Sin and Salvation

Listening to the Bible teachers lead devotions the last two weeks here at Chamberlain-Hunt Academy I am reminded how much I admire the Reformed doctrine of sin and salvation. Emphasizing as it does the lost-ness and broken-ness of man, and the resulting separation between God and man, the Reformed doctrine of salvation has real punch.

This is not to denigrate in any way the Orthodox doctrine that rightly emphasizes the life-long character of salvation. In contrast to the joyful seriousness Orthodox theology brings to everyday life, Reformed theology has real difficulty making the Christian life meaningful beyond the unidemensional theme of gratitude. But there is also a downside on the Orthodox side: emphasizing the life-long character of salvation can lead to muddling ones understanding of how it all gets started.

No muddle on the Reformed side! The starkness of the problem and the urgent need for response is crystal clear. This need for clarity and immediacy are obvious in a military school context – everything needs to be clear and immediate in this environment. But clarity and immediacy ought neither to be foreign nor secondary concepts for the rest of us. As St. Paul says in 2 Corinthians (quoting Isaiah), “See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation.”

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Some Thoughts on Living above the Rules

The cadets here at Chamberlain-Hunt live a very regimented life. To illustrate, I will describe what happens when they eat. Before meals they form up into their platoons and companies at the parade deck and march to the Dining Facility. Each company waits outside and when the line clears the company enters the Dining Facility by platoon and stands at parade rest (no talking, looking straight ahead, with hands behind their back) until they are through the line. If anyone talks during this process they get sent to the road, which means that they have to run a couple hundred yards across the parade grounds to the road and back. After they get their food they proceed to the table where they stand at attention until the whole platoon is at the table and then they sit down together and eat.

Of course authority has its privileges. These rules, even though they “apply” to all cadets, in truth apply only to the cadets standing in line. The platoon sergeants, the company master sergeants and officers all stand off to the side watching. Their job is to keep discipline in the ranks. But since they are not in the ranks themselves, they feel free to talk, laugh, and horse around all they want. Of course while the officers are doing this, if any cadet standing in line starts talking, the officer will interrupt his own horse-play or conversation to send the hapless cadet to the road for breaking the rules.

In other words, the rules that regiment a cadet’s life don’t necessarily apply to cadets in leadership. The obvious lesson to be learned is that the officers are above the law.

Of course the cadets have to learn this behavior from somewhere and it turns out that the best teachers are the cadre (that is, the faculty and staff). To illustrate that, I turn to the transition from morning study hall (7:30-8:30) to Devotions (8:30-8:40). Everyone (cadets and cadre) are required to attend morning devotions. At about 8:20 the cadets begin to clean up the tables and get everything put away for devotions. At the same time cadre begin to arrive.

Typically the cadets are done with cleanup by 8:25 and at that point they are required to remain completely quiet and in their seats. They are not allowed to talk to their neighbor; they are not allowed to get up and move about unless they have a specific task that needs to be done. But almost every day they begin to talk and soon there is a low rumble in the room until the Officer In Charge ( or, OIC in acronym-speak) barks out a command to be quiet, or someone will get sent to the road.

Of course we cadre are oblivious to all this (except to complain to each other occasionally about all the talking going on). We cadre are above the law, after all. So we sit at our table and talk and laugh and do all that important business that adults must get done in the five minutes before devotions. After all, keeping quiet in the Dining Facility in preparation for devotions, sitting up straight with feet on the floor, paying attention and not shutting the eyes … all those rules clearly don’t apply to us. We enforce those rules, so we don’t have to abide by them. Those things are for the cadets, just as standing in line at attention and not talking is for the cadets who aren’t officers, while the officers are free to ignore those rules that they are called on to enforce.

