But What Stays the Same?

(Continued from Monday.)

When I consider the forces that have influenced and continue to affect world Christianity, I am reminded that such developments need not always be negative.  While the dangers of illegitimate religious types-of-theology1combination (i.e. so much mixing or religious syncretism that Christianity adopts practices, outlooks, or beliefs which at heart contradict key aspects of the faith) are real, this is not the only narrative at work.  For inasmuch as Christianity can be derailed from its broadly held orthodoxy it can also be powerfully impacted by cultures, customs, and ideas without losing its path.

Translation is the name of the game here.  As the Church is adapted into other languages, styles, places, and people groups, it by necessity is translated into those contexts in myriad ways.  As Christ is apprehended in such places, He is understood as unchanging Truth by means of new language.  Missionaries have engaged in such work for centuries.  They continue to this day.  Sometimes such work can, far from “polluting” the faith, actually illumine some powerful realities others have forgotten.

And yet: the translation inherent in cross-cultural work brings with it a unique set of challenges.  For while such a process can help newcomers understand what Christianity is all about, the very process of translation almost by necessity changes things.  No two languages or cultures are alike, and different languages have words and nuance that are not replicated in others.  Translation is therefore a “best guess” or approximation of meaning.  Because it is inexact, it leaves, adds, and alters meaning.static1.squarespace.com

Can we accept this?  Well, I submit that we have to.  After all, I’m a beneficiary of such translation (language and culture) as I live out my own Christianity.  I, like you, read the Bible in a language and in a culture drastically different from the world from which it derives.  I’ve studied some Greek and Hebrew, certainly.  But I am far from an expert.  Even then, I do not understand it as a native speaker would in that time and place.  As I read the Bible, my context necessarily alters some of its meaning.  While I trust the divergence is so great that I’m at risk of departing from orthodox Christianity, I would be a fool to deny that my language and culture does not affect my faith.

While most believers’ (myself included) day-to-day interactions with Christianity can be discernibly orthodox, there is always the danger that things could diverge too far.  One of the reasons we need Bible scholars, teachers, and preachers is to help us understand more about the teachings of Scripture–both as connected to the language and culture in which they were written and with regard to their present-day implications.  But even they cannot perform this work perfectly without flaw or limitation.

HolyTrinityWhat I’m talking about here goes beyond culture and language.  I believe that humanity itself–regardless of learning–is simply unable to understand certain divine realities as they actually are.  We are limited and God is infinite.  We are bounded and God is transcendent.

Consider the Trinity–a complex doctrine if there ever was one.  Trying to explain it feels a bit silly at times, always careening between denying distinction in the Godhead, asserting some kind of created Jesus/Holy Spirit, and/or developing a doctrine of three gods.  Because we know from Scripture that God is three in some way while still one, we have developed the idea of the Trinity to explain it.  Does our theology describe exactly how God works?  Almost certainly not.  It is our “best guess”.  I think it is a fair one, but even so is limited.

Translation in language and culture–or at a more basic level from the divine to human–is a part of the tension at work in a faith that is both particular (i.e. Jesus) and universal (evangelistically open to all) at the same time. Such translation can pollute, forcing us to ask real questions about whether or not our perceived faith is close to the heart of God.  Even so, an endless and obsessive search for some Platonic form of Christianity to the detriment of the good and faithful ways it is practiced and embodied the world over is, I think, unfortunate.  Many of these ways are–like our articulation of the Trinity–limited and imperfect, but they are nevertheless representative of our “faith seeking understanding”.  As they remain grounded in Scripture and orthodox tradition and aware of the movement of the Spirit of God in our world, they can be powerful aspects of our shared faith.  light_clouds

Difference can mean heresy, but it need not always.  Sometimes it is just difference.

