Embarking on a long obedience…

The Throne of Grace

‘Father, as we humbly approach the throne of grace…’ was the preamble to every prayer that I remember my grandfather praying.  No matter the occasion, it was always the same, whether that was in front of the church, out to eat at a restaurant, or in the privacy of his own home.  As a child I remember this phrase as a strange and foreign declaration of prayer.  In fact, I remember quite vividly chuckling over a Corelle bowl of Rice Krispies and thinking (age 7) this was a bit of a trumped up charge for cereal.

What to me was then an alien phrase transported into the prayers of my grandfather has since become an echoing voice of what prayer is: an approach, a humbling, and a means of grace.  It is in prayer that my life is directed towards God.  It is in prayer that an acknowledgment of God’s greatness undercuts my pride.  It is in prayer that God’s many graces and forgiveness are requested and bequeathed.

Each time my grandfather spoke these words, there was an acknowledgment that his life and the lives of his family with him were in need of constant, daily reorientation toward God.  There was an acknowledgement, not only for our need of grace, but also that God’s gracious throne was always our end and our aim.

Today, I found out that my grandfather, Ben Graber Jr., passed away.  To me it seems different from so many other days.  My grandfather is gone.  He will not be at my wedding.  He will never meet my children.  He will never embarrass me in a restaurant.  He will never roll out the ice cream at bedtime.  He will never tell me another joke.  We will never build anything together.

But I also know that this day was the same as every other.  He humbly approached the throne of grace, and he was very welcome there.


Believing in…

The phrase, “I believe in…,” is a phrase that I find all too common. Anyone can believe anything, but believing in something is quite a different matter. Too often, belief is equated with belief in, despite the fact that they are different things. Simply put, to believe is to believe something someone has to say; to believe in something there must be something (an object, grammatically speaking) to be believed in.

Politicians use this ambiguity to their advantage. They ask voters to believe in a cause, but it is nothing more than a tactic to convince people to believe them. Advertisements play the same game. They ask consumers to believe in something better, but they are really only trying to make you believe that a product is the something better. Messages cannot be believed in.

This ambiguity, if not equivocation, is something that is also found in the realm of faith and the life of the church. In this context, beliefs are often presented as being equal to belief in, and people are asked to believe in things that can only be believed.

For instance, many Christians would say they believe in the Bible; but the Bible is a message and not an object. One can believe what the Bible says, but one cannot believe in the Bible. Even then, as a message, what the Bible says is open to interpretation. One can believe any of a variety of interpretations, but one cannot believe in an interpretation of the Bible as a message.

The Genesis account of creation is a good example. One can believe that God created the heavens and the earth, but one cannot believe in the creation of the world by God. Similarly, one can believe an account of a seven day creation, but one cannot believe in a seven day creation.

In contrast, the Christian tradition does maintain that we believe in God. As part of that belief, we believe in God, the maker of heaven and earth. This God, this creator God, is a proper object that we can believe in.

My concern is that believing the Bible and its various interpretations has been elevated to or above belief in the one, true God. If you do not believe me, look at the statement of faith for most American evangelical churches. The phrase “We believe in the Bible…” almost always precedes the phrase “We believe in God…” This is a radical re-ordering of Christian doctrine that disregards the distinction between believing something and believing in something; and it is a radical re-ordering of the priority of what it means to be a Christian.

Being a Christian is, and always has been, about believing in God not about believing in the Bible, or any other belief for that matter. To relegate this ultimate belief in to any place but first is nothing more than repeating the sin of the Ephesians, forgetting our first love. Our first love should always be God, the God in whom we can believe.

The Shape of Christology: In Two Editions

This is the abstract for the paper I am presenting at the Society for the Study of Theology conference.  The annual conference will be held from the 7th-9th of April at the University of Durham.  This paper will be part of the ‘Christology and Trinity Seminar.’

In 1966, in the first phase of his academic career, John McIntyre wrote his influential work The Shape of Christology.  Thirty-two years later, in 1998, a second edition of the same work was published.  It was McIntyre’s last publication.  The first edition was met with much fanfare and anticipation over the promise of a rising theologian.  The second edition was largely overlooked as a re-print.  However, relatively minor changes in the text itself translated into a major shift in McIntyre’s conclusions.  He begins with an imaginative place for a diverse use of Christological models, and he ends with the conclusion that Christology can never escape the confines of Chalcedon.  This paper seeks to delineate this development, and evaluate the continuity and discontinuity of these claims.

