Blog Archives

Flotsam and jetsam (weekend edition)

We generally like to think of ourselves as individuals and appreciate our unique qualities, but when thrown into a group we can become very different people. Ideas and actions can spread like viruses until your individuality is completely wiped away. This is called deindividuation and here’s how it works.

If you are a planter, let me encourage you to think long-term. Don’t make the mistake of focusing on the 7 for a few months and then dropping them. Most of these issues have no quick fix-solution and will have impact on your influence as long as you are planting.

Lazy? Who has time to be lazy? Of course, there are the verses that speak to laziness. By my count, there are fourteen such verses in Proverbs alone, starting with “Go to the ant, you sluggard!” So, can it actually be right to think that laziness is a way to the Lord?

Recently, I wrote about how leaders must learn to handle criticism and overlook offenses. I think this is the number one way that leaders can get derailed and rendered ineffective.

Hard as it may be to believe, one of the things that gives privately-educated children the edge is their knowledge of Latin….I mean there is actually a substantial body of evidence that children who study Latin outperform their peers when it comes to reading, reading comprehension and vocabulary, as well as higher order thinking such as computation, concepts and problem solving.

Santa Claus and the Coming of the Messiah

[For those of you not interested in the upcoming football game, or those interested but looking for something to do until it begins, here’s what I’m thinking about using as the introduction to the chapter of my Gospel book on the coming of Christ and how that relates to God’s OT promises. And yes, I realize it’s the wrong time of year for a post about Santa Claus. Oh well.]

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My daughters don’t believe in Santa Claus. They never have. That’s mostly because my wife and I are evil parents and we told them from the very beginning that Santa Claus was not real. (If this is news to you, then please accept my apologies for breaking the news in such a heartless way.) We’ve always been careful to point out that there’s nothing wrong with pretending that Santa is real; it can even be kind of fun. So, sometimes at Christmas we’ll go ahead and pretend that Santa Claus is coming, even though we all know he isn’t. And, we’ve also warned them not to say anything to other kids about Santa. We really don’t want to have to deal with a bunch of angry parents who want to know why our kids just ruined their Christmas fun.

Although I like how we’ve handled our Christmas traditions and I wouldn’t want to do it differently, it’s hard not to notice that my daughters never approached Christmas with the same kind of anxious anticipation as other children. There were no eager questions about “When will Santa be here?”, whispers of “I think I hear him”, or little footsteps as they slipped quietly over to the window to see if that was the shadow of a sleigh they just glimpsed in the sky. There’s an element of expectation that comes with the story of Santa Claus that has a nearly irresistible sense of childish delight. And, in the morning, all of that pent up expectation, all the anxious hours of waiting, all the uncertainties and anxieties, they all explode in the delighted yell, “He came!”

Somehow we need to recapture that same sense of eager expectation if we’re going to appreciate what it was like to live on the verge of the New Testament. In the last chapter, we focused on the amazing promises that God offered his people throughout the Old Testament: a new king, a new sacrifice, a new spirit, a new heart, a new creation, and more. For centuries, God’s people had fed on a steady diet of God’s promises, knowing that he had not abandoned them, fearing that he had done just that.

Is the promised one really coming?
Yes, he’s coming.
He’ll be here soon!
Is that him?
No, not yet.
Where is he?
Over there!
No, that’s definitely not him.
He’ll never come.
Yes, he will. I know it. He’s coming.

God promised.

As we turn the page from the Old Testament to the New Testament, we pass through the time of anxious waiting, arriving at the moment when hope becomes reality, when promise becomes present, when not yet becomes now.

He’s here.

What if he doesn’t come? (When He Comes 8)

“I’ll be back.”

Arnold Schwarzenegger uttered this famous line many times in his various movies. As the hero of Terminator 2, though, he offered it as a promise to John and Sarah Connor—a promise that though he’s going to be gone for a while, he will return and rescue them from their predicament. Believing the promise, John and Sarah hunker down in a smoke-filled elevator, waiting for the hero to return with the promised salvation.

Isn’t that how it always works with heroes? Somebody’s in danger, the situation is dire, and the hero needs to be gone for a while. But don’t worry, he’ll be right back. And when he comes, everything will be just fine.

That’s reassuring.

But, what if he doesn’t make it back?

Imagine that you’re Sarah Connor and Arnold has just stepped out of the elevator. “Oh, you’ll be back soon? That’s good because those guys with the guns look pretty unhappy. We’ll just hang out here and wait for you to get back.”

Now, suppose that thirty minutes have gone by and he still hasn’t returned. There was a lot of shooting at first, but everything’s been quiet for a while. You’re starting to get a little nervous. What’s taking him so long? If those guys with the guns come back, this could get messy.

