Wednesday, April 16, 2014

My Life as a Poet

The Perfect
New Perspective Song

Poet and Muse

Several years ago, I started composing poems that can be sung to the tune of Happy Birthday for my family - wife, sons, daughters-in-law, and granchildren - and posted them on Facebook. This has exposed me to snarky remarks, almost all coming from those whose special day I celebrate, especially the wife and sons. Such things as "Keep your day job" and "Not your best effort" and "Pretty lame" have been posted beneath my poems.

But this has not deterred me from continuing to produce my poems. The life of a poet is often a lonely life. We know that the unwashed masses will never appreciate our art and that whatever recognition we may receive will likely come long after we have passed from the scene.

We poets don't write for acclaim. We are the voice of our Muse. We do not have a choice about writing our poems. We write them because we cannot not. Yesterday I had such an experience. 

I was working on a daily project when suddenly there came into my head at the same time the New Perspective on Paul and the Wesley hymn "And Can It Be." Very quickly, unsought by me, a verse came. It was a gift of the Muse. Such a gift is meant to be shared, so I posted it on Facebook and sent it to some friends via email. This subjected me to more snarky responses about my keeping day job (why I don't know, as everbody knows I don't have a day job) from my Bishop and an old friend.

But poets are their own judges about their poetry. I confess that I indulged myself in the conceit that I had written the perfect New Perspective song. But then I had doubts. 

I remembered what David Allan Coe said when Steve Goodman sent him the lyrics to what Goodman claimed was the perfect country and western song. David Allan Coe wasn't buying it. He wrote his friend back and told him that the song did not achieve what he thought, because it didn't say anything about "mama, or trains, or trucks, or prison, or getting drunk." Goodman wrote another verse and sent it to Coe. Coe was compelled to acknowledge that Goodman had achieved perfection and so included it on his next album. You Don't Have to Call Me Darlin', Darlin'

This morning I was nagged by the thought that I had not yet written the perfect New Perspective Song, so like Goodman I sat down and wrote another two verses. 

The NPP Song
Te Wrigtum
Sung to the same tune as And Can It Be?

And can it be that Paul did not agreeWith Cranmer, Ridley, nor with Latimer?They thought I needed to stand 'fore GodWith sins forgiven because Christ died,And righteousness imputed to meBecause Christ lived obediently,Received by faith, but they could not foreseeThat Wright would find the long lost key.

Long our imprisoned spirits layFastbound in Trent and Luther's thought;Wright's pen a new perspective brought:It's not your pers'nal guilt and sin;It's all about cov'nant membership,You need not have the bound'ry signs,But you must stay in by faithfulness,Or fin'lly not be justified. 
No more philosophy shall have its way,Corrupting all the church's theology;Now exegesis shall hold the sway,along with redemptive history;No more shall systems still impose;They dealt with questions that are no more.Now we are free to follow NT -only Biblical theology.

Now I am compelled to say that I have written the perfect New Perspective song. If you don't agree, I consider it to your inability (perhaps not your fault, especially if you have an uncultivated appreciation for P&W lyrics) to appreciate good poetry. Like I said, we poets live lonely lives.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

I'm Sorry

Are You Really?

"I'm sorry." I heard my kids say that a million times. "Are you really?" They heard me say that a million times. Those words are a transaction that takes place between husband and wife, parent and child, friend and friend. Sometimes they even take place between a church member and church authority.

The problem with "I'm sorry," is that the words are both difficult and easy to say. They are difficult to those of us who, however wrong we know ourselves to be, hate to admit it. They are easy to those of us who find saying them is preferrable to trouble we're in or about to be in or we who say them in the hopes of moving on from the uncomfortable relational place in which we find ourselves.

We say or hear, "But are you really?" because we question in the case of them, or they question in the case of us, the sincerity of the apology. Is the apology made with genuine sorrow? With sufficient remorse? Is the apology made just to avoid or get out of trouble and/or to move along from the awkward spot in the relationship? And what is the connection between "sorry" and "not doing it again"? Is "not doing it again" a necessary component of a sincere apology? What if the offender (whether ourselves or someone else) is a repeat offender? Does that render the apology null and void? What parent (or other offended person) has not said, "If you're really sorry, you won't do it again."

The problem with repeat offenders who say, "I'm sorry," and the repeatedly offended who say, "Are you really?" is that this exchange can eventually make matters worse. The offended person begins to take the apology with a grain of salt. At some point the sinned against person would rather not hear the words, and says, "How many times have you said you're sorry, and here we are again." The offender can come to the place that he or she thinks, "What's the use? He/she doesn't think I'm sincere, and I'm not sure I am either." So, instead of apologizing the offender says nothing. And things spiral downward with no attempt at apology, no attempt at forgiveness, and no approximation of reconciliation.

For all of us this "being sorry" has something to do with ourselves as sinners and our relationship with God. Before God we are all habitual offenders both because of sin in general (we keep sinning) and because of besetting sins in particular (the sins we tend to repeat). So how does God respond to our, "I'm sorry"? Does he respond with, "Are you really? I'm doubting you are"? Do we reach the point that it's useless to ask for forgiveness and that God is tired of hearing us ask?

