Saturday, December 25, 2010

O Holy Night: Grace and Love

Truly He taught us to love one another;
His law is love and His Gospel is peace.
Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother
And in His Name all oppression shall cease.
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we,
Let all within us praise His holy Name!
Christ is the Lord! O praise His name forever!
His pow’r and glory evermore proclaim!
His pow’r and glory evermore proclaim!
The world has a natural brotherhood. The bond between mankind draws us together out of the forests and fields and into a society. "Man", said Aristotle, "is a social animal." As Hobbes teaches us, this society is a relationship of power, domination, and hierarchy. The brotherhood that binds all men together is a love of self. We recognize and embrace in others the image of ourselves, kindred spirits of ego. The all-consuming passion of man in his natural state is self-glorification.

The Law of Christ then drops like a bomb into this natural world. When all within us says "love yourself", Christ says "love your neighbor"; when the world says "the secret of the universe is you", Christ says "you must give yourself to others."
Surprisingly, this is not automatically good news. Telling a selfish person to love someone else merely has the effect of hardening them in their selfishness (as anyone who's ever worked with a two-year-old well knows). We see this truth written across the page of human experience in history (see the repeated failures of the social gospel), literature (see T.H. White's Once and Future King), and in Scripture (see rebellion after rebellion of the Israelites). The command to "love thy neighbor" merely reveals to us how much the natural world resembles a Cormac McCarthy novel.

Christ changes everything. Where the Law drops like a bomb into creation, Jesus enters quietly as a lamb. Where we have kicked our egos against the pricks of the Law, Christ has embodied that Law. And, in the ultimate embodiment, He has given Himself to us. Jesus has obeyed the law by loving us as his neighbors despite our utter lack of love for Him, and He has also give us the reward for His doing so. This is the peace that His Gospel brings, the good news that transforms the world. When touched by the Gospel, the selfish man is put to death and new life grows in his place. People now capable of loving their neighbor begin to do so in ways the natural world cannot truly comprehend. Only in a world under the shadow of the Gospel can we call the slave our brother, and only by the influence of Christ can oppression truly cease.

The best the world can do when it comes to love is to base it on self-interest. We naturally love our neighbor because we believe they will love us back. This in turn makes us the arbiters of love, and at the first perception of unkindness, love may be self-righteously withdrawn.
The Christian does not have this option, for the Love of God for His redeemed saints never ceases. Our motive for love is the infinite love which Jesus has shown us by dying in our place on the cross. We must therefore always humble ourselves to the level of our brothers in chains and work to end their oppression, just as Christ has ended our oppression by sin. From this flows forth all the good things of the Christian life: our love of our neighbor, hymns of joy, and our eternal praise for our saviour and redeemer.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

O Holy Night: Faith and the Savior

Led by the light of faith serenely beaming,
With glowing hearts by His cradle we stand.
So led by light of a star sweetly gleaming,
Here came the wise men from Orient land.
The King of kings lay thus in lowly manger,
In all our trials born to be our Friend!
He knows our need—to our weakness is no stranger.
Behold your King; before Him lowly bend!
Behold your King; before Him lowly bend!
This verse is often left out of modern reditions of the song, I suspect because it takes the focus off of us and puts it explicitly on the King. Which of course Americans are not okay with, because we should be the focus of everything, and we certainly don't need a king!
And yet, Christ is the King. Not just the king, but the King of kings. He is God, and worthy of all praise and worship from the greatest and most noble among us. Our American sensibilities aside, Jesus should be worshiped merely because of who He is. In His presence we should fall down in praise.
Sin, however, allows no praise to be given to any but ourselves. Part of our rebellion against God involves our exclusion of Him from our worship. Not only do we actively break His Law, we redefine "virtue" to mean "obeying ourselves as the supreme authority." It is not within us to come to God of our own accord.
Fortunately, God has come to us. Where we are rebels and sinners, God has Himself become a man and lived the life of perfect virtue and obedience that we were supposed to have lived but are no longer capable of. In doing so, God has made a gift of salvation to his people and provided a new means for us to respond to Him: faith.
It is by faith that we are led to Christ, not by obedience to the Law. Faith draws us to the cradle and brightens our hearts in His presence. Faith shows us the King of kings laying in a lowly manger, born to be our friend. Faith turns us from our sin and attempts at self-justification and places our attention and worship on Jesus Christ. Faith is the gift that God gives by which He applies the life of Christ to us. Faith, and faith alone, is the means by which our hearts and knees can bend before God without trembling, because it is by faith that we see that Jesus is the foundation of our salvation.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Teacher's Epic fail or Epic win?

