“Thou hast taken hold of my right hand.” –Psalm 73:21

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When he realizes the fantastic success of practical people, the writer is strongly tempted to abandon his faith,. The rich and powerful have it all now; no seeming need to refer to any god. Earlier the writer says: my feet almost slipped – an image of walking on a narrow path, losing one’s balance, and falling.

Now he affirms: God, you are holding me even when I was an unthinking this-world-only being, not remembering your promises and your power. “I was like an animal before you.” Now he realizes, in this unrolling meditation that sees him restored, that even his foolishness was in God’s hand. The Spirit kept him, we see in the light of the New Testament. Even as a beast before you, I am continuously before you (same Hebrew word for “before” or some translations, “with.”

Not only my brain, not only my thoughts; you Lord have taken my right hand bodily to physically guide me and keep me from pitching off the road.

What a great, great assurance. For in-Christ people, the spirit of Christ himself lives within. Talk about a “paraclete,” a Comforter, one who comes alongside (John 15-17).

Photo credit “Guard Rail and Grass Woodstock Vermont,” Christopher Sessums via Flickr, license Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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Ordinary Names, Doing Extraordinary Work, and Persisting in Faith: Thoughts for a prayer conference

ImageJune 6, 2014
Listen to the start of the apostle Paul’s letter to the church at Corinth:
“Paul, called by the will of God to be an apostle of Christ Jesus, and Sosthenes, our brother, 2 to the church of God in Corinth, to those who have been consecrated in Christ Jesus and called to be God’s holy people, with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, their Lord as well as ours. 3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. 4 I am continually thanking God about you, for the grace of God which you have been given in Christ Jesus; 5 in him you have been richly endowed in every kind of utterance and knowledge; 6 so firmly has witness to Christ taken root in you. 7 And so you are not lacking in any gift as you wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed; 8 he will continue to give you strength till the very end, so that you will be irreproachable on the Day of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9 You can rely on God, who has called you to be partners with his Son Jesus Christ our Lord.
Notice three things about this passage. 1) Ordinary names, 2) doing extraordinary work, and 3) persisting in faith.
1) The mere names are written more or less in the standard form used to start letters in the Roman empire period. We would say, Dear Friends.
Such an apparently mundane communication make this kind of writing seem hardly scripture-like. It is in koine common Greek. It has no high literary style. The words are not like a Plato or a Greek poet. Even Augustine had trouble reading this comparatively unburnished writing as scripture. Crude, not worthy, he thought before conversion. The words hardly seem like once and for all chosen words. Yet they are.
God used the language of the people to communicate. Koine Greek was the language of business and politics all around the Mediterranean basin, all over the Roman empire. How convenient.
God has become incarnated in human history. He condescended to meet us where we are. He is on our level. It looks ordinary. The supernatural is dressed  in jeans, as it were.
On top of that ordinariness, God has Paul include the name of his colleague, Sosthenes.
When I go to a meeting, one of my strategies for making sure the next meeting crew know I was there is to second a motion. Sometimes I even move one. Then no one can say I wasn t there or did nt do anything. My name is in the minutes.
I m not entirely sure why Sosthenes gets a mention. Other than to be like, another second witness to the truth. “In the mouths of two witnesses let everything be established.” That was the Jewish law. Or to underline that Paul is not an authority like the Lord Jesus; he is one of the apostles who were commissioned together and whose collective authority really comes from the one who called them. Sosthenes anyway is in the minutes. And I m glad he is. It is very humdrum. Very ordinary.
But Sosthenes is doing the business of God. Everyone for all time can see God used old Sosthenes to do work that would be looked back on as long as the present age goes on. He is just Sosthenes, but under the triune God he was given work to do that will last for ever. God works through the ordinary. He is not a high style God. He uses all kinds of people in all kinds of places. In fact high and low and middle you name it.
Your name as a praying person at this prayer conference is in the minutes. If not some official minutes or record of attendance, then the record of God. All agents of grace in their place. All pray-ers are Sosthenes-es. Recorded by God special to him.
2. Notice that a kind of blessing starts the letter, a kind of prayer. “Charis kai eirene.” This initial passage prefigures all the concerns of the letter. All the introductions to Paul’s letters, except maybe Ephesians, a circular letter, have this character. After you read the letter to the Corinth Christians you see why Paul started out the way he did. He is very curt with the Galatians, and you see why after you read the letter. Here in the first Corinthian letter you have a church which is way off base in its actual life. A man is living with his stepmother. There are issues with food from pagan temples. There is abuse of the Lord’s supper. They are tolerating people who downplay the resurrection. But: Paul commences by giving thanks to God for them.
If it were me, I m sure I would be less enthused. I would be thinking about all the hard work to get this outfit straight and it might not even take, my efforts might fail.
Paul knows this: the faith of these folks is the work of God, not any human effort. That believers exist in the middle of an idol-worshipping, sexually impure, port city in the Greek part of the Roman empire is a miracle. Each and every believer is a miracle. Remember  to buck him up evangelizing, Jesus appears to Paul and told him: I have many people in this city. These folks are Jesus’ people — even thought their life is not all it needs to be. Their lives need to match their confession of Christ. But they are on the way — in Paul’s optimistic take. The glass is half full. Paul keeps the big picture firmly in view. “I am delighted you belong to Jesus. I have not forgotten the occasion of your coming to faith in the first place and what a miracle it was. I have not forgotten the day you were baptised. I delight in you with the delight of the Lord himself.” We could all learn something for our church relationships from these few verses. So easily overlooked. So expressive of the gospel of Jesus Messiah the Lord of heaven and earth.
3. But notice thirdly, Paul does not neglect to urge them. Humanly he uses words to do God’s work. The Corinth Christians need to persist in doing good. If they hear his words and act, they will be displaying faith. Notice that “call on the name” in verse 2 is almost the same thing as their identity in the same sentence. “To the church of God in Corinth, to those who have been consecrated in Christ Jesus and called to be God’s holy people, with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” – relying on the supreme authority — which is Jesus — is a sign of worship and submission. To pray is part of very identity of God’s people. Conversely, those who do not call on Jesus are not showing reliance on him. They are relying on themselves or on gods who really do not have the authority to make that difference.
In verse 8 Paul writes, “He will give you strength.”
This is a prayer conference. It takes an effort to go out of town, one more year to this prayer conference. Perhaps there was some competing allegiance, some family event, sports event, golf event, dancing for the stars event,  that you made a lower priority. I thank God for you doing the work of God in praying for God’s work in Asia. God is at work in you both to will and to do his good work. You still hear his voice. Let us, as long as it is still day, encourage one another. The work will last forever. Not many causes can say that.
Ordinary names, doing extraordinary work, and persisting in faith!

