2006-12-31

Christ-centered Environmentalism and the Global Warming Boogeyman

This article developed in response to some questions a student posted on facebook about "global warming". It was too long to post there, so now it is here:

I have two sides on the issue of environmentalism. On one side, we have to care about the environment, because God does. He made it. He says its good. He has given us stewardship over it, and we will have to answer for how we have used what he has loaned us. If he cares about "the birds of the air... and the flowers of the field" (cf. Matthew 6), then we have to care about it too. Furthermore, this earth is what his children live on. If pollution is hurting his children, in the form of disease, bad water, acid rain, and other problems, then it is hurting God, and honestly, pissing him off. That is why I care about the environment, why I recycle, why I like bio-fuels and so forth. As follower of Christ we need to do everything we can to stop the destruction of God's world, and to redeem EVERYTHING for Christ's sake: people, places, and pollution included.

On the other side, I think this "global warming" thing may be a bunch of hoooey. When the volcano Krakatoa exploded in 1883 it put more pollutants in the air in a few days than all humans did during the entire 20th century. Krakatoa (ONE volcano!) put enough crap in the air to affect temperatures globally for several years, and this does not count the dozens or hundreds of other volcanoes that erupted. Far more methane, carbon dioxide, and pollution is put into the air by the waste products of the world's cattle, chickens, and farm animals than all of the automobiles and factories of the world combined. And, to top it off, we know that the temperature of the world has fluctuated wildly in ages past with long-term heat waves and ice-ages. And that happened without humans or human industry at all. We have only been paying attention to our temperatures for about two centuries, which is a blip on the radar screen of world history. Long story short, we know less than jack here, and what we do know points to a natural cause and not a man-made one. It is more probable that "global warming" is a conspiracy by politicians to grab more tax-money and power from you than it is a genuine crisis.

And, if global warming IS "man-made" then blaming the American SUV with all of its emissions controls is the wrong "man" to look at. Instead, look at industries in developing nations where they have little or no pollution controls. There are industrial areas in China, India, and Russia (to name a few!) where entire rivers and eco-systems are decimated, whole populations are sick, and tons of pollution goes into the air every day. And, if you think automobile smog is bad in the US, go to a busy developing-world city where they have a jillion motorcycles and no emissions controls. It is very hard to breathe (I know, I have been there). This is not to say that the US can't do better. We can, we should, and we need to. But it is to say that we lead the pack in controlling pollution, and other countries need to catch up.

The reason to care about the environment is because it hurts God's children, God's creatures, and God's property. If we don’t care about it, it’s a bit like a dog that takes a sh*t in its own dog-crate. I think "global warming" is a false issue that distracts us from the real reason to care about the environment, which is to share God's love and care for our Creator's creation. And, like I said above, I think "global warming" may just be a tool used by politicians to gain votes, power, and tax-money from us. God always calls us to care for persons more than things, and concrete realities rather than theory. In fact, good intentions and good theories often get quite twisted when we pursue them without care for the concrete effects they have on real people. For instance, think how many laws, rules, and regulation no longer apply, and may actually harm people, because they are pursued for their own sake (with "zero tolerance"!), rather than thinking how these rules affect real people in concrete situations.

Global warming is theoretical, undefined, and impersonal. It is almost impossible to tell how it started, nor if it is getting better or worse. And because it is so vague and ill-defined, it is the perfect tool to scare the hell out of people, and cause them to give money and power to the "experts" and the politicians to protect them from the bogeyman. In fact, it is just plain dumb to care about the environment only because of some illusive temperature effect that may or may not be due to us, which may or may not get worse. If global warming IS because of humans, then doing the kinds of things we need to do to care for God's property and God's children will solve it, without even having to pay attention to it. If global warming IS NOT because of humans, then nothing we do will matter anyway.

Conspiracy theories abound because it makes someone money, sells product to someone, and gives power through fear to those in control. I think global warming may be just another conspiracy theory that is distracting us from God's mission. Our lives should not be governed by fear that "the sky is falling". Our lives should be governed by love, as we try to love our neighbors as ourselves. All of our neighbors, starting with humans and extending out to the beasts of the field, and the birds of the sky, and the fish of the water, and the glorious creation that they inhabit. May we all become environmentalists because of love, not because of fear. Amen+

2006-12-26

Face to Face with the Love that will not Die

Before reading this, do the following "thought experiment". If I say "hell", what does it make you think about? Don't read this next sentence until you have thought about that for a second. If I say "God's love", what does it make you think about? If I say "the God revealed in Jesus Christ", what do you think about? Finally, think about this: How do hell, God's love, and the God revealed in Jesus Christ fit together? Now, ponder these Scriptures:

1 John 4:8 God is Love.

Hebrews 12:29 Our God is a consuming fire.

Hebrews 10:30-31 For we know him who said, "Vengeance is mine; I will repay." And again, "The Lord will judge his people." It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.

1 Corinthians 3:11-15 For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw- each one's work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone's work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.

Romans 8:35-39 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? …Yet, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Matthew 7:11 If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!

And think about what Jesus teaches us in the Prodigal Son while you are at it (Luke 15 if you need to look it up).

Have you pondered all of these things in your heart? Good. Now you can read the rest of this.

A few days ago, I wrote an article on hell, and how some of our false ideas about it became so popular. A few months ago, I wrote two massive 8000+ word articles on the idea of a "Redemptive Hell", and why it makes more sense of Scripture and Systematic Theology than any contending version of what hell is. Today I just want to write a short post on why hell is real, why we don't want to go there, and why it is not God's last word to those in hell.

I guess my big problems with the traditional views of hell really began in 2004 with the reading of Brian McLaren's "The Last Word and the Word after that" and CS Lewis' "Great Divorce" and "George MacDonald" anthology. The problems were defined better through some great conversations with my friend Steve. And the problems got worse with the birth of my daughter Elise.

And here is the central problem: How can God our Father stop loving us? And, if it is true that God will not stop loving us, how can God give up on us? And if God will not give up on us, then how can hell be God's final Word to a vast majority of humanity who has either died without Christ, or died while rejecting the incomplete Christ they knew through the (often hypocritical) preaching, teaching, and example of His Church?

It seems that I have come to believe so much in Scripture, and come to love Jesus so much, that I simply cannot disbelieve what it (quite literally) says in places like 1Corinthians 15, Philippians 2, Romans 5, and 9-11, the Gospel of John, and Colossians. I simply can no longer dismiss promises that God will reconcile all things to Himself through Jesus Christ, and that every knee in heaven, earth, and under the earth will bow in worship and confess in praise that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father. I can no longer simply believe that the Bible is exaggerating when it says that God's Love will never give up, never fail, and never keep a record of wrongs (cf. 1Co. 13). I simply cannot call it naïve optimism or dramatic overstatement that just as "in Adam all die" so "in Christ all will be made alive" because God "so loved the world that He gave his one and only Son that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life".

And, since having my daughter, I can no longer imagine that God could stop loving us. Jesus (above) says that if we, even though we are evil, know how to do good to our children (because we love them), then just imagine how much more God knows how to do good to us. Our love for our children, as great as it may seem to us, is but a pale reflection of God's love for us. And I refuse to believe that if I just understood God's love more, I would understand how he could stop loving his children, or give up and give them over to un-ending destruction. That's not God's love. That's satanic! My love, as a born-again, Scripture-trusting, Christ-believing, Spirit-filled Christian father, bears witness to the even greater love of God my Father. If I cannot imagine giving up on my children, how much more can God not imagine giving up on us!

I can imagine that God might have to give us a huge, hellish "time out", by allowing us to perish and be separated from everyone else so that we can no longer spread our hurtful, selfish, sinful infection to others. I can see why hell is necessary, and I believe that hell is a reality. And from my experience in my own soul, in Christ's church, and in God's world, I believe that people DO and WILL go to hell, because heaven would be hellish if they were allowed into it, in their current state.

But I can no longer believe that hell is a destination of no reprieve. Instead, it seems that hell is a tool of last resort. I believe that hell is "being face to face with the love that will not die". It is being in solitary confinement with Him who is the consuming fire of Love. It is our Father saying:

Fine, you can deny my love and even deny my reality, but I will never deny you. And I will keep you alone with me so that you cannot hurt anyone else with your sinfulness. And it will be you and me here alone forever, if you want it to be. And you will never see another soul until you choose to accept my love and my forgiveness and become a loving child of God like my Child Jesus is. I give you the choice. You can receive my love and say to me "Thy will be done", or you can deny me and I will say to you "Thy will be done". It's your choice. I am waiting…

Why is it a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God? Because he will torture us forever if we do not obey him? No! It is fearful because it will kill our selfishness to come face to face with him who is unselfish, unfathomable, unrelenting love. His perfect love will sear our conscience and convict us of all that is mean and cruel inside of us. The fire of His Love will purify and refine us of everything that stops us from being in perfect communion with Him and His children. He wants to kill everything in us that uses Him and manipulates others for our own gratification, and the part of us that wants selfish gratification is afraid of that reality. Deathly afraid. He will not give up, not stop, and not hold back until He has made us into a perfectly loving child of God who can fully share in Him as a friend shares love with another friend and as a wife shares intimacy with her husband. We cannot hide from his love, but we will be stripped naked and see ourselves as we really are in the presence of His perfect Love.

