Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Happy Reformation Day!

In celebration of Reformation Day (October 31, 1517, was when Luther posted his Ninety-Five Theses to the cathedral door in Wittenberg), I thought a few quotes celebrating the greatness of justification by faith alone apart from works would be apropos.

Now when a man has learned through the commandments to recognize his helplessness and is distressed about how he might satisfy the law—since the law must be fulfilled so that not a jot or tittle shall be lost, otherwise man will be condemned without hope—then, being truly humbled and reduced to nothing in his own eyes, he finds in himself nothing whereby he may be justified or saved. Here the second part of Scripture comes to our aid, namely, the promises of God which declare the glory of God, saying, “If you wish to fulfill the law and not covet, as the law commands, come, believe in Christ in whom grace, righteousness, peace, liberty, and all things are promised you. If you believe, you shall have all things; if you do not believe, you shall lack all things.” That which is impossible for you to accomplish by trying to fulfill all the works of the law—many and useless as they all are—you will accomplish quickly and easily through faith.
– Martin Luther, On Christian Liberty

It is clear that the justification which is unto eternal life Paul regards as consisting in our being constituted righteous, in receiving righteousness as a free gift, and this righteousness is none other than the righteousness of the one man Jesus Christ; it is the righteousness of his obedience. . . . Justification is thereby a constitutive act whereby the righteousness of Christ is imputed to our account and we are accordingly accepted as righteous in God’s sight.

– John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied

The specific quality of faith is that it receives and rests upon another, in this case Christ and his righteousness.

– Murray, Ibid.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Nature red in tooth and claw

While running on Saturday morning I came across a squirrel lying on the rain-wet sidewalk a few miles from my apartment. It was on its stomach, with its four legs spread out somewhat on each side. I stopped to look at it. I thought it was already dead, but after a few seconds I saw its head move. The squirrel would intermittently gasp for breath through its red, bloody mouth—it must have fallen from the tall willow oak tree above—and try to muster the strength to crawl back to the tree. It was sometimes able to pick up its head and move a few of its scraggly limbs, but it could never move its emaciated body. I pitied it. I wanted badly to help if off the sidewalk and onto the grass near the tree or just put it out of its misery somehow. (I contemplated stomping on its head.) But I didn’t want to risk rabies, and I thought that my intervention would somehow be messing with the sacred order of nature itself.

Even before the squirrel expired, ants already began crawling upon their next food source. I was so angry at them for molesting this poor creature as it helplessly lied there dying. I found myself praying, asking God to rid it of the ants until it died—Give it is dignity!—and to put its life to a quick end.

How often, in our sanitized world, do we come face-to-face with something in the throes of death? We city dwellers and suburbanites are generations removed from the life of farms, where the seasons of weather and of death were the rule. We herd the elderly into nursing homes and the dying into remote floors of hospitals, trying to maintain a cheery outlook on life. Are we trying to evade death by keeping it out of sight? As I watched the squirrel writhe, its every noble attempt met with futility and grief, it struck me how truly ugly the whole affair was. How hideous is this Conqueror Worm! And if this was but the demise of a wet, scrawny rodent, how much more that of a human! Surely the whole of creation has been groaning in its futility and bondage to decay—the decay brought on by Adam’s sin, the sin that lives inside of me and of which I am both a recipient and active participant.

Oh, how we need the “hope of the glory of God,” the resurrection-hope in which we are saved!

On this mountain [the LORD] will destroy
the shroud that covers all peoples,
the sheet that covers all nations;
he will swallow up death forever.
(Isaiah 25:7-8a)

Monday, October 29, 2007

Old October

"All things on earth point home in old October: sailors to sea, travelers to walls and fences, hunters to field and hollow and the long voice of the hounds, the lover to the love he has forsaken." -- Thomas Wolfe, Of Time and the River

On Saturday evening, as I walked around my neighborhood, I was trying to figure out what it was about October that makes me love it so much. Then I remembered this quote. I think it's so true. Something about the cold rain, about the falling leaves, about the brisk air reminds us: We are human. We are limited. Nature is bigger than us, and we can't control her. For all of our springtime curiosity and our summer exploration, we can't face life outdoors for so long. We need autumn to remind us that we're not solitary beings who can do it all and conquer the world. We're pointed back home in "old October."