I got to thinking about this last Sunday when I was assisting in Morning Prayer and led the Confession and pronounced the Absolution.

Everytime we say Morning Prayer we pray:
Almighty and most merciful Father,
we have erred, and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep.
We have left undone those things which we ought to have            done;
and we have done those thingswhich we ought not to have          done;
and there is no health in us.
We have followed too much the devices and desires of our            own hearts.
We have offended against thy holy laws.

Request for Forgiveness
But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable               offenders.
Spare thou them, O God, which confess their faults.
Restore thou them that are penitent;
according to thy promises declared unto mankind
in Christ Jesu our Lord.

Request for Grace And grant, O most merciful Father,
for his sake,that we may hereafter live a godly,               righteous, and sober life,
to the glory of thy holy name.
Every day we use the same words. We make the same confession of our sins, and we ask the same two things - forgiveness and grace to live a better life.

The minister then pronounces the absolution:
Almighty God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,
who desireth not the death of a sinner,
but rather that he may turn from his wickedness and live;
and hath given power, and commandment, to his ministers
to declare and pronounce to his people, being penitent,
the absolution and remission of their sins:
he pardoneth and absolveth all them that truly repent and                unfeignedly believe his holy gospel.
Wherefore let us beseech him to grant us true repentance,                and his Holy Spirit
that those things may please him which we do at this present; and that the rest of our life hereafter may be pure and holy;
so that at the last we may come to his eternal joy;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. 

Every day after the Confession of Sin, God promises forgiveness to those who are penitent and believe the gospel and entreats all to pray for repentance and the help of the Holy Spirit to the ends that the present worship may be pleasing to God and that the rest of our lives may be pure and holy.

What is surprising about this is that we do it every day. We confess and ask for forgiveness. God, in the words of the minister, grants us forgiveness. We ask that we may "hereafter lead a godly, righteous and sober life," and the minster exhorts us to ask God to "grant us true repentance, and his Holy Spirit" so that "the rest of our life hereafter may be pure and holy." Then we come back and do the the same thing the next morning. Every day we confess, get forgiveness, and start out anew. Every day we mess up, so that the next day the whole thing is repeated.

This part of Morning Prayer does not allow us to change the list of sins or to redefine them. God alone says what sin is. Nor is it intended to make us indifferent to or lax about sin. God's isn't.  But this daily dynamic of confession and absolution does encourage us to believe that the fact that we sinned yesterday does not mean we can't ask forgiveness today, that the fact that we asked for grace to lead a whole new and different life yesterday but failed does not mean we cannot ask the same today. You fall down, you admit it, you ask for pardon. By God's grace you get forgiveness and then get up and start a new life again - every day. God does not say, "You said the same thing  yesterday, and the day before, and the day before that. I have been gracious. But now I am doubting you are sincere about being sorry and wanting forgiveness and wanting my help to live a better life. I am getting tired of this. Don't come back until you can show you mean it." God rather invites us to keep repeating the process every day. Guilt and shame and the doubts of others may keep us from going back and saying, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and in thy sight." But the Father is still looking for us and is ready to bring out the robe and ring and shoes and kill the fatted calf. 

God is not the pathetic "He" who "though it makes him sad to see the way we live, he'll always say, 'I forgive.'" No.  God is not morally weak. He is morally rigorous, but gracious.
God will send people to hell. The only way he cannot send us all there is that on the first Good Friday he sent his Son there for us on the cross. That's the most scadalous thing about God's grace. He does not spare his own Son but delivers him up for us all.

But there is more about grace that is scandalous. "God forgives and keeps forgiving? God lets us start over and keep starting over? Nah, that just isn't right. I wouldn't do that." So, while Jesus is eating and drinking with publicans and sinners, and going to Zacchaeus' house, we join his critics, the scribes and Pharisees. While the Father is throwing a party for the prodigal, we find ourselves outside with the sullen older brother though the Father wants us to join the party. 

The comedian Dennis Swanberg tells the (presumably) fictitious story of sitting as a little boy in church with his parents. The preacher asked, "What are we going to do about sin?" And again, "What are we going to do about sin?" And for effect once again, "What are we going to do about sin?" The boy felt somebody had to answer, so he stood up and said, "Preacher, we don't know!"

We don't. But God does. If Jesus told Peter to forgive his oft sinning brother 490 times, as oft as he repents, shall not the God of all grace forgive us?

Monday, April 7, 2014

Just Who Do You Think You Are?

Third Anglican Sermon

Who Do You Think You Are?

