Monday, April 12, 2004

a song we sang in church on Sunday 

Here is the final verse of a song we sang in church yesterday. Easter Sunday. In particular, a lump swelled up in my throat as I thought about the line "Jesus commands my destiny".

No guilt in life, no fear in death,
This is the power of Christ in me;
From life’s first cry to final breath,
Jesus commands my destiny.
No power of hell, no scheme of man,
Can ever pluck me from His hand;
Till He returns or calls me home,
Here in the power of Christ I’ll stand!
("In Christ Alone" by Stuart Townend)

Recently a friend reminded me of God's goodness and faithfulness -- made me realize all over again the illusion of our own worthiness, sufficiency, and ability to manage life. Truly, my hope is found in Christ alone.

Εὐλογητὸς ὁ θεὸς καὶ πατὴρ του̂
κυρίου ἡμω̂ν ̓Ιησου̂ Χριστου̂, ὁ κατὰ τὸ πολὺ αὐτου̂ ἔλεος
ἀναγεννήσας ἡμα̂ς εἰς ἐλπίδα ζω̂σαν δι' ἀναστάσεως ̓Ιησου̂ Χριστου̂
ἐκ νεκρω̂ν,

Blessed be the God and Father of
our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His great mercy has caused us to be
born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the
dead...  (1 Peter 1:3)

Thursday, April 01, 2004

Socrates on Obeying God 

In Plato's Apology (29d), Socrates imagines what kind of response he would make to his fellow-citizens if he were offered the chance to escape death, but only on the condition that he stopped his pestering and philosophizing, an activity which he does on account of a divine command. Socrates says he would tell them,

ἐγὼ ὑμα̂ς, ὠ̂ ἄνδρες ̓Αθηναι̂οι, ἀσπάζομαι μὲν καὶ φιλω̂, πείσομαι δὲ μα̂λλον τῳ̂ θεῳ̂ ἢ ὑμι̂ν, καὶ ἕωσπερ ἂν ἐμπνέω καὶ οἱ̂ός τε ὠ̂, οὐ μὴ παύσωμαι φιλοσοφω̂ν καὶ ὑμι̂ν παρακελευόμενός...

Men of Athens, I respect and love you, but I shall obey the god rather than you, and while I live and am able to continue, I shall never give up philosophy or stop exhorting you...

Faced with death if he continued in obedience to the god, Socrates chose death. (This part of the Apology has long intrigued Christians, so I claim no originality in being drawn to it.) If only I had such unstinting devotion to God and his commands!

Dear Father, Socrates did not have the precious revelation of Jesus Christ, and yet we see him here unwearying in obedience. This sort of unwearying devotion -- "while I live and am able to continue" -- please grant this to me as regards Christ, the gospel, and your command to love. Amen.

Tuesday, March 16, 2004

Free Speech as a Christian 

This morning I was reading Paul David Tripp's Instruments in the Redeemer's Hands, in which he discusses the Christian's identity as an ambassador of Christ. Tripp goes on at length about what an ambassador is, and how an ambassador functions as agent and representative of a king or government.

This was especially interesting to me since only last week I had a chance to hear first-hand from John Brady Kiesling, who resigned from the diplomatic corps of the U.S. State Department in order to speak his mind about the U.S. push to war in Iraq -- who in fact resigned precisely because he felt he could no longer act in good faith as agent and representative of the U.S. government. (Kiesling, by the way, was incredibly charming, affable, well-informed, and well-spoken.) Politics aside, Kiesling is a dramatic illustration of Tripp's point.

Tripp wants his readers to realize that although we enjoy great personal freedom as Americans, we are not, as Christians, free agents in the same sense -- just as Kiesling, though a free American, was not free in the same way as the rest of us when he was in the employ of the U.S. State Department. My every action and every word must conform to how I am best able to represent Christ in this exact moment and situation. I am not free to say anything I want. In fact, what I want or think is entirely inconsequential. My job is to find out what Christ wants and thinks, on every matter where I might be required to act or speak. The more central the matter, the more urgent it is I found out, and proceed accordingly.

This becomes tricky when my sense of the world's realities and of God's Word is, in fact, entirely off base, but I speak as His ambassador anyway. Mark Noll quotes Augustine on this in The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (p. 202-203):

Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of the world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason?

Augustine recognizes the principle Tripp articulates: a Christian never speaks only for himself. Because of his identity, the Christian is always representative. Augustine worries about the danger of unbelievers forming mistaken opinions of Scripture from hearing foolish Christians. Is there a similar worry, given our ambassadorial function, of unbelievers forming a mistaken idea of Christ himself and the cross?

I was thinking about the model of Christians as ambassadors and agents of Christ. I usually believe I'm certain of a set of facts before I speak, or my interpretation of a situation, but often it turns out I was wrong in the end. In fact lately I've been surprised how bad my judgment can be.

What happens to my witness when I come across as a bad compass, pointing now this way and now that, but much of the time unreliable?

In a culture that prizes free expression so highly, I must learn two ancient ideas and cherish them: epistemic humility, and constraint.

