Archives For Jason Micheli

joel-victoria-osteenjpg-0ed2c611ec193324-760x506Anyone who’s known me for about a fruit fly’s lifespan knows that I feel about Joel Osteen the way I do genocide, testicular cancer and Verizon wireless.

His toothy grin, his Dapper Dan hair, his swarmy, snake-oil salvation sales pitch repel me. His dilution of the cross to a gospel that might as well come with a ‘brought to you by the Pax Romana’ sponsorship announcement offends me.

Every summer several dozen people find one of his books in their beach rental, snap a picture and email it to me. Just this week that many people forwarded me the press release about Joel O’s new show on Sirius Radio (seriously? WTF?!).

My antipathy over Joel Osteen is no secret.

So for all the crap I dish out about Joel Osteen, it’s an odd Jesusy sort of joke that I find myself in complete agreement with Joel Osteen’s well-appointed wife, Victoria.

Victoria recently told worshippers at the Osteen’s Rhode Island-sized church:

“When you come to church, when you worship Him, you’re not doing it for God really. You’re doing it for yourself…”

Christians and critics all over social media quickly piled on her comments, pointing out that Victoria Osteen’s understanding of God left little room for ‘take up your cross and follow me.’ One ‘defender’ of Victoria Osteen argued that her comments were simply missing a qualifer, that she should’ve just said ‘when you worship Him, you’re not [just] doing it for God.’

Nearly all the criticism of Victoria Osteen sees her as dispensing what Bonhoeffer called ‘cheap grace,’ the promise of happiness rather than the call to holiness.

Likewise, all the criticism I’ve read of Victoria assumes the truth of the very premise Victoria upended with her comments:

that our worship, devotion, works, faithfulness etc please God.

The critics of Victoria Osteen- and they are legion- seem to believe that our worship of God makes God happy.

That is, Victoria’s critics imply that we, through our act of praise, effect God’s disposition, that our worship of God changes God.

Unwittingly (I imagine), Victoria Osteen was merely rephrasing (however clumsily) a very ancient and foundational Christian belief:

God, by definition, does not change.

Of course, our worship isn’t for God in the sense that our piety brings about a happy change in God because God doesn’t change.

‘Happy’ isn’t really a word that can do the heavy lifting when it comes to God, but, without change, God is eternally, ceaselessly loving towards us because God just is Love. It’s idolatrous to suppose that God is a god whose disposition changes like ours does; it’s even more grave an error to think we can bring about that change.

Victoria Osteen is absolutely right that our worship isn’t for God in the sense that it adds anything to God or changes God in any way.

JoelOsteen_FINAL_COLOR_ongrey

While many quickly denounced Victoria’s comments as antithetical to the Gospel, she has at least one esteemed ally; namely the most famous theologian of the Christian Church: St Thomas Aquinas.

In the Summa Theologica Thomas reasons his way through the question ‘Whether God changes?’

Thomas believed almost everything we say about God relies upon that God not to be a being bound in time, a being that changes.

For Aquinas God’s immutability is logically connected with God’s eternity.

Before Aquinas can establish that God is eternal, however, he must demonstrate that God is immutable for only if God is pure actuality- there is no potentiality in God- can God be considered eternal.

The implication of God’s immutability is a logical consequence of what Aquinas has already proved in Q’s 1-8:

God is pure actuality- all things are present and actual in God at all times.

God is the cause of all things and holds all things existence at every moment of existence.

God is not caused by any other being but is Being itself.

Anything that undergoes change is, by definition, moving from potentiality to actuality, for ‘change’ implies that is present now in something was previously missing or absent.

But no-thing can be missing or absent from God- in fact, God creates from no-thing.

Therefore:

God cannot undergo change.

To change is to acquire something new; but God has the fullness of perfection already and therefore cannot acquire anything new.

God is pure actuality and therefore He cannot change in any way; God is the fullness of perfection, so there is no way in which God could change. Loving us, for instance, does not change God, make God more loving, because God is LOVE.

Love is not an attribute of God but is full and always complete already in God.

Or put Mrs Osteen’s way, our love and worship of God does not effect God because love (including love for us) is not an attribute of God but is full and always complete already in God.

The irony is that those who accuse Mrs Osteen of violating the gospel themselves violate the first commandment.

They make God in our image or at least insist upon a god in our image: God must be like us so that we can love Him.

Her husband still makes me throw up a little in the back of my mouth every time I hear his voice, but his wife is absolutely right.

When you come to worship, don’t think you’re doing it for God.

Don’t think your praise pleases God.

Don’t think your devotion changes God’s mood towards you because God- literally and logically- cannot love you any more than God already does love you.

