Thursday, November 26, 2015

I'm thankful for

I'm thankful for many things:

For the sound of tiny 3-year-old feet running toward me for a hug, shouting "Daddy!" 
For a daughter who is potty trained at 15 months and just as excited about that as I am
For children who love to sing the Doxology, Gloria Patri, and Nunc Dimittis
For a wife who cares deeply for our family and works diligently to show it. She is beautiful in every way
For my wife's family who cared deeply for her all her life, raising her and shaping her into the godly woman she is today
For my own family that fears God, and takes his word very seriously
For my Puritan upbringing, the Anglican communion in which I now serve, and the entire baptized Body which shares in the same Life
For cassocks, albs, cinctures, stoles, and all those called to wear them
For morning prayer and forgiveness each day
For water, bread, and wine

For eggs and coffee in the morning
For briar, meerschaum, icons, and holy incense
For theologians with great imagination, humility, and charity
For neighbors with whom I disagree about many things, but listen carefully and are teachable
For friends who post blessercise videos for fun (you know who you are)
For Facebook, which keeps me mindful of how little I know, how many half-truths are propagated around the world, and how important face-to-face relationships really are
For elderly friends who care, and the multiple, daily phone calls I receive from them
For the Riverwest Food Pantry and Hunger Task Force
For pro-life crisis pregnancy centers, and the news of another life saved
For water, bread, and wine

For electricity and all the conveniences which accompany that
For text messaging, email, and e-bills
For Netflix and Amazon Prime's exhaustive lists of clean, educational kid shows
For books, children who LOVE them, and a wife who loves our love for books
For smartphones, YouTube, and the global awareness of social injustice
For Twitter, which forces me to condense my thoughts or just shut up
For the few Pilgrims who ate meals peacefully with Indians
For the Indians who showed mercy toward pilgrims despite the horrible treatment they received from Christians
For the few Presidents who acknowledged God's abundant mercies upon such unworthy people
For the water, the bread, and the wine

Friday, November 6, 2015

He still listens

Because of various trials and circumstances surrounding our city, our neighborhood, and the Church, my family (along with others in our church) is setting this day apart for prayer and fasting. Providentially, during morning prayer today, both BCP lectionary readings for this morning involve prayer and fasting. Consequently, I couldn't keep myself from jotting down some of my thoughts about those Scripture passages.

Ezra leads the people with prayer and fasting (Ezra 8:21-36) because he understands that they are truly in danger on their journey back to the land of Israel, back to where God's House is to be rebuilt. As they seek the Lord diligently, He listens to their cry, and provides for them.

Likewise, the Psalmist fasts (Psa 69:10-11) and prays diligently (Psa 69:3) because he is truly in danger. His circumstances are different though. He is in danger day after day because of two things: (1) he manifests an outspoken trust in God throughout the public square, and (2) he makes foolish decisions sometimes. God's enemies exploit both to their advantage, and his shame. Those foolish faults are his own and are not hidden from the Lord (Psa 69:5-6). Yet through his example, we see that when he fasts and prays, the Lord still listens to his cries, and provides accordingly.

These examples not only describe the life and struggles of faith in ancient Israelite experience, but they also foreshadow the life and struggles of all God's children. Even when our fasting is turned into a reproach by our enemies, and society murmurs against us, making songs about us, mocking our trust in Him (Psa69:8-14), we need to remember that He is still listening to all those who seek Him

He is listening to our cries because He understands our sorrow from first hand experience. He made us and He tabernacles among us. He suffered real afflictions of this world because of its foolishness and sin. He remembers what it's like to do good and yet still be mocked and murmured against for his decisions. Zeal for his Father's House consumed him (Psa 69:9; c.f. John 2:17). He understands the feeling of betrayal, and the reward one receives for wickedness (Psa 69:25; c.f. Acts 1:17-20; and Psa 69:22; c.f. Rom. 11:9-10). He lived with our weakness. He hungered and thirsted (Psa 69:21; c.f. Matt. 27:34-48). He lived daily in danger, want, and need.

