The Garden City

In the symbolism of Revelation, we glimpse Christianity’s ultimate aspiration.

Italian-Renaissance-garden_design

An Italian renaissance garden.

I find Revelation 21-22 attracts me back over and over again just as a burning light bulb allures the flying moth at night. As evidence, you my readers may notice that I’ve written about these two chapters twice before in this blog (see my two postings Heaven’s Not My Home and Jerusalem–Icon of Unity).

The appeal of Revelation 21-22 is not that I take them as a literal description of what heaven will look like. I don’t take any of Revelation as a literal blueprint of God’s plans for the future, as the dispensationalists do.

Instead I read Revelation’s imagery as I do imagery in poetry. Some of the images serve a symbolic function. Others are loaded with literary associations, usually looking back to the Old Testament. All seek to convey a deeply Christian vision of life and of God’s work in the world—past, present, and future.

In Revelation 21-22, the seer John gives us a glimpse of what lies ahead after the end of history. That is, what lies ahead after what Christian theology calls the Eschaton, the End. This brings the end of the universe as we presently know it. It ends God’s creative and redemptive work, which has been the grand story of Scripture.

At the Eschaton, the universe dies. Here John’s vision agrees with modern cosmology, which says that some billions upon billions of years ahead from now the universe will die either from extreme expansion or extreme contraction.

What comes after this death is the great promise of the Christian gospel: resurrection. Revelation 21-22 foresees a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away. We are in a new creation, but it is not discontinuous with the previous creation. Rather it is a transformed creation, just as are the resurrected bodies that the apostle Paul looks for in 1 Corinthians 15.

The Crown Jewel of the New Creation

In John’s vision, the crown jewel of this new creation is the new city of Jerusalem that descends from heaven to the earth. The fact that it descends from heaven is John’s way of bearing witness that it is ultimately the gift of God, not the capstone of human creativity through the ages. John has no time for any utopian human agendas.

It is a city of stunning beauty, for it is as a bride adorned for her husband (Revelation 21:2). It is also the place where God dwells:

 ‘See, the home [Greek: tabernacle] of God is among mortals.

He will dwell with them;

They will be his peoples,

And God himself will be with them….’ (Revelation 21:3)

In this vision the incarnation of God in his creation has expanded beyond just the man Jesus to embrace the whole of humanity. The whole community of humanity (symbolized by the city) now composes the tabernacle or dwelling place of God.*

This is a breath-taking vision. It is why the Eastern Orthodox tradition is not blasphemous when it proclaims that God became a human being in order that human beings might become divine.** The Orthodox have grasped far better the full meaning of salvation than have most Protestants.

Revelation 21 then goes on to describe this city in glowing imagery. It has golden streets. Its gates are made from precious jewels. It radiates light. There is no night.

The Garden of Eden Redux

Revelation 22 continues John’s description of the city. From the heart of the city flows a river of the water of life. On each side of the river grows the tree of life, which bears fruit non-stop. Its leaves convey healing.

These verses clearly allude to the Garden of Eden described in Genesis 2. From the center of Eden also flows a river, which then divides into four branches. And in the midst of the Garden grows the tree of life.

In John’s vision of the Eschaton the Garden of Eden has not been discarded. It has been preserved or rather resurrected, but now abides as part of a city. The rural and the urban no longer form the two sides of a human conflict that has afflicted human history. Nor do primitive nature and highly evolved human culture. They have been united into one.

What strikes me so much in this Christian aspiration for the future is how it contrasts so dramatically with the aspiration for the future that we find in ancient Greek culture, especially its philosophy.

Greek culture tended to assume that human life was grounded in a deadly dualism. The material side of life and the spiritual/intellectual side of life were always in conflict. This dualism was the cause of human suffering. Salvation was escaping it. (The classic expression of this viewpoint is found in Plato’s dialogue Phaedo.)

So life in the human body and in all the material side of life constituted a prison for the spirit and mind of human beings. The great longing was to set that mind/spirit free. This in turn fed a strong ascetical spirit in Greek philosophy. That spirit would later provide one of the springs of Christian asceticism.

God’s Home

But in John’s vision in Revelation, the material side of nature and the bodily life of human beings are not banished. Rather they come to be indwelt by divinity. God chooses to dwell in the new material creation. But this time the creation is truly in-Spirited. The material universe reaches its ultimate destiny–to be the tabernacle of God.

What we see in John’s vision is the ultimate working out of the Christian doctrine of Incarnation. God’s incarnation was not to end with the birth of the baby of Bethlehem. Rather God’s incarnation makes its first entrance into the world in that birth, but does not end until I believe the whole of creation is home to God’s Spirit. Talk about a big, big story!

The implications of this understanding of the Christian aspiration are immense for Christian understandings of ministry and ethics. They provide, I contend, the foundation for the Christian sacraments and for Christian ministries of healing, of feeding the hungry, of social service, of Christian engagement in politics and in ecology, of Christian respect for sexuality and the arts, and even of Christian attitudes towards what constitutes healthy Christian asceticism.***

Why do John’s visions in Revelation make my spirit soar? Let the implications of John’s symbolism sink in and you may begin to see why.

