Detachment

lot-fleeing-from-sodom-benjamin-west

Benjamin West, Lot Fleeing From Sodom (1810), oil on panel, Detroit Institute of Arts

Fuga Mundi – “flight from the world” – captures the meaning of detachment. If the soul is to be fully God’s, it must rid itself of anything creaturely, anything that isn’t God. It means cleaning house, getting rid of idols, reordering priorities.

We spend our lives getting and spending, chasing after things, whether those things are tangible objects – a bigger home, a nicer car, another stamp for the collection – or intangibles such as praise, recognition, honor, and success. “‘Vanity of vanities,’ says the Preacher. ‘All is vanity’” (Eccles. 12:8). Vanity means empty or meaningless. The problem isn’t that houses and cars and success are evil; the problem is that they are empty. Even good things can become attachments that hinder us spiritually. If we see ministry – “serving God” – or prayer or any spiritual activity as an end in itself, it becomes an idol. It becomes a vanity. It becomes empty.

All the things that we think will make us happy never really satisfy, and there’s a good reason for that. God made us in such a way that only He can fill the void that we feel within us. St. Augustine, writing in the form of a prayer to God, put it like this: “You have formed us for yourself and our hearts are restless till they find rest in You” (Confessions, 1.1). To experience peace we must let go of everything that isn’t God. Fuga mundi.

Some have fled the world physically, cloistering themselves behind the protective walls of a monastery, only to find that they’ve brought the world with them. They have detached from the world outwardly but not inwardly. Others have fled the world spiritually, staying in the world yet letting go of its attachments. Most of us have done neither. Like Lot and his family we tarry in Sodom, attached to a world that is soon to vanish. Lot’s uncle Abraham made a bargain with God: If only ten righteous men could be found in Sodom, then God wouldn’t destroy it. But there weren’t ten righteous men, so God destroy the city and its evil twin, Gomorrah (Gen. 19:24-25).

I wonder if there are ten righteous people in the world today, ten who have detached themselves from the world and attached themselves fully to God. I don’t know if there are ten, but I think there must be a few. They are the ones who keep the universe from exploding.

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Care for the Dying

Munch-Det-Syke-Barn-1896-wikipedia-US-public-domain

Edvard Munch, “The Sick Child” (1896)

After two deaths and three funerals in just nine days, I’ve been thinking a lot about death. Watching a loved one die can be a sorrowful experience even for believers who have the presence of the Holy Spirit and the hope of eternal life. But the time before the end can also be an important time for giving and receiving love and forgiveness as well as preparing for death. Here are some tips on how to care for and minister to those who are dying:

  1. Be knowledgeable. To help those who are dying we must understand the meaning of death. Death is the separation of the soul from the body. Death doesn’t mean that the person has stopped breathing or that their heart has stopped beating or even that they are “brain dead.” The soul isn’t “in” the lungs, heart, or brain. It isn’t in any particular part of the body. The only way we can know for sure that the soul has left the body with moral certainty is when the process of corruption has begun. We must treat all who are in the process of dying with Christian love and dignity, even when death seems imminent.
  2. Be patient. While there is no moral imperative to prolong life by unnatural means, we shouldn’t hasten death. God calls people home in His timing. It is difficult to watch people suffer, especially those we love, but as Christians we believe that there can be spiritual benefit in suffering.
  3. Be honest. Don’t try to spare a dying person’s feelings by telling him that he will recover and don’t use euphemisms to discuss death. As Christians we should always tell the truth, even when it hurts. Being honest will help the dying person prepare for death. Dishonesty only feeds denial and prevents the dying person from being able to prepare mentally and spiritually for death.
  4. Be receptive. Ask the dying person what they need. If they can’t talk, try to get moisture to their mouth. Do what you can to meet the dying person’s needs, but be honest if they ask for something you can’t provide.
  5. Be creative. Try to create a comforting and meaningful atmosphere for the dying person. Play or sing Christian songs. Bring sound recordings of the Bible or voices of loved ones. Read aloud. If the person loved baseball or crochet, decorate their room with objects that remind them of their favorite pastimes.
  6. Be realistic. Even if you are the primary caregiver, you can’t be there for the dying person 24/7. You need time to eat, sleep, cry, and recharge. Arrange for respite care. You will be a better caregiver if you take care of yourself.
  7. Be prayerful. Pray for and with the dying person. If possible, pray so they can hear you. Even those who are in a coma may be able to hear your prayers. Pray that the person would die ready to meet God, not just that they would have less pain or go quickly. If you’re not sure whether the person is truly a believer, invite them to put their faith and trust in Jesus Christ. Don’t hesitate to call on a minister to pray for or with someone who is dying.

