Grace Is Life

Today I had a student that I am mentoring who mentioned something I said in one of my classes: “Grace is life”. I had said this as part of my response to a student’s sermon addressing grace, but never defining it in any sort of substantial sense. It seemed taken for granted. I had offered that the preaching student consider “Grace is life”. I only briefly added to this a few comments about that life being the life of God in and for us. Then I moved on with the class. This student in my office, however, wondered just what I meant by it.
Being a dad I’m good at giving far more than someone asks for. 🙂
I opened with clarifying that for me this statement flows from my readings and reflections on the work of Karl Barth. I walked the student through the basic idea of God’s freedom for, to, through, and in (and even against) us. This, for me, is grace. God remains always free in his own self-giving. We find ourselves taken up into this in God’s own self-giving in Jesus the Christ. Here is Man given freely to and for God and to and for creation. Here is God given freely to and for God and to and for creation. And always and forever this freely flowing life of God is given in God’s own love for God and our being taken up into that movement by the Spirit of Jesus.
And then tonight as I sat down to do some evening reading I happened upon this statement by Barth regarding election that seemed related to my discussion with my student:

… in the name and person of Jesus Christ we are called upon to recognize the word of God, the decree of God and the election of God at the beginning of all things, at the beginning of our own being and thinking, at the basis of our faith in the ways and works of God. (CD 2/2 p. 99)

For myself (and I pray for my students as well), I find tremendous help in these ideas for pastoral care and praxis. Grace becomes both the opportunity and possibility of life … and that life is in God’s own life. What do you think?

Random Reflections on Tongues as Gifted Sign

PentecostLet’s be honest (and I’m saying this as a Pentecostal practitioner, minister and professor)…speaking in tongues is weird. I really can not get away from that. It seems illogical. It seems meaningless. It seems crazy. Paul even admitted as much (1 Cor.14.23). Yet, it was endowed by the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost and given as a gift to the Church.
As I reflect on this strange practice and its theological significance I am struck by several ideas (which are decidedly influenced by Karl Barth’s dogmatic confessions):

  • Tongues as gifted sign of the Creator
  • Tongues as gifted sign of the Reconciler
  • Tongues as gifted sign of the Redeemer

It is “gift” because it belongs from beginning to end to the Giver (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) to bestow. It is always an act of grace. It is persistently an act of grace. It could be no other way (1 Cor.12.3-10).
That tongues are a gifted sign is meant to speak to the gracious testimony they give. They point to their Giver in His own self-giving. They are never a testimony self-reflecting from the human sphere, but only reflecting the act and being of the God who gives.
That tongues are a gifted sign of the Creator is a testimony of the gift of our creatureliness. We are those who are always contingent upon God’s own graciousness toward us. We exist because God has made it so. We exist as we do because we were created by this God to speak and to hear. Our tongues belong to our creatureliness and when we speak in tongues (while we do not speak with our minds) we speak with self-control in an orderly (if seemingly chaotic at times) fashion (1 Cor.14.14, 27). We speak in tongues because “the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us” and we cannot but testify to this good news.
That tongues are a gifted sign of the Reconciler is a witness to our sinfulness manifest in broken relationship to all and our own reconciliation with all in Christ Jesus as God’s Word to and for us. Tongues are for a sign of judgment (1 Cor.14.21-22), but better…an eschatological sign of the reconciliation of people from every “nation, tribe, people and language” (Rev.7.9) to the One who alone can, and has, and will reconcile this world to Himself.
That tongues are a gifted sign of the Redeemer is a response of prayer and praise by the Spirit of the Lord Jesus crying “Abba, Father” (Rom.8.15; Gal.4.6). It is a word we could never truly speak for ourselves, but always belongs to the very Spirit (the Spirit of the Son) who works our salvation into the age to come. Such tongues can only come from a faith that rests in the will and enablement of the Spirit to make such a prayer that is heard and answered (Rom.8.26-27) because it is the prayer of the Son redeeming the world to the Father.