When we worship, we’re not making God happy. Rather in worship, prayer, faithfulness etc we’re participating in the eternal happiness of God called Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

rp_Holy-Spirit-1024x6821.jpgFrom the button down mind of Rev. Jason Micheli…

We continued our sermon series on the Holy Spirit this past weekend with a look at Paul’s claim in Romans 8 that ‘we do not know how to pray as we ought…but that the Holy Spirit prays for us with groanings too deep for words.’

To bring Paul’s point home, I tried to imagine just what prayers prayed by people who know not how to pray sound like to God, who alone knows how to speak to God.

Here’s the sermon text: What Do Our Prayers Sound Like to God?

Here’s the audio from the middle service and the video from the (stoned-faced) early service. You can download the sermon in iTunes under ‘Tamed Cynic’ here. You can also listen to it on the sidebar widget to the right on the blog.

If you’re receiving this by email, you may need to go to www.tamedcynic.org to view the video of the sermon.

 

 

Untitled101111I’ve become convinced that its important for the Church to inoculate our young people with a healthy dose of catechesis before we ship them off to college, just enough so that when they first hear about Nietzsche or really study Darwin they won’t freak out and presume that what the Church taught them in 6th grade confirmation is the only wisdom the Church has to offer.

I’ve been working on writing a catechism, a distillation of the faith into concise questions and answers with brief supporting scriptures that could be the starting point for a conversation.

You can find the previous posts here.

3. (How) Is the Bible the Word of God?

The Bible is the Word of God in that scripture- when proclaimed rightly and received faithfully- is the reliable testimony to the one Word of God, Jesus Christ who is the logic of God made flesh.

So when Christians use the term ‘the Word of God’ they’re actually referring to multiple forms whose authority and ‘infallibility’ varies by degrees.

Imagine, for instance, the image of three concentric circles.

At the center, in the inner, centermost circle, is the Logos, the eternal Word of God that was made flesh in Jesus Christ.

Christ is the only capital ‘W’ word of God in which Christians believe and after which Christians conform their lives.

Next in the trio is the testimony to the Word of God given to us by Israel, the prophets and the Church. This testimony to the Word of God is the word we call scripture.

In the final, outermost, circle is the word of God as its proclaimed and interpreted in the worship and ministry of the Church to which Christians will often reply: ‘This is the word of the God for the people of God/Thanks be to God.’

The only true, literal, infallible, eternal Word of God then is Jesus Christ, the Logos of God.

The bible is the word of God in that it points us to the one Word of God, Jesus Christ.

Our reading and preaching of scripture is- or perhaps more apt, becomes- the word of God for us only when it faithfully proclaims and embodies the one Word of God, Jesus Christ.

“Many other signs therefore Jesus also performed in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these have been written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name.” - John 20.30-31

4. Should We Interpret the Bible Literally?

The form of the scripture text should determine how you interpret scripture.

If the scripture text is poetic, then you should it interpret it poetically. Metaphorically.

If the scripture text is exhortative, then you better go and do whatever it says. Whatever is the best modern-day equivalent of what it says.

If the scripture text is parabolic, then you should scratch your head and look for the scandal of the Gospel. Or whatever would be likewise scandalous in our day.

If the scripture text is fabulous, then you should dig for the deeper meaning, the text’s artist seeks to show rather than simply tell. e.g., Garden of Eden.

But when Christians refer to the bible as the word of God, don’t forget that while Christianity is indeed a revealed religion, the revelation of the Word of God is a mediated revelation.

Our access to the Logos comes to us only by way of scripture and the Church. Scripture therefore is not revelation. The pages and printed words in your bible are not, in and of themselves, the Word of God. They are our testimony to God’s Word as its been disclosed to Israel and the Church. Because of that testimony, scripture is authoritative for us and it is sufficient for communicating all we need to know of and follow this God.

At the same time, one’s testimony is never identical with the person of whom one testifies. Scripture’s testimony can only partially and provisionally capture the mystery of the eternal Word.

None of this threatening should be threatening, however, because the Word of God, Jesus Christ, is a mediated revelation.

Testimony can be imperfect without jeopardizing the perfection of the One to whom scripture testifies.

In other words, the bible does not (always) need to be interpreted literally because we do not believe in the bible; we believe in the One to whom the bible testifies. We worship Jesus Christ not the bible.

And, it should be pointed out, Jesus himself did not interpret scripture literally:

I say “You are gods,

sons of the Most High, all of you;

nevertheless, you shall die like mortals

and fall like any prince” (Psalm 82 vv. 6-7)

 

christianIn response to my post on Obama, Pope Francis and the ‘War’ Against ISIS last week, a smart annoyingly faithful friend asked me to ante up and articulate what a Christian holy war would like against ISIS.

