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The House on Lilac Lane

When we visited the house on Lilac Lane, we found it empty. By curb appeal you would never know. Someone, either the neighbors or the title deed owners, must keep up the exterior to ward off looters, squatters, and teens, like us. Payten, Ty and me were high school juniors back then. For fun and for cash we fixed motorbike engines and broken lawnmowers. One day we would make it, us three, and start an auto shop together.

“Hey Brendan, Ty, look here,” Payten said. I turned to him pointing down two feet at an egress window he had pulled open. “No latch,” he said. We climbed down, contorting ourselves to slip through and land on our feet in the basement. Ty turned on his phone flashlight. The unfinished basement had cement floors, uncovered pink insulation, pvc pipes, exposed copper wire pressed against the ceiling as it traveled on its way. Several plastic tubs sat closed on the other side of the basement. We went to them. Payten opened one, but it was empty. So were the others.

The steps groaned. I reached the top first and found a light switch, but it didn’t work. The house had no power. The kitchen cabinets were empty, and the gaps between them outlined spaces where the stove, refrigerator, microwave, and dishwasher had once done their duties. Around a corner we found the living room and in it an old chair, tipped on its side. The living room opened into a front room with a piano. The keys were left open, and a song rested on the stand, open to neither the first nor the last page, like someone had bolted the house mid-performance.

Upstairs were three bedrooms and two bathrooms, all empty, devoid of furniture but with little spots pressed into the carpet where everything heavy had once been. Ty pressed his hand against the window and looked out onto the street below. There was only dark. “When do you think they left?” he asked. “From how it looks,” Payten replied, “they left fast but fully.” Ty stared and stared. We went back to the main floor. The house was lame. We broke in because someone at school mentioned it. Sounded like a haunted house or at least a place to get spooked. Instead we were disappointed. We sat around on the kitchen floor facing the well-manicured backyard. “Who keeps up this place?” I asked. “You do,” the house replied.

Every Thursday after school I had mowed the lawn. The flowers under the porch needed watering every third day, so I went Sundays, too. Each Spring I bought new mulch to lay around the bushes, which I trimmed when they needed it. When Fall came I pressure washed the siding. Taking care of the house kept me busy. It was difficult work. The owners had left without telling anyone. Taking care of the house felt like taking care of them. I would rake the leaves and prune the trees and think about how much this place must have mattered to them — it was their everything, I bet. Someday soon I will leave this house behind. But if I go, know that I have prepared a place for you.

The Devil’s Doorway

Brother Jeremy wore his Sunday best. His black pinstripe suit and baby blue paisley tie clashed hard. His presence clashed similarly with the room, a serious man against silly walls with random items strung up on fishing wire to serve as quirky decorations. He was the only one over 30 and the only one taking himself seriously. His sermon hit all the usual notes — I had been in these chairs before. Heaven and Hell. Repentance and Salvation. Judgment and Wrath. He wanted to scare us onto the path of righteousness. 

We were the company of mockers. Bro. Jeremy had the slightest stutter, and each time he tripped over his words the merciless students in our youth group grinned and looked around. His sermon that Wednesday night meandered through the Romans Road. Already out of breath by chapter one, he read: “For the wrath of God is revealed from h-heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men.” He reached the third chapter when Steve who ran the soundboard tried to adjust the microphone but unleashed a feedback shriek loud enough to pierce my right ear. Bro. Jeremy, distracted and annoyed, tried to continue. America’s sins forced God to destroy her with hurricanes and wildfires. Abortion, drugs and alcohol, fornication and homosexuality, R-rated movies, card playing, school dances, string bikinis, punk music, atheism, Islam, and more were unleashing national destruction and betraying the investment God had made in our promised land. My friend passed a note my way. I opened it to find a crude sketch of Bro. Jeremy. I laughed, hushed but with poor timing, throwing off his sermon again. Across the room a volunteer leader had to tell a girl to please close her flip phone, thank you. “Nothing in this life m-matters if you live for yourself,” Bro. Jeremy tried to thunder. “For all have sinned and come short of the g-glory of God.”

He said nothing new. I listened anyway. The invitation had promised there would be pizza and snacks later. My hunger gnawed at me. I saw some unfamiliar faces at tonight’s revival gathering. Next to Lauren Brooks sat Samatha Reynolds, who was in my algebra class that year but had never been to our church before. She was quiet and unassuming but popular in our school. A few seats past her, Connor Hall, my neighbor down the block, sat and fidgeted. He skateboarded and cussed and drank beer when he could sneak it. He must have believed the invitation. His mistake. “For the wages of sin is death,” said Bro. Jeremy. 

Our youth room tried to capture the fun spontaneity that young people brought, but contained it within the cold, disciplined asceticism that old people would fund. Like youth ministry at large, this room sat at the intersection between traditions with deep roots and well-funded spokesmen, and the revolutions brought about by youth culture, motivated by logic inscrutable to the elders. Youth groups trained young whippersnappers to stay off the old man’s lawn, so to speak. They bent our lives into irregular, disjointed forms to satisfy the regretful nostalgia of boomers discontent with the mistakes they made in the age of free love. Here the room consisted of chairs arranged toward the pulpit, an altar used solely for altar calls, and on the left wing, a ping-pong table and refrigerator. Lemon and lime and cherry walls surrounded this kitschy take on the ancient assembly, whose routines we reenacted weekly with more or less earnestness and intensity. “But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”

I glanced at the clock to see how much longer Bro. Jeremy would go on, though no clock could answer that question. Glancing back, something caught my eye. Someone. He was new here. Didn’t go to my school. Blonde hair, green eyes, green shirt. On his shirt a name tag sticker hung half attached.

HELLO,
MY NAME IS  
Noah 

I wondered where he came from and who he knew here. In our small town, there weren’t many other teenagers than those who went to my school or went to our church. I kept looking at him. He looked like an athlete, probably popular wherever he was from, and comfortable in this room, despite sitting alone and being new. Somehow he kept my attention. As Bro. Jeremy rambled on, I found my gaze drifting over to Noah again and again. What was he like? Would he become a regular in our group? Would he ever want to be my friend? I looked down at my Bible, trying to focus back on the message. “O wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” But Noah held my focus. I looked back at him.

The summer before, our youth group went to Devil’s Lake State Park up north. Fifteen of us, three leaders and the rest high schoolers, went to the lake there and relaxed for an afternoon. We went to a roller coaster park in town, too. Come nightfall we slept in tents on uneven ground and had to scramble to drape tarps when an unexpected storm rolled through. The trip was not all that religious, it turned out. Just fun activities and some games to help us bond as a group for three days. One day we hiked an uphill trail in the State Park. Our leaders said it was a real hike, but worth it to see Devil’s Doorway at the end. Ancient as the Ice Age, this formation perplexes scientists, our leaders told us, since they can’t explain it using natural processes. Only God could make this pile of rocks. The State Park had gotten its name from settlers who misinterpreted the natives. “Spirit Lake” in their tongue sounded like “Devil’s Lake” in ours, and so it was. To those settlers this rock formation looked like a door, and so it was. Our leaders did not know this history, and spun some yarn about God making these rocks to throw Satan through them into the lake beyond.

We reached the bluffs after an hour struggling along rocky and ill-kept paths. Damp heat made it harder and we hiked with much grumbling and complaining. At the bluffs, you have to make it two feet across a small fissure to reach the Doorway. It seemed benign until we saw the sign indicating that people had died trying to cross it and the liability was all on us. I walked up to that fissure and paused. Others went ahead and started taking pictures on their digital cameras at the Doorway. I went a few paces left and looked over the bluffs, down two hundred, three hundred feet into the dense woods below and the wide lake beyond. As I came closer to the edge I slowed down. The edge attracted me with an unspoken magnetism. My curiosity grew. What was over that edge? Where did it come from? Who does it know here?

Even as the edge drew me closer, something in me recoiled, repulsed by the draw, afraid of what dangers these bluffs hold and eager to stay far, far away in the safe territory. People had died here. The fall could take me too. Polar forces of attraction and repulsion, wanting to come nearer and stay further, left me unsure how to move. I looked over to my group, having fun on the other side of the rock fissure, taking photos at Devil’s Doorway. They laughed and pretended to push one another. Carefree. I crawled backward from my squat position and stood, determined to join my friends. But as I got closer to the fissure my knees bent and I crouched down again, like a reflex built into my legs had activated. I backed up again and stood to try another time but I could not do it. I realized after a minute that I wouldn’t get a picture taken at Devil’s Doorway. I would have to save the sight in my memory, standing from here. I took a long look.

“For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.” Bro. Jeremy now came closer to what in any reasonable sermon would have been the conclusion. An altar call was imminent. As he pressed into Paul’s Gospel, my eyes focused somewhere else. Noah shifted his body weight in his chair, gentle as a breeze might ease a yellow tulip into another posture. “There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.” Noah looked up and caught my eye. I looked down.

The Annunciation

My homily from last Sunday, on the Annunciation of Mary from Luke 1:26-38.

