Rest for a Weary Soul

I’d like to introduce you to my friend John.

I went to university with John. We had the same major and I shared a class or two with him. He was also a fellow music-minded person and was in my choir for several years. He was a “small chat” kind of friend and our conversations never much got past the weather, classes and events around us.

He was quiet, studious, easy-going.

We graduated the same year and went our separate ways.

He moved to Ohio. I returned to Australia.

I found him on Twitter about 10 years ago and followed him. I started having conversations with him about the usual–weather, old school days, current events.

He would recommend me websites, sermons, books–I think he thought I was a lost soul his mission was to convert. Sometimes he did so gently; other times he was not dissimilar to a street preacher with fire and fury.

Come to find out he had married but was now divorced. He had been working for a Christian publishing company but lost his job. I joked with him when his suburb, Euclid, hit the news in Australia as the global financial downturn hit the area hard. His house wasn’t worth a fraction of what he still owed on it.

He had applied for several jobs–I remember one at Ken Ham’s Ark Encounter which he was particularly hoping he would be offered, but wasn’t. I’m not sure if he ever was successful in regaining solid employment.

His politics were far right. He stood for everything I didn’t. His remarks to those who believed contrary to him were caustic. He was highly intelligent, but quite narrowly-focused in his thinking.

We parted ways around 6 years ago when he unfriended me on Facebook and lost interest in Twitter. This happened after a particularly bitter tirade about politics and how, in his opinion, nobody who called themselves a Christian could vote for a Muslim, foreign-born president, especially for one who killed babies.

That was the kind of person he was.

Today I was looking through my Facebook account and saw that we had both liked Bryan Duncan (former lead of the Sweet Comfort Band and a chart-topping CCM artist of the 80s). Just for old times’ sake, I clicked on his profile pic and scrolled down his newsfeed.

And then I stopped in disbelief at a comment made on his latest Cruz2016/NeverTrump-branded profile pic:

“RIP my friend.”

Obviously, others had the same bewilderment as I.

“What are you talking about?” was one response.

“John committed suicide.”

Oh man! Really?

Evidently, life became too much for my friend. I don’t know the circumstances he faced nor the pressures that he felt every day. I have no idea how he dealt with his past and how he reconciled is ultra-Calvinism with the apparent out-of-control world around him.

I really didn’t know him that well.

I don’t know if, given a reboot, I would have taken the chance to understand him more. We were poles apart.

hAYNESBut he was a good man and a beloved child of God. It is obviously that he touched many lives and will be missed by the same. His family grieve as all those in loss grieve.

Regardless of what drove my friend to take his own life in what should have been his prime years is beyond me. God knows.

He is at rest now. This tortured soul as found peace. Whatever his politics, religion or societal status, he has been embraced by everlasting Love.

Rest in peace.

*  *  *  *  *

For those who struggle with thoughts of self-harm or suicide, there is help.

Lifeline (Australia) 13 11 14

Beyond Blue (Australia) 1300 659 467

Suicide Prevention Line (USA) 1-800-784-2433

 

Love and Fear

A long-serving staff member had his final day in our school last Friday and he shared this parting prayer with us (which I would like to share with you):

There are only two feelings, love and fear:
There are only two languages, love and fear:
There are only two activities, love and fear:
There are only two motives, two procedures,
Two frameworks, two results, love and fear,
Love and fear. (-Michael Leunig)

I believe strongly that we must always examine our motivations to make certain that all we do comes out of love (God’s love) and not out of fear. Rev. Ed Bacon speaks of this extensively in his sermons as he sees everything we do coming from “the house of love” or “the house of fear.”

Remember: “Perfect love casts out fear.” May we do all things in love.

Welcome to Lent

Ash Wednesday Ushers In Lenten SeasonIt’s Ash Wednesday today.

It’s not a big event in the Evangelical Christian calendar and I never knew about it–let alone celebrated it–until I landed a job in an Anglican/Catholic school.

Now it has become part of my and my family’s yearly spiritual tradition (and yes, we do have pancakes for breakfast on Shrove Tuesday–but the day is more of an excuse to start our day with a sweet stack of carbs than anything else.)

