Monday, May 18, 2020

The Theocentric Nature of Revelation

One of the many benefits seminary is being introduced to new theologians as I prepare my papers. This past semester, I wrote a paper about Christology in Philippians 2:6-11, and I drew on the writings of Richard Bauckham. Not all theologians are engaging writers. He is. I was interested in what else he has written, so I picked up his The Theology of the Book of Revelation.
In my early years as a Christian, I was steeped in the tradition whereby Revelation is a book to provide us with a key to figuring out when the end times is and what that will look like. My church has very specific views about what Revelation means, but as I've learned more about genres of New Testament Scripture, I have had questions about what I've learned over the years.
Compared to what I've been taught, Bauckham has very different views about the theology of Revelation. His conclusions are influenced by the book's genre: apocalyptic literature. Because of its genre, it not read as if it's an epistle or a gospel. Its genre as apocalyptic is not something that has been discussed in my church when the book is taught. The symbols and images have not been as much of a focus and there has been no reflection on the cultural circumstances of when John wrote the book. It has been more a case of placing an already existing template over Revelation and working to make things fit. That is not the way I've been taught in seminary. Seeing how Bauckham uses the text to draw conclusions is a very helpful exercise.
In Revelation 4, the scene is the throne room in heaven, and gathered around it are worshippers. Jesus is on the throne and around that throne are twenty-four other thrones with twenty-four elders seated on them. It is an awesome scene full of lighting, thunder, and lamps burning. In the centre of the throne area are four living creatures:
The first creature was like a lion, and the second creature like a calf, and the third creature had the face like that of a man, and the fourth was like a flying eagle. And the four living creatures, each one of them having six wings, are full of eyes around and around; and day and night they don't cease to say, "Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come." (Rev. 4:7-8).
Bauckham highlights that this is a scene that is not focused on humans, but on God:
Humanity is radically displaced from the centre of things where humans naturally tend to place themselves. At its heart and in its eschatological goal the creation is theocentric, orientated in worship towards the Creator. But even among the worshippers human beings are not pre-eminent. The four living creatures who lead the worship of the whole creation are not portrayed as anthropomorphic beings, as angelic being often are. Only the third has a face resembling a human face.
Do I mean to say that this passage has nothing to do with humans? Not at all. But what I have come to see in my own reading of Scripture is that I often have been more focused on what I can know about myself than God. Bauckham's comment that this is a theocentric -- God-centred -- passage is something that can be applied to the whole letter, and certainly to the whole Bible.
Scripture is not given for the sole purpose that I can use it to unlock the mysteries of the future. It is given so that I may see God revealed, and that I may know who he is. Yes, we live in light of who God is, and Scripture should influence our conduct, but I am seeing more and more that I must first look for God in the Scripture, not myself.
I haven't finished the book, and there may be things I don't agree with. But even if I don't fully embrace everything Bauckham says, his exhortation to see the theocentric nature of Revelation is a lesson worth receiving.

Monday, May 11, 2020

The Place of Dependence


We live in a strange world, a world which presents us with tremendous contrasts. The high and the low, the great and the small, the sublime and the ridiculous, the beautiful and the ugly, the tragic and the comic, the good and the evil, the truth and the lie, these all are heaped up in unfathomable interrelationship. The gravity and the vanity of life seize on us in turn. Now we are prompted to optimism, then to pessimism. Man weeping is constantly giving way to man laughing. The whole world stands in the sign of humor, which has been well described as a laugh in a tear.1 

Herman Bavinck may have have written those sentences 111 years ago, but he could be describing the present. Life as we know it has changed drastically for the entire world. Every level of society has been impacted, and what we once knew may never return. I am more aware than I have ever been of the complex tangle of human lives, basic needs, information, and decisions that are "heaped up in unfathomable interrelationship."

In March, two pastors on Twitter asked if Christians would be willing to fast and pray for an hour on Friday afternoons regarding the coronavirus. I was gung-ho the first two weeks and eager to pray. The hour passed quickly as I prayed for everyone and everything I could think of. But as the weeks passed, the number of situations and people needing prayer seemed to grow exponentially. When the last prayer time rolled around, I began to think of government employees from national to local levels, medical staff and researchers, essential workers, the unemployed, the elderly, those with compromised health or mental illness, and the list went on and on. All these people so dependent on each other.  Some have positions of authority with decision-making power over many. But there are others previously overlooked who we are literally depending upon for our daily bread. So many people. So many lives. Any attempt to untangle these interrelationships would inevitably result in harm to someone because this is a no-win situation. These thoughts were too overwhelming, so I had to give way to the tears and lament that had been building up inside. The only words left to pray were, "Lord, you know."

In our inmost selves, we are immediately  -- without benefit of reasoning, that is, and prior to all reasoning -- conscious of ourselves as created, limited, dependent beings. We are dependent upon everything around us, upon the whole spiritual and material world. Man is a "dependent" of the universe. And further, he is dependent, together with other created things, and dependent this time in an absolute sense, on God who is the one, eternal, and real being.2

If our sole dependence rested on other fallible human beings, we would have good reason to fear. There is a limit to the best wisdom, knowledge, and skill any person can offer, and that "best" is still tainted with sin. But there is Someone greater, wiser, and more powerful undergirding our interrelationships and interdependence on each other. Someone on whom we truly depend. He is not the watchmaker god of the deists who winds the timepiece and observes what will happen from afar. Our God sees perfectly and judges righteously. His purpose will not waiver and neither will his love. He took on humanity that he might redeem us, purchasing pardon with his death and providing righteousness with his life.

