More Reflections on COVID-19

This remarkable image from an unknown artist is used in volume 2 of the COVID-19 reflections in Stimulus: A New Zealand Journal of Christian Thought and Practice. All three parts of the present issue have now been published, and there are some very good articles among them, including an article by Rev Dr Steve Taylor, Principal, Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership, New Zealand, reflecting on the image above.

I have read a couple of articles from part one, quite a few from part two, and none yet from part three which was published only yesterday. I look forward to reading some more. Of what I have read so far, I have enjoyed most the articles by

  • Steve Taylor, ‘A Covid Christology’
  • Myk Habets, ‘The Proof is in the Providence’
  • Bill Loader, ‘Corona on the Side of the Road’

There is more to read and I am sure, more gems to find. The editors put out a call for papers in late March or early April and within a couple of weeks received over sixty responses. Instead of producing their normal volume of four essays, they have gone for a bumper approach. After peer review about forty papers were deemed to fall within the parameters and standards of the journal, and they have published them all in the three part-volumes.

If you are interested, my own paper ‘A Gift of Friendship’ is in part three.

 

Richard Rohr’s Falling Upward

Richard Rohr, Falling Upward:
A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life

(San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 2011), xxxvii + 199.
ISBN: 978-0-470-90775-7

Most of us tend to think of the second half of life as largely about getting old, dealing with health issues, and letting go of our physical life, but the whole thesis of this book is exactly the opposite. What looks like falling can largely be experienced as falling upward and onward, into a broader and deeper world, where the soul has found its fullness, is finally connected to the whole, and lives inside the Big Picture (153).

This citation gives, I think, a brief definition of what Rohr means by the title of his book. Life may be considered in two ‘halves,’ though this is a conceptual rather than temporal division. Some people, perhaps even most people, never get to the ‘second half.’ The entry to the second half of life is conveyed by the sense of falling. One falls, perhaps on hard times, or perhaps ‘from grace,’ or perhaps from a high estate or a good reputation. Usually the fall is unsought, unheralded, and unwanted but occurs anyway. But such a fall can become the entry into a new broader and deeper world, where one’s soul is rediscovered, and one’s ethos, direction, and desire are fundamentally re-ordered. To fall upward is to discover our True Self, our inner connection to all things and all people, and to live, as Rohr says, inside the Big Picture of God’s love. The great purpose of life is to ‘grow’ our unique God-given self and return or offer it in love and service to God and the world. It is to be the me I was created to be.

The first half of life is concerned with what Rohr calls ‘ego needs’: identity, security, boundaries, order, safety, relationships, affirmation, and some experience of ‘success.’ In his view we all need our ‘narcissistic fix’ and without it, we will continue in and through life carrying a woundedness that often if not usually leaves us seeking to fulfil these needs in some other way. Somewhat paradoxically, these needs are fulfilled best when one is raised in a more traditional or conservative environment with an emphasis on law and tradition, loyalty, respect, and responsibility. Such an environment disciplines the ego so that it does not become an all-consuming drive. Becoming mature requires learning to live within the creative tensions of law and freedom, and so one must ‘learn and obey the rules very well, so you will know how to break them properly’ (citing the Dalai Lama, xxviii). The purpose of the first half of life is to ‘write the script’ or ‘build the container’ that we will, in the second half of life, enact or fill.

Yet despite the obvious strengths of these characteristics, there is more to life than identity, security, boundaries, order, affirmation, success, and so on. Somehow we carry an innate memory of ‘home,’ a deep-seated longing that can be assuaged only as our true self rests in union with God. Such a longing might call us to leave the security of our first-phase-of-life home in search of this true home. And so we begin a journey beyond the journey of the first phase of life. Or perhaps tragedy or suffering befalls us, a crisis by which our first-phase-of-life is up-ended and we are thrust out of our life, as it were, and into a further journey. Typically, suggests Rohr, we are led into the second half of life by an experience of loss, failure or brokenness we did not want, foresee, or choose, and which we cannot handle with the resources we presently have.

