Wednesday, January 31, 2007


cartoon from

Cartoon by Dave Walker. Find more cartoons you can freely re-use on your blog at We Blog Cartoons.

Actually, I have plenty more to blog about, but just little time at the moment!

...And another!

More books arrived today! Two of the Williams, the Hart and the Jenson (see here for details). There was also a second package containing another lovely suprise (see here and here) from yet another friend whom I am yet to meet. Thank you, Tracy!

Graven Ideologies: Nietzsche, Derrida & Marion on Modern Idolatry by Bruce Ellis Benson (IVP: 2002)
How can we talk about God without just projecting our own wishes and fears? Might not a lot of what passes for theology really just be anthropology writ large, as Feuerbach claimed? Perhaps surprisingly for some, Nietzsche, Derrida and Marion are three philosophers with a lot to say to theology on this matter. Benson explores these three thinkers against the background of Descartes, Locke, Hume, Husserl and Heidegger in order to expose our idolatrous tendency to make God in our own image.

This book sounds reminiscent of Faith and Suspicion: the religious uses of modern atheism by Merold Westphal and comes with high praise from Drew. I'm looking forward to it - how I will decide on a reading order for all these new books, I'm not sure. At the moment, I'm still plugging through Bleak House while I dip into each and try to decide...

Monday, January 29, 2007

Worse than death? V

You have died

Whom have I in heaven but you?
   And there is nothing on earth I desire other than you.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
   but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.

- Psalm 73.25-26

Death is the last (though not greatest) enemy of humanity and God. The Christian, however, has already died: for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory (Colossians 3.3-4). The worst is over: one has died for all; therefore all have died (2 Corinthians 5.14). Notice that the logic is not that Jesus died for us so that we might not die (strict substitution), but that in him, we have already died. He is our representative. What he did is for us, applies to us, is true for us, indeed is true for 'all': he tasted death for everyone (Hebrews 2.9).

But what does it mean that we have died, since we're still breathing? Is this a legal fiction? A pious way of speaking of the end of an old selfish way of life? Or something else? To understand ourselves and our own story aright, it is necessary for this to be situated correctly within God's story as its proper context. And in particular, we need to hear our story being told as part of the story of Christ. Our life is hid with his. The true meaning of our lives will be revealed when he is. The true and full meaning of our death is likewise hidden with Christ. However, since the resurrected Christ is both present and absent, having been seen by many, yet now not seen for a little while, our knowledge of this meaning is also somewhat ambiguous. We are neither in the dark, nor yet confronted irrefutably face to face with it. So while we can say something of what it means to be somehow already dead, we mightn't be able to express it all.

I take it that at the very least, to be already dead with Christ is to be free from fear of the worst, since the worst has already happened to Christ, and already happened to us in Christ. This worst wasn't death itself, but was being abandoned by God, being godforsaken. Whatever we are to make of Jesus' heartwrenching and mysterious cry from the cross - my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?* - that this one was the one that God subsequently raised means that even the experience of godforsakenness is now transformed. No matter how bad things get for the Christian, Christ has been there first and remains with us, as Immanuel, through it now. Whatever our situation, the worst is already over. Christ has suffered the hell of godforsakenness for us.
*Volumes can and have been written on this cry, a quote from Psalm 22. I will not add to those volumes at this point.

Although Christians still suffer an end to life, and many even have horrible and painful experiences as they do so, nonetheless, there is a difference between all these experiences and Jesus' death on the cross. Every Christian passes their final breath under the pattern and so the promise of Christ's experience: vindication from out of shame, new life from out of death.
‘I saw the Lord always before me,
   for he is at my right hand so that I will not be shaken;
therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced;
   moreover my flesh will live in hope.
For you will not abandon my soul to Hades,
   or let your Holy One experience corruption.
You have made known to me the ways of life;
   you will make me full of gladness with your presence.’

- Acts 2.25-28 (Psalm 16.8-11; LXX 15.8-11)
H/T Cyberpastor, who suggested this passage here.

Series: I, II, III, IV, V, VI.

Was Lazarus the beloved disciple?

A fascinating article posted by NT scholar Ben Witherington argues that 'the disciple whom Jesus loved' mentioned in the fourth Gospel is not the apostle John (as traditionally understood), but Lazarus, whom he raised from the dead. Long, but worth a read if you're interested in who wrote the fourth Gospel and why it might matter.

Top 15 theological works of the last 25 years

For those interested in serious theology, Patrik has posted the results of a meme and poll of the theo-blogosphere through which he sought the most important theological works to be published in the last 25 years.

Barneys rebuilding plans

Last May, my old church building, St Barnabas', Broadway burned down. Here's the latest update from today's SMH on rebuilding plans.
More posts on Barneys and the fire: I; II; III; IV; V; VI.


What is the place of icons in worship? Have a read of this provocative argument. H/T Alastair.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Dickens on butterflies

Following an interesting recommendation from Drew, and receiving the DVD series for Christmas, I've been reading Bleak House by Dickens recently. Here is a great (and sad) little character description. Dickens for me is all about these little observations.

Everything that Mr Smallweed's grandfather ever put away in his mind was a grub at first, and is a grub at last. In all his life he has never bred a single butterfly.

