‘Taste’ and see that the Lord is good?

foodSeveral years ago on a warm fall evening at Anathoth Community Garden in Cedar Grove, North Carolina, I enjoyed a memorable meal. Roughly 100 people had gathered for a community feast. Though some of the meal was prepared by cooks from Cedar Grove United Methodist Church, the rest was potluck, and so included some of the freshest and best-tasting greens, tortillas, salsa, and chicken I have ever had. As our backdrop we enjoyed a double rainbow on a massive thundercloud to the east, while the sun slowly made its way down the horizon behind us. Children were running around blowing and catching bubbles. Others danced to the sound of a live bluegrass band. The taste of delectable food, the sounds of laughter and singing, the aroma of fresh flowers and harvest, the hugs of friends and neighbors, and the sensation of a cooling fall night all came together in what I considered a foretaste of heaven.

Why should I or anyone else think that this meal mattered? Is the invocation of heaven not overdrawn? After all, the evening has passed, and the physical sensations are no longer effective in me. No matter how much or how finely I eat, I, along with all the other animal and plant bodies, will still die, and so return to the soil out of which we came and upon which we daily feed. But what if that night and the communion it enacted is indeed a glimpse, however imperfect, of what life ultimately is meant to be?

In this book I develop a theological account of eating, a framework for assessing eating’s immediate and ultimate significance. Though it is possible to describe food and eating in countless ways, from a Christian point of view what food is and why eating matters are best understood in terms of God’s own Trinitarian life of gift and sacrifice, hospitality and communion, care and celebration. Trinitarian theology asserts that all reality is communion – the giving and receiving of gifts – because it has its source and sustenance in the eternal Triune love described by theologians as perichoresis, a making room within oneself for another to be. This means that nothing in creation exists by itself, in terms of itself, or for itself. Creatures are marked from beginning to end by the need to receive the gifts of nurture. Inspired by Jesus Christ, and empowered by the Holy Spirit, we have the opportunity to turn our homes into places of hospitality and ourselves into nurture for others. At its best, eating is a sharing and welcoming movement that makes room for others.

According to this theological view, we don’t really understand food until we perceive, receive, and taste it in terms of its origin and end in God as the one who provides for, communes with, and ultimately reconciles creation. Created life is God’s love made tastable and given for the good of another. The mundane act of eating is thus a daily invitation to move responsibly and gratefully within this given life. It is a summons to commune with the divine Life that is presupposed and made manifest in every bite.

This claim will be difficult to swallow for people who are convinced that food consists of little more than a bundle of nutrients that we simply need to get in the right quantities, variety, and proportion. According to this view, food is primarily a fuel we need to keep our machine-like bodies running at an optimal level. Though some food may taste better than other food, there is little about it that should give us pause for wonder or reverence. Though people in the past may have stopped to say grace before eating a meal, today’s educated eater is taught that food is simply a manufactured product that we control.

This is an impoverished description of food. While it is certainly true that we can speak of bread as a collection of material elements (water, salt, yeast, flour), reducing food to this level is like opening a letter and judging it to be nothing more than a page covered with random markings. Rather than reading the marks “I LOVE YOU!” to communicate a life-altering pronouncement inviting a response, all one sees are characters on a page worthy of little more than a passing notice.

Similarly, we can look at a meal and see only a random assortment of nutrients, oblivious to the grace of God made manifest in it. We can forget that food is one of God’s basic and abiding means for expressing divine provision and care. To partake of a meal is to participate in a divine communication. The Psalmist (104:10–15) puts it this way:

You make springs gush forth in the valleys;
they flow between the hills,
giving drink to every wild animal…
You cause the grass to grow for the cattle,
and plants for people to use,
to bring forth food from the earth,
and wine to gladden the human heart,
oil to make the face shine,
and bread to strengthen the human heart.

To grow food and eat in a way that is mindful of God is to collaborate with God’s own primordial sharing of life in the sharing of food with each other. It is to participate in forms of life and frameworks of meaning that have their root and orientation in God’s caring ways with creation.

It takes education, a catechesis within particular communities and traditions, to enable a person to see that the marks on a page are actually words that, if one has the requisite intelligence, sympathy, and imagination, can convey a wide range of meanings. Sometimes these meanings are shallow or of merely temporary interest. But other times they are profound and personally transformative. Knowing the difference is part of what it means to be a good reader. Though one may learn to read, the possibility always exists that one will be indolent, inattentive, or indifferent; the reader sees the words but has not really digested them.

