Saturday, November 30, 2013

" a tree..." (Notes to a Vagabond Generation)

"Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the ungodly.... [rather] his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on His law he meditates day and night. He shall be like a tree planted by a river.... The ungodly are not so but are like the chaff, which the wind drives away." Ps. 1:1-6

The bogeyman of my generation.
All the counsels of the ungodly wither. They are without substance, for the counsel of God alone is all-substance. This is another one of those radical, rebellious notions that offend the finer sensibilities of my vagabond generation. We prefer to "keep our options open," avoid ruts, and escape "comfort zones." We fear stagnation; we fear petrification. We fear consistency and coherence, and what is more stagnant and consistent than a tree? It spends its whole life in one spot, gripping tighter to its beloved safe zone. It will never know the freedom and personal growth of the uprooted life. Of course, an uprooted tree no longer grows at all, but that is hardly the point to us. Carpe diem is the point, and we shall seize it even with our dying breath.

"Viva la freedom!"
All our romanticized idealism over "freedom" or "liberation" or "openness" does not change the hard, common sense fact that an uprooted tree is still a dead tree. You can replant it with each uprooting, but the continual upheaval will be enough to kill it eventually. Trees are meant to stay put, to take root where they are. The stability of its location, the consistency of its nourishment, the coherence of the operation of its parts---all this "stagnation" is its strength, its very life. If that is stagnation, then perhaps we should all be a little more "stagnate."

"All the earth and sky are mine."
It is not stagnation, however, and that is the single greatest error made by my generation: we equate stability and consistency with stagnation and death rather than life and strength. God certainly sees it as life and strength. That is why He uses the image of a tree in this psalm, and it is a perfect image. A tree is a paradox. It never moves, and yet it's always moving. It remains where it is planted, yet it consistently grows further upwards and downwards, gripping the earth tighter and tighter with a myriad of brown fingers coiling from a great knotted fist, and stretching into the sky higher and higher with a multitude of branches unfolding like outstretched hands holding a rich supply of leaves and seeds and fruits and flowers. It grows simultaneously more entrenched and more outrageous, outrageous because it is entrenched.

Dante visits "the liberated."
That same tree-paradox is the life of those who build them- selves on the true, substantive counsel of God. The more they entrench themselves in the truth, the more substance they gain, and the more outrageous and lavish and wondrous their life grows. Our vagabond generation does not understand this. We prefer to hobo it from one patch of ground to the next (in order to superficially "experience its culture" or whatever), and in the end our rootlessness leaves us tossed about by every wave of doctrine or thought or fashion. Like chaff on the wind, we are unceasingly restless and aimless, never finding home.

And all the while, we who are rootless cast a pitying eye to those who have been planted in God's truth, assuming that their immobility will be their destruction; but that assumption will be our destruction, for immobility can be a proof of life just as much as of death. Proof that the tree has been planted by a river. Why should it move? Why would it move? "To whom shall we go?" said Peter to Jesus. "You have the words of life" (John 6:68). By His words we are fed, and by His words we sink deep into infinite earth and stretch high into infinite sky. Again, why would we move? We have found the source of life.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2013

Friday, November 29, 2013

A Team Effort (thoughts on courage by an orthodox rebel)

Hey! Don't tell me what to do!
"Be strong and courageous. Be not afraid, neither be dismayed, for the Lord thy God is with thee wherever you go." Josh. 1:9

"Be strong in the Lord and in the power of His might." Eph. 6:10

A common  modern maxim is that we ought to "believe" in ourselves. It is quite a controversial statement. It is simultaneously derided as a cliche outgrowth of pop-philosophy and/or pop-psychology, and yet it is touted everywhere by almost everyone, esp. in our arts and entertainment. It does have a certain silliness and attractiveness to it. Silly because it seems overly simplistic; attractive because it seems positive and ennobling. In fact, it is silly and attractive because there is something true and false about it.

"Happy thoughts...."
The truth it contains speaks to its more general subject, i.e., confidence. The thing is talking about confidence. (Confidence in what, we shall get to in a moment.) This is the part where it tries to hit the nail on the head. We need confidence. Our courage needs some kind of assurance, an affirmation that it can be and is being backed up by something. With such an assurance, we can indeed do great things: take greater risks, think greater thoughts, and do greater acts. Thus, in this general sense of confidence, the maxim can ring true and become attractive.