Nor does one arrive suddenly at the second half of life but grows into it, a process that continues through the rest of one’s life. Whereas the first half of life is characterised by ego-goals, the second half is concerned with ‘soul goals.’ In the second half of life one has ceased from self-defining, from the endless fighting and doing to make one’s way prevail. This person rests in God and simply is—being. They have become self-critical, though not self-loathing. They engage in ‘shadow-boxing,’ confronting the shadow-side that previously they kept well-hidden from others. They acknowledge and accept the truth about themselves, leaving go of pretence or subterfuge. They are able to live this way because they have found a friend or a Friend by whom they are ‘mirrored.’ They find that they are known deeply and fully yet loved and accepted anyway. And so a deep integrity ensues in which what one is, now is what is done. One enters what Rohr refers to as a ‘second simplicity,’ an innocence, a willingness to accept mystery, doubt, etc., and relinquishes the need for certainty or control because they trust in the overarching ‘coherence, purpose, benevolence, and direction’ of the universe. That is, they have a sense of underlying meaning, a Big Truth that satisfies the soul, even in the midst of continuing trouble, heartache or suffering. The gift they have now to offer is themselves.

*****

In this post I have provided a synopsis of Rohr’s book.
In a later post I will offer my reflections on what I have read.

Reflections on COVID-19 – Stimulus Journal

At the end of March, the editorial team of Stimulus (a New Zealand journal published by Laidlaw College) met and discussed putting together a special edition of Stimulus based around the COVID-19 event. They were aware that the church of God (like all people) had been thrust into something unprecedented and were grappling with what it all means. They wanted to hear the voices of thinking Christians during the time of lock-down. They also wanted them to come from that time and be read while everyone was still facing the challenge.

Their initial call for papers on April 1 resulted in over sixty submissions. Each piece was sent to blind peer review, and over forty contributions fit the journal’s criteria. Given that the usual issue of the journal has only four major essays, the editors were confronted with a happy dilemma. In the end they decided to release this special issue in three ‘volumes,’ the first of which is now published and available here. The next volumes will be released in coming weeks.

Enjoy!

24 Hours with Charles Spurgeon

I am part of a unique event this weekend, together with several other Baptist colleagues from Perth.

This Friday – Saturday, Spurgeon’s College in London is hosting a global, twenty-four hour series of readings and reflections from the works of Charles Haddon Spurgeon. The readings, presented in half-hour segments, will be taken from a variety of Spurgeon’s writings, including sermons, letters, and other materials.

The Perth contingent will lead off at 11am on Saturday morning with Revd Karen Siggins of Lesmurdie Baptist Church, followed by myself, Monica O’Neil, Brian Harris, and David Cohen, from Vose Seminary. My reading, beginning at 11:30am Perth time (4:30am in London), is taken from volume 44(!) of Spurgeon’s sermons, and is titled ‘A Far-Reaching Promise.’

Spurgeon was the most popular preacher in nineteenth-century London, drawing thousands of listeners to his weekly services. His popularity has continued down to the present through his devotional books, lectures, and printed sermons.

The event is part of a College fund-raising campaign initiated due to the financial impact of COVID-19. For more information, go to the College website. Or if you would like to donate to the cause, you can do so here.

Pierre Maury Sermon ~ The Ultimate Decision

Simon Hattrell’s recent book Election, Barth, and the French Connection (Second edition) contains two lectures and a sermon from Pierre Maury, the French Reformed pastor-theologian whose 1936 lecture in Geneva so influenced Karl Barth’s reconstruction of the doctrine of election. This sermon was preached in Lent 1937, in the Reformed Church of Passy, Paris. Maury gave a series of six talks of which this was one.

Maury begins with John 14:6 and asserts that Jesus is the (only) way, and as such, the only revelation of God. This is something requiring one’s commitment, something people often struggle to give for they continually seek to establish their own way. This they—we!—must cease to do, abandoning our efforts and accepting Jesus Christ himself as our (only) way.

