Forde and the Bound Will

Gerhard Forde, Theologian of the Cross, Luther’s Bound Will

The following is a post I’ve thrown together from notes and underlines made for preparation to teach on Luther’s conception of the bound will using Gerhard Forde’s On Being a theologian of the Cross: Reflections on Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation, 1518. I figured: why not share it with you, Beloveds 🤓

Gerhard Forde,[1] considering theses 13-17 in “The Problem of the Will,” asks the question, “If we are overwhelmed and captivated by grace alone, can we claim to play a part in the matter?”[2] In discussing the role of the will of the person in the encounter with God in the event of faith, he contends with the notion that we do a “little bit,” which, for Forde, is the claim of the theologian of glory. The idea: if we do our best, God will give us the desired grace.[3] “Can we or will we by our own natural powers, doing our best, prepare for the reception of grace? Are we free to will that?”[4]

Forde’s answer to the question posed is a resounding: no. There are reasons for this:

“If there is to be salvation, it cannot come by the will’s own movement. That means that there must be a death and a resurrection. The cross stands behind the question of the will. The cross itself is the evidence that we did not choose him but that he, nevertheless, chose us (John 15:16).”[5]

For Luther, and thus for Forde, the idea of the electing God is—at its roots—abhorrent to us. We abhor the good; unlike Aquinas’s argument that we are always in search of the good and are ontologically connected through our intellect to the being of God (thus seeking God)—Luther strikes a different chord. We aren’t looking for the good or God and we are content to do as we please. In other words: we are very content to keep ourselves as Lords of our small kingdoms. “We can’t accept an electing God. We will not will it.”[6]

Thesis 13 “Free will, after the fall, exists in name only, and as long as it does what it is able to do it commits a mortal sin.”

“Free will” at best is a concept and not an empirical truth and certainly not a “God gave us free will it’s in the bible” type of claim. To argue for the actuality of “free will” is to argue, according to Forde, against the electing God. Even just a “miniscule” amount will work against the electing God and this proves Luther’s point that we abhor the idea of the electing God (and are in bondage of the will). That the will does not will to hand itself over to death, it is, since the fall “an empty name.”[7] It is free to will what it wills (itself) but not what it will not will (the electing God), thus it is not free.[8]

And this gets us to:

“Thesis 14: Free will after the fall has power to do good only in a passive capacity, but it can always do evil in an active capacity.”

As is the case with anything that or anyone who is bound, they need liberation that comes from the outside. When we are stuck, we are in a passive capacity and need help from a non-stuck source (i.e. not ourselves).[9] This coincides with the dialectic of death and life prominent in the kerygma of Christ. Christ does not resurrect himself from death but is resurrected; same to for the Christian in the encounter with God in the event of faith: she is brought through death into newness of life not of her doing but of the Lord’s.[10]

“Thesis 16: The person who believes that he can obtain grace by doing what is in him adds sin to sin so that he becomes doubly guilty”

“Thesis 17: Nor does speaking in this manner give cause for despair, but for arousing the desire to humble oneself and seek the grace of Christ.”

Forde highlights that we grow uncomfortable as the theses drive home that we are not free not to sin but very much free to only sin and do “evil.”[11]

“The theologian of glory in us is beginning to cry out in frustration and despair! There is nothing to hold on to, no support left, nothing to do. Then the last-ditch defense is tried. ‘If all I do is sin, why not just quit? Why not just forget it all and sink into complete indifferent?’”[12]

For Luther and for Forde, there is a deep need to let God be God. There’s no claim we can put on God by our works as if we can hold God to a deal: If I do my part then you will *have to* do your part.  This is an objectification of God. If God is to be wholly other and we are to throw ourselves completely and totally depend on this wholly other God, then we cannot bring anything to the table. (And are we even at the table? Or, do we need to also *be* encountered by God?)

 

So, we obtain Grace through humility and not by “doing what is in one.” Humility is when we do not plead our case or try to self-justify but when we just confess and wait for justice (faith) which never comes in the form we expect. It arrives in absolution in grace in life—we are brought *out of* death in *into* new life. This type of humility must be differentiated from the “humility piety” (i.e. the “humbling the self” in an effort to save the self); this would render humility to be a work.[13]

One could argue that self-inflicted humility piety is not even humility. Humility is a death of the self and needs an active action of God for resurrection. We can be humbled; we don’t actually humble ourselves.[14]  “Humility in this context means precisely to be reduced to the position where we claim absolutely nothing.”[15] And, “The law humbles, grace exalts. Something is done to us.”[16] Humility is coming to the end of the self and the self’s ability to justify the self but it is here where we are encountered with mercy and grace. When the self (and with it the will) is brought to the end of itself it is free to confess and in this freedom to confess it is—for the first time—doing what it should: being honest. Or, in good Luther terms (what it means to be a good theologian of the Cross): calling a thing what it is.[17]

“Thesis 18: It is certain that man must utterly despair of his own ability before he is prepared to receive the grace of Christ.”

The distinction here is how to properly define “despair.” Forde explains, that this despairing is despairing of the ability of the self to receive God.[18] Forde,

“It is itself possible only because the grace of Christ has brought new hope…At the same time it is true that such preaching brings about the final surrender of faith in self, the ‘utter despair of our own ability’ that is inspired by and prepares to receive the grace of Christ. Ultimate despair is due to the temptation to believe that there is no hope beyond our own abilities. Despair itself then becomes ultimate and so leads to death. Utter despair of our own ability, however, looks to the grace of Christ and so lead to life. This subtle nuance points to a fundamental theological divide.”[19]

In this “utter” despairing we are brought to the foot of the cross in confession and are received and receive Christ as absolution/forgiveness. “Utter” despairing is not “ultimate” despairing, which leads to death unto death (the domination of toil and “actual”). “Utter” despair brings life out of death (the dominion of work and “possible”). If we are using our works as a means to self-justify, we are entering further into the realm of toiling (works in domination over us) and this is a battle we will not win. But to come to, to be brought to the end of ourselves and confess is to gain the entire world including ourselves in fullness and freedom and our works back as just works in their right place under our dominion.

 

[1] This is a book I’ve been reading since I’ve been teaching it to a group of students, introducing them to the concept of the bound will as it comes from Luther. Most of my students are more exposed to the concept of the free will and are briefly exposed to determinism. So, I thought it would be helpful to dive in a bit deeper to nuance some of these claims more. What follows here are from my underlines and notes made in the book in preparation to teach the class.

[2] Gerhard Forde On Being a Theologian of the Cross: Reflections on Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation 1518 Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997. 49.

[3] Forde 50.  “Luther’s teachers were from a particular branch of late medieval scholasticism (Nominalism) that held that if we ‘do what is in us,’ that is, if we do our best, we can be assured that God will not fail to give us the desired grace.”

[4] Forde 50.

[5] Forde 51.

[6] Forde 52; Determinism rejected because of willing the things below in free choice. We do what we want no matter what we hold philosophically speaking.

[7] Forde 52-3. “There must be some free will, no matter how minuscule. But the very claim is itself evidence of bondage over against the electing God…The theological of the cross…sees that that is exactly the problem, and therefore recognizes and confesses that, since the fall, free will does not exist in reality. It is an empty name.”

[8] Forde 54. “The will is bound to will what it wills. After the fall, it is bound by sin, hence not free.” And, “…when the will, bound to its own self, tries to do its best, it only commits deadly sin. It commits deadly sin because it refuses to recognize the power of God to save and cuts off from grace…We refuse to live by the cross.”

[9] Forde 55. “In its passive capacity the will can do good when it is acted upon from without but. Not on its own, not in an active capacity.”

[10] Forde 55. “Since will after the fall is dead and bound to do deadly sin, it can be rescued only from without, as is indicated by the fact that it could not bring life out of death but could only be commanded from without by our Lord.” Same concept applies, for Forde, to Thesis 15 and remaining in innocence in the Garden.

[11] I’d like to add that this “evil” in relation to our actions of our bound will is about our desire to add to the vertical realm our activity and actions as a means to participate in a type of self-justification either in the place of or alongside of the grace of God which justifies us with God. This is not that our horizontal works are “evil” and thus should always be avoided, but when we try to use those as a means for our justification with God is when they become “evil”.

[12] Forde 60.

[13] Forde 61

[14] Forde 62

[15] Forde 62

[16] Forde 62

[17] Forde 64. “Despair would rather come if one is falsely optimistic and tells them that they don’t need a physician while they steadily decline toward death. …The theologian of the cross knows that we do the world no good by playing the role of pious or sentimental optimists. One must ‘say what a thing is.’ One is given the courage to be honest.”

 

[18] Forde 65

[19] Forde 66-7.

Vigilant, Fidelitous, Stewards

Luke 12:32-40 (Sermon)

Introduction

I wear this crown of [dirt]/Upon my liar’s chair/Full of broken thoughts/I cannot repair/Beneath the stains of time/The feelings disappear/You are someone else/I am still right here/If I could start again/A million miles away/I would keep myself/I would find a way[1]

Nine Inch Nails’s “Hurt” resonates with the crisis of our world: caught in the tragedy defining contemporary human existence. The reality of our incapability to do anything renders us helpless. The vivacity of hopefulness submits to the dead weight of numbness. When we crave to be entertained, distracted, and to escape, we are in the clutches of the deep lethargic sleep of numbness. We smile and say everything is great, but we’re merely seated upon our liar’s chair. Things aren’t okay, we aren’t well, the world isn’t fine. We close our eyes and ears and let the old age consume us. No one’s coming to help; all is lost.

Do not fear, small little-flock, because your father is well pleased to give to you the kingdom. Sell the things that are in your possession and give alms. Create for yourselves purses [that] do not grow old, an unfailing treasure in the heavens, where a thief neither comes near nor a moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be. (vv. 32-34)

Our text is connected to the preceding section. It’s not an independent section. Thus, the command not to fear is connected to the preceding command not to be anxious (vv.22-31). Pulling the ravens from the sky and the lilies from the ground, Jesus demonstrates it’s wiser to be as these than the rich fool building up barns, gathering and storing “grains and goods” to secure himself.

