Archives For Agitations

In two previous blogs (here and here), I’ve dived into the subtleties of John 3:16. This iconic verse, often used to convey the Gospel, has more nuance to it than is normally recognized. The words “believe” and “eternal life” and even “have” are translations that typically do not capture the full meaning. This epitomizes how easy it is simplify the Christian faith and lose its wholeness. And one of the ways Christians have been tempted to do so is by making Christianity only about individual people and their individual destinies beyond death.

It is with this in mind that I tackle one key word in John 3:16 – “world.” The argument I make is not conventionaI. But while I certainly don’t claim to be a theologian, I do believe we all should wrestle with what we read in the Bible and work to understand how it fits together as a whole. I encourage you to be the judge whether my reasoning is compelling or not.

What do most Christians understand to be the meaning of the word “world,” which is a translation of the Greek word “kosmos,”in John 3:16?

I’ve looked to answer that with an admittedly unscientific search online. And I’ve encountered what one often finds with Christian doctrine and key verses – a wide range of opinions with sometime fierce denunciations of others’ opinions.

Some of the dominant opinions one finds for answers to that question are

1. All of humanity

2. All of fallen humanity

Here’s John Piper’s take on the second understanding, which is representative of many other theologians I’ve come across:

That is the way John is using world here. It is the great mass of fallen humanity that needs salvation. It’s the countless number of perishing people from whom the “whoevers” come in the second part of the verse: “. . . that whoever believes in him should not perish.” The world is the great ocean of perishing sinners from whom the whoever comes.

3. The elect of God (of which there are a number of interpretations).

What I could not find was anyone asserting that world in this case actually meant the whole world of people, ants, trees, salmon, soil microbes, coyotes, and dung beetles.

Here are some reasons why I believe it makes sense to read “kosmos” as the whole earth:

The Gospel of John begins with the whole world: All too often we atomize the Bible, pulling together a set of verses plucked out of different books of the Bible to prove our case on a particular issue. In the process it is very easy to do violence to the wholeness of each book and to the complex wholeness of the Bible. When you begin at the beginning of the Gospel of John, you find John stating that Jesus was the Word and the Word was with God from the Beginning. And in John 1:3, John asserts that “Through him all things were made…” Would Jesus desire the spoiling and destruction of all the things made through Him?

The Bible itself begins with the whole world: In the beginning we see God creating earth mysteriously and through an orchestration of the creative capacities of the forces of nature. All of what God creates is good. When humanity is added in God’s image, the whole of Creation is judged to be very good. This is the context of the rest of the Bible.

The Bible ends with all of Creation: Gregory Stevenson, professor of New Testament at Rochester College, writes in this article:

Revelation presents God as the Creator for whom creation is a fundamental component of his identity and activity. He is both the divine benefactor who bestows creation upon us as a gift and the sovereign Lord who rules over that creation faithfully. As God will not abandon his people, he also will not abandon his creation. Furthermore, God’s vision for his creation is all-encompassing (from the alpha to the omega) and leading towards a predetermined goal – a goal which itself is all about creation.

Humanity is given a special and weighty responsibility: In the first chapter of Genesis, humanity is told to fill the earth and to subdue and rule over the living things of the world. How do we choose to read this? Christians have, unfortunately and tragically, tended to read Genesis 1: 26 in isolation and as license to kill, exploit, and tyrannize. This question needs more attention but consider these factors: (a) God has just said that all that God created is good, (b) look carefully at the original meanings of the Jewish words of subdue and rule in this blog, (c) in the very next verse humanity’s diet is defined to be plants, so what kind of rule is it when you are not given permission to eat animals?, (d) in Genesis 2, Adam is called on to keep and tend the Garden, (e) other verses and stories in the Bible make clear that all of Creation is of value to God, and (f) our model for ruling should be God’s rule over us which we see most fully realized in Jesus who showed anger at the misuse of power and who came and died out of sacrificial love.

