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Henri Nouwen “the Beloved” – part 8

These sermons was formative for me and for all of us in Word Made Flesh. I will post it in 8 parts:

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Henri Nouwen “the Beloved” – part 7

These sermons was formative for me and for all of us in Word Made Flesh. I will post it in 8 parts:

Henri Nouwen “the Beloved” part 1

This sermon was formative for me and for all of us in Word Made Flesh. I will post it in 8 parts:

This week we’re beginning a book discussion on this:

Cornel West – ever prophetic

Blessed or Cursed?

(I wrote this reflection in the spring of 1998, while living with boys that we were taking off the streets.)

Every time I return to the US, I have been asked by my brothers and sisters in Christ, “Seeing the poverty, did you realize how blessed we are here in the States?”  It is difficult though for me to find a response.  If we reverse the question, we ask, “Do you realize how cursed they are?”

Jesus said, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God.  Blessed are you who hunger now, for you shall be satisfied.  Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh.”  I am living with four children who have spent most of their lives scrapping to survive on the streets.  They have known poverty.  They have known hunger.  They have known sorrow.  And they are blessed?  They have experienced disease, sexual abuse, and rejection.  And they are blessed?  Everyday I have to remind them of normal habits like to change their clothes, to speak without screaming, and to resolve their problems without beating each other up.  And these teenagers are blessed?

I would say they are cursed.  They have little education and little hope of reintegrating into society.  They are stigmatized by a city who knows the faces of her beggars.  They bear the emotional and physical scars of being beaten, being rejected, and being cursed.  In turn they beat, they reject, and they curse.  Sin and evil in people and society perpetuate the curse.

But as I seek to know Jesus intimately in the least, He begins to reveal their blessedness.  It is hidden and sometimes evasive, but let me tell you how they are blessed.  In a few words: they need a Savior.  These boys realize they can’t save themselves, as opposed to some of the wealthy who do just fine on their own.

Last night I had a one-on-one discussion with each boy.  They had each been misbehaving and asked me to discipline them.  We discussed their consequence and then prayed.  Each one asked God to forgive them and to change them.  I wish I could so easily admit my errors and recognize my need for correction. They are blessed because this is the posture of the heart that pleases God, and God joins them and fights on their side.  Blessed are the poor!

These former street children are teaching me how to seek God.  My understanding of “blessed” is not God’s understanding.  The Father sent the blessed Son to “redeem us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us – for it is written ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree.”  He was not only cursed but became the curse for us.  Jesus identified with the cursed of His day – those working in commercial sex, the outcast, and the diseased – and calls His church to do the same.  Jesus even countered the blessings with the verses under which I tremble:  “But woe to you who are rich, for are receiving your reward in full.  Woe to you who are well fed now, for you shall be hungry.  Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep.”  In the past, I identified the blessed as having enough money to sustain a comfortable and healthy.  But my own life identifies much closer with what Jesus warns against than with what He blesses.

And that brings me back to the question which I struggle to answer, “Do you see how blessed we are?”  I think it is better asked, “Do you know how blessed they are?”

Dărnicia creștină și zeciuiala

Am împărtășit ceva despre dărnicia duminică la biserica emanuel din Galați: dărnicia.

Poți urmări și prezentarea PowerPoint:

The pain of waiting

The promise of the coming Messiah had been pronounced. The promise provoked anticipation. There was the prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher (Luke 2:36). Over 700 years earlier, her tribe had been exiled from Israel and largely assimilated amongst other ethnicities. As one of the few representatives of her tribe, she awaited their return from exile and the restoration of Israel (2:38).

Anna was of a great age, having lived with her husband for seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four (2:36). She had suffered the loss of her husband, bread-winner and family-head. She endured as a female prophet. If women in today’s world have a tough time sharing God’s word, imagine the difficulties Anna confronted in the patriarchal culture of her day. She waited and waited. She was 84.

Anna never left the temple but worshipped there with fasting and prayer night and day (2:37). Her waiting was active, cultivated by days and nights, weeks and years of worship, prayer and fasting. When will the Messiah come?

We live on the other side of the Messiah’s coming, but we await his return. We have received the promise that Jesus will come again to resurrect the dead, to judge and to renew creation. In our waiting we witness injustice, oppression, evil and death. Knowing that the Messiah will come again makes the sickness, subjugation and wickedness all the more intolerable. We cry out with the martyrs at heaven’s altar, “How long until you come?” (Revelation 6:10).

Like Anna we participate in the long wait of all ethnicities for the day when the kingdoms of the earth become the kingdoms of our Lord. Like Anna we bear loneliness and social exclusion, honing in on God’s words that serve as daily nourishment for the wait. Our waiting takes the form of prayer and fasting, knowing that God is mysteriously waiting with us. We ask for signs of salvation, signs of healing, signs of deliverance. But where it seems that oppression and sin win the day, our waiting is painful. It means enduring. And we keep waiting, aging and anticipating, knowing that death will not have the last word. We believe the Messiah will come.

