In the presence of the cross there are no innocent parties and no innocent classes. And there is no body which can make this witness except the church, defined as it is simply by its acknowledgement of the supreme Lordship of the crucified and risen Jesus. We are all together found guilty and all together forgiven. The church is called to be the place where that is actually happening.”

– Lesslie Newbigin, Signs Amid the Rubble: The Purposes of God in Human History

All together guilty, all together forgiven

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Earlier this month I heard a talk by Chris Wright, an Old Testament scholar who serves as International Director of Langham Partnership and has written a number of books including The Mission of God, which is cosmic in scope (the book, that is, as well as the mission). He lives in London but was in town speaking at an event for the Surge Network. Two years ago he spoke in the same venue on faith in the marketplace, and at that time I summarized his main points.

This time around he was speaking on preaching missionally from the Old Testament—a topic clearly suited to the many church planters in the room, and not so much for those of us (like me) who are not pastors. But I’m enough of an armchair theologian to care about the topic, and I loved what he did with Jeremiah 29, his chosen passage for the day. Here’s a salient (and familiar) excerpt from the chapter:

Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare (vv. 4-7).

Wright encouraged us to read Jeremiah 29 in light of Psalms 122 and 137, two passages of scripture that would have been quite familiar to the prophet’s original audience. In Psalm 122—as in Jeremiah 29—we’re exhorted to pray for the peace of a city, with the psalmist adding, “For the sake of the house of the Lord our God, I will seek your good” (v. 9). Unlike Jeremiah’s exhortation, however, this has to do with the city belonging to “us” rather than “them.” In Psalm 137, the poet is homesick and in exile, wondering, “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” (v.4).

The people of God knew they were to pray for the flourishing of their own city and to seek its good. It made sense. What didn’t make sense was seeking the flourishing of a foreign city—a context in which they found themselves desperately homesick, and worse, in exile.

So when Jeremiah urges them to seek the shalom—the “universal flourishing, wholeness, and delight”—of that foreign city, he wasn’t saying something predictable. He wasn’t saying something safe. He wasn’t saying something that made everyone feel warm and fuzzy inside. He was saying something that went against the grain of their natural inclinations. He was trying to cultivate in them a new set of virtues.

On the other hand, he wasn’t saying anything new. If anything, as Wright pointed out, Jeremiah was simply reminding the people of God of the mandate found in Genesis 12, when God commanded Abram:

Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed (vv. 1-3).

Jeremiah was reiterating the ancient truth that when God blesses his people, their neighbors are to benefit as well—and that God delights in this. It’s part of his plan.

But Jeremiah also seems to be anticipating the New Testament command of Jesus to love our enemies and do good to those who persecute us. In Wright’s observation, this is as close as we come in the Old Testament to that command. Granted, Jeremiah doesn’t actually say anything about loving the neighbors in the city to which we have been sent into exile. But as Wright put it, “It’s hard to hate someone when you’re praying for them.”

In Jeremiah 29, Wright says, we discover a surprising new perspective, a surprising new mission, and a surprising new hope. But at the same time, we find nothing but a reiteration of an ancient perspective, an long-standing mission, and an unchanged and unchanging hope. It’s that ancient-future perspective, that ancient-future mission, and that ancient-future hope we’re called to embrace today, wherever God has led us.

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Repaso: April 11, 2014

April 11, 2014 — 2 Comments

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+ Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Anja Niedringhaus made war’s pain intimate. She was shot and killed in Afghanistan last week.

+ Paul Rusesabagina, the real-life hero who inspired Hotel Rwanda, warns of a “simmering volcano” in his country, even as it marks 20 years since the genocide began.

+ Really enjoyed the new Christianity Today cover story by Jason Byasee on N.T. Wright.

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+ In the third and final part of Ed Stetzer’s interview with Philip Jenkins, they discuss what the future of the global church might look like.

+ Our church has a new (and, dare I say, vastly improved) website. I especially appreciated Fr. Chris Schutte’s inaugural blog post, “Hints of Grace, Unlikely People & God’s Purposes.”

+ You don’t have to be Anglican to appreciate the Book of Common Prayer.

+ Seven ways books can help us, from none other than the book-loving Byron Borger himself.

+ Mike Cosper sees glimpses of hope in Wes Anderson’s films: “While his worlds are gorgeous and fantastical, his characters are deeply human.”

+ The D-backs have gotten off to a rough start this year. And then along comes this sobering analysis by Grantland baseball writer Jonah Keri, analyzing and questioning the team’s leadership in recent years. I’m holding out hope that 2014 won’t be another wasted season, but I’m concerned all the same.

+ Daniel Flynn reviews the new Johnny Cash biography: “A life overflowing with sad moments enjoyed a happy ending.”