How 'bout not?
Where it is false, however, is in its specifics: what or whom should our confidence be placed in? Here its answer is obvious: our confidence must be placed in ourselves, in our own strengths and instincts and skills and qualities. In the end, we must be the assurance of our own courage, the backing of our own backs. We alone are to be the final guarantee against all that besets us. Now, there is something ennobling about being your own hero, but there is also something terrifying because the whole thing rises or falls with you. And there is also something anti-Christian about it, which I will now labor to explain.

Do not think that I am about to call anyone who "believes in" themselves a horrible person. Far from it. I have no idea how horrible (or wonderful) they are or will be. I only say that they, horrible or not, have been misguided by misinformation. They have been told that the buck stops with them; for the Christian, this is false. The buck can never stop with yourself. It ought not to. We are finite, limited, and fallen, and while those facts do not rob us of one ounce of value or dignity before God and man, it does mean that we are ultimately unreliable. At some point and in some way, we will fail both ourselves and others. We have neither the strength nor skill nor anything else by which we can adequately back ourselves. This is why the biblical view of courage was always directed at God: be courageous because He is with you; have confidence in His great strength.

This is not simply about power. God has all power, but that doesn't mean it will do us any good. What does do us good is two ideas in addition to His power: He is intimately with us, and He intimately loves us. If you belong to Christ then you belong to God (Col. 3:3), bound together in a mystic sweet communion by infinite love (John 14:20-21; 17:23, 26). It is on the basis of these three truths that we have confidence, not because of ourselves but because there is one who (1) is greater than us, (2) is with us, and (3) loves us.

The loneliest number.
This is a real difference between Christian thought and everyone else. Christianity is fundamentally communal, all the way up to the trinitarian God Himself. Everyone else (mainly in America) is fundamentally individualistic: the "buck" really does stop with us. And the difference between the communal and the individualistic is stark, especially when it comes to courage. For example, in The Matrix, all falls on Neo, the "One". The fight rests on his shoulders alone, on his strengths and choices. But in The Lord of the Rings, there is not the "One" but the "fellowship," which even when it frays, it's frayed into groups. The smallest was Frodo and Sam. The task of destroying the ring was appointed to Frodo, but he did not go alone, and as he would later say, "Frodo wouldn't have gotten far without Sam." Two famous movie franchises. Two completely different messages. (And two different success rates.)

"My dear, do as I do, not as I say."
I think there is something absolutely true about the Christian notion of communal courage. This came home to me in a very frustrating way. I had just watched The Cat Returns, which is an adorably wonderful film with the most disappointingly idiotic moral ever. "Idiotic" because it was not what the film was about. In the final scene, the Cat Baron has just rescued a girl named Haru from the Cat Kingdom. Along the way, Haru had found her confidence and bravery. The Baron's final words to her, spoken with the intonations of Toucan Sam, were, "Remember: follow your heart!" And then the whole thing was spoiled. "Follow your heart" is the same as "believe in yourself," and the film was about neither of those things. Haru did indeed find her courage and confidence, but it was because of the Baron, not herself. The Baron believed in her, fought for her, cared for her, and on the basis of his courage and confidence for and in her, she found her own. That was the real message of the film, the message of communal courage: you cannot be brave alone. It is (so to speak) a team effort.

"Here I've found my bravery."
When Moses died and Joshua was made the leader of Israel, God tells him not to be afraid because He is with him: "As I was with Moses, so I will be with thee" (Josh. 1:5). In a strange, non-analogous way it reminds me of the end of Braveheart where Robert the Bruce looks at his fellow Scots and says, "You have bled with Wallace. Now bleed with me." The idea is the same even if the exact image is not: we cannot have confidence alone. We cannot have courage in the void. There must be another with us, one who is somehow greater than us, who is closer than a brother, and who loves us with passion and faithfulness. We act on communal courage all the time, in our imperfect way. How many "stupid things" were you willing to do because your friends were with you? How many terrifying things have you done because a loved one had your back? And how much greater will the risk and danger be, how much sweeter and grander the adventure, when God is the Beloved in whom we believe?

