Do We Need the Church?


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In our fiercely individualistic and overly cynical society the statement, “I don’t need the Church,” has become somewhat of a truism. Typically followed by something like, “I don’t see why I need to go to some building every Sunday when I can experience God just as well on my morning walk?” Faith or, as it is nebulously referred to these days, ‘spirituality’, is viewed as purely a private affair. Church is perceived as some drafty building filled with stuck up, superstitious, people who gather to hear some stuck up preacher foist his opinions on a bunch of mindless drones for an hour. Ironically, these sentiments are increasingly shared by Christians who feel all they really need is their Bible and a personal relationship with Jesus.

Now, it is certainly true that we can experience God on our morning walks (or whilst doing any number of things); it is equally true that we need to read Holy Scripture and have a relationship with Jesus. But, is the Church largely irrelevant in this process? Can a vague spirituality, practiced in relative isolation, ultimately satisfy the deepest longings of our hearts? To answer these questions, let’s examine the popular sentiments I just canvased a little more closely.

Experiencing the Numinous

Clearly, there is more than one way to experience–to have some sort of contact or interaction with–a person. Take my wife, for example. One way I can experience her is through her art (she’s an extremely talented photographer). When I observe her photos–paying attention to the way she frames each shot, to the colors and lighting she utilizes, and to the story each picture tells–I, in some limited way, experience her thoughts, her intentions, and her creative power. Yet, I am far removed from her. She is the cause and her art is but an effect.

Another, more intimate, way I might experience her is through reading her blog. Her writings afford me a glimpse into her mind. In them I discover her hopes, dreams, and desires; I learn about her values, convictions, and overall philosophy of life. I become very close to her; yet I am still one step removed. For she is not wholly present to me; her words are but a shadowy extension of the reality that is her.

Which brings us to the next level of experience: personal contact. When I sit down with my wife, and speak to her face to face, I encounter the creative power behind the photos and directly interact with the mind from which the writing sprung forth. I have come into personal contact with the reality I had, up to that point, only experienced from afar. I am no longer interacting with the cause through its effects but dealing directly with the cause herself.

Yet, I can get even closer still. As her husband, there is an even deeper way in which I can experience my wife; and that is through the nuptial embrace. When she and I become one; and share ourselves with one another in the most intimate way possible.

Each of these interactions describe very real ways to experience my wife; yet, clearly, these experiences vary greatly in terms of the level of intimacy involved.

The point being, many of us only seek to experience the numinous from afar; avoiding any intimate or personal contact. This is not to downplay the importance of such interaction. For, surely experiencing God through the beauty of His creation whilst on our morning walk is a great good (like any experience of great art). However, if I want to draw closer to and fully experience the Creator of all things I have to come into direct contact with Him; I must move beyond the Universe and interact with its ultimate cause.

Just as with my wife, I might seek to experience God through something He has written (or has inspired to be written). Again, this too is a great good. For, without a doubt, reading and meditating on the Bible will reveal much about God’s character, His motives, and His plans for my life. The key question is: Is this all God has to offer? Are we stuck merely experiencing God vaguely through the Universe He has made or through reading His inspired writings? Or, has He provided a more intimate, more personal, more direct way to experience Him? Something akin to the intimate relationship that I share with my beloved bride.

A Personal Relationship

As I said before, many Christians advocate having a personal relationship with Jesus. Yet, most understand this relationship, this experience of the numinous, to be an isolated, private, affair; one that is mediated almost entirely through the private study of the Bible. Perhaps, however, this is only scratching surface; it is only the tip of the proverbial ice-burg. Perhaps, God is interested in something deeper; something more profound. Perhaps God is offering Himself to us; that we might intimately experience Him in a way analogous to that of the relationship I share with my wife.

The biblical theologian Brant Pitre explains:

 …none of these ways of seeing God–as a distant watchmaker, as an impersonal force that binds everything together, or as a kind of invisible superhuman hero–is the way a first-century Jew like Jesus of Nazareth would have seen God. From an ancient Jewish perspective, the one true God–“the LORD” or “He Who Is” (Hebrew YHWH) (Exodus 3:15)–is not just the Creator. From an ancient Jewish perspective, the God of Israel is also a Bridegroom, a divine person whose ultimate desire is to be united to his creatures in an everlasting relationship that is so intimate, so permanent, so sacrificial, and so life-giving that it can only be described as a marriage between Creator and creatures, between God and human beings, between YHWH and Israel.

