Plato’s Cave?

This week I’m on retreat.  I’m not running away from a battle, but I’m taking some “me” time.  The church recommends these periodically, and provides outlets.  This week the clergy of my diocese (Qu’Appelle) and of the Diocese of Saskatoon are at St. Michael’s Retreat Centre in Lumsden, SK.  Our guest speaker is Bishop Mark MacDonald, and it will prove to be a great retreat.

The Lord has inspired me in a couple of ways since leaving Swift Current today.  I’m not sure if it’s the music I was listening to (my friend Keith Kitchen is my travel companion), or the events of the last few days, or just God’s initiative (which it ultimately relies on, whatever other factors may have paved the way for Him to inspire…), but I’m sharing one thing now.  The other isn’t ready just yet.  Only He knows what else might come, in time.

I was always struck by Plato’s Cave.  If you’re unfamiliar, it’s in The Republic.  Basically, humanity is tied in a cave, and all that people can see is shadows on a wall, being generated by people carrying things past a fire that’s burning at some location behind them.  The philosopher is the human who has broken free from the cave and found a tunnel to the surface.  Upon seeing what things really are, in daylight, he returns to the cave and tries to share with the people there what he has come to learn.  They are resistant to his “new” knowledge, and generally prefer the darkness and the names and items they have imagined from the shadows.  That’s a pretty rough paraphrase, but it will have to function for us just now.  There was always something about that story that seemed to resonate with me, but there was always something missing, something “off” about it, from the reality that I’ve come to know through the Christian faith.

Humanity is trapped in an Imax theatre.  The giant screen in front of them makes them think that they’re travelling, makes them think that they’re interacting with the truth, makes them think that they’re living life.  But they’re deceived.  The truth is that they’re prisoners, and their life is a mirage.  There is a way out of the theatre, and one man, Jesus, who has come in via that way can lead them out.  If they’ll follow Him.  He’ll take them out, if they’ll give up their theatre seats.  Real life, all of the things flashed in front of them on the screen, exists outside of the theatre.  Jesus came into the theatre so that they might have real life, not the mockery of it that the theatre seduces them into.  Many don’t listen to Him: the things He’s describing seem so much like the things they already see before their eyes – isn’t He just imagining something more?  Many don’t listen to Him: the theatre seat they’re in is so comfortable, what if they get up and someone else takes it – or, worse yet, it gets cold (nobody likes sitting in a cold chair!)?

The question before each of us is this: will we go with Him, or will we stay in the theatre?  There is no other way.

Revisiting the Nominal

There’s this interesting discourse found in Matt. 3:13-17 between Jesus and John the Baptist.  The other gospel-writers don’t tell us about it.  But in Matthew, when Jesus comes to the Jordan to be baptized by John (not as in the old joke, that He was baptized by Jordan in the John), the two have a brief exchange.  John tries to refuse to baptize Him, claiming that he needs to be baptized by Jesus instead – but Jesus demands it, and claims that it must be so for now, “…for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.

We’re not told if the two had met before.  We’re not told what John bases his assessment of Jesus’ condition on (ie. His need to be baptized by him, or his need to be baptized by Him).  Our minds may be drawn to Luke 1, where John had recognized Jesus while they were both in their mothers’ wombs.  So we might think that John recognized Jesus’ quality on sight.  Whatever the case, he knows that there’s something special about Jesus.  John, whose baptism has been a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (Mark 1:4) finds himself baptizing Him whom is not in need of repentance, whom does not require forgiveness of sins.

So what is it about?  There is ample evidence that John wasn’t the first to baptize.  The Essenes (the community of Dead Sea Scroll fame) baptized, and they did it all the time (daily, in some cases!).  For them, baptism was about being washed and cleansed from sin.  John did it differently than they – he wasn’t about people just being clean.  He was baptizing people into a different kind of life, a different kind of lifestyle – one that was directed differently than what had come before.  It was a lifestyle that wasn’t to include sin.  Jesus and His followers took this a little further.  Notice Jesus’ words about His baptism – to fulfill all righteousness.  Jesus wasn’t just interested in sin being taken out of people’s lives/lifestyles, He was interested in their lives being righteous (notice that He takes this up elsewhere: you must be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect (Matt. 5:48).

