Category Archives: Life as the church

Jesus is the victor: Be recreated for Lent

I had a happy time in my Jesus Collective Hub the other day. I love the fool’s errand we are on: trying to have a Jesus-centered outlook which manages to respect but not join the powers tearing apart the church and whole societies these days. We’re not succeeding, but it feels like the right thing to try.

 

In every generation of the church, there has been an argument about something, and great teachers have generally arisen to help us figure out how to keep going. For instance, the Apostle Paul’s letters in the New Testament usually hone in on a current problem he needs to solve.  His approach is different in different contexts — like the difference between a problem your mother might have had as a child and one you are having now, or the difference between an email you’d write to your work group and the one you’d write to your best friend. Just so, the letter to the church in Ephesus feels different than the letters to the church in Corinth. As a teacher in the church myself (I wanted to be like Paul), I think the greatest skill I needed to develop was to listen in love to all the varying viewpoints people have and to try to knit them into a mutually accepting whole, leaning toward a consensus direction while accommodating both the newest and stubbornest differences.

 

The different ways to see the atonement have provided people a reason to have an argument over the years. The views have matured over time and have been expressed differently in many contexts. All of them have their own beauty to respect, don’t they? In the past four weeks I have been meditating on the four main “theories,” and I am going to get to the fifth in a minute. But I want to acknowledge the need for “third way” thinking before I do, just like the Jesus Collective is trying to develop for our current problems.

 

The same damned argument

The present polarization in the United States does not seem like a new phenomenon to me. I am sort of stuck in the 11-1200’s in my readings right now (good book), so everything seems to go back there for me. But I honestly think the differences between Marjorie Taylor Greene and Kamala Harris seem a lot like what Christians were arguing about way back then, too (the women are both Evangelicals, at some level, after all).

Greene represents people who are afraid tradition is being run over by newfangled thinking. They still have a view of the atonement in which God beats the devil, using deception to do it, as necessary, for the sake of purity and goodness. So she will also work with God as he does what it takes to defeat evil.

Harris represents people on the side of human individuality, science and progress. Those people have a view of the atonement in which God unleashes people from guilt and frees them to appreciate the wonder of creation, especially the value of each human. So she will keep at it until the world is safe for all God’s children.

How we put those potentially polar positions together takes a third way, not a triumph by one side.

Paul manages to be on both sides of redundant church and societal arguments. For instance, he tells the Ephesian church: 

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power; put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil, for our struggle is not against blood and flesh but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on the evil day and, having prevailed against everything, to stand firm. – Ephesians 6:10-13

 

I think Greene thinks Harris is with the devil, so she is putting on her armor to stand against her in this evil day. I don’t think she read all of Ephesians well, but I could see how she might get where she is.


Then Paul tells the church in Corinth
 

So if anyone is in Christ, that person is a new creation: everything old has passed away; look, new things have come into being! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. — 2 Corinthians 5:17-19

 

I think Harris thinks Green is in the way of new things that need to come, especially the need to reconcile elements of a pluralistic society and to protect against people being trespassed upon. I am not sure Jesus is at the center of her thinking, but I respect her goals.

 

Christus Victor launches a new/old way

 

Gustaf Aulen (1879-1977)

In the atonement explanation named “Christus Victor” (Christ the Victor) Gustaf Aulen went back to the Bible and the Early Church to verify the transcendent way Jesus worked to saved humankind — and creation with us. I am not sure he intended to do this, but he opened up a new way to see an old thought and many people latched onto it as a way to stop having the arguments of the past over and over again. We are still having the same damned arguments, but Christus Victor provides a view that incorporates previous explanations of the atonement and frees up imagination locked in entrenched views from Eurocentric philosophy and politics.

 

In 1931 Gustaf Aulen published a book of his lectures titled Christus Victor: An Historical Study of the Three Main Types of the Idea of Atonement. We’ve explored all the main types, so far; I split Aulen’s third one into two parts. He saw his book as a defense of the “classical” view of the atonement he found in Paul, Irenaeus and Luther. (Of course Luther — the Swedish state church theologians at the time all needed to adhere to “evangelical faith,” which was, basically, Lutheranism). In the course of offering his defense against egocentric, humanistic, and idealistic theology, Aulen ends up offering a new way of seeing — at least it seemed new enough to get a name that stuck: the “Christus Victor theory.”

 

Aulen  stressed a Bible-based, dramatic view of God and the work of Jesus. That is, God in Christ personally participates in the drama Christianity is. The Gospel is a story about how God entered into our place and time and saved us. This view is more popular all the time, it seems. A church plant in Philly affiliated with my denomination was called Story Philly. Evangelical author, Donald Miller, wrote a book called Storyline: Finding Your subplot in God’s Story.

 

The main plot of the story is clear in the Bible. In Christ, God “rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Col 1:13–14). The order of the action is important: God has rescued us; God has transferred us; in Christ we have redemption and forgiveness. Paul does not write, “God has forgiven us so that he may then rescue us” (as in the penal substitution theory). Rather, God rescues us out of darkness and brings us into the kingdom of his beloved Son and that rescue act is our salvation. By his gracious initiative, God brings us into the realm of life where we find that our sins are forgiven. 

 

I’m not sure Aulen would approve of where his work has led, especially since he thought he was talking about something old, not new. But it has provided a fresh way to meet the evils of the modern and postmodern world. Paul’s statement that “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself” (in 2 Corinthians, above) provides a new launchpad. That phrase epitomizes Aulen’s view that the atonement is “dramatic,” “dualistic,” and “objective.” It is dramatic and dualistic, because it is the story about a conflict between God and the powers of evil, sin, and death, in which God triumphs over “the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (in Ephesians above). It is objective, because it is about God’s action, not ours. God took the initiative to decisively change the relationship between God and the world (see Marianne Meye Thompson). I think Aulen caught the wind of the Spirit which has been blowing for a hundred years as the modern era comes to a close. Others are moved along with it, as well.

 

The Powers

 

World War I, the Great Depression, massive industrialization and huge governments and corporations ignited new imagination for what Aulen (and Paul) called “the powers.” It was not just theologians having the discussion. Here is a quote from John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939) — it may seem familiar after the peeking into Silicon Valley Bank and getting a glimpse of the faceless “power” it represented.

 

But the bank is only made of man. No, you’re wrong there—quite wrong there. The bank is something else than men. It happens that every man in a bank hates what the bank does, and yet the bank does it. The bank is something more than men, I tell you. It’s the monster. Men made it, but they can’t control it.

 

I think most people want a world without militarism, poverty, sexual exploitation, white supremacy and the despoiling of nature. Yet we find it very difficult to have such a world. Our social, economic and political structures powerfully resist transformation! Steinbeck made that reality vivid when he described the banking system as a monster that cannot be controlled.

The American theologian Walter Wink (who died in 2012) made it his life’s work to help us understand these monsters and how to loosen their hold. He freed the core truths of  biblical faith from endless argument and made them tools for change agents to use, both in the church and in society (Gingerich summary). I am not sure he is a direct theological descendant of Aulen, but I think he is moving in the new stream of freedom Aulen undammed.

 

Wink shows how the language of “principalities and powers” in the New Testament (e.g. Eph 6, above) refers to human social dynamics—institutions, belief systems, and traditions. He calls these social constructs “manifestations of power,” and insists they always have an inner and an outer aspect.

 

Every Power tends to have a visible pole, an outer form—be it a church, a nation, an economy—and an invisible pole, an inner spirit or driving force that animates, legitimates, and regulates its physical manifestation in the world. Neither pole is the cause of the other. Both come into existence together and cease to exist together. (Naming the Powers).

 

In Wink’s view, we need an integrated, inner-outer awareness in order to understand the world we live in and act effectively as agents for healing and transformation. “Any attempt to transform a social system without addressing both its spirituality and its outer forms is doomed to failure.” What’s more, in Wink’s understanding, all systems of power have the potential to be just or unjust, violent or nonviolent. “The Powers are good. The Powers are fallen. The Powers must be redeemed” (Engaging the Powers).  (Nice summary artricle).

 

The Gospel of Peace.

 

Kamala Harris and Marjorie Taylor Greene are on the outs with God if they profess to follow Jesus but continue to create and serve a domination system which has been overturned by the work of Jesus. An alternative way to live is being taught for people with ears to hear. We have prophets of the new creation arising everywhere, just like Gustaf Aulen. They are peacemakers — see J. Denny Weaver’s The Nonviolent Atonement (2001). They are social investigators — watch Rene Girard reimagine Jesus as the final Scapegoat. They are feminists and womanists — listen to Joanne Carlson Brown and Rebecca Parker take down anyone who can’t see Jesus as the Liberator.

 

Aulen and the rest are all following a very basic, maybe the most basic, atonement explanation, as Paul taught the church in Ephesus:

 

[Jesus] is our peace; in his flesh he has made both into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us, abolishing the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it.  — Ephesians 2:14-16

 

The “powers” which create the systems of domination they control and defend have been abolished. We are free to live now and forever. Whenever we see the latest powermonger creating their territory in the name of something good (like an end to racism, climate action, evangelism, etc.), we need to reassert the Lord’s basic work: reconciliation to God and others, not a more robust hostility that defeats our enemies.

If the resurrection of Jesus did not free us from sin and death to effect reconciliation and participate in the new creation, who is Jesus? Even if you are a leader of the country with the largest military in history, which is the biggest polluter in history and whose marketing machine overwhelms whole economies worldwide, reconciliation is still a top priority;  persistently planting the seeds of a new creation is a preoccupation. For us small people, who think we are comparatively powerless, the call is still the same. We live in the new creation; what else is there to do but live with Jesus?

Jesus our substitute: Receive the grace for Lent

UC Riverside, where I got my B.A. in history and met my lovely wife, is just down the hill from Arrowhead Springs, now the former headquarters of Campus Crusade for Christ. So our college campus was crusaded quite a bit by young men, primarily. They dutifully delivered the Four Spiritual Laws from their holy mountain.

Cru people in their Four Laws T-shirts.

