single word prayers

I love categories, frameworks and layouts.  Wonderful freedom in wise frameworks.  Here’s my latest musings on categories for various types of prayers.  It expands on the very simple (perhaps overly simple, but still useful) acronym, A.C.T.S. (Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication).

Wow!
Adoration.  The most basic and fitting response to the majesty, power, incomprehensibility of the Creator and Sustainer of all things.  Psalm 8 is a great example.

Sorry.
Confession.  The most basic and fitting response to our selfishness, weakness and indifference which all keep us from doing the good we are able to do in the world.  Psalm 51 is a great example.

Thanks.  
Thanksgiving.  The most basic and fitting response to God’s undeserved gifts to us.  It is the posture of gratitude, and the opposite of entitlement.  Psalm 118 is a great example.

Why?
Lament.  The most basic and fitting response to events and circumstances which seem totally opposite of what we’d expect or hope for.  Psalm 22 is a great example.

Help!
Supplication.  This most basic and fitting response to our awareness of need concerning ourselves, other people, and other situations in the world.  Psalm 86 is a great example.

Now then.  Why is it that Wow, Thanks and Help are common in gathered worship, and Sorry and Why are so rare?

 

conversing with God

A friend of mine recently was talking about his struggle to ‘hear’ from God.  In the past, he had felt strongly that he had heard from God, but later events suggested that it wasn’t the voice of God.

It made me think about my own experience of communication with God.  It’s pretty mysterious when you think about it, even for those of us who have grown up with families and communities around us where it is an assumed thing.  It just seems impossible that an ultimate being such as God could be accessed with our ‘not-ultimate’ capacities.  In addition to the many things we might say in response to this, such as the idea that God speaks through Christ, Scripture, Reason, Tradition, etc., there is another perspective on this dilemma, and it seems to my mind to cohere with both our experience and the Judeo-Christian scriptures.  It’s the idea that God ‘meets’ us at our level of ability to communicate.

If this is true, then God may well be communicating to animals, plants, rocks, stars and the rest of created reality in a way that is appropriate to them.  Scripture seems to speak of these kinds of creaturely responses to the Creator.  With us, though, God seems to limit himself to the level of sounding like another human.

If we put aside, for the moment, the question of conversing with, speaking to and hearing from, God, we might observe the imprecise and imperfect, yet still wonderful and functional way that we communicate with one another as humans.  More often than we probably do it, we need to clarify or make sure we’ve been listening correctly.  We sometimes are mistaken about what people have said, sometimes we miss a tree from the forest, other times we miss the whole forest.  Shannon and Weaver’s theory of communication suggests that various kinds of ‘noise’ can distort the encoding, transmission, and decoding of our messages.

Wouldn’t human-divine communication be naturally subject to the same beautiful realities that make communication relational?  In the same way that God has not made us as robotic computers, executing every command with perfect precision, God, it seems, has chosen not to relate to us as a computer, but in a wonderfully down-to-earth, personal and even human way.

Now that this little piece of thinking is done, I think I shall get back to the lovely simplicity of approaching God as a child would their parent.  “I love you God, help me do good today.”

don’t hold on

In Genesis 2, the Lord gives instruction that the ‘tree of the knowledge of good and evil’ is not to be eaten from.  There is deep mystery and meaning in this command.  There seems to be some kind of boundary being established, and it seems to be a kind of protective boundary.  The serpent, in chapter 3, appears to distort and exaggerate this command, saying that it must not even be touched.  Perhaps it is some kind of common sense to put an additional layer of safety in place… but ultimately this approach backfires, temptation is yielded to, and this leads to a third development.  The Lord then specifies for the ‘tree of Life’ to not be eaten from.  This feels, to us, a strange command, as we assume that ‘to live forever’ is part of God’s plan and desire for humans.  But, again, there is deep mystery here, and whatever we make of these early chapters of Genesis, we can rightly take this boundary to be protective, at least for that season in human development.