Christians believe this divine marriage was fully realized in the person of Jesus Christ who, through His incarnation and passion, initiated a New Covenant between God and men; who gathered for Himself a people; namely, a Church; i.e., the New Israel. St. Paul communicates this idea, utilizing the imagery of marriage, on multiple occasions. Perhaps, most clearly, in this passage from Ephesians:

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the Church and gave Himself for her, that He might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water by the word, that He might present her to Himself a glorious Church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish. So husbands ought to love their own wives as their own bodies; he who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as the Lord does the Church. For we are members of His body, of His flesh and of His bones (Ephesians 5:25-30).

Being a Christian means being grafted or adopted into a community; a family. It means entering into the life of God who exists as an intimate communion of three distinct persons sharing one essence and will: The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. It means being part of a living Body–the One Holy Catholic Apostolic Church–whose head is Christ. It is within this community that we fully and completely encounter the risen Lord; the Bridegroom who desires us to know Him and to experience Him directly.

Within this community, this communion of saints, we are able to experience Christ in a very real, very tangible, very personal, and deeply intimate way: namely, through the most Holy Eucharist. Through partaking of the Eucharist–the body, blood, soul, and divinity of our Lord really present in the bread and wine–we not only become one with our Lord but He draws us into union with each other as well. St. Paul explains:

The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ? For we, though many, are one bread and one body; for we all partake of the one bread (1 Corinth. 10:16-17).

Understood in this sense, asking the question, “Do we need the Church?” is on par with asking, “Do I need to spend time with or make love to my wife?” I suppose I could get by with a long distance relationship; but that is not my hearts deepest desire and longing. My desire is to be near her, to experience her personally, and to be as intimate with her as I possibly can. Likewise, we can get by on our own, experiencing God from a distance, but this will never satisfy the deepest yearning of our hearts: which is to be known by and to know the God who brought us into being in the most intimate way. Such an experience of the numinous can only take place within the context of the Church.

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The Ubiquity of Evil and the Hope of Christmas


IMG_0031Whenever describing the evil actions of a person, most Americans will typically turn to the WWII Nazis as an example of evil personified. For the Russian writer Dostoevsky, he turned to the actions of Turkish soldiers to describe the detestable nature of human deeds. We can point to almost any nation at any given time and find people performing some of the most inhumane and violent acts. One can point to a San Francisco sheriff’s deputy who stands accused of attempting to choke a hospital patient to death and then charged the patient with assault. He did this for no apparent reason, which just stands as evil. Or we can turn to New York where two police officers – one a husband and father, the other a newlywed – were murdered for “revenge” right before Christmas.

It is near impossible to look into this world and not see it consumed by evil. Certainly, it seems that we have fallen into a void, one in which all can agree that we have gone astray. Many people hold to some form of naiveté believing that they could never be the perpetrators of evil, forgetting that Nazi guards were also fathers at home, that psychotic cop killers were once someone’s child. Evil is so prevalent in our world that we are, at any given point, just moments away from performing any given evil. The men who put people in gas chambers were not monsters, but men like you and I. The soldiers who perform war crimes are not subhuman, but quite human with hopes, dreams, and even good qualities outside of their acts of evil.

In a way, the humanity of those who perform monstrous acts makes them all the worse. Were they monsters then we could expect their evil as a part of their nature. It is why there is no conflict in fables when the hero goes off to fight a monster; monsters are, by their nature, evil beings. But what if the hero goes off to kill the dark knight, only to discover that while the knight did burn a village, he’s also a father to two children and a husband to a loving wife? He is a man, who by his nature is good, neglected his nature and turned to evil. Evil seems all the worse when we realize that partaking in it is the abandonment of our nature as humans.

Contrary to popular belief, humans are not evil by nature. Were we evil by nature then God would be a liar, calling his creation “very good.” Christ would have had to been evil by nature, that or have not taken on a human nature. Rather, Christ took on a human nature, showing that it was not the human nature which was evil and fallen, but the human will that fell. Thus, our engagement and enjoyment in evil does not stem from some natural inclination towards evil, but against our very nature; we must choose to engage in evil, we must choose to enjoy it. The Nazi guard did not do what came natural to him, but rather had to rationalize his actions and justify his actions, because deep down he knew them to be wrong. Such is the cry of all tyrants throughout history; “I was only following orders,” “It was my duty,” “I did it to protect my nation,” and so on. But acts of kindness, acts of love, never need such justifications. No man says, “I gave to the poor because I was told to,” or “I helped the orphans to help my nation.” No man who performs an act of love, an act of goodness, must ever justify his actions, for his actions speak for themselves. Only acts of evil need justification, and while the perpetrator might rationalize his actions, he will never justify them.