My go-to, gut reaction was to point to Christian de Cherge, a French Trappist monk who ministered in Algeria up until the mid-1990′s. The award-winning film, Of Gods and Men, tells the story of de Cherge’s abbey.

Despite growing danger posed by radical Islamists in Algeria, de Cherge and his fellow monks refused to abandon their ‘parish’ and return to France. Having committed themselves to their neighbors (mostly Muslim), they insisted that their fate would be joined with their neighbors’ fate.

In May 1996, the GIA, a radical Muslim faction active in Algeria, kidnapped seven of James’s fellow Trappists in the Atlas Mountains and threatened to hold them hostage until France released several of their own imprisoned compatriots. Several weeks passed, and still the French government refused. In the end, the GIA killed the monks by beheading them.

moines-de-tibhirine

Christian de Chergé, had had a strange premonition that he would soon die a violent death, and wrote a letter forgiving his future assassins, sealed it, and left it with his mother in France.

Opened only after his murder, it read: 

If it should happen one day – and it could be today – that I become a victim of the terrorism that now seems to encompass all the foreigners living in Algeria, I would like my community, my church, my family, to remember that my life was given to God and to Algeria; and that they accept that the sole Master of all life was not a stranger to this brutal departure.

I would like, when the time comes, to have a space of clearness that would allow me to beg forgiveness of God and of my fellow human beings, and at the same time to forgive with all my heart the one who will strike me down.

I could not desire such a death; it seems to me important to state this:

How could I rejoice if the Algerian people I love were indiscriminately accused of my murder?

My death, obviously, will appear to confirm those who hastily judged me naïve or idealistic: “Let him tell us now what he thinks of it!” But they should know that…for this life lost, I give thanks to God.

In this “thank you,” which is said for everything in my life from now on, I certainly include you, my last-minute friend who will not have known what you are doing…

I commend you to the God in whose face I see yours.

And may we find each other, happy “good thieves” in Paradise, if it please God, the Father of us both.

As de Cherge makes uncomfortably clear, our tendency to dismiss the commandment to love our enemies as ‘unrealistic’ can sometimes serve to mask our discomfort that Jesus’ command in fact entails a willingness to lose our life for love’s sake.

The belief, then, that the love of one’s enemy, which can only and necessarily be self-giving, is the only war for which there can be something rightly called ‘victory’ is, it turns out, more realistic than the fantasy that violence will not this time beget more violence.

Was8864155Like many of you I’ve been- in equal measure- transfixed and sickened by the horror ISIS/L has brought to TVs and computer screens all over the world.

Watching martyrdom in the moment all but sanctions an anything goes retaliation, which can be seen in many Democrats’ willingness to jettison their rather clear Constitutional obligation when it comes to declarations of war.

It’s exactly when we think an enemy deserves no love and no forgiveness, neither compassion nor quarter- that we should submit to Jesus’ command to ‘love our enemies.’

It’s exactly when we’re faced with an evil for which there is no justification and to which any violent response seems justified that we should recall how we are justified- made right with God- by the faith of Jesus Christ alone.

            The faith of the One who died rather than kill unjustly.

The minute we think we’re facing a ‘real world’ situation for which the words and witness of Jesus have no ‘practical’ application is the moment in which we should shed ourselves of the pretense and cease bothering to follow Jesus.

Jesus’ commands are not abstract teachings to which we look for the exceptions; they are teachings to be applied no where else if not to the ‘exceptions.’

While pols and pundits now debate the scope and nature of President Obama’s ‘war’ it may be helpful, I think, for Christians to remind themselves that- speaking Christianly:

action against ISIS cannot rightly be called ‘war.’

The Christian journal Sojourners this week posted an editorial entitled ‘War is Not the Answer’ which seems to me not only cliche but beside the point. Dangerously so, for to accept the use of the term ‘war’ all but forsakes the Christian field of view.

ISIS is a terror group, a criminal network, representing no state (their chosen moniker aside) or government and abiding no exact borders- certainly not massing at our borders.

According to the demands of Christian Just War Tradition, then, war against ISIS cannot be just.

Indeed it cannot be war.

According to the Christian Just War tradition, the just and appropriate response to something like ISIS cannot be narrated in the language of war but only in the language of policing.

ted-cruz-350.gifStopping them. Not, as Joe McCarthy Ted Cruz recently said to cheers, ‘wiping them out.’

This isn’t just semantics or language games, for truthful speech requires that if a war is not just- if it’s not even rightly called a ‘war’- then we must call it something else and how we speak of it will necessarily shape how we prosecute it.

