes. These hallicunations are manifestations of “The First,” who is evil itself, and whose tools are deception and despair. And each of these hallicunations tells Angel the same thing: Kill Buffy, and you will be free.

Angel cannot bring himself to kill Buffy. He wants to escape the guilt for his evil deeds, and not to perpetuate them. Nevertheless, he cannot live with himself, in the agony of his torment. Convinced that he is irredeemably evil, and that the world would be better off without him, Angel climbs to the top of a hill overlooking Sunnydale, and waits for the sun to bring him deliverance from his guilt. As Buffy begs him, pleads him to come inside and spare his life, Angel looks at her and tells her what she doesn’t understand about depravity: It’s not the demon in me that needs killing, Buffy. It’s the man.

And as he waits for the sun that will bring death to his vampire frame, Angel is surprised to discover flakes of snow falling from the sky. After all, Sunnydale had been experiencing record heat all week. And yet here was snow. And in a flash of realization, Angel understood that the sun would not shine on that Christmas morning, for nature itself would not let him die. Giving up in despair was a coward’s way out, and Angel was meant for more than that. He had more to live for. He must make amends.

This is a powerful image of redemption, and has consistently brought me back to Grace when I have wandered away. It is so easy for me to feel, like Angel, as if my sin overshadows grace. It’s easy to want to give up in despair. But that is the coward’s way out. Grace tells me that redemption is possible, and calls me To Make Amends.

This doesn’t mean that we can earn Grace, or in some way make ourselves worthy of redemption. Rather, our lives out to be lived responsively to Grace. In light of the fact that we are new creations, in light of the fact wehave been brought forth into newness of life, we are called to walk in righteousness. It’s not about earning redemption. It is about living out our redemption.

This is a difficult thing for me to remember, but it is also desperately important. This blog is an attempt for me to live out my redemption, at least intellectually, by exploring new ideas and trying to understand God’s world in light of His perfect Grace. I hope that it blesses you.