The Christian life, from its beginning to its end, is decision, that is to say, unreserved commitment. . . . For, Jesus Christ wants to be objective in the sense that He claims to be an unreserved commitment of God on our behalf, and on the other hand He demands that we become unreservedly committed to Him. It is this double aspect of His existence that we are now going to examine (53).

To ‘choose’ or to commit to Christ is not analogous to other human choices between a range of options, or the self-commitment of one to an imagined absolute or cause. Jesus Christ himself is the Absolute who demands our unconditional submission in the obedience of faith; that is, a free submission. This commitment, suggests Maury, comes not by means of rational argument concerning the legitimacy of Christian claims. Rather, one is engaged in relational encounter with Jesus the Word, engaged in dialogue, hearing and speaking. One is to ‘hear’ Jesus Christ—his whole life and eternal existence is a ‘word’ addressed to us. Maury recalls an experience related by Pascal in Les Pensées to make his point:

As soon as faith is fixed on this person of past history, it is quite naturally brought to discover in him a personal intention—an interaction has begun. . . . Just as long as, like all the heroes of history, He remains for us an object of reflection, of admiration or curiosity, we do not know Him; He is not Him; he is only that which He wants to be (54).

When God speaks to us in Christ it is not in order to display a truth, but to reveal to us our situation before Him, and the attitude that He adopts before us (55).

As such, Jesus Christ is decisive. He is decisive in the sense that in him all are included and contained. Our existence is, eternally and in eternity, contained, enfolded, enclosed and included in his existence. It seems that for Maury, this is the content of proclamation: a divine decision has been made; humanity is the object of divine love—all of us, and each of us.

Jesus Christ is a decision of God, therefore without any recourse, as far as we are concerned, a decision of someone other than ourselves and of which we are the object; and that is to say, in the second place, that Jesus Christ calls for a decision on our part, a final (permanent) decision. . . . It is from all eternity, in eternity, that between Jesus Christ and us a relationship is established (56).

Again:

Marvelous revelation of an unfathomable mystery! When this child is born in a manger, when this man dies on the cross and rises again the third day, the eve of the Sabbath, it is our whole life that is swept up in this commitment, it is for our whole life that something happens. He is the one by whom—for whom also—we have been created, who is there. He is there, simple and immense, simple as the simplest of the sons of men, immense because the dimensions of His existence contain us all; He is the beginning and the end of our life. In Him everything is enclosed, kept, protected. When He cries out, ‘Come to me, you who are weary and heavy laden’ (Matthew 11:28), it is all our destinies that He is calling, because they belong to Him. When He stretches out His arms upon the cross, He says that it is ‘to draw all to Himself’ (John 12:32) because no one has existed without Him and outside of Him. When He rises and is exalted to the right hand of God, it is in order to present to God—eternally, and in eternity—those who—from all eternity, in eternity—have always been, are and will always be His. I have said, I have repeated: all (57).

Jesus Christ is thus decisive in the decision that has been taken by God concerning us, our entire existence. He is decisive, too, because in his incarnation and life we are encountered by the coming and work of God.

The real mystery of the action of Jesus Christ is that ‘he does nothing by himself’ (John 5:19). That which He does for us, and that which He does in coming to us, in giving Himself to us, in choosing us, is what no person can do: it is an act of God! . . . Such is the true relationship that Jesus Christ has with those who believe in Him: a relationship where God Himself legally binds Himself to us (60, 61).

This activity, the activity of his love—his coming to us, giving himself to and for us, and in so doing, choosing us—is election, and it must be understood as the testimony of his love in its most positive sense, and not at all negatively, as a sign of partiality (60).

Not only is Jesus Christ decisive, he is also ultimate. The divine decision concerning us is ultimate, not merely as divine but because it concerns the last—the ultimate—judgement. Yet the Judge is Jesus Christ—he who has come, given himself, and chosen us! In view of all this, Jesus Christ is ultimate also for he demands our decision, an ultimate decision in which we give ourselves wholly and without reserve to him. He comes to us indeed, though in his coming he is always Lord and Master.

