Augustine’s Plea

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Through your own merciful dealings with me, O Lord my God, tell me what you are to me. Say to my soul, “I am your salvation.” Say it so that I can hear it. My heart is listening, Lord; open the ears of my heart and say to my soul, “I am your salvation. Let me run towards this voice and seize hold of you. Do not hide your face from me. Let me die so I may see it, for not to see it would be death to me indeed.

(Augustine, Confessions)

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Von Balthasar on the Senselessness of the Cross

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Love alone is credible; nothing else can be believed, and nothing else ought to be believed. This is the achievement, the “work” of faith: to recognize this absolute prius, which nothing else can surpass; to believe that there is such a thing as love, absolute love, and that there is nothing higher or greater than it; to believe against all the evidence of experience, against every “rational” concept of God, which thinks of him in terms of impassibility or, at best, totally pure goodness, but not in terms of this inconceivable and senseless act of love.

(Hans Urs Von Balthasar, Love Alone is Credible)

A Reflection on Rest, Community, and the Violence of Grace

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Rest is a good and beautiful thing.

The chaos of the past few months is slowly beginning  to fade to the background as Ashley and I recover a more “normal” rhythm of life. We’ve found some measure of peace and community in a church near our home, we’ve begun to take more time to intentionally invest in our marriage and enjoy one another’s company, Ashley has been setting aside more time to be with her family in Illinois… it is a good season.

Part of the delight for me has been re-discovering old interests and hobbies. When you are in Bible College or Seminary, or when you’re teaching regularly in the local church, you tend to use most of your free time for theological study, reflection, and writing. It’s a tough habit to break should you all of a sudden find yourself with no-one to teach and no classes to study for.

For a while after my withdrawal from Whitfield, I continued to study almost incessantly (and quite frantically, I might add). I’m not entirely certain why. Part of it, I’m sure, was sheer force of habit; I’ve been doing it for 7 years. Part of it was probably simply that I needed something familiar to cling to in a time of great transition. And, of course, part of it has to do with the renewed sense of ecclesiastical homelessness we experienced when we left our last church.

I have a compulsive need to figure things out, to nail everything down before finding a church home. That has in large part been due in the past to my desire to serve in ordained ministry; it just makes sense to figure out what kind of church would be a good fit before you go plunging in asking them to ordain you… enter the frantic studying.

Part of it as well has to do with a personal identity crisis and a desire for belonging. I’ve always felt, to some degree or another, like an outsider; certain, for some reason, that I would not be loved and accepted by those whose affection I craved. Over time, this began to manifest itself most clearly in church life; I began to simultaneously erect barriers between myself and others, while also desperately searching for a sense of belonging. One way I did this was by seeking positions of congregational leadership, another way was through theological distinction.

I grew up Roman Catholic. When I was 8, my parents and I moved to a new city, where we joined a non-denominational church affiliated with the Stone-Campbell movement (Christian Churches and Churches of Christ). As far back as I can recall, I was unsettled there. Fairly early on I began looking elsewhere for spiritual fulfillment, turning particularly to Reformed and Charismatic expressions of faith.

Regardless, I did end up attending a Restoration Movement affiliated school for my undergrad work. During my time there and through reading a bit of church history, it became clear to me that I would never quite fit the SCM mold. The result was at least a perceived sense of alienation from peers and professors, amplified by the general tenor of education at a Stone-Campbell institution. Though it was certainly unintentional, I was made to feel like a second-class Christian because I did not identify with the Campbell-ite heritage (there were some notable exceptions; I remain profoundly grateful to those few professors who recognized and welcomed my differing viewpoint and encouraged my spiritual search).

My search for belonging continued throughout my undergrad years and beyond. I went through catechism in the Eastern Orthodox church… then I met the woman who would become my wife, and converting to Orthodoxy was no longer an option. We went from place to place, eventually finding a home in the Anglican Church of North America. We served in an ACNA parish for three beautiful years, but various factors (including my ministerial ambitions) stirred up in both of us a feeling of discontent. We began to develop an idealized view of another church in town where a friend and mentor of mine pastored. Ultimately we left our Anglican church for this Presbyterian church. The rest, if you’ve been following this blog, is not news to you; there was a moral failure on the part of the pastor, we left, and I dropped out of seminary.

