Archive for December, 2017

We are not pawns. Yet we are players in a Great Game in which everything is at stake and large powers move amid shadows and light.

We do not move alone, do not decide alone, do not—no matter our pretensions—create our own future, alone.

Theologians, as they should, make passable stabs at systematizing all this. They boil it down into its crystallized form. Some of us outliers memorize these schemata. It hardens into backbone, sometimes, allowing us to live, flex, thrust, chase with the kinds of agile coherence that a healthy body manifests.

But in reality, redemption’s story is a drama, not a code.

Great forces act on us. Some deserve our worship or something close to that, others our disdain. We fool ourselves if we think we live alone. Autonomy, in the clear light of day, is a laughable self-deception that—oddly—can be sustained for a lifetime if a guy puts his mind to it.

And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ. (2 Corinthians 4:3–6 NIV11)

The apostle Paul may well have gasped at his hearers’ resistance to the clarity of his gospel. The joy and trauma of the Damascus Road still clung to his clothes, his beard. He was a man heading south when Jesus turned him north. His intellect traced redemption’s sinews, but did not lead him from darkness to the light that was appropriately and in the first instance a blinding light. He was assaulted by grace, not the recipient of an emailed invitation to think about it.

How could people not believe in this Jesus whom Paul had come to adore, this glorious Son of Judaism’s divine Father, this Impress of God? This Mercy?

They are not merely blind, the apostle eventually concluded. That would merely beg more explanation, an unsatisfying step towards the infinite regression of loss.

More than blind, they have been blinded.

And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.

Yet the Great Game—if the second word elicits playfulness, we must discard it at once—has not just one barely discernible player, a ‘god of this age’ unmatched by beneficent power. Darkness and its prince claim their casualties, to be sure. Yet an invading Presence that despises darkness and floods it with light is also afoot amid these shadows and this light.

For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ.

Paul’s allusion here is to Creation, but his point in invoking that prehistoric moment is to say that God’s creative work continues on. If it was a flash in the past, it also manifests itself in ongoing bursts of light. These continuing acts of creation, now seen in their redemptive results, illuminate human hearts and minds so that Glory is not just a thing out there, known only to heaven and its secretive forces.

Rather, it is seen and celebrated down here by those who once were blind but now can see.


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This business of Christian witness in a world gone mad is exquisitely complex. And beautiful.

Balance is required, a certain astute way with a dance.

Why did I once think things were simple, easy, and clear?

The apostle has an angle. Always, an angle:

Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart. Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God. And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For we do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ. (2 Corinthians 4:1–6 NIV)

I remember, as though it were yesterday, a three-decades-ago pastor taking me under wing in a small-but-very-large controversy about ‘secret societies’ and membership in a New England church that was risking the bold move of taking its principal cues from the Christian gospel.

A spiritual violence was in play. This pastor was the still point at the center.

‘The gospel of Jesus Christ is public’, he explained to me. ‘You put things out there where they can be discussed, debate, refuted, questioned, embraced, rejected. There are no cards played close to the vest, no esoteric logic, no secret handshakes.’

Or words to that effect. I’m not sure he mentioned the handshakes.

It made sense back then. It makes better sense today, me dancing uneasily around the awkward fact that I am now the age he owned back then, with only half the savvy. Half the stillness.

By working with utterly sincere transparency, the apostle struggles to make clear, we commend ourselves to every man’s conscious in the sight of God. He, she, they make their own decisions, assess their own risk, choose their own future.

But we commend ourselves to them by never allowing ourselves the short-lived luxury of half-truths and deceptive motivations. We have only one asset: our credibility. If, when we have had our say, declared our truth, staked our claim, they believe we have hidden nothing in a rolled-up sleeve, we have won the battle that is ours to fight. The rest falls to other warriors, other risk pools, other destinies.

Yet, paradoxically—good grief, will I never know the luxury of a simple truth!—we do not preach ourselves.

This is the dance, the delicate pas de deux with contested reality that is the essence of Christian testimony, this is the part that is ours.

Pick me to pieces. Lash me with your hard questions. Think of me what you will, I’ve nothing to hide from you. Sneer at me or declare your undying loyalty.

It means nothing to me, really, at the end of my trembling day.

There is Jesus. Walk this way.



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It matters very much whom we worship.

The otherwise diverse biblical witness finds unanimity around this point. We may wish for some wiggle room, some space for our personal preferences to be registered. Alas, Scripture allows none.