John 8:46-59
46 Which of you convinceth me of sin? And if I say the truth, why do ye not believe me?
47 He that is of God heareth God's words: ye therefore hear them not, because ye are not of God.
48 Then answered the Jews, and said unto him, Say we not well that thou art a Samaritan, and hast a devil?
49 Jesus answered, I have not a devil; but I honour my Father, and ye do dishonour me.
50 And I seek not mine own glory: there is one that seeketh and judgeth.
51 Verily, verily, I say unto you, If a man keep my saying, he shall never see death.
52 Then said the Jews unto him, Now we know that thou hast a devil. Abraham is dead, and the prophets; and thou sayest, If a man keep my saying, he shall never taste of death.
53 Art thou greater than our father Abraham, which is dead? and the prophets are dead: whom makest thou thyself?
54 Jesus answered, If I honour myself, my honour is nothing: it is my Father that honoureth me; of whom ye say, that he is your God:
55 Yet ye have not known him; but I know him: and if I should say, I know him not, I shall be a liar like unto you: but I know him, and keep his saying.
56 Your father Abraham rejoiced to see my day: and he saw it, and was glad.
57 Then said the Jews unto him, Thou art not yet fifty years old, and hast thou seen Abraham?
58 Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Before Abraham was, I am.
59 Then took they up stones to cast at him: but Jesus hid himself, and went out of the temple, going through the midst of them, and so passed by.

With your 10 items or less you’re ready to checkout out at Walmart in the express line when a person with a basketful of stuff rushes a ahead of you to the express checkout register. You’re moving along in traffic at the speed limit in the right hand lane when someone comes speeding up behind you, veers onto the right side shoulder, and whips his car in front of you with no room to spare. You’re liable to think, if not say, “Just who do you think you are? Maybe even, “Who died and appointed you God?”

The issue of who Jesus thinks he is is an issue between Jesus and the Jewish leaders in the Gospel of John. Jesus says and does things that make them think he is totally out of line.

Today’s Gospel presents four exchanges between Jesus and unbelieving Jews. Jesus speaks, and the Jews respond.

1. First Exchange: Focus on Faith

46 Which of you convinceth me of sin? And if I say the truth, why do ye not believe me?
47 He that is of God heareth God's words: ye therefore hear them not, because ye are not of God
48 Then answered the Jews, and said unto him, Say we not well that thou art a Samaritan, and hast a devil?

The first exchange occurs in verses 46-48. Jesus asks two questions.

  • First Question
Jesus asks them a strange question: Which of you convicts me of sin? Who of us would ask such a question? No one who has known me for any length of time would need to think much before charging me with sins and bringing out the proof. 
St. Paul could ask, “Who will bring any charge against God’s elect?” not because
the elect are not guilty of sin, but because Jesus died for their sins and God declares them not guilty. We are sinners, but because of what Jesus did for us God does not condemn us. 
But Jesus knows that he is not guilty of any sin. They think he is a sinner, but he challenges them make a charge and prove it. What evidence can they bring forward that would convict him before God? None. He is confident, because he knows he is not guilty of doing anything God would condemn. Take him before the heavenly Judge, and there will be no conviction.

  • Second Question

So Jesus asks them a second question: “If I speak the truth, why don’t you believe me?” If they cannot convict him of any sin, then he must not be liar or they would have caught him in a lie. He must be telling the truth about God the Father, about himself, and about why he has come into the world. So why do they not believe him? What is the problem? What is the hindrance them keeps them from believing?
  • Answer

Jesus tells us how to understand this. Those who are of God - those who belong to God - listen to God’s words. That’s true of everyone. If you really know God, you will listen to God when he speaks. Jesus knows that He is God’s Son, that God the Father has sent him into the world to speak God’s word so that people can know God and receive his salvation. The reason these Jewish people do not listen to Jesus and believe him, the reason they are blind to who he is and deaf to what he says is because they do not really belong to God or know him. They think they are God’s people and that they know him but, they do not. The proof is their response to Jesus.

  • Charge

Sometimes when people ar confronted with the truth the only thing they know to do is to respond with insults. Now the Jewish people respond by charging Jesus with being a Samaritan and demon possessed. The Jews despised the Samaritans. The Samaritans people came from mixed marriages between Gentile settlers and Jews who did separate from pagans. They had a mixed, impure religion, accepting only part of the Old Testament and refusing to worship in Jerusalem at God’s temple. Jesus himself said the Samaritan religion was based on ignorance and did not lead to salvation. These unbelieving Jews rejected Jesus’ claims, insulting him by calling him a Samaritan and raising the old charge that it was not God at work in Jesus but a demon.

2. Second Exchange: Focus on Eternal Life

49 Jesus answered, I have not a devil; but I honour my Father, and ye do dishonour me.
50 And I seek not mine own glory: there is one that seeketh and judgeth.
51 Verily, verily, I say unto you, If a man keep my saying, he shall never see death.
52 Then said the Jews unto him, Now we know that thou hast a devil. Abraham is dead, and the prophets; and thou sayest, If a man keep my saying, he shall never taste of death.
53 Art thou greater than our father Abraham, which is dead? and the prophets are dead: whom makest thou thyself?

