A Video Interview with John-Marc Ormechea

I don’t like being in front of a camera; I avoid it in fact. (Yes, I know the irony of saying that and being the woman who sent half-naked photos of herself through the Twitterverse earlier this year.) So, when my friend John-Marc Ormechea (otherwise known as @EpicTillich on Twitter), asked me to talk with him via Zoom my response was: hell no! Nah-ah. No way. Hard pass. But what I said was: “uh, sure.” And I mustered up all the courage in my 140 pound frame and sat with John-Marc and talked about my journey in Christ, Martin Luther (#swoon), and Liturgy as a beautiful feature of The Episcopal Communion. It was fun. I talk with my hands *a lot*. I choked up at one point (now you’ll know what I look like when I’m about to cry).  I’m *VERY* animated; everything is right there on my face to see (good news: I’m a bad liar because of this animation).

 

Anyway, here is that video. And, all my gratitude to John-Marc Ormechea for asking me to talk to him about things that I’m passionate about. I’m beyond honored.

 

 

You can find John-Marc Ormechea here: https://epictillich.wordpress.com/ or on Twitter: @EpicTillich. You’ll blessed as I have been.

The Parable as the World Right-Side-Out: Sermon on Matthew 20:1-16

“‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat’“ (Mt 20:12)

Do you know what this verse is the equivalent of in our vernacular?

“It’s not fair!” “Hey! That’s not fair!” These workers essentially whined and complained in an ancient language (now very dead) that is equivalent to my 3-year-old’s tantrum about nothing (absolutely nothing!) being “fair!” As a parent of three kids, I know all about the deep-seated human desire for fairness. Any parent here knows exactly what I’m talking about on a very visceral level. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard the cry, “It’s not fair!!”, I wouldn’t be here right now. I’d be on a beach…that I owned. I’d be a wealthy, wealthy woman.

In the world of children, everything must be fair. But according to whom? “To me.” Each of my children is the arbiter of their own fairness. If they themselves are lacking, things aren’t fair. If Jack had the toy that Quinn wanted, and I took that toy from Jack and gave it to Quinn, you’d not here Quinn clamoring that things aren’t fair. He’d be just fine and content because he has what he wants and deemed to be rightfully his. The cry that things aren’t fair bursts forth from self-oriented hearts.

Good thing this is something we all outgrow, right?

If that were true, we’d not have this very passage in the gospel of Matthew (20:1-16). If the demand for retributive fairness weren’t a deep-seated human problem, this parable wouldn’t exist. But God knows humanity better than humanity knows its self. Even as mature, rational, intellectual adults we want what’s fair for us; we want to keep what we’ve rightly earned. We want what’s ours. And everything about that natural human disposition should be disturbed and rattled to the very core by this parable.

So let’s take a few minutes to look at it.

“‘For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went.” (Mt 20:1-4)

Any time Jesus begins a story with, “The kingdom of heaven is like….” Sit down. Sit down because everything you know to be true is about to be radically and completely altered. Everything you hold in your heart and mind as true is about to be turned on its head. Following these introductory words by Jesus about what the kingdom of heaven is like, you can guarantee that whatever you knew to be true, that everything that you think should be, isn’t. In Matthew, when Jesus utters these words, everything is about to get real; and that realness isn’t what you, the hearer, are expecting or wanting.

In the utterance, is an intentional confrontation. The utterance, the parable itself (which it is), is an intentional confrontation with you because it’s a “speech event.” And as an event, it does not happen in a vacuum, but occurs in time and space and incorporates people. And unlike the event of a command that demands an answer, the parable is plea.[1]

A plea, in the form of this parable, is released into the air by the one who spoke the world into existence, the one who is the incarnated Word of God. The plea goes forth creating exactly what it intends to create: hearers seized by the word itself and brought to its right conclusion, those who have heard and have now believed, and those who have responded; the faithful.

In the parable as plea, as speech event, God’s word, Jesus’s word, renders to dust that which belongs to the dust—the things we’ve made, the things we hold true, the things we believe apart from an external reorienting event. And in the midst of the dust, the word recreates from nothing that which is pleasing to it: a new creation, a new people, a new way to life. The parable, and including this parable that we’re looking at, is the penetrative word that pierces our existence and our timeline (parting space and time) and brings forth by lexical labor and delivery the kingdom of God that it is speaking of.

The parable isn’t merely a story about a better place and a better time; it is that better place and time now. And we, who have ears to hear, are the recreated participants in this new place and new time, that better place and that better time.

“When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. 10 Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11 And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12 saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ 13 But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14 Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ 16 So the last will be first, and the first will be last” (Mt 20:8-16).

As we go about our life thinking that we are living a life and living in a world that is right-side-out, the word event, the parable spoken by Jesus, grabs our lives and our life and our world and exposes it as actually wrong-side-out. In this parable, in this Word event there is an exposure; the parable exposes. And not only does it expose, but it alters, changes, and corrects; it is in the word event, in the parable, that the world is now right-side-out, now we are right-side-out.

And what’s this parable in Matthew 20 exposing and righting? Inequality. In the kingdom of God there is no hierarchy of persons. There is no claim on our own to our rights, to what’s ours. Just as we do not incur any punishments for our misdeeds and we are all equalized, so, too, in the reception of grace without merit or the promise of reward. According to Jesus, no person is better than another no matter what the earning potential.[2]

This parable offends us and utterly and completely reduces us to dust—we cannot comprehend it. The Judge, whom we encounter in this parable and whom is Jesus Christ[3] the vineyard owner, exposes our retributive default and posture toward fairness and “according to me” equality. When we come up against the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ, we have no recourse to our rewards and merits. The Word of God levels us all. We bring nothing to the table. “We are [all],” to quote Martin Luther, “beggars.”

There is no boasting, no room for any boasting of our ourselves in Christ, in the realm of the vertical. And if there’s no room there for boasting in the vertical, then there’s no room for boasting in the kingdom of God, in the horizontal. As we are freed from the tiresome toil of earning, of seeking our merit and reward with God, we gain freedom from the same tiresome toil of earning and seeking our own merit and reward in our actual lives. While he’s writing about Genesis 11, I believe what Helmut Gollwitzer says is very applicable here,

“…we cannot by our own power break our fetters, cannot get rid of our intoxication…we need another great help. The Creator, who made the good beginning, must make a new beginning. He must come with new gifts, in order that the old gifts of our abilities and our work do not continue to be a curse to us. A new spirit must set us free from the errors of our old spirit. The whole Bible is a cry for help of this new Spirit from the creator, and the whole Bible is at the same time the euangelion, the glad news, that God does not only…confront the evil will of [humanity] with his judgment, but that he has opened his heart to us, and made possible a new way of good life, of fellowship, of avoidance of destruction. Into this new way he desires to lead us all by his Spirit.”[4]

The Word of God doesn’t just convict us; it creates (recreates) us. In Christ, by faith alone we are recreated by the Word of God, by the ever-recreating Word of God. Even now, by the word of God, I am brought to death, into the death and judgment of Adam and am brought to life in Christ (1 Cor 15:22). I can, with St. Paul, say, “For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain” (Phil 1:21). In this dying that is gain, and living that is Christ, I no longer have to be out to get mine; and, even more than that, I can be about the business of making sure you get what you need. I am now very much able to see to the needs of my brothers and sisters over getting what I’m owed. I am now very much moved not only to merely accept that the last will be first and the first will be last, but I, being of the first group, can actively promote the wellbeing and meet the needs of those fellow humans who are in last group. I am now given a new way to see fairness: not as what is fair to me but to you. I can (and must!) use my language (and my actions) in a new way, to advocate for you, to cry out on your behalf, “This isn’t fair!”

