Happy Thanksgiving: Exploring Phillipians and Art of Gratitude

Philippians 4:4-7
4 Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! 5 Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. 6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

In Scott McKnight’s transformative book on Paul’s letter to the Romans (Reading Romans Backwards) he makes the case that misreadings of the text flow from misunderstanding the context and that the best way to locate the context is to read I backwards. It’s a fascinating practice that really does reformulate the letters concern as it allows us to gain a better perspective on who Paul is speaking ro and why.

In his new commentary on Philippians he applies the same approach, beginning with chapter 4 before moving forward through chapters 1-3. One of the most oft cited passages in the letter comes from chapter 4 and relates to thanksgiving, or more importantly having a posture of thankfulness.

Right before this passage we find an important section of 2 (or 3) verses that often get bypassed on our way to recontextualixing this passage as a word for us today.

2 I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. 3 Yes, and I ask you, my true companion, help these women since they have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life.

Here we find the context for the letters emphasis on unity in Christ. Two women leaders (don’t let this fact run by top quickly either) are at odds and Paul is making a plea to this community. “Therefore, my brothers and sisters, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, dear friends!” (Vs 1) Why? So that they might “help these women”. Doesn’t get more particular, personal and pointed then this.

This frames the ensuing words then regarding thanksgiving not as an inward looking sentiment but rather outwards as a witness which holds the power to heal the divisions in our midst. How easy it is to read this letter as one from Paul to me. How much more power do these words hold when seen as a letter calling a community to live for the sake of another. Thanksgiving is not merely gratitude I express regarding what Christ has done for me but the very real and transformative work of the spirit healing the impossible divides that emerge from our attempts to make sense of this life together with all it messiness and uncertainty. And if Philippians has its way with this ancient community it would find them seeking this first and foremost at the table where Christ’s own witness works to heal the divide in the whole of creation

Happy Thanksgiving. May we find a peace that transcends all understanding in this simple and necessary truth.

Jesus and Ceasar: What Does It Mean To Say Jesus is Lord

“In the ancient world, to say Jesus is Lord is to say that Ceasar is not… make no mistake, this was a revolution. Exchanging the love of power for the power of Christ’s love,”

  • N.T. Wright

Wright supplemts this with an additional question: who or what is Caesar.
In one sense Caesar is the idea of the Powers of Sin and Death, something the ancients saw to represent a very real agency of Evil that exists and rules in this world.

In another sense Caesar is the idea of Empire, giving the language of Evil a real historical presence in the oppression of others.

In another sense still Caesar is the system. These systems actualize the oppressive nature of Evil and Empire in our world as enslavement to these systemic realities.

In another sense yet Caesar is all of us. It is in this sense that the love of Christ then judges both the oppressed and the oppressor alike. It judges the oppressor, making the claim that we are either participating in the reality of Empire and demonstrating a love of power, or we are participating in the new reality of Christ’s reign by demonstrating Christ’s love. And it judges the oppressed, making the claim that the hope of Christ is the faithfulness of Christ to Gods promise to make what is wrong in this world right and, extending this with the call to free participation in the Kingdom of God’s love for the sick, the lowly, the marginalized, the widow, the orphan, and the sinner.

In both cases what binds us to Empire is the systems which enslave us to one reality or another. If the Gospel is simply this- christ has defeated the Powers that hold creation enslaved, ascended to the throne, and established His rule of love in the whole of creation thus making all things new- then what we have is the two sided nature of this judgment followed by the call to participate in the new reality Christ has brought about in and for the world. To hear this from the perspective of the oppressed is to hear that the Powers which oppress have been defeated. Thus to participate in the old reality is to store up the wrath poured out on Evil for ourselves. To hear this as the oppressed is to hear that the Powers which oppress have been defeated and we are free to participate in the new, liberated reality. Thus to participate in the new reality Christ’s work has established in and for the world is to experience the hope that Christ has in fact done what He said He did in and for the world.

But here is the kicker. If Ceasar is indeed all of us then what this means is that the truth of the Gospel always leads us to the call to participation. To be liberated (the Exodus) brings us to Sinai. Christ has liberated the whole of creation and brings us all to Golgotha. Thus the power of Christ’s love becomes our judgment. To be liberated from the Powers, from Empire, means to be freed to be a people in and for the world. To be image bearers of the true revealed name of God in Christ. In this way Christ’s message intersects with the totality of our lives as we see these two realities existing side by side, one that has been and is being defeated and one that has been and is being made new.