In a similar manner, eaters can consume a wide variety of foods and not really savor any of it as God’s love made nurture for us. To eat with theological appreciation presupposes reverence for creation as the work of God’s hands. It entails spiritual formation in which we allow God the Gardener (Genesis 2:8) to conform us to his image as the one who looks after and provides for creatures. In this work we learn where and who we are by becoming tillers and keepers of God’s edible garden (Genesis 2:15). Without this ongoing catechesis we run the risk of reducing the gift of food and the grace of eating to a desecration. We risk undermining the ecological and cultural conditions necessary for healthy and convivial life together.

In advanced industrial societies, where speed, convenience, and cheap prices have become the most valued characteristics in food consumption, it is hardly surprising that eating has become thoughtless and irresponsible. Though everyone chews, relatively few eat with much understanding of or sympathy for the widespread destruction of the world’s agricultural lands and communities or the misery of billions of factory-produced chickens, sheep, pigs, and cattle. Today’s handling of food does not often go much beyond concerns for its appearance, availability, and price. In our global economy food is a commodity much like any other, serving the business need for profit, the consumer desire for cheapness, and the political quest for power. In this context, food ceases to speak as the grace of God. Eating ceases to be the occasion through which we experience life as a membership of belonging, responsibility, and gratitude.

(From the Preface of Norman Wirzba’s Food & Faith: A Theology of Eating)

The art of rebellion

flowerChristianity began not as an institution, not even as a creed, but first as an event that had no proper precedent or any immediately conceivable sequel. In its earliest dawn, the gospel arrived in history as a kind of convulsive disruption of history, a subversive rejection of most of the immemorial cultic, social, and philosophical wisdoms by which the ancient world sustained its order. And the event that the gospel proclaimed was the resurrection of Christ, which was neither a religious event, nor a natural event, nor even an event within the history of religion, but a moment of interruption. According to Paul, it had effectively erased all sacred, social, racial, and national boundaries, gathered into itself all divine sovereignty over history, and subdued the spiritual agencies of the cosmos, the powers and principalities, the thrones and dominions, and the “god of this world.” It was a complete liberation from the constraints of elemental existence but also from the power of law. For even the law of Moses, holy though it was, was still only delivered, so says Galatians, by an angel through a human mediator, in order to operate as a kind of probationary ‘disciplinarian’ and had now been replaced by the law of love.

Thus Christianity entered human consciousness not first as a new system of practices and observances, or as an alternative set of religious obligations, but first and as apocalypse, the visionary annunciation of the Kingdom and its sudden invasion of historical and natural time alike. As René Girard liked to say, the nature of this apocalypse was profoundly irreligious in some sense. It was a complete reversal of perspective in the realm of the sacred, the instant in which the victim of social and religious order—whom all human wisdom has always been prepared to hand over to death as a necessary and so legitimate sacrifice—was all at once revealed to be the righteous one, the innocent one, God himself.

So, in its original form the gospel was a pressing command to all persons to come forth out of the economies of society and cult as they were known and into the immediacy of that event, for “the days are short.” And, having thus been born in the terrible and joyous expectation of time’s imminent end—its first “waking moment” utterly saturated by the knowledge of the nearness of the end—the church was not at first quite prepared to inhabit time except in a state of something like sustained crisis. There was not an obvious medium by which a people in some sense already living in history’s aftermath, in a state of constant urgency, could enter history again, as either an institution, or a body of law, or even a religion. It would take some time, some degree of adjustment of expectations, and perhaps a considerable degree of disenchantment, for so singular an irruption of the eschatological into the temporal to be recuperated into a stable order.

From the beginning, consequently, there has also been a certain paradoxical tension at the very core of Christian belief. In religious terms, accommodation with and adaptation of cultic forms was possible, even within as radically novel an association as the church; and this occurred in some ways just as a kind of natural pseudomorphism, a crystallization of Christian practices in spaces progressively vacated by earlier devotions, even as the church strove to generate new kinds of community within the shelter of the culturally intelligible configurations it had assumed.