- Charles Dickens, Bleak House, chapter 21.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Kierkegaard on love

How is it possible to love when to do so makes us vulnerable to being hurt, rejected - or perhaps worst of all - ignored? Is it really wise to be so unsafe? Will not those who forget themselves in self-giving love be forgotten? Here is Kierkegaard's answer:

No, the one who in love forgets himself, forgets his suffering, in order to think of someone else's, forgets all his misery in order to think of someone else's, forgets what he himself loses in order lovingly to bear in mind someone else's loss, forgets his own advantage in order lovingly to think of someone else's - truly, such a person is not forgotten. There is one who is thinking about him: God in heaven. Or love is thinking about him. God is Love, and when a person out of love forgets himself, how then would God forget him! No, whle the one who loves forgets himself and thinks of the other person, God is thinking of the one who loves. The self-lover is busy; he shouts and makes a big noise and stands on his rights in order to make sure he is not forgotten - and yet he is forgotten. But the one who loves, who forgets himself, is recollected by love. There is One who is thinking of him...

- Søren Kierkegaard, Works of Love, ed. and trans. Howard Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1995), 281. Cited in Miroslav Volf, Free of Charge, 103.

The security of the divine attention makes the 'risk' of love a secure investment. Let us spend wisely.
Ten points for the Sydney suburb in the picture.

And again!

Yesterday, I mentioned two lovely suprises. Today I received a third:

Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America edited by Darrell L. Guder (Eerdmans: 1998)
A second collection of essays on contemporary church life and direction recommended by my new rector for our discussions and planning. From the blurb on the back: "What would a theology of the church look like that took serisouly the fact that North America is now itself a mission field? This question lies at the foundation of this volume written by an ecumenical team of six noted missiologists - Lois Brrett, Inagrace T. Dietterich, Darrell L. Guder, George R. Hunsberger, Alan J. Roxburgh, and Craig Van Gelder." I am no expert on the disparate collection of phenomena sometimes called the emerging (or missional) church, but listening and learning to new voices in missiology sounds like a good idea as I start a new position in which evangelism figures prominently.

Thanks to yet another kind donor for helping me prepare for the year(s) ahead. Since he is a blog friend I'll express my gratitude by saying go check out this great post on legalism.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Health updates: new blog

For those who might be interested, I am in the process of setting up a second blog to answer various frequently asked questions about my life with cancer and its treatments, as well as post updates. It can be found here. I will continue to expand the FAQs over the coming days and weeks.

In praise of... surprises

As mentioned previously, I've been constantly touched and overwhelmed by the support and love Jessica and I have received in all kinds of ways over the last month or so, including some creative and unexpected measures.

Today I received a number of surprises. Not only did the first of the Barth volumes arrive (III/4 and IV/4), but two more books I didn't realise had been purchased for me from my Amazon wish list. Here they are:

After Our Likeness: The Church as the Image of the Trinity by Miroslav Volf (Eerdmans: 1998)
What can we learn about the church from the life and nature of the Trinity? A trinitarian ecclesiology from one of the most interesting and important theologians at work today, in which he interacts at length with Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) and Zizoulas. I'm not expecting to agree with everything Volf writes (his take on the Trinity sometimes seems a little too symmetrical and neat), but I've wanted to read this book for a couple of years. I intended to get to it in third year ecclesiology, but other things crowded it out.

The Church between Gospel and Culture: The Emerging Mission in North America edited by George R. Hunsberger and Craig Van Gelder (Eerdmans: 1996)
An interesting collection of essays on contemporary church culture, life and mission. My new rector has been thinking about this book and suggested I read it as we reflect on what we do and why at All Souls.

A huge thanks to the two individuals who orchestrated such beautiful surprises. You know who you are (I do too, since your names appeared on the receipts with the books). As a bonus surprise, I'm not sure that I have ever met either of you!

Surprises remind us that the future is open to God's radical intervention. He has bound himself to the future in promises, but the fulfillment is always more than we could ask or imagine (Ephesians 3.20).

Do not remember the former things,
   or consider the things of old.
I am about to do a new thing;
   now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
   and rivers in the desert.
The wild animals will honor me,
   the jackals and the ostriches;
for I give water in the wilderness,
   rivers in the desert,
to give drink to my chosen people,
   the people whom I formed for myself
so that they might declare my praise.

- Isaiah 43.18-21 (emphasis added)

Series so far: I; II; III; IV; V; VI; VII; VIII; IX; X.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Worse than death? IV

Death is not the focus of life
I asked recently how do you want to die? and received a large number of very interesting responses.

As Christopher pointed out, Stanley Hauerwas likes to ask this question in order to point out that our common answers as Westerners (quick, painless, sudden/in sleep) are basically the opposite of what Christians of an earlier age might have answered.* Indeed, the Anglican Book of Common Prayer includes a petition asking for deliverance from a sudden death. They feared what we crave, because they wanted time to prepare for death, to ensure they were reconciled with God and neighbour. While this might partially be attributed to a medieval Roman Catholic lack of assurance and the importance placed on the sacrament of Last Rites, the modern desire to avoid death - or rather dying - by all means possible reveals a deep fault line in our culture. We are petrified of death and either obsess over it, or (more commonly) simply avoid all mention and thought of it.
*For those interested in chasing up this thought from Hauerwas (and many others he offers on Western attitudes to illness, dying and medicine), check out this podcast. Skip the first five minutes of intro if you already know who he is. If you're new to his work, he can be difficult to listen to and moves around quickly, but there are many gems in this hour-long talk to make it worth the effort. Much of the rest of this post is indebted to thoughts from this talk.