Shortly after all this, I began re-reading Bonhoeffer’s little book, Life Together; it has been a great catalyst for healing in my life. He writes these words:

The serious Christian, set down for the first time in a Christian community, is likely to bring with him a very definite idea of what Christian life together should be and try to realize it. But God’s grace speedily shatters such dreams.

For Bonhoeffer, many of us bring ideals of what the church should be; ideals that quickly become idols. We seek to force that ideal onto the church, and when it doesn’t quite fit, the result is pain, disappointment, damaged relationships–all the things that inevitably follow when we “worship the creature rather than the Creator who is forever blessed, Amen” (Romans 1:25).

God is not content to let us simply continue on in our cycle of idealism, idolatry, and brokenness, however; he loves us far too much. In his grace he brings our tottering fortress of idealism crashing to the ground and invites us instead to find ourselves as members of the Beloved Community. There is no need to set up buffers and create distance in order to protect myself, because Christ Himself is my buffer; it is only through his reconciling love that I relate to my brother and sister. Community, then, is the sweetest of graces, and it is a grace we cannot experience if our ideals regarding the Christian community remain intact.

It seems to me that for a long time, God has been trying to teach me this lesson, inviting me to find my place in the Beloved Community, and to taste grace as if for the first time. He wanted me to see myself simply as one beloved of God, unconditionally accepted through His Son and welcomed into a community of people that exists solely for the purpose of following in the footsteps of Jesus. Truly, what greater sense of belonging could I ask for? And yet in desperation I clung to that ideal image of church, that idol of my own making that could not save me, and in doing so, I refused to let Him tend to my wounds and heal my brokenness as he longed to. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem… how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing…” (Matthew 23:37). It took God bringing my ideals crashing down for me to finally pay attention to the quiet whisper of the Spirit.

The joy of all this is that out of every little death, God inevitably brings the sweetness of resurrection. For the time being, we have found our little slice of the Beloved Community in a small church that isn’t the best “fit,” necessarily; but God in his mercy, continues to put to death my churchly ideals and invite me through his Spirit to experience grace and community afresh.

Only He knows what the future will bring, it is certainly beyond my fathoming. I am simply grateful for the present moment: The lessons the Spirit is teaching us, the love that fills our home, the grace that salves our wounds, and the little things that make life delightful.

Its time for me to go, I think; there are birds to watch, pipes to smoke, guitars to play, and people to love. Until we meet again, may the peace and presence of Christ be with you all. Amen.

Following in the Footsteps of the Kingdom

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“The mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace.” (Romans 8:6)

Luke 12:22-34 contrasts two contradictory mindsets; one that strives after the way of the world, and one that follows in the footsteps of the Kingdom. As we listen in on Jesus teaching his disciples, we discover that the way of the world is characterized by anxiety and fear; If you’re familiar with the story of Abraham and his sons, we could call it “striving” to produce Ishmael rather than waiting patiently for Isaac.

The way of the Kingdom “waits for the LORD,” “hopes in his steadfast love,” and “trusts in his name” (cf. Psalm 33). It “considers him who promised to be faithful” (Hebrew 11:11). Because it trusts in a generous God who gives lavishly to all, it likewise gives lavishly considering of first importance those who have nothing.

Jesus said it was in losing our lives that we would find them. Perhaps this is much of what he meant; in stepping outside of ourselves we discover true life as if for the first time. What if Kingdom life has less to do with eternity and more to do with quality of life (for lack of a better term) here and now. Put differently, the example of Christ invites us to utterly forsake our old way of life, and in doing so discover a vibrant life disentangled from the dominant narrative of self-obsessed consumption; a life free from approval addiction, self-promotion, vanity, self-pity; a life lived truly in the moment, for the sake of others, free to more fully love God and neighbor.

The person most at peace with their true self–the one intimately known and loved by God with all its flaws and imperfections–is the one who is most free of self, and thus the most free to truly live.

