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I have been reading through Michael Holmes’ The Apostolic Fathers (3rd edition, Greek Texts and English Translations) for my class on Church History, and I am compelled to share a few noteworthy excerpts.  These are, in my estimation, among the most graceful and inspiring words ever penned.

The early centuries of the Christian church were dangerous; the next wave of persecution was always merely a breath away, executed through the command of a hostile Roman emperor.  One of the innumerable martyrs during this period was Ignatius, the bishop of Antioch.

Ignatius was the bishop of one of the largest and most famous Christian congregations, that of Antioch.  Antioch was one of the earliest missional churches, sending Paul and Barnabas on their missionary journey.  In Acts 11:26, we learn that Antioch was where the followers of Christ were first called “Christians.”  This congregation was one with a rich, albeit brief, history of following the teachings of their Savior faithfully.

At some point early in the second century, a group of ten Roman soldiers was dispatched to arrest the bishop of this faithful congregation in order to bring him back from Antioch to the Coliseum in Rome, where he would be thrown to the wild beasts.  On the way to Rome, Ignatius wrote a series of letters to churches in cities along the way, who had sent delegations to meet with Ignatius.

These letters are immensely valuable for understanding what concerns a bishop of this time might have for other congregations as well as how martyrdom was viewed by one on his way to such a fate.  My desire here is to simply expose you to some brief passages which I found deeply inspiring.

In his letter to the Ephesians (4:1-2), Ignatius likens the unity of the church to a lyre (a stringed musical instrument–think guitar) and a choir:

(1) Thus it is proper for you to run together in harmony with the mind of the bishop, as you are in fact doing.  For your council of presbyters, which is worthy of its name and worthy of God, is attuned to the bishop as strings to a lyre.  Therefore in your unanimity and harmonious love Jesus Christ is sung.  (2) You must join this chorus, every one of you, so that by being harmonious in unanimity and taking your pitch from God you may sing in unison with one voice through Jesus Christ to the Father, in order that he may both hear you and, on the basis of what you do well, acknowledge that you ar members of his Son.  It is, therefore, advantageous for you to be in perfect unity, in order that you may always have a share in God.

In his letter sent ahead to the church in Rome, to which he is journeying to his death, Ignatius implores the believers there not to interfere in his being thrown to the beasts.  He wants them to allow this to take place in order that he might accomplish a great thing to God’s glory.  He writes in chapter 2:

(1) For I do not want you to please people, but to please God, as you in fact are doing.  For I will never again have an opportunity such as this to reach God, nor can you, if you remain silent, be credited with a greater accomplishment.  For if you remain silent and leave me alone, I will be a word of God, but if you love my flesh, then I will again be a mere voice. (2) Grant me nothing more than to be poured out as an offering to God while there is still an altar ready, so that in love you may form a chorus and sing to the Father in Jesus Christ, because God has judged the bishop from Syria worthy to be found in the west [where Rome was], having summoned him from the east [where Antioch was, in Syria].  It is good to be setting from the world to God in order that I may rise to him.

I think Ignatius’ using the rising and setting of the sun (from east to west) as a metaphor for his journey as a martyr is stunningly beautiful, absolutely breathtaking.

I will leave you with a final excerpt, again from Ignatius’ letter to the Romans (chapter 4).

I am writing to all the churches and am insisting to everyone that I die for God of my own free will–unless you hinder me.  I implore you: do not be unseasonably kind to me.  Let me be food for the wild beasts, through whom I can reach God.  I am God’s wheat, and I am being ground by the teeth of the wild beasts, so that I may prove to be pure bread.

Think on these passages, and always remember that Christians today are united with the same Church that bore these burdens so many centuries ago.  I encourage you to seek out the writings of the early Church; they can be incredibly edifying and inspiring.  The link “Early Christian Writings” on the far right of this page will take you to many of them.  1 and 2 Clement, the Martyrdom of Polycarp, and the letters of Ignatius of Antioch are great places to start.

