God Our Father/Mother (?): On the Divine Name in Christian Scripture

On a number of occasions I have engaged in conversations, or heard podcasts (I’m thinking here of the October 17, 2017 of The Liturgists Podcast on “God Our Mother”), or read articles (or quotes like the one pictured here of Julian of Norwich) by those who contend for broader language in regard to what we might properly call our deity within the Church. Some have contended that the NT language of “Father” is more a construct of cultural embeddedness related to a bygone era that needs this metaphor to be expanded to any number of other possibilities, such as “Mother” that would be more appropriately inclusive and thus representative of the non-gendered deity we claim to worship.
This is an abstracted illusion as it fails to appreciate the very context from which we (the Church) have inherited our language of addressing the divine: Israel and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Christopher Seitz has a helpful chapter engaging this very subject in Word Without End: The Old Testament as Abiding Theological Witness (Baylor University Press, 2004), pp. 251-262. I include his closing paragraph as giving voice to my own reading of this issue (p. 262):

To call God “mother” or “she” would be to call attention to God as truly gendered, simply by the fact that such language means to serve as a replacement for or improvement on the biblically grounded language has the capacity to transcend this framework of discussion, because it emerges as a testimony to God’s own name and initiative in revealing it, rather than because it conforms to metaphors whose fitness is determined by human debate or divine defense. To defend God as “father” by appeal to suitability of metaphor would in fact undo the logic with which the language emerged in the first place, which is riveted to Israel’s particular experience of God’s revelation and, through the work of Christ, its extension at Pentecost to all nations and peoples. “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” emerges from a particular story. Our use of this language preserves that particular story and the God who brought it and us into being, making us his people and allowing us to be faithful witnesses who call upon his name, for our own sakes and for the sake of his creation.

We have not constructed our language for the divine, but have received it and do well to faithfully pass this story along in our invocation of the Name. To do otherwise, is to abstract “God” from the story of Israel and God’s self-revelation in and through Jesus as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
How we confess God is a matter of faithfulness to that self-revelation and not a matter of cultural speculation and debate. While metaphors for the divine abound in Scripture (including those which are feminine or motherly) we do well to take up the language of God’s self-giving in prayer and praise, and we refuse the very specificity of God’s self-revelation to do otherwise.

Hearing and Seeing the Apocalypse: A Sunday School Introduction

The following are my brief notes written as a Sunday School introduction for adults to the book of the Revelation that I taught May 13, 2018 at New Life Assembly of God in Ellendale, ND.
What is “apocalypse”? It is a “revealing” of something. This book belongs to a broader genre of writings known to the second temple period of Jewish writings (and early Christian writings) that involved visions, dreams, angelic guides, experiences of the heavenly realm/s all with an eye (and ear) toward the culmination of all things wherein God will set everything right in final judgment (with reward and punishment).
Introduction (1.1-3) – What is the point of this book? Jesus! And remaining faithful to Jesus no matter what comes as God’s self-giving revelation testified to in the Spirit. If we get distracted by anything else in the Revelation than we miss the very point.
Traveling with John the Revelator (these reveal one cannot follow John of their own accord toward understanding)

  • In the Spirit on the Lord’s Day (1.10)
  • In the Spirit in Heaven (4.2)
  • In the Spirit in the Desert (17.3)
  • In the Spirit to a great and high mountain (21.10)

On “hearing” and “seeing” in the Apocalypse

  • 1.3 – Blessed are those who hear… others of the seven beatitudes (14.13; 16.15; 19.9; 20.6; 22.7, 14)
  • Overcomers “hear” in faithfulness and obedience: 2.7, 11, 17, 26-29; 3.5-6, 12-13, 21-22.
  • Hearing and seeing function to highlight and expound (offering interpretations and expansions of each other to further the knowing and worship of those who would hear and see), examples: 1.10-20; 5.1-14; 7.1-17.

A hearing and seeing of sevens (suggesting there is much more than what meets the ears and eyes in the enumeration):

  • Horns and Eyes/Spirits (5.6)
  • Churches (and their angels: 2-3)
  • Seals on the scroll (5-8.5)
  • Trumpets (8.6-11.19)
  • Thunders (silenced: 10.3-4)
  • Bowls with plagues (15-16.21)