In case you were wondering, I fail at this daily. My life is a near constant masquerade, I am recklessly self-absorbed, chronically impatient, and dangerously short tempered. Though I long to know myself as simply “one who is beloved of God” I am more likely to define myself by my vocation, denomination, education, bibliography, or any other number of things. In a way, this new season is a great blessing; once again I am ecclesiastically homeless, my “career” in ministry indefinitely on hold, and I am now a two-time seminary dropout… In other words: much of how I defined myself has been stripped away; I am forced to come face-to-face with my deep woundedness and wait for the voice of God that reassures me that even in the midst of this, I am his; by his Spirit he has claimed me as his own, and nothing can separate me from his love… how great the mystery of grace!

A Brief Update and a Response to the Question: “Where Did You Go?”

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Many people have been asking me how Seminary is going, how things are going at church, and so on. If you follow this blog you’ll also noticed that I haven’t posted anything in a good long while. In light of that, I suppose I ought to share a bit of what has passed in recent weeks with the broader community.

Allow me to answer the second question first, or at least, part of it. Much of what I posted came from devotions I was leading early in the morning at the mission. I decided to stop doing that, at least for now, for two main reasons. First, I began to feel that I would accomplish more by being present with the guys one on one than by shouting a devotion at them as they wake up in the morning. I also found that my motives were beginning to distort… I was writing the devotions less for the men and more so that I could share them with others. I suppose that would be fine, but as I examined myself I saw that I was really looking for affirmation from the people I shared with; what started as ministry had become pretension.

Second, most of the devotions I wrote came out of my personal reflections on lectionary texts and other devotional reading. During this particular season in my life (see below), I found those reflections to be too personal and painful to share.

Now for the first question. Suffice it to say, some things happened with our church that made it impossible to stay. There is a lot of hurt, and a lot of healing that needs to happen. Fortunately God gives more grace; we parted as friends with our pastor. Because of the way Whitefield is set up (emphasizing a personal mentoring relationship with a local pastor and lots of practical experience), parting from our church also meant withdrawing from Seminary.

While I still believe God has called me to ordained ministry, the overwhelming message in the last couple weeks has been “not yet,” and for the first time I am fine with that. Too long I have used Christ’s church to serve my ambition rather than loving her… It seems I have as much repenting as healing to do. All that said, It will be a good while before I am ready to think about ordained ministry or Seminary work again.

As for the future of this blog… stay tuned. I’m likely to share a thing or two on occasion. I’m still reading, praying, and meditating; I’m just doing it more for the sake of my own soul than for the sake of writing or teaching. At this point my plan is to look back on things I’ve written or worked through over the previous weeks and re-work them if I think they would be beneficial for others to read. Be forewarned: there will not be much in the way of light-hearted writing in the coming days.

Until we meet again, may the peace of Christ be with you always.

Mornings at the Mission: The Patient Compassion of God

Each morning I offer a short devotion to the men under my care in the dorm. This is the spot where I share them with you, and keep a record of them for myself on the off chance I ever need them again.

 

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The Lord works vindication
    and justice for all who are oppressed.
He made known his ways to Moses,
    his acts to the people of Israel.
The Lord is merciful and gracious,
    slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
He will not always accuse,
    nor will he keep his anger forever.
10 He does not deal with us according to our sins,
    nor repay us according to our iniquities.
11 For as the heavens are high above the earth,
    so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him;
12 as far as the east is from the west,
    so far he removes our transgressions from us.
13 As a father has compassion for his children,
    so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him.
14 For he knows how we were made;
    he remembers that we are dust.
(Psalm 103:6-14)
Have you every read Romans 7? In it Paul wrestles with himself… it seems like no matter how hard he tries he always caves in, doing the evil he does not want to do, and failing to do the good he does want to do. I wonder if you’ve ever felt like that? Like there is this one thing that keeps you locked up in the darkness and there’s no way out; like no matter how hard you try you can’t seem to rule your temper, control your addiction, say no to just one more drink… you feel like a failure with no way out. And if there is a God–which seems pretty far-fetched to you at the moment–surely he’s pissed and wants nothing to do with you. Surely he’s rolling his eyes in disgust… “there he goes again,” you can almost hear him saying, “giving in to the same old sin. What a mess.”

