Monday, October 24, 2005

The Holy Spirit and the Church

There's a great scene in The Last Temptation of Christ where Pilate is interrogating Jesus. At one point, Pilate says, "You know, it's one thing to want to change the way people live, but you want to change how they think, how they feel."

Jesus responds, "All I'm saying is that change will happen with love, not with killing."

Then Pilate answers, "Either way it's dangerous. It's against Rome. It's against the way the world is. And killing or loving it's all the same. It simply doesn't matter how you want to change things. We don't want them changed."

It's against the way the world is.

That's always the problem isn't it? The drive to protect the status quo is among the most powerful forces in human society. Even within the Church, the resistence to change for the sake of resisting change is immense.

But a couple of years ago I heard Dr. David Tiede, former president of Luther Seminary, speak a word that has encouraged me ever since. This is what Dr. Tiede said: The Holy Spirit is a disrupting influence in the Church. This is a truly remarkable insight. The Church is the creation of the Holy Spirit. And yet the Church isn't just created by the Holy Spirit -- the Church is constantly being re-created by the Holy Spirit.

Naturally, this makes the Church a very uncomfortable place to be most of the time. Countless Christians live with battle scars from church fights. Christians used to call the Church on Earth "the Church Militant", but we always imagined that the fight was against an exterior enemy. We're quickly disillusioned when we find that we have to fight within the Church. But to expect otherwise is to misunderstand the nature of humanity, the nature of the Church and the work of the Holy Spirit.

It all reminds me of the classic scene from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe when the children find out that Aslan is a lion.
"Then he isn't safe?" said Lucy.

"Safe?" said Mr. Beaver. "Don't you hear what Mrs Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? 'Course he isn't safe. But he's good."

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Nearly Everything

I've been listening to an audiobook version of Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything lately. It's a very good introduction to a really vast sweep of science, and I'm enjoying it very much.

But there's one thing about it that keeps bothering me. In fact, I don't know if I can even say that it's a quality of this book in particular so much as it is a quality of the secular scientific worldview more generally. The thing that bothers me is a consistent, almost arrogant, refusal to distinguish between data and interpretation -- to distinguish, for instance, between saying life is capable of evolving through purely natural processes and saying that therefore life has no purpose.

In fact, Bryson's book does a wonderful job of bringing to the forefront the immense beauty of the universe generally and life in particular, but he seems to feel the need to mention from time to time that it's all just a great, but meaningless, cosmic coincidence. But that is interpretation! Compare John Polkinghorne's vision of the beauty of God creating a universe that is capable of creating itself.

It's truly tragic. Isaac Newton once described himself as a schoolboy playing on the seashore and now and then taking delight in finding a more interesting shell while the great ocean of truth lay undiscovered before him. Today's scientists, meanwhile, seem not to notice that there's an ocean there at all.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Moses and Harry Potter

There are a couple of interesting parallels between Moses and Harry Potter, but there's a striking difference too. One of the great appeals of Harry Potter is that he represents a sort of dream fulfillment in all of us. Harry grows up in wretched circumstances, living in a closet under the stairs, but he awakes one day to discover that he's rich, famous and fabulously powerful. Who among us didn't have fantasies that we'd inherit a fortune from a previously unknown uncle or that we'd one day discover our real father was not the reliable but ordinary man who raised us but rather an astronaut or famous inventor or some such thing. (Do girls have these sorts of day dreams too, or is it just boys?) In short, Harry Potter speaks to the all too human dream of a shortcut to wealth and power.

But Moses is an interesting antithesis to this. Moses is raised in the household of Pharoh. Moses is in the elite class of the most powerful nation in the world. And then he wakes up one day to discover that he's actually a slave -- a Hebrew. (Maybe he grew up with this knowledge, but he at least has a post-pubescent realization of what it means.)

How many of us dream of waking up one day to find that we're actually much more insignificant than we'd ever suspected?

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

God With Us

Psalm 22:24 in the NRSV reads,
For he did not despise or abhor
the affliction of the afflicted;
he did not hide his face from me,
but heard when I cried to him.
This is a mistranslation, as the footnotes admit, but it is a felicitous mistranslation. The second half of the verse should actually read "he did not hide his face from him, but heard when he cried to him.