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Two years ago (almost to the day, as it happens), I shared some thoughts about The Fabric of Faithfulness by Steven Garber. Though the book was written primarily for college students, my post-college, post-grad-school self found it quite beneficial anyway. In my review I reminisced aloud about my college years, when I picked the major I did because—no joke—it was the one with the fewest math requirements. I went on to say:

Somehow it hasn’t all turned out terribly, which I attribute solely to God’s grace, but I do wonder how my college years would have been different had I made life-altering decisions based on even better questions than how to avoid math requirements—for instance, questions about the nature of the world, and God’s relationship to it and to me and to everyone else, and how a college education may actually be a gift to be stewarded for God’s glory and to be used for loving our neighbors.

Garber’s new book, Visions of Vocation: Common Grace for the Common Good, is a natural follow-up to his earlier one. Writing with the same graceful, wise voice that so many of us found so winsome in The Fabric of Faithfulness, Garber expands his explorations of vocation beyond the university classroom to the classroom and laboratory that is the world itself. Quoting poets and singers and theologians, telling stories about his friends and acquaintances, Garber invites us to ask deep questions about the world around us, and to find our vocation more or less, it seems to me, where the novelist Frederick Buechner famously did—that place “where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

18499998Garber wants us to see the world with new eyes. Indeed, he wants us to behold it gratefully, truthfully, and hopefully. He wants us to recognize and appreciate its created splendor. He wants us to be honest about its brokenness and limitations. And he wants us to orient our lives around the hope—in answer to the question Sam Gamgee asked Gandalf in Lord of the Rings, which each of us in one way or another continues to ask—that yes, one day every sad thing will come untrue.

In broad strokes, I think that’s the story the scriptures are telling as well, the story in which we are invited to find ourselves—or, better, the story in which we are invited to lose ourselves.

But knowing is not the same thing as living, and weaving belief and behavior together, as Garber has previously written, doesn’t happen automatically (more on that, by the way, from N.T. Wright in After You Believe). In fact, it’s possible that the more we know—about God, about ourselves, about our neighbors and our world—the more paralyzed we can become. At root may be self-righteousness or fear, narcissism or prejudice, or even mere fatigue, but the resulting paralysis looks very much the same.

Garber acknowledges these dangers, but he urges us to press further on, further in:

Can we know the world and still love the world? Can we know the messes of the world and still work on them because we want to, because we see ourselves as responsible, for love’s sake? Sometimes some people make that choice… and always it is a vocation of imitation of a vocation. At our best and truest, we stand in the long line of those who remember the profound insight of Thomas à Kempis in calling us to “the imitation of Christ.” To choose to know, and still to love, is costly; it was for God, and it is for us. In fact it is the most difficult task imaginable.

Just as he finds clues in the fifteenth century writing of Thomas à Kempis, he finds encouragement in J.I. Packer’s modern classic Knowing God, in which the Anglican author and theologian urges us not to be content with merely knowing about God, but actually knowing him and being known intimately—as we are invited to do. Packer writes:

God knew the worst about us before he chose to love us, and therefore no discovery now can disillusion him about us in the way that we are so often disillusioned about ourselves, and quench his determination to bless us. He took knowledge of us in love.

Garber and his colleagues at The Washington Institute for Faith, Vocation & Culture like to say that vocation is integral, not incidental, to the missio Dei. Flipped on its head, we might say that the work God has given us to do—whether we’re paid to do it or not—is corrupted when it stops with us.

As Garber puts it:

To see ourselves as responsible, for love’s sake, is both hard work and good work—and it cannot be done alone.

[Header Image: Sunset, Wheat Fields near Arles (detail) by Vincent Van Gogh]

Repaso: April 4, 2014

April 4, 2014 — 2 Comments

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+ On Wednesday evening, Katie and I were at University of Phoenix stadium with our good friends A.A.ron and Kristine for the #USAvMEX “friendly.” By our estimation, those wearing green outnumbered those in red, white, and blue by a ratio of roughly 90-10, and we had beer spilled on us by one jubilant fan after Mexico’s equalizer. The match ended in a 2-2 draw, though replays demonstrate clearly that the newly uniformed Bomb Pops were robbed.

+ Before we get into more substantial stuff, a public service announcement—with the advent of an app called Coffitivity, you can now get the ambient noise of coffee shops even in otherwise quiet working environments.

+ Kent Annan interviews development economist Bill Easterly for Christianity Today.

+ A day in the life of Tower of David, an abandoned and reclaimed skyscraper in Caracas, Venezuela.

+ In Cuba, “The regime may want a makeover, but the scars will be hard to erase.”

+ A photo essay featuring artists in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands.

+ Sociologist Robert Brenneman (author of Homies and Hermanos: God and Gangs in Central America, a book I highly recommend) on a unique approach to justice that religious NGOs are taking in Central America.

+ Over at the Lemonade International blog this week, Tita Evertsz wrote a reflection that was heavy but so, so good: “Let’s keep moving forward together. There is indeed hope.”

+ Ahead of this weekend’s landmark elections, 26 photos of young Afghans trying to live modern lives.

+ Some stunning shots here as part of the #azcanals photo challenge.

+ Last but not least, while my parents were in town, we visited the amazing Musical Instrument Museum in North Phoenix as well as the beautiful Desert Botanical Garden in Scottsdale, featuring Chihuly in the Garden, which will be open until May 18.

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