This was, of course, inevitable and necessary. A perfectly apocalyptic consciousness subsisting in pure interruption cannot really be sustained beyond a certain brief period. The exigencies of material existence demanded that Christianity would in time have to become “historical” again, “cultural” again, which is to say “cultic.” But, as was also inevitable, the results of this accommodation between apocalypse and cult were frequently tragic, as we know from the history of Christendom. As a religion, Christianity has provided many guises by which the original provocation of the Christian event has been made more bearable to historical consciousness but also under which it has often been all but entirely hidden. The religious impulse has served as the necessary way by which an essentially apocalyptic awareness has also been conveyed through “fallen” time which has also frequently enough striven to suppress that awareness. The alloy, moreover, was probably always somewhat unstable. At least at times it seems as if the Christian event is of its nature something too refractory and volatile—the impulse to rebellion too constitutive of its spiritual logic—to be contained even within its own institutions. This, at least, might explain why Christianity over the centuries not only has proved so irrepressibly fissile (as all large religious traditions all, to some degree, are) but has also given rise to a culture capable of the most militant atheism, even of self-conscious nihilism. Even in its most enduring and necessary historical forms, there is an ungovernable energy within it, something that desires not to crystallize but rather to disperse itself into the future, to start always anew, more spirit than flesh or letter. As the proclamation of time’s invasion by eternity, and as the seal of finality upon the annunciation of the presence of the Kingdom among us, the gospel of Easter must remain within the limits of time we know, an event that is always yet to be fully understood.

(David Bentley Hart, “Freedom, Rebellion, Apocalypse,” 2015 Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture Fall Conference “For Freedom Set Free.”)

The matter of the crux: postscript

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After discussing the immediately preceding post with my friend Dwayne, I realized I should have been more explicit about how those (like the author of Ps 44) who came along generations after Deut 28 would had re-evaluated the terms of the covenant expressed in Deut 28 and thus re-negotiate faith’s appropriation of such promises. That is, I wonder if Deut 28 represents an immature Israel convinced that their covenant represented iron-clad guarantees for obedience and the 1,000 year itch for law-breakers. That’s the sort of world a nation whose identity is newly constituted by its special relationship to God might wish for. As Israel matured, however, and as blessing didn’t always follow obedience, the faithful have to think through life again, and that’s what Ps 44.22 represents. I see passages like Ps 44 as offering a fundamental reassessment of what it means to be Israel, and that clear-cut demarcation in the promises of Deut 28 between blessings that always nearly follow the righteous and misery that always invariably plagues the faithless, does not describes the terms in which a faith can survive.

Perhaps we should remember that that Deut 28 very likely takes its final shape in exile among those reflecting on their suffering and the disobedience that landed them in Babylon. But you still get the same ‘clean lines’ (“Had we kept the rules, we’d be back in Israel eating fruit from our own trees. But we sinned, so we’re here in exile, because that’s how things work). Well, not entirely – as Ps 44 points out. This is why I’m tempted to think Ps 44 reflects a post-exilic perspective, when a faithful remnant remains under the heel of misfortune, occupation and suffering. What does faith then mean? We were exiled for our sins, fine. But it’s not the case now that we broke covenant, and yet we suffer. Why? The answer now (an answer that could not have been the case during exile): “For your sake, O God, we face death all day long.” As I said, what an amazing thing to say at any time before Christ. No wonder Paul calls Ps 44 to the stand in Rom 8.35-37.

The matter of the crux

suff1I’ve been captivated by Ps 44 for years, not because of any complexity of its language or historical riddles in its text. What captivates me is the maturity of its perspective on suffering. I remember the shock I felt when I first stumbled over the turn at v. 9 and contemplated the author’s interpretation of his suffering at v. 22. I’m still amazed by these.

The opening (vv. 1-8) is a standard rehearsal of the great things God did in the past, feats our grandparents recall from ‘back in the day’ (vv. 1-3). But it’s another thing to have your own stories to tell about God’s presence in your life, and the author has that too (vv. 4-8). It’s an entirely different thing, however, for your story to be the story that begins in v. 9. There’s nothing in vv. 1-8 that prepares you for what starts in v. 9.

9 But now you have rejected and humbled us;
you no longer go out with our armies.
10 You made us retreat before the enemy,
and our adversaries have plundered us.
11 You gave us up to be devoured like sheep
and have scattered us among the nations.
12 You sold your people for a pittance,
gaining nothing from their sale.
13 You have made us a reproach to our neighbors,
the scorn and derision of those around us.
14 You have made us a byword among the nations;
the peoples shake their heads at us.
15 I live in disgrace all day long,
and my face is covered with shame
16 at the taunts of those who reproach and revile me,
because of the enemy, who is bent on revenge.
17 All this came upon us,
though we had not forgotten you;
we had not been false to your covenant.
18 Our hearts had not turned back;
our feet had not strayed from your path.
19 But you crushed us and made us a haunt for jackals;
you covered us over with deep darkness.
20 If we had forgotten the name of our God
or spread out our hands to a foreign god,
21 would not God have discovered it,
since he knows the secrets of the heart?
22 Yet for your sake we face death all day long;
we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.

