Interview: Matthew Levering, Part Two

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Matthew Levering holds the James N. and Mary D. Perry, Jr. Chair of Theology at Mundelein Seminary at the University of St. Mary of the Lake. He has authored or co-authored over twenty books, including the recently published Dying and the Virtues, reviewed on this blog. I had the privilege of sitting down with him for a conversation while at a conference on the Mundelein Seminary campus. We discussed his personal journey to faith, his decision to enter the Catholic church, his scholarship, his latest work, and his thoughts on the work of a theologian and the state of theology. It was a rich and long conversation. Yesterday’s post included his thoughts about his scholarship and his book, Dying and the Virtues. Today, he shares his take on the work of a theologian and the state of the theological enterprise. This is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.

Bob on Books: Much of your work consists of teaching people who are being formed for the priesthood or other roles within the church. Why do you think theology is so important in that task?

Matthew Levering: Well as far as I’m concerned the answer is this. The life of the mind springs forth from the heart. There is a cry that comes out from people to know the truth about God and about reality. So there’s a deep desire. The problem is the intellectuals, as it were, in every culture, and certainly in our culture. You often find if you read the New York Review of Books or other intelligent things, that the intellectuals don’t seem to find Christianity very credible or attractive. I’m writing for people who are going to become Christian teachers, who at least have some interest in Christian teaching of some kind, whether it’s becoming pastors, priests, or lay leaders in the community. I’m writing for teachers, essentially. It’s a little like Ronald Reagan’s trickle-down economics. The idea is that you teach the teachers. From the deep questions that arise very passionately from within, I go and seek out other teachers. I read their work and I put their work into my books and essentially hand on that way.

I’m trying to show that there’s a wonderful Christian conversation about these questions. I’m inviting young people, who are starting out with me, beginners like myself, into this conversation which is so much fun, which is so rich, really so glorious. It’s really so much more fun and beautiful and true than you might get if you just read the works of popular intellectuals. To be in Christ is such a glorious thing and the truth of it is simply stunning and rich and wonderful. But it is something that involves an intellectual labor, a labor of mind. We’re being taught by teachers and then sharing what teachers have taught us. I want to be part of that conversation in Christ with fellow Christians.

Bob on Books: I work in a ministry that tries to connect that conversation with some of the wider intellectual conversations that go on in the academy. What have been your experiences of connecting the theological conversation to the wider conversations going on about the nature of human life and human flourishing and all the things that are explored in what may be called the secular academy?

Matthew Levering: Here’s kind of the secret to the whole thing. Honestly, my experience of being a theologian has been an experience first of all my own ignorance. I’ve felt often times a strong sense that I don’t really know how to even begin an answer to a question someone will ask me. That will be an inspiration to write a book. By writing a book, you are essentially learning from a bunch of other teachers and then sharing their wisdom.

The secret, the key thing, the unfortunate thing I’ve found that theology, as a Christian discipline–and I want to include myself very much in this–theology is in tatters. Now I’m not saying this of the seminary where I work now, which is a very wonderful place! I’m not saying theology is in tatters here. I’m essentially saying that theology as a discipline, as a whole, is a discipline that is at war with itself. The war that I would describe is a war over whether God has truly spoken. It is essentially the war that has been going on for a while between classical, liberal versions of Christianity where what’s really happening is we’re gesturing toward the ineffable. Different eras try to build authentic community and liberative praxis from human resources and gesture toward the ineffable, the mystery. That would be what I call classical, liberal Christianity. That’s sort of at war with a more counter-cultural Christianity rooted in a commitment to divine revelation–a sense of God pouring out his Word, and becoming incarnate, and God’s Word dying for us.

If you want to know what I’m talking about, a great book to start with is by a scholar named Garry Wills. He has a book called Why Priests? which is an amazing example of classical liberal Christianity. He’s a very learned man. By no means am I trying to impugn him. In the book, he feels a little defensive because he doesn’t want his Christian commitment challenged. If he’s reading this, I’m not trying to impugn Garry Wills! I’m just saying that when I read the book, there are strong resonances of my own knowledge of what I would call classical, liberal Christianity.

That’s the situation right now. Among theologians around the world, the guild of intellectuals, there’s a strong questioning of whether we can defend God truly speaking, or whether in fact it has been some second temple Jews gesturing to this, or whether it is some post-exilic competing priestly clans, or some kind of Greek influence on church leaders trying to take power in fourth century Roman empire. And so different forms of gesturing, however authentic they might be, their gestures, their language, it’s all very historically conditioned. So we now have our own gestures and language in which we can use Jesus as a liberative model, a model of love. You can see the benefit of that kind of approach to Christian theology because it makes Christianity more easily defensible. To people who challenge Christianity, they say “We don’t believe that either but we’re just gesturing, we’re building authentic community and gesturing, using Jesus as a liberative model, whatever happens to be in the zeitgeist. Morally, you can just adopt that and say, “That’s what we want too.” Jesus is a model of that, he is a Liberator.