We have medicalised death so that physical health becomes the primary paradigm through which we understand it; the hospital the primary location of death; the doctor takes the role of priest and research our hope in the face of death.

Fear of death dominates our culture, either explicitly, or implicitly. This is what drives the present fear of terrorism: the idea that dying at the hands of a suicide bomber is the worst possible outcome, justifying the erosion of well-established social institutions and freedoms.

But if Christ is Lord of the living and the dead, if Christians hope for life to come again to our mortal bodies by the Spirit, if death's sting is drawn, then it is possible to live and die without death dominating our existence. Life is a good gift and every breath is a reason to rejoice, but we are not to let the task of staying alive take centre stage. If there are things worse than death, there are things better than life:

Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you.

- Psalm 63.2

Series: I, II, III, IV, V, VI.


cartoon from
Cartoon by Dave Walker. Find more cartoons you can freely re-use on your blog at We Blog Cartoons. H/T Andrew.

In other news, Michael Jensen shares his wisdom about blogging. I disagree with #1, of course; the selection and referencing of quotes is a useful and constructive task.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Merton on humility against despair

      Despair is the absolute extreme of self-love. It is reached when a man deliberately turns his back on all help from anyone else in order to taste the rotten luxury of knowing himself to be lost.
      In every man there is hidden some root of despair because in every man there is pride that vegetates and springs weeds and rank flowers of self-pity as soon as our own resources fail us. But because our own resources inevitably fail us, we are all more or less subject to discouragement and to despair.
      Despair is the ultimate development of a pride so great and so stiff-necked that it selects the absolute misery of damnation rather than accept happiness from the hands of God and thereby acknowledge that He is above us and that we are not capable of fulfilling our destiny by ourselves.
      But a man who is truly humble cannot despair, because in the humble man there is no longer any such thing as self-pity.

- Thomas Merton, Seeds of Contemplation, 108.

Recent theology books

Patrik (of world cup for theologians fame) is running a poll on the most important theological publications of the last 25 years. Go and have a look if you're a newcomer to reading theology, or go and vote if you think you know your stuff.

Friday, January 19, 2007

The End of Suburbia IV

Peak Oil: denial (continued)
Way back in November, I was writing on Peak Oil (and here). You might think that my recent condition has distracted me from this issue. In one sense, yes, it has. But as I reflect upon it, I think there are many similarities between having cancer and facing the possibility of Peak Oil. In both cases, there is a limited resource (Oil, time) in which there is uncertainty over just how much might be left, the dead end possibilities of denial, blind optimistic 'faith' (which is really no faith at all), getting distracted from the main game, or despair.

Blind faith
In my previous post, I argued that blind faith in the market or God's protection were inadequate responses. Instead, Christians are liberated from fear and so can face the truth, whatever it might be found to be. The truth is not easy to find on this question. Competing experts telling us different things. Of course, it is possible that even the appearance of dispute can help one side or the other. Yet what to do in this case?

A distraction?
Some Christians might consider such things a distraction, from the real issue of preaching the gospel. In one sense, yes, it is quite possible for secondary concerns to make the church forget its raison d'etre: witnessing to Christ crucified, celebrating his resurrection and awaiting his return. However, it is not the case that 'secondary' concerns mightn't themselves become a cause of unfaithfulness when ignored: much of the church in Nazi Germany considered Hitler's Aryan clause to be a distracting non-gospel issue.

For those who start doing a little research and find the stats convincing, a fourth common response is despair. The future seems bleak and hopeless. Globalised civilisation, addicted to cheap oil, mightn't survive in anything like its present form, and what is left may be so unrecognisable that those who survive (which may only be a small percentage of the world's present population on some estimates) find themselves in a post-apocalyptic landscape desperately scrabbling for bare necessities in a post-industrial neo-tribalism. Even if such a worst-case scenario doesn't play out, there are enough variations holding out the prospect of major social upheaval and suffering to make any imaginative observer pause and consider other civilisations whose short-sighted greed ended in their own destruction.

Scarcity is not the problem
However, for the Christian, despair is not an option. Because despite appearances, scarcity is not the problem. Our first parents, faced with a whole garden of goodies, nonetheless came to believe that God had shortchanged them by denying them the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen 2-3). However this image is to be interpreted, the sting in the serpent's questions was the nagging fear that God was not generous, was not good, had not provided enough.

A theological 'solution'?
But of course, we, like them, live in a world with ample resources to provide for our needs. The problem is that we have artificially inflated our needs to include cheap transport, easy energy, comfort and inordinate and ever-expanding wealth. And so the primary theological 'solution' to Peak Oil is thankfulness, which is the key to contentment. Listen to the Apostle Paul: I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me. (Philippians 4.11b-13) And again: Of course, there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment; for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these. But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. (1 Timothy 6.6-9)

There is much more to say about Peak Oil than this, but here is where I suspect a theological response ought to begin: with thanks for our creator God's abundant provision of a good world and an admission that our needs are more readily met than we often suspect. The problem is our selfishness, greed and shortsighted focus on ourselves to the detriment of the larger body - whether of the church, of humanity, or of the entire created order.
Series so far: I; II; III; IV.
Ten points for the town in which these ubiquitous little bikes dominate the streets.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

How do you want to die?

Again, what are your gut instincts on this question? Do you have a more considered response? What things would you like to be true about your death?

