"The glory of God is man fully alive, and the life of man is the vision of God." -St Irenaeus of Lyon

Archive for May, 2010

“The Jesus Manifesto” by Leonard Sweet and Frank Viola

The Jesus Manifesto: Restoring the Supremacy and Sovereignty of Jesus Christ by Leonard Sweet and Frank Viola is generally not a book I would pick up on my own volition.  I participate in Thomas Nelson’s Booksneeze program that lets me read books for free, provided I write up a review afterward.  Since I figured my friend Aideen would like reading the book herself, I decided to give it a read.  (It’s soon in the mail to you, my friend.  I told you would like my most recent plotting.)

The book attempts to articulate Jesus Christ as the sum total of the Christian faith.  The authors long to see Jesus Christ as the center and head of His Church.  They would like to see Christians dwell deeply in the mystery of the person of Christ, becoming people of the Person in a living, dynamic relationship with the Truth that can captivate like only Love Incarnate can.  For this the authors can be commended.  They consider the life of Jesus in its totality.  In particular, they exhort Christians to yield to the life of Christ within every child of God.

This book is risky for sure, especially among Protestants.  The authors cannot discuss Christ as Incarnate God without considering the role of Mary and the Church as the Body of Christ.  While Mary gets scant mention (4 out of 179 pages), the fact that she is mentioned at all is impressive for a book written by Protestants.  The authors express a desire to provide razor-sharp cut-glass clarity on the Lord Jesus Christ; therefore it is worth mentioning that the book hints at adoptionism when discussing that Mary spent 3 years watching her son become the Son of God.  Yet, that one small observation aside, I do think that this book is absolutely valid reading.  Additionally, the authors discuss the need for a properly functioning Body of believers.  The discussion in the chapter called “The House of Figs” is incredibly wonderfully constructed.  Oh that Christ would empower a fruitful Church that receives Him as Master of the house!

The authors totally nailed the truth that Jesus Christ is the Rosetta Stone of the Scriptures.  Everything in the entire Bible testifies to Him and must be read in light of Him.  To put Christ at the absolute sum and center of the Christian’s obsession is to place Him in His rightful place.  Christ is to be received on His own terms as master of the house.  Many, many, many Christian leaders of all stripes would do well to focus exclusively on Christ.  Whether we have our eyes fixed on our culture or words on a page, we have fixed them elsewhere than Christ.

I do think that Christians everywhere would do well to seek Christ as revealed to us in the Gospel — the One who came, dwelt among us, made visible the image of the invisible God, called to us, revealed the nature of the Law to us, healed the sick, proclaimed good news to the poor, liberated the captives, suffered alongside of us and for us, poured Himself out in the unimaginable love made manifest fully on the Cross, trampled down death by death, rose from the dead, ascended to Heaven, sits in glorified human flesh at the right-hand of God, prepared a place for us, and redeemed the whole of creation.  May we have a Person-driven life, fully transfixed on God who is.  May Christ implant Himself in us, taking up full residence within us.

And may we discover that in asking Christ “Who are You?” we encounter a question that has no last words.


Christ within us

Today is the Sunday of All Saints in the Orthodox Church.  We hit All Saints Sunday after a week free from fasting (one of only 4 such weeks in the calendar year) because we thank God for His gift of His Holy Spirit at Pentecost.  The gospel reading is a bit strange as it features selections from St Matthew’s Gospel as opposed to one contiguous passage.  But the Sunday of All Saints gives me unique pause this year because of the mystery of being a saint.

I spoke yesterday about the need to embrace a Gospel that declares us to be sinners and saints to affirm the Divine Mystery of the Gospel.  This Gospel declares that Christ works within us in addition to being wholly independent of us.  And here we are, approaching the Sunday of All Saints.  This Sunday is unique because we celebrate all Saints, rather than just the ones who have been revealed to the Church.  Indeed, the number of Saints unknown to us far surpasses the number of Saints we celebrate.  Only God knows all of His Saints.