We need to insist on the uncompromising nature of the essence of Christian decision. … If we choose Him, it’s because He has chosen us first; if we take Him up, it is because He has seized us. Such is the seriousness of His coming into our life that it dispossesses us completely. He only comes as Master. He is the Lord Jesus. . . . The intolerable, demanding nature of faith is the mark of grace which is ours in faith (64).

Although he does not use the language of ‘irresistible grace’ it is clear that Maury holds such a concept. Jesus Christ seeks us out, confronts us, and in so doing reaches our ‘true centre’ where our destiny is at stake, laying hold of our lives ‘where all possibilities of escape are closed except this one, this obligation to say yes or no, and never ‘perhaps’ . . . ‘If we do not give our consent, it’s because we haven’t been found’ (64).

The decision required of us is the response of faith, rather than correct knowledge or full understanding. The real question confronting us is not intellectual but existential. ‘We have to come to Him with our life, because it is with His life that He has come to us’ (66). To respond to Jesus Christ in faith is to give ourselves to him as he did to us—in complete simplicity, immediately, and without reservation (65).

Maury concludes his sermon by directing his listeners to the only place where they might look for and find Jesus Christ as their ultimate decision: to the Bible. ‘It is through the Bible alone that Jesus Christ is made our contemporary. If Scripture is holy, it is because it offers us the possibility of knowing the ultimate decision of our life with no looking back’ (67).

But one can also, from the beginning to the end of the Bible, hear the living Word of God, hear God speaking of Jesus Christ, and in Jesus Christ, and, having heard Him, one can—no, one must—decide for or against Him. . . . Whoever looks in these pages for Jesus Christ as their Lord, sooner or later, slowly or all of a sudden, will find what they are looking for (67).

That this happens is, in the final analysis, the work of the Holy Spirit, for in every case the human decision is grounded in and enabled by the grace of the divine decision made concerning us.

*****

The sermon is prefaced, in the book, with a record of a brief correspondence between Barth and Maury, and a longer note from Charlotte von Kirschbaum who translated the Frenchman’s sermon in German, translating it three times before she was (somewhat!) happy with it. Hattrell has given us the first translation of the sermon into English. My citations and pagination here are based on the first edition of the volume.

Bob Dylan – “I Contain Multitudes”

Bob Dylan has dropped two surprise songs in recent weeks. The first was the 17-minute ‘Murder Most Foul’ which has received mixed reviews. Sometimes a Dylan song grows on you, or on me at least, though I am not sure this one will. It is not amongst his best work. But I did enjoy this second song ‘I Contain Multitudes’ which has something profound and original in its idea that who we are includes the compilation of all the various influences that have shaped our life, attitudes, vision and behaviour.  This is true, including as well, those not-so-good influences which are nevertheless real and really part of who I am and have become.

I have also included a clip of one of his early, amazing folk-protest songs which some of you might enjoy. If you like Dylan, the Guardian also recently published someone’s list of Dylan’s best songs. It will give you something to argue with!

 

Pierre Maury on ‘Election and Faith’

In 1936 at the International Congress of Calvinist Theology conducted in Geneva to celebrate the 400-year anniversary of the first edition of Calvin’s Institutes, French preacher-theologian Pierre Maury presented a paper entitled ‘Election et Foi.’ Karl Barth would later recall that the address had made a profound impression on him, providing the decisive contribution to his own thought on the doctrine of predestination.

Maury’s lecture has been recently translated and published in English thanks to the work of Simon Hattrell, in his edited volume Election, Barth, and the French Connection: How Pierre Maury Gave a ‘Decisive Impetus’ to Karl Barth’s Doctrine of Election. The volume includes testimony from those who knew Maury, including Barth, as well as three lectures by Maury that provide a good insight into his thought concerning election, and a number of additional contemporary essays discussing the doctrine in Barth and Maury’s theology.

