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Archive for February, 2010

Gen. 2:7 reads, “then the LORD God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living soul.” Most people, I think, read these words the way I once did, as a kind of mathematical formula: man = body + soul. The problem, though, is that Gen. 2:7 does no such thing.  The formula here is not man = body + soul but soul = dust + breath. God didn’t make a body and then put a soul into it, as one writer put it “like a letter into an envelope” (W. Berry, Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community, 106). He made dust. Then, breathing his spirit/breath into it, he made the dust live. The dust, formed into a human being, didn’t embody a soul; it became soul. Put differently, “soul,” in Gen. 2:7, isn’t merely the immaterial part of man: it is man, the living dust that is now man. The whole, embodied creature is wholly soul, not two parts temporarily glued together to make a whole.

Keeping an eye to Genesis, this means, among other things, that man has an intimate relationship to the rest of creation. As living dust, it means we also need not be surprised, and certainly not intimidated, when the scientist points out the fact of that relationship. If we were made of dust of the earth, then like earthy dust we will appear under the microscope. But not only are we biologically connected to creation, we are dependent on it. Eating its produce, drinking its water, we live only in relation to it. And this relationship becomes, predictably and in turn, a dominant sphere for ethics in the Bible: we use or abuse, accept or reject, appreciate or ignore to our bliss or shame. And what holds true generally for our relationship to the rest of material creation holds true especially for our relationship to creation’s crown: other human beings.

The importance of living in light of this dynamic has come to mind a lot in the last several months. I’ve recently completed a long series of tests with an allergist only to discover I may be better off if I live the rest of my days as the next bubble boy. Exploring each of these allergens, and my unspectacular yet debilitating connection to them, has been a frustrating process. But it has also been instructive. The physician first explored the whole picture and then walked me through my many weaknesses and vulnerabilities. That part was painful, involving just shy of fifty injections when all was said and done. But then the solution became clear: weekly visits to his office for injections will strengthen me in those areas of weakness and vulnerability, and attentiveness to lifestyle habits in light of those same vulnerabilities will need to become my ordinary mode of life from this day forward. I happen to agree with those who think there is something to the idea that the modern explosion of allergy troubles are due, in least in part, to the lifestyle, and especially dietary, habits of our parents, grandparents, and all the other generous donors of our genetic makeup. We are, it could be argued, reaping what others once sowed starting about a century ago. And yet, while family history and behavioral similarities can help us see and understand what our problems are, it still comes down to personal responsibility in light of that reality, making the choices and attending to the vulnerabilities and living knowledgeably.

So, to review: my relationship to the present earth is compromised, dangerous, complicated. The solution is not bubble-boy isolationism from the world in which I live. Neither is it blaming everything on my ancestors, as much as I may learn about myself by learning about them. Instead the solutions are these: attentiveness to the things that will trouble me (and my similarly affected family members) most, acting prudently in view of them, ordering my life in a way that reflects knowledge of those things, and weekly meetings with my physician. From him I’ll receive what I need to be fortified against the dangers of my material world and become generally more healthy. Sound familiar?

As I try to read the particular features of my own life in light of the Gospel (Phil. 1:12) I am more grateful than ever for my great Physician who exposes my sins and frailties, painful though that process is; who invites me to himself weekly to receive grace to help in time of need; and who strengthens me against the exploitation of my weaknesses in a dangerous, complicated world.

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Who is Your Mother?

“But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother.” Paul the Apostle, in Galatians 4:26.

“Thus too the Church bathed in the light of the Lord projects its rays over the whole world, yet there is one light which is diffused everywhere, and the unity of the body is not separated. She extends her branches over the whole earth in fruitful abundance; she extends her richly flowing streams far and wide; yet her head is one, and her source is one, and she is the one mother copious in the results of her fruitfulness. By her womb we are born; by her milk we are nourished; by her spirit we are animated… He can no longer have God for his Father, who has not the Church for his mother. If any one could escape who was outside the ark of Noah, then he also may escape who shall be outside of the Church.” Cyprian, On the Unity of the Catholic Church, chapters 5, 6.