-Jon Vowell (c) 2013

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The Worst of All Evils (and other vagabonds)

"And the Lord said unto Satan, 'From whence comest thou?' Then Satan answered the Lord, 'From going to and fro on the earth, and walking up and down upon it.'" Job 1:7 (2:2)

"...your adversary, the Devil, walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour." I Peter 5:8

It's pandemonium!
Scripture recognizes the Devil as a being of adversarial malevol- ence, the height of all evil, the highest of all rebellion against God. And yet he often is pictured as a mere vagabond, wandering about aimlessly. Now, there is a kind of hierarchy or order in the demonic world that is hinted at in Scripture (Eph. 6:12; c.f. Daniel 10:10-13), but there is also a sense of chaos and randomness. "Pandemonium," as Milton coined it (PL, 1:755-75)---their very order is chaos. They may reside in persons or places, yet they are quite willing to go anywhere else. Legion will reside in the man from Gadara as easily as a herd of pigs (Mark 5:1-13), and others will wander through "waste and empty places" for a time (Matt. 12:43). Even the Devil himself seems to be a creature of the wilderness (Matt. 4:1). It's as if all the "hierarchy" of hell is in power alone, with stronger spirits ruling over weaker ones, and yet all are equally aimless beings, left to stray about, seeking destruction.

A roaring lion.
I find it interesting that the image of absolute evil looks less like Hitler and more like Tommy Sells. In fact, the difference between a tyrant and a serial killer seems to stress the issue. Whereas a tyrant has organized all his energies and resources towards the realization of his delusions of grandeur, the serial killer is an individualized random act of violence, an irrational malevolence that can prey on anyone at anytime. You can see a tyrant coming, with his armies and pageantry and his flags unfurled; you cannot see the serial killer coming. You can predict the megalomaniac; you cannot predict the maniac, and the Devil is a maniac. That is the image from Scripture, and it is a terrifying one. Though he can and does commit large actions, he is quite comfortable with small ones as well. He will lay waste to kingdoms. He will also lay waste to Job, to any individual man or woman.

"How thou art fallen...."
And to what end? None that we see, for He can never defeat or even hurt God or His purposes. Then why bother at all? What reason is there? None except malice and hatred born of defeated pride. The Morning Star who challenged the Most High was brought down to hell (Is. 14:12-15). The King of Tyre corrupted his wisdom by reason of his brightness, and a fire from within devoured him (Ezek. 28:11-19). The Great Dragon made war in Heaven, and he was cast down to earth (Rev. 12:7-9). He brought himself high and God set him low; his pride was not simply wounded but decimated. What else is left for a being like that but "study of revenge, immortal hate" (PL, 1:107), to wander aimlessly and violently throughout the earth, seeking whom he may devour?

"I'm a dog chasing cars."
Tyranny is not the worst of evils, for it is larger than life, and it is the small things that truly affect us. We know this for a fact. In good or ill, it is the small, more intimate elements that affect us the most. Great, sweeping acts of charity done to whole people groups (or to abstracted "humanity") don't nearly affect us as much as one act of true kindness done to us in particular. Likewise, the tyrant always feels half a world away, even when his war is at your door. But the killer is the war at your door, and thus he garners far more fear. So it is as it should be: the smallest is the greatest. The least will either inherit or lay waste the earth. Goldfinger is a nuisance; Silva is a threat. Ra's al Ghul is a problem; the Joker is a terror. Hitler was a madman; Sells is madness itself, and there is a point where evil transcends (or perhaps descends) all malice and madness, falling into a darkness so deep it could only be called the Devil, the Strayer, the Great Violent Vagabond, wandering as a whirlwind, with his fury as a fire.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2013

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

"...boldly to the throne of grace..." (The Lord's Prayer, Part IV)

"Abba, Father, all things are possible for Thee. Take away this cup from Me. Nevertheless, not what I will, but what Thou will." Mark 14:36

"GUIDELINES! Not rules!"
One final thought on this subject: what I said in the beginning still holds now. There is no single "right way" to pray, no formula or checklist to follow, and even the best guidelines are not actual rules. Prayer is a living thing, because it is happening between two living persons, and what happens between two living persons is a paradox. On the one hand, it ought not to change. If it is a truly loving relationship, strong and deep, then it ought to last, ought to remain steady and sure like a rock. On the other hand, nothing will remain forever if it's not made new again, so it should strengthen and deepen, like a tree whose branches grow higher up and roots grow deeper down and yet the whole thing remains solidly immobile.

"I don't get fishing metaphors."
Make no mistake: regardless of your strategy, talking to God will be hard and feel clunky and frustrating at times, like any good relationship. It will last, however, and it will grow as long as there is love, and never forget: there is always love between you and God, whether you "feel" it or not. Of course, He has proven it grandly in Christ (Rom. 5:8), but He also proves it in the specific details of our lives, even in prayer where He has given us His Spirit to intercede for us (Rom. 8:26-27), saying what we cannot, finding the words we cannot. It's like that strange device that Flint Lockwood had that finally allowed his dad to articulate what he really wanted to say to his son. That is the Spirit in all our prayers. That is the love of God in all our prayers: we cannot lose, and we do not fail, no matter what or how we "feel" about it. So we strive in hope and struggle with joy, knowing that our good and great "Abba" God hears us, even and especially when we feel like we have nothing to say.


