The high point of Paul’s presentation of God now moves from the Father (vs. 12) to the Son (vs. 13b) who, so far, is identified as the source of our redemption and the forgiveness of sins (vs. 14). What follows is a well-constructed, eloquent statement of the supremacy of Christ over creation and his unique preeminence as the world’s only redeemer.

15He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation;
16for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created,
things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions
or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him
and for him.

17He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

Wow. Paul just puts it all out there: there is nobody who can light a candle to the rank or power of Jesus Christ, the Lord. Nobody. His emphasis, and the length of his statement (because there is more to come), suggests that this was a sticking point with the Colossians. Textual evidence points to the possibility that the little church in western Turkey might have been tempted to recognize other gods as rivals of Jesus. If a Jewish influence had caused a drift in the Colossian church, as N. T. Wright claims, then the other god would be “the Law.” If pagan doctrines-de-jour have infiltrated the church, then the other gods would be from the Greek pantheon or local inventions. In either case, the weakness being addressed is consideration of anything other than Jesus Christ being the most important and only truly powerful God known to all creation.

In the first half of the passage (verses 15-17 above), Paul describes the Lord with phrases that stretch a Jewish mindset (among his first readers), challenge a Greek-pagan mindset (the background of many church attenders in Colossae), and dethrone a modern mindset that puts the individual in sovereign position. The basic points are these:

  1. Jesus Christ is the image of the invisible God. God is spirit, invisible, but his full glory was reflected in and by his Son, Jesus, who became visible to us as a human being. The fact that God wanted us to see his image in Jesus says something about God’s relational character, his love, and his passion to be known by those he created.

  2. Jesus Christ was before anything created came to be. “The firstborn” is a Jewish idea, representing the fact that Jesus has everything that belongs to the Father, all the rights and privileges of the oldest son, and therefore authority over everyone else to follow in the family. Specifically, before anything was created (cf. Genesis 1 and 2) Jesus already existed. The logic of this claim insists that he had never not existed. Who else can make that claim?! If Jesus was here first and lay claim to everything that followed in creation, that puts him in a pre-eminent position and us in a place of service.

  3. Everything that was created came into being in him, through him, and for him. Fundamentally, this means that nothing exists that didn’t get its life (or being) from Jesus and through his agency, and nothing has been created that wasn’t for his pleasure and use. This category is not limited to plants, animals, people, and the natural world; it includes realities, entities, powers that cannot be seen but which—in the first century and even now—claim their own counterfeit realm.

  4. The false world of illegitimate claims to power simply cannot be sustained because Jesus is before them: a sight to behold and worship. Further the false claims of pagan gods are unsustainable because Jesus—who is bigger, stronger, and wiser—holds even them in the palm of his hand. “In him all things hold together” (vs. 17b).

The prophets very pointedly challenged the prevailing pagan views by mocking the blind, deaf, and mute nature of idols made with hands. A piece of wood, even beautifully carved, cannot see. A stone, even intricately hewn into the shape of an animal, has no life and no caring in it. But Jesus, through whom even we were fashioned and shaped (also in God’s image), is heavily invested in us by his love, compassion, and mercy. In this he has no true rival.

If Jesus is Lord of all creation, then those among us who are spiritual sojourners—the unchurched, de-churched, and decommissioned Christians—must realize that in our independence we are not God. We are not sovereign over our destiny. We do not rule our world. We have not escaped the tyranny of a corrupted church or the sadness over a disappointing leader, only to be thrust out on our own to fend for ourselves. We are assured that the Lord Jesus Christ sees us, knows us, hears us, and is acting on our behalf even as he reigns over us. Detachment from the gathered church does not make us unreachable or unknowable by God. And in some mystical sense, perhaps we can acknowledge that part of what Jesus is “holding together” is our belabored souls, even when our ties to the family of God appear to be weakened or invisible.

Next post: Jesus Christ as Lord of redemption

One of the first things a counselor (of any type) will tell you is that if you want to change a behavior, the best place to start is by monitoring what your current behavior is. If you want to change your eating habits, for instance, you would keep a food log for a couple weeks to observe what you are actually putting in your mouth. Then when it is time to start the behavioral change project, you know where your points of vulnerability are, you know how much of a change is required, and you get a pretty good idea of what to do to change course. If you are honest and complete in your log, self-monitoring is also a good foil against self-deception. Human beings have a huge capacity to sweep reality under the rug, underestimate its impact, or avoid accountability simply by changing the facts one keeps track of.