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Can Christian faith stand up to intense unfair suffering?

I’ve been writing an article about the human tendency to suppress uncomfortable truth, and how that suppression affects teaching situations.

Shoshana Felman wrote two decades ago that two aspects mark every educational situation: things we want to know, and that which we absolutely cannot let ourselves know.

As research, I watched the nine-and-a-half hours of Claude Lanzmann’s Holocaust film.

This blog entry is me trying to figure out how God could be fair.

The film centers on interviews with survivors and perpetrators of the Polish Nazi 1942-45 death camps, with contemporary on-site footage. The viewer is led to imagine the scenes that the witnesses describe.

Lanzmann’s Shoah is definitely not a mini-series. The filmmaker gives one break at the half-way mark. No photographs or 1940s film footage appears. Shoah is all testimony.

Holocaust deniers point out that the film’s philosophy allows that strictly literal truth is not its only concern.

Myself, I found the testimony compelling from beginning to end.

Self-deception by culprits to bystanders – even most victims – is in the film in every nook and cranny.

Then I went ahead and read Isaac Bashevis Singer’s novel, Shadows on the Hudson.

Singer tells the story of the grown children of Eastern European Hasidic Jews who are somehow in America.

Their strictly-observant mothers, fathers, siblings, cousins, grandparents, were reduced to ash by the Nazi murderers.

Can the children still believe in their parents’ God?