Jon Vowell (c) 2013

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Who is God? (The Lord's Prayer, Part III)

Priorities, son. Priorities.
"Abba, Father, all things are possible for Thee. Take away this cup from me. Nevertheless, not what I will, but what Thou will." Mark 14:36

The third and final thing Jesus does in His prayer is finish with the proper posture and attitude towards God, by concluding, "Not what I will, but what You will." If Jesus started His prayer with who God is, then He finished by acknowledging who He Himself is towards who God is: the Son obedient and subject to the Father. He ended by asserting God's position and His, stating the nature of their relationship.

Now, our relationship with God is manifold, but there is one facet of it that must be stressed here: God is God, and we are not. We make our requests known, and make them known boldly, but at the end we acknowledge that He is God and we are not. His counsel will stand, and He will do as He pleases (Is. 46:9-10). Of course, the wonderful news is that God's counsel is for our good (Rom. 8:28-39), and that it pleases Him to do good for His children (Matt. 7:9-11), and so we need not fear His counsel and pleasure. Nevertheless, we ought to recognize it as supreme. Though Jesus requested it, the "cup" did not pass from Him, and it was for good, both for us (Rom. 5:1-2, 6-11) and for Him (Phil. 2:5-11).

"But I still want authentic love!"
Recognizing God as supreme is not as easy as it sounds. It is always easier to put ourselves first, seeing God as (at best) an equal to us and our wants. My generation really has a problem with recognizing authority or some supremacy that is not ourselves, but we live within contradiction. We demand self-actualization but also real love, neither of which can occupy the same space. A relationship (if it is to be successful) must necessarily be a place where you lay yourself down out of love for another; communication is not possible if each party is not willing to learn the language of the other, whether that language is foreign or cultural and emotional. It becomes worse with our relationship and communication with God, because He is not only another that is outside of us, but He is also the supreme other, one who merits (and calls for) our recognition of and submission to His supremacy. We must recognize/submit to His supremacy, or else our prayer life (and whole Christian life) will become a dead-end, narcissistic affair.

Rejoice in your smallness.
If our requests are the meat of the prayer-sandwich, then who God is (esp. in relation to us) becomes the slices of bread. To put it another way, prayer begins and ends by recognizing the nature of our relationship to the One to whom we are talking. We do this in daily conversation as well: begin and end by recognizing who we are talking to in the light of our relationship with them, whether it be a friend ("Hey, you." "Until our next meeting."), loved one ("Hey, babe." "Love you."), strangers ("Hello. Can I help you?" "Have a good day."), or even enemies ("What do you want?" "Don't ever talk to me again."). Of course, our relationship to God is unique since, as I said earlier, it is manifold: He is our Lord and Creator as well as Friend and Lover, but the principle still applies. You can begin and end by acknowledging who God is to you (i.e., who He has revealed Himself to be in your specific life), and in between those acknowledgements you make your requests known unto God.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2013

Thursday, November 21, 2013

What Do You Want? (The Lord's Prayer, Part II)

"Abba, Father, all things are possible for Thee. Take away this cup from Me. Nevertheless, not what I will, but what Thou will." Mark 14:36

"If there lurks in most modern minds the notion that to desire our own good and earnestly to hope for the enjoyment of it is a bad thing, I submit that this notion crept in from Kant and the Stoics and is no part of the Christian faith. Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us.... We are far too easily pleased." -C.S. Lewis, "The Weight of Glory"

The second thing Jesus does in His prayer is to state His request(s) or desire(s), and He is bold and honest about them: He asked that the "cup" of the cross and God's wrath be taken away from Him.

"Ask and it shall be given?"
Unless we are completely tactless, most of us are pretty gun-shy in this area. We find it indecent to ask God for what we really want. Shouldn't pray be about others? About our family? Our friends? The sick, the poor, and the hurting? The world? Peace on earth and all that? There is nothing at all wrong with asking for those things. They are all needed, but do not lose sight of how brash and personally specific Jesus made prayer. It was about you asking for personal things (Matt. 7:7-11), even down to your most basic needs and benefits (Matt. 6:11-13). The Psalms are sung prayers to God, and every one of them is filled with specific personal requests ("cleanse me from sin," "make my work prosper," "save me from trouble," "destroy my enemies," etc.), and even the apostles saw prayer in terms of personal requests (e.g., Phil. 4:6).

