This is Love

heartI am writing this on Valentine’s Day (the Feast Day of St Valentine,, for the purists out there). Traditionally, it’s a day when much of the world celebrates love–particularly romantic love–with all its trappings: cards, flowers, chocolates, romantic dinners, and actions that show how much we love those who have a special place in our heart.

In our collective lives we are inundated with the theme of love. It makes headlines as those in the public eye hook up with (or unhook from) other famous people. It’s celebrated in tabloid magazines. It’s the reason why most music is written–at least most country music. It’s the theme of nearly every movie, every novel, every story worth telling. It’s on every channel of our television sets, every night.

Love Island.

The Bachelor.

The Bachelorette.

Married at First Sight.

Perfect Match.

We get so addicted to the drama of romance. Perhaps this is because we have an inner longing to find ourselves that perfect soulmate, the One who will solve all our problems and satisfy all our desires (in and out of bed). Or maybe its simply a residual trait from a long evolutionary process where the fittest of our ancestors were those who procreated the most.

Or maybe not.

Regardless, love is, as immortalised in song, is all around me, is in the air, is a battlefield (a little like ‘choose your own adventure’). Love is all you need, it will keep us together, it’s more than a feeling and it ‘ain’t for keeping.’

At the heart of our desire for the love of another, I believe, is the need to know another and be intimately known by another, and accepted regardless of what that knowledge uncovers. We all crave a relationship with someone who will love us in spite of our flaws, our bad taste, our sub-standard looks, our dad bod/dad jokes and our annoying habits.

And when we find that person, we are not afraid of what that relationship will bring because we know that we are truly loved.

As St John wrote two millennia ago, “Perfect love casts out fear.” In the embrace of a genuine, accepting, forgiving and including love, there is no room for nor necessity to be afraid. You are loved.

The opposite of fear, then, is love. In the absence of fear, love thrives. In the presence of love, fear flees. You cannot have both.

And we know from the same biblical letter, that God is Love and anyone who truly loves (loves with the generous, fear-scattering kind of love), is of God.

So on this auspicious day of the celebration of love, may I offer this blessing:

May Love bless you, and keep you.

May Love shine upon you and give you peace.

And may the blessing of Love–Father, Son and Holy Spirit–be upon you and remain with you always.

Amen.

 

Atonement, the Prodigal Son and ‘Why So Serious?’

cross_2There is no doctrine so entrenched in Christianity as that of the Substitutionary Atonement (also known as ‘Vicarious Atonement’ or the ‘Penal Substitution Theory’). In simple terms, this is the teaching that, on the cross, God’s wrath against sinful humanity was absorbed by Jesus—that the payment for sin was made to God by Christ; that this blood sacrifice appeased a holy God and saves us from certain (eternal) condemnation/torment.

This is a major (or may I say MAJOR) theme in many Christian circles, more so amongst fundamentalists. When I was a student at a leading fundamentalist university, this was hammered home to us in every sermon, in most classes, in many prayer meetings. It was not ‘a’ but ‘THE’ central tenet of The Faith and demanded a serious analysis, on a regular basis, of one’s place in the overall scheme of sin and salvation.

And serious it was. One would be out of line to show a smile in a church service or during the singing of a hymn. People had been expelled at this university for daring to treat a song about Jesus in a ‘frivolous’ manner. (see the video that got two students expelled and a third a severe reprimand here.)

And so they sing solemnly, seriously, it seems with a burden that is weighing them down. (Have a look at these two videos of a ‘performance’ of a well-loved (fundamentalist) hymn here and here.)

Here are the words for those of you following along at home (the sheet music is here.):

His robes for mine: O wonderful exchange!
Clothed in my sin, Christ suffered ‘neath God’s rage.
Draped in His righteousness, I’m justified.
In Christ I live, for in my place He died.

Chorus:
I cling to Christ, and marvel at the cost:
Jesus forsaken, God estranged from God.
Bought by such love, my life is not my own.
My praise-my all-shall be for Christ alone.

His robes for mine: what cause have I for dread?
God’s daunting Law Christ mastered in my stead.
Faultless I stand with righteous works not mine,
Saved by my Lord’s vicarious death and life.

His robes for mine: God’s justice is appeased.
Jesus is crushed, and thus the Father’s pleased.
Christ drank God’s wrath on sin, then cried “‘Tis done!”
Sin’s wage is paid; propitiation won.

His robes for mine: such anguish none can know.
Christ, God’s beloved, condemned as though His foe.
He, as though I, accursed and left alone;
I, as though He, embraced and welcomed home!

(His Robes for Mine by Chris Anderson and Greg Habegger ©2008 ChurchWorksMedia.com All rights reserved.)

