THE BROOM

A broom-maker gathers straw and and trims it and binds it together, then finds a long stick and fastens the straw to one end of the stick. What results is something that never existed before, that has no history. Being incorporated into a broom remains part of the history of the straw, and similarly for the stick. But the history of the broom begins when the broom-maker fastens the final knot. It is a new creation.

When people become acquainted, an acquaintanceship is born. Although not a material thing like a broom, it will also have its own history, distinct from the histories of the two people involved. So also marriages and partnerships and joint ventures of all kinds.

In a sense, everything we do is a new creation, with its own history. When I drive to the store or deliver a sermon or smoke a pipe, what is done reverberates through creation from that time forward in its own historical arc. But the infinity of these new creations are, so to say, sloughings from me, expanding out from me they way the water wake does from a boat, or the vapor trail from a plane. They are not separate elements brought together into something new, with its own identity.

When someone accepts Christ as Savior and Lord, a new relationship is born. That is the new creation of which Paul speaks. It is not the person undone or wiped out, and then re-created. The straw does not cease being straw nor the stick stick when, together, they form a broom. Instead, together, they form a new identity, which then begins upon its own life history.

TWO SPARROWS

The voice of God is at odds with the world’s voice in many ways.

Jesus illustrates one of them in several images: fasting, praying, performing acts of charity. When he advises secrecy in such activities, it’s not to encourage modesty or humility. It’s to encourage us to attend to the voice of God.

That singular voice – which is the figure for God’s presence, in its perfect attentiveness and unqualified concern – is the true nourishment our spirit requires for vitality in the Kingdom, but we cannot receive it while seeking sustenance elsewhere.

When Jesus advises anonymity from the world, he’s speaking as a physician, not as a moralist.

Once we become attentive to it, the same voice can be heard in the privacy of suffering (and all suffering is essentially private.) Its comforting tone there – or rather, our familiarity with it there – will serve us in good stead as we enter the final journey, where the voices of the world are withdrawn, the spotlight fades, and the audience stands and exits the theater of our lives.

God’s abiding presence to each of us is an eternal given, but it’s never simply administered: it must be appropriated. It’s like a telephone ringing softly, softly. Or like the astounding beauty waiting in every leaf and blade of glass. Or like the music of the spheres that we cannot hear, because we are always hearing it, from the moment we are born until the moment we die.

REWARDS

Whether musicians realize it or not, they are appropriating a gift from God.

Watch trained musicians playing together and you are witnessing the realization of a joy that non-musicians will never experience. And this is true whether the setting is a symphony orchestra or a jazz trio or a high school marching band.

It’s a complex and nebulous joy, comprised of many parts and having many degrees. There is mutual dependence and respect, there is the satisfaction of being a contributing member to a community of the like-minded and like-skilled, there is shared aspiration and shared satisfaction, there is a sense of generosity and aesthetic accomplishment, of being part of something unique and therefore timeless. And much else besides.

This special joy is available to anyone who is willing to acquire the skill of playing an instrument. You can say it is a reward, but that’s a loose and misleading way of speaking. To speak of rewards is to assume a rewarder. When you reach the top of a mountain and enjoy the view from there, the view is not the reward, as if it’s something that might have been withheld. The view is the discovery of what was there all along, waiting for you to climb the mountain and appropriate it.

Christianity is often spoken of as a religion of rewards, and that is equally loose and misleading. The thought is that, if you do such-and-such or lead a life that is so-and-so, God will then benefit you with something. But that’s like saying the dramatic view is like a pat on the head for the effort of climbing the mountain; or the special joy of playing in a jazz trio is like the payment from the owner of the club.

Christ does not teach how to earn rewards. He teaches how to appropriate the joy of being in harmony with God.

PERMISSIVE WILL

God’s sacrifice did not consist in the murder of Jesus on a cross, nor in allowing that murder. God’s sacrifice consisted in becoming human, and therefore helpless to the degree humans are helpless.

The Old Testament understanding is of God being in control, even of the terrible things that happen; the New Testament understanding is of love relinquishing control, in faith.

To theorize about God’s permissive will is to shrink from this terrible revelation.

SALVATION

There are only two ways of accomplishing education, that is, of lifting out of ignorance. One is through verbal instruction; the other is through demonstration.

Typically these two methods are combined in various proportions. We all begin ignorant of carpentry, for example, and our ignorance is lifted by someone showing us a mitered joint and telling us how it works, by holding up a model buttress and describing where the gravitational forces lean upon it. And so, little by little, we learn carpentry.

For some sorts of education – learning how to box, say, or to swim, or to kiss – the education leans very heavily on the showing; in teaching history or astrophysics, say, the verbal instruction takes most of the responsibility.

“Sinfulness” is a variety of ignorance, and salvation from it consists in education, the education, both verbal and demonstrative, that Christ provides. That is what is meant by Christ saving us from our sins.

Our salvation through Christ is not like being plucked from a leaky boat. It’s like being taught how to patch holes, and how to swim.

DIVINE PUNISHMENT

We have nothing but our language to describe God, heaven, the work of Christ, and so on, and our language is entirely a product of our concerns and objectives and limitations. The words God, heaven, and work are good examples. So is the word good. So is the word example. So is the word word.

You see the difficulty?

For all its wondrous powers, human language is of little use in communicating that which stands outside of our concerns and objectives and limitations. That’s why Jesus is almost always allusive and parabolic in his speech.

