Mother Mary

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 And Mary said:

“My soul glorifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
holy is his name.

His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.

He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
to Abraham and his descendants forever,
just as he promised our ancestors.”

-Luke 1:46-55

 

Last week we spoke about the angel Gabriel predicting John the Baptist‘s birth. Gabriel had declared that John would be the promised Elijah returning to usher in the day of the messiah’s return. When Gabriel appeared six months later to Mary he said,

“you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end”

These words clearly pointed to what the people of the time were expecting in the coming messiah. Jesus was the second half of Gabriel’s announcement, that prophesy was being fulfilled in that Elijah and the long expected messiah were finally arriving. Gabriel visited Elizabeth first, then Mary. During the Angel’s visit to Mary he told her about Elizabeth and her miraculous pregnancy as well. Mary immediately went to visit her and when she arrived in Elizabeth’s house John leaped for joy in his mother’s womb.

Elizabeth was ecstatic when John recognized Mary and Elizabeth praised her. Mary responded to her in song. This song is often called the magnificant and has been rendered in many ways throughout Christian history. It is the scripture passage quoted at the beginning of this post. Mary’s song echoes another great song in scripture, the song of Hannah. Hannah sang this song when her son Samuel was born. She had been barren and prayed to God for a son, promising to dedicate him to the Lord if he was born.

Then Hannah prayed and said:

“My heart rejoices in the Lord;
    in the Lord my horn is lifted high.
My mouth boasts over my enemies,
    for I delight in your deliverance.

“There is no one holy like the Lord;
    there is no one besides you;
    there is no Rock like our God.

 

Do not keep talking so proudly
    or let your mouth speak such arrogance,
for the Lord is a God who knows,
    and by him deeds are weighed.

“The bows of the warriors are broken,
    but those who stumbled are armed with strength.
Those who were full hire themselves out for food,
    but those who were hungry are hungry no more.
She who was barren has borne seven children,
    but she who has had many sons pines away.

 

“The Lord brings death and makes alive;
    he brings down to the grave and raises up.
The Lord sends poverty and wealth;
    he humbles and he exalts.
He raises the poor from the dust
    and lifts the needy from the ash heap;
he seats them with princes
    and has them inherit a throne of honor.

“For the foundations of the earth are the Lord’s;
    on them he has set the world.

He will guard the feet of his faithful servants,
    but the wicked will be silenced in the place of darkness.

“It is not by strength that one prevails;
those who oppose the Lord will be broken.
The Most High will thunder from heaven;
    the Lord will judge the ends of the earth.

“He will give strength to his king
and exalt the horn of his anointed.”

 

Mary’s use of the prophet Hannah’s words tells of the importance of what both she and Elizabeth had experienced. They both conceived by the grace of God when conception shouldn’t have been possible. Elizabeth was too old and Mary was too young. Mary harking back to Hannah was also significant because Hannah dedicated her son to the Lord, and both John and Jesus were to be given to the Lord. Both the song of Hannah and the song of Mary praise God’s greatness and both use language which inverts the ways of this world.

Mary says that God has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty. Hannah says that those who were full hire themselves out for bread but those who were hungry cease to hunger. Mary says God has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly. Hannah says God makes the poor rich so they can inherit a seat of honour as nobles. Both are praising a God who does what Jesus and John also did, give hope to the poor and criticize the rich. Last week we read from the book of Isaiah a prophesy about John the Baptist and the messiah. Isaiah said

A voice of one calling:
“In the wilderness prepare
    the way for the Lord[a];
make straight in the desert
    a highway for our God.[b]
Every valley shall be raised up,
    every mountain and hill made low;
the rough ground shall become level,
    the rugged places a plain.
And the glory of the Lord will be revealed,
    and all people will see it together.
For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

 

This recurring theme in Isaiah’s prophetic words, in Hannah’s prophetic song, in Mary’s prophetic song, is essential to understanding what the messiah was to do. The messiah was to come and turn the world upside down. The messiah was to come and challenge everything about this world that was contrary to God. As Paul said in his letter to the Galatians, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” The ways which we separate ourselves were to be abolished. The messiah came to erase questions of race, social status, and gender.

This requires a radical shift in consciousness. Human nature is to divide the field, to create categories of in and out, us and them, right and wrong. But it was known in Hannah’s time, it was known in Isaiah’s time, it was known to Mary, it was known to John and it was known to Jesus that the rich would be made poor, the mountains would be made low, and that all people together will inherit a seat of honour in heaven.

If you doubt whether Jesus actually taught this simply turn in your bible to Matthew chapter 5 and read the beatitudes. Jesus says Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. The messiah was hope for the poor, for the oppressed, for the misunderstood, for the forgotten. The messiah came to reassure humanity that there is neither jew nor gentile, slave nor free, male nor female but people were not ready to hear it. People are still not ready to hear it.

But Mary heard it, and so did Hannah. Both these incredibly important and prophetic women knew what God was really about and both understood the importance of praising the Lord in song. Hannah starts her song with the words “my heart exults in the Lord” and Mary starts her song with “my soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my saviour” Both are filled with joy at what God has done, both are ecstatic as they make a joyful noise to the Lord. They are not burdened by the knowledge that the messiah will change everything. They are not upset that the world they know and are comfortable with is changing. They are simply glad that God has blessed them with a child, and that their child will be able to serve God’s kingdom and teach God’s wisdom.

And so should we sing. So should we rejoice in what God is doing within us and through us. When the Lord makes the mountains low and raises the valleys, do not despair, but rejoice. When God turns everything you know upside down, do not be resentful or afraid, but magnify God’s name and let your heart exult in what God is doing. Sing a song of praise to your maker and rejoice in the messiah. It is John who made a highway for our God, who knocks down the mountains and raises up the valleys, but that is just the prep work. It is in the messiah, in Jesus the Christ, that the fulfillment of God’s kingdom is found.

So turn to the messiah after you have repented with John. Let go of the categories which separate you from the people around you. Do not worry about being a this person or a that person. Do not find your identity in the colour of your skin or the language you speak or the gender you were born as. But identify yourself as what you truly are, a child of God, nothing more, nothing less. So sing with your creator, sing songs of praise that one day the world will have let go of categories and embraced the truth. Sing songs of praise that God has created within you the spirit of Christ. Let that spirit out into the world to prophesy the truth that we are all one in Christ Jesus.

Be like Mary, be pure and humble. When the angel came and explained everything to her, she simply replied Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word. She accepted God’s word and rejoiced in song. So be like Mary, be willing to accept the miracles which the angels declare to you, be the sort of person that is able to accept Christ within them, be humble enough to say here I am, a servant of the Lord. Mary is a shining example we should all live up to. She had found favour with God and therefore was able to receive Christ within her.

Be like Mary, live a life which allows you to find favour with God. Be the sort of person that is pure enough of heart to receive Christ within. As we journey through Advent remember that Christ is eternal, Christ has always been, is now, and is yet to dwell inside you. We must first repent like John to make ready the highway for our God, but the goal is not to live our lives in the desert it is to live our lives like Mary. Mary who was wholesome and pure. Mary who was devout and faithful. Mary who was a simple girl, not much different from you or I. Mary who sang her heart out before the Lord.

So sing to God. Praise God in all that you do. Live like Mary, like an innocent young girl, from a small town. By the standards of this world Mary was nothing special, she was an unwed teenage peasant having a baby in a barn. But by God’s standard she was the most perfect human in all of creation. So, as we journey through Advent, let us sing like Mary, let us love like Mary. Let us humbly accept the Christ child within us and follow the words of angels as we walk this road of faith with our Lord who guides us from above and who is born within us. Who is a mighty king in heaven and who is a helpless child in a manger. Who loves those the world despises and humbles those the world exults.