Through our rationalization of evil – of recent, rationalizing torture, isolation, subjugation, killing of the innocent in the name of authority, killing of the innocent in the name of revenge – we must admit that our world is a very dark place. Indeed, evil seems commonplace in the world and impossible to overcome. Somewhere in the world a child is starving because a warlord decided to horde the food for himself and his minions. Somewhere a woman cries out to apathetic ears while being violated by tormenters. Elsewhere a child sells himself to rich men for their acts of debauchery so that his family might eat. A man is killed for some arbitrary reason and to satisfy the evil urgings of another. A wife discovers her husband has cheated on her and seeks to cheat as well in order to exact revenge. Children sit in the same home as their parents, but are technological orphans, finding more connection with their cell phones than with the flesh and blood that brought them into this world. A man yells at the person with a foreign accent, hating someone for the mere fact of being different. Another hates people for a different shade of skin. The list of evils continue, all occurring within seconds of each other, overlapping each other, covering the globe, displaying the ubiquitous nature of evil.  Continue reading

In the Twilight of Mortality: Reflections Upon Death and Suffering


DSC01745I’ll never forget seeing her, as it made such an impact upon me. A few years ago I worked as a delivery driver for a food delivery company and had to make a run to a children’s hospital. I picked up the order and made the delivery to the nurses there. As I was leaving, a girl walked through the hall and I was immediately struck by her presence. Her emaciated frame made her seem far frailer than other kids her age. Her bald head reflecting the lights, a pink and colorful hospital gown flowing as a dress, and her holding onto a portable IV and almost dancing around with it. She smiled and waved at me and I waved back through the windows of the closed doors. A child, no more than ten years old, facing a level of suffering that some people will – thankfully – never see in a lifetime.

We live in a beautifully tragic world, a world where beauty emanates from the darkest crevices of existence, yet those dark crevices still exist. In many instances, we have put words to our suffering. A man who loses his wife is a widower, a woman who loses her husband is a widow, a child who loses her parents is an orphan, and so on. Yet, some suffering is so great, that we have no word for it (at least not in English). What do we call parents who have lost a child? “Childless” can refer to those who have never had children and therefore have never experienced the joy of their birth or the agony of their death. No word for someone enduring cancer can summarize the suffering, especially of one dying from cancer. We hold no word for those who suffer greatly; we leave our verbal confirmation of the suffering at the word “patient,” or “enduring,” or at the name of the disease, but we dare not create a word to name the suffering. To name the suffering makes it more common, more real, and so we avoid it.

Suffering, both emotional and physical, is a burden which all of us must carry in one form or another. All of us are on death row, walking a very long mile, until the end of our days come. We do not know when our lives will end, merely that they shall end sooner than we had hoped. Our curse is that we must die and in this curse, death becomes an enemy. It becomes a foe we struggle against, who we war with, and in this war we will exhaust all resources to gain even an inch of life. But the battle is futile as we shall always succumb to death.

In our sufferings we believe it better to die, to take our own lives and deprive death the joy of our suffering. In taking our lives we feel we allow death to collect the debt, but to forgo the interest. Admittedly, for those who’s death is inevitably close, for whom death immediately beckons, prolonging their lives are cruel and only serves to create additional pain and suffering. The patient who is terminal, who must rely on machines for life, has suffered enough and we should let death overtake him, as in this way death becomes a friend who ceases his pain.

Yet, the one constant in ancient history is that “So long as there is life, there is hope.” This sentiment is found in Ecclesiastes 9:4, but also Theocritus, a 3rd century BC Greek poet, said the exact same thing, leading Cicero – the Latin statesman and philosopher – to quote it as well. So long as you draw breath, there is hope, but hope in what? Ecclesiastes says it is better to be a live dog than a dead lion while Theocritus says that the dead have no hope.

What if suffering is not a prelude to the end, but the signs that one lives in the twilight of mortality? When we are born, we suffer. We are leaving the only world known to us and must endure great physical pain in the birthing process. Yet, we enter into a world of overwhelming possibilities, one vastly superior to the one in which we lived. What if suffering is merely the birthing pangs we must endure as we enter into another stage of life, a final stage. What are a few moments of suffering compared to an eternity of ecstasy?