“Kosmos” can legitimately mean “earth”: Here is what the commentary in the Today’s New International Version of the Zondervan Bible says about this Greek word: “Another common word in John’s writings, the Greek noun for “world” is found 78 times in this Gospel and 24 times in his letters (only 47 times in all of Paul’s writings). It can mean the universe, the earth, the people on earth, most people, people opposed to God or the human system opposed to God’s purposes. John emphasizes the word by repetition and moves without explanation from one meaning to another.”

The context of the bronze snake: In John 3:14, Jesus creates a parallel between the necessity for him to be raised up on the cross and Moses raising up the bronze snake while the people of Israel were in the wilderness. This comes from Numbers 21 where we read of God using poisonous snakes to punish the people of Israel for murmuring against Moses, which is essentially the doubting and questioning of God. In agony and fear, the people ask for the snakes to be taken away. Instead, God has Moses make a bronze snake and hold it up high. People who looked on the snake would not die.

This creates an interesting context for John 3:16. Here are several elements of this context we should allow to seep into our hearts. First, God used snakes for his purposes, and they obeyed, unlike the people of Israel. Second, God did not send the snakes away (much less destroy them) as God had been asked to do, Third, God used an image of a snake as a method of saving the bitten people who looked on it. Fourth,in the context of how the Bible tells the story of how sin entered the world, perhaps God is making a point of redeeming the conception of snakes in the bronze snake. Perhaps the challenge, in part, for the Israelites to decide to look on the bronze snake with faith was that it was a snake. In short, the reference to the bronze snake is steeped in sinful people, in sinful behavior, consequences for sin, Creation as part of the story, Creation serving God, and an unexpected symbol requiring faith and confession that will then lead to saved life in this world which will inevitably lead to changed behavior in this world.

Moses and the Brazen Serpent – John Augustus 1898

The challenging logic of the structure of the verse: However one chooses to read John 3:16, there is an interesting question that one must answer when reading it. How does the first part of the verse relate to the second part of the verse? Specifically, the first part begins with God’s love for the world. Whether “world” refers to the whole earth or just to fallen humanity, why does the verse end with individual human beings having the opportunity to have eternal life? How can God care about the whole set encompassed by “world” and offer a solution that is seemingly only effectatious for a subset of individual human beings?

In other words, how does it make sense for God to love this larger entity if the benefit of those who believe is only for their individual souls beyond death?

It doesn’t.

As we’ve seen already, John is using the present continuous tense when referring to “have eternal life.” The proper way to read this is actually this – “go on having eternal life.” And what does go on having eternal life look like? I’d suggest that it looks like Jesus’ life, a life in deep synchronicity with God’s purposes right now and forever, before and after death.

When you and I go on believing and completely trusting in Jesus which leads us to go on having eternal life, we will begin to become the humans we were all meant to be. That will impact our relationship with God and with fellow human beings. We will share God’s love and the message of God’s love in Jesus. We will fight against the abuse of power.

It will also shape how we live out our mandate to be God’s image on this earth. When we become what we as humanity were intended to be, then Creation will also flourish as any subjects of a good king would flourish. This will bring God’s love for all of life to the earth.

So the puzzle of the structure of this verse is at least partly solved by the unspoken assumption it contains – an eternal, faith-filled life will be full of outward-focused love that prospers other people and God’s earth.

True eternal life leads to a rippling outward of God’s love to all that God has made.

Through us, God’s love is meant to go viral.

Painting by Julius Hubner of Martin Luther posting the 95 theses.

 

The 500th anniversary of the Reformation has been on my mind for weeks now. It was a turning point in Christian history and in the history of Western Europe. What should we make of it?

It is a legacy of growing up Lutheran that I continue to admire Luther’s willingness to stand up on principle. He was willing to challenge a massive institution and religious empire – the Roman Catholic Church – on points of principle about God. He was a rebel with a cause.

But was the Reformation’s legacy all good?

What I have struggled with is the battleground on which Luther largely fought the Reformation – theology.