"Prove it!"
Of course, there is a right and wrong way to go about this. The wrong way is the "adulterous generation seeking a sign" way (Matt. 16:1-4; Mark 8:12). The Pharisees and Sadducees asked Jesus to give them a sign to prove that He was the Christ. They did this to "test" Him to see if He really was who He claimed to be, which means that they didn't believe that He was who He claimed to be. Thus, their "request" was asked out of unbelief; it was like telling God, "Oh yeah? Prove it." Such an attitude is the opposite of Christ, whose own brother explained, "Ask in faith, doubting nothing" (James 1:5-7), which is how the apostles would ask when they cast lots to choose someone to replace Judas. They prayed beforehand, asking God to guide the lots (Acts 1:24-26). This was not a "Oh yeah? Prove it" moment. They asked in faith, believing that God would answer and would answer rightly, which is the essence of proper asking in prayer.

Prayer: the original "Safe Place".
As stated before, prayer is not about you; but there is a place for you, a specific, safe place. A place where you can make your requests known unto God, where you can be honest and speak your mind, where you can approach the throne of grace boldly. If your prayer life is based off of your specific relationship with God, then is not honesty good for any close relationship? Should not that person, the one you are drawn close to, should not they be the one to whom you can be unbashful about how you feel, what you want, and what you fear? Give God the same brazenness. Give Him the same trust, for He is your good Father, and He will hear the desires of your heart (Ps. 37:3-5).

-Jon Vowell (c) 2013

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Who Are You Talking To? (The Lord's Prayer, Part I)

"Abba, Father, all things are possible for Thee. Take away this cup from Me. Nevertheless, not what I will, but what Thou will." Mark 14:36

Can you hear me now?
I have found that there is nothing on earth harder to do well than prayer. The potential for it to slide into pointless formality or mind-numbing list-checking is enormous. How often have we felt like we're talking to the air? To ourselves? We hear tales of prayer that is this wondrous, intimate thing with God, a time for real-life conversation with the Divine. Then we get to it (perhaps full of enthusiasm) and by the end we feel as if we've wasted everyone's time. Maybe moments do come where we "find the right words" and the communication and communion feel sweet and real, but those moments seem rare and fleeting at best, and we are unprophetic to both their comings and goings as well as the mechanisms that actualize them. Another clumsy session, immediately following a successful venture, makes the frustration even more acute.

There are many good books on prayer, but something must be said first over and against all books: there is no such thing as a singular "right way" to pray anymore than there is a singular "right way" to talk to your lover or best friend. Yes, there are things you ought to avoid in either case, like making the whole conversation about yourself (something Jesus spoke against in Luke 18:9-14); but to claim a singular "right way" to pray is the fastest way to make the whole thing empty and formulaic. Prayer is having a conversation with God, and it is built on the relationship you have with Him, and nothing kills conversation and stunts relationships better than sticking to formula every single time.

"I'm the map!"
So there is no one "right way" to pray, but that does not mean that there are no guidelines to help us out. Not having a "right way" to pray can be as big a problem as sticking to the same stale formula forever. Thus is our dilemma: we want our prayers to be sincere and organic, and yet we find articulation difficult: we hardly know what we really want, much less how to put it into words. A formula is no good, but some pointers would still be nice, and I think Jesus provides some good ones in His own prayer to God. There's a lot going on in this passage, but there are at least three practical things we can take away for our own prayer life.

The first thing Jesus does is acknowledge who God is. He calls Him "Abba, Father" and says, "all things are possible" with Him. The nature of God's Fatherhood and Omnipotence are topics in and of themselves, but the point here is that Jesus knows and recognizes God as those things. Again, this is not to be formulaic. This is not about picking a random divine attribute or two out of a hat and prefacing yourself with it. It is not about acknowledging who God is in general, but rather acknowledging who He is to you specifically. How has He made Himself known to you, in your actual life and experience? Remember: conversations are built on relationships, so what has your relationship with Him revealed Him to be?

"I see you as no one else does."
This is not about uncritical subjectivism. Who God truly is to anybody will never go against who He has revealed Himself to be in His word. However, that does not mean that everyone will truly know or understand God the exact same way as everybody else, because we are all different. Personality and temperament and history and culture and other intangibles make no two people the same, and thus no two people ever like the same thing the same exact way. Thus, how you view God, what and who you understand Him to be, though it ought not to contradict His word (which is His authoritative declaration of Himself), it may very well contradict other people.

