Midweek Message (July 8-July 14)

World leading New Testament scholar N.T. Wright tells a story about being a College Chaplain in Oxford. It, in a nutshell, reveals the problem that we seem to all think we mean the same thing with the word “God”.

He writes:

“It is important to begin by clarifying the question. When people ask ‘Was Jesus God?’ they usually think they know what the word ‘God’ means, and are asking whether we can fit Jesus into that. I regard this as deeply misleading. I can perhaps make my point clear by a personal illustration.

For seven years I was College Chaplain and Worcester College, Oxford. Each year I used to see the first year undergraduates individually for a few minutes, to welcome them to the college and make a first acquaintance. Most were happy to meet me; but many commented, often with slight embarrassment, ‘You won’t be seeing much of me; you see, I don’t believe in god.’

I developed stock response: ‘Oh, that’s interesting; which god is it you don’t believe in?’ This used to surprise them; they mostly regarded the word ‘God’ as a univocal, always meaning the same thing. So they would stumble out a few phrases about the god they said they did not believe in: a being who lived up the in the sky, looking down disapprovingly at the world, occasionally ‘intervening’ to do miracles, sending bad people to hell while allowing good people to share his heaven. Again, I had a stock response for this very common statement of ‘spy-in-the-sky’ theology: ‘Well, I’m not surprised you don’t believe in that god. I don’t believe in that god either.’

At this point the undergraduate would look startled. Then, perhaps, a faint look of recognition; it was sometimes rumored that half the college chaplains at Oxford were atheists. ’No,’ I would say; ‘I believe in the god I see revealed in Jesus of Nazareth.’ What most people mean by ‘god’ in late-modern western culture simply is not the mainstream Christian meaning.”

-N.T. Wright, Ex Auditu 1998, 14, 42–56

Midweek Message (July 1-July 7)

Midweek reflection by pastor Shawn:

Lately I’ve been thinking about how we all struggle with idols, myself included.  Idols are tricky things, so easily catching the eyes of our hearts.  I saw a line in passing (I don’t quite remember where, even) that has been ruminating in my heart this week:

“Your idols don’t love you.”

This is not about boy bands or rockstars.  (Although, it is true that John, Paul, George, and Ringo, Justin, JC, Chris, Joey, and Lance, Beyonce, Jimi, Britney, and all the rest don’t really love you.  I mean, they don’t even know you.)  When I say, “idol”, don’t think of pop culture icons.  Think of statues with dead, lifeless eyes.

Ancient idolatry was forthright enough to say it plainly: here is a physical embodiment of the god you seek to meet your needs.  When you were uncertain about how you’ll eat in the future, or even today, you could go sort it out with the god responsible for growing crops, Ba'al.  If you could make him happy with you and get him on your side, he’d (probably?) help you out.  Or when you felt insecure about the large army threatening to attack your nation, you could turn to Anat, a violent war-goddess.  Placating her could be the difference between victory and defeat.  And so on… for all your needs, you could turn to an idol.

Modern idolatry is much more subtle but no less insidious.  We all worship something; no one doesn’t worship.  We all have a tendency to turn to idols instead of to the Lord with our needs.  One modern idol is control—we feel uncertain, so we try to control our career, our family, our environment, and our bodies.  Another is approval—we feel rejected and insecure, so we seek approval with complements, with social media “likes”, and with group identities.  Another is comfort—we fear stress and demands, so we seek distraction, convenience, and pleasure.

Just like the ancients, we moderns worship our dead-eyed idols in an attempt to get our deepest needs met.  But here’s the thing: your idols don’t love you.  You might love it, but it doesn’t love you back.  Idols don’t care about you and they don’t keep promises.  They don’t think about your well-being, they only think about what they might get out of you.  When you worship them and build your life around them, they suck the life out of you and destroy you.

In his ministry, Jesus had a way of calling out people’s idols (ex: Matt. 6:24).  Jesus, over and over again, calls us to turn away from worshiping not-god (idols) towards worshiping and following him.  Why? 