Today, let's remember that He is still listening as one who deeply knows our frailty and needs. He is with us as we fast and pray. He tabernacles among us and makes room for us, listening to our cries and meeting our needs. He listens and cares because we need Him, and because He knows exactly how much we need Him.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Rules in a real world

Below is an intriguing excerpt about ethics from Peter Leithart's latest book, Traces of the Trinity: Signs of God in Creation and Human Experience:

   We apply rules differently from situation to situation, and we don’t really know how a rule works or which rule to use unless we know the variations. You don’t even know which rule to use unless you have examined the facts. “Love your enemies,” Jesus said. To apply that, we need to identify our enemies. “Love your neighbor as yourself,” Jesus said, quoting Leviticus. And the lawyer’s response was a reasonable one: “Who is my neighbor?” “Don’t covet your neighbor’s wife or his house or his cattle,” Yahweh thundered from Sinai, but you need to see a marriage certificate and a bill of sale to know what woman, house, and cattle are off-limits. You can’t even use a rule unless you know something about the situation, since rules always have to be applied to a real world that is always in the form of a particular situation. 
   Rules cannot be followed without attention to situations, and the effort to sidestep situations is ultimately unethical. It’s another version of the attempt to escape time and change that we’ve seen before. 
   On the other hand, you can’t abandon rules and reduce ethics to situations either. Situational ethics is incoherent.
Master: Always conform to the situation
Disciple: Is that an absolute command?
Master: How 'bout those Seahawks? 
   Worse, a purely situational ethics is ultimately unethical. Are we faithful only when situations demand faithfulness, or is faithfulness a trans-situational virtue? Asked whether rape might be legitimate under certain circumstances, no one will seriously answer, “Yes, of course. There are times when rape is the ethical course.” If anyone does say that, you can be morally certain he is a philosophy professor, that he lives a highly protected life in the academy, and that he would have a very different reaction if the rape victim were his daughter or his wife. 
   Right dispositions are just as necessary. Doing the right thing for the wrong reasons is wrong because goals and motives determine what kind of action an action is. Taking care of an old lady out of greed for her inheritance is not an act of kindness, or even an act of kindness with a patina of disquieting immorality. It’s a different sort of act entirely, an act of avarice. Conforming to the prescriptions of a religious ritual without real devotion to God is not worship but hypocrisy, a vice condemned by ancient Jews like Isaiah and Jesus, by Christians like Aquinas and Calvin, by the Buddha, Muhammad, and Hindu sages through the ages. Evil dispositions make an act evil, but good dispositions don’t by themselves make an act ethical. We might pity the whore with the heart of gold, but the category of “well-meaning rapist” doesn’t make any ethical sense. 
   So, the only way to be ethical or think ethically about ethics is to juggle all of these factors, to keep all the balls in the air all the time. And here we glimpse again the pattern we’ve encountered throughout this essay, the pattern of mutual indwelling, operating at the level of theory: ethical concepts and ethical authorities have to indwell each other to be truly ethical. If we extract rules from the intricacies of situations and the motivating power of dispositions, the rules are useless. If we siphon off situations from rules and dispositions, we will find ourselves justifying horrors. If we reduce ethics to dispositions, we can defend any action, so long as one’s heart is in the right place. 
   Each has to be defined by the other. Rules apply to situations, and we conform to rules only when our motives and goals are right. Situations need to be seen in the light of ethical rules, since rules are part of the situation we’re in. We can make sense of our ethical dispositions only when they attend to rules and remain attentive to situations. These three are one, because each is a home for the others; each makes its home in each. Unless each dwells in each, we don’t have ethics at all. Ethics is constituted by the mutual indwelling of rules, real-life situations, and virtuous dispositions. When we inquire into the “ontology” of ethics, in other words, we find at a conceptual level the same pattern we found when exploring the world outside our heads. We discover the contours of mutual habitation. Since we’re talking ethics, though, the “is” becomes a “must”: ethics is a study of dispositions, rules, and situations. Ethics also must be such, or it ceases to be ethical.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Where he would start

    To those who are "tired of" all the culture war rhetoric, I have one last point to make. If North America were one vast pagan empire, and the apostle Paul just arrived here, what would he do first? I quite grant that he would not start by circulating petitions against the gladiatorial games. He would start with the foundations, which would be planting churches, establishing worship around the empire, and teaching Christians to live like Christians in their families and congregations. We are going to judge angels, so let's start by learning self-government. If the meek will inherit the earth, you don't start with the inheriting part--you start by learning meekness, which can only be learned through the gospel. So that's where he would start. 
    But if one day we got to the point where there were tens of thousands of churches, and millions of Christians, and the gladiatorial games were still going on merrily, and new stadiums were being built every year, then the only possible conclusion would be that the churches in question were diseased. 
    "Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost his savor, wherewith shall it be salted? It is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under the foot of men" (Matt. 5:13). 
- Douglas Wilson (from his blog,

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Be like the eunuch (an Easter meditation)

My wife and kids were all sick this past Lord's Day, so we stayed home and worshiped as a family, using the readings from the BCP as our focus for the day. Below are some of my thoughts about those readings. 