Here is an insight into Chris Anderson’s understanding that has prompted this composition:

“Verse 3 focuses on the grand doctrine of propitiation, the fact that God’s wrath was not merely deflected from us by Christ, but was rather absorbed by Him in our place. Jesus Christ bore the infinite wrath of God against sin, satisfying God’s wrath and enabling sinners to be forgiven—and justly so. Isaiah 53:10-11 describes it this way: God looks on the travail of Christ’s soul and is satisfied by it. His wrath has been exhausted on Christ. The doctrine of propitiation is taught Isaiah 53, Romans 3:25; 1 John 2:2 and 4:10, et al.” (source: http://blogs.mbu.edu/praisemen/songs/his-robes-for-mine-authors-thoughts)

I have a HUGE problem with the language used (and the theology implied) in this song: ‘Christ suffered ‘neath God’s rage,’ ‘Jesus is crushed, and thus the Father’s pleased,’ and ‘Jesus forsaken, God estranged from God’ among others.

But then I realise that this comes from that classic Biblical story:

A man who had two sons. One demanded his share of the inheritance and then went off and spent it, in a far country, on riotous and loose living. The father, enraged with a fiery anger against that son, took his brother and turned him over to the torturers and finally the executioner. Only when the elder brother had died, paying the penalty that the father demanded for the younger one’s disobedience, was the father able to open up his heart in love and welcome the younger son home and once again grant him the blessings of being a part of the family.

No, I don’t have that story in my Bible either. That, on so many levels, goes against my understanding of God. And if we understand Jesus to be the most accurate depiction we have of God in Scripture, then we must accept that God is loving and compassionate. He would forsake his own Son only as much as he would forsake us, his children. He would not demand a penalty to be paid vicariously any more than the father in the real parable would have demanded one son pay for the sin of another. That is a primitive view–a tribal understanding–of God rooted in a culture set in ancient history and grounded in stories handed down from generation to generation over fires and in marketplaces.

Many argue that this understanding of what took place at the cross is helpful to Christians in certain situations. Scot McKinght in his book A Community Called Atonement illustrates the many theories of atonement (Substitutionary Atonement being one) as being like a set of golf clubs where one club (say, a wedge) may be good for a particular situation (like, for example, if you land your ball in a sand trap), but not practical or helpful in others (as in driving). While this may be true in a metaphorical or illustrative sense (though this may be open to interpretation as well),  I don’t believe it is very helpful in explaining anything of the nature of God or God’s interaction with humanity.

The problem is that we have ‘Set the members of the Trinity against each other—as when the Son is described as the object of the Father’s wrath on the Cross. Others stretch the concept to charge that penal substitution language amounts to “divine child abuse”—where an angry, cosmic Father beats up his meek and helpless Son—hardly the biblical imagery of the relationship of the Father and the Son.’ (source: Christianity Today) God becomes a deity with a schizophrenic tendency or bipolar disorder (and, as we know, without proper medication, either one of these illnesses renders an individual quite unstable.)

Joking aside, if we accept that God is love—If we accept the story of the Prodigal Son to be an illustration of how that love works itself out in reality—then we must not be so hasty to take on the ‘traditional’ view of atonement as fact. Certainly, it can be argued, some of the New Testament authors seemed to believe this was so. But a look at Jesus and his revelation of who the Father is cannot be dismissed. Rather, it should be the cause of much joy, celebration and excitement: All are welcomed—sinners and saints, elder and younger brothers, tax-gatherers and Pharisees—not because Jesus satisfied an angry God, but that God has sought and found us and brought us into the embrace of love and grace.  Welcome home!

Me and My GPS

HookTurnI am so grateful for the invention of the GPS.

I was even more appreciative of this on a recent visit to Melbourne where everything was unfamiliar and strange (Is this the only city in the world where you have to go to the far left hand lane in order to turn right?)

What I discovered, apart from the most direct route to get anywhere, were a few telling things that I can’t help but relate to life in general.

I love the way my GPS is forgiving.

It doesn’t hassle me when I make a wrong turn. It doesn’t declare in it’s soft, feminine (North American) voice, “You stupid idiot! Why didn’t you follow my commands?” Likewise, it doesn’t stop showing me the way because I made a wrong turn. It quietly, quickly, recalculates  where I’m headed and adjusts directions so I still arrive at my destination.

Life’s like that. God’s like that. No love lost. No refusal or turning the back on me. Just gentle forgiveness… and recalculating so I still get where I need to go. Grace.

But my GPS can still be wrong. At least in my opinion.

We were driving towards Mt. Dandenong and I could very clearly see the summit was to the right of the road on which we were travelling. The GPS, however, didn’t agree with me. Over and again it said (in a patient, peaceful voice), “Turn  left on Wombat Road.” I knew Wombat Road led downhill and away from the summit, so my response (to my wife’s amusement) was simply, “Whatever.” And I let the GPS keep harassing me. Passing Wombat Road, my artificially-intelligent friend recalculated and told me to take the  next left turn to get me to what ‘she’ thought was my destination. Only when I turned right and arrived at the summit of Mt. Dandenong did I realise the GPS was right–as far as its maps showed. While were standing on top of Mt. Dandenong, the township  of Mt. Dandenong was showing on the map as being downhill to the east a few kilometres.

