Fellowship of Saints and Sinners

Fellowship of Saints and Sinners

Divine Child Abuse Atonement- Why It Can’t Hold Muster

Those of you watching with bated breath the conversation that began last week- about bad atonement theories- will be vaguely interested in knowing the latest: I have given some thought to fellow saint and sinner Paul’s claim that an orthodox Trinitarian understanding rules out divine child abuse readings of the atonement…And (do I hear a drum roll?)….I think Paul (who it turns out is not a professor of theology, after all, but reads a lot) is right.  Must a traditional, (orthodox) understanding of the Trinity and the inner relationships of the Trinity be rejected in order to call penal or satisfaction or substitutionary theories of the atonement “cosmic child abuse”?

Yes, I concur.

Paul writes back to further clarify his thoughts here: …As far as the discussion goes, I would maybe add that while the language of “God giving his son” may fall on our ears in a somewhat jarring and strange way, it seems like that is because we no longer read Scripture theologically. Jesus is not God’s son in the same way as one of my children is my son. If he were then divine child abuse might obtain as a description. When God gives his Son it is also the same as saying that God has given himself. The Trinity is not three Gods, it is one God in three persons. Too, Jesus also says that no one takes his life from him, but that he gives it of his own accord. That would indicate at the very least a cooperation that would militate against the divine child abuse idea. But because Jesus is the second “person” of the Trinity, it goes way beyond mere cooperation. Still the language of scripture is the Father sending the Son and this is admittedly open to misreading and bad preaching/theological interpretation. But it is just that, misreading and faulty interpretation.

Below is my response:

Hi Paul,
Thank you for these very helpful insights. I would agree with you, after further thought, that theologically orthodox Trinitarian doctrine resists the imposition of a divine child abuse understanding. One of my favorite treatments of the atonement comes from Mechthild de Magdeburg, who uses a dialogue between the Three Persons to propose one way Jesus freely offers Himself up to the Father. In short, I concede that you are absolutely right.
I would also probably add that the divine abuse stuff is less central to my discomfort with penal substitution theory, and I’ll need to spend more time considering why.
Thanks for reading and interacting, and visit again sometime!
Best,
Kristina

I would add that much work remains for preachers, theologians and evangelists, in presenting the atonement in a way that is both theologically correct and missionally compelling.  If it is true that a divine child abuse presentation of the atonement is technically theologically incorrect, it is also true that in many circles of the church, we could do a better job of presenting the atonement for all those who seek God and a more complete knowledge of Him.

A “thank you” to all of you for reading and thinking with me.

A Mother’s Day Tribute

You may have heard me tell this story once before here, in the context of “Body Dysmorphic Disorder” (http://blog.beliefnet.com/fellowshipofsaintsandsinners/2011/11/body-dysmorphic-disorder.html), but with Mother’s Day tomorrow, it’s worth a retell as a tribute to my mother and the many of you engaging in some of God’s best work.

When I was a kid it was an inevitability that I would one day have to wear braces.  One lone tooth managed to poke its way out in all of my pre-eighth-grade school photos.  That’s when my mother took me to an orthodontist for an evaluation: after asking me several times to bite down, smile and say “ah,” all the while quizzically looking at my jaw in relation to my face, this man turned to my mother and explained that while, at the whopping cost of $5,000 they could fix my crooked teeth, they would not be able to fix the assymetry of my face.  A tone of clinical professionalism from someone who had probably been inspecting jaw lines and dental molds a little too long, belied the subtle insult.  My mother was quick to catch it nonetheless.  With that, this soft-spoken, patient and slow-to-anger woman, exclaimed that my face was “just right,” that there was nothing wrong with it, and that we would not be needing their services.

These days, as a mother to a daughter with “cerebral palsy”- (at least according to one pediatric neurologist who in the absence of a diagnosis that might explain Samantha’s low muscle tone, used “CP” as a catch-all diagnosis) I identify more and more with my mother in that orthodontist’s office years ago.  My daughter is perfect, cerebral palsy or not.  Sam’s challenges are what make her so unique and lovely; they’re the sites of God’s ongoing provision.

