gratitude & hoopla: December 2005

gratitude & hoopla

"Nothing taken for granted; everything received with gratitude; everything passed on with grace." G. K. Chesterton


Just Musing

Tail end of another year. How is it, I wonder, that the end of the year always feels like a real ending, and the beginning of a new year like a real beginning. Is it a trick we play on ourselves, sign of a deep need to clean the slate and start over?

Saw Chronicles last night. Liked it well enough, but wasn't "swept away" or anything like that. Was it me, or was it the film, but I never quite suspended my critical apparatus, my knowledge that it was only a movie, etc. It didn't catch me up. The whole effort felt like a "little theater" production to me. But my wife loved it (she "suspends" far more easily than I do), and a friend of mine says he felt the same way as I after the first viewing, but the second viewing swept him up in the story and he was able to be wholly there. Will a second viewing work for me as the first did not?


The Obedience of Faith

"The obedience of faith." That's a phrase Paul uses in the opening paragraph of his epsitle to the Roman Christians. [Rom 1:5] He says that he was given grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith. I looked the verse up in Douglas Moo's commentary: Moo says that for Paul faith always involves obedience and obedience always involves faith. He writes:

Paul called men and women to a faith that was always inseparable from obedience--for the Savior in whom we believe is nothing less than our Lord -- and to an obedience that could never be divorced from faith -- for we can obey Jesus as Lord only when we have given ourselves to him in faith.
I looked it up also in good old Matthew Henry. He says this:
The act of faith is the obedience of the understanding to God revealing, and the product of that is the obedience of the will to God commanding. To anticipate the ill use which might be made of the doctrine of justification by faith without the works of the law, which he was to explain in the following epistle, he here speaks of Christianity as an obedience. Christ has a yoke.
I just thought I'd share these with you this morning. On a not unrelated note, check out Brad Huston's brief post this morning. It's called "The Little Sins," and seems to be the start of a series or something. Food for thought.


Haste, Haste, to Bring Him Laud

There will probably not be a lot of blogging in the next few days, but I do want to point out some wonderful things concerning the incarnation of God, which happens to be fancy-pants talk for what we celebrate at Christmas.

Rebecca has been collecting a whole slew of "incarnation quotations" at Theologica. My favorite is this one from John Frame:
In Jesus (God the Son), God, who knows the end from the beginning (Isa. 46:10), must watch His eternal plan unfold bit by bit, moment by moment. He grows from infancy to childhood to adulthood, responding to events as they happen. One time He rejoices; another time He weeps. From day to day, from hour to hour, the changeless God endures change.
Much the same thought was rendered in poetic form in a hymn by H. R. Bramley entitled The Great God of Heaven. My favorite verse?
O wonder of wonders, which none can unfold:
The Ancient of Days is an hour or two old;
The Maker of all things is made of the earth,
Man is worshipped by angels, and God comes to birth.
By the way, I found these lyrics over at Justin Taylor's Between Two Worlds. In that same post Justin quotes Martin Luther:
If you will have joy, bend yourself down to this place. There you will find that boy given for you who is your Creator lying in a manger. I will stay with that boy as he sucks, is washed, and dies.... There is no joy but in this boy. Take him away and you face the Majesty which terrifies...

I know of no God but this one in the manger...That person lying in the manger is both man and God essentially, not separated one from the other but as born of a virgin. If you separate them, the joy is gone. O Thou boy, lying in the manger, thou art truly God who hast created me, and thou wilt not be wrathful with me because thou comest to me in this loving way- more loving cannot be imagined."
So there you have it: several perspectives on the incarnation of God. And here's one more, a few words that really have never been bettered outside of Scripture itself:
What Child is this who, laid to rest
On Mary's lap is sleeping?
Whom angels greet with anthems sweet,
While shepherds watch are keeping?
This, this is Christ the King,
Whom shepherds guard and angels sing;
Haste, haste, to bring Him laud,
The Babe, the Son of Mary.

Why lies He in such mean estate,
Where ox and ass are feeding?
Good Christians, fear, for sinners here
The silent Word is pleading.
Nails, spear shall pierce Him through,
The cross be borne for me, for you.
Hail, hail the Word made flesh,
The Babe, the Son of Mary.

So bring Him incense, gold and myrrh,
Come peasant, king to own Him;
The King of kings salvation brings,
Let loving hearts enthrone Him.
Raise, raise a song on high,
The virgin sings her lullaby.
Joy, joy for Christ is born,
The Babe, the Son of Mary.

Inner Pharisee?

My son, Nate of Eight Strings, dropped off a brief and enigmatic post the other day. He wrote simply, "Do things Christians aren't supposed to do."

To which someone responded, quite naturally, "What do you mean by that?"