It is for this reason that the connecting point between us and the Empire in this multifaceted use of Caesar is in fact the systems themselves. The lie of the Powers at the top of this list rests in the claim that we are all Evil. From this flows every justification for the oppression of the other, as the only way to not be Evil is to hold power over the other and make them the enemy of our righteous status. The truth of Christ is that we are made in God’s image. The Kingdom of Christ flips the love of Power on its head by reversing the trajectory- we are all made in the image of God, therefore the enemy is Power itself. The beauty of the great reversal is that God’s new creation project begins with the call to free participation in building a Kingdom of love. But here is the thing- it is Christ’s work that has freed us to do so by defeating the Powers that hold this creation enslaved. Thus the call to participate must attend to and do the work of dismantling the systems that proclaim the lie rather than the truth. To say Jesus is Lord is to say Caesar is not, and this claim bears the statement that we are in fact image bearers called to image the love of Christ in and for the world.

Inequality, Prosperity and the Christian: The Problem and Solution of Diversity

I just finished reading this book (The Journey of Humanity: The Origins of Wealth and Inequality by Oded Galor). Lots of interesting ideas in it to ponder.

One interesting idea that it raises has to do with the tendency to look at the journey of humanity as a progression from less prosperity to more prosperity. This is the modern myth, the modern creation story so to speak. And yet there are so many things that push back on such a reading of human history. In truth what we find is a history of cyclical formations that, while bringing with it things associated with greater prosperity (longer life spans for example, or technical advancement) speak to a pattern of continued polarities rather than a progressive evolution. These polarities are the competing realities of growth and inequality. The book suggests that there exists a narrow window of a confluence of factors that we can locate where examples of unencumbered prosperity genuinely exist, and it is these particular moments that can shed light on ways to perhaps tackle the cyclical problem that the journey of humanity represents.

Paired with this is the idea noted by the author that, while we might be tempted to think that global events/disasters play the greatest factor in human prosperity and development, this isn’t actually the case. Diversity plays the biggest role. But here in lies the perpetual problem for the modern myth. Too much diversity or too little diversity inhibits true prosperity (which the author takes the time to define as uninhibited progress that happens without detriment to people). Here in lies a dilemma- both colonialism and globalism reflect the same problem from different sides of the scale.

The book doesn’t spend much time on this, but if I would press this idea further I would narrow in on the relationship between religous expression and diversity. When we speak of diversity what we are generally speaking of is religious expression. This is the singular driving force of cultural expression. The problem? The modern myth depends on both upholding this reality (celebrating religious diversity) while subduing it (making it subservient to a secularity that runs contrary to religious expression). This is why wealth and inequality remains far more the rule than the anomaly. Hitting that perfect window of diversity means pushing to one side or the other, which ironically means that the most important factor (religious diversity) is the very thing that progress is desperate to oppose.

A couple observations on that front:

  1. Secularity, or the modern myth, can never be truly diverse because it must resist the primary means of diversity- religion. This is what we find in globalism
  2. At the same time certain religious expressions fight against diversity and can never truly speak to prosperity (in its truest sense). An example of this would be colonialism attaching itself to christianity.
  3. This is where I find something like Tolkiens notion of the true myth enticing and compelling. True prosperity does demand a value system, meaning a sense of Truth that is able to bind diversity together. For me this is Christ, not as a figure or system opposed to religious diversity but as one that gives us a means of making sense of it. True prosperity also demands that we recognize that this Truth expresses itself through different forms and languages. Thus Christ can play through and in different religious systems and Tradtions by way of a diversity of language

Of course these two ideas express a nice thought but are difficult to uphold. But here is the thing- secularity can’t uphold it because the modern myth believes it can foster diversity by doing away with its primary source. For me this means that God remains the most compelling answer to the possibility of prosperity and diversity. But God must have a true expression at the same time, even as this gets expressed within the language of diversity. That is the point where I would appeal to christ as a potential unifying point within the God-Human-Creation story

Thinking Well in an Ideological Age

An artiicle on the dangers of ideology and learning to think well.

“We live in an age of ideology. The world is complex and hard to understand, so we look for a theory that can help make sense of things. This is understandable. Throughout history, people made sense of the world through cultural and religious traditions. But as the world has become simultaneously more connected and more secular, as our awareness of complexity has increased while religious and cultural traditions have weakened, people now exist with a heightened sense of uncertainty. Many of us are unmoored, finding it harder to make sense of the world—and making it more attractive to latch on to simple explanations. This need, along with several other influences, has created the conditions for increased ideological thinking and an inability to consider different perspectives…

What is ideology and what are its sources? Ideology is not merely a set of ideas or principles that one believes in. We all have that to some extent, and it is essential to live one’s life. By ideology I mean a theory that purports to explain reality. One way to understand it is: Ideology is the opposite of philosophy… Human beings don’t like complexity, and ideology provides the comfort of a sure answer.