The comparison isn’t between food and clothes and us; but between the rich fool and us. God knows what we need; according to Jesus, those needs are important to God. The importance resides in this reality: even the ravens are fed and the lilies clothed. We, who’ve heard our names called, don’t need act like the rich fool building large barns for “grains and goods.” When we do, we’re no better than those who’ve not heard.[2] In this anxiety we are like the rich fool, frantically building barns.

Jesus’s solution? Seek the reign of God and these things will be added (v.31). Luke plays his two cards: hear and respond. Have you heard? If so, why are you anxious? Why are you afraid? God is well pleased to give to you the kingdom! (v.32) Jesus’s command isn’t an inactive one but an active one. Recall the story about Mary and Martha from Luke 10. The theme wasn’t activity v passivity but the paradox of human existence. We are both Mary and Martha—at the feet of the Lord and needing to be called out of ourselves. Both are active; so, too, here. The prohibition of anxiety and fear isn’t a command to an abstractly conceived rest that results in non-action. To seek the reign of God brings peace and rest to our bodies—peace that surpasses all understanding because our orientation is to God and to others and no longer focused on ourselves. We’re freed up for activity resonant with the Lord’s prayer,

“Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread, and forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us. And lead us not into temptation“ (vv 2c-4).

This activity is striving. We are to strive, but rightly.[3] Often we confuse the reign of God with our own piety. We aren’t to strive for religiousness—when we do this we force our works do what they can’t: toiling to self-justify and make us righteous. Rather, we strive for the reign of God, the new age started in the advent Christ. Luke holds a mirror up to his audience: Are you more like the rich fool who hasn’t heard and is storing up treasures in barns that will decay and be destroyed? Or, are you striving like Mary who has heard and responded, storing up treasures where neither thief nor moth can go?[4]

Luke doesn’t merely ask about the location of our hearts and focus; using the words of Christ, he describes what seeking after the reign of God looks like. Again, it’s not about piety, but about others. How is this seeking done? Selling possessions and giving alms. Loving the Lord our God with all our heart is to love our neighbor as ourselves; this is the foundation and substance of the entreaty in the Lord’s Prayer: “your kingdom come…” According to Proverbs, “Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the Lord, and he will reward them for what they have done” (19:17).[5]

Like the situation of the two sisters, we face the paradox of the reign of God as gift and obligation. We receive. We come to the table empty handed but we must grasp the food being offered. Someone can give you a gift and you can refuse it. Reception demands two people and reciprocal actions: giving and taking. We quibble over concepts of free will and determinism while the answer resides in a paradoxical yes that defines our present.

The future is an abstract concept that materializes only long enough to become history, another abstract concept. When we place our eggs in the basket of the future, we grow anxious because it’s out of our control. When we place our eggs in the basket of the past, we are fearful because failure haunts us. The day is given; seize it.

Disciples of Christ are the small little-flock ushered into the present of the new age. We’re reoriented in the world in the event of encounter with God in faith; this silences the fear of the past and alleviates the anxiety of the future. As we live into the gifted-present as disciples of Christ, we participate in the cosmic battle God wages against the enslaving powers of sin and death. We live as living and embodied creatures alongside other living and embodied creatures. We are to be disciple-ing—not strictly by making disciples (though that’s great) but storing up treasure in heaven by setting our hearts on the reign of God expressed through outward-oriented, other-centered activity.[6] This is love. This love loves because it’s the product of being first loved, and does not love to demand returned love.[7] It doesn’t hold hostages; it just loves. This is the substance of our prayer in today’s collect, “Grant to us, Lord,…the spirit to think and do always those things that are right, that we, who cannot exist without you, may by you be enabled to live according to your will.”[8]

Gird your loins for active work and light lamps; and you [be] like the people who expect their lord might depart at some time from the wedding feast, in order that after he comes and strikes at the door, they may open it for him immediately. Blessed [are] those slaves whom the Lord will find being awake after he comes; truly I say to you that he will gird himself for active work and he will make them recline and after coming to them he will serve them. And if in the second and if in the third watch he might come and find in this way, blessed are those [slaves]. Now this you know, if the ruler of the house had been aware of what hour the thief comes, he would not permit him to dig trough the house. And you, you become prepared, you do not [know] which the Son of [Hu]Man comes. (vv 38-40)

The same small little-flock is still in view here as the intended audience, and so are we.[9] There’s also no thematic break, either. Jesus is—as he has been—speaking about vigilance. The vigilance of possessions gives way to the vigilance of faithfulness; both material goods and faith are given to us, and thus vigilance is necessary[10] because while the spirit is willing the flesh is weak, and we love slipping back into the grip of that old age we know. What we know brings comfort; it’s why we destructively cling to myths and “facts” even when they’ve long expired.

Like the burn of lights to eyes accustomed to the dark, those who have been saved by Christ and reoriented in the world in the new age, bear the pain of this new birth into a new reality that is radically upside-down from the one they were accustomed to. Those who’ve heard, can’t unhear what they’ve heard; those who’ve seen can’t unsee what they’ve seen. But we can numb ourselves, pull the covers over our head, self-medicate, perform intellectual gymnastics to make wrong things right. As disciples of Christ in a world enslaved to the powers of sin and death, we must be vigilant.

The characteristics of this vigilance and discipleship run counter not only to the socio-political situation of Jesus’s day, but also our own. To be faithful is to be countercultural: rather than store up possessions, it’s sell them and give alms; rather than build bigger barns it’s store up treasures in heaven; rather than lording over others it’s identifying with slaves just as the One who has gone before us does.[11] “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant” (Lk 1:47-48). And not merely “looked with favor” but become identified with.

The Lord comes, Luke tells us, but we don’t know when; remain vigilant, he encourages. The delay precludes a “life of abandonment” and includes active engagement with the reign of God inaugurated in Christ. We are to be dressed, lamps lit, prepared and ready, being faithful, working, knowing, and doing.[12] The delay Luke is highlighting means there’s a period of time between now and then. Again, the questions come to us from eons past: have you heard? If so, what are you going to do while the master is gone? [13] Thus: stewardship. While this word is often used in pleas to get you to tithe, it’s not strictly about that. It’s about your entire material being. Stewardship, what we do now, “…is the life of believers in the time ‘in between’…”[14] As Christians, as those who have heard, we live as those expectant of a future commensurate with the reign of God consummated in Christ.[15]

And while the master is gone and while we wait, we will be brought into conflict and crisis; we will have to choose our fidelity to Christ and the new age over the allure of the powers of sin and death of the old age.[16] We are obligated to be fidelitous stewards of what we are given in the present with an eye to the future. Not clinging to the old age and its destructive power. Existing here, we, with the power of the Holy Spirit, look to participate in the new age and in the struggle against those powers of sin and death.

Stewardship goes beyond tithing and isn’t charity; it involves our entire being and things. What we have is not always a product of God’s blessing. We live in a world that is both just and unjust, and we have things from both just and unjust systems.[17] We are both complicit and held captive by the ways of the old age, even now, even today. Stewardship and fidelity, thus vigilance, demand that we be aware and awake to call things what they are and to act rightly.

“Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;/remove the evil of your doings/from before my eyes;/cease to do evil,/learn to do good;/seek justice,/rescue the oppressed,/defend the orphan,/plead for the widow./ Come now, let us argue it out,/says the Lord:/though your sins are like scarlet,/they shall be like snow;/though they are red like crimson,/they shall become like wool.” (Isaiah 1:16-18)

In this tension of the inbetween where we receive and strive, we must be aware when we are participating in unjust systems. In being aware, in being vigilant we are caused and exhorted to live according to the new age and not the old one, to tear down unjust systems and build up just ones.[18] Christians are not the same from age to age; each age demands a different Christian presence. We are contextual and that is the last thing the powers of sin and death of the old age want you to know. Because knowing this makes you the wild card. Fidelitous Christians as vigilant stewards of their lives, time, and possessions, keeping their lamps lit and eyes and ears trained toward the door where their lord will wrap, are the ones who are, paradoxically, the most earthly good for the present day.[19]

Conclusion

“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.…By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible….They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.” (Hebrews 11:1)

I know the challenge of hope. Our world is hurting in so many ways and we in our fleshy existence can feel so helpless to fix it; so why bother. Let it burn; I’ll wait for Christ’s return. But then the other thing I know is that God, by God’s own word, can create something out of nothing. In divine language, possibility has priority over actuality; in other words: all things are possible with God. It’s the magnitude of divine possibility that makes Christians an odd and unique breed. It’s no longer Moses who is left alone to bear the burden of a radiant face tanned by God’s glory; we brazenly bear the radiance of divine Glory into the world. We’re in the world but not of the old age.

We are vigilant fidelitous stewards, living here and now, our lamps lit, wicks trimmed, ears trained to the knock of our Lord. Stuck in the inbetween–waiting–we tend to our brothers and sisters—victims of the old age. Like the good Samaritan we bind and dress their wounds and bring them in; like our Lord we go to the fringe; with our lights always on, our homes, our classrooms, our offices, our cubicles, our very bodies are beacons of hope, lights conquering darkness, lives conquering death. All is not lost.

