"Love! Do you know the meaning of the word?" 'How should I not?' said the Lady, 'I am in love...in Love Himself.'
~C.S. Lewis
The Great Divorce

Friday, February 26, 2010

The Everlasting Man

"The old trinity was of father, mother and son, and is called the human family. The new is of child, mother, and father and has the name of the Holy Family. It is in no way altered except in being entirely reversed; just as the world which is transformed was not in the least different, except in being turned upside-down." -G.K. Chesterton

These words from the Everlasting Man are a testament to the reality that Jesus had (still has) a tendency to turn things upside down when we least expect it. For thousands of years the original paradigm for the family stood, until a virgin birth shattered it to pieces...once anyway. For generations, Israel expected a King to throw off their oppressors, only to be shown a Man who would submit to evil in order to ultimately overcome it. These same people envisioned their Messiah sitting on the throne of David arrayed in purple robes and a golden crown. What they actually saw was him standing, fastened to a cross, stripped of his clothing, wearing a crown of thorns and thistles. Everything is backwards, reversed, upside down.

It was using this information and the sheer power of it, that the disciples of Christ are recorded to "have turned the world upside down." (Acts 17:6) Both the Jewish and the Gentile world, albeit for different reasons, never expected this and those who did not receive Christ did not like it. How could one Man's life and death...or rather, his death and life...change so much?

I wonder if we share this in common with the Jews and Gentiles of the Apostolic period. When we look around and see the darkness that shrouds our world, the shadows of sin blocking out all light, do we, even if our attitude would be one that accepts change, expect it? Can the world be turned upside-down again? Or, perhaps a more burning question, do we really want change? Do we want our world turned upside down for Christ? Or do we like dabbling in it too much ourselves? If that is true, than we need to ask the God who specializes in turning things upside down to change our hearts. Lent is a fantastic time for this.

But as he is purging us from unholy desires and conforming us to Himself, we should be about the business of reversing the curse, of flipping the status quo on its head. There are going to be those who do not like it. But then, there were those who did not like Jesus either. We should expect not to be liked. The same Jesus who turned the world upside-down can and, at least in an eschatological sense, will. But he chooses to use his disciples as the instruments of inversion. If we are really following Christ, we need to follow the pattern his life sets.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Debra Medina and the 9/11 Truther Movement

This will not be a long post. But this story upset me last night, and it is upsetting me again today. For those of you who may not know, Debra Medina is the Libertarianesque Republican running against Rick Perry and Kay Bailey Hutchinson in the Republican primary for Governor of Texas. Yesterday, Medina was asked by Glenn Beck whether or not she thought there was anything to the notion that the United States Government, particularly the Bush administration, had any knowledge of, or were in any way complicit in the attacks. Ms. Medina's answer was as follows: "I think some very good questions have been made in that regard...some good questions have been raised that haven't been answered."

For this reason, Glenn Beck, Rick Perry, Kay Bailey Hutchinson, their advisers, and every journalist I've read commenting on the story, have ridiculed Debra Medina. This is not shocking in any way. I have a couple of friends who are "truthers" and any time I've seen them try to describe their views and show evidence of these views, they are laughed to scorn and labeled as "conspiracy theorists." It strikes me as so odd that so many people are unwilling to seek the truth.

For my own part, I am not a Truther. I think it is an illogical leap to blame the Bush administration because some questions are unanswered. I'm dumbfounded though, because that is exactly the opinion that Debra Medina espoused. She never once said she believed the U.S. governemnt was complicit. She explicity claimed in the interview that neither she, nor her advisers, were radicals. Medina simply said, "there are unanswered questions." Anyone who has done a cursory reading of the 9/11 commission report should know there are unanswered questions. For instance, why is it that WTC building 7 which collapsed on the same day,is not included? These and questions like it do not implicate anyone in the U.S. governemnt directly, but it absolutely is grounds for asking questions about the official story.

