Archive for August, 2019

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.

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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)

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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)

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