Through this Word, God gave me such a wonderful blessing today. I was meditating on this verse, considering how it is the very things in which we need God most that cause us to hide from him, but rejoicing in the fact that he does not hide from us, but comes to us in our affliction and weakness. This led me naturally to the cross, which was nearby already as I was in Psalm 22. And then I noticed the footnotes.

Consider this verse in terms of the crucifixion and Christ taking our affliction, our weakness, our sin upon himself. And now try to read the verse with the 'me' and the 'him' superimposed on one another and also the 'I' and the 'he'. "He did not hide his face from me/him; but heard when I/he cried to him."

I doubt that I can convey in a few words here the sweetness that I saw in this. It's one of those things that I knew already, intellectually, but was nevertheless a powerful revelation. I saw how on the cross, Christ was united with me. When he cried out, it was me crying out. And when God heard his cry, it was my cry he heard. And whenever I call to God in my weakness, it is Christ on the cross crying out to God. And God hears. And not just me, but everyone. And this led me into the most wonderful intercessory prayer as the lives of those I know who are suffering came into my mind, and I knew how God hears them.

"What wondrous love is this that caused the Lord of bliss
To bear the dreadful curse for my soul, for my soul,
To bear the dreadful curse for my soul."

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

St. Francis of Assisi

Happy St. Francis' Day!

I couldn't observe the feast of St. Jerome and let St. Francis' Day go by unnoticed. So here's my favorite story about St. Francis of Assisi.

One winter St. Francis and Brother Leo were walking to St. Mary of the Angels.

St. Francis said, "Brother Leo, if the friars were to give perfect example of holiness and integrity in every nation, that would not be perfect joy." Later in the walk, St. Francis said, "Brother Leo, if we were to give sight to the blind, healing to the sick, hearing to the deaf, and even bring life to the dead, that would not be perfect joy." Still later he said, "Brother Leo, if we knew all languages, all science and all Scripture, and if we knew how to prophesy to reveal both the future and the secrets of consciences, that would not be perfect joy." Further on Francis said, "Brother Leo, if we we to preach so well that all infidels came to faith in Christ, that would not be perfect joy."

Finally, Brother Leo could take no more and said, "Father, I beg you tell me, where is perfect joy to be found?" St. Francis replied, "If when we come to St. Mary of the Angels, soaked by the rain, frozen by the wind, tired and hungry, and instead of welcoming us in for a warm meal the caretaker came out and beat us with a stick, and if we humbly endure all this in patience, that would be perfect joy."

Why would he say this? All the gifts of the Holy Spirit are God's and not ours. Only our tribulations are truly ours.

Cain and Theologians of Glory

Gerhard Forde has claimed that we are all theologians of glory by nature. Once you know what he means, it's not hard to find instances of it surfacing.

Sunday evening at a Bible study at church we were discussing the story of Cain and Abel. The question was raised, "Why did God reject Cain's sacrifice?" Our pastor who was leading the study responded calmly, "The text doesn't really say. It's more concerned about what happened afterward." But a theologian of glory can't let it sit at that, and so a litany of answers was offered: "God knew that Cain was a bad person." "Cain offered his sacrifice with a bad attitude." "Abel offered the best of his flock but Cain just offered whatever was lying around."

What it comes down to is this: there must be a reason God preferred Abel's sacrifice to Cain's. Cain must have done something wrong -- something we would do right if we were in his place. If we can just figure out what the problem was, we can fix it, we can do better. This is the thinking of the theologian of glory.

The theologian of glory can read this story and start formulating a sermon on "How to Offer a Proper Sacrifice to God" but in the story, nothing Cain does is labeled "sin" until he reacts to God's favor of Abel's sacrifice. The real problem in the story is Cain's refusal to let God be God.

The Revised English Bible has a very interesting translation of God's speech in Genesis 4:6-7
Why are you angry? Why are you scowling?
If you do well, you hold your head up;
if not, sin is a demon crouching at the door;
it will desire you, and you will be mastered by it.
This offers a wholly different perspective from the traditional "If you do well, you will be accepted." Cain is more concerned about "doing well" than God is. I don't know which one is a better translation, but I think the REB better fits with the point of the story. And Cain reacts to God's speech as a theologian of glory scorned:
Cain said to his brother Abel, "Let us go out into the country."