I suppose it’s not surprising (being Catholic and all, where the Just War Tradition has remained robust and urgent) but Pope Francis recently framed the threat posed by ISIS and a potential response in clear Christian terms.

That is, unlike President Obama et al, Pope Francis spoke Christian:

pope-francis-im-not-a-marxist

“Where there is an unjust aggression I can only say that it is legitimate to stop the unjust aggressor…

I underscore the verb ‘to stop. I am not saying ‘bomb’ or ‘make war,’ but ‘stop him.’ The means by which he can be stopped must be evaluated.

Stopping the aggressor is the legitimate [goal].”

 

I saw a friend on FB post something regarding 9/11 with the words ‘Remember But Remember Rightly.’

Oddly enough it’s the same chord I tried to strike in my sermon on the 10th anniversary of 9/11. Whether it measures up to the challenge of the FB prompt I’ll let another judge.

Here it is: 9-11-300x205

Psalm 137

9/11/11

It’s a date seared into memory.

587.

587 BCE

Five- hundred and eighty-seven years before Jesus.

 

The date the unthinkable happened.

A date that would be shared by all

and yet an experience that, for each and every person who survived it,

would be incredibly personal too.

 

The date they were attacked

when they never thought they could be:

their’s was a nation too strong.

They were, literally, ‘one nation under God.’

 

And yet they were

attacked.

By an enemy from far away.

An enemy they didn’t know

and would never really understand.

 

Their enemy razed the city.

Buildings

that had once been symbols of blessing and wealth

reduced to rubble.

 

Many died.

And there was much heroism.

 

For a time

the nation appeared rudderless.

And the familiar language of faith

stuck in the throat.

 

Not long after the attack

there were deployments.

Deployments of the nation’s

best and brightest

and, too often,

the tragically young.

 

The deployments split families.

Marriages were stretched across a crucible of time and distance.

Children grew up faster than their parents returned home.

Spouses worried if their partner would ever return.

Or if they would return the same person.

 

They named the deployments Exile.

 

587:

a date that seemed to change everything.

A date they’d always remember.

 

I remember

where I was.

 

Working in the mailroom at Princeton

my supervisor, Vince, got a call from his wife

who was in the hospital dying of cancer.

The nearest TV was mounted in the corner outside the dining hall.

The TV was on mute.

And for a while all of us standing there staring up at the buildings

we were on mute too.

Until the tower fell

and the silence became a chorus of whispered ‘Oh my God’s.

Then we watched

what everyone else everywhere else watched:

the towers falling one after another

as though they were made of sand or ash

the dust-covered New Yorkers running for their lives

the firemen forsaking their lives

the bodies falling from broken windows

having chosen what they took to be a better fate.

 

I remember Vince, a Catholic,

his fair-skinned face turned a splotchy red

as he pointed angrily at the TV and asked me through clenched teeth:

     ‘Just where the hell is God right now?’ 

For the first time Vince had just realized

that ours is a God who isn’t always useful

in a crisis.

 

I fumbled some responses to answer Vince.

And that was the first time I realized

sometimes words

even religious words

just won’t do.

 

I remember that afternoon

at the elementary school where I tutored

all of us determined not to tell the children

what had happened.

The adults all had tears in their eyes

but tried to smile them away for the kids

who knew better even if they didn’t know what.

The school

like everywhere else

felt like a funeral home.

 

I remember the lanes of Route 1

running north in to NYC empty

traveled by nothing but trash blowing in the breeze.

I remember the digital DOT signs outside my apartment

blinking the auspicious alert: ‘All roads into NYC closed.’

 

I remember running into a classmate that evening.

Joseph was Egyptian.

He’d just had insults hurled at him at WAWA

by passersby too angry and too scared to learn

that he was, in fact, not a Muslim

but a cradle Presbyterian.

 

I remember my sermon that Sunday after Tuesday.

My first sermon ever.

The pews were filled to capacity.

But more notable than how many were there

was who wasn’t there

who would never be there again.

I remember the prayer list that Sunday swelled 8-fold

with lists of sons and daughters and grandchildren and nieces and uncles

and what floor of which tower they worked on.

I remember my sermon that Sunday wasn’t good or bad.

It was inadequate.

Words just wouldn’t do that day.

 

I remember my counseling professor

the Wednesday morning after.

All of us in class still shaken and numb.

Someone asked him how we should respond

as Christians.

He made mention of the prophet Jeremiah

and then told all of us who were married

that we should respond by going home

and making a baby.

I remember how that struck me

as unconventional

and maybe inappropriate.

I didn’t understand what he’d meant

until I held my son for the first time

six years after that Tuesday.

I remember the first high school graduate I ever prayed with

before he shipped off to basic training

and who knows what else.