As his children, we have an open invitation to the throne of grace. We are welcome to pour out our hearts in petition, but we are also free to come when we are too overwhelmed to even know what to pray.  We can come to the end of our rope and the end of ourselves in this place of dependence. A place where Christ accepts a feeble, "Lord, you know," and gives us assurance that he does.

For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin. Therefore let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. Heb. 4:15-16 NASB

1. The Wonderful Works of God, Herman Bavinck, Westminster Seminary Press, 2019, pg. 29.
2. Ibid. pg. 27.
Photo attribution: Paulo Barcellos Jr. / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)

Monday, May 4, 2020

Passive worship

Despite the fact that we spend a lot of time online, these past weeks worshiping from home have not been all that easy. When it all began, I personally did not expect to feel like this after seven weeks.

At my church, on the first Sunday of our state of emergency, services were cancelled at the last minute, so there was no service at all. The following Sunday, we had a service on Facebook Live. As the regulations for gathering in groups became smaller, the music leaders and the one doing the preaching began broadcasting in separate locations. Now, both the message and the singing are recorded separately prior to Sunday. One week, one of the pastors recorded his sermon outside in the woods.

My son is a music leader at his church, and his pastor is one of my classmates in seminary. Their service is an hour earlier than our own, so we are able to watch both if we want. Initially, they also broadcasted live from their facility with just four or five people there. Eventually, that was changed to pre-recorded material. Last week, as we had a Zoom call with our kids, my son said he had to leave the call and prepare his music for the following Sunday. Last week, we had some technical difficulties with our church's stream. "We can always watch it later," I said to my husband.

Even as I said those words it struck me that it was a rather sad convenience.

It doesn't matter if we can comment on the broadcast; or if we can see who is also participating. It simply is not the same. From a technical perspective, pre-recording things is easier. But the pre-recorded option removes much of the intention of worship. We can watch whenever we want. It isn't the same as purposely getting up on a Sunday morning and leaving the house for the purpose of worship.

One of the things I learned in my ecclesiology class this past school year is that participation is worship is confined to singing. Unless one attends a more formally liturgical church where there are responsive readings and corporate confessions, it's mostly a time of listening. We listen to the sermon; we listen to the announcements; we listen to the pastoral prayer. Singing is the only interactive thing left in worship, and in some churches where there are large amounts of musicians at the front and the music is so loud we can't hear our own voices, that aspect of participation is waning. Worshiping at home is entirely passive.

Worship is also losing its communal feel. One of the things I miss most is watching the children gather at the front of the church to have a prayer before children's church. The song leader crouches down and speaks to them. The gentleman who leads our singing has a lovely way with small children, and I smile every time I watch him interact with them. I miss having my eyes make contact with someone I haven't see for a while. We may smile and wave to one another. I may see someone whom I want to greet, and I make a concerted effort to cross the room to see him or her once the benediction is said and the service is over. Greeting someone in a comment on Facebook isn't the same.

We are saved by God to be a body, the Body of Christ. While we live in a terribly individualistic society, the reality remains that life in Christ is a life of community. And life in community while we are alone in our homes is a paradox I struggle with. That said, I know for certain that despite my feelings, the the Body of Christ is still the body. We may not be gathering, but we are still the body. In this imperfect situation, it is good to care for one another. We need to check in on people. We need to call them and make sure they're okay. If it means dropping off some baked goodies at their door in order to encourage them, that's a great thing. We need to be praying for one another. We are a body apart right now.

And I likely won't feel entirely satisfied until we're a body together in the flesh once again.

Monday, April 27, 2020

Review: Becoming Sage

Becoming Sage: Cultivating Meaning, Purpose, and Spirituality in Midlife by Michelle Van Loon, Moody Publishers, 2020, 201 pages.

When I was a young adult, I had dreams of what life would be like after the next 30-40 years. Now that I have reached this stage, hardly any of those expectations turned out as I had hoped. I could either be thrown for a loop or see this as an opportunity to grow. And this pursuit of Christian maturity in midlife is the topic of Michelle Van Loon's new book, Becoming Sage.

She writes that we often get the wrong idea that maturity is a given once we reach a certain age. We also get the wrong idea that discipleship is only for the young. But "maturity is not a destination but an on-going process." (pg. 10) This time of life with its disappointments and unexpected turn of events is an invitation to become sage - "a way of life in which a person expresses experience, knowledge, insight, and self-mastery." (pg. 11)

In the first section of the book, Michelle addresses defining and understanding maturity. Midlife is an opportunity to assess our Christian growth and see where we may have gotten lopsided. She describes discipleship models that emphasize one aspect of ourselves over the others leaving us imbalanced. For example, discipleship that is more imitation fueled by peer pressure or an overemphasis on mental knowledge that neglects character formation. However, true wisdom should be holistic and integral to all areas of our lives -  heart, soul, mind, and strength. She then uses the life of King David as an example of stages in our faith from its beginning through the end of life. As we age, the zeal, energy, and certainty of youth begin to be tested when our growth doesn't follow a neat and tidy trajectory. We also begin to realize that the strength of a younger faith won't automatically give us success later in life. But these challenges can bring humility, greater communion with God, and the desire to pass on what we know to the next generation.