Death is immanent for us all, but not immediately so. Whenever death is immediately immanent, it is best to forgo modern medicine’s attempt to prolong a life already lost and embrace the inevitability of our death. Yet, so long as I draw breath, I have hope, even in the greatest amount of suffering. My hope isn’t necessarily in a recovery, but in a God who will not forget me.

For those who fall asleep in the Lord within the Orthodox Church, the patrons chant “Memory Eternal.” Memory eternal is to remind us that God, who is infinite and without time, keeps us in his memory. We are immortal through his doing and his doing alone. In our falling asleep, we awake to his presence where we continue to grow in our love and knowledge of him.

In our disembodied states we shall remain in God’s presence, through his constant remembering of us and eventually we will resurrect into new bodies. Those bodies, though very much physical, shall not endure suffering. We look forward to the day when there shall be no more flag-draped coffins, when we don’t have to create words that describe our suffering, when suffering itself is a distant memory, a vague memory from a long-ago bad dream. In that moment, our present suffering will stand as nothing more than a grain of sand in the infinite hourglass of time. And so we endure our suffering unto death, realizing that as suffering begins we are witnessing the death of death, we are living in the twilight of mortality and stand upon the dawn of eternity.

The Irrationality of Existence or, How to Find the Meaning of Life, much to Nietzsche’s Chagrin


DSC01524We’re too busy to ask the big questions anymore, but they linger over our heads like an ominous shadow lurking in our rooms while we sleep. We keep ourselves occupied with jobs, television, movies, video games, the internet, and a host of other things. Companies make billions of dollars a year off the fact that we will buy anything, any amount of money, and do anything we can in order to keep ourselves busy and thoughtless. The more thoughtless the entertainment, the less it demands of us, the more likely we are to consume it. Why is it that reality television shows have become so popular? Is it because we are that dumb, or are we that desperate to silence the big questions of life? At least the alcoholic is honest with himself and admits to drinking in order to avoid and suppress life’s difficulties; the TV junkie or video game addict hardly realizes he has a problem.

Yet, we must all face the big questions. At a funeral, they sneak up on us without our permission and infect our minds. What if I’m next? What has the purpose of my life been? What if this is all it’s worth? We hate funerals because it reminds us of our own inevitability; certainly we will miss the person who has died, but even for strange acquaintances whose funerals we attend out of social obligation we still feel our stomachs turn.  We realize that one day we will be the person in the casket and it is in that moment that life’s big questions engulf us, it is then we all become Jonahs in the belly of a great fish, trapped in a darkness we’ve fought so hard to avoid.

We quickly push such thoughts away by looking at our phones for the latest news, looking at what Jane is wearing, thinking about what the kids have to do tomorrow, putting together a grocery list, and the line of distractions grow. We distance ourselves from the big questions, yet they remain. When forced to confront our own mortality, we are faced with the meaninglessness of our existence. To the ancient Greeks, life wasn’t meaningless because one was supposed to pursue the good. Of course, they then spent countless hours defining and attempting to understand exactly what “the good” was. For Plato, the good was some abstract form, something to which we could only achieve within the form world. To Aristotle, the good was found mostly in this life, through living a virtuous life. Yet, both seem meaningless; if the good is abstracted and unobtainable in this life, then what is the purpose in trying to pursue it? If the good is found in a virtuous life, how much virtue and how long do I have to live before I obtain it? For the Romans, specifically Cicero, the good was best manifested in being a good citizen. But oh that Cicero could have seen his Republic fail (he did see its twilight), for then he would realize that being a good citizen cannot be our ultimate end since the State is mutable. Turn East and one could seek the Tao, but the Tao is immutable and therefore one cannot know if it is obtained or not. Or one could seek Nirvana, which is ultimately nothingness; if the purpose of life is to obtain nothingness, then there is no purpose.