“The holy one to be born to you will be called the Son of God.” With these words the Angel Gabriel announced the good news to Mary. We call this announcement The Annunciation and we call this good news Gospel. Mary was afraid. An otherworldly being stood before her, saying something very confusing. The virgin would conceive. This… cannot happen? Mary thought. Her son would be the Son of God. This… also cannot happen? Mary thought. How can a virgin conceive? How can the one and only God have a divine son? These are good questions, and as the foolish Seminarian I am supposed to try to answer them. But their answers lay beyond my reach, beyond your reach, beyond anybody’s reach. The incarnation of Christ is the first and deepest mystery of the Gospel. Like a cubist painting we can recognize shapes and broad forms, and explain what purpose it serves, but we cannot explain its parts either in isolation or according to the secret logic that holds them together. What does it mean that Mary’s baby will be the Son of God? While we cannot finally grasp this mystery, we can have what my dear friend Jacob called “an articulate unknowing.” An articulate unknowing. We can spell out the pieces as an offering to God, as our feeble attempt to say “Thank you God for this truth you have revealed to us, even though you have hidden it from the wisest of the world. Have these reflections of ours, though they are only wood, hay, and straw.”

What we have to understand about the Incarnation is that though language fails us Jesus is both God and human. This passage in Luke 1 stresses that Jesus is human: he is born of a human mother, takes on a real physical human body, and has a human cousin, who is John the Baptist. Another passage in Colossians 1 stresses that Jesus is divine: that passage reads: “The Son is the visible image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” This is what Gabriel’s words must mean, in the fullest sense, by that in Mary’s womb was the holy one who will be called the Son of God. Resting in Mary’s womb will be not just any baby but the one in whom all things hold together. Her son, though neither she nor we can grasp it, is the one through whom and for whom all things have been created. This infant, so tender and mild, will reign over the entire universe of which he is the cosmic center, and he will destroy all rivaling thrones and powers and rulers and authorities. Weighing some seven or eight pounds is God himself in human flesh. 

Think about the contrast between Zechariah and Mary. Earlier in this chapter Zechariah was confronted by the Angel Gabriel and told he would have a son, though he and his wife were infertile. That is similar to Mary and Joseph, who will also have a miraculous conception. But Zechariah responds in disbelief. So Gabriel strikes him mute until their son is born. Meanwhile Mary responded not in disbelief but in faith seeking understanding. My friend Charles at Streetside Thursday last week pointed out that verse 34 does not say “How could this be,” but “How will this be?” Mary’s question is not disbelief but assumes that Gabriel is telling the truth. Yet she does not stop there. She trusts this message from God and wants to know more: “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” Mary’s faith is not faith full stop but faith seeking understanding. She is approaching a mystery, but after her question she will have “an articulate unknowing.” She will be able to hold in her heart this message from God through all the confusion in the months to come: that “the Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born to you will be called Son of God… no word from God will ever fail.” Her potential rejection from Joseph and her almost certain rejection from her community will be scary and painful, and not finally understanding why this is happening will make things worse, yet this Word from God will never fail. Because she has it, she can trust God.

To this mystery Mary gives her consent in verse 38. She says, “I am the Lord’s servant, may your word to me be fulfilled.” By her consent the Son of God will come into the world. By her consent the one through whom and in whom all things were created, will come into the world. This means that by her consent Mary has caused her own creation. How can this be true? How can her trust in God result in all things? Of course this, too, is a mystery, but we can say what we can say about it. Mary is the true and better Eve. Our first parents in their confusion and temptation caused humanity and the entire universe to enter a deep darkness. But because Jesus’s mother trusted the messenger of God, and consented to God’s plan, there is a new light breaking into humanity and the entire universe. This new light is Jesus who is one person in two natures, both God and Human. But these two natures are incompatible. One nature is created and temporal, the other nature is uncreated and eternal. As St. Maximus pointed out, created and eternal natures cannot share any properties with one another. Yet in the person of Jesus it is so. What I am saying is that Mary consenting to her own creation results from the much larger problem that something uncreated is being born. Something eternal is entering time. In Mary’s womb our linear, sequential time and God’s eternal, non-sequential time are one. Time itself bends its knee in obedient submission to this baby. This is what creates the problem that Mary needs to preexist herself to consent to her creation. The more you reflect on this baby, on his dual divine-human person, the less that reality as we understand it makes sense. The problem with Mary is not unique to her, though. It is a problem inherent in all things, that each thing has its being independently from God as God’s gift to it, yet without God it cannot continue to exist in its particular form. To this baby in a manger not only Time but also All Particularity Itself bends its knee in obedient submission. Were it not for this baby, the pew you sit in would melt into pudding. As would you. Everything would return to formless and void from Gen 1:2. I am not saying that all things are Christ. That would be pantheism. But all things have their particularity only in Christ, only in Christ incarnate, only in Christ incarnate as a baby in a manger. 

The new light who is Jesus will shine over all things, bringing light and life into the deep darkness of our hearts, our communities, our world, our universe. Think about the beautiful stained glass windows around us. They are illuminated by the Sun’s light, but their particular colors and shapes and pictures are what we can see inside. That is also true of Jesus. His light shines into the whole world, and since we are his stained glass windows, he shines through us. The particular colors, shapes and pictures that make up your life, begin to beam with the light of Jesus. There is a saying that you are the only Gospel most people will ever read. We can say a similar thing. You are the only stained glass window most people ever really see up close and personal. This Jesus who is the center of all creation, comes to be center of our hearts and works to reach others through our ordinary and mundane lives. As we live out our faithfulness to God — reading and treasuring his Word, pouring out praise, praying with adoration and penitent need, loving those around us, and so on — this light in us begins to grow in intensity and in heat. In time it becomes a raging fire, your life a burning bush, from which the One True God of Israel speaks saying, I AM WHO I AM. As his voice rings out among the nations, and we are reduced to ash, he brings us new life in this infant. This infant, who is the light of the world, by his very being speaks louder than when God said “Let there be light” in the beginning. In him there is life, and this life is the light of all mankind, and the darkness has not overcome it. “The holy one to be born to you will be called the Son of God.” 

Remember the LORD — Deuteronomy 8

Last week I gave this sermon in my Preaching the Old Testament class. The audio and video did not turn out well, so here is the transcript. I pray that it encourages you in your walk with God today.

Introduction

“Remember, Remember, the 5th of November, the Gunpowder Treason and Plot. I know no reason why Gunpowder Treason should ever be forgot.” So goes a poem from seventeenth century England about Guy Fawkes. Guy Fawkes was a Jesuit Catholic revolutionary from France who managed, I have no idea how, to sneak three dozen barrels of gunpowder into the basement of Parliament in 1605. He planned to blow up the building the next day, while Parliament was in session, overthrowing the English government in hopes of restoring Catholic rule to England. But he got caught. And now, to this day, people in England spend November 5th burning ragdolls of Guy Fawkes and chanting this poem: “Remember, Remember, the 5th of November.” This poem reminds the English about their history, and it tells a story about their enemy, which for the English at the time was Catholics, and the French. The poem and the annual celebration gave them a sense of national unity and reminded them that they remained Protestant because God intervened in history to thwart the Gunpowder Plot. “Remember, Remember, the 5th of November.”

The English Protestants who devised this chant and holiday stand in a long tradition, going back to the Exodus, of God’s people calling upon themselves to remember God’s action in history. To remember God’s faithfulness to them. Like the English remembering Guy Fawkes, Israel remembering the Exodus served to tell a story about the faithfulness of God, about what it means to be “one of us,” and about their national purpose. For our text in Deuteronomy 8, remembering the LORD is crucial. Moses stands before the people of Israel and exhorts them to Obey the LORD, and to Remember what the LORD has done for them. Our Big Idea is this: How can I obey the LORD? By remembering what he has done before. We will focus on that remembrance, and by the end see that Moses’s teaching in Deuteronomy 8 has not become an outdated, “Old” Testament teaching, destined to fade like dust in the wind. Rather, it has become only more relevant as time has gone by. As Christians, remembering God’s gift to us in Jesus Christ leads us to obey God in hope. In Christ we have received the most crucial gift to remember. We will get to Jesus, but it will take first dwelling on Moses’s message to Israel, his call to remember hard times past. Like Israel, we must tell our stories with attention to God’s faithfulness throughout. Then, we will learn to avoid a certain trap, of forgetting God when times of plenty come. When we remember God in hard times and in good times it sends a message about God and his faithfulness. Ultimately, as the passage both begins and ends, our remembrance should lead us to obedience. 

Transition: Before our First point, let us pray to ask for God’s presence and direction. <Pray>.

1. Remember God’s Provision in Hard Times

Our First point today is to Remember God’s provision in hard times. Our passage is from Deuteronomy, which takes place as a sermon from the plains of Moab. The people of Israel stand just outside the Promised Land, looking in. Moses exhorts them to decide: entering into this land, will you obey the LORD or forsake him? This setting in Moab is crucial to Deuteronomy. They are not already in the land, and they are not still far from the land, but they are perched right upon it. One commentator says that the plains of Moab are “not only salvation history, but an exposition of the way of salvation in the present and the future.” Sure, Moab was a moment in the past. But for the people of Israel who in generations later would hear Deuteronomy, Moab was also a position they always found themselves in. Perched on the cusp of blessing, will they remember God and obey? Or will they forget God and fall away? Moab is both a place — some random set of fields and hills and valleys, of course — but it also functions as a special place, a place of decision. Verse one is about this decision: “All the commands which I have commanded you today, be careful to observe, so that you will live and multiply and enter and possess the land which I the LORD swore to your forefathers.”