One of my roommates had just become a Christian in a rather random, personal way when he was accosted on campus by these Evangelicals. They were talking about Jesus, so he thought he should talk to them, since he was now a Christian. Then he couldn’t figure out how to get away from them as they made their pitch, going through their boiled down, mass-produced elevator speech about  substitutionary atonement. When he got back to the dorm, he was furious with me. “This is what you got me into?” I think he waved the booklet in front of my face.

I don’t think I had a lot of answers for him. But since he was smart and mad, I listened to his critique. And then we all got into a study of the booklet which is still making an impact on me, and which leads me to this fourth exploration of atonement explanations for Lent.

What do Gospel charts teach?

The Four Spiritual Laws tract starts with: “Just as there are physical laws that govern the physical universe, so there are spiritual laws that govern your relationship with God.” We thought:

  • Laws? We’d already picked up on Paul’s disdain for law.
  • Laws that govern? We weren’t sure that God was not governing the universe personally and couldn’t figure out if we needed laws to govern our relationship with God if Jesus wasn’t doing that himself.

When we got to the page above, we were not immediately confused because we trusted Jesus to be the way to eternal life. But the chart just did not sit quite right.

  • We already knew there were other ways to describe what Jesus did in the Bible.
  • We weren’t sure there was a gulf that needed a bridge, since we lived in Creation.
  • And even then, “pay the penalty for our sins” just seemed strangely violent if God loves us and has a wonderful plan for our life, yet is also obliged to roast us in hell if we don’t find it and follow it.

But, honestly, I think the biggest problem we had was when we got to the train. The train made me feel, in particular, like I was getting the wool pulled over my eyes.

  • We definitely did not think we could accept a Christianity supposedly based on fact. Even as undergrads we knew that facts are rather squishy; even we debated the relative meanings of words all day. And none of us could really think of the Bible as “fact” that did not need a second opinion from God and others.
  • We tried having each car at the front of the train. Faith probably got the most votes. But we also thought “God is love” was more connected to feeling, so maybe the caboose should be first.
  • But then we thought a train going somewhere was too linear and that was our problem to begin with. So we put the train cars on a circular track and that made the most sense. At one time or another, they each took the lead.

The problem with penance

As far as the various explanations of the atonement, the one which might be best attested in the Bible is substitution. Paul did not turn it into a graphic, but he describes it well. Before Anselm, the explanation had a more personal, metaphorical feel to it, something like a parable Jesus might teach. Then the Reformers get a hold of it in the 15-1600’s.

The Protestant Reformers refine Anselm’s “satisfaction  theory,” which also has a substitutionary feel to it, and focus it on justice. The gist is: There are laws God needs to follow to be authentically just. And one of them is that sin must be punished. Plus there is a more personal “law:” humans need to feel sorry for breaking the law, not just do penance and think that takes care of their sin.

Penance might be a word you can’t even define now, but it was a big deal then. Martin Luther got a protest going against the corrupt Church of his time when he could no longer stomach the “penance” system. You’ll see a theme start growing here: penance, penalty, penal substitution. “Penal” means: “relating to, used for, or prescribing the punishment of offenders under the legal system.” The gospel of the reformers who win the Reformation wars is, “Humankind is on the wrong side of the law. Jesus stands in for them and receives their punishment. He endures God’s wrath. Just be sorry and stop sinning.”

Luther was a  33-year-old theology professor at Wittenberg University on October 31, 1517 when he walked over to the main church and nailed a paper of 95 theses to the door, hoping to spark an academic discussion about their contents. He had said more provocative things in a lecture earlier, but this posting became a key event that ignited the Reformation. The first thesis of his 95 was about penance.

The penance system Luther experienced got started because the early church was trying to figure out what to do with people who were baptized into Christ and then sinned. Tertullian (c.155-c.220 AD) decided they were forgiven for original sin and saved, but they needed to satisfy the debts they incurred subsequently. The church was an alternative community, so they basically came up with their own “penitentiary.” What should a person pay to get back into the good graces of the Church and be restored to fellowship after they have sinned? They work out a major application of “step three” in Matthew 18: “If that person refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church, and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a gentile and a tax collector.”

There were (and still are) three main steps to penance: confess to the priest, be absolved in the named of Jesus and the Church, do something to demonstrate you’re seriously sorry and intend not to sin. Sometimes this was just, “Say this prayer,” or “Give alms.” But sometimes it was like a court sentence where you were out of the church and brought back in incrementally. At some point you can stand in the back of the meeting. Then you able to sit in the audience. Finally, you get the OK to take communion again. You can see that this was mainly “doing penance,” not necessarily feeling penitent. By the time of Luther, the church was offering indulgences for donations to shorten time in purgatory where dead people with built up sin had to stay before they’d worked it off and achieved heaven. (I was just surprised by a recent Netflix movie about this). I think this felt like drive-through forgiveness to Luther. Plus the whole process was administered by a faceless institution that ran like the Roman Empire.

The reformers were trying to make things work better according to the Bible and not according to some development fund manager in Rome. Their movement unwittingly rode the wave of the communication revolution the printing press brought in (Luther might have had tons of Instagram followers). I also think they were the flower of the individualism tree that was planted when Aristotle became the continent’s favorite philosopher.

Penal substitution wins at Dort

100 years after Luther went public, Calvinists are becoming the premier interpreters of the Reformation. John Calvin was trained as a lawyer and it shows in his theology and ministry — and even more in his descendants. Calvin turns justification by faith into the legal argument it remains. Mary Lane Potter says, “Calvin’s theology may be accurately described as a lifelong meditation on the law of God.” His successors take obedience to the law to a new extreme. I think their behavior points out why I think penal substitution is not adequate to stand on its own or to be made into a reductionistic booklet.

You’ve probably never heard of the Synod of Dort in 1618-19 (short for Dortrecht, in the Netherlands). It is a meeting called by the Dutch Protestant Church for  Calvinist leaders from across Europe to affirm the famous five points that undergird orthodox Calvinism. You can summarize the five articles in their statement with TULIP if you mix up the original order:

  • Total Depravity – “Man” (not trying to fix the sexist language for them) is completely touched/affected by sin in all that he is (in nature he is completely fallen), but is not as bad as he could be (in action, i.e., not all people murder, etc.). Furthermore, this total depravity means that the unregenerate will not, of their own free will, choose to receive Christ.
  • Unconditional Election – God elects a person based upon nothing in that person because there is nothing in him that would make him worthy of being chosen; rather, God’s election is based on what is in God. God chose us because he decided to bestow his love and grace upon us, not because we are worthy, in and of ourselves, of being saved.
  • Limited Atonement – Christ bore the sin only of the elect, not everyone who ever lived. Christ’s blood was sufficient for all, but not all sin was imputed to Christ. Christ’s blood is sufficient to cover all people. But the sufficiency relates to his divine value which is different than our legal debt. Sin is a debt since it is breaking the Law of God. In limited atonement, Calvinists are saying that there was a limit to whose sins were imputed to Christ in a legal sense.
  • Irresistible Grace – The term suggests a mechanical and coercive force upon an unwilling subject, but this is not the case. Instead, it is the act of God making the person willing to receive him. It does not mean that a person cannot resist God’s will.  It means that when God moves to save/regenerate a person, the sinner cannot thwart God’s movement and he will be regenerated
  • Perseverance of the Saints – We are so secure in Christ, that we cannot fall away.

The other advantage of the TULIP acronym is that it arranges the five points of Calvinism logically and progressively and gives a read out of substitutinary atonement, with each point contingent on the other, as follows. If humans are totally depraved, then they are unable to make an initial response to God. God must call people to salvation through unconditional election. God must also provide the way of salvation by the death of Jesus Christ. He makes salvation secure by the effectual call of the Holy Spirit. He keeps his saved ones secure so they will inherit the eternal life he has promised them.

The Synod of Dort sounds like a theological study group. But it is also (and, I think, primarily), a legal, political meeting. With the synod, the Calvinists anathemize the Arminians who rose up to protest the increasing legalism and politicization of the Calvinists. Arminius was a Dutch Reformed theologian whose followers published Remonstrance in 1610, which is the opposite of TULIP.

A portrait of Johan van Oldenbarnevelt by Michiel Jansz van Miereveld

The acts of the Synod were tied to political intrigues that arose during the Twelve Years’ Truce, a pause in the Dutch war with Spain. The Arminians were accused of propagating false doctrine AND perceived as ready to compromise with the Spanish. The Dutch Calvinists were not ready to deal. So Arminianism was considered by some to be not only theologically unsound but also political treason. The synod concludes with exile for theological opponents and execution for traitors — another episode in the ongoing Wars of Religion in Europe.

After the Synod rejected the teachings of the Remonstrants as falling outside the bounds of the Reformed confessions, a political condemnation of the statesman Johan van Oldenbarnevelt followed. He was a high official and had been the protector of the Remonstrants. For the crime of general perturbation in the state of the nation, both in Church and State (treason), he was beheaded on May 13, 1619, only four days after the final meeting of the Synod. With this process, the Dutch Reformed Church rid itself of Arminianism, but the ideas escaped to England where they were embedded in the budding movement called Methodism.

The fact that the application of the synod’s findings were implemented by judges and resulted in execution exemplifies my problem with today’s prevailing doctrine of penal substitution. It continues to be exclusive and interested in not only God’s sovereignty but its own. The teaching of it continues to be like an ongoing legal argument, as most people who have argued about predestination in a Bible study will attest. I see the Calvinists as the descendants of Constantine, who conquered in the name of the cross, the symbol of power over the powerless.

Give us a plan for our dialogue, Lord

The fiercely argued ascendancy of substitutionary atonement as the premier explanation of the gospel remains. Richard Rohr shows that Arminians vs. Calvinists is not a new argument in the church. Augustine and his followers fought with the “pelagians” (like John Cassian), and Dominicans argued with Franciscans (Rohr).

We need to keep having loving dialogue because we are not all built the same way and differing views need to be integrated in the peace of Christ, not allowed to become red or blue talking points. I connect the players in the Synod of Dort with Jeffrey Russell’s helpful distinction of the movements of “prophecy” and “order” in the medieval church, the Arminians being more on the “prophecy” side. I think the Calvinists are part of the general takeover of Eurocentric thinking in the 1600’s and onward by the “scientific” left brain; but the left brain is necessary to the whole, just should not rule.

