Archives For Grace

For Australians, spring is associated with bright mornings, longer days, and a slow re-acquaintance with the sweltering heat of summer.

Of all the seasons here, spring is in a way, THE penultimate pronouncement of them all; reminding us that Christmas is not all that far away, that the summer holidays are drawing near and that another year is coming to a close.

I’ve never been a big spring fan, but my perspective is changing.

The female satin Bowerbirds have been hanging around for a few weeks, and yesterday for the first time the (male) Regent Bowerbird  made an entrance.

Bower Bird collage

Left: Female Regent Bowerbird Right: Male Regent Bowerbird

 

It’s these kinds of encounters throughout spring that whilst not proving the existence of God empirically, are like metaphors that function as breathtaking reminders of His active creativity.

This is where the brilliance of Charles Spurgeon guides us when we read:

‘We have seen a hedge all thick with dry leaves throughout winter, and neither frost nor wind has removed the withered foliage, but the spring has soon made a clearance.
The new life dislodges the old, pushing it away as unsuitable to it. So our old corruptions are best removed by the growth of new graces.
It is as the new life buds and opens that the old worn out things or our former state are compelled to quit their hold of us.
Our wisdom lies in living near to God, that by the power of his Holy Spirit all our graces may be vigorous, and may exercise a sin-expelling power over our lives: the new leaves of grace pushing off our old dried-out affections and sinful habits.’[i]

The Earth, everything in and on it is far from being the residue of a cosmic incident whereby a Deistic creator steps aside, and becomes an indifferent, absent-minded spectator.

Through the seasons, God invites our applause.

Through spring, God welcomes new life.

Through Christ, God breathes it into us.

‘If anyone who is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Jesus Christ reconciled us to himself.’ (2. Cor. 5:17-18, ESV)

Source:

[i] Spurgeon, C. 1883 New Leaves Pushing off the Old in Flowers from a Puritans Garden, Funk & Wagnalls pp.97-98

 

Remove The Stone

September 10, 2014 — Leave a comment

ID-100113575The events in John 11-12 involve a dynamic interaction between Jesus, his friends, a curious crowd[i] and some very concerned authorities.

We read of spies, intrigue, assassination plots and a mutinous disciple.

The text tells us that Jesus’ friends had serious concerns for his safety in a crowd[ii].  This is emphasised by John when he tells us that Jesus is warned against returning to Bethany (11:8).

In 10:31, John states that the reason for this is due to a previous clash, between offended stone throwers and their intention to arrest Jesus, who only after pushing them back with verbal rebuttals manages to avoid any further unnecessary contact.

We see this danger also exemplified by the assassination plots first laid out against Jesus and then Lazarus. We are later told of Caiaphas, the chief priest[iii], and his appeasement not just of 1st Century Jewish law, but also that of the ‘Pax Romana’; a 1st and 2nd century status quo enforced by Rome’s well disciplined, and heavily equipped legions.

The text then shows the true extent of Iscariot’s character, as Mary, in front of the risen Lazarus and his sister Martha, pours ointment, made of an expensive Indian perfume, onto the ‘feet of Jesus, wiping his feet with her hair.’

In John’s reflection we are unable to escape the tension as he writes:

‘Judas did not care for the poor. He was a thief. Having charge of the moneybag, which he used to help himself to’ (12:6)

The situation appears to have been a mix of grief, anger, joy, faith, reason and fear.

But, who, when tempted would struggle to disagree with Iscariot or the crowd today?

Jesus, this so-called ‘’preacher of love”; the so-called ‘Son of Man’; a man presumed to be one of absolute peace and tolerance, so easily managed to incite the anger of the authorities.

If he is about grace, why is he so divisive?

Look at how Jesus treated his friend Lazarus and see how he is absent when Lazarus’ sisters are in need?

Why did he place his own security over the healing of his friend?

How is that not selfish betrayal?

Did his intolerance know no bounds?  Perhaps the whispers and accusations spoken against him are true?

These questions might not be so unjustified, that is of course if it were not for this key event:

In front of the people gathered to console the grieving sisters, Jesus returns, prays, speaks, and then raises Lazarus from the dead.

Jesus is first met by Martha.

Possibly indicating prior conversations of lament and confusion between Lazarus’ sisters, who speak separately with Jesus and say:

“Lord, if you had been here…” (11:21 / 11:32, ESV)

He tells Martha that ‘your brother will rise again…I am the resurrection and the life. Do you believe this?’ (11:23). Martha’s response is retold in the form of confession: ‘she believes he is the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world’ (11:27)

Yet, it’s a curious thing that following this John observing Jesus’ body language, describes him as being moved to ‘anger[iv] and indignation’[v]  – better described as a ‘snarl, snort or growl’ (Carson).