In my classes, I tend to have students write a journal rather than a research paper or reflective essay. This usually means that we both enjoy doing schoolwork about a million times more than we would otherwise. And every once in a while, I'm reminded of what a good idea this is that I stole from Dr. David Calhoun out a Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis...
Even if I had learned nothing else in the class I would at least have increased my limited pool of knowledge on the topics of drugs, sex, and STDs.
Let's see you find that in a paper describing the impact of partially-hydrogenated soybean oils on voter turnout in District 3 based on last year's landfill methane levels!

Thursday, December 9, 2010

On children...

"Youngsters are instinctive dramatists, for purposes of self-protection. They have not yet fitted themselves to the exigencies -to them partially inexplicable- of a mature world. Moreover, their lives are complicated by human variables. they are told by one person that playing in the mud is permissible, but that in their excavations, they must not uproot flowers or small trees. Another adult vetoes mud per se. The Ten Commandments are not carved on stone; they vary, and children are helplessly dependent on the caprice of those who give them birth and feed and clothe them. And tyrannize. The young animal does not resent that benevolent tyranny, for it is an essential part of nature. He is, however, an individualist, and maintains his integrity by a subtle, passive fight. Under the eyes of an adult he changes. Like an actor on-stage, when he remembers, he strives to please, and also to attract attention to himself. Such attempts are not unknown to maturity. But adults are less obvious- to other adults.
It is difficult to admit that children lack subtlety. Children are different from the mature animal because they think in another way. We can more or less easily pierce the pretenses they set up- but they can do the same to us. Ruthlessly a child can destroy the pretenses of an adult. Iconoclasm is their prerogative.
Foppishness, for example. The amenities of social intercourse, exaggerated not quite to absurdity. The gigolo- "Such savoir faire! Such punctilious courtesy!" The dowager and the blond young thing are often impressed. Men have less pleasant comments to make. But the child goes to the root of the matter.
"You're silly!"
How can an immature human understand the complicated system of social relationships? He can't. To him, an exaggeration of natural courtesy is silly. In his functional structure of life-patterns, it is rococo. He is an egotistic little animal, who cannot visualize himself in the position of another- certainly not an adult. A self-contained, almost perfect natural unit, his wants supplied by others, the child is much like a unicellular creature floating in the blood stream, nutriment carried to him, waste products carried away-
From the standpoint of logic, a child is rather horribly perfect. A baby may be even more perfect, but so alien to an adult that only superficial standards of comparison apply. The thought processes of an infant are completely unimaginable. But babies think, even before birth. In the womb they move and sleep, not entirely through instinct. We are conditioned to react rather peculiarly to the idea that a nearly-viable embryo may think. We are surprised, shocked into laughter, and repelled. Nothing human is alien.
But a baby is not human. An embryo is far less human..."

-From "Mimsy were the Borogoves" by Lewis Padgett in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume 1. pg 238-239

Saturday, December 4, 2010

O Holy Night: Sin and the Savior

"O holy night, the stars are brightly shining;
It is the night of the dear Savior’s birth!
Long lay the world in sin and error pining,
Till He appeared and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope, the weary soul rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.
Fall on your knees, O hear the angel voices!
O night divine, O night when Christ was born!
O night, O holy night, O night divine!"

The first verse of this carol draws out very well the tension in which the world exists, a tension between groaning and glory. There is throughout the universe the memory of the glorious goodness with which all things were created. The memory of the declaration "and God saw that it was Good" reverberates from the stars to the ocean depths. As Martin Luther says in his lecture on Genesis 1,
"I prefer that we reflect on the divine solicitude and benevolence toward us, because He provided such an attractive dwelling place for the future human being before the human being was created. Thus afterwards, when man is created, he finds a ready and equipped home into which he is brought by god and commanded to enjoy all the riches of so splendid a home... All this generosity is intended to make man recognize the goodness of god and live in the fear of god. (Luther's Works, Vol. 1, Concordia Publishing, pg 39)
Yet, creation is no longer good. The rebellion of man in the garden has effaced its glory and smeared its goodness, to the point where J.C. Ryle's observation of human nature can be applied to the whole world:
"We can acknowledge that man has all the marks of a majestic temple about him, a temple in which God once dwelt, but a temple which is now in utter ruins, a temple in which a shattered window here, and a doorway there, and a column there, still give some faint idea of the magnificence of the original design, but a temple which from end to end has lost its glory and fallen from its high estate." (Holiness, pg 4)
Or, as Paul says, "we know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth up to the present time" (Romans 8:22). Human sin has dragged us down to hell, and brought all the world along.