And, I have to believe that God in Jesus responds similarly to us.  In the same way that a proud, loyal mother can exclaim at the perfection of her child and run off anyone who would tell them otherwise, God protests all the powers of darkness that would tell us we’re not okay or lovable or acceptable just the way we are.  Psalm 139, today’s morning read, is an exclamation of just this- that God has knit us together in our mother’s wombs, the unique, marvelous creations that each of us are.

This Mother’s Day, then, I give thanks for the love of our triune Mother and all mothers everywhere.

 

 

The Truman Show Effect

Somewhere in picture-perfect Seaside, Florida, Truman Burbank is waking up on Day 10,909.

This afternoon we visited “Seaside,” a rather surreally concocted residential community that sits perched on scenic highway A30 along Florida’s Gulf coast.  The square plots with their perfectly manicured lawns backing up to cookie cutter houses and a speed limit of 17 mph make the place a strange little world of its own.  Its claim to fame?  It was the set for the 1998 movie, “The Truman Show,” starring Jim Carrey as an insurance salesman who discovers his entire life is actually a T.V. show.  It was worth at least a very short detour after a day on the beach.

It also has me wondering about what it will look like for Christ to “come again to judge the living and the dead,” as the Apostles and Nicene Creeds affirm.  Scripture gives frustratingly little detail about what exactly this “last judgment” will look like- (maybe to the great satisfaction of the Tim LaHayes of the evangelical world and a whole industry built around our imaginative fears of the unknown)- so the thoughts that follow are admittedly my own “midrash.”  But, I wonder if at least part of God’s judgment will involve a bit of what might be called the “Truman Show Effect” (and by this I do not intend to equate God with a television producer- I’ve worked for one of these before, so feel comfortable ruling out the possibility.)  By this I mean, rather, that maybe some day at the end of time God will have us watch our lives all over again in the light of Ultimate Reality, who is Love.  Maybe a bit like a complacent, self-absorbed, but slightly befuddled and aggravated Truman who has a suspicion there is more to life than his small, suburban universe, we’ll find ourselves watching a reel of our life played back to us.  Maybe we’ll get to see in painstaking detail all those places where we fell short or missed the mark or simply failed to see the God-stirred possibilities for abundant life before us.  Maybe there and then face to face with the One who knows and loves us best, we will finally and fully comprehend the great depth of God’s love for us and to just what extent we lived our lives in the shallows.

Beach Blather and Admiral General Aladeen Returns

Hmm...Must a traditional understanding of the Trinity and the inner relationships of the Trinity be rejected in order to call penal or satisfaction or substitutionary theories of the atonement "cosmic child abuse"?

I’ll be trading in the pasty-white hues of winter for a tan over the next five days while generating more thoughts at the intersection between life and God and contemplating your helpful deposits of reader wisdom.  Here are a few from the past few days for the benefit of the Fellowship:

Apparently “The Beloved Oppressor and Bad Atonement Theories” from Sunday sparked some controversy.  Paul from somewhere in the blogosphere writes, One should learn at least a little theology before critiquing it.

After checking with my beloved husband to make sure he didn’t write this, (which is something usually only a husband who is thankfully smarter than me and knows it would say), I asked Paul if he cared to elaborate.  Paul writes back:  Sure.  The divine child abuse theory critique of the atonement can only obtain if the biblical understanding of the Godhead is set aside and Father, Son, and their relationship are redefined according to an almost total anthropological analogy. In other words the traditional understanding of the Trinity and the inner relationships of the Trinity must be rejected in order to call penal or satisfaction or substitutionary theories of the atonement cosmic child abuse. That for starters. By saying that I am not intending it as a defense of the penal or satisfaction theories, merely as a critique of your critique. If those theories are to be rejected they must be rejected on other grounds.

I have a note in to Paul inquiring about where he teaches theology, since he writes just abstrusely enough to be a professor somewhere. (Please don’t take this as an insult, Paul- I love professors, am married to one, and may become one some day. I look forward to continuing the conversation, and thanks for engaging.)  Incidentally, if you didn’t catch the Saturday Night Live reappearance of Admiral General Aladeen, I’ve included it below for a few more laughs.