With such a response and what we know of Jesus Christ, it is not beyond reason to suggest that:

Here He is, with the power of the life-giver moving through his human veins standing before the tomb of his friend.

Here, Jesus recognizes the lingering effects of death which has passed through Lazarus and still torments those gathered.

The life of Lazarus, a friend of Jesus, now silenced by the ‘total peril’[vi]; the ‘nothingness’, which is a ‘stubborn element and alien factor’[vii] that ‘opposes and resists God’s world-dominion’[viii], yet passes its devastating blow throughout all humanity.

It is here that Jesus’ ‘quiet outrage flares up again[ix]‘, yet he responds with an uncharacteristic public prayer, beginning with thanksgiving saying:

‘Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this on account of the people standing around, that they may believe you sent me’ (11:41-42, ESV)

Although ‘two interpretations are possible’[x], there is little doubt that at this point:

‘Christ does not approach the tomb of Lazarus as an idle spectator, but as a champion who prepares for a contest; He groans; for the violent tyranny of death, which he had to conquer…and contemplates the transaction itself’ (Calvin, 361)

Here ‘Christ shows that he is the commencement of life and that the continuance of life is also a work of his grace’ (Calvin, 356), commanding bystanders to:

“Remove the stone.” (38-39, The Message)
And then he cried out in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out”.
The man who had died came out, his hands and feet bound with linen strips, and his face wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go” (11:43-44, ESV)

Three things stand out to the modern-era hearers.

First, the text confronts us with three things Jesus does when he is angered and deeply disturbed by the events around him: he asserts himself, turns to prayer and gratitude, and then acts.

Second, is that we do well to understand ‘that grief and outrage are right responses held together, in tension, but grief and compassion without outrage reduces both to mere sentiment, while outrage without grief hardens into self-righteous arrogance and rage’[xi]

Finally, from this we can understand that the consequence of Christ’s victory is the right for us to exist. It is no longer a hopeless existence, merely surviving in the shadow of a destructive vacuum of that which has no right to exist.

The events surrounding Lazarus show us that Jesus is opposed to death as much as he is opposed to sin.

In this, His “yes” to life resonates as the preamble for the grace-conclusion found in the scarred Christ standing outside his own tomb, where permission to live, not just for now, but forever in fellowship with God, is granted by grace to the responsive sinner.

 

Sources:

[i] Carson: ‘They were puzzled and confused.’

[ii] John Calvin rightly noted that: ‘the rage of his enemies had not subsided’ ; Commentary of John Sourced from CCEL.org (p.355)

[iii] John 11:49-50

[iv] ἐμβριμάομαι: rebuke; warning; deeply moved; groan. Not ὀργή: wrath; hostility.

[v] ‘His inward reaction was anger or outrage or indignation’ (Carson, 1991)

[vi] Barth, K. 1960 God and Nothingness CD.III.3 Hendrickson Publishers (p.289-290)

[vii] ibid

[viii] ibid

[ix] Carson, D. A. (1991). The Gospel according to John (p. 416). Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press; W.B. Eerdmans.

[x] Ibid

[xi] Ibid

Image: “Stairs In A Cave” courtesy of  papaija2008 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

 

Fankl_KindleEd_Meaning‘Where do we go when we don’t know […..]?’

There is a statement made by Augustine in Confessions that reads: ‘what I mean when I say I love my God, is that I am clinging to an embrace which is not severed by the fulfilment of desire’[i]

Centuries later, Leo Tolstoy made a similar statement, writing that ‘grace supported him over the abyss.’[ii]

On the surface it may seem an odd correlation, but Viktor Frankl’s book ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ embodies the essential characteristics of these theological positions.

Frankl, a Jewish psychiatrist and holocaust survivor, presents a perspective born from extreme adversity.

The connection of his thought and experience with that of Tolstoy’s and Augustine’s, is at first an ‘existential struggle for meaning”[iii]. What follows is break with existentialism with an acknowledgement that such a meaning is found outside ourselves.

For example, Frankl ambiguously states that ‘being human always points, and is directed, to something, or someone, other than oneself’[iv]. Augustine and Tolstoy would agree, but go further, by more directly stating that we are not just pointed, but are being pointed towards the God who encounters us in Jesus Christ.

Where Augustine states that clinging to grace is first brought about by God’s embrace, Tolstoy reminds us that ‘faith is the strength of life’. Frankl adds, so is hope.