So, sisters and brothers, as you go about your day today, I encourage you to remember Mary. I encourage you to live like Mary. Be brave, be humble, be wholesome, and most importantly be willing to receive Christ inside you without any hesitations, even if it seems impossible. Let the words and life of the mother who is a child, the most loved of God who is nothing in this world, the humble recipient of Christ himself speak to you as she has spoken to countless people over the centuries. And, my dear friends, do not forget to sing, do not forget to praise and magnify how wonderful is your God.

 

 

What is Theology?

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My son Quillan and I had a conversation while laying in bed on a lazy Saturday morning. We were talking about what it means to be a theologian. I told him that he is a theologian because he likes to talk about God. I pray you are a theologian too.

Theology, quite literally, means talking about God. The first half of the word, theo-, comes from the word Theos. Theos is a Greek word which simply means God.The second half, -ology has a similar root to the word logos, which means word or words. There are many ways the suffix -ology can be used – Speaking of, having a discourse about, engaging in a scientific study of a topic are all legitimate meanings.  Geology, for instance, means the study of the Earth, or talking about the Earth.

But, we must not forget that the word Logos, for Christians, has a much deeper and more profound meaning than it does for most modern thinkers. Christianity inherited its understanding of the true nature of words from the ancient world it was born in. We carry the teaching that words, and in particular names, are very potent.

This is why we are never to use the Lord’s name in vain. This is why Jacob received the name Israel after wrestling with God trying to learn God’s name. This is why God revealed the sacred name to Moses as tangible proof of divine will. Jesus, or more accurately the Christ, is the fullness of name and word. This is why John’s gospel opens with this famous passage:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

-John 1:1-5

Christians understand that Words have life. This is because one part of the Trinity is the Living Word, or Logos. So, when we engage in theology we must remember this core Christian teaching: that both halves of the word are sacred and that what we speak, or write, into the world has its root in the same power with which God commanded reality into existence. For in the beginning, it was God’s speaking which gave us matter, light, and time. So, if you dare to be a theologian, be mindful of the sanctity of what you do, and do not use your words in vain.

Was John the Baptist Elijah?

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Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed swayed by the wind? If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings’ palaces. Then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written:

“‘I will send my messenger ahead of you,
    who will prepare your way before you.’

-Matthew 11:7-10

 

Every gospel in the bible starts with John the Baptist, he is obviously important, yet we don’t seem to give him the attention he deserves. John has quite an interesting story to him. His birth is shrouded by much of the same mysterious situation as Jesus’, especially when Luke tells the story. Even a casual reading reveals that he intentionally shaped their nativities into a clear parallel. The angel Gabriel bears news of a son first to Zechariah, and again to Mary. Both conceptions are impossible; Elizabeth is too old, and Mary is too young. Each miracle leads the people involved to sing songs of praise. Zechariah’s drawing from the spirit of the prophets, and Mary’s echoing the song of Hannah.

Every detail in Luke’s account is crafted to assure the reader that these two babies — named John and Jesus by order of the Lord — are profoundly significant. The angel Gabriel came first to Elizabeth and John was born 6 months before Jesus. Even in their births John came to prepare the way for Jesus. But the angel said more than just John’s name. He made a startling reference to Malachi 4, a familiar scripture to the people of those times. The angel said to Zechariah about John that he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.

When we first hear that we think that the words “in the spirit of Elijah” sound like a metaphor. As if to say “he will be great like Elijah”. But if you turn back to the passage in Malachi that the angel is referencing you realize that this is a prophesy about the messiah. In Jewish culture from those days right up until the present it is expected and known that Elijah will return to the earth before the messiah comes. In fact, at the Seder feast Jews still to this day pour a cup of wine for Elijah. They believe that one day he will arrive as an unknown visitor and herald the advent of the messiah.

Elijah is an extremely important figure in Jewish tradition and it is believed that he visits and blesses important occasions in Jewish life. Elijah was equally as venerated in the times of Jesus and the Jewish people would have been well versed in this theology. And so, it was made known before John was even born that he would come in the power of Elijah to usher in the new era and ready the way for the messiah. John came before Jesus, Elijah came before the messiah.

But if you think that’s interesting, wait till you hear what Jesus says in Matthew 11. Jesus is addressing John’s disciples who had gathered with him in the desert. Jesus identifies John as a prophet, and indeed more than a prophet but Elijah himself who had been predicted in the book of Isaiah as one who would prepare the way for the Lord. A little while later, after John had been killed by Herod who knew that people were saying he was Elijah, Jesus and a couple of his disciples went up a mountain. While Jesus was up there Moses and Elijah both appeared and a voice from Heaven came down and said those familiar words from Jesus’ baptism “This is my son with whom I well pleased”

John witnessed the testimony of God over Jesus, he was there when God declared Jesus was his son both times. In the river Jordan as John and on the mount of transfiguration as Elijah. We know this because after Moses and Elijah disappear the disciples ask Jesus why people say Elijah must return before the messiah can come. Jesus answers that Elijah must come and indeed he already has for John is Elijah. Jesus points out that the authorities had already killed John and that they were going to kill him also. The fulfillment of prophesy was happening. Elijah returned and the messiah had come but the people were not ready and killed them both.

So what does all this mean? What does it mean that John was Elijah? That’s a big question and in researching this topic I found a wide array of answers from various religious leaders and theologians. Many people want to deny that John was Elijah, it’s a common stance that preachers take. They don’t like the idea of reincarnation showing itself in scripture. They especially don’t like Jesus plainly saying that it happened. One of the main arguments people use when taking this stance is that in the gospel of John, John the Baptist denies being Elijah. The story goes like this:

 

Now this was John’s testimony when the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask him who he was. He did not fail to confess, but confessed freely, “I am not the Messiah.”

They asked him, “Then who are you? Are you Elijah?”

He said, “I am not.”

“Are you the Prophet?”

He answered, “No.”

Finally they said, “Who are you? Give us an answer to take back to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?”

John replied in the words of Isaiah the prophet, “I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.

-John 1:19-23

 

Why would John deny being Elijah when Jesus so clearly says that he is? Why would he deny being Elijah when the angel spoke to his father claiming him to be the fulfillment of the words of Malachi? One thing that I think is worth noting is that in the 3 synoptic gospels, that’s Matthew, Mark, and Luke, John is presented as Elijah. But in the gospel of John he is not. This isn’t the only place where the gospel of John differs from the other three. In fact, that’s why the first three are lumped together and called synoptic, which comes from the same word as synopsis and means a summary or a general overview. The word was adopted for these three gospels because they share a similar view, they tell a similar story.

But either way, the astonishing number of references in the New Testament that point to John the Baptist as Elijah speaks for itself, even if there is one passage that disagrees. Although I still wonder about that one passage, because in it John not only denies being Elijah, he also denies being the messiah, and he denies being a prophet. Well, he is clearly a prophet. By every definition John was a prophet. It almost feels like he is being humble here, or avoiding the criticisms of the religious authorities who are questioning him.

Jesus also tried to keep his true identity secret. He would answer questions with questions. People would ask him who he really was and he would reply “who do they say I am” He regularly told his disciples to tell no one what they had witnessed. In fact, that’s the first thing he told them when they saw Elijah right after “get up don’t be afraid”. As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus instructed them, “Don’t tell anyone what you have seen, until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

In Matthew 11, if you remember, Jesus says John is a prophet, and even more than a prophet. He said John was the greatest man born of a woman. Well that’s quite a claim considering that Jesus was born of a woman himself. It sounds like he is saying John is even greater than he is. After John’s disciples had left Jesus turned to the crowd and said “Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist”

At another point in the story though, John says that he is not even worthy to tie Jesus’ sandals. It seems like John and Jesus both claim the other is better than them, they play this back and forth game of humility, giving one another the credit. Neither wanted to be known for who they truly were and neither wanted to stand above the other.

