Come to the One Whom the World Desires

The great Advent Hymn says, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” It expresses a longing we have that things be made right (which can only happen when God makes things right through the agency of his Son, the Anointed One). One of the stanzas of this great hymn gets to the heart of this longing when it says, “O Come, Desire of nations, bind / In one the hearts of all mankind; / Bid Thou our sad divisions cease, / And be Thyself our King of Peace.”

The kontakion (similar to a “collect” or a hymn of the day) for the Feast of St. Andrew (Nov. 30) takes these very same themes and turns them on their head. Speaking of Andrew, it says, “As he once called to his brother, he now cries to us, ‘Come, for we have found the One whom the world desires.'”

There is a deep longing, an insatiable desire in the human heart for someone to come and fix the mess. But such a sentiment is possibly quite backward, for it is he who invites us to “come and see” (John 1:39), not the other way around. The fix is there as long as we understand which party needs to come to whom in order for those desires to be sated.

Happy Thanksgiving

Evidently terrorists generally don’t board airplanes in Jackson. The result: my clothes stayed on, nobody took dirty x-rays of me, and the trip was uneventful. The flight from DFW to OMA even left the gate six minutes early! The thing I noticed the most on this trip was several women with their Ugg boots off – no doubt trying to cool their feet. So which is worse: high heels or fur lined, leather shoes that go half way up the calf when temps are in the 70s and 80s? Why is it that fashion is so stupidly impractical?

Today I’m thankful I’m not a girl. Ugh! (As I probably used to say when I was in 3rd grade.) I’ll stick with my slip-on Merrells when I’m in the airport.

The Abode of Heaven

“Truly this woman is the abode of heaven.” (from today’s Kontakion celebrating the Feast of the Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple).

In a recent essay I was comparing the preferred metaphors of salvation within the Presbyterian & Reformed churches (being adopted into the family of God) and the Orthodox churches (being joined to Christ and engrafted into his life).

In today’s Kontakion (cited above) another metaphor is found that expresses this same mystery. But in order to appreciate the metaphor we must remember that Mary, the Theotokos, Jesus’ mother, is the archetypal Christian and as such is a symbol or sign of the Church as a whole. Mary is us just as we are Mary, and when we call her blessed (as she herself says that we will, Lk 1:48) we are blessing the Church itself, the Body of Christ, which we do because God himself is blessed now and forever.

In her pregnancy, she was not merely a vehicle of God’s salvation, but rather for that time was the very abode of God, her womb the Creator’s throne as all creation awaited the revelation of their King and Maker.

It makes the idea of inviting Jesus into my heart (certainly no trivial matter!) sound almost trivial in contrast to the immense implications of the Kontakion: “Truly this woman is the abode of heaven.”

When our children ask us where heaven is, do we vaguely point “out there” implying that God’s house is far away? Or do we drop our chin into our chest (as the monks do when they pray) and look deep inside to the very center of our being, saying, “The whole expanse of heaven is here, my child.”

(Well, okay, maybe we wouldn’t do precisely that; it would probably confuse the little tikes and make our adolescents think we were loony.)

Ah, but isn’t there something slightly daft in saying the expanse of God indwells human flesh? Isn’t it just as daft to tell our children that Jesus can come into their hearts?

Not daft, but certainly mysterious, the ways of God: not that he would circumscribe his boundless self into our small self (as we imply when we tell our children of Jesus in their hearts), but rather that he expands the believer’s heart, the Church (ah yes, Mary!) into that which can embody the expansiveness of heaven, the very abode of God.

“Truly this woman is the abode of heaven.”

Now, This is Just Wrong

Spied in the grocery store this morning:

Container labled "Fat Free Half and Half"This is wrong on so many levels. First of all, it’s “half and half”! What’s not to understand? Is the container half empty, or what?

Second, this is the Deep South where everything tastes better because folks know to add lots of fat. You know that container is simply going to expire on the shelf.

I suspect those liberal do-gooder Minnesotans are trying  to pull a fast one on the Southerners (and possibly the rest of the nation). You betcha!

Next they’ll be trying to exchange our deep fried catfish with baked walleye or lutefisk.

But we’re not falling for it. Bless those Minnesotans, but y’all send that cursed stuff back up the Mississippi River from whence it came!

“You WILL Respect my Authoritah!”