Before we ridicule the ancients in the East and the West, we should better understand that us moderns are infantile in our quest compared to the ancients. At least they dared to stand their ground against the big questions of life. Rather than fleeing as we do, they turned and like a brave soldier fought against these questions. They did battle with the struggles of life and even if they did not emerge victoriously, at least they fought. We moderns are far too quick to run away. We tend to take the meaning of life for granted, hiding behind beautifully written platitudes that when exposed to scrutiny, dissolve like paper in acid. Think of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, which while a great film, provides a cleverly written, but stupidly simple meaning of life: “To see the world, things dangerous to come to, to see behind walls, draw closer, to find each other, and to feel. That is the purpose of life.” Like modern music, such a saying might sound great to the masses, but there’s really nothing behind it. If the meaning of life is to see the world, then already those who are poor are now excluded from enjoying the meaning of life. Only those who can afford trips need apply to having meaning in life. To see dangerous things to come, to see behind walls (that is, to see the truth of the world), to draw closer and find each other, and to feel; none of these, however, indicate positive things. By all accounts, both Gandhi and Hitler obtained the meaning of life, both Mother Theresa and Josef Stalin stood on equal footing when it came to finding meaning in this life. All involved saw the world, they saw the dangerous things, they saw behind the lies of the world, they drew closer to some and even found love, and they did feel. Such a meaning of life is amoral, which means there is no meaning at all.  Continue reading

Penal Substitution, Sola Fide and the New Docetism


Isaac Gutiérrez Pascual ©2010

Earlier this month I spoke about the cosmic importance of the Incarnation.  Today I’d like to build upon this reflection.  As I noted before, many Christians fail to see the Incarnation as the cosmic destiny or telos of creation and, likewise, fail to see the work of Christ as including the sanctification, redemption, and renewal of the body and the physical/material world in general.  For many, the work of Christ is narrowly construed.  It was merely to satiate the wrath of God the Father so as to take away the punishment necessitated by sin (i.e., Penal Substitutionary Atonement).  This popular view of the atonement is accompanied by another important doctrine classically referred to as Sola Fide or “salvation by faith alone.”  It is this doctrine which teaches that belief—often understood as a sort of mental assent—in Jesus’ work on the cross is the sole means of our salvation.

I submit that both Penal Substitutionary Atonement (henceforth, PSA) and Sola Fide represent a form of “Neo-Docetism.”  Unlike classical Docetism, which explicitly denied the Incarnation (that the Word actually became flesh), Neo-Docetism places such little significance on the Incarnation, and such heavy emphasis on Sola Fide (i.e., a mental assent to the propositional truth of PSA) it implicitly denies the Incarnation as being absolutely necessary for our salvation.  Unfortunately, when we fail to view theology, and especially soteriology, through the lens of the Incarnation we run into major problems.  Before we elaborate on this point, however, let us first take a closer look at Docetism as it was originally espoused.

Classical Docetism

Classical Docetism rejected the Incarnation outright and, in consequence, the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist (which was overwhelmingly accepted by all orthodox Christians for over a thousand years).  Evidently, the original Docetist’s also rejected works of mercy as being crucial or necessary aspects of true faith in Christ.  We learn this from the letters of St. Ignatius—who, consequentially, knew St. Peter and was installed as the Bishop of Antioch after St. Peter traveled to Rome .  In his letter to the Smyrnaeans these three common threads of Docetism–the rejection of the Incarnation, the Eucharist, and works of mercy—are made very clear.  St. Ignatius writes:

“But look at the men [i.e., the Docetist’s who deny the Incarnation] who have those perverted notions about the grace of Jesus Christ which has come down to us, and see how contrary to the mind of God they are.  They have no care for love, no thought for the widow and orphan, none at all for the afflicted, the captive, the hungry or the thirsty.  They even absent themselves from the Eucharist and the public prayers, because they will not admit that the Eucharist is the self-same body of our Savior Jesus Christ which suffered for our sins, and which the Father in His goodness afterwards raised up again.  Consequently, since they reject God’s good gifts, they are doomed in their disputatiousness.  They would have done better to learn charity, if they were ever to know any resurrection.”

Neo-Docetism

By minimizing the soteriological importance of the Incarnation, and, in fact, failing to make it the measure of their theologizing, the Neo-Docetist’s appear to follow the same pattern as their ancient predecessors.  They reject the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist—and, thus, renounce the sacramental worldview held by the earliest Christians.  In so doing, they fail to see how the love of neighbor (in tangible ways) is of soteriological importance.  In point of fact, Sola Fide flatly rejects the idea that works of love and mercy are necessary for authentic faith and, thus, for salvation.  For some the Neo-Docetist attitude has morphed into a full blown Gnosticism which views the human body as superfluous (e.g., we’re just “spirit-beings” waiting to escape the body), considers matters of social justice of secondary importance, and almost completely ignores the environment.  Interestingly, these Neo-Docetist/Gnostic tendencies play a major roll in why Millennials seem to be drifting away from evangelicalism.