Because your idols don’t love you, but God does.  God is genuinely concerned for your well-being.  He loves you so deeply he would give himself, his only Son, for you.  He wants what’s best for you.  He will take care of all of your deepest needs.  Seriously. 

Idol-worship de-humanizes us.  We become what we worship, and worshiping idols make us like them.  As the Scripture says about idols, “They have mouths, but cannot speak, eyes, but they cannot see; they have ears, but cannot hear, noses, but they cannot smell; they have hands, but cannot feel, feet, but they cannot walk; nor can they utter a sound with their throats. Those who make them will be like them, and so will all who trust in them.” (Psalm 115:5-8)

Worshiping Jesus secures our humanity.  We become like him, the one who was truly and perfectly human.  We worship and trust our Father, like he did (see Matt. chs. 5-7).

I know I can’t do this alone.  So as a church community, how can we encourage each other to clean out our idols?

MidWeek Message (June 24-June 30)

Reflection by pastor Shawn:

In the last week or so, I have found two prayers particularly striking, and so I share them here with you:

First, a prayer from the prayer book, "Love Your Neighbor", written and illustrated by Sergio Cortes. (For the full book, see http://tinyurl.com/y2elnbe4 )

"God, hear our prayers.
We pray for those who persecute our neighbors.
God, please transform their hearts.
Stop them from transmitting their brokenness to others.
We pray that the spirit of peace and love will fall upon them.
Remind us that as you want to set the oppressed free,
you also want to set the oppressor free through your son Jesus Christ.
Help us lift our anger to you instead of directing it towards others.
Fill us with compassion and strength when we think of the enemies of our neighbors.
In Jesus’ name, amen."

Second, this prayer was prayed during the Prayers of the People during last Sunday's worship service at Congregation of the Good Shepherd.

"Give us grace to do your will in all that we undertake. Help us to be people who seek justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with you. Give us courage to stand alongside those who are marginalized and to see You in those whom are different to us. Christ Jesus, by your Gospel we realize that what counts above all is compassion. Grant us, then, hearts full of goodness. God of peace, you love and you seek out every one of us. You consider each human being with an infinite tenderness and deep compassion. Teach us to see and love others how you do."

MidWeek Message (June 17-June 23)

Midweek reflection by pastor Shawn:

There’s no such thing as religion.

Now there’s a sentence you might not have expected your pastor to write. But there it is, right there.

Most all of us have this commonsense notion of religion. We probably haven’t thought about it much; we just kind of inherited the concept. But there’s one question that can unravel the whole idea:

What is religion?

And in trying to answer it, you’ll invariably include some things you don’t think are religion, or exclude some things you do think are religion.

Maybe religion is about the human relationship with God? Could that answer work? Well, Hindus are committed to many gods, so right there this answer has problems. New Age religions don’t think this way—these say that ‘spirituality’ is about self-advancement and self-improvement, no god(s) necessary. Several strains of Buddhism say that there is no God, because ultimate reality is nothingness. So religion as “the human relationship with God” doesn’t work.

Maybe religion is any belief in the supernatural. But this fails on a number of cases: again, some forms of Buddhism say that any appearance of a god or spiritual beings is an illusion. Further, the distinction between “natural” and “supernatural” is not an assumption the Hindu, the follower of Confucius, the Muslim, some Christians, and many others would grant.

Maybe religion is whatever is about the “ultimate concern.” But under that definition, then many people would have the ‘religion’ of national patriotism, pleasure, or even their favourite football team! Nationalism, Marxism, capitalism, socialism then can all be religions with this definition.

Maybe religion is whatever is worth dying or killing for. But many people would die or kill for their country, power, or for money!

Maybe religion is a person’s private and interior beliefs. This understanding of religion is common: religion is private beliefs, not suitable for or defensible in public. But then what about New Age mysticism—‘religions’ like these have no set beliefs or creeds at all! And alternatively, what about the ‘religions’ that are public and exterior, like Christianity? Remember, Christianity started with a visible resurrection and a public declaration of it in Acts 2.