To close I want to creatively quote from the 2nd letter to the Corinthians and the letter to the Philippians,

“From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:16-18)…Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel (Phil 1:27)”

We have been recreated and ushered into the divine kingdom by the creative and apocalyptic word spoken by The Word made flesh, Jesus Christ. Let us and care for and love each other as we have been cared for and loved by God.

 

[1] Eberhard Jüngel. “The World as Possibility and Actuality: The Ontology of the Doctrine of Justification” Theological Essays. Translated by J. B. Webster. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1989. “A plea makes a command without force. Unlike a command, it gives time. It accords freedom which the one to whom a plea has not been made never has. It leads to the differentiation of actuality by possibility. And so pleading ought to be the constitutive element of proclamation….In a plea, God’s love finds its most appropriate expression; and this love reconciles the world to God having made possible the possible and impossible the impossible, by reducing the latter to nothing and by creating the former anew from nothing.” 120.

[2] Rudolf Bultmann “Theology of the New Testament” vol. 1. New York: Charles Scribner, 1951. “[Humanity] must become like a child, who, knowing no such thing as appeal to any rights or merits of his own, is willing simply to be given a gift (Mk. 10:15). (…) Jesus rejects all this counting up of merit and reward: The worker who went to work in the last hour of the day is rewarded just as much as the one who had worked all day long (Mt. 20:1-15). And Jesus also refuses to regard the misfortune that befalls individuals as punishment for the special sins, no man is better than another.” 14.

[3] Karl Barth CD III.1.40. p.37 “This is the right of the Creator with which we have to do when we encounter Jesus. It is by His right as Creator that according to the dominant conception of the New Testament God comes to be the Judge of men. He does not have to become or to make Himself the judge. He is it from the very outset. He is it as God the Creator, who as such can claim that the creature should be responsible to Him; who has the authority to decide whether it justifies its existence, i.e., whether it satisfies the right of the One to whom it owes its existence.”

[4] Helmut Gollwitzer “The Way to Life” p. 4 . He is speaking about Gen 11, but I believe the point holds here.

Thomas Aquinas and The Concept of the Ontology of the Human Person

Sounds like the title of a children’s book gone horribly awry, doesn’t it?

Sadly, coming up with something creative as a title for this series of posts proved impossible; I’m rather bad at coming up with titles to begin with not to mention for entries once meant to be part of a larger academic work. *sigh* Oh well, “it is what it is”….wait, that may have worked! 😉

This is the first post (of many; yes you’ve been warned) discussing Thomas Aquinas’ concept of the human person. I’m pulling directly from a section for a dissertation I am no longer working on, which hurts…a little, won’t lie. But, having 75 pages of written material sit on the drive of my computer hurt more, so I’m giving them some light here on my blog. I can hear from here the shouts of ecstasy. Stop it. You’re making me blush.

My plan is to go through and chunk up the section and post it (post by post by post…) here. I am neither an Aquinas scholar nor a Thomist. In an attempt to understand what Luther was saying about the concept of ontology of the human person (also part of the larger, former dissertation) I had to know (well) what he was working with and even against; this is how a Lutherphile ends up with near 100 pages of work on Thomas Aquinas. With that said, I want to add that I did my best to assume the posture of a student who wanted to learn from Thomas Aquinas; my aim in this section was not to find the myriad of ways I could disagree with him, but to (as best I can from the 21st century) get into his head, make his language my language, see through his eyes. And, in my opinion, that’s what a good student does: she learns, she learns well, and then she find the cracks and faults.

Now that that’s off my chest, let me cease my preliminary yammering. Without further interruption:

The Introduction

The concept of the ontology of the human person is rather difficult to pin down in the works of Thomas Aquinas. One cannot turn to the index of the Summa Contra Gentiles or the Summa Theologiea and look up the concept of the ontology of the human person to be directed to a part in each work that will clearly tell the reader the proper definition of the ontology of the human person. Rather the concept is embedded within Thomas’ works, nearly all of them. In Thomas’ discussion about God, we see what humans are not and this plays a role in understanding the concept of the ontology of the human person for Aquinas. One must first understand God as Creator, to know the created and why God creates and what aspect or characteristic of the Creator is contained within the created and what does the created say about the Creator. The concepts are intimately bound together yet distinct; they are one but polyform.

For instance, to understand humanity and the world as created, there must be a differentiation between Creator and created, a differentiation that must be upheld if we are to make sure that God is distinct from creation (distinction not intending complete disassociation, but rather difference: God is not creation and creation is not God). Not only that, but also that God is intimately connected with and toward creation (the concept of God’s Providence); God is not a far-off God that has merely created this world only to let it now run its course of action without any involvement on God’s end: God cares for, provides for, is the authority over, and sustains creation.

This distinction between God, Creator, and humanity and the world, the created, is crucial for Aquinas. The distinction highlights mainly the healthy differentiation between God and creation. As stated above, God is distinct yet connected to what God creates. What God is and who God is, humanity and the rest of creation are not (and cannot be). But it is also important to mention that the inverse is not 100% true. We cannot say, taking Aquinas at his word, that what humanity and the world are or who humanity is, God is not. Primarily we cannot say this because of the fact that there are resemblances and types that reflect the divine Creator within the creation. So, if we see beauty in a flower or a pastoral setting, we can deduce, according to Aquinas, that God is beauty more fully and perfectly. When we encounter a wise person, we can likewise deduce that in God wisdom is full and perfect, and so on. According to Aquinas, the virtues and the good that we see in humanity and in creation are in God fully and perfectly.

With this said, the main point of this discussion is to discern, carefully, what Thomas says about the ontology of the human person. It has been established that in order to do this well, maintaining the integrity of Thomas’ thought, one needs to look at both Aquinas’ concept of God and his concept of creation. So, what does the distinction between the Creator and the created as well as the types and resemblances between the Creator and the created tell us about the ontology of the human person? This concept of the ontology of the human person seems to come down to the proper definition of the image of God in which and with which humanity is created. It is here, in the image of God, where we see both the distinction between God and humanity and the resemblance of the Creator within the created. To understand the ontology of the human person, for Aquinas, one needs to understand the image of God as it is within humanity and as it is communicated to humanity through creation. For Aquinas, the image of God contained within humanity—if we dare to simplify here his complex definition—is (best defined) as: the intellect. While the term and concept of the intellect will be teased out in future posts, it will suffice to say here that this is not a cold and isolated term, depicting man as merely a brain with no heart. For Aquinas, the concept of the intellect is a broader term, encompassing the reason, free will, and love. It is the intellect that separates humanity from the beasts of the earth, for by it we can contemplate, and by it we can seek God, the true end of all good and humanity’s beatification.