A Brief Theology of Suffering: The Story of God and Man

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There can be no missing that something is terribly wrong with the world.  One need not look far to conclude this.  Sin and evil; death and suffering; sorrow and loss abound.  Not that there is never life and hope or blessing and goodness, but that all things are not well with this world we live in.  How one understands this in the light of the Gospel of Christ is another matter that must be considered carefully.  What follows is a brief personal understanding of the biblical theodicy offered as the story of the suffering God[1] and of the ultimate satisfaction.
In the Beginning…and a World Gone Mad
Everything that is was created by God and for God (Gen.1:1; John 1:3; Col.1:16; Rev.4:11; 10:6) in the very beginning.  This is to say that nothing is an accident of chance or of “fate,” but of purpose and intention.  We, indeed, were created as his special “workmanship” to carry out God’s plan of the ages (Eph.2:10) having been made in the very “image” and “likeness” of God (Gen.1:26-27).  If we were created for such blessing and goodness then why is there such suffering and evil?  Obviously, something in this world of ours has gone terribly wrong…was it God’s plan that failed?  Or was God unable to keep His plan on track?  God is sovereign and God is love so what went wrong?  Let’s look closer.
God IS and It Was Very Good
The Scriptures begin with the simple statement of God’s existence (Gen.1:1 – בְּרֵאשִׁית בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים).  He just is and out of the divine freedom of His love He created all that is.  His existence proved (and still proves) to be the very foundation of continuing existence for everything and everyone (Luke 20:38; Acts 17:28; Col.1:17; Heb.1:3).  Existence is therefore a matter of grace and not of necessity.  Life consists always as a gift of God and never more.  This is the nature of His ever abounding Self-giving love that is confessed in the creeds of the Church in the form of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
In the account of God’s creating, the repetitive refrain that God saw it was “good” (טוֹבGen.1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25) is concluded by God seeing everything that he had made as “very good” (טוֹב מְאֹד Gen.1:31).  This does not imply any kind of philosophical perfection (as if to leave no room for any possible fall…which would deny the nature of the “gift” of life as truly “gift”), but it still refers to a world where goodness reigned and happiness was the rule.[2]  Their world was one where loss was yet unknown, because humanity was still clothed in the glory of obedience and the world was all as it should be.
The Fruit of a World in Rebellion
Then through disobedience to the word of God, sin entered and by it…death.  The loss of the wholeness that had been the worlds and humanity’s prior to that moment was no more…lost in an instant.  What had been blessed was now cursed.  The curse of death reverberated even from that very first family (Gen.4:8) and became the morbid litany of all the generations (and of creation itself) to follow despite the longevity attributed to some of them (וַיָּמֹת “and he died” Gen.5:5, 8, etc.).[3]  The world was now a place filled with death and sorrow, pain and loss.  There were moments of happiness to be sure (the birth of sons and daughters, creativity and music – Gen.4:21-22), but none of it could overcome the sign of the curse that hung as a heavy shadow over everything.
Redemption…Now…But Not Yet
In the midst of the world of chaos, God called and covenanted Himself to a man (and to a people).  In so doing, God revealed Himself as the unchanging forever faithful  יהוהwho Himself would save His people and by so doing would work the redemption of the whole world through the redemption of His people (Gen.22:14-18).  His people Israel would not (indeed…could not do this) and so David’s greater son Jesus of Nazareth was the faithful deliverer bringing light to those who sat in darkness…to the Jews and to the Gentiles (Matt.1:21; 4:16; Luke 2:32).  This was a message of redemption and hope for the whole world (John 3:16), but it actually meant the suffering of God with us.  Our redemption was not simply purchased.  God has entered into our very suffering and born our sorrows (Isa.53:4).  God intimately knows our pain and by his own suffering our Lord Jesus has purchased our redemption (1 Pet.2:24).  In the shadow of the cross and the light of the resurrection suffering has been borne and redeemed by God Himself – not that suffering (and death as its sting) has suddenly been denied, but that now it has been swallowed up in victory.
He has not only purchased our salvation, but he has given “gifts” (χαρισματα) by his Spirit to his Church in order that in the midst of suffering and difficulties we may be sustained and built up as the Church (Rom.12:6-21; 1 Cor.12:4-28; Eph.4:8-16).  We must be sustained through encouragement, through timely prophetic messages, pointed teaching confronting us and directing us in the way we should go and acts of mercy when we are down-trodden.  We act in love towards one another by the Spirit which we have received as sons of God and co-heirs with Christ (1 Cor.13; Rom.8:14-17).  In these workings of the Spirit we live as Christ in the midst of a world of suffering declaring that this world belongs to the Lord (1 Cor.12:1-28).  That very Spirit which groans within us in the midst of a world in travail and agony also begs for our glorification that is yet to be revealed in us at the Day of Christ’s coming (Rom.8:18-28) because it will entail the restoration of all things and the end of death.
And yet we wait (not in passivity, but in Spirit-empowered activity) for our Lord’s return and the final establishment of His kingdom where all our tears will be wiped away and these bodies will be changed from loss to immortality (Rom.8:23; 1 Cor.15:53, 54; Titus 2:13; James 5:8; Rev.21:4).  In that Day, suffering will cease.  In that Day, suffering will have new perspective.  Answers seem trite today and overly simplistic (as evidenced by the friends of Job and even Job’s own response or that of the “Teacher” of Ecclesiastes).  But in light of that Day suffering has meaning, because in light of the day of Christ crucified (and risen)…suffering has been given meaning beyond measure in the overflowing free gift of God’s love for us.

Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics. 14 vols. Hendrickson Pub, 2010.  Harris, R. L., G. L. Archer, and B. K. Waltke. Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament. Moody Press, 1980.  Sittser, Gerald Lawson. A Grace Disguised: How The Soul Grows Through Loss. Grand Rapids, MI.: Zondervan, 2004.

[1]  Karl Barth wrote that one must remember “we have to do with the God who Himself suffers pain because of our sin and guilt, for whom it is not an alien thing but His own intimate concern” in Church Dogmatics II/1 (Hendrickson Pub, 2010), 373; and see also the discussion of the God who suffers in Gerald Lawson Sittser, A Grace Disguised: How The Soul Grows Through Loss (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2004), 158, 159.
[2]  cf.טוֹב  793 by Andrew Bowling in R. L. Harris, G. L. Archer, and B. K. Waltke, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (Moody Press, 1980).
[3] With the notable anomalous exception of Enoch who it is said of that he “walked with God, and then he disappeared because God took him away.” (Gen.5:24 NET)  He may be one who serves as a “type” looking forward to the eventual undoing of death itself in the eschaton as the work of Christ – see 1 Cor.15:26.

I Heart Barth

As I mentioned earlier this week Hendrickson Publisher’s made Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics available for a steal of a price.  This has lead to theological geeks, er, students finally having access to Barth’s magnum opus.  Several of the students at Providence Seminary where I attend have been discussing this for some time and in a rapid succession of laughable suggestions…a new blog was born: I Heart Barth.  So far there are three authors (myself as one of them) that will be working through Dogmatics together over the next several years (decades???).  We also will be discussing Bonhoeffer (anyone who knows me knows that I can’t help but discuss Dietrich any chance I get and one of the other bloggers is writing his thesis on Bonhoeffer…oh happy day…oh happy day… 🙂 and N.T.Wright among others as we work through the Dogmatics in the midst of studies, church and life.

Did I really just agree to one more thing…….