The 19th chapter of the Book of Revelation creaks and wobbles almost to the collapsing point with its slightly crazed visions of beings loyal to YHWH over against a motley collection of those who have long since rebelled again heaven’s benign Tyrant.

And the twenty-four elders and the four living creatures fell down and worshiped God who was seated on the throne, saying, ‘Amen. Hallelujah!’ And from the throne came a voice saying, ‘Praise our God, all you his servants, you who fear him, small and great.’ (Revelation 19:4–5 ESV)

Similar visions scattered across the Scriptural landscape place immense and fearsome creatures near the throne. Here, the colloquy that gathers about the throne is identified as ‘the twenty-four elders and the four living creatures’.

One might fairly have expected some kind of co-regency alongside of YHWH or at least a token nod at the dignity of such heavenly rulers, if that is what they are. We find nothing of the sort.

Instead, they fall down and worship God. That is all.

The anonymous voice proceeding from the throne names this falling down of great and, we soon learn, of small:

Praise our God, all you his servants, you who fear him, small and great.

The throne-shadowed elders and the living creatures who join them are, it appears, simply servants in the presence of this enthroned God. The text finds it more natural to group them with the human readers of John’s Revelation that it would have been to associate them with God on heaven’s side of the cosmos. We observe this small and very great detail of classification in two ways. First, the summons to doxology comes to ‘all you his servants … small and great.’ This presumably includes the grandest of heavenly worshippers and the smallest earthly ones.

Second, he is ‘our God’, a descriptor that once again links the large and the small in the company of his servants and worshippers. The big dudes, heaven’s movers and shakers, are on our side. Not his.

As though it were not enough simply to name this remarkable ordering of doxology and service, John’s experience drives it home via a kind of visionary case study.

And the angel said to me, ‘Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.’ And he said to me, ‘These are the true words of God.’ Then I fell down at his feet to worship him, but he said to me, ‘You must not do that! I am a fellow servant with you and your brothers who hold to the testimony of Jesus. Worship God.’ (Revelation 19:9–10 ESV)

Overawed by the majesty of his heavenly interlocutor, John makes the mistake of slipping for a moment from awe into worship. The error is quickly corrected, for we don’t do things like that around here.

Today we would find a path to empathy for confused John as he tries to keep track of all manner of unspeakable things in the noisy white heat of heaven.

The text, in contrast, has no patience with slippery spirituality. John’s error is not excusable, the seer learns by way of his angel guide’s stern rebuke.

Even the greatest creatures worship only God as they serve within the bounds of their respective commissions. Creation, we surmise, if full of things that might make an awestruck body fall down before them and begin that transfer of loyalty that we call worship.

Shockingly, only One merits such obeisance. All the rest are—merely—fellow servants.



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When the fifty-four chapter of the book called Isaiah addresses the exiled Jewish community as ‘Barren One’, it initiate one of the most stunning deployments of ironic negatives that Scripture and literature have known.

‘Sing, O barren one, who did not bear; break forth into singing and cry aloud, you who have not been in labor! For the children of the desolate one will be more than the children of her who is married,’ says the Lord. ‘Enlarge the place of your tent, and let the curtains of your habitations be stretched out; do not hold back; lengthen your cords and strengthen your stakes. For you will spread abroad to the right and to the left, and your offspring will possess the nations and will people the desolate cities. (Isaiah 54:1–3 ESV)

After a vocative address (‘O barren one’) that defines the little community of un-belongers in terms of the experience of a woman that they have not known, the next two negative clauses drive further rhetorical nails into this coffin of deprivation. You who did not bear…. you who have not been in labor.

Has any woman ever been defined in terms more relentlessly cruel? Has any community had residual hope stripped more piteously from its tired embrace?

Yet the intent is exactly the opposite of the form, which is why the words ‘irony’ and ‘ironic’ nestle so comfortably as descriptors. The very next negative is not an additional rhetorical spitting out of what is not, but an exquisite turn towards that reversal of fortunes which is nearly synonymous with redemption in this book.

Such will be the pile-on of children returning to the bosom of this heretofore bereft woman, we read, that Lady Zion will need to unlearn her politics and economies of scarcity:

Enlarge the place of your tent, and let the curtains of your habitations be stretched out; do not hold back; lengthen your cords and strengthen your stakes. (Isaiah 54:2 ESV)

That is, the negatives re-start but with precisely the opposite effect than the one that has bound exiled Judah so fiercely to hopelessness.