How can the God of Abraham be worshipped with integrity?

In dramatic form, Singer’s book does the metaphysics. Five-hundred-plus page-turner pages work out the possible character of God in the lives of the characters.

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Why is America and Europe fascinated by the Holocaust? After all, there is a Holocaust industry.

What accounts for the Holocaust’s continuing reception by media outlets and in the public?

How weird was the Holocaust really?

Is German racism more or less horrific than Rwandan racism or Serbian racism? Is it the cruelty of Nazis who play with infant skulls? Is it the Nazi practice of having fathers dig graves for their families? Shooting one in three in a lineup?

What happened in the Holocaust has happened since.

In Europe, Serbs, Croats and Romanians outdid German cruelty in the same period – check it out.

Westerners expect African and Balkan barbarity.

Is it a reverse racism that advanced white European Germans should never have been capable of such viciousness?

They were so advanced: Look at their Goethe, Beethoven, Schiller.

As Singer’s characters say, there have been Nazis since forever. Look at Genghis Khan.

Is the Holocaust fascinating because the modern German industrial approach made huge-scale killing possible?

Left-wing progressives planned and carried out catastrophes. In China, Russia, Cambodia – and not against others, but against their own people who thought or lived in “non-revolutionary” ways.

Any of us discover irrationality in ourselves at the highest level of refinement. Ask Woody Allen.

But recognizing that any human is a potential barbarian does not vindicate God.

Could a good God allow horrors to happen?

Maybe, as Singer’s characters sometimes say, he allowed human free will and this means the possibility of catastrophes.

The Hebrew Bible already shows the faithful recognizing, “We were like sheep to be slaughtered.”

There is no shortage of Hebrew psalms anticipating or working through some horror or other.

“Sing us the songs of Zion,” say the Babylonian captors, against the backdrop of a God who has ripped his people from the land of promise.

Yet monotheism means that the one true God controls time and space.

In the final analysis, he at least allows all that happens.

If God is good, could he allow a Holocaust horror?

Maybe he is not good. Maybe he is not all-powerful.

Apologists could reply that life on Earth is nowhere near as bad as it could be. Human life is sustained all the time and we are mostly unaware. Disasters are aberrations.

I flew onto a runway recently. The plane made it from 35,000 feet at 600 miles an hour, with all tires intact. A miracle! To one passenger, anyway.

That there might be even more disasters is an abstract thought, not gripping.

A Holocaust is big enough to raise the question about God.

The walking dead of Singer’s books and short stories must have it right.

Post-Shoah, his characters cannot without such a god, and cannot live with him either.

If God is good, could he allow a Holocaust horror?

If an irrational, unbelievable, literally incredible return to a traditional Judaism is impossible for Singer’s characters, the answer must be a flat “No.”

The Holocaust was so massive and so vicious that the only right response seems to be silence.

The injustice to his own people does in worship of a god uninvolved in such suffering.

Without a God who enters into suffering – somehow – his chosen people bear the pain.

Does a crucified Son of God somehow vindicate God’s silence?

Isn’t the resurrection –a space-time historical event – God’s once-and-for-all hopeful answer?

The skeptic says that the Christian answer has not proven more livable over the centuries. Christian horrors are on display: Crusades, residential schools. From the beginning forced conversions were acceptable.

A skeptic could say that violence is in Christian faith at the very root. Take the Joshua/Judges command to annihilate the Canaanites, always taken as part of the Christian Bible.

Another skeptic might add: A millennium-and-a-half of European Christian anti-Semitism made the Nazi work possible.

Most of occupied Europe was complicit – even after one grants heroic exceptions.

The recent Kristen Scott Thomas film “Sarah’s Key” nails this, not to mention Ophuls’ “The Sorrow and the Pity” from 1969.

Claude Lanzmann’s documentary – and Raul Hilberg’s research on which it was built – make complicity crystal clear. In the Polish interviewees the anti-Semitism is barely concealed.

A believer in Christ can only affirm: Christianity too stands under the cross.

Perhaps Christianity stands under the cross most of all.

Christians should start by admitting abject failures in all branches of the faith as our own failures, from the get-go.

