25 February 2009

A poem on Ash Wednesday (in light of the imposition)

"Restoration or Bust"

No ethereal home for me.
I’ll be flesh and blood and grist,
as stout a
s a tree, as barbaric
as the kiss from the bisclavret.
Earth is here to stay—no cataclysmic
implosion, no end of space and time.
I’ll be growing cabbages, without weeds,
tippling wine. Dirty fingernails
will be my lot; looking to the sky,
the laconic cowboy, lost in thought.
The final Easter morn, hardly rapturous,
will have no meeting in the clouds;
yet the triumphal procession proceeds
right on schedule, right through town.
We agrarians, I suppose, will lay down
our fronds, then it’s back to pruning
and planning, the late-November span,
the eggplants and pepper, the slow grape
and the aching hand. Our soil, dark
and nutritious; the weather, bright but cold,
lends vigor to our toil, renewal to our world.

23 February 2009

In the Hope of His Glory

One of the most beautiful passages of the Psalms found itself eloquently translated in the seventeenth century: “There is a river, the streams whereof shall make glad the city of God, the holy place of the tabernacles of the most High. God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved: God shall help her, and that right early” (Ps. 46:4–5, KJV).

The allusion here is simple; the charge, direct. The stream is probably Shiloah, which flowed from the Gihon spring into Jerusalem, God’s city. The stream and where it flowed encompassed two of the most important aspects of God’s covenant with Israel: the monarchy of David (see 1  Kings 1:33–34, 45) and the city of faith. Thus by affirming God’s salvation, the psalmist warns those who would not rest upon divine protection, opting instead for the empty confidence afforded by whatever defenses the world may offer. As is so often the case, tantalizing, ungodly alliances turn out to be more trouble than what they are worth.

On this account, consider the Lord’s prosecution of the northern kingdom of ancient Israel: “Because this people have refused the waters of Shiloah that flow gently…behold, the Lord is bringing up against them the waters of the river, mighty and many, the king of Assyria and all his glory” (Isa. 8:6–7). Foolishly, the northern kingdom sought earthly salvation by making a pact with Assyria, being fearful of its army. Their defection from Judah and the Davidic monarchy was nothing less than a rejection of God’s chosen city and the way of faith. They forgot who they were.

In like manner, sometimes in the midst of biblical exhortation there is the tendency on our part to forget who (and whose) exactly we are. That is, we sometimes begin focusing too much on what we do as opposed to who we are. Alliances are forged based on the (often trivial) things we do. But what we do cannot make us who we are; rather, who we are springs forth into what we do. The elder John knew that those who left his church were not who they purported to be (see 1 John 2:19). Accordingly, the psalmist regarded the gentle streams of Shiloah inside the city — not the raging sea (46:3) — as that which made it glad.

So, unlike the northern kingdom, we must rely upon God despite the swelling tide, trusting in his promises confirmed by the crucified and risen Messiah, Jesus. Only then may we truly boast “in hope of the glory of God” (Rom. 5:2) and his salvation that is to come, and that right early.

This originally appeared in Tabletalk 28.12 (December 2004): 23}

03 February 2009

The Freedom of Fear

Cain offered grain faithlessly, and his sacrifice was meant to appease (see Gen. 4:1–6; Heb. 11:4). His concern was to placate the demands of his creator. Homage was a trivial thing to him, a mere formality to be dispensed with so he could get back to his daily routine. He gave his grain out of fear, and fear alone. His duty lacked love and delight.

Yet, fear is not a bad thing. To fear God is to begin on wisdom’s journey (Ps. 11:10; Prov. 9:10). Sometimes groveling is an appropriate reaction — especially for Christians. But maybe like Cain, we struggle to believe in the superabundant grace of God? Even though we seem to ignore the fact that we can displease him (Heb. 12:3–11), more often than not we seem to be suspicious of the bounty of God’s grace. We, too, attempt to secure the favor of God.