In many ways John represents the lineage to the Hebrew Scriptures and the line of the prophets. Jesus also said “For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John. And if you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come.” Jesus is saying that the prophets and the law both worked towards the goal of Elijah’s return which would herald the coming of the messiah. And that John was the fulfillment of that, he was Elijah himself.

While John represents the old line and tradition of the prophets Jesus represents the new way. We are told specifically that John did not drink any alcohol, but we know Jesus was famous for his wine making. John lived an ascetic life in the desert, Jesus lived amongst the people eating with them and being fully engaged in this world. John baptised with water, but Jesus baptised with the Holy Spirit. The old way cleared the path for the new way and the great Elijah himself witnessed to Jesus and his divinity. But Jesus clearly thought very highly of John. The new way did not scorn the old way but honoured it as the greatest there ever was.

I am reminded of a book I am reading right now. I am currently studying a book from 14th century England called the Cloud of Unknowing. It is really an instruction manual written by a contemplative monk addressing an advanced student. In the book it talks about two kinds of humility, imperfect humility and perfect humility. Imperfect humility is where we begin, it is a sense of insignificance in the face of God’s grandeur. It is a sense of spiritual poverty and unworthiness. It is the kind of humility that makes us small.

But there is a second kind of humility which realizes the superabundant love and worthiness of God himself and in that is humbled. The first humility comes from truly understanding oneself. Imperfect humility is seeing through the masks we put up to know our true selves and our true nature. But perfect humility comes from the act of letting all that go. Perfect humility happens when we lose and forget all awareness and experience of our own being so that we don’t think either of our holiness or our wickedness but have knowledge of nothing except God.

The first humility reminds me of John. His preaching focused on repentance. The proclamation that sin was encroaching in and that by realizing our spiritual poverty and unworthiness we cold be made ready for the messiah. Jesus reminds me of the second humility. His preaching focused on God’s love. It was a proclamation of the worthiness of God and loving the broken. John’s teaching was to turn inward and repent. Jesus teaching was to turn outward and to serve. We can see in all of this how repentance makes ready a highway for love. How John’s ministry made the people ready for Jesus’ ministry.

So, sisters and brothers, as you go about your lives, I encourage you to look within yourself. Look inwardly and ask the hard questions, ask yourself how you can go out into the wilderness to meet John and be baptised. Ask yourself how you will let Elijah prepare the way for the messiah within your soul. I am not exaggerating when I say that there is no work which is more important than this. There is nothing more valuable to do than to prepare yourself for Christ’s coming. Because the prophesies tell us that he is coming, it’s a promise. The question isn’t does Christ come, the question is are you ready to receive him?

The task at hand is to make yourself humble enough to receive the messiah, so listen to the words of Elijah and repent. Take the time to get to know yourself so that you can let go of the things which hold you back. Selfishness, pride, ego, anxiety, all these things stand in your way. Let go of them and you will be humble. But do not let yourself think that you can skip John and go straight to Jesus. If you wish to find that perfect humility you must first find the imperfect humility.

The scriptures tell us of history, they tell us of moral instruction, but they also serve as allegories for the spiritual journey to God. Before Christ can be born in our hearts we must follow John into the wilderness. We must come to know how small we really are, how silly the things we occupy our minds with are, how far from God we have turned our attention, and even our love. So repent, sisters and brothers. Be baptised in the river. Do the work. Prepare yourselves to receive Christ in your hearts. Make ready a highway for your God.

Who do we say God is? Part 2

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This post will pick up where it left off in part 1.

Christianity did not only inherit and adopt the economic and political forms of the Roman empire but also the philosophical ones. The Greek philosophers like Plato and Aristotle had an undeniably huge impact on Christian development everywhere but particularly in the west. The roman Catholic church has referenced these teachers almost as much as their own scriptures in official writings from its earliest formation right up until today.

This influence in Christian history brought with it the idea of God as more of a cosmic force than a tribal deity. The teachings of Plato and Socrates heavily influenced the way we understand God. The platonic teaching of forms can be explained, very simplistically like this: everything we see on earth is an imperfect reflection of something in heaven. They didn’t call it heaven, they called it the world of forms, but Christian theologians took it as heaven.

So, by Platonic reasoning, every chair on earth is an imperfect representation of perfect chairness in the world of forms. Not just physical things but more ephemeral things as well. My love for my son is an imperfect reflection of the form of fatherly love. Math, and in particular geometry, was a big part of how this Greek school of thought came to this conclusion. Every round thing on earth, every apple and every orange, is an imperfect image of the perfect sphere which we know about only in our minds.

And so heaven became this world of forms and God became the perfect form of love, righteousness, and power. This is how they understood the Hebrew scripture which says we are created in God’s image. With the influence of the academy on the church God became a very mathematical God. Like math, God was abstract, unchangeable, perfect, and while he certainly had an impact on how the earth works he was not physically present like he was for Abraham, Moses, or Solomon. Theology became a process of rational speculation and the religious leaders shifted their attention from sacrifices to Greek logic.

One major philosophical theologian was Thomas Aquinas. Thomas Aquinas really solidified the logical argument for the necessary existence of God still used today in discussions between atheists and Christian apologists. Again, like I did with Plato, I am going to give you the extreme Cole’s notes version of his argument and necessarily butcher it in the process. Aquinas wrote volumes of theology, thousands of pages, and we don’t have time to go through it all now, nor do I have the expertise to do something like that. But here is the butchered version of Aquinas’ ontological argument for the existence of God.

He starts with the assumption that everything which moves has been pushed. Unless another force comes along and gives something a nudge it will stay where it is. He also says that anything which exists came into existence because of another force. Things don’t simply happen on their own. He argued that if you trace this line of thinking back you end up needing to have what he calls an initial mover, or a first cause. He argues that God must be this first cause, the one who set the universe in motion. The one who took the proverbial pool cue and started all the balls rolling.

This idea of God took off during the later middle ages and was really a big part of the way theology turned after the middle ages ended. One other thing that happened in the middle ages was a great disconnect between the clergy and the laity. Where the early theologians like Paul, or Tertullian, or Augustine had their works read out in public and were at least nominally familiar to the average Christian, the very scholarly and academic theology of the middle ages was pretty far removed from the common people.

The average person was more concerned about being baptized and taking communion so they could get into heaven than they were about ontological arguments for God’s existence. In short, the ritual and temple worship of Solomon had been carried on, though drastically changed, into the cathedrals of medieval Europe except with a clear apocalyptic view. The apocalypticism of the middle ages was very different than that of the early church however. It was not about the salvation of the world in the future, it was about the salvation of individual souls in the after life. Paul’s teachings of the resurrection of the body were forgotten and people were more concerned about purging sin in purgatory so that they would qualify for a spot in Heaven after they died. This was the purpose of all religious action and thought and a legitimate worry for most Christians.

With the protestant reformation came another radical and drastic change not only for the protestants but for the Catholics as well. The reformers wanted to see the gap between common cathedral worshippers and philosophical theologians lessened. They also wanted to break the tradition of papal authority, that is the idea that the Pope was God’s direct and perfect agent here on earth. So the protestant revolution gave rise to a new understanding of God. The two guiding principles were sola fide and sola scriptura. These Latin terms mean by faith alone and by scripture alone. We talked about faith vs works in one of our previous discussions. But today we are going to focus a little more on sola scriptura, by scripture alone.