This discussion, in its goal to define Aquinas’ concept of the ontology of the human person, will attempt to be faithful to Aquinas’ own approach by first looking into Aquinas’ concept of God, then into why God created and what He created, and then conclude with a discussion of Aquinas’ concept of the ontology of the human person. But prior to diving into those concepts I’ll be providing a background to some of Aquinas’ work (I know, you were dying to know) and definitions of terms (now this I know you wanted to know). Providing background into Thomas’ work gives his work a dimension for us in the 21st century; he did write in a particular time with a particular goal to address a particular problem, we would do well to understand this historical background as much as we can. Giving some definitions to terms is always a good idea to create the common-ground of language: if I merely toss to you the term “essence” you maybe be familiar with the term but we may be working with varying concepts depending on how we’ve developed the term from our own research.

With that…Stay tuned!

Not So For You: A Mother’s Day Post.

“To bring children into the world and slowly to birth one’s death and to accept it rather than to get it over with, quickly and if possible without awareness of it–as our shabbiest fantasies would have it–are acts of participation in creation. They refuse to fall in love with the alien reality of money and violence that has laid hold of life. The pain of birth encourages and convinces us of life. Just as a piece of bread can convince us of God, so this pain is a sacrament, a sign of God’s presence. How could we ever have lost it?” – Dorothee Sölle – Against the Wind: Memoir of a Radical Christian

 

During a conversation about summer break awhile back, my second son casually offered, “Well, mommy’s always on summer break.” The statement was like a needle scratching across a record; the party went silent. My eldest son sat up straight and gave his brother the look of, “Dude, you’re on your own now…” as he scooted down the bench at our dinner table, creating a healthy distance for/from the wrath he expected to land in his brother’s lap. My husband was in the kitchen slicing something; the slicing stopped as his eyes–filled with what I would call a healthy (and proper) dose of panic–darted from my second son to me, back to my second son, back to me. The toddler babbled about something; she saw the whole thing as an opportunity to shove the remainder of her dinner on to the floor… “oooops…fressert pweeze?”… <<giggle>>.

 

The one who uttered the statement looked around; everything about the tension in the air told him he’d just said something wrong. Very wrong. He realized it. His head slowly turned, and his blue eyes slowly met mine.  I was calm–let’s be more honest about that–I was as calm as I could be on the outside. In a cool and very controlled tone–the tone that my children know as the tone of sit-still-say-nothing-nod-amply–“Summer break?…Really?” I asked him. He nodded. I knew why he’d assumed that and even why he said it…out loud. “Just because I don’t leave to go to a job or go to work, doesn’t mean I’m not working at a job. If you really want the truth, Mommy doesn’t get summer break and she barely gets a vacation. Not even my sleep is mine. Mommies are at work every hour of every day, every day of every week, every week of ever year… Summer break?” I chuckled, and shook my head slightly. I poked around my dinner plate with my fork. “Not even close, buddy.”

 

No this isn’t a post about the unsung heroism of the stay-at-home-mother’s work day. Though, these works should be praised. The myriad of things I do every day from the hours of 4am to 9pm (when I practically fall into bed) to keep this house running, to keep #TheLarkinThree alive, and to maintain the barely existing heartbeat of my own professional work is worthy of applause. But I don’t want applause. I hate applause. (Anyone who knows me well enough knows just how much I hate applause and praise.) So, I’m not writing to be told I’m doing a good job or to be told that being a stay-at-home-mom is a noble choice…if I hear that one more time when I meet someone from my husband’s office, I’ll lose it.

 

I told the story above because what dawned on me (much, much later) is that if my son thinks I’m always on summer break, then maybe I’m doing my job right and well.  That he doesn’t see me as working hard or that I’m always burdened by them, is indicative of a daily aspect of motherhood most don’t see in operation until death.

 

You can look upon my body and see the scars of having become a mother. From the moment a plastic stick tells me I’m “with child” my body starts to change.* My brain chemistry will alter (forever); I’ll be hardwired from here on out to put an other before myself. When he cries, I’ll come. When he stumbles and falls, I’ll scoop him up. When he’s troubled, I’ll comfort. When he runs away, I’ll run after. During pregnancy my body will betray me. My own body will choose him over me. My nutrients course through my body first to him and whatever is left, I’ll get. My mind and my body sacrifice me for his life; way before holding him in my arms, I’ll go through a multitude of deaths to bring forth life.

 

Not least of which is laboring to deliver. In labor I am confronting death to bring forth life; no small task. And I’ll confront death alone. No one takes my hand and guides me through it. It is here where the ferocity that is woman comes to the fore; I will come close to and growl at death, bring it, Death! I’ll stare it down. My life for his! I’ll cry. And I’ll bear the wound of this battle in my physical body.  (Wounds that will later allow men to judge me as unattractive and unappealing, judgments I’ll absorb and utter against myself as I look over my body reflected back to me by the bathroom mirror).

 

I could bring up the continued wounding of my physical body–how my breasts are now oddly shaped because of years of nursing, expanding and contracting; how my weight fluctuates depending on the time I have to take care of myself; how the nutritional values of my meals is skimpy because I’m gleaning from left overs remaining on little plates by little people. But the reality is that it’s not merely my physical body that incurs the wound, pain, and suffering, of being a mom. As I said, you can look upon my  body and see the scars and disfiguring of being a mom, but there’s more you can’t see unless you not just look but also listen.  For the suffering and pain of being a mom isn’t merely restricted to my body, but also to my mind and my soul. My body–inside and out–is continually broken for these children of mine.**

 

“The real question the pain of birth gives us would be how we might come to understand pain as birthing pain, labor pain as doors opening, groaning as ‘the onset of the glory of the freedom of God’s children.’ How do we approach our pains so that they do not torment us like pointless kidney stones, but, as pains of labor, prepare the new being?…We need a different theology of pain that finally feminizes the questions and relates our pain to the pain of God. The question then will be: How does our pain become the pain of God? How do we become part of the messianic pain of liberation, part of the groaning of a creation that is in travail. How do we come to suffer so that our suffering becomes the pain of birth?” – Sölle***

 

But there’s more beyond the inner and outer breaking of my body. There is something you can’t see or hear, because this war that wages is one that is mine alone. This battle is between me and the age that has come before me on behalf of the age to come. And it wages everyday I walk the earth; it’s the battle I’ll take with me into the grave. (And, truly, if I fight well, you’ll rarely see the effects or feel the impact of this war.) It’s more than just a my-life-for-his: it’s: his-life-will-be-free. Free from all of the generational shit that has been repeatedly passed down over and over and over again. Free from pain and suffering that should’ve never have happened…ever. Free from anxiety, stress, fear where there should’ve been peace, tranquility, and comfort. The battle is one that is not about a body breaking but the very opposite; it’s about a body strong, resilient, being a stronghold in the time of disaster. Like a dam holding back tons of water threatening to wash out and drown what lives peacefully in its shadow and protection, my body will hold back what has come crashing into it from the repetition of history to protect those who live and depend on my protection. Everyday I will awake and make intentional choices, decisions, and actions that repeat my motherhood-mantra: it will not be so for you. And, this shit ends with me; I’ll wrestle it into the grave it so deserves. Everyday, I will utter the divine “no more” that has infiltrated my language because of my encounter with Christ who defined love as suffering, love as a body broken, love as freedom where there was oppression, love as comfort where there was fear, love as tender embrace where there was abuse, love as acceptance where there was rejection, love as new life as a gift to us out of/because of Christ’s death and resurrection.

