Thursday, December 31, 2015

Looking back at 2015

At the beginning of this year, I made a decision that I would adopt a different attitude to my life. I determined that I would be more optimistic, more confident in myself, more willing to try something new, more encouraging. I determined that I would adopt the attitude of an athlete training for a competition: I had to believe in myself and to work hard, and to trust in God that things would work out as they ought to. Indeed, I was going to take seriously the maxim of St. Anthony, who said that all things happen to us as they should and for our own benefit.

In truth, this year was one of the most productive years of my life. I got two papers published and I am close to completing a third one which I will submit for publication perhaps after this weekend. I was hired at Grand Canyon University, where I work as an Instructional Assistant -- really a dream job for me. It is the first time in my life that my line of work is personally meaningful to me, and I am able to use the four years of training and formal education I put in at Arizona State. I started lifting weights in January, and I have been to the gym at least three times a week for fifty of fifty-two weeks. (I missed two weeks because I was sick.) I began taking lessons in music theory and composition, something I've always wanted to study, with a member of my favorite band; and he told me that I have real talent and ability.

Most importantly, over the course of this last year, by God's help, I gained some very important discernment regarding the direction my life would take after I finish my MDiv. I didn't always want to do a PhD. Indeed, when I started at seminary and I saw that all my colleagues had families of their own, wives and girlfriends, jobs and careers, exciting church ministries, I felt very unfulfilled. I didn't have any of those things. I thought to myself: a PhD would mean four or five more years of this same unfulfilled frustration. What's the point? But without the prospect of the PhD, my future was a dark void with no clear direction. God answered my prayers in a very outstanding way over the course of the last year, so that now I know what I ought to do and where I ought to go.

Of course, my life has not been perfect. I have experienced numerous moral failures and shortcomings, and I am far from where I would like to be. But at the same time, through God's help, I have made some progress. I know myself a little better, and I know that I am moving forward, even if slowly and deliberately.

I am thankful to God for the past year, with its pluses and minuses alike. There were more pluses than minuses, and that is by God's grace. I am looking forward to yet another year in fellowship with God; I want to see where he will take me and what I will learn through my experiences. I wish everyone else a Happy New Year, and I encourage everyone to put their lives in God's hands. Walking with God, as Enoch did and as so many other heroes in the scriptures did, is the only way to live in this world. I can have no confidence in my life and its value, its worth, its meaningfulness, unless I walk the path that God has set for me alongside him.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

The day after Christmas

On Christmas day, we sing carols and remind ourselves of the birth of Christ into the world. We are amazed at the wondrous generosity and the "great mystery" (magnum mysterium) of God being born in the flesh, the Infinite being wrapped in swaddling clothes, the Son of God being born of a virgin. The magnificence of the paradoxes entrance us, and we contemplate these things, like Mary did, in adoration and reverence.

But what about the day after Christmas? What life do we live in the world, knowing that Christ has entered into the creation which came into being by his own word and power? Certainly we cannot live the same, knowing now that Christ is in the world and that some unbelievable miracles took place when previously we had only known violence and darkness and chaos! 

Post-Christmas life is not the same as pre-Christmas life. If previously we walked in darkness, now we have seen a great light (Isa 9.2). Indeed, it is the Light of the World, who enlightens everyone, that has come into the world (John 1.9). Our lives cannot be characterized by the same confusion and hopelessness and wandering, if truly we have come to believe the gospel message of Christ's birth. Who can still be gloomy and sad and doubtful, if God himself has taken such incredible measures to bring his kingdom to the world?

The Virgin Mary sang it rightly: He has shown his strength with his arm (Luke 1.51). What to the minds of unbelievers is an absurdity and an impossibility, God has accomplished in the most miraculous manner: the Logos of God has come into the world, born of a virgin, the divine nature united with the human in a single person. In the light of this demonstration of God's capacity and wisdom, how can I entertain any doubts or fears that he will take care of me? Or that he will take of the world which he loves so much?

The Light which enlightens every man has come into the world. Whereas Christmas begins with adoration and wonder, post-Christmas life is a process of learning from the incarnate Wisdom of God. Rightly the scriptures tell us, Do not rely on your own understanding (Prov 3.5). This is why Christ has come into the world: so that following after the Light, none of us would walk in the dark any longer. If anyone wants to know what is right and what is wrong, he ought to pray in gratitude to God, because Christ has come into the world to teach us how to live before God. If anyone wants to know how truly to be human, and what sort of life is good for a human person, now the Creator Himself has stooped down to unite himself with the creature, so as to teach the creature what sort of life is good for him.

On the day after Christmas, filled with hope and eager anticipation of the arrival of God's kingdom, we prepare ourselves for that wonderful transformation of the entire created order by purifying ourselves, just as he is pure (1 John 3.3). Today we begin our first lessons in the school of Christ, the embodied Wisdom of God, who teaches us how to be.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Christ our hope

The titles and names we attributes to God and to Jesus Christ or specially significant, because they inform the manner in which we think about theological issues. Unless we have the right idea about God, we are not going to relate to him properly, and our spiritual lives will suffer. If you talk to people who do not believe in God, they often times will describe God in ways that seem utterly unfamiliar to Christians. Many people do not believe in God because they have entirely the wrong idea about him.