It has been said that what gets measured gets valued. A few years ago, Willow Creek Community Church came to the conclusion that they were measuring the wrong signs as indicators of their success. While they attracted a lot of people into their worship services (easy to measure), there was a disappointing lack of evidence that the throngs were actually growing more mature and deeper in their faith commitment (something notoriously hard to measure, but everybody would agree is more important than just church attendance). When it comes to measuring progress in the Christian life, congregations and denominations have a difficult time getting to the real issues related to discipleship.

One such area where I think a study should be conducted [within the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) tribe] is the relatively new 1001 New Worshiping Communities project trumpeted at the 2012 General Assembly. As was reported in my blog last week, one such new worshiping community sponsored within San Francisco Presbytery seems to have gone sideways, as evidenced by the so-called worship experience it led for the September presbytery meeting. And yet, at the 2014 General Assembly, news of the proliferation of new, experimental communities was applauded based primarily on the number of new groups formed and grants distributed (easy to track). It did not report the number of groups that formed and failed nor did it report the theological center-of-gravity. I do not believe that the numbers collected so far are telling the real story, but you can find that report by going to and adding key words 14-01 to see the story the General Assembly was given.

Lest you get the wrong impression, let me just say that I am all in favor of the mission of new worshiping communities that seek to make and shape new disciples of Jesus Christ. Amen to that! On its website, 1001 New Worshiping Communities defines itself:


  • Seeking to make and form new disciples of Jesus Christ

  • Taking on varied forms of church for our changing culture


  • Gathered by the Spirit to meet Jesus Christ in Word and Sacrament

  • Sent by the Spirit to join God’s mission for the transformation of the world


  • Practicing mutual care and accountability

  • Developing sustainability in leadership and finances

A great starting point, n’est-ce pas? In the elaboration of this definition, “varied forms” and “innovation” have high value. In general, and within parameters, I have no problem with experimentation and innovation, because many congregations survive on the maxim WADITWB (the seven last words of the church: We’ve Always Done It That Way Before).

But immediately, I am also cautious. The word innovation, and its Presbyterian cousin “Reformed and Always Reforming” (a misquote/mistranslation of one of our hallmarks, “Reformed, and always needing reform according to the Word of God”), is fraught with temptations not only to “think outside the box” but to “go to la-la land.” My pastor friend Frank Jackson, now with Jesus, used to say, “Don’t be so open-minded that your brains fall out.” That is why Presbyterians rely on church discipline to keep ourselves accountable to a biblical standard—or at least we’re supposed to.

The PC(USA) and some congregations within it have not demonstrated an ability or a willingness to hold one another accountable. Recent history has shown, for example in Parnell v. San Francisco Presbytery, that we are unable to define orthodoxy and therefore cannot “practice accountability” for it. What suffers, as the higher value becomes innovation, is sound doctrine, spiritual focus on the Trinity (Father, Son, and Spirit) in the context of Word and Sacrament, and a differentiation between the church and culture. Hence it is possible for the experience we endured two weeks ago to be tolerated and to be perpetuated by PC(USA) grant money.

Wouldn’t this be a great Ph.D. project for someone: to visit the new worshiping communities and report on the intangibles of Christian discipleship, through carefully designed interview collection and observations of behavior within those communities? Who wants to take up the challenge?

When I found out it was lung cancer that was making me sick, a friend from church wrote a sweet note saying, “Welcome to the club nobody wants to join.” In the ensuing days and weeks, others who have traveled this road have come to my attention, sharing from their experiences and welcoming me into a community of people with survivor instincts. Their words of advice and comfort have been particularly meaningful to me.

I have also discovered in this process that milestones must be celebrated with some kind of ritual, just for fun, yes, but to mark progress and to acknowledge what is happening. For instance, the night before I started chemo, we enjoyed fellowship with friends—among them several Presbyterian elders— who gather monthly for “family dinner.” They laid hands on me and prayed for the success of my treatment, according to James 5:13-15. (Prayers are being answered!) Last night I celebrated the end of Round 2 and its after-effects by going to a movie, my first one in months, and I didn’t fall asleep midway through! Woo-hoo! Moments like this must be marked, and we will continue the practice until cancer is a thing of the past in my life. When that day arrives, we’re throwing one heck of a party, I promise you.

Rituals and celebrations are a part of human experience, and this is nothing new. In Luke’s account of Jesus’ nativity, the angel pointed to an important Jewish milestone: on the eighth day after his birth, Jesus would be circumcised and officially named. Luke’s report was short and sweet:  “After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb” (Luke 2:21).

Circumcision at age eight days was ordained by God as a sign of the covenant between the chosen people Israel and God (Genesis 17:12). A particular scar marked those (males) who were dedicated to the Lord and welcomed into the household of faith. The mark was permanent and personal, individualizing the commitment of a people to YHWH. It would be fitting for God’s Son (and his earthly parents) to seal the proper understanding of Jesus’ role in God’s salvation by doing this. To omit it would have rendered his identity as “chosen” unrecognizable to the people he would be reaching as an adult.