Behold, the eye of the Lord is upon those who fear him,/on those who wait upon his love,/To pluck their lives from death,/and to feed them in time of famine./Our soul waits for the Lord;/he is our help and our shield./Indeed, our heart rejoices in him,/for in his holy Name we put our trust. (Ps 33:18-21)

 

 

 

[1] NIN “Hurt”

[2] Justo L. Gonzalez Luke Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible eds. Amy Plantinga Pauw and William C. Placher (Louisville, KY: WJK, 2010). “Although this entire passage has often been interpreted in the sense that food and clothing are not important (an interpretation that comes quite easily to those who have an abundance of both), what the passage says is exactly the opposite. We are not to worry about food and clothing precisely because God knows they are important! Indeed, they are so important that God provides them even to birds and grass. This is why it is ‘the nations of the world’ (i.e., the Gentiles, the pagan world) that strive after these things. Their struggle is a result of their not knowing the God who provides even for ravens and for lilies. Thus when Christians who have all we really need still worry anxiously about having enough, and thus seek to accumulate more and more, we are failing once again into a form of Christopaganism…”161

[3] Gonzalez 161-2, “The alternative to worrying is not a happy-go-lucky, careless attitude. On the contrary, it is a serious struggle, striving for the kingdom. This does not mean, as some might surmise, simply being more religious and pious. The kingdom of God is a new order; the new order that has come nigh in Jesus. It is an order in which Gods will is done, as Matthews version of the Lord s Prayer makes abundantly clear: your kingdom come, your will be done…to strive for the kingdom is among other things to make certain that all are fed and all are clothed. We are not to worry about securing such things, for they are important to God; but precisely because they are important to God we must oppose everything that precludes all from having them. This is why in the very passage about not worrying over food or clothing Jesus invites his followers to give alms (12:33), that is, to provide for those who are hungry or naked.”

[4] Joel B. Green The Gospel of Luke TNICNT ed. Gordon Fee (Grand Rapids, MI: 1997). 495. “Here we encounter both the foundation and the resolution of his message on faithfulness regarding possessions. Fear, in this instance, refers to the anxiety and misgivings associated with the uncertainty of life, modeled so well by the wealthy farmer-landholder in Jesus’ parable (vv. 16-20). Jesus’ disciples, referred to in language that recalls God’ care for his people as a shepherd for the flock, need experience no such dread. This is because God’s pleasure (or will) is manifest in his gift of the kingdom. It is likely that we are to understand the kingdom as having already been given—undoubtedly, then, a reference to the ministry of Jesus among them.”

[5] Gonzalez 162, “The ending of this section connects it with the parable of the Rich Fool, for the two are parallel: it is a matter of where ones treasure is. If on earth, as in the case of the rich man who decided to build bigger barns, it will have no lasting value. If in heaven, it will have lasting value, for in heaven neither do thieves steal one’s treasure, nor do moths eat at it…Verses 33-34 give clear guidelines as to how this is to be done: “sell your possessions—your earthly treasure—and give: alms’- thus building up a treasure in heaven. In early patristic literature, one constantly finds the assertion that “when you give to the poor you lend to God” a theme drawn from Proverbs 19:17. In this passage one finds echoes of that theme.”

[6] Green 495. The little flock (disciples) are “the recipients of God’s dominion. This makes possible lifestyles that are not consumed with anxiety and fear but, instead, have as their perpetual objective the service of the kingdom. The nature of this kingdom-service is spelled out clearly in this co-text, demonstrating that the kingdom of God is not only a gift but also an obligation. Rather then being occupied with the buildup of treasures with an eye to self-security in this life (v 21), disciples need to be concerned with ensuring that they possess treasures in heaven. Therefore, seeking the kingdom (v 31) is tantamount to setting one’s heart on the kingdom (v 34), and the consequence of this orientation of life is a heavenly treasure that is neither subject to the exigencies of earthly existence nor endangered by the unexpected intervention of God.”

[7] Green 495-6 “…throughout the Roman world. Normally, one with treasures to share does so in order to place others in her debt; gifts are given in order to secure or even advance one’s position in the community. Inherent to the giving of ‘gifts’ in this economy is the obligation of repayment. The sharing Jesus counsels has a different complexion. Disinvestment and almsgiving grounded in a thoroughgoing commitment to the kingdom of God are to be practiced in recognition that God is the Supreme Benefactor who provides both for the giver and for the recipient. Such giving has the effect not of placing persons in debt, but rather of embracing the needy as members of one’s own inner circle. In the economy intrinsic to the kingdom, those who give without exacting reciprocation, for example, in the form of loyalty or service, are actually repaid by God. Such giving, then, is translated into solidarity with the needy on earth into heavenly treasure (see 6:35).”

[8] BCP “Collect” Lessons Appointed for Use on the Sunday Closest to August 10.

[9] Green 497, “As though he were using a telephoto lens, Luke has centered our attention on the disciples, but the presence of many others continues to be felt. This contributes to the ambiguity Luke’s readers may experience as they attempt to discern the nature of Jesus’ audience at this juncture…Irrespective of which characters within the story readers have come to identify with, the collapsing significance of Jesus’ teaching for everyone.”

[10] Green 497, “…Jesus has not moved abruptly from a discourse on ‘possessions’ to a discourse on ‘watchfulness.’ Not only this section but the whole of this address, beginning in v 1, has an eschatological timber…Throughout, Jesus has expounded on the theme of ‘vigilance in the face of eschatological crisis,’ including as motifs vigilance with respect to persecution (vv 1-12), possessions (vv 13-35), and, now, more faithfulness within the household of God. What is more, Jesus’ words to his disciples—‘Do not be afraid … for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom’ (v 32)—already applied to questions of security and material goods, are equally relevant to his present instruction on fidelity with respect to what ‘has been given’(v 48b).”

[11] Green 499, “In presenting his picture of faithful response, Jesus borrows from standard images of the household in Roman times, but also redefines household relations. His most surprising—and no doubt to some, outlandish is his implicit request that, in order to identify oneself among the faithful in the household of God, one should identify oneself with the slaves of his example; this innovation embraces even the authority figure, the master/Iord, whose actions upon his return are themselves servile. By serving those who are slaves, the returning lord esteems the humble, overturning socio-religious and socio-political norms, just as Mary’s Song had foretold (1:52b).”

[12] Green 500, “Luke’s presentation leaves room for a delay in the return of the Lord, but his dominant emphasis falls elsewhere—first, on the certainty of his coming and, second, on the uncertainty of its timing. This dual focus leads directly into the primary emphasis of this passage, not on living a life of abandonment in light of the eschaton, but on the present need and opportunity for alertness and fidelity…this segment of Jesus’ discourse employs a wide range of images to present in positive and negative terms the sought-after comportment of the disciple: dressed for action, lamps lit, waiting expectantly, alert, ready, the unexpected hour, the faithful and prudent manager (rather than the unfaithful), working (rather than eating and drinking and getting drunk), being prepared, and knowing and doing (rather than knowing and not doing or not knowing).”

[13] Gonzalez 165, “The theme of the absence of God is central to the teachings of Jesus. …But in other parables it would seem that the issue is not our absence from God, but rather God’s absence from us. We call these stories ‘parables of stewardship.’ And this is an excellent name for them, for stewardship is precisely what a steward practices when the master is away. While the master is there, a steward’s role is limited. It is when the master is away that the steward must take responsibility.”

[14] Gonazalez 162

[15] Gonzalez 162-3, “The theme of stewardship now comes to the foreground. In the previous section Jesus was teaching about one of the most common issues of stewardship, the management of possessions. Now he comes to another central issue of stewardship, the ‘in between’ times.…This is because stewardship, properly understood, is the life of believers in the time ‘in between’ … In all of these, we are told that we are living in expectation of a future, and must therefore live and manage our resources according to that future, rather than to the present situation.”

[16] Green 502, “Instead, Jesus provides for his audience a vision of the eschaton, of a household reality wherein hierarchies of status are nullified; with this vision he both declares nature of fidelity in the interim and in the eschaton.”

[17] Gonzalez 163. “Too often the typical stewardship sermon says simply that all we have God has given us to manage. This leaves out two fundamental issues. The first is that we must not simply affirm that all we have has been given to us by God. We live in an unjust world, and to attribute the present order to God is to attribute injustice to God. It may well be that we have some things unjustly, and not as a gift of God.”

[18] Gonzalez 163, “…The second issue that should not be left out of our discussions on stewardship is the crucial dimension of hope and expectation. We are to manage things, not just out of a general sense of morality or even of justice, and certainly not just to support the church and its institutions—which we certainly must do. We are to manage things in view of the future we expect In the previous section, this was expressed in terms of building up treasures in heaven rather than on earth, and in terms of striving for the kingdom.”

[19] Gonzalez 163-4, “In this passage, that eschatological sense of expectancy or inbetweenness comes forth in the image of lamps that must remain lit …What for us is a fairly passive activity—all we do is flick a switch and the lights remain on—for people in the first century required frequent attention. One had to replenish the oil in the lamp. One had to adjust the wick. Today, we may go to bed leaving the lights on. Then, if one forgot about the lamp it would bum out. Thus keeping the lamp lit, as this passage instructs, is a matter that requires constant attention and watchfulness. This is the central theme of the passage.”

Absurdity of Faith

Albert Camus and “The Myth of Sisyphus”

What if there’s no reason or purpose to anything? What if being alive necessitates an awareness that life is rather pointless? What if all there is, all we can actually know is the absurdity of our existence? And, what if that’s okay?

“What, then, is that incalculable feeling that deprives the mind of the sleep necessary to life? A world that can be explained even with bad reasons is a familiar world. But , on the other hand, in a universe suddenly divest of illusions and lights, man feels an alien, a stranger. His exile is without remedy since he is deprived of the memory of a lost home or the hope of a promised land. This divorce between man and his life, the actor and his stetting, is properly the feeling of absurdity. All healthy men having thought of their own suicide, it can be seen, without further explanation, that there is a direct connection between this feeling and the longing for death.”[1]

I have an entirely new respect for the absurd after reading The Myth of Sisyphus, by Albert Camus. In fact, Camus gave me words to identify something what has followed me most of my conscious life: what is the purpose? Not merely: What is my purpose? But: What is the purpose of anything? There are times I contemplate beauty and question its reason for being. Think of the multitude of flowers–the vast variety of not only classification but of variations of color, form, size, and smell within each classification—there’s some absurdity there. I get that there’s something explanatory embedded in the theory of evolution, but at the same time the sheer multiplicity of variation betrays that not even the theory of evolution can address why this rose is this way and that one that way any better than just cuz.

