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Category: theology

From Sacred Space to Public Grace

I was at a Christmas party with my kids this past holiday season and I was conflicted. The music was hot, the kids were eating well, and everyone was merry. Problem was, I wasn’t enjoying myself. I was trying to figure out why. I mean, I like rap, I like R&B, I like Bruno mars and Beyonce, but today I was unable to enjoy their music. Why? Because this party was in church.

I was trying to figure out why I couldn’t enjoy myself:
-Was I taking a holier than thou attitude?
-Was I being hypocritcal?
-Don’t I hear this music in other places, like the gym?
-Would Jesus even care? Would he be that offended?

Then it hit me: this is supposed to be a sacred space. Then I had to think to myself, what is the role of the sacred in our lives? Why do we distinguish the sacred from the everyday, quotidan, profane?

The sacred is a display of public grace.

What do we mean when we say something is a public grace? Grace is displayed:
-because the sacred indicates our sense of God’s existence
-because the sacred indicates our need for God’s presence
-the sacred displays our desire to know and experience God
-the sacred expresses our submission to His perfections
-the sacred indicates our awareness of sin and need for purity
-the sacred reinforces our hope in the transcendent

When we say that something is profane, on the other hand, we mean to prioritize the lowly over the heavenly, the immediate over the right, the tangible over transcendent. Profanity obscures God, while the sacred is meant to reveal Him.

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The Creative Power of Forgiveness

Akulacreative Color Palette
The irreversibility of action is one of the most profound truths of life. When we act, we interact with others from our position of human plurality to accomplish something more creative and powerful than we could ever accomplish on our own. Action is always an inter-action with others, and action is always resulting in an outcome that exceeds our own creativity and personal power. When we act, the consequences of our actions out live our selves. However, forgiveness can reverse the power of destructive action.

The inter-active, inter-personal reality of action is remarkable to consider. Because of our fallen nature and our lack of foreknowledge of future events, our actions can be creatively productive or creatively destructive. For example, we routinely see the creative power of action at work in politics. When DeRay McKesson asserts that #BlackLivesMatter, his actions are multiplied beyond his own power because others subject their personal will to the ideal that other Americans are willing to productively confront the structural devaluing of minority lives in our justice system. When President Donald J. Trump asserts that only he can #MakeAmericaGreatAgain, i.e., #MAGA, his actions are multiplied beyond his own power because others subject their personal will to the creative destruction of the American-dominated world order in favor of re-creating another domestic future.

We saw the irreversibility of action this past week in profoundly destructive and profoundly redeeming ways in Las Vegas. While the shooter may have had (yet unknown) plans effected in his own actions, the destructive power of his actions has been greatly multiplied beyond anything beyond his own power as the losses of life and health ripple through all of the families and communities affected. At the same time, his actions released the creatively redeeming actions of others who sacrificed themselves to protect others, risked their lives to keep the company of the dying, and provide immediate physical and spiritual relief to those who were suffering in the moment. While on the one hand, there was one irreversibly destructive act, on the other hand there were many irreversibly redeeming acts that negated the power of one’s rebellion against the sanctity of life.

In fact, action is so powerful that the only thing that can reverse or undo destructive acts is forgiveness. Forgiveness is the sole personal action that can release the actor and the one who is acted upon from the irreversible consequences of action. This is because forgiveness is so unexpected in the wake of actions with creatively destructive actions. Most of the time, when the circumstance demands forgiveness, it is because the hurt and pain caused by the original action is so deep that it creates a cycle of retribution in which the one acted upon is obligated to reciprocate the original action. Thus, the original action attains its destructive power. But forgiveness can have redemptive power, because it destroys the cycle of retribution while re-configuring the relation between the actor and the one acted upon. Ideally, forgiveness re-configures this relationship so that both parties can proceed as if the original act had never happened. In our human world, this is obviously not true since some of the artifacts of originally destructive acts cannot be reversed or restored (e.g., a man is paralyzed because he was struck by a drunk driver). However, future actions are no longer predetermined by the original act of destruction.

Have the events of the past week made you reconsider the meaning of life? The meaning of our actions? The power of forgiveness?

Peace and Blessings.

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Do we choose God, or has He chosen us?

Last week, we attended an Assemblies of God church called Trinity Life here in North Baltimore. I took a moment to read a bit about the Assemblies of God, with a specific emphasis on church doctrine. More specifically, I wanted to know if the church was Reformed in its theology, or if not, how much of the Reformed doctrine they reject.

