Forgetting to Look Up

The world has lost its bearings. Not that ideologies are lacking, to give directions: only that they lead nowhere. People are going round in circles in the cage of their planet, because they have forgotten that they can look up to the sky


Because all we want is to live, it has become impossible for us to live.

Eugene Ionesco, Romanian/French playwright, speaking at the 1972 Salzburg Festival.

That last bit would have been more appropriate to post on Mardi Gras, given what has become of the beginning of Lent in our culture. But I posted it now because Ionesco rather misses the point.

Lot’s of us look up, but there’s nothing to see and nowhere to go except the vast emptiness with the occasional star in between. Because of the blindness of sin, we not only fail to see, we are incapable of seeing—truly seeing—the Creator in creation.

No, Ionesco is mistaken, we need not bother looking all the way to the sky. We should rather humbly limit our upward gaze only as high as the cross.  From it we learn that death to self is more blessed than living to live, for in this particular path of death lies the possibility of truly living and the fullness of life.

Have a blessed Holy Week.


Big Salvation Words: Repentance

And so we come to my final big salvation word: Repentance. In case you haven’t figured it out, this little collection of essays are a Lenten meditation. It might seem odd to choose the word “repentance” on this day after Easter. “Shouldn’t you be talking about victory, or new life, or bunnies?” you ask.

Ah, but in truth I am talking quite precisely about our new life in Christ that is made possible in Christ’s resurrection. For millennia those intimate with the spiritual practice of the church has said unequivocally that the Christian life is a life of repentance.

Once God’s divine life and light begin to flow into our being the secret corners of our life begin to be revealed. Once the light is turned on, we see that we need to change. Once we are given the gift of new life, we have the ability to change, or more precisely, to be transformed by the Holy Spirit within us.

And so I repent: I begin to clean out the cobwebs in the corners I have carefully avoided for much of my life. And as I clean out the cobwebs, I find another secret door that I have forgotten about. As I open it and God’s light shines in, I discover that I need to repent all over again. This leads to more inner hallways and doors, more spider webs, and alas, more repentance.

Said in this way, it all sounds rather dreary. But in fact, it is the most joyful thing a Christian can do.

Sometimes we are seduced into thinking that the Christian life is mostly about “fellowship” (ie, coffee and croissants at the coffee shop with my church buddies), “service” (ie, serving meals at the local homeless shelter), spiritual growth (reading Christian blogs, listening to Christian podcasts, reading the Bible), and thinking good thoughts that will chase out the negative thoughts.

None of these are bad things, but too often we settle for the good and never get around to the best things. “And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless” (Phil 1:9f). This can only happen in the midst of repentance.

I remember renting my first apartment, a dark, dingy thing that was dirty and bug infested, but something I could afford. I was pretty depressed. But a group of college friends came over and helped my roommate and I clean it up. Windows were washed, curtains were taken down and new bright curtains were put up. Light bulbs were replaced. The carpet was cleaned. Wash buckets of pine-smelling cleaner were handed out. By the time we ordered pizza that evening, we were shocked to discover that we actually had a nice little apartment.

That is a picture of true Christian repentance and the resulting authentic Christian joy. Christ is risen. His light shines. Make the most of it. Amen.

Life and Prosperity or Death and Adversity

Why is there a “second Law” (the meaning of the word “Deuteronomy”) in the Old Testament? The people of Israel have been desert nomads for 40 years. That is more than a generation of people, so only the old people remember the mighty acts of God: the plagues, the escape from Egypt, the terror of Mt. Sinai when God gave them the Law. For this new generation, life has been like that of the Bedouin, following the herds of sheep and goats as they search for grass and water.

But now they are on the brink of moving into a new territory that is fertile enough to allow them to settle down. The Law God gave them was designed for this new life. It addresses things like land ownership, dealing with permanent neighbors, a holy city and a temple, that were not a part of their life for the last forty years.

This is why it was necessary for the people to reaffirm their commitment to the Law that God gave them (thus, a so-called second Law). This week’s Old Testament text, Deut. 20:15-20, is the culmination of that exercise. They have gathered. They have heard the Law. They must now make a choice. “See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity” (Deut. 30:15).

We don’t often think of God’s Law, or any law for that matter, in these terms. When we think of Law we think of an arbitrary rule. But God’s Law is a different sort of thing. It reflects fundamental reality. To oppose this Law is to try to fight reality itself. This is why Moses describes the choice as “life and prosperity” vs. “death and adversity.”

Moses warns the people that if they don’t obey, “I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess” (v. 18).