The people are about to finish their wilderness wandering. This wilderness journey was difficult. Desert heat scorched the land, burning away comfort and ease. As wandering nomads, they had no place to call home. And they were placed in this position precisely because the people needed to have their pride broken. The wilderness generation did not trust God, not really. During the Exodus they had witnessed the most amazing miracles, only to become convinced later that they could not enter the promised land because of the giants that dwelled there. We will not turn there now, but in Numbers 14 God curses this generation to die in the wilderness because they did not trust that God could clear away those giants. All along the way God was testing them: will they obey, despite impossible circumstances? Look at verse 2-3. “2 Remember the entirety of the way which the LORD your God caused you to walk these forty years in the wilderness, in order to humble you, to test you, to know if your heart can keep the commands or not. 3 And he humbled you, by causing you to hunger and then feeding you manna which you did not know and your forefathers did not know, so that man does not live on bread alone, but by all that comes from the mouth of the LORD.”

Manna represents the unstorable provision of God. You get it, and you have to depend on it, because it fades away each night. The LORD provided for them day after day. The LORD also provides for us day after day. Jesus picks up this theme in the Sermon on the Mount. He says in Matthew 6,  “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?” In his temptation, he also quoted verse 3 of our passage. “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Jesus can pick up this point 1200 years later because our God never changes. His faithfulness to one generation is not based on their faithfulness, but his own eternal love and generosity. God teaches us, instructs us, guides us, as verse 5-6 says. “5 Know in your heart that just as a man instructs his son, the LORD your God instructs you. 6 Keep the commands of the LORD your God. Walk in his ways. Fear him.” In their wilderness wanderings Israel was instructed to depend on and trust in God. So, verse 6 says, obey. Standing in the plains of Moab, in the place of decision, Moses reminds his people to remember that God provided for them in difficult times. 

Quickly as I can, I will tell a personal story about God providing for me in a difficult time. Two years ago I lost a former youth ministry student to suicide. He was 17. Losing him was excruciating, and along with other events at the time — I do not have time for those stories now — I fell into a deep depression. Randomly and spontaneously, I had an idea that may redeem some of this pain. I would go to a training program in suicide intervention so that I could be better prepared should anything like this happen again. But the nearest training was seven hours away in Iowa City. Against any reasonable calculation I decided to go. Leaving Chicago in my Hyundai Sonata, my chariot of fire, I drove through city traffic and then corn, corn, corn, before arriving. The weekend was long and difficult. Two instructors trained us in the program’s suicide intervention model, and we role-played situations where we had to intervene. I was reminded every minute of my student’s death. After the weekend ended I drove home, feeling equipped to help someone when they needed it most. Little did I know that it would be me. A new crisis emerged in my life that same month which drove me to suicide. The practical safety skills I learned in the program saved my life. Later on I wondered why I survived. What prompted me to go to this far-flung suicide intervention program? Only in retrospect could I see that God by his providential hand had directed me to attend that program because I would later need it. When everything else continued to fall apart, I could not shake that thought. God had been faithful to me. At the exact time and in the exact way I needed help, God provided.

This, I think, is the kind of thinking Moses uses in Deuteronomy 8. Remember those days of hardship, wandering in the wilderness? Remember how God was faithful to our people then? Never forget God’s faithfulness. He cares for us in our darkest hour, and he provides for us out of his abundant love. We can and should use that same type of thinking about our own stories today. Always remember when God has met you in your time of need.

Transition: In our Second point, the situation has been reversed. No longer in times of want, we see that the advice remains the same! Remember God’s provision, even in plentiful times.

2. Remember God’s Provision in Plentiful Times

Israel is about to enter the promised land, a land flowing with milk and honey. Even having a stable land, a homeland rather than wandering around as nomads, would be good news. But God in his gracious provision is going to give them a land of abundance and excess. Our passage in Deuteronomy now bursts into poetry to describe these plentiful times. The poetic verse in 7-10 would have evoked beauty and hope for a people weary after decades wandering through the desert. “7 For the LORD your God is bringing you to a good land, a land of brooks, springs of water, deep springs flowing out into the valleys and hills. 8 A land of wheat and barley, vines, trees, pomegranates, a land of olive oil and honey. 9 A land without scarcity, you can eat bread without lacking anything, a land whose stones are iron and whose mountains you can dig for copper. 10 And you will eat and be full, and bless the LORD your God for the good land he has given you.” Things will be good! But as Moses will soon teach us, these good times contain the seed of their own undoing. When God provides for his people, they grow confident in what they have, and then abandon God, which will lead to their destruction.

We are tempted in our lives in the late Modern West to do what Moses warns against. Many in our secularized society think that they don’t really need God, that God can be a nice add-on for some, but God is not necessary. We can go about our days and enjoy ordinary lives with our friends and families. What this ignores is that we can only do this because of the enormous material prosperity brought about by our social conditions, which God has orchestrated by his providential hand. Send famine and war, crushing labor and incurable disease, sectarian violence and natural disasters, and maybe we will see the truth. The “just enjoy our ordinary lives with friends and family” mindset is only possible because God has made it possible. Hear the Word of the LORD from Deuteronomy 8:11: “11 Be careful, lest you forget the LORD your God by not keeping his commandments, his ordinances, and his statutes, which I command you today.” In good times we must remember his provision. Our text uses an image of abundance to get this point across. Verse 12 and following. “12 Lest you eat and be full, and build and dwell in good houses, 13 And your cattle and flocks multiply, and your silver and gold multiply, and all which is yours multiplies, 14 and you puff up your hearts, and forget the LORD your God.” Multiply, multiply, multiply. Everything multiplies, and in the process you forget the true source and sustainer of this growth. This has applications in our personal lives, when we think about our finances and our households. Success in these areas should never lead us to view ourselves higher than others. Everything we have comes from God. It also has applications in our church. Being a healthy and stable church, and more to the point, one that remembers its dependence on the LORD, is more important than whether or not we grow into the biggest megachurch in the area. “Church Growth,” as important as spreading the gospel is, should never lead us to view ourselves as “successes” and others as “failures.” “Neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who makes things grow.”

Just as verses 7-8 burst into poetry to describe the beauty of the promised land, verses 14b-16 also burst into poetry when describing the LORD God of Israel. “Do not forget the LORD your God who brought you from the land of Egypt, the house of slavery. 15 who brought you through the great and terrifying wilderness, with venomous serpents and scorpions, a dry place without water. He made water come out of a flint rock, 16 and fed you manna in the wilderness, which your ancestors had never known, to humble you, to test you, and to do good to you in the end.” Here again, as before, Moses recites the story of God leading Israel during the Exodus. Before, Moses needed to remind them of God’s care in their difficult time. But now, he says, even though times are looking up, we still need to remember the LORD. We know from Israel’s history that this did not go according to plan. They would remember the LORD for a time. But every few decades a new generation would grow up, accustomed to the prosperity they had on account of their grandparents’ faithfulness to the LORD, and turn away. Rags to riches and back to rags in three generations, as an old saying puts it. Eventually they would go so far as to defile the Holy of Holies in the Temple with idols to foreign gods, and the LORD destroyed the nation and banished them from the promised land, sparing only a few to rebuild and restore. 

The poetic outburst in verses 14-16 is so long that verse 17 actually picks up where the sentence in 14a left off: “Do not forget the LORD… and say to yourself, by my might and power.” In this long outburst, as Moses retells the history of Israel, notice that the one responsible for every line is not Moses himself. Is not Israel herself. No, it is the LORD God in particular. God himself and God himself alone is the one to whom we give thanks and on whom we depend.

Transition: In our Third point, we see what this remembrance and dependence will achieve. If we will remember God and depend on him, it will confirm and exalt his faithfulness today.

3. Remember God to Confirm and Exalt His Faithfulness Today

Look back at the passage. Moses does an internal dialogue in verses 17-18. “17 Do not say to yourself, my power and the might of my hand have made this wealth for me. 18 Remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you power for strength, so that this will confirm the covenant which he swore to your forefathers, even as today.” These two verses are like the psalmist in Psalm 42 who exhorts himself to put his trust in the LORD. “Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.” Moses gives a scenario where we say to ourselves, by our power and might we have done these things. We must dismiss this voice whenever it comes up. We must listen only to the voice inside that reminds us of God’s faithful provision.

We also see in this verse that Moses connects Remembering and depending on God, with God’s covenant faithfulness. God has freely decided to bind himself to one man, Abraham, and his offspring. God is not faithful to just anyone, but always to those whom he has given his Word. In Genesis, God swore to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to protect their descendants, multiply them, and save them from destruction. So God cannot allow Israel to die in the wilderness. He is faithful to his promises. Now, if Israel were to credit entering the promised land to their own strength, then the promises of God would appear to mean nothing. But because Israel must always attribute their possession of the promised land to God, they make it clear to all that God has been faithful and kept his Word.