I remember the first time I flew after 9/11

from the Newark Airport

looking around me

scared and suspicious

in a way I wasn’t raised to be

and had never been before.

I remember after I was appointed here

going to visit at Walter Reed

and understanding

maybe for the first time

both the tragedy

and the honor

in what our men and women in uniform sacrifice.

I remember the conversations I’ve had with you

5 and 6 and 7 and 8 and 9 and 10 years

since that day.

Listening to you tell me about your deployments

and learning how your work is far more complicated

than what fits onto a bumper sticker

whether its red or blue.

 

Listening to you tell me

what its like

to hold your family together

while your spouse is deployed.

What it’s like

when your little kids have trouble remembering

the parent who’s not there

what it’s like

when your teenager starts to resent

the parent who’s not there.

What it’s like

to have a baby

with your husband not there.

What it’s like

to listen to the news

everyday

on eggshells.

 

Psalm 137

is the only psalm

out of 150

that can be dated reliably.

 

Most psalms

because its poetry

you have to guess at the context.

So Psalm 51

‘Against you and you only, Lord

    have I sinned’

we guess is about David

and his sin with Bathsheba

and his murder of her husband.

Or Psalm 72

‘Give the king Your judgments, O God 

    And Your righteousness to the king’s son.’

we can guess is about the crowning of Solomon.

 

With most psalms you have to guess.

But not Psalm 137.

Psalm 137 was written just after it happened

just after the enemy

invaded

killed

destroyed

and took the nation’s strongest citizens away

to Babylon.

 

Psalm 137 is very obviously written

by those living as prisoners and exiles in their enemy’s land.

It’s written in response

to their enemy’s taunts and jibes:

Where is your God now?’ 

    Now that your city’s in ruins 

    Sing a song for us of your God 

    Sing us a song of Zion

    A praise song.

 

But notice

how these victims respond.

Notice what they do.

They refuse.

They don’t plaster over the pain

with piety or platitudes.

They don’t try to justify their faith.

They don’t defend God

with answers or explanations

or arms.

They don’t take the bait.

They don’t answer.

They don’t sing a song of Zion.

They don’t avenge.

They weep

and lament

and they remember.

 

They remember:

life as it was before

and should be again.

They remember:

what was done to them

who and what was lost.

 

And they plead for God

to remember them.

 

When they were victims

when they couldn’t sing

when they couldn’t praise or pray

when they couldn’t answer why this had happened

when no other words would do

God’s People remembered.

 

The psalmist even writes

if God’s People don’t remember

one day

music and praise and prayer

won’t just be difficult

it will become impossible:

‘Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth

     if I do not remember…’

 

As painful as remembering is

not remembering

says the psalmist

will be even more painful.

Because without remembering

you forget the way things were

and you resign yourself

you surrender

to the way things are now.

Or you resort

to the ways of the world.

For the victims of the exile

for God’s People

memory offers hope.

Remembering is resistance.

To remember is to refuse to be a victim

Because

to remember is to not lose sight of

to not let God off the hook for

the way things should be in this world.

 

As a pastor

words are my job.

Words are what you pay me for.

Standing in the pulpit on Sundays

when something happens to you

when you come to my office looking for advice

you expect me to have a word.

 

But on days like this

I don’t much want to be a pastor.

Because on days like this

I’m suspicious of words.

 

I’m mindful that it’s religious words

murderers say to themselves

to make a martyr’s drama out of a crime.

I’m mindful that no words of mine

(or any pastor)

can answer or explain or ameliorate what happened.

I’m mindful of the preacher’s temptation

to exploit a terrible experience

just to make a pious point.

On days like this I’m suspicious of words

because I know

maybe better than any of you

how often we use religious words

to deceive ourselves

and cover-up our pain.

I could preach you a sermon

about how new life comes out of death

about how light shines in the darkness

about how God, in Christ, bears the wounds of the world

with us

about how ‘suffering produces endurance

     and endurance produces character

     and character produces 

     hope.’

And it’s not that those things are not true.

It’s not that those things are inadequate.

It’s that those words are premature.

Ten years is still too soon for those words.

After 9/11

there were many preachers who were quick

to get to the affirmation and praise.

And I suspect after this 9/11 it’ll be much the same.

But the Bible knows its own dates like 9/11.

And in the Bible

the People of God never do that.

They never rush prematurely to praise

or certitude.

Nor do they retaliate.

In the Bible the People of God

grieve and protest and complain

with sorrow and rage and anxiety

for years and years and years and years and years.

They remember.

So today I simply invite you to take this psalm as your cue

and do what people like you in the Bible do.

Remember

those who died

the heroism that was the only clear and steady thing that day.