Over the next few weeks I will provide a summary of Maury’s lectures in order to make more generally available what he said that so impressed Barth. Of course, better yet would be to buy the book!

The 1936 lecture itself, is quite short. Maury begins by indicating the approach he will take to the doctrine, which initially sounds characteristically Reformed:

We did not give ourselves life nor will we be able to avoid death. We have not chosen to live; we cannot choose to not die. It is therefore not a question here of our choice, the one that we make, but the choice of which we are the object, that which is made (or not made) of us. These are those insurmountable limits, which are imposed on us, which election calls to mind (42).

Since the doctrine of election trumps all our categories of reason and wisdom, we cannot approach it philosophically but only in accordance with faith, led and guided by the Scriptures. Hence the title, ‘Election and Faith.’ Scripture will be the guide of faith and not a teacher of philosophy. “It will lead us in some points to not follow what Calvin heard in it. But that will not be being unfaithful to him; on the contrary, that will be truly Calvinist” (43).

When we begin with Scripture, however, we find that election is christologically ordered. For Maury, the eternal and the incarnate Christ is the origin, ground, and goal of God’s election. This election is entirely free, wholly God’s initiative, and yet at the cross it is shown to have cost God everything.

We will take our stand, therefore, in speaking of predestination, on this solid ground, where the hidden mystery of God becomes the revealed grace which is offered to us. We can truly say that outside of Christ, there is neither election, nor knowledge of election . . . Outside of Christ, we know neither who the God who elects is, nor those He elects, nor how He elects them (43).

Jesus Christ is not merely the point of the knowledge of divine election, but is in himself the election:

So the election is nothing else than the eternal and temporal existence of Jesus Christ, our mediator. For it is in Him, in Him crucified, in Him alone, that God has met us. Because it is in Christ, we know that election is not some unfathomable eternal caprice or whim, a game played out in the infinitely distant idleness of eternity but a concrete reality, our reality. It bears the marks of the historical and real life of Jesus Christ, living, dying, rising for us (46).

Election is, negatively, God taking all our sin and alienation on the cross. This is grace. Here, here alone, but here truly, we see that God is love. Election, therefore, consists in the rejection of Jesus Christ.

Before the cross, too, we understand this paradox: the price of free election. For election does not cost us anything, but God it cost His Son. For God to extend grace, to forgive, is to give everything, to give everything for us who cannot give Him anything. . . . This is the night of the ninth hour. What does this darkness mean? Revelation says: punishment. And the Son believes it: punishment, God’s wrath. The only one who will understand grace in election is the same one who understands that it is fulfilled in Christ dying, smitten by God, deserted by men. The only one who will understand how election is sheer pardon is the one who, before the cross, does not come with arguments or with good works, with religious emotion or objections, but who stands there speechless because they have nothing to say, nothing to do, nothing to put forward (47-48).

The human response to this election is to choose, decisively, for or against. At the cross we see ourselves—and so judgement, rejection, and condemnation; and at the cross we see God—and so grace, acceptance, and justification. This is double-predestination, though in Maury’s hands it refers not to two separate classes of people (salvation for some, damnation for the rest), but is applied to each person. The church may and must speak of double-predestination but only in this way. That is, it may preach ‘the word of the cross.’ Indeed apart from the cross, double-predestination is solely an eschatological concept: we cannot sort anyone into these categories.

The elect, in their election, accept everything from the cross: condemnation and grace, judgement and forgiveness, demand and promise, renouncement and life. They accept, that is to say, they no longer have anything, they allow everything to be given to them . . . Predestination is therefore very much double (51, 52).

When asked, upon whom does salvation depend? Maury responds as expected: upon God, of course! Though this answer is known only in faith. Faith is a decisive human act with no opt-out clause. Faith is to risk everything in our reply to this judgement and grace addressed to us. “To accept Jesus Christ, to be chosen by God, means to choose to turn away from ourselves forever. That means to have from now on an absolute Lord . . . ” (50).