Nate's answer was, I think, quite interesting:
This is in no way dogmatic...just personal response to what I see Christians doing all the time- trying to achieve a standard of Christian living, thus restricting and codifying "Christian behavior" to a set of exclusive rules...The obedience to which, they believe, enamors them to God. The Biblical approach, as I see it, is that you are loved by God, therefore (by the Spirit)take hold of the freedom which Christ bought for you. This will often look like what the Church has labelled as non-Christian behavior. Of course I'm as guilty as anyone. As Brennan Manning says, each of us has an "inner Pharisee."
Yup. The boy gets it. He really does!

Update: Just discovered that FLYAWAYNET (who blogs at This Walk) has already interacted quite interestingly with Nate's suggestion with a post entitled WWCD? What would Christians do?


Thankful (4)

HeyJules, Bloo, and Pilot Mom have all linked to my last post, praising it to the skies. All I've got to say is 1) thanks, 2) you guys are awesome, and 3) praise God.


What Child Is This?

Into this fallen-down, broken-backed, misused world came you, a pure and simple child. Your coming caused the rage of kings and the trembling of ancient empires, while the meek, the weak, the hurt and hardened, stumbled into the flickering stable of your birth and fell to their calloused knees. No one understood quite yet; you'd set a mystery in motion, and questions were the order of the day. "What child is this?" is all that anyone could say. Now many years have passed, and we have seen much evil and much good since that still moment under an unlikely star. What child is this, destined to pierce humanity's heart? What child is this, the glory of God in a thimble of flesh? What child is this, servant of a thousand-million sinners? What child is this, born to change the destiny of men and shut the mouth of the accuser? This is the one who put off every particle of power, took on the form of new-born, that light might dawn in a dark world. What child is this? The gift and the Giver all in one. Long foretold, now come. Yes, the time of fulfillment has begun. The day has dawned, after a long night. Come, all you faithful, worship and adore him!


The Night the Llama Peed in Church

Yesterday our church had the usual pre-Christmas trot-out-the-children-in-Biblical-costumes service. I know that sounds all cynical, but of course I loved it. Who couldn't love a pudgy munchkin dressed as Caesar Augustus, trying to look empirious? And the little ones with glittery wings strapped to their backs? I needn't go into detail here, because if you're a church-goer in America you've seen it all before. It was lovely. It was funny. And we all sang a carol ("We Three Kings").

As I look back over 15 years of church-going, only one of these seasonal tableau services really stands out. It was at my first church, Redeemer Lutheran. It was a lovely little church with an "altar" situated on a central dais, and the seating arranged on all sides. This circular dais was itself encircled by a corral-like "rail" where we would kneel reverently each Sunday to receive the body and blood. This was my first church after a mid-life conversion experience.

Well, the pastor sought to establish a new Christmas tradition for which the church might become known in the community. The idea was to bring live animals into the sanctuary, tying them to the altar rail among bundles of hay while appropriately-garbed performers acted out Luke 2. A small orchestra was even cobbled together for the occasion. Balky farm animals, fat guys in vaguely Roman-soldier-ish attire, and tuxedoed musicians surrounded the sacred space that was the altar. We in the congregation, our disbelief cheerfully suspended, each year tucked another Christmas Eve service under our belt, proud of our "realistic" show.

Anyway, as I say, there were sheep, a small pony, and a seriously recalcitrant llama. Year after year we watched this ritualized homage to 1st century squalor, heard the monotonous intoning of Isaiah 9, etc. And yet the single "moment" that dominates our memory of these times, Laurie's and mine, was the year the llama peed on the floor. Yes, the stream was so steady, so extended, so vigorous and yet so non-chalant, and meanwhile all the actors so determined not to notice, even while the less disciplined children and adults in the audience/congregation sniggered with barely-restrained glee . . .

Well, it sticks in my memory. Afterward, some of the elders said, "Never again, no more animals in the sanctuary." But the pastor, since it was all his idea from the first, argued that the urinating llama added verisimilitude. I don't know about that. All I know is, all the other Christmas-eve services I've ever attended have blended together into one single tableau in my mind's eye. There are it seems, in that picture, all the children I have ever known, some with cardboard wings on their backs, some dressed as Roman soldiers reading proclamations from clumsy scrolls, and others as Mary and Joseph, beaming over a cherubic baby-Jesus. The music of the orchestra swells, and then there is a brief dramatic pause before the final flourish, intended as a moment of reverent silence, but this time all we can hear is the loud drizzle of the llama's indefatigable stream.

Thank you, Lord, for so memorably puncturing our seasonal pieties. My prayer this morning is that this Christmas, you do it again.


Dickens and Christmas

Do you recall what Ebenezer Scrooge said to his cloyingly cheerful nephew? "You keep Christmas in your way, and I shall keep it in mine." By which he meant, of course, that he would keep it not at all. Here we have an early rendition of the Christmas wars. On the one hand, the cheerful many, keeping Christmas as it ought to be kept--that is, merrily--and on the other, one lonely money-changer, soon to meet the accusatory ghost of his dead partner.