What you lose, though, is the Savior from sin and death. You lose the communion with the Holy Trinity. You lose the actual sanctification of the communion with our divine Father, Son, and Holy Spirit who are inviting us into their communion here and now. You lose that [experience of] actually being transformed and that power of God’s Word and that challenge–that real challenge of holiness and that challenge that confronts us as sinners who are broken; and that challenge that confronts us with real mercy built upon the cross where God has come to a broken creation that refuses to love, and God has loved for that creation at the very place where we have refused to love, which of course is our dying. We can’t accept dying so we turn our backs on God, but God has come right into that context and loved us and saved us in that very place of death — praise be to God, praise be to Jesus!.

Theology, in my view, is under great strain. I recently completed a manuscript called Did Jesus Rise from the Dead? It’s not a popular apologetics. It’s written for scholars. It’s a work that hopefully could be read by others, but the main point is that unless you can get deep into the nitty-gritty, they’ll say “You’re just on the surface here.” The work of theology understood as responding to divine revelation is a very difficult labor. You have to listen to a lot of voices to make sure that you are not making claims that are too strong. You have to be very careful in listening to and hearing as many voices as you can, as many voices of other scholars and other thinkers. Within that, there is a strong defense that can come forth of the reality that Jesus really did rise from the dead.

Theology, then, in my experience is a fragmented discipline. The answer to your question is that I focus my attention on speaking to theologians and attempting to strengthen theologians. I seek to strengthen the discipline. I’m including strengthening myself and my beloved fellow theologians and especially young theologians in training and therefore also pastors and priests–to strengthen them to know that the fullness of divine revelation and the full life of the critical mind can go together. That’s the key point that I’ve been trying to say.

Bob on Books: I speak often about my own work with grad students as connecting the love of God and the love of learning.

Matthew Levering: Yes, beautiful. Remember, when I’m talking about the love of learning, I’m talking about the critical kind where you ask difficult questions that can seem corrosive. I think all those questions have to be asked, to be gotten to the bottom of. We need to hear the voices of the many teachers who can teach us if we are willing to ask those deep questions. The point is that we don’t want to underestimate the discipline of theology. There are so many wonderful resources, even though I think at the current moment in some circles there is something of a crisis of confidence, and therefore the discipline itself needs a certain strengthening. I haven’t devoted myself to speaking outside of the discipline. I haven’t done that but would love to do it though!

Bob on Books: I might figure out a way to take you up on that!

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Books by Matthew Levering reviewed at Bob on Books:

Engaging the Doctrine of Revelation (review)

Engaging the Doctrine of Creation (review)

Dying and the Virtues (review)

Interview: Matthew Levering, Part One

Levering-003-ARTMatthew Levering holds the James N. and Mary D. Perry, Jr. Chair of Theology at Mundelein Seminary at the University of St. Mary of the Lake. He has authored or co-authored over twenty books, including the recently published Dying and the Virtues, reviewed yesterday on this blog. I had the privilege of sitting down with him for a conversation while at a conference on the Mundelein Seminary campus. We discussed his personal journey to faith, his decision to enter the Catholic church, his scholarship, his latest work, and his thoughts on the work of a theologian and the state of theology. It was a rich and long conversation. Today’s post will include his thoughts about his scholarship and his book, Dying and the Virtues. Tomorrow, I will include his take on the work of a theologian and the state of the theological enterprise. Both are lightly edited transcripts of our conversation.

Bob on Books:  You’ve written a lot of books and I wonder if you could talk about whether there is any thread or trajectory that ties together your scholarship?

Matthew Levering:  Certainly there is a desire to be touched by Jesus, to learn about Jesus from all angles,  and to learn about Jesus in his divine sonship and his relationship with the Father, his love for us, and to reach out to him through writing and thinking. That’s the motivating thing. There’s also a strong thing that moves me very deeply of bridging the elements of the Christian past with the Christian present.  I’m very interested in scriptural reading. I read historical critical biblical scholarship. A fun day is if I’m reading something from Augustine and then I read something from Richard Hayes and I make a connection between the two because there’s a sense of the fullness of Christianity, the wholeness, that I’m not getting stuck in any one century where I’m bringing together past and present. To me that’s the biblical office of a scribe. You bring old things and new. You offer them to fellow Christians as essentially a bringing together, a meditating on the scriptural word, but with all the centuries involved or as many as possible.

And it is bringing that word of God, that Living Word which is always new, always fresh, that has all the centuries and also an insistence that the passage of time has not distanced us from the actual gospel.  I’m very concerned that people say “well it was medieval or it was patristic, it was Reformation, it was this or that, it’s been distanced, it’s been separated from the Biblical word.” That would mean for me that God was not being faithful to his people during those time periods. In other words, to each generation, God is faithful to his people in giving the gospel to his people. So therefore, there must be a way to bring together all these diverse voices, to show their deep unity in Christ. You see what I mean?