On Earth As It Is In Heaven: A Brief Theological Reflection

“…on earth as it is in heaven…” While we might consider this from the trajectory of the revelation of the God to Israel preceding Jesus’ statement (which would be a fitting approach), we might also consider this statement as embodied in the one leading the prayer: Jesus the Christ. Such a reflection (drawing from the New Testament) offers several hearings of this text leading to praying and doing.
We might understand by “heaven” not an ethereal disembodied sphere of existence “out there” or even “above here”, but as wherever the kingdom of God is present. Wherever God reigns is most properly to be regarded as “heaven”. While God’s reign is not fully experienced “on earth” it is coming to bear “on earth” even as it has from the beginning of creation and the planting of the garden.
Considering such a view of “heaven” we might define “on earth” as that sphere of existence wherein God’s reign is less fully yet being realized.
There is a strange movement that occurs here. It is never as if “earth” is not where God reigns, nor is “heaven” to be regarded as itself such bliss that nothing more could be added to it. No. The kingdom of God is yet more realized in both heaven and earth by the two becoming the kingdom of our God and His Christ. This is not to suggest something essential lacking to the reign “in heaven,” but to appeal to the grace of God towards, in, and for us in his self-giving love embodied in Christ Jesus.
Christ Jesus brings heaven to bear on earth. Or more properly first, the Holy Spirit brings heaven to bear on earth in the virgin Mary. This is “God with us”. God being toward us, heaven toward earth (even in the earth).
Christ Jesus bears heaven on earth as the light burdens being given in place of earth’s heavy burdens. He seeks and saves that which is lost as a light blazing in the darkness. Earth cannot be regarded as wholly other to heaven. Unclean spirits are cast out. Disease and even death itself is demonstrably overcome on earth as it is in heaven. And these are all laid to bear on the cross as one raised up from the earth and lifted up into heaven in shamefulness. Yet the Father sees fit to not leave his Son buried in the earth, but raises him up to ascend into heaven to His right hand as King Jesus. And from there the Father pours out Jesus’ Spirit upon all flesh to fill the hearts and mouths of the saints with heaven on earth until the earth should be filled with the fullness of the glory of God.
And heaven shall be opened and the Christ descend bearing heaven to the earth. At last the kingdom shall come in fullness as his reign continues without end. His throne (the throne of God and of the Lamb) established in His city now come down from heaven and established upon the new heavens and the new earth. It is here, in the two joining, that we are praying toward as Jesus taught us to. It is here, in the two joining, that we are working toward as the Spirit compels and empowers us to. It is here that we (and all of creation with us) are moving toward: the day when the Father in heaven’s name is holified, His kingdom come, and His will done “on earth as it is in heaven”.

Pentecostal Oral Liturgy

I’m taking a number of Trinity students to the annual meeting of the Society for Pentecostal Studies (hosted in Cleveland, TN this year) in a few weeks. Every Thursday for the last several months we’ve met for about a half hour to talk about various aspects of the trip including topics/papers that will be a part of the gathering. One of the papers that I summarized today (and handed out a copy of) was from a dear friend (thanks Monte) who is engaging (in part) ways that the poor find their voice in the Pentecostal oral liturgy, all the while most of life mutes their voices.
Likely you may not think Pentecostals have “liturgy”. However, it is simply those practices which form such a gathering into the image of Christ. I was asking for examples of such and the students helpfully offered such things as praying in tongues, singing, prayers, and preaching. I should mention that each Thursday, just prior to our half hour gathering for particular trips, we are together as a full campus singing to the Lord, offering prayers and testimonies. During our corporate time today our Director of Student Ministries called for us to join in prayer for the mass shooting in a school in Parkland, Florida yesterday. As he mentioned this there were audible groans from several places in the chapel.
I pointed to those groans as a poignant example of Pentecostal oral liturgy. Those groans belong to the Spirit who also groans with creation for redemption. Such groans function to address the deep anguish of heart in the face of such darkness. It longs, it cries, for response. Inexpressible groans that long for the kingdom of our God to become the kingdom of this world. Groans for the King to return and set all things to right.
Moments like this remind me of the value of the integration of scholarship with practice, worship flowing into theological reflection and that theology answering back as further worshipful response to God in the midst of his people in the midst of the world.

Why Prayer Is Not Important

praying handsOnce again, our adult Sunday School class was studying prayer in the Scripture this morning and my mind was taken with the many directions of our conversations with the Scripture. But one thing that came to me in all of this discussion was that prayer is not important.
Prayer is not important…it is essential. We live and breathe by the mercy and gift of Almighty God. We are kept from sin and sanctified to His purpose by His Holy Spirit. We are clothed with His power, by abiding in His presence. Prayer is essential! It is not simply “important”.
While meditating on this (after morning worship), I happened upon a brief article entitled: “Is Prayer Essential?” (by Walter Raymond Beach in Ministry: International Journal for Pastors [April 1968]) which spoke volumes in its short message. The following was particularly poignant:
“We must not conceive of prayer,” wrote the saintly Trench, “as an attempt to overcome God’s reluctance, but as laying hold of His highest willingness.”
Prayer is not designed to change God, but to change us. The chief aim of the prayer is for the supplicant to come so completely into harmony with God that God’s will be­comes his. Then the supplicant becomes a partner with God and is ready to cooper­ate with Him in whatever God wants. He identifies his will and purpose with God’s will and purpose. Then God, if need be, can lift his mind from what he prayed for, to something better. The supplicant will realize that God is working on His plan and that all things will work together for good.
And certainly, our prayers should be in­volved more with spiritual blessings than material blessings. Origen recalled this word from apostolic days: “Ask the great things and the little things will be added unto you; ask the heavenly things and the earthly things will be added unto you.”
You can read the rest of the article HERE.
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* Originally blogged by me at bluechippastor.org on February 17, 2013.