I love the way our staff prayer (the Collect for Ash Wednesday) began this morning: “Almighty God, you hate nothing that you have made . . .” It’s an encouragement and a reminder that our God has a love for us and for all Creation that is overwhelming and everlasting.

I’ll leave it to Fr Richard Rohr to suggest an appropriate response:

The Jewish people have a beautiful prayer form, a kind of litany to which the response is always “Dayenu!” (It would have been enough!).

They list, one by one, the mirabilia Dei, the wonderful works of God for their people and themselves, and after each one, shout out DAYENU! As if to say, “How much is it going to take for us to know that God is with us?!” It builds satisfaction instead of feeding dissatisfaction.

If we begin our day with any notion of scarcity, not-enoughness, victimhood, or “I deserve,” I promise you the day will not be good–for you or for those around you. Nor will God be glorified.

Maybe we all should begin our days with a litany of satisfaction, abundance, and enoughness. God, you have given me another day of totally gratuitous life: my health, my eyes, my ears, my mind, my taste, my family, my freedom, my education, clean water, more than enough food, a roof over my head, a warm bed and blanket, friends, sunshine, a beating heart, and your eternal love and guidance.

To any one of these we must say, “And this is more than enough!”

As we embark on our Lenten journey, one of self-examination and following God in the way of Jesus, may we recognise daily God’s intrinsic goodness and gain a deeper appreciation for God’s love, grace, and peace which is even through this time being poured out on us all.

Dayenu.

Revisiting The Shack

ShackRevisitedThe minute I started reading Paul Young’s novel The Shack, I was entranced. Young took me into a  world where God came down in the form of three unlikely individuals and messed with the life of a broken and cynical man. Through its pages I saw a new portrait of a God I knew, yet, strangely, seem to have never met–a God who lavishes love, grace and forgiveness on humanity with such unrelenting fervor . . . and I found myself stopping and questioning my own sensibility at times: Does such a Being even exist?

After all, there is another darker, more sinister, picture of God to which I had been accustomed: a God who hates, bring destruction and devastation, strikes humankind with his fierce (and righteous?) anger, holding us to ransom over the flames of hell.

I remember telling a friend that I was reading The Shack and found it to be the most incredible story of grace I had ever come across. I loaned her my copy and, before hiding it away in her handbag rather quickly, she told me that she could not let her friends see her with it–especially those in her church fellowship group–because it was so heretical. (Puzzled expression on my face, and I think I said something along the lines of “You’ve got to be kidding!”)

To me, this book was so straightforwardly simple and showed a wonderful picture of a God I wanted to know. To her, it was another threat to a “safe” theology which enabled her to live quite comfortably amongst her like-minded acquaintances.

So when I received a copy of The Shack Revisited by C. Baxter Kruger (2012: Hachette Book Group/Hodder & Stoughton), I jumped into it head first, hoping to make some sense of Evangelicalism’s strange love-hate relationship with this recent bestseller.

Kruger lets us into a little history of the original volume: Young never intended this book to be published, but wrote it for his family to explain his own experience over 11 years of brokenness and the realisation of the overwhelming love and forgiveness of God in his life. What we read is his own story, although viewed in the life of Mack. Mack lost his daughter Missy and became overwhelmed by his own Great Sadness. That Sadness–and the period of Young’s own life it represents–is characterised by the seemingly very real absence of God. As Kruger comments, “That is a lonely place.” (p.23).

Kruger’s companion volume to The Shack was not solicited by Young. It arose out of Kruger’s own interaction with The Shack and out of the profound impact this book had in his life and ministry. The Shack Revisited is a well-rounded explanation of the underpinning theology of the novel, written with the average pew-sitting Christian in mind. It takes into account not only how the Biblical writers saw God’s relationship within God’s self and with Creation, but also teaching from numerous Church writers and theologians, including many from the first centuries of Christianity’s existence. I was quite pleased to read so much commentary within this book that echoed the writings of one of my favourite authors and theologians, C.S. Lewis. In fact, as Kruger rightfully states, the fingerprints of C.S. Lewis are all over this book. Themes such as those by which Lewis is so constantly taken to addressing are found throughout the volume and the author makes this abundantly clear:

Within us all there lies a broken dream, “our inconsolable secret,” as Lewis calls it, that is so precious to us we protect it with a thousand defenses. “The secret which hurts us much,” Lewis says, “That you take your revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence.” We know that we are made for glory, but only know hints of its joy. In the midst of life we long for more. Something is missing: creation is aflame with a glory we cannot touch but we know it’s ours. We are moved by ancient music, but cannot find the great dance. So “we pine,” as Lewis says. But such pining is too much to bear. So we bury our longing and protect our dream’s sleep. (p. 36)

After laying the groundwork in showing the background and purpose of this book, Kruger breaks into the theological themes of Young’s book with the common understanding many Christians have of God. He shows the one view of God as being an angry Deity intent on holding sinners over the flames of hell’s fire (as represented in Jerry Falwell’s favourite sermon of all time, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God by Jonathan Edwards) (p.53) The other view, demonstrated so beautifully in The Shack is one portrayed by Athanasius in where God has never abandoned human beings who has always walked alongside brokenness.

The God of all is good and supremely noble by nature. Therefore he is the lover of humanity. [Athanasius quoted by Khaled Anatolios, Athanasius: The Coherence of His Thought.]

As, then, the creatures whom he had created . . . were in fact perishing, and such noble works were on the road to ruin, what then was God, being Good, to do? Was he to let corruption and death have their way with them? In that case, what was the use of having made them in the beginning  . . . It was impossible, therefore, that God should leave man to be carried off by corruption, because it would be unfitting and unworthy of Himself. [Athanasius, On the Incarnation of the Word of God] (p.55)

Kruger assumes of the reader a Trinitarian theological understanding (chapter 6). So much of the book is caught up in the relationship between Father, Son and Spirit, perhaps because this is the point in which critics have accused Young of going too far. (Whilst the apparent human-likeness of each person of the Trinity was refreshing and enlightening to me when I first read The Shack, to many that has brought God into disrepute, making God too familiar and not so much a distant other-worldly entity as their theology would dictate.) Drawing from the gospel record and from the interpretation of this by the early Church fathers, he shows the involvement of God with humankind from the very beginning, through the Hebrew patriarchs and into the coming of Jesus. The interplay between the three persons is shown as always being a given throughout the story of God (chapters 7 and 8)

This is not polytheism (as was the accusation made by the Jews against early Christians), nor modalism (where God manifested in different ways at different times), but a true relationship. Jesus claimed this, telling his disciples that he and his father were one, that  he would send the Spirit to them who would be as he himself to them. The most common demonstration of this relationship has always been the baptism of Jesus where the Spirit appeared above him as a dove and the voice is heard saying “This is the son whom I love. . . .” (This debate over the nature of God culminated in the councils of Nicaea (325 C.E.) and Constantinople (381 C.E.) affirming the nature of the Trinity.)

Kruger introduces the idea of perichoresis: an understanding of the triune God as a mutual indwelling without a loss of personal identity, as Sarayu tells Mack: “You cannot share with one and not share with us all.”

Then why does not needs us–why does God love us? Is God not enough in God’s self? Does not that relationship within the Trinity satisfy God in itself?

Chapter 10 is worth the price of this book. Here Kruger addresses the love of God for humans within the context of perichoresis. In fact, he shows how the love of God could not exist if it were not for the triune nature of God. As Richard of St Victor said, “There can be no love without relationship.” C.S. Lewis added to this: “Love is something one person has for another person. If God was a single person before the world was made, He was not love.” In this, Karl Barth says, we were “created to be loved, and to live loved, and to love others without agenda.”