____________

* As I noted above, the Greek word that the NRSV translators translate as home in Revelation 21:3 is the literal word tabernacle. This is a weighty Biblical word. It alludes back to the tabernacle in the Old Testament’s Exodus story. There God instructs Moses to construct a portable tent sanctuary that could function as the meeting place between God and Israel during its 40-year journey through the Sinai desert. In John’s vision the transient place of meeting between God and Israel has now been replaced with a permanent meeting place.

But the word tabernacle also carries us back to the opening of John’s gospel. There in John 1:14 the gospel writer summarizes the Christmas gospel in the sentence, And the Word became flesh, and lived [Greek: tabernacled] among us, and we have seen his glory…. When we read John in Revelation, we must carry with us these two previous uses of the word.

** They call this the doctrine of theosis.

*** One of my favorite modern Christian writers who I believed has plumbed the depths of meaning in the Christian doctrine of incarnation is the Jesuit Teilhard de Chardin. His view of Christian spirituality is quite distinctive in his emphasis on matter being raised to participate fully in spirit rather than in matter being abandoned in an effort to give the spirit freedom to flourish.

 

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Why I Read and Study the Bible

Engagement with the Bible is a priority for me for one important reason.

Easter Bible

I have been writing this blog for five years. Sometimes the pressure of coming up with yet another new posting makes me anxious. Yet I continue to write because I continue to find myself captivated by the Bible. You may wonder why, so let me offer an answer.

It is not because I regard the Bible as a simple collection of ready answers to every spiritual problem or need. If I am feeling fear, then I turn to…. If that were the case, then the Bible would be just another volume of magic spells comparable to something Harry Potter might find in the library of Hogwarts.

I certainly have favorite passages of the Bible that I turn to in distressing times. But that’s not why I continue to invest my time and energies in reading and studying this book.

Nor do I read the Bible because I expect there to find infallible answers to every question I bring to it. To be honest, I give no credibility to any doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture, although that was certainly the teaching in the religious tradition I grew up in. I am fully prepared to acknowledge that there may be errors of fact and viewpoint in some of what I read in the Bible.

I hold this position because I do not believe that human beings are given the gift of infallibility, infallibility of any kind whether we locate it in reason, the Pope, general church councils, or the Bible. Only one is infallible. That is God. And human beings do not share that divine characteristic. To be human is to be capable of erring, and we all do, including I believe the authors of the Bible.

The very human process by which the Bible came to us

My study of how the Bible was written, edited, and compiled has shown me how thoroughly human was the process by which we received the Bible. No angel dictated the words of the Bible to its authors (as Muslims believe Gabriel did with the words of the Quran). The process that brought us the Bible is full of all the historical contingencies that accompany any human endeavor.

Furthermore, that process means we find different voices and viewpoints expressed in the Bible as a whole. The books of the Bible do not speak with one unified voice.

I offer one example. The books of Ezra-Nehemiah and the book of Ruth offer contradictory viewpoints on the legitimacy and value of Israelite men marrying foreign wives. Yet all three books are included in the Bible. And for that reason I must hear and take seriously what each of them says in their contradictory viewpoints. I cannot pick and choose to accept only one. The canon of the Bible means I must hear each voice with equal seriousness, for given different historical situations, one voice may speak a message that I need to hear at that time over the others.

 The divine mystery that is the Bible

So skeptics may say to me with some astonishment, “Why do you continue to read and study the Bible? Isn’t it a vast waste of time?” Some might even say a detrimental waste of time. Look, they say, at all the pain and hurt people quoting the Bible have brought into human history.

Their question reminds me of a scene in the movie Zorba the Greek, where Zorba asks his scholarly English companion Basil why anyone dies. Basil says that he does not know. Zorba responds, “What the use of all your damned books if they can’t answer that?” Basil responds: “They tell me about the agony of men who can’t answer questions like yours.”

In an analogous way, I continue to read and study the Bible for one important reason. It may not answer all my questions, but tells me of the privilege and challenge of being called to be a child of God, of living in the divine mystery that lies around, beneath, above, and inside me. It feeds my spirit, nurtures my faith, shapes my mindset, guides my behavior, forms my character, and inspires my hope like no other book.

Because of all that I can affirm with full conviction what the Pauline author says in 2 Timothy 3:16-17:

All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work. 

 I would ask you to notice about this sentence (so often quoted as proof of the Bible’s divine inspiration) that its primary focus is not on the use of the Bible to proof text doctrine, but to shape the way we live and behave. The author is most concerned in the power of the Bible to form us as believers so we can live lives of Christian service.

I truly believe that the Bible is divinely inspired, but not because the Bible claims to be so inspired or a church authority declares it so, but because of the mysterious power it has continually to nurture me in my life of faith. I do not understand the nature of that power, anymore than I understand the mysterious way the Spirit of God guided the contingent process of bringing the Bible into being.

Exactly how God has inspired the Bible is a mystery to me. Yet I continue to believe that God has done so because of the power the Bible has played in my life. I first became captivated by the Bible as a teen-ager. And through all the up’s and the down’s of my tumultuous spiritual journey I have been able to turn to the Bible as a steadying force in my life.

The dual pillars of my spiritual life

I said my spiritual journey has been tumultuous. I mean that. And through all the twists and turns of my spiritual and emotional life, two things have proved my anchor. One is my engagement with the Bible; the other is my regular participation in the Eucharist. They have been my personal Jachin and Boaz, those foundational pillars that stood at the entrance of Solomon’s temple (2 Chronicles 3:15-17).