Philosophy—philo-sophos—is the love of wisdom and the pursuit of truth.

Here I am addressing Christianity, though I think it applies equally to Judaism, religion does not claim to explain everything. God creates and calls us to participate in, and complete creation. We have to figure things out on our own. We have to use our intellects to engage in philosophical and scientific discovery. There is no full solution to the problem of life… properly understood and practiced, religion is not ideology, because by its very nature it is open to revelation. Religion is a simple response to reality. It may not be correct, but like philosophy, religion is a response to something outside itself, whereas ideology is a closed system.”

Remembering Frederick Buechner

On our very first phone call Jen and I bonded over Philipp Yanceys “What’s So Amazing About Grace”. When she asked me who else I liked to read I mentioned this book that I was currently devouring. She went and bought a copy so that we could read it together and so that she could get to know me better.

I still deeply appreciate that moment. I hope that it shed light on my appreciation for this spiritual giant and his writings.

Rest well good and faithful servant
“At its heart most theology, like most fiction, is essentially autobiographical.”

“Religion as a word points to that area of human experience where in one way or another man comes upon mystery as a summons to pilgrimage: where he senses meanings no less overwhelming because they can be only hinted at in myth and ritual, where he glimpses a destination that he can never know fully until he reaches it.”

“The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the worlds deep hunger meet.”

The Power of Narrative Theology

I’ve been asked a few times in groups I’m a part of and in person and elsewhere what my theological association/disposition is. My answer is often a mesh of Traditions. However, one leading answer I often give is that I adhere to a form of covenant theology. Just not the sort of covenant theology you find in “lordship” or calvinst versions.

I worship in a denomination called the Evangelical Covenant Church, and it is a good example of a Tradition that fits within the Protestant/Reformed umbrella but with a need and a desire to be constantly reforming. To be on the look out for the dangerous and corruptible parts within the larger umbrella and address it within the denomination. They did this initially by splitting off from Lutheranism in favor of reclaiming a more robust theology of the spirit, and also by stripping much of the doctrine and replacing it with central “affirmations” that leave plenty of room for diversity, disagreement and discussion within the congregations. It is a pretty wonderful thing from my experience.

However, what I really wanted to say was that when I say covenant theology I mean something more like narrative theology in this article here. The theologian cited (Emil Brunner) is another good example of someone who falls under the Reformed umbrella while also being willing to hold it to the fire of ongoing reform.

“Doctrines are secondary to the story; they cannot replace it. They are judged by their adequacy to the story—their ability to draw out and express faithfully the character of God as revealed by the story. But the story is primary; the doctrines are secondary and that means always revisable in light of a new and better understanding of the import of the story.”

“The only way to interpret “God is love” is to look at the biblical story that reveals God’s character through his actions.”

“Narrative theology has no need of “biblical inerrancy;” perfection with respect to purpose is sufficient to express biblical accuracy and authority. It is in and through the story that we meet God, especially in Jesus Christ. The Bible is the medium, the instrument, the indispensable witness to Jesus Christ. It is our life-changing meeting with him through the Bible’s Christ-centered story that elevates the Bible over other books. We do not believe in and trust Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior because of our belief in the Bible; we believe in the Bible because it is the unique instrument and witness of our meeting with him.”

The Law as Love and the Law as Rule: Making Sense of the Particular Through the Universal

I always love the Office of Rabbi Sacks, but every once in a while an episode hits extra hard. This is one case.

The episode (which is also available in text form in the link) is talking about the Law within Judaism, and more specifically this verse:
Be very vigilant to keep the commandments of the Lord your God, and the testimonies and decrees with which He has charged you. Do what is right and what is good in the Lord’s eyes, so that it may go well with you, and you may go in and take possession of the good land that the Lord swore to your ancestors to give you.
– Deut. 6:17-18

He starts by focusing on Rashi’s analysis, saying,

“The difficulty is obvious. The preceding verse makes reference to commandments, testimonies, and decrees. This, on the face of it, is the whole of Judaism as far as conduct is concerned. What then is meant by the phrase “the right and the good” that is not already included within the previous verse?

Rashi says it refers to “compromise (that is, not strictly insisting on your rights) and action within or beyond the letter of the law (lifnim mi-shurat ha-din).” The law, as it were, lays down a minimum threshold: this we must do. But the moral life aspires to more than simply doing what we must.[1] The people who most impress us with their goodness and rightness are not merely people who keep the law. The saints and heroes of the moral life go beyond. They do more than they are commanded. They go the extra mile. That, according to Rashi, is what the Torah means by “the right and the good.”