Find more information about the society and upcoming conference here.  For more information about John McIntyre visit johnmcintyre.org.


Practiced Prayer

Last night, my grandmother passed away. It did not come as a surprise or a shock. She has been in poor health for years, and she has spent most of this year in the hospital. My “Granny” was a wonderful woman who will always hold a special place in my family.

My grandmother spent the last few days of her life in hospice care at the hospital. Last night, the family went downstairs to get some dinner together. When we sat down, my uncle asked my grandfather (Pomps) if he wanted to pray. Without hesitation, he said he would. He then began a prayer I have heard him say on numerous occasions “Our God and our Father, we thank you for the blessings of this day…”

In that moment, the prayer took on special significance. It was a prayer that always seemed appropriate, fervent, and faithful. It fit so many of the memories of my life with my grandparents. It made sense that we would thank God for so many of those days. It made sense to thank God for mornings that Granny made pancakes for breakfast. It made sense to thank God when we went to the farm for Christmas. It made sense to thank God when the whole family gathered for the 4th of July. It made sense to thank God when new grandkids and great-grandkids were born, grew, achieved, graduated, and married.

Last night, was by many counts a bad night; especially for my grandfather. His wife of over sixty years, the mother of his children, and the love of his life was on her deathbed. This night was the culmination of hundreds of days and nights spent in hospitals and clinics. It was the end, and we all knew that.

Still, his prayer was the same. “Our God and our Father, we thank you for the blessings of this day…”

Some people would be inclined to see this prayer as anticlimactic. People are suckers for false profundity, and “deep” prayers, and still “deeper” discipleship that ooze with the language of paperback pundits.

What people miss in a man like my grandfather is all of the days he has said that prayer. It is the prayer that he said, when rain fell and when crops failed. It is the prayer that he said, when friends died and when children were born. It is the prayer that he said in success and in failure.

It is not a prayer that is rote; it is a prayer that is practiced.

Last night, I marveled as my grandfather thanked our God and Father for that day of all days. I was not surprised. I was touched by the fact that every time he said this prayer before had prepared him to pray that prayer again. I was touched by the fact that his was a prayer, not motivated by the thoughts of others, but instead compelled by the daily assurance of a sovereign God.

A Damnable Forgetfulness

Too many times, we as the church forget that we were once sinners.  We forget that we have not always been God’s people.  We have not always benefitted from God’s adoption.  We have forgotten that we were not citizens but aliens.  We were not friends but strangers. 

We pretend that we are holy.  We pretend that we are righteous.  We pretend that we are complete.  We pretend that we are whole.  We pretend that we are well.  We pretend that we are happy.  And we pretend that we are the rightful heirs to a kingdom that is not ours, to an authority that is far beyond our reach, to a future that we cannot secure.  We have an entitlement complex.  We have our spiritual riches, and we use them to malign and disregard those who are most vulnerable and in need of the gospel. 

When we pretend that we are anything but a church full of hurting sinners, we not only deceive ourselves and others; but we also say to God that it is not enough to be adopted as God’s children and to receive God’s blessing.  We want blessing, always and only blessing. 

We are hiding from the fact that we are still sinners, that we still struggle, that we still fall, that we are still hurting, that we are still sick and dying people.  We are hiding the fact that we are not any better than anyone else.  We are hiding that when we think we need to protect ourselves from a sinful world, we really just need protection from ourselves.  We ignore the truth of God’s salvation in our lives.  We ignore that our holiness is rooted in God’s call.  We ignore that any righteousness that we have is God’s, not our own. 

Worse yet, when we do these things, we are lying to the people that are around us.  We want people to see us as happy, saved, put-together people.  We want them to see our joy.  We want them to see the difference.  We want them to notice how much better we are than they are.  The truth is that we are not any better.  There is no sin of the world that is not also the sin of the church.

The church is then seen as hypocritical; because of our failure to be honest about our sin.  We fail to tell others that any grace that we have is through adoption, it is not our own.