Taking this formal opportunity to name the child was also part of the ritual. Some say waiting eight days before naming was recognition of the possibility the child might not survive birth; but after the first perilous eight days, it was now okay to embrace and welcome the baby. I’m not sure this is really the reason; I am more apt to take the Lord’s command at face value, which would put circumcision not in a utilitarian context but a faith-expressing context. It was one’s first rite of obedience to Almighty God. The naming of a child identifies him as a child of the covenant, set apart from the world unto the Lord in faith and service. This idea, by the way, is carried forward into Christian baptism of male and female infants, according to the Reformed Tradition.

Later, Jesus would be baptized with John’s water baptism at the Jordan River. At that time, Jesus would be identified as God’s Son (“with whom I am well pleased”) and propelled into ministry as a result (Luke 3:21f; 4:1-19). This practice carries forward the idea that with chosen-ness comes commission; to be named Yeshua (God saves) indicates Christ’s calling as the Messiah and Savior, which required obedient action on his part throughout his lifetime, culminating of course in his sacrifice on the Cross for our sins.

And so it is with us. When we were named “Christian” at baptism and confession of our faith (either concurrently or as two separate events), we were marked with the seal of the Holy Spirit, a circumcision of the heart (Romans 2:29). It is important for Christian adults to mark important moments in their faith development to keep track of their spiritual progress. These are dates of our choosing, not those dictated by Law. They might include what the church has called confirmation; but even birthdays will do, or days in the church year, or reception as a new member in a congregation. Holy days on your personal Christian calendar might include those occasions when you made a new faith commitment in service or ministry (like ordination) or upon the birth of your own child, a commitment to faithful Christian parenting. These moments carry all the way to our deaths, when in the company of the saints we celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus Christ and his faithfulness in the life of this one believer. The need for “ritual” to mark realities also has included in the Catholic Church the “sacrament of the sick,” or the anointing with oil, the laying on of hands, and the prayer for those who suffer illness. It is that lovely action that I fully appreciate, now that I am sick and in need of signs of progress. I for one look forward to the next “family dinner” that will occur the night before Round 3 of chemo begins January 13. Let the celebration begin!


This week between chemo treatments has given my body a chance to recover from the chemical onslaught and I am amazed at how few side effects I am experiencing at this point. More energy has allowed me to participate in a few normal household pursuits; I even went to the grocery store on my own yesterday—Woo-hoo! Reminders of sickness are only an occasional cough and the fatigue that necessitates a nap. It’s interesting that as I feel better, Jesus feels somewhat distant and the sensation of walking in a “thin place” leaves me. That’s a topic for another day, but it is one reason why I didn’t blog yesterday.

However, two meetings are worth mentioning as seeds of contemplation: the healing prayer meeting on Thursday morning and the consultation with my radiology oncologist on Friday morning.

Thursday’s prayer meeting at Shepherd’s Gate, Livermore, was a sweet time. I thought we were going to a church, but this was actually the chapel service at a Christian residential ministry for women at risk. Most of the other attendees were twenty-something women, who have found refuge there from domestic violence, homelessness, or other crisis situations. They can reside up to eighteen months in this positive, loving environment. As my friend Tim says, “Jesus tends to show up on Thursday mornings as they pray for healing.” I felt their prayers to be powerful and earnest, definitely coming from people who are desperately dependent on Jesus. Denise gave me a Scripture the Lord laid on her heart, Isaiah 41:10, which I will treasure:

      Do not fear, for I am with you,
                  do not be afraid, for I am your God;
      I will strengthen you, I will help you,
                  I will uphold you with my victorious right hand.

Heidi wanted to offer a personal prayer as she gripped my hands. These women were so deeply grateful for the work Jesus had done to transform their lives, and I was moved by their burning desire to pass God’s blessing on to me—“blessed to be a blessing”!

It does not appear to me that anything changed about my health condition, that is, no immediate miraculous healing occurred. But God was doing other healing things in that room and I left with a song in my heart and gratitude for the answers to prayer I have already experienced: cessation of the cough, healing of my esophageal discomfort a week ago, calming of my gut into a smoothly running machine, and the relational peace that surrounds me.

Yesterday (Friday) was my weekly consultation with the doctor supervising my radiation therapy. She was delighted to see how well I was doing. She felt it necessary to prepare me for chemo Round 2: “It’s going to hit you pretty hard, Mary. Be prepared.” I was thinking This treatment regimen is going to be a piece of cake, but she reminded me that all I’ve eaten so far are a few crumbs of that cake. It’s going to get a little harder to swallow during Round 2. [There’s your prayer request for December 16 then!]