My own version of “Coffee with Jesus,” in which Jesus sits down with controversial “manliness” expert and Mars Hill pastor Mark Driscoll (http://blog.beliefnet.com/fellowshipofsaintsandsinners/2012/01/coffee-with-jesus-jesus-sits-down-with-mark-driscoll.html), sparks the following observations from Ralph:  I must admit, when I read or hear criticism based on tone….or attitude, of a minister…. without any reference to the minister’s basis (namely, in Driscoll’s case, the Apostle Paul–and the whole of the male-led & written New Testament Church and text) with just critical inferences, based on nothing deeper than current day assumptions (like equal value MUST mean equal roles) it reminds me of the typical “arguments” (really non-arguments) made by secularists on other social issues, which never get to the heart of the issues, but always dance around obsessing on appearances.

Finally, Adam leaves some thoughtful reflections in response to “Lost and Found” and “Narcissistic Evangelism”: Great blog post, Kristina. I believe that as Christians we have been tasked to be adoption agents. Evangelism is sharing with the world that there is a perfect and loving Father who loves them, and is not mad at them. This father wants to bring them into a new identity, and destiny that was intended for them from the beginning of time. We Christians hold the adoption papers for the world who has never encountered this perfect love, grace, and mercy. The adoption process can take years or it can take seconds depending on where in the process we find the person. We cannot convince anyone to fall in love with Jesus, but we can show them that they are loved, and that they have been purchased by a loving Father.

Thank you, Paul, Ralph and Adam!  I hope you’ll keep coming back to share, vent, fume, and inspire the rest of us more catatonic saints and sinners.

By way of update, my Good Friday sermon, “Desperate Housewife or God’s Dreamer,” has been republished at http://www.goodpreacher.com/index.php.  (If you can actually find it there, will you let me know?)

Also, a reminder that yesterday’s “Top Ten Pet Peeves Re: Preachers and the Sermons They Deliver” (http://blog.beliefnet.com/fellowshipofsaintsandsinners/2012/05/top-ten-pet-peeves-re-preachers-and-the-sermons-they-deliver.html) is awaiting more big gripes for an eventual vote on the Top Ten in advance of next week’s Homiletics Festival! Leave one below!

Now, for some more laughs thanks to the Beloved Oppressor: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/06/sacha-baron-cohen-stops-by-snl-as-general-aladeen_n_1490156.html.

 

 

Top Ten Pet Peeves Re: Preachers and the Sermons They Deliver

DESCRIPTION: Pastor preaching.  Televisions featuring basketball and an NCAA bracket on the wall behind him. CAPTION: THE SERMON TITLED "MARCH MADNESS HERE TODAY, NOW IN HD" WAS A HUGE HITIn advance of the upcoming Homiletics Festival (May 14-18) here in Atlanta, I thought I would collect our top ten pet peeves from preachers and the sermons they preach.  (The thought is that if we can get all of our gripes out at once, maybe it will be a) therapeutic and b) actually drum some sense into those of us slated with “bringing the Word” each Sunday. Send your pet peeves in and we’ll vote on which ones make the list.  In the meantime, I’ll start us off:

- “The Tone” assumed when taking the pulpit, distinguished by a dip in emphasis on the last part of a sentence or concluding syllables.  It usually produces more nodding heads (with the onset of sleep) and gives the overall impression of an auctioneer selling old furniture and used car parts…

- the weekly reference to sports, usually slipped in as filler and to assure insecure preachers that something they said generated some excitement or will be remembered at lunch…

- the senior pastor’s latest fad of interest (dieting and working out are often big ones) invoked as a kind of Pauline, “imitate me” moment…

- the Word of God just read becomes support for the latest insights from the self-help world…

- the three paragraphs of fluffy exegesis and insertion of fancy Greek words that let a preacher show off all she learned in seminary (or the fact that she knows how to read a Bible commentary)…