Remember

those who’ve born the burden of protecting us in the years since

and the families who’ve born them

the children and the youth who’ve known nothing in their lives

but war and fear and terror.

Take this psalm as your cue

and remember how united we were after that day

and how unafraid we were before that day.

Take this psalm as your cue

and remember what was done to us.

Because it’s in remembering that we refuse to settle.

Take this psalm as your cue

and call on God to remember

that he’s promised us better.

When no other words will do

God’s People

remember.

10 Tips on the Holy Spirit 

Jason Micheli —  September 10, 2014 — 2 Comments

rp_Holy-Spirit-1024x682.jpgWe continue our sermon series on the Holy Spirit this weekend. The Holy Spirit is easily the most confused person of the Trinity.

Thus:

1. The Fruit of the Spirit

The fruit of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, patience etc.) are not ideal personality attributes that are inherent to all people or achievable apart from discipleship.

The fruit of the Spirit describe the character and ministry of Jesus and are thus sown in us by the Spirit only as we follow after the Son.

 

2. Speaking in Tongues

Speaking in tongues is about mutual understanding amidst the differences of language and culture not ecstatic speech to exacerbate difference.

If your ‘gift’ of ecstatic speech does not lead to another’s understanding where before there was only misunderstanding- and thereby heal the fractures within creation- it’s not a gift from the Holy Spirit.

 

It’s about God undoing Babel. Just as Pentecost originally celebrated God’s revealing himself and creating the distinct People of Abraham in the world, the Holy Spirit arrives at Pentecost to begin making good on the promise to Abraham: that through his family all the peoples of the world would be blessed. (See: Acts, Book of)

 

3. The Holy Spirit is Not IN You

The Holy Spirit is God; therefore, the Holy Spirit is not a necessary, constitutive part of you. Otherwise you would be God.

But because the Holy Spirit is God, the Spirit is closer to you than you are to yourself.

The Holy Spirit is not the same thing as your conscience or your soul. The Holy Spirit is not to be confused with the imago dei, the part of you that is created in God’s image. The Holy Spirit is not the little voice in your head or your own private feelings of subjectivity.

 

The Holy Spirit is God and, as such, only comes to us from beyond us as sheer gift.

 

4. You Don’t HAVE the Holy Spirit

No person (or church!) has the Holy Spirit as though the Spirit were a possession or even a reliable guest. The Spirit’s presence cannot be predicted and, accordingly, the Spirit cannot be manipulated into appearing through prayer or liturgy.

 

The Spirit can only be invited to rest upon us.

 

Again, the Spirit is God. The Spirit blows where it wills, and often the Spirit blows in places and among people against our will, working outside the community of believers and beyond its comfort zone. (See: Acts, Book of)

 

5. The ‘Comforter’ is Seldom Comforting

Though called the ‘Comforter’ (paraclete) the Holy Spirit is the love of the Father and the Son, and, like the Father and the Son, the Spirit is seldom comforting.

The Spirit  works grace in us and grace- growing into ever greater Christlikeness, which we call ‘true humanity’- is always disruptive and even painful, for ours is world that responds to love with crosses. (See: Acts, Book of)

 

6. The Real Gift of the Spirit

The primary gift of the Spirit from which all over gifts properly flow is the gift of God’s own self. The Spirit gives us the same delight that God is God which God has for God. The Spirit catches us up into the never-ending mutual and reciprocal love shared between Father and Son.

 

7. The Spirit Does What the Son Cannot Do

Again, the primary gift of the Spirit is to raise us up into the love shared between the Father and the Son. The Spirit has a gift to give that the Son cannot offer. The Spirit gives us a share in God’s own life, the Son’s eternal friendship with the Father.

 

8. The Spirit is Not Found

The Holy Spirit reveals the Son. Any inclination or desire we have towards Christ, any hunger or curiosity we feel for God, any half-mumbled prayer or half-hearted stab at faithfulness is the Spirit’s work not our own. (See: Acts, Book of)

As such the Spirit reminds us that ours is a revealed, mediated faith. The only way to get to God is not through our own initiative, spiritual introspection or self-discovery but through God.

 

9. The Spirit is holy

The Spirit is holy, meaning, literally, ‘different.’ The Spirit is not a spirit, of which there are many. The Holy Spirit is not to be confused with the human spirit, team spirit or patriotic spirit. (See: Acts, Book of)

Our interior feelings are not fruit of the Spirit nor should the Spirit be confused with our own subjectivity.

This means, of course, that how one form of worship or music makes you feel has nothing to do with the Spirit.