In a wonderful turn of phrase, Karl Barth describes the result of the sinful life in the following manner: “[The sinful one] stands under the wrath and judgment of God. He is broken and destroyed on God. It cannot be otherwise” (CD/IV:1, 175).

Moses’ words ring of arbitrary rules: If you don’t obey God, you will perish. Similarly, when we hear that Bible word “wrath,” we again think of arbitrariness and probably have a picture of an angry God. But Barth defines wrath in a completely different manner that fits perfectly with what Moses describes in Deuteronomy. Reality is thus and so. In the short term defying reality (by cheating your neighbors, not caring for the poor, etc.) may bring great reward, but in the long term, fighting against reality will only destroy you. As Barth says it, such a person ends up being broken and destroyed on God (note: not by God, but on God) like a race car that cuts a corner, ends up on the grass, and spins into the wall, the problem isn’t an angry wall, the problem is physics and bad driving.

Since we are not big enough to see the full sweep of reality and how it all works together, it is easy for us to see these rules of the road as arbitrary. (Don’t drive ont he grass at 200 mph; don’t cheat your neighbor.) Now that we have made the great turn and have set our faces toward the cross of Good Friday and the upcoming struggle of Lent, we are reminded that what we are about to do is try to align ourselves with reality so that we avoid the rocks in the midst of the storms of life.

This Deuteronomy text is not a call to just obey a bunch of rules, it is a call to be careful so that we can live.

Grace, Effort, and the Majesty of God

What is the glory and majesty of God? One of my favorite pictures of that glory is in Ps 93:1. “The Lord is king, he is robed in majesty.” Majesty is also a fearsome concept. Consider Job, for instance, “Will not his majesty terrify you, and the dread of him fall upon you?” Or Ex. 20:19 (the people telling Moses to talk to God): “You speak to God. Do not let him speak to us or we will die.”

In the Old Testament, glory and majesty are overwhelming and fearful realities. As the author of the letter to the Hebrews says in 12:29. “our God is a consuming fire.” And while that image never goes away (Hebrews is in the New Testament after all) a new image of majesty is offered up which transforms the old image. Take the Christ hymn in Phil. 2, for instance. Christ Jesus,

who in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking for form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.

This process of being robed in human form, of being robed as a slave is why the Father highly exalted him (or, we might say, robed him in majesty) in the next verse. The New Testament sense of majesty is very upside down. True greatness is found in service (literally, “slavery” to others). Weakness is the greatest strength. Humility is among the virtues.

This redefined sense of majesty is carried all the way to the end of the New Testament. The Eternal Ruler of the Apocalypse is not a great king, he’s a dead baby sheep who has been given life once again.

Once this theme is acknowledged, Jesus’ teaching begins to make sense: His followers will be persecuted and will die. The great are the least among us. There’s even a passiveness to his politics: Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God what is God’s. We can safely assume that Jesus understood full well the evil and injustice of the Roman empire, but he didn’t come to fight evil and injustice, he came into the world to be treated like a slave and ultimately to be crucified (the most humiliating form of death).

There’s a profound irony in all this. The Great King over all is a loser. His kingdom is for losers.

Of course those words have huge emotional impact in our society. We can destroy a child’s self-esteem with those words. Those words can start a gang war and lead to drive-by shootings and endless recriminations. In our society being a loser is not a good thing, it’s a humiliating thing.

Losers. … Luke 17:33

But what do losers get? If we can lose our self-will … If we can lose any success we’ve had … If we can lose the accolades of others because we’re so smart, so athletic, so beautiful, so rich … If we can lose our life, there will then be a void which God will be free to fill with divine life, if we give God permission.

And that’s one of the tricks about understanding the magisterial humility of God. Being humble, God isn’t going to pump divine life into us whether we want it or not, he’ll only fill a void and never force something else out of the way to make way for his goodness.

Ah, and it’s at this precise intersection between divine humility and human loss that the true and profound meaning of human effort in relation to divine grace begins to make a world Kingdom of sense. I have built into me a sense of self-preservation. Empower that natural sense of self-preservation with my sinful nature and I find that I have an overwhelming urge to succeed, to look good, to be liked … And my first task as a Christian is to “empty myself” of all those “self” things so that the quiet and humble God can pour his “self,” his Holy Spirit, into the emptiness.

That self-emptying requires effort. But just as God’s actual sense of majesty is ridiculously upside down, and just as God’s Kingdom is ridiculously upside down, so my effort is ridiculously upside down. I’m not striving to be a winner; I’m striving to be a loser. And to the extent that I can lose my self-will, pride, accomplishment, and the admiration of others, the divine life will come rushing in like a torrent.