I read an article on Yahoo! today about a recent summit of conservatives, and I couldn’t help but notice the glaring inconsistency of one of the speakers.

Towards the end of the article, the author, Patricia Zengerle, writes:

Romney was followed to the stage by Bryan Fischer, a director of the American Family Association, known for inflammatory remarks against homosexuality and ‘non-Christian religions,’ which he has said include Mormonism.  ‘The next president of the United States needs to be a man…of sincere authentic genuine Christian faith,’ he said, in a jab at Romney.  Fischer said the next U.S. president must deny evolution, stop government assistance for the poor…[emphasis mine]

Obviously, this summit was attended by Republican voters and Presidential hopefuls, and this typically goes hand in hand with smaller government (i.e. less government assistance for the poor).

However, this creates a problem: while Fischer certainly seems to see the ideal United States government as some sort of theocracy with a strong believer as President, he insists that part of this leader’s program must include the cessation of government assistance for the poor.

I defy Mr. Fischer to demonstrate from Scripture how “a man of…sincere authentic genuine Christian faith,” who oversees his ideal Christian nation, could possibly maintain the purity of his faith while eliminating aid for his poverty-stricken subjects.  Christianity is a religion of intense compassion for the “have-nots,” and the “haves” always shoulder the burden of providing for others in a spirit of generosity.

Now I would agree with Mr. Fischer that some of these programs should be eliminated in order to control the deficit.  However, I disagree that we must necessarily elect his ideal President to remain faithful Christians.  The United States government is not a Christian institution and has no need of becoming one.  I would rather elect a competent President, who happened to be Mormon (not an endorsement for Romney) than a Christian who was incapable as a leader.

Is it important to provide for the poor and afflicted in our midst?  Absolutely! However, this is to be the work of the Church.  Demonstrating the love of God for the world is part of our responsibility as ambassadors of Christ, and this includes providing for unmet social needs in the world.

The Church must step up to be the body of Christ in the world rather than continue to play power-politics in order to establish some sort of Christian dominionism.  The Kingdom of God will certainly come to Earth in full force, but I promise it will not come through the staunch anti-evolutionism or anti-homosexual policies of some misguided “Christian” President.  It will come through Jesus Christ.

Earlier today I came across an article on Yahoo! which was reporting the reaction of a Westboro Baptist Church official to the death of Steve Jobs.  Shortly after my disgust subsided, I had to read Jonah for my OT Survey class.  In light of the above article, I am compelled to briefly discuss the book.  (Before continuing, check out the article and read through Jonah…it’s short, like a ten minute read.)

The book opens with Jonah’s call to go to Ninevah, the capital of the ancient superpower Assyria, to “announce judgment against its people because their wickedness has come to my attention” (NET).  Jonah, however, has other ideas, and he went to the coast and boarded a ship for Tarshish.  The text is very clear that Jonah is being disobedient here, twice stating that Jonah was fleeing “from the Lord’s presence.”

When a terrible storm puts the lives of all those on board in danger, Jonah is found to be the issue and is promptly tossed overboard at his own command.  Jonah spends three days and nights in the belly of a “great fish.”  Finally, Jonah repents and prays to the Lord, who causes the fish to spit Jonah out on the dry land.

When Jonah arrives in Nineveh, he pronounces judgment against the city and, to his great dismay, the king orders his subjects to immediately fast and repent of their evil deeds.  They turn back to the Lord, this terrible city of Assyrian pagans!  There is no deliberation; the text presents the Assyrian repentance as immediate.

Jonah was furious.  The message of an Israelite prophet was hardly ever well received by fellow Israelites, who had received God’s covenant and Law.  From Jonah’s perspective, how much less should these evil Assyrians heed the prophet’s warning!

However, this is precisely what happens, and it is the basis for Jonah’s contention with God in chapter 4.  Now, we learn that Jonah did not flee God’s presence because he was afraid of the Assyrians or unsure of his calling or whatever.  He fled because he did not want to give the Assyrians even a chance to repent.  Essentially, Jonah says to God, “You see!  This is exactly what I was afraid of!  You and all your compassion and mercy!  I’d rather die than witness this!”