 

 

 

 

*In rather imperfect terms (needing some renovating and updating) I’ve written more about the process of death to life as it relates to the very beginning of motherhood here: https://laurenrelarkin.com/2016/08/12/death-to-life-in-fertility-to-birth/

 

**I’ve written here about the inner body breaking: https://laurenrelarkin.com/2016/06/22/my-body-broken/

 

***Thank you to David W. Congdon who supplied me with the quotations from Dorothee Sölle.  You can follow him on twitter @dwcongdon; I’d recommend it. 🙂

Hope When in Doubt

The following is a sermon I preached at Southside Anglican Church almost a year ago. The text ran as a post on Mockingbird (click here for the post).  Instead of just retweeting/re-posting a link to the Mockingbird post, I wanted to put the full text here (with proper acknowledgment that it ran on Mockingbird first, of course!).

I also wanted to explain why I’m posting it.  As I pursue answers to theological questions in my academic pursuits and interactions, I’m bound to run up against (and should run up against) answers that challenge some of my beliefs. This encounter with conflict is good and I accept it and even promote it; from the conflict I grow. I know this because I experienced growth out of intense conflict as I worked through my stm and my stm thesis with an advisor that disagreed with many of the concepts I brought to the table. The conflict(s!) forced me to go back to my drawing table and reformulate answers (to argue better), to re-examine what I held to be true, to acknowledge the weakness of my position and to admit the critique, not to mention to be formed and molded as a better scholar. Had my advisor not challenged me in conflict, I’d be a weaker thinker. But hindsight is 20/20 (as the saying goes); I know now that the conflict was good, but during the conflict there was plenty of doubt bordering on despair: have I been believing a lie? Not an easy question for a theologian to ask herself.

Over the past week, I found myself in a similar conflict. Some concepts that I’ve held closely have come under fire, but the fire hit too close to the source of my hope; I was working and fighting and resisting the black-hole of despair that was eager to devour me as I felt my hope crumbling to the ground. (Despair being a state of hopelessness.) To be honest, being tired of fighting so hard I wanted to give in and let my whole being be consumed. The original conflict and challenge lead to an uncontrollable flow of questions and subsequent doubts and more questions and more doubts; I was losing the ability to keep my head above the water. But I have a friend, Sarah, and she refuses to preach anything but the Gospel. She heard all my questions, my doubts, and my looming despair. But she doesn’t just tell me that Jesus loves me (though this is very true), she quotes from Galatians. It’s what I needed to hear because I was something she said made me remember what it was that plucked me out of my trajectory leading to certain death and placed me on the path to life: Jesus Christ who died for our sins and was raised for our justification (Romans 4:25). Her words also reminded of a sermon I wrote nearly a year ago on Gal 1:1-12. While the sermon is about our fickle hearts, I think the gist applies to our deep and sincere moments of doubt and despair; I was reminded of where my hope resides: in Christ, in his word, in the Gospel (the doctrine of the justification of the sinner (Jüngel)). So, I thought I’d share.

*******

We’re fickle. Human beings are fickle. You and I both know it and we’re free to confess it. Our hearts and minds easily change orientation and preferences by the mere shifting of the wind, our hearts and minds have a difficulty staying the course, being constant in our loyalty and affections.

I do want to be clear that I don’t think all moments of changing our mind are bad; sometimes our propensity toward changing our mind isn’t necessarily a bad thing; there are times receiving new information and incorporating it into our database of knowledge is good, in fact it’s an aspect of being wise. For instance, learning that the earth is not square but round, that it’s okay and quite acceptable to overly love, snuggle, hug and kiss your baby, and that all human beings should be treated with dignity (etc.) are wonderful pieces of information to know and to have. So, our ability to change our minds, our views, and our opinions by the influence of new information isn’t always bad. In fact, it’s quite laudable.

However, we’re not always changing our mind because of the presentment of new and good information. As I said just a moment ago, we’re fickle. Our hearts and minds do not have the metal constitution we would like to think they do. A soft breeze can easily challenge our deepest held conviction. I wish I could tell you that I am NOT fickle; I wish I could say that I’m the epitome of mental, emotional, and spiritual constancy and loyalty. There are times that I can appear content with how things are in and out of the house and then my husband, upon returning home, will ask, “Honey, why is the wall to wall carpet on the sidewalk?” or, “Where’d those bushes go?” Or He’ll ask, “Why is your hair a different color?….again…” While these moments where I’ve given in to my fickleness are comical to most, I have to be honest and say that my fickleness runs a bit deeper than carpet, evergreen bushes, and hair color. It runs painfully deep in my mind and heart and soul. The serpent of old slithers his way to me, and asks, once again, that deadly question: “Did God really say…?” (Gen 3:1). Did God really say that you are saved only by faith in Christ? Did God actually say He loves you? Did God truly say _you’re_ saved, Lauren? Did God really say…?

And no matter how many academic accolades I have hanging from weak nails on my walls, no matter how many volumes of theological works I have on flimsy wooden bookshelves, it is nearly impossible for me to refute those doubts once they’re planted. In these moments, I’m powerless and voiceless to argue back.

“How fickle my heart and how woozy my eyes

I struggle to find any truth in your lies

And now my heart stumbles on things I don’t know

My weakness I feel I must finally show” (Mumford and Sons “Awake My Soul”).

And I’m not alone; I know you’ve heard the same questions and have had the same doubts, too.

“Paul, an apostle—not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead—and all the brothers who are with me” (Gal 1:1-2).

Enter Paul and the Galatians. It doesn’t take more than the first two words of the opening line of the epistle for Paul to begin to deal with the fickleness of the Galatian Christians and contends with the false teachers directly. Pau/loj avpo,stoloj (Paul (an) Apostle). It’s two small words but these two words pack a significant punch: Paul is an apostle and those other teachers, those other guys, aren’t. Paul was an apostle he was not sent by the apostles. And to back up that title (Paul, an apostle) he adds this: “not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father,” Paul pokes holes in the claim to authority the false teachers had (they were sent by humans, Paul was not), and affirms his apostolic status by declaring he was called and sent by Christ Himself (Acts 9:15ff).

And with the added clarifying addend modifying God the Father, “who raised him from the dead,” Paul affirms the original message he brought to them, the message they heard first from Paul: righteousness comes by faith and not by works of the law. And any teacher who is proclaiming another message from the message of Paul is not only against Paul, but against the Father and the Son. Luther writes in Galatians,

“Thus at the very outset Paul explodes with the entire issue he intends to set forth in this epistle. He refers to the resurrection of Christ, who rose against for our justification (Rom. 4:25). His victory is a victory over the Law, sin, our flesh, the world, the devil, death, hell, and all evils; and this victory of His He has given to us” (21-2).

And then,

“Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen” (Gal 1:3-5)

As if the first verse wasn’t enough to establish the Gospel tenor of the entire letter, Paul, using his standard greeting (yet a greeting un-standard in the world in which Paul is writing), takes another moment to proclaim the foundations of the Gospel message.  Paul proclaims Grace and Peace, both words that contain within them the power to calm the troubled conscience, troubled mind and soul; Grace forgives sins and Peace quiets the mind and the two are inextricably linked: no peace without grace because grace silences the Law by forgiving sins. And the peace we have as a result of grace’s effectiveness in forgiving sin/s is the peace that Jesus gives, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid” (John 14:27).