Together, the Bible and the Eucharist have grounded me spiritually. And I note that they also form the two foci—the liturgy of the Word and the liturgy of the Sacrament—that have formed the historic Sunday liturgy of the church. That liturgy, too, has a mysterious divine power. It feeds me spiritually. It heals my emotions. It challenges my passivity. It shapes my character.

So why do I continue to read, study, and wrestle with the Bible? Why do I try to share something of the fruit of that engagement in my blog postings? Because here I touch the mystery of God and God’s ways and purposes in the world. Hear I touch the mysteries, the challenges, and privileges of being a human being.

And here too I gain insight into the nature of this cosmos in which we live. The Bible tells me this cosmos is not meaningless, despite all our experiences that suggest otherwise. Instead the Bible calls me to trust in the hidden ways God is guiding this cosmos to its mysterious, but glorious destiny.

 

 

 

Jesus, Human Being

In a boyhood story we glimpse something of Jesus’ humanity.

William_Holman_Hunt_-_The_Finding_of_the_Saviour_in_the_Temple

The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple, by William Holman Hunt, 1860.

The story of Jesus in the New Testament gospels has one big omission. It tells us almost nothing about those 30 years between Jesus’ birth and the beginning of his Galilean ministry.

That omission has always troubled Christians, even in the early church. To remedy it, an anonymous Christian writer in the 2nd century wrote the Infancy Gospel of Thomas. It provides both charming and alarming stories about Jesus as a growing boy learning with some difficulty how to control his miraculous powers. The Infancy Gospel of James from the same era tries to satisfy our curiosity about the early life of the Virgin Mary.

The canonical gospels in the New Testament remain silent about those obscure 30 years… with one exception. Luke tells a story about a pilgrimage visit Jesus and his parents make to Jerusalem when Jesus is 12 years old (Luke 2:41-52). It gives us one fleeting, but revealing glimpse into the early development of Jesus.

The Jesus we meet in it comes across to me as a very normal, though precocious adolescent. Like every adolescent, he is beginning to assert his own independence from his parents. It may be too extreme to label it rebellion, but Jesus certainly shows some indifference to his parents’ feelings by his decision to remain behind in Jerusalem without informing them.

When his parents finally find him in the temple (after a three-day search), I think we can assume they were quite annoyed at their son. We can speculate that there were likely some harsh words said. Raising Jesus may have had its trials, as raising any child does.

Like most adolescents, too, Jesus seems to be exploring his own identity. He already manifests some awareness of a special relationship with God. He refers to God as his Father. He may not fully understand yet what his identity is and means. That’s why he is in the temple engaged in inquiry with the religious scholars.

Luke makes a point of telling us that Jesus was not lecturing the scholars. He was no know-it-all kid. Instead he is asking questions and listening to the scholars’ answers. I take special note of that detail. He does not have all the answers. He is seeking possibly to understand this special relationship with God that he is already experiencing. What does it mean? What does it require of him?

There is at the same time in the story a sense of Jesus as a precocious teen-ager. Luke tells us that the scholars are astonished at his questions and answers. He must have been manifesting a depth of thought and insight that struck them as highly unusual for a young person of his age.

A Real Human Boy

What strikes me about this story in Luke is the sense of Jesus as a real human being, a real human boy. He certainly may be spiritually precocious for his age. Yet he is still acting like a normal adolescent. He is not some superboy astonishing people with his powers (as is the boy described in the infancy gospels). Instead he is experiencing the typical developmental challenges that go along with his age.

The orthodox confession of the Christian church is that Jesus Christ is fully God and fully human in an indivisible union. That is the official doctrine. But I am not sure we always realize the implications of what we are confessing.

If Jesus is fully human, as we confess, then Jesus experiences the same limitations that we do as human beings. He has a body with its demands. The baby who lies in the manger of Bethlehem is a real baby who needs his mother’s milk and messes in his diapers. He would at times have been a fussy baby. As an adolescent, he would have experienced all the confusing developments in his body as puberty set in.

I think confessing Jesus as truly human means Jesus, too, had to meet the many challenges of growing up. That meant not only learning how to walk and talk, but how to outgrow the instinctual egocentrism that goes with being a toddler.

He had to learn Hebrew like the other boys in the synagogue. He had to learn how to use the tools in his father’s carpenter shop. And learning meant making mistakes and learning from those mistakes.

In Luke’s story we see Jesus as a normal adolescent passing through some of the normal challenges of growing up to be himself and to own his own calling. He does not have the gift of omniscience. No human being does. So he must ask questions and learn from his elders.

Saying all this does not mean I deny his divinity. I say what I say, however, because I am more and more convinced that when we overemphasize Jesus’ divinity, we end up disbelieving in his humanity. When we do that, Jesus becomes a demi-god walking on earth, not one of us. And if he is not one of us, then he cannot be an example for us to emulate. Nor can he save us, for he has not truly lived out the life of faithfulness within the same limitations and weaknesses of human nature that the rest of us do.

 

The Grammar of Grace

Is the Gospel a depressing burden or exhilarating good news? It all depends upon how we understand the dynamic of grace. 