Today is Resurrection Sunday, and in John’s narration of the post-resurrection events, there is one curious event that seems to echo, even if faintly, these mysterious boundaries in Genesis.  It is likely that John is deliberately echoing Genesis at points, for he opens with ‘In the beginning’.  Also, the language and imagery of fruit is very Johannine, famously with Jesus’ depiction of himself as the vine in chapter 15.  In chapter 20, Mary Magdalene finally recognizes Jesus as her beloved ‘Rabboni’, and is said to turn toward him.  She is met with the curious command not to ‘hold onto’ Jesus.  Many of us will be similarly puzzled by this, as we were with the banning from the tree of Life.  What could be more a beautiful, natural and fitting way for Mary to ‘abide’ in Jesus, than to embrace him in affectionate reverence in the bright light of resurrection morning?  No, says Jesus, or at least ‘not yet’.  Whether we understand it or not, and whether it makes sense to us or not, there is another boundary here, which must be taken to be protective.  Not that Jesus needs any protection from Mary, or even necessarily Mary from Jesus (!!!), but perhaps Mary from Mary.

Could it be that, even in the glorious glow of Easter morning, we still need boundaries to protect us from ourselves?  Perhaps we need to patiently progress toward the day, also in Johannine description (Revelation 22), where we will freely and fruitfully serve “God and the Lamb”, and respond freely and fully to the invitation to take of the “water of Life”.

dual tension

Christian discipleship in the kingdom of God, is well known to be characterised by what they call ‘eschatological tension’ between the ‘now’ and ‘not yet’.  The balanced tension helps us remember that, on the one hand, the kingdom is ‘now’, and we can and should expect to see evidence of it.  On the other hand, the kingdom is ‘not yet’, and we can and should expect to see the opposite of the kingdom.

I’ve often thought about all the ways in which both personal and public ethics can go toward either extreme, either expecting too much or too little evidence of the kingdom ‘now’.  But just now I had a thought: perhaps it is helpful to view this tension through the lens of another tension: namely the human and divine tension.

The balanced middle of this tension is called ‘partnership’, and it is expressed in many places in Scripture, one of my favourites being the end of Colossians 1, where Paul uses 2 terms to refer to his ‘labour’ and ‘toil’, and 3 terms to refer to God’s ‘energy’, ‘work’, and/or ‘power’.  Personal and public spiritual work is the result of partnership.  There are obvious extremes here too.  At one extreme, we passively wait for God to act and do nothing ourselves.  At the other, we aggressively work as though God’s action was not needed.  Partnership, between these extremes, is assertive.

If we view these tensions together, what do we get?

Perhaps there are two extreme ways to have an under-realised eschatology.  Both of them fail to expect or strive for a realisation of the kingdom.  One fails to expect this from God, and the other fails to expect it from self.

And perhaps there are two extreme ways to have an over-realised eschatology.  Both of them have unrealistic expectations.  One of God, the other of self.

In the middle, we keep coming back to contributing as much as we can to the kingdom, bringing as much of it ‘now’ as we can reasonably hope for, and trusting God to take care of the rest.

giving birth to life

In the most mysterious of all paradoxes, God seems to be the sort of God who – almost always – waits for our permission and cooperation to act in our lives.  The One who said ‘Let there be’ and gave birth to the life-cycle of all creation, will not force the divine life into ours without us agreeing to it with our ‘let it be’.  The One whose ‘Yes’ created all things, bends down to listen and wait for our own ‘yes’.

The holy and mild infant Jesus grew up and shaped his own moral life under the watchful and loving instruction of Mary, who, with her assertive and affirmative response to God, “Let it be unto me according to your will”, stands as the figurehead of human openness to the divine will.  The example of his human mother, mingling with the Spirit of his divine father, enabled him to finally in that fatal garden, utter these eternal words of assertive submission, giving life – in the shadow of the reality of death! – to his and our world: “Not my will, but yours be done.”

coats and ties off

Posting this here as it probably is too detailed for my thesis.  A member of Wanganui Central Baptist Church contributed the following memory of pumping the organ: “[W]ell do I remember keeping the bellows gauge up to ¾ mark for normal music.  But it was coats and ties off and full pressure for the “Doxology” or the Hallelujah Chorus.” (A.F. Woodbury, Pastors and People,, 90.)

Another memory described the organ pumping boys (pumping from outside the church) doing their duty for the opening singing, then making the usual lap round the block to the dairy, and then back in time to pump up the organ for the closing hymns.

even greater

Yesterday morning, our sermon was on Hebrews 7:1-7, about Jesus being like, and even greater than, the strange biblical figure Melchizedek.  Among the more striking contrasts is that this ‘priest of the Most High God’, who was the agent rather than the recipient of blessing, was not Jewish, but was a pagan ‘king of Salem’.