How is this grace and peace (from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ) given to us? Jesus, God of very God/of the same substance of the Father, who was crucified for our sins and was raised for our justification, and by His word and breath (by the power of the Holy Spirit/triune affair) He gives us HIS peace. Luther refers to these words of Paul in v. 4, “These words are a veritable thunderbolt from heaven against every kind of righteousness, as is the statement (John 1:29): ‘Behold, the lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!’” (32). Grace and peace are ours by faith in Christ because Christ himself laid down his life to forever dethrone and overthrow the tyrant named sin and set all the captives free from its slavish yolk by his resurrection; we, like Adam before us, are helpless to remedy our problem, we are “dead in our trespasses” (Eph 2:5 and Col 2:13) and God intervened on our behalf to do what it is that we couldn’t do like he did all those many years back in the Garden (Gen 2:18ff).

Far from being a restatement of the law or another Moses, Jesus is the new word, the word that grants grace to forgive sins and gives us peace even in this “evil age” (from which we are delivered). Therefore, to quote Luther,

“…grasp the true definition of Him, namely, that Christ, the Son of God and of the Virgin, is not One who terrifies, troubles, condemns us sinners or calls us to account for our evil past but One who has taken away the sins of the whole world, nailing them to the cross (Co. 2:14) and driving them all the way out by Himself” (37-8).

By faith in Christ we are justified and in being justified we are Christ’s own in union with Him, and in this unity with Christ have been ushered to the Father. Any message that does not carry with it the proclamation of this grace and this peace is not a faithful message of the gospel. And that’s pretty much what Paul is setting up here in the first few introductory remarks to the Galatians. And I could stop here, but I won’t because Paul doesn’t and it just gets better…

“I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed. For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ. For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel. For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ” (Gal 1:6-12)

Someone in Galatia used their quiet time to painstakingly write and painstakingly mail a letter to Paul: Something is happening, Paul…these new teachers are saying x, y, and z, and the people are falling for it. Help! For all intents and purposes, Paul’s response is: “Dearest Children what are you doing, to whom are you listening, and to for what message are you falling? If it’s anything but Jesus Christ died for your sins and was raised for your justification, it’s an errant message and those are errant teachers. Run.”

And here we move from being on the side-line looking in at the Galatians, to being addressed. We like the Galatians are fickle and with fickleness comes troubled minds, hearts, and souls. We are flesh and we are easily ensnared by lies, we, like the Galatians before us, are prone to fall for the lies of the “evil present age,” for the lies that drip from the lips of those who would rather bring glory to themselves than to God (ref. Gal 1:5 glory goes to God alone), we are prone to doubt when that age old question presents itself to us in the thick of night, “Did God really say….” It’s not that we seek or even want to be misled, but that we are easily mislead. Just as it takes one minuscule tick left or right from true north to cause directional mayhem in a walk in the wilderness, so it takes one morsel of doubt to undo sound teaching.[1]

Listen to what Paul declares in these verses:

  • You have been misled
  • You have strayed from He who has called you
  • You have wondered to another message
  • You are now troubled by this other (distorted) message/Gospel
  • There is only one Gospel message
  • Accursed is anyone—anyone—who proclaims to you another Gospel
  • The message you received from me is to be believed
  • I am not sent by nor am I seeking the approval of men but God.
  • I did not receive this message from man but from revelation from Jesus/Christ God

Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 8,

“For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as indeed there are many ‘gods’ and many ‘lords’—yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist” (vv. 5-6).

There is one God and there is one Gospel proclamation; Paul was sent and commissioned by the One God and given the One Gospel; any other message that contradicts this faithful servant and this faithful message is no Gospel and is an attempt to extinguish the one Gospel message. There is only the one word of the Gospel which brings grace and peace to the fickle heart and troubled mind of human beings; any other word added to this One word or any other word in place of this One Word and our fickleness looms and a troubled mind ensues.

We are wounded and doubting creatures and need to be told things repeatedly: This God, this very God, the creator of heaven and Earth, loves you so much. But not only that, but also this: He will never leave you, nor forsake you no matter how dirty your past and how wounded or skeptical you are of Him. Thus the importance of the preacher proclaiming this very message every Sunday; to do otherwise is to starve the congregation, the hearers (both old and new) of this word of life. Luther writes,

“For if we lose the doctrine of justification, we lose simply everything. Hence the most necessary and important thing is that we teach and repeat this doctrine daily…For it cannot be grasped or held enough or too much. In fact, though we may urge and inculcate it vigorously, no one grasps it perfectly or believes it with all his heart. So frail is our flesh and so disobedient to the spirit” (26)

So, we need to constantly hear, over and over and over again, the single word of the Gospel. We need to hear, over and over and over again that Christ Jesus, this man who is my God, willingly climbed up on the sturdy, old rugged cross, and with strong nails in his hands and feet died for our sins, and was raised for our justification.

We are so prone to disbelieve the activity of God toward us in Christ, in the Cross, that we need to be perpetually told that God truly, and unconditionally loves us–that we are truly justified by faith apart from works.

Did God say…?

Yes, and always yes He did in fact say and THIS is what He said…Hear and be comforted:

“Come unto me, all ye that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you.” (Matt 11:28)

“So God loved the world, that he gave his only-begotten Son, to the end that all that believe in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16)

Hear also what Saint Paul saith.

“This is a true saying, and worthy of all men to be received, That Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” (1 Tim. 1:15)

Hear also what Saint John saith.

“If any man sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the Propitiation for our sins.” (1 John 2: 1, 2)

[1] “This is what happened to Paul, the chosen instrument of Christ (Acts 9:15). With great toil and trouble he had gained the churches of Galatia; but in a short time after his departure the false apostle overthrew them, as this and all his other epistles testify. So weak and miserable is this present life, and so beset are we by the snares of Satan, that one fanatic can often destroy and completely undo in a short time what it took faithful ministers the hard labor of many years day and night to build up” (Luther Galatians 45).

Easter’s Present: Hope Springs Eternal

He is risen!

Hallelujah!

The Lord is risen indeed!

Hallelujah!

I’m not one to put more emphasis on one aspect of the liturgical calendar over and against another aspect. I know the importance of holding in tandem all the events of Christ: birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension. Though I do hold these events in tandem, each one solicits from me a different response. Christmas brings with it anticipation and expectation: the baby has been born, the great rescue plan is under way! Christ’s life solidifies that I can have that expectation and anticipation; he is the perfect one, his is the same mission pursuit as the One who sent him: to seek and save the lost, to heal up the brokenhearted, to set right what was wrong, to defend the defenseless (to mention a few). Good Friday thrusts me in to solemnity that leads to my own death as I witness Christ’s death because he so loved the world that he couldn’t leave the cries of the burdened and oppressed go unheard. Easter is the brilliant light in the darkness; Christ’s resurrection draws from me a deep sigh of relief: my hope finds its grounding and fulfillment. The ascension reminds me: God is with me, God is working in the world, perpetually making things and people new and overhauling the dead.

As a rational and logical person I hold these events of Christ’s activity toward and on behalf of the world in tandem, but as someone who has suffered violence at the hands and words of other humans, Easter pulls strongest: hope springs eternal.

As a sufferer, I need to be called out of myself in the midst of my suffering, I need to be called to look not down at myself (turned/turning inward) but up at Jesus, raise my face to see this very God who is merciful and unyielding in His love; who, by the life of His one and only Son, through the event of the incarnation and the cross, has declared “it will not always be so.” Darkness, depression, sorrow, suffering, grief, loss, and pain have been given their verdict: no; and we have been given ours: yes.