Once we get this, then that particular both/and of the New Testament begins to make a great deal of sense. The works of the law will only lead to death. But works are absolutely necessary to life.

Bachman-Turner Overdrive was, to a certain extent, the sound track of my youth, so I can’t help but close this essay with the brilliant Randy Bachman. Of course this isn’t what he meant at all, but the thing about poetry is that a good poem can have multiple legitimate meanings. (Okay, I admit that calling B.T.O. lyrics “poetry” is a bit of a stretch, but stick with me for a minute, boys and girls.)

It’s the work that we avoid / And we’re all self-employed / We love to work at nothing all day. // And we be Taking care of business (every day) / Taking care of business (every way). [italics added]

How can we avoid work and at the same time “work all day”? By working at “nothing,” rather than working at something, so that my “nothingness” can become the divine fullness within me? That’s takin’ care of business, every day, takin’ care of business in every way.

And if you do that, well then, “you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.”

Grace and Effort

So what is the relationship between divine grace and human effort? Let’s start by imagining me as the quarterback of the Washington Redskins instead of Robert Griffin III … or not. It doesn’t matter how much strength training, how much coaching, and how many years of practice I had, I could never be a NFL quarterback, much less a quarterback like RG3. He is gifted with a certain body type and a certain set of talents that makes him who he is. Me? Not so much.

Excellence at that level is, from one perspective, pure gift: RG3, LeBron James, and Stephen Hawking are uniquely gifted. No one else could do what they do. That’s the “grace” side.

But their success was not inevitable and that’s the “effort” side. There was no guarantee that Hawking would become a brilliant physicist or that James would become so dominant on the basketball court. While they are uniquely gifted, what we see is the result or training, repetition, suffering, effort, etc.

There is also a flip side to these observations. There are probably young men out there who are every bit as gifted as RG3, but who did not have the discipline to do what he did through the years to develop that sort of excellence. Even though certain people are gifted (or graced) with remarkable native talent which is a necessity to excel, excellence still requires a great deal of work. It’s not either/or, it’s both grace and work.

This offers a limited but helpful analogy to the various, seemingly contradictory strands related to salvation in the New Testament. We must recognize that salvation is pure gift (ie, divine grace) while acknowledging, at the same time, that it is hard work. The young and brash apostle Paul created a seemingly uncrossable divide between faith and “the works of the law” in Galatians. To be fair to the young apostle, he did say that naked faith was not enough: “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith made effective by means of love” (Gal. 5:6).

My folks were very involved with the Navigators, a Christian parachurch organization that promotes discipleship among believers. There are a host of such organizations (Navs, Campus Crusade, InterVarsity, Youth with a Mission, L’Abri, etc.) which are a Protestant analog to the monastic movements of the Roman and Eastern churches. Common among all of them is the understanding that there can be more to the Christian life, but it requires great effort, great discipline, and great dedication to achieve it. I suppose some might find it ironic that the Navs, as committed as they are to sever Christian discipline, have an historic affinity with the Presbyterian Church and Reformed theology. Scripture memorization, small group accountability, prayer, meditation, and study, in no way contradict their commitment to the pure grace of salvation.

This perspective on Christian commitment above and beyond just going to worship on Sunday morning ought to remind us of RG3, Kareem Abdul Jabar, Serena Williams, Leo Messi, etc. Athleticism, after all, is one of the best analogies we have for the Christian life. Even Paul was fond of it. “I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air; but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified” (1 Cor. 9:26f).

Salvation is free, but so is the exercise trail in South Sioux City; fervently believing in it and driving out to it on Sunday morning won’t get me fit. I have to embrace and exercise the gift if I ever hope to have, not just life, but life abundantly (Jn. 10:10). This is why it is important, critical even, to affirm that salvation is hard. Not in a burdensome way, but in a 5k run or RAGRBRAI sort of way.

The Apostle Paul on Costly Grace

Bonhoeffer (in the previous post) was certainly passionate about costly grace. But isn’t that at odds with the idea of “salvation by faith alone” (a phrase many folk assume the Apostle Paul said)? Three points on that: (1) Paul never said it; it’s actually a post-Reformation era formula in response to Erasmus and is a bit of an outlier in Pauline thought. (2) The Reformed doctrine of salvation by grace through faith is not the same thing as Bonhoeffer’s “cheap grace,” although it can devolve into that in the hands of fallen humans who are looking for an easy route to the Kingdom. (3) In fact nowhere in the Bible does it say that salvation is by “faith alone.” That phrase is used only once in scripture by James who says, “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (Jas 2:24).