Getting ready to fly this coming week, I have been slapped (clubbed, tazered – you choose the metaphor) with the realization once again that we live in a police state. It’s not the brutal sort of police state typically associated with the former Soviet countries or various banana republics. It’s also not tyrannical in the sense of the old World War era tyrannies, because we Americans have mostly welcomed both the shackles and the guns which bind and guard us.

And, by the way, it’s not just the TSA. The other day I observed a jack-booted state trooper getting out of his car to perform some minor duty. It took him well over a minute to put on all of his weaponry and defensive gear. If it weren’t happening before my eyes in a parking lot, I might have guessed it was some SNL parody of those we hire “to protect and serve.” (And he really was wearing jackboots shined to a sparkle with uniform tucked inside them. He even had reflective sunglasses. If I were within earshot, he probably would have said, “You WILL respect my authoritah!” in a Cartmanesque manner.)

My Libertarian and once activist self wants to stand up and rage against the tyranny. But my Christian self senses that the rage is merely selfishness. Is God’s character being defaced? Is his Kingdom being undermined?

Well, to the extent that our overlords claim it is their task to save us from terrorism and cure us of our diseases, I suppose they are impinging on the Divine Kingdom. But honestly, that’s not why I rage. It’s not their usurping of God’s place, it’s their usurpation of my freedom and liberty (or more accurately, my convenience) that drives my passions.

And in all of this I’m reminded of that classic song by The Police, “Rehumanize Yourself”:

A policeman put on his uniform
He’d like to have a gun just to keep him warm
Because violence here is a social norm
You’ve got to humanise yourself

I suspect Sting (The Police‘s lead vocalist) was correct in the song. All this tyranny at the airport gate is not driven so much by lust for power as it is by fear. Fear, nameless dread, and the sin and death which drive them, have indeed dehumanized us. But “there is no fear in love, [for] perfect love casts out fear …” (1 Jn 4:8). Rage against the tyranny? My old mainline Presbyterian sense of “peace and social justice” indeed calls out for me to rage against the tyrants. My newerfound faith tells me simply to love my enemies and pray for those that persecute me (Mt 5:43).

Come Wednesday I don’t know what I’ll do, because that seems, so … well … un-American on this most American of holidays. The American thing would be to tell them not to tread on me and throw their T (along with their S and A) into Boston Harbor. So in the end it comes down to this: do I want to be Libertarian or Christian? Rage against the tyranny or pray for the tyrants?

Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy Immortal One, have mercy on us.

Oh, and dear God, p.s. Could you maybe smite them while you’re at it?

When Are Symbols Symbolic?

If Christian symbols are used accidently rather than intentionally when a church is built, are they still Christian symbols? Let me put the question into context. At First Presbyterian, Port Gibson, the chancel chairs have the following design in their back. (I’m looking at the four petal cutout, not the eight petal carved flowers below the cutout.)

This four petal flower is relatively common in church architecture, and my research (years ago) indicates that the four petal flower is used, in contrast to the three petal flower, to suggest the cross of Christ. Experts in the history of church symbols also suspect that there is a close link between the above four petal flower and the budded cross (below).

The theory goes like this: The buds on the budded cross clearly suggest the Holy Trinity. Furthermore, that bud also implies a fourth “petal” that is hidden by the cross itself. The reason this particular four petal flower design (in contrast to a flower with overlapping or pointed petals) became so common in church architecture is its connection with the budded cross.

The budded cross itself has a typically scandalous history for a Christian symbol. It is strongly suspected by those aforementioned church symbol experts that the budded cross originated among the Druids and was taken over as a Christian symbol by the Christians. (The Celtic Christians were quite fond of sanctifying pagan symbols that had potential for teaching Christian doctrine.) The budded cross is a particularly apropos symbol because it is reminiscent of Aaron’s rod that budded (Num. 17).

In Christian hymnody Aaron’s rod that budded is a common type of the Cross of Christ, suggesting, as it does, life from death. Nearly all the famous Old Testament staffs are reinterpreted by Christians as some sort of Cross symbol, so in this sense Aaron’s rod is not unique. But the budded cross, aside from its Trinitarian symbolism, is so richly suggestive of new life (divine life) springing forth from death itself, that it became particularly beloved in Orthodox circles.

But the story of Aaron’s rod is significant for another reason. It is a story of divinely ordained church leadership, and Aaron’s rod is often associated with the clergy, and especially the priesthood in liturgical churches. Bishop’s staves are associated with a number of different “staff” and “shepherd” stories in scripture, not the least of which is the divine authority implied in Aaron’s rod that budded.