Happiness All Around

Several fun notes about my recent happenings:

Cambria (my five year old) was home from church yesterday with a fever so my wife and I swapped.  I stayed home for Sunday School with Cam (since she teaches pre-school) and she stayed home for service (since I preach).  So for S.S. Cam and I discussed the story of Esther, Haman and Xerxes (which was the lesson for her S.S. that morning) and we decided we should color pictures of the MANY parties that were thrown by Esther.  Cam determined that apparently I am quite the artist (I did do a “stunning” Esther with Haman sitting next to her on the couch begging for mercy and Xerxes returning mouth agape in anger :-)…if you can image anything like chubby stick people with colored pencils and crayons.  We had to include balloons to make sure it was a party and Cam just wasn’t convinced my scene was very authentic since everyone (including the king and Haman) were wearing dresses).  Oh well.  So much for authenticity.

I was overjoyed today to finally receive the complete set of Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics (14 volumes) for ONLY $99 from CBD!  I had ordered it back in March and just received it in the mail today (even though the official publication date isn’t till November 2010.  I can’t wait to work my way through the set for my leisure reading (yes it isn’t a part of any required reading for Seminary and yes I do consider it “fun” and leisure reading and I’m still not exactly sure where in the world to store them until I’ve read through them all :-).

On another note…I’m posting a paper I turned in last week where I gave an all-too brief history of the Old Testament text (Hebrew and Greek), but chose to do so in a midrashic form just for the fun of it.  Hopefully Dr. August Konkel enjoys reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it…now to move from the “origins” of the Old Testament to the “originals” of the Old Testament…a far more complex and yet more interesting (from my perspective) topic to engage.

Imaginatively entering the world of the Hebrew Bible…Karl Barth…text criticism…a wife and children that understand my many addictions and love me anyways…life is good!

Nursery Rhymes With Bultmann and Wright

I just received a humorous reading of “Humpty Dumpty by N. T. Wright” (thanks to Jason Hood) and he further had a link to Bultmann’s reading of “Mother Goose”.  These are a little too close to reality…see what you think.  Or perhaps I’ve just spent too much time reading theologians…and that’s why I think these were hilarious. 

Now if only I could find a Karl Barth reads “Rockabye Baby” (not sure how many volumes that would take…but knowing how much the man wrote on everything else……)

Jesus Christ and Time

 I’ve been reading through Karl Barth’s “Dogmatics in Outline” (for a third time now and eagerly awaiting the arrival of the complete fourteen volume “Church Dogmatics” this coming November first) as prep for Sunday nights working through the Apostles’ Creed and happened upon this wonderful extended quote dealing with Jesus Christ and time.  I just couldn’t help but to share it (from Barth, Karl. Dogmatics in Outline. tran. G. T. Thompson; Harper Torchbooks, NY: 1959, pp.130-131) and ask: “What do you think about his concept of “eternity” and “time” in comparison to the modern Evangelical notions?”

Jesus Christ’s yesterday is also His to-day and His to-morrow.  It is not timelessness, not empty eternity that comes in place of His time.  His time is not at an end; it continues in the movement from yesterday to to-day, into to-morrow.  It has not the frightful fleetingness of our present.  When Jesus Christ sitteth at the right hand of the Father, this existence of His with God, His existence as the possessor and representative of the divine grace and power towards us men, has nothing to do with what we are foolishly wont to conceive as eternity–namely, an existence without time.  If this existence of Jesus Christ at the right hand of God is real existence and as such the measure of all existence, then it is also existence in time, although in another time than the one we know.  If the lordship and rule of Jesus Christ at the Father’s right hand is the meaning of what we see as the existence of our world history and our life-history, then this existence of Jesus Christ is not a timeless existence, and eternity is not a timeless eternity.  Death is timeless, nothingness is timeless.  So we men are timeless when we are without God and without Christ.  Then we have no time.  But this timelessness He has overcome.  Christ has time, the fullness of time.  He sitteth at the right hand of God as He who has come, who has acted and suffered and triumphed in death.  His session at God’s right hand is not just the extract of this history; it is the eternal within this history….He is the Alpha and the Omega, the centre of real time, of God’s time; which is not meaningless time that passes away….’Infiniteness’ is a comfortless business and not a divine predicate, but one that pertains to fallen creatureliness.  This end without an end is frightful.  It is an image of man’s lostness.  Man is in such a state that he is precipitated into aimlessness and endlessness.  This idea of the endless has nothing to do at all with God.  A limit is rather set to this time.  Jesus Christ is and brings the real time.  But God’s time also has an end, as well as a beginning and a middle.  Man is surrounded and upheld on all sides.  That is life.  So man’s existence becomes visible in the second article [of the Apostles’ Creed]: Jesus Christ wit His past, present and future.