Augustine of Hippo, the great theologian of grace, as depicted by Sandro Botticelli, 15th century.

Several years ago, when I was seeking my first position as a pastor, I was asked what I thought was the top theological issue in our world today. After some thought, I answered that for me it was how we relate Christian behavior to the life of grace.

I felt then (and I still do) that most American churches get it wrong, not in the words they use, but in their actions. They preach salvation by God’s grace, but practice a life that the Protestant Reformers called salvation by works. That creates huge amounts of anxiety in people’s lives. It also drives many away from organized religion.

It’s an irony, of course, because some of the most heated debates in the Reformation were over this very question: How are we saved? Or more crudely, how do we get on the good side of God? By works of righteousness that we perform or by God’s free gift (grace) that we appropriate by faith? The Reformers answered with the latter option. That conviction is supposed to be one of the distinctions of Protestantism.

Yet for many American Christians today, the Reformation debate feels hollow. It sounds like just another of the Reformers’ interminable doctrinal food fights. That’s because we can no longer connect the theological language in which the debate is worded with our lived experience.

A Need for Relearning

To use a metaphor, we no longer understand the correct grammar for talking about grace. Grace still tends to be a warm and fuzzy word in our religious vocabulary. It resonates with good vibrations. We’re just not sure what it means. So it is easy to misuse it. And when we do, we can mess up our lives badly. We need to relearn how to use it correctly.

It helps to begin with the origin of the word. The English word grace comes from the Latin word gratia, which means literally favor, kindness, or esteem. Ultimately behind the Latin lies the root meaning of pleasing. Gratia is the favor or kindness we feel when something or someone gives us pleasure.

When we apply the word grace to God, we are talking about the favor, the kindness, or good esteem that God shows to us. We are his good creation. He declares us very good, at the end of the Genesis creation story (Genesis 1:31). And so, I believe, we give him pleasure.

Not everyone agrees. Several years ago, my sister told me a story about an incident in her church. A young couple came to church one day with their newborn baby. Church members crowded around to ooh and ah over the child. They kept saying what a beautiful baby it was.

After several minutes of that, the father suddenly burst out: “This child is a God-damned sinner, and he will go to Hell someday unless he gets saved.” My sister, to her credit, was shocked just as I am by his outburst. Yet it is a common theological belief in many religious circles.

I contend its understanding of God and God’s attitude to humanity is simply wrong. We may stray from God’s way of life and despoil his good creation. But that does not transform God’s attitude from one of love to one of hate. We remain objects of God’s love, because we are God’s good creation, no matter how badly we screw up. He continues to love us and seeks to restore us to wholeness.

Challenging a Twisted Belief

Most of us, however, develop the twisted belief that we must do something to make this hating God love us, to make God look with favor and good esteem on us. We hear this belief often expressed by people in church when they say they try to live good lives so they will make it into heaven when they die.

So we struggle hard to achieve that acceptance with God. Such a belief makes perfect sense to most of us, because it is the way a lot of the world works — the world in which most of us live and do business. Advertising, for example, would have us believe that if we don’t wash our hair in the latest and greatest shampoo, we will not be attractive and will therefore not be loved.

I see this twisted belief at work all the time in the corporate world, where I spent 30 years of my working life. There it is standard operating procedure.

People get promoted to a higher status in their companies allegedly on the basis of their achievements–or in corporate language, on the basis of their performance. If I reach executive status in the company, it is because I have performed exceptionally well in lower positions.

This is the dynamic of un-grace. It can be stated very simply: I am what I am because of what I do.

Have you ever noticed that at social occasions when we are introduced for the first time to a stranger, the first question we usually ask is: What do you do? That’s because in a lot of American life our identity is tied up with what work we do. In some other circles our identity is linked to the family or tribe we belong to.

The besetting vice that accompanies this dynamic of un-grace is pride. If my performance achieves me my status, then I can rightly feel proud of what I have achieved. Maybe that’s why we Americans are so afraid of being called a loser. We are obsessed with winning, because our status and respect in society depends upon it.

The Gospel Reversal

The Gospel turns this dynamic on its head. I do not attain my status in God’s sight because of anything I do. Instead, I am chosen by God and adopted into God’s family by his redemptive work in Christ. For the Christian, the sign and seal of that adoption is the sacrament of baptism, which unites us to Christ through trusting faith.

The fact there is nothing I do to achieve this status is particularly striking when baptism is performed in infancy. When our parents present us for baptism, God adopts us as his own. We become children of God because God acknowledges us as such, not because of anything an infant does. All the infant may do is squeal when the water is poured on its head.

Once we are members of God’s family, there are behaviors that grow out of our status.   We are called to live in a particular way–a way that is described in our ethics, our spiritual disciplines, and in our worship practices– but these ways do not achieve us our status before God. They are responses to the status conferred on us at baptism.

In the realm of grace, behavior grows out of who we are. Here the logic in its simplest is: We do what we do because of who we are.

Let me repeat this contrast.

The way of the world is expressed in the formula: I am what I am because of what I do. I achieve my status of acceptance with God by how I live my life. This way of living is what our ancestors in the Reformation meant when they denounced salvation by works.

The way of the Gospel is expressed in the formula: I do what I do because of who I am. I am a child of God by God’s initiative. All I have to do is gratefully accept that gift of status that God confers. Once I do and begin to realize the depth of this truth, my behavior is going to change, but as a response to the gift God has given.