“When the loving an benevolent Father had rained down the Word, that Word then became the spiritual nourishment of those who had good sense. [42, 1] O mystic wonder! The Father of all is indeed one and the same everywhere; and one only is the Virgin Mother. I love to call her the Church. This Mother alone was without milk, because she alone did not become a wife. She is at once both Virgin and Mother: as a Virgin, undefiled; as a Mother, full of love. Calling her children about her, she nourishes them with holy milk, that is with the Infant Word. . . . The Word is everything to a child: both Father and Mother, both Instructor and Nurse. “Eat My Flesh,” He says, “and drink My Blood .” The Lord supplies us with these intimate nutriments. He delivers over His Flesh, and pours out His Blood; and nothing is lacking for growth of His children. O incredible mystery!” Clement of Alexandria, The Instructor of Children, 1, 6.41, 3.

“But since the word Ecclesia is applied to different things (as also it is written of the multitude in the theatre of the Ephesians, And when he had thus spoken, he dismissed the Assembly ), and since one might properly and truly say that there is a Church of evil doers, I mean the meetings of the heretics, the Marcionists and Manichees, and the rest, for this cause the Faith has securely delivered to thee now the Article, “And in one Holy Catholic Church;” that thou mayest avoid their wretched meetings, and ever abide with the Holy Church Catholic in which thou wast regenerated. And if ever thou art sojourning in cities, inquire not simply where the Lord’s House is (for the other sects of the profane also attempt to call their own dens houses of the Lord), nor merely where the Church is, but where is the Catholic Church. For this is the peculiar name of this Holy Church, the mother of us all, which is the spouse of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Only-begotten Son of God (for it is written, As Christ also loved the Church and gave Himself for it , and all the rest,) and is a figure and copy of Jerusalem which is above, which is free, and the mother of us all ; which before was barren, but now has many children.” Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures XVIII, 26.

“Unflaggingly, let us love the Lord our God and let us love his Church. Let us love Him as the Lord and the Church as his handmaid. No one can offend the one and still be pleasing to the other. What does it avail you if you do not directly offend the Father but do offend the mother?” Augustine, Commentary on Psalm 88, sect. 14.

“I shall start, then, with the church, into whose bosom God is pleased to gather his sons, not only that they may be nourished by her help and ministry as long as they are infants and children, but also that they may be guided by her motherly care until they mature and at last reach the goal of faith. ‘For what God has joined together, it is not lawful to put asunder’, so that, for those to whom he is Father the church may also be Mother… But because it is now our intention to discuss the visible church, let us learn even from the simple title ‘mother’ how useful, indeed how necessary, it is that we should know her. For there is no other way to enter into life unless this mother conceive us in her womb, give us birth, nourish us at her breast, and lastly, unless she keep us under her care and guidance until, putting off mortal flesh, we become like the angels. Our weakness does not allow us to be dismissed from her school until we have been pupils all our lives. Furthermore, away from her bosom one cannot hope for any forgiveness of sins or any salvation, as Isaiah and Joel testify. Ezekiel agrees with them when he declares that those whom God rejects from heavenly life will not be enrolled among God’s people. On the other hand, those who turn to the cultivation of true godliness are said to inscribe their names among the citizens of Jerusalem.” John Calvin, Institutes 4.1.1, 4.

“The church is at once the mother and the community of believers. It is something different and something more than a crowd coming together in one place on Sunday to hear the preaching; it is a community or communion which during the week also makes its influence felt both towards the inside and the outside.” Herman Bavinck, Our Reasonable Faith (Magnalia Dei), p. 539.

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That’s the title of DeYoung’s chapter on sloth in her book on the seven deadly sins. Perceptively, she notes that sloth is not mere laziness; in fact it may not appear very lazy at all, since it is often covered over with a veneer of great activity. Instead, sloth is opposed to the great Christian virtue of diligence. And what is diligence at its highest and best but an expression of love? In fact, truly to love – that is, to love as the Bible defines love rather than as the world and flesh define it – is work, hard work. Sloth, then, is a form of apathy, an indifference toward the lives and needs of others. No matter how busy it may appear, it is a refusal of the diligence or work that is involved in the great command to love one’s neighbor as oneself. One can see, then, how easy it is to confuse sloth with inactivity and yet how easily heavy activity may serve as a cloak for a slothful lack of working, thoughtful love. Speaking of the strengthening role of steady, devoted labor in a life of love, she concludes her discussion along these lines:

“Perhaps in our age we are more prone than ever to expect too much of love as a feeling, and too little of love as an ongoing choice and commitment. In our worship services and our marriages, we expect emotional highs that will carry us through life’s difficult times, when we would better expect engagement in daily disciplines to sustain us in our commitments. Acedia‘s [the early Christian term for sloth – MAG] greatest temptations are escapism and despair – when we don’t feel like being godly or loving anymore, to abandon ship and give up, to drift away inwardly or outwardly toward something more comfortable or immediately comforting. ‘A light breeze bends a feeble plant; a fantasy about a trip away drags off a person overcome with acedia,’ write the desert fathers. Thus, its greatest remedy is to resist the urge to get out or give up, and instead to stay the course, stick to one’s commitments, and persevere… Overcoming slothful tendencies requires us to face up to the sources of our own resistance to the demands of our relationship with God, rather than grasping at a way out or a ready diversion any time we start to feel stretched or uncomfortable or just plain sick and tired of it all. Love flourishes in a context of daily action and lasting commitment (spiritual stabilitas), and sloth flourishes in a context of conveniently easy escape. As one prayerful petitioner put it, ‘Forgive me for letting love die when it demands action in order to live.’ As the desert fathers knew, the remedy for sloth is staying the course, resisting the temptation to flee – in mind or in body. Likewise for any human friendship or relationship of love – there is a certain stability and endurance that sustains it, a commitment that comes with its demands on us. Sloth prefers the easy way out.”

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Fear and Love

Early on in her Glittering Vices: A New Look at the Seven Deadly Sins and Their Remedies, DeYoung looks to Moses as an example of how God’s power and grace can transform the most fearful of us. She footnotes a comment by N. T. Wright, who says the most common command God gives in the Bible is “do not be afraid.” That comment caught my eye because my next sermon in John will cover 14:27-31, a passage which includes the second of two instances in this chapter of the words “Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.” (v. 27; cf. v. 1). In both John’s Gospel and in 1 John, fear is explicitly excluded in books where love predominates. Why is that? First one needs to be clear about the difference between a right fear and a wrong fear. Leithart puts it well: “Fear moves us, and the difference between right and wrong fear is the direction it moves us. Adam feared God, and hid in the garden. Wrong fear drives us away from God’s presence. Right fear draws us closer, in awed fascination and quaking love toward the God who is a consuming fire.”

How, then, does perfect love cast out the wrong fear? Those are the words of 1 John 4:18. Painter points out that this is the only place in the Johannine Epistles where the noun and verb for “fear” are found. “Perfect love” is used only here in the Epistles. We can pick up the notion of fearful direction in this way: The love that casts out fear is the abiding love for God that walks in confidence before and toward him because of the propitious sacrifice of Christ (so, in context, 1 John 4:10). After all, fear has to do with punishment (v. 18). That same love, however, is also the abiding love for God that is expressed horizontally in a maturing love for one’s neighbor, especially the family of God, and which involves constant movement toward one another. This is nothing less than the faith-love covenantal dynamic of the Great Shema and Great Command of Deuteronomy. Fear moves us away from God and away from one another. But when fear threatens, true, maturing love moves us in the direction of God and one another – in other words, away from ourselves. No wonder that in the new covenant, true love is impressed with the shape of Christ himself.

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The problem of too much to read and too little time to read it – at least thoughtfully – is a classic blend of sweet and sour. It’s a real problem for those of us who think reading should be more like a running faucet than a spray bottle. Yet, let’s be honest, there are few pleasures in this life like a box of not-yet-cracked books waiting to be devoured for the first time. We know that less is more, especially for thoughtful reading, but we also know that the “less” is still quite a lot when it comes to books worth a careful read. We also know the problem of too many books for one lifetime is hardly new. “Information overload” didn’t begin with the Internet; it’s as old as the library and, in particular, as old as the widely-available printed book. How did people used to handle it? Not unlike us, they kept records. We highlight passages we like, jot notes in the margins, keep sticky notes in our favorite pages, and sometimes keep a notebook of whole passages that strike us with reflections on how and why they did strike us.