Bob on Books: it sounds to me what you’re trying to do is to help people to see how this long tradition of scholarship hangs together.   That it is Christ who makes it hang together and reconciles all things. It seems like you’ve moved from your own encounter with Christ to helping others encounter Christ in this long tradition of people who have contemplated…

Matthew Levering: Yes that’s exactly the goal but also with contemporary questions, with questions that we have today, whether it’s from Richard Dawkins who is so influential– all sorts of questions that we have today. I don’t really do what’s called historical theology, I did one book of historical theology but it was the most boring book I ever wrote!  For me, all theology is caught up with the now, because it’s the day of Christ, because he’s present, he’s living. We need to draw upon all the centuries, all the wisdom, that Christ has been giving his people. We need to hear those voices, and those voices are going to be able to help us as we speak today to answer and to proclaim Jesus.

Bob on Books: You’ve mentioned the questions that we ask today. Your most recent book Dying  and the Virtues seems to address a very important question about  death and about how death shapes how we live. I wonder if you could talk a little bit more about what you were trying to do in that book.

Matthew  Levering:  That’s wonderful, because I wrote that book after the book on creation which was about God the Life Giver and the pouring out of life. As I pondered on this, I thought I needed to write a book on dying. Included in dying I also included the fall of Adam and Eve. That was a topic in my creation book and so I had already in mind the question of death. In my creation book I include a chapter on the fall and on Christ’s atonement. These things are already somewhat present  in the creation book. But the main point I want to get across is that for me, I can’t think of death as an academic topic. Nor can I think of any topic as a merely academic topic. It’s always deeply personal for me. When people say the word “death,” when I say the word death, I think it’s very concrete for me in the sense death isn’t an abstraction, a concept. Neither is creation, the Trinity, or anything. When I think of death, when I think about the experience of the last moments, the last days, that feels very concrete. I feel very contingent even if I were to live 50 more years.  Death doesn’t seem a distant thing from me but a very present neighbor.

Bob on Books:  It’s the same transience you were talking about in your personal experience…

Matthew Levering: Yes that’s it, the sense of transience.  I feel very strongly calling out to Christ Our Lord who dies on the cross for us.  I feel very strongly calling out to him saying “Lord, Lord is this really good? How could you leave me here to go through this threatening, this entering into darkness, a complete destruction of my bodily frame? How could this possibly be your will?” Calling out to Jesus and saying it’s good for you Lord, to be on the cross, and maybe we can build some booths around you like Peter and we can Rejoice that you have saved us Lord but now you’re surely not calling us to go through this Darkness, this sense of Destruction? My answer is surely not Lord! Surely not! Just like Peter saying by no means would the cross be good for the Lord.  

Bob on Books:  Connect up for me the idea of dying and the virtues–the two parts of your title.

Matthew Levering:  To give away the idea of the book,  it’s that God permits us to go through dying  because we need certain virtues. In other words dying is a crucial part of living and the process of dying begins everyday.  We need a set of virtues given our fallen condition. Even though we are redeemed we need to beg, we need to plead for these virtues. Dying is an instruction manual that teaches us to beg for what we actually need in order to flourish, what we need in order to be Christ-like.

Bob on Books:  I would assume that it has to do with faith, hope, and love?

Matthew Levering:  Yes it begins with faith hope and love. The first chapter is on the threat of annihilation. The first chapter is on love. I begin with the Book of Job where Job questions. I assemble a bunch of texts from The Book of Job where he questions whether God truly loves him. He remembers that one time that he and God were really close and that God seem to love him then. In fact God made him in the womb.  God knew him and crafted him. God built his flesh and bones. God loves him and put him in the community of people and God blessed him. Job cries out, “You’re not a lover, you’re a destroyer!” Job says that to God. I’m not quoting directly but he says “you’re there to destroy my flesh.”

This raises the question of love.  Does God love us? Do we love him? And can we love him given that our bodily frame is going to be destroyed. Do we love this God? Can we love him given that he seems to be threatening us? What kind of lover would allow us to go through this horrible misery and be destroyed? Does God really love us? Do we really love God? My main point is that we often don’t love God. We sort of fear God because we think he really doesn’t love us. He really doesn’t quite love us because he’s going to allow us to die. He’s going to humiliate us. In the end we’re going to be stripped and humiliated. So we love the God who sets us up on a pedestal and gives us a nice book by Eerdmans and stuff! We love that God but the God who sets us down and says you’re going to be stripped and humiliated– that God we don’t love. We don’t love the God of the cross. So we have to be turned around , we have to allow God’s voice to come through. Remember how God speaks to Job in the end. God says, “you don’t know my plan. You weren’t there. Were you there when the angels sang for joy at the dawn of creation? Do you know the power of the different created things?“

So God tells Job, “you just don’t know my ways.” And ultimately God’s point is that you don’t know the plan. The point that God has made to Job that Job understands is that God loves Job. God comes out and cares for Job and speaks to Joe.   God assures Job that his power to love is not going to be stopped by Death. The end of Job is like a blessing of resurrection, of communion in a certain way. It’s all really pointing to Christ where God shows who God is in the midst of death and resurrection in his perfect love. Since we’ve got to live it through Job, we’ve got to realize that we tend not to love God. We tend to love the God who is giving us blessings. But we tend to think that there’s this other God who is a humiliator, who is essentially going to abandon us.