Three hours later. Now you’re just angry. Where’s that stupid robot? The elevator is hot, uncomfortable, and John is really starting to get on your nerves.

After just one day, I’m guessing that you’d have lost all hope. He’s not coming back. Now you’re hungry, you smell, you still have angry guys with guns chasing you, and still no hero.

Bad robot.

It’s easy to lose faith when the promised one doesn’t return.

Just one day and your hope is gone. How would you do after several centuries? That’s how long God’s people have been waiting by the time we reach the beginning of the New Testament. Hundreds of years with nothing but promises to hold onto.

When he comes, everything will be fine. When he comes, God’s promises will be fulfilled. When he comes, shalom will be restored. When he comes….

But, what if he doesn’t come?

[Read the rest of the posts in this series on the Gospel Book page.]

No King, No Kingdom (When He Comes 2)

I grew up on stories about King Arthur. Great stories. Every time you turn the page Arthur and his knights are feasting, celebrating, jousting, slaying monsters, and just having an all-around good time. It sounds like a great place to be, with peace, justice, and plenty for everyone (except the monsters, of course). And, at the center of it all, the king—leading, ruling, judging, and partying. It all works because the king is there ruling over his kingdom, making sure that everything is as it should be, striking out at anything that threatens the  peace.

But, what’s a kingdom without a king? The depressing part about the Arthur stories is that you know it won’t last. By the end of the story, Arthur will be dead and his kingdom will lie in ruins. (If you didn’t know how the story ended, I’m terribly sorry for giving it away. And, by the way, the Titanic sinks.) Without Arthur, everything falls apart.

It’s quite a simple principle really: no king, no kingdom. Until he comes back, nothing is going to be the way that it should be.

The same idea shapes the story of Robin Hood and his merry men. From one perspective, this is a story about a bunch of men who spend all their time camping, drinking, wrestling, singing, and annoying rich people. To me, it always sounded like Peter Pan for adults.

At the heart of the Robin Hood story, however, rests something much more significant. The kingdom is broken. Richard the Lionhearted, England’s king, has been gone for many years. In his absence, Prince John, the king’s brother, and all of John’s cronies have taken over the kingdom, oppressing the people and pillaging the land. The land is now ruled by greed, power, violence, and hatred.

Robin Hood and his merry men have a very different vision of how things should be. They see a kingdom ruled by grace and peace, a kingdom where the rich help the poor, the strong serve the weak, and everything is as it should be. They see a kingdom where the king rules again.

In many ways, these are stories about faith and hope. Despite all of the problems the kingdom faces, all the enemies they encounter, and all the evil they see, Robin Hood and his men press on toward their vision of the kingdom. The king has been gone for so long, many begin to wonder if he will ever return. But, Robin Hood’s men continue to long for what could be, what should be.

However, it all rests on the coming of the king. Robin Hood and his men can trick Prince John day long, and it won’t change anything. They can steal from the rich, give to the poor, and have all the forest parties their hearts desire. But, without the king, the kingdom will still be broken, evil powers will still control the way things go, people will still be oppressed, the vision will remain unrealized.

When the king comes, however, it will all be different. That’s the hope at the center of the story. That’s what makes Robin and his men work so hard toward this future vision. That’s what makes them “merry”. In the face of all the injustice and oppression, they have their vision of the kingdom and they live out that vision to the best of their ability in the forest – their little outpost of how things should be. And they have hope.

When he comes, it will all be better. When he comes, the kingdom will be restored and things will be as they should be.

When he comes….

[This is the second part of a chapter on OT promises for the future of God’s people. Read the first part here.]

Eccentric Existence 14 (hope)

[We’re continuing our series on David Kelsey’s Eccentric Existence: A Theological Anthropology.]

Throughout this work, Kelsey has emphasized the open-endedness of being human – we are finite, contingent, mysterious, and (in our fallen state) sinfully ambiguous. At the same time, Kelsey has consistently pointed to the fact that we are beings summoned into relationship by God and called (despite the ambiguities) to live faithfully in our everyday realities. As we discussed in the last post, this means that although our action in the world is both important and necessary, any particular actions is wrapped in its own ambiguity. For Kelsey, the confidence that grounds human action lies not in our certainty that a particular action is indeed the “right” thing to do or that it will foster the growth of the Kingdom in the, but in a “joyous hope” that looks to the inbreaking of the Kingdom. For Kelsey, human life in this world seems best described as living faithfully in the midst of an inherently ambiguous world through a joyous hope that God will redeem human action in its ambiguous faithfulness and accomplish his eschatological purposes.

What is “Joyous Hopefulness”?

