Thursday, 14 August 2014

Psalms for Victims of ISIS

It is a traditional Jewish practice to "zog Tehillim" (recite psalms) in times of trouble or need. The prayers of David, composed by the Holy Spirit, are supposed to have a special power. 

Please join me in reciting Psalms every day for victims of ISIS. 

Please leave a comment below and let me know what commitment you take on (one a day, 5 a day, the whole book, or whatever).

Thank you and may God bless and protect the afflicted and oppressed. We know he is the father of the afflicted and poor, and no friend to those who wait like hunters to shed blood. 

Some recommended Psalms: 

9,10, 17, 22, 23,54. 

Monday, 11 August 2014

Comedians Go To Heaven

In the Talmud (main book of Jewish law and legend outside of the Bible) there is this story: one day Elijah the prophet comes to visit a very holy Rabbi. The Rabbi asks if he will get in to the next world (heaven). Elijah demurs, but responds that there are two people nearby who will. "Who??" asks the Rabbi excitedly. 

Elijah surprises the Rabbi by taking him to the market. There he points out two street comedians who are entertaining the crowd. "Those two?", asks the Rabbi incredulously. 

"Yes", says Elijah. "All day they stand in the market and make people laugh." 

May it be so, RIP Robin Williams.

Christ Alone

As faith justifies and gives peace at the first, so the renewal of this act of faith renews our peace. And what is my justifying faith, but in time of temptation to rest myself and condition upon Christ alone, saying, Whether godly or ungodly, whether in Christ or not in Christ, now I do not dispute, but rest myself on Christ alone.

-William Bridge, A Lifting Up For The Downcast, p.42

Spiritual Warfare 1: Prayer

Tim Keller was recently asked, "What would you tell the younger Tim Keller if you could?"

He answered, " I would tell him, 'Prayer is more important than you think.'"

Throughout the centuries, the traditions of the Church agree. About how to pray, of course, there are many different opinions. I think, however, that they can be summarized as three.

Liturgical prayer. 

This has been the staple of the Church. Catholic, Anglican, Eastern Orthodox, people have taken up the discipline of reciting or singing formal prayers at set times each day. Beautiful liturgies continue to be produced in our day, from Reformed liturgies to The Franciscan Prayerbook to The Book of Common Prayer for Ordinary Radicals to Wesleyan prayerbooks, Celtic prayerbooks, or The Lutheran Prayerbook. 

To my mind the main strengths of liturgucal prayer are two: regularity and rootedness. I continue to struggle with regularity in prayer, and when I find myself slipping out of the habit I will take up a liturgy and set times for a few days to train myself back to the habit. I will usually then switch to mostly informal prayer, perhaps peppered with liturgy even if only the Lords Prayer. 

The rootedness of liturgy consists, to my mind, in infusing our mind with others' wisdom and with a sense of community. Others wisdom can guide us and expand our circle of attention. The sense of community that comes with liturgy can help ease our loneliness and our fixation on the challenges of our time in history, reminding us of the centuries long endurance of the church.

2) Informal Prayer

"Better to have a heart without words than words without heart", said John Bunyan. That is, of course, the danger of liturgical prayer. In the Jewish tradition prayer is obligatory for all, and for males extensive liturgical prayers are required every day. Although there are benefits to this system and it can be done in a beautiful and transformative way my experience is that more often than not the prayers are said more like high speed mantras as everyone tries to meet their obligations and get back to work. 

Years of experience with this type of prayer have made me averse to an over-reliance on liturgy, or to falling into the idea that I am "done" my obligation when I've recited certain prayers (or more "holy" for reciting more prayers). This can obscure the real heart's work of prayer and what it means, really means, to pray.  

3) Silent Prayer

There is an old tradition among the hesychasts, or quietists, of the Eastern Orthodox tradition that the ultimate prayer is without words. This view occurs among Catholic mystics as well. 

I myself value sitting in silence and surrendering to God's presence, simply letting go into , or feeling toward God, very highly. I think it is important not to make the attainment of silence into a kind of spiritual fetish, however. The point, to my mind, is transforming intimacy and communication, not the attainment of some "state".  My favorite use of silence in meditation is to follow the practice of Centering Prayer, about which there are many good books. Thomas Keating's books are a good place to start.  I like to use this not as an end in and of itself, however, but as a prelude to verbal prayer. 

