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    Entries in Hope (4)

    Tuesday
    Dec302014

    Give Us Hope So We Can Wait

    50-365

    Invade our bodies with your hope, dear Lord, that we might manifest the enthusiasm of your kingdom. Give us the energy of children, whose lives seem fired by the wonder of it all. Thank God, you have given us good work, hopeful work. Our lives are not just one pointless thing after another. We have purpose. But give us also your patience. School our hope with humility, recognizing that finally it is a matter of your will being done. Too often our hope turns to optimism, optimism to despair, despair to cynicism. Save our hope by Israel-like patience so that we can learn to wait hopefully in joy. Surely that is why you give us children--signs of hope requiring infinite patience. Give us hope so we can learn to wait. Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. Amen.
    - Stanley Hauerwas, Prayers Plainly Spoken  

    Monday
    Jun302014

    There are lots of reasons to despair. Give us a reason to hope.

    Last Wednesday Joshua Luton at The Apprentice Institute wrote an inspiring meditation on youth and the future of Christianity. Read the entire piece, "The True Narrative About Young People in the Church."

    His central claim, "High school and college age members of the body of Christ don't want to leave, they want more."

    I happen to agree. There is more than enough negativity on offer. But God is good, and deeply loves the young people whom you know. One of the great discoveries I have made over the past fifteen years of working in ministry is that young people are searching for sound answers to life's great questions. They have genuine curiosity about the Bible and a deep desire to understand the spiritual life, and to live it richly as Christians. They want to be challenged and invited to use their gifts and talents as part of a community. And they want to love and serve others as a response to the love of God revealed in Jesus Christ.

    We often underestimate our students.

    Instead of complaining, build relationships, reach out to young people, and walk alongside them. Witness to Christ. Answer the questions they are actually asking (you might want to ask). And be open about your journey of transformation and change as a disciple.

    What you'll find will be refreshing. Jesus Christ is still calling disciples from among youth and college students. And Jesus is still calling us to point the way to him, to lead, to invite, to teach, and, most importantly, to model our faith.

    Wednesday
    Mar052014

    Future Hope, Our Horizons, and Present Holiness :: A Review of Skye Jethani's Futureville

    Our approach to eschatology has changed. Or at least it is shifting. In articles, books, sermons, and conference presentations, I have noticed that the collective future of the human race is a common theme. That future is no longer spoken of, at the popular level, with a strong emphasis on the unfolding of events running parallel to a charted assembly of Bible passages, or within the framework of a pre-, post-, or a-millennial system. Instead, there is general interest in how we move from the garden to the city, how the vision given at the conclusion of the Book of Revelation is realized, how the death and resurrection of Jesus is itself a hinge, and how the present work of Christian people takes shape in light of our future hope. Along the way, some traditional theological constructs are alluded to and set aside as necessary ground-clearing before raising a related, yet unique edifice. Skye Jethani's Futureville: Discover Your Purpose for Today by Reimagining Tomorrow runs along these lines, and is one more contribution to this conversation.

    This is a book about today, how one lives, and the reality that we all live now in light of some vision of the future. Our choices reveal our orientation. This is true for all people. As Jethani writes:

    This book is not about the future. It is about the present. It is about determining what sort of life is truly meaningful. It is about rethinking the way we relate to the world and our purpose within it. How we decide what matters today, however, cannot be separated by what we believe about tomorrow.

    This is good and right. But our orientation toward the future is complicated, the result of factors within and outside our control.

    To illustrate, Jethani begins his analysis with the narrative of his own upbringing, compared to that of his grandparents, showing how his outlook on family, relationships, marriage, career, church, and more have been absorbed. His grandparents were shaped more by the Great Depression. In 1939, people of that generation were given an alternative at the New York World's Fair. For those living today, we need something even more compelling, more robust. Jethani believes Christians already have been given such a vision, "we believe that a meaningful life is one spent participating in what God is doing--God's mission. But the scope of God's mission is defined by what we believe the future looks like, by what will endure. So we cannot begin to define how we should live in this world without exploring what we believe about the world to come."

    Once Jethani has fixed the gaze of his reader upon God's future, and set their orientation toward the fulfillment of all history, he fills in the details. He tells the story of the Bible, from garden to city, and points us toward our hope, named in Revelation and made certain in Christ, as the moment God makes his dwelling place among people. But Jethani also names the alternative narratives, or dangers, that both compete and pull us off track. He names how assumptions we carry with us after the Enlightenment, and secular applications of evolution as an all-encompassing theory, can lead us toward destruction. He names how theological pitfalls, such as the belief that God will evacuate the faithful from this Earth, and discard it as inconsequential, can lead to apathy and disengagement with our neighbors and the created order, which we are called to steward. Jethani treats the Christian doctrines of resurrection and vocation as antidotes that combat the impulse to discard our weaker members or distance ourselves from the world's hurting, and lend dignity to Christians in their present work and calling. His thoughts on order, beauty, and abundance call faithful Christians to work for the common good of all people, to love their communities, to create in ways that point to the Creator, and to share resources with all who have need.