- what I’m calling the “Sarah Palin Principle”: just look pretty or sound dynamic and charismatic- maybe even wow the folks in the pews by your ability to preach without notes- and then it doesn’t really matter what you say…

- the “Good News” equals “I can make myself a better person” by voting Democrat or Republican, coming to the next mission committee meeting and serving at the soup kitchen…

Got a pet peeve?  Leave it here or send it my way (kristinarobbdover@gmail.com) and we’ll add it to the list for a vote!  If you’re too spiritual for whinging and are instead looking for some real sermons that actually work, you might want to check out the Episcopal Church’s helpful online collection: http://episcopaldigitalnetwork.com/stw/.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Simone Weil and the Church Uprooted

Simone Weil, despite leanings towards Catholicism, never joined the church. I would argue that her exile from the institution was not only central to the integrity of her thought but modeled itself after Christ Himself.

Some of you know that one of my favorite thinkers is Simone Weil.  Last night I read a short chapter on this twentieth century French philosopher and social activist by another of her admirers, the historian John Lukacs, in Remembering Past.  Lukacs notes that what makes Weil’s thought so compelling is her reactionary resistance to the materialism of her context and her unwavering commitment to truth above even justice itself.

Then this morning cleaning out my bedside drawers I stumbled upon a quote from Weil in one of my journals.  Weil, in my favorite work of hers, Waiting for God, writes: “It is necessary to uproot oneself.  Cut down the tree and make a cross and carry it forever after.”

Weil’s biographer takes this statement as evidence of Weil’s capacity to love people as they really are- not as the product of an illusion.  In Weil’s time, much like in our own, it was tempting to view people and the world in terms of “categories” (the oppressed “proletariat” in a struggle for liberation being one example)- to place them in ideological “homes.” The challenge in loving, though, is to disrupt one’s own “at-homeness” in any institution or ideology so that we can encounter others as they really are (not as we would have them be). And, maybe this is a bit of what the apostle Paul is expressing in 1 Corinthians 9, when he says he “has become everything to everyone in order to save at least some of them.”

Not long ago I heard Morgan Chilalu, the pastor of a small African church in the middle of the A.I.D.S. pandemic, say this: “A church that lives within its own four walls is no church at all.”

God’s mission requires at the most fundamental level a willingness on our parts to uproot ourselves.  By this I don’t mean that we all have to sell our homes and move to the Far East to become missionaries.  But I do suspect that it does mean that any time we find ourselves becoming too comfortable in the church, we need to ask ourselves why- because what Weil is talking about, is, I think, at the core of Jesus’ message to take up our cross and follow Him. Real church as Jesus envisions it, I suppose necessitates our exile.

 

“The Beloved Oppressor” and Bad Atonement Theories

Sasha Baron Cohen stars as "The Dictator."

Larry King interviewed Admiral General Aladeen of the Republic of Wadiya (a.k.a. Sasha Baron Cohen) a few days ago in advance of Baron Cohen’s forthcoming movie, “The Dictator.”  (If Baron Cohen’s first film, “Borat,” is any indication, the film will no doubt prove to be simultaneously offensive and ridiculously funny.)

One part of the interview (which you can view in its entirety below) has me thinking about certain highly problematic theories of the “atonement” (which is just a fancy word theologians give to explain Jesus’ death on the cross and what it accomplishes):

King: Do you have favorite other oppressors?

Admiral General Aladeen: …My favorite unfortunately is dead.  Kim Jong- KJ- I miss him a lot.  He was a fun man.  He died as he lived- in three inch heels.

King: But he was ruthless to his people.

Admiral General Aladeen: No, he was not ruthless to his people.  He was a sweetie pie.