I’ve often reflected on how this lovely figure does glorious and needed damage to overly-certain schemes of salvation and overly-narrow frameworks of divine activity.  God speaks, works and saves in ways that are outside our human understanding.  But my reflection yesterday was musing about how there may be a parallel with the bread and wine and the mysterious presence of Christ at the Eucharist.

Both of the human figures, Abraham the ‘great’ Patriarch and the ‘greater’ Priest Melchizedek, are transcended by the divine-and-human person, Christ, who is ‘even greater’.  There may be a similar progression with the elements of Eucharist.  Bread and wine (interestingly brought to Abram by Melchizedek!) had deep significance in Jewish history and liturgy, particularly in celebration of Passover, remembering the Exodus from Egypt.  These ‘great’ elements are taken up and given a ‘greater’ meaning by serving our remembrance of a second greater Exodus, achieved by a second greater Adam.  But both these are transcended by the ‘even greater’ presence of Christ himself who has instituted the meal as a place and event where he will be ‘known’ through, ever since the breaking of bread on the Emmaus Road (Luke 24).  Although the elements always retain the ‘mere presence’ of bread and wine even with their ‘great’ significance, through the divinely instituted celebration of the Supper, they are also ‘blessed’ with an ‘even greater’ additional Presence (both through the elements and flowing out into and among the people gathered); that of the One who is not mere bread and wine, but True Food and True Drink (John 6).

So in diagrammatic form:

Abraham < Melchizedek < Christ himself
and
Passover < Eucharist < Christ himself

rain and bows

When it rains… look for rainbows.

Our son Tom quoted this message from a T-shirt today, as we finished off our lunch and looked out the window at the rain.

The imagery of the rainbow is used by peace activists, the queer community, sunday school teachers, and more.  It draws its formative significance, of course, from the story of the flood in Genesis.  I found myself thinking of how that story is framed, both as a complete story, and within the book of Genesis as a whole.

The whole Bible is framed by what we call progressive revelation, where truth is gradually (or progressively) revealed as the story or narrative goes forward.  In the same way, individual stories (or sets of stories) within the Bible follow the same principle.

Sometimes, a story or stories progress and combine to strengthen a belief about God.  The ‘lost’ stories of Jesus (lost sheep, lost coin and lost son) in Luke, for example, go together as a set of stories revealing the nature of God as a Shepherd/Woman/Father who seeks out what is lost.  A point any reader of the Old Testament would have known, but that Jesus intensifies.

Other times, stories progress and combine to re-shape or develop a belief about God.  The story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac, among its other purposes, is revealing that God is not the sort of God that demands a child sacrifice.  Yahweh is not like the other ‘normal’ gods of that time and place, for whom it was ‘normal’ to appease by offering your child.  People who imagine God to be a child-sacrifice-demanding God find this not to be the case.  This story carries through into the New Testament beautifully, with God providing not only a ‘ram’ instead of Abraham’s son, but providing himself through his only Son, who was the ‘Lamb’ of God.  Likewise, in Mark 7:24-30 and Matthew 15:21-28, we have a story which challenges the existing Jewish expectations of what the Messiah would be like.  Jews of the day (including Jesus himself it appears!) would have imagined the Messiah to be coming ‘for’ or ‘to’ the Jews, to save them from the Gentiles.  But this beautiful, wise and persistent Gentile (Syro-Phonecian) woman shows them (and Jesus!?) that the community of faith was not limited to Jews only.

It seems the flood story both strengthens and develops existing beliefs about God.  Like the previous stories in Genesis 1-5, the flood story pictures God as not merely a God who is grieved and angry over human failure and sin (as seen in the expulsion from the garden, the curse, and the judgment of the flood), but a God who seeks out his children to restore and bless them (as seen in the provision of clothes, the provision of children to Adam and Eve, and the promise of mercy seen in the rainbow).

This pattern permeates the whole of Scripture.  God is not like we imagined – or feared.  God is holier and stronger than we dared believe, and more merciful and gentle than we dared hope.

And that is why they call it Good News.

gospel response

I’ve always had a soft spot for soteriological Inclusivism, the theory of Christian ultimate salvation (sometimes expressed in different ways) that holds that some can or may be saved apart from an explicit congnitive act of conscious belief in Jesus.

