Saturday, May 31, 2008

In memory of a great hymn-writer: 1919 - 2008

It was today that I learned of the death earlier this month of the man who had been my favorite living hymn-writer, Jaroslav Vajda (an American, though of immigrant stock). He had written or translated over 200 hymns at the time of his death. The hymns I loved best were the communion hymn Now the Silence and the benediction Go My Children With My Blessing. I might well mention that the communion hymn Now the Silence was written as a continuing hymn of sorts, where the touching, moving single verse of Now the Silence was to be sung at communion and the occasional hymn, Then the Glory, also a single verse to the same tune, was sung during the annual celebration of End Time. It left the powerful musical impression of Communion being a foretaste of the feast to come. Lest I infringe on copyright I'll only quote it in part, but I think the best farewell salute I could give to a hymn-writer is this: I know of no better hymn to commemorate any Christian's departure than the ones he wrote. In fact, I struggled with whether to quote Then the Glory or Go My Children, which I hope to select for my own funeral when the time comes.
Then the glory, Then the rest, Then the Sabbath peace unbroken
Then the garden, Then the throne, Then the crystal river flowing ...
It does go on and very beautifully, but it would be poor thanks to the man if I broke copyright in a memorial piece.

Thank you, Mr. Vajda.
And as they say to the east: Memory eternal!

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

What Piper overlooks about the "Cage Phase" crowd

John Piper, one of the most recognizable voices of modern Calvinism, had a thoughtful commentary about those militant Calvinists which Jared is calling the "Cage Phase" Calvinists -- the ones who are so unChristian in the way they treat people that the other Calvinists are hinting they should be kept in a cage until the militant phase is over. May God bless Piper's efforts at addressing this problem; I think that commentary was a great start. But still he misses a few important points that seem very plain from the outside. This is a delicate topic, and I realize I am not fully up to the delicacy that this requires. Commenting on another Christian group from my place inside Christianity but outside that group is a sensitive thing. And commenting on a large group, there is some internal diversity: not every Calvinist is a 5-point TULIP Calvinist, much less a Cage Phase Calvinist. I pray that, if any Calvinist should read this, that the take-home messages would be, first, my view of how things look from the outside when it comes to the "Cage Phase" crowd, and second, what I believe it would take to make a real dent in the problem.

Piper's take
Piper acknowledged that the most argumentative Calvinists come across as if they are not Christian at all: as if the love of God did not register as a reality in their lives. Piper attributed this to the intellectual streak within them. I have to admit to amusement whenever someone attributes their group's worst actions to the fact that they're in some way better than the next group; the hint is that if other groups were as intellectual as the Calvinists, they would likewise have the same problems. Bless Piper, I suppose many groups think of themselves as intellectual; but I have known many intellectuals, and they do not come across the same way as the Cage Phase crowd. While we're on the subject, the Cage Phase crowd does not come across as intellectual at all; they come across as angry, bitter, and harsh. It seems to be wishful thinking to attribute this to intellectualism.

A look at the Cage Phase phenomenon
No doubt there are Cage Phase sorts in every group. I have seen some of my own (Lutherans) behave badly, and Martin Luther was undoubtedly a hothead. Still, some groups have a noticeably large and persistent problem with militants, and Calvinism has such a problem. For a little perspective, let's take a quick look at another public group with a sizable Cage Phase subset: the modern atheists. Loud and vocal group of militants there? You bet. Granted, they congratulate themselves on being Bright, and may even attribute their PR problems to being more intellectual than everyone else. But from the outside, the self-congratulatory spin is not very convincing. The Cage Phase atheists are not noted for being intellectual, but for being angry, bitter, and harsh. This caustic approach to others does not come from being brainy. In fact, I suspect it has more to do with atheism itself: those who believe that reality is nasty and brutish can easily have their minds corroded by the acid harshness of those beliefs, until the way the militant atheists behave is the mirror of their worldview.

Sovereignty as the doctrine of raw power?
Piper supposes that Calvinism is noted for its "intellectual rigor" and "powerfully coherent doctrines". Yet Piper supposes the draw for the militants is the "intellectual" bit, not the "rigor"; the "doctrines", not the "powerful" aspect. Calvinism's most distinctive feature is giving pride of place to the Doctrine of Sovereignty. This does not draw intellectuals; it draws militants. Moreover it is as likely to encourage or create militancy as intellectualism.