But it's not that life is over for a season; it changes. The joys of cookouts, sunshine, and morning dew are traded for the welcome warmth of hearth and indoor lighting, of friends gathered close over a mug of warm cider. The point of the day that takes on meaning is when we come home in the evening: from school, from work, the coming together of people that happens in the winter as we leave the cold darkness and enter into the inner-room light.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Halloween: Lighthearted fun, or pagan sorcery?

I have lately been reading through the books of 1 and 2 Samuel, bringing me across that ever-bizarre story of Saul and the spirit medium at Endor (1 Sam. 28). The Lord has by now rejected Saul as king and no longer answers his prayers and efforts to seek his God’s guidance. In an attempt to discover the outcome of an upcoming engagement with the Philistine army, Saul seeks out a witch to contact the spirit of the deceased prophet Samuel. By her means of divination, Samuel’s spirit is seen rising, who delivers a message of imminent doom for Saul and his lineage.

This eerie story is no joke. It’s part of the scriptural witness to the events of Israel’s actual history. And this scares me, because it gives us that portal into the reality of a world of spirits and forces far beyond what we normally see. The New Testament is riddled with the activity and defeat of angels of darkness, the “rulers,” “authorities,” “powers of this dark world,” and “spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (cf. Eph. 6:12).

As a child, I loved Halloween. Not only was it a treat (pun intended) to dress up as Spider-man or a shark (with about twelve layers of sweaters underneath to battle the windy, 40-degree Michigan weather, of course) and collect a year’s worth of candy, but I enjoyed the mild spookiness of it all. When I was about six years old, my dear mom read to me an issue of Cricket magazine about folklore of the British Isles, including witches, banshees, druids, Jack-of-the-Lantern, and the like. I was fascinated. So the thought of going out for a night to walk in the darkness, with the wind howling and silhouettes of leaf-bare trees lurked around us—we did our trick-or-treating in a pretty open rural neighborhood—enthralled me. Even years after I stopped donning the concealing garb and running around with a pumpkin-like candy bucket from McDonalds, I still had a thing for tales with dark eeriness, such as Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Young Goodman Brown and Ethan Brand.

Those same NT epistles that reveal the darkness of “this present evil age” (Gal. 1:4) reveal that we are “sons of light” and “sons of the day” (cf. Eph. 5:8-21; 1 Thess. 5:5-11; 1 John 1-2). We are freed in the risen Messiah into a newness of life and the hope of a world in which no moral evil shall dwell. This gospel, allegedly brought by St. Patrick, transformed the British Isles. What was once a land of druidic nature-worship and fellowship with the spirits of the natural realm, with its practices of bone-fires (marking whether one would live or die in the upcoming year), sun-worship, and sacrificial rites done in fear of the powers, became a place where evil retreated in the advance of the Kingdom of God. “The darkness is passing and the true light is already shining” (1 John 2:8).

November 1 is All Saints’ (Hallows’) Day, a time the church has traditionally set aside to rejoice in the lives of Christians who have died and entered the eternal light of heaven. Yet “All Hallows’ Evening” is anything but a night to honor the deceased faithful in Christ, the “communion of the saints” we confess in the Apostles’ Creed. It’s a night to dabble in the occult, to wet our toes in darkness.

But what does this mean for our present, Hallmark-ized version of Halloween? Surely Protestants can have an alternative celebration of Reformation Day. (October 31, 1517, is when Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses to the cathedral door in Wittenberg, Germany.) But what do I make of this holiday I have normally enjoyed so much? It seems to me that the Scriptures are mixed in these regards, often leaving it as some sort of “gray area.” First Corinthians 8-9 appear to make it okay to eat food sacrificed to idols, so long as you have the strength of conscience to know that no such idols or other gods actually exist. Yet a strong warning is given in chapter 10 to those who sought to dabble with paganism out of their superior “knowledge.” Some Israelites knew they served the true and living God, yet they mixed it up with the other deities, thinking they wouldn’t get burned. The result? God cast their dead bodies across the wasteland to be eaten by jackals.