Prayer As Weapon

According to Jewish tradition the "weapon of Moshiach (the Messiah) is prayer" (Likutey Moharan 1,2. As Rebbe Nachman of Breslov said, 'The Messiah will conquer the whole world without firing a bullet.') This principle in fact extends to all of Israel. The main weapon of Israel is prayer. 

Prayer is our main weapon both internally and externally. Our struggle is "not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age.....(Ephesians 6:12 NKJV). This is a battle which goes on in our internal wilderness where we stand with Christ against the Devil, and it occurs in our prayerful struggle against the dark forces which roam the earth whether in the deserts of Iraq or of the Oilsands of Alberta.  

Brothers and sisters, let us not neglect daily prayer. Let us not forget to turn to it as our first weapon in every fight and our ever-present need in keeping the eyes of our mind on Jesus.

Sunday, 10 August 2014

Rev. Jacques Philippe on Holiness

For God, each person is absolutely unique. Holiness is not the realisation of a given model of perfection that is identical for everyone. It is the emergence of an absolutely unique reality that God alone knows, and that He alone brings to fruition. No individual knows what his own holiness consists of. Holiness is only revealed to us by degrees, as we journey on, and it is often something very different from what we imagine, so much so that the greatest obstacle on the path to holiness may be to cling too closely to the image we have of our own perfection. 

What God wants is always different, always disconcerting; but ultimately it is infinitely more beautiful , because only God is capable of creating totally unique masterpieces, while we humans can only imitate.

- Rev. Jacques Philippe, In The School of The Holy Spirit 

Friday, 8 August 2014

The New Warfare

We are, all of us, at war. It is a war, like all wars, for life against death. It is also a war for good and against evil. 

Everyone is involved, but most don't know it. Most of us are bought off by the evil side, or are used as pawns against our will. Some of us are fighting with greater or lesser degrees of skill. 

Any of us can take up the weapons given us by God and fight. Anywhere, anytime, anyplace. And we can wound the enemy and spread the Kingdom of Light. 

"God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all", says 1 John 1:5. "If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another." (1 John 1:6-7, ESV)

The forces of darkness and those lost to their lies roam the planet like lions. Desperate and cynical worshippers of violence and power injure and kill women, children, civilians and each other in Iraq, Syria, Africa, Israel. Fossil fuel companies leverage the future of our children and Gods planetary creation against their own pleasures and comforts. Ecosystems fall into increasing chaos and plants and animals disappear. Religious systems- technologies of the sacred, liberating messages, soul disciplines- are co-opted by fundamentalists, mocked in the public square or minimized and disempowered by on the one hand secularists and on the other jihadists. 

What we need is not only a new monastic but a new type of souljah. We need discipline and training for the body and mind to foster strength, cunning, knowledge, survival skills. 

What are the disciplines of the new warfare? The answer will differ depending on your own worldview and religious commitment or non-commitment. In this blog I want to start outlining some of the disciplines that I think are necessary for this benevolent war on the forces of darkness within and without. My  answers will come from a Christian perspective but I welcome (and long for!) thoughts and inspirations from others whether Christian, secular, or a committed to another religion. 

Some disciplines that come to mind are: prayer, frugality, self-sufficiency, non-violent communication, generosity, love, knowledge, and strength. 

I will start next week with my first post on discipline number one: the weapon of prayer. 

Thursday, 7 August 2014

Forgiveness: Is Justification Through Faith Alone or Through Faith-and-Forgiveness? (Matthew 6:14-15; 18:23-35)

Faith is the fundamental and leading cause of justification, but. 

That's what I thought when I read Matthew 18:23-35 today, where Jesus seems to make the forgiveness of God conditional on forgiving others.

Likewise in Matthew 6:14-15 Jesus says that those who do not forgive others will not themselves be forgiven. This should raise exegetical questions for many in the Evangelical camp who believe in justification sola fide (through faith alone).

The simple (but to me unsatisfying) solution is to treat forgiveness like any "work" and thus say that though justification does not depend on it, anyone with true faith will engage in the good work of forgiving others. Therefore those without that work (here, forgiveness) will be lacking in true faith and thus not be among the justified (forgiven). However true that logic is it seems a stretch to me to find it in these particular texts. Their logic seems more clearcut: forgive and you will be forgiven. Don't you won't. That is how, for instance, CS Lewis read it. 