The church has always had a helpful dialogue about the many, deep meanings of the atonement, which describe the grace of God — a grace which speaks to individuals and people groups in all ages and all places. The work of Jesus is bigger than our understanding and perfectly obvious to our needy hearts. The idea of “substitutionary atonement” is in the Bible and in the dialogue of the Church from earliest history [atonement explanations]. I’m not a fan of the corrupted version made in the image of Eurocentric thinking from the 1600’s. But I accept the grace of God in Jesus who bears my sins and sets me free from guilt.

So let’s end with a meditation on the death of Jesus for us, a song that came out in 1609, a decade before Dort. Maybe it unites us all — it has quite a diverse background. The tune is by the German Protestant composer, Hans Leo Hassler. The words we sing are a rewrite by a 26 year old Presbyterian minister in 1830. The original lyrics were attributed to the warrior mystic Bernard of Clairvaux, but are now attributed of Arnulf of Lueven (ca 1250), Lueven being a town just a couple of hours south of Dortrecht in Belgium. The original poem is long and includes all sorts of body parts, but the head is what became most vivid and lasting.

Here is the second verse for your prayer:

What Thou, my Lord, hast suffered
Was all for sinners’ gain;
Mine, mine was the transgression,
But Thine the deadly pain.
Lo, here I fall, my Savior!
‘Tis I deserve Thy place;
Look on me with Thy favor,
Vouchsafe to me Thy grace.

Jesus satisfies your debt: Rest in the honor for Lent

Teach me to seek you, and reveal yourself to me as I seek,
because I can neither seek you if you do not teach me how,
nor find you unless you reveal yourself.
Let me seek you in desiring you; let me desire you in seeking you;
let me find you in loving you; let me love you in finding you.”
– Anselm of Canterbury, Proslogion, 1 (1078, in Bec)

I am revisiting the historical explanations of the atonement during Lent. So I dug deeper into the  life and work of Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) who lived through one of my favorite European centuries. Why don’t you use his prayer (above), which is very characteristic of him, and see if you can feel it the way he might?

Meditations of St Anselm 12 century. Bodleian Library, Oxford.
Anselm’s Meditations became one of the great medieval texts of spiritual comfort.

I took up a lot of my spiritual director’s time talking about Anselm this week, and I am tempted to go on and on with you because I feel full of revelation. Previously, I pictured Anselm as a stuffy, rule-bound academic who made life hard for Abelard. As it turns out, he is a super influential revolutionary attempting to integrate a tsunami of new thinking  into his faith and life. If that is not enough, he is a church leader living in the center of one of the most tumultuous political actions in history: the Norman Conquest of England, and made some significant, gutsy moves that got him exiled a couple of times. What’s more, he opposed the First Crusade (1096-9) on moral grounds, even though he was a staunch supporter of the pope. I asked my wife, “Why isn’t there a movie about this guy?”

You live in a time of change, too

In the 11th century an intellectual and spiritual revolution began to burn in Europe and Anselm helped light the fire. So much change has happened in our world in the last four years, you must feel something burning, too. Anselm’s era is supercharged with change. What will become capitalism is taking root as European towns form. Universities begin to develop. Foreign trade increases and foreign ideas come with it. Foreign wars are fomented.

In the church, the dominant “Augustinian” traditions are challenged by the rediscovery of the works of “The Philosopher,” Aristotle. In Anselm’s time, teachers were astonished when Europeans became aware of over a thousand documents from ancient Greek writers, notably Aristotle, in Arab libraries throughout Spain. They had been lost after the Roman Empire went Christian and a wide-scale destruction of “un-Christian” books and libraries occurred. In many places there had grown a contempt for learning, free inquiry and rationality itself. (Some things just keep happening again and again!) Anselm was basically writing in the spirit of a 1619 Project on behalf of overlooked, unjustly dishonored ancient philosophers who rose from the vaults of the heathen Moors in Al-Andalus.

Aristotle presented a version of rationalism which was so compelling teachers in the gestating universities scrambled to recast their disciplines in light of it. It was change as big as the advent of the personal computer, the cell phone or A.I. Anselm was the first and foremost thinker to apply Aristotle’s rationalism to Christian faith. He thought of it as using reason after attending to the primacy of faith. He started a way of thinking and teaching about God (later called “scholasticism”) which gave birth to an “Age of Reason” later on (See Aristotle’s Children by Richard Rubenstein).

The “Platonic” side of Greek philosophy, represented by Augustine (354-430) dominated the Early Middle Ages. It taught that truth resides in God’s mind and is generally beyond our complete understanding. (Plato is Socrates’ disciple and Aristotle’s mentor, all in Athens about 470-322 B.C.). Contrary to Plato, underlying all Aristotle’s works — whether on politics, poetics, ethics, logic or natural science — is the conviction that human beings are rational creatures capable of making reasonable choices. They can use their intelligence to examine the world, discern patterns in nature and figure out how things work.  Aristotle’s common-sensical, nonmystical, and optimistic view of the world enters the culture at a time it can flourish. Anselm helps knit it into a new common sense.

Even though Anselm was obsessed with learning and teaching, his exploration of all this newness is always about seeking to know God better. He wrote,

I do not seek to understand, in order that I may believe; but I believe, that I may understand. For I believe this too, that unless I believed, I should not understand (Proslogion, 1).

In this, he is following Augustine. But as Proslogion continues, his writing shows the innovation Aristotle brings to reasoning which will reorganize all further philosophy in Europe. God gave Anselm a daring, inquisitive brain and he considered it his calling to use it, even though his monasteries kept calling him into leadership.

How did Jesus save us?

For the rest of Lent, maybe you could follow your best feelings and thoughts — even if they make you a rebel against your prevailing way of life or the constraining intellectual laziness of your church and culture. Anselm could be your guide in this. He meditated on the cross and the atonement it promises, and came up with a new way to see it — theologians call it the “satisfaction theory.”

I used to see Anselm’s “proof” of why Jesus (the God-man) is crucial to our salvation as some petty, stale philosophy. But now I see it as being way out front of the zeitgeist that was about to envelope his continent. He uses a newly-rational process, to offer a somewhat-capitalist view of Christ’s work, which contradicts what almost everyone thinks about the Lord.  His focus on God’s honor matches how his Norman overlords see their honor. But Anselm is not locked in his era. He posits a theory that calls his context into humility before God, both church and kingdom, daring to go against entrenched teaching backed by powerful people.

Anselm’s philosophizing generally starts with a question which has come up during his meditation. Much of his atonement view evolved from pondering what is owed to Caesar and what to Christ, as well as the role of obedience in the redemption of humanity. Cur Deus Homo is the result. It has been called a defense of God’s actions in the face of the evil of the world. But I am not sure Anselm is being defensive. I think he sincerely wants to come up with the best answer for himself and everyone else. Why did God become human? Why did the incarnation occur? You can read a nice summary of the whole argument,  here, and see of variations of an answer, here.

Anselm thinks the incarnation is a gracious way to protect humanity from bearing the requirement to honor God — since we don’t meet the requirement and God is loving, but also just! You might say it is a worship-based argument, which would be appropriate, since Anselm had devoted his life to building it on a foundation of meditation and worship. Unlike the popular “ransom” theory which prevailed at the time, the way Anselm reasons it, Jesus is not bait to trick the devil, since God doesn’t need to make deals with the devil (way beneath God’s honor), and Jesus is not sent on a mission where he is predestined for sacrifice (there is no compulsion, no murder by God, humanity does the killing). Jesus dies because he has lived a life for humanity that honors God. The powers-that-be kill him for doing it. Jesus must be human to offer God the honor due and must be God to endure the infinite punishment due humankind for not doing it. Humanity owes a debt of honor to God which they cannot pay (Forgive us our debts…).

God wills to create a humanity that honors him and attains blessedness. Therefore, God must necessarily become incarnate and redeem humanity when it falls. What follows from all of this is that redemption, while it is achieved by Christ, is entered into only through being joined to Christ through the Spirit. Participation in Christ as the one who obeys and the one who undoes the consequences of not honoring God is indispensable. Jesus “satisfies” the need to honor God and so do we by participating in his work.

St. Anselm Triptych (2011) in Bec Abbey, Normandy

Does this mean anything personal?

I also told my spiritual director that I did not think many people would want to read this piece but I really felt like writing it. As I meditated on “why?” I came back to my admiration for Anselm’s timely influence. Right now, the church seems neutered by politics, TikTok, and self protection. We are submerged under mistrust. The present world is awash with climate change, scientific beauties and monstrosities, newly authoritarian governments, the unknown ramifications of the pandemic, and much more. It is a crazy place where faith in Jesus has almost no influence spiritually or otherwise. What should we say and do?

I am inspired by Anselm’s example. His life and writing are an exercise in trust. He calls people to honor God through Jesus Christ, in his own crazy era, with the gifts he has. He takes the core doctrine of Christianity, the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, and dares to use his power and influence to change the subject and undo the moribund thinking of the church, which has been more afraid of wrong thinking than producing Spirit-inspired thinking.

I think Anselm’s argument style and some unprocessed influence by his background and context, make his argument less than fully satisfying. But it is still a great argument and it is way better than the prevailing, somewhat superstitious, teaching that dominated the church in his day. He’s fresh, he is alive, he is listening to God. Aren’t we all a bit too anxious, occupied, insecure and afraid to listen to God these days?

Plus, I think Jesus pictured as an uncoerced, obedient person who gets killed because of his uncompromising trust in God is very attractive. He despises the shame. Maybe Anselm’s “life verse” was from John 8, where Jesus says,

But because I tell the truth, you do not believe me. Which of you convicts me of sin? If I tell the truth, why do you not believe me? Whoever is from God hears the words of God. The reason you do not hear them is that you are not from God.”

The Jews answered him, “Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?” Jesus answered, “I do not have a demon, but I honor my Father, and you dishonor me. Yet I do not seek my own glory; there is one who seeks it, and he is the judge. Very truly, I tell you, whoever keeps my word will never see death.” (John 8:45-51)

I still think John 8 is one of the most interesting, funny, and relevant chapters of the Bible. It is all about lies. And in the middle of it, Jesus is defending his honor, and God’s. He accuses his detractors of being on the father of lies’ murderous side. By the end of the argument, they pick up stones to kill him. They did not succeed then, but they will before long.