It’s not easy to decide where in history to locate this psalm. Being “scattered among the nations” (v. 11) and having become “a byword among the nations” (v. 14) suggest a post-exilic setting. But the description of standing armies (v. 10) suggests a pre-exilic date. One could suppose (as some do) that the psalm was a work in progress spanning both periods. I’m not sure it matters. It’s the fact that such a perspective on suffering arose at all that is so amazing.

suff4Consider – the covenant-making God committed himself to an agenda of all-embracing prosperity and blessing for Israel (Deut 28). If Israel obeys God, she will be blessed in the city, in the country, coming in and going out, her barns will be full, her livestock will be healthy and multiply, her enemies will flee in fear. You get the point. Hence the bewilderment of the author(s) of Ps 44, who were faithful covenant partners (vv. 17-18), and yet defeat and suffering overwhelmed them. Had they forsaken the covenant (vv. 20-21), the author acknowledges, their shame would be justified. But that isn’t their story. Their story is: We’re faithful to God and life sucks. We loved and worshiped God and got trampled underfoot.

This would precipitate a review of God’s covenant-keeping abilities, one would think. Perhaps Israel should find herself another God. But while the author asks the question ‘Why do you sleep?’ (v. 23), he does so assuming the truth of God’s ‘unfailing love’ (v. 26), just as our scapegoated victim is confident of final vindication. To trust God’s unfailing love, then, does not mean one never wonders why and never complains to God. To lament is to ask and wonder, and to ask at all is in some measure to trust.

Faith’s perspective appears in v. 22:

Yet for your sake we face death all day long;
we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.

Now that is a truly amazing thing to say. Let it sink it; life did not look like it was being administered by God in terms of the covenant conditions he established. So why not accuse God of wrongdoing? If we are faithful to the conditions of covenant but suffer like those judged for disobedience, why not at least assume something is wrong with God or the terms of the covenant? We’ve been faithful to God and life is crushing us. The covenant terms were fairly explicit in outlining the rewards of obedience and the consequences of disobedience. What’s to be concluded? More importantly, how is the author of this psalm able to relate himself and his suffering to God outside the explicit terms of Deuteronomy? If Deuteronomy defines the scope and limits of the Covenant, where does the author get the idea that those who are faithful to the Covenant might “for you sake face death all day long”? One has to appreciate how stunning is the perspective that produces v. 22.

It should be noted that there was an awareness within Israel that even a covenant-keeping God tests people to determine or to expose what is hidden in the heart. Hezekiah comes to mind. We’re told that with respect to Hezekiah entertaining envoys from Babylon that “God left Hezekiah alone only to test him, to know all that was in his heart” (2Chron 32.31). God “left him alone.” But our psalmist doesn’t go there. He doesn’t assume God is testing Israel. That’s not in view in v. 22. To say “for your sake, God, we face death all day long” is not to say “We get it God, you’re putting us to the test.”

It is finally St. Paul who brings Ps 44 into the light of day in Rom 8.35-37:

35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? 36 As it is written:

“For your sake we face death all day long;
we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”

37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.

suff2This is not an instance of ‘divine testing’. Yes, all suffering and trials put faith to the test (Jam 1), but that’s not to say all trails are devised by God to test us. Rather, identifying with God in a fallen world exposes us to the world’s rejection of God, its hatred for God (in addition to suffering that is the common lot of all people in a fallen world), and thus we suffer “for your sake.” This is why Paul interprets the Christian’s suffering in light of Ps 44, as a species of the same thing. In arguing that Christ is where and how God’s covenant-love for humanity is fulfilled, Paul does not suppose its fulfillment in this life to be inconsistent with our experiencing “trouble, hardship, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger, and sword.” If God’s covenant love is ours to enjoy, it is ours to enjoy within suffering, not just when we’re rescued from suffering.

Paul views his suffering as “filling up in [his] flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body” (Col 1.24), and he describes our suffering as “carrying around in our body the death of Jesus” (2Cor 4.10). He also wants to “participate in Christ’s sufferings becoming like him in his death” (Phil 3.10). Thus, Christ’s Cross represents suffering we are called to participate in, which makes perfect sense of why he calls upon Ps 44.