But what of a Saint?  Or even of a saint?  A lot of people have never been to midweek liturgies of the Orthodox Church as many people have never been to a Sunday liturgy of the Orthodox Church.  There’s an interesting acclamation which is sung on Sundays “O Son of God, who are risen from the dead, save us who sing to You: Alleluia!” that gets replaced during the midweek services “O Son of God, who are wondrous in Your saints, save us who sing to You: Alleluia!”  We sing of the Resurrection on Sunday because Sunday is always the day of Resurrection, but during the daily services, we celebrate Christ’s work within our own human family.

Something about a saint permits God’s grace to shine through their cracked, earthen vessel.  Something, or rather Someone, seems to shine through them in ways that we cannot even begin to articulate… we just know.  These persons are real, authentic, simple, while at the same time being wholly other-worldly even in their ability to relate with such compassion to the world around them as a whole.  I am convinced there’s a section of saints who fly totally under the radar in every way possible: God-honoring grandmothers.

We recognize a saint when we see Christ shining through their life.  Christ’s ability to shine through our human frailty makes manifest some of the reasons why it was better that He returned to the Father.  He manifests His incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection through very humble vessels indeed; a human vessel really no different from any of us.  He permeates everything about them with His Grace, His Love, His Mercy, His Compassion… with Himself.  They cannot help but point to Christ for He has captured their gaze.  They “have seen the rabbit” and will not give up the chase, even if that chase takes them through sufferings, toils, pain, rejection, or any sort of nastiness.

Hebrews 11 tends to be an interesting passage.  We would love to be among those who conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions,  quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight.  But in even reading this list, we tend to ignore “made strong out of weakness” and we surely wished the list did not continue to include those who were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated— of whom the world was not worthy—wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.

May we be so bold to entreat Christ, the image of the invisible God, to allow us to see Him in a way that transfixes our gaze on Him, independent of what else we encounter on our journey.  May the myriad of examples set forth before us, both in the recognized and in the hidden Saints, grant us encouragement that no matter what our path looks like, Christ sees to it that we do not walk alone, but we walk with another brother or sister in Him.

We return to the greeting of “ordinary” time: Christ is in our midst!  Indeed, He is and ever shall be, residing in the hearts struggling to receive Him and the wills struggling to yield to His Divine Will.

How Can This Be?

I have been thinking lately about the Gospel.  Specifically I have been thinking about just the Gospel alone, without considering how it relates to poverty.  As is sort of a hallmark of living in Christ, I have been struck square between the eyes repeatedly that I really do not get it.  Within the pages of the Evangelist’s (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) writing, I find these tensions that there is no hope in reconciling because we find mutually contradictory statements that have the same truth.

Consider, for instance, the differences between the historical Incarnation and the historical Resurrection.  In the Incarnation, Christ comes to take up full and complete residence within the Virgin.  His message travels through her greeting to her cousin Elizabeth and affects a change within the Baptist who dwells within Elizabeth.  In the Resurrection, we find the Power of God encountering our absolute human frailty to the point of complete, utter total expiration — the hideous experience of death.  We see the effects of sin so great to seemingly kill Love.  We encounter the great adversary, the devil.  But within the Resurrection, we see the Power of God working something far more than we could ever think to ask for or to imagine.  Christ entered fully into the depths of death of His own free will to shatter the bonds of death so fully and completely apart from any action that would even hint at the idea of our “helpfulness.”

Christ lives within us.  Christ acts outside of us.  Yes.  Both.  Christ invites us from outside and compels us from within.  Indeed.

How. can. this. be?

Why is it that the Gospel so readily embraces a configuration that absolutely confounds us?  How can mercy and justice kiss each other?  How is the Lawgiver the same as the Love?  Why do we speak of sinners and saints?  Why do we talk of acceptance and transformation?

In short, I am coming to realize that to be human, we need both.  We need feasting and fasting.  We need admonishment and encouragement.  We need to receive and we need to give.  We need “Yes” and we need “No.”

And we struggle to see the depths of both our poverty and our riches.  Rather paradoxically the Gospel brings these to balance.  But the Gospel does not make a whole lot of sense.  One of the things that I am noticing about the Gospel is that I tend to grab onto one part, at the expense of the other.