That is why it is fearful. Not because God will give up on us, but because God won't!

Can someone stay in hell forever? Theoretically, yes. It is vaguely possible that someone could be alone in solitary confinement with God forever and stubbornly keep denying His love forever, like a two-year old that never stops having a temper tantrum. It is thinkable that someone could grasp the unreality of their sin for all eternity and never loosen their grip to receive the love they are living inside of. There is a potential that someone could choose personal misery and desperately close the eyes of their soul to the light of Christ for un-ending ages upon ages.

But, somehow I doubt that a creature will ever be able to out-stubborn its Creator. Not our Creator, the one that defeated death in Jesus Christ.

There may be some who take millions upon millions of our years to repent and accept God's Love in Christ. There may be some so dead-set on denying Jesus that they will take eons to admit that all of God's fullness is revealed in Him. And there may be some who for ages will hold on to their guilt and hurt and not allow their sin to be put to death through Jesus' one-time offering of Himself on the Cross.

But, in the end, I hope with a sure hope that Jesus will redeem all of Creation and reconcile all things to His Father through His death and resurrection. I don't think anyone will get there apart from Him, because to know God is to know Christ (since He IS God Incarnate). And thus, if someone says "no" to Christ, they are saying "no" to God. But, in His time, using hell as a last-ditch tool, I hope that God will bring all people to say "Yes" to Him in Christ. It is not some vague, pie-in-the-sky, hell-denying, Christ-avoiding, pluralistic Universalism. It is a hard, concrete, specific hope in a God who has proved that His Love will NEVER die in a specific place and time, through a very historical resurrection of a very real Person.

And I do not call this hope a doctrine or a dogma. I cannot be certain of it. I can only see hints and pointers to it all through Scripture. And God does not have to redeem everything to be God, or to please me. God is not confined to any boxes, and God does not "owe" it to anyone to save all. Quite the other way around. We owe it all to Him, and there is no way to repay because we have screwed everything up! Yet, God repayed Himself perfect obedience by becoming human in Christ and living a perfect life for us all. To forgive us, God has to take all the consequences of our sin, suffering, and death into Himself and not allow us to be destroyed by it. This He has done by dying for us on the Cross, and defeating death by rising again. And since He is the Eternal God, His death is an eternal death that puts to death an eternal amount of consequences for an eternal amount of sin.

Everything that hinders us from coming back to God has been dealt with once-for-all in Jesus. Everything except our acceptance of it, and desire to live in it. And I have a certain hope that, since God has done all of this for us in Jesus Christ, he will complete His work and bring us to that acceptance in this world or the next (or the next!). After all, if God did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things necessary to live in Him? (cf. Romans 8:32 ) It's not a certainty, but a hope. And St. Paul reminds us that "hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us" (Romans 5:5).

Let's put it logically in three theses: Thesis 1: Does God really love every single person he has created and desire them to be saved? If we trust the clear meaning of Scripture, then the answer is yes. Thesis 2: Does God have the power to accomplish what he desires? Again, the clear import of Scripture is yes. Thesis 3: Will God accomplish the redemption of all people as He desires? That's a good question. Well, if the Father really does desire all to be saved (thesis 1), and He has the power to save all through His Son who has crucified all sin, and His Spirit who has the ability to woo even the most unrepentant sinner back to Him (thesis 2), then the answer seems inescapable, even if the certainty is merely hopeful.

So what is hell? It is coming face to face with this love that will never die, known fully only in Jesus Christ. And what is heaven? It is coming face with this love that will never die, known fully only in Jesus Christ. And what is the difference? Whether we experience this reality as warmth and comfort, or as flames and misery, depends entirely on how much we have surrendered our entire selves- body, spirit, and soul- to love like Jesus does.

And, if this is hell, and God will love anyone no matter what, then why share Christ with others? I guess that is answered best by a series of questions: If you really love Jesus with all your self, how can you NOT tell others? If you really love others, how can you NOT tell them about the source of your Love, which is Jesus and his death and resurrection? If you were a doctor, could you just walk past a car wreck with lots of injured and dying people, and say "I don't need to help them, they are going to God anyway"? If you had a antidote to a epidemic, could you just say "I don't feel like injecting anyone and curing them, because they will go to God anyway"? If you believe in the power and persistence of the Love of Christ to heal everyone, how could you for a moment not choose to live in it for your own sake, and share it with everyone for the sake of others?

And finally, how could you knowingly and purposefully live in sin and selfishness if you know that you are going to be refined by the fire of Him who is perfect Love, and spend forever in His presence and in the presence of everyone you have ever known? If you know you can't escape God's Love, and that God will never give up until you Love like He does, it changes the way you live now and forever.

May we all live our lives, every day in every way, as people who will forever be face to face with the Love that will not die. Amen+

2006-12-23

What the Hell is Hell?

This morning Andrew Green (a fellow theomedian) asked me the following question:

It says that demons are tempters in the Bible, but does it ever say that they are tormentors (I know that the two terms are synonymous in some circumstances, but that's not what I mean)? It seems to me that culture picked up somewhere that when we go to hell, lots of happy little demons get to torture us all day long. Where did we get that?

So, I answered with the following:

The Greek word for "temptation" is also the word for "trial/tribulation/torment" (Gk: pei-ras-mos). So yes, implicit in the "job description" found in peirasmos is BOTH temptation AND torment. Think about Job. Satan BOTH whispers temptation to job through the wife ("curse God and die") AND Satan torments Job by disasters and plagues (cf. Job 1-2). And you see the same pattern in the Bible. Satan both tempts Jesus and Peter, as well as taking control of hapless human hosts and throwing them into fires and gruesome stuff like that.

Now, about extending that to the afterworld, I think you find two streams of thought:

a) The Greco-Roman myths of Hades, and torment by evil spirits found there, indirectly add a great deal to Christian thought about hell. In these myths, Zeus, in retributive divine wrath, sends beings to Hades to eternally endure "just punishment" found in stuff like Narcissus being forever in love with his own reflection, and Sisyphus who was doomed to roll a rock up a hill for eternity. Interestingly, it is also in the Greco-Roman myths that one truly finds the idea of an eternal, non-ending torment that has no end to it. In Hades there are a host of daemons led by the god of the underworld to make sure that these punishments are carried out forever ad nauseum. Only on a few occasions do people escape Hades, and that is when someone from the land of the living has enough love and courage to go to Hades to rescue them.

b) Now, I am sure it is obvious how many of these ideas parallel Scripture (especially the hero who descends to the dead to free the captives in Hades!). So, it was quite natural for all of these ideas to be “read into” Scripture as if they were all quite naturally found there.

Within the first few centuries of Christianity, especially after Christianity began to forget or minimize its Jewish heritage, these ideas were read into Scriptures that would "receive" these ideas as possible interpretations.

Thus, when we read in Revelation 12 and 20 that Satan and his horde were "cast down" from heaven, they read in the idea that they had been thrust into hell. When we read that some demons are chained up in "the abyss" or "tartarus", they read in the idea that the demonic homeland is now hell, with earth as a kind of "workplace" or "vacation spot" where they got out of hell to come tempt. Finally, when we read Jesus saying in Matthew 13 that the eternal fire "was prepared for devil and his angels", they read in the idea that Satan lived in the fire with his angels.

And, since the Greek "Underworld" was controlled by the death-god Hades, they eventually read that into the Scriptures to. Hell, the eternal fire, became no longer something controlled by God and used for God's purposes, but instead became a separate realm under the control of the Devil. And from this foundation grew up all of the midieval hell-visions we read, culminating in Dante's "Inferno" and "Purgatorio".

Now, with that said, let me say this: Dante's work is INCREDIBLE and there are many great spiritual lessons to be learned from him (he was a moral and spiritual genius). Even if his vision of the topology and population of hell is in error, the core purpose and meaning of his vision is not, and we should pay attention to it.

I also think the medieval mis-readings of the Biblical passages on hell should be a warning to us. They innocently read cultural notions into the Biblical text in order to make sense of them, and help make sense to the people they preached to. And this is a good and noble starting point as a "step-ladder" to help people get to the massive structure of Biblical teaching. But somewhere the step-ladder became part of the architecture. We need to learn from them and be careful that our "step-ladder" analogies and examples do not become part of our Biblical architecture. There is a place for analogies and examples that help people “get into” the Biblical narrative, but it is a limited place, and if we don’t confine that place, they will grow out of control (like the hell tradition we are talking about here).

Finally, I would recommend the following correctives to our ideas of hell:

1. When the demons were cast out of hell, their primary locale is here on earth to try and destroy those who God loves (Rev. 12)

2. If some demons are being held in "hell/the abyss/tartarus", they are being punished by God there. They are not allowed to roam around and hurt others, because hell IS something like solitary confinement.