Consider the insistence that God is morally just, and how that contention is used to argue that God’s very nature requires the infliction of punishment – perhaps even never-ending punishment – on the wrong-doer. According to this way of thought, moral righteousness requires that each moral being be treated according to his works. So virtue merits proportionate reward, and vice proportionate punishment. For God to arrange consequences according to any other pattern would run contrary to his own nature, which is impossible. Quod erat demonstrandum.

(We won’t dwell on the unforeseen implications this way of thinking has for commonplace notions of heaven and hell, except to say that no imaginable human virtue is proportional (by any human understanding of proportion) to everlasting bliss, nor any vice to endless torment. Thus this argument from God’s nature would rule out both heaven and hell, as they are commonly conceived.)

But from the point of view of our present reflection, there is a much more fundamental problem. Our God-given conscience does most certainly incline us to think that effortful goodness (virtue) and effortful malfeasance (vice) merit or warrant different consequences, just as an itch merits scratching or a full ear of corn warrants harvesting. And so in order to reflect this warranted revelation of conscience we speak of rewarding the one and punishing the other, here as always utilizing words that are products of our own concerns and practices.

We can trust the distinction itself, since it is revealed by God in conscience; but what we cannot trust is how humans have embodied the distinction in language and therefore in thought. How God embodies the distinction in reality may be entirely different.

It may, in fact, be true of vice, as it is said to be of virtue, that in God’s reality, it is its own reward.

THE RESURRECTION

Christ did not achieve or establish the divine truths of the gospel, he did not alter the relationship between God and humanity. God’s love for sinners has always existed, God’s forgiveness of sins has never wavered or changed or grown: these were as much a part of the fabric of reality before the life, ministry and suffering of our Lord as they have been since. The doctrines of the resurrection and never-ending life with God were true before Jesus taught them. That’s why Jesus offered the summary of his work to Pilate in these words: For this cause I was born, and to this end came I into the world, that I should bear witness to the truth.

To bear witness. Not to establish or create. To bear witness to what is and has always been and always will be: the truth.

The same thing is meant by Paul writing to the Romans: But God commended his love towards us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.

The death of Christ was God commending his love towards us, showing his love. All that Jesus did was making God manifest. The reality that had been kept secret from the foundation of the world was made known when this sun of righteousness arose with healing in its rays, just as the rising sun in the east reveals that which had been hidden by the night.

Jesus did not abolish death; his resurrection made manifest the abolition of death.

RECONCILIATION THROUGH FAITH

Scripture provides us with several examples of when God, frustrated by his own creation, so to say steps back and starts over. The disobedience in Eden is one, the scattering after Babel another, and of course the great Flood. The truth captured by these profound stories is that there is something impossible about community and peace between God, in his unthinkable singularity and remoteness, and anything that is not God.

The solution, or at least the last – or perhaps, the only – attempt at solution, the only possibility for God to escape loneliness, was for God himself to change, we may even say, to die. Reconciliation was not accomplished through humans becoming God, but through God becoming human.

The faith that accomplishes reconciliation is not our faith, it’s God’s faith.

THE ATONEMENT

Imagine a father and son stranded on a desert island. There is a small amount of food on the island, just enough to keep them barely alive indefinitely.

The son has limited sailing skill, but the father nonetheless loads their boat with most of the food, and sends the son off in search of rescue.

The father’s action is the manifestation of his faith in his son. Not a proof or a demonstration, a manifestation. It is the father’s faith.

This is the true picture of the atonement. And the son is not Christ. The son is us.

YOU ALONE ARE GOD (Ps. 86)

In the beginning…God is alone. There is no other possibility.

If we are speaking chronologically, we must say there was a time when nothing but God existed. Or if we want to say that God is outside time or that God established time, then whatever else these strange words might be taken to mean, it must still be that there – outside time – God is alone.

Or if, in speaking of the beginning, we are instead saying something ontological – that God is the basis or the precondition of Being, or something else equally obscure – we must still posit God’s uniqueness, God’s singularity, and hence God’s aloneness.

And from that it follows that God cannot be love, in the sense that we understand love.

We use love in many ways, of course. We love to dance, we love the outdoors, we love Beethoven. But these are just alternative ways of saying that we enjoy these activities or the activities involving these things, and this is surely not what we intend by speaking of God.

When we attribute love to God – or even say God is love – we are borrowing the term as we use it to name a certain sort of attitude that one person may have towards another. What is that attitude? To describe it in all its complexity and nuance and variety is a task for poets and novelists; but we can say a few things without venturing into their prerogative.

A mother loves her daughter. There are not three separate elements of what is being named here: the mother on one side, her daughter on another, and something (love) between. Nor is the love something that resides, so to speak, entirely in the mother. Without the daughter, how would you even describe it?

A mother loves her daughter mentions something that is complex; we may say, it is relational. For that reason, it cannot meaningfully describe God, because God, in the beginning, is alone.

But a mother’s love for her daughter is also singular, in the sense that it names one thing only: that complex relationship between the exact two of them. This mother’s love for this daughter is not identical with this mother’s love for her son, or for a different daughter.

And therefore we do not rescue our way of speaking about God by positing something like the Trinity, in all its unfathomable mystery. For whatever else the thought of the Trinity supplies, it cannot supply a model for something that is completely singular in its nature.

This is a long-winded way of saying that we cannot model our understanding of the love that God is on our understanding of human love: the very nature of God, in the beginning, rules that out.

Is this to say that God is not love? Not at all. It simply means that to understand, to see, to know what God’s love is, we must look somewhere other than human love.

But where?