Debra Medina will likely lose her primary-and frankly, she may not have been the right person for the job period. But if this is what costs her the election, it is an embarassment to our society. If we cannot ask questions or are ridiculed for asking them, can we even say that we believe in free speech? I'm willing to admit that I have spent a lot of time in Libertarian circles and am more sympathetic to the "Truther" movement than most non-truthers. But considering the Republican establishment has been asking questions about whether President Obama was born in the United States, I have a hard time understanding how they could say someone is asking stupid questions...particularly when the unanswered questions in the case of 9/11 are much more important.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Valentine's Day, Chaucer, and True Love

If my sister ever read my blog she would say that the only reason I would ever say what I am about to write, is because I do not have a girlfriend...and that I need to get one. The statement would be true, but that is not why I decided to post this blog.
Valentine's day, as many of you well know, is the feast day of St. Valentine. As best I can tell, there are at least three ancient saints named Valentine and none know for sure which is to be commemorated on February 14th. All of them were holy martyrs. They dared to preach and live the gospel in a time when it was illegal to do so. They faced persecution for not bowing down to the emporer and having a steadfast faith in the promises of God. This fact should not go unnoticed this coming Sunday.

But how did Valentine's day come to be a popular day for marriages, romance, and profit for Hallmark and Russell Stover? This likely has its origin in the work of Geoffrey Chaucer, the English poet. On the occasion of a royal engagement, Chaucer wrote a poem linking the coming together of turtledoves in mid-February, with Valentine's day and the impending marriage. The following is an excerpt:

"For this was on St. Valentine's Day
When every fowl cometh there to choose his mate"

Since medieval times, romantic love came to be associated with the feast of the martyrs bearing the name Valentine. However, one of the liturgical revisions of the Roman Church in the late 60's was purging the calendar of saints whose origins and lives were not a matter of record. Because so little was known of St. Valentine, including which one we actually commemorate, this feast was removed from the liturgical calendar. The only meaning left to Feb. 14th was the meaning infused in it by Chaucer. That being the case, the day's significance is now relegated to cheap poetry, over-priced restaurants, and imported flowers. Or is it?

"There is no greater love than a man would lay down his life for his friends." These words of Jesus are fulfilled by himself in his selfless death and sacrifice on the cross. However, it is an aspect of love in which all people can participate. The martyrs have given their lives, not only on behalf of Jesus, but as a testimony to the world around them. It is a gift of themselves to the Church and their friends. St. Valentine, by becoming a martyr, is indeed a tremendous example of all-consuming love. Regardless of whether it is a sanctioned feast day of the Church or not, Valentine and all the martyrs remind us of what it really means to love.

Whether you find yourself with your spouse, sweetheart, or simply by yourself this Valentine's day, know that real acts of love are possible for everyone, but especially the Christian. Sacrifice is always a component of love, therefore it is appropriate that on the feast of a martyr we as a culture celebrate the beauty of love...as long as we remember it is not simply a feeling but the action of always putting the other before the Self. Thus, it becomes apparent, that while the romantic side of Valentine's day did not exist until the days of Chaucer, the day had already been a celebration of true love.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Why did Christ Descend to Hell?

The Creed informs us of this truth; that after the death and suffering of Jesus on the cross he descended into hell (or to the dead). Many evangelical Christians who are aware of the Creeds protest the phrase because the earliest manuscripts of the Creed do not contain it and they do not find it to be a doctrine borne out by Scripture. To be fair, they are correct that it is not in the earliest manuscripts and the Scriptures are a bit unclear on the matter. We need to answer several questions:

1.) Why is there confusion on this issue?

2.) Where is the hell to which Christ descended?

3.) What Scripture references might help us to understand this reality?

4.) And ultimately, why go there?

The first question may be answered by understanding that the Christian concept of Hell cannot be read into the hebrew word "Sheol" which means the grave or the Greek word "Hades", the equivalent of the Hebrew "sheol". Thus, many of the most commonly referenced passages of Scripture by those who support the doctrine, but may not be as well versed in biblical languages, are found to be lacking any substance. For instance, Psalm 16:10 as well as Peter's two quotations of it "Thou wilt not leave my soul in Hell", is simply referring to the realm of the dead. We should not think of Christ descending into a place of torment, at least not for the purpose of being tormented. Otherwise, his words on the cross "it is finished" have little meaning. This means that a slew of "proof texts" immediately have to be tossed out. This causes confusion as to the source of the doctrine.

To answer the second, third, and fourth questions, however, we do need to realize that where Christ went he did encounter those suffering for their unbelief in this world.

"For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, so that he might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh but made alive in the Spirit. In which also he went and made proclamation to the spirits now in prison, who once were disobedient, when the patience of God kept in the days of Noah, during the construction of the ark in which a few, that is eight were saved by water." (I Peter 3:18-20)

While we do not know the physical place, or whether Hell is even a physical place, we do know that Jesus went to the place called, Gehenna, the place of torment which he mentions in Matthew 25. St. Peter teaches us that he went to proclaim the gospel to the souls which had been disobedient since days of old. But why? Is there any hope for these lost souls? No, of course not. Aside from the multiple verses that could be cited, C.S. Lewis's remark that Hell is a door locked from the inside is very helpful. The dead in Gehenna have no desire for God, for they exist in a state where there sin and rejection of him has been actualized for eternity. As hard as it is to imagine, their final rejection of God and his love causes them to desire Hell over Heaven.