Theologians have tried through the centuries to give expression to the meaning of atonement.  One especially popular theory goes by the name “penal substitution” or “satisfaction” theory.  (The details of these theories may vary slightly depending on the theologian, but they tend to paint a similar, general picture of God.)  According to this understanding of the cross, God in God’s perfect goodness could not allow human sin to go unpunished.  For this reason, God sent God’s one and only Son to die in our place and receive the full penalty for sin that we really deserved.  A wrathful God, in other words, had to be “satisfied” in order to be reconciled with sinful humanity, and only the death of God’s very own Son- how is that for twisted, fatherly love?- could pay the price.  In Jesus, God in God’s great “love” spares us from getting our just desserts in the form of eternal torment in the flames of hell.

Within this framework, God comes out looking a whole lot like Admiral General Aladeen of the Republic of Wadiya.  He functions as a “beloved oppressor” of sorts, for whom “love” equates with ruthless, unrelenting punishment, but whom, through some pretty poor theological acrobatics, we Christians have still managed to label a “sweetie pie.”

It’s no wonder so many people in the church don’t know how to evangelize when they’ve been spoon fed this kind of logic.  It’s like having to tell a kid that their lima beans taste like ice cream.  It’s also not surprising that so many “unchurched” people will stay this way.  They’re right to wonder if this kind of theology is in fact “Good News.”

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Nature and Grace

A little snuggle before lunch. (Photo credit: Marius Croetzee, Barcroft Media)

If you read yesterday’s sermon, you may have caught some refrains on this theme. The picture I mentioned of the leopard snuggling with a baby antelope might almost pass as a Hallmark card, were it not for the fact that within the hour the antelope will become the leopard’s grisly lunch. But, that picture speaks to the often baffling, jarring interplay of nature and grace in our world, a world in which we can see the beginning outlines of Isaiah’s picture of the lion lying down with the lamb, but only hazy, often erasable ones at best.

The other day my husband sent me another link, this time to a series of images of Yosemite National Park set to music.  The natural beauty of creation here is in full adornment:  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/30/yosemite-time-lapse-video-movie-shawn-reeder_n_1466107.html.  I couldn’t help but watch the video with an appreciation for how God’s grace already imbues nature.  If Jesus never came to restore our world, I could still look at this video and marvel at the beauty of God’s creation, having been touched by the grace of a benevolent God.

In such cases, it is, I think, dangerously erroneous to suggest that grace negates or overcomes nature- or to describe nature as “evil.”  With all respect to my Reformed forebearer, John Calvin, and his interpreters, the concept of “total depravity” is only so helpful.  Yes, it provides a helpful framework in which to grapple with how something so horrific within human nature, such as the Shoah, can happen.  But it also falls prey to eliding the grace inherent in Nature itself.

Here is where I find the words of contemporary Catholic theologian, Father Robert Barron, especially helpful.  (If any of you have seen Terence Malick’s movie, “Tree of Life,” which came out in theaters last fall, I think you’ll especially enjoy Barron’s critique as it relates to issues of good and evil, nature and grace.  I myself have not seen the movie, but am looking forward to it now.) What strikes me most, however, is how Barron depicts the relationship between nature and grace as a delicate interplay or God-breathed dance that is itself blessed and affirmed by God, with the implication that the dance itself somehow belongs to God’s greater plan of restoration.

In this framework, what is painful or tragic within Nature, if not redemptive in itself, is still necessary for how it contributes to God’s final summing up of the whole cosmos.  If the forces of nature and grace not only underlie the cosmos but play out in human affairs, their encounter- their clash- are strands of a final piece of artwork that God is weaving together, one that in the sum of its parts is even more beautiful.

Here is Barron: “[Nature and grace] are not good and evil. They’re both elements within the universe that come together to produce the roughly beautiful order of God’s creation. God is the wise Provider- the provenant Governor of the universe, who allows what we call evil, or negativity, for the purpose of greater good…God allows…a certain play of nature and grace.” You can hear Barron’s reflections here, thanks to Andrew Sullivan: http://andrewsullivan.thedailybeast.com/2011/10/good-and-evil-nature-and-grace.html.

The other day there was an ugly accident in front of my house: the stretcher, the ambulance, the police cars, the cordoned-off street, the shell-shocked witnesses and then the sometimes annoying, gaping onlookers like myself were all part of the picture.  It turns out that a woman ran a stop sign will talking on her cell phone and ran right over a man who was on his first day of a job blowing leaves on the side of the street.  (As I later learned, the man’s injuries were serious, but thankfully not life-threatening.)