Fear not, for you will not be ashamed; be not confounded, for you will not be disgraced; for you will forget the shame of your youth, and the reproach of your widowhood you will remember no more. (Isaiah 54:4 ESV)

Now the dam has been breached. The flow of negatives becomes a rushing river, yet for reasons that deprive Judah not of many things but of just one: her previous self-definition in terms of what she is not. All things have become new and Judah leaps into the in-creation reality of all that she is rather than all that she is not.

All Judah’s no’s, to borrow language from a later covenant, have become ‘yes’ and ‘amen’. All her battered hopes are made new.

Yet the prophet’s way with a pen allows us to read these New Things against the dark and life-denying parchment that had become Judah’s very being.

No has lost is grip. Redemption’s glow is now vivid. Ironic. Maternal and spacious. Laugh-making. The opposite of no and better than new.




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hell bent: Micah 7

Truth be told, the Hebrew Bible’s Book of Micah throws in front of its reader some very grim reading.

Yet it ends with an inspiring flourish:

Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over transgression for the remnant of his inheritance? He does not retain his anger forever, because he delights in steadfast love. He will again have compassion on us; he will tread our iniquities underfoot. You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea. You will show faithfulness to Jacob and steadfast love to Abraham, as you have sworn to our fathers from the days of old. (Micah 7:18–20 ESV)

A strong instinct in the biblical literature interprets Israel’s misfortune as the result of intergenerational rebellion. This is particularly true of that most intense crystallization of woe that we call the ‘Babylonian exile’, when all that Israel had been and felt herself entitled to become in future was lost, by all lights lost forever.

A countervailing impulse among certain of the prophets sees YHWH ‘having compassion again‘, choosing his defiled and bereft people again, and words to that effect. In this approach, a thin thread of odd definition of the deity finds its place, one that insists that judgement is his ‘strange’ or left-handed work. By contrast, showing mercy is his natural way with his people and his world. It represents the movement of YHWH’s dominant hand, if one may put things in this way.

The verses that bring Micah to its conclusion add to this picture the notion of YHWH transferring the object of his adversarial activity from the people to the people’s sins. Using vocabulary that would fit nicely in a description of the experience of exile, YHWH’s return to compassion has him wreaking violence upon Israel’s sins and iniquities. Presumably, the nation finds its own liberation in the mix as its centuries-long thick-headedness is attacked and brought to heel.

It is a powerful reversed metaphor.

YHWH will tread our iniquities underfoot. Having shown himself capable of ruining his own rebellious people, he now cast(s) all our sins into the depths of the sea.

It would be easy for modern readers and particular for Christian ones to read this in exclusively personal terms, as though YHWH dealt principally with the iniquities and sins of all the individuals who make up his people, end of story.

That would not be inaccurate. But it would be insufficient.

Just as the sentence has fallen in Micah and in other prophetic narrative upon the nation, so here it is Israel/Judah the people that will discover to its manifest amazement that YHWH is now bent on destroying its rebelliousness rather than the nation itself. The reference is decidedly communitarian rather than individualistic.

YHWH has become, by implication, their defending and merciful friend, for they ought to have understood by this point that their own ingrained hellaciousness is their worst enemy. In YHWH, that internal foe has now met its match.

When we have understood the corporate nature of this drama, then we individuals—weary from our own long struggle with self-destructive contrariness—are now also free to move about the cabin and take our own comfort.

That sound you hear?

That’s YHWH raising hell. And smashing it to bits.

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The Book of Revelation is apocalyptic literature.

This scholarly term places the ‘Vision of John the Seer’ alongside other early Jewish literature that majors on the revelation of events and sequences that would otherwise be inaccessible to human minds. The Greek verb ἀποκαλύπτω means to reveal and lends its meaning and its name to this body of revelatory work.

Yet John’s ‘revelation’ also conceals.

Then I saw another mighty angel coming down from heaven, wrapped in a cloud, with a rainbow over his head, and his face was like the sun, and his legs like pillars of fire. He had a little scroll open in his hand. And he set his right foot on the sea, and his left foot on the land,and called out with a loud voice, like a lion roaring. When he called out, the seven thunders sounded. And when the seven thunders had sounded, I was about to write, but I heard a voice from heaven saying, ‘Seal up what the seven thunders have said, and do not write it down.’ (Revelation 10:1–4 ESV)

The disclosing Lord of the biblical witness is like this. He reveals, but does not do so exhaustively. He gives himself away in word-shaped relationship, yet makes no promises to surrender all his secrets.