This is how I understand what the Reformers meant when they upheld salvation by grace through faith. God adopts us into his family by his gracious, free initiative. When the prodigal son returns to his father, he is received joyfully as a son, not as a slave, because he is in fact already a son. The father throws a party. All the son can feel is humility and immense gratitude before his father’s amazing graciousness.

When we understand the correct dynamic, then what the apostle Paul writes in Ephesians 2:8-10 explodes with new meaning for us:

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.

The Importance of Knowing the Correct Grammar

 Getting the grammar right in how we talk about grace is so important because it makes all the difference in how we experience the Gospel. Is the Gospel a depressing burden or exhilarating Good News? Something we dread or something we welcome with joy? A way to death or a way to overflowing life?

When the Gospel sinks deeply into our consciousness, we act the way we do not out of a sense of deadening obligation, but out of thankfulness and gratitude for what God has done for us. To be honest, however, as we start out our Christian lives, that sense of thankfulness and gratitude that lies behind our behavior may feel somewhat forced. That’s because we still carry within our psyches lingering feelings of obligation.

But as we grow more mature in our spiritual lives, the Spirit begins to dissolve those feelings of obligation and transform themselves into traits of character. We do what we do naturally and hopefully joyfully because it is what we have become. Our honest desire is to be who we are.

And that is what freedom becomes for us. We realize that God has all along been inviting us to enter into the freedom of being fully who we are. We are truly amazed by God’s grace. Our behavior becomes one part of our sacrifice of thanksgiving to God.

A Prayer that Exemplifies the Grammar of Grace

This is so beautifully caught in one of my favorite liturgical prayers, the Prayer of General Thanksgiving, a prayer written by a Church of England bishop in the 17th century.

The prayer goes like this:

Almighty God, Father of all mercies, we thy unworthy servants do give thee most humble and hearty thanks for all thy goodness and loving kindness to us and to all. We bless thee for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life. But above all for thy inestimable love in the redemption of the world through our Lord Jesus Christ, for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory.

 At this point the prayer makes a significant shift.

 And, we beseech thee, give us that due sense of all thy mercies that our hearts may be unfeignedly thankful and that we show forth thy praise by giving up ourselves to thy service and by walking before thee in holiness and righteousness all our days, through Jesus Christ our Lord to whom with thee and the Holy Spirit be all honor and glory, world without end. Amen.

This prayer gets the grammar right. We thank God for his many gifts, especially for the gift of redemption in Jesus. And we pray that the way we live our lives – in what the prayer calls holiness and service — may be an expression of genuine, felt-deep-in-the heart praise and thanksgiving to the God who graciously redeems us and makes us whole.

We can return to this prayer again and again when, enticed by the delusion of salvation by works, we find ourselves losing our bearings within the Christian life. It will remind us of the correct grammar.

 

I Believe in Purgatory

Purgatorial experiences can form a fundamental part of our spiritual journey.

Large_bonfire

When the Protestant Reformers threw out the doctrine of purgatory, they had good cause for doing so. They found no scriptural warrant for the highly developed, late medieval doctrine. The doctrine was also a pastoral disaster. It intensified people’s fear of death. And it opened the door for all kinds of ecclesiastical exploitation of that fear.

But in throwing out the abusive bath water that clung to medieval notions, the Reformers may also have discarded an insight important to wise pastoral counsel and spiritual direction.

The Spiritual Insight Behind the Doctrine

The insight behind the doctrine of purgatory grows out of the belief, shared by Catholics and Protestants, that the ultimate goal for human beings is to live forever in the glorious presence of God. Catholic theology calls this the beatific vision of God. Protestants do not usually use that language, but they do talk about the life of glory in the presence of God that lies ahead in the next life.

The insight is that human beings cannot endure the glorious presence of God as long as they remain entangled with the sins and corruptions of this life. There must be a process of purification that happens before any human being can enter into that glory. Protestants confess that basic conviction every time we sing these words “…though the eye of sinfulness thy glory may not see…” in the beloved Trinitarian hymn “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty.”

But how does that necessary purification take place? Catholic and Protestants do not have a common vision on the how. Catholics have traditionally seen the how as a process that goes on after death, sometimes for a long time. As a result medieval Catholicism spun out a whole vision of purgatory as lasting years, if not centuries or millennia, after death.

Purgatory was conceived a kind of mini-hell with assorted torments and demons. It differed from hell in one important feature. Anyone in purgatory would ultimately make it into heaven. Anyone in hell would not.

 This view of purification allowed a lot of abuses to arise. The church taught that the living could lessen the suffering of the dead in purgatory through indulgences and private masses. The church sold them as a way of raising funds. This turned a pastoral concern into a mercantile concern. It is one of the abuses that so disgusted Martin Luther. It helped spark the Protestant Reformation.

As a result Protestants have generally seen the purification process as instantaneous upon death. Death itself is the purification. So Protestants generally hold to no view of purgatory in the medieval Catholic sense.

My view is that we simply do not know how the purification process works after death. Is it a process (Catholic purgatory) or an instantaneous act (Protestant purgatory)? Who knows? But I take it as a given that some purification process/act must take place. In that sense I believe in purgatory, but not in the medieval vision.