So our false piety becomes an act of condemnation.  We forget that with every self- righteous statement, there is an implied condemnation: “But you do.”  I do not say those things, but you do.  I do not behave that way, but you do.  I do not get involved in situations like that, but you do.  I do not go to those places, but you do.  I do not associate with people like that, but you do.  We say these things in a damnable forgetfulness that there is no such thing as “those people.”  There are only people.  There is no circumcision.  There is no un-circumcision.  There is no us.  There is no them. 

This lie of division, distinction, and difference is a cancer to the church.  It rots our mind until we know longer know that it is a lie.  It rots our body, until we cannot reach out.  It rots our hearts, until we cannot love.  It is a lie birthed in pride, raised in apathy, and propagated in fear.  The sure sign that we have believed this lie of false distinction is when we have more fear of the world, than love for the world.

To forget that we have been adopted into this family is not only a sin against ourselves and others.  It is also a sin against God.  It shows a lack of gratitude for what God has done for us, by belittling how great our salvation in really is.  We act as if we are basically good people, who were saved on into the kingdom of God.  The reality is that Christ died to save sinners, of whom I am chief.  By denying the greatness of our sin, we deny the greatness of God’s salvation.   

Thus our lack of gratitude becomes failure in worship.  Our salvation is meant to be to the praise of the glory of God.  That is the ultimate goal of our salvation, that God would be glorified in it.  When we diminish the salvation of God with our ingratitude, we are withholding the worship, praise, and glory we have to give, and that God is due.

For us, this presents itself in a lack of obedience to God in following the example of Christ.  In our embrace of this false distinction we cripple our ability to minister in the ways that Christ did.  We limit our contact with the sick, un-kept, and diseased.  We alienate ourselves from the poor, the destitute, and the foreigner.  We would not be caught dead doing the kind of ministry that Christ did.

The church must always remember that God is the Father of all (not some, not us, not them, not the circumcision, not the un-circumcision), but all.  This truth is not some far-fetched idea.  It is central to the Christian faith.  There is only one Church.  There is only one Spirit.  We have one hope, in Christ.  We have only one faith, and there is only one baptism.  There is only one God, and this God is the God and Father of all.  This Father is above all, through all, and in all. 

It is a message that brings hope and joy.  It is a message of good news.  It brings hope and joy to all.  It is good news for all.  It is a message that must be shared.  It is a message that must be proclaimed. 

We are all children of God, and God has destined us to be adopted as his Children.  We did not get here on our own, it is by grace alone and faith alone.  We must not take credit, when credit is not due.  We must never pretend that we are anything other than what we are: hurt people, broken people, sinful people, dying people, people with problems sadness and depression.  However, we must also not despair of being these things; because we know that Christ did not come for the well, but for the sick.  God came to find the lost, not the found.  God came to heal the lame, and not the able.  God came to give sight to the blind, not the seers.  God came to save sinners, not saints. 

Sermon Fragments from Father’s Day 2013 on select passages from Ephesians.

Trinity Sunday, Sermon Fragments

God is unsearchable. We do not even know where to start looking. The task of finding God is overwhelming. The totality of God makes such a task unapproachable. Paul attempts to account for this totality by stating that all things are “From him, through him, and to him.” There are no other options left. It is the same immensity that leads John of Patmos to refer to God as the “Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last, the A and the Z.” It is what leads the author of Genesis to start with God in the beginning, without defense, explanation, or apology. It leaves people at a loss for words. Scripture is littered with the vague stammering of awe in which God is: a wheel within a wheel, a consuming fire, a burning bush, a pillar of cloud, dancing tongues of fire, a dove, a disembodied voice.

All of these words are meaningless in themselves. They are just analogies. They are vain attempts at description, attribution, and explanation.

You have heard it said that God created the heavens and the earth, but I say to you that creation is too small a word for what God did when the worlds were made. You have heard it said that God is just; but I say to you that the righteousness of God’s justice supersedes any law, ethic, or moral. You have heard it said that God is love, but I say to you that love blushes at being compared to the depth of feeling that God has for all people. You have heard it said that God is gracious, but I say unto you that the grace of God makes our graciousness look like judgment. You have heard it said that God is merciful, but I say unto you that the mercy of people looks like revenge and spite when compared with the mercy of God.