Where the Essenes had practised a life of regular baptism, by the time we hit Jesus and His followers, we’re at people who didn’t consider multiple baptisms necessary (let alone required).  They did re-baptize some people who had only received John’s baptism before, but this was into a different baptism, a different Name, a different lifestyle.  In most cases, people were baptized as soon as they came to faith, before they’d even learned to be Christians – they were left to work that out afterwards.  So baptism became a rite of initiation into a life directed to fulfilling all righteousness, with Jesus and for His followers.

That’s why Jesus was baptized by John.  To show His followers the way to get started.  Let there be no mistake, however.  It is just a start – not a finish.  Parents or well-meaning grandparents who come to “get a child done” are mistaken.  They’re getting that child started – not done.  It falls to the child, as they grow, to work out the implications of being a member of a community in which Christ, by the work of the Holy Spirit, is fulfilling righteousness.

Jesus’ call is a call to a life of holiness.  “Good enough” isn’t good enough.  It’s actually the enemy of what He does call us to.  Don’t settle for it.  Half-hearted devotion will not do – our enemy is always whole-hearted in his desire to lead us astray, to capture us with sin, to turn us away from God’s Way.  We must be whole-hearted, also, if we are to resist.  Let me quote the Book of Common Prayer:

“Every Christian man or woman should from
time to time frame for himself a RULE OF
LIFE in accordance with the precepts of the
Gospel and the faith and order of the Church;
wherein he may consider the following:
The regularity of his attendance at public
worship and especially at the holy Communion.
The practice of private prayer, Bible-reading,
and self-discipline.
Bringing the teaching and example of Christ
into his everyday life.
The boldness of his spoken witness to his faith
in Christ.
His personal service to the Church and the
community.
The offering of money according to his means
for the support of the work of the Church at
home and overseas.”

-BCP, p. 555

There may be more that could be said about the items listed in that quotation, but there is certainly not less.”

Discipline

I have a friend who rants (every now and then) about Christianity not having a designated martial art.  He talks about how Eastern faith traditions have martial arts associated with them which encourage people to be conscious of the relationship between their body and soul.  In disciplining one, one learns to discipline the other.  He cites the volume (is that a pun?) of Christ-adherents who are out-of-shape.  Now, don’t get me wrong (or him, for that matter).  There’s no denying that there are some Christians who are in shape, and I’m not aware of any study that compares the percentage of Christians who are against the comparison of Buddhists (or any other tradition) who are.  So there’s no way, currently, to really know whether Christians drop the ball on fitness any more than people of other faiths.  What I do know, however, is that some do/have, and that I don’t want to be one of them.

We’re all somewhat out-of-shape, I think (except one young father in my parish who spent some years in Japan and earned his black belt in ninjutsu – which seems to somewhat prove the point of my other friend, mentioned above).  It’s so easy to do what comes naturally.  Chips and pop are so accessible; so is poutine (there’s a reason we live in this country, afterall).  And we’re middle-class North Americans, so we’ve got some expendable income to buy it with.  And so we consume.  It is a consumer society, isn’t it?

But what of discipline?  It takes a body and spirit together to make a man, and Christ came to save men, didn’t He?  How could we make our faith about only a soul’s salvation?  Doesn’t Paul talk about disciplining our bodies?  Doesn’t Christ say that we need to be faithful with the little things (which we have largely, in Western Christendom, regarded the physical as), if we are to be entrusted with the big things (which would refer to the spiritual, on this track)?  So, what of disciplining the body?  We can teach prayer, encourage Bible reading and devotional use, promote Bible study groups, and even service in His Name (not to mention fasting and the wide variety of other spiritual disciplines that are easily at hand for the Christian), but what about the body?  We cannot ignore it as ‘worldly,’ as though this makes it inconsequential.  We cannot neglect it as a necessary evil.  What of the incarnational mindset that says, “Christ has no body now but yours; no hands, no feet, on earth but yours…”?

My friend has discovered Russian Systema, a martial art that grew out of the Russian Orthodox tradition.  He plans to learn it.  I’ve opted for the home exercise regime that I’ve meant to do for a long time.  I’ve pulled out the old P90X DVDs, and started.  Last Saturday I pulled out the X Stretch DVD and forced myself to elongate in various ways – it was hard to believe that a few months ago (when Cindy and I completed 13 weeks of the Power 90 workouts) I could put my nose on my knee.  All of those gains seem to be lost.