The Essence of a Purgatorial Experience

For me the essence of purgatory is the cleansing of all that blocks us from being the kind of human beings that God has always intended us to be. Those blocks are sometimes habits, attitudes, and behaviors that cut us off from God, from other people, and from our own inner selves. They are blocks we create for ourselves.

In other cases the blocks are wounds that have been inflicted upon us by other people or by tragic circumstances in life. We may not be responsible for those wounds, but they block us nonetheless from freely loving God, others, and ourselves.

In essence then, I think of purgatory as healing and liberation. We are being set free to become our authentic selves, the unique, beautiful, and loving selves that God has always called us to be. In the process we also find our authentic voices.

What fascinates me is how that process can begin even before our physical deaths. There are times in the process of spiritual and psychological growth when we find our lives shattering and crumbling away. Old orders and structures that we have relied upon to give meaning and stability to our lives undergo a massive emotional earthquake. Old stabilities crash. (This can also be true for cultures.)

At such times we can sink into despair and give up. At the same time such experiences can also issue in a call to be patient and let God reconstitute our lives in a healthier, more wholesome way, a way that leads us through fire and water into a more spacious place (see Psalm 66:12).

The sufferings we experience as those old stabilities collapse and new, more wholesome orders emerge can feel like we are in hell. No one can promise that liberation will be painless or instantaneous. Israel, after all, was forced to wander in the wilderness for 40 years after leaving the slavery of Egypt. Those 40 years were not simply a punishment for faithlessness. They were also a long and necessary part of the process by which God was forming a new people.

And so it is in our spiritual journeys, too. We can also go through times of intense pain as we grow up spiritually. Maybe those times of suffering are the required spiritual surgery that transforms our hearts of stone into warm, loving hearts.

A Parable about the Purgatorial Experience

This reminds me of a story that a friend sent me years ago. A women’s Bible study group were studying the prophet Malachi in the Old Testament. In Malachi, chapter three, they encountered these verses:

But who can endure the day of his [God’s] coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fuller’s soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, till they present right offerings to the Lord. (Malachi 3:2-3)*

These verses are describing a kind of purgatory experience, not however in the afterlife but within history.

The women wondered what these verses were saying about the character and nature of God. What might the purification of silver say about spiritual purification? One woman offered to find out more about the process of refining silver and report back at their next meeting.

She called up a silver smith and asked if she could come and watch him work. She said she was curious about the process of refining.

As she watched the smith at work, she saw how he held a piece of silver over the fire and let it heat up. He explained that in order to refine silver, one needed to hold the silver in the middle of the fire where the flames were hottest. The flames would burn away the impurities.

She asked the smith if he had to sit there the whole time in front of the silver as it was being refined. He answered yes. He not only had to sit there holding the silver, but he also had to keep his eyes on the silver the entire time it was in the fire. If the silver was left even a moment too long in the flames, he said, it would be destroyed.

She was silent for a few minutes, then asked, “How do you know when the silver is fully refined?” He responded, “Oh, that’s easy–when I see my image in it.”**

I like this story because I think it gets at the essence of what a true purgatory experience is all about. It places us in an experience of suffering so that the image of God which we each are–and paradoxically that image of God within us is also our true self–can begin to shine forth.

What Is Purifying about Suffering?

What is it that is so purifying about suffering? I don’t think there is anything inherently purifying about suffering per se. What purifies is how we respond to it. Suffering can trap us in the dark side of life, so that we respond with despair, anger, and bitterness. If these attitudes get an iron grip on us, we will experience suffering as a present-day experience of hell.

But there is an alternative way to respond to suffering. We can allow our suffering to nurture within us a sense of compassion, compassion for our own suffering selves as well as compassion for other suffering people. As we suffer, we can develop the empathy to understand and be with others in their suffering. And that compassion begins to build the bonds of love.

If our own suffering issues forth into compassion for ourselves and for others’ suffering, then indeed we are beginning to reflect back the image of God. For the whole message of the gospel is how God expresses his true character in the compassionate living and suffering of Jesus.

God is one who humbles himself to enter into the suffering bodies, minds, and history of humanity, to walk with us through the suffering (absorbing it into his own being), so that in union with him God can lead us through our suffering into the glorious kingdom of love that is coming.

When suffering does that, it becomes a purgatory experience. For we are then each coming to fully reflect the face of our compassionate God in our own lives. And in my book that is a primary feature of salvation and sainthood.


* If this passage sounds familiar, you may be hearing how it was set to music in George Frederic Handel’s oratorio Messiah, where it is given a Christological understanding.

** I do not know the ultimate source of this story. A friend sent it to me as a e-mail. But the story has always appealed to me as a parable of the spiritual life. If you would like to watch an example of silver refining, you may want to watch this YouTube video.

Where Begins the Gospel?

An ambiguous word comes loaded with meaning.

An image of the evangelist Mark in the Anglo-Saxon Lindisfarne Gospels, 7th-8th centuries.

Sometimes, when reading the Bible, we encounter a word, a phrase, or a sentence that seems so ridiculously simple. We read it and move on, giving it no further thought. But if we stop to pinpoint its meaning, what had seemed so simple becomes ambiguous. It possesses layers of meaning.