Truth is, I need to be precise when inputting information so I get to the right destination. I also need to make room to get it wrong. Based on the best technology and the latest maps, the turn-by-turn navigation will always be as accurate as I ask it to be. If I tell it to take me to Melbourne Airport, it may direct me across the ocean to Melbourne, Florida. I  need  to state clearly, “Melbourne Airport, Victoria,” or, more specifically, “Rental Car Returns, Melbourne Airport,  Victoria.” (Doing so may prevent the embarrassment of ending up in the parking lane only to have to reverse and cross three lanes to get to the correct entrance. Grrrr…)

I would not have survived  Melbourne without a guide that knew the way around. Sure, we had a few “Drive around the block a few more times” moments, and a GPS can’t tell you the food will be OK at that restaurant it directed you to. But, overall, it was calming  knowing that somebody (OK, I did attach personhood to my GPS) knew the way.

And that, my friends, is also reassuring in my life. Call it “God,” “The Universe,” “The Great Spirit,” or “Cosmic GPS,” but it always good to know that, no matter how many wrong turns and dead ends you encounter, recalculations will be made, forgiveness is not an issue, and you will arrive at your destination safely.

(And to cap this all off nicely, I believe The Universe just sent me a sign because where I typed “destination,” autocorrect changed it to “detonation.” Well,  that is one way to come to an end. . . .)

 

 

 

God is Love

I am a huge fan of hymns with words that still speak, with truths that help us to glorify and praise a God who is love everlasting.

There is something about these hymns that sparks within me a sense of awe and wonder. Perhaps it is the simplicity of the music which allows the words to stand out and speak their truth plainly. Maybe it is because there is a huge amount of “shallow” Christian music in our culture (or subculture, if you will) so that when a song contains so much truth and teaching it is the notable exception.

Whilst watching Songs of Praise today, I heard this beautiful hymn, God is Love, sung to the tune we (in Australia) know as “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling.”

God is love: let heaven adore him;
God is love: let earth rejoice;
let creation sing before him,
and exalt him with one voice.
He who laid the earth’s foundation,
he who spread the heavens above,
he who breathes through all creation,
he is love eternal love.

God is Love; and love enfolds us,
all the world in one embrace:
with unfailing grasp God holds us,
every child of every race.
And when human hearts are breaking
under sorrow’s iron rod,
then we find that self-same aching
deep within the heart of God

God is Love; and though with blindness
sin afflicts all human life,
God’s eternal loving kindness
guides us through our earthly strife.
Sin and death and hell shall never
o’er us final triumph gain;
God is Love, so Love forever
o’er the universe must reign.

(Timothy Rees, 1874-1939)

Considering the time in which the hymn was written, the message contained in its poem is so appropriate for us in our world where God’s love is so desperately needed, yet it is a truth that is often misunderstood, misrepresented or silenced.

The Joy of Clemency

People talk a lot about getting revenge. “Living well is the best revenge” is an oft-quoted literary expression, said wryly to conquer cynicism or to acknowledge the devil most don’t think exists.  People may not go all the way to revenge but they do talk about getting over past hurts.  They talk wistfully about being “resentment”- free.

There is a famous restaurant conversation, which goes like this.  Waiter approaches table.  You are eating a good meal slowly.  The waiter asks if you are still working on this.  You assure him that you were never working on this.  You were always delighting in this.  At a dollar a forkful, why wouldn’t you?

The get-over-resentment conversation is like this, too.  “I am really working on getting over my past hurts.”  When we have to work too hard on getting over resentments, or beyond revenge, we miss the boat. It is easier than you think.  There is a delight in showing clemency.  It is the delight God shows in forgiving us.  It is fun.  It is spacious.  It is generous.  It is slow, not pushed. Nor is it pushy.  When you speak to that waiter, you speak with a smile in your voice.

I’ll never know why attachment to resentment or revenge is so strong in us.  It does not delight us and it does self-punish.   As Lillian Daniel said to me just recently, resentment is drinking rat poison and hoping the rat dies.  Why would anyone do that?  Especially when the joy of clemency is ours to give and to receive.

Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over the transgression of the remnant of your possession? He does not retain his anger forever, because he delights in showing clemency. He will again have compassion upon us; he will tread our iniquities under foot. You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea. You will show faithfulness to Jacob and unswerving loyalty to Abraham, as you have sworn to our ancestors from the days of old. (Micah 7:18-20)

Jesus, you who showed us the path beyond revenge and resentment, teach us to delight in clemency, for those who murder, those who abuse, those who steal, those who work at their meals, those who rush us–and help us to do so in large and small ways.  Amen.

– by Donna Schaper, from StillSpeaking