Lord, have mercy! We are small boats tossing on a sea of lies. We have to keep finding ways to deal with our anxiety as the earth and society fall apart around us, as the church is clearing out, and as its voice is overtaken by liars. I think Anselm was moved by the Spirit to follow Jesus in honoring God, no matter what. As we realize we can’t really do that effectively or completely, we have the God-man who can and did do it and continues with us to do so. Jesus welcomes us into the transcendent reality of life in the Spirit and the hope in God’s ongoing creative work.

I hope we think that truth into the language of our new era as we respect the old era, and rest in how Jesus satisfies the demands we feel to make the world right. With that hope, Anselm might add to the prayer with which we started:

Help me to honor you as I stand in Christ
who has satisfied the consequences of how I have not honored you.
Teach me to honor you
as you as you honor me with your loving and true presence.

Jesus wants to ransom you: Get rescued for Lent

When I discovered John Donne’s sonnet in my college literature anthology, it preoccupied me for months. I even turned it into a song for my Music 1 course. My TA thought the tune was a little strange, but I still sing it in my head.

Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp’d town to another due,
Labor to admit you, but oh, to no end;
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov’d fain,
But am betroth’d unto your enemy;
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

John Donne (1572-1631), Holy Sonnet XIV (pub.  1633)

I still sing this poem because I often need to. Like Donne, from the first days of my faith I doubted the primacy of my mind when it came to my relationship with God — reason is about as good as the reasoner. I was more concerned with the irrational thinking (and the habits associated with it) that felt like a prison. So I loved Donne’s image of God battering on the big oak doors of my heart like always happened in movies about knights and sieges. And I secretly loved the erotic imagery of a passion so insistent I could use it as a touchstone memory of ecstasy.

The prison

Donne’s sonnet helps me put the proper passion into the work of Jesus. God comes to free me from my prison: sin, unbelief, death and, ultimately, sadness, physical pain and mental illness. He’s not doing the paperwork, he’s risking his life for a lover.

Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death. – Hebrews 2:14-15

God shares our flesh and blood. The other day at Chuck E. Cheese, my son was recounting his astonishment when he opened his birthday-present-subscription to The New Yorker and read about the condition of gold miners in South Africa. I’m not sure we needed more evidence of the evil in the world than driving up Roosevelt Boulevard offers every day, but there it was, brazenly at work among the poor in South Africa. And there it is in the fact Russia has stolen children from Ukrainian parents! And there it is in the mirror most of the time. It appears we are all betrothed to God’s enemy whether we choose it or not. John says, “the whole world is in the power of the evil one” (1 John 5:19).

But God is with us. So the apostle, Paul, writes to his protégé and instructs him to act

with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition, if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, having been held captive by him to do his will. — 2 Tim 2:25-6

The preacher last Sunday deftly sidestepped the skepticism people have about the devil. He didn’t exactly say there wasn’t one, he just implied it didn’t make much difference if I said there wasn’t. I did not mind that much (John might mind, however). I think he was working with what was in front of him. Powerful and power-grabbing people from the U.S. Empire think there is no legitimate opposition to their authority, which is why we will likely be ruled by AI and overrun by nanotechnology before long, if Antarctica does not melt first. Who needs a devil?

I’m fine with the origin of evil being mysterious. The effects of it are ever-present. We’re surrounded and often manacled. I think any spiritually aware person is amazed at how free they can be and still feel pushed around by sin, death, and suspicious spirits. If Jesus does not ransom and rescue us, we’re in trouble.

The ransom

Paul basically assumes his readers in Corinth know God ransomed them from the prison of sin and death by the work of Jesus in his crucifixion and resurrection. He writes, “You were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body” (1 Cor 6:20). Then he assumes it again in the next chapter: “You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of humans” (7:23).

Icon: “Origen Teaching the Saints,” Eileen McGuckin

Origen (c. 185–c. 253), the famous scholar from the early church in Alexandria, is often accused of popularizing a “ransom view” of the atonement. I think post-1900s theologians are more likely the culprits. They needed a neat way to explain church history according to Enlightenment theories. I think they put the word “atonement” at the top of their chart like it was a genus and went looking for species; the “ransom theory” became one of many. Origen describes his idea of ransom but I doubt he was being too specific, since even in First Principles he assumes most concepts can be considered in a literal, moral, and spiritual/allegorical way. Origen was primarily an ascetic, so he was probably enjoying the feeling of being ransomed and feeling the desperate need for it, just like John Donne.

But he did say:

To whom gave he his life “a ransom for many?” It cannot have been to God. Was it not then to the evil one? For he held us until the ransom for us, even the soul of Jesus, was paid to him, being deceived into thinking that he could be its lord, and not seeing that he could not bear the torment of holding it.  (apparently in his Commentary on Romans, but I did not find the source online for you).

Whether we need to credit Origen or not, for the next 1000 years this understanding of the atonement is probably the most popular. Many people think “ransom” is a better metaphor than a doctrine, but most people just take it for how it is taught by the big names, like Augustine, who in the 400’s says,

“The Redeemer came and the deceiver was overcome. What did our Redeemer do to our Captor? In payment for us He set the trap, His Cross, with His blood for bait. He [Satan] could indeed shed that blood; but he deserved not to drink it. By shedding the blood of One who was not his debtor, he was forced to release his debtors” (Serm. cxxx, part 2).

People have always had some problems with this explanation of the Lord’s work for the basic reason it is a theory of how the atonement works, not a story. Rather than being a drama or a revelation of mystery, the work of Christ becomes a mechanism to be explained when the philosophers get a hold of it.

What’s more, there is nothing in the New Testament that specifically says Satan was the one to whom ransom was paid. But that is a bit like saying there is nothing in the U.S. Constitution that grants women political rights. Origen and Augustine were offering an amendment to the Bible and the church folded it in.

The ransomed ransom

I welcome being ransomed, me and John Donne. I don’t need a theory to approve my eligibility for rescue. I need to be rescued. Every day in psychotherapy I become better acquainted in the many variations of our captivity. We can’t rescue ourselves or each other effectively. We need Jesus, our ransom and rescuer. I am less interested in how, exactly, the ransoming occurs. I am more interested in the passion I feel being enacted on my behalf. It is good to know Jesus is tirelessly beating on the castle door.

I think Lent is a good time to get out of prison and help set others free. Jesus taught:

Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many”—Mark 10:42-45

A lot of people looking for a theory have an “Aha” moment when they hear Jesus giving his life as a ransom, “So THAT’s how it works!” But it seems clear that Jesus thinks his disciples won’t get how things work until they enact a passion like his. Be loved and love. Be ransomed and be a ransom.  Be suffered for and suffer. In my experience, I feel more ransomed when I ransom. Like the abused often become abusers, the ransomed become ransom.

So for Lent, how about being ransomed? If you just made up your own tune for John Donne’s sonnet, it might lead to feeling rescued.

Jesus left you an example: Take the way of love for Lent

But if you endure when you do good and suffer for it,
this is a commendable thing before God.
For to this you have been called,
because Christ also suffered for you,
leaving you an example,
so that you should follow in his steps.
1 Peter 2:20-21

Sarah Chapman organizing resistance

What is Lent for? If Peter has anything to do with it, we will use it to meditate on the passion of Jesus and turn our lives to model his, including the dying that leads to rising. Christ suffered for each of us, leaving us an example, beckoning us to follow in his steps. Lent is the opportunity to renew the journey and deepen the turning.

Little deaths

I felt surrounded by small opportunities to turn in the past two days. There were small ways to do what Paul calls “dying daily.”

For instance, in the Enola Holmes movie on Netflix, the plot swirls around a person from 1888 named Sarah Chapman. The whole cast suffers for doing good as they uncover the corruption of the Bryant and May Match Factory. The nonfictional Sarah Chapman is rightly remembered as the first woman who organized a strike by women. Activist Annie Besant encouraged her work by writing an article called “White Slavery in London.”

If you look up 1 Peter 2, you’ll see Peter was talking to slaves when he spoke about following in the steps of Jesus. And if you look around the U.S. and the world, you’ll see that slavery still exists; prisoners are designated slaves in the Constitution! When the movie was over, I went to throw away my Cheezits box and was choked with tears. If you can’t see people suffering for good during Lent, it will be hard to experience the crucifixion and resurrection during the first week of April.

The next day, I woke up early to take my wife for a medical procedure. I interrupted a meeting I was enjoying to pick her up earlier than expected. I would not characterize loving my devoted and wonderful wife as suffering. But, as I often tell couples, if you want to live for yourself, there is nothing worse than a mate. They call out the selfless love in you; they demand a lack of self-protection; they incite turning and growing.

As I was rushing to the doctor’s office, I rode in the elevator with two women who seemed dressed for work. I commented on that. They told me they were going to Harlem for a funeral. I knew the church they were talking about. I sympathized. I blessed them on their way. Just talking to someone on the elevator can feel like a passion. When we’re relating across racial lines which seem more radioactive than ever, that’s a passion. It takes a little death, some suffering, to love.

You see how this goes. We don’t just die daily, we die all day daily. The point of Lent made in 1 Peter is to turn into the suffering of love and truth because it is our destiny to be fully human and united with eternity, just as Jesus demonstrates.

c. 1000 portrayal at Saint Sophia’s Cathedral, Kyiv

The atonement as an example

Looking at the life, death and resurrection of Jesus as an example was common among the Apostolic Fathers (ca. 100-200). Later, it was further developed by Peter Abelard (1079-1142). People who compare theories named it the “exemplar” or “moral influence” view.
Clement of Rome (ca. 96) wrote:

For [Christ] came down, for this he assumed human nature, for this he willingly endured the sufferings of humanity, that being reduced to the measure of our weakness he might raise us to the measure of his power. And just before he poured out his offering, when he gave himself as a ransom, he left us a new testament: “I give you my love.” What is the nature and extent of this love? For each of us he laid down his life, the life which was worth the whole universe, and he requires in return that we should do the same for each other.

Saint Clement was probably taught by Peter and Paul in Rome. After those apostles were killed, he became the leader of the church. I have been to his namesake church in Rome (San Clemente), which was supposedly built on the site of his house. And I have spent many days on his namesake beach in California (San Clemente).