A bummer factor was introduced into the conversation when she mentioned a fact that somehow had escaped me previously, that there were three, not one, lymph nodes that lit up in my PET scan. To Dr. Rahman this is old news, and all treatment plans took this into account, and it did not change my stage from III-A. I wonder if knowing it was three instead of one might have changed my outlook or feelings about my cancer. I recall, however, I have gone this long without worrying about it and don’t need to start now.

My confidence comes from a bedrock belief: from day to day my circumstances might change, or not, but God remains the same (Hebrews 13:8). God renews his tender mercies every morning (Lamentations 3:23), and his character is steadfast and immovable to the extent that he is always good, always loving, always redeeming, always attentive (Psalm 145), and nothing can wrest me from his arms (Romans 8:37-39). God was taking care of me before I learned of my cancer, and he is taking care of me still. Nothing about my situation is news to him, and he is taking the necessary steps to address my real condition whether I am aware or not. The great privilege I have, and you do too, is to experience God’s mighty hand holding us steadfast. The slaying of the Beast will come at the right time at the sweep of God’s mighty hand; in the meantime that same God is with us with promises of strength and help through the days when “no change” is the reality. To our unchanging God be the glory!

Essential Identity

November 29, 2013

The social situations of Thanksgiving week, not to mention the daily high-quality conversations with rotating home helpers, have caused me once again to reflect on some of the assumptions we make in life.  In particular this week, the question is How do I see myself, my essential identity, in light of what has been happening lately?

The references to “my friend with cancer,” “she’s a fellow cancer victim,” and other designations that define me (or others) by our ailment have been bothering me a bit. I think I newly appreciate one of the sensitivities my husband has demonstrated for years. As staff scientist for a medical devices company, Andy designs products destined to help people who have diabetes manage their disease effectively. You notice I said “people who have diabetes” instead of “diabetics.” It diminishes people with a chronic disease or condition to be named by it, when they really are characterized by something far more fundamental, an essential identity uniquely their own. So from a medical inventor’s perspective, the idea is to provide tools that help people— school teachers, truck drivers, business managers, or community activists, moms or dads or children—live their lives defined by far more powerful realities than diabetes.

Or cancer. And by the way, no one has used this term in reference to me, but just so we’re clear, I am not a “victim” of cancer, or of anything.

But what or who am I?

The question is an important one for Christians who have placed their full faith and trust in Jesus Christ. We vacillate between a triumphalist designation—the Elect—and a woe-is-me mantle—totally depraved. We Presbyterians wear our Calvinism on our sleeves sometimes. Among evangelicals of all stripes, I think the most common identities in contention are “child of God” and “sinner.”

Some might feel that the name Sinner discouragingly labels us. Are we really defined by our fallen nature before God? Is this an essential part of our character: to be flawed and sinful, weighted down by confused motives and ungodly behavior? From a biblical standpoint, the Apostle Paul’s conviction of sinner as his essential identity only grew as he aged and became more acquainted with his own spiritual struggle. In his earlier letters he refers to himself as “least among the saints” (Ephesians 3:8), but by the time he writes the pastorals he is “chief among sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15). It was he who declared, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). So yes, we are Sinners. This is our reality and we cannot escape its truth, even now.

But as we say so, in Christ, there is a huge “And” to follow:  “And [we] are justified freely by [God’s] grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.” We are not only sinners, but we are redeemed. That means that, by God’s action on our behalf, we have been lifted out of the dead-endedness of sin and into a hopeful and restored life made new in Christ. This too is our reality: “But to all who received him [the Word], who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God” (John 1:12). So yes, we are Children of God. This is also our reality and we cannot escape its truth either.

The designation Sinner is like the identifier Sick. It represents a reality but points to a path toward restoration: the Sinner is redeemed by the Savior; the Sick is healed by the Physician. You can’t experience salvation without the recognition of your sinfulness, just as you can’t experience healing without acknowledging first that you are sick! [Jesus had fine things to say to his Pharisee roadies on this subject—Matthew 9:12 with parallels]

So when I say “I have lung cancer,” I am admitting I am sick and in need of healing. But I am not referring to myself in a permanent way as a cancer victim, because a) nothing about this situation ultimately threatens my identity; b) God is moving mightily to heal me, and I gratefully receive the help; and c) my illness has not changed essentially who I am. One of my visitors this week even said so, and it thrilled me to hear it. “Mary, I am so happy to see that you are fully yourself.” And so I shall be, in Christ: wife and mother, teacher, quilter, blogger, mentor to the next generation of pastors, and a redeemed sinner and a child of God, who is contending for the moment with a Beast that will be slain.