3. Hell is a reality that God owns and is in control of, and which he uses for his own redemptive purposes.

4. I think there is a good chance that the eternal fire of hell IS the unmediated presence of God's refining Love, since God alone is the “consuming fire” (cf. Deu. 4.24; Heb. 12.29; 1Co. 3).

5. Hell does not seem to be eternal in the Greek sense of "unending time". Rather, it is eternal in the Hebrew sense of "the perfect/complete amount of time".

6. Purgatory may in fact be a better understanding of hell than the traditional vision of hell. That’s a great debate and essay I need to write sometime.

7. The one place where the Greco-Roman tradition may be incredibly helpful is in the image of the Brave Conqueror who alone has the power to rescue the helpless from Hades by descending into the realm of the dead and carrying people out of it (cf. Eph. 4.7-10).

I realize that several of these things are quite controversial, but I think that we must ask several hard questions on subjects like this, and they are questions that directly affect how we see God. And how we see God directly affects how we see ourselves and others made in God’s image. I think at the core of all of these questions is this: Is God ultimately retributive or redemptive? How we answer this question drastically affects how we see our purpose in this life, and God’s purpose for the next life.

2006-12-22

The 2006 Bostian Christmas Letter

Happy Hannakah, Awesome Advent, Merry Christmas, and Ecstatic Epiphany from the Bostians!

We hope this letter finds you enjoying the winter holy-days and possibly even winter weather (it feels a lot like Spring here in North Texas). 2006 has been a big year for the Bostians, full of all manner of awesome blessings. What kind of blessings, you ask? Well, here is a quick list of all the cool things that God did in our lives (or at least helped us endure!).

2006 came and Elise was off and running… quite literally. She figured out how to run, thereby increasing our band-aid budget for the next 12 years or so. When February came, Kim had to face her nemesis: the standardized TAKS test that all teachers and students in Texas are forced to do battle with every year. A phenomenal percentage of her students passed the test, despite the fact that many of them are, shall we say “English challenged”. This, of course, earned Kim a pie in the face from each of her students who passed. A little teacher humiliation can provide a great deal of motivation!

2006 was also Nate’s (probably) final year in youth ministry, since he has now become the Episcopal College Chaplain at Southern Methodist University. In 2006 he led his junior high and high school students to do several service projects, lots of retreats, dozens of Bible studies, discussions, and Starbucks sessions, and a mission trip to New Orleans. The New Orleans trip was probably the best mission trip he has ever done during his youth ministry, even though it was not easy to help students deal with the physical destruction and spiritual devastation that Katrina wrought upon “the Big Easy”. Later that summer, Nate also helped co-lead a team of students from the Diocese of Dallas to go to Uganda on a trip that was part mission (they helped build an orphanage and worked with needy kids) and part diplomacy (they met with all kinds of church leaders and even made the evening news in Kampala, Uganda on several occasions).

However, in August Nate was asked to apply for the college ministry position at SMU, and after a long series of interviews, lots of tears, and even more prayer, he was chosen to become a “college chaplain” in late October. It was an odd time to start at a university, since everyone was in the middle of mid-term exams (including Nate!). But, over the course of the semester, Nate made several contacts and more students began coming out to Canterbury House worship. The ministry has an incredible amount of potential, many opportunities to grow, and several challenges to overcome, but we have a lot of support from a great board and a great Diocese. In fact, we are building a new chapel and ministry facility across the street from SMU, which should be ready in June 2007.

2006 was also a year of travel for the Bostian family as well. We went to Hot Springs, Little Rock, and Mount Petit Jean in Arkansas, as well as Sea World in San Antonio. We also went on a train tour of Dallas-Fort Worth and went to the Dallas World Aquarium. They were wonderful trips, with lots of natural beauty. One of the little-known facts about Sea World is that they serve free “sample” beer (since they are owned by the Anheuser-Busch Companies). So, Elise saw a dolphin, then Daddy celebrated with a beer. Elise saw Shamu, then Daddy celebrated with a beer. Elise saw the Walrus show, then Daddy… you get the idea. It was a great vacation!

About the end of summer Elise learned how to string together sentences, and she discovered two words that will get her a long way in today’s consumer economy: “Mine!” and “No!” Yes, she is definitely, and defiantly, two years old! We celebrated her birthday in October, and she fell in love with Elmo (just like every other toddler in America!) Is there a twelve-step recovery group for Elmo obsession, because we may need that before long… Anyway, to celebrate her birthday Mommy and Daddy gave Elise a brand new home office and bookshelves from IKEA. Elise was not so excited, so Mommy and Daddy will be using it until Elise goes to grad school.

And did we mention that our smallest dog, Alex, was growing a smaller dog on his neck? Well, he was: a huge benign fatty tumor. A few hundred dollars and 9 ounces of dog removal later, we have one dog again instead of Siamese twins. He is happy. And so is his dog-brother Petey.

More recently, Kim was nominated to be “teacher of the year” again at Herbert Marcus Elementary. She lost a close election, but she’s still “teacher of the year” in our house! She is co-teaching math and science with another teacher who teaches English and social studies. Her co-teacher, Mr. Singh, is a really nice, very intelligent, committed Christian who is 27 and single… so if you know anyone, we are looking to set him up! One of the interesting things about school this year is that several of her students have asked questions which have allowed Kim to share her faith with them. Not only is she teaching the “three R’s”, but she is ministering to her kids as well.

Elise started school this year too: Primrose educational childcare. She loves her class and her teachers, and they love her too. And, yes, Nate is STILL in school (will it ever end?!?). This is his last year for academic work, and the 2007-2008 school year will be his “supervised internship” as a college chaplain. After this he will graduate with his “Master’s of Divinity” degree (ain’t that the most pretentious name for a degree ever?). Anyway, with that diploma, and successfully passing the Episcopal “General Ordination Exams” (GOE’s), he will be eligible for ordination to holy orders. So, sometime around summer 2008, God willing and the bishop ordaining, Nate should be wearing a collar.

That’s about it from us. Hope 2007 finds you blessed and growing into all that God has made you to be. May God the Father protect you and yours from every assault of the enemy. May the Lord Jesus Christ heal you from every infirmity in body, spirit, and soul. And may God’s Holy Spirit bless you to bless others, and guide you to be whole. Amen+

Lots of Love,
Nate, Kim, and Elise

2006-12-20

Of Tightropes, Foundations, and a Healthy Church

I have been wanting to write something about the nature of true "orthodoxy" for quite some time, but every time I get started it quickly becomes thousands of words long. So, I am going to attempt to say something short… Well, at least short for me.

There is a common version of "orthodox" theology out there that likens the Christian worldview to an unassailable Stronghold built upon an unmovable foundation. This Castle must be defended day after day from the attacks of barbarian "unbelievers", and the rising torrent of the flood of Godless "culture". Yet, the Strong Castle remains unmoved. It never advances out from the Rock it is built on, but calls all to flee from the Land of the Godless and find refuge in its static, changeless walls.

And certainly, there is much Scriptural (and Traditional) backing for such an idea. The Apostles (and their teachings) are pictured as our foundation, with Jesus Himself as our chief cornerstone in multiple Scriptures (cf. Eph 2.20). Certainly numerous Psalms speak of Yahweh as our "crag and stronghold", and a "castle to keep us safe". God's commands and promises in Scripture are pictured as unchanging and reliable, something we can build our lives on like a house built on stable ground (cf.Psalm 119). And then there is the end of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, where our Lord tells us to build upon Him and His Word as our Rock, and not upon shifting sands (presumably including the fickled fads of culture and our own tastes).

But, have we pushed one Biblical metaphor too far, into a place that brings sickness to the Body of Christ? I mean, which is the controlling metaphor for God's people: A static structure, or a living Body? I think that the living model, pictured as a Body, a Family, a Marriage, and even an Army, is the controlling metaphor through which we must read metaphors of stasis and unchangeability. While this may sound subtle and theoretical, I think that there is something in this that deeply affects how we see God, and how we see ourselves, as His Church.

Over and again, Paul exhorts Timothy and Titus to teach "sound" doctrine (cf. 1 Tim. 1:10; 6:3; 2 Tim. 1:13; 4:3; Titus 1:9, 13; 2:1-2, 2:8). But "sound" is not a sound translation of the Greek words that underlie them (which come from the Greek root "hug-i-ees"). Most translations make these words sound like an obvious referent to a "sound" structure, or a "sound" building that is built on a firm foundation. But, this word is not used of material structures, but of physical bodies. It actually describes the health, wholeness, and equilibrium that is found in a healthy organism. The concept that it refers to is very similar to the Hebrew concept of Shalom, which is the defining feature of the Reign of God. Shalom means peace, harmony, health, and wholeness, both within people as individuals and within communities. Paul wants Titus and Timothy to teach "healthy" doctrine that helps people and communities to enter into the "shalom" of God. That is why his frequent greeting the communities and people he writes to is "grace and peace" to you from our Lord Jesus Christ (cf. Rom. 1:7; 1 Cor. 1:3; 2 Cor. 1:2; Gal. 1:3; Eph. 1:2; Phil. 1:2; Col. 1:2; 1 Thess. 1:1; 2 Thess. 1:2; Titus 1:4; Phlm. 1:3).

