I’m leading a theological symposium at Neighborhood Church of Greenwich Village (269 Bleecker Street) on Tuesday, October 22nd at 7pm.  It’s on a pertinent, practical and perennially controversial topic, and it’s free to the public.  I’d love to see you there, and please pass on the invite to any interested friends in the NYC area.  Here’s a brief description of the seminar:


From its very inception, Christianity has been a movement characterized by audacious claims to miracles and supernatural events in history that are indisputably foundational to its truth and credibility.  God created the world out of nothing.  Israel was led out of slavery in Egypt by the mighty hand of Yahweh, who did signs and wonders to deliver His captive people.  Jesus of Nazareth was “anointed with the Holy Spirit and with power, and he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil” (Acts 10:38). The Father raised His beloved Son out of the the grave, bodily and physically. God has promised to do the same thing in the future for all who belong to Jesus.  And so we look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come—a sheer miracle of supernatural intervention in history, if ever there was one.  The Spirit of God was poured out on the followers of Jesus at Pentecost 2000 years ago, followed by the thrilling narrative recounted in the book of Acts which tells of dramatic healings, angelic prison breaks, ecstatic speaking in tongues and passionate prophesying, and even more(!) resurrections as the gospel went forth to the ends of the earth.  The Gospel of John boldly promises that followers of Jesus will continue to do greater works than Jesus did during his earthly life and ministry (14:12), and that it was to our advantage that he has departed and left us his Spirit (16:7).  The expectation seems clear that church history should take the shape of Acts stuck on an endless loop, until Christ comes again.

Yet miracles and supernatural interventions of God in nature and history are peculiarly difficult for we moderns to stomach without cynicism and suspicion.  Many Christians honestly question whether they have experienced anything like what happens in the book of Acts, while others confidently and regularly put forward very explicit claims to miracles and healings in their lives.  In the past century, the Pentecostal movement has surged and energized to become the fastest growing dimension of world Christianity, bar none.  What are we to make of all this today when we read stories of the miraculous in sacred Scripture or hear thrilling secondhand accounts from other people of apparently supernatural works of the Spirit of God?  Even more crucially, what are we to expect and seek from God as the church today as we follow Jesus in the power of the Spirit?  What may we hope for in the midst of our own suffering and unfulfilled desires, or in the broken lives of our friends and loved ones?  What, precisely, has God promised to His new covenant people?  In this seminar, we will explore the various frameworks and ways of construing the biblical and historical evidence that have been offered by various Christian traditions, and aim at drawing faithful and practical conclusions about our experience of and expectations for the God who raised Jesus from the dead, and who has given us of the very same Spirit by whom He brought about that wondrous event on Easter. 


Student: What one thing, sir, would you tell a young pastor today if you were asked, is necessary in this day and age to pastor a Church?

BarthKarl Barth: Ah, so big a question! That is the whole question of theology, you see! I should say, I hope that during your studies you have visited yourself earnestly with the message of the Old Testament and of the New Testament. And not only of this message but also of the Object and Subject of this message. And I would ask you, are you trained to visit not only yourself now, but a congregation with what you have learned out of the Bible and of church history and dogmatics and so on? Having to say something, having to say that thing. And then the other question: Are you willing now to deal with humanity as it is? Humanity in this twentieth century with all its passions, sufferings, errors, and so on? Do you like them, these people? Not only the good Christians, but do you like people as they are? People in their weakness? Do you like them, do you love them? And are you willing to tell them the message that God is not against them, but for them? That’s the one real thing in pastoral service and that is the question for you. If you go into ministry to do that work, pray earnestly. You’ll do difficult work but beautiful work.

But if I had to begin anew for myself as a young pastor, I would tell myself every morning, well, here I am; a very poor creature, but by God’s grace I have heard something. I will need forgiveness of my sins everyday. And I will pray, God, that you will give me the light, this light shining in the Bible and this light shining into the world in which humanity is living today. And then do my duty.