Take, for example, Piper's exciting initiative to add a new teaching ministry to his church: a seminary. That is a wonderful concept. I have at times wished that the local churches would all offer a seminary-level evening course each semester and watch their people become trained and knowledgeable. I applaud Piper's initiative.

Still, when I read the press release at Adrian Warnock's blog, a few things struck me hard about the bulleted points describing the new project. The first bullet point covered sovereignty, naturally (for a Calvinist). While there were quite a few bullet points, not one mentioned God's love or Christ's salvation. In fact, not one bullet point mentioned love or salvation at all. In all those bullet points, the only mention of Christ was a mention of what we might do for him. Though in keeping with the power-oriented doctrines of Calvinism, the press release does hit the militant keywords in the bullet points: "sovereignty ... rigorous ... disciplined ... wartime lifestyle". All of these have a place in God's teaching, but not such a prominent place to the exclusion of other things. I wonder if he can hear himself -- hear what he is emphasizing and, more than anything else, hear which of God's truths he is neglecting: there is no mention of love at all, and Christ is hardly mentioned, and that fairly far down the list. I do not think the Bible reflects the same priorities as that bulleted list. It makes me concerned for the seminary and for all whose spiritual leadership or spiritual care is shaped by those priorities.

Harshness in the Calvinist view of God?
One thing gets a completely free pass in Piper's discussion "Why Are Calvinists So Negative?": the thought that the harshness of the Calvinist doctrines might play any part in the harshness of the Calvinist militants. The Calvinist militants are typically 5-point TULIP folks. If anyone is unfamiliar with the TULIP, long story short the only reason anyone goes to hell (according to TULIP) is that God had no interest in saving them, that God sovereignly chose not to elect them for salvation and that is the ultimate cause of their damnation. Granted, the damned deserved punishment for doing evil. Still, as God could have saved them by simply wanting to save them (according to TULIP), it is at best misleading to mention the waywardness of the damned when it poses no meaningful obstacle to their salvation. Ultimately the cause of their damnation rests with God. As with the atheists who believe reality is nasty and brutish and behave accordingly, there is a certain effect on the mind for someone who worships and studies a God who does not love you. The way in which militant Calvinists treat non-Calvinists is much the same way in which the TULIP Calvinists suppose that God treats the non-elect. The prevalence of militant, harsh, and bitter people in the Calvinist camps is not an accident; it is related to the teachings of God's own priorities according to the Calvinist system.

Perspective Check
Thank God that a good number of Calvinists are not Cage Phase Calvinists. Piper mentions only the positives of what the Calvinists call the "doctrines of grace": the humility of knowing that God has saved us and not we ourselves; the relief of knowing we cannot do anything to save ourselves and need not do anything to save ourselves. There are many Calvinists who keep a positive focus by concentrating on only the positive parts of Calvinism, and thereby build up the positive in their minds and in their interactions with others. Still, I would trade every theology article I'd ever blogged for one thing: for the Calvinists to put Christ crucified in the place of honor rather than putting God's sovereignty above Christ, to value God's weakness which is stronger than man's strength. When we look at God's sovereignty, we do not know the mind of God. Instead, we know the mind of God by looking at Christ, the one who loves us and teaches us about the love of God, the one who laid aside sovereignty and authority to be a servant. There we know the mind of God. He who sees Christ sees the Father. He who does not see Christ does not see the Father truly.

Monday, May 26, 2008

'Bloodline' meets Talpiot?

In the latest round of anti-Christian conspiracy theories, we have a new movie, Bloodline, in which Jesus and Mary Magdalen quietly lived in France where they died and were buried. (H/T to Cadre Comments.) The movie seems to share the same target audience as the recent Simcha Jacobovici anti-Christian piece on Jesus' and Mary Magdalen's supposed tomb, the Talpiot tomb near Jerusalem.

Can Jesus and Mary Magdalen really be buried both in France and in the Holy Land?

The more telling question: will inquiring minds want to know? Or will the "skeptical" community give a free pass to anything that attacks Christianity, even if it means supporting conflicting mutually exclusive claims?

(I think Bloodline may have been intended as the 2008 edition of the annual anti-Christian propaganda series to coincide with our celebration of Jesus' resurrection. However, we had an unusually early Holy Season this year.)

Spiritual resources for the terminally ill and caregivers: Where, O grave, is your sting?