Suffering has a unique way of drawing us to the Suffering God who suffered for us on the cross, who was raised from the dead and has declared that the suffering of this life will not last forever, that it is not the final word, and that He has conquered it. Suffering draws us to this God who is not far off when we are at our worst, ugliest, decrepit, sick, infirm, maimed, even when we are angry at Him about our own suffering or the suffering of those close to us.

Suffering draws us to this God who has come close and breathes into our breathless lungs—lungs carried in bodies exhausted from the battle, pelted by the hail-storms of pain and loss, bones made brittle by unfulfilled pleas and petitions. It is this God who breathes into our lungs and re-creates us from the dead, gives us real and true life and new hearts, who causes us to love him and to love others and uses all those things intended for evil for good. Even in suffering, the Light cannot be overcome by darkness.

This is Easter: hope. The resurrection of Christ from the dead is our hope. Hope that is so vibrant and fertile that it is the sole reason so many of us who have suffered incredible pain still walk this very earth. Our hope is historical, it is current, and it turns our faces toward the future because the promises of God have been fulfilled, are being fulfilled, and will be fulfilled. The resurrection of Christ is the event that reverberates through the halls of time; it is the voice that echoes: “hold-fast; I am.”

The event of the resurrection of Christ gives the broken-down, the oppressed, the suffering, the down-trodden future hope that (in it’s most amazing and beautiful way) reaches back to the now and gives it life, life abundant. Future oriented hope in resurrection makes this current life vibrant technicolor rather than drab monochrome. We can walk through this life with our scars, because a new body, a new life waits, one free from the muscle memory of pain and fear. We can bear the pain of loss and sorrow deep in our bones and carry on in life because the future hope of resurrection and reunion reorients our gaze upward toward the one who defeated death once and for all. We can fight for and free the oppressed because our future oriented hope gives us the audacity and freedom to do so in the here and now, to live into thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Hear ye, beloved, these comfortable words:

“He will swallow up death for all time, And the Lord GOD will wipe tears away from all faces, And He will remove the reproach of His people from all the earth; For the LORD has spoken” (Is. 25:8).

And the Lord GOD has,

When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”

55 “Where, O death, is your victory?
    Where, O death, is your sting?”

56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57 But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

58 Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain” (1 Cor 15)

Today, Easter, hope springs eternal because Christ is risen from the dead.

Hallelujah!

He is risen indeed!

Hallelujah!

Some Thoughts on the Billy Graham Rule

A couple of weeks ago I had a bit of a rant on Twitter about the foundations for the Billy Graham Rule. (If you are (lucky enough to be) unaware of such a rule, I’ll send you out in to the inter-webs to read more: BGR.) I turned the rant into a “Moment” at the advice from one wiser than I about these things (h/t Travis McMaken*). In order to make the Moment available to a non-twitter audience, I have embedded the tweets below. Enjoy!

 

*You are encouraged to visit his blog: http://derevth.blogspot.com/p/about-die-evangelischen-theologen.html

Whatever You Do, Don’t Ask “Why?”

(The following is my personal inquiry about suffering and questioning God’s Will in that suffering. None of it suffices for a proper treatment of doctrine surrounding the question. Take it as is: personal musings)

A few months after I graduated from seminary with my MDiv, I found myself back in class at the same school. I had noticed there was a night class being offered on reading through John Calvin, so I jumped at the opportunity. After having been solely a stay-at-home-mom for only 3 months, I needed–NEEDED–an adult, intellectual, theological outlet, and a reading class on Calvin would do nicely. Plus, I’m that obnoxious person who loves being in class and learning; I’m also that obnoxious person who rewrites B papers, so auditing a class post graduation for no reason than just because is well within my standard range of activity.

One night the discussion revolved around God’s will, a topic most of us find somewhat frustrating and intriguing. Specifically, the discussion revolved around a certain aspect of God’s  will: does God will or allow bad things to happen to us? I’ll be honest, I don’t care for the question, so when the discussion proceeded I checked out; plus, I was a graduate and an auditor, this wasn’t my battle. It was the question posed by the professor that jerked me back into the real-time of the class: if you’re the victim of the violence does willing or allowing feel any different?

The question hung in the air; the classroom had gone terribly silent.

“No.” I said. “It doesn’t feel any different.”

There’s a reason I hate the question about whether or not God wills or allows bad things to happen to us: because I’ve suffered.  I’ve suffered both physically and emotionally, by hands and by words. I hate the question because the questions I end up asking and their corresponding answers are bad news. If God willed my suffering, then I’m left asking was I created to suffer? to be a receptacle for violence?  is this what I am good for? If God allowed my suffering, then I’m left asking why? why didn’t God intervene? is this suffering pleasing to God?

The discussion about God willing or allowing suffering in a person’s life always launches me directly to the question of “Why?” and that’s the one question, the absolutely and positively one question I can’t ever let myself ask. Whatever you do, don’t ask why. The why question and the multitude of possible answers is a veritable mental, emotional, and spiritual vortex that sucks the mind and the heart into the utter recesses of the dark night of the soul, and that place is a crushing place that will make life and existence actually painful. And that’s a scary place to be, because when we’re in that amount of pain we can become desperate to ease that pain and to silence the evil narrative to which we’ve fallen prey.

So, the “why?” question is off limits. That doesn’t mean I don’t find myself there periodically. It just means that when I am there, I’ve to do active self-willing and mental gymnastics to get my mind and my heart to ask a different question and to focus on that question’s answer. The only thing that I want to know in light of my suffering, the only question that actually has an answer of comfort (for me) is a “What” question: what now? What happens now? I’ve suffered, yes, but tell me that that suffering is not the final word. Tell me that Jesus wept. Tell me that God has delivered his divine verdict to that suffering. Tell me that my heavenly Father’s righteous indignation was set aflame and burned brightly. Tell me that God can restore what the locusts have taken, that even out of that evil, God can call forth something good, something beautiful, something divine. Tell me that I’m not the sum of my deeds or the deeds done to me. Tell me of God’s radical activity toward me on my behalf in Jesus Christ and His life, death, resurrection, and ascension.

The “Why?” causes a disruption in the flow of the story that is my life; it places that part of my story outside of the story-line and out of reach. And if that part of my story is out of reach I can’t do anything with it, it moves from past to the present and into the future unanchored. The “Why?” and it’s corresponding (possible) answers will never substantially ease the burden of the suffering. But the “What now?” question puts that story into my own hands and gives me the opportunity to put it where it belongs in my story-line: chronologically in the past as an historical event. I can admit it and confess it, and thus there’s a spiritual placement: at the foot of the Cross; this is the only way to lift the burden of the suffering. Whatever you do, don’t try to answer the “Why?”, just tell me about the what and the who that is the very good news now.