Christian life must be a repenting life. Now, more than ever.

If repenting tends to go to seed in the second generation, that is a call for strenuous catechesis and evangelism – at least.

The unfair suffering of others – and our complicity – is a call to admit again that Christian morality is only worth the living faith it draws on.

Anyone’s righteousness is only filthy rags.

God is not unfaithful.

Singer’s characters see the options to be mysticism or nihilism. “We don’t know what’s out there,” or, “Life has no meaning.”

Renewal at the foot of the cross is an option considered once, in mockery of a born-again character.

The only way to reconcile the justice of God with his complete final power is this: Only a crucified God as enough.

The theologian Jurgen Moltmann wrote as much. Bonhoeffer’s tortured reflections that led to a religionless or churchless Christianity must have pivoted on the vindication of God.

The triune God is just – despite what we see in our own lives, in current affairs, in history.

That’s why the Cross is a deep enough symbol to sum up the whole faith.

The alternatives are bleak.

God came. Suffered. Rose again.

Hold onto it.

June 5/July 1, 2013

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Prayer: Why Bother?

“Why Bother Praying?” is a new title from Paulist Press.

That stark question – by itself – raises interesting rock-bottom issues.

“Why bother” hints at a great reason to bypass prayer:

“Why bother, because what God will do, God will do”?

For a minute, put on the why-bother point of view:

  • The Christian God is the sovereign ruler of the universe.
  • He controls the atoms, the cells, the neutrons.
  • He knows how history will end, already, and knew it from (before) the beginning.
  • Jesus, after all, is the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world. (Revelation )

So: why pray?

Whatever will be, will be. The future’s not ours to see. Que sera, sera.

He even knows our prayers before we make them.

Why ask him? He already knows what you need. Why clog up communication with needless information?

And, prayers that are in line with the will of God are the only ones that are heard.

Translated: Ask him to do what he is going to do already, and he will do it.

Doesn’t that make praying seem pointless?

Why take time to pray?

The effect of any prayer is already included in the divine plan.

Wait a minute: If the effect of your prayer is already factored into the divine plan, then, suppose you did not pray.

Your non-prayer is part of the divine plan also.

Nobody prayed, so God did nothing!

Here is a confirmation of this line of thinking. Jesus went back to Nazareth, and he could not do much there, because the townspeople did not believe in him.

They did not have faith in him. Maybe they did not have much faith in their God, either, besides doubting Jesus’ credentials; maybe their turning away from God was radical. The account is not specific, perhaps because those who had faith in God were looking for his Messiah, like Simeon or Anna (Luke’s gospel).

Basic point: Your prayers in time make a difference for eternity.

We humans cannot know how God will use our prayer. The book says that the prayer of a righteous person makes a big difference.

The book assures us: God’s people can pray and change the course of history.

God hears. Passages even affirm that he “repented” of some promised judgment.

Looks like good reasons for not praying are theological reasons somehow understood in the wrong light:

  • The foreknowledge of God.
  • The nature of faith.
  • Trust in God as central to the Christian life.
  • God in time and beyond time, transcendent, and also immanent. Beyond us and with us.
  • Trusting God in disasters like Habakkuk’s catastrophe.
  • Believing that the Cross is God’s paradoxical decisive intervention in history.

Jesus prayed!

Why on earth did Jesus have to pray?

If Jesus is the second person of the Trinity, the fact that he prayed is as much mystery as one could imagine.

He even said that the Father knows some things not known by the Son, at least while on Earth. –More mystery.

Then again, Jesus is still praying, Hebrews tells us.

Prayer might be the most central aspect – the defining aspect – of the Christian life, the sign of one’s faith, humility, love, hope, compassion. Maybe.

I’m in Oxford where colleges were founded to pray for the souls of the wealthy departed.

Could one write about great ages of prayer? Great places of prayer?

I hear that Korea knows how to pray.

Could an age of prayer give way to an age of advance for the gospel?

Korea sends many missionaries. The country has changed dramatically. Are these changes from prayers?

“Jesus taught them that they should always pray and never give up.”

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