So, what does this have to do with orthodoxy and "foundationalism"? Well, there are two ways to have "peace": the "peace" found in a museum and the "peace" found in a marriage. Peace in a museum is relatively easy to attain. First, you kill everything and pose it just right. Second, you put it on display. Third, you never let people touch it. Finally, you just lock the doors and keep everyone out for fear they might mess up the relics. Then you have total peace and complete silence.

Then there is peace and harmony found in a marriage. It is found when two people constantly work together and communicate to resolve differences and hold in tension each other's needs and desires. It is the harmony found in a dance, as each partner takes turns leading and teaching the other. It is the harmony found in a really good symphony.

Now for the million dollar question: What type of peace does Christ want for His Body and Bride, the Church? The static, immovable peace of the museum, or the dynamic, balanced peace of the marriage? I think the answer is obvious, and for those who do not find it obvious I would be happy to spill a few thousand words trying to spell it out from Scripture, but not right now. God desires shalom to come through life and relationships, not peace that comes from death and frozen formulas.

It seems that orthodox thinking folks have a bad habit of freezing doctrine at one period of history (whether that is the 700's, 1500's, 1800's or 1950's), stopping people from touching it, and hiding it away from any serious inspection with the epithet "heretic", "unbeliever", or "outsider" for those who would question it. Doctrine becomes something more akin to admiring a statue than embracing a Person. Instead of being "healthy" teaching, it becomes something like rote memorization. It is like the image of doctrine as a Castle somehow kills the doctrine and puts the teaching of the Church to death.

But, how does this relate to the very important Biblical imagery of the foundation and the fortress? Do we just jettison language and metaphors that imply stasis and stability in favor of metaphors that favor process and change? And, if we do that, doesn’t that very quickly move us into a religion that looks very little like Christianity as we know it (and all of the problems that go with that, as exemplified by the downfall of revisionist mainline denominations everywhere)? Yes, if we jettison metaphors of stasis and stability we quickly get a different religion, a different Gospel, and a different Jesus.

But, I am not saying we should jettison anything, rather hold it in tension with other Biblical truths. In fact, tension between truths is what I think Orthodoxy is. I would argue that the Rock we build on, and the Castle we hide in, is not an "it", but rather a Person (or rather, Three Eternal Persons in One Being). I think that when we locate our stability in words and systems of doctrine we are precisely putting our hope in the wrong "thing", because what we hope in is not a "thing" but a Person. Yahweh is our "Stronghold". Jesus is "the Rock". It is not the system of words we use to describe God that is unchanging and totally reliable, but God Himself that is unchanging and totally reliable.

And God, revealed in Jesus Christ, is our beginning and our end, our Alpha and Omega. He is the unchanging Source that gives rise to all that is, and the Dynamic-yet-stable Love toward which all things go. He is the Rock at the beginning pushing us forward, and the Rock at the end beckoning us homeward. In the middle is a tightrope, which we walk on, in a journey from Eternal to Eternal. The tightrope flexes and bends, sways and swaggers, but it is firmly embedded at the beginning and the end in the Rock who does not move, and who will not fail.

Instead of building a castle as our vision of orthodoxy, how about walking a tightrope? Instead of constructing a fortress, how about we see ourselves balancing on a high wire? Instead of looking at theologians as expert engineers competing to see who can build the biggest, best skyscraper, how about seeing them as trapeze artists, masters of balance and movement?

Traditional versions of orthodoxy have tended to alleviate ambiguity between Scriptural truths (such as the twin facts of divine sovereignty and creaturely free will) by building up such a huge case for one that the other seems small and insignificant by comparison. For instance, the Augustinian/Calvinist tradition tends to build up the case for divine sovereignty so large, that it simply subsumes free will as a rather insignificant side effect of being under the control of the Creator. On the other hand, the Arminian and classical Liberal traditions build up the case for creaturely freedom to such an extent that one wonders if God is still involved with His creation at all. Both sides of this issue tend to ignore crucial evidence from the other side, or interpret Scriptural texts that disagree in hollow and artificial ways to make them say what they want said.

Instead of explaining away whatever does not fit well on our firm foundation, how about we walk in tension with them in the same way that quantum physics has been able to walk in tension with the wave-partical duality of light, or the indeterminate-yet-predictable nature of particle movements? What if we see that God the Father is our source of stability- our unchanging Source and Goal. What if we look at God the Son as the highwire we are walking on, carefully balancing between errors on the Left and errors on the Right in the same way that He balances between being fully Human and fully Divine? And what if we depended on God the Spirit as our balancing rod, which we grip tightly to keep us from falling off on one side or the other?

Then perhaps we could have a much more productive, creative engagement with a number of paradoxes that we find in Scripture and life, without explaining away either side. Perhaps we could be orthodox and healthy Christians by keeping a balanced tension between such issues as: Law and Mercy; Judgment and Forgiveness; Condemnation and salvation; Divine Sovereignty and Human Freedom; Creator and creation; Stability and change; Crisis and process; Scripture and culture; Truth and ambiguity; Community and individuality; Political "Left" and political "Right"; General and specific; The universality of God's Love and the particularity of God's Self-Revelation in Christ; Matter and spirit; Objective reality and subjective experience; Fact and Value; Truth and Love; Is/is not and should/should not; Scripture and tradition; Faith and reason; Revelation and science… just to name a few of the major paradoxes that have dominated philosophy and theology for the last 2000 years.

What if we developed a habit of thought that acknowledged the full reality of BOTH sides of all these dualities, without making one side "more real" than the other side? And what if we spent our time, not trying to explain away one side in terms of the other, but trying to find a way to understand the full participation of both sides in God's Creation. I think this "tensional" view of doctrine will lead us into the Shalom of God, and keep us more healthy and harmonious than "foundational" views of doctrine. I think this type of Orthodoxy better approximates our Creator, who in Himself is a balance between One and Three, a Community in Unity, without diminishing either side of His own Reality. I think this style of thinking best represents our Lord Jesus Christ, who is a tightrope walker between humanity and divinity, creature and Creator.

May we all come to walk the tightrope of Reality following Him.

2006-12-08

Mere Mary: A Mary that Protestants and Catholics can celebrate together.

Last night I was blessed to watch the movie "The Nativity". I was not blessed because it was an accurate portrayal of what Scripture tells us about Mary and the Incarnation. It wasn't. Don't get me wrong. The costuming and setting were good attempts to capture the first century Judean ethos, and all of Jesus' family looked "Jew-ish". I mean, thank God they did not look like they came from the Charlton Heston school of Biblical impersonation. But the timing on the arrival of the Magi was all screwed up, the Bible says nothing about how many magi there were, and the portrayal of the Star of Bethlehem was a bit cheesy. And, to top it off, the birth scene looked a bit like a Hallmark card from the 1950's (but at least the actors looked Jew-ish!).

No, the reason why I was blessed was because it truly put a human face on a reality that we have a bad habit of church-ifying. We make Mary and Joseph into some more-than-human, less-than-approachable super-saints who we have no chance of ever coming close to. Protestant portrayals usually make her out to be stunningly beautiful with perfect skin and a tranquility that only Xanex could create. Catholic portrayals seem to make her into the all-powerful Queen of Heaven, who radiates the glory of God like Chernobyl radiates Cesium, and who we would be struck dead by, if we came into her presence.

The movie reminded us that Mary and Joseph were scared kids, trying with all their heart to serve God and keep their heads above water in the horrific economic and political turmoil that their homeland was going through. To top it off, they had to deal with what we would consider an "unwed" pregnancy, and all of the social stigma that went with that. Add to that the fear of the typical response when you might casually mention in a conversation "Yeah, God made me pregnant. I am going to have the Savior of the World".

Yeah. They were understandably scared and freaked out. Yet they were faithful. Life got incredibly messy for them. Yet they were faithful. Many people were scandalized by them and rejected them. Yet they were faithful.

If think yourself a Biblical scholar, and will be offended if the movie doesn't perfectly (or even generally) match your own particular reading of Scripture, then don't see it. But, if you want a refresher on what it means that God took on flesh from a Virgin and dwelt among us, then watch it. And, if you have a friend who does not really understand the Christmas Story, by all means take them to it. It is really a great movie, for what it is great for.

That's what this movie blessed me with. It is a portrayal of Mary that both Protestants and Catholics can agree on, and need to be reminded of.

CS Lewis, in Mere Christianity, refuses to reveal his position about Mary on the grounds that feelings run too high along the Protestant-Catholic divide to say anything "Merely Marian" that both sides will agree to. Here is a brief roadmap of the issues involved: Was she cleansed of "original sin" by an "immaculate conception" in her mom's womb? Did she live a sinless life? Is she the "Mother of God" (or rather the "Bearer of God")? Did she ever have a sexual relationship with Joseph, or were all of Jesus' brothers and sisters step-siblings from Joseph's deceased first wife? Was her body "assumed" into heaven after her death so early Christians would not worship her remains? Is she the "Queen of Heaven" with a more-honored position than all of the other saints in heaven? Is she in some sense the "mother of the Church" since she is the mother of Him whose body the Church is? Should we pray and ask her to "pray for us sinners now at the hour of our death"? And, where does any and/or all of these issues fall into idolatry?

Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox Christians disagree (sometimes violently) on all of these issues. And I have a position too, on each and every one of them. But, could it be that all of these issues, as important as they are, miss the main point we are supposed to "get" from Mary's Story? Could it be that there is a central meaning to Mary that every Christian can agree on, even if we do not agree on the facts surrounding her life? Is there a "Mere Mary" that is the key to understanding and valuing all "Merely Christian" understanding of her?

I think there is. I think we have mostly missed the boat, and forgot to keep "the main thing the main thing" in the Mary Story.

We all have times when we say (or write!) the wrong words, but have the right meaning, and anyone who will really take time to listen to us will understand what we mean even if the words we said are wrong. I have heard someone tell me "Don't listen to what I said! Listen to what I mean!" And they were right, the "spirit" of what they meant was deeper and more profound than the "letter" of that they said.

I think we are in a similar situation with Mary. Protestants, Catholics, Orthodox, and "The Nativity" all disagree on the details of Mary's life. But there is a common meaning that we can all agree on. Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, tries to get at this "Mere Mary" in his devotion "What Matters about Mary?" In it he says:

"When we meet Mary for the first time in the Bible, she is a person who, in the society of her day, doesn't matter in her own right - a single woman who will only become really significant when she gets married and continues the tribal line. God comes to her and calls her to take a massive risk. She is to step right outside the business of 'tribal lines', the male world of inheritance and power. By saying yes to God and letting God create a new world within her very body, she is saying no to some of the most dominant things in her world. She is risking rejection, perhaps destitution (as Matthew's gospel hints). She is putting herself, spirit and body, at God's service, with practically no idea of how deep the cost may be… This is someone who, at least as much as any great artist or scientist, is taking the risk of making the world different - breathing deeply and facing the price they'll have to pay whatever it may be.

The second thing is this. Jesus is a real human being, so he has a real human psychology. He learns how to be human as we do, from the people around him. Just as for all of us, the first faces and voices he sees will shape who he will be. So the mother of Jesus is central to Jesus' humanity - not in an abstract sense, but in a very concrete one. He learns how to be human from her. He learns from her how to respond to the terrible, risky calling of the Father. And as he learns how to be human, he acts out more and more fully on earth the eternal life of God that he was born to live among us. Mary's human discipleship is one of the conditions for Jesus' humanity to grow up and reveal that perfect fusion between divine love and human response that is his unique gift to the world. He is who he is because she was who she was."
We are called to do just what Mary did. Mary bore God's own life within herself, and as a result gave birth to Christ who saves the world. She did it by surrendering herself completely to God. She did not surrender into passivity. She actively surrendered into co-operating with God to bring His life into the world. Her self-giving declaration "I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word" is immediately followed by her actively getting up and traveling "with haste" into the hill country (Luke 1:38-39).

Jesus likewise calls us to actively surrender to His will and bear His life to save the world. He tells us that we are God's ambassadors and that God is making His appeal through us (2Corinthians 5:16-20). He tells us that those who receive us receive Him (Matthew 10.40). He tells us that we will do the same things (and even greater things!) than He did (John 14.12). We are to be Mary people, doing a Mary job, with a Mary identity. We are to co-operate with God as God's life powerfully operates in us, to bring the entire world to know, love, and follow Jesus Christ (cf. Colossians 1:29).

This is "Mere Mary": That we all should merely mimic Mary's mission to bear God's life to the world and give birth to sons and daughters of God through faith in her Son, our Savior, the Unique Eternal Son of God made human. May we all be Mere Marys.

2006-11-30

In Search of the "Pure Church"

[Fr. Ahab sets to the seas to find the illusive "pure church"]

I want to confess that I don't really get it. I don't get theological "conservatives", even though I am one. In the unfolding soap-opera of church politics we are in right now, there are many "conservatives" who believe in the same Jesus and who trust the same Bible that I do, who say things like "my conscience just won't let me bring anyone else into the Episcopal Church because it is so corrupt". They are (rightly) embarrassed by some of the crazy revisions that the National Church is trying to ram down everyone's throat. But they (wrongly) think that this is a reason to keep people out of this church body. They (rightly) want the Church to be holy and orthodox like our Lord, our Scriptures, and our Great Tradition implores us to be. Yet they (wrongly) think that there is some version of the Church- whether past or present- that is wholly holy and overwhelmingly orthodox.

On the basis of such unreflective assumptions about the nature of the "pure church" many have bought into the idea that they have to leave the Episcopal Church to be faithful to Christ. They have forgotten that the Church is inherently messy: a hospital to heal sinners. The 16th century Reformers, whom these separatists often appeal to, always stressed that Christians are "simul iustus et peccator" (simultaneously justified yet sinners).They also stressed that the Church is both a "communio sanctorum", yet also a "communio peccatorum" (a communion of saints and sinners). In short, life in the Church is messy. We constantly strive for the goal of Christlike perfection, only to fall into sin, and repent and return to the Lord. We're not "pure" either as individuals or as a community. Read our Baptismal Covenant or ask any of the saints of the Church, and they will tell you.

And, while we are on the topic, where is this "pure" Church that will not embarrass us, like the Episcopal Church is currently embarrassing us? Is it the supposed "pristine" Apostolic Church of the New Testament? Let's take a snapshot of this "pure" Church: They struggled with drunkenness (1Cor. 11), ethnic strife (Rom. 3.29), pride (Rev. 3.14-17), materialism (1Ti. 6), economic injustice (Jam. 2), sexual immorality (1Cor. 6), including people having sex with family members, and church members who apparently approved of it (1Cor. 5.1-2). They had problems with idolatry (Rev. 2.20), heresy (1Ti. 4.1-3), denying Christ's resurrection (1Co. 15.12), denying Christ's humanity (1Jo. 4.2-3), and new-age mystical pick-and-choose versions of Christianity (see 1-2 John). And to top it off, they had major leaders who showed favoritism and pandered to those in power (Gal. 2), who had public fights and break-ups (Acts 15.39), and who used Christ to make money (2Pe. 2.15; 1Ti. 6.5).

Now that is a pure church to be proud of! (Sarcasm intended)

Well, is the "pure" Church that will not shame us found in some specific era of the past? Is it the "glorious" Church of the pre-Nicene period (until 325 AD)? That Church was filled with more heresies than I can count: Docetism, Gnosticism, Adoptionism, Modalism, Montanism, and a few dozen other "isms" that we can barely pronounce. If you want to find out how messy the early Church was, take a crack at reading Eusebius' or Ireneaus' writings on the history and problems in the early Church. How about the Church of the Seven Ecumenical Councils (up to 787 AD)? For most of a century (ca. 300-400 AD) most of the Church and the Empire followed the teaching of Arius, a priest that taught that Jesus was not fully God, but rather a created being separate from the Creator. During the rest of this time period the Church faced persistent heresies and political strife, which are the reason the Ecumenical Councils were called in the first place!

And then we look at the Church of the middle ages, infected by corruption, nepotism, simony, immorality, and political power-plays. Can we be proud of the schism of the Eastern and Western Church in 1054? How about the Crusades? How about the Reformation that led to a century of warfare in Europe as Christians killed each other in the name of Christ and their church sects? How about the persecution of Protestants by Catholics and Catholics by Protestants? How about widespread Church support for slavery and women's oppression through history? How about the forced spread of western culture and business interests by Christian missionaries? How about thousands of different bickering denominations, many of which do not even recognize other Christians as spiritual brothers and sisters? How about the doctrinal degradation and revision brought about by the persistent splitting and re-splitting of denominations?

Is the Church of any era something to be proud of? Is there any sect that has been around more than a couple of generations that is really less messy than the Episcopal Church? Or, is every sect something that drives us to our knees in every generation to say "Lord have mercy! Christ have mercy! Lord have mercy!" Will more splitting and more schism make the problem any better, or make it worse? The Protestant experiment has reminded us of a number of things that need to be continually restored in the life of the Church, such as the centrality of Christ, grace, Scripture, and faith. But, as a whole, the Protestant experiment of reform by schism has failed miserably. Reform must happen from INSIDE the Church, not from OUTSIDE.

In fact, from the beginning of Scripture no one has practiced anything close to "pure" religion. Our first parents ate the fruit. Noah's first major act after the "cleansing" of the earth was to get drunk and naked. Abraham and Jacob were compulsive swindlers. Moses had serious "anger issues", and his brother was the first high priest to lead Israel back into idolatry with the Golden Calf. King David was a murderer and adulterer, and his son Solomon was a sex addict with more concubines than there are days in the year. And, their descendents were on the whole far worse than they were! The Temple itself was frequently corrupted by the worship of idols, the greed of money changers, and even temple prostitution. And the people of Israel apparently were so corrupt that they frequently were involved in severe economic injustice, sexual immorality, and even child sacrifice on occasion. Not much to be proud of there.