Incarnational Theology 

In contrast, theology viewed through the lens of the incarnation recognizes the broader implications and importance of, “the Word [who] became flesh and dwelt among us . . . full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).  It recognizes creation as being essentially good (Genesis 1:31) and as originally intended to be in full communion with God.  It knows that nature is ultimately designed to direct us to its Creator.  It thus maintains a sacramental worldview which acknowledges the Holy Spirit works in and through the created world to sustain and renew it.

It further understands that sin has subjected all of creation to futility because sin estranged the creation from its Creator.  Affirming with St. Paul that:

“The creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.  For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now” (Romans 8:20-22).

Incarnational theology understands that, by taking on a real body, the Word of God, through whom and for whom all things where made (Colossians 1:16), sanctified the flesh and ushered in the renewal of creation.  As a real man Christ lived a life of perfect faith—obeying the will of the Father, healing the sick, giving sight to the blind, feeding the hungry, turning men away from their sin— admonishing us to do the same.  Saying, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15).  Thus, showing us that to have a living faith is to be like Christ; to love the world as He loved it; to obey the will of the Father; to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.  This is why St. James says:

“What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works?  Can that faith save him?  If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?  So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:14-17).”

Thus, salvation understood in light of the Incarnation is holistic–encompassing the whole of man.  Jesus requires we give God everything we are.  It is the first and greatest commandment: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matt. 22:36).  Mental assent given to a set of propositions about Jesus (i.e. Sola Fide) is not enough; for, “even the demons believe–and shudder” (James 2:19).  Faith certainly has a knowledge component but is not merely knowledge.  Faith is tangible–it is played out through us as we live our lives in the corporeal world.

The Eucharist 

In accordance with everything that has been said, incarnational theology also recognizes the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.  It embraces the most controversial of Jesus’ teachings because it knows that He desires to draw us—in our entirety, body and soul–into full communion with Him; for this is the very point of the Incarnation.  Thus, it understands what Jesus means when He emphatically states:

“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.  Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.  For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.  Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him” (John 6:53-56).

The Word became flesh to give his flesh for us; to transform us; to redeem us; to restore us to what we truly are: men and woman made in the image and likeness of God.  What amazing grace this is–that the God who formed the universe would unite Himself to it in order to preserve and keep it.  This is the Gospel message–the kingdom of God is at hand!  The Almighty God who created the heavens and the earth draws near!  Intimately and, some might say, uncomfortably near.  It is the most provocative message ever proclaimed by any teacher in all of history.

A Story of Christmas or, Sin and the Nativity


IMG_1029A friend sent this to me explaining a dream he had. I shall keep him anonymous and simply post what he wrote

Enter into the temple of creation, see its glorious ruins. We humans are a paradoxical people, enjoying the beauty around us while destroying it. This war against nature extends beyond the realm of ecology, beyond what toxins may contaminate; it extends beyond our bullets and our bombs launched at one another in misguided hatred; it extends beyond the self-mutilation of our psyche, beyond the civil war that rages inside everyone. Our war goes out beyond the realm of our universe, beyond our ontological barriers. Our struggle is one against Reality Himself.

We who wallow in darkness fear the light, for it brings pain to our shadowed eyes. We react to the light by running into the dark. We ask, “Whence is this light in our darkness?” but shut out the light when it encroaches upon our realm. We were drunk on our own glory, but are hung-over in our regret. Now any illumination is ruled too bright. We complain of the night, but dare not venture out into the day.

Once when contemplating evil, I saw the Son of Man wrapped and bound in thorny vines. The thorns dug in, drawing blood from the innocent one. “Why not command the vines loose?” I cried out. But he did not answer me. He instead walked toward me, each step tangling him more, thrusting the thorns deeper. “Please,” I begged. “Stop this sight, speak them out of existence!” And yet the Lamb said nothing to me as the blood began to flow. In anger towards his weakness, I threw sackcloth on him, I spat upon him, and I cursed his name. Still, he said nothing, only lamenting the pain.

The light invaded my dark room, as it seemed to shine from every drop of blood. I wrapped more sackcloth around him to snuff out the light, but as the thorns dug deeper, he grew brighter. My struggle against Reality stood as my greatest failure, the greatest in a long list of failures.