Part two of this interview will appear tomorrow.

Why Isn’t This Book in the Lectionary?

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Nahum, 18th Century Russian Icon, PD-US via Wikimedia

Last Sunday, I learned one of those interesting “factoids” that may signify more than we think. I discovered that there are no readings from the minor prophet Nahum in either the Roman Catholic Sunday Lectionary or the Revised Common Lectionary used in many Protestant churches. For many people who do not engage in personal reading through the scriptures, Nahum is an unknown book, never read, and likely never preached from.

Except in my church. Our pastor was preaching on this as part of a series on the minor prophets and I realized that this was at least the second time we preached on this book. I spoke on the book in the summer of 2015, and, if you care, you may listen to that sermon. Having both listened to preaching on this book and studied it myself, I understand why it may not be included in either lectionary.

Basically the book is on the fall of Nineveh, and the empire of Assyria, the superpower of Nahum’s day, that had conquered and obliterated the northern tribes of Israel, leaving Nahum and those in Judah as subject vassals. Chapter one announces the fall in a song of praise to God. Chapter two graphically describes the battle against Nineveh and its fall to Babylon. Chapter three is a dirge describing the carnage of bodies and the devastation of Nineveh. The most troubling thing about this book is that Nahum doesn’t seem troubled. Nahum’s name means “comfort” and this picture of the destruction of an evil empire was comfort, perhaps grim comfort, to the people of Judah. Everything that happened to the Assyrians, and more, they had done at the height of their power against other nations including Israel. Their fall meant a respite from trouble.

You can see why those who put lectionaries together would omit Nahum. It poses too many uncomfortable questions in ascribing the ultimate cause of Nineveh’s fall to God’s avenging anger and portraying a prophet of God who is what I have described as “grimly satisfied” with the outcome.

Yet my pastor wondered, and I join him in this, what has been lost in this omission? For one thing, I encounter many who wonder why God does not do more against the evils they see around them. When a physician who abused scores of female athletes had to face those he abused and both be publicly shamed as he heard accounts of the damage his abuse wrought, and then was sentenced to die in prison, did anyone think he had been treated too harshly? I will confess to indulging in mental fantasies about what ought to have been done to him that should not be committed to print.

I can’t help but wonder if what is lost is the gritty reality of a God who is far from impotent to deal with evil, and a spirituality that cannot be reduced to niceness but has room for the expression of what seems unseemly, and yet is a reality of human experience. Actually, we often want it both ways–we want God to deal with evil in the abstract, we just don’t like the idea that he might actually do so. We want to pretend that we are wonderful, good people, and yet gloat or, even celebrate, when some evil is vanquished, even if it means the death of the person or people doing that evil. Sometimes we are filled with rage when we witness injustice, and we at least imagine doing unspeakably wicked things to the objects of our rage.

Is church a place where we can go with this kind of jumble of “stuff”? I suspect many Black churches were and are. They are places that understand lament for the evil around us. They are places that talk about the hate that wells up within us, and give voice to that and then speak of the greater power of love to overcome. Books like Nahum give permission and models for expressing the unseemly things that we might think don’t belong in church. We may want to ask whether our lectionaries and our endlessly happy praise songs have sanitized “church” and in the process created a kind of unreality disconnected from the world outside the building doors. Is a church that has gutted expressions of anger toward God about rampant evil, a church that doesn’t know how to lament, and a church that has tried to domesticate God, a place that can help people deal with the dark underbelly of life? What happens when people can’t express to God, and their spiritual community such things?

These are where my thoughts go when I wonder about the omission of Nahum from our lectionaries. . . .

Going Deeper: A Shared Language to Change and Challenge Us

PsalmsPsalm 16

Keep me safe, my God,
    for in you I take refuge.

I say to the Lord, “You are my Lord;
    apart from you I have no good thing.”
I say of the holy people who are in the land,
    “They are the noble ones in whom is all my delight.”
Those who run after other gods will suffer more and more.
    I will not pour out libations of blood to such gods
    or take up their names on my lips.

Lord, you alone are my portion and my cup;
    you make my lot secure.
The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places;
    surely I have a delightful inheritance.
I will praise the Lord, who counsels me;
    even at night my heart instructs me.
I keep my eyes always on the Lord.
    With him at my right hand, I will not be shaken.

Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices;
    my body also will rest secure,
10 because you will not abandon me to the realm of the dead,
    nor will you let your faithful one see decay.
11 You make known to me the path of life;
    you will fill me with joy in your presence,
    with eternal pleasures at your right hand.

This past Sunday, our pastor used this Psalm to help us understand something of how the Psalms may work in our lives. There were a few things he said that particularly have me thinking.

One is how the Psalms, though written in particular contexts only sometimes evident have the power to speak deeply to humanity because they speak to human emotions and about human realities that confront us all. Who of us has not had times where we’ve felt unsafe and wanted to find a place of security?

Because of their ability to address universal human conditions, they can function in a corporate way to give us prayers we may pray together, such as parts of the church do with the lectionary, reading, reflecting on and praying the same Psalms across the globe. I’m beginning to consider whether this may be one of the most important ways to be reminded of my solidarity with believing people around the world. No wonder they have often been called the prayer book of the church.

Rich posed the question to us of how we might be formed if we went back to setting to music, singing, and memorizing the Psalms. I think of the power of memorizing Psalm 23 as a child and how this has stayed with me for a lifetime–when I’ve been weary, or scared, faced evil, or death. I think of how God spoke deeply to me from Psalm 46 in a time of fretfulness and anxiety to “be still and know that I am God.” From Psalm 16 I’m reminded that when I wake in the middle of the night (a phenomenon that happens more often these days), even then God counsels and my heart instructs.

The Psalms also challenge us. They surface raw emotions we sometimes avoid. Even when we feel safe, they remind us of those who do not. They confront us with ultimate realities we would often care not to think of. They bid us to praise God whether we feel like it or not.

Rich concluded with talking about how often we read the Psalms. I often read through the Bible in a year, and so read the Psalms in the course of this. But some read them monthly or even more often. It strikes me that this might be what it takes to have a Psalm-saturated life. And that might not be such a bad thing.

Going Deeper: The Present of Owning Who We Are

Christ after his Resurrection, with the ostentatio vulnerum, showing his wounds, Austria, c. 1500

Christ after his Resurrection, with the ostentatio vulnerum, showing his wounds, Austria, c. 1500

You have searched me, Lord,
    and you know me.
You know when I sit and when I rise;
    you perceive my thoughts from afar.
You discern my going out and my lying down;
    you are familiar with all my ways.
Before a word is on my tongue
    you, Lord, know it completely.
You hem me in behind and before,
    and you lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
    too lofty for me to attain. Psalm 139:1-6 (NIV)

I’ve been thinking all week about Pastor Rich’s first sermon on returning from his sabbatical. Much of this focused around how he learned during his sabbatical to begin to own and live with some of the qualities about himself with which he has always wrestled: his restlessness and discontent.

The realization for him was that these were not going to change in three months, or maybe a lifetime. Rather, we need to grasp that part of the process of become fully human in the ways our Lord would intend is to neither deny or try to change who we are but to own that before God and with ourselves. We join the psalmist in acknowledging that who we are has always been known to God and is part of our fearfulness and wonderfulness.

The “present” in this realization really is the present. Blaise Pascal once said, “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” To live in the moment, not by ourselves but to own who we are and live with ourselves is a gift. It comes from the God who is graciously present with us — who sees us through and through and yet chooses to be “God with us”. If God can handle who I am and set his love upon me, then I am free to see myself for who I am and own that. I can sit quietly with myself.

I appreciated Rich’s candor about the qualities of self he struggles with and is learning to own. I appreciated his concluding challenge that we are too often absent to ourselves and God.

What I think Rich did is describe each of our life journeys toward wholeness. We might put different words in place of restless and discontent. For me it can be self-righteousness and compulsive diligence. Forty years of walking with Jesus hasn’t eradicated them. But knowing that Jesus knows these things, and chooses to walk with me means I can even laugh about these things, and accept the warnings of my wife when they are getting out of hand in my life.

I also wonder if there is something more. Henri Nouwen, in The Wounded Healer suggests that when we face our own woundedness and own these wounds and how we suffer from them, and offer them to God, they don’t go away, but become the source of bringing healing to others. They become sacred wounds, analogous to the wounds in the hands and feet of Jesus.

Rich, you gave us an example of that this Sunday in sharing your own sabbatical journey, and with that the wounds of restlessness and discontent. Sharing how you’ve come to own these, and live in the presence of God with these extends hope that Christ can meet each of us in this way. That is a profound gift to us all.

Going Deeper: Peace Be With You

“Shalom”, the Hebrew word for “peace”

Our pastor (Rich) made the statement this past Sunday, “that when we show up what we need to do before anything else is bring peace.” He rooted this statement in the observation that three times in Jesus’s resurrection appearances in John 20, he says, “peace be with you.” In two instances it is the first thing Jesus says (John 20: 19, 26).

Rich went on to talk about the fact that Jesus wanted his disciples to know that they had nothing to fear from him. I suspect they weren’t too sure of that. Someone coming back from the dead can be a bit scary. Then there’s the matter of how they acted during his arrest and crucifixion. They were not exactly the poster children for loyalty or courage.