Death can be unpleasant but it doesn’t have to be terrifying. The Psalmist says, “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints” (Psalm 116:15). It can become precious in our sight too when we have God’s perspective of death.

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Blame It On Eve?

Anna Lea Merritt Eve

Eve Overcome By Remorse (1885) Anna Lea Merritt (1844-1930), oil on canvas

Blame it on Eve. The first sinner. She’s the one who ate the forbidden fruit first and got Adam and her kicked out of the Garden of Eden. She’s the reason that women suffer in childbirth and are subjected to male domination. Had she not implicated Adam in her sin, man could have stayed in paradise and wouldn’t have had to work so hard to coax enough food from the ground. It makes you wonder whether God knew what he was talking about when he said, “It is not good for man to be alone” (Genesis 2:18). Maybe he would have been better off without her.

The story of paradise lost – to steal a phrase from Milton – begins when God makes a perfect garden where his newly created humans can live in peace and harmony with nature and with God. Adam and Eve are vegetarians; the animals are too (Gen. 1:29-30). There is only one rule: “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die” (Gen. 2:16b). A talking snake sidles up to Eve and tells her that if she eats from the tree of knowledge she will be like God: “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen. 3:5). After a brief hesitation she takes, eats, and gives the fruit to Adam. (There’s no mention of an apple; we don’t know what kind of fruit it was.) For their disobedience they are banished from the garden. God curses the snake (who must slither on his belly and eat dust), the woman (who will suffer in childbirth), and the ground (which will yield its fruit to man only with hard labor).

God’s punishments are examples of “etiology” – which means a study of causes. I call them Mommy, why? stories. They’re found throughout the book of Genesis and other ancient literature. Imagine a Hebrew toddler asking, Mommy, why are there rainbows? The story of Noah and Flood answers the question. Genesis 3 answers similar questions of causation: Mommy, why are snakes so scary and why do the slide on their bellies? Mommy, why does it hurt mommies when babies are born? Mommy, why does daddy have to work so hard to get enough food for us to eat? And perhaps the biggest Mommy, why? question of all: Mommy, why is there sin and evil in the world? Skeptical scholars have used etiology to argue that the Bible is just another ancient collection of myths. But etiology did more than satisfy childish curiosity in ancient Israel; it provided historical explanations for the world as the Hebrews experienced it.

St. Paul points out that Eve was deceived (2 Cor. 11:3). Adam wasn’t. He made a decision to eat without being beguiled. It’s good fodder for misogynists who claim that female character is more defective. Women are more gullible than men. I don’t think that’s what Paul meant. If anything Adam’s character was worse, because unlike Eve he decided to sin without being tempted. In Romans 5:12-21,  Paul places the blame for infecting all of humanity with original sin (a concept not found in the Old Testament) on Adam alone: “Sin came into the world through one man . . . .”

A rabbi friend pointed out something I never noticed before in Genesis 3. God didn’t banish Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, only Adam: “Therefore the LORD God sent him forth from the garden of Eden to till the ground from which he was taken. He drove out the man; and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim, and a sword flaming and turning to guard the way to the tree of life” (Gen. 3:23-24). Apparently Eve chose to go willingly with her husband. She gave up paradise for him. Why? Because she was created to be his helper and partner. Because they were one flesh. Because – as God said – it was not good for man to be alone. Because men never ask for directions and Adam would be perpetually lost without her. Because being alone is worse than suffering together.

Eve gave up eternal life in paradise to face a hostile world and eventual death with her husband – her husband who named her Eve, signifying that she would become the mother of all living. (The name “Eve” in Hebrew sounds like the word for “living.”) She is the mother of all, including the  Savior who would die for the sins of the world, foreshadowed in the prophecy that the “seed of the woman” will bruise the serpent’s head (Gen. 3:15).

As it turns out the first sinner, Eve, was also the first saint.

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Building Towers

Boy Scout Tower

My fourteen-year-old son Mark is away at Boy Scout camp this week. That’s got me thinking back to my own experience. The last time I went to a Boy Scout camp I was thirteen. One of the major activities was building a twenty-foot tower. It took our troop most of the day to lash the wooden poles in place and make platforms that were sturdy enough to hold our weight. I remember the pride of accomplishment we felt when the job was done. From atop the tower we were lords of the Earth. We wanted our structure to last forever, but at the end of the day it had to be disassembled so the next group of campers could build their own tower. I’m sure each troop thought their tower was the best, but in fact they were all very much a like. Some were a little taller than others, some a little sturdier. But they were all made with the same materials and techniques, and the differences were more superficial than substantive.