Angered, I relented to my lesson, but continued to mock him. “And I suppose,” I said. “That these are my sins that you took for me?” As the thorns disappeared beneath his dark skin, he still remained silent. Smugly, I stated, “I know the theologies of your substitution. Yes, I see, my sin you’ve taken upon yourself and now I am saved.” At that, my mouth went dry and tongue swelled, I struggled to swallow and feared for death.

“All this,” he finally said. “Is your sin. But I do not suffer for you, but for your victims. The thorns that dug into my flesh, these are the sharp stings delivered to others by your tongue. The sackcloth is your loveless apologies that hold no meaning to reconciliation. You offer peace, but still war in your heart. The light, however, is my glory. No matter the depth and resolve of your darkness, I will always shine through.”

He then touched my lips and I felt my thirst quenched. “You act like an enemy, but I treat you as a friend. You came against my beloved, but I call you a lover. You act in hate, but I am Love. You are finite in your fallacy, but I AM.

After this, he took me to an orphanage, one in a country long forgotten by civilization. I watched as a little girl played in isolation, as she cried out in hunger, and how the workers looked on. No one showed concern for her neglect. I was then taken to an old factory, where distraught women with blank expressions herded into a cramped van. They were off to sell their bodies under duress and without hope.

I saw more images of neglect and suffering, more than I thought possible. I watched the world writhe under the weight of evil while succumbing to its darkest passions. In all its victims, I saw individuals unified in familiarity. All different, yet all held the appearance of Divinity, the Eternal Light bursting forth from their pain in subtle beauty. Their oppressors also struck me with ugly similarity, with faces I knew. In their own way, each one looked like me.

I looked at my Divine Guide, confused and shocked. “The least of these hold my light.” he said. He did not look at me, but continued to stare at the suffering. “And you, the oppressor, bring darkness.” I objected quickly, stating that I am not to blame, that I did nothing to the least of these. “Yes, but you did nothing for them. Do you not realize,” he continued. “I made none of you to be separate. Every action committed in time ripples across time and space, into eternity. Your sin brings darkness to the world, you contribute to the sin of others.”

All light vanished, along with the Word, and I stood in complete darkness. In the distance a dull light brightened, and it shone upon a manger. Inside, a young baby cried and moved about. The star grew brighter, showing the ones I saw suffering bowing before the babe. Behind them were their oppressors, also kneeling in reverence.

I watched as the Spirit hovered over the formless void, shining light and bringing order to chaos. He spoke to me, showing that Hope had come into the world. The dark clouds began to lift, allowing the radiance of the moon to expose the majestic tranquility of the new creation. The angels sang and proclaimed the beauty of the event.

O sinners and enemies of God

To those who war against man

See where thy evil did trod

Observe the failure of thy plan

O abused, diseased, hungry, and tired

To those overcome by the world’s harms

Leave at once where you mired

And find rest within his arms

Into the darkness came the Word

Not to condemn but to save the lost

Peace he brought, not a sword

All saved, paid at such a cost

Today Immanuel, God is with us

As we await the full redemption

Incarnation, Divinity you now posses

Embrace this with full reception

I awoke from my slumber, feeling the cold night air through my open window. An immediate sadness came over me, knowing I was unworthy to see such a sight. A gentleness, however, subdued my sadness and I stood from my bed. I walked outside, staring at the bright Christmas Eve moon. I lit my pipe and sat in my chair, and calmly waited in anticipation.

A Hope Beyond Cynicism or, the Resurrection and Evisceration of Nihilism


Icon of the Resurrection

Icon of the Resurrection

It is in the fashion of the times for popular television scientists, such as Neil deGrasse Tyson, to explain how science is leaving little room for God’s existence while in the same breath stating that we humans are insignificant, and that it is good we realize this. Such scientists do not seemingly see the irony in their thinking: Materialism, which believes in a large, yet finite universe, teaches that humans are insignificant, while Christianity, which believes in an infinite, incomprehensible God, teaches that humans are significant.

Such pondering tends towards materialistic pantheism, that we are great because we are made of dead stars. We are all physically connected to each other and to the universe we see. While true, what real moral impact is there in this statement? The CEO is connected to his poor worker because both are composed of atoms, but what of it? Stating such a scientific truth may seem deep and profound, but it is no more profound than saying the earth rotates around the sun or that one apple plus another apple equals two apples; all are mere statements of fact, nothing more.