Instead, Jesus said “peace”, or “shalom”, the way Jews greeted each other and expressed their wish for wholeness and health on the life and home of the one they were addressing. It’s what Jesus taught his disciples to say when they came to a town bringing the good news and needed a place to stay. Rich proposed that “we could do worse than simply, everywhere we ever go, say and do whatever lines up with ‘Peace be with you.’ Our reputation in the world would change.”

It is troubling to me that people are fearful of their encounters with church people. But the truth is they are often expecting a judgment, a criticism, or an argument.  It strikes me that it could be a radical thing if instead, what they found in us were people who genuinely wanted them to find peace, wholeness, and health–all the things wrapped up in shalom.

It would be interesting to experiment with that for a week. I can think of some interesting ways to go about that:

  • What about closing our emails with “peace” or “peace be with you” (or “PBWY” on our texts!)?
  • What about writing “peace be with you” on our check at a restaurant along with a generous tip?
  • What about greeting each other at the beginning of our days with these words spoken gently, perhaps bearing a cup of coffee?
  • What about offering to pray for or even with (if they are comfortable) a friend who is stressed that they might experience God’s peace?

You get the idea. I would love to hear other ideas you come up with to say and do “peace be with you”.

Rich also made the point that for us to be that in the world, we need to start by practicing this with each other:

But I think in some ways it has to be our self-talk, too. When we come together, for whatever reason, our first stance, our first words, our basic orientation toward each other needs to be “Peace be with you.” Don’t be afraid, don’t be worried. Be at peace. Be at rest. Be yourself, and let me be myself, and let’s not be anxious about anything, for God is with us.

Churches aren’t always peaceful places. People coming from harried, busy lives may encounter messages that basically say, “you need to do more, give more, pray more” when maybe the first invitation we might give each other is to rest, to enjoy peace, to revel in silence, or the beauty of a song of praise. What a beautiful thing it can be for someone to ask, “where do you need the peace of God in your life right now?” What if board meetings began this way with prayer for one another to know the shalom of Jesus? And might it be the case that when people are at peace, then they can hear the empowering word of Jesus that infuses doing with joy!

On a personal note, I want to extend a “peace be with you” to our pastor as he begins a three month sabbatical. Rich, you labored hard these past seven years bringing peace and a new sense of hope to a troubled church through your week in, week out teaching and presence among us. Often it has meant bearing the burdens of others. May you know the peace of the Lord in rest, in quietness, in the simple richness of shared life with your family, in times of reflection, in all the warp and woof of your lives these next months. May the peace of the Lord be with you!

Going Deeper: One

5iRrkKEoTOne of our deepest human longings is for intimacy. We hope to find it in marriage. Perhaps we have found it with a friend or group of friends. We long for it in various communities of which we are a part, including our church communities. We may even long for this with God but not be sure whether such closeness is actually possible. And when we find that intimacy, we often describe it using the language of one–the two become one, being of one mind and heart, being at one with each other, oneness with God. It is the oneness not of losing one’s sense of self but of knowing and being known.

This past Sunday, our Pastor Rich preached on John 17:1-26. There was one section of this which yielded an insight I’ve wanted to go deeper into this week, found in verses 20-23:

20 “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 21 that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— 23 I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

I’ve often focused on John 13:35 that says,  “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” What I’ve paid less attention to is that our ability to love for each other, to be one with each other is rooted in a deeper oneness. Jesus prays that we might share in the oneness he has with the Father, and it is by this that we are also at one with our fellow Christians. Rich talked about this incredible thing that we’ve been brought into the life of loving oneness between the Father and Son and that our oneness with each other flows out of this oneness. Intimacy with Jesus is the fuel for intimacy with each other.

The challenge for me is that I try to do the “oneness thing” on my own strength and what these verses say is that my oneness with my community in Christ comes from being in Christ who is in the Father. The best way I can nurture “the beloved community” with God’s people is to know and accept and embrace my belovedness. Because of Jesus, God is for me. Because of Jesus God loves me in spite of all my faults. God loves me just because He does, and invites me to be as close to him as Jesus and the Father have been forever.

Because this is so, I don’t have to change the things I don’t like in others to be one in Christ with them, or conform to the expectations of others. We simply have to love each other just because. I’ve found myself loving people I didn’t like or wouldn’t have chosen to hang around with. I’ve found myself loving people I disagreed with.

Rich talked about the beautiful thing that happens when we are one with God and each others in these ways–“more and more people, as they see our unity, are drawn into the divine community that we ourselves are a part of. ”

One of the things I love about our church is that it is this crazy place where people who otherwise would not be in each other’s lives are learning to love each other and anyone else who walks in the door in practical and life-giving ways. We don’t do it perfectly, at least I don’t. But we don’t give up. That is the power of One!

Going Deeper: Listen to Your Lawyer!