What, then, shall we say in response to this? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all-- how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who is he that condemns? Christ Jesus, who died-- more than that, who was raised to life-- is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: "For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered." No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.

For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom 8:31-39)

So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. I declare to you, brothers, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.

Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed -- in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: "Death has been swallowed up in victory." "Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O grave, is your sting?" The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Therefore, my dear brothers, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain. (1 Cor 15 (portions))
Not even death can separate us from God's love, and death has no victory over us.

In the end, what matters is this:
  • Christ gives us real forgiveness for real sins.
  • Christ gives us real resurrection after real death.

Spiritual resources for the terminally ill and caregivers: Repentance and forgiveness of sins

(On the afternoon or evening of Jesus' resurrection) Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, "This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. (Luke 24:45-47)
We Christians do not always remember our message very clearly. Jesus opened his disciples' minds after his resurrection so that they could understand the message: this is what Scripture has promised all along. The message with which we are sent into the world -- to all people, but surely first and foremost to our loved ones -- is repentance and forgiveness of sins through Jesus. Repentance is when our own hearts turn to God and therefore when we turn against our own sin. Forgiveness is the most lasting treasure we have.

Spiritual resources for the terminally ill and caregivers: I will raise him up at the last day

"Your forefathers ate the manna in the desert, yet they died. But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which a man may eat and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world."

Then the Jews began to argue sharply among themselves, "How can this man give us his flesh to eat?"

Jesus said to them, "I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day." (John 6:49-54)
Jesus has promised that he will raise us up at the last day. His own resurrection shows us that he can do that for us. What remains is for us to rest on his words and lean on them.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Spiritual resources for the terminally ill and caregivers: My body given for you, my blood shed for you

While they were eating, Jesus took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying, "Take and eat; this is my body." Then he took the cup, gave thanks and offered it to them, saying, "Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins." (Matt 26:26-28)
Of ourselves, we can make no guarantee how God will act toward us. We are in no position to bargain; our lives have fallen short of the glory for which God intended us. Any guarantee must come from God himself.

Jesus' death is different from our deaths. He offered himself willingly to save us.
His blood makes a covenant, a sealed pact, between us and God. The covenant we have through Christ is for our forgiveness.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Spiritual resources for the terminally ill and caregivers: Why do you seek the living among the dead?

On the first day of the week, very early in the morning, the women took the spices they had prepared and went to the tomb. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. While they were wondering about this, suddenly two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning stood beside them. In their fright the women bowed down with their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, "Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he has risen! Remember how he told you, while he was still with you in Galilee: 'The Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, be crucified and on the third day be raised again.'" Then they remembered his words. (Luke 24:1-8)

When it comes to death, the other religions in the world can offer only talk. Jesus is unique among the founders of the religions of the world: he rose from the dead. His resurrection took religion out of the realm of mere talk and thought, out of the realm of competing schools of thought that offered no definitive answers. After his crucifixion, Jesus had been truly dead, truly buried. Jesus' followers had known that pointed emptiness that comes at a graveside, that aching loss of leaving someone you love in a cemetery and walking away. The women had gone to Jesus' tomb expecting him to be dead, expecting to finish the burial rituals.

Jesus' death broke the power of death. He rose from the dead, something new in the history of the world: he was alive, never to die again. He met his disciples that night, took a long walk with two of them, spoke with more of them and ate dinner with them. They spent the rest of their lives telling everyone -- whether of their religion or not -- about how God had given everyone a living hope through Christ's resurrection from the dead, how God had given everyone reason to trust him through that same resurrection.

Christ's empty tomb is God's promise to us: all those other tombs where we have left our loved ones will also be empty one day. There will be another day when they say to us, "Why do you seek the living among the dead?"

In this sense, we cannot afford to treat Christ's resurrection as a Christian partisan event, as if it only mattered for those who happen to be Christian already. Instead, Jesus' resurrection is as universal as death. It breaks down partisanship and gives reason for hope to everyone who faces death.

In Memory of Bob F.