The second exchange occurs in verses 49-53. Jesus makes two claims about himself.
  • First Claim
     Jesus defends himself by making a            claim about his relationship to the            Father. 
He honors his Father who sent him. A good son wants to honor his father. That is a son’s duty, but, if he loves his father, it is also his delight. It grieves him when his father is dishonored. Jesus honors the heavenly Father, because he speaks the words the Father gives him to say and does the works the Father sent him to do. His whole mission is to please the Father and do the Father’s will. 
Jesus honored his Father, but the Pharisees and unbelieving Jews dishonored the Jesus, the Father’s Son by accusing him of being a Samaritan and having demon. If you had asked them if they wanted God to be honored, they would have said, “Of course!” But they dishonor God’s Son whom the Father sent to  make the Father known. To dishonor the Son who does the Father’s will is to dishonor the Father.

Jesus honored Father, and did not not concern himself with his own glory. Humans are concerned for their own glory. We may not seek the spotlight, but do usually want to have our worth recognized. At the very least we do not want anyone to disrespect us. But Jesus did not worry about what others thought about him. He cared only what the Father thought, and so he trusted himself to the Father whose judgment is the only one that matters. He was confident that theFather’s judgment would be right and that at the right time the Father would vindicate and honor the Son.
  •  Second Claim 
  • Jesus now makes an astonishing claim: “Verily,verily, I say unto you, ‘If a man keep my saying, he shall never see death.’”
 Jesus’ focus is on the mission the Father gave him:“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.
For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved.” John 3: 16,17
Those who receive Jesus words, who believe in him possess everlasting or eternal life. They have it right now. That means they live now a life that is not under judgment and condemnation. They enjoy new quality of life in fellowship with God. They need not fear future condemnation. For them judgment has passed. So for believers physical death leads to life in the presence and joy of the Lord. In that blessedness they wait for their final salvation, the resurrection from the dead.
Jesus had already spoken of this back in the 5th chapter:

“Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that heareth my word, and believeth on him that sent me, hath everlasting life, and shall not come into condemnation; but is passed from death unto life. Verily, verily, I say unto you, The hour is coming, and now is, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God: and they that hear shall live...for the hour is coming, in the which all that are in the graves shall hear his voice, and shall come forth; they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation.” John 5: 24-29
  •  The Objection
This is too much for the Jews. For them, if Jesus says that those who believe in him will not experience death, that is proof he has a demon.The greatest figure of history to the Jews was Abraham who was their father - the father of the Jewish people. After Abraham came the prophets beginning with Moses, the greatest of them, and then all the other prophets of the Old Testament.

Abraham and all the prophets had died long ago. Yet here is Jesus promising that those who believe in him will not die. What can he possibly mean? Who is he making himself out to be? What is he claiming when he says that those who trust in him will not die? It’s just too much.

3. Third Exchange: Focus on Knowing God

54 Jesus answered, If I honour myself, my honour is nothing: it is my Father that honoureth me; of whom ye say, that he is your God:
55 Yet ye have not known him; but I know him: and if I should say, I know him not, I shall be a liar like unto you: but I know him, and keep his saying.
56 Your father Abraham rejoiced to see my day: and he saw it, and
was glad.
57 Then said the Jews unto him, Thou art not yet fifty years old, and hast thou seen Abraham?

The third exchange occurs in verses 54-57. Jesus makes two more claims about himself.
  • First Claim
Jesus speaks again about honor. What he says is or should be obvious. “If I honor myself my honor is nothing.” A lot of people that don’t believe that. Athletes, politicians, entertainers puff out their chests, point to themselves and say, “Hey look at me. See all my accomplishments.” But, as the Proverb says, “Let another man praise thee, and not thine own mouth; a stranger, and not thine own lips” (Proverbs 27:2). For Jesus the only praise that matters is the praise of the Father, and he knows that he is the beloved Son in whom the Father is well pleased. 
The Father who praises him is the One whom these Jews claim is their God. If the Father is their God, why don’t they do what the Father does - honor the Son? The only explanation is that they do not really know God. But Jesus knows him, and, if Jesus were to do what the Jews want - to deny he intimately knows the Father - he would be a liar as they are liars when they claim to know God.

  • Second Claim

Jesus' second claim shocks the Jews. He returns to Abraham, the man the Jews most honor. “You asked me if I am greater than Abraham? Well the fact ist hat Abraham rejoiced to see my day.” 

What does Jesus mean? God made big promises to Abraham that he would be Abraham’s God, that Abraham’s descendants would be like the stars ofthe sky and the sands of the seashore, that kings would come from Abraham’s line, that God would richly would bless Abraham and through Abraham to bless the whole world. Abraham believed these promises, and Abraham was counted righteous - not by works but by faith.