I’ve seen first-hand the occult wickedness of Wicca practices and Walpurgisnacht celebrations in Germany. It’s creepy. And my mother and I swear we’ve felt another, cold presence of some kind in our old house on more than one occasion. Satan is not one to be toyed with. Just like with the witch of Endor, dark beings that operate against God’s good rule are truly present.

So at least for this year, I can’t participate in Halloween without some reservations. I’m not sure what I’m going to do, especially in a neighborhood that gets totally decked out for this un-holiday. But one thing I can be sure of: I can praise Jesus, who drives out demons by the finger of God and has broken the powers of Satan and his minions (Luke 11:14-23; John 12:31; Col. 2:15; Heb. 2:14; Rev. 20:1-3).

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Bonhoeffer reprise?

Robert Mugabe has got to go. The dictatorial leader of Zimbabwe has not only corrupted the country, bankrupt his people, and caused 90% unemployment and 14,000% inflation; he is now disbanding churches, banning church leaders, and slandering clerics. This guy is insane, and he has got to go. He is doing nothing but harming his entire country's welfare, while lining his pockets and defending his ego. (Hollywood even made a movie indirectly about Mugabe--The Interpreter--which he banned in Zimbabwe.) It's like the Third Reich all over again. The only thing he isn't doing is out-and-out committing some sort of genocide or ethnic cleansing--but who's to say that won't come soon?

We who are baptized and call ourselves Christians are citizens of two kingdoms: the kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of the world. We are called out by God to live holy lives of faith in and service to his anointed king, Jesus, while simultaneously living in the world with our neighbors and as citizens of the USA or Germany or Brazil . . . or Zimbabwe. As such, out of love for our neighbor, we must put their good ahead of our own and do what is best for the people of our nation whom we are called to love.

In the desperate times of Adolf Hitler's National Socialist regime, the
Bekennende Kirche (Confessing Church) saw its dire position and the difficulties of being stretched between two kingdoms. A group of these men saw it as their duty to rid the world of Hitler out of love for other people and for the common good. One of these men was pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was eventually imprisoned and hung for his complicity in a plot to kill Hitler. Many Christians have balked at his actions, citing quickly "Thou shalt not kill!"

Could Bonhoeffer and his fellows have been right? Bringing down a wicked despot would never rid the world of sin and evil; a new one will soon rise up from elsewhere. Such is the nature of this "present evil age" (Galatians 1:4). But would the loving thing to do for the sake of others actually be to rid the world of such a corrupt tyrant and inept leader? Is Zimbabwe at a time where they need another Bonhoeffer? Certainly they need to be ever more so the Confessing Church, standing upon the rock of Christ's lordship and wielding love, mercy, and forgiveness against the evil that seems to reign (Matthew 16:13-20). But can we call it love to just "turn the other cheek" and allow Mugabe to carry out his devices? I'm torn and cannot say.

Please pray for the saints in Zimbabwe.

As the mountains surround Jerusalem

This past Saturday was quite an adventure. I had originally planned on going with a cool coworker of mine (and fellow Michigander), Shawn, to the National Folk Festival here in Richmond. But instead I took up an offer to go hiking at White Oak Canyon in the Shenandoah National Park in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

After we all met up, we finally set out for the supposed six-mile hike at 3:30 P.M., giving us plenty of time to finish the Class 4 trail before 7:00 sunset. However, at about 6:00 we realized that we had missed a turnoff we were supposed to have taken--and thereby lengthened out trek to some twelve miles! Knowing that there was absolutely no way to make it back before dark, we stopped to watch the sunset over Hawksbill Mountain, the highest point in the SNP. As I looked over the rolling, timeworn mountains I recalled God's promised protection as potential danger and uncertainty loomed for us: "As the moutains surround Jerusalem, so the LORD surrounds his people, from this time forth and forevermore" (Psalm 125:2).