I love this story, and yet I suppose Dickens may have been, however unwittingly, the very father of the de-Christianization of Christmas. For him, Christmas seems to be all about charity, merriment, love. Like Wordsworth, he understood that these things were being undermined by the money-culture. "Getting and spending we lay waste our power." A fine insight, and well worth making. Scrooge was a money-changer who needed his tables overturned, and three Christmas-eve spirits (along with the aforesaid ghost of Jacob Marley) did the duty quite nicely. The old tight-wad would never be the same.

But I wonder if Dickens did not underestimate the problem. Christmas symbols of good cheer and merry-making have been utilized ever since by the aforesaid money-culture to advance its interests. We're annually saturated with this trumped-up Christmas spirit, such that some of us have become Scrooge-like curmugeons where this holiday is concerned. [Me, I've always been partial to Joni Mitchell's less than enthusiastic Christmas song: "It's coming on Christmas / They're cutting down trees / They're putting up reindeer / And singing songs of joy and peace / Oh I wish I had a river / I could skate away on."]

Well, whether we like to admit it or not, Christmas is a cultural construct, a massive product of various long-term cultural trends. As such, to rail against its worst aspects, as I so often have done, is to bay at the moon (the moon, you'll note, no matter how the dog barks, remains serenely unperturbed). A century and a half after Dickens penned his famous tale, we all routinely (and helplessly) note that the culture's "tables" have remained solidly upright, and in fact are even decorated with cheerful Christmas bunting. Apparently, the issues are not as simple as Mr. Dickens imagined. As in his day, the "many" are celebrating Christmas merrily. And yet these same many, in their merry getting and their merry spending, have laid waste their power to perceive what should lie behind all their good cheer. The problem, you see, as another Englishman once observed, is in ourselves. Why else does "the morning after" seem so hard to wake up to?

In any case, one of those aforementioned "trends" (and only one) is the Christian celebration of the birth of a deliverer, for whom (we say) the world was and is desperately in need. But that is not the story that Scrooge discovers, when he discovers the "true meaning of Christmas." Ah, Scrooge, it was good that you became a happy and generous man. You saw your sin, and you desired to change. But yours would have been more truly a "Christmas" story, I think, had the ghost of Christmas-past not limited her revelations to your own personal history, but had swept you back across the ages and dropped you down among the shepherds in the Judean fields. Of that event--the Christmas story--Jill Carattini has recently written:
The Christ child in the manger is forever an indication of the great lengths God will go to reconcile his creation, a savior willing to descend that we might be able to ascend.
And Bill at Out of the Bloo, who has been consistently doing the best Christmas-blogging of anyone, puts it this way:
The birth of Jesus was the pivotal event in the history of the universe up to that time. And it was not an event that allows us to remain by the manger cooing at our infant Lord. Jesus came to accomplish a great salvation; the great salvation of a race blinded, bent and broken by sin so grievous that it took the incarnation of God himself to remedy it. This salvation cannot be ignored; Jesus came to earth and the result is the rising and falling of many, the revelation of the thoughts and intents of our human hearts, the final identification of each one of us. In the end, we stand either with our Lord, identified with him and his cross of suffering, or we stand with those who rejected him and put him on the cross and killed him. There is nowhere else to stand, no middle option.
Why do I say that Dickens may have been the father of the de-Christianization of Christmas? Because this most famous of secular Christmas stories depicts a reformation of the heart and soul that is prompted not by a revelation of our desperate need for a Savior, and the corresponding realization of the "good news of great joy" that that Savior has indeed come. No, Scrooge is merely confronted with his own mortality. Scrooge is born again, yes, but apparently not from above. In fact, Dickens' story, though it is saturated with fine feeling and Christmas ideals, carefully skirts the real issue. That earlier tale-teller, Luke, saw more clearly what truly lies behind all authentic Christmas cheer:
And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear. And the angel said to them, "Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger."


Take and Read (5)

