When you complete a thesis for graduate work, your first submission is a strange duck. It is in now way a draft. In fact, it ought to be, it must be, your very best work. But unless you're a grammatical genius and immaculate thinker, you turn it in with the expectation that your advisor and reader(s) will ask for revisions. More data. Fixed errors. Clarify connections. Submission, in this sense, is not final. Though I just turned in my thesis on April 1st, it will not be done, with complete revisions and binding, until the middle of May.
Submission to God is, actually, quite similar.
When we submit ourselves to God and God's Kingdom, this is never the final draft. We are constantly in a state of revision. As Colossians says, Christ is "reconciling all things to Himself," and so we are in a constant process of reconciliation.
But our approach to God should never be a rough draft.
Through baptism, God justifies sinners, no matter the content, quality, or count of the sins. But after that, when we begin to (in the words of Deuteronomy) "choose life," we ought not be turning in ourselves with incomplete sentences, comma splices, poor research, and inconsistent citations. When we submit ourselves to God, it ought to be, it must be, our best effort, not to earn our salvation, for that is done upon the cross of Christ and given in our baptism. But it must be our best effort because we are living a borrowed life in the image of the Resurrected God.
Yet, we know we will constantly fall short, so of course, we must expect revisions of our submissions. We can't expect to turn ourselves over once for all. Only one person did that, and we remember that act weekly at the Eucharist table. We must be constantly submitting, dying daily, accepting the revisions the Holy Spirit lays on our hearts and turning in new work that seeks to embrace life in the Kingdom, that this world might reflect the will of heaven.
So, as I await (hopefully, patiently) the edits suggested by my committee, I'm also expecting God to constantly work at revisions in my life. This is transformation for kingdom life. This is sanctification, not for personal glory, but for inhabiting the image of God.
Submission is a big deal, but it is not final. Revisions are on the way.
two stratgies, one kingdom
For years I have struggled with Lutheran Two Kingdoms theology. On the lips of pastors and theologians it often sounded like a blanket affirmation for the rule of the state and a subjugation of the special place given to Israel and the church in salvation history.
Lo and behold, Luther never used the term two kingdoms, and for good reason.
Luther talked about two hands or two realms. The left hand referred to the ways that God works through the world to promote the flourishing of creation. This, of course, refers to the just rule of states, but refers to any promotion of physical well being. God's left hand is at work in Habitat homes and soup kitchens, disaster response efforts and parenting classes, in local schools and in conservation efforts. The right hand referred to the particular work of achieving justification for people, which introduces salvation and Kingdom work immediately. Any time someone comes to relationship with God and the church, we see God's right hand at work. But this language is still clunky, and leaves us (or me, at least) feeling like a division or hierarchy exists in God's work.
Thank God for my friend Brandon Heavner, who pointed me to Craig Nessan's article "Reappropriating Luther's Two Kingdoms." Nessan suggests a reconsideration of the theology, where we refer to God's Kingdom as a singular entity (how biblical) and that God uses two strategies simultaneously to bring that kingdom to fruition (how sensible). Of course, God desires all God's creation to thrive physically, and so the left hand strategy seeks to promote flourishing, not only of humanity, but of all things. And of course, God desires all creation to have a restored relationship with their Creator, so through the work of Christ, the Holy Sprit, and the church, God's right hand strategy justifies sinners to become saints for the kingdom at hand.
This is a really powerful perspective, especially as we see the numbers and percentage of American Christians dwindling. God's not given up. God's left hand strategy is still vastly at work, even through offices of a shrinking denomination like the ELCA. For you see, work like the ELCA Malaria Campaign, Lutheran Disaster Response, and Lutheran World Relief reveal God's left hand strategy at work through the church. At the same time, though our numbers are not ballooning, the work of ELCA mission developers to reimagine how the church might foster spaces where people may meet with a God who cares deeply for them reveals an attempt to reorient the church to the right hand strategy of God.
The wonderful gift of this Two Strategy theology is the constant witness that God is not giving up on the world. Christ's Kingdom is coming, and the Holy Spirit is using two strategies to accomplish God's will on earth as it is in heaven. Thank God.
Today, I was sitting outside and editing my thesis. The sun's warmth and blue sky enveloped the entire scene. I was so content with the beauty of the day and the direction of my work that I failed to notice the change in the weather.
Almost imperceptibly, clouds moved overhead. But I didn't notice. Surely, the temperature dropped, but my skin, so warm from the sun's recent rays, failed to notice the change.
But when the wind moved in, then I knew.
The thing about the wind is that it attacks multiple senses. My skin felt it. It wafted new smells, of rain and nearby barbecues, to my nose. Even my eyes saw its effects as leaves tossed across the parking lot. Only then did I notice the chill in the air, the absence of the sun, the dominance of the clouds.
The work of God is often like this. We can be distracted by how things once were and fail to take not of the amazing changes right at hand, at least until the Spirit blows and upends multiple things in our lives. At that point, not only do we notice the immediate differences, but the changes in the past come into focus as well. Reality coalesces in a way that reveals the consistency and activity of God despite our inattentiveness.