This ideology was really about authority. Until the reformation, the church in the West had it’s central authority in the pope, but that authority was more about running the business than about understanding God. The reformers wanted to take that authority away from the pope and place it in the Bible. In their minds Christianity was defined by the Bible alone. That same Greek philosophy which had, up until this point, been wide sweeping and synthesized what today are the separate schools of theology, astronomy, natural science, social science, ethics, music, and many other fields, was beginning to make some real progress and call into question many assumptions of Western culture. After the reformation and into the age of enlightenment science had really come into itself and was starting to attract the attention of the intellectual elites. Science had an ultimate authority which was the scientific method that allowed for a new and astonishingly successful way of making truth claims. All of a sudden theologians felt left out of intellectual debates with outdated and unverifiable truth claims. The protestant theologians wanted back into the intellectual court and so they created the doctrine of solar fide and set scripture as their truth maker. The Catholic counter reformation sought to address the issue by reaffirming their papal authority and putting a great deal of effort into the scholastic efforts of the papacy.

Up until this point religious truth had been largely based in experience. People accepted religious to the based on what they felt, but now, religious truth needed verification from a higher authority, religious claims needed to be grounded in something authoritative. No longer could a preacher like Paul simply tell people what was up, if religion was going to keep up with science it needed truth makers. While the protestants had scripture and the Catholics had tradition a new group began to emerge known as deists. Deists were the pinnacle of the rational scientific movement, they believed that both scripture and tradition were outdated stories from less enlightened primitive times at best and flat out superstitious nonsense at worst. Deism essentially believes God to be a cosmic watchmaker who set the universe into motion and now sits back and watches it unfold. In the deist mind God does not answer prayer or intervene in history, God is completely uninvolved in the world and was merely the initial mover Thomas Aquinas spoke about in the middle ages and nothing more.

Deism is a word we don’t here much anymore but it’s effects are still strongly felt today. Eventually deism led to atheism on the one hand and what some scholars call functional atheism on the other. I personally think deism is what most western Christians believe today. A vague concept that God is out there but doesn’t really have anything to do with daily life. A way of understanding the gospel as a set of moral and social instructions that we can base our lives off of.

In response to the deist movement and the pluralistic religious ideas of the 18th and 19th centuries arose the fundamentalist movement. The fundamentalists saw deism as one step away from atheism and wanted to go back to what they considered to be the fundamental teachings of Christianity as taught in the Bible. They insisted on literal interpretation of the scriptures and were skeptical of science, philosophy, and religious pluralism. While their movement claimed to be true unadulterated Christianity it, like all other forms of religion, reflected their own biases and cultural assumptions.

In the 20th century and right up until today there is another counter movement against fundamentalism. The United Church belongs to the Western liberal tradition which is essentially a rebuttal to fundamentalism which was a rebuttal against deism. Deism was born as a way to put aside the superstition of the past and had it’s roots in the protestant reformation which was, of course, a rebuttal against medieval Catholicism.

Now, we’ve covered a lot of ground but think back to Moses’ God, who lived in a wooden box covered with gold and who required animal sacrifices, how much does that God look like our God today? How much can we think of Moses’ God as the same as the Western Christian God of the early middle ages? How much does the temple dwelling God of Solomon look like the God of the Protestant reformers? How does what we believe today fit into the history of Western Christian thought and what will the church of our children look like? Is there any consistent thread? What do you hope to see carried into the future and what are you willing to leave behind?

Who do we say God is?

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Our ideas of God, and indeed all our religious ideas, have changed over the centuries. We can see it within the Bible and we can see it within the tradition of the church after the Bible was canonized as well. Today we will look at some of the changes we can see throughout the shared history of Christianity and Israel and try to look at the wide array of ways God has been worshiped, from tribal deity to cosmic principal, from God of the oppressed to God of the oppressors, from an interventionist God to a divine clock maker; the ways we have understood and worshiped God have flip flopped and changed a hundred times over.

We spoke about the early church a while ago during our discussion on creeds and the way orthodoxy and heresy were formed. Concepts of God’s nature are not all that has changed, but also concepts of human nature. Questions of predestiny, questions of God’s will for social and moral values, and questions of afterlife are anything but consistent throughout Christian history, denominations, and even geographical location. The illusion that there are consistent or definite qualities which specifically make a group Christian is just that, an illusion.

If we start with the earliest figures in our tradition, Abraham and his family, we can see a way of life very different from what we practice today. Abraham sets up small altars upon which he sacrifices animals to his God. While Abraham is considered the father of monotheism, his monotheism is fairly different from what is essentially the deism of many people today.

For one thing, there is good evidence to support that the early Israelites didn’t really believe in one god so much as they worshiped one god. The commandment given to Moses to not have any other gods before me, suggests that there were other gods but that they weren’t to be worshiped.

During this period the Lord was not located anywhere in particular, that’s why Abraham could set up an altar anywhere he wanted and why God was with the Israelites even in Egypt and even in the desert as he tried to help them find a new home.

But that changed after Moses had his encounter on mount Sinai and God instructed his people to build a tabernacle that the Lord could dwell in to be amongst his people. God became a localized phenomenon with the building of the ark of the covenant. So, at this point, God was still mobile, not attached a location, but had become physical and attached to a particular people in a ritualistic and material way. No longer could one simply erect a small altar and be in the presence of the Lord, now the Israelites had a tent with a box in it and in there God did dwell.

Eventually that box would come to rest in the temple which Solomon built and an entirely new way of expressing religion came about. God was no longer mobile, travelling with his people, God was now sedentary and attached to the holy land of Jerusalem. Along with temple worship arose a more complex priesthood and system of ritual and sacrifice. Institutionalized religion appeared in a way very different from the simple priests descended from Aaron in the past.

There also arose a new form of religious leaders alongside, and often opposed to, the priests. They were called prophets. The prophetic tradition is a brilliant and beautiful one, not many cultures have had the courage to include in their own structure and scriptures an entire class of people dedicated to calling the religion phonies.

The prophets spoke for God. While God physically rested in the tabernacle, which had been placed in the temple, God’s voice was now to be heard through the words of prophets. This marked an entirely new way of interacting with God. The prophets main complaints were that the Israelites mistreated foreigners and slaves and that they fell away from worshiping the one true God.

The constant appeal of the prophets to stop worshiping Baal suggests that a good number of people were worshiping Baal and this again points to the fact that the Israelites were not as strictly monotheistic as we might like to think.

With the Babylonian exile and the subsequent Roman occupation the Israelites were exposed to a great deal more external religious influence and their tradition changed yet again. For one, what had seemed like clear progress for their people by God was shattered. God had promised Abraham many descendants and followed through. He had promised Moses a law and a land for the people and he had followed through. He had promised to protect Israel and his temple and for many years had followed through. But now it had all fallen apart, where was their mighty God when Babylon and Rome came to oppress them?

And so they developed an apocalyptic tradition, which Jesus was part of. Before this time God had been understood as manipulating both nature and history for the sake of his chosen people. Everything from how the crops did to whether wars were won or lost was a result of God’s divine providence. But now, how could the God of Israel allow his people to suffer so much? So the focus shifted from God saving now to God saving later. The apocalyptic tradition placed hope in the future, in a coming Messiah who would usher in an era of peace and prosperity. Jesus was understood by some to be that messiah.

The early Christian movement took apocalypticism to its full potential. Paul told people not to bother getting married, not to bother making any long term investments, or to do anything really other than repent for the coming of Christ was at hand. Because Jesus had been raised from the dead the end was soon to come, and by soon he meant soon, like next week or something, any minute now the world was going to end and we all needed to be ready. The judgement was imminent, the righteous who had died were going to be physically raised from the dead, and the whole world was going to be radically changed. The apocalypse had come and was just getting revved up.

To these early Christians Heaven wasn’t a nice place your grandma went after she died, Heaven was a coming kingdom with Jesus as king that would rule the earth and start any day now.

