Church Write-Up: Ash Wednesday 2020

Today is Ash Wednesday, and the church that I attend had an Ash Wednesday service.

The pastor opened his sermon by saying that he did not have a poker face. One can look at his face and tell what he is thinking and feeling. When he was a circuit pastor, he had to attend installation services for new pastors, and a professor at one of these services was droning on and on. People told the pastor that he needed to work on his poker face, since he looked like he wanted to be anywhere but there, listening to that professor!

This story was a transition to a discussion of “disfigured faces.” In Matthew 6:16, Jesus tells his disciples that, when they fast, they are not to be like the Pharisees, who disfigure their faces so that people know and admire that they are fasting. But did we not disfigure our faces when we put ashes on our foreheads? Not necessarily. The sort of behavior that Jesus was criticizing was like when people remind others continually that they are giving up chocolate for Lent: they are trying to show people how pious they are.

Ashes on our head, however, testify to God. The ashes are in the shape of a cross, which evokes Christ’s crucifixion for our sins. The ashes remind us of death: dust we are, and to dust we shall return. Christ experienced death to deliver us from death. The pastor also compared the ashes to the ashes of a red heifer in Numbers 19: the ashes of a red heifer ritually purified those who touched a corpse, and the ashes on our forehead remind us of Christ, who cleanses us of impurity.

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Book Write-Up: God in Himself, by Steven J. Duby

Steven J. Duby. God in Himself: Scripture, Metaphysics, and the Task of Christian Theology. IVP Academic, 2019.  See here to purchase the book.

Steven J. Duby teaches theology at Grand Canyon University.

This book is about divine revelation. There are natural theology and general revelation: the idea that nature reveals God, and people can figure things out about God by looking at nature. Theologian Karl Barth did not care for natural theology that much. For him, that contradicted divine grace by making theology a matter of people climbing to God through their human reason. Plus, Barth saw abuses of natural theology, such as the Nazis drawing theological conclusions based on their racist understanding of nature. Barth located divine revelation in two foci: the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit illuminating the Bible (which testifies to Jesus) for people. Here, God takes the initiative, and revelation is about what God does.

There is also the challenge of knowing God as God is in himself. If God is beyond comprehension, does the divine revelation that we receive of God give us an accurate knowledge of God as God is.

These are among the issues that Duby tackles. Other issues include: Can we speak metaphysically about God, or does that place God among other created objects, which is a no-no? And there are places in which Duby engages ideas that might strike some people as hairy: the need to avoid two Gods or Christs, for example. Or the idea that God cannot be divorced from God’s activity in history. You can read the book to see what that is all about.

If a Christian layperson were to ask me what this book is about, I wonder what I would tell him or her. A Christian layperson would probably wonder what all of the fuss is about and have a common sense approach: yes, God reveals Godself through nature, including the human sense of morality, but that is not sufficient. To get a fuller picture of what God is like and what God’s plans are, one needs more, including the incarnation and illumination from the Holy Spirit. Yes, we see what God is like by God’s activity in history, but that does not mean that God does not exist apart from that divine activity in history. Duby essentially draws common sense sorts of conclusions, even as he draws from Scripture and historic theologians and engages the intricacies of theological argument.

Reading this book…well, how can I describe that? As I read it in a breezy manner, I got a lot of what Duby was saying. Duby usually does an effective job in summarizing what he is trying to say after a detailed, intricate discussion. There were parts of the book that were too deep for me, and they would merit a closer reading.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher. My review is honest.

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Church Write-Up: Listening, and the Dark Night of the Soul

Here are some items from church this morning.

A. The theme of the service was “Listen to him,” taken from what God says in Matthew 17:5 at the Transfiguration. The youth pastor talked about the fictional town of Duckberg. The ducks hear a sermon about how they can fly, and they greet the sermon enthusiastically. But, when they depart from the church service, they do not fly but rather waddle out, as they usually do. Similarly, we can listen to sermons and fail to be impacted by them. The youth pastor shared that he was convicted from last week’s sermon about the need to be kind to others, yet he still finds it difficult to be kind. But church is not just about telling people to be kind (law), but also reassuring them with the message of God’s forgiveness (Gospel).

B. The pastor talked about how we hear so many voices in the world today. We even hear internal voices that bring feelings of shame and condemnation. He remembers when his parents yelled at him back when he was a child because he could not make change (he’s bad at math). The voice that we should hear is that of Jesus, who sits next to us, puts his arm around us, and tells us that he loves us. It is in that context that we should understand the commands of Jesus, which we will be studying over Lent.