Merton on sin

      There is nothing interesting about sin, or about evil as evil.
      And this evil is not a positive entity but the absence of a perfection that ought to be there. Sin as such is essentially boring because it is the lack of something that could appeal to our wills and our minds.
      What attracts men to evil acts is not the evil in them but the good that is there, seen under a false aspect and with a distorted perspective. And the good seen from that angle is only the bait in a trap. When you reach out to take it, the trap is sprung and you are left with disgust and boredom - and hatred. Sinners are people who hate everything, because their world is necessarily full of betrayal, full of illusion, full of deception. And the greatest sinners are the most boring people in the world because they are also the most bored and ones who find life most tedious.

- Thomas Merton, Seeds of Contemplation, 76.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

In praise of... generosity

To kick off this series (introduced here), I want to praise an act of creative Christian generosity initiated by Ben Myers on my behalf, and taken up by many others. As mentioned previously, Ben set up an account to which many others also contributed in order to allow me to make Amazon purchases from my wish list. In a few days, US$242.54 (plus a US$20 voucher) was raised. From a friend whom I've only met once, this lovely gesture has been one of many times I've been touched, encouraged and challenged by his warmth and thoughtfulness (for another example, see here). And for the many who gave (many of whom I've never met outside the blogosphere), I thank God for your gracious sharing and desire to be a blessing with the things God has given you. I am excited about the many treasures being shipped Sydney-wards as I type! Although Ben has already published my choices, I thought I'd do so again with some brief explanations of why I picked this tasty menu of treats.

George A. Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age
An important book on theological method that has set the agenda for much subsequent 'post-liberal' theology. I almost picked it to review for a college assignment last year, but read the much thicker Drama of Doctrine* by Kevin Vanhoozer instead. Since it has come up repeatedly in Patrik's recent meme (e.g. here) about most important theology books of the last 25 years, I thought I should grab a copy when Amazon had it for a reduced price.
*Drew rightly wants us to link to original publishers rather than Amazon, though WJK Press directed me to Amazon when I did a search. Go figure.

Robert W. Jenson, On Thinking the Human: Resolutions of Difficult Notions
I'm down to give a few sermons later in the year on doctrine of humanity as part of a five-part series inspired by this fascinating post from Kim Fabricius. I think this is my only pick from the wish list I had up when Ben launched the appeal. My apologies to those who were hoping to see more from this list, though I received a few of my wishes for Christmas and hadn't updated my list. I've always wanted to read more Jenson, one of the foremost living theologians.

David Bentley Hart, The Beauty of The Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth
Another frequent recommendation in Patrik's meme. A number of bloggers have been reading this book and posting their thoughts (e.g. here amd here and here). It sounds like quite heavy philosophical theology at points, but I'm keen to read it because my love of Nietzsche has driven a large wedge between Plato and Christianity for me and it sounds like Hart is keen to defend some aspects of Plato. I want to see whether such a thing can be done.

Rowan Williams, On Christian Theology
I've always been fascinated by Williams from a distance as he does his dance as Archbishop of Canterbury and theologian. I'm glad that this figurehead is both a serious thinker and media savvy, even if I'm sometimes puzzled by his comments (and sometimes delighted - check out this quote). I picked three Williams texts that grabbed my attention in order to get to know him a little better first-hand. I'd like to try to write something on him this year and so need to start getting familiar. This collection of essays has been recommended to me as a good intro.

Rowan Williams, Wound of Knowledge: Christian Spirituality from the New Testament to St John of the Cross
This text combines two areas of speciality for Williams: spirituality and patristics. Both are fields I've been getting into over the last few months. I'm particularly interested to see what he says about Augustine, though I'd also like to be better introduced to more of the desert fathers, who have not featured heavily in my own theological education, despite being influential on a number of people I love dearly. I'm keen to get more of an idea of what is going on in Christian mysticism.

Rowan Williams, Where God Happens: Discovering Christ in One Another and Other Lessons from the Desert Fathers
See above. The bonus of this book (a republication of what was originally a short little book called Silence and Honey-cakes (a great title) is that it has many extracts from the desert fathers - and is cheap!

Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics: II/2; III/3; III/4; IV/2; IV,4
Ben regretted that the money wasn't quite enough for a full (paperback) set of Barth's life-work, the unfinished masterpiece of 14 volumes of Church Dogmatics (the greatest theological landmark of the twentieth century - see here for more praise). However, I already own a number of hardback volumes secondhand (I/1; I/2; II/1; IV/1) and so thought I'd do a little detective work for some secondhand Amazon bargains - the postage to Oz is a little steeper than usual, but the prices were worth it for these - each was under US$30 and some under US$10! I make no promises about getting through them all in the next months, but they are a resource for a lifetime of theological depth and pondering. Where Barth gets it wrong, he's still masterfully stimulating.

In all this, I've tasted God's generosity through his people. This imitation of God is also a participation in his giving.

Let us praise what is good.
Series so far: I; II; III; IV; V; VI; VII; VIII; IX; X.

Worse than death? III

Jesus' obedience unto death

...let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.

- Hebrews 12.1-2 (NRSV)

Jesus was obedient to the point of death. The possibility, even the inevitability, that following his Father's will would lead to a painful and shameful execution was not for him a reason for compromise or recalculation. He knew that sin is worse than death. And so he continued walking the dangerous path of calling Israel to repentance and of living without fear of what others might do to him because of it.