I call these watershed moments, those rare times when we have a crystal clarity about the activity of God in our lives, and our world. As the call process continues, I am praying that I will take note of God's movement, and if not, that God will send a Spirit-filled wind to take hold of eyes, that I might see clearly what God has for me and for the church.
And I will pray that all of us will experience this gift, either of discernment or of wind-blown revelation, when we need it most.
Why have I been late in writing as of late?
Because I'm in the midst of finishing my thesis.
One of the difficult things about an e-journal like this is that I am afraid to admit my sins and shortcomings the way I would in a book that I kept locked in a dresser drawer. But it very well may be the blessing I need, as well.
I need to be honest that my academic work and trajectory sometimes gets in the way of my spiritual life. And by sometimes, I mean most of the time. I'm most often more comfortable reading about God or writing theological works than praying to God. Of course, these can be acts of prayer, but only insofar as I actually address God as present, immediate, and active in a relationship with me.
So, I'm struggling now, especially because the thesis is due Tuesday, and is requiring much of my attention, not only away from prayer, but from family and friends, from other classes and from the call process. I'm not complaining or whining here. I knew what I signed up for when I began the STM. But that doesn't mean I need your prayers any less at this point in time.
So, if you have a moment, please pray for me. That my spiritual life might be renewed as I complete my thesis. That I might actually be able to take up Tim on cigar escape offers in the near future. That the Holy Spirit might continue to guide the call process and give me discernment into the important things I need to see. For Michelle (and Stanley) to have a resilience and a strength as I am preoccupied, and that I might become more attentive despite the work required of me. You know, any one of these things. Or all of them.
So, it has been a struggle the last couple of days. And, to be honest, I'm not writing today.
Yet, this is not because I am avoiding my devotion. Rather, I've simply read something that, I think, bears repeating to as many people who will take the time to read it.
It comes from a good friend of mine, Daniel. Just one of his amazing revelations is this: "All of us are born blessed, but far too few are born with the opportunity to realize their blessing."
For the full text, check out the Duke Chronicle.
Thanks, Daniel, for your witness to us all.
Sometimes, papers win.
I wish the Holy Spirit had a particular voice, like Gilbert Godfrey or Barbara Walters. Not that I want God speaking to me like Iago or with exclusively rounded R's, but I wish that the Holy Spirit spoke in a way that was as easily discernible.
All too often I am absolutely certain that the Holy Spirit is speaking, even as I am absolutely unable to locate the pitch and timbre, content and clarity of that voice.
There's this song in the ELW hymnal that repeats the line, "Listen! Listen God is calling, through the Word inviting, offering forgiveness, comfort, and joy." If only it were that easy. Sometimes I think the problem I face with discernment is that we think we have to just listen better in order to figure out where and to what God is calling us.
But remember that, when God called Samuel, he thought it was the voice of Eli. And when the serpent spoke to Eve and Adam, they listened as though God were speaking.
All too often, we mistake God's voice for the voice of authority or the voice that tells us what we want to hear. Whatever that is, it is not discernment.
Rather than the voice of our authorities, the Holy Spirit often speaks through those to whom we are least likely to listen. All too often, I'm listening for the voice of Eli rather than the voice of the Holy Spirit. All too often, I'm listening for what I want to hear.
But the timbre of the Spirit's voice heralds the Kingdom of God. The pitch of the Spirit's voice rises above norms of injustice. The content of the Spirit's voice carries peace in the midst of a culture of violence. And the clarity of the Spirit's voice speaks to the reconciliation of all things to Jesus.
If we listen for that, rather than for power or authority or temptation, perhaps we - perhaps I - will better find the voice of the Spirit in our world. Of course, that takes work, and so the voice of the Spirit is not easily discernible. But it is a discernment that is worth the work.
Like most people who grew up Lutheran, my first reaction when I miss a day of a Lenten discipline - in this case, not blogging yesterday - is a combination of self-denial and self-deprecation. The thoughts of "Oh it doesn't matter; Grace abounds!" are intricately tied up with "I've failed once again; I'm the worst."
Neither of these are particularly helpful answers, because both reveal a lack of priorities.
Of course grace abounds, but grace does not mean that we ought to abandon our acts of discipline through which God is forming us into the image and likeness of Christ. To say this doesn't matter - and this goes for whatever Lenten discipline or Christian behavior we undertake - is a disservice to the God whose Lenten journey led to the Cross.
We must remember that we change our behaviors during Lent to recognize the fact that God's own behavior during Lent was literally life-saving.
On the flipside, to dwell in our failure fails to recognize that our behaviors are just that: acts of devotion, recognition, and imitation. Our Lenten practices, whether giving something(s) up or taking something(s) on, are never salvific. Christ has already done that work, and that is the work that matters first. Our failures reveal to us our deep need for Jesus and His own Lenten journey.
We must remember that Lent, like the rest of the church year, like all things, is ultimately about Jesus: what Jesus has done, is doing, and will do. What we do in Lent is only a reflection of that journey, and a process through which Jesus seeks to continue the work of salvation through the transformation of our daily lives.