Sitting in the Dining Facility at 8:25 listening to the roar of the cadre talking and laughing and horsing around while the OIC is barking commands to the cadets to be quiet, I am reminded of the Nazis, the Fascists, and the Communists, of Pol Pot, Kim Jong Il, and all those other authoritarian leaders throughout history whom we love to hate because they required sacrifice of their citizens while they themselves lived a life of luxury and often excess. We wonder how they could possibly live such duplicitous lives. Where are their principles? Where is their party spirit? If the principles of (at this point, fill in the name of any authoritarian regime you choose) are so fine and appropriate for the masses, why don’t the leaders live by the same principles?

At least this is what I was thinking about a few minutes later, slouching comfortably at the table with my legs crossed and my eyes closed while the devotional leader droned on and on about something or other in the Shorter Catechism.

And then I had what actually could have been a holy and uplifting thought if it would have occurred at an appropriate time and place instead of during devotions while the OIC was stalking around the Dining Facility making cadets sit up straight with both feet on the floor, paying careful attention to every word that came out of the devotional leaders mouth: Isn’t this pretty much what Jesus meant when he said (in Mat. 20:25ff), “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave”.

A Meditation on the Expansive Love of God

This morning’s reading in Morning Prayer was from Rev. 7. Verses 9ff are as follows:

I saw before me a huge crowd which no one could count from every nation and race, people and tongue. They stood before the throne and the Lamb, dressed in long white robes and holding palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, “Salvation is from our God, who is seated on the throne, and from the Lamb!”

This translation caught my eye. The translation I usually use identifies this as “a great multitude.” That’s one of those Bible phrases that has become so commonplace in my brain that it has lost its meaning. “A huge crowd which no one could count” expresses the same idea in a way that caught my attention.

And this got me thinking about how the Revelation expresses the innumerable plenitude of the church. John typically describes it in multiples of thousands. For instance, the fullness of Church is expressed as 12 (the twelve tribes of ancient Israel) times 12 (the twelve apostles of the New Israel) times 1,000. To John the Revelator that expressed both inclusiveness and expansiveness.

To us moderns, 144,000 is a rather paltry number. For those of us who remember Carl Sagan on public television, we’re accustomed to thinking in terms of “billions and billions” (now that’s a number I can’t wrap my head around). But 144,000? I suspect some mega churches in the Bible Belt or Korea have congregations approaching 150,000. In our modern world of bigness, hundreds of thousands is a number we can deal with.

Along those same lines of thought and in absolute contrast to how John used it, the Jehovah’s Witnesses use that number (144,000) as the sign of their exclusiveness and of the limits of God’s grace. John used that same number as a sign of God’s expansive grace. Could this be a difference in ancient and modern sensibilities?

I suppose all this comes to mind because of school. The Bible classes are organized around the Westminster Shorter Catechism and last week the Bible Teachers got started on the topic of predestination as defined by the Westminster standards. I try to tie my History and Geography lectures into the themes they are learning in Bible Class. I was struck this week by how many cadets missed the point of the catechism and turned the doctrine of predestination into an assumption that the Church is an exclusive club. What some of them learned this week is that God’s love is limiting rather than expansive. (And this implies the “unbigness” rather than “bigness” of God.)

This is a wonderfully attractive heresy because it implies that we can be part of an exclusive club. It’s no surprise that some cadets would glaum at the idea that since they were Christians they were therefore in some sort of exclusive club; the reason many of them are here is that they have been marginalized by society and are, as a result, acting out in response to that marginalization. Some of them are using the doctrine of predestination to turn the tables. I tried to disabuse them of this idea; I don’t know if I had any success. Unfortunately I didn’t have Rev. 7:9 on the tip of my tongue at the time.

If we continue to read Revelation 7 we find a glorious motivation for evangelism.

All the angels who were standing around the throne and the elders and the four living creatures fell down before the throne to worship God.

At this point I’ll interrupt to observe that the angels and elders, along with the four living creatures are joining this “huge crowd which now one could count” in praising God.

They said: “Amen! Praise and glory, wisdom and thanksgiving and honor, power and might, to our God forever and ever. Amen.”

Wouldn’t it be good to make that heavenly choir as large as possible rather than keeping it exclusive and small?