Even all of our best efforts to explain all the nuances of creation (of our and the world’s) through the apologetic of the existence for God have never satiated the question. Every apologetic for God and for our purpose has consistently left me with my question still in tact and on my lips, …but why? The only explanation that has ever made any sense was that none of it makes any sense. Even with the notion that God is love and God loves and thus that love–being dynamic and creative–created this world as an object of God’s love, and all that is in it and of it is representative of that love…the reason for God’s love movement is still baffling and doesn’t make sense. It’s alway and everywhere: just because.

One of my very bright and capable of students made reference in one of his papers to the idea and the certainty of the Christian claim that God is love and loves us specifically: why would an almighty being like God deign to care about puny humans? He’s right; it’s rather absurd to think and to make this claim as true. But maybe the underbelly of God’s activity and presence is less about sense-making, but absurdity. Maybe God is absurd. The gift of God’s grace to people who do not earn it (justification by faith in Christ alone)[2] and the righteousness of God that is righteousness that makes righteous,[3] are absurd. The gospel is offensive because of its absurdity and not because it makes sense.

“Any though that abandons unity glorifies diversity. And diversity is the home of art. The only thought to liberate the mind is that which leaves it alone, certain of its limits and of its impending end. No doctrine tempts it. It awaits the ripening of the work and of life. Detached from it, the work will once more give a barely muffled voice to a soul forever freed from hope. Or it will give voice to nothing if the creator, tired of his activity, intends to turn away. That is equivalent.”[4]

Rather than being the fodder of an existential crisis, absurdity, as Camus presents it, is the stuff of radical living. It’s like being able to give up all of your coveted doctrines that you cling to as reason for believing in whatever God you believe in and just believing in that God. It’s scary as hell, but once embraced the freedom is unparalleled. The dark night of the soul is the wrestling with the pointlessness of life and the nonsense of existence and finding in that moment sense and point: just because. The question shifts from …but why? to …why not? The former slows to numbing slumber upon slumber while the later propels into existence upon existence (in quantity[5]). The way Camus plays his philosophy out, the person who sees and performs the absurd of existence is the one who is liberated and thus the one who is given a present defined through revolt, freedom, and diversity. The mundane and banality of the everyday becomes glorious, because that’s the paradox of the absurd, the paradox of grace.

“All that remains is a fate whole outcome alone is fatal. Outside of that single fatality of death, everything, joy or happiness, is liberty. A world remains of which man is the sole master. What bound him was the illusion of another world. The outcome of his thought, ceasing to be renunciatory, flowers in images. It frolics—in myths, to be sure, but myths with no other depth than that of human suffering and, like it, inexhaustible. Not the divine fable that amuses and blinds, but the territorial face, gesture, and drama in which are summed up a difficult wisdom and an ephemeral passion.”[6]

 

Albert Camus The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays Trans Justin O’Brien. New York, NY: Vintage International, Vintage Books (Random House) 1955. Le Mythe de Sisyphe France: Librairie Gallimard, 1942.

[1] Camus 6

[2] Martin Luther, Commentary on Galatians vol. 26 LW pp. 113-4, “I am saying this in order that we may learn the doctrine of justification with the greatest diligence and distinguish most clearly between the Law and the Gospel. On this issue we must not do anything out of insincerity or yield submission to anyone if we want to keep the truth of the Gospel and the faith sound and inviolate; for, as I have said, these are easily bruised. Here let reason be far away, that enemy of faith, which in the temptations of sin and death, relies not on the righteousness of faith or Christian righteousness, b of which it is completely ignorant, but on its own righteousness or, at most, on the righteousness of the Law. As soon as reason and the Law are joined, faith immediately loses its virginity. For nothing is more hostile to faith than the Law and reason; nor can these two enemies be overcome without great effort and work, and you must overcome them if you are to be saved. Therefore when your conscience is terrified by the Law and is wrestling with the judgment of God, do not consult either reason or the Law, but rely only on grace and the Word of comfort. Here take your stand as though you had never heard of the Law. Ascend into the darkness, where neither the Law nor reason shines, but only the dimness of faith (1 Cor. 13:12), which assures us that we are saved by Christ alone, without any Law. Thus the Gospel leads us above and beyond the light of the Law and reason into the darkness of faith, where the Law and reason have no business. The Law, too, deserves a hearing, but in its proper place and time. When Moses was on the mountain speaking with God face to face, he neither had nor established nor administered the Law. But now that he has come down from the mountain, he is a law giver and rules the people by the law. So the conscience must be free from the Law, but the body must obey the Law”

[3] Eberhard Jüngel, Jüngel, “Living Out of Righteousness: God’s Action—Human Agency.” Theological Essays II. (Ed. J.B. Webster. Trans. Arnold Neufeldt-Fast and J.B. Webster. (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1995). 243. “What follows will therefore try to explain the extent to which the message of justification brings light and life not only into our hearts and our church but also equally into our world. It is no doubt for this reason that the synod has placed its work under the title: ‘Living out of Righteousness: God’s Action—Human Agency’. Yet already at this point I stop short. The subtitle of this theme can potentially blind us to a decisive point of the message of justification at the outset. For it suggests that human agency directly and exclusively corresponds to divine action. Thus one is given the impression that the relevance of divine action for humanity is ethical and only ethical. But thereby something decisive of what the gospel of justification of sinners has to say is lost. If God’s righteousness brings forth life, new human life, then the question of our being has priority over the question of our agency. And prior to both questions is certainly the question of God himself.

[4] Camus, 116.

[5] Ibid, 72ff. I’d argue that it is both quantity and quality as long as quality doesn’t mean scarcity but substance. I see quality playing out with the reference to Don Juan. And quality is not antinomy to quantity.

[6] Ibid, 117-8

Solidarity in the Jordan

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22 (Sermon)

“Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his Name; worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.” Amen  (Psalm 29:2)

According to the Enneagram, I’m a 5. When you look up the description of any type, there’s always one word that describes the type: 1s = reformers; 2 = helpers, etc.). 5s are “Investigators.” We are the “thinkers”, the “pontificators”, the ones who wax eloquently about everything (You’re welcome). We’re the people that make you mumble, overthink things much? We’re the type where Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is never what the therapist suggests.

A really fun (and endearing) thing about 5s in general is that we, without fail, think we’re exceptionally clever and always right. Always. And if you don’t agree with us, *shrug*, clearly you weren’t listening. The irony is hard to miss: I’m an ordained priest given the authority to preach and teach. I’m allowed to get in this elevated pulpit and tell you all my clever thoughts, and you are held captive in those pews (to leave now would be weird!). 

But I’m not supposed to.

I’m supposed to be intellectually humble and led by the Holy Spirit. It’s like putting a toddler in a room with a bunch of candy out in the open and then saying, but don’t eat any of it…mkay? Okay, Lauren, we’re going to ordain you, but don’t let any of it go to your head, even when it threatens to do so…which will be all of the time.

One of the main reasons I resisted being ordained was because I felt the potential for this hot mess. I was terrified to be ordained because I knew the mix had the potential to become a supercalifragilisticexpialidocious type of hot mess. In other words, a big bunch of NOPE. When told (repeatedly for years): you should be ordained; I replied (repeatedly for years): get behind me, Satan. No. Nope.

I feared what I knew I could become: more full of myself and more disconnected.

When the day came and I found myself getting ordained to the priesthood (and the walls of the Cathedral hadn’t caught on fire), I felt this fear with every heart-beat, with every breath: Good Lord, keep me…keep me from myself. So, when the time came for me to lie prostrate on the ground, I felt led to do something else. I knelt down. I reached behind my head, gripped the two big clips holding back all of my hair, and pulled them out. My hair unfurled, and I bent forward, forehead to the ground. My hair spread out around me. 

I pulled into my ordination the story of the sinful woman forgiven—the woman who uses her hair and expensive oil to anoint Jesus for his burial. While I was being ordained into the great commission to care for God’s people and to proclaim the Gospel, I wanted to remember who I am: forgiven. And I wanted to remember that my charge was to be for the people, for you with God.

I am one of you yesterday, today, and tomorrow. I never ever want to forget my solidarity with the very people I am here to minister to, to love, to comfort, and to care for in the name of God. You and I, we’re not very different: bone of bone, flesh of flesh, desperate for a love that always endures, and in need of the comforting word of reconciliation and absolution, in desperate need of Jesus. If I am different in any way it is not that I’ve been called further up and further out of the people, but further down and further in. And I share the crisis of judgment: will I follow the devices and desires of my own heart or will I follow Christ into and out of the waters of the Jordan?

You can run on for a long time
Run on for a long time
Sooner or later God’ll cut you downGo tell that long tongue liar
Go and tell that midnight rider
Tell the rambler
The gambler
The back biter
Tell ’em that God’s gonna cut ’em down[1]

And while the people were expecting and considering in their hearts concerning John, whether or not he was the Christ, John answer saying to all of them, “I baptize you [with] water; but the one who is mightier than I comes, of whom I am not worthy to untie the straps of his sandals; he will baptize you in with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing shovel is in his hand to cleanse thoroughly his threshing floor and to lead together the grain into his granary; but the chaff will burn up in unquenchable fire. (Luke 3:15-17)

In chapter three of the gospel of Luke, John has stirred up an “eschatological crisis”[2] among the people who came to him to be baptized in the Jordan. John declared to the people: judgment is coming and there is nowhere to run or hide! Just as the Old Testament ends with the judgment oracle in the book of Malachi, John opens his prophetic ministry with judgment. The people who hear are not only thrust under water in John’s baptism of repentance and water, but into an existential crisis: on whom will judgment fall? And the answer that dawns on their minds and in their hearts is: on us. All the people (the regular yous and mes and the tax collectors and the soldiers) rightly panic and ask: what should we do!?