My sense is that the zealous pursuit of a science-like, all-encompassing theology of God and Jesus has been given too much weight in Christian history. It is deeply ironic and shameful, for example, that Luther and other Protestant leaders went from being persecuted by the Roman Catholic Church to advocating for the persecution of others, like the Anabaptists.

When people are so consumed by a zeal for theological correctness that they lose the ability to love one’s neighbor as oneself, something has gone very wrong.

This is not to say that theology is not an important and valuable tool. It is. We are called to love God with our minds. Theology is one way to do that. And the diversity of the 66 books of the Bible calls out for some unifying ideas and ethics that will translate into how we live and think.

But speaking and reading theology about God can replace actual experience of God. It can, in its very form, make the Christian life too abstract and too left-brained.

I have had one profoundly spiritual experience in my life. It was an experience without words. I cannot describe it with any degree of accuracy using words. All of the theology and preaching I heard from the pulpit throughout my life did not prepare me for that experience. In fact, all of the theology and preaching I had heard had lulled me into believing I knew God through the words about God I had been taught.

We casually use words like grace, faith, forgiveness, resurrection, and salvation like they are distinct and quantifiable elements from a periodic table. They are, in fact, ineffable phenomena.

Interestingly enough, the humility with which we should approach words and names for the actions and essence of God is exemplified in the name of God that appears in the Hebrew Scriptures. As this well-written article by Rabbi Louis Jacob explains, we actually don’t know how to correctly pronounce the four-letter Hebrew name for God. It appears in the Hebrew Scriptures 6,823 times. But Jewish tradition long discouraged the actual speaking of the name and instead substituted “Adonai”, the Hebrew word for Lord.

In extreme theologizing we have too often lost the fear and awe of God and all that God is. We make God safe through theology. In some ways, theological constructs can even become an assertion of human power over God.

So how do we know if theologies and even church practices are on the right track?

Here is one of my suggestions – we should pay attention to their fruit. Jesus spoke often about good fruit being a natural product of a living faith in Him and of a good heart. Theologies and church practices can best be judged by their fruit. How do their believers and followers live out their faith in the following four areas?

 

ATTITUDE AND RELATIONSHIP WITH GOD

Do you sense God’s love for you even as you are in awe of God and aware of God’s unwillingness to accept what is wrong in this world?

Is Jesus at the center of your faith and heart?

Do you seek out knowledge and experience of God like a person in a desert seeks out water?

When you pray do you not only seek out help from God open your heart to what God desires of you?

Do you approach God and Jesus with humility and mystery?

 

ATTITUDE AND RELATIONSHIP WITH PEOPLE

Are you forgiving and full of loving kindness for others?

Do you make the effort with the help of God’s Spirit to see and perceive other people the way God sees them?

Do you love your neighbor as you love yourself?

Do you have strong integrity, honesty, and a clear sense of what is right and wrong?

Do you struggle against evil and people consumed with evil without losing yourself to hate and blind anger?

Do you care about justice for the poor and vulnerable around you, individually and collectively?

 

ATTITUDE AND RELATIONSHIP WITH GOD’S EARTH

Do you see the earth as God’s and act appropriately respectful and compassionate towards it?

Do you and your community of faith balance the use of God’s earth with enabling it to thrive and prosper even when this requires sacrifices that others around you are not wiling to make?

Do you and your church pay attention to Creation?

Is being thoughtful stewards of God’s earth part of the fabric of your faith and life, including your civic life?

In your faith and life, do pigs, oak trees, and mussels matter?

 

ONE’S OWN LIFE

Do you love yourself at the same time you love others?

Are you honest about and aware of your failings and seek not only forgiveness but also seek to exhibit the fruits of the Spirit every day?

Do you seek to have your heart and your will reformed on a regular basis so that how you live is an eloquent statement about your faith?

Do you listen for God’s calling for your life? Do you do hard and challenging things when you sense that is God’s call?

Do you know your talents, enjoy using them, and use them creatively and energetically for God’s Kingdom?