Exclusivism insists on a personal response to the Gospel, but most forms of exclusivism make exception for those too young or perhaps lacking the (apparent) cognitive ability to make an (apparent) response to the Gospel.  These exceptions prompt Inclusivism’s concern for the fate particularly of “those who have never heard” the Gospel. But I wonder if the very notion of ‘those who have never heard the Gospel’ might be challenged by Scripture? Perhaps a Scriptural understanding of revelation, gospel, preaching, hearing and responding is different to at least some of our modern instincts? Perhaps some biblical language suggests that “the (G)gospel” has been preached to everyone; perhaps in a mode that escapes or transcends the modern mind?

It would be one thing to entertain such notions due to some discomfort or fear regarding communicating the gospel or having people not respond to it.  But it’s quite another thing if Scripture itself actually supports the notion. And whilst we don’t want to alter the Gospel to make it more palatable, we also don’t want to go beyond Scripture and ‘add’ requirements or barriers to God being able to work in ways we don’t understand.  Two relevant passages among others are: Romans 2:12-16 and 10:9-21; and another I recently encountered again is Hebrews 4:1-11.

In interpreting the texts, we have to keep the literary purposes of the authors in mind.  Both Romans and Hebrews are engaging with the early controversy around the attitudes of Jewish and Gentile (non-Jewish) Christians toward (among other things) the Jewish Law, common faith, and table fellowship. In Romans 2, the Jewish Christian readers have just had a surprising hard word given to them about their own failure to keep the Law, which has the result of putting them on even par with Gentiles.  Interestingly, the Gentles, even without having the Jewish Law, are nonetheless able to follow the ‘Law written on their hearts‘, which apparently not only accuses them when they live contrary to it (1:18-32), but also excuses them when they live according to it (2:14). This battlefield of hearing and obeying (or not!) seems to at times be public and visible, and other times private and ‘secret’ as Paul’s language suggests in 2:16 (‘God will judge men’s secrets…’).

Oh, sure, but some will say Paul is just getting the foundation of his
argument going in Romans; it’s only chapter 2! But, we have a similar tension in chapter 10, long after Paul has made his points about both the universality of Sin and the superabounding nature of Grace. Here is actually a favourite verse of
Exclusivists, where it is insisted that ‘faith comes by hearing’; when the Gospel of Christ preached and heard, believed and finally confessed (10:9-15). However, Paul does not finish there, but then goes on to contrast the unbelief of previous generations of Israel (long before Christ) with the Gentiles of old, who along with Israel apparently have indeed ‘heard’; the pertinent difference being that (‘all’) Israel did not accept the good news due to their disobedience, while the Gentiles were apparently ‘found’ by God who says ‘I revealed myself’ to them (10:16-21). The context of chapter 10, to state the obvious, is chapters 9 and 11, which all together form a rich tapestry of argumentation exploring the way that God remains faithful to the ‘old’ covenant with Israel, even when the church must have looked mostly Gentile at the time of writing. This is precisely the point the author of Hebrews makes in chapter 4; except only the negative criticism is made of Israel, for having ‘the gospel preached to them’ yet not combining that with ‘faith’.

The first key point in all of this is that the biblical authors here seem to be quite comfortable in describing ‘the gospel’ being known to people long before Christ; much like Paul in 1 Corinthians 10 will, in passing, assert that “the Rock that followed [Israel during the Exodus] was Christ.” The other point is that it seems those outside of God’s central and standard means of revelation (Law teaching in the Old; Gospel preaching in the New) have indeed had ‘the Gospel’ preached to them (Colossians 1:23); and their response, arguably in the New as well as the Old, is not always rejection. Indeed (clearly in the Old, and possibly in the New), when those on the ‘outside’ respond more obediently than those on the ‘inside’, the latter are humbled and (hopefully) brought to their knees again in renewed repentance; or (Paul hopes in Romans 9-11) ‘provoked to jealousy’ (and hopefully faith).

Similar themes appear elsewhere.  The Gentile King Cyrus was called God’s ‘anointed one’, who was moved by the Spirit to let Israel go home. The pagan Preist Melchizidek was the agent (not the recipient!) of blessing for Abram. And Jesus set the tone for his ministry with a rousing critique at Nazareth, making clear that God’s action was not limited to Israelites.