John tells them what to do and in doing this incurs their private curiosity as they wonder if he is the Messiah because they don’t honestly know at this point;[3] it’s unclear and they are thrust further into existential crises and chaos. John senses their internal question and proclaims: no, I am a man—one of you—not the Christ. I have merely baptized you with water, cleaning only your outside.[4] But He who is mightier than I am is coming, and he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire and this will cleanse you to the core. The long awaited fulfillment of the promise spoken by the prophet Ezekiel comes, “A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh” (36:26). Where water can’t go, the Holy Spirit can; where water can only clean and make “new” the outside, the Spirit with fire can clean and make new the inside.[5]

John’s call to baptism with water and repentance sets the stage for the baptism that is to come with the Messiah.[6] As mentioned above, John has set the people into an eschatological crisis: judgment is coming. And all the people are forced to make a choice:[7] repent and be baptized with water thus be for God and purified by the baptism of fire and the holy spirit, sealed as Christ’s own forever, collected like grain in a granary; or, reject repentance and the baptism with water, thus reject and be against God, thus endure the fires of judgment of the baptism of the holy spirit and be burnt up like useless chaff.

A decision must be made at this juncture. What will you do? Asks, John. Will you be for God or against?

Well my goodness gracious let me tell you the news
My head’s been wet with the midnight dew
I’ve been down on bended knee talkin’ to the man from Galilee
He spoke to me in the voice so sweet
I thought I heard the shuffle of the angel’s feet
He called my name and my heart stood still
When he said, “John, go do my will!”

And when all the people were baptized and when Jesus had been baptized and while he was praying the heaven opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form as a dove, and a voice from heaven came: you are my son, the beloved, in you I am well pleased. (Luke 3:21-22)

Jesus’s baptism is not the focus here in Luke’s account of Jesus’ baptism; rather, Luke’s focus is a bit more specific: the endowment of the Holy Spirit and God’s affirmation of Jesus as his son.[8] This affirmation is specifically placed at the end of the entire event. Luke’s ordering is intentional (as Luke is in his gospel): all the (regular) people are baptized first, then Jesus gets baptized, and then while Jesus is praying the heavens open up, the Holy Spirit descends, and God speaks. “’You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’”

The ordering draws the ear of the hearer: The last to be baptized is the first of New Creation, of the New Order, who is the New Adam.

The Old Adam, the first of the Old Order and of the Old Creation was commissioned to care for the creation and to trust God. In Genesis 3, at the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, both Adam and Eve are presented with a choice: will you be for God or for yourselves? Will you choose to define good and evil according to yourselves or follow with God’s definition of good and evil? And we know how this story ends: Adam and Eve opt for the fruit to make them wise. They choose to be for themselves. With this fateful choice—with the man and the woman he created—God was not well pleased.

Here in the waters of the Jordan with John, the choice is presented again: will you be for God or will you be for yourselves? Will you stand with God or with yourself? But this time it’s not just any old Adam answering, it’s Jesus, the son of God, who answers. Jesus enters the waters and stands among the people and is baptized by John, and he answers the divine question posed to humanity: I am for God; I stand with God.

But, again, this isn’t just any old Adam answering. It’s Jesus the Christ, the divine son with whom God is well pleased. Also, this divine son is also the son of humanity. Jesus of Nazareth who is the Christ stands in the Jordan praying after having been baptized and thus stands in total and complete solidarity with the very people he came to rescue. Like those who had come out to be baptized, to be about God, to be reoriented to God, so did Jesus.[9] But this is also God incarnate in solidarity with humanity; Jesus is for God and for them, the regular people who stand with him in the Jordan. Jesus is the answer to the divine question posed to humanity and is the divine proclamation that God is for humanity.

In Christ, heaven and earth have become one. Jesus is in solidarity with God in God’s mission to seek and save the lost[10] and with humanity in its plight.[11] The one who is the Beloved of God is the love that has come into the world to save the beloved whom God loves. Following Jesus in this moment:  to love others is to love God; to love God is to love others. There is no distinction between the two. Jesus does both in the moment he is baptized by John in the waters of the Jordan; thus we are confronted with the same crisis: whom will you follow? With whom will you stand?

Here in the Jordan, God’s solidarity with humanity and humanity’s solidarity with God is made tangible and manifest in the person and work of Christ. When the people hurt, God hurts. When the people suffer, God feels that suffering. When the oppressor oppresses God’s people, the beloved, God feels that oppression. When the Pharaoh in the beginning of Exodus enslaved and tormented the Israelites and the Israelites called out under the weight of immense suffering and oppression, God heard and God knew in an intimate way and God acted. When Saul reigned terror upon and persecuted the fledgling church, Jesus showed up: “’Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?… I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting’” (Acts 9:4-5). You can’t mess with God’s people and think God won’t notice and won’t act. Mess with the least of these; mess with him.

Well, you may throw your rock and hide your hand
Workin’ in the dark against your fellow man
But as sure as God made black and white
What’s down in the dark will be brought to the light
You can run on for a long time
Sooner or later God’ll cut you down

Judgment has come to the world in the waters of the Jordan in the person of Jesus the Christ. Humanity is exposed for who and what they are and who and what they are not

“With His existence there will fall upon them in all its concreteness the decision, the divine and ultimate decision. What will become of them? How shall they stand?”[12] You stand implicated under this judgment in this crisis: whom will you follow? With whom will you stand?

More than you, those of us in leadership called and employed to be servants to the people of God, we stand doubly in crisis and doubly judged. Bishops, priests, and deacons of the church bear the burden of the millstone and the deepest part of the sea if we do not stand with the people thus follow God. Whom will I follow? And with whom will I stand? The answer must always be God and the people; my collar demands this.[13]

Christ came because God loved; he came to save us; to save the lost. He came to graft us into his story and to cause us to partake in his mission to love God and to love our neighbor as ourselves, to love justice, mercy, and peace. He came to make us his brothers and sisters thus heirs with him. And if heirs then sons and daughters of God Almighty, the ones who make up the manifold children promised to Abraham in Genesis 12, the children who make up the nations blessed.

And we are the ones who rest in the fulfillment of the promise that the love of God will never ever be taken from them because the promised son of David, Jesus, sits forever on the throne. And our baptism with water and spirit is through which we are made participants in this story and where Jesus’s history becomes our history[14]–we with our histories are grafted into the history of Christ; where our activity in water baptism is paradoxically identical with the activity of God in the baptism of the spirit.[15]

While I pray you always stand with the One who stood with those people in the Jordan and pray you stand with the one who stands with you in your baptism, you are faced with the dilemma anew today and everyday. Being grafted into this story of Christ’s history by the event of faith in the encounter with God: whom will you follow? When the man comes around,[16] with whom will you stand?


[1] Johnny Cash “God’s Gonna Cut You Down”

[2] Joel Green “The Gospel of Luke” The New Internationl Commentary on the New Testament Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997. “John’s provocation of eschatological crisis (3:7-9) elicits two forms of questions from his audience. First, they inquire how they might ready themselves for impending judgment (3:10-14). Now, they query whether he is the Messiah.” 180.

[3] Green 180, “For them, the meaning of ‘Messiah’ is manifestly fluid at this point; hope is present but ill defined. They do not know if John and the anticipated messianic figure fit the same profile, and this allows John to begin the process of outlining what to expect of the Messiah. At the same time, he is able to identify his own relationship to the coming one. According to the narrator, John’s answer is to all the people- everyone receives the invitation to accept his baptism and receive the baptism “with the Holy Spirit and fire.”

[4] Green 180-1, “John addressed the people by characterizing the Messiah in comparison with himself…(1) The Messiah is superior to John in terms of status. John does not count himself worthy even to serve as the slave by removing the thong of his sandals.73 (2) John characterizes as the messenger or prophet who prepares the way for the coming one using language that echoes Mai 3:1’ 4:5, thus embracing the role anticipated for him in 1:17,76; 3:4-6. (3) John designates the Messiah as “more powerful’ than himself—a comparison that apparently resides in his superior status and above all in his mode of baptism. The character of John’s baptism has been articulated in 3:3-14 as repentance-baptism, a cleansing by which one’s life is oriented anew around the service of God…”

[5] Green 182, “…[John’s] his baptism forces a decision for or against repentance, and this prepares for the Messiah’s work (cf. Ezek 36:25-26).”

[6] Karl Barth CD IV.4 (53), “What took place according to their account is thus more than an independent and materially alien preface to the history of Jesus. As they see and present it, it is the prologue which opens and characterizes the whole of this history, setting it in motion here from both with a definite direction and towards a specific goal. The baptism of Jesus, as His baptism is in a sense the point of intersection of the divine change and the human decision. In the main character in the event who here enters upon His way, who, one might almost say, stands here at the beginning of His Christian life, the two aspects though plainly distinct, are directly one and the same. In this direct unity this person is the subject of the life-history which follows, the history of salvation lived out for all men. At this point however, the particular interest of the event is that it was the exemplary and imperative baptismal event. In this respect, too, it is a point of intersection. For here baptism with the Holy Ghost, which may be regarded as the epitome of the divine change effected on a man, meets baptism with water which represents here the first concrete step of the human decision which follows and corresponds to the divine change.”

[7] Green 182, “Although the image described here is generally taken to be that of winnowing—that is, tossing harvested grain into the air by way of allowing wind to separate the wheat from the chaff—the language John uses actually presumes that the process of winnowing has already been completed. Consequently, all that remains is to clear the threshing floor, and this is what John pictures. This means that John’s ministry of preparation is itself the winnowing, for his call to repentance set within his message of eschatological judgment required of people that they align themselves with or over against God’s justice. As a consequence, the role of the Messiah is portrayed as pronouncing or enacting judgment on the people on the basis of their response to John.”

[8] Green 185, “Luke is less interested in Jesus’ baptism as such, and more concerned with his endowment with the Spirit and God’s affirmation of his sonship.”

[9] Green 185, The three infinitive phrases in parallel, “The initial dependent clauses lead into the focal point of this pericope by stressing Jesus’ solidarity with those who had responded positively to John’s message- by participating in the ritual act of baptism, we may recall, they (he) communicated their (his) fundamental orientation around God’s purpose.”