 

If these are the widespread fruits of the theology and practices of your faith community, then God is a whole and living presence there.

Of course, all of us, individually and collectively, will fall short of what God offers us and wants from us. This is why God’s forgiveness is always needed.

This is why we will always need reformation that goes beyond words.

A Letter to My Pastor

Nathan Aaberg —  June 28, 2017 — 2 Comments

I’m sharing below the content of an email I sent yesterday to the pastor of the church we often attend. This past Sunday he used the book of Jonah as the basis for a sermon urging us to move away from self-righteousness. It was a good sermon, but, as you’ll see below, I call attention to the fact that he omitted an important element of the story.

Looking back on what I wrote 24 hours later I recognize that I did get a bit preachy and ended up writing with more than a little ostentation. Nevertheless, I hope the pastor will look past those flaws and be open to the ideas I shared with him. I hope, too, he will reach out for further conversation.

I am also a realistic person. I realize that centuries of Christian theology and interpretation have a momentum all their own. I may have just taken the first steps towards being seen as a “special interest” Christian with his own personal agenda or even as a person who has left the tracks of orthodox Christian faith. We’ll see.

Dear Pastor M—:

Thanks for your sermon this past Sunday.

I appreciate how this series and the several before this have focused on practical topics in the Christian life. The church I was taken to as a child focused almost exclusively on abstract theological doctrines. Not surprisingly, if I’m not careful, I can easily fall back into associating church with esoteric matters and more than a little boredom. So I appreciate the fact that you and other speakers have been candidly tackling topics where the Christian faith intersects with life.

There are two other reasons I write.

The first is that I noticed in your sermon on self-righteousness that you omitted a small but significant dimension of Jonah’s interaction with God and Ninevah. Specifically, you omitted the animals of Ninevah.

When, to Jonah’s dismay, the king of Ninevah hears of Jonah’s judgment on the city and that at least some of the Ninevites were repenting, he uses his authority to make the repentance city-wide. His proclamation calls for the people and animals to neither eat nor drink. It also calls for the people and animals to be covered in sackcloth.

And in the final verses of the book, God speaks wisdom to Jonah who, as you suggested, is the iconic religious jerk. God leaves Jonah (and us) with a rhetorical question: shouldn’t God care about a city which has over 120,000 human residents and also many animals?

The fates of the people and animals of Ninevah are, in other words, intertwined, and God has compassion for them all.

Interestingly enough, in the many images you can find online of Jonah preaching to the Ninevites, it is hard to find any that also pay attention to the animals of Ninevah. This image by Caspar Luiken is an exception, although you have to look a bit carefully to find the livestock. Follow Jonah’s outstretched right hand. 

I wish you would have called out the animal elements of the story even briefly.

One of the greatest examples of Christian self-righteousness is our belief that because we have been given dominion over God’s earth that the living things around us are of negligible value and are here only for our pleasure and utility. This, in turn, has led us to rule like tyrants over the earth as a whole and over the patches of Creation that we each have impact on as individuals.

This is not the kind of ruling that God models for us nor that God expects of us. Good rulers care about the health and wellbeing of those they have responsibility for. Good shepherds are examples of what good ruling is all about. And, as Jesus noted, good shepherds are even willing to lay down their lives for their sheep.

That Christians have been some of the most self-righteous in justifying humanity’s violence against God’s earth has communicated something falsely repugnant about the Christian faith. Ironically, a good number of non-Christians I know have an intuitive sense that this is an amazing world and that how a person treats the world reflects the state of that person’s heart. Perhaps they are the modern Ninevites? Perhaps we are the modern Jonahs in this regard?

And here’s the second reason I write. I’d like to encourage our church to make a concerted effort to be more mindful of God’s earth in what is preached, what is taught, and what is lived out as one element of a whole Christian life. How about starting with a sermon series on that topic?

As you can probably tell, this topic is close to my heart. If I can be of any service in that regard, I’d be eager to help.