    The final note sounded is that of ultimate hope--Christ. Christ has redeemed the world, and is working within it through his people to set it to right, until the day he comes to bind up wounds, heal the brokenhearted, give judgment on behalf of the poor, reprove the wicked, and establish peace. Until that day, "we pray for the eyes to see the evidence of the garden all around us in the lives and faithfulness of Christ's people and their works, and we seek to cultivate those glimpses for others as we listen to and obey his calling for our lives."

    Futureville is a well told, compelling theological narrative, marked by sound exegesis and clear illustration of theological truth. Jethani is also vulnerable and transparent, open concerning his own journey. Some readers may disagree with his overall framework, or take issue with his presentation of some Christian theological pitfalls. But, overall, I found this book instructive. Christian people are in need of a vision encompassing the need for personal piety and social engagement. We need a vision that inspires us to work for the good of all people--even those who do not believe like us. We need to see Christ as the redeemer of all things, including souls, yet extending to all of creation. We need to see that the world, though fallen, was created by God and named good. We need an imaginative horizon that enables us to conceive where our world might be headed--and we need this horizon to be defined by the gospel of and about Jesus Christ and his kingdom.

    Most of us doubt we have much power to shape or impact the world in a grandiose way. But Jethani's work reminds us that in our careers, families, churches, and communities, every interaction has the latent capacity to bring healing, flourishing, and a future that more keenly resembles the reality Christ will establish as normative at the end of the age. Let us be agents of hope, faithful and true, committed to Christ, and vehicles of his grace.

    Tuesday
    Nov292011

    EV Symposium :: Birth, Death, the Space Between, and the Space to Come

    Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
    Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
    For those whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow
    Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
    From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
    Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
    And soonest our best men with thee do go,
    Rest of their bones, and soul's delivery.
    Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
    And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
    And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
    And better than thy stroke; why swell'st thou then?
    One short sleep past, we wake eternally
    And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.
    - John Donne, Holy Sonnet X

    Matthew Lee Anderson has graciously invited me to participate in a symposium, a first for me.  If you look up the word symposium, you find two definitions.  The first is this: “A collection of essays or papers on a particular subject by a number of contributors.”  The second differs: “A drinking party or convivial discussion, especially as held in ancient Greece after a banquet.” 

    This symposium is obviously the former and not the latter.  Matt asked me to examine the ninth chapter of his book Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to Our Faith, entitled “The Mortal Body.”  The subject of the chapter, primarily, is death.  Therefore, it might be for the best that this symposium is not of the latter kind, for if it was, when my turn came to contribute to the convivial discussion, too many of my fellow revelers may have grabbed their coats and headed for the door.  Death, both a present and future reality in a fallen world, isn’t the stuff of prolonged conversation and extended reflection, at least not in our day.  As Matt points out in his chapter, rather it is a topic we purposefully avoid.  And that is why Matt’s contribution is so important—he assists us in facing a subject we would rather not face. But to quote Death himself, “You might be a king or a little street sweeper, but sooner or later you dance with the reaper.

    In light of this reality, several questions arise.  As embodied creatures, how are we to consider death?  Further, as a people called Christian, how are we to configure our speech to describe this reality, as well as the hope we hold in spite of its certain coming?  In a death denying age, how do we inject dignity into the aging process?  How do we pull down the idol of eternal youth?  How do we help people to see the superficialities of our bodies as passing away like a vapor, or withering like grass, so that we might tend to the inner realities of the soul and the eternality of our being as those who will one stand before the eternal One, the God we call Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, in a chorus of praise, celebration, worship, and fellowship?  How do we prepare our present vessels for the day of its transformation on the last day?  In other words, how does our ultimate future as bodies, “sown perishable, but raised imperishable” shape our present responsibilities to care for ourselves and relate to others?

    These questions extend beyond Matt’s argument, though some of the concerns I have listed are present within his treatment.  I note this to say that “the mortal body” and the questions Christians must face in light of our mortality are both many and complex.  They are worthy of our sustained reflection not only for the purpose of philosophical and theological speculation, but also because our understanding of death in light of our embodied nature as finite, human creatures has numerous pastoral applications for care and proclamation.  And Matt, having asked for an essay that would push his chapter in new directions and extend the conversation about evangelicals and bodies, is receiving what he has asked for.

    A couple of considerations for the reader, and then on to two concerns I had with Matt’s chapter.

    First, what follows assumes familiarity with Matt’s work.  I assume that many of those who choose to read this essay will have read Earthen Vessels, or have long been part of the community at Mere-O.  However, I will do my best to frame my two concerns in a way that won’t require reading the book, though I’m sure Matt would appreciate an additional sale, as well as your taking time to read what he has produced.

    Secondly, the issues I raise below are presented in what I hope is a charitable fashion.  If you wish to defend Mr. Anderson’s presentation, or disagree with me on any point, or seek clarification, I simply ask that you abide by a modicum of charity.  No vitriol, please.

    Now, on to the issues.