I like FoolishBlog. You should read FoolishBlog. The two most recent posts are all about 1 Tim 1:15, Paul's "worst of sinners" statement. Read To Save Sinners and then read (especially) Foremost of All. From the latter I give you the following quote:
All too often I have thought that I was doing my best spiritually when I was most passionate and precise in my critiques of “the church.” I could see everything: legalism here, licentiousness there; hypocrisy on one side, worldliness on the other; affected spirituality in one person, lukewarmness in the next; theology-too-strict on the right, theology-too-loose on the left. I would talk about the desperate need for “revival” and “reformation” in the modern church. I felt very passionate about changing both the church and the world for Christ. I still believe I see all these things, in enough people and in enough ways that it is easier to be sad than happy on any given day. I also still think of and use these terms when they seem justified. I still want God to use me to reform the church and save the world. But I no longer gauge my spirituality on how accurate I think my own ecclesiological criticisms are. At least I try not to. I try to gauge my maturity by how broken-hearted I am over my own sin, how awestruck I am by the glory and grace of Christ, and how consistent I am in genuine, sacrificial love toward others.
FoolishBlog is, btw, a group blog. The author of these posts is David Gunderson, whose personal blog is here. That's where you'll find David meditating on the whole "war on Christmas" theme. I like his take:
Decrying the secularization of Christmas will not make your Christmas Christian. "The meaning of Christmas is not found in a rejection of rank commercialism." The angel didn't say to the shepherds, "Congratulations! You get to celebrate Christmas without any commercialism and gift-buying pressure and Santa Clauses because you're insightful enough to realize what the point really is." No. He said, "Today in the city of David has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord" (Luke 2:11). There's a massive difference between recognizing the cultural evisceration of Christmas and being humble and passionate and Christ-centered enough to joyfully celebrate Christ.
Hey Gunner, thanks for just saying that. It's one of those "home truths," one of those points of reference that we often stray from, then need to be called back to again and again. Thanks for calling.


Christmas Jeer (2)

Really, I'm not just plumping for my kid's blog, but Nate at Eight Strings has been serving up some stimulating food for thought lately. Oh, a bit intemperate perhaps, but what blogger among us will dare be the first to throw THAT stone? Nate's latest installment: The Containment of Christmas, part 4. A few gems:
Since we Christians find it so easy to fire burning arrows at Ramadan, Kwanzaa, and pagan Solstice celebrations, then we will no doubt welcome the offensive the Son of God has launched on the battleground within, setting fire to the citadel containing the things we most love this time of year: our soapbox reclamation of the holidays. Our fakery of goodwill and mock concern for the homeless. Our smirking declarations that “tis better to give than to receive.” And everything else that, when boiled down, amounts to a scrambling effort to earn a seat beside the manger.
Oh how about this one:
The problem, as we all suspected, was never with the trappings of Christmas. Or commercialization and overspending. Or campy renditions of popular carols. Or the disappearance of Christian symbols from public property. The problem was, is, and always will be with our deceitful and wicked hearts.
In the end, Nate is putting this thing we call Christmas, so laced as it is with the stuff of several kingdoms, into an eternal perspective, the perspective of the Kingdom, the perspective of Christ triumphant. He reminds us that it never was about our working up some sort of pleasant seasonal "spirit", and that we are neither to measure Christmas by the yardstick of culture (manger scenes in the public square), nor by the yeardstick of our own feelings (nostalgic glow, warm fuzzies in response to appropriately traditional carols, etc.). Instead of a cultural/religious idol called Christmas, which each year we incessantly defend against all questioning, we should let the babe in the manger question us!

I'll end this post the same way Nate ended his: Fall on your knees.


Christmas Jeer?

My friend said in dismay, "I don't know, this has always been a happy time of year for me. But this year," shrugging his shoulders, "I'm just not feeling it." Actually, I think it a good sign, although at first a little disturbing, when that which we have learned to call "the Christmas spirit" is seen once and for all to be a pale and somewhat gooey make-believe--even absent the fat guy in the red suit.

Ah, but then everyone thinks they know the "true meaning of Christmas." Probably we're all like the blind men trying to identify the elephant. What each of us concludes will depend upon which part of the animal we're clutching at the moment. Two things that might help:

An incredible poem by G. K. Chesterton, called The House of Christmas. One part of it reads:
This world is wild as an old wives' tale,
And strange the plain things are,
The earth is enough and the air is enough
For our wonder and our war;
But our rest is as far as the fire-drake swings
And our peace is put in impossible things
Where clashed and thundered unthinkable wings
Round an incredible star.
But you must read the whole thing. Do it now!

And once more (at least) we site our favorite Christmas blogger (thus far): Eight Strings. His latest installment, The Containment of Christmas, part 3 is the best yet. Nate is getting to the crux of the matter, the heart and soul of why Christmas is really a season of conflict in our hearts. Because we who say we "know God" have not in fact responded to this message as we should, but conveniently buried it in seasonal trappings. The real thing is not sticky-sweet, but challenging and even when necessary harsh. Nate writes:
It is a convenient time of year for secular offendedness at Christianity to clash with the pop-Christianity assertion that our national and cultural roots are in Christian tradition. In a fight between two boys of significant age difference, the blame lies most heavily with the older. Likewise in the holiday debate, the responsibility for a spiritually mature perspective that is free from backbiting and self-righteousness rests with the Truth-bearers, not with the lost. We expected nothing less from the secular world. In fact, their standoffishness is eerily Biblical. The Gospel threw the Pharisees and Greek intellectuals into an uproar. This, they perceived, was outright foolishness and an attack on their personal sovereignty. Even Herod saw what Christians apparently do not. Prophecy told of a King over all kings, and this inevitable usurpation struck fear into him. So afraid he was, that he murdered all the male infants in Bethlehem in an effort to preserve himself. We are not so honest. We pretend that there is no threat, that Jesus has not come to finally and completely unseat us from our throne, and crush every vestige of our power. We would rather that he came to support the Church's goal to be the hegemonic voice on the public stage, or at least pose cutely with children and animals. And the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David. This kind of Christmas should be more than offensive. It should force every last onlooker to an inner decision: either throw themselves in weakness at the feet of Jesus or, with the rich young ruler, turn their backs and leave.
Disclaimer: I would recommend this post every bit as highly even if Nate were not my own son!