Thinking about how the Gospel acts in our world, I marvel at how often we screw up the message.  When serving the poor, it is much easier to talk about their material poverty and our invitation to act so as to alleviate their suffering rather than to talk about how their material poverty reflects our spiritual poverty.    It is seemingly easier to mourn the poor than to realize that Christ calls them “blessed.”  We can focus on praying that God would act or focus on how we can we can act (be it personally or politically).  We can talk about the effects of sin in their lives or we can look to the many ways the poor manifest the Kingdom of God.

How can this be?  How can all of these paradigms be relevant?  How can they be simultaneously relevant?

Lord, help! I do not understand! This Mystery is marvelous, awe-inspiring, and frightening! I want to believe but I want to know what all is going to happen…  Save me from the crippling agents of fear and doubt, and open to me the Way of trusting Life!

And I have to wonder if trying to live in this uncomfortable transcendent space connects us to Him who is.  So perhaps it is worth to ask God the second question in the Gospel of St Luke “How will this be?” as opposed to the first question in the Gospel of St Luke “How will I know this?”

Friday Forum: Beyond Obfuscation

It seems that most academic-types have a penchant for words that they cannot spell without consulting a dictionary; I am certainly no exception.

To obfuscate is to cause failure through bewilderment, to foster discouragement with complexity, to breed paralysis through conscious efforts to confuse. …or it is the fruit of over-analyzing things.  Hard to know what exactly one is doing.  A little analysis can be good.  But perhaps analysis is like salt, a little bit will do just fine in most circumstances.  Maybe the real skill of engineers is learning how to use analysis like garlic where a heaping mound turns into goodness.

We have this terribly nasty tendency to make things more complicated than they need to be.  It does not help living in a culture that rewards jargon-laden complexity as a sign of appropriate “education.”  But as I think about my life as an academic, I realize that I do not write to sound smart but that I write because occasionally my thoughts are unique and maybe even a bit clever.  Taking the time to share them with others allows me to get knocked down a few proverbial notches on the cleverness while also perhaps influencing the unique thoughts of another.  Writing opens doors for relationship.  And seriously, who am I kidding?  Do I want the bulk of my life to only be accessible to highly trained experts scattered across the globe or might I aim to think with a broader audience of people who are like me in any myriad of different ways?

Additionally, when we try to make things clear using simple terms, we might really surprise ourselves.  Something previously deemed impossible might become not just possible, but transgress into the realm of the probable.

To be sure, simple words have great and deep meaning.  The more profound an idea, the more difficulty it can be to put things down in simple words.  Yet, when we find something truly interesting, fascinating or maybe just plain shiny, we almost cannot help but trying to share our discovery with others.  We have to do what we can to make that insight accessible to others if only to try to help us not become too full of ourselves.

The long trek of an academic writer trying to capture a view worth sharing with another. Or perhaps just a plug for Imogen Heap.

This post stems from a conversation with my advisor about academic writing.  My academic writing tends to be denser than iridium and tends to require employing significant forces to get it moving.  But incidentally, I started blogging to provide a venue to get at least some writing done everyday.  It seems to be running as a semi-successful experiment.

On careful construction

Being an engineer interested in best practices, I know a fair bit about LEED certification.  LEED, shorthand for “Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design”, will certify buildings as Silver, Gold or Platinum dependent on how well a building’s design adheres to the best practices to conserve energy.

The thing about a LEED rating is that, as a design award, it focuses on appropriate construction.  Building mismanagement by tenants can greatly increase the energy used in a building, making even LEED certified buildings unsustainable.  A recent Op-Ed piece in the NY Times calls for increased enforcement of buildings in use, with a consequence that a building might lose its certifications if continually mismanaged.

It is interesting to think that as designed, the building should be able to perform in particular ways.  Design standards focus on intention.  To some degree they can be enforced during actual construction.  But after the building is constructed, the design standards offer suggestions about how the building can be (and even should be) used only with the power of suggestion.

And so it is with us.  We are carefully constructed to the point of being “fearfully and wonderfully made” with our human blueprint being in “the image and likeness of God.”  We never lose our design features, even if we horribly disfigure them through mismanagement.  Yet, we have a call to live as we were intended to live, something that can only be accomplished with close consultation with the Architect.