How would this happen? Well it could not go on even another generation unless there was a son, and Abraham and Sarah were childless, and Sarah was now into menopause. Then God sent angelic messengers to Abraham who told him that the next year at the same time, God would give him son. Abraham laughed with joy. “This is too good to be true, but it is. This miraculous son will be the first step in God’s fulfilling his promises to me.” When the son was born Abraham named him “Laughter” or “Isaac.” Abraham rejoiced as the looked forward to Jesus in whom God would fulfill all the promises.
Later, God tested Abraham by calling on him to sacrifice his son. As they approached the place of sacrifice, Abraham’s precious boy said, “Father, we’ve got everything we need here except the most important thing - the lamb. Where is it?” All Abraham could say was, “The Lord will provide.”
 On they walked, and when the altar was built, and the wood placed on it, Abraham then put his only son on the altar. Then God intervened, pointed to a ram that had become caught in the bushes, and told Abraham to take his son off the altar and sacrifice the ram. What joy Abraham experienced as he thought in his heart, “God has provided a substitute, a ram to take the place of my son. 
God’s promises were so big that no human could bring them to pass. It would take God’s intervention to do it. And Jesus, God’s Son who has become also man, is God’s intervention to save and bless his people.
In these ways Abraham by faith looked out into history and rejoiced at what God is now doing in Jesus.
  •  Objection
The Jews “push back” against Jesus claim that Abraham rejoiced to see the day of Jesus coming. They say, “You are not yet 50 years old, and you say you saw Abraham? You and Abraham knew each other? That’s preposterous. Abraham died about 2000 years ago, and you haven’t lived even a half century.”

4. Fourth Exchange: Focus on Jesus’ Greatest Claim

58 Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Before Abraham was, I am.
59 Then took they up stones to cast at him: but Jesus hid himself, and went out of the temple, going through the midst of them, and so passed by.

The Fourth Exchange occurs in verses 58-59. It is the briefest of the exchanges, but in it Jesus also makes his greatest claim.
  • Claim
In response to the Jews’ saying that it was impossible that Abraham and Jesus knew each other Jesus makes his greatest claim: “Before Abraham was I am.” 
Before Abraham came into existence, before Abraham ever was born, I am. Not was, not will be, but simply I am. This is the eternal I am, and eternality belongs to God alone. When Moses and Aaron were about to go to Egypt to deliver the enslaved Israelites, they asked.”Whom shall we say sent us?” God spoke to them, “You say that I AM sent you.” This became the basis for the personal name by which the Jews knew God - Yahweh the Great I AM. This name was so sacred to the Jews that they were extremely careful about using it - fearful that they would misuse the holy Name of God.
Jesus is clearly claiming to be God - God’s Son come to work God’s salvation. He is one in substance - in all that makes God God - with the Father. 
  • Response 
The Jews understood what Jesus was saying and they picked up stones to stone him. The penalty for blasphemy was stoning. No trial had been held, but Jesus was so obviously guilty ,and they were so enraged, that they were ready to carry out the penalty. So they picked up stones to carry out the penalty. But Jesus' time had not come to carry out the final part of his mission to save us by dying for us so he was able to escape them and continue his ministry until the appointed time came.

What does all of this have to do with us?

1. Do we know God as he is revealed to us in Jesus? Jesus is the full and final revelation of God. We cannot know God apart from Jesus. He is the way, the truth, and the life. No one can know God or come to God except through him. Listen to him, observe him, most of all see him dying on the cross and rising, if you want to know God. And believe in him

2. Do we honor God by honoring Jesus? Honoring Jesus means trusting him and seeking his glory, not our own. It means seeing in him the revelation of the Father and honoring him as God’s final word and God’s final and complete salvation for us.

3. Do we trust him for eternal life? Do we have eternal life by believing in him? Can we look through death to life with God? Can we look beyond the grave to the resurrection to eternal life? All those who believe in him have passed through condemnation to eternal life. All those who refuse to believe in him remain under condemnation.

4. Do we believe in Jesus as the Great I AM? As God come to us in the flesh? In the beginning the Word already was, and the Word was face to face with God, and the Word was God...And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the Only Begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth." 

Ye servants of God, your master proclaim,
And publish abroad His wonderful name;
The name all victorious of Jesus extol,
His kingdom is glorious and rules over all.

“Salvation to God, who sits on the throne”
Let all cry aloud and honor the Son;
The praises of Jesus the angels proclaim,
Fall down on their faces and worship the                  Lamb.

Then let us adore and give Him His right,
All glory and power, all wisdom and might;
All honor and blessing with angels above,
And thanks never ceasing and infinite love.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

When Darkness Is Your Only Friend

Darkness Is My Only Friend

I do not know if "darkness is my only friend" is the correct translation of Psalm 88:18 (the ESV gives “darkness is my only companion” as an alternative translation). But I do understand the feeling.

Psalm 88 is the darkest of the Psalms and, as such, there have been times when I have found not only that it uniquely gives voice to the way I feel but that it uniquely gives me a little hope, for, despite the Psalmist's frame of mind, his faith is evidenced by his calling out to the “God of my salvation.” In this Psalm there is “no light at the end of the tunnel.” At the end the Psalmist is still in the dark waiting for God to do something. And, since what he was experiencing in the now is what he had experienced from his youth onward, we do not know if he ever experienced deliverance from his afflictions and and feelings of despair. Perhaps he continued to struggle until he departed this vale of tears and awoke to find that “in your presence there is fullness of joy” (Psalm 16:11).