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This brings me to my real point, to wit, that we mistake the Cross when we define it as a kind of suffering from which we are excluded because Christ suffers there God’s judgment we deserve and from which we are freed. When we read his suffering this way we place the Cross out of the reach of participation, for a Cross which is divine judgment poured out is not a Cross we can carry – but we are called to carry it. I’m not sure Paul could be any more explicit; the Cross isn’t Christ dying instead of us (however legitimately talk of ‘substitution’ may expresses a perspective on what’s happening), it is Christ dying ahead of us. Christ showing us how to die, not how to avoid it; how to know God’s love in the midst of the world’s rejection of you, and also how to suffer redemptively as a victim of the world’s violence for the sake of its salvation (as Paul also understood his suffering). Rather than being a place of godforsakenness and estrangement (except so far as the world considers the violence they do to us evidence of our godforsakenness), the Cross is where all estranging narratives, including narratives of the Cross as estrangement (which are the vast majority of Evangelical readings of the Cross), are exposed as false precisely because they do not offer us a suffering we can participate in, a death to which we must conform.

Returning to Ps 44 then. The amazing thing about the author’s perspective is that he does not reason from his suffering, based on the promises of Deut 28, that something is wrong with God or wrong with the covenant. He views his sufferings as a participation in God’s rejection by the world. And as I say, that is an amazing perspective to have given the author’s location in the progression of Israel’s faith and worldview. He sees that it is for God’s sake that he suffers, and Paul sees that the psalmist perceives this. So what Israel experiences in Ps 44 constitutes a prequel, a prophetic anticipation, of the Cross and our continued participation in it. They are the same species of scapegoat suffering. Christ could as easily have quoted from Ps 44 as from Ps 22 as he hung on the Cross then. Hence he warned that “if they persecuted me, they will persecute you” (Jn 15.20) and that we “will be hated by everyone on my account” (Mt 10.22). And so it is “on your account” or “for you sake,” O God, that we face death all day long.

God on Antiques Roadshow

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For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name. I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge — that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen. (Eph 3.14-21)

My wife and I enjoy watching Antiques Roadshow on TV. The show moves around from city to city, and at each public gathering people are invited to bring in items they think are valuable. People bring in all sorts of items—furniture, old paintings, pottery, jewelry, old posters, civil war trinkets, and much more. Experts in the relevant fields do the appraising. Some bring in things they’re sure must be valuable and are disappointed when they find out their item is a worthless fake. Others bring in things they’ve had in their family for generations, things stuffed in boxes in the attic, or items picked up unsuspectingly at a garage sale, only to discover that what they thought was of little or no value is worth a small fortune. There’s always that moment when the owners are told the true value of what they possess. The reactions are priceless.

I’ve included one of my favorites for you to enjoy:

_________________________________

Some of us are in possession of treasures we don’t appreciate
because we don’t perceive their value. Others of us are holding onto
things we think are valuable but which in fact are worthless.

There is a crisis of faith within the Church today, and it’s a crisis of value perception. I’m not talking about the failure of some Christians to enlist in the culture wars over ‘traditional values’, like getting prayer back in schools, legislating the traditional understandings of gender and marriage, reversing Roe-v-Wade on abortion, or protecting the Church’s tax-exempt status. No, I’m talking about committed Christians who live their faith without the transforming experience Paul describes here in his prayer, a vision of the true value of things – the infinite value of God at the heart of all things, and then the immeasurable value to God of all creatures.

If there’s an ‘Antiques Roadshow’ moment in the NT, it’s the short letter to the Ephesians. In this letter (and let’s assume Paul is the author for now), Paul is like the expert appraiser pointing out the rare gifts that define our faith, as if saying “Notice this about your salvation,” “Now check this out,” or “Look at what’s over here” in an attempt to open our eyes to the treasures we possess in Christ, to the treasures that we are in Christ.

Let me suggest that part of the importance of Paul’s prayer is its location in the center of this short letter. Part of what the prayer means, part of the key to the experience of God that it describes, has to do with its place between Chs 1-3 and 4-6.