On several occasions, I’ve learned that lawyers can be quite helpful and save one a great deal of grief. We had the benefit of a lawyer walking us through the complexities of probate. In my work, I’ve learned that a lawyer can save a great deal of grief for me and our organization by reviewing a contract. Sadly, I’ve sometimes recommended lawyers to friends who needed someone to represent their interests in a divorce, or to help them navigate their way through our country’s labyrinthine immigration laws.

Our message this past Sunday focused on John 15:26-16:11 and this sometimes mysterious person of the Trinity we call “the Holy Spirit”, or in older times “the Holy Ghost.” Sometimes the language suggests this vague, ethereal being. At other times, we are tempted to view the Holy Spirit as a kind of “spiritual battery pack” who charges us up to serve God.

Instead, Pastor Rich pointed out the word picture of the Holy Spirit as our Advocate. Sometimes paraclete, the word translated in the NIV as “advocate” is translated as “counselor”. Rich pointed out that we can use that language if we think, not of a therapist, but of a legal counselor. In French, the word for lawyer is avocat. The idea is one who stands alongside us when we are on trial, who empowers us by his presence with us rather than some vague spiritual charge. He is also one who advocates on our behalf and does not leave us defenseless.

I can think of all kinds of ways I face “trials” in which I need this kind of counsel, this kind of advocacy:

  • When I face difficult choices and wonder which is the right path to choose
  • When I face a challenging ethical situation and want to do the right thing
  • When I am sharing with a friend and we are talking about faith and my friend raises a difficult objection.
  • When I am overwhelmed by trying circumstances–when everything seems to be going wrong and I alternate between frenzied activity and fearful paralysis.

What Jesus promises is that in this hour of trial, whatever it is, we do not stand alone. There is One who stands alongside us, instructing us as “the Spirit of truth” (15:26). He testifies about Jesus so that we can testify about Jesus and tell and live the truth of who he is.

My greatest challenge is listening to my lawyer! Sometimes, I think the reason I do not listen is because I’m afraid if I do, I won’t hear anything and won’t be helped. So I decide to just do it myself. Yet I can also think of a time when I was facing a great challenge, that had me crying out for the Spirit’s help. And I found that when the need was there, so was the insight of what to do next, step by step. It did not seem that the Holy Spirit showed me the whole game plan, but rather just the next step. And he gave the presence of mind and peace of heart to give calm leadership to others.

What I forget is that the Holy Spirit is not simply my Advocate in extraordinary situations but also in ordinary life. Just as lawyers can help us with the mundane details of a contract or an estate plan, so our Advocate can help us with the “ordinary” matters of our days–caring for children, relating to customers or vendors, devising plans for our work. All of this for the Christian is part of life in the kingdom under Jesus new covenant rule. Everything matters, and it matters so much that our Lord has not left us to stumble about on our own.

One of the ancient prayers of the church is “Veni Sancte Spiritus”, which means “come Holy Spirit”. Maybe one of the simplest steps you and I can take when we are conscious of our need for help is to pray these three words and to invite his counsel. Where do you need to listen to Him today? This week?

Going Deeper: A Book of Glory or A Confusing Book?

Bible open to John. (c)2015, Robert C Trube

Bible open to John. (c)2015, Robert C Trube

For some of us, our experience of reading the Bible seems to vacillate between these two extremes. Sometimes we see amazing things about God and God’s purposes and the human experience that catch us up in wonder. And sometimes, we are just plain perplexed and confused as we read and try to figure out, “what is this about?”

My title though has a particular reference to what we’ve been considering in our church’s study of John’s Gospel. Often the book is divided into two parts: The Book of Signs (John 1-12) and The Book of Glory (John 13-20 or 21 if you include the epilogue). The first part consists of Seven Signs that are meant to help persuade us to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God (cf John 20:31). The second part concerns the final events of Jesus life and passion, in which John sees Jesus being glorified. Five chapters (13-17) consist of a lengthy talk and prayer that at first reading may seem confusing, even if there are some glimpses of glory along the way.

An example of both is John 13:31-32. Judas has just left to betray Jesus and here’s what follows:

When he was gone, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man is glorified and God is glorified in him.  If God is glorified in him, God will glorify the Son in himself, and will glorify him at once.

There is definitely some glory in there but also some fairly convoluted sentences. There is a good deal of this kind of thing in these chapters. It is not my intent to unravel all this here but rather to remind those of us in our church what our pastor said about working through this material, which might be helpful for others who find themselves confused either in John’s gospel or other parts of scripture.

1.What Jesus says is worth our attention! Right before this section, Jesus reminds his followers:

For I did not speak on my own, but the Father who sent me commanded me to say all that I have spoken. I know that his command leads to eternal life. So whatever I say is just what the Father has told me to say. (John 12:49-50)

If Jesus is saying just what the Father wants him to say and these commands lead to eternal life, careful attention is warranted!