That form of radical apocalyptic Christianity wasn’t sustainable in the long run, for obvious reasons: Jesus didn’t come back, and things here on earth stayed roughly the same. After a couple generations went by people had to adapt the Christian message, they had to find a new way to practice their faith and to understand God and their own place in the world. And so, Christians began to lessen their previously harsh criticisms of popular culture and Roman empire. They began to integrate into society and find regular jobs like regular people. Some of them even became soldiers and in their travels spread Christianity to the broader Roman empire.

Around 300 years after Jesus Christianity had become a thoroughly settled part of the Roman religious world. The Roman world accepted various cults to various gods and Christianity was one of the multitude of religious options a person could pursue in a very metropolitan and diverse society. Eventually, one very influential person had a conversion to Christianity. His name was Constantine and he was the emperor himself. He had a dream in which Jesus spoke to him and promised him victory in battle. One has to wonder if this is the same Jesus who had instructed his disciples to turn the other cheek and who chose crucifixion over defending himself.

Whether it was the same Jesus or not Constantine won the battle and converted to Christianity. This marked the moment where the church stopped being a small Jewish cult and took the first steps towards being the inheritor of the Roman empire, a wealthy and influential political and economic force. Of course, it didn’t happen overnight, but in a few short centuries Christianity was the official religion of the empire and the ideology behind a massive army and trade system.

That’s as far as we’re going to get today. What do you think some of the effects of Constantine’s conversion were? How do you feel about the shifts in Christian thought we’ve discussed so far? Do you see any reflection of our own ideas of church in our history up until this point? What can we learn from realizing how our ideas of God have changed? When Pilate was confronting Jesus, Jesus told him that he had come into the world to testify to the truth and Pilate responded with the very question we are still wrestling with today, “What is truth”. So, my friends, what is truth?

Columba: The Paradoxical Saint

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Be a bright flame before me, O God

a guiding star above me.

Be a smooth path below me,

a kindly shepherd behind me

today, tonight, and for ever.

Alone with none but you, my God

I journey on my way;

what need I fear when you are near,

O Lord of night and day?

More secure am I within your hand

than if a multitude did round me stand.

Amen.

-Prayer of St Columba

 

The life of a tradition mirrors the life of those who are living in it. St. Columba was the force which brought the Celtic Christian tradition out of the comfort of its font of life in Ireland and into the marches and uncharted lands of pagan Pictland. He was a product of his time, a fierce and passionate Celt with an unwavering devotion to the imminent God of the tradition he was carrying. He was a man who was riddled with passions and pride, yet he was also able to embody the virtues of self-restraint and humility, but above all he was considered a saint by the people of his time and is remembered as a hero to the Celtic people.

Like any proper hagiography from that period of time Columba’s story begins with a miraculous birth. His mother had a prophetic dream in which an angel came to her with a beautiful cloak which she held in her hands. After admiring its beauty for a short while it floated away and off to a far land across the sea. The angel told her it was a symbol for the son she would bear. It foretold Columba’s mission to convert many souls to the Christian faith. Prophesy was of the utmost importance to the Celts, and was a staple of Columba’s miracles. This prophesy, and its fulfillment, would be the basis for all of Columba’s life.

The life of St Columba exemplifies the four aspects of the Celtic spiritual journey. His font of life began in the house of Cruithnechan who had baptized him and given him his first instructions in religious life and literary endeavours. However, it was Columba’s fate that the comfort of the font of life would not be a lengthy part of his journey. His path was a transformative one which not only explored the marches, but expanded the font of life to encompass them upon arrival, enlarging the circle as he went. However, before he was to explore the outer regions of his spiritual journey, he first had to experience the highs and lows of the mountains and valleys.

It is fair to say that Columba had many extraordinary visions which could be considered mountain top experiences. The one that seems to be the most formative in his personal journey was the visitation from the three sisters which God gave to him for brides. When visited by his Guardian angel one night Columba was asked what gifts he would ask of God. Columba answered wisdom and purity. The angel was so pleased with his response that he foretold these two gifts would come to him as well as one more. Then, one day, three beautiful young women approached him, informed him they were the daughters of God, and promised themselves to him as his wives. The names of the sisters were purity, wisdom, and prophesy.

This vison is what I have chosen to call Columba’s mountain top experience. It was an influential and life changing event in his life which set the tone for much of what was to come afterwards. Of all his visions this one spoke to his personal condition directly more than any other. It is also deeply symbolic of the merging of Celtic and Christian culture. The fact that women were the manifestation of these most highly prized virtues is evident of a Celtic understanding of divinity, which includes both genders. That Columba was to marry these girls, who were the daughters of Jesus, was a blending of Christian ascetic ideas of celibacy for monks and the importance of love and personal connection for the Celts. It could be said that these sisters were like Columba’s anam cara. He shared with them a deep and personal connection, yet they were not truly of this world, allowing for both the immimentalist ideas of the Celts and the new dualistic ideas of the Roman church.

This mountaintop experience helped carry Columba out of his font of life and into his first exploration of the marches. After this experience he left Cruithnechan’s care and entered into monastic life as a deacon under the tutelage of St Finnian. Columba’s story was very much about the marches of life, and he would eventually go much further than this, but not until he had found his valley.

While studying with Finnian Columba took it upon himself to copy one of Finnian’s psalters without permission. Finnian took great offense to this and sought legal retribution under the authority of High King Dermott. Dermott ruled in favour of Finnian and Columba was ordered to return the copied text to him. This finished psalter was of great value and took a considerable amount of time and skill to produce. The issue was contentious enough that Columba decided to defend the psalter, and his pride, by means of military action. Columba’s army defeated Dermott’s in a gory battle which cost the lives of thousands of men on both sides. Columba was then advised by one of his spiritual mentors that he must win back for Christ as many souls as were lost in the battle.

This formative incident in Columba’s life is representative of the valley in many ways. Mainly because Columba is shown to have very human characteristics. Envy for the psalter which was not his, and a willingness to go to battle and sacrifice the lives of so many men to satisfy his pride are not the characteristics one expects to find in a saint. This personal failing surely must have been as much a devastation to Columba as the consequences of his actions which were to follow.

Out of the valley Columba was again thrust into the marches, but this time much further out. His spiritual journey was to take him to pagan Pictland, to the west of his familiar font of life in Ireland. It was in the Kingdom of Dalriada, in Pictland, where Columba would fulfill the prophetic dream of his mother, bringing his story full circle and forging out of a hostile and foreign land the monastery which would become the hub of Celtic Christianity.

This expansion into far reaching marches was not only a part of Columba’s personal journey, but of the Celtic people as whole. There are rare moments when one person’s life becomes completely entwined with the life of an entire culture and Columba, for a brief moment in history, embodied Celtic Christianity as they travelled together to the far reaches of uncharted territory. In a glorious feat of Providence the fate of one man changed the fate of an entire people. Celtic Christendom expanded its font of life into what was before the marches and the lonely island of Iona, which was the very fringe of the Celtic Christian world, became the center.

Columba shows us some very crucial things which are still relevant today. He demonstrates the fine line between faith and arrogance, courage and belligerence, virtue and sin. He walks this fine line and touches feet down on both sides. Yet, most importantly, he shows us how imperfect people can still be tools for God’s purpose.  In this we can see that our own shortcomings, our own folly, can be interwoven into God’s plan. He exemplifies that very Celtic view that our lives and the world around us are not separate from God’s world. We live and breathe in God’s grace and the very living of our lives is not separate from, or opposed to, Heaven. Columba was very much a part of this world and was subject to those human qualities that we all share yet he was a holy man and venerated saint. This paradox blurs the lines between sacred and secular and shows us that those distinctions are, in many ways, arbitrary.

He also shows us that with unwavering faith the intimidating marches in our lives can not only be known and explored but also tamed. The circle of our spiritual life is expanding and we aid that process by our willingness to follow God with courage, and perhaps sometimes arrogance, into the unknown.