Moses also included a small phrase here, “even as today.” This means that, yes, God’s covenant promises were confirmed originally to Abraham in his own life by the miraculous conception of Isaac. But also, as time goes on and God continues to be faithful, God confirms the covenant promises again and again. This is true for the Israelites about to enter the promised land, but Moses could not have imagined how much more true this would become in the future. The more that time marches on, the more God has acted in the world to confirm his covenant faithfulness. This has never been more true than in Jesus Christ, who is God’s greatest and definitive confirmation of his own faithfulness. Because God was faithful to send his own Son into the world, who suffered and died to redeem the world, we can trust God’s promises with even greater clarity and certainty. God then took Jesus, who is both true uncreated God and true created Human, and resurrected at once and together his Divine and Human natures. On that day the disciples received a foretaste of what remains to come. On the last day, we will all witness the grand marriage and reunion of God with All Creation. God will reconcile all things to himself. God had promised Abraham to show covenant faithfulness to his descendants, and through them, all other tribes. But in the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus we see that God had a more ambitious plan. In Christ, God began to reconcile all things to himself, as 2 Corinthians 5:19 tells us.

He has also given us this ministry of reconciliation and empowered us by his Spirit to proclaim to all people God’s faithfulness, forgiveness, and power to restore. We then make God’s covenant faithfulness crystal clear to the world by proclaiming that God is good, that he provides in all things, that we can trust him, in good times and in bad times. As long as the day is called “Today,” to borrow the words of the author of Hebrews, we can trust him. Through him we already have the renewal and reconciliation that will come to all things one day. You can have that now. You can have him now. Believe him, trust him, remember him, proclaim him as supreme in your entire life. Jesus himself is the ultimate gift of God. He is the true and better Isaac, the one miraculously born to continue the covenant line. He is the true and better Moses, representing the people to God and leading them into salvation and abundance. He is the ultimate ground of any success we may have in this momentary and fleeting life. We forget him to our peril and to our shame. We must remember and depend on God. By doing so, we make his faithfulness clear and paramount in our lives. 

Transition: As we conclude, we need to circle back to the beginning and the end. 

Conclusion

You may have noticed earlier that we skimmed over verse 1. That is because verses 1 and 19-20 are like bookends for this passage. Moses has talked at length in verses 2-18 about remembering the LORD, never forgetting what he has done, who he is, and his covenant faithfulness. But the passage began, and now will end, with an exhortation to obedience. What’s the point of remembering? See verse 1: “All the commands which I have commanded you today, be careful to observe, so that you will live and multiply and enter and possess the land which I the LORD swore to your forefathers.” That’s the positive way to put it. Here at the end of our text, Moses gives us the same exhortation to obedience, but put negatively. “19 If you at all forget the LORD your God, and go after other gods and serve them, and bow down to them, I warn you today of your assured destruction. 20 As the nations which the LORD will destroy before you, so he will destroy you because you did not obey the voice of the LORD your God.” This is a warning to the future people of God who will receive this text. We must remember the LORD so that we are in a position of trust and dependency, and therefore, we can obey him. As people created by God, we cannot exceed the limits he has placed on us. As a church community devoted to God, we cannot ignore his difficult commands. As those who Christ is preparing to participate in the coming reconciliation of all things, we must obey the voice of our redeemer and Lord. How can I obey the LORD? We must Remember him in times of scarcity and times of plenty, telling of his faithfulness and care in our own lives, in the life of our community, and in the life of the world through the gift of Jesus Christ. Do this, and he will teach us to trust him. He will cause us to rejoice in his gifts. In so doing, he will train us to obey his commands. Let’s pray.

Where do we disagree?

Where does the disagreement over Christian same-sex marriage really rest?

The disagreement over Christian same-sex marriage tends to revolve around the interpretation of the few passages that come closest to the topic: Leviticus 18:22, Leviticus 20:13, Romans 1:26-28, 1 Corinthians 6:9, 1 Timothy 1:10, and some include Genesis 19 as well. We then ask questions like, How should we translate this word? Exactly which sex act does the author describe in this passage? Can we infer from the social setting whether the sex is mutual? These are good questions, and they will matter to some degree at some point. However, we need to start with the wider narratives of Scripture, which ground and frame the particular, topical passages. For example, it doesn’t matter what the Levitical commands in 18:22 and 20:13 prohibit until we hash out, generally, how the book of Leviticus fits into the wider arc of Scripture, and how and why the teachings of Leviticus would matter today.

I do not base my position on Christian same-sex marriage on the outcome of the six exegetical debates. That approach would oversimplify the problem and understate what is at stake. Anyways, I think those passages could all be missing from the Bible and we would still get to the same conclusions, affirming or not — just as a hypothetical seventh prohibition would not necessarily tell us anything more. Instead, I base my position on wider theological convictions that come through a reading of the whole Biblical story and the place of procreation in that story. This method drives us much faster into the heart of the disagreement.

Procreation in the Hebrew Bible

In the beginning, God created humanity in the image of God, and blessed them to rule over the animals and the birds and the land. Genesis 1:26, whether read from a creationist or evolutionary perspective, tells us about the goal for which God created humanity. We are to reflect God back to the world by exercising wise stewardship over the world. The next two verses continue this point: in the image of God he created them, male and female he created them. God blessed them and said, be fruitful and multiply, to fill the earth and subdue it. Just as in 1:26 God gives humanity a vocation to steward the earth — to act like God himself acts towards the earth — in 1:27-28 God gives humanity a vocation to populate the earth — just as God himself did when he created humanity in the beginning. We can see this concept linguistically in our latinate word “procreation,” creating forth something new. When we procreate, we participate in the work of Creation that God has already begun, continuing it, blessed to do so as if we were God, in our role as divine image bearers. Verses 27-28 cannot be separated from 26 because the unit 26-28 together claims that God created humanity to extend his own work in Creation. God made us in his image to steward the world (26) which requires sexual difference (27) for the purpose of procreation (28) to fulfill this stewardship of the world.

The rest of the Hebrew Bible illustrates and confirms this theology of procreation. God plans to redeem humanity from its fallen state by saving one man, and through him, one nation, and through that nation, one Messiah. God calls Abraham, creates a covenant with him, and blesses him with a promise to have “more descendants than the sand on the shore, than the stars in the sky.” Barrenness, decedents, legacy, familial blessing, and God’s gift of fertility dominate the pages of Genesis to follow. These themes continue to dominate the Hebrew Bible after Genesis, becoming even more prominent in times of national destruction. Ironically, the national destruction itself usually comes from kings taking many foreign wives, attempting to build massive households with hundreds of descendants. Procreation is a blessing, and when pursued in violation of Torah it becomes a curse, but either way it remains the center of the narratives. Remember the ancient context as well. Israel was a hard and rugged place. You would simply not survive if you could not have kids. Because Israel was always only one generation away from siege, pillage, exile, and destruction, the covenant with Abraham would have given promise for security and hope for a better future. The Hebrew Bible’s extensive genealogies also show us the importance of procreation. Long lists connect everyone in the nation to Abraham, to verify their membership in the promises God made in the covenant. They also helped Israelites who grew up reciting their genealogy to remember that the promise would one day extend through them to their children.

Most people agree up to this point. Few in the disagreement over Christian same-sex marriage jump ship before here. (James Brownson and perhaps Sarah Coakley are two notable exceptions). This is because the above is, in my view, incontestable. The themes are too consistent and pervasive to ignore. The disagreements I want to consider in the next section are the ones which start when we move from the Hebrew Bible to the New Testament. Does the New Testament teach that procreation is normative? What could change that would nullify the former teaching, which crucially is rooted in our portrait of Creation?

Procreation in the New Testament

Let me give four examples of the kind of analysis that complicates the procreation mandate. Two on each side.

On the one hand, we see continuity with the former portrait. Years ago in a seminary class on Biblical Theology and Interpretation, D. A. Carson took us to Mark 10 to illustrate this continuity. Have you not read? Jesus asks. Jesus uses Genesis 1-2 for the moral question of divorce and draws directly on the older narrative without qualification. He also intentionally undermines the exception that Moses made in Deuteronomy 24. This draws us away from a possible trajectory where if something is true in Creation, but precedents are set later on, we can expand outward following the later precedents. No, Jesus avoids the later legal precedent and builds his command on Creation.

On the other hand, we see discontinuity when it comes to procreation itself. What happens to procreation in the New Testament? Why does it vanish almost entirely from the text? There are a few mentions of children here and there, about allowing them into the Kingdom, about discipling them wisely, to bring them up in the way of the Lord, and so on. These teachings help people who already have children, but they tell us nothing about the procreation mandate. Now consider 1 Corinthians 7, one of the few extended texts about sexual practice in the New Testament. Paul bases his sexual advice on martial duty (1-3), mutual consent (4-5), temptation from Satan (presumably to adultery or fornication) (5-9), God’s call to live at peace (15-16), our freedom in Christ (21-24), the coming apocalypse (25-31), our undivided focus on the Lord (32-35), and the honor of virgins and of singleness as a widow (36-40). Paul’s advice comes from numerous places in moral theology and gives us a rich picture of complex wisdom, as well as the types of sources we should value in making these complex decisions. But where is procreation?