You have heard it said that God saves, but God’s salvation does so much more than save. His redemption does so much more than redeem. His healing does so much more than heal. You have heard it said that God is Father, but God is more than Father. You have heard it said that God is Son, but God is more than Son. You have heard it said that God is Spirit, but God is more than Spirit. You have heard it said that God is three, but God is too complete to be divided. You have heard it said that God is one, but God is too immense to be contained.
To celebrate the Trinity is not to celebrate the words that we confess, but to profess the God that we believe. It is to celebrate that God has been encountered. It is to celebrate that we have been awed by God.

We use these words (as words) to describe the indescribable, to define the indefinable, to reach the unattainable; because when the holiness of God has been encountered we have no choice but to turn these things that we have tasted and seen back into praise. We call God’s work creation, because we cannot think of anything more productive. We call God just, because we do not know anything more right or fair. We call God love, because we cannot conceive a greater outpouring of emotion. We call God merciful, because we cannot imagine anything else so kind. We call God gracious, because we cannot imagine a thing so good.

We call God’s work salvation, redemption, and healing because we cannot imagine plights more dire than loss, a fear greater than our debt, and pain greater than our disease; nor could we ever imagine a gain greater than salvation, a peace better than a debt payed, or a relief better than healing. We call God Father, because we cannot find a role so formative. We call God Son, because we cannot find a person so dear. We call God Spirit, because we struggle to find anything so near yet intangible. We call God three, because we cannot comprehend the immensity of God in one. We call God one, because we cannot believe that something so whole could ever be divided.

Ash Wednesday

Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the Lenten season.  It a demonstration of our need for a season of prayer, fasting, repentance, and service; and it is an invitation to participate in this season of life in the church.  Today, there are two readings taken from the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL).  The first is a reading from the prophet Joel, and the second is taken from the Gospel of Matthew.

First Reading Joel 2:1-2, 12-1

Gospel Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

At its root, Ash Wednesday is a reminder of our mortality.  Congregants are often marked with ashes on their forehead, with the scriptural reminder that “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  As fallen people and sinners, we are in need of salvation from “sin, hell, and death.”  Thus the reminder of our mortality is the beginning of the recognition that we are in need of salvation.

Once confronted with our need of salvation, there is a call to respond.  As the prophet Joel writes:

                  12Yet even now, says the LORD,

            return to me with all your heart,

            with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;

                  13rend your hearts and not your clothing.

            Return to the LORD, your God,

            for he is gracious and merciful,

            slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,

            and relents from punishing.

The fit and proper response to a honest recognition of sin is repentance.  It is a return to God that is marked by a contrition that encompasses all of who we are and all of who we have become.  In this call there is also assurance.  It is not an assurance of ease and prosperity.  It is not an assurance of a successful and well-adjusted life.  It is not an assurance of health and happiness.  It is the assurance of the grace, mercy, compassion, and love of God. 

In life, there is suffering, hurt, and heartache.  Every attempt at ease will be met with challenge.  Every success will be tempered by failure.  Every person, healthy or not, will suffer death.  Every happiness will be met with sorrow.  This is a world of moths, rust and decay.  So, we are admonished by Christ himself:

19“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; 20but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Mt 6:19-21)

Thus we are called to realize that we are not only called to the act of repentance; we are also called to the life of repentance.  It is a life in which the decadent decay is put in its place, behind and below the faithful and true promises of God.

Lent in Perspective

One thing the liturgical calendar is meant to do is to present the entire gospel to the church again, week after week and year after year.  It begins with the anticipation of Advent and moves us through the life of Christ and the church until it reaches the true and final conclusion that Christ is king.  It invites us to rehearse this story as Christians, as the Church, and as people.

In the same way that Advent is a time of anticipation, Lent is a time of preparation.  In Advent, we anticipate Christ’s coming as outside observers.  We wait for something outside of ourselves to come into our world and into our lives.  We maintain this position and perspective in the time between Advent and Lent.  We see Christ as he is revealed, outside of ourselves.  We observe his birth and life in the same way that we observe the birth and life of any other person.

During the Lenten season there is marked changed.  There is a transition of perspective from outside observers to inside participants.  This transition comes in the form of a call and invitation.  It is the call and invitation that God makes to all people, to be united with him.  However, this is not an easy invitation to accept; because the call of Christ is a costly one.  As the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “When Christ calls someone, he bids them come and die.”