Boy Scouts aren’t the only ones who build towers. Theologians do too. They build beautiful systems, logically lashed together. Each group defends its own tower, claiming superiority of craftsmanship and fidelity to Scripture. Built on an Aristotelian foundation, these systems thrive on defining themselves against the other: sacramental vs. non-sacramental, predestination vs. free will, Protestant vs. Catholic vs. Orthodox, and so on. Such systems provide certainty and security for their adherents but they also foster a kind of theological agoraphobia, a fear of wandering outside the safety of one’s own system. Stepping outside one’s theological boundaries can be as terrifying as stepping off a twenty-foot tower.

But what if truth is greater than any one theological system? What if truth isn’t like building a tower but like triangulating on a location from different towers? What if truth isn’t propositional and logical at all but personal and mysterious?

The Bible doesn’t tell us to put our faith and trust in theological systems. We are told to believe in a person – Jesus Christ, who said “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”

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The Difficult Doctrine of the Trinity

Trinity Rublev

Trinity, attributed to Andrei Rublev, 15th century, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia

Thomas Jefferson considered the doctrine of the Trinity bunk, because it goes against reason. In a 1810 letter he called it “a mere Abracadabra.”

The doctrine of the Trinity teaches that there is only one God who eternally exists as three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Not three gods. Not three personalities. One God; three Persons. All three Persons are God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I’ll admit it strains the intellect to say 1+1+1=1. Then again, it also strains the intellect to think that God became incarnate in the person of Jesus, that he rose from the dead, or that God spoke the universe into existence.

The supernatural world has its mysteries as does the natural world. A human being is an incredibly complex organism. Can anyone fully comprehend how a single cell can grow into a human baby in just 40 weeks?  By all rights a hummingbird shouldn’t be able to fly, but it does fly – forwards, backwards, sideways, upside down, and can even hover.  How do you explain the fact that the earth is the perfect distance from the sun to sustain life? If it were just a little closer to the sun, the oceans would boil away. If it were just a little farther away, they’d freeze.  The natural world is full of mysteries. It’s not surprising that spiritual world is too. One of those mysteries is the Trinity. It cannot be fully comprehended by man’s sin-tainted, fallen intellect. But it can be grasped by the mind and held by faith.

The doctrine of the Trinity is challenging to me for a different reason than it was to Thomas Jefferson. It doesn’t offend my reason (even if I can’t full comprehend it), but it does challenge my doctrine of religious authority. Baptists aren’t a creedal people and we believe that the Bible alone is all the religious authority we need. We hold to the Protestant doctrine of “sola scriptura,” which means that our religious authority is in the Bible alone – not in popes, church councils, or any extra-biblical authority. I wonder, Would I believe the doctrine of the Trinity on the evidence of Scripture alone? Maybe. Maybe not. The Trinity is a doctrine derived from Scripture. It’s mainly an inference from what the New Testament teaches about Jesus and the Holy Spirit, worked out by theologians and church councils over the first few centuries of Christian history. If I didn’t already know the doctrine as it developed over time and as it is expressed in the creeds, and if I had only the Bible to guide me, Would I be able to arrive at to the full expression of the doctrine of the Trinity as found in the Nicene Creed?  If not, I am left with one of two unsettling possibilities: either my doctrine of the Trinity is wrong or my doctrine of religious authority is wrong.

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June 17, 2014 · 3:14 pm

Babel Undone

Pieter_Bruegel_the_Elder_-_The_Tower_of_Babel_(Vienna)_-_Google_Art_Project_-_edited
Pieter Bruegel, The Tower of Babel (c. 1565)

On the Day of Pentecost, recorded in the Book of Acts chapter 2, the Holy Spirit breathed life into the church, just as he had done at creation when God breathed the breath of life into man. When Jesus had appeared in his resurrected state, they could see him and touch him. But when the Spirit showed up, they couldn’t see him. He was invisible. But they could hear him. The Holy Spirit blew in with the sound of a hurricane, only there wasn’t any storm. I imagine the windows and doors banging open and the disciples looking around frantically. Then flames shaped liked forked tongues appeared and danced above each disciple’s head, not just the apostles’. Wind and fire. These were the auditory and visual signs of the Holy Spirit’s presence. The sound of rushing wind gave way to the sound of human speech, a cascade of strange syllables flowing from their mouths. Jews from all over the Mediterranean and Near East, who were visiting Jerusalem, rushed in to see what all the commotion was. They were gob-smacked when they heard these Galileans speaking in their own mother tongues. This was no gibberish or ecstatic speech. It was real language. Their language.