I love the fall!

We made it through the rest of the night, hiking mostly downhill for the next few hours. The steep, rocky, sidehill path was difficult to navigate in the dark with only a handful of flashlights and headlamps. But at 9:40, some three hours after sunset, we arrived safe and sound back at the trailhead.

My friend Josh, with Hawksbill Moutain over my right shoulder

Saturday, October 6, 2007

The nature of faith

In his book Redemption Accomplished and Applied John Murray writes about the nature of faith as knowledge, as conviction, and as trust. I find what he says about faith as personal trust to be pretty sweet stuff:
Faith is knowledge passing into conviction, and it is conviction passing into confidence. Faith cannot stop short of self-commitment to Christ, a transference of reliance upon ourselves and all human resources to reliance upon Christ alone for salvation. It is a receiving and resting upon him. It is here that the most characteristic act of faith appears; it is engagement of person to person, the engagement of the sinner as lost to the person of the Saviour able and willing to save. Faith, after all, is not belief of propositions of truth respecting the Saviour, however essential an ingredient of faith such belief is. Faith is trust in a person, the person of Christ, the Son of God and Saviour of the lost. It is entrustment of ourselves to him. It is not simply believing him; it is believing in him and on him. (pp. 111-2)

Murray then goes on to emphasize that faith does not save, but we are saved by Jesus Christ, who is the Savior, by means of our faith. Our faith is a receptive vehicle, the open hand (as Luther calls it) that receives the work of Christ for us:
It is to be remembered that the efficacy of faith does not reside in itself. Faith is not something that merits the favour of God. All the efficacy unto salvation resides in the Saviour. . . . [S]trictly speaking, it is not even faith in Christ that saves but Christ that saves through faith. Faith unites us to Christ in the bonds of abiding attachment and entrustment and it is this union which insures that the saving power, grace, and virtue of the Saviour become operative in the believer. The specific character of faith is that it looks away from itself and finds its whole interest and object in Christ. He is the absorbing preoccupation of faith. (p. 112)

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Triune intercession

It never fails. Whether I pray or read my Bible in the evening, I almost invariably fall asleep in fatigue. The same happens in the morning before I get leave for school. In these stressful, needy times--and when isn't it the "time of need" (Hebrews 4:15)?--I feel like I need to pray even more than usual. I need God to guide me, support me, strengthen me every day, all day. Yet I can scarcely do so in prayer. Whenever I quiet down that much, I just fall asleep or I can't focus.

But in his goodness the Holy Spirit recently brought to my mind a vital and wondrous truth: the fullness of the triune Godhead is praying for me. In Romans 8 it says that in my times of weakness, exasperation, even coma, "the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words" (v. 26). How can the Spirit's prayers for those whom he breathes life ever fail? "And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God [the Father]" (v. 27). Not only does the Spirit himself pray to the Father, but the Father has gladly revealed his will to the Spirit, giving him what to pray for each of his adopted children!

What is more, the Anointed Son himself, approved and vindicated by God in his everlasting reign at the Father's right hand, also prays for us without end. "Christ Jesus is the one who died--more than that, who was raised--who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?" (vv.34-35a).

In a miracle of mercy, the whole Trinity is involved in unceasing prayer for me, upholding me. There is no worry, confusion, or disagreement among the three Persons. The Father has revealed his will, which is prayed by the Spirit and which was and is accomplished in the Son, who ever lives as our Advocate (parakletos, 1 John 2:1-2; used in John 14, 16 of the Spirit). I need not worry that I fall asleep in prayer; God himself prays for me!

You have been my help,
and in the shadow of your wings I will sing for joy.
My soul clings to you;
your right hand upholds me.
(Psalm 63:7-8)