For this reason, it is especially important to take note of the titles that the scriptural authors use to describe God and Jesus Christ. With this in mind, I want to bring to your attention the use of titles by Paul and his first letter to Timothy, which are especially poignant:

Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the command of God our Savior and of Christ Jesus our hope (1 Tim 1.1). 

God is our Savior and Christ is our hope. This is the message of the holy apostle, and this is the message of the Christian religion. But the manner in which we receive this message is up to us: do we accept that God is our Savior, or do we instead trust in ourselves that everything is fine as it is? Is Christ Jesus our hope, or do we have no need of hope outside of ourselves? 

For those of us who are Christians, we too easily fall into the trap of trying to think about God in ways that are not provided us by the scriptures. Rather than thinking about God as Savior, out of fear of condemnation we think of him instead as Executioner or Terminator. Guilt and fear and a sense of personal unworthiness paralyzes us and keeps us from approaching God in repentance and confession. Or worse, we think we have no sins of which to be forgiven, and then instead of God becoming our Savior, we are convinced instead that he is just out to put us down and make us feel bad and keep us from enjoying life. 

Likewise, it is easy too easy for many of us to forget that Jesus Christ is our hope, and not anything else. Joseph Ratzinger says that Christ in himself is sheer salvation, and inflicts perdition on no one. In the same way, Christ himself offers peace and rest to any who come to him, and whoever believes in him has eternal life. We cannot allow ourselves to be deceived into fearing condemnation from Christ, which will paralyze us in our sins. Rather we must approach Christ in faith and in love, having no fear because perfect love casts out fear (1 John 4.18). 

We have to make a choice whether we will accept the gospel message or not. Is God our Savior, or is he looking to burden us and shackle us? Or is he ready at any moment to zap us for trivial mistakes? Is Christ our hope, or do we have no need of anyone outside ourselves? 

Christmas is near, and it is worth it for all of us to reflect upon the truth of the holiday. What God is it who takes on human nature, is born in vulnerability and humility, and submits to limitations and weaknesses of human existence—even to a wretched death—in order to demonstrate his love for us? What further demonstrations of God's goodness and love do we need?

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Dread on the night before Christmas

Christmas celebrates the most miraculous and wonderful birth in the history of the world: the birth of the Son of God by a virgin, herself miraculously conceived by the Holy Spirit. Inasmuch as all things were made for this Godman, Jesus Christ (Col 1.16), consequently the birth of Christ is the pinnacle and fulfillment of the purpose of the entire universe. Now, as Christ is born, the inheritor of the entire earth has come into life, so small and vulnerable and weak in comparison to the totality of existence which is rightly his. 

Yet the scene itself was probably not particularly grand and impressive. A young girl giving birth -- always a nasty scene -- in a manger, surrounded by animals and her fiance. She was certainly scared, as any woman would be in the pangs of childbirth. How could all of this have happened? Who am I that such incredible miracles should take place in my life? Perhaps these are the thoughts that went through Mary's head on the night she delivered. 

But imagine further what she might have been thinking and feeling on the night before. She has to travel to Bethlehem, and she knows she is near to childbirth. Probably she felt early contractions and worried about going into labor unexpectedly on the road. With all the signs and miraculous occurrences that had taken place, in light of the message she had heard about the future of her child, she certainly worried whether he or she might not die in delivery.

The night before the birth of the Savior of the world may well have been an experience of dread for Mary. Yet here we learn an important lesson about God's providence: God can accomplish even the most amazing miracles in the humblest of circumstances, and even in moments in which we feel dread and angst. The way we feel about things is clearly not always the way God feels about things; and our sense that all control has been lost is perhaps true for us, but an illusion in general. There is no way that God could lose control of the world, God who can do all things, and ... no purpose of [his] can be thwarted (Job 42.2).

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Playing football for God

I'm a seminarian, which means I study a lot of theology. I'm also a big Seattle Seahawks fan, which means I watch a lot of football. Lately, I've been more and more impressed with rookie wide receiver and returns specialist Tyler Lockett, who has demonstrated his value to this team both on offense and on special teams right away.

One thing about Tyler which especially impresses me is his mentality. In this autobiographical video, Tyler speaks about his experiences playing football under the shadow of his father and uncle at Kansas State University. His father Kevin was the best wide receiver in the history of the school, and his uncle Aaron was one of the best returners. The burden of his family name was heavy, then, and Tyler describes the initial despair he felt, knowing that the expectations for his play were so high. Yet he describes a critical change in his mentality which helped him tremendously: rather than playing to prove himself worthy of the family name, rather than trying to live up to the expectations of others, he says he started to play for God.  But what does that mean? What does it mean to play football for God?

This question invites us to delve into the under-explored topic of the theology of sports. What significance do sports have vis-à-vis our relationship with God? Does God care about sports at all? How does sports relate with our spiritual life? (I think that my meditations here will have application in other contexts, as well.)