The Father  Son and Spirit love us for our benefit, not for increasing their membership rolls, or for making themselves look good, or from anything they can get from us.There is no need in the blessed Trinity. It is an overflowing fountain of other-centered love. The shared life of Father Son and Spirit is about giving, not taking; sharing, not hoarding; blessing others with life for their sake, not manipulating for divine control. The Father, Son and Spirit are focused on giving themselves for our benefit, so that we too can experience real life. They need nothing in return. (p. 120)

The result of this is thus:

We were created that we could be, that we could live and share in the life and joy of the triune God. Jesus’ Father is not holding his breath to see if we jump through the right hoops before he decides our fate. There is no list. We are not here to “glorify God” by our religious performance. We are here to live “in the glory” of the blessed Trinity. (p. 121)

What place, then does the wrath of God have in the context of such a relationship? Kruger puts it this way:

Wrath is the love of the triune God in passionate action, saying “No!” It is love’s fiery opposition to our destruction. Likewise, the judgement of God is not the divine “dark said” finally having its say. To judge is to discern, to see into a matter and understand what is wrong in order to make it right and whole. Thus, as Pope Benedict said, “The judgement of God is hope,both because it is justice and because it is grace” [Pope Benedict XVI, Encyclical Letter Spe Salvi, 47] (p. 128).

From the perspective of an Evangelical Christian, C. Baxter Kruger has done a remarkable job of revealing to the reader of The Shack the theological skeleton on which the story written by Wm. Paul Young forms the visible part of this remarkable body of truth. For the person who has read the book, but who may have questions about the integrity of the facts, this is a must-read. For the one who would so much love to embrace the reality of the loving, caring and relational God but who wonders how it will fit within their existing understanding of God’s nature, you need to read this. If you have any misgivings about the reality of a relationship with God, if your are in a place of brokenness, if you feel that God is not with you or for you, then you owe it to yourself to grab a copy of The Shack and revel in the truth found in its pages: how much God loves you and wants to heal your life and bring you to a place of freedom and grace–and then you must read The Shack Revisited, if nothing more then for Chapter 10!

__________

* I realise that here I may lose those who understand God’s objective as only accepting those who personally repeat a prescribed prayer, perform a required ritual, or live in a particular way. While this may be deducted from several “proof texts” in Scripture, this is not in accordance with the general understanding of the nature and work of God as understood by those who lived during the immediate centuries following the events written in the gospel record.

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.

Blessed Assurance

Blessed be the God and the Divine Parent of our Lord Jesus Christ! By God’s great mercy God has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. Excerpt from 1 Peter 1:3-9

Some religious people think they have all the answers about Jesus, his resurrection, second coming and so much more. And while these topics may be interesting, they are not central to our faith in the God as made know to us by Jesus, whose central message was the shockingly good news of God’s unfailing love and compassion.

Peter says our faith in God is imperishable, undefiled, unfading, and is kept outside of the present time, space, cause and effect continuum, existing instead in God’s eternal present where it never becomes obsolete. Our relationship with God cannot be severed. In the words of the Heidelberg Catechism . . .  “I am not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ . . . . [And] because I belong to him, Christ, by his Holy Spirit, assures me of eternal life and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.”

Though we may suffer, succeed or fail, God’s unfailing love is everlasting. So if you are feeling down on yourself or discouraged because you’ve failed, just remember that God’s love for you has not changed one bit. Be grateful. Extend the same love to others, remembering the value of what you’ve received.

Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine
Oh, what a foretaste of glory divine
Heir of salvation, purchased of God
Born in God’s Spirit, Lost in God’s love.

Amen.

–Reflection by Ron Buford, from StillSpeaking

We Laugh, But . . .

Church signs have been used ever since the invention of moveable type to display all sorts of messages: humorous and serious, challenging and trivial.

Here’s one that’s not set in moveable letters, possibly because the church doesn’t think it will ever need to change it.

My particular favourites on the list of people who love the devil are “Loud Mouth Women” and “Government Recipients.”

Incorrect use of apostrophes aside, My mind boggles at the mentality behind such a sign. Rather than point to a God who hates, churches need–more now than ever before–to point to a God who loves . . . and who loves everyone in spite of the labels they wear or the hangups they have. Without a doubt, if our God can extend his mercy to St Paul, who called himself ‘the foremost of all sinners,’ then he surely can have pity on us “Sport’s Nut’s”! (Insert grinning face here. . . .)