Swords into Plowshares

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War is one of the tragic truths of our world. For as long as humanity has recorded history war has been the focus of that history. For as long as nations have kept armies war has been the source of power. For as long as fear and greed have been the driving forces in politics war has been the result.  War seems to be integral to human life and inescapable.

It has been so essential to our ideas of nationhood and governance, honour and virtue, duty and responsibility that we accept war as necessary, inevitable, and even justified. But Jesus came to tell us that there is another way. He came to tell us that love and forgiveness are infinitely better than violence and retribution. Martin Luther King Jr did a really good job of elaborating on this as well when he said:

“Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars…Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”

But how does love do that? How can love drive out hate? And most importantly can love be an alternative to war? I would like to share with you a couple stories I took from a package put out by the Central Mennonite Committee. One is a story of how humanity and love shine out through even the darkest times.

How the spirit of community and giving is really what people want to share with one another even in the depths of the most gruelling warfare. The other is a story about how political problems on an international scale can be solved by means other than violence, how war is not our only option in times of distress. The first is called the story of the Christmas truce and the scene is set on the western front of the First World War in December of 1914:

For some months, Allied and German forces had been locked in a stalemate of trench warfare. Often, their trenches were located only a few hundred meters from each other. In the weeks leading up to Christmas, soldiers from opposing armies began to exchange greetings and songs between their trenches.

On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day many of them ventured into “no man’s land” to put up simple Christmas trees, to exchange food, cigarettes and souvenirs, and to jointly bury their dead. Some groups sang Christmas carols together, while others played games of soccer.

Military officers clearly were not pleased with this kind of “fraternization.” The following year at Christmas, Allied commanders issued specific orders to soldiers not to participate in any further Christmas truces, though some smaller ones occurred. Later in the war, they ordered artillery bombardments on Christmas Eve to ensure there would be no friendliness across enemy lines. After all, the war had to go on!

The story of the Christmas truce reminds us of the common humanity of all people – even those we call our enemies. Perhaps it invites us to consider what the world would look like today if the Christmas truce of 1914 could have led to a real truce. Perhaps the spirit of Christ in that day could have made for a lasting peace instead of one that would fall apart only 25 years later.

 

Our second story is called The Singing Revolution and takes place in Estonia after the Second World War:

Stronger than an army and more powerful than a fleet of tanks, the songs of the Estonian people changed the course of a nation and brought about their independence. Estonia became an independent country in 1920 but was conquered by the Soviet Union following the Second World War. Under Stalin’s plan of “russification,” he tried to suppress Estonian nationalism by banning nationalistic songs, making it illegal to fly the Estonian flag, and encouraging Russians to immigrate to Russia’s newly acquired territory.

But Estonian culture and nationalism persisted, and in an effort to regain their independence, hundreds of thousands of Estonians gathered, over the course of four years, to stage mass peaceful demonstrations. Estonia may be one of the smallest countries in the world (1.3 million people at the time), but they possess one of the largest repertoires of folk songs. They sang these songs in unison in an attempt to regain their independence.

At a music festival in September, 1988, 300,000 Estonians, nearly a quarter of the population, linked hands and sang together. The next year, 700,000 gathered along with millions from Lithuania and Latvia, linking hands in a human chain the length of three countries. After four years of persistent singing demonstrations, the revolution was successful. When Soviet tanks entered the capital, Estonians acted as human shields to protect radio and TV stations. Estonia’s Congress and Supreme Court declared Estonia an Independent State.

The united songs of the people accomplished what tanks and military could not. Estonia freed itself from Soviet rule, peacefully becoming an independent country once again.

It is not easy to put your faith in peaceful alternatives to war. Who would ever have guessed that Christmas would be all that was required for enemy forces to share rations and play soccer?  Or that folk songs could liberate an oppressed nation? Especially when you consider that the Soviet Union was not known for its empathy to the plight of the nations under its jurisdiction.

But peaceful tactics have been successful in other situations as well. India gained its independence by means of non-violent action under the guidance of Mahatma Ghandi. The civil rights movement could easily have turned into a very violent situation if it were not for the gentle yet powerful leadership of Martin Luther King Jr.

As a culture I think we have created a false dichotomy where we assume that we either fight or do nothing, we think that non-violence is the same as non-action, but that is not true. We have a completely wrong idea of what power is. We assume power comes from force, from military might, from the ability to be bigger than everyone else.

But Jesus came to teach us otherwise. He came to teach us that the real power is in being humble. That true strength comes not from an ability to over power others but instead from an ability to embrace and heal those who are suffering. True power is being able to force out an oppressive regime with music. Or in dismissing the orders of your superiors and sharing a Christmas meal with your enemy.

That sort of strength requires a deep faith in what you are doing. It requires a faith in love which is really nothing more than a faith in God. Rabindranath Tagore, a great leader in the Indian independence movement, had this to say about faith:

“Faith is the bird that feels the light and sings when the dawn is still dark”.

Even in darkness we can know that morning will come and we can sing in the night. In the midst of war and violence we can stand out as a voice of peace singing of what is to come. The prophet Micah made a beautiful and famous prophesy of the coming Kingdom of God. He said

“They will beat their swords into plough shares, and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war any more.”

This is a beautiful image that shows us how we can better use our resources. I couldn’t find any up to date figures on what Canada spends for the military but the U.S. spends approximately $700 billion on military defense each year. Numbers like this get confusing. I have trouble picturing a million dollars let alone $700 billion but to put that in perspective some estimates put out by The Hunger Project, a charity dedicated to the elimination of hunger in the world, puts the cost of feeding all the hungry people in the world at about $30 billion per year. This means that the U.S. military budget spends enough in 8 days to feed every hungry person in the entire world for a year.

The spirit of Christ does not change. He has given us the commandment to love our enemies and surely he has not changed his mind. For Christ was explicit that violence is to be avoided, that even to protect yourself it is never to be used. But while Christ did not practice or justify violence he was also not passive. He was not tame and submissive.

He spoke out and changed the face of the world without hurting a single person. He used love, forgiveness, and honest public discourse to alter the fate of humanity more than anyone before or after him. A humble man riding a donkey never carrying a sword has had the most profound impact on humanity and he will be remembered long after the echoes of war have ended.

Since time immemorial we have used war to settle conflicts and bring order to human society but we have yet to accomplish our goal. How many times has there been a “war to end all wars”? How many times will war have to fail us before we realize that it is ineffective? War provides a temporary solution to systemic problems. Peace and love are the only forces powerful enough to bring about real and lasting change in the world. We must, instead of fighting wars, remove the occasion for war. We must look at the underlying causes of war and find real solutions. Instead of fighting we should feed people, we should educate people, we should care for them.

If a nation rises up proclaiming war we should feed every child in that nation and help to heal them. Through compassion we can overcome hatred, through generosity we can overcome greed, and through peace we can overcome war. This is the heart of the Gospel message. But what of the soldiers who have given their very lives to uphold and protect the noble ideals of democracy, liberty, and equality? What about those brave men and women who so nobly sacrificed themselves to protect and serve not only their families and their country but even strangers in foreign lands.

Surely Jesus has given us another message as well. He has taught us that to sacrifice yourself for others is the highest and best use of the life he has given us. Where he died on the cross our finest and best have laid down their lives on the battle field. And surely that is a commitment worth commending.

It is through people with that level of dedication, that deep moral inclination to put the needs of others before themselves, those people who are willing to stand up for what they know to be right and stare adversity in the face with confidence and unwavering devotion, it is through these people that peace will be possible when finally we embrace non-violent solutions to conflict. And it is to these people that we owe a debt of gratitude. The best gift we can give to those who have fallen in war is to make sure that no one after them need suffer the same fate, that we come to reach that beautiful time that the prophets of old spoke of, that time when we beat our swords into plow shares and study war no more. When we turn our resources from the manufacturing of weaponry to the production of food. When we stop investing in evil and start investing in what nourishes those whom Christ loves most – the forgotten and oppressed.