Sometimes, we have to prioritize and recognize the difference between what it is that Jesus is doing and what it is that we are doing. Last night, Jesus brought some good friends into our lives that we haven't spent nearly enough time with lately, and come May, we will spend even less time with as we all move on to different homes, different callings, different paths.
Sometimes, Jesus' priority is breaking us out of our Lenten disciplines to reveal to us a new discipline. Last night, Jesus broke me briefly out of this process of writing to spend unchecked hours with fellow seminarians and longtime family members who are becoming true friends. Of course it mattered that I didn't write. And of course my failure to write isn't the worst thing in the world. But the priority Jesus had for me last night was to value the people He placed in my life, to give them attention and time, to foster growth in our relationships, and to take joy in the fact that, through Jesus' Lenten journey, we are all saved, all being shaped into Him, and all sisters and brothers in His Body.
That is a priority I want more of in my life, so thank you, Jesus, for making it a prrio
Tonight at music practice for our campus worship service, a few students learned that I had recorded a few albums and traveled in music ministry. They quickly took to calling me a "cultured rockstar," to which I responded, "I am neither cultured nor a rockstar." And I mean that wholeheartedly (especially the cultured part...and the rockstar part).
But it did get me thinking about the blessings I have had as a mediocre musician. To travel with Captive Free as an immature 19 year old was surely a personal challenge, one in which I saw deep personal failures and great team triumphs. Then to take part in various worship bands at Ashland University, first as a drummer and then also doing double duty as as a worship leader, gave me an opportunity to grow and expand as a musician, as a leader, and as a Christian. This brought me the opportunity to record drum tracks a bit with Aaron Wardle and more with Red Team. That has launched me into ministries of writing liturgies and worship music for local communities, as well as beginning to teach others some of the great wisdom I learned in these contexts.
But what I have found out ten years now since I left for Captive Free is that the true blessing was not the opportunity, but the people who believed in me enough to offer me the opportunity. Without the forgiveness and compassion of my Captive Free team - Amanda, Amber, Bri, Christy, Robert, and Steve - and Donna, our director; without the time and investment from Aaron and Pete; without the companionship and mutual admonition of people like Nate and Michael and Jody; without the friendships of these and too many unmentioned others, then all the music and travel in the world would be worthless. The blessing that God brought me, and continues to bring me, through music, is community. Even now, with Emily, Madi, Eric, Lara, Laura, and Neil, I am finding the best blessing to be the growth of the church through the gift of music, not just in terms of numbers, but in terms of maturity. Music has constantly put me in a place to grow from my failure because of the great people God sent me who happened to be musicians.
So yes, I have traveled playing music, though it was not really a big deal. And yes, I have recorded drums on a few albums, and while I love them, they'll never see Billboard. The biggest blessing was the people who pushed me, who admonished me, who challenged me, who encouraged me, who believed in me, even in the midst of my failure, that we might become better because of God's work in the midst of us.
That is a gift worth singing about.
There is a fine line between creativity and escapism. This is especially hard to admit for fans of science fiction like me, and even harder to discern. My love for franchises like Stargate often feels like an attempt to remove myself from the place in which I live.
Yet, I've found that a deep engagement with such imaginative writing and production helps me to become more creative as a preacher and as a musician. Sci-fi offers a unique perspective on the rules and expectations of life: they exist for a reason, though they can be bent, and they can be broken. The advent of new lifeforms, sentient species, unprecedented technologies, and the like suggest that we are not nearly as acquainted with reality as we think we are.
That sounds a whole lot like the Kingdom of God.
There is an inbreaking of a powerful reality, one that shares similarities with our current context, but one that requires an absolute transformation of our world in order to come to terms with the character of the Kingdom. This introduction to God's reality reveals to us, amongst other things, that we have much left to learn about who we are and who we ought to be, not to mention the nature of the universe as God's good creation.
I think I would struggle to see this if I weren't a fan of sci-fi. It seems a weird Lenten reflection, but in the midst of Lent, we are walking the steps of the Kingdom's reestablishment in our world. We are learning to see with the eyes of Christ, to walk Jesus' footsteps, to become more like God in every way, tangible and intangible.
The Ender's Game series has really inspired me lately about how sci-fi can influence faith and life. No doubt, Orson Scott Card's personal political, social, and religious convictions are far different than mine, but at the core, he tells a story of innocence lost, and a journey to make a beautiful reality out of a terrible tragedy.
That is a journey worth taking. In Lent, Jesus invites us into something like that journey, where the tragedy of sin and the horror of His own capital punishment fail to carry the most importance, for out of sinners Christ makes saints, and on the other side of the cross is an empty tomb.
But of course, just like the Ender's Game books, it is a long journey. In this case, at least forty days, and for most of us, an entire life of constant progress and regress as we seek the Kingdom of God. I pray for all of us that we will be part Christ's making a beautiful reality out of the tragedies we face, that He faced for us
Simultaneously a sinner and a saint.