Maybe religion is whatever we don’t label “secular”. But this is just a silly, arbitrary definition. Further, secular mindsets have many similarities to what is called religion: things like a narrative of human existence, an origin story, moral codes, and a vision of human destiny. What criteria could be given to make “secular” a coherent category?

I could go on, but hopefully by now the problem is evident: there are no criteria one could give to make “religion” a meaningful, coherent category. There is no definition that encompasses everything we want to call religion and excludes everything we would not. There is no such thing as "religion" that applies for all times and all places. The category of religion that many of us assume and use is actually the product of the age of European “discovery”, expansion, and conquest to explain the non-Christian world.

Upon scrutiny our modern idea of religion dissolves into nothing. Either it’s an arbitrary label used to invalidate certain people in the public dialogue, or it is so big that it includes the New Atheism, self-help book fads, and being an avid sports fan.

So instead, let’s recognize that everyone is religious in the sense that everyone worships something, and everyone holds a story that they use to understand the world. Everyone has a view on what humanity is, what right and wrong are and where they come from, what happens after someone dies, and where history is going. Everyone is religious.

And it turns out that every one of these considerations should turn our thoughts to Jesus sooner or later, because he has—or better, he is—a very compelling answer for all of them.

MidWeek Message (June 10-June 16)

Reflection by Pastor Shawn:

This week is Trinity Sunday and I’d like to consider this question: what are we talking about when we speak of the oneness of God and the three-ness of God? To be truly Christian, we must insist on both: there is only one God, and God is Father, Son, and Spirit. So how can we begin to make sense of all this?

First, we must avoid an idea called modalism. This idea says that God’s three-ness is in appearance or in name only. Modalism logic goes like this: I am a husband, a father, and my parents’ son, but those are just roles I have; there is only one ‘who’ when it comes to Shawn Bawulski. In the same way, modalism says, there is only one ‘who’ when it comes to God. Talk of Father, Son, and Spirit are just different labels for different actions God does in the world. This view is outside of the Christian faith, for many reasons. Here’s one: God is love, in himself, and there can be no love with just strictly one. Love requires a lover, a beloved, and the love between them. God is love (see 1 John 4). So Modalism fails. (Sorry, but the illustration that God is like H20: ice, water, and steam is also modalism, when you think about it. So please stop using it to explain the Trinity…)

Second, we must avoid an idea called tritheism. Tritheism is any view that ultimately suggests that there are three Gods. If Father, Son, and Spirit are actually different essences—even if they are completely united in purpose—then we have forgotten that “The Lord is one” (Deut 6:4). God is not like a sports team, where all the players wear the same uniform and all have the same purpose of winning the game, and so together are Manchester United or The Cubs. There are not multiple Gods. God is one, and there is exactly one God. Tritheism fails.

So what is the distinction between Father, Son, and Spirit? They are not the same “who”. But they are not different Gods (not different substances, to use a technical term). The difference, and the only difference, is found in relationships. The *only* difference is the Father eternally gives existence to the Son, the Son eternally receives his existence from the Father, and the Spirit eternally proceeds from the Father and the Son. Crudely, the Father “fathers”, the Son “is fathered”, and the Spirit “is breathed”. There are three existences of the one God *and the only difference between them is their relationships.* God exists three times over, so to speak, and the only distinctions between the three are their relations of origin: the Son and Spirit find their origin in the Father, in different ways, and that makes the three different existences of the same God.

Why does this matter? It all seems a bit mysterious and technical; what does this matter for your faith and life? There are many ways it matters, and here’s one: you can and must worship Jesus. The Bible makes it very clear that God and God alone is to be worshiped. We are not to worship not-god: to worship the likes of the sun or fertility or war or Caesar or money or anything else that is not-god is sinful idolatry. But we are to worship Jesus, and that’s because Jesus is God. But Jesus is not just another name for the Father. The Father and the Son are the same God but not the same “who”, so to speak: the Father and the Son can love one another because they are lover and beloved. So in this way, simply by worshiping Jesus as God, as all Christians do, we are Trinitarians, whether we know the technical details or not. And we must say similar things with the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Christ, who is God made present to us.