A key work of Lent is to follow in Jesus’ steps, to “willingly endure the suffering of humanity” like he did. Our relationship with Jesus, calls out the love in us. It is a daily challenge to work out the truth Clement relays to his generation: “For each of us he laid down his life, the life which was worth the whole universe, and he requires in return that we should do the same for each other.” Some people think this is just a moral argument and we should all be good people. That’s true. But it is really a promise of newness. Transformed people love like Jesus, not people who try real hard to be good.

For me, the call means caring about someone in the elevator, caring for my wife, and very likely risking my life and reputation to do what I can do to love the world, like Jesus, knowing I will suffer. I have many examples who help me stick with it. For instance, now that Jimmy Carter is in hospice care, the media is eulogizing him, he is such a good example! They keep quoting him with a good quote to apply during Lent.

I have one life and one chance to make it count for something… My faith demands that I do whatever I can, wherever I am, whenever I can, for as long as I can with whatever I have to try to make a difference.

Yes, but…

You may argue with Peter, Clement and Jimmy Carter because they just seem impractical. There are many critics who have gone before you. They ask, “Where is the power? Where is the miracle? How do we rule the world if all we do is love? How can you make a living being this way? If Jesus is merely an example of suffering love, why have a crucifixion?”

Jesus is not merely an example. He’s not merely anything. He is the Son of God, demonstrating what God does and what humankind should reflect. God is not coercive. God does not demand. Instead, Jesus invites and beckons, “Follow me.” The cross is the ultimate invitation to each human being to live the life they are given by God. “Lay down your life for your friends. Love your enemies.” Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.

It is not what Jesus says that saves us or having correct thoughts about what he says that makes us good. What saves us is receiving the love of God which transforms us, then following the entire pattern of the Lord’s life, death, and resurrection. Jesus’ example does not give us a list of instructions, it provides us a way, a paradigm, a narrative to live into. He is a revelation. The Lord’s example reframes our entire existence: incarnation, mission, crucifixion, resurrection – these become the sea in which we swim, the fount of our feelings, the grammar that structures our thought, and the inspiration for our behavior.

Slander divides: Six ways to overcome it

Trump unleashed a slanderfest and it is the one “trickle-down” principle that seems to be working. I have experienced it and a remarkable number of my clients and acquaintances in the church have experienced, it too.

Slander is not, “Someone told the truth about me and I did not like it.” That may be impolite, if they have not warned you how the truth might hurt you, but it is not slander. Slander is “character assassination.” It is when you tell a lie, share an unproven statement as fact, or provide innuendo that demeans someone’s character. In the most public sense, such damage is actionable. But slander mostly happens in small systems like the office or the church where leaders are controlling the narrative or where leaders are being taken down by unhappy or ambitious subordinates. Slander is a weapon in everyday power plays. It would be easier to recognize if everyone who wields the weapon knew they were doing it, but people believe lies and spread them as if it is righteous to do so. They also get caught in systems that will hurt them, too, if they don’t follow the latest party line/lie.

The Bible repeatedly teaches about the importance of words and the deadliness of slander. In Proverbs 16:28 it says “A perverse [person] spreads strife / And a slanderer separates intimate friends.” Slander is the spark that lights the fuse of gossip which can blow up a reputation and divide whole systems.

Slander is a hard infection to beat

It is acutely painful to be slandered, and pastors and ministry leaders are particularly easy targets. An acquaintance recently attended a church meeting at which 20+ pages of anonymous criticism of them was distributed but nothing from other people who had submitted glowing praise. Another was subjected to a secret collection of hearsay about their interactions in the office and was demoted even though the investigation was never concluded. If you have been an influencer or manager for a while, you have likely had someone publicly attack your character based upon some action or word they misconstrued or based upon their perception of something you did.  It can be devastating.

Noting someone’s unhealthy behavior, as you see it, is part of sorting out relationships. Questioning the value or validity of someone’s judgment or methods is part of improving a mission. Everyone needs feedback and probably needs to be saved from their worst traits, at times. We all deserve the respect to receive such words of “constructive criticism” within a trusting relationship — and we all need to stay open to those words, even when the process is imperfect. But character assassination is quite a another thing. If you watched the State of the Union address and listened to the aftermath, you probably felt, like I did, the country seems to be simmering in slander. The political arena, social media, workplaces, associations, marriages all seem ready to boil.

The last place in the Bible where slander is directly mentioned directly is 1 Peter 3, where he teaches:

Make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence; and keep a good conscience so that in the thing in which you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ will be put to shame.

The way to that grown-up faith leads through a battleground for our souls as we trip over the slander thrown in our paths. Even so, the journey can be transforming, if we don’t let slander rule us. Here are steps to take toward a transformed destination.

If you are slandered, feel it

Not too long ago, I heard of an incident when someone again slandered me in public. Thank God they were doing it in a very small pond, but the nasty water lapped on my doorstep. I was angry. I think that’s a natural response to being violated. I was hurt so bad I shook with emotion. I’m not ignoring those feelings right now, even though writing about them is painful, because ignoring emotions increases the likelihood they will find an unhealthy road to travel out of their warehouse. Be angry but do not sin.

If we can acknowledge our emotions and respect them as they pass through, we won’t be tethered by the slander that aroused them – at least that is a possibility. It is better to stay anchored in who are and in what we have been given to do.

Slander is so divisive it can make us doubt ourselves. A ruthless liar can make us doubt we even know our own truth! In the midst of chaos, especially the emotional chaos triggered by slander, we must anchor in what we know is true regarding who we are, what our convictions are, and what our mission in life is.  Otherwise, we will be tossed around like a small boat in the middle of a storm.

If a cloud of slander comes down on you, it makes sense to get some practical distance. Don’t jump into an argument (like Facebook is still famous for). You might want to quarantine calls from people who will keep stirring you up.

Distance yourself emotionally too. Notice if you are ruminating on your injury or falsely being ashamed of yourself. One person I know was slandered and wouldn’t show their face in their small town for a month! The sooner we accept we can’t change what has happened and move into new territory, the better. Part of moving on might be connecting with anyone who may have been affected and explaining your situation no matter how embarrassing it may seem. Tell the truth about the lie and let it pass.

Check your perceptions and sources

One time a person felt slighted by the church and somehow got their dissatisfaction reported on in a local paper! It caused a small cyclone of recrimination and fear about our reputation. That’s what slander does and why it is such a favored tool among power-hungry people.

Before you jump to conclusions and take some vengeful action on such people, make the effort to confirm you actually know what happened. Obviously, people get misquoted in the media all the time. And gossip is not a reliable source of facts. If you can talk to the source, that would be ideal (see below). If you question what people are telling you, you might discover it is not the worst you imagine.

You can try contacting websites where slander is posted and ask them to take it down, but you may find some will demand cash and try to bully you into signing up for useless programs to “repair your reputation.”  A lot of those sites are run by borderline “scammers” themselves. Some lawyers specialize in removing lies.

Stand up for yourself

You may need the law to help you. [Here is an explanation of the Pennsylvania defamation law]. When I was defrauded by a contractor in 2020, I looked into a lawsuit. The lawyer I consulted was kind enough to tell me it would cost me much more than I would ever recover if I received anything at all. The defamation law is mostly for rich people, too.

It is not a good idea to just roll over and let a slanderous person roll over you. But fighting fire with fire might not come to a good end, either. For instance, if you get involved in addressing all the accusations in public, it might just feed the fire. You might unwittingly validate the lie and the liars by treating them with undue respect. But telling your story can make a difference. At least tell people with sympathetic ears what the truth is and let it have whatever effect it will. Don’t bottle it up.

Don’t let slanderers steal your joy. A slanderer needs that kind of power. They weren’t speaking a love language. It is not totally your fault they hurt you. If a person wants to bring you down and make you feel bad, there must be something wrong with them. So don’t live as if their lie deserves to preoccupy you. Go out on the town, hit the gym, or do whatever you enjoy doing.  Don’t let go of your accomplishments and happiness.

Gently confront the slanderer (not by text or email)

It’s amazing how often people engage in the sin of slander without realizing it. Therefore, the most loving thing you can do for all parties concerned—including the slanderer—is to gently, lovingly confront them. Such a conversation should be done in person, not over email, text, phone, or social media. In certain situations, it might be helpful to bring a friend or an outside party trusted by both of you. But it is probably best to begin by going alone (try Matthew 18!). Bringing someone else in too quickly can escalate the situation.

It’s important to go in “a spirit of gentleness” (Gal. 6:1), and not put the other on the defensive with a fault-finding or accusatory tone. Here are two ways to do this:

  • Begin with questions. This enables you to get all the facts before arriving at any conclusions, and it’s less confrontational. But don’t shy away from using the word “sin” and “slander” if that’s what it is.
  • Express vulnerability to the slanderer. This is easy to overlook since it’s not our natural tendency when dealing with someone who has hurt us. But sentences which begin with “I felt sadness/pain when…” rather than “you sinned against me when…” are more likely to “gain your brother/sister” (Matt. 18:15), which is the most important goal. Amazingly, because some people slander without realizing it, they’re genuinely surprised they’ve hurt you. Starting off with sharing your heart rather than with accusation can de-escalate the situation and produce a peaceable result.

It’s awkward and scary to confront someone. But if you can, it is better. Some people see the straightforward approach of Matthew 18 as impossible for disempowered people who have a lot to lose when confronting a person in power. But I don’t think Jesus was talking to people who could go toe-to-toe with their overlords, either. To be honest, this option may not be open to you at all, since slander is often accompanied with being cut-off, these days. The ultimate slander is being “cancelled,” isn’t it? Nevertheless, if you have the context it would be best to “overcome evil with good” (Rom. 12:21).

If you can’t get repentance and reconciliation at least exercise forgiveness. If we forgive those who slander us and don’t participate in their cut-off, we are less likely to be trapped in bitterness and more likely to be released into the freedom we need to make healthy decisions with a clear mind.

Trust truth

It’s sometimes right to to defend your reputation against those who have slandered you, especially if you are in a leadership role and the slander damages the business or mission. But it is often better to stay silent and let truth be your advocate in the long run. If you don’t have the character, defending it won’t make much difference, but if you do, it will probably have staying power.