[10] Green 187, “Working in concert with the endowment of the Holy Spirit, this divine affirmation presents in its most acute form Jesus’ role as God’s agent of redemption.…His mission and status are spelled out in relation to God and with reference to his purpose mission of redemption and establishes peace with justice in ways that flow determined by obedience to God’s purpose that the devil will test in 4:1-13.”

[11] Green 186, “Now however Jesus’ identity in relation to God and God’s redemptive project is proclaimed by God himself. Heaven itself has opened providing us with direct insight into God’s own view of things. That the voice of God agrees with those earlier voices (i.e., of Gabriel, Elizabeth, and the possible responses to Jesus. One can join Elizabeth, the angels, the narrator, an others who affirm Jesus’ exalted status an/or identity as God’s Son, or one can reject this evaluation and so pit oneself over against God.”

[12] Karl Barth CD IV.1 (217), But, of course this involves judging in the more obvious sense of the word, and therefore pardoning and sentencing. Thus the solemn question arises: Who will stand when the Son of God…into the world, when He calls the world and therefore all men (and every individual man) to render an account and to make answer for its condition? Quid sum miser tunc dicturus, quem patronum roguaturus, cum vix justus sit securus? All other men will be measured by the One who is man as they are under the same presuppositions and conditions. In His light, into which they are nolentes volentes betrayed by His being as a fellow-man, they will be shown for what they are and what they are not.

[13] Helmut Gollwitzer The Way to Life “What is this mission that makes him ready to let himself be sent thus into that which men can do to him? What is the mission of Jesus? To make men human, to make inhuman men human, brotherly, for the sake of God’s brotherliness, because inhumanity and unbrotherlines sis destroying all of us.” 21.

[14] Cf W. Travis McMaken The Sign of the Gospel “Barth’s discussion of Spirit baptism comprises a dialectical movement between two poles. One pole is God’s objective work of reconciliation in Christ and the other is the faithful and obedient human response to that work. Spirit baptism is where these two poles meet in a dynamic event of effectual call and free response. Barth’s discussion of this event draws upon and brings together many important strands in his theology, for here culminates the movement of the electing God’s divine grace as it reaches particular women and men among as elected in Jesus Christ. In this discussion, Barth walks the fine line between Christomonist and anthropomonist positions, neither creating the history of Jesus Christ as that which swallows the histories of human individuals, nor relegating Christ’s history to merely symbolic significance. Barth also does not denigrate the work of the Spirit or separate it from that of Christ. All of these things comprise a differentiated and ordered unity in Barth’s thought, aimed at grounding faithful human obedience on God’s grace in Jesus Christ.” 174

[15] Ibid, 174. “Spirit baptism comprises the awakening of faith that actualizes in one’s own life the active participation in Christ to which every individual is elected. This awakening demands and necessarily includes faithful and obedient human response. In the first instance, this response is faith itself. However, Barth argues that there is a paradigmatic way in which water baptism comprises this response. Water baptism constitutes the foundation of the Christian life precisely as such a paradigmatic response.”

[16] Johnny Cash “The Man Comes Around”

Contemplating 2018

What I’m Carrying with Me into 2019

The following are musings…take them as that…

Over the past few years I’ve learned to take on the orientation of looking forward rather than backwards. I spent the better part of a decade contemplating the things that happened to me and the scars these things left on my body (mind and soul). I credit this to a theological disposition that prevented me from seeing self-actualization as a good thing. I am what I am, was my motto and there I stayed…for years. I kept my trauma and victim narrative in my tight grip and read from it daily; the lines being so known and second nature to me that there was barely any distinction between the narrative and regular speech. And the concept of “that was then” and “this is now” was anathema; the two were too blended for me. Then was now. What was will always be, is what I had intellectually established. I was trapped.

But God is relentless and pursued me through relationships (both good and bad), drawing me deeper and deeper into God’s self, forcing me to reckon that I was determining the future by clinging to the past and slamming the door shut on potential and possibility (all that is and makes up the unknown future). In other words, in my resistance to look anywhere else but behind and use only the words my trauma and pain gave me I was, full stop, objectifying God. Can I be better? Can I move on? Can I alter? Scary questions for one whose mind is made up concretely on the past as all determining. It was like staring into an abyss and stepping out into it. Letting go and letting God–though extremely cliche–is truest here. Giving myself over to the encounter with God in the event of faith demands that I be stripped of all things that I’ve clung to, stripped of my history and grafted into Christ’s, born again as I was born originally: naked and vulnerable.

This event-encounter is not a medium for me now to know God more fully; I’ll never claim to know God in totality or close to it. God self-discloses God’s self and there’s a contextuality to that self-disclosure: what I experience in the event-encounter with God will be different from what you experience; both marked by the language of death and rebirth, the experiences are still different. And not just personal to you and me, but from decade to decade and era to era. The consistency and constancy being that, from our human perspective, God is very much in the business undoing our preconceptions of God, bringing those who are comfortable into chaos, bringing those who are in chaos into comfort. Always the encounter in the event of faith undoes and redoes, but it never looks the same; like snowflakes, the encounters are all different.

What I can say is that this event-encounter with God brings me into a more substantial relationship with and to myself. To think that being rendered naked and vulnerable is the surest state to be in is paradoxical. But the paradoxes ring out over and over again: in death: alive; in weakness: strong; in losing oneself: found. But then somehow the paradox make sense because when I’m stripped down to just my flesh (naked and bare) I am more fully myself than when I am hiding behind my clothes, my past, my doctrines, my knowns, my relationships. Losing my determining of myself according to my pock-marked-by-trauma history, letting that form of self determining go leaves me with two open hands, beggar style, kneeling at the rail of the word of God to recreate me. No longer controlled by the myths of the world or the one’s I’ve created or the ones that others have given me, I’m free to be substantiated by the life giving and life sustaining word of God, the word of God who threw the stars into place, the word of God who became incarnate in Christ, the word of God that perpetually goes forth from age to age, uniting all the world unto God.

2018 seemed to drive this all home over and over again. Through the very good and the very bad, being thrust into God was the overarching theme. And the beauty of it was: becoming more me. There were times when I thought that certain negative relational events I was enduring were going to destroy me and crush me. Yet, I was neither destroyed nor crushed; far from it. I was made stronger and more solid. Being forced to let go of my trauma-victim narrative(s) allowed me to be a better theologian of the cross: having the ability to actually call a thing what it is and to take from it what I need to while discarding the rest. It allowed me to be finally present in the moment, in the feels, in the tears and cries, in the pain and to intentionally stand up and walk–not in order to run away or find a place to hide, refusing to accept things, but in order to face the shit head on without fear because I’m established totally and completely in God. Thus, I can’t help but say that I’m rather grateful for these negative relational events; I’ve learned and grown so much through them. I’m a better person, more solid, more substantial. I’m bringing this into 2019.

2018 taught me that there is a huge distinction between my trauma-vicitm narrative/script and regular speech. Throughout therapy, I’ll say something, and my therapist will stop me and say: “You know that’s the trauma-victim narrative again, right? Did you hear it?” And for a long time I’ve always responded with: but that’s how I think, that’s normal. But through the majority of this year my response has been different. “Yes, I hear it loud and clear.” Understanding this distinction is part of my strength and having a different script to pull from is vital. I’m bringing this into 2019.

And this leads me to thank those friends and family in my life through whom God encounters me last year and (hopefully) this year, 2019. I want to thank you, the people who repeatedly call me higher and remind me to move forward. And the people who challenge me to push my limits. The people who call me out and correct me *because* they love me, and the people who are patient with my many questions and much pushing back to understand things more fully. Thank you to the people who cheer me on in my successes and comfort me in my failures; and the people who just seem to like me (you all baffle me, frankly :D). Thank you. Thank you from the bottom of my heart. I express love in loyalty and you have it.

And those are my personal musings about 2018.

“Trees Planted by Streams of Water”

Proverbs 31, Mark 9:30-37: True Discipleship #LikeAGirl (Sermon)

Introduction

You either love her or hate her; but all of you are opinionated about her. She’s either revered as the ultimate example of womanhood or she is despised as nothing but oppressive idealism unattainable by human standards. In academic circles she’s rarely if ever the topic of conversation: she’s relegated to an inferior position; that’s just about woman’s work.

Personally, I’m fascinated by her, ever since becoming a Christian I’ve marveled over her. At multiple points in my life, I’ve tried to be her only to fail. I’ve meditated on and prayed through the poem multiple times. It is no surprise to hear that I wrote a 100 page thesis on her. My question leading up to writing my MDiv thesis was: Why? Why is she here?

In and through my intellectual digging, I discovered an answer I wasn’t expecting. Rather than being a checklist for the proper execution of womanhood and wifery or some abstract communication about the people of God, the Church, she is, from head to toe, the manifestation of hope. And not just hope in general, but hope specific. She is the hope of restoration: restoration of woman to God and the restoration of the relationship between men and women. And even more than those two things, she is the manifestation of hope for humanity: what it means to be a good disciple.

It is my contention that she is an expression of the hope for the reversal of the curse of Genesis 3. She is hope for the longed for reversal that is to be completed in the coming Messiah—the Messiah to whom all of the Old Testament points. It is my belief that she is the signpost on the way to through the metanarrative of scripture that points to what comes in Christ. She is the embodiment of the hope embedded in the protoevangelium (the first gospel promise) uttered way back when in Gen 3:15 when God cursed the snake: “I will put enmity between you and the woman,/and between your offspring and hers;/he will strike your head,/and you will strike his heel.”