MidWeek Message (June 3-June 9)

Reflection by Pastor Shawn:

As we look to Pentecost Sunday in a few days, I’ve been reflecting on the Holy Spirit. I’ve found this passage by a theologian named Clark Pinnock to be helpful.

“The first act of the risen Lord was to breathe the Spirit on the disciples and send them forth into mission (Jn 20:21-22; Acts 1:8). This alerts us to the fact that the effectiveness of the church is due not to human competency or programming but to the power of God at work. The church rides the wind of God’s Spirit like a hawk endlessly and effortlessly circling and gliding in the summer sky. It ever pauses to wait for impulses of power to carry it forward to the nations. What a dynamic and hopeful image to cherish in a day when thinking about the church is often heavy and pessimistic. The main rationale of the church is to actualize all the implications of baptism in the Spirit.

After the resurrection, God’s kingdom, which had begun to manifest itself in Jesus himself, would continue to transform the world through the community of empowered disciples. The church is an extension not so much of the incarnation as the anointing of Jesus. Jesus is the prototype of the church, which now receives its own baptism in the Spirit. Spirit, who maintained Jesus’ relationship with the Father and empowered him for mission, now calls the church into that relationship, giving it the power to carry on the mission. There had to be, after Jesus’ departure, a colony of heaven, living the life and power and experiencing the freedom of the kingdom. Spirit indwells the church as a perpetual Pentecost and communicates gifts to its members. Spirit ecclesiology focuses not on the quality of the members but on the power of God at work in and through them.”

Clark Pinnock, “Flame of Love: A Theology of The Holy Spirit”, pp 113-114

MidWeek Message (May 27-June 2)

Reflection by Pastor Shawn:

In his book “Philosophical Fragments”, Danish theologian Søren Kierkegaard begins by comparing two stories about how we learn truth.  The first story is what Socrates would tell us from his viewpoint in idealism.  The second story is the Christian one, and by contrasting these two stories he wants show the incompatibility between the two.  The first story goes something like this: truth is already in each one of us.  We just need to recall it.  Something outside the person—say, a teacher—can assist in the remembering process, but nothing external can truly teach a person.  A teacher serves as the occasion to help the person remember by asking probing questions—a bit like a midwife.  So when we ask about our eternal happiness, and how we might achieve it, the answers are already in us.  The teacher is ultimately unimportant for our eternal happiness: at best, Socrates is just the occasion and nothing more.  Further, the moment in which we remember is insignificant because we discover that we already knew the truth from eternity.  Indeed, how can one even seek the truth, for if one has it already then seeking and finding are little more than illusions, but if one does not already have it then how can one know what to look for, or that one even needs to look at all?

The second story—the Christian one—goes much differently.  Truth is not something within a person, but is something that comes from outside.  Unlike in idealism, the moment we learn the truth makes all the difference in the world.  Before the truth comes, a person is outside of it: she is untruth.  The teacher must bring the truth to the learner, but since the learner is untruth, the teacher must also provide the condition for understanding it.  It is a person’s own fault that she lacks the condition and there is nothing she can do on her own to get it.  This lack of the condition can be called sin.  No human can give the condition to another person—only God can do that.  The condition can be called faith.  The teacher is God himself, who gives the condition and gives the truth—he is a saviour, for he saves the learner from sin; he is a deliverer, for he delivers the person from imprisonment; he is a reconciler, for he takes away the wrath and guilt.  Encountering a teacher like this will be unforgettable.  The moment in which a person receives the condition and the truth is completely unique and decisive—it is a moment that is filled with the eternal.  What is taught by the teacher?  God’s presence is essential to the teaching—in fact, it is the teaching.  Unlike Socrates, the person of Jesus, as the teacher, is of the utmost importance.  The moment is God revealing himself, which he does entirely out of love for the learner.  God as the loving teacher must stoop down to the learner’s level and become like the learner (the incarnation).   In the moment, the learner becomes a new person—this can be called conversion.  Yet turning away from an old state to a new one requires sorrow—this can be called repentance.  Since a new person has come from the old, we can speak of rebirth.      