Kelsey begins his discussion with the following definition of hope:

hope, like faith…, is best construed as personal bodies’ attitude in which they are oriented toward their ultimate and proximate contexts. It is an attitude of expectancy that a good and desired transformation of our quotidian contexts,…now actually begun, will be fully actualized. (501-2)

The hope that Kelsey has in mind, then, is directed both toward God as its object and ground (ultimate context) and the world in which this hope is lived out and fulfilled (proximate context). Any hope that focuses on just one of these two poles will ultimately lapse into something that is sub-Christian and unable to ground meaningful human living.

And, Kelsey further defines Christian hope as that which expresses hope in joy. This “joyous hopefulness” corresponds to the “doxological gratitude” that is the only appropriate and faithful response to the divine summons that constitutes personal identity (see here).

The Public Nature of Hope

The twofold context of joyous hopefulness means that hope must always be public. Kelsey is keen to emphasize that joyous hopefulness cannot be understood merely as “a mode of subjective inwardness” (502). It is not merely a feeling or attitude. Instead, joyous hopefulness is “a disposition to enact certain types of practices publicly”  (502). And, by “disposition” he does not mean some kind of inner attitude that simply motivates human action. That still bifurcates hope from public practice in a way that Kelsey finds unsatisfying. Instead, he argues:

[E]nactments of eschatological hope cannot be defined without reference to the hope they enact. As appropriate response to the public eschatological mission Dei, eschatological hope is best defined as a personal bodies’ orientation that disposes them for enactments of certain practices in public proximate contexts….Joyous hopefulness is a settled and long-lasting attitude. It orients personal bodies in their quotidian contexts as agents, disposing them across extended periods of time to engage in certain types of socially established cooperative human action. (503)

Joyous Hope in an Ambiguous World

But, Kelsey wants to emphasize (yet again) that we live in an inherently ambiguous world and that this means that the possibility of hope does not lie in anything that we see in the world itself, but in the promise-keeping nature of God himself. Hope must always be grounded in our ultimate context or it will co-opted by the finite and sinful social structures and practices of the current age. For Kelsey, “the possibility of such hope lies solely in the actuality of God keeping God’s promise” (504), and never in our attempt to discern the “progress” that we think is taking place around us.

To a large degree, of course, this is because we live in a sinfully broken world. And, short of the eschatological culmination of God’s purposes, our proximate context will always remain sinfully ambiguous. Joyous hope in this age, then, “is a disposition to act hopefully in tyrannical and oppressive circumstances of excessive social and cultural control that appear to offer little possibility for individual human well-being” (504-5).

But, Kelsey also wants to remind us that much of the ambiguity lies in our creaturely finitude.

Hence, eschatological hope is not in the first instance hope despite sin and evil. The disposition to act hopefully is a disposition to act in creaturely quotidian circumstances in ways hopeful of their flourishing in eschatological blessing even when the quotidian happens to be neither chaotic nor especially oppressive, even were it, contrary to fact, not at all distorted by sin and bound in evil. (505)

Joyous hope, then, is a disposition to act publicly in the world, seeking the flourishing of all of God’s creation in faithful response to God’s call and the hopeful expectation “that eschatological blessing will be fully actualized in and upon our proximate contexts” (506). This does not rob human action of meaning, though it does relocate our source of confidence in the meaning of human action.

What does joyous hope look like?

Kelsey, of course, argues that it is impossible to provide a systematic schematization of joyous hopefulness. But, he does argue that it is possible to comment on its general shape.

we must say that in response to God relating to draw them to eschatological consummation, personal bodies’ practices of joyous hopefulness consist of socially established cooperative actions of personal bodies in community that exemplify, however incompletely, the quality of common life that constitutes personal bodies’ eschatological glory. (512)

So,  joyous hopefulness finds expression in “socially established cooperative actions…in community” that seek to model in our everyday realities (to the extent possible) the kind of life that will be characteristic of eschatological glory, which he summarizes briefly as being mysterious, cosmic, finite, contingent, marked by growth and development and by aspects that are both individualistic and communal.

And, though he refuses to describe specific practices since the details need to be worked out by each community in their quotidian, he does offer seven guidelines for such practices:

  1. They should be “utterly realistic” about our quotidian worlds.
  2. They should be holistic, orienting the “entire array of personal bodies’ powers” and shaping them toward eschatologically hopeful practices.
  3. They should cultivate the intellectual disciplines – critical reflection will be necessary to shape and guide these practices in an ambiguous world.
  4. They should discipline the affections – orienting our emotions (affections directed toward some object) in eschatologically hopeful ways.
  5. They should help us learn to be open to the “gift of help” – recognizing our contingency and dependence.
  6. They should direct us toward healthy dependence on others.
  7. They should discipline our “imaginative powers” – seeing the world in ways shaped by eschatological hope.