In the end, Church history helps me by aware of the diversity with Christianity, both in terms of its dangers and potential.  It also reminds me that, from Day One, Christianity has been about translation.  This means I need to be comfortable with it, at least at a certain level.  As missiologist Andrew Walls has written, “God chose translation as his mode of action for the salvation of humanity.  Christian faith rests on a divine act of translation…”


Matthew 18

“I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.”

-Jesus, Matthew 18:22

reconciliation_webHow often should I forgive a Christian brother or sister when they wrong me?  A lot, it seems.  As we’ve seemingly been taught just about every time this passage is read, “seventy-seven” or “seventy times seven” is not Jesus being overly picayune about numbers.  Rather, it is Him using an exaggerated figure to let us know that we need to keep on forgiving people.  We’re not just supposed to stop on the 78th or 491st offense, in other words.  Such forgiveness is yet another hallmark of the Kingdom of God that runs counter to many “common sense” aspects of our broken world.  It seems neither fair nor safe, we say…and yet there it is.

The principle inherent in what Christ shares is a powerful one, and reminds us once again of the humility and grace that He embodies and to which Christians are called.  But as I am thinking about Jesus’ words, I wonder if a little “spiritual experiment” would help bring such forgiveness into sharper relief.  While perpetual forgiveness is a powerful thing, it can often just fade into to background in a general principle–lofty but inexact.

What if, instead, I actually decide to forgive a fellow Christian seventy-seven times?  Keep track of it all, consciously choose to forgive, and move through each and every one of the nearly eighty sins and wounds this person might inflict on me?  I realize, of course, that love “keeps no record of wrongs” (I Corinthians 13:5).  I wouldn’t be remembering these moments in order to angrily hold onto the pain and hurt.  Rather, I would do so in order to consider the way forgiveness really worked.56382620

Thinking about forgiving a person that many times–even the modest number of 77–seems daunting. Especially if the sins to forgive are weighty.  I recall one such instance in my life, and how hard it was to move on.  Seventy-six more of those?  That’s hard.  The concreteness of that number is stark, and it doesn’t allow us room to wiggle out of it.  And yet we know, deep down, that this kind of grace, mercy, and humility is exactly what Christ seeks to accomplish in and through us.

May we pray to be people of such forgiveness, both in moments one to seventy-seven as well as following that 78th sin.

Another Of The Things I’m Going to See

As you may recall, last week I mentioned both the upcoming return on of The X-Files and how I had called for such a development last year.  Somewhat tongue-in-cheek, I was feeling quite the prophet.

But now?  Well, now I’m wondering if the powers that be have been reading my work.  Take a look at this promo for an upcoming movie:

What does this have to do with what I’ve written on this blog?  Nothing, apparently.  I thought I had posted on here about a “Young Jesus” television series that I wanted to see.  After a little searching, however, nothing came up.  And then I thought: “I know where it is!”  And there, of course, it was: in my first blogging effort.  The entry is now over nine years old, but it is still there.  As discussed, the series

first focuses on Jesus, but neither the Christmas “baby version” nor the fully grown prophetic model of the gospels. Rather, it seeks to fill in the “in-between” time…you guessed it—Jesus’ teenage years. The way I see things, it would be a great option for the WB Network to pick up. It could be called “Nazareth” and follow the same model as so many other coming-of-age teen dramas.

Granted, what I proposed there is somewhat different from what we’ll be seeing in the film, both in Jesus’ age and media delivery model.  Nevertheless, I’ChristTheLordbookcover.jpg.300x468_q100m interested in the thought-filled possibilities this portrayal may provide. Perhaps, in the strange interpretational territory that Jesus’ youth provides, there exists an opportunity to reflect upon Him in a new way.  We will see.

As for me, I should clearly start selling my ideas to Hollywood.  That is, unless I’ve been taking them from someone else.  A little digging reveals that this film is based on Anne Rice’s novel Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt.  The book was published in 2005–the year before my initial blog post.  Though the trail of connections may be somewhat cold, her project probably influenced my musings.  But…since we don’t know completely, perhaps I could just take credit for it anyway?  I’ll let you decide that one.