On Thursday, September 5th at 7pm I’ll be leading a theological seminar at the Neighborhood Church of Greenwich Village in NYC (269 Bleecker Street, off the West 4th Street subway stop).  It’s free and open to the public.  I’d love to see you there, and feel free to pass this opportunity on to any interested friends in the New York area.  Here’s a descriptive blurb:

One of the truly jarring affirmations of the Hebrew Scriptures is that the God of Israel “changes His mind” with respect to His actions and decisions in human history.  This God is daringly said to “regret” His earlier decision to create humanity in His image (Genesis 6) and his election of Saul as Israel’s first king (1 Samuel 15), to “repent” of His angry intention of destroying the rebellious wilderness generation after the outrageous debacle with the golden calf (Exodus 32-34), and to “relent” of His publicly stated commitment to intervene devastatingly in holy judgment if the mood strikes Him (Joel 2:12-15, Jonah 3:6-4:4—who knows?).  But how can the eternally perfect, all-knowing and sovereign Creator of heaven and earth be so seemingly wishy-washy with indecisiveness (Amos 7:1-6)?  Did He not plan all these things?  Did He not at least know long before time began that history would take this course?  Are not His plans infallibly decreed and irrevocably in place no matter what human beings do to oppose or align themselves with His purposes?

To complicate the issue even further, there are a host of other passages that fiercely insist on the polar opposite conviction—namely, that the God of Israel does not change His mind or repent like a human being (Numbers 23, 1 Samuel 15, etc.).  How are we to make sense of this apparently contradictory, bi-polar depiction of the character and ways of God?  Is God indecisive and prone to fickleness, or constant and reliable and unchanging?  During this seminar, we will explore these complicated contours of the biblical witness to the constantly faithful God who nevertheless, it would seem, constantly changes His mind depending on how His people and the world He created, redeemed and still loves respond to His gracious overtures (Jeremiah 18:5-11).  We will also dip into the colorful comments and reflections of a few notable historical figures in church history (Augustine, Calvin, Barth, etc.) who have wrestled hard over the flawlessly reliable God who puzzlingly yet unapologetically changes His mind.   Most of all, we will explore and discuss why knowing the character and heart of God in these matters actually matters for how we follow Jesus together in the world today with never-failing hope and faithful endurance amidst the countless ambiguities, tragic vicissitudes and haunting uncertainties of history.

The Loss Is Ours

Sin“But at the heart of all such evasions [of our moral duties to others] lives another–or, perhaps, two others.  The sinner who abandons his children or who goes on permanent safari within his own pysche or who shuffles back to bed instead of going outside to help someone being stabbed in the street has turned his back not only on his neighbor but also on God, and even, in some way, on himself.  By refusing his calling, he extracts his own core, hollowing himself out to a shell of a human being, without weight or substance.  Spiritually, he begins to move out into that ‘cold and desolate night’ of which Henry Stob speaks.  He has made himself an alien to the gospel and a stranger to Jesus Christ.  How so?  Our neighbor is God’s child just as we are: to sell a neighbor short is therefore to sell God short and to fail a brother or sister.  We ourselves are God’s children: to fail God and our brothers and sisters is to shrink from our own role in the great drama of redemption and to cut some of the lines that attach us to its center.  The gospel, after all, is a portrait of the courage of Jesus Christ–the one who ‘set his face like flint’ to go to Jerusalem and meet its terrors, the one who gathered himself to undertake there the one piece of work by which he might protect his neighbors from harm as much as he could.

The gifts of God–vitality, love, forgiveness, courage against evil, joy at our depths, and everything else that flows from the terrible work of Christ–may be found only in the company of God.  And we keep company with God only by adopting God’s purposes for us and following through on them even when it is difficult or initially painful to do so.  To place ourselves in range of God’s choicest gifts, we have to walk with God, lean on God, cling to God, come to have the sense and feel of God, refer all things to God.  Contrary to our self-interested impulses, we have to worship God with a disciplined spirit and an expectant heart.  But just here lies our main evasion, the one we have all practiced a thousand times: like the Israelites indicted by Jeremiah, we ‘forget God’ (Jer. 2:32; 13:25; 18:15).  For weeks at a time we go through the motions, never seriously attending to God, never focusing on God, never–with all the weight of mind and heart–turning ourselves over to God.  The thought that by such negligence we keep on wounding the only being who loves us with a perfect and expensive love, the thought that we are deeply entangled not only in our sin but also in the bloody remedy for it–these thoughts become bearable and then routine.  At last we put them away and sink into functional godlessness.  When we are in that state, God does not seem very real to us.  So we do not pray.  The less we pray, the less real God seems to us.  And the less real God seems to us, the duller our sense of responsibility becomes, and thus the duller our sense of ignoring God becomes.