Roughly speaking:

  • Chs 1-3 are about ‘believing’
  • Chs 4-6 are about the ‘doing’
  • Chs 1-3 describe the truths that form the heart of Christian faith and belief
  • Chs 4-6 are about living that faith

Where are we in Chs 1-3? We’re “seated with Christ in the heavenlies” (2.6):

  • we’re freely chosen by God in love to be his (1.5)
  • we’re saved by grace through faith (2.8f)
  • we’re one body in Christ who is the head of all things (1.22)

Where are we in Chs 4-6? Our feet are firmly planted on the ground:

  • we’re urged to walk worthy of our calling (4.1)
  • to bear with one another in love (4.2)
  • to ‘make every effort’ to maintain unity (4.3)
  • to ‘put on’ the new self (4.24)

Chs 1-3 describe what is true about you in Christ:

  • whether you realize it or not
  • whether your faith is hanging by a thread or you’re doing better than you ever imagined you could

Chs 4-6 on the other hand describe what ought to become true about you, what it looks like to choose to live out the truths of Chs 1-3.

And that brings us to the all-important question: How do we move from Chs 1-3 to Chs 4-6? How do we go from ‘knowing these amazing truths’ to ‘living in the freedom they describe’? Paul’s prayer in 3.14-21 answers this question.

Before I comment on Paul’s prayer, I want to point out that many of us try to bridge the gap between ‘believing the right things’ and ‘living the right way’ without experiencing what Paul’s prayer describes. As a result we know only constant frustration and failure. Only by passing through the experience described in this prayer, an experience of immeasurable and unconditional love, are we empowered to ‘live’ exceptionally.

AR4How many Christians today are attempting to live their spiritual lives as ‘law’? How many believe (if only unconsciously) they’re loved and favored by God when they perform well but not when they screw up? Or that they’re loved more the better they perform? We turn the gospel into another “law,” a way to recommend ourselves to God.

I totally get why we do this. Think about how we grow up. For the vast majority, there was nothing but conditional love around us 24/7. We are socialized into it, so it’s no surprise that we have a difficult time noticing or trusting unconditional love when it shows up. This is the importance of this prayer’s place here in Ch 3 prior to the commands and obligations that come in Chs 4-6.

Rest in this prayer. Park your weary soul right here. Memorize it, pray it, explore it—run up and down its length, try to stretch your arms around its width, climb its heights, dig underneath its depths – all the dimensions of love this prayer talks about. But do it before you take one step toward attempting to live out the commands of Chs 4-6. The order is crucial, because the order is what opens to us that moment each of us must have within the deepest narratives of our heart, where God awakens us to what he is worth, what we are worth in him, and what the worth and beauty of life really are. And like the girl in the Antiques Roadshow episode who couldn’t believe the value of what she had in her possession all time, this encounter Paul refers to will have profound transforming effects. “You’re kidding! I’m worth that to you, God? I’m accepted that unconditionally? You went through that to make me yours?” We feel differently and relate differently to things based on what we believe their worth or value is. When the true value of things presents itself to us in Christ, our hearts embrace it and we reconstruct or reorganize our whole life. The motivation and strength to live come not from rules and regulations, not law-keeping, nor from threat of punishment, but directly from the experience of oneself as unconditionally loved by God, when the value of the treasures presented in Chs 1-3 are realized not just in us, but as us.

The love that created you
The love that chose you
The love that values you
The love that wants you
The love that adopted you
The love that charted the course of the whole universe to find its fulfillment in Christ through you

I am specifically not talking about holding the proposition “Christ loves me” to be true, but rather an experience of being loved beyond the propositional. To ‘know the love of Christ’ is to ‘experience myself as loved and accepted unconditionally by Christ’, where who and what “I” am just is that act in which he gives and I receive. It’s simple to say. It’s not a complicated equation. But it is profound beyond all imagination, for being loved this way means standing transparent in my fallenness, in all my sorry history, in all my brokenness, in all the conditions that I think disqualify me, and—with all of that present—hearing Christ address me to say “I love you more than you realize and I accept you in spite of all that you think disqualifies you,” and (here’s the kicker) in that moment agreeing with Christ that what he says about me is true, because it’s only when I embrace my truest identity as unconditionally loved and accepted by Christ that the fundamental exchange takes place. That’s where life is born. That’s where the commands of the gospel become joy and love instead of burdensome duties.

AR3We have a difficult time with this. It’s our fundamental struggle. Some are so shamed into believing they’re unlovable no matter what they do, they give up. Others of us are so drunk on the consolations of law-keeping—the high we get from achieving a sense of acceptance because we’ve ‘done well’—that when we hear we’re loved by God regardless of what we do, we actually become angry at the idea. It boggles our mind that God does not pay his love out as a wage for our doing right.