When I say that I am concerned about Reformed theology, I am not necessarily talking about things like the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, and I am not necessarily talking about conforming to those things taught by The Gospel Coalition or Desiring God. While much of my own life has been greatly influenced by the books and sermons published by pastors who are members of these groups, there are several teachings they articulate to which I do not subscribe. However, I generally agree with them when it comes to the basic doctrines of Reformed theology: TULIP-

Total Depravity [addressing the nature of man]

Unconditional Election [addressing the Sovereign action of God in salvation]

Limited Atonement [addressing the efficacy of the death and atonement of Christ]

Irresistible Grace [addressing the conviction of the Holy Spirit]

Perseverance of the Saints [addressing eternal security of those who are in Christ]

The only reason I qualify my agreement with the term “generally” is because I do believe that the Bible presents all of these essential truths as antinomies. For example, it is clear that the nature of man is totally depraved–meaning that man rejects the nature, personality, and law of God. Nonetheless, it is clear from what we can observe and what we know about man being formed in the image of God that man can do some things that are good, from our perspective. Therefore, we see that while man does not seek for God, the life we experience is not completely negative in every aspect. Nonetheless, because men fundamentally reject God, we have not only the potential for immense good, but immense evil.

The antinomies that become more important for sorting through the different varieties of Christian theology are the antinomies in which the free will of man is set in contradiction to the sovereign will of God. This antinomy bears most on the doctrines of unconditional election, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints. Some Christians believe that election is not unconditional; that is, the Holy Spirit enables the sinner to become aware that there is a choice between God and their ways, but that the sinner can continue in their ways after this awareness. Because election depends, then, on the sinner responding positively to God’s invitation, grace is, by definition, not irresistible and perseverance is not guaranteed. At the same time, the atonement is unlimited because it is applied to all but effective only for those who do not reject it. From an outward, practical perspective, the lives that both types of Christians live might look identical, but what is affirmed as truth about God is quite different.

While the Reformed theology states that man does not have unconditional free will, because man cannot choose God in his sinful nature, there are Christian theologies who believe that man can choose God as an exercise of will as described above. These branches are sometimes called Arminian, and the Assemblies of God denomination happens to be an Arminian branch. While I believe that the Scripture more strongly affirms the Reformed positions, there are very clearly Scripture passages that affirm both–hence the antinomy.

While I enjoyed my visit, I am a bit nervous about attending a church that would find affirmation of these Reformed positions to be anti-Scriptural. This is besides the other Pentecostal positions some Assemblies affirm. Among these, the most uncomfortable being that speaking in tongues is the initial evidence of authentic conversion. But, I’m interested in waiting and watching to see how things shake out. As you’ll notice, I haven’t listed all of the Scriptures and passages used on both sides. I’m not sure that I wanted to do more than think through some of the concerns I have.

What do you think? Can man choose God, or does God move first?

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Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Christian Community

It is grace, nothing but grace, that we are allowed to live in community with Christian brethren.

Let me say that this statement contains a useful summary of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer believes to be the essence of Christian life, lived for the purpose of building up others in Christ. Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes this in the first chapter of his book, Life Together, which crystallizes his theology of Christian community. As time permits, I will try to share a few reflections from this book that I believe are encouraging. I have finished reading the book for some time, but it is difficult to write a review so I will share a few thoughts over the next week or two as I have opportunity. Let us start by discussing the quote above.

We see his emphasis on grace. If you have read more than one paragraph of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s writing–in most cases even only one paragraph–you will know that Bonhoeffer believes that the grace of God in Christ is the reason for living. It is the rationale and motivation of our ethics. It is the breath of life and the substance of what we call death. To Bonhoeffer, grace is everything, and so it is fitting that this quote from his book, Life Together, begins with grace.

We see that his focus on grace yields to his acknowledgment that God allows us to live in community with other Christians. I’ve written recently about how much I am disappointed and dissatisfied by church. I think that Bonhoeffer, even if he saw exactly the same data that I experience, he would conclude that even the church experiences that I have had are a supreme gift of grace that must prompt a response of praise and gratitude and not one of self-righteous complaint. When Bonhoeffer wrote this book–one of his last–he was writing as a pastor who was a leader of a non-sanctioned non-denominational seminary in Germany during the Third Reich. Communities of authentic Christianity were not common. So he wrote this with the understanding that the enjoyment of Christian community for many could be abridged at any moment by the governing authorities. Thus, not only is it grace, but it is a privilege if God calls you to live in Christian community with others. If He calls you to respond to Truth in Christ, He does so without respect for your external circumstances. Many are called to labor alone. That is not my call in Christ, thank God. He allows me to live in community with other Christians.