Since we all have a life, and since what happens in our existence is importance to us, there is no purely objective way to decide between the two stories.  The question is at issue with both stories is, What is the relation of the individual to the truth?  We all have a personal stake in the answer and the choice cannot even be considered apart from what it would mean for each of us.  Socrates’ story and those like it require us to surrender the idea that our temporal existence matters, that we make choices that are real, and that things could genuinely have been otherwise.  The Christian story, however, makes our existence—especially the moment—truly important.


MidWeek Message (May 20-May 26)

Reflection by Pastor Shawn:

Edward Glibreath has written an excellent book, “Reconciliation Blues: A Black Evangelical’s Inside View of White Christianity” (InterVarsity Press, 2006). In it he talks about being a person of color in predominantly white Christian churches and institutions. I think we need to pay very close attention to voices like his and to the lived experience of which they speak. While so much of his book is very good, there’s a section I found particularly striking. On pages 84-86 he writes:

“Washington Post sports columnist Michael Wilbon echoed the opinion of many African Americans when, in a column about golfer Tiger Woods, he wrote, ‘There’s a social responsibility that comes with being black in America, regardless of the profession, and that obligation increases exponentially with stature. There are rules adopted out of necessity, even desperation, by the subculture we as black folks inhabit. . . . One of the rules is you speak up, even if it means taking some lumps.’

I did my best to speak up [while working at Christianity Today] when it seemed necessary, and at times I caught grief for it. Other times I decided it would be best to act like Jesus before Herod and simply say nothing. It gets old, you know—this taking-your-lumps business.

I like the way Jackie Robinson framed it as he boldly began the mission of integrating baseball: ‘I know that I have a certain responsibility to my race, but I’ve got to try not to feel that way about it because it would be too much of a strain.’ He added, ‘I also know that I’ve got to hit.’

Robinson understood that no amount of racial protest or rhetoric would make any difference unless he backed up the symbolism of a black player integrating the majors with tangible results. At the end of the day, he still had to hit the ball.

I want to hit the ball. I want to let my talent, sweat and integrity do the talking. Often that’s the only way to get your message across to a majority culture that, after ages of doing things their way, sometimes has difficulty seeing or hearing you, even though you’re standing right in front of them.

‘People sometimes ignore you,’ says Bruce Fields, a professor of systematic theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois. ‘Or, if there is attention directed towards you, it is subtly communicated that you are not to be taken as seriously as a while person of similar status, experience and credentials.’

Fields was the first full-time African American professor on Trinity’s staff, and in July 2005, he became the first to be tenured. Yet being one of the few blacks in the institution, he continues to harbor doubts about his presence there. ‘I think about being a minority here all the time,’ he confesses. ‘There is rarely a time when I am not thinking about it. I am thankful for who God has made me, and I am grateful for his call on my life—but not all the time. I find myself being distant, untrusting and often angry that I have internalized a certain sense that I am not good enough. I know this is wrong, and I’ve been working with a support network to overcome it. But it’s difficult.”

MidWeek Message (May 13-May 19

Eastertide is for reflecting on the resurrection, of course. In reading about this, I’ve found the thoughts of New Testament scholar G.E. Ladd very insightful this week. Here’s a somewhat shortened version of his explanation of how the bodily resurrection of Jesus was a radical change in the way things work:

“The Gospels go to great lengths to attest that the resurrection of Jesus was indeed a bodily resurrection. Here lies the significance of the empty tomb. . . . The empty tomb by itself was a puzzling fact that needed explanation. … Apart from the appearances of Jesus, the empty tomb was an enigma. The empty tomb, therefore, is not a witness to the fact of the resurrection so much as it is a witness to the nature of the resurrection; it was a resurrection of Jesus’ body.”