C. The pastor told some stories about his mother. She continually went to bat for him when he was a child. She went to his gym teacher and told him that it was not her son’s fault that he was uncoordinated. When the pastor missed a Sunday school class because his family was out of state visiting relatives, the mother went to the Sunday school teacher and said that her son still deserved to receive a reward for perfect attendance, since he attended Sunday school while he was out of state. The mother persisted, and her son got the reward. Reminds me of my mother! All of that was setting the stage for the pastor to talk about the church’s red-letter project this coming Lent, since the pastor’s reward was a Bible with the words of Christ in red.

D. The Sunday school class completed John Ortberg’s Soul Keeping. Ortberg talked about St. John of the Cross, who described the dark night of the soul, a time when God seems silent, and the consolations of religious practice are not encouraging us. In those times, God is working, albeit passively, and we should wait for what God will do. People in class discussed whether God works passively. One person said that he is there for his children, even though he is not actively present with them at all times; when his child gets a bloody nose, he is not there when it happens, but he is there to comfort the child when he comes home and to bandage the nose. Someone else contrasted that with God, who is there when the child gets a bloody nose. She said that God never promised a trouble-free life but rather that he will be with us amidst those problems. Another person mentioned Jesus’s statement that he and the Father are at work at all times (John 5:17): the Jews saw him do that one miracle, but, actually, Jesus and his Father are always at work. People talked about how the world is broken, and one lady remarked that the world still has beauty even in its brokenness. Imagine what it was like without that brokenness? And yet, is such beauty still around, but we cannot see it amidst our little boxes?

E. As was mentioned in (D.), St. John of the Cross described a time when the consolations of religious practice do not work. That troubles me. Right now, it is a happy time for me. I live with people and my cat, so I am not alone. I attend a church where God’s love and grace are proclaimed, and where I learn things. I have books to read and things to hear on the Internet. I have a job, and I have not been fired yet. People there, overall, are polite. I have been getting a lot out of my time in Scripture, in terms of learning and spiritual edification. Yet, I remember times when things were not good, even though I read the Bible and attended church. I was lonely and had unsatisfied desires. When I read the Bible or attended church, most of what I heard was law and condemnation for my failures to obey it. To make myself feel better, I drank a lot. What could I have done differently then? Am I doing something right now, that I should have been doing then? Is there a formula that I can fall back on? There is the issue of the future. People in the group talked about the struggles of growing old—-of not being able to do what they could do ten years ago, of disease, of friends and relatives passing on. The teacher referred to a friend who remarked that she does not fear death but all of the things that we have to endure before we get to that point! I wonder: what will happen to me if I were to lack a social support network? The person driving me home said that we should learn from the past but live in the present, and take what comes in the future.

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How to Kill Your Christian Joy and Assurance

Citizen of New Jerusalem

Want to kill your Christian joy and assurance of salvation? Believe your Christian adverbs. (Adverbs modify verbs, e.g. “slowly running.”) Become a pietist.

When we use and believe our own adverbs to describe our response to the gospel, we are in for a terrible ride. Adverbs are the lazy man’s crutch in literature – like puffs of smoke blown in the eyes to obscure the embarrassing white bones of skeletal essays.

Think of it – instead of “Napolean won victories across Europe, stretching all the way around the Mediterranean into Africa,” now the student needs a bigger word count and writes “Napolean brutally won victories across Europe, vigorously stretching his armies all the way around…” you see the point. Adverbs embellish and spruce things up. They can also beguile us when we use them to strengthen the appearance of our actions before a holy God. 

In Christian piety, when…

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Church Write-Up: The Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-9)

The adult Bible study today talked about Jesus’s Transfiguration in Matthew 17:1-9. Here are some items:

A. Transfiguration Sunday marks a transition between Epiphany and Lent. Epiphany is about the revelation of Jesus as God, to both Israel and also the Gentiles. It covers the magis’ visit of Jesus and goes to the Transfiguration, where Jesus reveals himself to be God to Peter, James, and John. Lent then commences on Ash Wednesday, which focuses on our fallen humanity as well as Jesus’s humanity, which includes his hunger, his suffering, and, ultimately, his death. The Transfiguration, too, transitions to an emphasis on Jesus’s death and resurrection. Jesus speaks about those things more often after the Transfiguration than he did before. He also forbids his disciples to say anything about the Transfiguration until after Jesus’s death and resurrection. According to the pastor, this is because Jesus is saying that Jesus’s death and resurrection, not only his glory, are crucial aspects of who Jesus is. Jesus wants us to understand him in light of his death and resurrection, not just his glory. That brings us to the next item.