If it was not for evangelization, and I think we can say for sure that Christ was not gloating in some way, what is the purpose of the descent into Hell? I think the best explanation I can give is found in verse 18 of the passage cited above. "But made alive in the Spirit." That is, his Spirit was released from the bonds of his physical body. This was true for three days until his Spirit and Body were reunited, never again to be separated. What does this teach us? I believe the moral of this clause of the Creed to be that Christ has not only been through life and death, to lead us through, he has also conquered the area between death and the Great Resurrection. That means there is literally nowhere, no time, no space between time, where we can go that Jesus has not already been. Which means there is not only nothing to fear in death, but as we wait in the presence of God for the restoration of all things and the Great Resurrection, we can be assured that we will be in place that Jesus has already visited.

This is comforting to me. Christ's descent into Hell is real and it was not for punishment, but to lead us through the last of the valleys of death.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Habakkuk, the nature of sin, and the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary

"You who are of purer eyes than to behold evil and cannot look on wrong; why do you idly look at traitors? and are silent when the wicked swallows up the man more righteous than he?"
(Hab. 1:13)

In his prophecy, Habakkuk sees the coming destruction of his nation by the Chaldeans, that is the Babylonian empire. He writes a litany of complaints against the Israelites. Violence, a justice system that is crippled by perverted laws and poor judgments, are several of the complaints listed. For these reasons, the wrath of God will be excercised by raising up the Chaldeans to conquer and pillage the Holy Land. But verse 13 of the opening chapter is a question by Habakkuk for God. The prophet understands that his people have done evil and deserve punishment. But he does not understand how God can use a people, who are by all accounts more evil than the Israelites, to accomplish his purpose. How can God be silent when those who are less righteous attack those who are more righteous?

This question and the knowledge that Jerusalem did indeed fall to Babylon, is quite telling. What are the primary lessons we learn?

1.) God can use anything or anyone to accomplish his purposes. This is not always a negative thing (remember Baalam's Ass? cf: Numbers 22:28-31), but in this case it is. God can use the unjust to correct and chastise his people.

2.) God is of purer eyes than to behold evil. This means that while there are degrees of justice within individuals (i.e. Mother Teresa vs. the unabomber), not even the Good and Righteous are as holy as the LORD. The sin and wrongdoings of the just are also worthy of punishment. These sins are of course forgivable because of God's grace, but that does not exclude divine justice. We believe that Jesus paid the price for our sins, but there are still consequences for what we do wrong. It is not enough to say "I am better than that one." Indeed, was this not the sin of the Pharisee who boasted that he was better than the tax collector? All of us, as Paul reminds, have fallen short of God's glory. This means we all need a Savior and none of us can question God's justice.

3.) Lastly, we must see this as a call to holiness. C.S. Lewis once described the soul's desire for purging in the terms of this verse. In his work "Letters to Malcolm" he writes the following:

"The right view returns magnificently in Newman's DREAM. There if I remember it rightly, the saved soul, at the very foot of the throne, begs to be taken away and cleansed. It cannot bear for a moment longer with its darkness to affront that light."

Lewis here is specifically stating his belief in Purgatory, but it is applicable even to our present situation. We stand somewhere in time between the foot of the cross and the foot of God's throne. Our souls ought to be begging God to be thoroughly cleansed from every vestige of sin. God cannot look on anything that is impure. Our faith in Jesus makes us, as St. Paul also teaches, "the righteousness of God in Him [Christ]." But it ought also to lead us to purity from the inside out. Our desire should be for holiness, through obedience to God.

Today being the 2nd of February, it is the feast of the purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It is on this day that we remember the Virgin and Joseph presenting Jesus at the Temple. It was at this time that Mary participated in the ritual of purification from legal uncleanliness. She brought two turtle doves as a sacrifice and in thanksgiving for the blessings God had given her in fulfillment of the Mosaic law. Throughout the life of our Savior, Mary stands to the Church as an example of obedience and purity.

May we today walk in holiness that we may be found acceptable in the eyes of him who cannot behold our misdeeds.