What makes this situation unbearable, is that there appears to be no hope from within nature itself. The message of creation is the message of the Law, that if only we will obey God and live moral and virtuous lives, we will have peace with God and live according to our created mandate. Yet every effort at obedience ends in despair. Nothing proves this more than the interaction between God and His people in the Old Testament. Repeatedly God reminds Israel that if only they will obey Him, He will bless them and they will live. 
"Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach. 12 It is not up in heaven, so that you have to ask, “Who will ascend into heaven to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” 13 Nor is it beyond the sea, so that you have to ask, “Who will cross the sea to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” 14 No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it. 15 See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction. 16 For I command you today to love the LORD your God, to walk in obedience to him, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws; then you will live and increase, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess. 17 But if your heart turns away and you are not obedient, and if you are drawn away to bow down to other gods and worship them, 18 I declare to you this day that you will certainly be destroyed. You will not live long in the land you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. 19 This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live 20 and that you may love the LORD your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the LORD is your life, and he will give you many years in the land he swore to give to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  (Deuteronomy 30:11-20)
Yet time and time again Israel sins and rebels against God, despite having the Law, despite having prophets continuously reminding them to obey and pointing out their sins, despite having God Himself dwelling in their midst. What hope could there then be for other nations, who know this principle by nature but haven't these aids (cf. Romans 1)?

How clear then the declaration "long lay the world, in sin and error pining"? There is no hope for solving the problem of sin from within the world, since it is rooted in our very natures. Our very best attempts to be good are thwarted by what Kris Lundgaard calls The Enemy Within.

But where nature and the Law have failed to save us, God Himself has done the work necessary of salvation. On that holy night, the Son of God became incarnate, laying aside his glory and putting on human flesh, and in doing so bringing a thrill of hope to the weary soul. For where we have failed utterly in our attempts to obey, Jesus has completely succeeded. Where our every attempt at living the Law of God is tinged with our sin, Jesus embodied the Law perfectly. This is indeed a "new and glorious morn", because it is the means by which God has provided that eternal life which we are created to long for but are unable to achieve. God in His mercy and kindness takes the obedience of Jesus and gives it to us as a gift, counting it as ours so that the burden of living the Law is removed. The command "Obey!" becomes the declaration "Forgiven!"

This, in turn, should radically affect our view of the world. Instead of pining over sin, we should fall on our knees and worship. Our mourning over the smearing of the world with sin should become rejoicing over the salvation plan that began on that Holy Night.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Surely Christ Thy Griefs Has Borne

Surely Christ Thy Griefs Has Borne
by Augustus  M. Toplady
from Christ in Song, Hymns of Immanual V1: Selected from All Ages With Notes by Philip Schaff (194-195)

Surely Christ thy griefs has borne;
Weeping soul, no longer mourn;
View Him bleeding on the tree,
Pouring out His life for thee;
There thy every sin He bore;
Weeping soul, lament no more.

All thy crimes on Him were laid:
See upon His blameless head
Wrath its utmost vengeance pours,
Due to my offence and yours;
Wounded in our stead He is,
Bruised for our iniquities.

Weary sinner, keep thine eyes
On th' atoning sacrifice;
There th'incarnate Deity,
Numbered with transgressors, see;
There, his Father's absence mourns,
Nailed and bruised, and crowned with thorns.

See thy God His head bow down,
Hear the Man of Sorrows groan!
For thy ransom there condemned,
Stripped, derieded, and blasphemed;
Bleed the guiltless for th' unclean,
Made an offering for thy sin.

Cast thy guilty soul on Him,
Find Him mighty to redeem;
At His feet thy burden lay,
Look thy doubs and cares away;
Now by faith the Son embrace,
Plead His promise, trust His grace.

Lord, Thine arm must be revealed,
Ere I can by faith be healed;
Since I scarce can look to Thee,
Cast a gracious eye on me:
At Thy feet myself I lay;
Shine, O shine, my fears away!