The docrine of sola fide is at the heart of Reformation theology, whether Lutheran, Calvinist, or Wesleyan. It is affirmed by most "free church" Christians outside of the Orthodox and Catholic Churches. If we accept sola fide, then how do we understand these texts (Matthew 6:14-15; Matthew 18:23-35)? 

Let's look at Matthew 6:14-15 for a moment first (NIV):

"For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins."

In this verse Jesus states that only those who forgive will be forgiven. He says this in the context of a teaching about prayer. What he seems to be saying is, those who have not forgiven others wrongdoings against them will not receive forgiveness in prayer (or as a result of prayer) from God. 

A tempting way to explain this text is that the person will not subjectively experience forgiveness unless they forgive others. Psychologically true as this may be the text does not seem to allow this interpretation. It says, "The Father will not forgive you." The forgiveness seems to be objective, not subjective. One answer might be that the subjective ability to receive forgiveness and the Father's effective act of forgiving are in fact the same thing. This is a possible interpretation, but I am unconvinced by it. 

A second possibility is to follow the idea that Jesus' teachings before his crucifixion are not meant to be instructions we must follow but demonstrations of our inability to follow the actual requirements of the law as definitively revealed by Jesus. Gregory Boyd and others have argued, for instance, that the Sermon on the Mount is impossible to follow perfectly and was not preached primarily as instruction but to humble the listeners and communicate to them their failure to follow the actual demands of the law (see G. Boyd, Letters from a Skeptic p.205). (This does not mean that we shouldn't try to follow the Beatitudes, only that we should not expect to follow them under our own power or believe that we need to follow them successfully to be righteous in Gods eyes.) 

This solution is also tempting and I think it may apply to some of Jesus' instructions. The trouble with applying it to these texts and the theme they share though comes from the next text to look at: Matthew 18:23-35 (NIV):

23 “Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24 As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him. 25 Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.

26 “At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ 27 The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.

28 “But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins.[b] He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.

29 “His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’

30 “But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. 31 When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened.

32 “Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. 33 Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ 34 In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.

35 “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” 

Jesus here is addressing his disciples. In this instance he is not merely saying "to be forgiven you must forgive." He is saying something that seems to me to be more challenging and disturbing for Protestants. He is saying, "To retain the forgiveness you have been given by God you must forgive other people." Here Jesus is specifically talking to the forgiven, and he is saying that if after being forgiven their enormous debt to God his followers do not extend that forgiveness to others comparatively minor debts towards them, their forgiveness will be cancelled and they will be punished until they have paid the full debt they owe. 

I think there is good reason to believe that the temporary incarceration and torture described here refers to hell, since on the basis of Scriptural exegesis and Jewish tradition I believe hell to be temporary. It is conceivable that it refers to rebuke and punishment in this life, but for the purposes of this discussion it doesn't matter. What matters is that the pardon extended to the anti-hero of the parable is revoked. 

On the face of it this piece of scripture seems straightforward. Being "of the forgiven" (justified) is dependent not on faith alone but also on extending that pardon to others. The word "others" brings us to an important point, however. 

The immediate context of the parable makes it clear that Jesus is discussing the question of forgiveness, rebuke, exclusion and reconciliation within the community of his followers. Without saying that Jesus would want anyone to limit their love, which I think is incorrect (Matthew 5:45-48), reading this verse in context still seems instructive. It seems what Jesus is saying is: you, my disciples, are the people whom God has forgiven. If you refuse to forgive those whom I have forgiven as I have forgiven you, then I will revoke my forgiveness of you. 

Paul seems to echo this perspective when he says that "From now on, we do not regard anyone according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation." ( 2 Corinthians 5:16-17, ESV). The "therefore if anyone" of 17 clearly qualifies the "anyone" of verse 16 to mean "anyone in Christ."  The point Paul seems to be making is that anyone in Christ is a new creation, not to be regarded "according to the flesh" or according to the "sinful nature". They are to regarded in Christ, as clothed in Christ's righteousness. That is the way that every believer is viewed by God, and therefore that is the way they should view each other. 

All of this is both convicting and profoundly moving. It also seems to sink the idea that Jesus' words were addressed only to to the "unforgiven" still trying to be righteous through their own efforts.

But does it?