Maybe much of life is “accidental” like this.  There’s a sense in which we human beings- much like a leopard and a baby antelope who  in the moment that the leopard was hungry happened to be the most vulnerable in the pack, so vulnerable it could not even recognize danger- are often crashing into one another.  That’s the nature of things. “Shit happens,” as the bumper sticker goes.  Tragedy weaves in and out of our lives, taking its casualties with it.

But maybe what distinguishes people of faith is their belief that in it all a good and gracious God is taking these strands of tragedy and interweaving them with others, and in turn making something more beautiful and more grace-filled than we can comprehend in the moment when we’re asking, “how could God let this happen?”  Maybe, too, what distinguishes people of faith is their willingness to step into that often baffling interplay between nature and grace as those who, in trusting that God is weaving something beautiful, also join God in this mission.

So, maybe in the end Dostoevsky is right.  Maybe beauty really will “save the world.”  What do you think?

The Good Shepherd: Jesus Epithets Continued (A Sermon)

"He walks with me and talks with me along life's narrow way..."

The following sermon, “Children, Can You Hear Me?,” which I will preach this Sunday to the people of The Presbyterian Church of the Resurrection, is also a continuation of our series on Jesus epithets.  Today’s epithet comes from John 10:11 where Jesus describes himself as “the good shepherd”:

“Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them. So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.  I am the good shepherd.  The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” –John 10:1-10

My son got a book for Christmas last year titled, “Children, Can You Hear Me?” It’s supposed to be written in the voice of Jesus- only this Jesus, with the exception of his trademark fashion signature (the white toga swathed in purple which he promptly trades in for jeans and a T-shirt), has a crew cut and is good at swinging from monkey bars and karate chopping the devil.

If it’s not creepy per say, it seems at least a bit cheesy- the idea being that Jesus goes everywhere with us like a perfect tag-a-long partner, and we simply call on Him and He answers, like some cosmic dial-up figure. He’s a superhero and a magic genie and a best buddy all rolled into one convenient package.

But there’s a sense in which it really doesn’t matter if Jesus can swing from monkey bars and do karate chops and other “cooler,” more powerful stuff, if we can’t actually hear his voice. And by “hearing,” I don’t mean audibly picking up some sound from the heavens, be it in the form of a booming command or a gentle whisper. I mean, rather, simply being able to recognize when Jesus is speaking to our hearts. If we can’t recognize Jesus speaking to our hearts, then who Jesus is or what He came to do is, practically speaking, of no real consequence for our lives.

And Jesus would say in today’s passage that his sheep “hear His voice.” Jesus would say that His sheep “follow him because they know his voice.”

“I know it when I see it,” said one chief justice about obscenity. Maybe something similar could be said about God’s voice: we know it when we hear it.

The thing is, what about those times when we’re wrong? What about those times when we think God is speaking to us when in fact God is not- or at least not in the way we thought God was or wanted God to? Do we need to worry in times like these that we’re not among Jesus’ sheep?  That is the question that first hits me when I read this passage.

These days there are a lot of voices. Sometimes they’re external ones- all those things that society would tell us we should be. Fit, toned, rich and beautiful, thanks to a gym membership and a secure retirement savings account or the latest in plastic surgery. Fashionable. Successful. Strong. Youthful. Rich, or at least comfortable.

Sometimes these voices echo what we’re hearing on the inside. The voices say, “I have to have more of x, y or z”- you can fill in the blank- “to be somebody, to make my mark in this world, to survive and to win.”  They say, “I have to have more financial security.” Or, “I’ve got to look more attractive.”  Or, “I want to be powerful.”

And, if we think these voices (be they internal or external) are loud, that’s probably because they’re only giving voice to the nature of the world you and I inhabit. Because we live in a “dog-eat-dog” world.  A world in which Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” is more than just a scientific theory with its adherents and detractors, but actually plays out on factory floors, in school classrooms and within halls of government (not to mention the church).  Most of the time in our world the strong really do rule the weak, and “the one with the most toys wins,” as the bumper sticker goes.