Year B, Fifth Sunday of Easter
Acts 8:26-40
1 John 4:7-21
John 15:1-8

Our passage from Acts is well known. Philip receives a message from God, informing him to go south to the road which travels from Jerusalem to Gaza; there he would meet a eunuch and court official of the Queen of Ethiopia, who was in charge of her entire treasury (Acts 8:27). This eunuch "had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning, seated in his chariot, and he was reading the prophet Isaiah" (vv. 27-8). When Philip meets with him, the eunuch asks about whom Isaiah was referring--about Isaiah himself or another person--when he wrote: 
Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb before its shearer is silent, so he opens not his mouth. In his humiliation, justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.
Philip then uses that passage of Isaiah to teach him the gospel of Jesus Christ (v. 35). This eunuch then responds with faith in Jesus by receiving baptism (v. 38), and continuing on from there in his travels he rejoices (v. 39).

Upon reading this the first time, what struck my attention first was the fact that this eunuch had just visited Jerusalem to worship the God of the Jews, but while he was in Jerusalem worshipping, none of the Jewish authorities taught him about Jesus, the messiah whom they had recently crucified. The second thing which struck my attention is that he is found traveling away from Jerusalem while reflecting seriously upon Isaiah 53, a messianic passage specifically about "justice being denied" a servant of God, during "his humiliation." These references to injustice and humiliation are particularly intriguing, because Luke describes this man as both a eunuch of the Queen (which, ordinarily, was a humiliating status) and her treasurer; but if this man is a genuine eunuch--that is, a slave surgically castrated according to a King's orders, for the purpose of serving in an official capacity for his wife, the Queen--then he would not have been allowed to enter Herod's Temple, no matter how great his faith was. The Jewish authorities would not allow it, based on their interpretation of Torah. This man's status as a eunuch disqualified him from having direct access to God in Jerusalem's Temple. Although this eunuch was given a surprisingly high status in his own culture, among those of similar faith, he was marginalized; he was forbidden to become a full proselyte of Judaism.1 

This message of marginalization echoes in our other readings for this day. In John's first epistle, he writes to a marginalized Christian congregation, a congregation filled primarily with Jews, but also Gentile God-fearers like the eunuch. John writes to Christians whose faith was being "shaken up" and challenged by anti-Christian Judaizers and proselytes of Judaism. John could not have been any clearer about why he wrote such polemical, black-and-white statements:  
I write these things to you about those who are trying to deceive you. (I John 2:26)
These allies of anti-Jesus Judaism were intentionally trying to deceive Christians into believing their worship of God, in Christ, was false worship. Similar to the Jewish authorities who kept the Ethiopian eunuch from learning the gospel of Jesus, so these antichrists are intentionally deceiving the Christians of John's congregation. A few verses earlier (I John 2:18) we learned that "many antichrists have come," and these antichrists infiltrated the Christian community to become "one of them," eventually making it plain among all, when they left, that Christians worshiped another God than the God of the Jews. Christians affirmed the truth that Jesus is the Messiah, and also One-with-the-Father (I John 2:22), which the Jewish authorities of Jerusalem emphatically denied (John 5:18). Christians affirmed that they worshipped God the Father and the Son together as the one true God, whereas these antichrists denied that they could worship both the Son and the Father as one (vv. 22-23). 

While Jesus was among his people, he had spoken clearly about such escalating unbelief in Israel, and that God would come and visit them to prune the vine of Israel, removing every branch in Jesus which does not produce fruit. In our Gospel reading for today, Jesus says, 
I am the true vine, and my Father is the winegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. ...Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. (John 15:1-6)
This pruning began with the first disciples of Jesus, and the gathering of dead branches culminated in the destruction of Jerusalem and its idolatrous anti-Christian Temple in 70 A.D.. Jesus was abundantly clear about this message, as the gospel of Matthew testifies. The epistle of first John was likely written very close to the end of that idolatrous old covenant system, as seen by John's reference to it being the "last hour" (I John 2:18). 