Now Jesus clearly loved life. He wept over his friend's death. He healed and forgave those threatened by death and sin. He spoke of life to the full and celebrated children and weddings. He feasted and drank, thanking his Father for good things. Yet his love for life and the good creation did not dominate his existence so that every effort was to be made to preserve his life and health. First came faithfulness to his God and Father. This was his agenda, wherever it led him. He would not sacrifice everything to stay alive, nor was he in a rush to die. Indeed, all other things being equal, he would have preferred to have been able to avoid the cup of suffering, but instead he prayed and lived "not my will, but yours be done" (Luke 22.42).

For Jesus to have treated death as the worst possible outcome and as his primary enemy would have distracted him from the very path that would lead to its defeat. Jesus defeated death not by avoiding it but by solving the problem that causes it, by healing the crack in the world that leads to all decay and degeneration. He undid Adam's disobedience through obedience. He took on our temptations and succeeded where we failed.

Much more can and should be said about the cross, but at the very least, we see that regard for God trumps fear of death in Jesus' willingness to obey in all things, even when life itself is at stake.
Ten points for the name of this stone.
Series: I, II, III, IV, V, VI.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Merton on peacemaking

      Will you end wars by asking men to trust men who evidently cannot be trusted? No. Teach them to love and trust God; then they will be able to love the men they cannot trust, and will dare to make peace with them, not trusting in them but in God.
      For only love - which means humility - can cast out the fear which is the root of all war.

      If men really wanted peace they would ask God and He would give it to them. But why should He give the world a peace which it does not really desire? For the peace the world seems to desire is really no peace at all.
      To some men peace means merely the liberty to exploit other people without fear of retaliation or interference. To others peace means the freedom to rob one another without interruption. To still others it means the leisure to devour the goods of the earth without being compelled to interrupt their pleasures to feed those whom their greed is starving. And to practically everybody peace simply means the absence of any physical violence that might cast a shadow over lives devoted to the satisfaction of their animal appetites for comfort and pleasure.
      Many men like these have asked God for what they thought was "peace" and wondered why their prayer was not answered. They could not understand that it actually was answered. God left them with what they desired, for their idea of peace was only another form of war.
      So instead of loving what you think is peace, love other men and love God above all. And instead of hating the people you think are warmakers, hate the appetites and the disorder in your own soul, which are the causes of war.

- Thomas Merton, Seeds of Contemplation (London: 1949), 72-73.

Friday, January 12, 2007

He spoke of trees

A guest post by Andrew Errington
When the author of the book of Kings described Solomon’s wisdom, he wrote this:

“God gave Solomon wisdom and understanding beyond measure, and largeness of mind like the sand on the seashore, so that Solomon’s wisdom surpassed the wisdom of all the people of the east, and all the wisdom of Egypt [...]. He [...] uttered three thousand proverbs; and his songs were a thousand and five. He spoke of trees, from the cedar that is in Lebanon to the hyssop that grows out of the wall; he spoke also of beasts, and of birds, and of reptiles, and of fish.”

- 1 Kings 4:29-34.

It was neither his capacity to make difficult political decisions nor his legendary ability to justly judge the disputes that were brought before him that the author mentions to explain his wisdom. Rather, it was the way Solomon spoke of the natural world, especially, it seems, trees.

I find this delightful. I like trees and have done so since I climbed the liquid amber in our front yard, wandered through aging poplars with my Grandfather, and discovered stands of bluegums in a quiet valley.

But more than that, this brief mention is a reminder of something that has been central to Nothing New Under the Sun: the created world is not incidental or unimportant in God’s purposes. We are not being saved from this world of coolabahs and cedar and kangaroos and kingfishers, but for it [ed: and with it!]. So it makes sense that at the heart of Solomon’s wisdom was reflection on God’s good world. He spoke of trees.
Ten points for the country in the pic. No posting this weekend as I will be away. Thanks to Andrew Errington for this post. He is also known as "andrewe" in comments.
UPDATE: Andrew has now started his own blog here.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

In praise of... praise

A new series

O Lord, open my lips,
      and my mouth will declare your praise.
      - Psalm 51.15
I used to think that praise, like love, was a zero sum game. I thought that in order to make sure God got the highest praise, I had to refrain from speaking too highly of anything else. Superlatives were therefore reserved for divine things. Saying too much about what was good was a threat to what was best.

But this needn't be the case. Everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected, provided it is received with thanksgiving (1 Timothy 4.4). Whatever brings joy and life, whatever multiples love and fosters hope, whatever truly exists, is a gift from God for us. Gifts that were intended to evoke our thanksgiving (1 Timothy 4.3). When we praise a good thing, this needn't threaten God's glory, because if we are acknowledging a gift, then praise reflects positively on the giver. By praising the goodness of the gift, we praise the generosity of the giver.

Of course, since our first parents arrogantly asserted their independence from God, the world is now also cracked and good things that usurp their specific place and function become a threat to one another, like a cancerous growth in the body of the world. Nonetheless, the fundamental affirming of "good, very good" still applies, even when more must also be said.

I come from a Christian culture that can be very highly critical, and where initial appreciation of some limited goodness can all-too-often be merely a prelude to tearing something apart. We love to critique, to feel good about ourselves by pointing at flaws in others. I don't like this culture, nor the fact that I enjoy complaining as much as the next person. But perhaps even this negative reaction is itself an example of the culture. Instead, I want to learn to be a praiser - to see and love the good. To hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good (Romans 12.9).

So let us praise what is good.
Ten points for guessing why I selected this picture. There may be multiple reasons.
Series so far: I; II; III; IV; V; VI; VII; VIII; IX; X. Full series links can be found here.