    Exposing Death: A Fallen Enemy, Eschatologically Considered

    Suffice it to say, we are mortal, and as such, we will die.  Death awaits us all.  We are born, and one day we shall draw our final breath.  We expire.  Our bodies pass away.  From dust we came, and to dust we shall return.

    Within Matt’s chapter, I’m not completely certain how we should approach death, how to behold it within the imagination.  Anecdotally, Matt speaks of an attempt to define death as a horrendous evil, only to have Philippians 1:21 tossed in his lap as a grenade, “To live is Christ, and to die is gain.”  This leads him to backpedal, believing he must defend Paul.  “Paul wasn’t endorsing suicide,” he writes.  Paul’s work is not through; he chooses to remain in the body despite his desire to depart and to be with Christ.  He will continue his work for the sake of the Philippians, and for other men and women he hopes to introduce to the hope he has found in Christ.  Death’s arrival, therefore, is not to be expedited.  It is rather to be received, and the life that is given until that day is to be regarded as a grace and a responsibility.  It is a gift that is to be stewarded.  Death, then, is not a “horrendous evil,” but a witness to the brokenness and decay of the present created order.  Paul, as he is portrayed here in Philippians, is softened somewhat.  It is gain, but not a gain that is to be rushed.

    Yet shortly thereafter, what Mr. Anderson has given with one hand he takes away with the other.  He tells the story of his friend Justin Key, tragically lost at age twenty six, dead as the result of a blood clot in his lung.  This death is an evidence of “a radical irruption in the goodness of the created order, a brokenness of the world that suggests things are not the way they are supposed to be.”  If things are not the way they are supposed to be, which I would assume to be “good”, then is Justin’s death not regarded as an evil?  Is death not an evil present in the world that has resulted from the sin in the garden, yielding moments where we may truly call death an enemy, as does Paul in 1 Corinthians 15?

    Is death an enemy, an evidence of a horrendous evil still operative in our world?  Has death been defeated, or does it wait for a final defeat?  Resurrection awaits us, yes, but we still must die if our end comes before Christ’s return, and if this is so, what is our posture toward death when it comes?

    This is the tension, and it is a tension that I believe needs further nuance and greater care.  When we say that the body is mortal, we concede we live with this reality in view, and we must ascribe to this reality a reason for its presence.  Death is coming, for the world we have been born into is not as it should be.  The enemy, death, remains, though that enemy has been defeated, so that when death comes, it can be received not with despair, but with triumph.  Triumph comes by way of Christ and his resurrection, who is the first fruits of the resurrection to come.  Though Mr. Anderson asserts the reality of a future hope, asserting strongly a belief in the resurrection, he needs to develop an eschatological line of reasoning, one that develops death as consequence of sin, Christ as victorious over death in the cross, the resurrection as an evidence of future hope, and that future hope as determinative for how we can live without fear of death in the present.  Ultimate hope shapes present outlook, including my view of the body and how I am to live while I remain within it.  Paul’s remaining in the flesh, I believe, was shaped by just this kind of conviction, as was his posture toward death.  Death would come, whenever the Lord so appointed.  Until that day came, however, he could joyfully proclaim what he knew to be true concerning Jesus.

    The Christian Funeral: Liturgy, Worship, Gospel Pronouncement, and the Communion of Saints

    My second issue: Considering Anderson expresses concern regarding trends on cremation and other forms of burial, what is the proper evangelical response?  How do we shape our discourse in such a way that the burial of the dead regains an appropriate measure of theological and formational importance for the people of God?  Anderson suggests the church calendar and a different nuance with regard to the celebration of the Lord’s meal as space for remembrance of those who have gone before us and followed after Jesus.  But he does not expand on our liturgies, our pronouncements, our worship, and our ties to “the communion of the saints,” as expressed in the Apostles’ Creed.

    I believe this rising trend of cremation over burial is an evidence of detachment from our physicality, our embodiment, and an amnesia concerning the stated hope that our bodies will be raised in a manner like the body of Jesus Christ.  How we conceive of heaven as our future hope, in part, has led to a disregard for our body, and how it should be received by the church following death.  And this is very sad to me, as someone who has been adamant that I will be buried, bodily, and that the church will accompany me with singing, proclaiming that one day I will rise again.  I will not be cremated and scattered, though I do not doubt God could reconstitute me if I was.  But like Christ, as Mr. Anderson does offer, I wish to be laid to rest like him, with the hope that I will be raised like him.  The key here, for Anderson and for others theologically considering our mortality, is how this affirmation is captured within our discourse, transmitted to our people, and embodied both corporately and individually.

    Final Reflections

    Hopefully there is a thought or two here that will assist Mr. Anderson and others thinking about the body to articulate with greater clarity Christian hope in the face of death.  That hope is nothing other than the gospel of and about Jesus, the proclamation that on Good Friday Christ defeated sin and death, and three days later he rose again, and by faith in him we may enter in to God’s eternal life both now and in the age to come.  Death, thou hast died and thou shalt die.

    Christ has died.  Christ is risen.  Christ will come again.  Because of this, our mortal bodies have hope.