And this brings us to the third thing we see here: community. If we are in Christ, our lives are not our own. Bonhoeffer understood that our lives are lived in Christ, through Christ, expressly for others and not for ourselves. To me, this truth is tricky because, of course, it is only possible for me to be self-aware, physiologically. I can only be aware of things that are revealed to me, speaking from what I understand of our cognitive processes. However, in Christ, our lives are not our own. Starting in my own household, since I am married my body belongs to my wife and not to myself. The desires of my children often come before my own, discipline notwithstanding. Choices that I can make, even if I do want to satisfy my own desires, are circumscribed by household resources that do not belong to me but to my household as a unit. And this is before I leave my doors. If I read the Scripture, yes I am transformed but my transformation affects my brothers and sisters. And much about my spiritual journey cannot be accomplished if I am isolated from my brothers and sisters. How can I experience grace if I never need to ask for forgiveness? How can I experience kindness if I am never put in a position to rely on the sovereign choices of others? I cannot develop self-control or patience if I am never subject to the will of another. I cannot exercise love or be loved if I am not in any relationships. It quickly becomes clear that what Christians call the fruit of the Spirit cannot be cultivated outside of community. It also becomes clear that these fruit are not produced for our own sustenance, but for the sustenance of the entire body.

How is God calling to you to live for the Body? In what ways can you thank God for the Christian communities around you?

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In Christ, We are God’s Righteousness #NPBCSetApart

I was reviewing some memory verses and after a brief review of 2 Corinthians 5:17 in context, I came to the following passage at the end:

We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:20, 21 NIV)

I find that amazing. In Christ, we are God’s righteousness. This is why our self-righteousness is so destructive. Our righteousness is not restorative, but vindictive, not patient, but judgmental. We do not have righteousness that serves others, but that serves ourselves. We don’t carry others’ burdens in our righteousness; rather we make others’ unrighteousness plain to all. We expose rather than cover up. We dispense authority rather than mutual submission. In all ways, God’s righteousness is superior, and He demonstrates His righteousness in assembling His church and reconciling it to Himself in Christ.

In Christ we are a new creation. Be reconciled to God. Watch Him make you His righteousness.

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Join me in supporting @WorldRelief at the 2012 #BaltimoreMarathon. #standwiththevulnerable

As some of you may know, I am in training for the Baltimore Marathon this year, October 13, 2012. This has been an exciting year, and the marathon will be run one week before we celebrate my son’s first birthday.

This is my first 26.2, and I’ll be wearing a WorldRelief jersey and standing with others from Baltimore who want to support World Relief in their missionary work around the globe. I have had a chance to meet some of the men who work in this organization, some of whom will also be racing, and I am excited to ask you to consider financially supporting their work by visiting my support page: http://worldrelief.org/fertileparadox.

“If you run without a reason, you are just chasing the wind.” –Wesley Korir, 2012 Boston Marathon Champion

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nurture your first love

So, someone asked me this week while I was in a meeting, “Do you get the runner’s high?” I replied, I’m not quite sure what that is. I can say, however, that running has captured my competitive instinct (at least what’s left of it), and my drive to push myself to new levels has taken me to levels of commitment I could never have imagined. I enjoy exercising quite a lot, and I especially enjoy the rewards of building and executing a training program from research and reflection. I am training for the Baltimore Marathon after having run the Baltimore 10-miler (2 yrs in a row, now) and the Dreaded Druid Hills 10K. Exercise and competition has always had a large role in my life, and I have already started to select some challenging running goals for 2013.

This running thing is part of the reason I’ve failed to write consistently on this blog. There’s only so much time to be distributed among my wife, my son, my work, and my running. Most everything else comes somewhere below that.

If you’ve been reading this blog (or if you casually peruse some of the recent entries), you’ll be able to guess that I’m not totally comfortable with the last sentence of my last paragraph. Because, in that paragraph was no mention of my Bible study. Ever since planning to take a break from more intense study back in May, I just have not gotten back into it. And I’m certainly feeling the effects.

We all have that time in our lives where we tell ourselves that we’ve been pushing it, and we just need to take a break from that discipline that has been consuming us. We do so only to find that the discipline we’ve pushed aside is the very thing that has kept us going. That keeps us in joy and at peace. And that keeps us in communion with God.

While I’m writing these words, I’m being reminded of a conversation I had with my discipleship group at church. We were discussing various things, but when the issue of discipline came up, I told them I think a lot of our success in spiritual discipline comes from God’s release into that practice. For some of us, we are gifted and dedicated prayer warriors who never grow weary at waiting and listening for God while opening their hearts to Him; others are sublime in their service to their communities and the Body; others are natural worshipers, practicing the Presence of God in every moment and can draw others near as the Sprit moves freely through Him; others voraciously read the Word of God, while being given profound insights to encourage, instruct, correct, and exhort themselves and others. While every believer has all of these things in some measure, when we go out of our personality to pursue something for some wrong motive, we distance ourselves from God’s move in our lives.