Even if you do need to defend yourself, give it some time. Don’t panic. Don’t explode. Don’t be guided by fear. It is hard to say whether Paul is defending Jesus and his mission or himself (or if he should separate the two) in 1 Thess. 2 and 2 Cor. 10–13, but I can’t remember a time when defensiveness ever built love.

Slander sets off our fear and a slew of “what ifs.” But most people who hear slander can smell it. And even if they are too afraid to shout it down, they probably won’t move with it. The famous Spurgeon said: “A great lie, if unnoticed, is like a big fish out of water—it dashes and plunges and beats itself to death in a short time.” He hasn’t lived through the Trump era, but he’s probably right.

Even if our good character does not “win the argument” for us, it is better to trust truth than just fearfully fight lies. After all, it’s in the context of being maligned that Jesus says, “Have no fear of them, for nothing is covered that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known” (Matt. 10:26).

It takes humility to trust, especially when we feel humiliated. Since we know all things work together for good in Christ we should give it a try. We might humbly think we could learn something from being slandered. There is probably a seed of truth in the lie, or it would not be effective. You did not do everything right. You may need improved skills. You may need better boundaries. You might recognize a ticking time bomb next time. You might see how you were codependent with a toxic person.

Even as I am letting the slanderer pass through and out of my mind and emotions, I wish them grace, I love my enemy. I don’t let them get stuck in my prayer, either, as if they should dominate that, too (and as if I will triumph over them when they repent!). Just last night I felt I was getting somewhere in this area I woke up from a dream in which I was sitting down at a table and one of my enemies was chatting with me like we were friends. My insides were definitely recovering!

Be a transformed victim

Tim Keller is famous for saying, “In Christ I’m not just more sinful than I ever dared fear, but more loved than I ever dared hope.” In Christ, each of us is a beloved child of God; right now the Spirit of God is praying for us. Jesus was slandered and killed by his enemies. He’s OK and we will be too.

I wrote the Senior paper for my history B.A. on George Whitefield. Here he is with his famous dramatic flare to make a good point to end with:

Let the name of Whitefield perish, but Christ be glorified. Let my name die everywhere, let even my friends forget me, if by that means the cause of the blessed Jesus may be promoted. . . . I am content to wait till the judgement day for the clearing up of my reputation; and after I am dead I desire no other epitaph than this, “Here lies G. W. What sort of man he was the great day will discover.”

I can almost guarantee that Whitfield did not completely think or feel all that he said. But, like me, he certainly intended to. I feel I’m good with Jesus. I feel bad when others lie about me, unjustly accuse me, or don’t bother accusing me at all and undermine my reputation in secret. But in the end, it is always being saved by grace that matters.

If you’ve got some feelings or insight about this, please leave a comment or two. Do you agree we are simmering in slander in the U.S.? Have you experienced some of it? What are you doing to recover that works for you?

Group communication “sad?” Try on some Virginia Satir.

I was in a group meeting with some wonderful people the other day. As I reflected on it this morning, I remembered Virginia Satir. She is often called the “mother of family therapy.” As a doctor of marriage and family therapy, she has done a little mothering of me, too. You can read her Wikipedia page for interesting details. Today I just want to share two things she offered the world that would improve most of the groups we are in: workplace, family  and the beleaguered church.

Virginia Satir (1916-1988)

Tell your own story

One of the things that made me think of Virginia Satir is the fact I was sounding a bit like her in our group. We were  group of Christians from around the country reflecting on a new statement about how to follow Jesus these days. (I’m reserving the name of the group because it is not the point). Like Satir, I was trying to encourage people to tell their own stories with confidence, not worrying what someone else might be thinking all the time they are sharing.

Virginia Satir knew how to share what she had to say. I have always admired her for creating a theory and forming a school of thought to explore her insights, even though, as a woman in the 1960’s to 80’s, as soon as she raised her voice, people called her “tyrannical” and considered her theories “unscientific.” She used her theories in her therapy and taught her disciples anyway, and we are still appreciating what she created.

I don’t think I agree with some significant things in her well-known declaration of self-esteem: “I Am Me,” but I am thrilled with the spirit behind it. My comrades in our group had brilliant things to say, but the present atmosphere in which we live and the captivity of  recent Christianity to modern thought induced them to pose most of what they said in relation to an imagined opponent or a critical expert. I think we should all begin, as Satir encourages us to do, with “I am me and I am okay.” Especially if one is in Christ and can say, “There is no condemnation in Christ Jesus, no fear; in the Spirit I am who I am.” We don’t need to make an argument all day, even if people who don’t love us are out there somewhere, supposedly ready to take us down.

There is room for a good argument, of course, even gainst “straw” opponents. Working out common goals allows us to come from all sorts of places and end up on a mutual path. It usually takes some time and effort to get to harmony — and presenting my sacred opinion, standing alone with its chin up, is rarely the best place to start. Instead of setting up an argument with how we talk and act, I think we should begin with our own story  and receive another’s and so allow our vulnerability to seed the group (and the world!) with the possibility of real love.

Be aware of your communication style

Satir continues to be well-known today for her five communication styles. By now, you probably know your Myers-Brigs letters, your Enneagram number/wings and all sorts of  other labels that might chafe like a wool sweater sometimes. Satir’s labels came from observing families and seeing the same patterns arise again and again. She generalized the variations so people could consider how to make one another better humans, not just clutter the family system with dysfunction and debilitating pain.

As we went through our group the other day, I periodically got a glimpse of myself putting on one of these communication styles or fending off, in my mind at least, some dysfunctional style from someone else. Our group was super polite and not that intimate yet, so we were not treated to anything extreme. But our process made me wonder how the church keeps going when we are often stuck in the four less-functional styles of communicating and often despair of getting to the best style (Or think we are already best, but no one will tell us we aren’t because they think too poorly of themselves to reveal their experience!).

I aspired to be a “leveler” in the group according to Satir’s model. The leveler is “congruent,” meaning their internal states match what is communicated externally. For Satir, that means they are OK being themselves and are open to others being themselves. They are aware of self, other and context in a way that allows them to mentalize about what is happening instead of just reacting out of fear. In the chart (that blurry thing at the left), the leveler’s stance s open, arms welcoming, legs  relaxed, and their facial expressions and tone match their internal state. We are not all likely to be the “non-anxious presence” we hear about all the time, but trying to stay aware helps a group stay connected, even when times are hard. Satir followers often quote the Roman poet Horace to that end: “When things are steep, remember to stay level-headed.”

Satir had first hand knowledge of how communication styles could hurt. In the “family” of the first family therapists, the blamers accused her of all sorts of things, the placaters fawned over her, the rationalists were disappointed that she did not come up with a theoretical model to meet their expectations, and the distracters considered her irrelevant.

You may have had the same experience during a Zoom call for work this week, or in a small group of the church, or at your family dinner table.  I was having a little taste of all the dysfunctional styles coming at me in my group the other day (and coming from me, too!). In the chart above, you can see that each style is missing congruity with something — and irrelevant misses them all!

The four off-kilter types

Blamers defend by pointing the finger at someone else. They use words like “you should have” or “if you would try harder, then I wouldn’t have to…” or ” I do it right so this couldn’t have been my fault.”  Most Christians are clever enough to do this subtley. They would be more likely to quote the Bible or the latest critic of the church to put you in your place, which leaves them blameless. They set an atmosphere on edge.

Computers (the super-reasonable or rational) often position themselves with their arms crossed and use super reasonable words, like “I tried to tell you”, or “according to so-in-so.” or “when we last had this discussion.” They defend by ignoring feelings and other information, relying on logic to sound all put  together. In the chart above, they are all context, but not personal or relational. They make an atmosphere feel distant or cold.

When I get around a group of Christian leaders, it is often the blamers and computers versus the placators and distracters. That might just be the way of all flesh. But it also might be becasue their family systems operated like this. Married couples are more likely than not to have a “pursuing” partner and a “withrdrawing” partner. The withdrawers often have communication styles like placators and distractors. Truth without love kills. Love without truth lies.

Placators defend by trying to marginalize conflict in order to protect themselves or stabilize relationships. They sound like “please, won’t you just listen” or “now, it wasn’t that bad,” or “I don’t want to fight,” or they just stay quiet, sometimes letting their facial expressions say what they are not willing to put out there. I was on Zoom the other day with my group, which is a good venue to observe how faces tell things people are not yet willing to say.  The make the atmosphere a bit unreal or desperate.

Distracters (the “irrelevant” style) attempt to derail the conversation when they are uncomfortable. Their postures are more like rapid movements, or laughing at inappropriate moments. Words they use sound like “not to change the subject, but” or “did you see that new movie?” Maybe more, they feel so irrelevant or are so irrelevant to what is hapening they can’t keep their attention on it, they are easily distracted. I think people kept shutting off their video during our meeting the other day because it was hard to keep up the energy it takes to connect that way. I took a phone call from the City of Philadelphia myself. Distrcter make the atmosphere feel insubstantial, even foolish or shameful.

Being a leveler is hard. It is a lot easier to stay reactive and most of us prefer that, even when we feel called to love our neighbors as ourselves. Virginia Satir believed if we would all get congruent and live as levelers, world peace would be ushered in. As soon as she said that, she was criticized for being a naive woman who ignored the needs of the “Third World” (as Eurocentric people called it then).  She went around the world telling her story, anyway. As a result, her present influence might be more significant outside the United States now than it was inside then.

Beyond trauma and resilience is Love

A rich sense of blessing came over my wife and I not long ago. The experience has stuck with me and continues to loosen the barriers between me and my original union with God. Bessel van der Kolk and Psalm 139 help. Here is a bit of the psalm:

For You shaped me, inside and out.
You knitted me together in my mother’s womb long before I took my first breath.
I will offer You my grateful heart, for I am Your unique creation, filled with wonder and awe.
You have approached even the smallest details with excellence;
Your works are wonderful;
I carry this knowledge deep within my soul.  — Psalm 139:13-14 (The Voice)

You should probably take a deep breath and read that again so you can sink into it.