Yet, what was the reaction of the prophets, Jesus, and his Apostles? Did they leave Israel and try to start a new "pure" tribe that they would not feel "embarrassed" to be associated with? Nope. Jesus wept over unrepentant Israel. Paul wished that he would be "accursed apart from Christ" if that meant that his Jewish kinfolk could be saved (Rom. 9.3). When Jesus first sent out missionaries, he sent them to the very people who should have ALREADY believed he was the Messiah: the lost sheep of Israel. Both Jesus and Paul say the Gospel is for "the Jews first, and then the Gentiles".

From the beginning of the Jesus movement, the message has first been directed at the people who ought to know better. The Jesus movement did not start out as the Church. It started out as a renewal movement within the Jewish synagogue system. This follows every single Biblical prophet in their emphasis and ministry. Despite significant involvement with non-Jews (cf. Elijah and Elisha), and significant promises made about God's redeeming the whole world (cf. Isaiah 65), every prophet stayed within the Jewish religion. They never broke out, cleaved off, and started a new Judaism. God even offered Moses a chance to do away with the already apostate nation of grumbling-golden-cow-worshippers, and start anew with him (Exo. 32:9-14). Moses refused, God relented, prophets preached, Messiah was born, Apostles were sent, and we are now saved because of Moses' decision.

So, if this is the case, how did the Church ever separate from Judaism? The Apostles did not separate of their own choice, but stayed part of both the Temple and synagogue system as long as they could. They only broke with Judaism when they were physically compelled to by beatings, stonings, riots, and even murder. If I ever see "conservatives" physically tortured by "liberals" (or vice versa!) then I will finally say "now there is a good reason to leave the Church". Until then, at all costs, in every way we can, I think that we should actually follow the Biblical pattern of mission clearly laid out in the New Testament and try to reform the Church from INSIDE rather than yelling at her from OUTSIDE.

The Church may be an embarrassment, but she is the Family Christ has placed us in. In my own biological family, I have some weird relatives, and even some that can be downright mean. And as embarrassing as they are, I love them and I chose to bring my wife and my daughter into this family. And by God's grace, my family is coming to Christ one by one. We are messy, we are changing, and we are growing toward Christ by taking two steps forward and one step back all the time. We are like the Church: simul iustus et peccator. I want us to love the Family of God as much as we do our biological families.

So, you want to find a "pure" Church? Want to bring new converts into a Church you can be proud of? Well, it isn't "out there" on the other side of the fence where the grass is always greener. It is only when you go on the other side of the fence and see the lawn up close that you realize they have just as many weeds as your side of the fence did, only in different spots. You won't find the "pure" Church by fence hopping. You will only find the pure Church by BEING the pure Church, and staying in the church body that God has placed you in to be a force for renewal and reform from INSIDE the Church. Let's start a new reformation! Not one based on leaving and cleaving, but one based on staying and praying. Let's band together as orthodox believers and love others so deeply and so persistently and so loudly that they can't help but come to know, love, and follow the Risen Christ with us.

2006-10-04

For Everything There Is A Season

DATE: Wednesday 2006.10.04
TO: Rev. Rob Smith

CC: Youth, Parents, and Vestry of Church of the Apostles


RE: For Everything There Is A Season…

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Greetings in the Name of Christ,

My brothers and sisters in the Lord, the Teacher reminds us in Ecclesiastes that "For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven… a time to plant and a time to harvest… a time to weep and a time to laugh." Over the last 4 1/2 years I have shared many tears, and even more laughter, with you all. You have planted love and joy in my heart that is impossible to put into words, and I hope I have planted Christ in your lives as well. And now the Lord has harvested what you have sown into my life, and has prepared another field for me to work in as the college chaplain at Southern Methodist University.

This decision comes with much sorrow and even more prayer. And I want you to know that it was not the result of anything that could have been done "better" or differently by Church of the Apostles. Father Rob is an incredible boss, pastor, friend, mentor, and colleague. I have never worked for anyone who I have meshed as well with. Cindy, Debbie, and Sharon have been an incredible support to me, and have always encouraged me, and constantly reminded me to keep all my T's crossed and all of my I's dotted. Without great administrators, people like me would be completely lost in life! And the families and youth of Apostles! What can I say? Never have I been in a family of faith that is so nurturing, encouraging, honest, loving, faithful, challenging, nurturing, and all-out-awesome as you are. Lord, how I will miss you all! Words cannot describe what you mean to me.

And yet, the Lord has told me that my season here is done. My first indication was in Del Rio on the summer 2005 mission trip. On that trip the Lord told me that summer 2006 would be my last mission trip as a youth minister. I did not know what to do with that word from the Lord, so I sat on it and only told Kim. Later that year I began working with a half-dozen youth ministers to create a cooperative ministry to reach community college students and young adults. It was at that time that I began to really have a heart for college ministry, and realize how sorely lacking our diocese is in reaching them. It is like we raise up young men and women in Christ, only to graduate them at age 18 into a yawning chasm of nothingness. When they graduate, it seems like they either fall away from the church entirely, or join campus ministries from other denominations who are reaching out to college students. And I do not have to tell you what this does to raising up the next generation of clergy and lay leaders in the Episcopal church. We are all witnessing the results of this leadership crisis in the national church right now.

I seriously began thinking that college ministry was something the Lord might be calling me to in a few years. Little did I know that His call would come so soon. When the college chaplain at SMU left suddenly this summer, after only one semester of ministry, the college commission met to figure out what to do next. My name was brought up in the meeting, and I was asked if I was interested. My first inclination was to say no, but I felt like I should pray about it. After praying, I sincerely felt that it would be disobedience for me not to apply. After I applied, I prayed that if this was not the right move, that the Lord would close the doors on me, and shut the process down. Every conceivable door has been opened wide for me. Every one.

After discussing seriously with Father Rob what was going on, I again prayed earnestly, with the weight of Apostles on my heart, "Lord, is this the right thing to do?" The answer came back clearly. He has raised me up for such a time as this. If I do not do this now, I will never have the opportunity again to do college ministry. I will be a parish priest later in life, not a college chaplain. And, in decades to come, if I want to raise up others to do effective youth and young adult ministry, I must learn how to be effective first. I have learned youth ministry well. It is time to learn young adult ministry with the same proficiency.

I know I am needed at Apostles and will be dearly missed. And leaving here will literally be like ripping out a piece of my heart. But I have to follow the call of God, or risk disobedience to what He has made me for. And every family who has kids in the youth program knows that soon (and sooner than you think) you will be graduating your kids into the "real world" where they will not have the safety and boundaries of home to protect them anymore. Every family hopes and prays that their child will go to college or to their career and still stay close to Christ, and find a faith community where their purpose in life can be nurtured. Everyone hopes their child will find a mentor and a pastoral presence who will care for them while they are away from their family. I want to be that pastor. I want to develop that community. God has called me to it.

And I need your love, support, and prayers to do that. And I need one more thing as well. Your forgiveness. Because I know the feelings of loss and abandonment that come with a departure like this. Please forgive me. I am completely sure that what I am doing is orchestrated by God, but that does not make it any less difficult. So, please forgive me.

My last day at Apostles will be Sunday, October 22nd. We will have a Servant Sunday on the 15th, as well as regular youth programming until that day. On Wednesday the 18th I would like to have a meeting with all youth and parents at 7pm at Church to talk about the shape of the transition process (this will be a business meeting). I would like to end with a going away party on the afternoon of the 22nd. And, although I am leaving, I will still be very much a part of our Diocese family, and available for questions and consultation should the need arise.

Wow, that was difficult to write. I am sure it is difficult to read. May the Lord Jesus Christ grant us the comfort of His Holy Spirit as we deal with our time of grief, and may He pour out His wisdom upon us as we transition to the new realities in our corporate lives. Amen+

May Christ fill your lives to overflowing now and always,

Nate Bostian
214.505.9859 // natebostian@hotmail.com
http://natebostian.blogspot.com


P.S. I love you all deeply, and I hope you know that.

P.P.S. (1) I still plan to serve on the Apostles delegation to Diocese Convention; (2) Kim and I plan to fulfill our pledge to the building campaign; (3) I would like to still teach confirmation for my kids and families who are currently in the program from 8:30-10:30am on Sundays.

2006-10-02

Living in Romans 7 | Longing for Romans 8

I was a jerk the other day. I sinned against God and my neighbor. And I am under a lot of stress with ministry, seminary, family, lack of sleep, and a half dozen other things. So, when I was talking to a friend today, he said it sounded like I was not taking responsibility for what I did. Instead, I was blaming what I did on the stuff going on around me. And he was right. I was focusing way too much on what was going on around me, and not what was going on in me.

We all do stupid things when we get stressed to medicate ourselves so we don't have to think about the things that worry us. The Bible calls these stupid things sin. Recovery groups call it addiction. Family therapists call it dysfunction. And the doctor calls it sickness. I am not sure that any of these terms fully capture the reality of what is wrong with us, deep down inside, that causes us to make dumb decisions that hurt others and ourselves and our God.