We often cherry pick Paul’s statements about salvation by grace through faith. I in no way want to diminish what he says about grace and faith. The purpose of this essay is to remind us that Paul says some other things as well.

Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing. Instead, keeping God’s commands is what counts.” (1 Cor. 7:19)

To those free from the law I became like one free from the law (though I am not free from God’s law but under the law of Christ) to gain those free from the law.” (1 Cor. 9:21)

I subdue my body and make it my slave, so that after preaching to others I myself will not be disqualified.” (1 Cor. 9:27)

I wrote for this reason: to test you and to know whether you are obedient in everything.” (2 Cor. 2:9)

Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and of spirit, making holiness perfect in the fear of God.” (2 Cor. 7:1)

We are ready to punish every disobedience when your obedience is complete.” (2 Cor. 10:6)

Live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one ind for the faith of the gospel.” (Phil 1:27)

Therefore, my beloved, just have you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” (Phil. 2:12)

Not that I have already obtained this [salvation] or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.” (Phil 3:12)

For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous in god’s sight, but the doers of the law who will be justified.” (Rom. 2:13)

You have become obedient from the heart to the form of teaching to which you were entrusted, and that you, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.” (Rom. 6:17-18)

For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law – indeed it cannot.” (Rom 8:7)

Bonhoeffer on Cheap and Costly Grace

Dietrich Bonhoeffer begins The Cost of Discipleship with a rant.

Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church. We are fighting to-day for costly grace.

Cheap grace means grace sold on the market like cheapjacks’ wares. The sacraments, the forgiveness of sin, and the consolations of religion are thrown away at cut prices. Grace is represented as the Church’s inexhaustible treasury, from which she showers blessings with generous hands, without asking questions or fixing limits. Grace without price; grace without cost! The essence of grace, we suppose is that the account has been paid in advance; and, because it has been paid, everything can be had for nothing. Since the cost was infinite, the possibilities of using and spending it are infinite. What would grace be if it were not cheap?

In case you find the first paragraph to be ambiguous ;), I will finish this post with the opening sentences of the many of the remaining paragraphs in the chapter. In his succinct style they function like outline bullet points:

Cheap grace means grace as a doctrine, a principle, a system … an intellectual assent.

Cheap grace means the justification of sin without the justification of the sinner.

Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.

Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves.

Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock. [ital. in original.]

Life is Hard

Life is hard. By this I don’t mean to say it’s full of drudgery (although it can be) or that it is beyond our means to cope (although it can be). “Hard,” in the opening sentence ought not carry a negative connotation. Basketball, when played seriously, is hard. It requires a great deal of sweat and aches and pains in order to get into shape. It requires the tedium of repetitive activities (shooting free throws, foots work, hand work, etc.) so that those parts of the game become smooth and natural. It requires a great deal of discipline. And yet, when the bodies of professional basketball players begin to break down, they are loathe to retire from the game when they should.

The same can be said for any other sport. The same can be said for musicians, for visual artists, for bakers of bread, and makers of beer and sausages, and all the other necessities of life. Excellence, in any field, requires great discipline and discipline is hard.

And yet something about the discipline that leads to excellence is highly rewarding. It’s fun, or if it isn’t fun in the moment, it’s fulfilling. This is what I mean when I say that “hard” does not carry a negative connotation. Rather the difficulty and challenge leads to rewards that far exceed the difficulty itself.

For some people life isn’t hard, and for those unlucky few, life is hardest of all. Here my mind turns to football. In my own community we had a star football player that was recruited to be a star Division I player and was, barring injury, almost certainly on his way to being a star in the pros. Being a natural and gifted athlete he never had to work very hard at any sport until he arrived in Iowa City. He never cultivated the discipline for the effort that faced him. He washed out, felt sorry for himself, got in trouble with the law, and is, for the moment, a rather lost soul.

We can broaden Jesus’ statement, that it’s harder for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, into a principle of life. For anyone who is so rich (in wealth, in athleticism, in brains, in beauty, in social grace) that they are not required to cultivate the discipline of a life well lived, their lives will somehow be diminished. It’s not just that life is hard. It’s that life ought to be hard. We humans are created in such a way that we need the discipline in order to become all that we can be. (And excuse the triviality, but the U.S. Army motto is the Army motto precisely because it’s true.)

If this is the case – if life is hard – then it would be surprising, shocking even, if salvation were not hard also, for salvation is not only part of life, it is life itself.