Before You Pray…

I found it amazing to read Karl Barth’s “Prayer” and find that he does not begin his discussion of prayer with the “how,” “why,” or “what,” (as important as those matters may be) but with the answer!  This was shocking to me (though in all honesty it shouldn’t have been).  What does he mean by stating that we begin with the answer and not with the questions?  Well, our questions (more often than not) are actually not straightforward questions, but attempts to skirt the heart of the matter.  When we question God (which I believe Scripture teaches clearly that God welcomes while also confronting this) we must be willing firstly to hear the answer.  And the answer is ‘YES!’ 

But this ‘YES’ is the ‘YES’ to the question posed (and necessarily answered) by God Himself (2 Corinthians 1:19-20).  It is the ‘YES’ that is found in Christ Jesus, but it is also an emphatic ‘no’ to our sins and our sinful and deceitful nature.  The ‘YES’ and the ‘no’ are bound up in God’s Self-giving Love: incarnation, suffering, crucifixion, death, resurrection and coming again.  Thus, his ‘YES’ (and ‘no’) is only to be identified in Christ Jesus.  This is what is meant by “praying in Jesus’ name” (John 14:13-14; 15:16; 16:23-26), instead of simply as the conclusion often thoughtlessly tacked onto the end of our prayers.

In Jesus Christ, we find all our prayers answered with this YES (or AMEN if you prefer to sound more spiritual :-).  In Jesus Christ, prayer is offered according to God’s good and perfect will and not according to our own desires and plans.  In Jesus Christ, all our questions are taken up in the question He poses to us, “Who do you say that I am?” and we must answer with Peter (being led by the Holy Spirit), “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God” (Matthew 16:15-16).
In the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples, he begins with “Our Father…” (Matthew 6:9), because all prayer that is genuine prayer begins with the ‘YES’ of Jesus our Lord and Savior.  The relation of God as “our Father” is not accomplished except through faith in Jesus His One and Only Son.  Our relation to the Father is only as our “Father” because of our relationship with (and ‘in’) Christ.  We can pray in faith with assurance, because Jesus prayed (and continually prays) for us…and not only does he continue to make intercession for us, but His Spirit does so in and through us (Romans 8:26-27, 34).  His Spirit testifies that we are indeed in Christ and therefore are heard and the answer is…YES!  Praise His Glorious Name!!!

Choosing Prayer

I’m taking a directed studies this semester that is called “Advanced Pastoral Ministry Experience” where I get to choose anything that I feel is a weakness in my pastoral ministry. (I realize there are MANY weaknesses in my life that could be worked on). So after talking with my advisor I’ve decided to do this class on “Prayer” (beyond just praying for good grades).

However, I have to actually pick a couple of books on prayer and read them, then write a critical review/response for each book before writing a final paper on my personal prayer journey — where I’ve been and where I intend to go and how I intend to get there. This should be a fun class. My only problem is actually finding any books that particularly focus on the pastoral ministry and prayer. This isn’t essential, but I feel would be very helpful.

There are a number of books that I’m considering (Karl Barth “On Prayer”;and Dietrich Bonhoeffer “Psalms: The Prayerbook of the Bible”), but I’d be interested in any proposals on what books anyone has read and would recommend as well as what particularly about the book has effected a beneficial change in your prayer life. I look forward to finding greater times with the Lord in prayer.