B. The pastor was criticizing Christianity’s current focus on “your best life now”—-prosperity—-and becoming better people through sanctification. Its focus here is on glory. Christianity in the first two centuries, however, did not recoil from suffering. Ancient Christians saw suffering as a mark that they belonged to God, and they believed that, in suffering, they were more like Christ. As Christians pull away from the anti-God world (not necessarily socially), the world abuses them in an attempt to keep them under its dominion.

C. Matthew 17:1 states that Jesus took Peter, James, and John up the mountain after six days. The pastor referred to the view that this could be an allusion to Exodus 24:16. After six days, the Israelites see God’s glory while Moses was in a cloud. Like the Israelites, Peter, James, and John behold divine glory after six days.

D. When Peter sees Moses and Elijah standing alongside Jesus, he proposes to make booths for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. Peter was placing Moses and Elijah in the same boat as Jesus, as if the three of them were equal. But Jesus is above Moses and Elijah. Only Jesus glows brightly in glory, something that is not said in Matthew 17:1-9 about Moses and Elijah. In addition, God tells the disciples to listen to Jesus. Moses and Elijah appear with Jesus to demonstrate that Jesus is the fulfillment of the law and the prophets: God’s intentions laid out in the law and the prophets are fulfilled in Jesus. But also, when Moses and Elijah appear with Jesus, that shows that Jesus is not Elijah or one of the Old Testament prophets, contrary to rumors (see Matthew 16:14). Jesus is beyond Elijah and the Old Testament prophets.

E. While we are on Matthew 16, Jesus says that flesh and blood did not reveal to Peter that Jesus is the Christ, but the Father did so. Peter’s understanding is incomplete, however, for Peter attempts to dissuade Jesus from going to the cross. The pastor referred to a belief in the Missouri Synod of the nineteenth century. In those days, the LCMS believed that it was the one true church. It still held, though, that people could have appropriate faith in their heart, even if that faith was not fully correct in their minds. The pastor mentioned his mother, who, on some days, does not have clarity about her religious beliefs, or much else. But she still was a faithful, lifelong Christian, and she believes in her heart, if not (with full clarity) in her head. The pastor speculated that something like this was going on with Peter: he believed in his heart, but not with full precision or accuracy in his head.

F. The Transfiguration demonstrates the Trinity, the pastor said. Jesus and the voice from heaven are two distinct persons. We do not see here modal monarchianism, in which God revealed himself as the Father in Old Testament times, as Jesus during the life of Christ, and as the Spirit after Jesus’s resurrection. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three persons, not three manifestations of only one person.

G. Jesus touches Peter, James, and John after they fall down in fear and reverence. The touch communicates reassurance and also acceptance and belonging, as a handshake (touch) does.

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Review of “J. Gresham Machen: A Biographical Memoir” by Ned B. Stonehouse

Morgan Trotter

Stonehouse, Ned B.  J. Gresham Machen: A Biographical Memoir. Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 1987.

Machen bio book cover

I first learned about J. Gresham Machen in church history class during my initial year as a student at Princeton Theological Seminary in the 1980s.  This fact is wrapped in irony: Machen had been part of the “old guard” at Princeton who were forced out or resigned when the seminary was reorganized by the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America General Assembly in the late 1920s.  Princeton had been the last bastion of theological orthodoxy in that historic Presbyterian denomination, and several scholars there were engaged in a valiant fight against the rising tide of liberal theology, or “modernism.”  Machen was at the center of this controversy.  The Princeton Seminary I attended in the late ’80s was, of course, the post-reorganization Princeton, where we studied Machen as an artifact of history.  His…

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My cloud of witnesses: 7 traits of highly effective race runners


I’ve been mulling on this passage in Hebrews for the past couple of weeks;

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith. (Heb. 12:1-2a)

Of course the cloud of witnesses referred to here are the heroes of the faith in the Old Testament listed in Hebrews 11. I interpret this to mean those whose lives have testified to their belief in the promises of God and demonstrate what faithfulness to those promises mean in how they have lived their lives.

I’ve been thinking about my own cloud of witnesses, those who for me model what Heb. 12:1-2 talks about in their witness and ministry commitment. In leveraging the title of…

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