Frederick Faber (best known for his hymns) grew up in a strictly Calvinist household. In college he abandoned the strict Calvinism of his youth in favor of the more traditional (and expansive) views of John Henry Newman, the leader of the Oxford Movement within 19th century Anglicanism. (Both later converted to the Roman Catholic Church.) I’ve always suspected that Frederick Faber was taking a shot at the very narrow sort of Calvinism of his youth when he penned his well-known hymn: “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy / like the wideness of the sea; / there’s a kindness in his justice, / which is more than liberty.” And even more pointed is the eleventh verse: “But we make his love too narrow / by false limits of our own; / and we magnify his strictness / with a zeal he will not own.”

In Faber’s experience, he worried not only about exclusiveness in favor of expansiveness, but also zeal for God which trumped the praise of God. With that in mind, it seems fitting to close this meditation on the expansive love of God in praise of God, using the final (the twelfth) stanza of Faber’s poem: “Was there ever kinder shepherd / half so gentle, half so sweet, / as the Savior who would have us / come and gather at his feet?”

And what is it that we do at the feet of the Heavenly Shepherd (or Heavenly Lamb, as Rev. 7 describes him – after all he is both at the same time)?

They said: “Amen! Praise and glory, wisdom and thanksgiving and honor, power and might, to our God forever and ever. Amen.”

Happy Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe and Everything Day

One of my favorite stories is Hitchhiker’s Guide the Galaxy. The late Douglas Adams originally wrote it as a serial radio drama for the BBC. It later morphed into a five-book trilogy and, after his death, a movie. A brief advertisement: The BBC’s serialized radio drama is by far the best version in my opinion and is available in audio book format (although you have to be careful, because the first book is also available as an audiobook under the same title).

Douglas Adams had a typically British bizarre sense of humor and his books are rich in wonderful aphorisms and silly quotes, such as:

It is no coincidence that in no known language does the phrase “As pretty as an Airport” appear.

And

The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don’t.

He was also a bit of a philosopher and often said things that made you sit up and think, albeit in a silly British way, such as:

He hoped and prayed that there wasn’t an afterlife. Then he realized there was a contradiction involved here and merely hoped that there wasn’t an afterlife.

And

Space is big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space.

And, more to the point of this essay

There is a theory which states that if ever anybody discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable. There is another theory which states that this has already happened.

One of the key themes to Hitchhiker’s Guide is a particular interstellar species’ attempt to discover the answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe and Everything. SPOILER ALERT: I’m going to give you the answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe and Everything, according to Douglas Adams.

Turns out the answer is 42.

Of course, the interstellar species doing the search failed to search for the question itself, only the answer. So, the answer did them little good. (The book explains the species’ subsequent attempt to discover the “Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe and Everything” itself. That quest didn’t go so well either, which is precisely why the book’s protagonist, Arthur Dent, ends up being a Hitchhiker in the Galaxy.

One time, in an interview on NPR, Adams was asked why he chose 42 as the answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe and Everything. His answer was a typically nerdy one. He thought the number ought to be in binary, since that’s the language computers use and the interstellar species asked a computer for the answer. He also thought the number ought to be clever. Being an atheist, he believed it would be especially clever to use a religiously clever number. He observed that the perfect number, in Jewish numerology is 10 and that the perfect number for Christians is 3, so a series of three tens would be a perfectly clever answer for the Question of Life, the Universe and Everything. But 101010 was not nearly clever enough for Adams so he converted that binary number to the more familiar base-10 and came up with 42.

So, in honor of Douglas Adams (who is no doubt shocked the atheism thing didn’t work out so well and as a result is probably not resting in peace) and his very humorous Hitchhiker’s Guide books, which did work out quite well, in spite of the not so clever atheism thing, I dub today, the tenth day of October, the year of our Lord 2010 (10/10/10 for short), “The Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe and Everything Day.” But before President Obama declares “The Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe and Everything Day” a national holiday, one more Douglas Adams quote is in order:

Anyone who is capable of getting themselves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job.

Oh yeah, and don’t forget your towel.