This must not be confused, however, with pleasing God, for that is a worthy cause indeed (see Rom. 12:1; 14:17–19; 1 Tim. 5:4). No, the kind of appeasement we fall into is the kind that seeks to block God’s view of our sin. Maybe if we give money to the church regularly, buy a pew for the new chapel, offer time and resources to the youth program, teach a Bible study, or speak of our faith to others, then possibly God will overlook our sin. Maybe he will see that we are not so bad, all things considered. Now, such things in themselves are good and right to do, but we grieve God when we adopt the appeasement mentality and disbelieve his grace (yes, we can grieve God; see Eph. 4:30).

In John Bunyan’s
Pilgrim’s Progress, a fellow by the name of Honest relates a story about one Mr. Fearing. Christiana, wife of the famed pilgrim Christian, sat close by, listening intently. Summarizing Mr. Fearing’s character, Honest said, “Difficulties, lions, or Vanity Fair, he feared not at all; it was only sin, death, and hell, that were to him a terror, because he had some doubts about his interest in that celestial country.” Strikingly, this redeemed individual was said to have no fear regarding physical calamities, but every fear about the life hereafter. What can assuage such fear?

There are those rare moments for many of us whose lives reflect the holiness and image of the living Savior. But at the exact moment we look to that fruit as a sign of our salvation, we are faced with the fear of having in reality no interest whatsoever in the city of God. After all, some of the world’s most virtuous philanthropists are self-avowed atheists.

For me, this happens at the table of celebration during Holy Communion. Any good work I may have accomplished the week prior utterly melts away. At the table, I become Mr. Fearing.

I ask God: Have I no interest in that celestial city? Have I been duped these many years, confusing the blessings of the church with the blessings of personal faith? Even worse than Mr. Fearing, I am anxious-ridden about life’s difficulties, lions, and Vanity Fair. In the end, my outward faith is a far cry from that of Mr. Fearing.

Then it hits me. This is what the gospel is all about. We have absolutely nothing to bring to the table of this new covenant. And it is precisely at this moment when we are to come, eat, and rest. Faithful obedience and confession, to be sure, are essential to the Christian pilgrimage, but we dare not bring those as payments or appeasements with which God will let us partake of his Son’s body and blood. Through faith we are not only declared “not guilty,” we are transformed, albeit imperfectly in the present, into the faithful nation of God.

Nonetheless, anxiety like Mr. Fearing’s cripples most of us at least once in life. In such a world as this, believing in God’s grace is truly a hope against all hope. Even our heroes succumbed to it, though we often prefer the caricatures over against the reality. We want the Luther who stood against Rome, noble and staunch, but forget about the Luther who wrote in 1527 that “for more than a week I was close to the gates of death and hell. I trembled in all my members. Christ was wholly lost. I was shaken by desperation and blasphemy of God.” We prize the Calvin of Geneva, that great reformer and teacher, and too often overlook the brooding anxiety that drove him to describe the world as an unsettling place in which “we cannot be otherwise than constantly anxious and confused.” We are, in short, bored and suspicious of God’s superabundant grace.

But essential to the health of our Christian lives is the faith through which we come to know that we are free, the faith to know where we stand with the Lord of all. Liberty such as this scares some people. But it never scared the apostle Paul. He wrote that now there is “no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death” (Rom. 8:1–2). That old, yet holy, law (of Moses [Rom. 5:20], which judges all who are in Adam) can no longer condemn those who, through baptism, have entered into Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection (Rom. 6:3–5). This is good news indeed. “For one who has died [in union with Jesus] has been set free from sin” (Rom. 6:7). What kind of court would pronounce a verdict of “not guilty” and still refuse to let the pardoned person leave the prison? Yet this is exactly what we do when we deem suspect God’s abounding grace. There are enough people in the world that desire nothing less than to bind our consciences to their own. We need not add to it; rather, we need to champion the gospel of grace and cripple the crippling anxiety of Mr. Fearing.

{This originally appeared in Tabletalk 28.9 (September 2004): 23–24}

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