The other day I saw a chilling picture. It showed a newborn antelope snuggling up next to, of all things, a leopard. What the picture didn’t show was that the leopard had done what leopards in the wild do: it had caught the baby antelope and was about to eat it- and would one hour later. But for almost a whole hour before its ensuing kill, the leopard had let this poor, helpless animal snuggle up next to it and even play with it, like a baby with its mother. The baby, oblivious to the danger it was in, had not been able to recognize its mother’s cry and would die because of it.

When we don’t hear Jesus’ voice, we’re no sheep at all- because we’re dead sheep, or at least on our way to being dead: it will be just a matter of time before the wolf and the thief snatch us away.  So I suspect the question of greater importance to contend with is not whether or not we can be sure we are Jesus’ sheep.  The question, I think, is really whether we are on the pathway to everlasting life, or whether we, like sheep gone astray, are just waiting to die at the hands of the next marauder and intruder who come along.

Because if we only get to be dumb sheep, we might as well be alive ones, with hope and a future. Because what Jesus is saying here is that He really is the only Source of everlasting life. Because if Jesus is “the good shepherd,” He dutifully, faithfully and lovingly leads the sheep back and forth from the safety of the pen to the rest and nourishment of green pastures and then back again; and, he is the only one who has staked his life on our livelihoods. And, similarly, if Jesus is the Gate itself- if He keeps out the wolves and the thieves who would seek to steal, kill and destroy us- He guards all of our comings and goings.

This Jesus is far more than a feel-good, best friend with superhero powers whom we can call upon any time of day, like a genie in a bottle. This Jesus is one who is in fact calling us all the time, who by virtue of the fact that he calls us by name, knows us intimately, better than we know ourselves. He knows we’re all like sheep gone astray and He knows we need guidance and protection and crave abundant life- things we’re often prone to forget.

This Jesus is the same anointed king of Israel that the prophet Ezekiel (in Ezekiel 34) speaks of as God Himself. In a world in which the powerful prey on the weak, the rich on the poor, and the healthy on the sick, Jesus is the one, true and trustworthy Shepherd. His is the one, often lonely voice who tells us we’re more than simply pawns in the depressing cycle of Nature’s brutal elimination of the weak.

Listen to the words of this Divine Shepherd as Ezekiel hears them: “I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land…I will feed them with good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture; there they shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture…I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice (Ezekiel 34:11-19).”

Rich pastures that feed us.  Homecomings for the lost.  Healing for the sick.  Strength for the weak.  When God speaks, God’s voice transforms and informs our conceptions of reality: it asks us to believe that God’s way and God’s kingdom are best for us, and not just best for us, but best for the whole world.

And, Jesus is talking to you and to me and has been all the time.  He has been telling us we’re His. He’s been telling us we belong to His kingdom. He’s been telling us to follow Him, because in following Him we’ll discover what real life looks like. Life that doesn’t end once we stop breathing but keeps on welling up from within us and beyond the grave.  Life that can’t help but dribble out and touch other lives and all creation.

And if you can’t hear Jesus talking to you, then chances are you’ve been letting those other voices speak to you too much. Maybe you need to silence those voices just a bit. Turn off your radio.  Disconnect your iPhone. Tell your brain to stop its frantic mutterings for just a little while. Then ask God to help you listen better, and center in on Jesus and His words in Scripture.

And, if your issue is not distraction, it may be one of discernment- because if it’s true that we’ll know God’s voice when we hear it, it’s also true that sheep must learn to hear the shepherd’s voice.  If you’re struggling to distinguish God’s voice from the rest of the din, here is a hint: chances are that God’s voice will have something to do with this abundant life Ezekiel and Jesus are talking about. Life that cannot be reduced to a better wardrobe or the right job or the next prescription drug or the perfect relationship. Life, instead, that rings with a God-breathed purpose to simply feed on God’s goodness and dwell in God’s love. Life that honors God’s justice for those at the bottom of the food chain. Life that will often demand some level of dying on our parts.