As you go about your week take some time to remember those who suffer from war. And together, let’s make a commitment to find the seeds of war in our own lives and remove them entirely. Let’s really look at the world objectively and try to find a way to remove the occasion for war. Let’s work to eliminate poverty, let’s educate children around the world, let’s share our wealth with the less fortunate nations and preach a doctrine of peace – just as our greatest teacher did 2000 years ago. Let’s take the time to ask difficult questions like: Why do we go to war? Is there another way? And what would Jesus do?

 

I would to like end my little rant with the words of a great teacher of Christ’s message, a man who lived the Gospel right up until his death. This is a short excerpt from a speech Martin Luther King Jr gave concerning the war in Vietnam, I believe it still rings true today.

“A genuine revolution of values means in the final analysis that our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies.

This call for a world-wide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class and nation is in reality a call for an all-embracing and unconditional love for all men. This oft misunderstood and misinterpreted concept — so readily dismissed by the Nietzsches of the world as a weak and cowardly force — has now become an absolute necessity for the survival of man.

When I speak of love I am not speaking of some sentimental and weak response. I am speaking of that force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life. Love is somehow the key that unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality. This Hindu-Moslem-Christian-Jewish-Buddhist belief about ultimate reality is beautifully summed up in the first epistle of Saint John:

Let us love one another; for love is God and everyone that loves is born of God and knows God. He that loves not knows not God; for God is love. If we love one another God dwells in us, and his love is perfected in us.

Let us hope that this spirit will become the order of the day. We can no longer afford to worship the god of hate or bow before the altar of retaliation. The oceans of history are made turbulent by the ever-rising tides of hate. History is cluttered with the wreckage of nations and individuals that pursued this self-defeating path of hate. As Arnold Toynbee says : “Love is the ultimate force that makes for the saving choice of life and good against the damning choice of death and evil. Therefore the first hope in our inventory must be the hope that love is going to have the last word.”

The Lord of Three

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The Lord appeared to Abraham near the great trees of Mamre

while he was sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day.

Abraham looked up and saw three men standing nearby.

When he saw them, he hurried from the entrance of his tent to meet them

and bowed low to the ground. He said,

“If I have found favor in your eyes, my lord, do not pass your servant by”

-Genesis 18:1-3

 

Before the beginning when God created the Heavens and the earth, there was the Holy Trinity. The eternal life from whom creation flows is not a static lonely god, but an intimate and relational triad in perpetual motion and with infinite possibilities. The traditional language used to describe the natural state of God is one in three, or three in one; the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – yet only one God. The primary importance of the Trinity is not found in the distinct persons within it, but in the relationship between them. It is in this circular dance of the persons of the Godhead that history unfolds, and the universe is given life.

The three persons of the Trinity are not varying aspects of the same God – like I am a father, a son, and a preacher. The Trinity is not different states of the same matter – like ice, water, and steam. The Trinity firmly denies any attempts to conform it to the wisdom of this world. Instead, the Trinity is three distinct individual people while still being one whole and undivided person. In its very essence, and in its ultimate truth, it must be a paradox when viewed with human eyes. Just as Abraham addressed his three visitors as one Lord, so do we approach the one true God and see three distinct faces. The doctrine of the Trinity is one which very clever modern minds like to attack as spiritual mumbo jumbo with no rational basis behind it – yet, while the doctrine of the Trinity is beyond the wisdom of this world and the confines of the human mind, it is far from being illogical – or without practical value. If our doctrines of God were simple enough for the human mind to comprehend with ease then they would not be nearly large enough to say anything of real value about God.

Yet, for far too long we have been told not to think too hard about the Trinity – we are simply supposed to accept the impossible as a matter of faith. Now, faith is a word that has been perverted to mean accepting the impossible for no real reason because a priest or a pastor somewhere told you to – when really it should mean to trust in something larger than yourself for very good reason because you know it to be worthy of your trust. I pray then, dear reader, that you may suspend your disbelief long enough to seek the wisdom embedded in what is arguably the most foundational doctrine of the Christian religion – that God is both one and many. May the Triune God give you faith which can move mountains so that you can believe in what is beyond you and trust in what you cannot see. I pray you have the humility to step outside the wisdom of this age and into the wisdom of God. Embrace the paradox and in that foolishness you may develop eyes which can see, ears which can hear, and a heart which can love.

One of the great Christian teachers of our modern time, CS Lewis, had this to say about the seeming paradox of the Trinity:

“On the human level one person is one being, and any two persons are two separate beings – just as, in two dimensions (say on a flat sheet of paper) one square is one figure, and any two squares are two separate figures. On the Divine level you still find personalities; but up there you find them combined in new ways which we, who do not live on that level, cannot imagine. In God’s dimension, so to speak, you find a being who is three Persons while remaining one Being, just as a cube is six squares while remaining one cube. Of course we cannot fully conceive a Being like that: just as, if we were so made that we perceived only two dimensions in space we could never properly imagine a cube. But we can get a sort of faint notion of it.”

 

We can easily imagine a one-dimensional line, a two-dimensional square, and a three-dimensional cube – but there our minds are halted by their limited nature when we try to imagine a fourth dimension. Yet, mathematicians have given us the tesseract, which is to the cube as the cube is to the square. Just as a square’s surface is made of four lines and cube’s surface is made of six squares, a tesseract’s surface is made of eight cubes. This is, of course, only possible with a fourth spatial dimension, one that, as far as we know, does not exist. While we cannot ever properly envision one or even conceive of what a four-dimensional universe would look like, we can still know mathematically that it is a possible thing to exist. In much the same way, we cannot ever fully envision how the trinity exists – but we can understand that it could exist in a way which is beyond our limited perspective. In understanding the existence of the trinity, and some of its principles, we can apply that reasoning to explain other questions and come, perhaps, to understand our own lives better by glimpsing what life beyond our own might look like – just as one understands the potential of a square much better when one realizes what a cube is like.

Accepting the doctrine of the Trinity is helpful both spiritually and philosophically. For now, let us examine some of the philosophical ways that the Trinity can help us understand reality.  Then, once we have explored the fruits of knowledge we can begin to explore the fruits of the eternal life which is bound up within the Trinity.

In the thirteenth century one of the most prolific theologians in Christian history, Thomas Aquinas, put forth five arguments defending the existence of God. Without going into the details of all five arguments we can take a look at some of the basic principles he was using. Aquinas argued that anything which is exists or is in motion has been acted upon by an external force. Anything which exists has been brought into existence for some reason and anything which moves has first been either pushed or pulled. Essentially, everything happens for a reason. If you see a pool table with all the balls moving around you know that someone hit them with a cue. You also know that something has brought the table and the balls into existence, someone constructed the table out of natural materials – and in turn those natural materials existed because of natural geological processes which collected the molecules together.

But, as Aquinas realized, if everything happens for a reason, and if we could trace those reasons back further and further, there are only two options as to what we would find. Either there was a first cause which set the universe in motion and brought everything into existence or time has no beginning and there was no first cause. It was common in the early scientific community to believe the latter position – that the universe had always been and that there was no beginning to time, however, in more recent decades we have discovered that the universe indeed did have a beginning, and that there was an initial event that set everything in motion.

And this makes sense philosophically as well as scientifically, if there was no first cause then where did all this motion come from? Most people in the science vs religion debate (which typically tends to be based on gross misunderstandings and petty bickering from both sides) agree that there was a first cause, namely the big bang. The question at hand then becomes what the nature of this first cause is, whether it was an eternal consciousness that we call God or simply a natural consequence of physical laws. There is no objective scientific answer to this question at this time, and perhaps there never will be. However, we can still explore this question in terms of philosophical inquiry and mystical experience. For now, we will stick with philosophical inquiry.