The call of Christ challenges us to share in Christ’s suffering and to be made like him in his death.  It is an invitation that cannot and should not be accepted lightly.  Yet, it is the inevitable invitation with which we are confronted when we hear the story of the life and gospel of Jesus Christ.  In Lent, that means following Christ in his death, burial and resurrection. 

Lent is a time to contemplate and consider this invitation as well as prepare ourselves to make that decision.  It is a time to count the cost.  It is a time to remember that Christ suffered, so we must suffer.  Christ gave up his life, so we must give up ours.  Christ shared his life with others, so also our life must be an offering to the world around us.  And so we enter into this season ready to contemplate and consider this invitation and call, as well as to prepare ourselves to make a fit and proper response to God.


Today is Epiphany. It is the day when the church remembers the arrival of the wise men and their worship of the Christ child. On this day the church celebrates not their arrival. Instead, the church celebrates that Jesus was manifest to the wise men. The significance of this celebration is that this is the first time that Jesus is seen by Gentiles. In this simple meeting, it becomes clear that Jesus’ advent as the messiah is not simply a manifestation of God to his people Israel. This is the manifestation of God to all people.

In Isaiah chapter 60, one can find one of the traditional passages related to Epiphany. The association is two-fold. One, there is the vague (but very convenient) reference to foreigners bringing gifts of gold and frankincense as gifts of praise given to the light of God that has come to a dark world. Two, this light that comes will shine to all nations, kings, and peoples. The association of these two pertinent points of Epiphany is striking. Thus, liturgically, the church has taken this language of ‘all people’ into the language of Epiphany.

In this last age of missionary effort, people have come to emphasize this language of all people. The emphasis being on all ‘people groups.’ This idea was used to promote missionary efforts. If God’s message is for all people groups, then the church better make sure that the gospel is preached to all of them. Such an emphasis, while well meaning, betrays what was intended by that emphasis.

I would argue that the intent of that passage was to broaden the scope of what redemption was and whom redemption was available to. It was not just for the people of Israel. It was for all people. In the multicultural and international society of today, people in the American church do not doubt that the gospel should be accessible in other parts of the world.

The divisions that challenge the proclamation of the gospel by the American church are the same divisions that plague American society. These are the divisions of race, creed, political affiliation, sexual orientation, and socio-economic station. The American church has become a microcosm of this culture of division. Churches are more aptly defined by their demographic than their confession. The church has conformed to the patterns of this world, and forgotten that whether or not a person is black or white, Christian or Muslim, democrat or republican, straight or gay, rich or poor the gospel is made manifest to them in Jesus Christ.

This is the message of Epiphany: God manifest himself in the Son, Jesus Christ, to all people. While God’s proclamation to the church is corporate, God’s manifestation to the world is universal. The gospel proclaimed in the church must match the gospel made manifest in Christ, otherwise it is no gospel at all. If the church is going to celebrate that God was made known to her, she must also celebrate and practice making God known to all.

Meaningful and Fruitful

The word which is critical of the Church can be meaningful and fruitful only when it stems from insight into the existence and function of the Church as necessary for salvation. It must be spoken with the intention of serving her in her gathering together, her edification, and mission.
-Karl Barth

The last few posts certainly have the ring of critique, but I am convinced that any critique of the church must not end in condemnation. Critique must always be followed by exhortation. Karl Barth rightly observes that the inherent exhortation to the church is an affirmation of her essential place in God’s work of salvation.

So, it is important for me to affirm that my criticisms are not meant to be condemnations. They are meant to be exhortations that serve the church “in her gathering together, her edification, and her mission.” I do not write, speak, or act in order to tear down. My desire is that the church will be filled with God’s power, grounded in her confession of the faith, and motivated by her place in God’s work of redemption, past, present, and future.

As such, I wholeheartedly affirm that the Church is “necessary for salvation.” That is not because of what the Church is as an institution unto itself. It is true because the power of God is manifest in her as the body of Christ and a community of faith that finds her existence in God’s eternal work of redemption. If that is truly who the Church is, it cannot be construed that God’s work of salvation can be wrought in any other place; because the Church is by definition the community in which that work of salvation is realized. My critique of the Church is nothing more than a challenge for her to fulfill this vision that God has for her as his own and as his bride.