Returning to the first hand, the relationship between early Christianity and the Mosaic Law is difficult, but not really on this question. The Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15 decides to integrate Gentiles into the people of God and commands them to do four things: abstain from meat that has been strangled, abstain from meat that still has blood, abstain from food sacrificed to idols, and abstain from sexual immorality. These commands probably express something like the Law of Noah (though this was not explicitly developed until the early Talmudic Rabbis over a century later), which means laws God gave to all humanity through Noah, the father of all later humans. These kinds of laws are not detailed in the actual text of Genesis 6-9, but the concept lurks behind Acts 15:23-29 and Romans 2:12-16 to provide grounding for universal moral commandments. The fourth command in Acts 15 simply prohibits “sexual immorality,” but presumably all Jews would flesh out this term with Leviticus 18, where the Torah gives a detailed list of what practices count as sexual immorality. By declaring sexual immorality a universal prohibition (not limited to Jews), the Jerusalem Council made it impossible for Gentiles to use an “abolition of the Law” type argument to get around the Leviticus prohibitions.

Returning to the second hand, because Gentiles in the New Testament are “adopted” into the family of God, the need for procreation to advance the ethnic people solely of Israel has faded. The procreation mandate may seem to vanish from the New Testament, but in reality it has been transformed into the evangelism mandate. Converts are like children in the faith, raised to maturity by our faithful parentage, to become bearers of the good news of the Gospel, resulting in their own spiritual children one day. Gentiles receive paternity in Abraham by adoption through Christ (Romans 4), and so procreation is no longer necessary in its function to expand the people of God. You can draw this distinction against the Hebrew Bible too sharply — there are a few non-Israelites who join the family of God, such as Rahab, Jethro, Ruth and Naaman. But overall it seems that the multiethnic movement that begins in the New Testament accompanies the transformation of the procreation mandate because they are inherently tied together. The New Testament’s theology of adoption, then, decenters and transforms the procreation mandate.

Where do we disagree?

My reading of the disagreement leads me here. How you square these circles will determine whether Christian same-sex marriage can be morally good. Does the procreation mandate persist in marriage, or does it fade away with the coming of Messiah? Better, does the current apocalypse (1 Corinthians 7:17-31) interrupt the procreation mandate as a whole, or does it interrupt procreation within marriage? This distinction makes or breaks Robert Song’s argument in his book Covenant and Calling, which I recommend reading. If the apocalypse disrupts the need to procreate generally, then celibacy is affirmed because marriage is not required. But if the apocalypse disrupts the procreation mandate in marriage, then constitutionally non-procreative marriages can become morally neutral or good.

These questions can hinge on the relationship between the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, not to mention the even wider theological topics I have not addressed here. What about natural law theology? What about gender complementarity beyond procreation (such as gender roles)? What about the sacramental end of marriage, which is that marriage signs to us Christ’s own relationship with the Church? What about gender at the resurrection? Needless to say this disagreement is complicated to an almost endless degree. It works at some of the core questions scholars pose about the relationship between the early Jesus movement and the Jewish context from which it came. The complexity of our disagreement should humble us. When you dismount your moral high horse, it becomes easier to see others eye to eye and recognize the good-faith effort they make, even when they come to conclusions you do not. This complexity may even allow for church membership across the affirming disagreement, since we already have membership with many who disagree on questions much more weighty than the technical issue with Robert Song’s argument above. For example, if your church includes Calvinists and Arminians as members, I find it difficult to exclude those who disagree in good faith on some of the biblical-theological specifics outlined here. However, traditions with a rich confessional heritage will likely come to a narrower set of conclusions, and from there we need to debate the traditions and their confessions on their own merits as such. Like all disagreements in Christian moral theology, the disagreement over Christian same-sex marriage leads us down a path, bounded by Tradition and Scripture, to the God with whom we seek one common life.

My point in this post is to encourage Christians to think more widely than the six topical passages in isolation — to attempt to see those passages within the totality of our Christian moral vision and the Scriptural narratives that ground and frame that moral vision. Focusing on those passages alone allows us to misconstrue their value and place within Christian thought, as well as over-interpret them to say what they may never have meant. Submitting the meaning and function of these passages to what we already know is like building your house upon a rock: working from the firm foundation of the most central and clear parts of God’s Word to the peripheral and unclear parts. We already do this on so many other topics. Stronger biblical-theological reasoning could help the disagreement over Christian same-sex marriage reach greater understanding, mutual respect, and precision. By the Spirit who guides the church into all truth, it may even lead to resolution.

Encounters with the Unknown Christ

Spring Break allowed me time to read Eleanor McLaughlin’s book Unconscious Christianity in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Late Theology (2020, Lexington Books/Fortress Academic), a revision of her 2015 Oxford dissertation. It is prohibitively expensive, at $95 hardcover, but my library was willing to buy the book and loan it first to me. Interested readers who lack access could consider the $45 ebook version.

McLaughlin’s book is the first complete study of the concept of “unconscious Christianity” in Bonhoeffer’s theology, in particular in the final few years of his life (1940-45). What does this term mean? McLaughlin labors to construct a definition from the scant material references to the term (Unbewußtes Christentum), and by page 95 the definition arrives:

Unconscious Christianity refers to the whole body of good people who have encountered Christ without being aware of it and do not self-identify as Christians. In addition, they may fulfill any of these six criteria: (1) to have faith without knowing it, (2) to be selfless and participate in Jesus’s being-for-others, (3) to not seek to be other than what they are, (4) to value the penultimate [i.e., this world, as opposed to the world-to-come], (5) to perform acts of faith without reflecting on them, (6) to be a member of the Bürgertum... [I]t seems that as he further develops his ideas on unconscious Christianity Bonhoeffer suggests that unconscious Christians are recognized as righteous by God.

McLaughlin arrives at this definition by placing Bonhoeffer in context, in four ways. First, theologians Richard Rothe and Martin Rade had used the term before him, and Karl Rahner used the similar “anonymous Christian” in the same era (though he meant something else). Second, Bonhoeffer belongs in the context of the German Bürgertum [upper-middle] social class. Third, he was a member of a barely religious family, whose work against the Nazis later funded his fiction writing and this thoughts about unconscious Christianity. Fourth and finally, McLaughlin situates Bonhoeffer in his late theology, which in general is neither in clean continuity with his earlier thoughts nor radical change from them, but is a “fluid” “movement” (citing Hanfried Muller), “developing” the earlier ideas into the later (146). Additionally, McLaughlin situates Bonhoeffer’s unconscious Christianity on the back end in the context of mid-twentieth century “death of God” theology, naming William Hamilton and J. A. T. Robinson (144-146).

In other words, this book is a formal study and an exercise in historical theological exegesis, more so than a positive or constructive theological argument. I was surprised and impressed by the great lengths to which McLaughlin went to articulate Bonhoeffer’s exact view and the limits of what we can reconstruct. I can imagine a reader seeking a constructive theological argument reading the introduction, chapters 1 and 5, and the conclusion, and benefiting greatly. Meanwhile readers interested in the historical Bonhoeffer, in Bonhoeffer Studies proper, or in theological method (especially on extracting theology from fiction writing) would benefit from the whole book.

Quickly, I want to sketch the four references to unconscious Christianity in Bonhoeffer’s corpus.

First, in his essay “Ultimate and Penultimate Things,” a chapter from Ethics written in 1940 at Ettal, Bonhoeffer made a marginal comment on the manuscript (which did not enter the printed text.) The essay in general is about not sacrificing the life to come for the life of this world, and vice versa. Christians should live in both the ultimate, and the penultimate, at the same time. Towards the end of the essay he describes people who “no longer dare to call themselves Christians,” who we must then claim as Christians. We should do this because the human and good work that these people do in the world unites the penultimate with the ultimate. Then comes the note. He writes, “Unbewußtes Christentum. Balzac. Leute des Antichristus.” This note turns out to be a convoluted reference to the play Les Comediens sans le savior by Honore de Balzac (1846). The characters in the play each stand for something in French society, though they are unaware of it. Bonhoeffer is presumably then saying that unconscious Christians are playing a part in Kingdom of God without knowing it either. The reference to the Antichrist, writes McLaughlin, is more or less inexplicable (65-66).

Second, in his novel Novel, written in late 1943 from Tegel, Bonhoeffer wrote the term unconscious Christianity into the dialogue. Two boys, one from a working class and the other an upper-middle class [Bürgertum] family, are talking about trust and social class and the ways that the underclass have been so mistreated that they cannot trust anyone. (This would be Bonhoeffer’s view of the underclass, of course). Talking about his family, the Bürgertum boy says,

“But now I’m thinking about Papa and Mama. You can’t really say they’re Christians, at least not in the customary sense of the word. They don’t go to church. They only say grace before meals because of Little Brothers. And yet they’re as little affected by the spirit of false ambition, careerism, titles, and medals as your [the working class boy’s] mother is. They prefer a good laborer or craftsman a hundred times over some puffed-up ‘Excellency.’ Why is that?”