Monday, January 08, 2007

One command or two?

Loving God and neighbour

      When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him.
      “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”
      He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

- Matt 22.34-40 (cf. Mark 12.28-34)

I used to think love was a zero-sum game. To love God more, I had to love other things less. To love any created thing too much was to threaten my first priority of loving God. And so all horizontal loves had to be kept partial, conditional, hedged by constant vigilence, lest I get too attached to a secondary good and so distracted from the highest good.

But Jesus' affirmation of the first and greatest commandment from Deuteronomy 6.5 will not allow such an understanding. God is not simply to be loved with more of my heart than anything else, but with all. There can be no love, no loyalty, no joy, no delight and affection for anything but God. This command is totalising. Leaving aside for the moment the issue of whether love can be commanded at all, this is a shock to human pride. No longer can I feel quietly confident of having more or less kept God number one, and kept other things back down at least as far as second in my affections. This is a command I cannot keep without a new heart, undivided and unalloyed.

This command makes Christianity an offense, for the God of which Jesus speaks is not any old deity according to how we might prefer to imagine a higher power. He is speaking of the one he calls 'Father'. The one his people identified as Yahweh, who brought them out of slavery in Egypt. It is this God that Jesus demands we love with all that we are: heart, soul, mind and strength. Not four different kinds of love, but a fourfold repetition of all of us.

But, and this is crucial, Jesus doesn't stop there. Incredibly, after the universe that is the first and greatest command, he says that there is a second. What room is left? What love is still available? What has not been claimed and owned for all time by the first commandment? This second commandment he says is 'like' the first. Like in what way? "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." Like the first, it is taken from Israel's Law (Torah), this time from Leviticus 19.18. Like the first, it is demanding and difficult: how can I be as concerned for the needs of one whom I don't always see, whose thoughts and needs I often don't know? But I'm not sure that this is how the second command is like the first.

I wonder whether it is like the first because it is a translation of it, a paraphrase, an explanation, a gloss? I love God not in competition with loving our neighbour, but precisely by loving my neighbour. In 1 John 4.20 we read Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The visible manifestation of our love of an invisible God is to love what we can see. Wholeheartedly. The one love embraces both objects simultaneously. Love is not a zero sum game. The commands do not collapse into one, but they are mutually interpreting. I am to love my neighbour more in order to grow in love for God. And the converse is also true: unless I am also loving this God, then I am not really loving my neighbour.
Ten points for the country in which the original artwork is located.
Some readers may have been confused by the final paragraph of my previous post Thanks. It was missing a link to Ben Myers, which is now fixed.


I've been repeatedly moved and overwhelmed by all the support and care we've received in recent weeks, and thank God repeatedly for his goodness to us through so many people: friends, family, medical staff and virtual companions (often as-yet unmet brothers and sisters). The huge prayer support, almost endless offers of help, food, phonecalls, emails and visits have affirmed how much we are loved. Thank you.

And I was particularly touched by this creative generosity from a new-ish friend. He called it 'a blogging equivalent of a get well card'.
Some may have been confused when I first put this post up. It was missing a link in the final paragraph to here, which is now fixed.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

You again...

A reminder to keep checking out Michael Jensen's blog-book, YOU. He is writing a popular level book to be given away to interested inquirers that gently raises life questions and discusses them with sensitive Christian input. The novelty is that by going to his blog, not only do you get a free sneak-preview, but you can be part of it when published as the blog-discussion will also be published (with names changed if you prefer). He explains the plan here. He's recently been addressing what it means to have a body, but other highlights include mini-series posts on dreams, possessions, death, loving life, parents, evil and much more.

Corporate growth

What is wrong with the world?

But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love. (Ephesians 4.15-16)
Having been recently thinking about bodies and health, I've been pondering corporate metaphors. Here's my thought: free-market capitalism assumes that the selfish interest of each is good for the health of the whole. If we each pursue our private goals rationally, even if selfishly, the whole body politic will flourish. However, medically speaking, when a part of the body decides to maximise its growth without reference to the rest, we call it a tumour. Individualism might then be seen as cancer: a part of the body living for itself and ignoring those around it. In the end, either it goes or the body goes.

Perhaps strangely, cancer is simply too much of a good thing: growth. Or rather, it is a disordered growth, a growth without reference to the whole body. In terms of the Ephesians passage mentioned above, it is growth without reference to the head, the organising principle and ruler of the body, which for the church (and the entire created order) is found in Christ. What is wrong with the world is the pursuit of little goods without this being properly ordered to Christ as the head of all.

Perhaps we can push this picture further and apply it on both larger and smaller scales. Personally, when I select one good thing and absolutise it into the be-all and end-all of life, then I have not only become an idolater, but have stimulated a malignant condition that threatens the balance and health of my whole life. Whether it be a relationship, a goal, a sense of fulfilment or security, or even physical health itself, unless each part of life is working properly with reference to the others, growing together into Christ, then I have become a threat to myself and those around me.