 

 10. The Spirit is More than What the Spirit Does

The Spirit is the love expressed in and by the community we call Trinity. The Spirit is the dynamic movement, exchange of love between the Father and Son. The Spirit cannot be reduced then to a role, mode or function like ‘Sustainer.’ And because the Spirit cannot be reduced to a mode, what you can properly say about the Father or the Son you can likewise rightly say about the Spirit. Thus: the Spirit creates or the Spirit redeems.

 

Untitled31David Bentley Hart (heretofore: DBH) was one of my first professors of theology back when I was a college student at UVA. He was just completing his PhD whilst I had about 24 months of being a Christian under my belt.

Standing in front of a huge wave that knocks you on your ass on the beach, you get up realizing the ocean is a whole hell of a lot bigger than you thought.

That’s how I felt with DBH. He left me feeling for aches, knowing the Christian intellectual tradition is richer, deeper and broader than I could imagine.

Reading DBH’s The Beauty of the Infinite back in 2005- quite literally- changed my (theological) life. My ordination papers that year read today like poorly plagiarized DBH’s frenetic, over-wrought writing style.

Having since devoured all his books and read his most recent twice, I thought it was a good time to blog my sophomore turn through his opus.

For those of you who will feel about DBH as I did back in the day, I offer you these $$$ quotes.

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Lingering barely behind these quotes is a critique of the Christianity that liberal Protestantism inherited from Paul Tillich, which seeks to make the faith ‘relevant’ to modernity by translating it into generalized principles of human experience. It’s this sort of Christianity that turns the resurrection into a metaphor for ‘life after death.’

DBH’s other sparring partner here is post liberalism (perhaps best represented by Stanley Hauerwas) which tends to conceive of Christianity as a particular cultural-linguistic expression as a way of avoiding the sort of all-encompassing metaphysical claims ancient Christianity made. In other words, you don’t know what ‘resurrection’ means until you’ve been part of the community of faith and learned the language we call Christian. Such a move, DBH argues, fails to account for the deep, universal claim about all of creation that resurrection makes.  rp_faith4.jpg

 

Anyway, as always, DBH says it better than me:

 

“The starkly stated alternative between thoroughgoing demythologization and thoroughgoing [biblical] literalism looks altogether too much like simple critical indolence; one must at least have some feel for the difference between a story as openly fabulous as the narrative of Eden and a story as concrete as that of Christ’s Resurrection, which makes a disorienting (and scandalous) claim to historical actuality, with repercussions that can be described in terms of places and times.”

 

“The crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus tell us nothing in the abstract about human dereliction or human hope- they are not motifs of a tragic wisdom or goads to an existential resolve- but concern first what happened to Jesus of Nazareth, to whose particular truth and radiance all the general ‘truths’ of human experience must defer.”

 

“I dislike the tendency [postliberals] have of employing ‘narrative’ as such as an antifoundationalist shelter against critique and against the ontological and epistemological questions that theology must address.”

 

Ontological…epistemological…silly words, I know. But they set up this money quote:

“I believe the Christian story is the true story of being, and so speaks of that end toward which all human thought and every natural human act are actually oriented, and so can and must speak out of its story in a way that is not ‘narrative’ only, in a simple sense, and in a way that can find resonances and correspondences in the language and ‘experience’ of those who are not Christian.

 

And, I confess, I believe there is indeed the possibility of a consummation of all reason in a vision and a wisdom that cannot be reached without language.”

 

“Whereas the story of violence [being intrinsic to the universe] simply excludes the Christian story of [ontological] peace, the Christian story can encompass, and indeed heal, the story that rejects it; because that story too belongs to the peace of creation, the beauty of the infinite, and only its narrative and its desires blind it to a glory that everywhere pours in upon it.”

rp_Holy-Spirit-1024x682.jpgTo kick off our September sermon series, I spun the wheel and tackled people’s questions about the Holy Spirit at random as well as fielding some questions from the congregation too. It’s something a bit more interactive than traditional preaching that I try to do on a fairly regular basis.

I call it ‘Midrash (the Hebrew word for commentary on scripture) in the Moment.’ photo-1

Thanks for everyone who submitted questions from all over the world! The ‘best’ question came from someone named Jason Campbell and it was a long thoughtful reflection that used Thomas Merton, Karl Barth, Flannery O’Connor and Mozart to ask if the reason why I don’t talk about the Spirit much is because I prefer to live in my head instead of in the moment/heart. If Jason will be so bold as to send me his address, I will- as promised- send him a free copy of Scot McKnight’s new book, The Kingdom Conspiracy.

Alright, so here’s the audio from Sunday’s sermon. It’s not great- I apologize. You can download it in iTunes as well here. You can also listen to it and old sermons in the sidebar to the right.