I know what depression feels like. It feels like being in a dark hole with no way out. It can actually feel better to get past irritability to isolation, past panic to resignation, past fighting to giving up. 

But I do not know what depression is (nor do I think anyone really does).

There may be a genetic-bio-chemical component. The conventional wisdom now is that depression is to some extent a medical problem; hence the first line treatment is provided by medical professionals who give medicines (family practitioners and internists). But, if depression is a medical condition, there is no laboratory test for it. Medicines are given, but no one knows how (not so important) or if (very important) they work. There is serious debate about the effectiveness of the medicines. One of my internists insisted that they do work, but the examples he gave were from the lives of people who were not “normally” depressed but who were prescribed medicine and helped when they became depressed after the loss of a spouse, used the medication temporarily, and eventually regained their equilibrium. My present doctor agreed with me when I told him I was doubtful that the medicines make any difference. What I know by experience is that I fell into an abyss when I stopped taking the medicine (stopped after reading a magazine article in my former doctor’s office that was skeptical of medications being effective). But did I fall into the pit because I stopped taking the medicine or did I stop taking the medicine because of deepening despair?

There is, no doubt (at least in my mind), often a spiritual component. Martyn Lloyd-Jones (or as some call him “The Doctor” - though a minister he was first a medical doctor) wrote a whole book on Spiritual Depression. Despite the (well-founded in my opinion) warnings of Dr. Ralph Davis, who objects to psychologizing rather than exegeting the text, ministers keep preaching on depression from the post Carmel experience of the prophet Elijah. I did till I read Dr. Davis' article on the text.

Looking at depression from a spiritual perspective, what is its relation to sin? Is the depression itself a sin of a believer’s refusing, for whatever reasons, to believe God and his Word? Or, is it a failure to to make use of the spiritual resources that belong to a Christian by the work of Christ and the indwelling of the Spirit? Then, is sin the cause of depression (you disobey and you get depressed) or does depression make a person more vulnerable to sin? It probably works both ways and sometimes both at the same time.

Then what about the psychological aspect?

That is, IF there is aspect of humanness that psychiatrists and psychologists can deal with and is distinct from the spiritual (contra the “nouthetic” approach). It’s not so simple, especially if you are a di- not tri- chotomist. (Some believe man consists of a complex of body and soul/spirit while others believe that he is a complex of body and soul and spirit.) “Psychology” means “knowledge of the soul," the word “psyche” being the Greek word for “soul.” 

It seems to me that there is something about depression that falls into the realm of our common humanity where the sons of this world (non-believers who study, describe, and seek to alleviate depression) may be wiser and more helpful than the sons of light (Christians). To put it another way, a depressed person’s coming to believe in Christ does not necessarily relieve the depression nor does being a believer mean one is protected from depression. Depression is human. Those who experience it may be non-believers or believers. Those who are immune (except for the infrequent and occasional “blues”) may just as well be believers or non-believers.

Dr. Martin Seligman, professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, has along with others debunked the classic Freudian psychoanalytic explanation of depression as “anger turned inward." And, he does not have much confidence in the medical approach, believing medical treatments are both overused and of limited effect. His understanding of depression is that it is a result of “learned helplessness.” Learned helpless results from a “pessimistic explanatory style" which is often developed in childhood in response to painful events and the way parents tend to interpret life.

Animals exposed to pain, which they have no way of escaping, eventually give up and become depressed. His research has shown that something similar happens with humans who explain bad events in terms that are personal (it’s my fault), permanent (it will always be this way), and pervasive (this undermines my whole life). The more pessimistic your explanatory style the less likely you are to bounce back from the down emotions everyone experiences and the more likely depression will be ongoing and debilitating.

His treatment approach is cognitive and based on research that shows that people can learn to think differently, unlearning helplessness and learning optimism. With the psychotherapeutic understanding debunked, and with the medical approach having its limitations, the cognitive has gained favor. The current preferred treatment for depression is medication plus cognitive therapy.

What should we make of the apparent epidemic of depression since serious depression is debilitating and can lead to death? Why are people in the West, who live longer and more affluent lives than ever before, more depressed? Some argue that it is because there is so much more stress in modern life. But Seligman sees it differently. He thinks the increase in the percentage of the population that is depressed is related to (1) the rise of individualism (the big “I"), (2) the loss of community experienced in institutions such as family, church, neighborhood, and country (the “we"), and (3) the rise of the self-esteem movement. Other possible factors occur to me: (1) With regard at least to the milder forms of depression, it may be, as has happened with disorders like autism and attention-deficit disorder, that it is more frequently diagnosed and perhaps over diagnosed today. (2) It may be that we have the luxury of time and money to be depressed. When your family had to farm to eat or when your country had to fight for its survival you may not have had the time or money to be depressed.

Well, then, a few comments.