He then contrasts this with another point of perspective (Ramban) writing that,
“the right and the good refer to a higher standard than the law strictly requires. It seems as if Ramban is telling us that there are aspects of the moral life that are not caught by the concept of law at all. That is what he means by saying “It is impossible to mention in the Torah all aspects of man’s conduct with his neighbours and friends.”

Law is about universals, principles that apply in all places and times: Do not murder. Do not rob. Do not steal. Do not lie. Yet there are important features of the moral life that are not universal at all. They have to do with specific circumstances and the way we respond to them.”

Here is the point that stuck out for me. The “Law”, in the Jewish sense, is about universals. But “Morality is about persons, and no two persons are alike…morality is not just a set of rules, even a code as elaborate as the 613 commands and their rabbinic extensions. It is also about the way we respond to people as individuals.”

He goes on to say this:
“This too is the difference between the God of Aristotle and the God of Abraham. Aristotle thought that God knew only universals not particulars. This is the God of science, of the Enlightenment, of Spinoza. The God of Abraham is the God who relates to us in our singularity, in what makes us different from others as well as what makes us the same.

This ultimately is the difference between the two great principles of Judaic ethics: justice and love. Justice is universal. It treats all people alike, rich and poor, powerful and powerless, making no distinctions on the basis of colour or class. But love is particular… that is what the Torah means when it speaks of “the right and the good” over and above the commandments, statutes, and testimonies.”

The emphasis here is on the collision of universal truths and the lived in reality of the particulars of love. It is when Law is reformulated as dogma that love is lost and relegated to the periphery of human relationship and human expeience, especially when it comes to awareness of the oppressed-oppressor paradigm.

This is, at least in part, what was going on at the time of Christ. Law as a formative force in the life of Judaism, for close readers of the Jewish texts, sits in conversation with their ongoing relationship to the world around them. it is revealing the way of love and as such love necessarily challenges the Law to be conformed to human experience and human relationship. You see this expressing itself all over the biblical narrative.

Continually though they (Israel) faced the temptation to take love and turn it into dogma and have to be challenged, rebuked, reformed in the way they are called to be formed by the Law according to the particularities of love. When we get to second temple Judaism in the time of Jesus, what we find is a faithful people who have grown the universals of the Law into a grandiose set of dogma. Jesus doesn’t come to abolish the Law in this sense, but rather to conform it to the original guiding principle of love and its particulars. To strip away the penchant for dogma being used to exclude and to reawaken loves ability to form us to the universal principles of the revealed Law.

We face the same challenges and have the same need for this message today

Ceasing to Understand the World: Making Sense of the World as That Which is Defined By Potential

A few quotes snapshoted below from a book I just finished called When We Cease to Understand the World by Benjamin Labatut

I thought it offered some compelling thoughts regarding the sort of dualism that crept into the scientific revolution, the tension that exists in keeping the material and the immaterial together as we observe the realities of this world, and further thoughts about how reality always exists within relationship to that which can observe it.

There are implications here for how we think about faith. Think about the phrase there is no reality, only potential. In some sense this becomes a guiding principle in observing the world in tangible and concrete ways. In other ways it exposes the challenges of observing such potential apart from given truths about reality. In truth science as a function can operate without the sort of meta narratives that allow us to make sense of its meaning, but meaning making processes are bound to narratives that then give the function a purpose. Caught in between of course is the question of whether this meaning is created or revealed. Further, if we are to speak of morals or objectives the nature of observation as potentials rather than realities becomes positioned within a different kind of question altogether.

Futher yet, in making sense of a world defined by potentials there is a danger in wanting to divide it into material and immaterial forms of observable sciences. To some degree this allows one to move fluidly between asking questions of function and questions of meaning without abandoning the field of science itself. But as these quotes suggest, this does create certain tensions that challenge how it is then that we percieve reality in an operative fashion where meaning can inform matter and vice versa. Any dualism inevitably sets things opposed, and in terms of God/spirit leaves us thinking of God apart from the material world rather than within it. There is a real sense that the more we undertand the function of reality the more it should awaken us to a God who functions equally in the details.

Rethinking Salvation With Matthew Bates

Rethinking salvation with Matthew Bates. A couple quotes I thought were worthwhile:

“The movement from outward to inward rapidly accelerated with Saint Augustine (354–430).