I’d be happy to share, for example, how many of the most pioneering and influential sustainable livestock grazers in our country today are Christian. This is a story worth telling. By living out their faith in how they farm, they are making the world better and also offering powerful testimony to what being a Christian is all about.

Thanks very much for your unique gifts as a pastor and teacher and your commitment throughout your life to the Church.

Sincerely,

Nathan Aaberg

 

For a long time I’ve been struck by the parallels between a whole grain of wheat and a whole Christian faith-life. Rather than wait until I had perfectly worked out the parallels (which might not ever happen), I’ve decided to share my imperfect thinking at this point.

Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health – Harvard University

Consider these three features of a whole grain:

A whole grain of wheat is a complex, multifaceted thing with three different and indispensable elements – the bran, the germ, and the endosperm.

The Christian faith-life is also complex, multifaceted, and made up of different elements.

It is about a fervent trust in Jesus that opens us to the Holy Spirit and a relationship with God as we live out our lives. It is about loving God with all our heart and all our soul and all our strength and all our mind. It is about gathering together with others to be part of the Church. It is built in large part on 66 books of the Bible and the diverse wisdom and insights they contain. It is a way of thinking and perceiving the world that is somehow consistent with books as diverse as Genesis, Deuteronomy, Psalms, Jeremiah, Ecclesiastes, John, Romans, and Revelation. It is submitting ourselves to God and living lives of creative action.

It is about God, people, and the rest of Creation.

The total package of a whole grain of wheat is incredibly good for us.

There are over 100 vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients as well as fiber in a whole grain of wheat. And this total package is quite good for us. Phytonutrients, which include antioxidants, are particularly unsung heroes. They are the suite of natural chemicals that plants make as a flexible defense system to fend off germs, fungi, bugs, and other threats. They help the human body as well, providing protection against cardiovascular disease, cancer, and type-2 diabetes. Interestingly, bran and germ typically represent only 15-17% of a grain’s total weight but hold 75% of all of a grain’s total phytonutrients. Bran and germ also hold 100% of a grain’s fiber, which is essential for good health.

The total package of the whole Christian faith-life is also incredibly life transforming and enriching: I hope you’ve had contact with Christians, in person or through books and movies, who were different people because of their faith that expressed itself naturally in the lives they led. William Wilberforce is a great example. As are Martin Luther King, Jr., Paul Brand, George Washington Carver, J.R.R. Tolkien, and many others.

The challenges involved in using the whole grain at a large scale and the sweetness of the endosperm have long tempted people to engineer simpler and more selective ways of using elements of the whole grain. 

The complexity of whole grain wheat make it hard to use in an automated, simplified way. As soon as the bran is broken, it releases fat which causes spoilage to happen quickly. It also takes considerable art to make a tasty bread out of whole wheat. What’s more, human cultures have tended to desire the pure whiteness of refined grains as well for aesthetic reasons.

So humanity has long tried to simplify the use of whole grains by using only one part – the endosperm. With the advent of the rolling mill, we had a way to do this more perfectly then ever before. The pinnacle of this development was white bread. It didn’t spoil and tasted light and sweet.

But the simplifcation deprived bread of the most important nutritional benefits (check out this useful graphic that shows what is lost). What’s more, foods using refined grains (with the bran and germ removed) tend to raise blood sugar levels far more quickly and at higher levels than whole grains. All kinds of health problems emerged as a result. Ironically, we now add nutrition back into bread that was lost in the milling process, but the net result is still not the same.

Too often we’ve reshaped the Christian faith into the religious equivalent of white bread.

We’ve refined out the complexity and mystery and life-changing purpose to which God calls us. The sweet kernel we’ve tended to hold onto is the atoning sacrifice of Jesus on the cross which promises us access to life after death. Salvation, when simplified, becomes the stamping of our after-life passport for guaranteed entry into the good country of heaven rather than the bad country of hell.

We remove mystery. Nor do we expect to have our lives nor the lives of our fellow believers to be transformed over time in this life. We don’t dive deep into the Bible and its wisdom and its challenges. We ignore God’s earth and make the faith just about people and God.