1. While I would not recommend that anyone cultivate pessimism as an outlook, there is an advantage to pessimism. Generally speaking pessimists are more objectively realistic than optimists. Optimists frustrate the heck out of pessimists who want to ask, “Do you hear yourself? Have you lost touch with reality?” I find the sunniness of some people like a dessert that has too much sugar. If the price of being free of depression is saying things like, “Let’s turn a negative into a positive,” the price is too high for me. Optimists are too optimistic about themselves, others, and circumstances. Optimists overestimate the amount of control they have, while pessimists are much more accurate gauging how much control they have. In a business you want optimists as salesmen but maybe not as engineers or accountants. Think about the implications of this for church life with some optimists thinking nothing can’t be done and some pessimists thinking nothing can be done. Or, consider the implications for a Christian’s self knowledge. The biggest danger for the pessimist is susceptibility to falling into the abyss of innervating depression.

2. There can be another advantage to being a depressive. Just as having had a serious disease can make you more empathetic toward others who experience serious disease, so depression can make you more empathetic toward others who have their struggles with life. I have had people tell me that certain sermons and prayers have helped them, and I have known that they were saying that they felt “understood” - that the minister felt the feeling of their infirmity. I am not saying that there are not big disadvantages both to the minister and the congregation if the minister experiences depression. I am pointing out what I think may be an advantage.

3. It is heck to try to deal with a pessmist who is depressed. I say that from the perspective both of being depressed and of trying to help the depressed. At first you may be sympathetic and want to help. But, as you find that the things you say and try to do are not helping, you may become frustrated. You want say, “Get a grip; stop feeling sorry for yourself; do something to help yourself,” punctuated with a boot to the backside. This is understandable because the one who initially wants to help knows there are people who have similar or worse circumstances than the depressed person but do not become depressed, because the depressed person is so self-absorbed, and because the depressed person’s unhappiness affects the happiness of your life. You can feel like General Patton who, coming upon a soldier with battle-fatigue in an Army hospital in Sicily, slapped him and called him a “yellow bellied bastard.”

4. While the frustrations experienced by those who try to help the depressed are understandable, it is also true (or at least I think it is) that when a person is severely depressed all the “buck up and pull yourself up by your bootstraps” exhortations are not going to produce the intended effect. They can make matters worse. It may be in some cases that depression is so “normal” for the person that he/she does not know what it feels like not to be depressed. Depression may be the most comfortable place to be. In other cases, it may be that the person feels, “I would like to get out of this hole, but I can’t. I don’t know how, and if I did, I don’t have the energy.” The really depressed person's tank is empty of hope and fight. 

5. We delude ourselves thinking that every problem can be prevented or resolved. Some can. But some can’t. In our lives neither sin nor suffering is going to be eradicated in this world. We can fight against sin. We can mitigate suffering. But there is no victorious Christian life. We groan. The universe groans. We can be thankful that for most people depression is infrequent and soon passes. But for others depression is a black dog that always follows, sometimes at distance, sometimes nipping at the heels. Not infrequently the dog pounces, sinks its teeth into the flesh, and won’t let go. With depression we can use the means of grace, take the medicines, and try to change our pessimistic explanatory styles. But for some at least relief will come and joy arrive only when the eternal morning dawns.

"O LORD, support us all the day long, until the shadows lengthen and the evening comes, and the busy world is hushed, and the fever of life is over, and our work is done. Then in thy mercy grant us a safe lodging, and a holy rest, and peace at the last. Amen."

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Stop the World!

Someone Needs to Get Off!

Full Disclosure: I used to write for World Magazine - mainly Soul Food columns. At one point I was told something along the lines of needing to step it up with my columns because a writer named Andree Seu was coming on strong. It was not long until my run as a columnist ended (the usual: editorial differences), and Mrs. Seu (now Peterson) became a permanent and highly valued member of the World team.

It was all for the best. There came a point at which I saw that the “taking every thought captive” world-and-life-view approach is not what Paul had in mind when he wrote those words and that the New Testament does not provide the “stuff” with which to construct a distinctly Christian approach to every sphere of life. To put it another way, I became convinced that the kingdom is the church and that the weapons by which the church wages warfare are the Word, the sacraments, and the prayers. All this is to say, that I do not share World’s philosophy, and World does not share mine.

But, I do appreciate World and much of its reporting, especially on Christian ministries.  I consider Joel Belz (to whom I am sort of related by marriage) and Marvin and Susan Olasky (whom I came to know when they attended a church where I was a staff member) to be friends. Joel, Marvin, and Susan are good folks.

Andree Seu Peterson
That said, Andree Seu Peterson frustrates the heck out of me. Or, I should say, her handling of the Bible causes me much distress. I have written of this before and had more or less decided "not to speak of this again." But what pushes me over the edge to write on this matter again ( did not make a vow), is her online column of March 25, another egregious example of mishandling the Scriptures.