 

Holy Spirit
This weekend we kick off a September sermon series on the Holy Spirit. I’ll begin the series this Sunday by tackling people’s questions about the Spirit at random during the preaching time. Unlike the doctrine of the Trinity and the Logos, Christians never gathered together in an ecumenical council to hammer out exactly what we believe about the God the Holy Spirit. This explains why the 3rd Person of the Trinity is almost an afterthought in the Apostles’ Creed and fares only marginally better in the Nicene Creed.

Despite the popularity of the charismatic movement, theologically the Holy Spirit remains what Adolf Von Harnack called ‘the orphan doctrine’ of the Church. You can see the truth of Von Harnack’s words in the many questions- both confused and utterly appropriate- that people ask about the Spirit.

I’ve solicited questions from folks for the Sunday sermon time and I’ve gotten a lot of good ones.

Today, though, is a different question.

My own.

My Holy Spirit question is this: Is the filioque clause a good doctrine? Or was it a mistake?

I know, it’s an unnecessarily obscure word, filioque.

If you’re not a nerd, quickly:

Catholics and Protestants speak alternately of the Holy Spirit as the ‘bond of fellowship between the Father and of the Son’ and the Spirit being the ‘Spirit of Christ.’

That’s all the little Latin word means ‘…and of the Son.’

A millennia ago the Son’s universal Church split in two (Western, i.e. Catholic and Eastern, i.e. Orthodox) over the rightness of that little Latin word. To this day the Orthodox insist that the Holy Spirit ‘proceeds’ from the Father just as the Son whereas Catholics and the Protestants they spawned argue the Spirit is sent by the Father and the Son.

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Were it not for this theological impasse the Catholic Church might today have married priests with thick beards and off the charts testosterone.

Celibacy seems a stiff (no pun intended) price to pay so it’s worth wondering: which perspective is the better one?

I use to think the Eastern- which is the original- view was soundest. After all, to confess that the Spirit comes from the Father and the Son has the effect of making the Spirit seem less God than the Son and the Father.

But lately I’ve been wondering if I and my Eastern brothers and sisters are correct, or rather I wonder if there’s not another worry on the other side, a danger to thinking the Spirit is sent by God the Father alone.

While the danger with the filioque clause is that it can, seemingly, demote the Holy Spirit to function rather than divine person of the Trinity, the danger of believing the Spirit is sent by God the Father and not also the Son is that it can demote the Spirit from the divine person of the Trinity to the idol of our own interior wants and desires.

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I don’t know which version of the Nicene Creed you recite on Sunday, but what the filioque clause aims to prevent is a trespass most of us commit all the time.

We appeal to the Holy Spirit as the source of our individual experience, which becomes but a way of granting authority to our own subjectivity.

Any ‘spirit’ we feel move us can then be chalked up to a movement of the Holy Spirit. Of course as the Old Testament ably and often demonstrates there are many ‘spirits’ in this world which can move us- frequently more powerfully than God- that have nothing to do with God the Holy Spirit (see: calf, golden).

When you do away with the filioque clause, when you untether the Holy Spirit from the Son I think you release the Spirit from the content and character by which our sinful selves can reliably discern a genuine work of the Spirit.

By ‘content and character’ I mean the words and witness of the Word, Jesus Christ.

That little Latin word, I think, gives us 4 Gospels worth of tools with which we can test the spirits to see if any truly of the Holy Spirit.

If the Spirit does NOT proceed from the Son too, then the Spirit’s work today no longer must conform to the Son’s work in the past. God the Son preached ‘Blessed are the poor and woe to you who are rich…’ but now the spirit can move us with the belief that God wants all of us to be wealthy and prosperous.

In other words, we’re free to baptize our own subjectivity with divinity regardless of whether or not the work we’re attributing to God bears any resemblance to the God we meet most decisively in Jesus Christ (see: Osteen, Joel).

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That little Latin word, I believe, keeps us- who are always in danger of doing so- from confusing the Spirit of the Father and the Son with the spirit of this world or ‘the human spirit’ whatever that may really mean.

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As Karl Barth, who was accused by Christians in his day for ‘failing to perceive the powerful work of the Holy Spirit as it was being demonstrated in the Fuhrer of the Nordic race,’ wrote:

when the Holy Spirit becomes “the spirit that obviously lives in us all faith is enlisted in an alien service, that of Mammon and even nationalism.”

By professing that the Holy Spirit is sent by the Father and the Son, we profess that it’s the Spirit’s charge to make Jesus Christ known in the world today.

And in so professing we remind ourselves that we can know if it’s truly the Son that the Sprit is revealing by checking it against the Son, Jesus Christ, as he’s revealed to us in scripture.

That little word, filioque, makes sure that Jesus Christ is the grammar by which judge our speech about the Holy Spirit.