Moving in the other direction, humanity as a whole can attempt to flourish without reference to the rest of the created order. We pursue our short-term goals of economic prosperity, little aware that unless the pace, nature and direction of our growth is directed by what is apt for our ecological context, then we too may be more hindrance than help to the earth we were directed to serve (Genesis 3.23).*
*Although often translated "the LORD God sent him forth from the Garden of Eden to till [or work] the ground from which he was taken," the Hebrew verb can also include the idea of 'service'.
Ten points for the famous museum in which this statue is presently located. More points available in comments.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Blog upgrade

I've tried the switch to the new Blogger and have had a few hitches. It seems that the identity of quite a number of recent comments have been rendered 'anonymous'. Apologies to those who are now nameless in their remarks. I'm not sure there's anything I can do about this. As a slight compensation, I have now labelled all my old posts and so finding things might be a little easier. I'm still working on the layout, so expect things to keep changing round a little on the sidebar for a while until I sort this out. Here are some labels that you might find more interesting.

Age to come; Augustine; Barneys; Barth; Cancer; Creation; Death; End of the world; Faith; Fear; Films; God; Grace; Groaning; Heaven; Humanity; Humour; Jesus; Life; Love; Moltmann; Not yet; O'Donovan; Pacifism; Personal; Points; Problem of evil; Questions; Resurrection; Transience.

Volf on echoing God's forgiveness

      For any single wrongdoing between two people to be forgiven rightly, all wrongdoings between them would have to come to light, and all forgiven. But that's clearly impossible in the here and now.
      All our forgiving is inescapably incomplete. That's why it's so crucial to see our forgiving not simply as our own act, but as participating in God's forgiving. Our forgiving is faulty; God's is faultless. Our forgiving is provisional; God's is final. We forgive tenuously and tentatively; God forgives unhesitatingly and definitively. As we forgive, we always wrong the offender by inadequate judgment and pride; God forgives with justice and genuine love. The only way we dare forgive is by making our forgiving transparent to God's and always open to revision. After all, our forgiveness is only possible as an echo of God's.

-Miroslav Volf, Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace, 219-220.

I mentioned and highly recommended this book earlier. One of the real highlights is the careful and insightful way Volf explores the similarities and differences between how God gives and forgives, and how we do so. We are to imitate God, but we are not God.
      We should forgive as God forgives, but we can't forgive as God forgives! Earlier, in discussing giving, I suggested that the adverb "as" in the phrase "as God gives" doesn't designate identity but similarity. Because we are human, we cannot give exactly as God does. But because we are created to be like the God who gives, we should give similarly to how God gives. The same applies to forgiveness. We cannot and should not forgive exactly as God does. But we were created to be like the God who forgives, we should forgive similarly to how God forgives. We don't replicate what God does. We imitate it in our way, mindful that, as the great church father Augustine said, the dissimilarity between us and God is greater than the similarity.
      Important as it is, however, imitation is not the primary way in which we relate to God. We don't just watch and learn from God, as a toddler watches and learns from his mother. A toddler and his mother are two separate people, acting independently of each other. They have two distinct bodies that occupy different spaces, and they have two intellects and wills operating independently from each other. But as we have seen throughout this book, we are not independent of God in that way. God is not absent from the space we inhabit, and our intellects and wills are carried on the wings of God's presence and activity. When we give, it is God's gifts that we pass on and it is God who gives through us. By giving, we are instruments of God's giving. The same is true of forgiveness.

-Volf, Free of Charge, 164-65.

As I said before: highly recommended and worth pondering (and giving away!). An excellent example of mixing theological rigour with stylistic accessibility.
I received no free publisher's copy for these comments. I just liked the book.

Worse than death? II

Sin is worse than death

Our God is a God of salvation,
   and to GOD, the Lord, belongs escape from death.
     - Psalm 68.20
Death will be the last enemy to be defeated at the general resurrection of the dead and the renewal of all things. Yet while it will be the last to go, it is not the Great Enemy, the Adversary. There are things worse than death.

There are things that diminish life, that corrode joy, that devour the heart, shrink the spirit, corrupt the good. Sin is worse than death. Death brings an end to the goodness that is life, but sin can take what is good in life and turn it sour. Death is a negation; sin is a negative. Death reduces to zero; sin puts it in the red. Now, of course, the picture is more complex than this, since what is good is not removed when it is corrupted, and evil is not simply the reverse scale of quality as good. Created things remain good, even while corrupted. Fallen humanity in particular is a complex thing, simultaneously both blessing and problem, both gift and cursed.

When our first parents disasterously declared their independence from God, claiming their own pre-emptive knowledge of good and evil, God's gracious response was to cut them off from the tree of life:
Then the LORD God said, “See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever”-- therefore the LORD God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken. He drove out the man; and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim, and a sword flaming and turning to guard the way to the tree of life.
The denial of everlasting life to the wayward husband and wife was to place a boundary on the spread of evil, to prevent it becoming forever woven into the fabric of the world. Death, the return of the dust to dust, was on the one hand the inevitable result of life that denies its own basis as the generous gift of God. Human death is a self-made self-annihilation, a suicidal turn from the source of life. But, on the other hand, it was also from the start useful as a curb on evil: a self-limiting curse.

Again, we must be careful here. Simply having boundaries, being embodied, temporal or dependent are not themselves problematic. Such finitude is part of the good gift of God. The finitude of death contains a darkness not found in being six feet tall or living in a world where snowmen melt. The tragedy is not change, not limit, but the disordering infection of rebellion, a will turned upon itself, an entity oriented to its own goals without reference to the whole or the head. This is the sad shock of sin: irrational, destructive, malignant - and ultimately self-destructive. Death is the result, but sin is the cause.