One classic example is the sentence fragment that opens the Gospel of Mark: The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God (Mark 1:1). It sounds simple and straightforward. That is, until we try to understand what the author means by the word beginning. Just what does constitute the beginning of his gospel?

I contend that there are at least four possible ways of understanding that simple word.

1) The sentence fragment may serve as a book title. Ancient books did not have titles like published books today. When people made reference to a particular book, instead of naming its title they would quote its opening word or words.

For example, in English Bibles, we give each of the five books of Moses a title: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. In the Hebrew Bible, however, their titles are the opening words of each book. Genesis is not called Genesis but Bereshit (In the beginning), which is the opening word of Genesis in Hebrew.

Mark may intend the opening fragment of his gospel to serve this purpose. He is telling his reader that he is herewith beginning to  tell  the gospel of Jesus Christ.

2.  When we notice, however, what immediately follows this opening fragment (Mark 1:2-8), we find Mark quoting a passage out of the Old Testament prophet Isaiah. Maybe Mark wants us to see this quotation as the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

This may be a way Mark signals to us that the gospel of Jesus Christ really begins in the Old Testament. The Old Testament story of Israel is the necessary preparation for the coming of the gospel.

This interpretation does not sound so far-fetched when we notice how it is impossible to understand the fullness of the New Testament message unless we soak ourselves deeply in the Old Testament. The New Testament writers are constantly quoting the Old Testament. They use theological terms and images that have their origins in the Old Testament. And the Old Testament provides the fundamental theological premises on which the New Testament writers build their own theologies.

The New Testament becomes wobbly in its proclamations without the background of the Old Testament. So the Old Testament itself may be the beginning of the gospel which Mark is proclaiming.

3) I always believe that it is essential to pay attention to context when trying to interpret an isolated phrase or sentence in a Bible passage. The opening of Mark is no exception.

If we pay attention to what follows the opening fragment (again Mark 1:2-8), we find it is not only a quotation from the Old Testament, but also the story of the coming of John the Baptist and his ministry of baptism in the desert. In fact, the quotation from Isaiah serves to leads us into this ministry.

So a third option for understanding the beginning of the gospel is the ministry of John the Baptist. In fact, all four gospels in the New Testament acknowledge that the ministry of John the Baptist as the trigger that launches Jesus on his own ministry. Jesus does not begin his preaching, teaching, and healing until he has been baptized by John.

Christians have ever since acknowledged the crucial role of John in launching the Christian movement by giving him the title the Forerunner. In Orthodox iconography, like the mosaic of the deësis in Istanbul’s church of Hagia Sophia, John always stands to the immediate left of the central icon of Jesus.

Deesis_mosaic_Hagia_Sophia.jpg

4) The final possible meaning requires looking upon the whole of Mark’s gospel as the context for its opening sentence fragment.

Scholars have longed noticed that in the manuscript tradition the gospel of Mark has ended oddly. In the earliest manuscripts it ends with chapter 16, verse 8. Scribes added verses 16:9-20 to the gospel only centuries later.

So Mark’s original text appears to have ended with the resurrection of Jesus proclaimed by a young man (an angel?) to the women at the tomb. But oddly Mark’s gospel contains no appearance of the risen Jesus to the disciples as do the other three gospels. Instead the young man tells the women that the risen Jesus will go before his disciples into Galilee. There they will see him (Mark 16:6-7).

But Mark never records that appearance in Galilee. Why? That’s one big puzzle in studying Mark.

It is important, however, to recognize what Galilee represents in Mark’s gospel. It is not the Jewish heartland. Judea and Jerusalem are that. Galilee is more of a borderland. Its populace mingles Jews with Gentiles. To a Jewish purist, it is therefore a place where one might risk religious contamination.

Yet the young man tells the women at the tomb that Jesus’ disciples will meet the risen Jesus in Galilee. Is this coded language by which Mark is suggesting that Christians will meet the risen Jesus when they continue his ministry in the borderlands, in those lands where races, ethnic identities, social classes, and religions intermingle.

This leads me to wonder if Mark sees the movement of Christians out of Palestine and into the Gentile world as the continuation of the gospel ministry of Jesus. That gospel ministry began in Galilee. There was the beginning of the gospel, but not the end. The full story is to be found in the spread of the gospel out into the whole world. The ministry of Jesus–his life, his death, his resurrection–is only the beginning.

Now which of these possible interpretations does Mark have in mind when he writes The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, Son of God? Is it possible that he does not have just one of these meanings in mind? Is it not possible that that simple, but ambiguous sentence fragment embraces all four?

Dancing Freedom

How we understand God has a lot to do with how we understand freedom. 

swirling galaxy

Galaxy NGC 4414 in its circular rotation.

In working on my recently published book Charter of Christian Freedom, I had to struggle a lot with what the apostle Paul was saying in his Letter to the Galatians. For freedom is a major theme throughout the letter.

Two verses in Galatians capsulize that theme for me:

For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. (Galatians 5:1)

For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. (Galatians 5:13)

They express the heart of Paul’s teaching. But they pose one big problem for me. How can you advocate freedom and then turn around in the same breath and advocate becoming a slave? It just doesn’t make sense to me.

My Very American View of Freedom

Part of the problem, I think, is that I hold a different understanding of what freedom is than does Paul. As an American, I’ve been raised on the idea that freedom means individual autonomy, self-reliance, independence. If I am free, I make choices purely on my own personal desires, insight, or judgment of what is right. I have no one compelling me to choose in a specific way.