Take and Read (4)

Nate at Eight Strings continues his provocative take on Christmas in the second of a series entitled The Containment of Christmas. He uses the wonderful phrase, "contrived happiness." Nate's no Ebenezer Scrooge, mind you, but he's suggesting that Christians have a hard enough time keeping the Christ in Christmas themselves, let alone ranting about "the public square." He writes of the nativity:
This event is too groundsplitting to turn loose its full ramifications. This will back-fire, causing me, with my 'Jesus is the reason for the season' mantra, to break down and confess that I'm too weak to stand up without the hand of God lifting me. And He will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. And when the day ends, the most disturbing realization we have is not that Christmas paraphernalia and jargon has been cleansed from public view and hearing by "liberals," "PC people," and "heathens." It's that the very people to whom the Son was given would rather sweep Him under the carpet of Christmas piety than admit they are helpless before a Child, even in their personal lives, much less in full view of the world.
Nate promises more to come in this series, so stay tuned.

And it all remind me of an article I read recently in the conservative magazine, American Spectator:
We have taken the Christ out of Jesus Christ. Is it any wonder then that we have taken Christ out of Christmas, as well?


Take and Read (3)

I've been staying away from the Christmas theme here at g&h. I was asked the other day if I've got the Christmas spirit yet? Asked, mind you, by a non-believer. For her, the Christmas spirit is a vague glow (I suppose) that you "catch" like the common cold. Have you caught it yet? It's especially associated with gift-shopping. A Christmas spirit without gifts, without lights, decorations, etc., would be almost unthinkable. My town is beautifully lit this time of year with many-colored lights on all the trees downtown. The purpose of these is to attract sight-seers to the neighborhood where the shops are. Now, these lights are quite beautiful, and in fact I really love them, but they are not Christmas-y except in the most vacuous sense of the word.

Still, it seems a little silly to rail against the secularization of Christmas. Doesn't the Bible teach us that this is a fallen (a secular) world. Of course Christmas is secular! The real question is: is the Christian conception of Christmas not also deeply compromised and problematic?

I happen to think that's a good question. So, apparently, do a few others. Among them, Gad(d)about is nuanced (as usual) in his critique. Check it out. Meanwhile, Nate at Eight Strings is provocative. "We have collapsed the reality of the Holy Night into an abominable "slogan-in-decor." We have contained it in something that will allow us to stand tall and declare that we are Christians, and this is our Season." By the way, Nate is thinking his way through all this as he goes, which is in my opinion one of the beauties of blogging--it is a process, not a product. Good stuff.

It's not a blog, but Jill Carattini has more to say along these lines. I quote: "I have long been struck with the idea that even our thoughts of God can at times become idols." It's probably at least as important that we question our own assumptions as that we argue with the "culture." has an interesting post on the offense of the cross [HT: Transforming Sermons] There you'll find the following John Owen nugget: "fill your affections with the cross of Christ that there may be no room for sin." Oh, man, is that ever so right!

Reading Ephesians closely and repeatedly over the past few weeks, I've been focusing a lot on God's ultimate plan and purpose for his creation. That's the background of all the imperatives in Ephesians. Well, Matthew at Pilgrim Heart has something to say about that here. Brief, pointed, and inspiring.


A Little Rant Against Trying Hard to Be Holy

Yesterday I said that our "all" is not enough. It was not enough to save us, and it is not enough to sanctify us. We do not fail because we have given less than our all. As long as we keep thinking that the battle against sin is dependent on our giving more of ourselves to God, we merely commit ourselves to a spiritual treadmill, expending much energy while making no progress. Each time we fall, we have a ready explanation. We just didn't try hard enough! So again and again we pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and determine that next time we truly will give all.

The church is plagued with this mindset that implies that we can finish by our own effort what God has begun by his power and through his Spirit. The Galatians, famously, had essentially this same problem. Paul said, "I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel." [ESV] It was a new gospel--though not really a gospel at all, for it certainly was not good news--that set aside the grace of God, replacing it with the work, the effort, the good intentions of our own will.