What relationship is at work here?
Who God is to us specifically will shape our prayer life, because it shapes who we think we're talking to. In day-to-day conversation, who you're talking to shapes how you talk to them, whether they're a friend, family, stranger, or enemy. Who they are to you shapes your conversation, even your initial acknowledgement ("Hey, you." "Hey, babe." "Hello. Can I help you?" "What do you want?" etc.). So who is God to you? Who has He revealed Himself to be in your life, in your daily relationship with and experience of Him? If you know, then you can begin by acknowledging Him as such. In a way, you're reminding yourself who you're talking to, which can help shape the conversation to what it ought to be. On the other hand, if you don't know who He is to you yet, or you're not quite sure, then that's a perfect thing to start praying for.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2013

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

In Defense of Church (a Matrix of Hard Things)

And it ain't just my opinion.
"If you keep My command- ments, you shall abide in my love, even as I have kept my Father's commandments and abide in His love. [...] You are My friends if you do whatever I command you...." John 15:10-14

Q: What is the duty which God requires of man?
A: The duty which God requires of man is obedience to His revealed will.

Q: What does the preface to the ten commandments teach?
A: That because God is the Lord, and our God and redeemer, therefore we are bound to keep all His commandments.
(Questions 39 & 44, Westminster Shorter Catechism)

There has been an issue come up every now and then about people wanting to "follow Jesus" but not go to church (i.e., for example). This is a strange dilemma, since Jesus expressly came to found a church (Matt. 16:18), and the apostles whom He ordained to carry on His work (John 15:16) understood this "church" to mean specific churches and not just a general "Church," which is why they spent most of the New Testament writing letters to churches (or pastors of a church) on how to conduct themselves as Christians and as a church. It has always been a part of Christian history, orthodoxy, and orthopraxy for believers to gather together in communal congregations, under the rule and leadership of pastors and elders, where they can edify each other, worship God, and feed on His word. It's been a clear and mostly consistent pattern for almost 2,000 years, so our current dilemma is strange indeed.

But maybe it's not so strange. Everyone (it seems) who wants to "follow Jesus" but not under the care, fellowship, and authority of a local church do so for two connected reasons: churches are so "mean," but Jesus is so "nice" (again, for example).

"Quit being MEAAAAN!"
Now, when people complain about churches being so "mean," they are referring to legalism and hypocrisy (as well as "hating" homosexuals or other currently fashionable groups). When they get starry-eyed about how "nice" Jesus is, they are referring to how He always dissed legalists and hypocrites and would have hugged homosexuals, if He ever met one (which we have no way of knowing if He did). These assumptions are understandable and not all-together untrue. Jesus did heavily rebuke those who stacked burdens on others while failing to keep those burdens themselves (Matt. 23:1-36), and He taught us to love our neighbors (Matt. 22:36-40), which includes anybody (Luke 10:25-37). But I can't help but sense a more anterior motive to all this, one informing all our talk of "meanness" and "niceness," one that has ruined the whole discussion.

That motive is this: we don't like rules. We don't like people telling us what to do. We like to follow our own inclinations and shape everything based on those inclinations. That is the real problem with anyone who wants to "follow Jesus" but not join a church. Outside a church, Jesus is in the void, becoming a mere word empty of meaning until we fill it as we please with a patchwork of biblical proof-texts, progressivist slogans, and humanist ideals. He becomes our own private "jesus," a ventriloquist dummy we hewed ourselves, and we can make it talk while we drink hipster beer.

I know, bunky.
Inside a church, however, Jesus is not in a void. He is set in a context, a context that we did not create, a context set down and enforced by authorities who are not us (i.e., pastors and elders), who in turn are meant to be under authorities that are also not us (God and His word and Spirit). There Jesus is not whatever we want Him to be. He becomes a solid, separate object, one that you have to deal with on its own terms, a stone that you break against and are crushed (Luke 20:18). He is codified and outlined by a myriad of creeds and confessions and doctrines, by orthodoxy and orthopraxy, by the witness and testimony of those who have gone before, and outside of those lines He is ultimately unknowable. Thus, you must submit yourself to those lines, to that context and its authorities. For my generation, such a submission is anathema.