Let me share a second thought about this prayer. It may seem to present several requests, but there’s really just one thing Paul prays for. All that Paul describes builds together to one and the same experience. Three descriptions combine in a single prayer:

  • First, that Christ may dwell in your hearts (or ‘inner being’) through faith
  • Second, that you know the love of Christ that transcends knowledge
  • Lastly, that you be filled with all the fullness of God

Knowing the love of Christ that transcends knowing is not a different reality than being filled with the fullness of God. Each description offers us a different perspective. The first (‘that Christ dwell in your hearts through faith’) describes how we enter (through faith in Christ) and where this treasure is possessed (in our ‘heart’ or ‘inner being’). The second phrase (‘that you know the love of Christ’) describes the nature or content of that experience. It’s an experience of value-affirmation, which is what love is and what it does. With the third phrase (‘that you be filled with all the fullness of God’) Paul has reached the summit of his reach. God ‘all in all’. God’s fullness in us is our experience of the immeasurable love of Christ.

Paul adds something amazing. He says that though we know the love of Christ, that love transcends knowledge. It is beyond knowledge. We know that which exceeds knowing? How can we actually know what is beyond knowing? And if we truly know it, what’s the point of mentioning that it’s beyond our knowing? Let me suggest an answer: the love of Christ is never reducible to our experience of it. No experience of ours can exhaust the love of God in the human heart. There will always be more to Christ’s love for you to experience than any particular experience of yours can contain, no matter how deep and indescribable your experience may be.

pearlA final question. Is this possible? Do we really believe that it’s possible to experience ourselves, our truest self, as the free gift of unconditional love and that this love can define the social identity of human beings in increasingly transformative ways? To be so defined by Christ’s presence that it becomes impossible even to imagine ourselves as anything other than infinitely loved by God? I think Paul suspected that some of his readers would think he was describing something that was impossible or that he had lost his mind, and that this is why he concludes: “Now to him who is able to do….” To do what? “…to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory….” In other words, “to him who is able to do what I’ve been praying for and describing.” This isn’t just a comparative statement about how much muscle God can flex in comparison to us. The point is that God’s actually doing ‘more than we can ask or imagine’ happens through our ‘imagining it’.

I worked for several years in the Recovery community. I love this community because people in recovery don’t pretend they’re not broken and desperate. There’s a prevailing and honest shared awareness of brokeness and hope that’s unlike anything I’ve experienced in any church on Sundays. As it happened in our Recovery gatherings, I focused on the importance of perception and self-talk, the need to ‘re-imagine ourselves’ in terms of the truth about us per the gospel, because if you don’t see it, you can’t become it. Seeing that version of yourself is the first step to becoming that version of yourself. A vision of myself healed, loved, healthy, connected, free—that vision has to appear on the horizon of what I see for myself. Otherwise I’ll never move toward it. And if you’re to have a hope and identity which nothing in this world can define away, it will have to come from someone or something not of this world. That’s what Paul is praying.

The immeasurable nature of Christ’s love that this prayer talks about isn’t rhetorical excess. It is metaphysical excess. It presents metaphysics of an infinitely adventurous love, of ‘ever-moving rest’. Our end in Christ is to forever experience the novelty and adventure of God’s love where there will always be something to look forward to, always something surprising just around the corner and where we will always be perfectly at rest with what we have and who we are. That’s how we’re filled with the fullness of God. God doesn’t get crammed into us, we keep on expanding into him.

So yes, God can do more than we can imagine. That will always be true. But what’s equally true is that what God actually does in us he does through our imagining/envisioning it. He will give us more to imagine as we grow into what we can see, but the first reason we’re not who we could be is that we don’t imagine who we could be.

Jesus died praying

ratzingerI’ve chosen to read through Ratzinger’s meditations Behold The Pierced One (1986) for Lent this year. (Yes, Lent and fasting at an Assembly of God church in California of all places – go figure). I couldn’t believe that my reading today took me back to Jesus’ cry of desperation “My God, my God, why?” which I’ve posted about many times here. And I was happy to see in Pope Benedict’s mediation what I had not seen before and to be challenged to ponder Christ’s sufferings anew.