I have often said that God’s biggest competition in my life was food. Of the seven deadly sins, gluttony has been at the top of the list too many times. So you can imagine how I anticipate the possibility of losing taste while undergoing chemotherapy with Cisplatin. Any medicine with the word “platinum” in the name can’t be good for a foodie like me.

I have been wondering when this taste bud transformation would take place, because it hasn’t yet on Day 9 of treatment. Tonight, I celebrated that fact by enjoying the perfect dinner a friend brought to our table: roasted pork loin with baked pear slices, dilled carrots, mashed potatoes, spinach/strawberry salad, and chocolate chip cookies.

First of all—I hope Karen is reading this—it was a Naegeli kind of meal: full of color, nutrition, fresh vegetables and fruit, lovely seasoning, “the perfect dinner.” But it was the cookies that did me in: homemade, fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies with walnuts and real butter. I bit into that aromatic dough and tasted every element of it bursting in my mouth. And I just cried; it was so delicious and good. That one cookie may very well be the highlight of my whole Thanksgiving week.

Have you ever thought about why the Psalmist would exclaim, “O taste and see that the LORD is good! (Ps. 34:8), and “How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!” (Psa. 119:103). Taste is perhaps the overlooked sense, the fifth, after sight, hearing, touch, and smell. These senses are the means God gave us to take reality in to ourselves, to gather what is actual out there and bring it into our own reality in here. One or more of our senses may be compromised (or enhanced) by illness, disability, or gifting; but there are a total of five to help us keep in touch with that which is outside ourselves. I think of autistic Temple Grandin, who organizes her world visually; blind Ken Medema who captures and communicates his world through sound; Helen Keller, who was finally reached through touch; and four little children enticed by the smell of grandma’s fresh pears on an Illinois summer’s afternoon. I think of Jesus, who gathered the miraculous power of God at a wedding in Cana, during which he changed water into wine that became the best vintage of the day (John 2).

So when Jesus commanded his disciples to “Take, eat, this is my Body given for you,” and “Drink this cup in remembrance of me,” he was inviting us to ingest his very presence. Jesus so wants us to understand that God’s sovereignty out there is a reality in our souls, that bursts out upon our tongue of proclamation and zooms down the spiritual pipeline of digestion and energy conversion. The Holy Spirit urges us to open our mouths, take some of God’s Word, chew it, and meditate and taste the sweetness of life centered on Christ and lived in the Spirit’s power.

In light of the colorless, dim, and disorganized world of this age, governed (only for a time) by the evil one who would diminish our senses so as not to discover God, we must cling to the vibrant beauty around us. This is why, in Christian community, the visual arts are so important. Together we can gaze at a painting by Makoto Fujimura and bleed with God’s compassion. This is why, in Christian community, music is so vital. Together we can sing and make melody in our hearts to the Lord and get in touch with the grandeur of heaven like the choirs of Revelation. In Christian community, we practice hospitality as one way to share the aroma and taste of God’s good provision, and why we hug one another at “the kiss of peace” during worship. These are all ways the spiritual reality of God gets from God’s realm into our hearts, part of the blessing God has poured into us by his Holy Spirit.

As we go into the Lord’s Day this weekend— Reformed and Presbyterian as some of my readers are, others as Lutherans, Catholics, and people under the burden of cancer—let us consider what there is to taste and see of God. How is it, on Christ the King Sunday, that we might experience God as Victor over the Beasts that seek to work us woe? In what way can we take in the life of Christ and allow him to overshadow our fears, our discomforts, our deficits, even our disbelief? I am reminded by that chocolate chip cookie that God can break through at the most unexpected moments and shout, “I’m here! See me! Touch me! Hear me! Smell me! Taste me!” And then food, as an example, becomes not an end in itself but more profoundly an invitation to worship the Creator and Sustainer of Life.



The study of history was never my strong suit in high school, and though I had a couple of world-renowned history professors at Stanford, the discipline did not capture my imagination. I was at the time much better suited as a mathematical sciences major (first) and ultimately music major. Problem sets and musical analyses were more my forte in these formative years. I’ve been on a remedial course ever since.

What turned me around was Church History in seminary. I took three courses: Early Church, Reformation History, and American Church History to fulfill my requirements. For the first time (with the possible exception of Music History in college), I could attach ancient events to my own life and see the relevance of history as something important to my life’s work. Through the lens of church history, I have been able to circle back and appreciate biblical history, political history, art history, and even music history.