That’s now two down, friends.  Let’s see what other things we’re going to see!

Matthew 17

“Get up…don’t be afraid.”

-Jesus, Matthew 17:7

This brief moment takes me back to an old college professor who impressed upon us the reality of the Third Commandment–a lesson that has stayed with me all these years.  He told us, in short, that this guideline was in more danger of being swearingbroken in the monastery than the saloon.

“Do not take the name of the Lord in vain” is one of those things we think we know the meaning of, but in reality goes rather deeper than we supposed.  Using the Lord’s name in a forbidden way is not just about cursing God’s name (though that can certainly be a part of it) but is about what it means to respect and reverence the Lord and realize, as best we can, Who God really is (and is not).

We who are the religious leaders are in most danger of this kind of irreverence, as we use the name of God so much that it has become commonplace.  Think about it: we pastors and professors are always saying “God this” and “God that.”  We do this so much that God becomes just one actor or object amongst many.  Mostly unintentionally, we have defined God away.  In so controlling God’s name we have reduced the Divine to our particular material.  The name of God becomes like any other name transfiguration-abstract-e1360464424741or word, and in the process is domesticated.

Thinking that we have control over some aspect of God is a very human thing to do.  It makes us feel safe and steady.  The world makes sense when God, like everything else, is conformed to our understanding.

Peter, James, and John may very well have felt they had some things about the ways of God figured out here in Matthew 17. Until God spoke to them from Heaven and they fell to their faces.  God unsettled them.  Terrified them.

May we think twice before understanding God in commonplace ways–with or without the requisite voice from Heaven.

Matthew 16

“You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.”

-Jesus to Peter, Matthew 16: 23b

Peter-Son-of-God-1024x576In this important moment in Matthew’s gospel, Peter has just had two vastly different exchanges with his Teacher.  The first is his identification of Jesus as the “Christ, the Son of the living God.”  For this he is commended.  But then?  Then Jesus announces he will die.  Peter doesn’t like this, and the Lord begins to rebuke him.

For Peter, the notion that Christ has to suffer and die just isn’t right.  And: it is quite possible that he has now decided he’s not going to let that happen.  He’s trying to deny the stated reality of Jesus in favor of what he thinks is right.  In response, Jesus rejects his conversational adversary, informing him he is not thinking in a godly fashion but rather a human one.

From Peter’s point of view it doesn’t make sense that Christ would have to die.  Surely he could get out of it if he wanted.  Peter could protect him.  The disciples could protect him.  Not to mention all that miraculous power He had at His disposal.  Jesus and His followers had a good thing going, and it could be so in years to come.  No need for all the pain associated with death.  Peter, quite simply, had things all planned out for the Incarnate One.old-bible-christians-and-politics-1-1-559x340

Do we have things all planned out for God?  It’s a question worth asking.  As we now enter the season of politics, I’d like to suggest we remember some of this story.  How sometimes our earthly passions, emotions, thoughts, and theories can get in the way of the purposes of the Almighty.  Sure, we think we speak for God as we (re)post on Facebook and argue politics and cast ballots.  But do we?  Do our political passions overwhelm the call of God or color God’s word in such a way that we change its meaning?  Do we think we know better than God?  Because as Matthew 16 reminds us, we can get it wrong sometimes.

Be careful as our nation enters this politically fraught period, friends.  Be careful that you’re close to the mind of the Lord, and not the things of men and women.  Rather than just being convinced you know, be deeply convicted to listen to God.

Matthew 13

“A farmer went out to sow his seed.”

-Jesus (Matthew 13:3)

seed-sower-jeremy-samsIn one of the most famous of his parables, Jesus tells us about a person who sows.  Seed that is distributed ends up in a lot of different places.  The results are diverse.

Simple and oft-cited, this parable provides its readers/hearers with a lot of different imagery with which to wrestle.  On top of that, Jesus even takes the time to explain the story to his disciples.  But I’m not concerned with these details this morning.  Instead, I just want to focus on one picture: the sower.