His prevailing conclusion is that in the midst of difficult circumstances, we are never without the ‘free decision[v]’ to say yes to life.

“…the last of the human freedoms is found in the ability to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.[vi]

The pessimist resembles a man who observes with fear and sadness that his wall calendar, from which he daily tears a sheet, grows thinner with each passing day.

On the other hand, the person who attacks the problems of life actively is like a man who removes each successive leaf from his calendar and files it neatly and carefully away with its predecessors, after first having jotted down a few diary notes on the back.

He can reflect with pride and joy on all the richness set down in these notes, on all the life he has already lived to the fullest. What will it matter to him if he notices that he is growing old? Has he any reason to envy the young people whom he sees, or wax nostalgic over his own lost youth? What reasons has he to envy a young person?

For the possibilities that a young person has, the future which is in store for him? “No, thank you,” he will think. “Instead of possibilities, I have realities in my past, not only the reality of work done and of love loved, but of sufferings bravely suffered.’[vii]

God gives us permission to act. In our free decision we are encouraged to let God transform our hearts. (Romans 12:1-21)

We are not bound to the definitions of others, our culture/sub-culture or the opinions of our neighbour. Identity rests in the one who, while we were yet sinners, died for us (Romans 5:8). For God, in Jesus Christ chose to free us, so that we can be truly free to say “yes” to Him, and “yes” to life.

Sources:

[i] St. Augustine, Confessions Penguin Classics p.212
[ii] ‘I am supported above the abyss’ Tolstoy, L. 1869, A Confession
[iii] Frankl, V.E. 2006 Man’s Search for Meaning Beacon Press. Kindle Ed. Loc. 27-29 & 1268-1270
[iv]Ibid Loc.1387-1388
[v] Ibid, Loc. 922-924
[vi] Ibid, Loc. 877-878
[vii] Ibid, Loc. 1514-18-1521

Truth Has Being

June 26, 2014 — 4 Comments

Like a lot of people I haven’t always been a Christian. There certainly was no religious ”silver-spoon” in my upbringing.To my own chagrin, as a teenager I remember (et.al) telling  a teacher that his bible study on James had pushed me further away from God.

I was wrong to say that. It wasn’tRevelation 3_8 his problem, it was mine. Although I would never have admitted it at the time, I was grateful for those lessons.

As a teenager I experienced difficulty reconciling the actions of Christians with the Bible. I was taught but not always shown.  This disconnect left me a wanderer. Never an ardent atheist. I cannot fully explain this, other than to suggest that deep down I  witnessed my sighs being turned into prayers. The presence of grace in ‘revolt against the darkness‘ (Barth paraphrased, CD Fragments IV:4).

Any alignment on my part is and can only be the result of an act of alignment initiated first by God. Who, in my case, stepped in to become a father where the one assigned to me had, from my perspective anyway, walked away.

It’s always a work in progress, but through reflecting on those experiences I can see clearer how, in Jesus Christ, God reaches to grasp us, even when we are struggling to grasp Him.

I believe this is at the heart of what Augustine meant when he wrote:

‘Eternal Truth, true love, beloved Eternity.All this, my God, you are.

It is you that I sigh by night and day. When first I knew you, you raised me up so that I could see that there was something to be seen, but also that I was not yet able to see it.

I gazed on you with eyes to weak to resist the dazzle of your splendour. Your light shone upon me in its brilliance, and I thrilled with love and dread alike.I realized that I was far away from you. It was as though I were in a land where all is different from your own.

And far off I heard your voice saying ‘I am the God who IS.’ I heard your voice, as we hear voices that speak to our hearts, and at once I had no cause to doubt. I might more easily have doubted that I was alive than that Truth had being.’

(Augustine, Confessions, VII:10 Penguin Classics 1961:147)

 

{….}

Homeschooler.

Your tears can teach.

Don’t be ashamed of them.

 

Those feelings of failure do not compare with the reality of your success.

The reality of failure can never compare with the gift to overcome.

 

God has called you to this.

Reach beyond discouragement.

 

Towards the sacred, the creative, the hallowed.

Beyond the before, the hollow and the shallow.

 

{For my beautiful wife, who often reaches beyond the before, the hollow and the shallow.}

RL2014

Here’s a thought that I repeat here with prayer-filled sigh and grateful amen.

working theory

If you call on him as Father who judges impartially according to each one’s deeds, conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of exile, knowing that you were ransomed from futile ways inherited from your forefathers’

(1.Pet.1:18 ESV)

 

 

“Everyone’s going through a refining fire sooner or later, but you’ll be well-preserved, protected from the eternal flames. Be preservatives yourselves. Preserve the peace.”