The second section of the book focuses on becoming sage in specific areas in midlife and beyond. These are:

  • the local church
  • family
  • friendship
  • our physical bodies
  • our legacy (financial and otherwise)
  • mental health
  • vocation
  • facing our mortality

Within these topics, Michelle discusses issues such as finding one's place in a youth-focused church, the loss of a spouse and other family changes, loneliness, aging bodies, and financial challenges. She also addresses the importance of emotional health for our spiritual well-being and coming to terms with our callings.

Becoming Sage is not a to-do list or how to become a mature believer in 12 steps. Neither does the author make her experience prescriptive for her readers, which I greatly appreciate. Rather Michelle brings to our attention areas that are worth examining before the Lord in the light of his Word. Some of these are often overlooked when it comes to discipleship such as the challenge of aging bodies and the struggles of mental health. I especially liked chapter 9, From Doing to Being, on vocation. I could relate to her example of looking too often in the mirror of other people's expectations to discern direction for one's life. I was also encouraged that God does not waste any of our losses and that what moves us to tears may help clarify our callings. There was a good balance of personal examples and topic content, and the chapters flowed well together. Even though one isn't supposed to judge a book by its cover, I think the cover is beautiful.

So if you want to be encouraged to press on to spiritual growth in midlife, I highly recommend Becoming Sage.

Loving God heart, soul, mind, and strength is not separated into four different-but-related silos of our lives. Each is meant to be integrated so our one-and-only life is lived in growing communion with God. Becoming sage means becoming whole. (pg. 29)

I received a copy of this book from Moody Publishers. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."

Monday, April 20, 2020

We're not so far from Philippi


In Philippians, 2:5-11, Paul asks the Philippians to have the mind of Christ. Specifically, he wants them to emulate the humility of Christ. Jesus Christ, the incarnate son of God, equal with God, the one who refused to "grasp" at his equality with God, in the form of God, took the appearance of a man. God came down to earth and met us in the form of Jesus. That's pretty significant.

There is more. Not only was Jesus found in appearance as a man, but he was in the form of a servant. By the way, from a literary standpoint, this is a wonderful parallel. The word used for "form "in v.6, "morphe," is the same word used in the phrase, "the form of a servant."

But again, there is more. Not only did Jesus take the form of a servant, it led to his death. And not any old death. It was death on a cross; a shameful death reserved for the lowest. Jesus, equal with God, descends to the lowest. That is the picture of humility Paul calls for.

To the Philippians, this idea of descending would be shocking. In the culture of the day, attaining recognition and esteem was a virtue. One was meant to ascend, not descend. It was seen as a virtue to surround oneself with influential people so that he could ascend himself. Patronage and relationships of reciprocity were what enabled one to rise. But it does not foster unity in the Body of Christ.  The new ethic in Christ was at total odds -- and likely in competition -- with the prevailing ethic of the day. Paul was calling the Philippians to a radically different way of living.

We're not so far from Philippi ourselves. In our current culture, numerous ways of gathering patronage and relationships of reciprocity are only a click away. What else is Twitter in the end, but a relationship of reciprocity? "Follow me, and I'll follow you." The old Genesis song could be the Twitter anthem. There are "influencers" who have managed to gain enough people to "like" them so that they can be called "influencers." They may not even have to have any credentials other than the persistence and the time to foster relationships with people online. We live in a culture that values ascending. Why else do we revere celebrities? Or assume that because they are celebrities they must be good and nice people? Why else do we assume that a celebrity Christian is a nice person, when in reality he/she could be a total boor? We, like the Philippians, allow ourselves to buy into the notion that ascending equals virtue.

The Christian life is not about ascending; at least not in the way that is popular. The only "ascending" we can be assured of is to be resurrected in the eschaton and given a glorified body to live with Christ forever. There are no promises of ascending in this earthly life. In fact, we may actually be lowered by any manner of things that are completely out of our control. Do you want to see someone lowered? Watch him as he gets the cancer diagnosis. Or watch her as her child dies. Or yes, as people lose their loved ones, and are not able to be with them because of a world-wide pandemic.

I am not a psychologist or a sociologist, but I suspect that one of the many reasons why Christians become discontent is that they want to ascend. But worldly success or the admiration of others is a shallow goal. It is fleeting. The rush lasts a moment, and then we're looking for our next fix. Better to follow the path of Jesus who, after being lowered, was raised.

Our destiny is not the same as Jesus' was. He was destined to be raised and given the name above all names (Phil 2:9). That is not our destiny. But our destiny is to be with the one whose name is above all names. And our destiny as Christians is to worship him along with the entire creation. That is an eternal goal which will never be fleeting.