In the Presbyterian Church the office of Bishop (ie, Overseer) is associated with the session (the plurality of elders). Historically there was a tradition of the session sitting behind the pastor at the back of the chancel facing the congregation during Sunday morning worship. As I was taught in seminary by folks at the Office of Theology and Worship of the PC(USA), it is no accident that the fancy chancel chairs that were historically reserved for the session frequently have the four petal flower carved in their back (exactly like the chairs at First Pres. pictured above). Those chairs are symbols of the authority of office.

On Sunday, at church, I mentioned the four petal flower in connection with the budded cross and Aaron’s rod. (I happened to be talking about the “new life” and “resurrection” angle of the story, not the “authority of office” angle.) A few people took umbrage with my interpretation, suggesting that I was reading far too much into the chancel furniture. Later that afternoon one church leader huffed at me, “They’re just Dogwood flowers; they don’t mean anything.”

And he may well be correct that when the furniture was chosen and the chancel designed, the good folks who did it were simply choosing something reminiscent of Dogwood flowers. Let’s assume that’s the case for a moment. Does the supposition that they were chosen strictly for aesthetic reasons change the fact that they’re powerful Christian symbols? (Or in this case, potentially powerful Christian symbols, because we’re assuming that at the time, no one knew what they were.) Put another way, do their secular roots mitigate the Christian-ness of their meaning? Can authentic symbols be accidental or do they have to be intentional?

I would argue that accidental symbols are every bit as symbolic as the intentional ones, and often more powerful because of their subtlety and organic character. A church in Bentonville, Arkansas has three gigantic crosses plainly visible from the interstate. They are gaudy (and god-awful for that matter). Barely Christian, they speak far more eloquently to the hubris of that pastor than they do to the mystery of Golgotha. On the other hand, when a Christian symbol becomes so ubiquitous within a worship context that we fail to notice it on a conscious level, it can begin to speak to us on an unconscious level, sinking far deeper into our being and nearer to our nous, than the more explicit symbols and words.

So indeed they may merely be Dogwood flowers. But Jesus died on a mere piece of wood, so Christian history reminds us that “mere” doesn’t necessarily imply insignificant.

p.s. The more amusing part of the story is that at the same time I was talking about four petal flowers, I called switch cane “bamboo.” To a poor benighted northerner like me, it seems a trivial mistake because to my northern eyes, the similarity between switch cane and bamboo is obvious. But what do us poor northerners know? Turns out that switch cane is nothing like bamboo! I was assured of this by a number of good folks. (Although, the Mississippi State website claims that switch cane –or technically, Arundinaria tecta, is one of three native bamboo species in Mississippi. But, for all I know, MSU is populated by poor benighted northerners like me, so don’t tell anyone I mentioned it.)

Spreadsheet Paradise

I’m about two-thirds of the way through my first semester teaching US History and Geography to 9th and 10th graders (mostly). I’ve discovered that one of my favorite activities is grading papers. This week in Geography we finished the U.S. and I required each cadet to fill out regional maps (five maps in all) and a fill-in-the-blank worksheet (three pages). I have 23 cadets, so that’s 184 pages that trickled in this week … well, more like 150 with another 30 or so still trickling in, or more likely stuck and moldering in the drain-pipe of adolescent procrastination … but that’s another story.

Actually, it isn’t another story. If grading homework is one of my favorite activities, collecting homework is probably my least favorite activity. The homework harvest has to be one of the most futile exercises on the planet. Between sports, sick call, disciplinary action, and special trips where the administration shows off the star cadets, it’s rare to have a whole class present at one time, so trying to actually collect homework on time, and sorting out the legitimate and bogus reasons for late homework ranks right up there on the futility scale with trying to choose Sunday worship service hymns that a congregation actually likes. Nigh impossible!

But back to grading homework: It started with a hodge-podge … actually it may have been more of a gallimaufry of crumpled, stained, and torn papers, some in scribble and some in cuneiform, and one or two in laid out in artistic splendor. I will admit that the initial heap was intimidating, so it seemed wise to let it set a day or two, like a soup or fine ragout, to let the flavors marry. (Or maybe I was just procrastinating.)