On Sunday I pulled out the DVD that the P90X supplementary workout routine asks for – I’m doing the Lean set, to try to lose extra weight during the course of my exercising, rather than the classic routine.  Core Synergistics was my battle that day, and yesterday I faced down the Cardio X DVD.  Later today (I’m not sure when, exactly, I’ll be able to fit it in) I’ll be tackling the Shoulders & Arms, with the Ab Ripper X DVD.  It will hurt.

A couple of years ago Cindy and I had made it through four weeks of this exercise regime.  We were looking and feeling better than we had for years, or have since.  But we dropped the ball, and didn’t keep going for the remaining 9 weeks of it.  What a mistake!  Well, hopefully this time I will be able to keep it up.  Those who are faithful with a little will be blessed with a lot.  Time to whip this body into shape!

Bound or Loosed

There are a couple times in Matthew’s gospel where Jesus tells His followers that what they bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and that what they loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.  It may not be immediately obvious what He means by this, but my hope is that we can gain a little insight today.

Binding and Loosing was actually a rabbinic practice.  Teachers of the Law would bind and loose, and there are a few reasons that I think we should understand Jesus as referring to this kind of binding and loosing.  The first is that Jesus Himself was recognized, in His own time, as a rabbi – as a teacher of the Law.  This means that Jesus was someone who taught on the Law, where it was bound and where it was loosed (we’ll get to what that meant shortly).  The second reason that I think we should take Him as referring to this broader rabbinic practice is based on how often He engages in it throughout this gospel.  But before seeing where Jesus engaged in the ‘binding and loosing’ rabbinic practice, let’s just see what it is we mean by it.

Traditionally, we have understood Jesus as referring to absolution for sins when He refers to binding and loosing (this is due to an appropriation of the application of a similar saying from the Gospel of John, which is made in a different context).  For the teachers of the Law, the Torah was always authoritative; always relevant; always supreme.  Nevertheless, they recognized that there were certain circumstances in which its regulations were not to be applied.  If the Law applied to certain circumstances, they would say it was bound.  If it did not, then they would say it was loosed.  As you can probably guess, there were times and issues on which different rabbinic schools disagreed with each other.  Some felt the Law was bound in a certain situation, while others felt that it was loosed.  Or the other way around.

The contexts in which Jesus refers to binding and loosing, in Matthew, lend themselves to the understanding that this was the practice He had in mind.  In the earlier case (16:19), Jesus has just been correctly identified by His disciples as the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, and has promised the conferral of the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven to them (or to Peter specifically, depending on how you read the passage).  The implication is that what they bind or loose will have something to do with the keys to the Kingdom – or with the way to the Kingdom.  This suggests that the binding and loosing that they are doing is determining what is appropriate conduct for Christ’s followers – that is, what His “rabbinic school” sees the Law bound to and what it sees the Law loosed from.

The second situation in which Jesus refers to this practice is in 18:18, which is in a larger discourse on forgiveness, and follows right on the heels of His discussion of the appropriate method for restoring and reconciling with one in the community of faith who has fallen into sin.  The reconciliation lesson hinges on the disciples’ community having or setting standards which it requires its members to uphold.  Again, then, I think that we’re being directed to recognize that the binding and loosing that Jesus refers to is the binding and loosing of rabbinic practice, whereby the appropriate situations for the Law to be bound to, and the appropriate situations of the Law to be loosed from, are set and determined.

Now, with this much said we will do well to reflect on the appropriate means whereby this binding and loosing takes place.  There is a paradox present in this instruction: on the one hand, the Church is under the Lordship of Christ Himself; on the other, Jesus says that Heaven is affected when the Church binds and looses (don’t get too hung up on what “the Church” might mean, at this point – we will address this in the coming days).  Understand that we’re not specifically talking about forgiveness, when we say ‘binding and loosing,’ but we’re talking about the standards for the community of God’s people, within which we understand what sin is (and thus, what requires forgiveness).  Thus, somehow the standards of Heaven are subject to the standards of the Church.