It also helps to have lived through several decades of personal history. To this day I am an avid reader of the daily newspaper, a habit I started in grade school at the suggestion of my mother. This accumulation of knowledge and experience contributes to a long-view perspective on the shake-up we are now experiencing in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

This week I would like to ponder the dynamics of dismissal from the PC(USA). There is a long view (version 1), and local view (San Francisco Presbytery), and another long view (version 2) that I would like to describe eventually. But my starting point is this observation: most departing churches I know have come to their decision as the result of a gradual accumulation of concerns rather than any one precipitating event.  For many, it has and is a slow-motion process of waking up and realizing something is terribly wrong. For others, there was perhaps one piece of bad news coming from a GAPJC or a GA; but because Presbyterians rarely do anything quickly, a process of discernment has revealed a spiritual and ecclesiastical osteoporosis that is only now causing pain.

Taking the long view, from an evangelical perspective, I see two movements in particular that have sent the PC(USA) off the orthodox path. In each case, there was a precipitating event, unrecognized for its import at the time, but a decision that changed the course of history within our tribe (if not the world).

The first trajectory is a distinctly Presbyterian one, and it focused primarily on the American Church. It was the outcome of the Fundamentalist/Modernist debate in the 1920s. The issue boiled down to whether one’s identification as Presbyterian rested on subscription to basic fundamentals of Christian faith. I have written about this before (here, and here), and only remind us today that an unwillingness to define ourselves doctrinally has allowed Presbyterian leaders to believe and preach whatever they want. “Whatever they want” has crossed the line of orthodoxy in practice, if not in our books. The fact that our Confessions and Book of Order remain as orthodox statements of our faith is irrelevant to people who want to do what they want to do. Freedom of conscience has been enshrined as the only truly meaningful (that is, universally applied) principle of our governance. There is no such thing now as doctrinal purity, because there is no belief standard by which that can be measured. This alone is enough to drive evangelical churches crazy.

The second movement—relevant to our consideration of why conservative churches leave the denomination—is the sexual revolution, and specifically the invention of the birth control pill. What has become a reliable means for family planning in the marriage context has also been permission-giving to sexually active folks regardless of their relational context. It is obvious that over the last fifty years, there has been a significant upsurge in promiscuity (sex without any anchoring commitment), sexual exploitation of women (without the commensurate commitment to raise a family together), and so-called advanced reproductive technologies that have made possible the creation of babies without a relationship at all (sort of a reproductive Tower of Babel). For challenging and insightful reading on this dynamic, read What Is Marriage? by Girgis, Anderson, and George, and Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae.  

The pressures that result from these trends have all come to bear on the Presbyterian Church, culminating now in its debate about what constitutes marriage.  For the evangelicals who remain in the PC(USA), a redefinition of marriage, possibly (though not inevitably) next summer, would be the straw that breaks the camels back.

Tomorrow: A case study from my Presbytery

A couple times a week I join a few fellow “gym rats” for coffee at the local Peet’s. This group of women frequents the fitness center and then gathers for a coffee klatch before heading home. They come from diverse backgrounds culturally and geographically and represent the gamut of religious views, from lapsed Christian to Sihk to Jewish to complete blank slate. Every once in awhile, one of them will turn to me for advice, knowing I am a pastor. Lately, however, there has been a communal handwringing over recent events. When the bombs went off in Boston, the questions came again:

“Why do people do what they do?” The related questions tumble out: Why can’t people show more love for one another? What moves people to do such horrible things? Why do people not value human life more than this?

I bite my tongue a lot, until I get the divine go-ahead to offer an answer. It’s all part of the missional teaching (or informative conversation) ministry I am practicing and writing about. When “total depravity” is the answer that first pops into my mind, it takes a bit of skill and courage to ease into those churning waters with something meaningful and helpful.

People in the Reformed Tradition attribute the concept of total depravity to John Calvin’s followers in the 16th century. The idea is that human beings are thoroughly tainted by sin; that is, there is no part of human life that has not in some way been marred by the sin of Adam and Eve (cf. Genesis 6:5). I think it was Augustine who spoke of this inherited trait in terms we would now refer to as gene mutation. So every human being has a gene called “sin” which, if dominant, urges that person on to all manner of evils. We should not be surprised that people are capable of terrorist acts. Along with C. S. Lewis, we should probably be asking why there isn’t more unmasked evil in the world than there is.

Let’s see how far we can go with the genetic analogy. What if we were to see salvation in Jesus Christ as the first step in divine gene therapy? Acknowledging there is still “the flesh” to contend with in this life (Romans 7), wouldn’t our new situation in Christ be like a dominant sin gene engineered into a recessive gene (still there, but not overtly expressed in everyday life)? And our final sanctification/ glorification—once this body has died—is represented by a gene transplant?  [I know my readers will hack away at the analogy, but stay with me for a minute.]