The Two Altars of the Church

Blogger’s note: This quote has been one of the most beneficial for me as I consider the Church and poverty.

Besides the offering at the Divine Liturgy we have another altar, which is the altar of the poor.  You can find this altar everywhere, even in alleys and streets.  To this altar we are called to bring our offering, a holy sacrifice to God.  Herein lies our priestly office, as we, like the officiating priest in the Liturgy, involve the Spirit on the altar of the poor, not by words of mouth, but by deeds that speak louder than words.  The Spirit hovers above the altar of the poor.  The Lord’s Body is laid thereupon as there is no wound in this world that He does not bear in His Body.  There is no blood that is shed which He does not share.  In this sense when we give to the poor we give unto Him who descends to us from heaven.

-St John Chrysostom

The Allure of the City

I will freely admit that talking meaningfully about finding solutions to poverty is far above my pay grade.  Additionally, even as a graduate student, my pay grade is enough to keep me out of the grips of poverty, especially with a household of one adult.  Moreover, despite being a graduate student, I am not nearly as well-versed with the who’s who in the appropriate fields… o the joys of being “multi/trans/inter-disciplinary”  The fact that I smash together culture, education, engineering and theology on the blog shows the extent of my generality.

So now I’m going to really go out on a limb and comment on a blog post I read that features a dialog between David Roodman and Land Pritchett.  They are better qualified to speak to the development of the microfinance industry than I am, but I’m an academic-in-training so I am going to try to make a meaningful contribution to something.  Most likely, the something will be my own thoughts.

Generally, I think micro-finance initiatives, both in the form of micro-credit and micro-savings, represent a critical tool in trying to work structurally to address poverty.  Micro-finance focuses primarily on supporting people as they advance their use of skills they already have to organize small businesses.  In many ways, micro-finance celebrates entrepreneurship rooted in the context of existing livelihoods.  However, when I read the discourse on the blog post, I had to wonder about the role of industrialization and urbanization.

Persons living in rural areas often depend on livelihoods integrally connected with the weather.  Increasingly strange seasonal cycles create some true collapse stories of these livelihoods.  You can ask the Mongolian herders trying to eek out a living by gathering the carcasses of their animals.  I have read similar stories for the past 3 years; the Mongolian herders are not the only affected group.  Additionally, I grew up in a community experiencing a livelihood shift as the major industries left the area.  When you see the logical path forward evaporating, thoughts of the youth may turn to escaping for greener economic pastures.

The city serves as a metaphor for advanced opportunity.  But I wonder about those people who see their future in the rural areas, living with rural livelihoods.  The greater the distance from a population center with a high population density, the more difficult it becomes to build appropriate infrastructure to support on-demand utilities.  It is also difficult to consider participating in a globalized economy if one is far away from a trade center.

Yet, we assume that the globalized economy is inherently better than the local economy.  We value urban over rural.  And we value a sense of a “job” over the cultivation of a “livelihood.”  This is problematic.  I do not bemoan persons who make their flight to the city for any number of reasons, but I think we commit a significant error in judgment if we assume that participating in the global urbanized economy represents the top aims of individuals and communities.  In particular, if we postulate that local persons are capable of adding value to their local resources through their labor, then it seems that this value might not be expressed solely in macroeconomic terms like GNP or GDP.

Moreover, in pursuing GDP, we can make choices that favor jobs at the expenses of livelihoods.  As an example that strikes me as just a really bad idea on many different fronts, Chile is considering significant dam projects in the Patagonia region.  We see very fragile ecosystems with seemingly intact rural communities.  The greater industrialization of the area will likely bring people from other areas to settle who have differential ability to participate in the national economy than the locals.  I am reminded of my visit to a community in England largely supported by the fishing industry where bankers in London wound up buying up a lot of seaside property for vacationing.  The rising home values drove away home ownership abilities of the local people, uprooting many families while also developing fostering greater rent-dependence.

In reality, I think people with the means to do so wind up alternating between participating in local and global economies.  But I think they do so from the position of cultivating a livelihood rather than simply working a job.  Sometimes the livelihood can only exist in a rural area, dominated by pastoral scenes of Mongolian sheep and goats.