So could it be that God is at all times, all ways and in all places preaching the Gospel, through both public and ‘secret’ channels (one thinks of the many accounts of Muslims having dreams and visions of Jesus)? Could it be, as inclusivism suggests, that some of these people can respond to such preaching with at least some form of faith?

is ‘god’ the same ‘god’ as ‘god’?

You’ve heard it before: “Is God the same as Allah?” or “Is Allah the same as the God of the Bible?”

You’ve also probably heard both simple ‘yes’ answers and possibly simpler ‘no’ answers.  My response would be to answer with a question: “Is ‘god’ the same ‘god’ as ‘god’?

Words are incredibly slippery little animals.  ‘God’, of course, is an English word (used variously with lower or upper-case ‘g’) to refer to various kinds of deities or supernatural beings.  Origin, usage, context and other factors determine the meaning of a word.  Consider the word ‘cool’ in the following sentence: “Outside is cool.”  The word ‘cool’ could refer to a (relative) standard of temperature, or to an equally (or more so) relative standard of cultural interest.

The choice of the word ‘God’ has more to do with one’s culture and language than one’s religion.  I use the word ‘God’ as a Christian, and so does a friend of mine who is a Muslim sheikh.  Are there differences between Christian and Islamic theology?  Along with some similarities, yes of course there are differences.  Some cosmetic and cultural, and other deeply rooted into the heart of both religions.

So whilst ‘the God of the Bible’ and ‘the God of the Qur’an’ have both basic similarities and important differences, the flexibility of the term ‘God’ means that ‘Allah’ is indeed the ‘God’ of the Bible, in the sense that ‘Allah’ is the word used for ‘God’ in the Arabic Bible; just as it is the word for ‘God’ in the Arabic Tanakh (Judaism) and the Arabic Qur’an (Islam).  In Aotearoa (New Zealand), we might also say that ‘Atua’ is the God of the Bible, more particularly Te Paipera Tapu (the Holy Bible in Te Reo Māori).

You’d think that the English Bible, Tanakh and Qur’an would all use the English term ‘God’.  However, my parallel English-Arabic copy of the Qur’an has ‘Allah’ in it.  My understanding is that for Muslims, the Qur’an ceases to be the Qur’an when it is translated out of the original Arabic.  This special appreciation for the Arabic language (much like many Jews treasure the Hebrew language) may be related to the desire to use the term ‘Allah’, which is a transliteration of the original Arabic: له (‘Allah’).  Jehovah’s Witnesses also have convictions around God’s name, and use ‘Jehovah’ to translate the original Hebrew: יהוה (‘Yahweh’).

The insistence on using these terms are meant to protect the respect or accuracy that God deserves.  But even using the terms ‘Allah’ and ‘Yahweh’ do not guarantee either devotional respect or conceptual accuracy.

It is here that the authors of the New Testament, reflecting the earliest convictions of the earliest Church, use words that point us beyond concepts, titles or names, and toward the person of Jesus Christ.

In a mind-blowing moment in the gospel according to John, the Jewish leaders accuse Jesus of saying he was greater than Abraham, the Patriarch of all Jewish patriarchs.  John, writing in Greek to Greek readers, records the response of Jesus, “Before Abraham was, I am.”  The Greek phrase ‘ego eimi’ translates as ‘I am’, and reaches back to the burning-bush moment of revelation in the Hebrew Tanakh or Old Testament (compare surah 28 verse 30 in the Qur’an) where Yahweh gave Moses the personal name ‘Yahweh’.  Passages John 1:1-18 and Philippians 2:5-11 speak of the person of Jesus, who was human, as also somehow being divine; the ‘Word’ who was God, or ‘equal’ with God.

For these New Testament authors, knowing God is not a matter of getting the right word in the right language.  ‘God’, rather, can be known because God showed up in, through, and as the person of Jesus, who made ‘the invisible God’ visible.

All of our ideas about ‘God’ need to bow to the God revealed in Jesus – or as John V. Taylor words it, “the Christlike God”.  All of us, even those of us who believe in Jesus, tend to see God as we want to see God, rather than how God has revealed ‘God-self’ in Christ.

So then. Whether you use the term ‘God’, ‘Allah’, ‘Atua’, ‘Jehovah’, ‘Yahweh’, or something else: Is your ‘god’ the same as “the Christlike God”?