2. A good way to pay attention is to read (and re-read) before our messages. That’s not a bad way to pay attention for one thing. Also, even if we can’t figure it all out–it will prepare us to hear the word explained in our Sunday messages. This is just good sense in general and a good argument for knowing ahead of time what texts of scripture will be preached on so we can read, pray, and be working with our pastor to understand what God is saying. Rich even gave us a schedule–so no excuses!

3. The third thing that Rich shared is to reflect. The questions he gave us are good for this section, and maybe more generally as well.

  • How does my belief in Jesus affect my daily life?
  • How well am I doing at loving?
  • How well am I doing at obeying?

Believing, loving, and obeying are pretty basic stuff–basic but also challenging! I will never in this life get beyond believing, loving, and obeying. I often want the new and exciting. But if I’ve seen anything in John, it is in these things that we find life in Jesus. We’ve learned that our healing is in our obedience. In the man born blind, we saw that believing was seeing for him–the more he believed, the more he saw.

So, where will you make time this week to pay attention to Jesus, to read and re-read what he says, and reflect on how well you are believing, loving and obeying? Can you take time this week to read over on your own the text from either last week’s message in church, or the one for the week to come? Are there some others you can talk with about this stuff?

If’s funny how many times I listen to messages and forget what I heard before I get to the parking lot! If nothing else, Going Deeper helps me keep reflecting on how what I’ve heard should affect my belief and my behavior. I hope that for all of us, that we can be not only hearers of the word but doers (James 1:22). That would be glorious!

All the posts I’ve made for our “Going Deeper” blog now appear as a separate category on my home page.

A God, A Rulebook, or Trustworthy Testimony

Bible open to John 5. (c)2015, Robert C Trube

Bible open to John 5. (c)2015, Robert C Trube

What am I talking about? The Bible, the Christian scriptures.

Some people treat the Bible as if it was the fourth member of the Godhead. Sometimes, it seems we are more zealous to defend a notion of what the Bible is than we are for God’s glory, God’s reputation in the world.

I think many view the Bible as a book of rules. Do these things and you will go to heaven. Don’t do these things and God will get you. Let the people into our community who keep the rules. Exclude the ones who don’t. Study hard so you know the rules. If you are creative, figure out ways to extend the rules to every situation, even ones never envisioned by the rules. Exclude those who don’t agree with your creative interpretations. Congratulate yourself on your diligence in study and rule-keeping. You are one of God’s star pupils.

Of course, that is only good if you are good at study and rule-keeping and many of us are honest enough to admit that we are not. So, should we just pack it in since we are in a mess with God anyway? I think that is how a number of people feel.

This Sunday, our church looked at John 5:19-46 together. Verses 39 and 40 suggest a very different reason for the scriptures:

You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life.These are the very Scriptures that testify about me,  yet you refuse to come to me to have life.

Jesus is proposing that the Bible is neither God nor a rule book but rather testimony about himself that can be trusted. The central idea of the Bible is to help people find life through trusting and following Jesus. The Pharisees, who were great at battling for the Bible and devising ingenious rule-keeping strategies were missing the point. In fact they were so caught up in these things that they were refusing something better, real life, being connected to the God who made them through his Son who had come to them.

But, you say, there really are a lot of rules in the Bible. It sure looks like a rule book in places. What’s that all about? There are two ways to answer this. One is that the rules really reflect what God is like and what we need to be like to live with Him. They tell us we need God to do something both to wipe the slate clean from all the ways we break the rules, and to deal with our propensity to do the opposite of what God wants for us. That something is Jesus and the life he gives means both forgiveness for what we’ve done and the power to increasingly live differently.

The second answer is that the instructions and commands we find, especially those given by Jesus and in the New Testament are not rules but tell us how we might most faithfully and joyfully enter into the life Jesus has for us. They teach us how to love God and each other and to experience wholeness in our own selves.

There’s a good deal more that can be said about all this so if you have questions, leave them in the comments and let’s talk!

The real deal that I want to come back to is that the most important thing to look for when reading the Bible is how it points us toward Jesus. Earlier in the passage we see this is the Jesus who claims equality with the Father and to have been entrusted with the Father’s authority both to give life and to judge (verses 19-27). If that’s true, then there is no one more important to know!

So, if you are spiritually seeking, then it seems one of the most important questions you can ask as you read the Bible is, how does this testify to Jesus and what is this telling me about him? In some sense, all of the Bible does this, but I would suggest for newbie Bible readers that the gospels do this most clearly.

And for those who are Christ-followers, how are we viewing the Bible? Have we gotten caught up in some form of Bible wars? Are we congratulating ourselves on how well we keep the rules, or how much we know about the Bible? Or are we not paying much attention at all to what it says, depending on sermons to do that for us? What John says is that this book tells us who Jesus is and how we can find abundant life as we get to know and follow him better and better.

Going Deeper Question: How do you think about the Bible, and how are you interacting with it?