Hell: Not Just a Place in Michigan

Last week I read Rob Bell’s book Love Wins and Francis Chan’s piggyback book Erasing Hell. Although I have not read the blog hype about Bell’s book, I did order the books to find out what all the commotion was about. Since I’m unfamiliar with the blog debates, this may be repetitive.

Because Bell’s book made New York Times best-seller, I expected to discover something new. I didn’t. So, I surmised that the timing of Bell’s discourse must coincide with a lot of people’s own struggles with questions about eternity.

Let me start with some problems I have with Bell’s presentation. I feel like he over-emphasized one’s “freedom” and one’s “choice.” Bell depicts human freedom as the result of God’s love, which I agree with. But it seems counterintuitive to propose that God’s love wins when I have the freedom to choose what I want.

I also think that Bell takes “restoration” out of its biblical context and imposes his own categories of hell. He offers Origen as an example of a Church Father who promotes the reconciliation of every person and thing, but the Church condemned this idea as heresy.

I disagree with Bell’s reduction of resurrection to the earth’s life-cycle. Resurrection in the New Testament is an interruption and a completely new experience of new life without death.

I do appreciate Bell’s interpretation of the Last Judgment in Matthew 25 and his explanation of inclusivism and universalism. But he came across, to me at least, as being quite ambiguous. He presents these views sympathetically without explicitly siding with one of them.

As for Chan’s book, I appreciated that he didn’t simply write a rebuttal to Bell’s book but rather wrote a more extensive discourse on hell in which he also criticized Bell’s thought. I appreciate that Chan leaves open the question of eternal suffering versus annihilation. My main critique of Chan is that although he claims to be open to rejecting the familiar teaching on hell (pg. 16), his a priori commitments to his particular view on hell are evident throughout. I have the impression that he was choosing and interpreting texts through the lens of a Reformed-styled satisfaction theory of atonement.

Chan detracts from his argument by misconstruing Bell’s position (pg. 24 – though he clarifies by caveat in the endnote). I do appreciate Chan’s correction of Bell’s depiction of hell as the “garbage heap” and the appropriation of this metaphor. But throughout Chan repeatedly fails to account for the literary devices of hyperbole, parable, or the apocalyptic genre in which certain references to hell are depicted. Apart from these minor issues, I see more problematic Chan’s belief that hell is a motivation for Paul’s mission and his fideistic approach to God’s reasons for hell. Paul himself declares that he is compelled by love (not hell). And although God’s ways our higher than our ways, this is primarily an exposition of the cross and not a blanket to cover up all the ways i which we don’t understand God. I am a hard-sell for propositional affirmations that are not substantiated by reason especially where we can find in Scripture pointers to the reasoning and effects of hell and not merely an ignorant appeal to mystery.

I am unsatisfied with the (albeit different) assumptions of both authors about salvation and judgment – concepts that merit further articulation when addressing ideas on hell. Although both books are readily accessible for popular readership (especially Bell’s), I think that they needed to bring a more scholarly treatment to the subject – as done by other authors like Sanders’ No Other Name and the Counterpoint’s publication Four Views On Hell.

In comparing both books, it seems that Bell is emphasizing God’s love (and love wins), while Chan accentuates God’s power (saying that God does what He pleases and gets what He wants, otherwise He’s not powerful – pg. 30). Placing so much stress on the ability of God to win all of creation through God’s love may carry echoes of grace, but Bell risks sacrificing the justice accomplished by God by placing victims in front of their perpetrators. On the other hand, Chan stresses God’s sovereignty so much that he skirts the responsibility that human beings bear for their actions.

Both authors draw an apophatic line. Bell resists determining what hell is and who is in hell. Chan resists determining why God judges and how God passes the judgment of hell on people. Here I find myself much closer to Bell than to Chan, and I think that this is one reason why the spirit of Bell’s book is more inviting and attractive. I find many advantages in the indeterminacy of a theology of hell, leaving room for questions rather than speculation.

The fullest depiction of God’s judgment that we have seen up to this point in human history is Jesus on the cross. There, God chooses to absorb our violence, atone our sin, give us forgiveness and reconcile us rather than judge us and separate us from God’s Self. Evidently, God doesn’t want to be God without us. This is how God judges: through His cross.

By leaving the question about future judgment and hell open, we are less likely to create hells on earth. It is a truism that human beings are conformed to the images they worship. Those who established inquisitions and torture chambers justified their actions by claiming that they were following God by saving the soul and destroying the evil flesh. So too we, like the disciples, often call down fire from heaven in a heartbeat when we cry for “judgment” – and this in the name of God!