Perhaps sin is the best word. In Greek it literally means "missing the mark". Whatever it is that is inside of us that we freely choose, that destroys us even as it "medicates" our pain, deeply misses the mark of what God made us for. We are made to love God above all and love our neighbors as ourselves as completely whole, healthy, peaceful, harmonious people. Sin screws all of that up. And it seems like the more we get stressed by the world around us, the more we sin.

We get stressed by family, friends, enemies, responsibilities, deadlines, work, school, church, mishaps, good fortune, money, bills, taxes, sickness, health, breakdowns, breakups, and a million other things. I know some people that medicate stress by eating comfort food and porking up. Others medicate through drugs and alcohol that gives them a vacation from themselves. Others medicate by sex, and adult activities displayed on small computer screens and darkened theaters. Still others medicate by gambling and adventure and anything to get an adrenaline rush. And then there are those that medicate by argument and anger and making life hell for everyone around them. We all know people who medicate themselves in these ways and a million others. We may even be these folks.

And all of this stuff is sin. It ALL misses the mark. It all takes a blessing God has given us and perverts it and uses it for selfish gratification.

So, does the stress cause the sin? Can we just blame our actions on the stressors in our lives, and be done with personal responsibility and guilt? Hell: No! I say it that way because this is precisely the philosophy of hell. We can NEVER be healed of our sickness if we take that route. The first step to being healed is admitting you are sick and taking responsibility for the things you do to keep yourself sick. You can't be healed of cancer if you deny you have a problem. The Great Physician cannot heal our sickness so long as we say "It's not my fault. It's my environment. I don't have a problem, Jesus. But, if you fix THEM everything will be OK". That is one of the reasons why Jesus said:

"Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners." (Mark 2:17). Let me elaborate here. Those who think they are well and are living in denial can never be cured so long as they will not admit that the central problem in their lives comes not from what is around them, but what is IN them. Only the people who first and foremost admit this can be healed.

So, what is the relationship between stress and sin?

Here's what I really believe about stress and sin: Stress does not CAUSE sin, stress REVEALS sin. It's like when we are stressed, and we become complete jerks to other people and rip their heads off, and then the next day we say things like "I am sorry. That wasn't me talking. I don't really feel that way, it's just that you don't understand everything I am going through… blah… blah…"

Well, that is just not true. It IS you who did it. The "inner jerk" has been there all along, it just took a "stress test" to find out where he was hiding. For instance, I know that if I was completely whole and healthy inside, I wouldn't sin to "medicate" my feelings. I would instead, be like Jesus, who went deep into prayer when he was stressed, worried, and afraid.

It's just like going to the doctor, or taking your car to the mechanic. The doctor makes you describe your symptoms, and sometimes even puts your through a "stress test" to reveal what is going wrong in your body. The stress test reveals what was already wrong with you, but was hiding in the absence of stress. Likewise, a good mechanic often has to rev the engine and put the car under stress to find out where the grinding and clanking is coming from.

My stress tests show where I am sick, where I am grinding, where I am broken inside- where I need to be fixed. And here is the troubling thing: 19 out of 20 times, I DO handle stress the way I should. I do pray. I find something constructive to do. I do get out of the path of temptation. I mean, for instance: in the last 3 weeks, probably 2 weeks if it has been days where I have worked 12-18 hours, stayed up 'till 2-3am, and gotten 3-5 hours of sleep per night. So, why do I sin on one stressful night and not the other nights?

It's that 20th time that reveals that something is wrong on a deeper level.

I am not really trying to excuse myself by describing my stressors (but I can see how it looks that way). I am trying to figure out what is broken. I take full responsibility for what I have broken, but I can't fix it on my own. I need Christ to heal me. And after he heals me, I need to follow "doctor's orders" and stay away from stuff that will get me sick again, and do exercises that will make me healthier.

I KNOW that… I just don't know why I don't DO it consistently. I feel like I am constantly living in Romans 7 where Saint Paul says "I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me… For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing… For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?"

But I don’t want to live in Romans 7. I long for Romans 8. I long to say that "In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord!"

To all of us who are living in Romans 7 but long for Romans 8, may we have the courage to admit that we are sick inside, and that Christ is the only one who can save us. May we have the patience to be his patient. May we surrender ourselves to his cure, rely on his strength, exercise our spiritual muscles, live in his family, listen to doctor's orders, and learn to steer clear of those things that make us sick. Amen+

2006-09-24

Jesus Camp: The Most Un-Funny Christians Ever


I just saw the "Jesus Camp" movie with my kids from youth group. It is a stunning, breathtaking, evenly-balanced movie. It will also make you sick. I got nauseous watching it. The whole movie was a continual mix of truth and error, Gospel and Law, God and the devil. It was like riding in the car with a narcoleptic. For a long time you would be driving along just fine, agreeing with what was being presented, and then all of the sudden the driver would fall asleep at the wheel and the car would veer off of the road and crash in flames. And this happened at least a half-dozen times in the movie.

It wasn't like the "religious" people were presented as all evil all the time. They weren't. For the most part they were presented as kind, loving, caring people, who were a little odd. They were the kind of folk that live next door. And then all of the sudden they would drive off of the side of the road into this scary ravine of hate and exclusion and power-politics. And this happened over and over in the movie.

I think the words that best describe the movie are idolatry, warfare, and humorless.

Idolatry, because of the whole emphasis on the U.S. being a "Christian Nation". They pledged allegiance to the American flag, the Christian flag, and the Bible. But they did not pledge allegiance to Jesus. They prayed to a cut-out picture of George Bush, laid hands on the picture, and talked to the picture, asking God to empower the President to make the USA a Christian Nation. But they never asked God about it. They just assumed that President Bush is the anointed Messiah of the Nation. I love our President, but I do not idolize him. They did. And they idolized the power that comes with controlling the political system. There was little concern for love of God or neighbor, and a huge concern for converting people and this Nation to a certain belief system and a certain religious style.

The other main motif was warfare. Us versus Them. Good versus Bad. In the words of one of the mothers: "There are two types of people in the world. Those who love Jesus and those who don't". The children are being trained- not raised- to be soldiers for Christ to take back America for Jesus… and this is all their wording, not mine. This warfare mentality can only result in the marginalization and exclusion of people who are not "like them". You can already see it in the attitudes in the film, and if they take political power, it is only time before such prejudice becomes a matter of public policy.

And not only that, but they did not allow the kids to be kids. The adults did not encourage them to play, they trained them. They indoctrinated them, because according to "Pastor Becky", children do not have the freedom to learn and make choices. Instead, children must be shaped and formed by the adults around them. Now I realize there are some things that must be "indoctrinated", like looking both ways before crossing the street, and not touching stoves. Perhaps the idea that God loves everyone and will save everyone through Jesus is another idea that must be constantly re-emphasized. After all, parents do have a responsibility to nourish their kids with both physical AND spiritual food.

But, it is quite another thing to make them into little soldiers, and put them to work as little door-to-door evangelists. For instance, the Christians in the film came up with a brilliant way to silently protest abortion by putting red tape over people's mouths that said "LIFE" on it. This was designed to signify that a human life had been silenced by abortion. It was visually stunning and effective, and since I believe that life is sacred from womb to tomb, I think it is a good idea. Well, a good idea for adults who can make a choice about what they choose to protest. Not to make kids do, even if the kids think they want to do it. They are simply too young to be "put to work" in the Name of Jesus. They have no real choice, and no informed understanding of the issue beyond what their caregivers feed them. Thus, their protest is meaningless because they do not have the ability to choose to NOT protest!

We don’t make kids work in sweatshops anymore. Why? Because childhood is about learning and development and play, and to make kids work like adults short-circuits the growth process in kids. I want to put forward the idea that the kids in this movie were being made to work in a "spiritual sweatshop", when they should have been enjoying the innocence, beauty, and play of being a kid. Pastor Becky loaded them down with guilt and dreams of empire and idolatry in the Name of Christ, and that just ain't right!

And finally, perhaps most critically: there was absolutely NO sense of humor in the Jesus Campers that was not directed at making fun of those on the "outside". Sure, they could crack jokes about how stupid the evolutionists and the liberals were, but they could not laugh at themselves. They were always dead serious about their mission, and their warfare with the world. And that is a spiritually deadly place to be in. Because humor IS humility with a smile on, and those who cannot laugh at themselves cannot be humble.

The religion of Jesus Camp is a very clever look-alike to Christianity. It uses the Name of Jesus a whole lot, but not for Jesus' sake. Rather, Jesus is used for the sake of other things, such as making America a Christian Nation and getting oneself out of hellfire. Jesus is used as a means to an end. And when Jesus is used as a means, that means that Jesus is not in the center of the religion. Rather, an idol has been placed in the center… and we know where that leads. It leads to an idolatrous system that divides the world into two "camps" of Us versus Them, and then proceeds to wage war on the Them. It sucks the joy out of life and leaves us with a humorless idolatry that is deadly serious about its own mission, and scornful of anything that is important to anyone else.

May God show us all how to passionately follow Jesus in a way that does not lead us to Jesus Camp. Amen+

Theomedy: The jokes on you...