It took me a few decades of life before I could take a deliberate breath and appreciate what my mind and body knew about God. So much of the Christianity surrounding me as I grew up was focused on being in right relationship with God, the great external locus of control.” You’ve heard: “Get right with God. God is good all the time. Everything happens for a reason. Jesus is Lord of all. Jehovah is King.” The Church has often been a place where men fight each other to see what image of God is going to dominate, or what philosophy will rule. You’ve seen: Pastors raised up in sky-high pulpits or on jumbotrons, giant altars, a screen from behind which a man brings out holy things, founders who end up as dictators. Even Psalm 39, above, has been used to describe a very powerful creator whose total knowledge gives him total control (“God’s in control”) and so gives infinite opportunity to criticize the smallest details of our sin.

My Christian clients often come to therapy with the predictable effects of their damaging view of God. Even when they accept Jesus into their hearts (often in response to fear of hell or fear of ostracism from their family if they don’t), he resides in them like a prison warden, and the most avoidant are in solitary confinement.  Yet, once given a chance to tell their story, to be seen and heard, to explore the taboo topics of trauma and self-condemnation, they find a surprising knowledge of another God deep within. As they find their own value and exercise their own agency they get a new sense of an internal locus of control, and a new view of God emerges. They are free to form a much deeper relationship. As a result, Psalm 139 becomes more like the very gentle reading in The Voice. In that amplified translation, the rich word they translate “shaped” feels more intimate and, for what I want to say today, like a loving touch.

Bessel van der Kolk recording On Being. (Image by Kelli Wilkes)

Is resilience all we’ve got?

As I have been languidly reading The Body Keeps Score (in order to keep up with everyone else, honestly), I have enjoyed Bessel van der Kolk’s memoir-like presentation of how the science of trauma has developed over his lifetime, since the 1970’s. He’s a learner and open to any way to help people, to whatever works to free them, including spiritual ways. In 2021, Krista Tippet unearthed that his parents were fundamentalist Christians and the fact he “spent a fair amount of time in a monastery in France called Taize.”  One thing he has learned lately impressed me. It came from his own experience of MDMA as a means to revisit places where memories are stuck in a debilitating narrative of trauma.

Van der Kolk was a sickly, impoverished, hungry child with neglectful, traumatized parents. He says in the interview,

In my last experience [with MDMA}, actually, I experienced in a very deep way what that little boy went through, who was starving and his mom was not there for him. And I had a tremendous sense of compassion for, oh my God, what that little boy went through. And the people around me were extremely attuned. And it sort of took care of something so subliminal inside of myself that I think it’s produced quite a significant transformation inside myself. In terms of that I don’t feel deprived. I don’t feel that there’s a deficit anymore.

He says the drug gave him access to the “cosmic dimensions” of himself. It opened him to the “mystery of the universe” and he ended up “feeling at once insignificant and utterly precious at the same time.” He could have written Psalm 139 himself!

When van der Kolk and others explore trauma they are looking for psychological, relational and physical ways to diminish or reform memories that color future reactions to life and love and often shape us for self-destruction. When most therapists get to the “bottom of things” their main hope for healing is human resilience. In their view, our personal capacity, for the most part, is the power we have to get well and feel well, or at least stay safe and sober. Often their confidence is well placed because we are wonderfully made and have an amazing capacity for survival. For most of us, trauma often ends up transforming us, not tormenting us. In North Jersey I think most people say, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

What is beyond the trauma narrative?

I am often amazed at the resilience people demonstrate. Once they rediscover their capacity, when it is affirmed, and they construct a new narrative for how their life works, they often feel good to go and they go. Others, once they have a new sense of safety and personal agency, are free to see what is deeper than their trauma. Beyond the faulty foundations of their attachment and the troubles of this world, they have always known God, in one way or another. Van der Kolk begrudgingly sees this knowledge in his parents’ infantile faith. But then he can’t miss it when his normal senses are bypassed with MDMA and wonders are revealed, received by and stored in his right brain, where he knew God before he knew language.

This post arose from a similar experience of revelation and reassurance. We were having a conversation  and both felt grateful for how our faith had helped us keep going and even transforming us when we were deeply hurt, not only by each other and the forces surrounding us, but by the trauma of the last two years and experiences clear back to our early childhood.  We were helping each other memorize the new narrative of love we had learned, the love that preceded our trauma, the trauma to which we had devoted much energy recounting and fearing.

Maybe now that scientists like van der Kolk are belatedly acknowledging the primacy of the right hemisphere of the brain, more and more people  will be open to their natural state of oneness with God. He says in his book, “The right brain is the first to develop in the womb, and it carries the nonverbal communication between mothers and infants” (p.79). I believe it is primarily in the right hemisphere where God also nonverbally communicated with us and continues to nurture us in a spiritual womb. I often tell about my first experience of church as a five-year old. I did not bother much with the left-brain lessons. But when we sang the songs, music being among the languages of the right brain, I felt like I was at home; they gave my senses the words to explain how I had always known God.

Psalm 139 gets at the sense we have always been with God and God has always been with us. I think it has always been a good reminder, a symbolic representation, of what we all know in our deepest hearts beyond our brokenness. We were created in love. Psalm 139 is another version of my kindergarten experience of oneness, “If it happened there it happens everywhere.” We are all known by a loving God. Jesus makes that plain.

So we can all find faith in God which supports us even better than our own resilience. We can find assurance that allows us to keep going when we are hurt. In the face of all the trouble we face, it makes sense to be stubbornly loved and always looking for love, even when the absence we feel hurts, knowing it is there, sinking into it beyond words, feeling it in the love of others. If it happened then, it can always happen. Deeper than suffering, than resilience, even deeper than trauma transformed is love. My prayer remains, “Your works are wonderful; I carry this knowledge deep within my soul.” I am the work of your love.

The fourth week of Advent – The joy of hope

[This is revised from an Advent message given during Circle of Hope’s “captivity” in Benjamin Franklin High School]

Advent is the pregnant season. It always seems to pop up and try to grab my attention just in time, right when I feel emptied out or adrift on an ocean of trouble. Thank you, Jesus!

The noisy prophet, Jeremiah, is often the tool God uses to focus my attention on hope instead of trouble. The revelation he experiences draws me into a listening space with him and I often end up pregnant with hope, myself. I hope that is your experience this year (after, again, what a year!). As Jeremiah speaks what he hears from God, he paints a picture that won’t be completely clear until God impregnates the world with himself in Jesus Christ and continues the process through His followers. Here we are being what he is seeing.

I love the richness of having Jeremiah open our eyes from his vantage point 2600 years before our time. He can do this because what we experience with God and remember during Advent is like what I hear is sort of a timeless moment women in labor experience just before the baby is born. For some women everything seems to stop – they may have a wild sense of euphoria or suspension, maybe a still point before the final push, when the seconds slow down and all times become this one time. We are called by Advent to enter into such a still point and be with God as God is with us. I believe Jeremiah had many still points when God came to him. What the Lord revealed then can teach us now. We can enter that timeless moment with him.

Ebed-Melek Pulls Jeremiah out of the Cistern
Ebed-Melek Pulls Jeremiah out of the Cistern — Johann Melchior Bocksberger (1587)

Some things never change

We need a Jeremiah during Advent to tell us to keep looking for the fullness. But don’t overlook what you’ve already received! Jeremiah did not have the already but not yet experience we have – he was fully into not yet. And his own people definitely overlooked him like yours may be dismissing you. But he has an amazing amount to teach us about hoping for God when he seems far away.

Jeremiah is a fascinating guy. God calls him into the middle of a huge political situation in Judah, which is the remaining functioning part of the nation of Israel at the time – we are in the 620’s BC, here. His little country is a political football between two huge empires: Egypt on the south, with which the kings of Judah have been allied for a while, and a new conqueror, Babylon, to the north, with its famous, brilliant, King Nebuchadnezzar. The powers that be in Judah, including some sincerely patriotic, but false prophets, are on the side of Egypt. But Jeremiah is convinced that God is going to use Babylon as part of His plan to fulfill what He started in Israel. So he says, “Don’t resist Babylon.” Because of this message, Jeremiah is a lonely, isolated, threatened prophet, trying to hold on to his faith and calling while the conquerors are at the door, as the city of Jerusalem is about to be taken over again, and as his own people think he may be a traitor. There is a lot of sadness and doom and personal struggle in the prophecies of Jeremiah that his buddy Baruch so carefully wrote down.

When you look at what Jeremiah says, it may seem like he lives in Philadelphia, or in your own town. He cries out about sin and separation from God, outright rebellion and disrespect — broken, antagonistic, competitive relationships are making a mess everywhere — everyone has their own agenda. Survival of the fittest reigns. Who you know, not what you know, reigns. King Zedekiah is generally considered illegitimate, a ruler who did not gain power in the proper way (no one “stopped the steal”).

From the belly of that city and situation Jeremiah tells what he hears from God. And I mean belly, quite literally, since the king throws Jeremiah into a cistern for a while so he will be quiet. From the pits, Jeremiah prophecies hope. God likes using people to do that. Jeremiah impregnates the city of Jerusalem, the navel of Israel, like a little seed planted in the cistern; he shoots up life into the air and talks about hope that is going to arise from this distressing pregnancy. God’s people have become like a woman with no prenatal care at all, but she is going to give birth to a remarkable, healthy child. That is his message.

See if you can listen to him over the 2600 years since he lived. I’m not sure anyone can do this anymore. We all think this “magic moment” is the only time we can share. But I think our eternal God can draw us all together across time. In these readings from Jeremiah’s prophecies, see if you can enter the moment with him. See if you can hope for something you don’t have from God yet and believe it will come.

Call Trump's Attacks On The 1619 Project What They Are — Censorship of American History

Hope in bondage

In this first piece, Jeremiah is speaking to people under the yoke, like so many of us and like even more of those around us. We see our version of this yoke in the bondage of addiction to drugs and porn, of self-destructive habits of heart and relating we can’t get rid of, the yoke of unbelief we cling to, of fear, the prison of disease and cancer and trauma, of demons and mental illness, of relationships that dominate us, of ignorance. From the belly of all that Jeremiah is crying out to get people to hear the possibilities of the coming of the Lord.