This concept of freedom fueled the American Revolution. Americans wanted to shake off what they perceived as British oppression (taxation without representation among other things). They wanted to determine their own destiny rather than a Parliament and king across the ocean doing that. That understanding of freedom has underlain most American attitudes since.

We glorify the self-made man. We believe every family should be master of its own castle. Government should be limited to the barest essential duties. And we should be able to follow any dream we come to hold, without restraint. We see this concept of freedom in a pure form in libertarian thought.

If that is our concept of freedom, then slavery is its polar opposite. Slavery represents a condition where an individual has no choice to make. The individual is not master of his or her life. He/she must submit to an authority above himself or herself.

If that is our concept of freedom, then Paul seems to be engaging in double-talk. He is telling us Christ has made us free, but only to subject us to a new un-freedom. (Does that sound familiar with many voices we have heard in Christian history?) We begin to feel we are in the world of 1984 or Animal Farm.

Now this understanding of freedom as sovereign independence can sound persuasive if we hold an understanding of God as the cosmic autocrat. This is a common view in many Christian circles. Notice how many prayers begin with the phrase Almighty God. In this view of God, God’s will becomes something arbitrary. We have no say in it; God decides everything. All we can do is submit or else, and the else is often pictured in direst terms.

The Calvinist doctrine of double predestination is a good example of this theology. God decides gratuitously whom God will save and whom he will damn. We humans have no say in the matter.

If this is who God is, then we are not really sure, deep in our souls, that we can really trust this God to be for us. We then try to cage in this arbitrary ruler so he cannot hurt us. Or we view freedom as rebellion. Freedom is becoming totally independent of this dangerous divine being. That lies, I suspect, behind a lot of contemporary atheism. It is a reaction to the view of God that traditional Christianity has often presented and then implemented in its actions.

A Challenge from the View of God as Triune

But what happens if we view God within the framework of God as triune? In the doctrine of the Trinity, God is one God, but not a isolated monad. God is a fellowship of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

The life of God is a constant flow of love among the three persons of the Godhead. The Father eternally pours his love into the Son, who eternally receives the love of the Father. The Son eternally pours his love into the Holy Spirit, and the Spirit eternally receives the love of the Son. The Spirit pours his love into the Father, and the Father eternally receives the love of the Spirit. And so on throughout all the relationships of the Godhead.

The life of God is this eternal flowing of love among the three persons. Trinitarian theologians use a technical word perichoresis to describe this flow. The word is Greek and comes from the world of the theatre. It is the word for the circle dance that was often performed as a part of a theatrical production.

It is for this reason that I think of God engaging in an eternal circle dance of love, with love flowing in, among, and then out of all three persons. In that process the distinct identity of each person is maintained but within a fluidity of relationships.

It is important that we see perichoresis not moving in only one direction. It involves giving but also receiving. The life of God is a constant pouring out of one’s life into the other and a constant receiving of one’s life from the other. Mutuality defines divine life.

An Alternate View of Freedom

Now if this is the vision of God we hold, then the concept of freedom starts to take on a different cast. Freedom is being released for this life of mutuality. It is being released from all that blocks us from giving ourselves to God and others.

Those blocks can include oppressive demands, personal or social, placed on us by others. They can include anxieties within us, especially fears about self-survival. They can include emotional and spiritual wounds that have been inflicted upon us in childhood. They can include our own behaviors that seek to establish our dominance over others. In all these ways alienation is the result.

The blocks are not just blocks in giving ourselves to others. They can include, too, blocks in receiving from others, for receiving love can be as frightening as giving it. I find it is sometimes harder for me to receive love from others than to give it.

Receiving love can feel very humbling. We are not in a position of superiority as we are when we are donors. Receiving involves acknowledging our need. It calls forth a response of gratitude. And that can be a blow to our desire to be invulnerable.

If our view of God is this view of mutual giving and receiving (that lies at the heart of the doctrine of the Trinity), Paul’s view of freedom begins to make sense. For then freedom is this experience of being released for the circle dance of love, a life of fully giving ourselves to others and fully receiving from others. We can confidently give ourselves in service to others because we can be confident that we will not be diminished, but constantly renewed and built up by the experience.

If this is how Paul sees freedom, then Christ is releasing us for the privilege and opportunity to enter into the Trinity’s own life. We are invited into the dance of love that is divine life. *

Of course, for most of us, this invitation is not realized instantaneously. It involves some agonizing struggle with our deep-seated fears for self-survival, fears that feel perfectly appropriate because of experiences of abusive mutuality that all of us have experienced in the journey of life. We have been hurt by people who claim to love us: we are therefore fearful and cautious when genuine love comes our way.

This struggle is a real part of growing up spiritually. And it never ends this short of the coming of the Kingdom of God in its fullness at the End. But the gospel also promises we can enter into this circle dance of love in stages here and now. We are given the gift of the Spirit who can progressively heal us from our fears if we are open.


* I do not want to claim that Paul had a full-blown view of God as triune when he wrote Galatians. The doctrine of the Trinity emerged in its full dimensions about 300 years later. But the seeds of the doctrine are there in Paul and the other New Testament writers.