It’s important to emphasize that the loss is ours.  The loss is God’s, but it is also ours.  It’s not just that we owe God our respects and fail to pay them.  Despite certain modern assumptions, life with God isn’t mainly a matter of knuckling under to our superior–the image modernity so much detests.  We do have to trust and obey God, we do have to express our devotion to God, but not merely because God is stronger than we are, and surely not because God wants to bully us into submission.  We must trust and obey because these responses are fitting.  After all, we know something of God’s goodness and greatness.  We know that we have been made and rescued by God.  We know that we have been graced by God–forgiven, accepted, renewed as slowly and arduously as addicts.  Indeed, only inside the cradle of grace can we even see the true depth and stubbornness of sin.

The knowledge of God and ourselves opens us up to a whole range of opportunities and duties–to worship God, to try to please him, to beg his pardon when we fail, to receive God’s renewing grace, and, out of gratitude, to use our lives to weave a whole pattern of friendship, service, and moral beauty.  We could describe our situation like this: we must trust and obey in order to rise to the full stature of sons and daughters, to mature into the image of God, to grow into adult roles in the drama of redeeming the world.  God has in mind not just what we should be but also what, one day, we could be.  God wants not slaves but intelligent children.  God wants from us not numb obedience but devoted freedom, creativity, and energy.  That’s what the grace of God is for–not simply to balance a ledger but to stimulate the spurts of growth in zeal, in enthusiasm for shalom, in good hard work, in sheer delicious gratitude for the gift of life in all its pain and all its wonder.

In short, we are to become responsible beings: people to whom God can entrust deep and worthy assignments, expecting us to make something significant of them–expecting us to make something significant of our lives.  None of us simply finds herself here in the world.  None of our lives is an accident.  We have been called into existence, expected, awaited, equipped, and assigned.  We have been called to undertake the stewardship of a good creation, to create sturdy and buoyant families that pulse with the glad give-and-take of the generations.  We are expected to show hospitality to strangers and to express gratitude to friends and teachers.  We have been assigned to seek justice for our neighbors and, wherever we can, to relieve them from the tyranny of their suffering.  Some of us have been called, in imitation of Christ, to bear unusual suffering of our own.

But we have also been called, and graced, to delight in our lives, to feel their irony and angularity, to make something sturdy and even lovely of them.  For such undertakings, we have to find emotional and spiritual funding from the very God who assigns them, turning our faces toward God’s light so that we may be drawn to it, warmed by it, bathed in it, revitalized by it.  Then we have to find our role within God’s big project, the one that stretches across the border from this life into the next.  To be a responsible person is to find one’s role in the building of shalom, the re-webbing of God, humanity, and all creation in justice, harmony, fulfillment, and delight.  To be a responsible person is to find one’s own role and then, funded by the grace of God, to fill this role and to delight in it.” (Cornelius Plantinga Jr., Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin, pp. 194-97)

Sin“Let’s say that anger is a strong feeling of displeasure combined with a posture of antagonism: the angry person emotionally opposes something or someone.  Anger rarely floats free.  It flares against this person or that, against these states of affairs or those.  Or, if anger settles into chronic irritability, it sets up against anything and everything.  Whether it burns hot or just smokes and stinks, anger always sets itself against what causes its displeasure.  Anger is passionate againstness…Good people oppose evil emotionally as well as every other way.  Good people have the capacity, in a word, for indignation—for justified anger.  Sometimes they get righteously angry at the oppression or diminishment of others: they feel indignant at injustices halfway across the world.  At other times they get hot over an insult or injustice to themselves.  They feel indignant at a malicious injury that has hit terribly close to home, and they justifiably resent it.” (Cornelius Plantinga Jr., Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin, pp. 165-66)

Senseless Suffering and God’s Response – Part 2