Sorry about the light blogging schedule this week. It's not just the usual summer work overload. My neighbor Bob died after a long struggle with illness. He leaves behind 2 children who are too young to care for themselves and have different mothers, so while the children are each others' family, they are unlikely to see each other much once they are moved in with their mothers' families. Bob had one of those lives where it is very easy to point your finger and shake your head -- but don't we all? Let this be said for him: he loved his children and he did the best by them that he knew how. He was also kind to me, always friendly. He even cut my grass for a few months back in the days when my father had cancer and there was no time for me to cut the grass. He kept me out of trouble with the local community assocation when I really didn't have time or energy to care how my yard looked. He also spent years cutting the grass for the elderly / semi-disabled fellow who lives next door to him. So here's to a life that's not perfect but redeemed: he loved his family, and he loved his neighbors.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Spiritual resources for the terminally ill and caregivers: It is finished

Jesus called out with a loud voice, "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit." When he had said this, he breathed his last. (Luke 23:46)

When he had received the drink, Jesus said, "It is finished." With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. (John 19:30)
Sometimes, there's nothing more to say. Death is one of those times. At this point, the loved ones go about the sad task of the preparations for burial. Mostly, people are huddled together crying. Just a word for the bystanders: "Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn" (Romans 12:15). Please do not try to "fix" someone's appropriate sadness over a loved one's death. Just share it.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Spiritual resources for the terminally ill and caregivers: I am thirsty

Later, knowing that all was now completed, and so that the Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, "I am thirsty." A jar of wine vinegar was there, so they soaked a sponge in it, put the sponge on a stalk of the hyssop plant, and lifted it to Jesus' lips. (John 19:28-29)
As we get weaker, we have to turn to others for help. Some of the things people do to help may be desperate, inventive, even a little comic -- like giving someone a drink using a sponge on a stick. And sooner or later even that desperate, inventive help will not be enough. But in the meantime, help and compassion may come from unexpected places. All kinds of people want to help; it blesses them as much as us if we let them.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Spiritual resources for the terminally ill and caregivers: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

About the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, "Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?"-- which means, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Matt 27:46)

Ps 22 (portions)
1 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from the words of my groaning?
2 O my God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, and am not silent.
3 Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One; you are the praise of Israel.
4 In you our fathers put their trust; they trusted and you delivered them.
5 They cried to you and were saved; in you they trusted and were not disappointed.
11 Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is no one to help.
14 I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint. My heart has turned to wax; it has melted away within me.
15 My strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth; you lay me in the dust of death.
23 You who fear the LORD, praise him! All you descendants of Jacob, honor him! Revere him, all you descendants of Israel!
24 For he has not despised or disdained the suffering of the afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help.
27 All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the LORD, and all the families of the nations will bow down before him,
28 for dominion belongs to the LORD and he rules over the nations.
29 All the rich of the earth will feast and worship; all who go down to the dust will kneel before him-- those who cannot keep themselves alive.
30 Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord.
31 They will proclaim his righteousness to a people yet unborn-- for he has done it.

As the time to die draws closer, we may feel abandoned or forsaken by God. In our desire to live, that feeling of frustrated prayers and abandonment may be intense.

God will show his complete faithfulness to us.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Spiritual resources for the terminally ill and caregivers: Woman, here is your son

When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, "Dear woman, here is your son," and to the disciple, "Here is your mother." From that time on, this disciple took her into his home. (John 19:26-27)
When death is approaching, it is easy for our minds to crowd with all the things we want to do, wish we could do, had planned to do. As far as worldly things, there is only one thing we need to do: to help with those we leave behind. As far as I know, Jesus left behind no worldly possessions. All he could give his mother was one of his closest friends; the only worldly thing he could give them at that point was each other. I would not underestimate that gift; what most people desire in life is the company of those who love them.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Spiritual resources for the terminally ill and their caregivers: Father, forgive them

When they came to the place called the Skull, there they crucified him, along with the criminals-- one on his right, the other on his left. Jesus said, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing." And they divided up his clothes by casting lots. (Luke 23:33-34)
The world being what it is, most of us at any time in our lives have people we need to forgive; we may even have people whose forgiveness we need to seek. And usually the approach of death breaks down barriers; everyone senses that this is the time. Holding grudges at a time like that seems petty, and longstanding feuds are often left behind. It is a treasure to make peace with someone before it is too late, or a regret that is difficult to forget if that last chance to make peace is lost. It is part of following Christ, to use our deaths in some small way towards reconciling what could not have been reconciled without it.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Spiritual resources for the terminally ill and caregivers: Let this cup pass from me