For 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. (Jn 3:16)

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Mt 11:28-9)

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
    for they will be comforted.” (Mt 5:3-4)

The Indefatigable Regret of the Sham Existence

“The sinner’s relationlessness and the judgment of God’s wrath upon the sinner which takes place in and with sin is not revealed, however, as sin is enacted but only as it were in retrospect, within the brackets of the revelation of the righteousness of God in the gospel. Only in the one who knew no sin and yet was made sin for us (2 Cor 5.21) is the sinner revealed in relationlessness and sin. That Jesus Christ was made sin for us by God means that the destruere et in nihilum redigere which is enacted in and with our sin is revealed in Jesus Christ, as he and he alone dies the accursed death which we live. Jesus’ death on the cross is grace, since it reveals that in the midst of life we are in death. He makes manifest the nothingness which the sinner celebrates under the illusory appearance of being. Or at least Jesus’ death on the cross reveals this when we allow it to speak for itself (that is, according to the law).” Eberhard Jüngel[1]

Apart from Christ we are the walking dead; this is probably the most concise way for me to sum up what Jüngel is articulating in the quote above. Most of you may be thinking about zombies at this point; I don’t blame you, I am too. While I think the image of zombies is a good one, I have to confess that I think our state apart from Christ, apart from the event of justification is actually far worse than merely a zombie existence. It’s a sham existence. In the sham existence, we are “alienated from ourselves…a ‘corrupt nature’, that we, expressed in biblical language, are sinners.”[2] To push the definition a bit further,

“For part of human actuality is our striving to realize ourselves and thus to determine our own being through our own achievements. Expressed in biblical terms, the whole of our life-context is qualitied by the reality of sin, which does not just simply make the human person bad—that would be the moralistic understanding of sin!—but rather which exposes human persons to the illusion that they can make themselves good.”[3]

Let’s be clear, in no way shape or form are zombies giving any damn about making themselves good, and they are certainly not trying to strive to realize themselves through their own achievements. They are the dead, the barely animated, they just act from a primal base neurological response from the bottom of the brain-stem. We, on the other hand, are worse off because we are actively trying to self-realize (striving to do so), to make ourselves good.  And in trying to self-realize and make ourselves good, we have every opportunity to suffer under the immense weight of regret. And this type of regret makes me wish for nothing more than to be a zombie.

Regret is a relentless and indefatigable beast and it goes hand in hand with the sham existence. And by “regret” i mean that self-destructive, inwardly directed anger over events and circumstances of the past (distant and immediate). The area between what should have been or what could have been and what was or is is where regret lives. We regret things both inside and outside of our control: our bad choices and the bad things that happened to us. Let’s be clear, regret is different from conviction that is brought on by the Holy Spirit. Regret would rather work itself out unto destruction; conviction will always bring life. The feelings that course through one’s veins under the duress of regret are shame and condemnation; the feelings that make you wish for everything to end. The feelings under conviction, on there other hand, are feelings of being exposed yet comforted and accepted; the feelings that drive you toward life. It’s worth noting that the internal monologue of the mind is vastly different when experiencing regret and conviction; the difference being between self-focused and self-loathing language (death) v. other-focused (God and neighbor) and (thus) self-affirming language (life).

And the rather cruel part about regret is that it’s not easily silenced, especially from within the sham existence. That’s because when we go to silence this cruel voice within the sham existence our knee-jerk reaction is to correct it with good deeds, thus trying to nullify the voice of regret with the voice of approval. Pulling ourselves up by our boot-straps, doing better, and (maybe) turning a blind-eye to the past and blocking the memory of the failure in order to press on into the future, is akin to putting a band-aid on a major flesh wound. Maybe the louder approval sounds, the more I won’t hear regret’s condemning tirade. But it’s a lie; there’s no silencing the voice of regret…by our own power.

“However, Jesus’ death on the cross by no means only speaks for itself. It speaks in the gospel as the word of the cross. And precisely as the word of the cross, the gospel is the proclamation of the lordship of the risen one. More precisely: the gospel proclaims that the risen one lives as the crucified. And in this the death of Jesus comes to have its real meaning, namely as the event of the love of God (Jn 3.16). Jesus’ resurrection from the dead promises that we shall be made anew out of the nothingness of relationlessness, remade ex nihilo, if through faith in the creative Word of God we allow ourselves to participate in the love of God which occurs as the death of Jesus Christ. In this sense, Christian existence is existence out of nothingness, because it is all along the line existence out of the creative power of God who justifies. The Christian is accompanied by this nothing ness in the double form revealed in Jesus’ death and resurrection: as the end of the old and the beginning of the new, as a reminder of the judgment enacted in the sinner, and as the promise which surpasses judgment in the same way that grace has surpassed sin (Rom. 5.20).” Jüngel[4]

This is where proclamation of the Gospel becomes absolutely crucial. Unless an external event occurs to us (via hearing the Good News) we’ll continue to circle the proverbial drain that is our sham existence drowning in the water of regret. Our eyes and ears need to be opened.

Thus, the proclamation of the event of the cross causes the sinner to be made aware that she is a sinner but also that, by faith, she is created anew (simultaneously). In seeing the event of the cross and being made aware of her sham existence (“Justification”) the sinner dies to the self (he cannot die to herself until she is made aware of her sham existence); also, in the event of the cross and in being made aware of this sham existence she is made to die to herself, and thus to rise anew with Christ, created out of nothing since the former existence, the former person was brought to death. As is the way of the sham existence, so goes regret. Regret can only be dealt with by the cross and the event of justification. We can’t silence regret’s voice, but Christ’s “this is my beloved!” can. The words, the names that regret whispers to us in the dark of night are only undone by the words declared to us about us in the bright light of day, Christ himself, through the proclamation of the Gospel—the Gospel of the justification of the sinner, of those alienated from themselves, those who are corrupt…you and me.

While I wish I could say that the death of the sham existence and with it regret’s tyranny is a once and done thing, it’s not. Yes, there is the initial encounter the human person has who hears the proclamation of the Gospel (for the first time newly) and suffers that initial death of the sham existence and the birth of the new life out of nothing. However, death to life is daily, sometimes even hourly, in the life of the believer. “Then he said to them all: ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it’” (Lk 9:23-4). The call to take up my cross demands a daily response, and to take up my cross is essentially to be brought to death of self and my sham existence. Taking up my cross necessitates a confession that I am not my own and that I am Christ’s. It demands that I admit that I’ve, once again, believed the lies of my sham existence and let regret regain its domination over me. In this taking up of my cross and in this confession is my death but in this death is life, life abundant, life true, where our ear is inclined to Christ’s voice and not that of regret.

Media vita in morte sumus, in the midst of life we are in death; but even more media morte in vita sumus, in the midst of death we are in life.” Jüngel[5]

[1] “The World as Possibility and Actuality: The Ontology of the Doctrine of Justification” Theological Essays. Translated by J. B. Webster. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1989. (108)

[2] “On Becoming Truly Human: The Significance of the Reformation Distinction Between Person and Works for the Self-Understanding of Modern Humanity.” Theological Essays II. Translated by Arnold Neufeldt-Fast and J. B. Webster. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1995. (230)

[3] Ibid, 231.

[4]Possibility, 108-9.

[5] Ibid, 109

The End of Toil; Work Restored

What follows here is a concept/are concepts I’ve been wrestling with and have decided to put down on “paper”. I won’t claim that this post will bring you the standard comfort that I aim to bring in many of my posts; it’s not intended to do or be that word. Rather I’m looking at the concepts of rest and work, toil and work, the believer and work; I’m looking to process those words of rest and work. And, to those who have eyes to see, you may even see a deeper question I’m examining.

“Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground” (Gen 1:26)

“The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it” (Gen 2:15)

We were created to work.