Our predecessors did the same without the technology of highlighter pens and sticky notes. They kept a reader’s journal, of sorts. As theologians poured over the great texts, they wrote in their own notebooks the lines and ideas that they regarded as particularly significant. While the older commonplace books sometimes amounted to scrap books of favorite recipes and such, the more enduring of the these reading notes or “common places” (loci communes) were the result of sustained, thoughtful interaction with great texts. It was, at heart, not just a way to compile and collect knowledge but a way of doing so communally. At least, that’s how it worked out: a reader of another’s book notes would benefit from the guidance those notes provided, and in turn others benefit too so that, in the end, many would be able to benefit from a text not all were able to read at all, or at least with the same care. In the medieval and some early modern universities, theology students were required not only to pour over the best of the commonplace books which compiled notes on the writings of the Fathers (Lombard’s Sentences were the most widely used and commented on); they often were required to create their own. At old Harvard,  too, students like Emerson and Thoreau were required to keep commonplace books. One seminary professor I had required his students to record and submit “digests” of their readings. I always thought that was a fabulous idea and have usually carried the practice into my own seminary classrooms, though sadly not always to the delight of a few students who have confused it with “busy” work.

In a First Things article recommended to me by a lifelong friend, Alan Jacobs describes the role of the commonplace book in the panic created by early modern information overload: “The commonplace book arose as a means of mastering or at least fighting off this ‘multitude of books.’ For much of the history of reading and writing, books have been rare and expensive things, enormously time-consuming to produce. Their owners therefore took good care of them, pored over them repeatedly until the words had been all but memorized, and passed them on to their children.” Jacobs goes on to raise the natural question of the relationship of the commonplace tradition to the phenomenon of the blog. It’s a great question, particularly since my meager hope for this blog is very much along such lines: as we read, we think, and as we think, we note, and as we note, we share so that the one who cannot read the book in our hands can still run away blissfully with the thought of it.

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In a brief comment on Jesus’s probation, Geerhardus Vos, the father of Reformed biblical theology, captures a dynamic of faith in the midst of suffering that is easily lost from view when the darkness of trouble is especially thick. For the moment at least, I’m less interested in the significance of this comment for the ongoing debate over the objective/subjective genitive, and whether or not Jesus can be said to have exercised faith, then I am in the invaluable personal and pastoral effect of securely grasping Vos’s insight here:

“The best comprehensive term available for the state of mind revealed by Jesus is the word ‘faith’. Only we should remember what this so richly endowed term involved of content on the present occasion. For Jesus here to exercise faith went much further than to practise the heroism of an endurance which will keep itself underneath the suffering… [I]n the experience of Jesus, as in common Christian experience, the thing needed above all is the inner spirit of submission to God. The question was not in the first place what He should bear, pathologically considered, but how He should bear it.” Biblical Theology, p. 337.

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The words of Gal. 5:13 rush us to the heart of the matter of opportunity: “you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.” Thinking biblically, opportunity is not only something to be perceived but something seized. Opportunity is an epiphanic, aha! moment with two sides, light (love) and dark (flesh), and Paul says to seize it. Acting on the ethic of love for neighbor, we learn, takes place in the context of seized opportunities. In addition, opportunities are to be taken in the context of the exercise of Christian liberty.

This role of liberty as the context for seized opportunities is easily overlooked. In the next chapter, Paul picks up the notion again: “So then, as we have opportunity (kairos), let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (6:10). We learn that the liberty of the new covenant is not to be confused with the absence of real obligation. And of course it could not be: this would empty our covenant relationship with God of an indispensable element, its bilateral quality.

Instead, the blessing of the Spirit of Christ, the Benefactor of the grace of spiritual perception, transforms the terrain of obligation from something slavish under the Law to something marked by true liberty, liberty which should be defined not by laxity but by possibility. Under the old order, given the realities of sin as blindness, the lack of the Spirit meant the lack of spiritual perception. Hence the Law, as Guardian and schoolmaster, led the covenant child, Israel, with a range of explicit mandates for acting on love for God and neighbor. Israel was thus taught what the Shema and great command entailed at the level of lived faith. But the presence of the Spirit of promise means the Christian now has the sacred “equipment” needed to see opportunities for what they are and to act on them. In the new covenant in Christ, then, we learn it is no less an obligation to give than it was under the old, but the duty to give is now in keeping with the new stage of spiritual maturity we have in Christ. It is no longer a matter of particular, detailed directives designed to instruct in the first principles of loving sacrifice, but in the form of commended perception: the Christian recognizes the need, sees the opportunity to give, and so gives freely, “not under compulsion” (2 Cor. 9:7). That qualifier is in striking contrast to life under the old order. God loves the cheerful, and we might add, perceptive, giver. That giver gives in the liberality created by the Spirit.

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