We do that daily. In so far as we continue to rely on our own strength, that is exactly how far we have stepped outside the grace of God. But James Montgomery Boice wrote from a different point of view: "If God has saved us through the death of Christ (through faith in his atonement), he will certainly save us by our being in him."

That little phrase, "in him," recurs frequently in Paul's writing, especially in Ephesians. Theologians describe it as a "mystical union." In Ephesians 2 Paul talks of our being seated with Christ in the highest place, actually sharing in his reign. In Romans 6:4 he talks about our dying with him in our baptism, and then rising to new life in him. It is this "in-him-ness" that makes our sin such an affront. Romans 12:1 says that our lives are to be a living sacrifice, but if we try to do this by self-will and self-effort, well, that's like bringing unholy fire into the holy place.

And it's also underestimating the sheer resilience of sin in our own flesh. So the big question is: what then can we do about sin? I think the answer is in the words of Jesus: "Abide in me." He would be going to his cross very soon, and this is his last opportunity to teach his disciples as a group. In our New Testament, it is the longest sustained teaching of Jesus--four whole chapters of nothing but red letters. And what is the core of all that he teaches here? Does he talk of being strong, standing firm, fighting the good fight? No. He says this:
Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.John 15:4-5
I will quote Boice again here: "True holiness is the product of the Christian's new nature and is produced by his or her love for Christ." Catch that? It is love that produces righteousness. Boice again: "It is by love that God has chosen to lead us onward in the Christian life."

Friends, this is what standing in grace is all about! Receiving grace, accepting our absolute helplessness without it, and loving Christ in response, this is the whole agenda. This is how we stand. Not by promising God to be good, but by loving God for not requiring a kept promise. Not now. Not ever.

Our reaction? gratitude & hoopla, of course!


I have no illusions that I have said the last word on holiness here. Indeed, I have not even spoken of the central importance of the Holy Spirit in our sanctification. That's for another time. But I believe I am touching on something fundamental here. Romans 8 says, "Keep in step with the Spirit," but that we will not do if we have not first accepted that all is by grace, and our own efforts avail us nothing. In our conversion God was perhaps our last resort, when all else had failed. But I pray that this not be the pattern for our sanctification. I pray that God will be your first and only resort.


I Surrender

I was sitting around with some friends yesterday (yes, I do have friends!), and we were talking about resisting temptation. Well, we were all talking about being strong, and standing firm, and making a commitment, and giving God our all, and loving Him with our whole hearts, fighting the good fight without wavering, etc, etc, etc.

Oh, how comforting such words seem. We mean them when we say them, too. Our hearts deceive us into thinking there is no ventricle of doubt in them, no dividedness, and that we really are for once whole-hearted, single-minded, and have all the strength of our convictions.

I've said it before here, and I suppose I'll say it countless times again. Our all is never good enough. To even speak of all-ness is to play the fool, for we are never unconflicted at heart, never pure, never free of second, third, and fourth thoughts, motivations, etc. Our strength is not strong enough. Our will is not firm enough. Our love for God is not pure enough--to build our hope on these is to build in vain. I am telling you, boys and girls, don't fall for your own press-clippings!

The fellow I most relate to in the New Testament is the formerly blind man who cried out to Jesus, "I believe, help thou my unbelief." Yes, and I am strong, help thou my weakness. I am committed to following hard after you, oh but help thou my waywardness. The way up is still downward. Our strength is still quite literally in weakness. Our can-do spirit just gets in the way. Give me a can't-do spirit, so that God can speak his, "No, son, you can't, but I can!"

This morning I tried my hand at a little poem. Here it is:

I cannot master me.
Oh, I would give my all, and yet my all
evades my grasp, eludes my fine intentions--
my heart confounds my every sound conviction,
and secret sin bedevils all my thought.

I do not know myself.
I would be strong, stand firm, fight hard,
and yet my will proves wavering, and all my hope
is hope mislaid--so yet again I find
I lead myself astray.

Lord, help thou my unbelief.
Be thou my brave-heart, my strong-will, my warrior king!
Let me not put hope where hope is always vain,
but be my only worthiness, my everything.
Let me be weak in your strong name.

Silence my pitter-patter tongue.
I come before a shining king and also a lamb slain;
angels and rainbows accompany his reign.
Let his shed blood speak for me
its better name.

"Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall." 1Cor 10:12


My Sentiments Exactly

I'm still thinking about how God is able to do abundantly more than we can ask or think (Eph 3:20). I wrote in my "off-line" journal (you know, notebook . . . pencil), "This is why we need the Spirit in our prayers, so that they won't be limited by the boundaries of our own perspective, our own imagination, for only the Spirit knows the boundary-less mind of God."