She writes of her experience in a waiting room where a television was on. One of the commercials was “for salvation in Jesus Christ” and “proclaimed the full gospel.”
According to Mrs. Peterson, the presentation of the gospel was “loud and clear” like the bugle Paul writes about in 1 Corinthians 14: 8: “And if a bugle gives an indistinct sound, who will get ready for battle?” Is Paul saying something that applies to the presentation of the gospel in TV commercials? Perhaps, but, if so, very indirectly. The point of the quotation is about speech being intelligible to the hearer. Paul’s direct concern is not with the proclamation of the gospel to non-believers but with the use of tongues-speaking in the congregation. The indistinct bugle sound is an illustration not of the need to be clear in the presentation of the gospel but of what happened in a worshiping assembly when someone spoke in an unknown tongue (or language) and no one was present who had the gift of interpreting the tongue.

She goes on to address the question posed by church young people of what will be the eternal destiny of  those who do not believe.

For Mrs. Peterson part of the answer is settled by Paul’s declaration that at the Second Coming “the Lord Jesus is (will be) revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God…” (emphasis hers).  

In this case Mrs. Peterson cuts off the quotation before Paul adds a phrase that could complicate her simple answer. Paul writes of judgment on those who “do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.” Are those who don’t know God and those who don’t obey the gospel of Jesus Christ two groups or does “those who do not obey the gospel” further describe those “who do not know God”? It is likely that the two phrases describe one group of people, the Jews and the rabble they stirred up when Paul proclaimed the gospel in Thessalonica (Acts 17: 1-8).

I am not arguing that those who had never heard the gospel will somehow be saved or annihilated rather than undergo judgment. I am saying that both the question and the text by which she answers the question are more complicated than she allows. What shows up, at least in the column, is an approach to hard questions that is over-simple and lacking in empathy and an approach to the Bible that lacks both nuance and precision.

She goes on to say that another part of the answer is that it is our fault if some fall into the category of “those who do not know God.”  She cites 1 Corinthians 15: 34 where Paul writes “...some have no knowledge of God. I say this to your shame” (emphasis hers) as though Paul is rebuking the Corinthians for their failure to do evangelism. The problem is that she has lifted out a text that says nothing at all about evangelism. Paul is addressing the problem within the Corinthian church of the teaching and some believing that there is no future bodily resurrection of believers and the effect of this teaching on morals and conduct. What Paul writes is: “If the dead are not raised, ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.’ Do not be deceived: ‘Bad company ruins good morals.’ Wake up from your drunken stupor, as is right, and do not go on sinning. For some have no knowledge of God.  I say this to your shame.” Those who do not know God are those in the congregation who deny the future resurrection of believers. This is of what the congregation should be ashamed.

The final part of the answer to the question about those who have never heard is that “the gospel of Jesus has (emphasis hers) gone out throughout the earth” and cites for proof Colossians 1: 5, 6: “...the gospel, which has come to you, as indeed in the whole world it is bearing fruit and increasing (ESV: “growing”)...” 

This is a  “literal” reading of the text that distorts its meaning. Did Paul mean literally the “whole world”? Surely not if he means “the word of truth, the gospel” being proclaimed, for while the gospel had enjoyed remarkable spread in the 30 years since Christ’s commissioning of his church (Matthew 28: 18-20), it had not been preached to every country or “people group” unless…

Unless, as Mrs. Peterson says, “God is not restricted by ordinary means from revealing Jesus to people around world (sic).” She cites as an example a man from Tajikistan who in a dream heard Christ calling him. I am not sure whether Mrs. Peterson believes that all or some people who do not hear the gospel by ordinary means receive it by some extraordinary means. What is clear is that she believes the “whole world” means every place in the world and that at least in some cases the gospel comes to people, not by the means of baptizing and teaching that Jesus appointed in Matthew 28: 19, 20, but by some other means.

The question about Mrs. Peterson’s continuing misinterpretation and misuse of the Bible raises an issue concerning the relationship between the church and World. World’s mission is: “To report, interpret, and illustrate the news in a timely, enjoyable, and arresting fashion from a perspective of commitment to the Bible as the inerrant Word of God.” I get that - Christian news, or news from a Biblical perspective. I leave aside for now the question of reporting, interpreting, and illustrating the news "from the perspective of the inerrancy of the Bible” and the inescapable necessity of the editors and reporters determining what the Bible says in order to handle the news in this way.

But what is Mrs. Peterson doing? She is interpreting and teaching the Bible as a writer for World. There is no doubt that a person reading the March 25 column should take it as Mrs. Peterson’s summary of the answers to the question, “What of those who have never heard?” That is a very important question, and in World Mrs. Peterson has answered it. She has not only answered it but answered it by citing texts which she has interpreted and which she then uses to address the question. But we say that she has not rightly understood the texts and has put them to uses that St. Paul did not intend.

To whom is she accountable? Apparently to her editors and ultimately to World’s Board of Directors. What is happening is that World is functioning as the church and Mrs. Peterson as one of the church’s teachers. And we say, that World is not “the church of the living God, a ground and pillar of truth” and that Mrs. Peterson is not called by and overseen by the church as one of its teachers.