Ulrich thought for a moment. “That’s because without knowing it and certainly without talking about it, in truth they still base their lives on Christianity, an unconscious Christianity.”

This is the clearest use of unconscious Christianity in Bonhoeffer’s surviving writings. The family is probably based on his own family’s quasi-irreligious nature. The thing that distinguishes them is that they are unaffected by titles, etc., which corresponds well to Bonhoeffer’s theology of self-forgetfulness and kenosis in Christ, the self-for-others.

Third, in his letter to Bethge postmarked July 27, 1944, Bonhoeffer used the term in a theological context. This was just one week after the failed July 20 assassination attempt on Hitler, which would later lead to the order to execute Bonhoeffer. Here is the quote:

Your [Bethge’s] formulation of our theological theme is very clear and simple. The question how there can be a “natural” piety is at the same time the question about “unconscious Christianity” that preoccupies me more and more. The Lutheran dogmatists distinguished a fides directa from a fides reflexa. They related that to the so-called faith of the infant at baptism. I wonder if we are not here addressing a very wide-reaching problem. More about that, hopefully, soon.

Unfortunately Bonhoeffer did not return to this point in his surviving letters. (Bethge burned the September 1944 letters when his own arrest was ordered, so perhaps it was there, but alas). McLaughlin writes that Bonhoeffer’s example of infant baptism teases out another distinction, between faith that would be “by reflection within the individual” and faith that “simply indicate[s] the manner of being of that individual.” Unconscious Christianity, then, would be the latter type. It is not inward “faith” (i.e., how most evangelicals understand the word) but a fact about the person’s manner of being. Bonhoeffer’s statement that this could be a very wide-reaching problem intrigues me. He is including the unconscious Christian in the fides directa along with baptized infants, but I can only wonder how much further Bonhoeffer would have pressed this logic had he survived the war.

Fourth, in his notes in preparation for his new book (of which only the outline was ever written), Bonhoeffer makes several scattered comments on a chapter on unconscious Christianity. He writes:

Unconscious Christianity: Left hand doesn’t know / what the right hand is doing / Matt. 25. / Not knowing what to pray. Motto: Jesus said to him: “What do you want me to do for you?”

These cryptic comments need explaining. The first refers to Matthew 6:3, “But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.” The reference to Matthew 25 is to the parable of the goats and sheep. The motto comes from Mark 10:51, Jesus’s question to the blind man (who replies, “Rabbi, I want to see!”). I don’t think McLaughlin explains the comment, “Not knowing what to pray,” or at least she does not address it in the two textual analyses on 70-72 and 87-89. However it must come from Romans 8:26 where Paul writes that “the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know how we ought to pray, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groans too deep for words.” The basic picture that emerges from these scattered references is someone ignorant (right/left hands) of their good deeds (sheep) and yet by their deeds they are encountering Jesus (Matthew 25:40/45). It takes more theological creativity to fit the “motto” and the reference to Romans 8 into this vision of unconscious Christianity, which may explain why McLaughlin shies from them.

In my own words, here is what I would say. Bonhoeffer seems to radicalize the parable of the Sheep and Goats so that it is more than an exhortation to care for the poor. Instead, caring for the poor (and etc. selfless good deeds) are an encounter with Jesus, whether people realize this or not. Bonhoeffer was driven to this view by his own situation. His co-churchmen had caved almost immediately to the Nazi regime in 1933 and were helplessly compromised in the fight against evil. Conversely, many of his co-conspirators were not religious, but they were fighting evil at great risk to themselves for the sake of the weakest in society. Bonhoeffer has this visceral understanding that the ones he expected to do right and wrong, had done wrong and right. This forced him to develop theology to explain this real phenomenon. Because his a Lutheran, he pulls on the fides directa and thinks that his co-conspirators “have faith” just as baptized infants “have faith” but do not realize it. They are playing Christian roles, like the unconscious French characters from the Balzac play, but more than this (as his thought develops from 1940 to 1944), they are participating in Christ, which is faith. The connection to Romans 8 is more obscure, but I can imagine ways to develop it which would look like Sarah Coakley’s argument in “Praying the Trinity” (chapter three of God, Sexuality, and the Self: An Essay ‘On the Trinity’). This is too abstract, I need to return to it later. But there is some connection between the Spirit placing us in the position of the Son before the Father during prayer, which corresponds well to Bonhoeffer’s unconscious Christianity. Unconscious Christians, if they really are participating in Christ as faith by their self-denying love and service, are not only participating in Christ but necessarily also participating in the Divine Life of the Triune God in total. Maybe this could extend the concept of unconscious Christianity to address a “very far-reaching problem.”

McLaughlin’s conclusion makes several valuable points.

First, calling someone a Christian when they are not, “as a tool to reveal to people who they really are, as though they are not competent enough to decide their identity for themselves,” is not pastorally wise (189). Bonhoeffer always has a pastoral heart in his discussions of this topic, which we should emulate. Many Muslims for example, and almost all Jews, would bristle at being named Christians without their say. I would add that it flies directly in the face of what Charles Taylor calls “the politics of recognition,” and so is uniquely problematic today.

Second, McLaughlin points to Tom Gregg’s book Theology against Religion: Constructive Dialogues with Bonhoeffer and Barth. There he has addressed contemporary sociology and ecclesiology and secularism and so on, and uses Bonhoeffer to do so. McLaughlin suggests his analysis could be supplemented by including unconscious Christianity. I agree, I assume, but also would like to point the arrow the other direction. Bonhoeffer’s “world come of age” came mostly through his reading of Wilhelm Dilthey, whose sociology has come under extraordinary fire. His secularization thesis has more or less been killed by Charles Taylor and others. My question is not just how Gregg’s analysis could grow by including Bonhoeffer’s insights, but how Bonhoeffer’s analysis could grow by including Gregg’s, Taylor’s, and others contemporary insights about secularism. The “world come of age” Bonhoeffer prophesied has come in some ways but not others, and the world it promised to replace still haunts us.

Third, McLaughlin points out that people today can be unconscious Christians, not just people in Nazi Germany. She does not use the term, but the social justice movement comes immediately to mind. There are many grifters and snake oil sellers in the social justice movement, I am aware, but someone who engages in social justice activism with the intent to love and serve the most marginalized may be encountering the unknown Christ.

McLaughlin’s book is judicious and compelling, and theologians will now have to debate the merits and usefulness of Bonhoeffer’s concept. I am not wholly convinced by Bonhoeffer’s unconscious Christianity, and am more likely to limit the concept to “encounters with” (rather than “participation in”) the unknown Christ. As I have struggled with deconstructing and reconstructing my faith the past two years, I have wondered where Jesus went. Many of my friends ask the same question. Could it be that I have had unconscious encounters with Jesus? “Could it be that you have been praying, unconsciously, all along?” suggested a kind professor of mine. I am less interested in what unconscious Christianity would mean for soteriology and more for discipleship and daily Christian living. Maybe my thoughts, my actions, my lamentations and loves, have been more faithful than ever before, because to my conscious mind they were alms given in secret.

Marginal Biden

How do you measure rainfall during a hurricane? Given the situation, you wouldn’t think to do so at all.

The Trump administration was so plagued with scandals, so consumed with Trump’s own persona, and so lacked transparency, that grading it in real time felt impossible. Who can spare the time to evaluate their transportation policy while Russia / Ukraine / COVID / Fraud / Insurrection / etc. dominated the news? And rightly so. These were major scandals, and several of them would have resulted in impeachment and conviction in a better world. Remember that this was an intentional political strategy: to “flood the zone with shit,” in the words of Steve Bannon.

One benefit to the Biden administration’s “return to normal” will be our ability to grade the government in real time on their policy decisions. I don’t expect major, term-defining scandals under Biden, and whatever scandals do happen will probably be lame and somewhat wonky. Biden has earned his “Sleepy Joe” reputation for a reason.

(“Normal” can be bad if the norm is bad. I am aware that transparent, functional, accountable government is not sufficient for a just society. I do think it is prerequisite though.)

With that said,

Here are nine actions from Biden’s first week.

Some are good, some bad. I tried to choose a representative sample, though of course I am driven by my own narrative here.

1. The administration wants to increase the speed of vaccine distribution. They have already hit their 100M/100d target (the Trump administration was basically already there by the time the Biden team took over). However, German Lopez argues that this is not enough, that the Biden admin needs to press harder for more ambitious goals. The difficulty with ambitious goals is that you may not meet them, but I for one would love for the pandemic to be mostly over by the fall. The administration has a call scheduled with the pharma companies. But the new leadership is new. They need an extraordinary amount of coordination to make this work at scale. They have already increased the goal to 150M/100d, and released a comprehensive plan. Good.

2. Signed a Memorandum to reopen ACA/Obamacare enrollment from Feb 15 to May 15. Trump should have done this, with so many people suddenly unemployed mid-year due to the pandemic, but did not, I assume for the optics of Obamacare looking like a useful program. A Vox piece questions how many people this special enrollment period can help, since the Biden administration did not give a projection. Joaquin Castro wants Biden to make a special provision for DACA recipients to join the ACA this year. Good but Small.