Of course, there are references to sports and athletics more generally in the scriptures. For example, St.  Paul on a few different occasions compares his own attitude to the spiritual life to that of an athlete, training for a competition. For example, in light of the difficulties and responsibilities of preaching the gospel, Paul says: Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it. Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable one. So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air; but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified (1 Cor 9.24-7). Likewise,  to Timothy he says: Train yourself in godliness, for, while physical training is of some value, godliness is valuable in every way, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come (1 Tim 4.7-8). The connection between athletics and the spiritual life is a fascinating one, and worth exploring at a later time.

But in this post, I want to talk about the concept of playing football for God. What could that mean? I haven't spoken with Tyler Lockett about the topic, but I am guessing he would probably agree with what I am going to say.

Playing football for God does not mean playing so as to impress God, or to win over God's favor, as if God could only love you if you were an accomplished athlete. Far from it -- God loves everyone, athletes and non-athletes alike. On the contrary, I think playing football for God means playing football with a certain kind of consciousness and awareness of God's goodness. The invention of the sport of football was possible because God created human kind in his image and likeness, with rationality and intelligence and a creative spirit, which seeks to bring new and wonderful things into existence, just like God is the creator of everything. But also, playing football for God means playing out of gratitude to God -- gratitude for the gift of life, for the gift of health, for the gift of human community, for the gift of strength, for the gift of the opportunity and ability to enjoy oneself.

God created human beings with a body that is capable of wonderful, magnificent things. A football player like Tyler Lockett, who plays football for God, does what he does best out of gratitude for God's good gift of a healthy, functioning body. The football player who plays for God thinks like this: "Thank you, Lord, for the gift you have given me. I want to perfect it and use it excellently out of gratitude for you, to demonstrate to everyone your goodness and generosity in allowing us to enjoy life!"

It is too easy to think that God has no concern for football or sports or other "worldly endeavors." But that's not the impression that I get about God from reading the Bible. St. Paul tells the Gentiles in Lystra that, although they did not know the true God, he has been giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, and filling you with food and your hearts with joy (Acts 14.17). When the Lystrans experienced joy in their lives -- and this holds true for the rest of us, as well -- it was a gift of God, a demonstration of his goodness and generosity. So also, the joy that Tyler Lockett gets from playing football, and the joy that the rest of us get from watching him do amazing things, is a gift of God's and a demonstration of his goodness. God, being good and loving, is happy to see that his children are filled with joy, same as any other parent.

So this is what it means to play football for God, I think: it means playing out of gratitude to God for the good gift that he has given us, the gift of life and health and strength and movement and community. Playing football for God -- and doing anything for God, for that matter, whether it be sport or being a mother or something else -- means playing our absolute best, making the best use of the gifts he has given us.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

It is the last hour

1 John 2.18 says: Little children, it is the last hour.

John said this nearly two thousand years ago, and for almost as long as human memory stretches back, it has been "the last hour." How do we understand this? Is John simply mistaken, deceived by the naive apocalyptic expectations of the first generation of Christians? Or is there something deeper to be understood in this?

I am skeptical of the notion, of which some persons are so deeply and profoundly convinced, that we are literally living in the final days of the earth. Of course, in light of the potential for nuclear warfare and the utter destruction of the planet through our very advanced firepower, I think this claim is more plausible now than it was in previous years. Yet at the same time, generation after generation has been convinced that the world is going down the toilet within their lifetime, and yet it doesn't happen. So even if the world should end within my lifetime, I am not expecting it and I don't believe it will.

What could be meant by this "last hour," then? Because the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour (Luke 12.40), I think we should always live our life in readiness for and expectation of the coming Judgment. This means that we treat every hour as if it were the last one. This is a way for us to accord proper attention to our present actions, and to treat our life with adequate seriousness. If I am convinced that at any moment I will be subject to judgment, and there will be no making up for my mistakes or asking forgiveness at that point, then I will certainly not waste time and opportunities for good while I have them. [Evagrius] also said, 'If you keep in mind your death and the eternal judgment, there will be no stain on your soul' (The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks, p. 118).

This sort of meditation is all the more appropriate in this advent season, in which we await the arrival of the Christ child. For Christ's arrival is not met the same by all: whereas for Mary and Joseph, the arrival of this child was a blessing, for Herod it is a curse and a stumbling block. As Simeon told Mary at the circumcision of Christ, This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too (Luke 2.34-5). So once more I present the question: how do we present ourselves before Christ? He, for whom all things were created (Col 1.16) and who is finally coming into the world that is his (John 1.10-1) -- how will he find us?

For meditation for the end of this blog post, I present this wonderful hymn:

Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.
Behold, the Bridegroom comes at midnight,
And blessed is that servant whom He shall find watching,
And again, unworthy is the servant whom He shall find heedless.
Beware, therefore, O my soul, do not be weighed down with sleep,
Lest you be given up to death, and lest you be shut out of the Kingdom.
But rouse yourself crying: Holy, Holy, Holy, art Thou, O our God,
Through the Theotokos have mercy on us.