But once I got on task, the pages were soon in order and within a few hours were graded, and then the grades written in the grade book, and transferred to the school database and by 10:00 a.m. I had a stack of nearly 20 sets of papers, smoothed, stapled, in alphabetical order, and clipped together (to assure no residual gallimaufering could occur), another small stack of orphans, no-names, and half-dones (and one particularly puzzling bit of cuneiform that I’ll probably have to run by the resident Egyptologist), a computer-generated sheet with a list of names of those students who are no doubt spending the week-end dreaming up even better excuses for why their homework remains as stubbornly unfinished as Franz Schubert’s Symphony No. 8, and a spreadsheet that has distilled those 150+ pages into four parallel lines of 23 numbers, with a semester average on the far left side, demonstrating with undeniable clarity who’s been naughty and who’s been nice.

There is something remarkably satisfying about transforming a grocery-sack sized gallimaufry into a 23×4 grid of numbers. Maybe it’s the nascent engineer in me, or maybe I’m just a bit delirious, but that movement from anarchy to symmetry is just plain glorious.

Beyond the Family of God

This last week’s Westminster Shorter Catechism (WSC) question the cadets had to memorize concerned adoption. “What is adoption? It is an act of God’s free grace, whereby we are received into the number, and have a right to all the privileges, of the sons of God.” The proof text for this question is 1 John 3:1a, “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.” The daily devotions related to this subject were very good, speaking primarily to the confidence Christians have as real children of God and co-heirs with Christ.

As I listened to the doctrine of adoption being laid out I was also thinking about how little I’ve heard about adoption in the Orthodox Church. In contrast to the Orthodox silence, the doctrine of adoption, particularly in conservative Reformed circles, is held in very high esteem. John Piper, well known theologian and pastor, sums up Reformed regard for the doctrine with the following:

Adoption is one of the most profound realities in the universe. I say ‘universe’ and not ‘world’ because adoption goes beyond the world. It is greater than the world, and it is before the world in the plan of God, and it will outlast the world as we know it. Indeed it is greater than the ‘universe’ and is rooted in God’s own nature.

If adoption is this big a deal, why doesn’t the Orthodox Church make it a central doctrine in their hymnody and teaching? The answer is actually quite simple. The Orthodox also believe that this union with God that is expressed in adoption is about the biggest idea there is in the universe, but a different primary metaphor is used. While Protestantism tends to focus on the familial metaphor (that is, we are sons of God, thus co-heirs with Christ), Orthodoxy tends to focus more on the organic metaphor (that is, we are joined to Christ and engrafted into his life – or, conversely, God’s life is planted in us so that we are transformed from the inside out).

These two biblical metaphors unpack the same group of truths but in rather different ways. The Orthodox doctrine of theosis (which is the ultimate goal in the context of the organic metaphor) presents a far more intimate relationship with God than can be expressed with the familial metaphor. Of course Reformed theology doesn’t stop with adoption; there is also sanctification whereby the Christian is “renewed in the whole man after the image of God” (WSC, Q. 35), and the sacraments, “wherein, by sensible signs, Christ, and the benefits of the new covenant, are represented, sealed, and applied to the believer” (WSC, Q. 92).

But even in its Trinitarian fullness, the Westminster vision of our life in God assumes a radical otherness between creature and Creator. The creature always remains creature and the Creator remains Creator. But in the Orthodox vision that radical otherness is overcome through the incarnation (where the Creator becomes creature) so that we can be transformed, not only to our original state of innocence and not only to a glorified state of holiness, but ultimately into a state of godliness and God-likeness as we are “transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor. 3:18).

John Piper is right. We are talking about one of the most profound realities of the universe. The plan of God is indeed greater than the world (or, I would add, greater than the whole created order) because ultimately we creatures enter into the most sublime and intimate interrelationship with – not something creaturely – but into the nature of the Creator himself. As Peter expressed it:

His divine power has given us everything needed for life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Thus he has given us, through these things, his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of lust, and may become participants of the divine nature. (2 Pet. 1:3-4).

As I heard the devotions this week it was once again affirmed in my mind that no other Protestant understanding of God and scripture is as profound as the Reformed vision of salvation and its glories. Reformed theology manages to express the catastrophe, the solution, and the goal in glorious depth without falling victim to the Roman reduction of the divine to near physicality. (Although I have to admit that in its care to avoid the Roman error, it fails to grasp the breadth, the length, the height, and depth of the union we are promised through Christ and in the Spirit from one degree of glory to another.) Be that as it may, this doctrine, whether expressed through adoption or theosis, is indeed one of the most profound realities of the universe. Thanks be to God.