Apocalyptic literature, whether biblical or running in parallel streams alongside canonical books like the Old Testament’s Book of Daniel and the New Testament’s Revelation, simply raises this divine way with his world to a more articulate level. Under the stress, conflict, and suffering that serve as context for such works, the manner and intensity of divine revelation alter appreciably. Every word counts, every number too.

The whole shape of things becomes less public than prophets and apostles would have it. Heavenly secrets are told, passed on to a suffering and needy remnant, treasured among the members of a bereft clan rather than shouted from the rooftops, caressed and inspected for hidden and deeper meanings, stored here among the elect.

And, sometimes, they are withheld altogether.

With pen in hand, this Johannine recorder of the cosmos’ secrets is told in these verses to cease and desist for the moment, to withhold some of what he has seen and heard. Some things are too wonderful—in the old sense of that term—for human eyes, human hearts, human minds. For now.

The Seven Thunders must be allowed to rumble inarticulately, for this is not the time for words.

This will seem a stress-induced insanity to the skeptic, to the scoffer a culpable retreat from public discourse.

Yet to a suffering band, aware that only heaven can save them from the wolves at the door, these things are not nonsense. If some aspects of the Sovereign’s plans must remain unspoken for now—concealed amid the powers, seals, trumpets, and thunders of heaven—it is only because the Trusted One has still greater marvels in store than our familiar syllables can speak.

We can wait, if wait we must.

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The exclamation, the sensuous enthusiasm of the summons that comes to us in the 8th verse of this psalm of testimony and wisdom surprises. If such an invocation to sensation is just about imaginable in the context of witness, it is utterly defiant of the disciplined reflection of classical wisdom.

Yet here it is:

Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good! Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him (Psalms 34:8 ESV)

Perhaps the particular challenge that an acrostic psalm (alphabetically ordered) thrusts against the prowess of its composer explains this ranging wide of the customary field of play. We might imagine that the poor guy will say just about anything as long as it begins with the right letter. Or conversely, if we’ve sung or read this language of sanctified gustation one time too many, its impertinence might even escape our attention.

But tasting and seeing? Is this how the canonical songs of Israel are meant to speak about human interaction with that people’s invisible deity? Things get a little reckless before the poet settles back down into the conventional syllables of wisdom in the verse’s second half.

We will make more sense of this momentary break-out into holy sensation when we realize the the object of tasting and seeing is the fact that YHWH is good. This is no casual religious blather. To the contrary, the psalmist alludes here to something rather solemn, to the closest thing to a creed that we find in the Hebrew Bible:

The LORD is good; his mercy endures forever!

Few Israelites would be unfamiliar with this credo, this fundamental assertion that YHWH need not be the object of our crazy fears, need not be suspected of mixed motivations. We need not wonder whether or not he is consistent, whether what we see in YHWH is what we get.

No, YHWH is good. In what way is he good? Well, his חסד, his loyal love is inexhaustible. It does not run itself dry, does not fickly change direction, does not go half-way in covenantal loving.

The two components of this quasi-creed are not likely independent if parallel expressions of truth. Rather, the second unpacks the first. It sets forth the evidence. It explains in what way YHWH is fundamentally, reliably good. The verse has not two truths to tell, but one. YHWH is good in that his unique, burning, growing love does not end before it has accomplished its purpose.

Every Israelite, we might suppose, has recited these words and in some measure believed them to be true.

The psalmist, despite the acrostic challenge, is not merely stringing words together, casting about for any words that fit his pattern. There is far more literary dexterity and far more theological depth in these lines than that.

He is, rather, alluding to Israel’s declaration of faith and at the same time recognizing the limitations of its frequent reciters. At the risk of sounding merely sentimental, the psalmist wants more than simple assent to abstract truth.

So he calls his reader to press more deeply into the existential, sensate experience of YHWH’s goodness. With daring physicality, he dares him to taste. To see. To know by experience what he has affirmed with his community.

Reservations theological and liturgical are for one moment put on hold. The profound beauty of truth’s recitation is asked, for this instant, to step into the shadows and wait there for a moment while the knowers of YHWH’s truth become the consumers, the ingesters of his goodness.

Then, quickly, we are returned to the settled blessedness of his trustworthy refuge in the verse’s second half. But we are different now, for we have savored goodness so rich, so complex, so compelling that we will never again murmur our creed with eyes completely dry.



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