A few minutes later I sat down to breakfast, turning on the radio for the weekend sports report. Hearing only commercials, I switched over to what I call preacher-radio. The man was saying, "We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God's will."

What I said!


The Us-ward God

There has been much talk of "power" in these first few chapters of Ephesians. At 1:19 Paul prays that the Ephesian Christians would know "what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe." That's the ESV rendering, but I will always love the KJV here: "the exceeding greatness of his power to us-ward who believe."

Yes, to us-ward. For Paul, God is always the us-ward God, and we are his God-ward people. Now this morning we have come to Paul's great paean to the us-ward God, Ephesians 3:20,21.
Now unto him that is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that worketh in us, Unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end. Amen.
We learn something about God from this great hymn of praise. We learn not only that his power is toward us (as in 1:19), but that it is also within us.

This is a rather bold statement, is it not? God is able to do "within us," through us, more than than we ever imagine, precisely because it is his power, not ours, at work within us. Does that make you want to sit down before you faint? Does it make your jaw drop open and the back of your neck tingle?

This is the same the power, after all, that raised Jesus from the dead and sat him at the right hand of the Father. That power is us-ward, yes, to save, and also within us, to carry out his extravagant plan for the earth. Remember Philippians 2:14?
. . . for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
It is either an arrogant boast, which in short order life will certainly prove the falseness of, or it is a assertion of awe-filled appreciation.

For Paul, it is important that the Ephesians understand this. He seems certain that they are someday going to need to trust this power at work within them, and to call on it, to work it. Christian, if you have ever sat with one who grieved, and held her hand and grieved with her, you may have exercised the power of God to comfort. If you have ever laid your hands on a man in prayer, and spoken a word of grace and truth that struck to that man's very heart, you have been used by God for his purpose and according to his power.

I do not really grasp the height and depth and length and breadth of the love of God, nor do I truly comprehend the immeasurable nature (the exceeding abundance) of the power of God at work within me. But I do know that I do not comprehend it, and I get that I cannot measure it. I understand that it exceeds what I can ever imagine, that it is beyond my conceiving, and that it overflows this mortal cup of flesh.

Amazing power! Amazing love! Amazing grace!


The Journey of Grace

T. Austin-Sparks said once that "the spiritual life is a pilgrimage, and that the Christian is on a journey which begins in the world and ends in the heart of God." It is a journey, he says, of "progressive illumination and successive challenges."

It is good to remember this. The Christian life is about progress and growth, but a progress and growth in the midst of challenges. As I walk through Paul's Epistle to the Ephesians, this fundamental truth is confirmed again and again. Paul is eager to remind the Ephesians of their destination, their goal, and to equip them for the challenges they will face along the way.

In the first three chapters, there are at least five of these goal statements, and each one seems to display a new facet of the eternal inheritance in store for those who believe.
1. (1:4b) "that we should be holy and blameless before him."
2. (1:10) "as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth."
3. (2:7) "so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus."
4. (2:22) "In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit."
5. (3:19) "and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God."
One of Paul's characteristic words for this destiny of unity with God is "inheritance." It is a word that encompasses the full panoply of God's grace. As David long ago sang, "indeed, I have a beautiful inheritance." (Ps. 16:6)

This inheritance is certain, but it is not yet ours in full. Still, to assure our hearts, God has poured out his Holy Spirit, and all the gifts of the Spirit, as a downpayment. In our progress as Christians it serves as a source of hope and strength. It enlightens our hearts and reminds us of the great power of God on our behalf. As we move along in this new journey, we thereby grow in grace. We learn to apply the grace of God to all situations. We grow confidant in our God, and strong to forgive, to show mercy, to love. We become, by the grace of God, at long last capable of these things that had always been for us deep problems. Though spiritual enemies come against us, we do not lose heart. We experience the victory of the Lord in our lives, and in so doing we become shining lights for others whose faith may perhaps be flagging. We grow into the full stature of our destiny in Christ. Our lives show forth the unmistakable evidence of the sovereign grace of the Lord God.

Is this not a beautiful vision? Do you believe that Christ can dwell in your hearts not only to comfort, but to mature you, to prepare you and strengthen you, so that in the end it might truly be said of your life that it was indeed a living sacrifice?

To get there, we will need to be rooted and grounded in love; and being so rooted, we will grow strong and mature as we draw nourishment from that ground of love; as we do so, we will grow so certain of the love God has for us, so sure of its power and extent, so able to trust it, so confidant of his steadfast will, his ability to bring to pass all that he has purposed from the start, that we will walk in the fullness of his grace, overflowing with the rich blessings he has poured into us.

Amazing power! Amazing love! Amazing grace!


Take and read (2)

Today I want to take a break from all this exegetical hash and do something that I haven't done in a long time: feature some of the fine reading I've come across among other Christian bloggers.