So God causes a tree to grow and provide shade for Jonah.  Then, the next day, He destroys it, and Jonah is angry.  This sets up God’s closing statements, which drive home the main theme of the book:

Jonah 4:10-11 (NET)

So the Lord said, “You cared about the plant, which you did not labor over and did not grow.  It appeared in a night and perished in a night.  Should I not care about the great city of Nineveh, which has more than 120,000 people who cannot distinguish between their right and their left, as well as many animals?”

God’s point here stems from His being the Creator: “Jonah, you were concerned about a plant in whose existence you played no part.  How much more should I be concerned about all these people and animals, each of whom I myself created!”

I think the takeaway here is this: the same God who, as Creator, has the prerogative to execute judgment on evildoers is also fiercely compassionate towards the nations, even the supremely evil ones who live apart from His commands.

If the Creator Himself would mercifully offer a warning to Nineveh and, in fact, relent from bringing His judgment, what sort of attitude should we have towards people who have allegedly “[given] God no glory & taught sin”?

After reading several Facebook posts, and many more blog comments, regarding the promo video for Rob Bell’s forthcoming book, Love Wins, I decided to check it out for myself.  Before I reveal my opinion, however, I’d like to offer a few comments.

Whenever theological questions are raised, there are at least three potential responses.  One might dive in wholeheartedly, fully assenting to whatever take is presented on a certain doctrine.  One might remain non-committal, perhaps appreciating or disdaining the questions raised, but unpersuaded overall.  One might, finally, reject even the conversation itself outright, fearing that such questions endanger the integrity of the faith.  Unfortunately, my fear is that many have had precisely this final response to Rob Bell’s recent video.

The problem, as I see it, is two-fold.  First, the book isn’t even out yet.  All things written at this point are conjecture, yet some have gone so far as to declare Rob Bell out of Evangelicalism (maybe even Christianity!).  I think this quite premature, even if his questions allude to his questioning the traditional formulation of the doctrine.

Second, this response manifests a distrust towards asking honest theological questions.  The sorts of questions that Bell is proposing are the very questions that cause many people to view Christianity as a narrow-minded, bigoted, arrogant expression of religiosity.  For many, the answers traditionally given are unsatisfying, so Bell wants to reexamine them, to put “hell on trial,” as the summary puts it.

Before passing judgment, think about how much of your own theological-biblical belief system is different than that of the early Church.  More than likely, it is somewhat different both in terms of theological doctrines as well as interpretational methods and assumptions.  The Church only makes significant theological progress by questioning its own beliefs.  In the early centuries of the Church, it did this to itself, not altogether with the best intentions, but due to conflicting factions.  Doctrinal disputes forced the Church to formulate answers to difficult questions.

We must find a balance between commitment to doctrinal purity and continual reevaluation, lest our tradition come to dominate interpretations of Scripture.  These things should interplay, to be sure, but care must be exercised in order that we don’t decide to shut out dissenters, and culture at large, when they raise good, relevant questions.  This is essential to being in the world but not of the world, of being salt and light.

This is why I am thankful to and for Rob Bell.  He is someone who is bridging the gap between Christianity and culture.  He has enough credibility in the secular world to discuss secular things and be heard.  One may disagree with him, however strongly, but I commend him for asking tough theological questions that have traditional answers which deeply trouble non-Christians.  His is an admirable example: one never knows Scripture so well and so certainly that he can confidently dismiss dissenters without engaging them, stubbornly relying on traditionally-formulated answers.  To do so is to spit in the face of the hurting, questioning world to which Scripture sends us.

Yesterday I completed a one-week intensive course called, “The World Mission of the Church.”  I certainly learned much about the processes and methodologies, along with many various aspects of missions (giving vs. non-giving, training nationals, the proper interaction between short-term and long-term mission, etc).  However, the most profound result of the class was its opening my eyes to the circumstances of people around the world.