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Jesus died praying…He fashioned his death into an act of prayer, an act of worship. According to Matthew and Mark he raised his voice to a “loud cry” as he uttered the opening words of Psalm 21, the great psalm of the suffering and yet rescued righteous man: “My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me?” (Mk 15:34; Mt 27:46). Both Evangelists also tell us that these words were not understood by the bystanders, who interpreted Jesus’ cry as his calling for Elijah. According to them, therefore, it needed faith to understand that his death cry of Jesus was the messianic prayer of the great psalm of the sufferings and hopes of Israel, concluding with the prospect of the poor being satisfied and the ends of the earth being turned to the Lord…The theology of the Cross found in this psalm applied to him just as much as the promise’s fulfillment, this attribution was shown to be true; the psalm was shown to be Jesus’ own word: no one else could pray it as truly as he could, rejected and despised, and yet, in this very condition, sustained and glorified by the Father. It must be borne in mind that the whole story of the Passion was woven, again and again, from the threads of this psalm; the account reveals a constant interpenetration of word and reality: here the archetypal suffering, portrayed anonymously by this psalm, had become concrete reality; here this primal suffering on the part of the Righteous One—apparently rejected by God—had actually taken place. Thus it became clear that Jesus was the true speaker of this psalm, that he had undergone that suffering from which came the feeding of the poor and the turning of the nations to worship the God of Israel.

…[H]is dying was itself an act of prayer, his death was [a] handing-over of himself to the Father…Jesus prayed in the words of scripture and that Scripture became flesh in him, became the actual Passion of this Righteous One; and that he thus inserted his death into the word of God, in which he lived and which lived in him, declaring itself in him.

Once this has been seen, the indissoluble bond between the Supper and the death of Jesus is also plain: his dying words fuse with his words at the Supper, the reality of his death fuses with the reality of the Supper. For the event of the Supper consists in Jesus sharing his body and his blood, i.e., his earthly existence; he gives and communicates himself. In other words, the event of the Supper is an anticipation of death, the transformation of death into an act of love. Only in this context can we understand what John means by calling Jesus’ death the glorification of God and the glorification of the Son (Jn 12:28; 17:21). Death, which, by its very nature, is the end, the destruction of every communication, is changed by him into an act of self-communication; and this is man’s redemption, for it signifies the triumph of love over death. We can put the same thing another way: death, which puts an end to words and to meaning, itself becomes a word, becomes the place where meaning communicates itself. (emphasis mine)

The thought that God is love contains all the joy in the world

celloOne last passage from Christopher Ben Simpson’s survey of Kierkegaard’s thought – just to close out on a note of joy, as Kierkegaard would have it.

For Kierkegaard, joy in the midst of suffering is evidence in the present temporal world of something other than this world (BoA 186) Such joy does not make sense within a finite frame – it is ordered beyond it. This joy is paradoxical – ‘the Christian is poor, yet not poor but rich’ and ‘“Life begins at death,” says the lowly Christian’ (CD 22, 46). It is a higher joy that seems absurd to the lower because ‘God’s thoughts are eternally higher than the thoughts of a human being, and therefore every human conception of happiness and unhappiness, of what is joyful and what is sorrowful, is faulty thinking’ (UDVS, 284). It is to be ‘happy’, to be ‘joyful’ ‘out on 70,000 fathoms of water’ – where suffering ‘is the 70,000 fathoms of water’ (SLW 470; CUP 140, 288). It is to be suspended over nothing, suspended from the higher.

There is joy in the Christian life that comes from one’s being with God, from one’s relationship with God. For Kierkegaard, different qualities of joy can be discerned relative to the central characteristics of God – relative to God as eternal, as the good, and as loving. The Christian has the joy of resting in God’s changelessness. To him, the changelessness of God is ‘sheer joy and gladness’ (MLW 269). Here, one enjoys God’s eternity as the ground of one’s existential security. To rest in God’s changelessness as an ‘eternally safeguarded’ and ‘happy home’ (MLW 279) as a beloved spring’s ‘faithful coolness’ that ‘is not subject to change’ is to find security in God’s availability; God for the Christian is ‘everything to be found’, ‘always to be found and always to be found unchanged’ (MLW 280-1). The Christian also has the joy of relating to God as the good end that they desire as their ‘happiness’, or ‘blessedness’ (CD 222) – the blessing that is ‘the good in itself; it is the one thing needful, is infinitely more glorious and blessed than all success’ (CD 297). Finally, the Christian has joy in God’s love for them. ‘The thought that God is love’, Kierkegaard writes, ‘contains all the joy in the world’ (UDVS 282, emphasis mine). Our ‘unconditional joy’ is ‘worshipfully to dare to believe “that God cares for you”’ (LFBA 43). God’s love to us is joy as light from the one sun radiating.

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BoA The Book on Adler
CD Christian Discourses
CUP Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments
LFBA The Lily in the Field and the Bird of the Air
MLW The Moment and Late Writings
SLW Stages on Life’s Way
UDVS Upbuilding Discourses in Various Spirits