These modern anti-philosophers – men who decry philosophy, yet act as philosophers – act as though they are speaking deeply by saying there is no purpose to life, but we are to act as if purpose exists. These English-speaking scientists think they have broken new ground, while blindly waving away the cigarette smoke from the French who have been here for quite some time. As in true historical fashion the English follow the trends of the French, claim it as their own, and the French are left cursing the ignoble English all the while denouncing the English rendition of French fashion. The philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Albert Camus already struggled with a materialistic worldview leading to no purpose. Of course, in following true European fashion, the French must surrender the origins of their fashion to Germany (with Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, Hegel, and others). The Germans, in turn, would bashfully admit that their existential and materialistic heritage was stolen from the Rome they sacked, mostly from Lucretius. Yet, the Romans would have to admit that their philosophy came from the conquered Greeks, from the Epicurean teachings. Our modern scientists who think they are quite progressive in their atheistic existentialism would be dismayed to discover that they are not moving forward, but backward to a theory that is older than the Christianity they so detest.

Facing the dark emptiness of the universe is nothing new; it is not something modern science has forced us to undertake. Facing the darkness of this world, facing a life without God, is something that humanity has seemingly always faced. Atheism is not the result of Darwin’s theory of evolution and advances in science; rather, atheism is the result of man’s rebellion culminating in wanting not only to be like God, but also to erase Him from our very existence. Even the Psalms speaks of the foolishness of those who deny God’s existence, but it acknowledges that such people exist. The idea that the world we live in is all that exists is as ancient as religion itself. Neil deGrasse Tyson has discovered nothing new, but has stumbled upon an ancient conundrum.

Even St. Paul recognized the issue of nihilism, that is, on the purposelessness of life. What makes Christianity so distinct is that we acknowledge that this life actually is without a purpose. We recognize that this world is truly empty and pointless. The difference, however, is we can explain why this is the case and why it need not be the case. In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul is quite adamant about the importance of the Resurrection, stating that without the resurrection of Christ and of our own bodies, there is no point to this life. He goes so far as to say that if there is no physical resurrection then there is no point to living like a Christian, that we should “eat and drink” for tomorrow we may die.

Within Christianity, we do not disagree that if God does not exist, this life is pointless. We go even further – much to the dismay of our Theistic co-belligerents – to say that even if God does exist, without the resurrection there is still no point to this life. We can claim to drink in the fullness of this life, to milk the enjoyable sap from every second we exist, but in the end we are simply fooling ourselves. If there is no resurrection, then we are hapless souls wandering a desert who happen upon an oasis only to discover it is a mirage. The soothing shade and cold water were quite convincing, but in the end it was nothing more than sand. All the while, the vultures fly overhead, awaiting our inevitable end.

Without a resurrection, there is no meaning to this life and we fool ourselves if we think otherwise. We may pretend that our meanderings have meaning, that it somehow matters that we are physically connected to ancient stars, but in the end, we still cease to be. Those who remembered us will cease to be. 4.5 billion years from now the sun will swallow up the earth as entropy takes its full effect and all that we have ever known will burn up. Everything we work toward, all our struggles, our happiness, and history will wash away like a sandcastle at high tide.

Yet, there is hope that reaches beyond the cynicism of nihilism. That hope is found in Christ, who has given meaning and purpose to all things that exist. That hope stems from His resurrection. In a poetic paradox that only God could accomplish, the emptiness of the tomb besieges the nothingness of nihilism, and this emptiness is full of so much that it simply wipes away the nothingness. When Christ hung on a cross and was placed in a tomb, nihilism reigned supreme. The shrouded Jesus faced the pointlessness of this life as He lay dead in the tomb. Yet, the death could not hold Him, for death is the absence of hope and Christ is Hope. As the darkness consumed Jesus, it choked on Light Himself, and unable to contain this Light surrendered to Him. The hopelessness of this world could not contain the Hope for the world.

The resurrection provides real hope and real meaning to this world rather than the empty platitudes of scientific existentialism. The resurrection acknowledges that in our physical body we are certainly linked to dead stars, but in the entirety of our being we are linked to the living God. When we die, what we have done will have meaning because it will reverberate and ripple into eternity. When one dies we sing “Memory Eternal” not just because it is a beautiful sentiment, but also because it is the truth; one is remembered eternally by the Eternal One. Only in the resurrection, where life continues for eternity, can there be any meaning to this present life. The more we learn about the universe and its vast expanse, the more we ought to turn to its Creator in order to find the meaning for all things