There is no general rule here for how to discern God’s voice.  Scripture doesn’t give us a handy two-step litmus test or a reader-friendly manual with a 1-800 number to call if we get in a pinch. But I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest at least two ways we can begin to discern God’s voice from all the rest.

The first has to do with the content of what we hear. The Westminster Shorter Catechism in our Reformed tradition states that human beings’ chief aim is to “glorify God and enjoy God forever.” And, I suspect that one clue as to whether we’re in fact hearing God’s voice will be whether what we’re hearing can be said to fall clearly within one or both of these categories of glorifying and enjoying God. Does what we hear glorify God, insofar as it helps us to love God with our whole heart and love our neighbor as ourselves? And, does what we’re hearing help us simply enjoy God? These are questions we might ask ourselves anytime we’re not sure whether what we’re hearing is actually God’s voice.

The second way to discern God’s voice has to do with community.  We will do well to look around and see where the rest of the sheep are and whether we’re hearing the same thing they’re hearing. It is hard to hear the Shepherd’s voice when we’re off behind some rock clinging to a craggy hill far away from the rest of the herd bleating for help. Sure, when we’re all alone out there we can be assured that the Good Shepherd will come looking for us- but it will be a whole lot easier to hear the Shepherd’s voice when we’re with the rest of the bunch to begin with. Are you seeking God’s voice in community and with one another? The particulars of what God says to you may differ a bit from one person to another, but the overall direction should, I suspect, be similar.

And when we begin really to hear and discern God’s voice, Jesus’ assurance is that we won’t want to do anything other than follow. We follow because we hear and recognize whose voice it is.  The Good News here is that God is speaking to us all the time whether or not we choose to hear- so much so that He even risked his life for it.

The question, then, for us today really is the title of a somewhat cheesy children’s book, afterall. This time, though, the question doesn’t come from a guy who belongs in a J.Crew catalogue and follows us around all the time with a spooky smile, or magically appears next to us in our office or at the grocery store.  This time the question comes from the ruler of a kingdom that will one day prevail over the “dog-eat-dog” order of this world that is passing away. This God of the universe who is making all things new and is leading, wooing, and calling us out, who is herding us with the rod of a good shepherd, who is sending us out into the jungle out there and inviting us to be by his side all the while, this King who commands a kingdom that is not of this world but for which He tells us to pray, this same One, asks, “Children, can you hear me?”

Lord Jesus Christ, give us ears to listen.

“Lost and Found”: More on Narcissistic Evangelism

If you read yesterday’s post, “Narcissistic Evangelism,” then this morning’s reflection from the gem of a devotional book, Celtic Daily Prayer, may seem poignantly relevant.  Member of the Northumbria Community Aidan Clarke writes: “What I believe about Jesus could not be contained in a thousand books.  I believe in Jesus more than I believe in the pen with which I am writing these words.  I cannot, however, expect you to believe my beliefs.  Imagine you meet me in a cafe and I introduce you to a friend. I say, ‘This is Jesus.’  I do not then give you a list of things you must believe about His family and a thick book to memorize before I let you speak to Him.  I don’t ask you to believe in Him- because you can see Him for yourself.  I ask you only to trust Him and to get to know Him.”

Clarke speaks to the crux of what I am calling “narcissistic evangelism.”  It’s no wonder that the Dan Savages of this world are turned off by Christianity when they’re implicitly told that knowing Jesus equates with simply adhering to a prescribed set of moral codes or applying every part of the Bible literally, devoid of its historical context.  When we introduce Jesus to people by asking them to accept at the outset a list of beliefs about Jesus or His ethical expectations for us, we are, I think, as lost as the people we claim to be evangelizing.

I guess I’m inclined to think that our “lostness” and our “foundness” depend in any given moment on where we are standing in relation to Jesus. What do you think? Leave your reflections below.

Next, some reflections on nature and grace from this “pessimistic optimist” (to borrow Reinhold Niebuhr’s expression).

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