Behold the straw-man.
Of course, things don't always work out that way. The pastors and elders can all be legalists and hypocrites, poisoning the well with their arrogance and corruptions, and there have been some really nasty people named and things done in the "name of Christ." Those are undeniable facts, but there are two other facts that are also undeniable. First, the majority of Christian churches are not like that. (You don't hear about them because they don't make the news.) And second, abusus non tollit usum: abuse does not negate use. Nasty people and things do not suddenly negate the function of a church as a light of the world, and it is a light in a very specific way: by being a pillar and buttress of the truth (I Tim. 3:14-15), by holding fast and forth the mystery of godliness (I Tim. 3:16), by preserving and proclaiming the gospel handed down once-for-all from Jesus to his disciples and throughout all the churches (John 15:16; Galatians 1:1; Jude 3). If you join yourself to a local church, you are binding yourself to that same task, viz., to preserve, proclaim, and practice a truth from outside you, a gospel you did not make, a Jesus you cannot control.

"There is no life in the void...."
I think that last one is the real issue: we want to control Jesus. We want Him on-board our bandwagon, and we want His gospel to be whatever the party line is. We can do that by just "following Jesus," a jesus-in-the-void, a jesus unbound and unbeholden to any congregation or creed or council stemming from Him and instead bound and beholden to our own preferences and whims as we skip along from church to church (both high and low, conservative and liberal, Protestant and Catholic and Orthodox), enjoying our "freedom in Christ," a christ made after our own image. You can do that if you "follow Jesus" on your own, but you cannot do that inside a church. Not really. Not if you're doing it right. Not if the church is doing it right. There you are placed in a matrix of hard things, and it is hard to kick against them.

It is easy to follow the "jesus" of your own making. It is easy to follow your own preferences, your own wants and opinions. It is easy to follow your heart as it tosses you and your "jesus" about with every wind and wave of doctrine and fashion. It is easy to be homeless. It is easy to be a vagrant. It is hard to come home and stay home. It is hard to belong to things that you did not shape and have no say over. It is hard to love and then obey someone and thing over you that you had no say in. It is hard to be humble, to be a servant of the living Truth. It is easy to be king of your own "truth" in your own universe where your own "jesus" spews your own gospel that shores up your own self, and it is our self that is the problem. To follow Jesus is glorious; to "follow" him outside a church is narcissistic. A church is about others---other people and authorities---and there is no greater hatred of others than love of the self.

The "christ-follower" sings the song of his people.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2013

Monday, November 18, 2013

Sex and the Trinity (an exercise in practical theology)

"Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.... So God created man in His own image. In His image He created him; male and female He created them." Gen. 1:26-27

Q: How did God create man?
A: God created man male and female, after His own image, in knowledge, righteousness, and holiness, with dominion over the creatures.

There is consistency and diversity in God, and humanity bears the same double-stamp. We are one creature, a human being made in God's image. Yet we are also two separate creatures, male and female, both in God's image. When we read this in Genesis, it is so quickly stated and then left behind that it feels like an absent-minded contradiction: "In His image He created him; male and female He created them." The switch from "him" to "them" is instantaneous, almost nonchalant, as if it should be obvious that what God makes as singular cannot help but also be plural. And why not? When the Holy "Us" makes after His own image, should we expect less rather than more?

We should not glaze over how nitty-gritty the trinitarian implications of our creation are. The basic idea of the Trinity (as if this will explain it) is that God as a Being is a diversity that is so absolutely harmonious in their unity that "they" are "He". The "three" are "One". Even that shallow sketch seems to skirt heresy, but here's one ting that doesn't: the "image of God" is the image of the Trinity, and it is in that likeness we are made. Thus, we are "him" and "them," one and two, two becoming one when they "cleave" to each other and become "one flesh" (Gen. 2:24). This is a great mystery, one easily misunderstood. The point for now is that the Trinity, far from being a theological abstraction, is in fact a divine reality whose image is revealed in us, even (and especially) in our moments of the most intimate physical contact.

Again, why not? Only love creates real unity, and the name of the Trinity is "love" (I John 4:7-8). Thus, the love between friends and "like minds," the love between a man and a woman, the love of Christ for His Church---all these things are reflections and refractions of the One Great Love, the Trinitarian Dance. The Trinity is the higher reality infusing all of existence. It is the watermark of creation, the touchstone of all that is, and therefore it is practical theology, for without it we cannot even begin to understand God, or the world, or ourselves.

All other ground is sinking sand.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2013

Saturday, November 16, 2013

The Word is Alive (and Non-Negotiable)

"To the law and to the testimony. If they speak not according to this word, then it is because they have no light in them." Is. 8:20

Q: What rule has God given to direct us [on] how we may glorify and enjoy Him?
A: The word of God, which is contained in the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, is the only rule to direct us [on] how we may glorify and enjoy Him.