She doesn’t just point to Genesis 3 when everything goes bad; but to Genesis 1 and 2 when everything was very good. The poem draws us back to the cool air of the garden, when woman walked alongside man and they communed together in the presence of God, as co-vice-regents of the earth. The Proverbs 31 Woman is fighting a battle, not just keeping house. The warfare imagery throughout the poem leads us, the reader, to see a woman, to see a person who is fighting against the chaos established by the fall. The Proverbs 31 Woman is pointing back to Eve and Adam, and at the same time pointing forward—through the chaos of the fall—to Christ—who is the very image of God his Father in his divine substance (God of very God) and of Mary his Mother in his humanity. When God walked the earth he carried her face into the world. The woman was not forgotten when God became man. To over emphasize the masculinity of Jesus the Christ at the expense of the femininity of the one whom he looked like, is to devolve into a very bad Christology and a malnourished and weak God-talk (theology). Let us talk rightly, for ourselves and because the children are listening.

V.10: “An excellent wife who can find?/She is far more precious than jewels.” The way this question is phrased in the original language expects a negative answer. Who can find this excellent wife? No one. She is so “rare” that jewels do not compare to her. Even if you could “find” her, you couldn’t afford her anyway! VV.11-12: “The heart of her husband trusts in her,/and he will have no lack of gain./12 She does him good, and not harm,/all the days of her life.” She is mature in age and in spirit. Their relationship has weathered the trials of the passing years; she is not young nor is she a newly wed. She operates in love towards her husband, just as in the New Testament those who are in Christ are encouraged to operate in love towards one another.[1] He knows that she loves him; there is no doubt, no worry, no wonder; he is confident in her love toward her. And in that he knows she loves him, his heart trusts in her. Much like a child trusts his mother.

V.13: “She seeks wool and flax,/and works with willing hands.” She can use a broad spectrum of materials to create things—she is capable, creative and astute. There is nothing wasteful about her handling of materials; everything is put to use in some way or another (v.13). V.14: “She is like the ships of the merchant;/she brings her food from afar.” She provides for her family. She’s not just making meals, she’s enjoying the bounty created by God and deemed enjoyable by Him.[2] She takes pleasure in the world just as God did and does; just as humanity did and should. V.15: “She rises while it is yet night/and provides food for her household/and portions for her maidens.” She is not given to too much sleep; she is not lazy. However, though she is diligent throughout her days, her work is not her lord (work is its proper place, under her dominion). She does not neglect her household—those who depend on her—for her own pleasures. Both men and women are to be active and care for others and not act like disinterested selfish slugabeds.[3] Oh, and by the way, she’s wealthy: she has servant girls! Even if this was about “works,” She does NOT bare that responsibility alone.

V.16: “She considers a field and buys it;/with the fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard.” She has investment-like foresight. She re-invests; she does not earn gain for gain’s sake. Her very fruitfulness (prosperity) is evidence that she is sowing righteous seed in righteous soil and continually replants the fruits of her hand.[4] V.17: “She dresses herself with strength/and makes her arms strong.” Strength is one of her foremost qualities. Her arms are strong for the task…she is able to get things done, especially in ‘planting’ a vineyard. She is not afraid of hard work or of labor. [5] Meek and mild? Think again! Think: Princess Xena. Think: Wonder Woman: Think: Amazon. Think: Frontier Woman. Weaker sex, eh?

V.18: “She perceives that her merchandise is profitable./Her lamp does not go out at night.” This is not about having a home-based business. This is creational language reminiscent of Genesis, “And God saw that it was good.”[6] She is a creature that was gifted to use her mind and her hands to make. And she uses this ability to purchase the oil for her lamp and keep a store of oil so that her lamp will not go out. She is, essentially, prepared with enough oil to provide light for a long time; she’s one of the wise virgins with a trimmed wick waiting for the Lord to return.[7] V.19: “She puts her hands to the distaff,/and her hands hold the spindle.” There’s more to the imagery here than sewing. What is the distaff and spindle imagery depicting? A valid definition for the Hebrew word translated as spindle is “district”.[8] She puts her hands to the district; she extends her hands and subdues the earth as the manifestation of one of the commands of God in the Garden (reversal of 3:16ff). [9]

V.20: “She opens her hand to the poor/and reaches out her hands to the needy.” She is caring for the poor and afflicted by “extending her hands” as was required by every Israelite (Deut. 15:11). She is the godly person for whom Micah seeks as he walks around the streets, for her hands stretch out and do “good” (7:1-7). She represents what it means to be truly human: caring for the disenfranchised; she is being used as what it means to love your neighbor as yourself;.[10] V.21-22: “She is not afraid of snow for her household,/for all her household are clothed in scarlet./She makes bed coverings for herself;/her clothing is fine linen and purple.” The poem covers many seasons, winter being one of them. The poem does not just cover this woman’s day, but this woman’s entire life. The reference to her household being clothed in scarlet is synonymous with her wealth; she is a wealthy woman and has clothed her household in good, warm clothing.

V.23: “Her husband is known in the gates/when he sits among the elders of the land.” Her husband sits among the elders so he is older, thus she is, too. Notice that there have been 12 verses since her husband has been mentioned. This woman is not defined by him and her service to him, but by her own qualities, V.24: “She makes linen garments and sells them;/she delivers sashes to the merchant.” She is aware that her deeds are worthy and, thus, she does not hesitate to capitalize on them. She is wise and can bring in her own income, which she uses to the benefit of her household.[11] V.25: “Strength and dignity are her clothing,/and she laughs at the time to come.” It is through her relationship with God, it is in her fear of the Lord (v.30) where these characteristics of strength and dignity are sourced. These characteristics are evident to everyone who meets her. V.26: “She opens her mouth with wisdom,/and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue.” And her words back this up; they are described as wise. Her outward appearance and inward manner are one in the same; she is not a white-washed tomb. The state and orientation of her heart is righteous for what flows out of her is righteous. In Mark 7, Jesus explains it is what comes out of and not what goes into that defiles a person; our Proverbs 31 woman speaks wisdom and thus is wise and you can only be wise if you know God (according to the Hebrew and our own tradition). She knows Torah (rare); she knows and is known by God.

V.27: “She looks well to the ways of her household/and does not eat the bread of idleness.” V.28-29: “Her children rise up and call her blessed;/her husband also, and he praises her:/“Many women have done excellently,/but you surpass them all.” “This one at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh,” is akin to the statement of the husband in the poem in Proverbs 31, “Many women have done well, But you surpass them all.”[12] V.30-31: “Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain,/but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised./Give her of the fruit of her hands,/and let her works praise her in the gates.” This is the key to the whole poem! It is her inner-beauty, her fear of the Lord that has been the eye-catching aspect of this woman from v.11 to v.30. Her strength and dignity come from her relationship with God; her wisdom, too, is of God (Prov. 1:7).

Happy are they who have not walked in the counsel of the wicked,

nor lingered in the way of sinners,
nor sat in the seats of the scornful!

Their delight is in the law of the Lord,
and they meditate on his law day and night.

They are like trees planted by streams of water,
bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither;
everything they do shall prosper. (Psalm 1:1-3)

The proverbs 31 woman is a glimpse of a restored Eve and a restored relationship of Eve to God; thus, a glimpse of the restoration of the relationship of woman to man.[13] But it’s not only about that. If we take the creation myth of Genesis 2 seriously, and see it primarily as a story about the creation of (thus the necessity of) community in likeness and difference (which is the extinguishing of loneliness), then what we see here, too, is the restoration of Humanity. The Proverbs 31 woman is clearly the embodiment of the ideal humanity yanked out of the chaos and myths of the world–a world broken by oppressive and deleterious systems of abuse in manifold forms–and placed into the Reign of God. Located in the reign of God in the event-encounter with God by faith in Christ alone. And this Reign of God is marked by love and kindness, by mercy and divine justice in restoration and reconciliation, in freedom for all or freedom for none, in the solidarity in suffering and pain and grief and sorrow, in the equality and mutuality in community that lives the very thing believed: that the dividing wall has been torn down, there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male and female (Gal 3:28). To be truly human, to be the faithful disciple in the world, is to act as the Reign of God is; to act like the Proverbs 31 woman.

The remarkable thing about our readings today is not just the fact that we read the Proverbs 31 poem and that you happen to have in your midst a self-proclaimed P. 31 scholar (*wink), but that our Gospel passage, from Mark, works with the Proverbs reading. Jesus spends time explaining to his disciples what it means to be a good disciple (and the Gospel of Mark is directed at such a specific message): If anyone wishes to be first, he must be last and servant of all people (9:35, translation mine). He then (immediately) snags a small child and places that child in the midst of his cadre of disciples. Jesus lowers himself, puts his arms around the child and says this, Whoever receives one such as this child on the basis of my name, that person receives me; and whoever receives me, does not receive (only) me, but the one who sent me (v37, translation mine). Whoever receives into their arms, intimately, one such as this child receives me. Receives one such as this child. And I am relocated to when I reached for and held my first born son, just born; receive one such as this child. According to Jesus, to be and do the will of God is to love like a mother.

Even Paul, in the letter to the Ephesians uses mothering imagery to explain what agape love (divine love) looks like to the men/husbands in Ephesus. In a discussion about what mutual submission looks like, Paul shorthands a quick statement to the wives: each to their own husbands as unto the Lord. (Full Stop.) He then turns to the husbands: y’all best sit down for this…Paul begins. What do I mean by love and mutual submission the women get, but you don’t because you’ve never brought a child into the world. The washing imagery of 5:25-28 is less to do with “baptism” and everything to do with the washing of a child by the mother.

“Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, in order to make her holy by cleansing her with the washing of water by the word, so as to present the church to himself in splendor, without a spot or wrinkle or anything of the kind—yes, so that she may be holy and without blemish. In the same way, husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself.”

A regular practice of mothers in the ancient Greco-Roman society was to forgo their own cleanliness in order to wash their child. Just like our own bodies betray us in gestation, so to do our brains in consistently choosing the well being of our child over our own. It’s why mothers do weird things (because they’re tired and they’re in love). The men would’ve washed themselves first, but the mother would’ve washed the baby first. This Paul uses as an example for the men, they would’ve seen it practiced in their own homes and boy would that message had been radical. Paul knew that women understood “mutual submission”; not only because they had to endure it socially and politically but also because they couldn’t deny it relationally (as a mom). They knew instinctively what that agape love was.