There can be no doubt that God has a heart for the world, an intense love that compels Him to action.  He tells Abraham that he will be blessed, so that all the nations will be blessed through him (Gen 12).  The OT is full of references to the worship of the nations (175 in the Psalms alone), and a broader biblical theology demonstrates this universality as well (Dan 7; Matt 28).  God’s heart for the world (as opposed to Israel alone) is manifest most powerfully in Jesus Christ, by whom He brought the nations (the Gentiles, non-Jews) into His covenant people.

This mission of God to reach the world with the gospel obtains in the world through us, the Church.  As Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5:

For the love of Christ controls us, since we have concluded this, that Christ died for all; therefore all have died.   And he died for all so that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised.  So then from now on we acknowledge no one from an outward human point of view.  Even though we have known Christ from such a human point of view, now we do not know him in that way any longer.   So then, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; what is old has passed away–look, what is new has come!  And all these things are from God who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and who has given us the ministry of reconciliation.   In other words, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting people’s trespasses against them, and he has given us the message of reconciliation.   Therefore we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making His plea through us.

So you see that it is our responsibility to take the gospel of the kingdom of God to the nations!  God is trying to save the world through us. Do we not care?!  Do we not know?!  And it isn’t enough to throw money and tracts at the problem.  Jesus was deeply concerned for basic social needs as well.

If we say, “Forget about your hunger, thirst, lack of clothing and shelter, the fact that you have no job and your children have been taken into the worldwide industry of human trafficking.  All you need is to believe what I am teaching you from the Bible,” our message will be marginalized and all our credibility lost!  It is perhaps cliche, but true: no one cares what you say until you show that you care.  But this must be more than a mere strategic plan to make the gospel spread more quickly.  WE MUST FIGHT FOR SOCIAL CHANGE AND HUMAN RIGHTS BECAUSE THESE ARE PART OF WHY WE AS THE CHURCH EXIST.

Please take a few minutes to watch these videos.  It will take less time than a TV show and be far more profound.  Just copy and paste the links below.

http://conversation.lausanne.org/en/conversations/detail/11658

http://conversation.lausanne.org/en/conversations/detail/11671

http://conversation.lausanne.org/en/conversations/detail/11415

I am convinced that much of the problem is the lack of exposure of the problem.  In the United States, we are very much isolated from the pain-stricken lives of those around the world, such as in the videos above.  We don’t understand their plights because: 1.) we are not global citizens.  We are not made aware daily of the many, many injustices taking place.  Very few have basic knowledge of world geography and political-religious situations of various countries; and 2.) we have none ourselves.  Most of us are so worried about how to spend our money that we don’t consider those who have none to spend…on basic necessities.  We live relatively cushy lives with no persecution or mistreatment, but this is fiercely not the case in many places around the world.

So, let’s do something small.  I was convicted Wednesday after I bought a drink from the vending machine, and I began thinking about how much money I waste.  Sure, I get something in exchange for the money, but compared to the standard of living of most around the world, they aren’t things I really need. Why do I need four jackets, when others have none?  Why do I need a drink from the vending machine when the water fountain is free.  Free?!  So many people DON’T EVEN HAVE CLEAN WATER TO DRINK AT ALL!  Do you hear me?

So here’s the challenge: begin praying that God would show you ways you are unnecessarily spending money.  Vending machines when you have groceries at home, eating out excessively, Starbucks…HELLO!  Yes, I said it.  All these things affect me; that’s why I listed them as a start.  Once you have your list, do two things: 1.) make a commitment to make sacrifices.  Start small: $1 a day.  Find $1 a day you can sacrifice for the work of the Kingdom of God.  Skip that afternoon vending machine drink.  It doesn’t always have to be the same thing.  The important point here is that you are finding ways to give out of intentional sacrifice, rather than out of your abundance.  You’ll soon realize that you could easily find even more ways to sacrifice.  Skip your morning Starbucks blended drink and that could be as much as $5 a day.