– The Message[i]

Last night my wife and I rented the second movie in ‘The Hunger Games’ series: ‘Catching Fire’.

Along with the James. N. Howard soundtrack, the comic relief of Woody Harrelson, catching fire Hunger gamesJennifer Lawrence’s precision acting and the action sequences.There was a lot to like.

For those unfamiliar with the story:

Katniss Everdeen is the protagonist; a disciplined hunter wrestling with the contrasts between a world of poverty and oppression, and the world of the Capitol with its opulence, Epicureanism, control and wealth.
Her battle deteriorates into a personal struggle to come to terms with the brutality of her situation and the hostile environment she finds herself thrust into. One she also hurls herself into it by taking the place of “Prim’’, her sister, who is “reaped” for a reality TV show, designed to control with fear, shame.

 

Among the terms given to Katniss such as “girl on fire”, we also find in her narrative the themes of martyrdom, discipline, community, family, self-sacrifice, integrity, higher purpose and hope.

There even rests an imperative given to Katniss before entering the arena for the second time to, “remember who the real enemy is.”

All of which are intrinsically theological.

Right away we can see, reflected in ‘The Hunger Games’, Jesus’ statement: ‘’greater love has no one than to lay down their life for another”.

However, it is the subtle and consistent focus on discipline that should catch our attention.

Working through some daily readings today I couldn’t help but reflect on ‘The Hunger Games’ and its relevance to what I was reading.

Landing on some material from Charles Spurgeon I found his connection between grace, salt and fire. Expanding on Mark 9:49 and the synoptic equivalents he refers to salt as a ‘grateful emblem of divine Grace in the soul.’[ii]

Despite the lack of sleep (having also watched Ben Stiller’s: ‘The secret life of Walter Mitty’ – a little slow, but well worth your rental dollars) I saw the themes melt together in answer to my questions about the Mark 9:49 reference and its relevance.

‘For everyone will be salted with fire’

Spurgeon wrote:

Some things in the economy of grace are measured; for instance our vinegar and gall are given us with such exactness that we never have a single drop too much, but of the salt of grace no stint is made[1]

Unlike an eternal fire (hell), which is the context of Jesus’ discourse, a “trial by fire” is a measured purifying.  Think here of the parent who, with a “no”, by hiding the sugar, yet says “yes” by not hiding the salt.

Parents need to lock up the fruit cupboard, and the sweet jars, but there is no need to keep the salt-box under lock and key, for few children will eat too greedily from that. A man may have too much money, or too much honour, but he cannot have too much grace (Spurgeon) [iii]

If we view God’s grace as being like salt and fire, it is highly unlikely we would want to abuse it. E.g.: The parent’s “yes” to salt it is not likely to be abused. This logic starts to feed into questions about discipline, costly grace and cheap grace. Mercy and Judgement; Grace and Law.

Suffice to say that, in the refining fire of struggle the call to “remember who the real enemy is” can be found. Not to far from this is the true Evangels who call from both past and present telling us that rescue is real.

They may seem like unlikely conversation partners, yet put together, the parallels between Katness’s story, Spurgeon’s insight and the biblical witness become clear.

In the midst of the fire, those who are called to be salt are encouraged to “remember who the real enemy is.”

I think its fair to say that ‘The Hunger Games’ remind us that the salt of grace is a purifying force inside the fire of trials.

In the fictional world of ‘The Hunger Games’ Katniss is salt to all that leeches, fire fuelling the cause of hope. A hope of peace and true freedom embodied in the symbol of a “mockingjay” bird.

A challenge to human ideas, pride, fear, power and arrogant pageantry.

For this world, Jesus is.

He does this through His presence in the Holy Spirit and the proclamation of the Evangels, who empowered by grace “remind us about who the real enemy is” and where our true help comes from.

As Spurgeon concluded:

‘Grace kills sin. Like salt kills the leech[iv].

 

[i] Peterson, E. H. (2005). The Message: The Bible in contemporary language (Mk 9:49–50). Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress.
[ii] Spurgeon, C. H. (2006). Morning and evening: Daily readings (Complete and unabridged; New modern edition.). Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers.
[iii] ibid
[iv] Spurgeon uses the term ‘reptiles’. I have changed this to leeches in order to be more in line with the science. Doing so, in my opinion, does not reduce the veracity Spurgeon was trying to convey by using such a simile. If anything changing the word reinforces his point, while also neutralising any potential criticism about the apparent scientific inaccuracies present.