I know this statement sounds odd coming from someone who often emphasizes the rest we have in Christ. So, I’ll reassure you upfront: there is no better word to me than the word of comfort that is the word of promise, who is Christ Himself, that grants, nay, creates rest for those who have the ears to hear. We have rest in Christ because by faith in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit we are united to God and in Him is true rest and peace (with God, with others, and with self). We have rest because Jesus’ word never falls to the ground, it never comes back empty. God’s promises are facts because His word creates the very thing it desires: rest for the heavy laden; comfort for those who are burdened by suffering and sorrow; peace for the anxious. “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt 11:28); because He is rest and He’s called us to Himself we therefore have (actual) rest.

Rest (and peace with it) is a significant word (and theme) not only in the first few chapters of Genesis, but throughout the biblical narrative. It’s notable that according to the Genesis story, humanity was created and ushered into its first day which was God’s day of rest. God worked then rested on the seventh day; we were created on the sixth and rested (on the seventh, our first day).

But rest isn’t the only word; as we contend with the word “rest,” we must also contend with the word “work.”

So, moving on along the story line: we rested and then we worked. Rest came first and work flowed forth from that rest.  The trajectory of the movement of work from rest is important for a few reasons, but for our purposes immediately this one reason will do: the work and dominion-having of our foreparents was built on and not merely towards the day of rest. (They weren’t “working for the weekend,[1] but out of the weekend.) Rest is the foundation of our work.

We weren’t created for rest but into rest; we were created to work.

“But it is appropriate here also to point out that man was created not for leisure but for work, even in the state of innocence” – Martin Luther[2]

The command to have dominion over the earth as uttered in Genesis 1 and again in 2, was not yet an odious word (that sad fact comes in Gen. 3); we were to have dominion over the earth and to work it (joyfully and obediently). Work, for Adam and Eve, was a pleasure, something that brought joy.

“…greater than these was the fact that Adam was fitted for eternal life. He was so created that as long as he lived in this physical life, he would till the ground, not as if he were doing an irksome task and exhausting his body by toil but with supreme pleasure, not as a pastime but in obedience to God and submission to His will” – Luther[3]

Work was to be a blessing, and as far as we know with the little information we have from the story it was. And to have this dominion was a uniquely human attribute for no beast was given or heard and understood the command that was uttered to the Adam and Eve.[4] (To work being an aspect of the imago dei so imprinted on humankind.)

But something happened and the humans together transgressed God’s command not to eat of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Thus, curses ensued that plagued humankind.

“‘Cursed is the ground because of you;
through painful toil you will eat food from it
all the days of your life.
It will produce thorns and thistles for you,
and you will eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your brow
you will eat your food
until you return to the ground,
since from it you were taken;
for dust you are
and to dust you will return.’” (Gen 3:17c-19)

In one quick word, work—that which was to bring joy and pleasure and to be done willingly and obediently—becomes toil; and in becoming toil, it will be done without joy, lacking pleasure, and it will impose itself as a demand on us which we will fight against. Working the ground will be a pain, a toil. And in this transition of work turning into toil (a pain), there is also a transition from working the ground being a part of the dominion humanity had over the earth to that work, being toil, now having domination over us. It is a labor and a toil to bring forth life and it is a labor and a toil to sustain life from the earth and on the earth. Humanity was cursed and so was our work.

But only for a period of time.

The promise of the Seed of the woman crushing the head of the snake hangs in the background (ref. Gen 3:15). And just as we were held under the custodial authority of the Law until faith (until Christ, the Seed) (ref. Gal 3:25-27), so we were held under toil’s domination…until faith, until Christ. And Christ has come 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” (Jn 3:16). “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Tim 1:15); to save them from death and unto life, life abundant. And that abundant life that we are given incorporates our person, our being, and our activity. In Christ we are given true life and true existence; in Christ work ceases to be toil and becomes work again.

But for me to now say something like, “now that you have life, go work!” would be coarse at best and futile at worst. I can sit here all day and speak of how work and activity are now not toil but work to be enjoyed and seen as a blessing and a pleasure; but those words will fall on deaf ears if those doing the hearing haven’t first been impacted by the external-to-themselves event that is the hearing of the proclamation of the gospel—the Gospel of the justification of the sinner.

So, for the person to see work as work (dominion-having) and not as toil (work dominating), two things need to happen: I need to be brought to death (by the Law) and be recreated (by the Gospel), and I need work to be transformed from toil. In hearing the word of the Law, I am brought to death because I see that I am toiling trying to justify myself by my works, that I am finding my identity, purpose, and self in my works; from this I need rest and that rest is wrought through the death that comes from the word of the Law. But not only from the word of the law, but also by the second and final word, the word of the Gospel, which brings me (as a new creation) into new and full life in union with Christ by faith in Christ apart from my works. (And this union with Christ is true rest; rest reminiscent of that seventh day of creation into which humanity was created, from which humanity worked.) By hearing the word of the Gospel, I am given a true rest (in Christ) that births a true existence and a true identity that is mine always apart from my works because my identity and purpose is found in the One who died for my sins and was raised for my justification (Rom. 4:25). In being given true rest in Christ by faith in Him in alone, and in having my works separated from me in death and re-creation, I am given my works back. In the event of justification (hearing the word of absolution proclaimed to me) work (toiling) is removed from me and from the seat of judgment over me (domination) and put in its proper place: under my dominion (ref. Eberhard Jüngel);[5] toil becomes work and is a blessing to the creation and my neighbor and to me.

In Christ, we have been given rest (true rest) and out of that rest we work and no longer toil; in Christ, we are re-created to work.

____________

[1] Loverboy, “Working for the Weekend” on the album Get Lucky

[2] Luther’s Works Vol. 1 Lectures on Genesis: Chapters 1-5. Ed. Jaroslav Pelikan. St. Louis: Concordia, 1958. 103. Luther is commenting on Gen 2:15

[3] Ibid, 65. Luther is commenting on Gen 1:26.

[4] Ibid, 66. Luther commenting on Gen 1:26, “Adam and Eve become the rulers of the earth, the sea, and the air. But this dominion is given to them not only by way of advice but also by express command. Here we should first carefully ponder the exclusiveness in this: no beast is told to exercise dominion; but without ceremony all the animals and even the earth, with everything brought forth by the earth, are put under the rule of Adam [and Eve], whom God by an express verbal command placed over the entire animal creation. Adam and Eve heard the words with their ears when God said: ‘Have dominion.’”

[5] This paragraph is a modified version of a paragraph written for a book review submitted to Modern Reformation that will be published in their Nov/Dec issue. Of important note is that in the book review I forgot to mention the influence I’m operating from here in this discussion, specifically these immediate thoughts. When I caught the error, I contacted the journal, but it was too late to add the reference. So, I’ve added the reference here. The omission was by no means intentional; as can happen when one studies a particular theologian for a while their language becomes your language and that’s really what happened here. Anyone who knows me well enough has heard me verbally give credit to Jüngel when I mention this particular transition of domination to dominion; however, when I wrote the book review I wrote it fast and rushed to submit on time and, thus, my editing was paltry. Here is where I believe the reference is coming from: Justification: The Heart of the Christian Faith. Translated by Jeffrey F. Cayzer. London: T&T Clark, 2001 (I’m drawing from memory and my book is out on loan). You can also find aspects of this in a few essays here: Theological Essays. Translated by J.B. Webster. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1989; and: Theological Essays II. Translated by Arnold Neufeldt-Fast and J.B. Webster. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1995. Please forgive the oversight.