3. Biden signed an executive order for DOJ to stop renewing contracts with private prisons. This sounds like a nice olive branch to the left (Ilhan Omar gave it a ✅). But as John Pfaff from Fordham Law pointed out, this move 1. further concentrates power in public sector prison unions, who 2. make even more money than the profit-seeking private prisons, and 3. the order only applies to renewals, not current contracts, so anything expiring after 2024 can be overturned without consequence if the Republicans win in 2024. In Pfaff’s words, “it could be a step BACKWARDS. It does almost nothing, and frames things in a way that leads us to give too much of a pass to the institutions doing the real harm.” Bad Absent Further Changes.

4. Executive order directing FEMA to cover 100% of the cost of emergency homeless sheltering during the pandemic (until at least September 30th). State and local governments were paying 25% and FEMA 75% for the length of the pandemic, despite SLG being cash-strapped because of the decline in sales tax revenue. Shifting the cost to FEMA will allow safe and sanitary sheltering among homeless populations, which helps their personal health, and more generally prevents virus transmission among the population at large. Good.

5. Renewed the Trump administration’s eviction moratorium another two months. Renters under an income threshold ($100k single, $200k household) cannot be evicted and homeowners with FHA-backed mortgages cannot be evicted. Other aspects of the eviction system remain state-level, out of Biden’s (or Trump’s) control. The eviction moratorium funding in the CARES Act only lasted a few months, so Biden has also requested another $30B in funding from Congress (which they will give). Good.

6. Biden nominated Avril Haines for Director of National Intelligence, confirmed 84-10 by the Senate. Haines said at her hearing that under the Biden administration, the intelligence community would “speak truth to power.” In addition to vacuous rhetoric, Haines brings with her the political baggage of having covered up the Senate’s CIA torture report and having written the Obama administration’s very lax drone assassination guidelines. This is extremely sinister, and for that reason she will make a great DNI. Bad.

7. DACA will continue under Biden, and he has prepared an extremely ambitious immigration reform bill for Congress. The bill is so ambitious it must be a negotiating tactic to arrive at some lesser bipartisan agreement later, but that’s still good. Ending the legal limbo of DACA and TPS (temporary protected status) people is good. Granting a path to citizenship is good for national integration, helps grow the US tax base, leads to permanence of local/regional circular flow, creates jobs (on net), helps counter the low US birthrate, and does not have the clear partisan effect that pundits think. (Immigrants from Central and South America tend to be Catholic or Pentecostal, hold to socially conservative views, and increasingly vote Republican). According to opinion polling from Ipsos, Biden’s actions on DACA as well as other topics are popular. Good but Tentative.

8. Biden signed an executive order raising the minimum wage for federal contractors to $15/hr, and his administration is pushing a tight vote (likely 50/50/Kamala) on the national minimum wage as part of the next COVID relief bill. This will raise the minimum wage to $15/hr for all employees. We needed to do this years ago, if for no other reason than to keep pace with inflation during the Fed’s QE program, but now that 2020 has seen a surreal increase in the monetary supply we will need a higher minimum wage. There are some policy problems but they have good solutions. Slow but Good.

9. Directed the Department of Housing and Urban Development “to take steps necessary to redress racially discriminatory federal housing policies” through further enforcement of the FHA. This is an important move for racial justice, and the order includes reviewing the extent to which the Trump administration failed to enforce the FHA. Which, to be clear, was a large extent. This is a signaling move for Biden’s HUD agenda. Small but Promising.

In Conclusion

The Biden administration’s “return to normal” — its likely lack of scandal, its policy precision, its broad popular appeal, its concentration on tangible goals rather than Biden himself — will enable us to grade on an A through F scale, rather than F+ through F- scale. He may not do a great job at overcoming partisan gridlock. Various actions will backfire (like the private prison order above). Some of his decisions may work but not work enough. His legislative strategy given a split Senate will require more compromise than he wants. And so on. I join many others in expressing relief that all this is the case.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Five Years!

This blog began on 11/20/15. Something in my AP Literature class inspired me to write more, and to put my writing out there to be subjected to scrutiny. That scrutiny has been great for my writing. Blogging through college and seminary helped me to avoid developing an overcomplicated, jargon-heavy academic style. My blog also has had some big moments of its own, most notably my coming out post in March 2019. This little project has become part of my story and part of me as well.

I don’t know how much I will be blogging anymore. Church work is hard and bitter and Christians can be quite judgmental. Sometimes this is good for leaders (James 3:1) but often it is not, so putting my most controversial ideas out there online can become more of a liability than an asset.

With that said, there is effectively no way for me to shut up, so the blog will continue and I will have to write wisely. I have a few focused arguments that I think need to be made. So I’ll make those arguments and otherwise try to post devotionally, writing out of reflective curiosity and generous love. In that spirit here is one of my favorite quotes from one of my favorite people.

Writing is a process in which we discover what lives in us. The writing itself reveals to us what is alive in us. The deepest satisfaction of writing is precisely that it opens up new spaces within us of which we were not aware before we started to write. To write is to embark on a journey whose final destination we do not know. Thus, writing requires a real act of trust. We have to say to ourselves: “I do not yet know what I carry in my heart, but I trust that it will emerge as I write.” Writing is like giving away the few loaves and fishes one has, trusting that they will multiply in the giving. Once we dare to “give away” on paper the few thoughts that come to us, we start discovering how much is hidden underneath these thoughts and gradually come in touch with our own riches.

― Henri Nouwen

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Photo by Yuriy Kovalev on Unsplash

The Flight from the Cross

Excerpt from Emil Cioran, On the Heights of Despair, 95-98. Originally written in 1934 in Romanian, translated in 1992 by Ilinca Zarifopol-Johnston. This is a challenging and complex text. I am not sure what to make of it yet. His points fit nicely with the last point of my last post, that Jesus models doubt and alienation from God.

“I do not like prophets any more than I like fanatics who have never doubted their mission. I measure prophets’ value by their ability to doubt, the frequency of their moments of lucidity. Doubt makes them truly human, but their doubt is more impressive than that of ordinary people. Everything else in them is nothing but absolutism, preaching, moral didacticism. They want to teach others, bring them salvation, show them the truth, change their destinies, as if their truths were better than those of the others. Only doubt can distinguish prophets from maniacs. But isn’t it too late for them to doubt? The one who thought he was the son of God only doubted at the last moment. Christ really doubted not on the mountain but on the cross. I am convinced that on the cross Jesus envied the destiny of anonymous men and, had he been able to, would have retreated to the most obscure corner of the world, where no one would have begged him for hope or salvation. I can imagine him alone with the Roman soldiers, imploring them to take him off the cross, pull out the nails, and let him escape to where the echo of human suffering would no longer reach him. Not because he would suddenly have ceased to believe in his mission—he was too enlightened to be a skeptic—but because death for others is harder to bear than one’s own death. Jesus suffered crucifixion because he knew that his ideas could triumph only through his own sacrifice.

“People say: for us to believe in you, you must renounce everything that is yours and also yourself. They want your death as a warranty for the authenticity of your beliefs. Why do they admire works written in blood? Because such works spare them any suffering while at the same time preserving the illusion of suffering. They want to see the blood and tears behind your lines. The crowd’s admiration is sadistic.

“Had Jesus not died on the cross, Christianity would not have triumphed. Mortals doubt everything except death. Christ’s death was for them the ultimate proof of the validity of Christian principles. Jesus could have easily escaped crucifixion or could have given in to the Devil! He who has not made a pact with the Devil should not live, because the Devil symbolizes life better than God. If I have any regrets, it is that the Devil has rarely tempted me . . . but then neither has God loved me. Christians have not yet understood that God is farther removed from them than they are from Him. I can very well imagine God being bored with men who only know how to beg, exasperated by the triviality of his creation, equally disgusted with both heaven and earth. And I see him taking flight into nothingness, like Jesus escaping from the cross. . . . What would have happened if the Roman soldiers had listened to Jesus’ plea, had taken him off the cross and let him escape? He would certainly not have gone to some other part of the world to preach but only to die, alone, without people’s sympathy and tears. And even supposing that, because of his pride, he did not beg for freedom, I find it difficult to believe that this thought did not obsess him. He must have truly believed that he was the son of God. His belief notwithstanding, he could not have helped doubting or being gripped by the fear of death at the moment of his supreme sacrifice. On the cross, Jesus had moments when, if he did not doubt that he was the son of God, he regretted it. He accepted death uniquely so that his ideas would triumph.

“It may very well be that Jesus was simpler than I imagine him, that he had fewer doubts and fewer regrets, for he doubted his divine origin only at his death. We, on the other hand, have so many doubts and regrets that not one among us would dare dream that he is the son of a god. I hate Jesus for his preachings, his morality, his ideas, and his faith. I love him for his moments of doubt and regret, the only truly tragic ones in his life, though neither the most interesting nor the most painful, for if we had to judge from their suffering, how many before him would also be entitled to call themselves sons of God!”