What is epistemic humility? Given my personal track record, and how disorienting it can be to watch the media accounts of this or that debate fly past with contradictions and inconsistencies, and how much trouble I have reading even my own heart, to which I presumably have better access than any other matter in life, I should be humble in what I think I know. Not only might I be wrong, I might be wrong a lot of the time. There's a slippery slope here to radical skepticism, down which I wouldn't want to slide, but unquestionably I need epistemic humilty. (The other side of this coin, by the way, is not just giving up on the facts and pleading humility, but aggressively seeking the truth. There's no excuse at all why Christians shouldn't the best educated and most learned people around.)

If there's much possiblity I will err when I speak and unwittingly speak against the truth -- and let's face it, life's just too short for this not to be the case on a regular basis -- then I must learn that constrant is often better in speech than freedom. If I am an ambassador of Christ, and if I may in fact be utterly wrong on so many questions, perhaps it is often better to hold my thoughts to myself, and speak on the things I know with certainty Christ has told me, and to which Christ unquestionably gives priority.

From the cradle, we crave attention. We shout out to be heard. So often, it's reported someone took a position in the media or the academy or entertainment because it gives them a "platform", a position of influence from which to speak forth their view of things. Americans love talk radio -- the radio personalities who have hours a day to say anything, and the fact that we ourselves can all call up and say anything.

In fact I think many Christians sometimes strive towards this goal without really thinking much about it. "I want a place of influence. I want my voice to be heard."

This morning I was confronted by an outrageous possibility: pretend you had it. Everyone's watching; everyone's listening. What will you say? That thought was scary more than it was enjoyable or aggrandizing.

Friday, March 12, 2004

Trust and Sufficiency 

Lots of good things get discussed and hashed over at fellowship group on Tuesday nights. Recently we were looking at this verse:

And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you may have an abundance for every good work. As it is written:
"He has scattered abroad his gifts to the poor;
his righteousness endures forever."
- 2 Corinthians 9:8

There is a pile-up of sufficiency here, an exhaustiveness. All grace in all things at all times, all that we need, for every good work.

As it happens, this topic was on the mind of my friend Dave Michelson, who was working through some translating for a Syriac class. This is the passage he discovered on a rough day:

If difficulties, and evil, and dangers hem you in and threaten you, do not let them concern you, do not look into them or consider them. If once you believed that God was sufficient to keep you and guide you then you will follow Him and not worry again about things like these. But say to yourself that the one to whom you trust your soul is sufficient for everything.
-St. Philoxenos of Mabbug d. AD 523

(There's no edition or English translation in print, so the quotation is a rough translation from a Vatican MS of Philoxenos' Shorter Letter to Patricius, done by Dave.)

How hard it is to trust in God's all-sufficiency. The exhaustive pile-up is hard for me to believe: All grace? In all things? At all times? All that I need? For every good work?

But there it is.

I suspect a good part of the answer has to do with the smallness of my mind, and wrong definitions I put on things, such as calling a desire a "need", and calling an indifferent human endeavor a "good work" and then neglecting to call good the things that truly are.

I need to repeat after Philoxenos: The one to whom I trust my soul is sufficient for everything.

Thursday, March 11, 2004

Grace-Seasoned Speech 

This is my first post, so it's worth saying a word about how I got here. Fairly often I have some thoughts that I want to jot down.... Somehow I always think better when I write, even pray better (can that be?) when I write. And sometimes I even want to show a thought or a prayer to someone I know.

So, this is a space where I'll put down a few thoughts and prayers for time to time. I'm in the middle of taking generals in a Ph.D. program in Classics, so I won't ever have time to write very much, or very often, but hopefully I'll write a little something worthwhile a little once in a while.

All that's by way of introduction. So what is my first thought or prayer?

I've been thinking about grace-seasoned speech. At the fellowship group I go to Tuesday nights, we discussed a passage from Colossians 4 which says, among other things, to "Let your speech always be with grace, as though seasoned with salt".

We talked about a number of connections. The fact that the reason my speech can be grace-seasoned is because of Christ's death and resurrection, and the new life I have in Him (see the first part of chapter 3). The fact that so often my speech is not seasoned with grace.

At the end of the conversation, we addressed the most practical question. What would it look like if my speech were seasoned with grace on a regular basis? Here's what we came up with:

* I would probably speak a lot less. A lot of what I say is just not helpful, especially when the standard is grace-seasoned speech.

* I would complain a lot less. This is a hard one -- I despise the other extreme of happy-smile plastic Christianity. So it's not that I should call a bad thing good, or pretend a painful thing is not painful. But somehow my speech, while recognizing and confessing the way things are, must point to an ultimate reality and to the work of the cross.

* Salt makes food appealing, an obvious enough point. Think of a potato with no butter, salt, or pepper. On this metaphor, my speech should dress itself in the good, the redemptive, the grace-filled, the hopeful, which is what makes anything appealing and attractive. This, in turn, means I have to think about any situation before I speak and I must ask, "What is redemptive here? Where is the hope?" My speech has to point back to something foundational and trustworthy.

* If my speech were seasoned with grace, I would think about the situation and personality of my audience, and how I could say things that would be meaningful and winsome to that particular situation. I wouldn't just fire off the first thing that comes to my mind in its original form.

* I wouldn't just offer up my own half-baked thoughts or pop psychology when I'm talking with people. I should diligently seek wisdom, and my messages to people should be part of the natural overflow of God's message working its way deeply into my heart.

There are probably a lot of other ways I could and should live out these verses. I'd be curious to hear more of them. In the spirit of keeping it short and sweet, I'll end here for now.