The paradox is that the Church is subject to the Lordship of Christ.  At its best, the Church upholds the teaching of Christ and the standards that Christ lays out for it.  In such an ideal case, we can then bypass the middle man and say that the standards of Heaven are subject to the Lordship of Christ – a statement that most of us would be fairly comfortable with.  The problem with inserting the middle man is that we’re sure that the Church gets it wrong sometimes.  What do we make of this?  What if the Church gets Jesus wrong, and binds the Law when it should be loosing, or looses the Law when it should be binding?  Does Heaven still “go along” with the Church?

Well, in Jesus’ words… yes.  So notice what we’re talking about here.  We’re talking about entrance to the Kingdom of Heaven, which is in some way dependent upon the standards of the Church.  We’re not saying that God’s standards are in any way dependent upon the Church – we’re even recognizing that the Church could quite possibly get God’s standards wrong.  What is said here is that if the Church is wrong in its teaching: if it has bound the Law where it should have loosed; if it has loosed the Law where it should have bound, then the individuals who have been led (or in this case, misled) by the Church will not be denied the Kingdom of Heaven, simply for the Church’s corporate/institutional mistake.  Heaven will accept the one who bound where they should have loosed, or who loosed where they should have bound, though it be an unacknowledged sin, because the Church was in error.  What the Church bound on earth was bound in Heaven; what she loosed on earth was loosed in Heaven.

This is some rather abstract illustrating of the point.  Tomorrow we will begin to look at some more concrete examples of binding and loosing, pulled from the pages of Matthew.

A Fresh Start

We’re at one of those times. You know the ones: those times that are pretty much man-made junctures, somewhat randomly places (obviously this isn’t true, but would it make a difference if the new year was celebrated a month earlier or later? or two months earlier or later?). We get these “fresh start” times at the beginning of January, at the beginning of September, and depending on how young you might be, either May or July. There’s also Lent, which is a little less man-made, and people are generally better with Lent than with other “fresh start” times.

One person mentioned to me yesterday that he doesn’t make New Year’s resolutions because he doesn’t feel good about breaking them. That’s an honest perspective, perhaps. But the better response to such a concern is to not break the resolutions – but it’s also the harder response. This one person had opted for the easier route, and in fairness to him this decision could have been made after years of trying the other way.

But this is what we’re at right now. A new year; an opportunity for a fresh start. I’m going to get in shape. I’m going to stop eating so much chocolate. I’m going to read my Bible every day. I’m going to have a more active prayer life. I’m going to be a better husband; a better dad; a better child; a finer neighbour. Have you made any of these resolutions, or anything like them? My suspicion is that if you didn’t this year, you at least considered something like it and thought of past years when you failed with other resolutions.

You know, though, that we’re not the only ones who try out new things. “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” can sometimes apply to people, and even sometimes apply to canines, but “new” things aren’t the sole possession of either group. God does new things. God is, even now in the world around us, doing a “Nu Thang” (if you miss that reference, it’s ok). Consider what He’s done in Jesus (which we are still celebrating, as it’s still Christmas). God becoming human is new, in the Christmas story. It’s something unheard of, for the principle human agents. Mary didn’t get it; Joseph didn’t get it; the shepherds didn’t get it; even the wise men didn’t get it; certainly Herod didn’t. Because God, who is the same yesterday and today and tomorrow, made Himself evident in a new way. He was doing a new thing. The Word, who was with Him in the beginning and “was” Him, became flesh and dwelt among us. New.

And He didn’t stop there, because He still does new things. He’s still doing new things in my life. The Word, incarnate millennia ago, is still the Word who speaks renewal into human life and who breathes new life into dry bones. He’s been leading us in new directions at the church community I serve, and it’s exciting! He isn’t finished with us! This year we’re engaging the challenge of reading the whole Bible; we’re taking on new Bible studies; we’re embracing – in a bigger way – the Cursillo (short course – obstacle or race course – in Christianity); we’re trying out new worship times and practices. All of this we’ve been led to by His presence in our midst. But I’ll tell you something.