Again, though, it’s important to emphasize that for Kelsey a practice grounded in joyous hope, and therefore shaped in these seven ways, is not aimed at achieving the liberation of the world and the inbreaking of the Kingdom. We simply can’t accomplish these things and were never intended to. The Kingdom always breaks into the world from “outside” and is always a divine act, a gift. Joyously hopeful practices, on the other hand, are ways of modeling lives shaped by eschatological hope in the midst of finite and sinful ambiguity.

p. 501-2 “hope, like faith…, is best construed as personal bodies’ attitude in which they are oriented toward their ultimate and proximate contexts. It is an attitude of expectancy that a good and desired transformation of our quotidian contexts,…now actually begun, will be fully actualized.”

“Through a Glass Darkly” by Traci Brimhall

You counted days by their cold silences.
…………At night, wolves and men with bleeding hands

colonized your dreams. The last time I visited,
…………you said you trapped a dead woman in your room

who told you to starve yourself to make room for God,
…………so I let them give your body enough electricity

to calm it. Don’t be afraid. The future is not disguised
…………as sleep. It is a tango. It is a waterfall between

two countries, the river that tried to drown you.
…………It is a city where men speak a language

you can fake if you must. It’s the hands of children
…………thieving your empty pockets. It’s bicycles

with bells ringing through the streets at midnight.
…………Come up from the basement. It’s not over.

Before the sun rises, moonlight on the trees.
…………Before they tear the asylum down, joy.

(You can see the original post and listen to the author read her poem here.)

On learning to appreciate J.D. Salinger

The Catcher in the Rye

Image by Alberto Ollo via Flickr

John Mark Reynolds has a very interesting reflection today on the summer that he spent learning to appreciate J. D. Salinger. He confesses that he never really learned to enjoy Salinger as a young man (I’ve had a similar experience), but that things were different this time around.

Why? Partly it was because my childhood was too happy for me to enjoy the books. It is an unfortunate truth of my life that I loved my parents, my country, my school, most of my teachers, and enjoyed almost every minute of childhood. Seeing the troubles of the world and shouldering some well-earned shame, brought on by my own grievous fault, has cured me of that inability.

So, basically he’s learned to appreciate Salinger because he’s now seen enough of the world to understand the sorrow and longing that lie at the heart of Salinger’s writing.

There is a longing at the heart of all Salinger. The young men and women at the center of the book want to be good. They wish to save children from danger, the meaning of the “catcher in the rye” image, by snatching them from a decayed culture. But Salinger never, so far as I can see, tells us to what they will be saved.

Thus, Salinger exemplified a writer frustrated with life, desiring hope and meaning but unable to find it.

The whole post is well worth reading.

Stephen King and the exponential depravity of human nature

Okay, Stephen King would never talk about the “exponential depravity of human nature.” But I thought that was a good summary for the dominant theme running through his book Under the Dome. This is one of the books that I took with me on vacation, and I really enjoyed it. Like most of King’s books, it gets more graphic than I would prefer in places. But he always tells an interesting story. And this one is no different.

The dominant motif in Under the Dome is mob behavior – the way that people do things they would not normally do when they come under the influence of mob psychology. And, King explains this to some degree by showing that we are all flawed beings, and that these flaws tend to multiply exponentially when they begin to feed off of each other in the mob. We normally control this process through a variety of constraints, but in unusual circumstances where the constraints are lost or temporarily ignored, watch out.

King doesn’t directly engage the question of sin – he rarely does – but it fits his narrative very well. In this story you don’t just see a bunch of fallen people doing sinful things; you see a mob, an exponential increase of sin feeding on sin. Even his best characters come across as flawed beings capable of succumbing to the pressure of mob behavior.

And sadly, the novel really ends on that note. There is no transcendent reality to offer any hope that there might be something beyond our fallenness. There is only an affirmation that we must wear our little lives like an ugly brown sweater that covers the nakedness and shame beneath. Under the Dome calls on us to face the evil that we are capable of, even the evil that we often enjoy, find some way of forgiving ourselves, and then just move on. It’s a powerful story, but one that demonstrates the despair inherent in a narrative with nowhere to go – no beyond, no hope, no gospel, no God.

Hope’s two daughters: anger and courage

Faith tells us only that God is. Love tells us that God is good. But hope tells us that God will work God’s will. And hope has two lovely daughters: anger and courage. Anger so that what cannot be, may not be. And courage, so that what must be will be.

St. Augustine (cited by David Kelsey in Eccentric Existence, vol. 1, p. 501)