In 2:28 John reminds his congregation about this promise of Jesus to come to them, delivering them from their oppressive enemies (i.e. the antichrists, the anti-Christian Jewish authorities). John says that no one born of God persecutes God's own children, as these antichrists have been doing (I John 3:1-24). Moreover, John commands his congregation to not believe every spirit, because some spirits put on a great show, claiming to be of God while rejecting Jesus as God the Father's Messiah.
By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus the Messiah has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already. They are from the world...and the world listens to them. We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error. 
This is the message which takes place immediately before our lectionary reading today. And so, in light of this marginalization of Christians from Jewish antichrists, I think it's important to notice how John instructs his Christian congregation to respond. He tells them to respond with love toward their brother; and not just any brother. In context John seems to be referring to Jewish brethren, the same brethren who are challenging them to publicly walk away from the Christian congregation with them, back to Jerusalem, back to Herod's Temple where faithful, Torah-keeping "believers" have exclusive access to God, and can draw near to Him with a sacrifice.

From the very beginning, John exhorts his Christian congregation to hold fast to the faith by loving their brothers while resisting the Judaizing cultural pressure to go back and worship the Father in their Temple, where they can offer the old covenant sacrifices of God again. 
My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world
John's message was the same as Philip's. God sent his Son, Jesus, the Messiah, into the midst of his own people, to be the atoning sacrifice for the sins of Israel, and not for them only but also for the sins of the whole world, even for eunuch's from Ethiopia, who would not have been allowed to draw near to God in Herod's Temple. Even Isaiah prophesied about these days with the coming kingdom of Israel's Messiah: 
Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say, "The Lord will surely separate me from his people."
And do not let the eunuch say, "I am just a dry tree." 
For thus says the Lord: "To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters. I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off." 
Thus says the Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel: "I will gather others to them besides those already gathered." (Isa. 56:3-5, 8)
God's love was revealed to the whole world in this way: God sent his only Son into the world to be the atoning sacrifice for its sins, so that the whole world could live through him (I John 4:9-10). God sent his only Son in the world so that the world could no longer find life through the Temple, Torah, liturgy, priesthood, and sacrifices of the Old Covenant. "We have seen and do testify," John says, "that the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world. God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God" (4:14-15).

In our day and age, nearly 2,000 years past those events of which John spoke, Christians are still confessing the same truths and are still being marginalized by "the world" because of it. Just look at the Islamic terrorist groups in the middle east, terrorizing, torturing, and killing them as enemies of God. Christians confess that Jesus is both Lord and Savior of the world, which includes Muslims too, but some people simply don't want to receive that truth claim. Apart from the vine of Jesus Christ, there is no salvation for the world. Time doesn't change the hearts of people who love darkness, and refuse to step into God's light.  

Even 2,000 years of Church history doesn't change the way brothers treat each other, marginalizing some because of zeal for the truth. Did you ever meet a Christian who behaved that way? Did you ever meet a Christian brother, baptized into the Body of Christ, who turns on you or someone you know, treating them as though they're not true Christians, as though they can tap into the secret councils of Almighty God and deliver His sovereign message about your personal salvation to your front door? Did you ever meet any Christian who marginalized others because that so-called Christian actually enjoys drinking alcohol, and he doesn't think it's sin! Or they enjoy "worldly movies" and entertainment? Or, God forbid, they're Catholic, or Charismatic, or anything that's not in accordance with the true Christian doctrine, and so they know who is and not a true Christian? (That's sarcasm, by the way.)

If you haven't met any Christian brother like that, you are very fortunate. In reality, our so-called "Christian nation" is plagued with unloving, foolishly zealous "brothers" like that. They love you just enough to insult and demean your intelligence, but they have the best of intentions for your soul. Even more unfortunate is the fact that all "Christian" cults in America have been like that too, and they try to recruit Christians out of Trinitarian churches to save them by joining their cult. They tell you you need to use their rituals to draw near to God. You need to abide by their laws to be saved. You are welcome to feast at the table of their god once you repent and believe what they believe, as they understand "belief" to be. 

Thankfully, these are not the ways in which we know God. Our congregation uses a formal liturgy, but our liturgy is not essential for drawing near to God. We even have rituals which condition us week after week, year after year to focus our attention on Jesus Christ, His spoken Word, and His Table, but He is essential, not the rituals; our rituals and liturgy can change from church to church, but God can still be known in all of them. Our lives are caught up in the life of God, not our rituals. Because Jesus is our life, the cycles of our life and the boundaries we place around us are approved by Jesus, boundaries which are faithful and beautiful and holy in God's sight. 