Augustine’s infinitely influential views on faith informed the medieval Catholic synthesis, as well as the Protestant Reformers. Faith became more introspective, psychological, emotive, and passive (or receptive) than is encouraged by the biblical witness. Faith came to be less about external allegiance to Jesus the king and more about what God does in us to cause intellectual belief in correct doctrine as shaped by love (medieval Catholicism) or cause inward trust in his promises (Protestantism). In the sixteenth century, Martin Luther’s most extensive definition of faith describes it as God’s gift, as belief in the correct body of doctrine, and as invariably resulting in good works. Since it involves seizing upon God’s certain promises it does face outward, in part. Yet Luther stresses that it is characterized by personal confidence or certitude and specific internal emotions:

Luther’s treatment, akin to Augustine’s, primarily divides faith into doctrine to be believed and internal feelings of trusting confidence. Like Luther, John Calvin grounds faith in God’s external promises but also treats it as if it is primarily an inward conviction (passively received) rather than actively embodied in outward-facing relationships:

For Calvin, faith is “not content with a doubtful and changeable opinion,” but “requires full and fixed certainty”—even though fear, temptation, and doubts will assail. For faith to be genuine, God’s promises of mercy must not remain “outside ourselves” but must be “inwardly embraced” with confident assurance.22 Calvin finds scholastic distinctions worthless between implicit faith (faith without knowledge, e.g., allegedly by infants at baptism), unformed faith (faith as mere intellectual assent), and formed faith (intellectual assent shaped by hope and love). This is primarily because the first two are not regarded as biblical faith at all, and the third compromises faith’s uniqueness. Saving faith involves true albeit imperfect knowledge in response to God’s proclaimed word, but always goes beyond intellectual assent. The assent portion of faith is “more of the heart than of the brain, and more of the disposition than the understanding,” so that true faith can never be separated from a “devout disposition.” Calvin thinks this is what Paul is trying to convey by the phrase “the obedience of faith” in Romans 1:5. Calvin correctly notes that in the Bible pistis has many definitions. But for him saving faith, as the Spirit permits, is primarily an internal conviction that God’s promise of mercy in the atonement through Jesus’s priestly mediation is indeed trustworthy.23

The flight of faith toward inward subjective feelings of trusting confidence would only accelerate thereafter.”
– Gospel Allegiance: What Faith in Christ Misses for Salvation in Christ

“The flight of faith from the outward to the inward was helped along by related ideas. Faith, as it moved from outward to inward, became something that happens in your mind or will or spirit, rather than in your body. Yet this is not how faith was generally understood in the New Testament world. Faith was embodied.

When flesh and spirit are regarded as differing substances in the Bible, the intention is not to contrast the physical with the nonphysical. Like his contemporaries the Stoics, Paul probably believed spirit/Spirit to be an invisible diffuse material substance of heavenly origin, and so it had a physicality just as flesh does. For Paul, the distinction is that the Spirit above all characterizes God’s realm and the new age of the Messiah that God is unveiling, but the flesh characterizes the mundane old order. This is why Paul thinks that those who live according to the flesh will die, but those who live according to the Spirit will find eternal life:

The contrast is not between physical and nonphysical. Rather it is between the old order and the new. The flesh and its sinful appetites are associated with death and the old order, the Spirit with life and the new order…

It may be popular today to think that the Bible envisions a nonmaterial spirit world that is in contrast with the physical, bodily world. But this is a simplistic reading of the Bible. And it has direct bearing on the faith-works question. For we cannot argue that faith is a spiritual or mental thing separate from bodily doing. Faith is embodied and enacted from start to finish.

Faith is embodied because our bodies are open to the environment and can be colonized… This is why Paul speaks of sin as a personified, colonizing agent. Salvation involves a recolonization through union with the Messiah.

In the Spirit we are no longer being jerked around by the hostile power of Sin that colonized the flesh under the old order. The Spirit uses its new-creation power to recolonize the human flesh thoroughly, delivering it from its previous enslavement to sin, the law, malevolent spiritual powers, and the fundamental structures of the old order. In the Messiah via the Spirit the entire allegiant community has been colonized, each self, all the way down to each person’s living-by-pistis flesh.”
– Gospel Allegiance: What Faith in Christ Misses for Salvation in Christ

In the Mouth of Madness and V.A. Schwabs Gallant: A Conversation

Wrote a piece for the Fear of discussing afterthoughts from an episode on In the Mouth of Madness in conversation with V.E. Schwab’s book Gallant. Written piece is available here

“Some people are repelled by darkness. Others are drawn to it, to the static crackle of power in a place. To the hum of magic, or the presence of the dead. They can see these forces staining the world like ink in water.”
– Matthew (Gallant by V.E. Schwab)

“Everything casts a shadow,” he begins. “Even the world we live in. And as with every shadow, there is a place where it must touch. A seam, where the shadow meets its source.”
– Matthew (Gallant by V. E. Schwab)