If you’ve ever wondered why the women are always getting “it” in the gospels, if you’ve ever wondered why the women seem to understand what and why Jesus came, you now have your answer: the activity of God for the world has not only paternal but also significant maternal power. And if you know agape love you recognize agape love.

Mark 15, the women watch Jesus die; they knew. Mark 7, the Syrophoenician woman; she knew. Mark 14, the woman who anoints Jesus in Bethany; she knew. Mark 5, the woman suffering from perpetual bleeding; she knew. John 4, the Samaritan woman at the well; she knew. Luke 10, Mary at Jesus’s feet; she knew. They all knew in the core of their being; they knew.

We see Jesus the man in his strong masculine form and forget that he’s God who is both male and female and thus embodies also the strength and dignity of the paradoxical gentleness and fierceness of the feminine. Both men and women, in Christ, justified by faith, are to receive and love all people unto the least, like a mother. It’s not reception as in tolerance; it’s life laying down neighbor love, the way a mother loves her child. Believe me, Jesus loves the whole world. He loves in the way that he bore the sins of the world just like a woman bears a child into it. In the same way she holds that child to her breast as she nurtures and sustains that child. In the same way a mother will lay her life down for her child no matter what the threat or possible destruction she herself will undergo.

Both men and women are encountered by God in the event of faith. Both men and women are called to be disciples of Christ marked by laying down of their lives and in bearing their crosses. Both men and women are brought unto death and into new life in Christ. Together.  Good news has come to the world in Christ Jesus this man who is God. And no longer bound to the systems and stories and lies of the world, believers are the ones who live into the world in a radical way; the one’s who know God and live as if they do. Today through the words of the poem of Proverbs 31 and in Jesus’s embracing a child, we are called to be the faithful witnesses of Christ in the world, to proclaim Christ crucified to the world in all that we say and in all that we do, and to love (radically) all people and the world as we have been loved (radically and unconditionally) by God. Let us love, let us love like a mother loves her child, love like the Proverbs 31 Woman, love like the women who knew, love #likeagirl.

[1] (1 Cor. 13; Eph. 5, Love your neighbor as yourself)

[2](DBI 297) “God not only provides, and provides abundantly for his creatures, but he also provides an immense variety of pleasurable flavors, textures, colors, shapes and smells, all of which indicate the joy and delight of the creator with his creation”

[3] (Prov. 6:6, 9; 10:26; 13:4; 15:19; 19:24; 20:4; 21:25; 22:13; 24:30)

[4] (v. 16; Gen. 1:28; Mt. 25:14-30).

[5] “Both the arm and the hand are biblical images of power….[and] can represent power in action, either good or evil” (DBI 43)

[6] (Gen. 1:10b, 12c, 18c, 20e, 25c, 31b)

[7] (Mt. 25:1-13)

[8] (Moore 25-30; BDB 813; cf. Nehemiah)

[9] (Gen. 1:24, Gen. 2:18)

[10] (Lev. 19:18; Mt. 22;39; Mk. 12:31; Lk. 10:27; Rom. 13:9; Gal. 5:14)

[11] (Gen. 1:24, 28)

[12] “In order to understand what follows, we must turn at once to the final goal: ‘This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh,’ is the cry of man when God brings him the woman. This exclamation, the expression of a recognition, the proclamation of a choice and decision made by man—the first saying of man expressly recorded in the saga—is not just a kind of epilogue to the creation of the woman, and therefore the completion of man’s creation, but it is with this express saying of man that the latter reaches its goal…The whole story aims at this exclamation by man. In this, and this alone, the creative work of God reaches its goal, for only now has man really been given the necessary help designed by God” (CD III I.41.3 291).

[13] Erika Moore’s Exegesis paper, “The Domestic Warrior: An Exegesis of Proverbs 31:10-31”. 1994. (14).

The Toxicity of Toxic Language

When “Toxic” becomes Toxic

Here’s the thing about “toxic” relationships: it’s not always restricted to one person being *the* “toxic” person that needs to be excised from the group or broken off with. Though, this is commonly what is conveyed in the dialogue of aftermath of relational split: “that person was toxic; so glad that person is gone. Now, we/I can go on being/becoming more healthy.” While I don’t have a very high anthropology (meaning: I still question the inherent goodness of human beings but not the inherent dignity; plus, I’m a Luther theologian, it comes with the terrain), I still believe that *anyone* can be “toxic” in *any* given situation. It’s the mix of personalities in their potential for toxicity. Potential for toxicity can be other wise dubbed as the beloved and oft used term: “brokenness.” However, in common parlance, it’s not just “brokenness” (because general brokenness is acceptable for the most part), “toxicity” is like the dark underbelly of “brokenness,” the thing that is the deal breaker and can’t ever be tolerated by anyone. Thus, people who have otherwise standard issues and problems and “brokenness,” get labeled as “toxic” and should be avoided at all costs because they bring “toxicity” to everything. They’re essentially and inherently harbingers of poison to every relationship they touch; they’ve been ontologically defined as poisonous.

(Side note, I’d like to argue that it is better to render “brokenness” as “bentness” in order to adhere to the inherent dignity of human beings. “Brokenness” can indicate being useless and worthy of being trashed; all human beings are never ever, never ever of that category.)

“Toxic” is the new “co-dependent.” One of the problems of the language of toxicity becoming so popular is that it has lost its actual definition and impact (there are legitimately toxic people, things, and places in our lives). It has become easier to label someone as “toxic” because they are causing us *any* discomfort. Also, It has become all the rage to label someone, some-place, something as “toxic,” in order to scapegoat our own problems on to someone else, some-place else, or something else. It’s easier to just cut someone, some-place, something out of your life, rather than take a long hard look in the mirror and realize you are fucking up your own life. (I say this as someone who was caught too long in “toxic” this-and-that language and finally had to come to terms that *I* was (me and my trauma narrative) more of the problem than any other person, place, or thing.) Rather than knee-jerk reacting and labeling someone, some-place, or something as “toxic,” it might be worth slowing the roll and asking: why is this causing this reaction in me? Therein answers lie.

Another problem is, from my perspective, we all carry within ourselves potential for acting caustically[1] toward others; our potential for this activity can be actualized by other people acting out of their issues and trauma (and vice versa). Also, our caustic behavior can be actualized by another person’s otherwise normal personality traits because we’ve had some sort of trauma associated with those traits even if they’d never be considered categorically “problematic” by any professional. It’s rarely the fact that only one person is the “toxic” source, but rather the mix of personality traits we have that conform and collide with others. Conformity with others creates a wonderful sense of peace and acceptance, but this does not mean collision is out of the question nor does it mean that when collision occurs it’s a deal breaker and the other person is now “toxic.” Collision occurs as conformity becomes bedrock in a relationship. When the honeymoon of a new relationship wears off, it’s then where we start to see how different we are from each other and also the potential for triggering and being triggered. (And I am not speaking of small things like a disagreement and miscommunications that run standard in any relationship. Rather, I speak of the big collisions, the ones that demand terms like forgiving and forgetting.)

When collision happens, it’s a time for introspection and dialogue. The normal and healthy response in situations where collision has occurred—in any way—is: discussion, both interpersonal (what happened and what can we do together to grow and move forward with our relationship (if possible)?) and intrapersonal (why did this action trigger this response in me?). Granted not all relationships are or need to be carried forward, some are mutually too caustic (as a whole) to be continued; not because one person is inherently “toxic,” but because the unit doesn’t work and we are both mutually bad for each other because we trigger each other, you trigger me, or I trigger you. None of us wants to be in relationship that is primarily collision and strife. None of us want to be causing the caustic reaction. (I’m a firm believer that not all personality types should be anything more than cordial acquaintances because the relational scales tip too much in favor of the potential for collision and triggering.) Often times, though, a good conversation will allow for light to be shed on issues that either or both people in the relationship were blind to, where acceptance of your own and the other person’s contribution to the issue can be owned, and create the space for solutions to move forward to be implanted and embraced.

We have used and abused the word “toxic” in all its forms, and the results prove disastrous. We are all bent, traumatized individuals making our way through this journey of life. Even the most integrated of us still has plenty to work on and will continue to aggravate, frustrate, and bother other wanderers. The most we can do is admit our own weaknesses, realize when those weaknesses are not beneficial to others, and realize where we can and need to become strong.

Something that I loved learning about when I started studying Luther and his conception of justification and the proclamation of the Gospel, was not that he let me off the hook of the law of God, but that he put me on it. Far from being a therapeutic hedonist, Luther has a high view of the law both as it plays into the believer’s relationship before God and in the believer’s life. No, sin boldly isn’t the same as: you do you as you please at whatever expense and at whomever’s expense. It’s about the reality that you are, by encounter with God in the event of faith, right before God, that this event-encounter is not born of your particular activity but does have significant bearing on your present activity. Luther’s dialectic of law and gospel and the need for the good theologian to be able to distinguish between the two is never about being given the license to avoid the law at all costs and to reject all people and things and words that give off even the hint of personal discomfort and conviction to us. Rather, it’s always about being able to really *see* with our own eyes what is the law and what is the gospel, what brings death and what brings life, and to act accordingly—not to avoid it but to enter into the event, to be encountered there in by God and God’s grace.

Sometimes, we must enter into the death present and terrifying in relational collision (to face it head on, eye to eye, word to word) in order to be brought into something so much more beautiful and alive than it could ever be if we had sidestepped the entire problem in the name of comfort. I will be more alive, you will be more alive, and even the relationship (either sustained or terminated) will be life giving (even if there is grief and pain as a result of termination). With God all things are possible, even abundant life out of what feels like and looks like certain death.

 

[1] I like “caustic” rather than “toxic” because there is an allusion to a chemical reaction, neither chemical is bad in it’s own state, but when combined the reaction is bad.