We don’t read the Bible so that we can scratch that accomplishment off our lists of things to do, or simply to have read it; we don’t study the Bible so that we can learn about a collection of books; we don’t gather for worship to have ‘done’ the liturgy; we don’t experience other forms of worship to attract other demographics to our community; we don’t go to Cursillo to become a part of a certain group or clique (which it hopefully isn’t). We do all of these things to draw closer to Jesus. If reading and studying the Bible isn’t going to draw us closer to Him, then let’s be done with it: yet we trust and believe that He is faithful to speak to us through His word, because He is the Word. If worship isn’t drawing us closer to Jesus, let’s abandon it as a practice: yet we trust and believe that He is faithful to meet us as we gather in His Name – as He has promised. If renewal weekends don’t actually renew us, if they don’t draw us closer to Him, if they don’t ignite us in faith and fear, if they don’t produce in us the vitality and energy of His life in us, then let us be done with them: yet we trust and believe that He is faithful to meet us where He has met so many others. And we will be people who are not only on fire for Him alone, but who are equipped to stay that way.

“Before the dawn breaks, and the darkness passes, and the shadows flee away, come to me Lord.”

Incarnation, Part 3

Back to the topic of making the Incarnation accessible to the average person. A couple of days ago I floated the idea of the Author writing Himself into the script of the play (Lewis’ idea originally, not mine). Yesterday I wrote about the Christmas story being an adult story, rather than a children’s story (though still accessible to children on some levels). Today, I’d like to draw attention to a particular story that I became familiar with when quite young (a movie made in 1982 told it): it is a story that holds some affinity to the Incarnation; it is a story that bears some meaning to children; it is a story with the potential to bear more and deeper meaning to adults. That is, Tron.

Now, I haven’t been big on Tron for a long time. I prefer the Narnia stories and The Lord of the Rings. Yet, at the same time, there’s something about Tron that resonates with the Christmas story. The story opens with an evil (artificial) intelligence that’s taken control of Flynn’s creation (a set of five video games that a software empire is built upon). This evil entity is commandeering, taking control of, whatever it finds useful. Those it can’t use, it pits against each other so that its enemies are destroying one another. Sound familiar at all? Well, as the story progresses, it becomes clear that the programs have no hope of saving themselves from this tyrant (the MCP) – though they still hold out hope: “Do you believe in the users?” “Of course! Who else programmed me?”

By a turn of events, Flynn is transported inside the computer system. He displays uniqueness: he is able to control things in the system by his thoughts; he is able to absorb the power (red/blue) of whatever program he is in contact with; he is able to transfer power to dying programs to save them; he is able, ultimately, to enter the MCP’s mainframe (certain death) and come out the other side. I could be seeing something more than is intended, but… doesn’t that sound Incarnational to you?

But maybe that’s another way to think about the Christmas story. Certainly the Tron movie is accessible (I haven’t seen the new one, yet, though I’d like to) to people; the concepts it wrestles with are presented pretty clearly. There are some differences, like the MCP zaps Flynn into the system, rather than him choosing that path as the path to save the programs that are being dominated by that artificial intelligence. But differences aside, there’s something about the idea of the maker being a part of the made… something about the programmer becoming a program… do you see?

Because that’s the other thing about the Christmas story. It’s not just about God choosing to be born in time, bound by space. It’s about the context that He chose to be a part of, to step into. He came to a world full of trouble – a world in which the devil reigned supreme, and the godly were few. Those who weren’t being used directly by the devil for misled worship or misguided distractions were being used by the devil to destroy one another through war. It was mentioned to me, not long ago, that Simon was a zealot and Levi was a tax-collector – that the zealots were sworn, in Jesus’ time, to kill such people. How many uncomfortable nights on the road did Jesus sleep in between these two men to stay the hand of Simon? What kind of turmoil did Simon suffer from, around the knowledge of befriending a tax-collector? The devil uses what he can, and sets the rest (as far as he is able) to destroy itself (and each other). This is the context that Jesus came to – not unlike, in some ways, the MCP’s hold on its own world in Tron.

And so if you’re going to think about the Christmas story this year – as I think you should – I want to encourage you to consider it on its own terms. Consder the world that Jesus was born into; consider the meaning that His birth carries; consider the significance of His birth for today, not just yesterday; consider Him. How great His love for us, that He would give Himself for us! What a blessing to know that He loves us in such a way that He would not abandon us – but is the Creator who choicefully shares with His creation.