In the end, I wonder if a white bread faith may be what we think we want. Maybe we don’t want our lives transformed by being a disciple of Jesus if that will cause us discomfort or awaken us to how broken the world really is and the mending we are called to engage in. Maybe we don’t want to question the assumptions of the culture and economy around us.

And maybe this lack of wholeness, mystery, and challenge is what makes efforts to share God with others unsuccessful.

I started out writing this blog with a focus on how Christian faith and life has largely ignored Creation in its theology, church culture, and ethics. I believe this has dishonored God and harmed our neighbors.

I now see things even more more broadly.

The lack of attention to how we treat God’s earth is not a single thing that Christians  have somehow generally forgot about over the centuries. It is a symptom of a larger tendency to artifically simplify, sweeten, and hollow out what the Christian faith is all about.

God offers us a whole grain faith-life. Will we seek it out and live it?

 

Note: This Scientific American article about the problems with food labeled as containing whole wheat is a good read that will make you think about what exactly “whole wheat” claims mean in processed foods.

 

 

 

 

Sometimes you come upon a book or an article or even just a quotation that captures a truth or insight that you’ve long been sensing but have been unable to put your finger on exactly.

I came upon an interview with Ken Myers on The Christian Post website that did just that.

Here’s how the introductory text to the interview describes Myers: “Myers is the founder and host of MARS HILL AUDIO Journal, a bimonthly audio magazine featuring interviews with some of today’s foremost Christian thought leaders in academics, politics, and the arts. The mission: “To assist Christians who desire to move from thoughtless consumption of contemporary culture to a vantage point of thoughtful engagement.” Myers, a former NPR reporter, is himself a thoughtful social critic who thinks deeply about the interplay between the church and the larger world.”

Another good profile of Ken Myers can be found here.

Here’s one section of the interview that especially stood out:

CP: What is the biggest challenge facing the church today?

Myers: It’s not “the culture,” as we often hear, that poses the most significant challenge for the church today. It’s the culture of the church.

What I mean is, we have reduced the Gospel to an abstract message of salvation that can be believed without having any necessary consequences for how we live. In contrast, the redemption announced in the Bible is clearly understood as restoring human thriving in creation.

Redemption is not just a restoration of our status before God through the life and work of Jesus Christ, but a restoration of our relationship with God as well. And our relationship with God is expressed in how we live. Salvation is about God’s restoring our whole life, not just one invisible aspect of our being (our soul), but our life as lived out in the world in ways that are in keeping with how God made us. The goal of salvation is blessedness for us as human beings. In other words, we are saved so that our way of life can be fully in keeping with God’s ordering of reality.

Here’s another:

If congregations in America were deeply and creatively committed to nurturing the culture of the city of God in their life together, I think it would have an inexorable effect on the lives of our neighbors. But I fear that too many churches are shaping people to be what Kenda Creasy Dean calls being “Christianish” – or not deeply Christian at all. The more faithful we are in living out the ramifications of a Christian understanding of all things, the more out-of-synch we will be in American culture. But why should we wish for anything else? What can we offer the world if we are just like the world?

Interestingly enough, many top businesses view the culture of their organizations as a vital factor in whether they will be ultimately successful or not. One article even calls on business leaders to be “cultural warriors.”

A great example of the difference a distinct and dynamic organization culture can make is Southwest Airlines. Here’s an insightful interview with Dave Ridley, a former executive at Southwest Airlines and a Christian, who talks about the dynamic, employee-focused culture of Southwest Airlines. At one point Ridley highlights the fact that Southwest Airlines is obviously not a Christian organization, and “Yet the culture (of Southwest Airlines) is very reflective of what one would hope to see – but often is not seen – in organizations that claim to have the gospel at their core (including lots of churches unfortunately).”

I’ve come away more convinced than ever that church leaders need to be energetically, thoughtfully, and artfully shaping the culture of their churches. Designing worship services to reflect a whole faith is just one step that needs to be taken.