I sometimes hear people speak as if being scared of death is somehow less than Christian -- as if we should meet the thought of death with a Stoic calm. If the example of Christ teaches us anything, it teaches us that we are not called to be Stoics. A genuine love of live will lead any sane and healthy person to hate the thought of our own deaths. Pain and exhaustion may rob us of that love of live, but for a sane and healthy person, aversion and avoidance are not proof of a lack of faith, but of a love of life.
Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, "My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will." Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. "Could you men not keep watch with me for one hour?" he asked Peter."Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the body is weak." He went away a second time and prayed, "My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done." When he came back, he again found them sleeping, because their eyes were heavy. (Matt 26:39-43)
  • It is ok to be scared.
  • It is ok not to want to die.
  • Your loved ones may be exhausted and may be napping when you need them.
  • It is ok to wish there was any other way but this.
Or as they might have said in Jesus' day: L'chaim!

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Spiritual resources for the terminally ill and caregivers?

I recently found out that my neighbor is terminally ill. His children and my children are about the same age, so I've gotten to know this neighbor over the years. His daughter will be turning 15 soon, and his son is 12.

A few years ago our family went through a rough spot when several of my relatives died in quick succession. Some time later I put together a Bible study that was more my notes from having gone through that than anything else, a Bible study more geared towards giving spiritual nourishment than towards giving information.

So the long story short is that the next series on this blog will be a little unusual: spiritual resources for the terminally ill and their caregivers.

I'll post the table of contents here and then update it with links as the posts are published:

Contents: Spiritual resources for the terminally ill and their caregivers

Part 1: How Jesus' death shows us what to expect
Many people think it is "Christian" never to admit to fear (especially desperate or wild fear), bitterness, weakness and so forth. Looking at Christ helps cure us of unreasonable expectations.

Part 2: How Jesus' life anchors our hope
Christ gave more than just instruction. He gave us hope.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Scoring the canon: the point

Some of you may have wondered the point of my posting various early canon lists during the past week. Why would a longtime Christian take historical criteria and subject a bunch of early Christian writings to a scoring system? Why treat the canonization process as if it had never occurred? Why roll back the clock to the days before the canon was finalized? Why place the canonical books on the same scale as books which did not make the cut? I had several points in doing that, and I think I owe it to anyone who reads the blog to explain, if for no other reason than to let you know why this blog was filled with tables and spreadsheets this past week.

1. The "Christian origins" folks need an objectivity check
The discussion of Christian origins tends to be filled with emotive words. "Conspiracy" and "orthodoxy" and "suppression" are floated far too often without enough support to warrant their use. There is a tendency in current scholars' argumentation to cherry-pick the evidence that suits each author's conclusions. There has been little way to objectively call to account the various camps for cherry-picking. I wanted to move the conversation -- in whatever modest way a blogger can -- towards recognition of the historical documents available and how they might be evaluated based on their historical value. As I've pointed out more than once already, the scheme I have put forward is hardly the only scheme I can imagine and has much room for growth in both method and materials. I would welcome other efforts along these lines. Still, this scheme is the only one I have seen for evaluating the historical value of various early Christian writings based on fixed criteria.

2. The Biblical studies folks could use a data processing department
In reviewing early Christian origins, there is a vast amount of information to sift and evaluate. Other groups of scholars with large amounts of information have become friendly with data processing professionals. I hope that this series has at least made someone consider the various uses that can be made of statistical or scoring/ranking models in evaluating the information we have.

3. The canon is on firmer historical ground than is generally acknowledged
As I mentioned in the first post, I set out the criteria for scoring the books before I checked to see how any given book came out from the evaluation. I know that, from an orthodox Christian viewpoint, this amounted to either throwing out the canon or rolling back the clock as if those conversations had never happened. The reason I was willing to do that is that I see no conflict between historical reality and orthodoxy. If I did, I would no longer care to be "orthodox" (in fact, I could no longer say "orthodox" without the tongue-in-cheek quote-marks, if I did not see it as the quest for reality). One thing I had wondered -- and was not surprised to see -- was that all of the books which were eventually included in the canon, without exception, scored better on historical attestation than the books which were not included in the canon. On the final scorecard, there was not a single book of the canon so low-scored that any of the non-canonical books was above it; there was not a single of the non-canonical books so high-scored that any of the books of the canon was below it. You'd almost think that the canon was made with an eye to which books had the best historical attestation; many of the early Christian writings discussing the canon speak as if that were the case. (Dry humor alert.)