 

If that’s how you feel today, I have some good news for you. God is not disgusted with you. The Bible tells us that he “works for vindication and justice for all who are oppressed,” and that he “is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” It also tells us that he is patient and compassionate towards us, and–perhaps my favorite phrase in this Psalm–that he “remembers that we are dust.” God knows how frail we are. He knows that our flesh is strong, and that we don’t have the strength to overcome our vices on our own. That’s the beauty of the gospel: Even though God had every right just to abandon us to our self-destruction, he chose to intervene. He sent his Son to deal with our sin, paying the restitution perfect justice demanded, and securing the redemption of all who would believe–those whom he had set his love upon from eternity past. Now “there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1), for as the Psalmist writes: “as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is his steadfast love towards those who fear him;” and “as far as the east is from the west, so far he removes our transgressions from us” (Psalm 103:11-12).

 

Here’s some more good news: Redemption doesn’t stop with Justification. Once we have received Christ by faith our debt to God’s justice has been paid in full, but God isn’t done with us yet. He wants to see us transformed, he wants us to experience the wholeness–the shalom–he intended for creation before the fall happened back in Genesis 3. And so his Spirit works patiently within us, dealing with areas of woundedness in our hearts, applying his word as a healing balm, leading us into newness of life that we might more perfectly reflect the image of the God whose glory we were designed to magnify in harmony with all of creation.

 

If you belong to Jesus Christ through faith, you are eternally accepted by God, and no amount of failure can change that. He knows our frailty, and delights to demonstrate patience and compassion towards us, as he works within us to bring about a glorious restoration.

Mornings at the Mission: Yearning for Home

Each morning I offer a short devotion to the men under my care in the dorm. This is the spot where I share them with you, and keep a record of them for myself on the off chance I ever need them again.

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By the waters of Babylon,
    there we sat down and wept,
    when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
    we hung up our lyres.
For there our captors
    required of us songs,
and our tormentors, mirth, saying,
    “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How shall we sing the Lord‘s song
    in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
    let my right hand forget its skill!
Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth,
    if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
    above my highest joy!

(Psalm 137:1-6)

This powerful Psalm was written while the people of God were exiled in the nation of Babylon.  This was the judgement God had promised his people would come to pass if they refused to repent. Israel had ignored the warnings of the prophets, and so here they were. Their homes had been burned to the ground, their families separated, anything of value they owned had been taken. They were foreign captives in a strange land with no rights, and no hope that they could see of ever going home and rebuilding their lives.

Perhaps your feeling similarly hopeless right now, like everything has come crashing down around you. You’ve been living in “exile” for so long that you’ve given up all home of restoration.

Interestingly, the Bible says that all of us are in exile, followers of Christ even more so than others. The fact is that none of us belong in a fallen, broken, corrupt world. We were made to have a perfect relationship with God, one another, and the good world God had made. Sin has distorted all that, and we can barely live in harmony within ourselves, never mind with God or one another. We were made for wholeness, but we live in brokenness. We live in exile and we long for home.

Some of us go looking for wholeness in the wrong places, trying to get a taste of the Eden we lost. We look to relationships, food, money, alcohol… desperately grasping for the life we were made for. The reality is, though, that these things cannot truly get us home. They can only temporarily distract us. And though they promise hope, in the end they can only offer us more destruction. We have forgotten the songs of Jerusalem; we now sing only songs of the Fall.

Perhaps it is time we remember Jerusalem. Perhaps it is time we admit to ourselves and to God that the longing in our heart is for our heavenly home, and it is only there we can find the wholeness we crave… the Bible calls this shalom. The good news is that Jesus came to bring us home, to lead us back from exile, out of our bondage to sin and corruption and into a new life in His Kingdom (Colossians 1:13). It is Him that we long for, He is our peace (Ephesians 2:14). His body was split asunder like the red sea in the book of Exodus, that we might pass through his blood and be cleansed, washed, made new, made whole.

True, we only get glimpses of our true home in this life. If we are to make it to the new Jerusalem we must first follow Jesus through the scorched desert of this present age. That means we must first suffer before we find release; we must first die to our old way of life before we can truly live. But we have the sure hope that one day we will make it there. Sure as Christ rose from the dead, sure as the Scriptures are true; we are promise that “He who has begun a good work in us will bring it to completion at the day of redemption” (Philippians 1:6). He will come back for His Children; He will make all things right.