“The bodily character of his resurrection is attested in other ways. [He appeared physically, in sight, touch, and sound.]”

“However, Jesus’ resurrection body possessed new and wonderful powers that set it apart from the natural and physical body. It possessed capacities never before experienced on earth. It had the amazing power to appear and disappear at will.” (See Jn. 20:19, 26; Lk. 24:31; 24:36-37)

“Furthermore, a close study of the text [of the Gospels] nowhere suggests that the stone of the tomb was rolled away from the tomb to let Jesus out. The earthquake and rolling back of the stone are recorded in Matthew (28:2) as a sign of a wonderful event, not as the event itself. There can only be one conclusion: the body of Jesus was gone before the stone was rolled away. It did not need to be removed for him to escape the tomb; he had already escaped it. The removal of the stone was for the disciples, not for Jesus.”

“These two sets of items point to a twofold conclusion: the resurrection of Jesus was a bodily resurrection; but his resurrection body possessed strange powers that transcend physical limitations. It could interact with the natural order, but it at the same time transcended this order. . . . Jesus’ resurrection belongs to a new and higher order: the order of the Age to Come, of eternal life.”

“The resurrection of Christ and the resurrection of those who belong to Christ constitute two parts of a single entity, two acts of a single drama, two stages of a single process. . . . Jesus’ resurrection is the ‘first fruits’ of the eschatological resurrection at the end of the age. First fruits were common in Palestinian agriculture. They were the first grain of the harvest, indicating that the harvest itself was ripe and ready to be gathered in. The first fruits were not the harvest itself, yet they were more than a pledge and promise of the harvest. They were the actual beginning of the harvest. The act of reaping had already begun: the grain was being cut.”

“Jesus resurrection was not an isolated event that gives to men [and women] the warm confidence and hope of a future resurrection; it is the beginning of the eschatological [i.e., “age to come”] resurrection itself. If we may use crude terms to try to describe sublime realities, we might say that a piece of the eschatological resurrection had been split off and planted in the midst of history.”

“The resurrection of Jesus is not simply an event in history. It ought not to be described simply as a supernatural event—a miracle, as though God had interfered with the ‘laws of nature.’ The resurrection of Jesus means nothing less than the appearance upon the scene of the historical of something that belongs to the eternal order! Supernatural? Yes, but not in the usual sense of the word. It is not the ‘disturbance’ of the normal course of events; it is the manifestation of something utterly new. Eternal life has appeared in the midst of mortality.”

George Eldon Ladd on the Resurrection of Jesus, from “Theology of the New Testament”, Eerdmans, 1974. Pages 324-327

MidWeek Message (May 6-May 12)

Rachel Held Evans was a popular Christian author and speaker.  Recently she died of a sudden illness at age 37.  She left behind her husband, Dan, and two young children.  Her writing has helped more than a few people at COGS, and so it's only fitting to reflect on her in this week's midweek message.

There's much to say about her, and a quick google search will produce some very insightful and moving tributes to her and her work (seriously, go down that worthwhile rabbit hole).  She challenged both conservative evangelicals and liberal mainliners.  She was an earnest seeker of truth.  She had a prophetic voice, one that called out cultural norms that are confused for the teachings of Scripture.  In a context where only men with PhDs talked theology and women were expected to talk motherhood and little else, she knocked down those walls, walked into the theological conversation and said, "wait, what about...?" with learning, charity, insight, and grace.

Rachel had many criticisms and critics, but she was always "for" something.  She was for loving those who disagreed with her.  She was for wisdom, wit, and excellent writing.  She was for the Bible, taking it seriously enough not to read it simplistically.  Rachel's respect for Scripture is evident in how much she wrestled with its difficulties and its demands on all of us.  She was for Jesus, so much so that it got her in trouble with the religious authorities of her day.  But in that way, she was not merely for Jesus, she was admirably like him, too.

"Imagine if every church became a place where everyone is safe, but no one is comfortable. Imagine if every church became a place where we told one another the truth. We might just create sanctuary." -Rachel Held Evans, "Searching for Sunday"