To look to the cross is to respond in kind. In choosing Christ we no longer choose ourselves but embrace a vocation to be conformed to Christ. There is a life that is appropriate to the elect: a life of continuing faith lest the believer transform God’s election into their own possession; a life of prayer since all depends on God—and the truest prayer is that which asks for the Holy Spirit; and finally, a life of obedience to the God who has and continues, to call them.

Pierre Maury, "Election et Foi (Election and Faith)" in Election, Barth, and the French Connection: How Pierre Maury Gave a 'Decisive Impetus' to Karl Barth's Doctrine of Election." Edited by Simon Hattrell, 41-59. Second edition; Eugene: Pickwick, 2019.

Scripture on Sunday – Mark 14:1-11

Read Mark 14:1-11

I have been meditating on this passage for more than a week, through holy week and beyond! This is a wonderful story with multiple levels of meaning and insight. My focus in this post, however, concerns its message rather than the many points of exegetical interest.

The story beginning in verse 3 portrays an unknown woman approaching Jesus while he was having dinner at the home of Simon the leper. She breaks a flask of expensive perfume and uses it to anoint Jesus’ head. Others at the dinner party are outraged at the waste, and criticise her. They insist that the perfume could have been sold for 300 denarii—a year’s wages!—and the money given to the poor. But Jesus defends and commends her. She has done a beautiful thing for him, a good work of compassion. Somehow, she has insight into his approaching death and he interprets her anointing as an anointing for his burial, performed beforehand (a hint at his resurrection, that there will not be opportunity later, after his death, for the usual anointing?). Thus Jesus commands: “Leave her alone! Wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.”

Morna Hooker’s comment captures something of the subtlety and complexity of Mark’s story:

If it seems strange that the story should be told as a memorial to a woman whose name Mark does not record, this is because it is what she has done that is all important. In pouring out her gift over his head, she has in one action anointed him Messiah, proclaimed his death and resurrection and made an act of total commitment to him as Lord: the story is itself a proclamation of the good news which is to be preached throughout the whole world (The Gospel According to Saint Mark, Black’s New Testament Commentaries, 330; emphasis added).

Mark has chosen this story to place at the beginning of his passion narrative, no doubt due to the reference to Jesus’ burial, and perhaps with a nod to his resurrection. But he has also set the passage in the midst of a story of conspiracy and betrayal (vv. 1-2, 10-11). This is a common literary device in Mark’s gospel, in which the ‘inserted’ story and its frame function together to provide an overarching message. In this case, the devotion of the woman as an exemplar of true discipleship is set off against the hatred of the religious leaders who cannot abide Jesus, and Judas’ betrayal of Jesus for a sum of money.

Her devotion is extravagant, an outpouring of love without limit. She breaks the flask, giving her all. Was she a wealthy woman? Was this her dowry? A gift from a husband? All she had left in the world? We do not know. But she gave it all. She gave it to Jesus in view of his approaching death. In some sense, she is echoing ahead of time, his own gift of his all.

The disciples rebuke her for her ‘waste,’ but Jesus rebukes them in turn. Nothing ever given to and for him is wasted, nor will it be forgotten. The gift may not be understood or appreciated by others. Some may see a Christian’s devotion as misguided, a waste of a life, a waste of resources, time and energy. But in the kingdom of God, nothing is wasted, nothing forgotten. Jesus receives it as a precious gift, something beautiful done for him.

Let me finish with another citation, this time from Donald Senior:

Wherever the gospel is preached her story will be told because this story is gospel, the ‘Good News’ of Jesus’ liberating death and the call to respond to it. Thus at the very beginning of the passion story, as opposition and treachery mount against Jesus, Mark lifts up an example of authentic discipleship. Not one of the twelve but a woman, whom the tradition has not even graced with a name, one shunted aside in a patriarchal culture, becomes the paradigm (The Passion of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark, 47; original emphasis).

Nothing is wasted; nothing forgotten.