For the Christian, the Bible is more than just "relevant"; not less than, but certainly more. It is "alive" (Heb. 4:12), i.e., "God-breathed" (II Tim. 3:16) and thus presenced by the Spirit of God, the same Spirit who leads to the truth (John 14:26; 15:26; 16:13) and searches and reveals the "deep things" of God (I Cor. 2:10). Divine origin is nothing new: many religions claim to have received truth from God (or the gods, or the divine essence). But divine inspiration---in that the word is alive with God's Spirit, who still speaks through it to us and thus securing its authority for all time---that is a unique invention in the history of religion. It could have only been introduced (or discovered) by a religion with incarnation at its center. The Word was made text as well as flesh (Heb. 1:1-2). This is why the Confession says the Bible trumps or supersedes all other authorities: its divine origin and inspiration.
I can see my house from up here.
It trumps and supersedes all the traditions of men, even the most wise or most holy. This does not mean that the whole body of human writing is of no use to us. On the contrary, all things are ours for the taking (Phil. 4:8), and many things can be beneficial, but nothing carries the weight of authority like the Bible. The buck stops with it. It is the rubric by which all other wisdom rises or falls. Thus, wisdom and traditions of the world, from Plato and Aristotle to Descartes and Schopenhauer to even Nietzsche and Foucault, are all ours for the taking and leaving. They own nothing in us (I Cor. 6:12). Likewise, the wisdom and traditions of the Church, from Augustin and Anselm and Aquinas to Pascal and Edwards and Spurgeon to Lewis and Schaeffer, are also ours for the taking or leaving. Let them all come, but let them all rise or fall on this one foundation: the living truth of God.

I think I need some pants.
This living truth also trumps and supersedes human reason. Again, this does not mean that reason is useless or invalid, only that it does not have the final say. It can never have the final say anyway. As finite creatures, living in our unique yet limited capacity as subjective beings on one small speck in the universe, our understanding is necessarily limited, which takes true humility to see, for we all from time to time slip into the notion that we have it all figured out. "We know in part," says Paul (I Cor. 13:9), a profound statement for two reasons: (1) it asserts that we can "know," that we can have true knowledge, that understanding is not futile nor epistemology an empty exercise; (2) it asserts that our knowledge has limits, limits that only God can and will fill (I Cor. 13:10, 12). In one simple statement, we find rebuke to both the skeptic and the egoist. We find reason defended and put in its place, viz., beneath the authority of God's revelation.

Lastly, the living word and revelation of God trumps and supersedes what was once called "the light within," a Quaker term that meant the self-guidance of the "divine spark" within us, guidance without reference to any outside authority. This idea is still very attractive. You often hear the call to "follow your heart" or "listen to your guts" or some such thing. It is not all wrong. Like human reason, instinct and common sense have a place; but also like reason, that place is limited. Even more so, for our "heart" is deceptive (Jer. 17:9; Matt. 15:18-20) and deceived (II Cor. 4:3-4). To trust our hearts with reference to nothing else is to court disaster, for it is inadequate to know the truth, including the truths that only God can reveal (I Cor. 2:9-10).

Hey! Don't you tell me what to do!
"Follow your heart" has its religious versions as well, mainly in charismatic circles and in more liberal versions of Christianity, both of which refer to it as "a movement of the Holy Spirit." Liberal Christian- ity is especially egregious in this error, wielding the "Holy Spirit" like a bludgeon against even the Bible itself. Charismatic movements may use the "Holy Spirit" to justify absurd prophecies or raucous church meetings, but liberal Christian types (e.g., Rob Bell) use it to justify the complete eradication of doctrinal clarity and (by extension) the complete reversal of certain biblical positions. All this stems from ripping "the Spirit" away from any authoritative mooring other than your own whims, which is what "follow your heart" is really all about. It is an ennobling of our own self-centeredness, another means to justify our own ends.

This is what makes the Bible so offensive to many today: it is an authoritative mooring set outside and even against our own whims. It does offer wondrous possibilities, but it also demands compliance on every level. What it has revealed is the touchstone for any and every thing else, including itself. We can distinguish between "the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error" by what has been written by the prophets and apostles (I John 4:5-6). We can know who and what has or has not "light" because of the "law and the testimony" already delivered (Is. 8:20). It is a fixed point, as fixed as God Himself, for it is His word, presenced with His immutable presence and filled to bursting with His everlasting truth.
Just follow your heaAAAAAAAAAaaaaaa...!!!
-Jon Vowell (c) 2013