The miracle of Pentecost represents a reversal of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11. The people in Genesis wanted to build a tall tower for two reasons: for pride and permanence. The Bible says they wanted to make a name for themselves and they didn’t want to be scattered all over the world. They came together for a selfish purpose. But the Jews in Acts 2 came together for an unselfish purpose: they gathered in Jerusalem to worship God and celebrate the Feast of Weeks.

God punished the builders of the Tower of Babel by confusing their speech. On Pentecost God reversed this curse by allowing people from many nations to hear the disciples speak in their own languages. And instead of divine punishment, God’s blessing was poured out—not to keep people from a task, but to empower them for the most important task: spreading the Gospel to the uttermost part of the Earth. But the reversal of the confusion of languages on the day of Pentecost was temporary and limited. The gift of tongues wasn’t meant to become a universal translator, an evangelical Esperanto.

This motif of Babel reversed raises some interesting questions. God punished the builders for coming together for a selfish purpose. “What if humanity came together in the light and spirit poured out at Pentecost?” as Seraphim Sigrist asks in his book A Life Together. Might it be possible to become of one heart and mind and repair the fragmentation of humanity? Maybe, just maybe, God is hinting to us that in the Spirit we can come together to do great things, to reverse God’s curse on sin and to bring about a new world order . . . to bring about the kingdom of God. Maybe we should do more than just pray the words, “Thy kingdom come.”  Maybe we should also work for God’s kingdom to come. Work for a world where justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream. Work for a world where the wolf shall dwell with the lamb and the leopard shall lie down with the kid in peace and safety. Work for a world where there’s a tree of life whose leaves are for the healing of the nations.

Maybe God didn’t give us prophetic visions in the Bible just to whet our appetite for a remote future world but also to give us a blueprint for how we should be working to remodel our current world into a place of God’s justice, peace, and healing.

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The Way Up Is Down

Rembrandt Ascension

Today is Ascension Sunday when many Christians celebrate Jesus’ miraculous return to Heaven. It has inspired great Christian art like the Rembrandt painting above and musical masterpieces such as Beethoven’s “Christ on the Mount of Olives.”

If it weren’t for Luke, we’d know almost nothing about the ascension. He gives us a brief description at the end of his Gospel and an extended one at the beginning of the Book of Acts (Luke 24:50-53, Acts 1:9-11). Matthew and John don’t mention the ascension at all, and Mark simply says that Jesus “was taken up into heaven, and sat down at the right hand of God” (Mark 16:19b). But this verse is in the disputed longer ending that’s not in several of the oldest manuscripts of Mark (Mark 16:9-20). There’s even a difference between the way Luke’s Gospel and the Book of Acts describe the event. The Gospel identifies the location as Bethany; Acts implies that it was on the Mount of Olives “about a Sabbath day’s journey away” from Jerusalem (Acts 1:12). (Why did the disciples leave Jerusalem after Jesus had ordered them not to? Acts 1:4, cf. 1:12). Acts suggests the ascension took place forty days after Jesus was raised from the dead (Acts 1:3); Luke’s Gospel makes no mention of this forty-day period and gives the impression that it took place at the end of the first Easter Day. I hope you won’t let these facts trouble you or cause you to doubt the importance of Jesus’ ascension.

The ascension completed Jesus’ journey from heaven and back again. He descended from heaven to earth and from earth to the grave – down, down, down. Then he ascended from the grave to the earth and back to heaven – up, up, up. The Apostle Paul says, “He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things” (Ephesians 4:10). In his descent and ascent, Jesus demonstrated the paradoxical truth that “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Luke 14:11, 18:14). Bernard of Clairvaux said, “Through humility you may ascend to sublimity.” The way up is down!

The ascension can be seen as a metaphor for spiritual progress. Ascent was easy for Jesus because he wasn’t weighed down by sin. It’s difficult for us because our sins weigh us down like an anchor. Jesus floated up to heaven like a helium-filled balloon. We have to climb Mount Everest. Spiritual maturity doesn’t come suddenly and unexpectedly like a butterfly emerging from its cocoon. It comes from years and years of hard work, through spiritual disciplines such as prayer, Bible study, spiritual reading, fasting, and Christian service. How will we know when we’ve arrived? When we come to that perfect love of God that casts out fear. Love is the hallmark of spiritual ascent, because God is love (1 John 4:8b). The closer we get to God, the more the love of God is perfected in us.

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