Each week we gather together in the eucharist to feast at the Lord's table, not a Mormon table or a Presbyterian Table or a Roman Catholic table. It is the Lord's table, and you know the significance of that message. You know its significance because you know the One who goes out into the margins of a violent, ungrateful, and unloving world to heal, comfort, and love, to bring them into His Church and be renewed by His Spirit, to bring justice and peace to the oppressed, and to proclaim liberty to those enslaved in sin. You know the God who I'm talking about because greater is the One in you than the one who is in the world. Those who are violent and ungrateful in the face of Christ, in the face of God's children, are from the world; therefore what they say is from the world and the world listens to them. We are from God, and we confess that Jesus the Messiah has come in the flesh from God, to reach beyond the margins of Israel to the margins of the whole world, to be the true bread and true drink of heaven for the whole world.  

If you ever doubt God's word about you, about how he sees you in Christ--as a brother, a sister, a child of God, and friend--that is why the Lord offers the waters of baptism for you, as he did with the Ethiopian eunuch. If you have not been baptized, be like the eunuch and point to some water, asking, "What prevents me from being baptized?" After God has claimed you for himself, go on rejoicing like the eunuch too! 

Unlike the Pharisees and other Judaizers of John's day, God doesn't marginalize anyone who puts their trust in him, no matter how great your sins are. (Yes, I said that right: no matter how great your sins are.) Just as there is no sin so great but that it deserves God's wrath, so there is no sin so great that it can bring God's wrath upon all those who truly repent. Because of what Jesus has accomplished for us, God doesn't deny us justice in our humiliation, or treat us as insignificant or peripheral to the world he came, in flesh, to save. In Baptism he gives us an everlasting name that we can live  forever rejoicing in, a name that will never be cut off, the name of "son" or "daughter." At the Table he gathers the outcasts of the world and brings them beside other sons and daughters that have already been gathered. That is why our Lord sets His table before us each and every week. If God has claimed you for himself, don't come doubting whether you are welcome to feast with Jesus. It is his Table, and you are welcome to feast upon the faithful sacrifice who died for your sins. 

Be like the eunuch. Believe and rejoice in this glorious gospel of our risen Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

1.  See Craig S. Keener, Acts: An Exegetical Commentary (Volume 2) [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic; 2013], pp. 1567-1573 

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Trinitarian Hospitality

    Some philosophers, like Jacques Derrida, say that hospitality must be absolute. We are to welcome all, and welcome them as they are. That is not the sort of ethic I propose here. Rather, it is an ethic of hospitality that welcomes in order to change. We don’t welcome the naked so they can be naked in our presence; we don’t show hospitality to the hungry so they can watch us eat. We welcome the naked and hungry to change their circumstances. We make room for them so we can clothe and feed them.
    So too with moral hunger and personal shame. We don’t welcome addicts so they can continue in their addiction. We make room for them, and take up residence in their lives, in order to be agents of ethical transformation. We don’t receive the prostitute to help her get more tricks. We open our lives to the prostitute so we can deliver her from her slavery— to the pimp, perhaps to drugs, to poverty, to a destructive life. Hospitality is not universal approval. It is universal welcome for the sake of renewal. We make room not to tolerate but to transform. We’ve made some advances in our turn from ontology to ethics, more than we might have noticed. From this point in our climb, we can begin to see the peak and begin to have something more than suspicions about what’s up there.
    The nature of the universe as I’ve described it encourages an ethic of self-giving love; if we are going to live in accord with the shape of things, we need to adopt a stance of availability, of openness to others and willingness to enter when others open to us. And that suggests a way to reason back from ethics to ontology. If the ethics of mutual penetration is an ethics of love, then the ontology of mutual indwelling is an ontology of love. The world is open to me and I to the world. Persons are capable of being open to other persons, and times to other times. Words make room for other words, and chords have room for all the clustered notes that contribute to their sound. At every terrace, it seems, even when we were only looking through a glass darkly or hoping for some insight into the way things are, we were glimpsing traces of love, love wired into the world, love as the operating system of creation. And as we look up to the peak, we might begin to see the outlines of a love that moves the sun and all the other stars.1

1.  Peter J. Leithart, Traces of the Trinity: Signs of God in Creation and Human Experience [Brazos Press, 2015]