What could be more comedic than a smelly biped with a three pound brain trying to comprehend the purposes of God? Yet, that's what delights our Maker! So much that He became a smelly biped too. This blog explores this ironic fact with amusement, wit, and just a little bit of sarcasm.

Let's face it, it's fun writing blog posts, even when they are somewhat "serious" and "theological". Debates are fun too. And, as long as we really love each other, poking fun at each other is fun. And some of the best jokes that comedians make are about really serious subjects, like politics, for instance. If you don't believe me, turn on nighttime TV.

And let's also face it: We take ourselves waaaay too seriously. We forget we are smelly bipeds and we begin to think we are God. Not even God is as serious as we are most of the time. One of the problems with academia in general and theology in particular- why it is dull, and dusty, and deadly boring- is that we have forgotten to laugh at ourselves. We have forgotten the core irony and absurdity of our existence. We have forgotten to play.

Let's put fun, play, humility, humor, and comedy back into theology. Let's do theomedy. And above all, let us not forget:

There are some things that are too serious not to joke about!

What is theomedy? The shortest definition is simply "the comedy of theology". A more exact definition is:

The-o-med-y [thee-om-ed-ee] noun. 1. An exploration of the comedy found in theology; 2. A method of doing theology that is playful and ironic, and seeks to mediate between the paradoxes found in the Christian worldview, Christian spirituality, and Church life.

And this leads to:

The-o-med-ic [thee-oh-med-ic] adj. Something that pertains to theomedy, or shares in the worldview of theomedy.

And:

The-o-med-i-an [thee-oh-med-ee-an] noun. A thoughtful Christian, or professional theologian, who practices theomedy.

But what is the origin of the concept of theomedy? There are at least five distinct "roots" that describe what theomedy is all about:

The first root of theomedy is the Greek word "Theos", which means "God". The most important aspect of theomedy is that it is rooted and centered in the identity of God, as God reveals Himself in Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Theomedy is not an attempt to destroy, edit, or revise, the orthodox faith that is embodied in Christ, preached by the disciples, recorded in the Scriptures, defined by the early Church Councils, and summarized in the Nicene Creed.

Rather, theomedy seeks to uphold, defend, and explain the "faith once for all delivered" to the Church. Theomedy is an unabashedly orthodox Christian view of the world that is Trinitarian, Christ-centered, Spirit-dependent, Scripture-based, and grace-filled. Yet, theomedy does seek to explore this consensual Christian worldview and reveal the paradoxes of the faith, the irony of our relationship with God, and the humor that is found in the Church.

This leads to the second root of theomedy: Comedy. We need to put fun, play, humility, humor, and comedy back into theology. We need to have fun with God! He did not just make us to be little factory workers, or guilt machines, or Gospel salespeople. He made us to enjoy Himself, and to rejoice in His presence. Remember, Jesus endured the cross "for the JOY set before Him" (Hebrews 12:2). Joy and humor is part of Jesus' mission, and we cannot be Jesus people without being people of humor.

I was in a worship service the other day and everyone was stressed. No one was having fun. Everyone was afraid to do the wrong thing at the wrong time. Does this bring glory to God? Does he enjoy worship like that? We take ourselves waaaay too seriously. We forget we are smelly bipeds with three pound brains, and we begin to think we are God. Not even God is as serious as we are most of the time.

One of the problems with academia in general and theology in particular- why it is dull, and dusty, and deadly boring- is that we have forgotten to laugh at ourselves. We have forgotten the core irony and absurdity of our existence. We have forgotten to play. And there is a certain humility that is part of being able to laugh at oneself and one's theology. Theology that is too serious is theology that has no humility. And if theology does not have humility, it becomes a source of pride. And pride comes before a fall!

How many theological conflicts and Church splits could have been prevented by having more humility and more humor?

How many theological systems have become idols of paper because of pride and seriousness? How many of these theological idols have blinded people to the reality of God?

If you want to cure some of the theological diseases of the Church, start by taking a huge dose of humility and comedy!

And not only that, but one of the reasons people don't want to become a follower of Christ is because they do not see joyful Christians. They see Christians who cannot take jokes or make jokes. They see Christians who do not appreciate irony and sarcasm. They see Christians who cannot laugh at themselves or their faith (even when it is a joke found in the text of the Bible!). They see Christians who are just dull.

We need to send this stereotype to hell, because that is where it belongs, and where it comes from. We need to recapture our identity as people of joy and laugh at the devil when he tries to make us so serious we cannot relate to God or the world He made!

Comedy was the second root of theomedy. The third root is "media", where we get "median" from, which brings us to a sense of being balanced in the middle. Theomedy is a "middle way", or a "via media" between extremes. Heresy comes about in the Church because of imbalance: because one side of the Truth is held onto tightly and another side is let go of.

For instance, three of the central paradoxes of the Christian faith have to do with the Trinity, the Incarnation, and salvation. In the Trinity, we find that God is one AND three. In the Incarnation we find that Jesus is God AND human. In salvation we find that God is sovereign AND humans are free. The worst heresies about God have come from emphasizing the oneness while denying His threeness. The worst heresies about Christ have come from only emphasizing his humanity or divinity while excluding the other. The worst heresies about salvation have either denied that man is free, or denied that God is sovereign.

Rather, healthy, holistic theology comes from balancing between these extremes, always holding them in tension, and never denying either side of the equation. Some think that healthy theology comes from finding some rock-solid foundation and building on it, so that nothing can ever move us from the Truth. And, if this foundation is Christ alone, then this idea is true (cf. 1Co 3). But, after we have put ourselves on Christ's foundation, what next?

Perhaps a better image of healthy theology is a tightrope, where each side that holds up the tightrope is built into the foundation of Christ. And, instead of standing on a foundation, maybe healthy theology is a lot more like walking on the tightrope, always holding a balance between extremes on the right and on the left. Scripture is like the pole that helps us stay balanced, and the Holy Spirit is the line that we walk on.

This balance, this tension, this "via media" is what theomedy is. We seek to maintain a healthy, holistic spirituality and theology by constantly balancing between extremes in Christ. A friend named Bret has called this "raging moderation". I just call it theomedy.

So, theomedy is Trinity-centered, comedic, and mediating. But there is a fourth root: mediator. The word "mediator" leads us to a mission: to mediate conflicts between others. Theomedy not only seeks to be balanced, but to bring balance to others. The practice of theomedy leads one to mediate between different Christian Traditions, and mediate between the Church and the World.

Let us look at our mediation between Christian traditions. The two main reasons for the fractures of the Church are (a) the grave harm we have done to each other, and (b) the theological and spiritual disagreements we have with each other. I hazard a guess that if we truly forgave and loved each other for the wrongs we have all done, the theological problems we have would be much less insurmountable.

So, theomedy is a practice of forgiving each other, and helping all Christians love one another as our Lord commanded us and modeled for us (cf. John 13:34-35). Theomedians stand in the midst of the fractured Church and call out in this wilderness "Repent! Love one another! Forgive one another for Christ's sake!"

Theomedy also seeks to mediate and find balance between the theological differences of the fractured Church. I also have a hunch that most of our theological problems come from imbalance rather than sheer error. One tradition emphasizes one aspect of Christ's Truth, while the other emphasizes another aspect, and both declare each other to be heretics and apostates. Yet, both have something that the other needs, and if they would just forgive each other they could find balance and holism from each other's theological insights.

Now, there are also many cases of flat-out error as well. Some Christian groups affirm things that are just false or imaginary. And theomedy is not afraid to say so. There are many cases of EITHER / OR, where one side is right and the other wrong. Yet, it is the first impulse of theomedy is to look for a BOTH / AND solution, before looking for an EITHER / OR solution.

Now, theomedy does not just seek to mediate between the churches, but also between the world and the Church. It seeks to find bridges of mercy and grace to extend to a lost and hurting world so that they can be brought into the abundant life of Christ. Theomedy does this by focusing on the fifth and final root of theomedy: The Media.

The Media is a indispensable resource of parables and analogies that can communicate the Gospel to a lost world. Theomedy seeks to deconstruct our sources of media- our music, movies, TV, news, and literature- and find bridges from them that lead to Christ. Christian theology that neglects to use the divine gift of the media refuses to use many incredible tools to communicate Christ's Truth. "Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable", we think about these things and find ways to use them to bring others to Christ (cf. Phil 4:8).

So, this is the definition of theomedy: Trinity-centered, comedic, mediating, mediatorial, and media-savvy.

These five aspects of theomedy lead to the effect it has: Medicine. When we do theomedic theology, we are taking medicine to heal us from the schismatic, over-serious, death-dealing way we have done theology for centuries. Theomedy is medicine for the soul. Theomedy is medicine for the Church. Theomedy is medicine for the world.

May we all become theomedians. Amen+
This is a bunch of stuff to make us think hard about our incredible love affair with the God of the universe, our astounding infidelities against him, and his incredible grace to heal and restore us through Christ. Everything on this site is copyright © 1996-2015 by Nathan L. Bostian so if you use it, cite me... otherwise you break the 8th commandment, and make God unhappy. You can contact the author by posting a comment.