Jesus doesn’t really spend much time here identifying the sower as such.  The text basically associates the image with those who share the message of the Kingdom of God.  So that’s Jesus.  That’s the disciples.  That’s Christians all throughout time.  That’s me too.

I’m not an expert in farming, but it appears that what the sower is doing here is not some scientific process of planting, but rather an almost casual dispersing of seed all along the ground that has been prepared.  There is method to it, but it is not overly defined by method.  It is sowing.

As the farmer proceeds, seed falls everywhere.  I don’t know what the personality of such a person is like, but I rather picture it as joyful.  Almost whimsical, if you’ll allow it.  There’s serious work to do, yes.  It will take a lot of time to sow this seed, yes.  But: the day is full and the wind is at their back.  And they can’t wait to see what this seed will turn into.  The worries of irrigation, weeding, harvesting?  That’s all for another day.

I think I’d enjoy being a sower.

I realize that my mental picture of this first-century agricultural worker probably won’t pass exegetical or cultural-historical tests, but all the same I like to imagine the sower smiling and singing asTheSower their task unfolds.  It is a good work, and they have a real part to play in it.

I suppose I see the sower in this light because it is how I want to picture the Christ follower as called to share the Kingdom of God.  Not worrying incessantly about the science of seeds but simply focusing on fulfilling a purpose: sharing the very good news that is Jesus Christ.

There is a time for strategies and planning, of course.  But there also needs to be a time for the joy of sowing.  A reminder too, that at the end of the day we don’t make seeds germinate and turn them into crops.  Only God gives Creation that ability.  We are just along for the ride.  And what a ride it is.

Matthew 11

Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.

-Matthew 11:28

greydayvol1largeWhen the autumn season begins, especially here in the Pacific Northwest, it’s like a thick blanket envelops me.  It is grey.  It is rainy.  It’s cool enough outside to begin to be uncomfortable, but not so cold as to actually be frigid.  It is, I would say, a somber and reflective time.  Not at all the high energy season of the year.

In such times my thoughts turn more readily towards melancholy and finitude.  The weather just seems to require it.  And trust me, the busyness and stress levels of the college professor in the month of October do nothing to diminish the effect.

As I ponder such things, I think I can hear more clearly the words of Jesus in Matthew 11.  Understanding that I can come to Him when I am weary gives me great comfort.  Knowing that those burdens can be laid down is a promise of inestimable value.  This brief verse is a special one to me in these greyer days.  It confirms and recalls God’s great love for God’s people.  For me.rest2

I’m a big fan of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship.  I understand that grace is not cheap.  I realize the Christian life is one which will involve sacrifice and potential suffering.  So when I talk about the rest that Jesus offers, understand I do not do so lightly.  I’m not saying that the Christian life is all lollipops, unicorns, and soft-pillowed rest.  What I am saying is that in those seasons when life is darker and when times are tougher, I am ever so grateful that He is there.  The refreshment offered in Matthew 11, you’ll note, comes deep in the midst of the weariness and burdens we feel.

Jesus’ promise to give rest to those who come to Him is not something I take lightly.  Especially in those times when there seems nowhere else to turn, He is there.  In the darkness of the traffic-filled 6am commute, He is there.  In the restprocess of sorting out the various pile of papers on my desk, He is there.  When it seems you’ve just said “yes” to one thing too many and now you have to figure out how to honor your word when there are only so many hours in the day, He is there.

In certain seasons it really feels like, as C. S. Lewis once wrote, that it is “always Winter but never Christmas.”  In such times, Jesus says it is still alright.  We do not have to do this alone.  When our strength is faltering or gone, there is One to whom we can turn.  That’s a promise I’ll take any day.

Friends, just as much as we need other things–and perhaps a lot more–sometimes we need a rest. I, for one, am thankful there is somewhere to turn.