Sin is worse than death. Untrusting anxiety, apathetic lethargy, bitter regret, faithless betrayal: these are the real enemies of God and his people. These will blunt and bleed the soul, poison the spirit and stop the heart more surely and grievously than the cessation of brainwaves and breath.
Series: I, II, III, IV, V, VI.
Fifteen points for naming the novel in which the ill-treated heroine is finally captured at this ancient location.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Sick Links

For those thinking about cancer and being sick as a Christian, Ben Myers recently linked back to old post on cancer and the will of God which included this great Barth quote:

“[Sickness] is opposed to [God’s] good will as the Creator and has existence and power only under his mighty No. To capitulate before it, to allow it to take its course, can never be obedience but only disobedience towards God. In harmony with the will of God, what man ought to will in face of this whole realm ... and therefore in face of sickness, can only be final resistance.”

- Karl Barth, CD III/4, 367-68.

Ben then continues:
Cancer is related to God’s will only as that which God rejects and negates—it is an expression of the threatening power of chaos which God has set himself against. Those suffering with cancer may therefore be comforted not by trying to convince themselves that all this is somehow God’s bitter “gift,” but by recalling that, in the death and resurrection of Jesus, God has forever said No to darkness and death, and Yes to light and life. God’s “sovereignty” is not an abstract principle of determinism, but it is the fatherly Lordship of God’s grace, as revealed once and for all in Jesus Christ.
And Ben has also recently linked back to another one of Kim Fabricius's famous ten propositions, which is the best thing I've read on prayer for a while. See if it inspires you to pray.
UPDATE: Don't miss Kim's new ten propositions on worship. See if it also moves you from reading about to doing.

Finally, here's some reflections from Kim on being sick.

News for the new year

Life update: Personal news
Some readers are friends and family and will already be aware of this news. Some are new friends I have met through blogging. Some remain anonymous strangers, floating on the margins (please feel free to comment anytime). If you belong to the first category and this post breaks this news to you, I apologise. I had been delaying saying anything directly here to give people a chance to hear through other ways. But for the sake of my blogging friends, it is time to share what's being going on in my life over the last month.

Back in early October last year I began to lose my voice (mentioned here and here). It was a very stressful time at college and personally and so for many weeks, I simply rested my voice and waited for it to return, unfortunately missing some speaking engagements and mercifully giving my classmates more chance to speak.

However, after a couple of months, exams were over and life was slowing down, but my voice hadn't fully return so I went to get it checked out. A nasal endoscopy quickly discovered that my left vocal chord is paralysed, greatly reducing my volume and range. A CT scan the next day was intended to rule out one possible cause: a compressed nerve. This scan discovered a growth (3.5 by 3.0 by 2.5 cm) in the middle of my chest, extending between my oesophagus and the base of my trachea, and growing into my left main brochial tube, partially obstructing my breathing. I received this news on the 4th December and so regular readers might realise that all the posts since here are coloured by this news.

Weeks of tests and hospital visits ensued, at the end of which it has been determined that I have a primary squamous cell carcinoma of the upper aero-digestive tract. There are no secondary growths (praise God), but as it presently stands, the tumour is inoperable, being trickily located at the junction of primary tubes for food, breath and blood (aorta). I began chemotherapy a week ago and had my first radiotherapy session this morning. I am physically tired and sometimes have difficulty concentrating, but am generally quite well. My breathing, which had been getting progressively more difficult throughout December (and which was affecting my energy and sleeping), has eased even in the last couple of days - another reason to rejoice.

It's hard to say exactly how Jessica and I are feeling, because there are many aspects to the experience and the last few weeks have been such a whirlwind of responses and new challenges. There is shock at the ugly presence of sickness and wrong in God's good world. There is sadness at lost or delayed plans. There are bouts of some anxiety and uncertainty, mixed with pragmatic necessities and reflective moments of insight and new perspectives. There is joy in the love of friends and family and the daily gifts God gives. There is a yearning for Christ to return and bring healing to his entire groaning world. Overall, we are feeling well in spirit, trusting the God who calls into existence the things that are not and raises the dead. There is no reason to fear, because the light has dawned on all of us who sit in darkness, in the shadow of death.

For those who pray, here are some suggestions.
Give thanks:

• For so many positive reasons to rejoice: life and new life in Jesus; overwhelming support and offers of help; providential proximity to hospital (just a few hundred steps down the road); reasons to live found in all those around whom I can serve and from whom I receive so much; hope despite brokenness because Christ is the author of life and through his death destroyed the power of death and rescued us all from slavery to the fear of death.
• For a deeply encouraging celebration of 'God with us' over Christmas: God thinks this life is worth sharing - and fixing.
• For a health system that provides hours of medical expertise and attention, a wide variety of drugs and equipment for basically no charge.
• For easier breathing and sleeping the last few days.
• That the combined chemotherapy and radiotherapy are effective in reducing the size of the growth (down to nothing!).
• That side-effects will be minimal and for patience to endure what is necessary, growing in perseverence, character and hope.
• That Jessica and I would stay thankful, loving and hopeful, trusting God to give strength each day. "The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness." (Lam 3.21-22)
And in other news, from 21st January, Jessica and I will be leaving St Barnabas Anglican Church, Broadway (now with new website), where we have celebrated God's grace in Christ for the last six and half years with many dearly loved brothers and sisters. Having finished college, I have accepted a part-time position as a lay ministry assistant at All Souls Anglican Church, Leichhardt (five minutes down the road). With great sadness and eager expectation, one chapter closes and another begins.

There is more to come.
Photo by JKS.