Photo by Craig Tidball on Unsplash

Discipleship in Mark

For my class on the Gospels and Acts, I was asked to reflect on Mark’s vision of discipleship. Follow along in your Bible as you read, because this post is loaded with Scripture.

What is discipleship?

Discipleship is the Imitation of Christ. First, we see early on (1:16-18) Jesus call Simon and Andrew with words that reflect what Jesus is doing in issuing the call: “Come follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Jesus is fishing, and in doing so, making further fishers. The call is self-referential like Mark as a whole: Mark’s Gospel is a narrative of Jesus’s life, and at the same time functions to make disciples out of those who read it. Second, at the Gospel’s midway point, the seam between its first (1-8) and second (9-16) movements, Jesus tells the crowd what discipleship requires: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves, and take up their cross and follow me” (8:34-9:1). Jesus calls the crowd to be open to martyrdom immediately after he has first predicted his own death (8:31-33). Hence taking up the cross is synonymous with the call to “follow me,” the imitation of Christ. Third, when James and John request authority and glory from Jesus (10:35-45), Jesus responds by acknowledging they will suffer his same fate. He concludes his remarks about servant leadership with another comparison to his own example: “Even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many.” Jesus centers his example in his responses to James and John and to the other disciples. Therefore, discipleship is the imitation of Christ.

How do disciples imitate Jesus?

Fight Death. Disciples of Jesus are engaged, first and foremost, in a spiritual battle against the powers of Death that wreak havoc in the world. First, at the beginning of Mark’s Gospel, John the Baptist characterizes Jesus’s ministry this way: “one more powerful than I… will baptize with holy spirit.” Mark uses the unique word “powerful” (ischuroteros) again later when Jesus is describing his own ministry (3:20-35, Class Notes). How is Jesus’s ministry different from Satan’s work? In a parable, Jesus talks about “binding up the strong man,” who is Satan. So, Jesus’s ministry is the exact opposite of Satan’s work, it is a war against the spiritual forces of darkness and death. Second, Mark depicts Jesus casting out demons (1:21-28 (parallel 5:1-20) (Thiessen, 141-148). He casts out demons from holy places (in the former passage, from the synagogue on the Sabbath) and into unholy places (in the latter passage, into nearby unclean pigs). Jesus’s demon exorcism is not just to heal the possessed, or they would simply be called “healings.” Rather, they are part of a larger fight against “powers and principalities, spiritual forces, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places” (Ephesians 6:12) as another author later writes. Third, Jesus commissions the disciples to cast out demons as well. (Mark 3:14-15 / 6:7-13) (See Witmer 132-142, 153-201 for more). Now, this command is repeated in 16:17, but it does not matter for Mark, because 16:17 is not authentic, it was added later. But this addition indicates that the early church (up to the late 4th century when 16:9-20 was added) continued to practice exorcism, as Jesus originally commanded. Therefore, disciples of Jesus fight Death and the spiritual battle it wages against God.

Live in Constructed Community. Mark depicts discipleship as shared life. First, Jesus constructs a community which, when anything else conflicts with it, must supersede all other forms of community. Jesus says, “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive 100-fold in the age to come” (10:29-30). Second, Jesus gives a specific discourse about living in and leading community in 10:35-45 in response to bickering and infighting (10:41) among his disciples. It is in this context that Jesus makes a key statement about discipleship, drawing from his own example: “not to be served… but to serve.” Disciples are to imitate Jesus’s example in our own communities of shared discipleship. Third, there are clues in the text (direct references to crowds, rhetorical use of “we”) which indicate that “Jesus is one who is almost constantly surrounded by a circle of disciples; he does not exist primarily as a solitary individual but as a being-in-community, and living the Christian life means “being with him.” This portrayal of the life of discipleship as a communion with Jesus would undoubtedly resonate with the experience of Mark’s community” (Joel Marcus 267). Therefore, disciples of Jesus live in constructed communities.

Discernment. Discipleship means seeing and knowing things as they truly are, and this includes events, people, and Jesus’s own mission. First, Mark repeatedly goes out of his way to mention that Jesus “sees” people. The most significant example is 6:34: “When Jesus landed, he looked at the large crowd, and had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he began teaching them many things.” (Joel Marcus (182) also lists these passages: 1:18-20, 2:14, 3:34, 6:34, 8:33, 9:25, 10:21, 23, 27, 12:34. Several of these are about the disciples’ calling). Second, Jesus heals the blind man (8:22-26), and then another blind man (Bartimaeus, 10:46ff). In the former case, the blind man gives an example of not being able to see: he “sees men like trees.” Not animals, not objects, but humans, an unclear perspective of the people around him. Jesus restores vision to the blind to make them like him, as he is so often described as seeing others in Mark’s Gospel. Since Jesus can see, those he disciples are given sight as well, that they may imitate him. Third, disciples of Jesus are to see people and see the world as they truly are. Jesus commands disciples to watch the signs of the time (chapter 13 in its entirety) and to be watchful at Gethsemane, though they keep falling asleep (14:32-42). God is at work in the world. God restores the nation of Israel, symbolically expressed in Jesus’s baptism in the Jordan River (1:5 = Jordan river crossing), the commissioning of 12 disciples from a mountain (3:13-19 = 12 tribes & Sinai), and the twelve baskets of bread and seven baskets of bread (8:17-21 = Israel & fullness, restoration). The disciples needed eyes to see this work of God in their time. Therefore, disciples of Jesus must be watchful for the work of God in the world.

Open to the Inner Self. Disciples of Jesus are called to imitate their master by living with an openness to their inner selves. First, in his humanity Jesus sets an example for his disciples as one with a rich emotional life. He is angry (1:41 and 3:5) and sad (14:33). He shows signs of frustration (8:12) and exhaustion (4:38). He feels indignancy (10:14) and love (10:21). These emotions express his true humanity. Second, Luke’s Gospel transfers these emotions onto the disciples or omits them altogether, and Matthew’s Gospel retains them but switches the terms to lesser emotions (like “annoyed” instead of “enraged”) or gives reasons to justify Jesus’s emotions (Asikainen 134-155). Mark does not. His portrayal of Jesus is raw and unfiltered. Third, Jesus’s openness to the inner self would have conflicted with the Greco-Roman ideal of self-mastery over the emotions. Mark’s portrayal is thus particularly sharp, as it subverts contemporary expectations for masculinity. Jesus sets this example for his disciples to follow. Therefore, disciples of Jesus live with an openness to their inner selves.

Divine Silence. Disciples of Jesus have a relationship with Our Father that is not clean, tidy, or convenient. First, Jesus had a rich connection with the Father throughout Mark. The Father literally spoke to him out of heaven (twice: 1:11, 9:7) and Jesus is often withdrawing to solitary places for prayer (1:35, 6:30-32, 46). Second, Mark’s ascent narrative (ch 9-16) follows Jesus ascending from Galilee to Jerusalem. This ascent evokes at once the Mountain of God image from various places in the OT, including both Sinai (Marcus 423) and Zion, along with the narrative substructure of the book of Leviticus (See Morales 257-304), the rhetorical question from the Psalmist “Who can ascend the mountain of the LORD?” (24:3), and the Psalms of Ascent (120-134), all in one large conflated image. Yet the opposite end comes than one would expect. Jesus will not enter the presence and the glory of the LORD in the temple. He must die (8:31-33 / 9:30-32 / 10:32-34). From Gethsemane to the end, Jesus does not pray and the Father is silent. Third, Bonhoeffer, confined to prison in Tegel and perhaps viewing the whole world through the lens of that space, cites Mark 15:34 (“My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”). He felt the hollow sting of protracted abandonment by God which Jesus also felt in his final hours. “The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us,” Bonhoeffer wrote (July 16th, 1944, italic original). Jesus’s cry on the cross amounts to a functional atheism. There ends our portrait of Jesus in Mark. Even as word of his resurrection leaks out, our extant text ends before we see him alive, victorious. Fourth, the Word of God is hidden, so that those without the spirit of discernment cannot find it (4:11-12). Jesus’s life is itself a parable, as are the spiritual journeys of his faithful disciples. When we seek and do not find the voice of God, then we know that we are following the true Christ.

Bibliography

Asikainen, Susanna. Jesus and Other Men: Ideal Masculinities in the Synoptic Gospels. Boston, MA: Brill, 2018.

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Prisoner for God: Letters and Papers from Prison, ed. by Eberhard Bethge. New York, NY: The Macamillan Company, 1959 edition.

Marcus, Joel. Mark 1-8: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. New York, NY: Doubleday, 2000.

Morales, L. Michael. “Who Shall Ascend the Mountain of the LORD?” A Biblical Theology of Leviticus. Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2015.

Thiessen, Matthew. Jesus and the Forces of Death: The Gospels’ Portrayal of Ritual Impurity within First-Century Judaism. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2020.

Witmer, Amanda. Jesus, The Galilean Exorcist: His Exorcisms in Social and Political Context. London, UK: T&T Clark International, 2012.

The photos are some shots of mine from the past two weeks on campus. Filtered with +0.5 exposure, -1.0 saturation, +1.0 fade. Trinity’s native falcon appears in one of the photos, for those with eyes to see.