As Aquinas aptly pointed out, in order for anything to move it must be acted upon by another force and for anything to come into existence there must be a force which brings it. So, if the universe itself had a beginning then what was the cue that struck the balls and started everything rolling about? Aquinas called this proverbial cue stick God while others will think of it more as a natural consequence of physical laws. However, the first question we asked in this inquiry still applies to both these explanations – What caused God? What caused the law of physics? The line of reasoning Aquinas brought about is that there must be something outside of this chain of events which is not confined by the necessity of it all. In order for there to be anything at all there must have been something which started it and that something must be outside of the confines of logic or else it would be caught in the endless trap we have already described. So, then, the question becomes: what could exist outside the boundaries of physical laws and mathematical principles, time itself, and even logical necessities? This something we will call God and this God must exist, like the tesseract, in a way which is beyond the ability of our minds to grasp. Yet, like the tesseract, we can see from observing natural phenomena that its existence is very real, despite our inability to visualize it.

Where I will depart from Aquinas, and where I think the Trinity has an important role to play in this discussion, is that Aquinas thought God was both an uncaused first cause and an unmoving first mover. The main argument put forth by atheists against this is that it defies Aquinas’ first argument, that is that everything has a cause. The Trinity, by its very nature, is a relational being. In this dynamic dance each person of the Trinity is constantly creating the others and spurring the others into motion. In this way, God is not an unchanging or unmoving entity but instead an endless fountain of creation and change – a perpetual motion with infinite possibilities.

Aquinas believed that a motionless and unchanging God must be the necessary first cause. But how can something motionless create motion? The doctrine of the Trinity solves this issue by demonstrating that God is not motionless but quite the contrary – a fountain of perpetual motion. It is the interaction of the trinity which allows for this motion to take place. The Father compels the Son and the Spirit, the Son compels the Father and the Spirit, the Spirit compels the Father and the Son. A web of interaction is created between them which can multiply and refract into an infinite number of possibilities. Yet, some would ask, why must we assume this initial source of movement and creation has an intelligence at all?

Many atheists would argue, again, that this could simply be a movement of natural forces compelled by natural laws. Aquinas addressed this by pointing out the intricacy and intentionality of the laws which govern the universe, not by denying them. To simply accept the existence of natural laws without question is naïve – why are there physical laws at all? Why do those laws allow for such intricate and diverse order? What was the initial cause that brought these laws into being? Given that the natural laws of physics and logic are the ones that have given rise to the need for a first cause, it is hard to believe that they themselves are responsible for there being any universe at all.

The first cause must transcend this reality entirely if it is going to satisfy the need for a first cause without being caught in the trap itself. No, I’m afraid the physical laws are clearly created along with the rest of creation and the depth of purpose behind them must surely speak to an intelligent design. The laws of physics and logic could be non-existent altogether or they could be radically different and not lead to an ordered universe which gives rise to immensely complex forms of matter, energy, and life. Something beyond this reality has made the universe as it is and that something has made a beautiful piece of artwork where a chaotic collection of random substances could be instead.

And so, this intelligent being existing, like the tesseract, beyond our capacity to understand and in an eternal relationship of co-creating and co-propelling is the reason there is something other than nothing and that we enjoy the seemingly infinite complexity of the natural order that gives rise to our very existence and the planet the we call home. However, while all this philosophy is well and good and can help to sooth the mind into acceptance and allow it to let down its guard to open the gates of the heart, the most compelling evidence one could ever find as to why we should assume this first mover to be intelligent is simply mystical experience. We know intelligence entirely through experience – you know that your friends and family have minds because you interact with their minds. This is, in fact, the only possible way to determine intelligence, there is no test other than experience. For one mind recognizes another and anyone who has spent adequate time experiencing the mind of God knows it to be a mind.

One can theorize about a tesseract and draw it on paper and point to its existence by means of logic, but if one could glimpse it, just for a fleeting moment, even if that understanding left you once you returned to your three-dimensional mind, the sense of its realness would never leave you. I compel you, dear reader, if you wish to truly prove God’s existence, the loving perpetual relationship of the Trinity, and the infinite source of possibility contained therein, then seek to know God not with philosophy, but with the heart – for knowledge can only take you so far. To know God is not to understand God, but to love God and to be loved by God – for that is the peace which passes all understanding, and which guards our hearts and minds from themselves.

The War Within

 

This is a mashup of a whole bunch of psalms I wrote a little while back. There are few scriptures other than psalms and a little bit of my own writing. It is a lament for the pride I carry in my heart and the fact that I have many conflicting wills opposing one another inside my soul. It is a plea to God to bring peace to the chaos and unite my soul as one house so that I may have only God’s will guiding me and I may live in peace.

 

Be merciful to me, my God,

For my soul is a house divided against itself

I oppose myself at every turn

My adversary pursues me.

All day long he twists my heart;

    His schemes are my ruin.

He conspires against me

He lurks at the door hoping to take my life;

Do not let him overcome me;

    In your anger, God, bring my pride to ruin

What can my enemy do to me?

He trembles in fear of the Lord

Whose eternal word I praise

So when my heart overflows with terror

And floods my soul with useless worries

And causes me to doubt what is eternal

And beckons me to have faith in what is fleeting

And I find myself worshiping idols

And putting my trust in the works of human hands

And human honours

And human victories

I cry out to you:

 Lord Lord!

Record my misery;

    list my tears on your scroll—

    are they not written in your book?

Do you not know the anguish I bring upon myself?

You have searched me, Lord,

    and you know me.

    you are familiar with all my ways.

For you created my inmost being;

    you knit me together in my mother’s womb.

My heart was not hidden from you

    when I was made in the secret place,

    when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.

Your love knew my undivided soul;

Each moment of my life was written in your book

    before this battle began.

Where can I escape from your Spirit?

    Where can I flee from your presence?

If I could go up into the stars, you would meet me there;

    if I swam to the bottom of the sea, there you would be waiting also

There is no shadow which can hide me from you

For even the darkness of night shines like the morning sun in your eyes

Lord, hear my prayer,

    listen to my cry for mercy;

The enemy pursues me,

    he makes me live in darkness

like those long dead

Search me, God, and know my heart;

    test me and know my anxious thoughts.

In your unfailing love, silence my enemy

See if there is any offensive way in me,

    and lead me in the way everlasting.

God is our refuge and strength,

    an ever-present help in trouble.

Therefore we must not fear, though the earth give way

    and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,

For, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies,

it remains only a single seed.

But if it dies, it produces many seeds.

Come and see what the Lord has done,

    the desolation he has caused in my heart

He makes wars cease

And unites divided houses

    He breaks the bow and shatters the spear;

    he beats swords into plowshares

And throws the weapons of war into the fires of Hell

The Lord says, “Be still, and know that I am God;

Why are you crying out to me?

Do not be afraid.

Stand firm and you will know deliverance from your suffering

    Praise my name in your heart

And I will fight for you; you need only to be still.”

The Lord Almighty is with us;

  He prepares a table for us in his house

Where enemies dine together

and their cups overflow with goodness and mercy

There is a river which sings for joy in the house of the Lord,

    This river brings life to the tree in the garden

Which heals your soul and lifts the curse

Taste of this tree and your heart will be unbroken

And your mind will be made quiet

And your house will be made whole

So I make this vow to you, O God;

With an undivided will –

   To bring you offerings of thanks,

Love for all creation,

And compassion for my enemy.

There is only one thing I ask from you, O Lord,

this only do I seek:

that I may dwell in your house

all the days of my life,

For you have delivered me from death

    and my feet from stumbling,

that I may walk beside you

in the light of life.