Brad at 21st Century Reformation has been writing helpfully on a subject that has somewhat preoccupied the Jesus bloggers lately: his post is entitled Reformed and Charismatic and The Central Role of Discipleship, and it really gets to the crux of the matter. I've been following this discussion with interest, across many different blogs, but Brad's post is among the most reasoned, loving, God-honoring of them all.

On the same subject, I would point you to Ryan Jones' What Does a Reformed-Charismatic Look Like? Ryan goes to a Sovereign Grace church, and frankly I might too if there were one near me. I found his description of the place of prophecy and tongues in the church service interesting and helpful, and not unlike my own church, by the way.[Thanks to Adrian Warnock for this one].

Dan Edelen at Cerulean Sanctum is doing a series on "The Hidden Messages of the American Church." Like so much of what Dan writes, these have been insightful and convicting. The three "hidden messages" that Dan has thus far identified: Classism, Kneeling at the Altar of Excellence, and Correctness before Love.

Scot McKnight at Jesus Creed is doing a series of Advent meditations on Joseph, the adoptive father of Jesus. These are deeply calming and thoughtful, as meditations should be. From the most recent of these, I quote:
We find ourselves in need of denying God’s embrace of our utter humanity: we want to say that we are only human, that we are limited, that we are sinners, that we are broken and cracked Eikons. But, this is the whole point of Christmas: God becomes what we are so we might become what Jesus is (I think that’s Athanasius). What we are: cracked Eikons; what Jesus is: perfect Eikon.
You can find all of them collected here. Start at the beginning. You will be blessed.

Finally, I always enjoy Vicki's Window to My Soul. I encourage you to browse here often, you will always be blessed. In particular, note her recent entry, Be Led, Not Driven. I think she's right on the money. "When life gets riddled with dream-speak and purpose-driven agendas, hey--just give me Jesus. Not programs, growth methods, or man's plans. Just Jesus." Mmmmm, I can relate. Good blogging, Vicki!


Paul's Parallel Prayers

Yesterday I said that Paul, in his prayer for the Ephesian church (Ephesians 3:14-19), was praying for the fulfillment in them of God's long term plan to unite all things in himself. I also said that he restates this goal when he says at 2:22 that God is building them into a holy temple in which he might dwell by his Spirit. And that is Paul's very "reason" for praying. Paul is simply praying for the completion of that building-project, so that God would dwell in them in all fullness. You will see that goal re-stated twice within this very prayer.

Why twice? Well, I have come to believe that in these 6 verses Paul in fact prays the same prayer twice, the second iteration being parallel to--but also an elaboration of--the first. Each prayer possesses a simple 2-part structure:
A. I pray that you would be given__________,
B. So that_________.
In each iteration the B-statement states the purpose of the prayer, and that's where we find the restatements of God's purpose to dwell in his people. Let's read the whole prayer again, and then I'll break it down into its constituent parts.
14 For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, 15 from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, 16 that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, 17 so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith--that you, being rooted and grounded in love, 18 may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19 and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.
Now, the first iteration goes from verse 14 through 17a (up to the dash), and the second iteration follows the dash. We'll call them "Iteration #1" and "Iteration #2." In each of these segments we find the A-B structure mentioned above. But the second iteration is a significant elaboration on the first. Let's extract the parallel segments and read them side by side.
1a. Paul prays that God would strenghten them with power through his Spirit in their inner being. (v.16)
2a. Paul prays that they may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge. (vv.18-19a)
Notice that both of these requests are prayers for strength (more on that word in the next post), with the second iteration being a significant elaboration of the first. Following both of these requests is segment B. Remember the structure--Paul prays for A, so that B. Segment B is in each case a "so that" statement, beginning with the Greek word hina, which literally means "so that" or "in order that."
1b. So that Christ would dwell in your hearts through faith. (v.17b)
2b. So that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. (v.19b)
Both of these, you see, are re-statements of the "reason" for the prayer, which is spelled out back at 2:22. "In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by his Spirit." See? That's the goal. Paul prays briefly for the fulfillment of that goal (restated as Christ dwelling in their hearts through faith), and then prays again for the same goal, but this same time elaborating on the kind of Spiritual strength that will be necessary to bring it about, and concluding with a restatement of the goal in its most superlative possible terms: "that you may be filled with all the fullness of God."

Now, this is not the only way to read Paul's syntax here. The segment could be read as a single prayer in which there are actually 3 "so that" statements. That would look something like this:
1. Paul prays for inner strength from the Spirit,
2. So that Christ would dwell in their hearts,
3. So that they would comprehend the full extent of God's love for them,
4. So that they would be filled with the fullness of God.
I don't know for sure which reading is more accurate, but I do notice the fact that the foundational reason for the prayer has to do with God's goal to "indwell" his church, and that (2) and (4) restate that goal in different ways. That's why I lean to the 2-prayer option described above.