I feel like I was doing that a bit in moving from my discipline of study. While I was, and do, feel that I am lacking in worship or prayer, part of that is discipline on my part while part is that God has not released me into those special roles. He has, however, given me a life and a personality that empowers me to spend large blocks of time in His Word. While I need to open my soul and seek God for a heart of Worship and incessant prayer, I must do these things in addition to the disciplined and organized study of His Word.

That was a long way to say: “first things first!” I guess I can sum it up by saying that there’s always a place for rest and a break, but be sure to have a plan for how that break will end.

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don’t be ridiculous… don’t waste your life

I was listening to TD Jakes this morning with my wife while preparing for my trip to Australia. He was preaching from the story of David and Goliath, specifically the part of the account when Eliab, David’s brother, rebukes him for urging the men to fight against the undefeated Philistine champion.

Although I thought I’d heard this story before, I was totally unprepared for the sermon that followed. Bishop Jakes asked his congregation, “Is there not a cause?” I suppose this question came from his observation that, as David pointed out, Israel’s armies were the army of the Most High God and this ‘uncircumcised Philistine’ was taunting and mocking him. No matter how great a champion, God will not allow His name to be profaned, and He would protect any warrior who confronted the giant on His behalf. Clearly, this was a cause worth fighting for.

Instead, the armies of Israel considered God as one who would not look out for His name, and the soldiers decided to look out for themselves. Not even God Almighty was a cause large enough for them to seek God’s glory and not their own.

So, TD Jakes confronts us the same way. Is there not a cause that urges us to interests other than our own aggrandizement? Whom are we living for? Are we growing fat on God’s blessings? Are we calling God a liar when He assures us protection if we take risks for the Name?

It was a difficult sermon for me to hear, because even in the small things, I am living for myself. When you think about it, that is a truly ridiculous way to live, but I can’t seem to shake it. I want to live for others, but I find it difficult to discipline myself to look after the needs of others first. Lord, do I need the grace to make that transformation, before I’ve been disqualified for everything God wants me to do. I know that I’ve probably disqualified myself from some things through disobedience, but I hope I can change and be changed before my youth and my life is wasted.

I am not quite sure how to end this post. Let me do so by asking you to pray for me in this regard, and if you would like prayer from me, just let me know in the comments.

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Majestic in Holiness

Who among the gods
is like you, lord?
Who is like you—
majestic in holiness,
awesome in glory,
working wonders?

This passage is found in Ex 15:11, NIV.

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when blessing comes in like a flood

Some folks may recognize the play on Scripture I’m making, but sometimes we have to reflect on God’s love being shed abroad in our life. This morning, I was especially reflecting on the similarities between the glory of God and a waterfall.

God’s glory is raw and majestic, full of power, and wonderful to behold. His glory and character cannot be contained or usurped, except at inevitable danger to ourselves. A couple of examples about this came to mind while I was showering.

One way to capture the glory of God is to try and jump into the waterfall. But we know that this is incredibly dangerous, and one survives only if the glory of the waterfall is no glory at all (e.g., a very small waterfall). However, everywhere God’s glory shows up in human lives, we see only a glimpse. Its like visiting Niagara Falls and feeling the spray of the falls, or like looking from behind a great waterfall as if protected by the glassy wall of water. We only see humans survive the full glory if God invites us into His protection, while He passes by. If we presume to enter His glory unprepared, or we attempt to usurp it for ourselves, it is like trying to ride the falls in a barrel: we will surely perish.

The other way we place ourselves in danger relative to His glory is when we try to harness the power of God’s glory for our own purposes. This is like building a dam to produce hydroelectric power, or create a recreational water body. On human time, we may reap great benefits from this harnessed power. Just like manmade dams, however, our lives become full of the silt and mud that accumulates behind even the most well constructed dams. Ultimately, the depth of the water behind the dam will become too shallow to allow continued safe operation. It will either fail structurally, placing in great danger all who are downstream, or it will need to be replaced, rendering in vain all those who were displaced to allow us to reap our own satisfaction and glory from the work of our hands. In both cases, the costs of decommissioning or destruction of the dam may greatly outweigh those required for its construction.

This is not to mention the appearance of power and depth on the surface, while all of the dirt and silt accumulates beneath the surface. For a while, our plans will avail us of much, but we must be careful not to replace the raw majesty of God’s unchanging glory with the temporal designs of our desires to gain glory at God’s expense.

Let us allow God’s love to be shed abroad into the uncharted and wild courses of our lives as he dictates, and avoid the costly, inevitable destruction of attempting to contain our Father’s authority.

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