The math is easy.  At $1 a day, you have an additional $365 dollars a year by which to help advance Kingdom work.  At $5 a day, the results are even more astounding: over $1800 dollars a year!  Do you understand how much difference can be made with that?!  If you want ideas, check out this link: http://gifts.compassion.com.

And this leads to the second thing to do.  Pray for how you should contribute this sacrificial offering, and invest it in the people of the world because their plight weighs greatly on the heart of God.

The last few weeks have been thoroughly detrimental to my fitness.  Too much work to do for school has resulted in no gym time and stress-induced chow sessions.

My exercise and diet commitment level was quite good until the last several weeks, so I’m confident it could easily be restored to normal after this phase of work is complete.  However, just to be sure, I’m going to put it in writing here.  Since Jessica, Kaden, and I will be out of town through New Year’s Day anyway, I’m going to wait until then to begin officially, but I’m already trying to ramp up my running schedule (that doesn’t require the time commitment as going to the gym).

Starting in January, I’m committing to three days a week at the gym and some kind of running program to be determined.

Side note: I have confessed in multiple conversations lately that I am not committed enough to running to get out in the ferocious winter weather of Massachusetts.  I also hate to run indoors (treadmills and indoor tracks).  Part of what I love about running is the existential experience of myself alone with my thoughts in the outdoors.  After reflecting on these statements, I have challenged myself to destroy that part of myself.  I perceive it as undisciplined and lazy, and I don’t like it at all.  Therefore, through the winter I am going to maintain whatever running schedule I choose.

I heard a lecture today in Theological Hermeneutics that articulated precisely some of my recent musings.

If Wittgenstein is right, then language is simply a mode of being in the world, a particular way in which we inhabit our reality.  This opposes the view that our language really gets at some objective essence of the things being discussed.

This intersects with some of my recent thinking in that if the likes of Barth and Kierkegaard are right, that is, if God really is “wholly Other” and “an infinite qualitative distinction” exists between Him and us, then what is the ontological status of our talk about God?  To make this more concrete, I’ll frame the discussion in terms of something uncontroversial: perhaps, the Trinity.

God is revealed in Scripture as Father, Son, and Spirit.  But whence do these concepts come?  If Wittgenstein’s critique of Augustine is correct, then we don’t possess some intrinsic ability to divide reality using some private language (a priori concepts of the mind) before we learn a public language (English, German, etc.).  (An important assumption I’m making is that these categories are not essential, but accidental.  In other words, God could have created another world without the categories of Father, Son, and Spirit.  Some sort of world without the reproductive processes and family dynamics that obtain in this world.)

This immediately calls into question the ontological status of our God-talk (really, of other kinds of talk as well; I’m only interested in theological speech here).  If our language isn’t actually getting to some metaphysical essence, but is really just some sort of useful analogy, then it may be the case that our Trinitarian language doesn’t pick out (describe, articulate) the ontological nature of God in Himself, but rather provides some conceptualization of what this “wholly Other” being is like.  God’s accommodation of Himself to human categories through his revelation in Scripture is an inherently self-limiting process, that is to say, (and this is really the heart of my question) if there is no way in which our language can inscribe the essence of God in Himself (and I understand this is an assumption itself, and perhaps overly Kantian), then none of our God-talk actually describes what God is ontologically; rather, it provides humanity with some understanding of what this Being is like, framed in terms which they comprehend.  In another world, perhaps, God the inconceivable might reveal Himself in completely other concepts, for the concepts of Father, Son, and Spirit (which make sense in our world) would communicate nothing comprehensible in that one.

I know that there are certainly holes within this brief survey of my current mindscape.  I’m okay with that.  This isn’t meant to be a thorough defense of this way of thinking.  I’m merely in the process of working these things out in my own mind: theology, hermeneutics, biblical studies coming together in some (I hope) coherent way.  Please accept these few paragraphs with the humility by which they are attended, and I look forward to the insights of any thoughtful person who reads this.