Here too is the dangerous rub of power and theologies of hell through which the powerful claim to secure heaven for themselves and hell for others. Listen to the words of N.T. Wright:

I think that Leslie Newbigin in his book the Open Secret sums it up nicely:

“The full number of the Gentiles will be gathered in and all Israel will be saved.” This text from Romans has a universal ring to it. Paul’s vision is truly cosmic and universal. His earlier description of Jesus as the new Adam also points in that direction. “As one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to acquittal and life for all” (Rom 5:18). And yet the same time Paul can say of himself that he must exercise the strictest self-discipline “lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Cor 9:27). It seems to me that the whole nature of the gospel requires us to maintain this tension and not to try to resolve it either by a rationalistic universalism which denies the possibility of finally missing the mark, or by increasingly fruitless arguments about who will and who will not be saved.  When Jesus was asked the question about whether few or many would be saved he declined to answer it but sternly warned the questioner to strive to enter the narrow door that leads to life.  There is a kind of confidence that leads to complacency, and there is a kind of anxiety which leads to selfish efforts to save oneself. It seems to me clear from the whole New Testament that the Christian life has room both for a godly confidence and for a godly fear.  The contrast between these is not a contradiction.  If I know that God in his limitless grace and kindness has chosen and called me to be a bearer of his grace for others, my trust in him will not exclude the awareness that I could betray his trust in me, and that very awareness will drive me closer to him.  This is a deeply personal relationship.  It excludes, I think, the kind of rationalistic universalism that I referred to.  It also excludes, I think, any temptation to set limits to God’s grace, or to write off any human being as beyond God’s redeeming love.

Eunuchs, Muslims and Population Competitions

Over the past few years, I’ve repeatedly come across Christians who are sounding the alarm on Muslim expansion. (For example, see the Christianity Today.) They point out that the growth rate of Muslims is surpassing the growth rate of Christians and that this is largely due to Muslim birth rates. Because Muslims are birthing more children than Christians, the alarmists claim that they will surpass Christians. You can see an example of this perspective here:

There are many problems with this analysis. It assumes that the countries in which Muslims are immigrating are Christian. It carries undertones of racism in its opposition to higher birth rates in ethnic groups that are dominantly Muslim. When Christian families are told that they need to have more children, the burden for increasing birth rates is largely shouldered by women.

This anti-Muslim analysis also fails to account for the effects of migration on Muslim families. Muslim immigrants are more likely to educate their daughters, and the education of women results in lower birth rates. Where poverty is diminished, birth rates decrease. And when families migrate to cities, the birth rates decrease.

More importantly, advocating higher birth rates is not a biblical strategy for expanding the people of God. In fact, Scripture indicates that God’s people grow precisely in the face of low birth rates.

This is seen at the inception of God’s entering into covenant with the patriarch and matriarch of Israel. God promises to Abraham and Sarah that they will birth a son even though they are old (Genesis 17). In fact, it is precisely in Sarah’s condition of barrenness that God promises, creates and births this particular people set aside for God’s purposes.

Later in Israel’s history, after they have been conquered and taken into exile, the Babylonians castrate the male leaders in order to cut off their progeny and to secure the “purity” of their own ethnic elite (2 Kings 20:18). In the midst of the threat of assimilation and in the face of what seems to be the end of their people, God promises through the prophet Isaiah that the eunuchs who are faithful to God’s covenant will receive an everlasting name that will not be cut off. This, God says, is even better than having sons and daughters (Isaiah 56:4-5). God asserts that it is through faithfulness and not through procreation that the people of God expand. In 56:3 and 6, the prophet says that through faithfulness, the foreigners (those outside the people of God) join themselves to the Lord.

Those who promote increasing birth rates in Christian families must also explain how they square their proposal with the life of Jesus. Jesus was not married and had no children. While Jesus does not assert celibacy as a model for all Christians, he does say: ‘Not everyone can accept this teaching, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can’ (Matthew 19:11-12).

Some also affirm that Jesus’ models renunciation of sex in order to unmask and disarm the idols of sex and fertility. Others assert celibacy as a pragmatic approach to mission, pointing to the Apostle Paul’s words to be unmarried “as I myself am” for “the unmarried are anxious about the affairs of the Lord, but the married are anxious about the affairs of the world… (1 Corinthians 7: 25-31, 36-40). Most probably, Jesus’ life of celibacy is indicative indicative of his priestly ministry for atonement (echoing back to Leviticus 16). Again, this atonement is coming from God, through God’s promise and through God’s act of reconciling humanity to God’s Self, not through our own initiatives of pro-creation. Would it be our prayer and expectation that the God who “calls into existence the things that do not exist” birth new life in our barren lands?

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