A closer look at the parable raises more questions. In verse 25 the King declares that the servant will lose everything to pay off his debt. The servant falls on his knees and begs for patience, stating that he will pay off the debt. In other words, the servant states that he himself will atone for his debt, he will make amends himself. 

This is not the situation of those living after Christ's sacrifice on the cross. This is the situation of someone under the law who has sinned and owes amendment and atonement. God has been patient, as the Torah says many times He is, to give time to repent and atone.  The servant, however, has not done so- instead he has racked up a massive bill. This is the situation described in Mishna Pirke Avot 3:20 (circa 180-220 AD):

"He [Rabbi Akiva] used to say: Everything is given on collateral, and a net is spread over all the living. The store is open, the Storekeeper extends credit, the ledger is open, the hand writes, and whoever wants to borrow may come borrow. The collectors make their rounds constantly every day, they collect from a person whether he realizes it or not, and they have what to rely upon. The judgment is true, and everything is prepared for the (messianic) banquet." 

There is much to discuss in that fascinating quote (including the fact that the telos of everything is the messianic banquet, suggesting that the punishment (collection of debt) is to purify Israel so they can attend, not to punish for punishment's sake- but I digress).

The point I want to make is that the man repents and begs for more time to atone, and God compassionately and out of grace cancels his debt. This scenario does not correspond to the new age after Jesus' crucifixion, but to the "previous age" of the Mosaic law. 

The message of the cross is, of course, that God Himself has paid our unpayable debt in the person of His son. The man in the parable is forgiven through grace on account of faith as Abraham or David was, not on account of faith in Christ's atoning sacrifice for all sin as Paul/ Shaul or Peter/Shimon Kefa was.

Does this make sense in terms of the immediate context, ie. in terms of what Jesus was trying to convey to his immediate hearers? I think it does. Jesus regularly went around forgiving and healing (the two seem very closely connected). He did this sometimes in response to faith, and sometimes not, as an act of pure compassionate grace. In this pre-crucifixion context, however, his words- which I could paraphrase as "if you have been forgiven due to repentance (Matthew 18), or you seek forgiveness in prayer, you must forgive others or else you will not be forgiven" (Matthew 6)- make sense. 

The simple reason is that the Cross has not yet happened. His disciples do not understand his role as suffering servant or his repeated predictions of his own atoning sacrifice and resurrection. Of course even if they did he would not be able to offer them its benefits. The atonement is not a nice idea, its an effective act of God that changes the nature of reality. Jesus cannot offer its benefits before it has happened. 

There seem then to be two things that are true, therefore, about these verses for our purposes: 1) they do not mean that those in Christ and forgiven through His sacrifice will lose that forgiveness if they do not forgive others; and 2) they also teach us that we should do so, and how much God would like us too.

This second use of the verse corresponds, of course, to the general function of the teachings and commands of the Torah for followers of Christ. What distinguishes it from other teachings, however, is its specificity for believers in Jesus. The character and logic of this "law" are structured and defined around being forgiven by God, and thus have a special message and special urgency for those of us who have accepted and received the unfathomable gift of God reconciling us to Himself in His son. We are to see others who are in Christ as in Christ. We are to forgive them as we have been forgiven. Yet if we fail we will not automatically lose our state of forgiveness and righteousness through faith in God's eyes. 

This dynamic of both affirming the law and releasing us from its demands should not surprise us. It is the very dynamic of the simultaneous revelation of the seriousness of sin and pardon from it; of the holiness and love of God; of the law and the gospel which we see in the Cross. 


Monday, 4 August 2014

Friday, 1 August 2014

Keeping Religion Out of Politics? Gerhard Forde

One ought indeed to keep religion out of politics. But that means more than merely separating church and state. It means that all religious and mythological ideas and ideologies, all those fantasies and dreams we use to cover our greed and presumption must be exposed and thrown out of politics. It means that all our prejudices, all our self-serving vanities- all of this must be seen for what it is and discarded....

It means that we shall have to learn to make our political decisions without prejudice strictly according to love and justice, according to what is best for taking care of human beings. That is what it means ultimately to keep "religion" out of politics. Keeping religion out of politics is not accomplished by shutting up the voice of the church and prophetic criticism. Indeed that is only to let all kinds of religion in- all those pet religions of the devil that so easily seduce us.

- Gerhard Forde, Where God Meets Man