For those in whom Sin is still the dominant gene, anything is possible, according to Calvin. Living according to the flesh brings death; living in the Spirit brings life. Society can make laws, remain vigilant to restrain evil, and educate people; but none of these laudable activities addresses the root problem, which is the condition of the human soul without Jesus Christ. Any solution to the problems our society faces are going to have to include a genuine grappling with God’s salvation offered in Jesus Christ. This prophetic and pastoral role is the unique and essential activity of the Church. If we seek to know Christ and to make him known and to submit as the Body of Christ to the will and way of the Head, we will have a transforming effect in the world.

However, in a post-Christian western world, I have seen signs that the Presbyterian Church has loosened its grip on the transforming gospel. Many Presbyterians see salvation not as a life-and-death matter, but only one of preference. If we really believed that Jesus Christ has the power to change what people do (and why) and if we personally experienced that transforming power in daily life, I think the situation would be different. But our witness to the world is weak and ineffective, precisely because we have traded in God’s Word and Way for an ear-tickling false gospel that says “Do what you want; God will bless it.” We should not be surprised at all, in that environment, if radical _____ists do anything extreme, for it is the same spiritual condition working itself out into behavior contrary to God’s will and ultimately destructive of human life.

Hearing God’s Voice

March 5, 2013

Yesterday, in my review of The Bible: Episode One, I mentioned the voice of God as quiet and young-sounding. Noah, Abraham and Moses unmistakably heard God’s voice and distinguished it from their own inner voices. Consequently, they gave great weight to the message they heard. Sarah needed a little convincing—I mean, if your spouse came home and said, “God spoke to me today, and we’re moving to a place he will show us when we get there,” what are you going to say? “Are you feeling all right? Are you having delusions?” It’s just not the sort of thing one expects or one claims with a sound mind. And in all these cases, God had been silent a long time, and yet the hearers were convinced of the Voice’s origin.

All three followed a similar path under different circumstances: they were confronted with a word from the Lord “out of the blue”; reception of that word required faith in the One who uttered it; and dramatic, responsive action followed. Noah built an ark and gathered animals in pairs to reside in it. Abraham uprooted his entire family and followed God’s leading to Canaan. Moses overcame his own objections to go to Egypt’s Pharaoh and plead for the release of the Hebrews. It’s rather staggering to think what “listening to the voice of God” entailed for these three and makes me wonder if God might be saying to the church anything half as dramatic and life-changing.

The word “discernment” is not used in these Bible stories, but that process well known to Presbyterians is certainly in play. God’s word came to these men, they believed that God spoke it, they trusted God’s wisdom and promise, and they acted according to the instructions given to them. They did not have the benefit of sacred Scripture with which to “test the spirits,” as we do (1 John 4:1), but the power of God was evident to them.

God spoke, and these men acted accordingly. It seems a reasonable conclusion that if one has really heard the voice of God, then doing what God says becomes a compelling interest.

We certainly have plenty of examples of fully committed Presbyterians who believe God has spoken to them about, say, the homosexuality question, even though their conclusions have landed in mutually exclusive arenas. So we must ask: how do we know it was God speaking?

This is the question addressed by Gordon T. Smith in a wonderful book The Voice of Jesus: Discernment, Prayer and the Witness of the Spirit (IVP, 2003). The book identifies two very basic questions, “What is Jesus saying to you?” and “How do you know it is Jesus speaking to you?” The ability to tell the difference between our own hopes and desires from God’s Word is extremely important for our spiritual growth and active discipleship, not to mention the direction of the church. Humility is the basic posture of the godly listener in reverence for the Word of God written, which is the word of Christ (Col 3:16). We also appreciate that “the voice of Jesus is present to the Christian community through the inner witness of the Holy Spirit” (14).  Smith goes on to show that this inner witness is always grounded in the written witness of the Spirit—holy Scripture—and it is recognized by those who live in mutual submission within the community of faith. These two anchors enable not only the individual but also the discerning body to determine if what is heard is in fact the voice of Jesus. Smith draws from the writings of Ignatius of Loyola, John Wesley, and Jonathan Edwards to demonstrate how this works. The Church would do well to reactivate the discipline of spiritual discernment with their wise guidance at hand.

It will be interesting to observe whether History Channel’s The Bible continues to portray God’s voice as quiet and direct to individuals, when the story warrants. In the meantime, during this Lenten season we are invited to tune in to God’s voice through Scripture reading, quiet time, and spiritual alertness. To recognize the inner witness of the Spirit is to practice the presence of God, so that we become familiar with his voice. And then, when God needs to get our attention on a busy day, we can turn to him without delay!