Listening to the Spirit…Ahead of Time

Preaching CalendarI have a friend whom I remember visiting with about his preparations for preaching. He didn’t prepare. He would simply show up to the service a little early…play some worship music and “let the Spirit lead to whatever text the Spirit wants” and then he would go to the pulpit when it was time and preach “as the Spirit led.” (Or so his story to me went).
My version is, he was just being lazy about his preparations and study and not listening to the Spirit ahead of time. After all, the last I checked, the Spirit speaks if we will listen. My friend’s “prep” was bogus. And sadly there is a temptation among many pastors to do similar things and blame (er…”name”) the Spirit for their message. This can even occur when we are simply not giving ourselves to the faithful meditation of Scripture that God demands if we will truly desire to listen and be changed by this word to us. Pastors MUST prepare and be faithful persistent students of the Scriptures ever listening to the message God would speak to His Church.
But the Spirit IS speaking…are we listening? Are we planning and preparing in advance by attuning ourselves to the leading of the Spirit as we give ourselves to study the Scriptures and hear what the Spirit is saying to the church? Can’t the Spirit be involved in the preparations of a preaching calendar (especially if we actually believe the Spirit superintended the composition and compiling of the Scriptures)?
I personally “know” what I’ll be preaching for the next year or more at any given time (how NOT very Pentecostal of me 😉 )…and that’s for three different messages a week. For me, I’m currently doing Sunday AM through the Gospels and Epistles (alternating one Gospel and one or two Epistles…currently Matthew), Sunday PM in the Psalms (and currently with an interlude of Marriage video with discussions), and Wednesdays are OT books (currently Leviticus). But that is what I felt the Lord would have my congregation to do for this time. This way I can look down the road and see where I believe the Lord may be leading us and try to attune myself and my congregation’s ears to hear what the Spirit is saying.
So my question to you pastor is: Are you taking time and energy to lay out a preaching calendar and begin your preparations on messages BEFORE the few days you are due to preach? I’m not talking about writing out every detail, but are you taking time to discern just where your congregation might need to go in Scripture over the next month, several months, or year?
If so, what have you found helpful for such preparations? Pre-selected topics? Pre-selected texts? Church calendar days for particular messages or series?
The Spirit is speaking…are you listening?
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Originally blogged by myself at bluechippastors.org on February 1, 2013.
DISCLAIMER: While I do not preach this regularly in my current ministry, I still plan out my preaching calendar well in advance: enough so that I know what I will still be preaching about 6 months out for the services I have booked at camps, conferences, and churches. For this, I have found great help in a regular Bible reading plan as well as making good use of the Revised Common Lectionary.

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 Day To Celebrate?

PicnicToday was my final worship service with the congregation I have loved and served for the last decade. And it was exactly the kind of day I wanted to share with my church family: our annual church at the lake.
We sang together, heard testimonies of healings, shared communion (although I accidentally forgot the grape juice at home, so we just used grapes instead 🙂 ), swam, played games, feasted, prayed over each other, and just enjoyed being together. This is the life of the church. Not simply “weekly worship services”, but where the community of believers share life together around the table of communion and celebrate our Great God and Savior who is Himself perfect fellowship: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
I love my church family in Karlstad. I love my community.  This is the way I want to remember our life together. Enjoying each other. Laughing and crying. Playing baseball and praying in the Spirit. Singing God’s praises and soaking each other with water balloons (thrown in love, of course). Visiting around the tables filled with food. Celebrating with the cup (or at least grapes) and the bread of remembrance.
This is a day that will be emblazoned on my mind. A day stored in the treasury of my heart. A day for future reflection. A day to celebrate God’s grace and mercy and a family that is bound to one another as the very body of Christ himself.
This is the conclusion of a decade of ministry: life shared with both seasoned saints and the newly regenerated. Sharing life with those who have been in the Faith for nearly 70 years…and others whom I led through the waters of baptism only a few years ago. Children and parents whom I’ve led to Jesus feet. A widow whom I have visited regularly in her sorrows and consolations. Families I have worked to see restored to wholeness. Young adults I’ve watched mature and helped to grow in the Faith in the midst of their many struggles and questions.
It was a day to remember. A day to celebrate…in sorrow for the distance that will separate us…in joy for the things which God has done and will yet do.
Thank you Lord for my many days in Karlstad!