“In that day,” declares the LORD Almighty,
“I will break the yoke off their necks
and will tear off their bonds;
no longer will foreigners enslave them….
I am with you and will save you,”
declares the Lord. — Jere 30:8,11 (NIV)

Jeremiah doesn’t know when “that day” is, but he sees it. It is an eternal now, a live possibility.

Hope before your jump

Meanwhile, it has really gotten bad. The people and the whole nation have gotten to the point of no return. It is like some of us who teeter on the edge of diving into what kills us, and then jump, or like some of us who have been ambivalent about a relationship for so long that we finally get too far away to get back to reconciliation – too dismissed or dismissive, cancelled or cut off.

This is what the LORD says:
“Your wound is incurable, your injury beyond healing.
There is no one to plead your cause, no remedy for your sore, no healing for you.
All your allies have forgotten you; they care nothing for you.
You have been stricken as one would strike an enemy and punished as one would the cruel,
because your guilt is so great and your sins so many. — Jer. 30:12-14 (NIV)

Jeremiah’s pictures of what things are like, begin to feel like Philadelphia. It is like he is walking down some of the streets where quite a few of us work and live. Jeremiah sees the ruin, but he cries out for hope.

This is what the LORD says: “I will restore the fortunes of Jacob’s tents
and have compassion on his dwellings; the city will be rebuilt on her ruins,
and the palace will stand in its proper place.
From them will come songs of thanksgiving and the sound of rejoicing.
I will add to their numbers, and they will not be decreased;
I will bring them honor, and they will not be disdained.
Their children will be as in days of old,
and their community will be established before me;
I will punish all who oppress them.” — Jer. 30:18-20 (NIV)

Can anyone hear this? We were at Sampan on 13th St. the other night  (very good!) and they were blasting electronica and people were talking so loud we could hardly hear each other. Can anyone hear anymore? As it turns out, most people in Jeremiah’s hometown, Jerusalem, couldn’t listen.

Some people always see and hear the promise

You may see as well as Jeremiah, and even better. We can’t wait for a season that gives us a better excuse to celebrate all that God has born in the world than Advent. We strain to take it all in.

Keep trying to look to what is coming from God: in your yoke, in your bondage, in your incurable-seeming wounds, in the middle of your ruined city where so many lives are ruined right now due to their own sin and the sin of the system. Can you hear God’s message of hope? He says:

the Lord will not turn back
    until he fully accomplishes
    the purposes of his heart.
In days to come
    you will understand this. — Jer. 30:24

The LORD appeared to us in the past, saying: 

“I have loved you with an everlasting love;
    I have drawn you with unfailing kindness.
I will build you up again,
   and you…will be rebuilt.” — Jer. 31:3-4

God Used Holy Spirit To Cause Mary To Become Pregnant, Even Though She Still A Virgin | BabyCenter

Hope in the pregnancy

How is this going to happen? – how will this purpose accomplished, how will this this drawing to himself take place, how will this building up again begin? In a very strange image, Jeremiah says we hope in a pregnancy.

Study it for yourself, but Jer. 31:22 (NKJ) says:

The Lord will create a new thing on earth –
a woman will surround a man.

It is the language of sex, of procreation. “Surrounding” in the old English is a euphemism for having sex. Usually men are seen as the ones who surround the woman. But here is a turn of events. God is going to do something upside down, and a woman will surround a man! God had often been imagined as surrounding the nation of Israel, husband to wife. Can it be that Israel will surround God? Could this be Jeremiah dimly seeing God being born, surrounded by a woman from Israel? Jerome in the fourth century thought this was all about Jesus being “surrounded” by Mary in the womb. However much a person can get out of this, I certainly think it means that a new kind of pregnancy is going to occur. And from my vantage point, it has occurred.

What did Jeremiah see that gave him hope in the pits? In one of the most striking examples of being pregnant with God’s presence, Jeremiah sums it up, and he still gives me hope.  I hope this seems remarkable to you – not only because Jeremiah could see it, but because it all came about with the coming of Jesus.

“The days are coming,” declares the Lord,
    “when I will make a new covenant
with the people of Israel
    and with the people of Judah.
It will not be like the covenant
    I made with their ancestors
when I took them by the hand
    to lead them out of Egypt,
because they broke my covenant,
    though I was a husband to them,”
declares the Lord.
“This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel
    after that time,” declares the Lord.
“I will put my law in their minds
    and write it on their hearts.
I will be their God,
    and they will be my people.
No longer will they teach their neighbor,
    or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’
because they will all know me,
    from the least of them to the greatest,”
declares the Lord.
“For I will forgive their wickedness
    and will remember their sins no more.” — Jer. 31:31-4

Notice two things about this, OK, so you can be a part:

“I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts.”

This is about you and God. She wants to be incarnate in you, impregnate you with life and see life get born in you and from you.

“I will be their God,
    and they will be my people.
No longer will they teach their neighbor,
    or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’
because they will all know me,
    from the least of them to the greatest,”

This is about US and God. She wants to be incarnate in you, impregnate you with life and see life get born in you and from you. God wants US to know him, from the least to great. I know the church in the U.S. is a wreck right now, but there are multiple seeds in cisterns sprouting right now. God will be among us, knowable. We will know him in the biblical sense and be pregnant with him. And we will give birth to love and goodness and hope in the world.

This is as crazy as a woman surrounding a man! What do you do with this, apart from receive it and appreciate it? If you are listening to Jeremiah at all, you couldn’t do the “Christmas” thing with it and see Jesus as some nice little gift under your tree. The only true response is to get intimate, get pregnant, give birth, enjoy the timeless now of knowing and being known by God with us.

The third week of Advent: The joy of being named free

In a Covid haze, I watched the Jan Zizka movie on Prime (titled Medieval in the U.S. and apparently titled Warrior of God somewhere else). It is based on the early life of the Czech national hero, Jan Zizka (1360-1424) who was finally taken down by plague but never lost a battle. It is the most expensive Czech movie ever made. The film is dedicated to “everyone who fights for freedom.” [It is interesting to see the trailer in Czech and you will not miss an ounce of meaning].

I’ve studied Medieval European history for decades and still found the politics of the movie incomprehensible. Nevertheless, despite the gore, I enjoyed a view of the time when Jan Hus stirred up what became the Protestant Reformation of the church in Europe. Zizka starts out as a mercenary faithful to God and his king and ends up the populist leader of an innovative peasant army who says, “Kings may be chosen by God, but they still make the mistakes of men.”

Such revolutionary thoughts unleash 200 years of death and destruction as kings defend their rights and peasants get some rights. I don’t know if the U.S. founders would claim Zizka as an ancestor, but his spirit of “fighting for freedom” is a sacred thought in America. Unfortunately, the “survival of the fittest” built into that fighting (and into Medieval fighting) has left the country dominated by petty kings and warlords like Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, the wannabe Trump, and that guy at L&I who think their best interests equals the common good. We are still taught that sacrificing lives for the “freedom” to fight for freedom is a holy act.

A better way

Maybe Zizka would have kept maturing if he would have lived a lot longer until the Anabaptists came along to free themselves from the bondage of competing for the state’s approval to be alive. They are the logical ancestors of what he was fighting for.

In the Schleitheim Confession of 1527, my spiritual ancestors, the Anabaptists say,

From all these things we shall be separated and have no part with them for they are nothing but an abomination, and they are the cause of our being hated before our Christ Jesus, who has set us free from the slavery of the flesh and fitted us for the service of God through the Spirit whom he has given us.

Therefore there will also unquestionably fall from us the unchristian, devilish weapons of force — such as sword, armor and the like, and all their use (either) for friends or against one’s enemies — by virtue of the Word of Christ. “Resist not (him that is) evil.”

The Anabaptists take Jesus at his word and example and excuse themselves from the constant fighting. As a result, both sides attack and persecute them. But they do manage to keep hope alive for the freedom given to those whom “the Son has set free.”

The Angel Appearing to the Shepherds — Thomas Cole (1833-4)

Americans are still divided as to what the word freedom actually means. When John Lewis called on us to “let freedom ring” he was calling for emancipation and equality. Alongside that call there has always been a cry for “liberty” which consists of the private enjoyment of one’s life and goods. The latter fear the emancipated who might elect majorities which might make them share their property. I think those two approaches to freedom can be balanced, but then what would we have to fight about?

I began thinking thoughts of freedom because of several Advent experiences came my way last week which demonstrrated the Lord’s better way.

The first had to do with the song O Holy Night. I was going to record it on Smule and scrolled through various karaoke renditions. I did not realize that many recent versions truncate the second verse, which is all about emancipation. They just use the second line:

Chains shall he break for the slave is our brother
and in his name all oppression will cease.

They cut out the first line:

Truly he taught us to love one another
his law if love and is gospel in peace.

They could just be shortening an overlong song (they skip the third verse completely), while retaining one of the most dramatic lines. But I think they might also have erased that pesky love and peace in honor of freedom fighting. People don’t love Jesus but they certainly love their rights.

A second experience was hearing about my friend totally immobilized by sciatica. He could not even get out of bed without severe pain. Yet he wrote me a note to tell me he had experienced the most profound sense of God’s presence and joy he had ever known while confined to his bed. He felt freed from all sorts of burdens he had been carrying. The experience completely confounded him since he was so bound physically and so freed spiritually. But he completely welcomed it. He was overjoyed to be free of the past.

Freedom is the experience of life in the Spirit. It is not the result of fighting everyone else to dominate them or to be free of them. The endless fight for justice is real but it will never be conclusive, as our Anabaptist forebears discerned. I would like to take on their attitude as they sought to take on Christ’s

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

who, though he existed in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be grasped,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
assuming human likeness. (Phil. 2)

The Bible does not condone slavery. But does say the enslaved are free in Christ and the masters are mastered. Even if you are laid out with Covid or some other ailment, the joy of Christ can transcend your pain. Freedom is not something doled out by the powerful or something to be stolen from them. It is the gift of God.

The baby in the manger in Bethlehem is God emptied of her rights, taking on our bondage, and showing the way of transcendence.  “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” How you define freedom may end up encapsulating how much of it you experience. One of the things I am learning this Advent, again, is freedom names me. In chains, in bed, diseased, despised, disempowered or empowered, Jesus sets me free and that’s enough. He calls me free and I respond when I am called. It is joy.