Ash Wednesday is as good a day as any to reflect on what God is doing in one’s life, and anything that tends toward “examination of conscience” is particularly fitting during Lent. Lent for some is seen as a period of self-imposed “downward mobility” during which one denies oneself in order to follow Christ. This concept is taking on new meaning for me, as I examine the contours of my life and Christian service with an eye to reshaping my ministry life.  Since it has been awhile since my last blog, and inertia must be overcome, today I am going to share some random thoughts that may perhaps point the way for a more sustained reflection in the next few days. [I’ve recently learned never to promise a blog “tomorrow,” because life has been a little unpredictable lately, and tomorrow turns into “next month.”]

I attended the Orlando meeting of Fellowship of Presbyterians (FOP) and ECO two weeks ago, and was gratified that several of my readers went out of their way to affirm Bringing the Word to Life and thank me for helping them sort through issues. You must know how much these greetings blessed me, and I want to extend my gratitude to every one of you who put your name to a face.  Thank you for reading my posts. I trust that you will use my blog for God’s glory and Kingdom purposes whenever a topic touches on something going on with you or your church.

My reflections today do not fall into any PC(USA) category, and maybe that is part of the news of this post. I am finding so much of what is going on—or not going on—in the denomination to be of little consequence to me, irrelevant to my call, and admittedly boring. This does not mean that I am beyond grieving for the Presbyterian church or that I am out of touch. Rather, it is my perception that we are in a slow leftward drift following a 2012 Tipping Point, and there is not much that can be done to change that direction. And I am tired of talking about it. I have spoken my piece in the last eighteen months, and harping on old themes just doesn’t feel helpful right now.

Nevertheless, I feel called to write, and this blog is a daily discipline of reflection that allows me to test out ideas and learn from the comments that come my way. The Word always needs to be brought to life, so I want to continue to encourage your faith in our gracious Savior and his Word written. Probably less and less of it will relate specifically to the Presbyterian church, but you know that I am coming from a Reformed perspective, just trying to teach the faith and spur us all on to love and good works (Hebrews 10:25).

It would seem that God has been channeling me into a writing track for several months now.  My role as an adjunct instructor for Fuller Northern California has diminished to almost nothing, due to policy and curriculum changes at the seminary. The Coalition leadership is on hiatus for a year, between Assemblies, though I remain Moderator of a small board. Every indication at both the local and national level is that I am an unsuitable candidate for pastoral ministry—lots of reasons for that conclusion, that have nothing to do with my gifts, abilities, energy, or passion for the gospel. I worked most of autumn on DOORWAYS: Study Guide for the Essential Tenets, which was finally put online two weeks ago by FOP but was downplayed at the Orlando gathering in favor of “The French Confession” (and Joe Small’s excellent introductory talk on the subject). So I do not think there is an ongoing role for me in the either the new denomination or the Fellowship.

What remains on my plate is a quarter-time parish associate position (they call me “teaching pastor”) at a large ELCA Lutheran church in my neighborhood. I preach every few weeks, teach weekly, preside at Communion every Sunday, and am on call for pastoral care needs. This has been a fantastic blessing all around, but it too will end when the new permanent executive pastor is identified and called, probably early this summer.

I am an almost-60-year-old female Presbyterian minister, with twenty-five years of pastoral experience, a Doctor of Ministry degree, and executive leadership skills. I am all dressed for a party, but have nowhere [organizationally] to go. I am sorely tempted to say, “There is something wrong with this picture,” but who is to say my life is not going exactly according to God’s plan . . .

Could it be that God is orchestrating a vanishing act, achieved by downward mobility, in order to put me in a place where I can write without interruption? After months of prayer, this is the conclusion upon which I am acting. I am turning over a new leaf and entering a new phase of ministry at home. As I say this, though, I see the tremendous emotional hurdle I have been [not] facing in the last several months, embodied in my inability to clean out my home office. Three lives (pastorate, seminary teaching, and denominational matters) are represented in the stacks and boxes and files that are now in gridlock. In response to this conundrum, one of my covenant group friends said last week, “Mary, it seems like you need to hold a funeral, and say goodbye to your old life.” That rings true for me, and I have adopted that as the primary task of this week.

Looking forward, I would like to know what approach or topics would be helpful to my blog readers. I am no longer sure where my particular value is, though I know that I have value in the Body of Christ as a teacher and perhaps a prophet. Don’t worry; I am not depressed or suffering from any sort of complex. It is well with my soul. I’m just looking for direction from my readers, and trust that your feedback can set me on a course of service as an observer and spiritual guide. I sure don’t want to waste your time blathering about stuff you prefer I keep in a private journal! So let me know what you are thinking and how you perceive my contribution to your spiritual journey.