The Real, Eyes-Open Love of God

Fra Angelico - Annunciation

“My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed.” (Luke 1:46-48)

“Love is blind.” At least, that’s how the saying goes. The phrase means that when love is at work, a person is prone to overlook, or just plain fail to see, the problems within the person being loved.  There is some truth to that. We see it in good friends, family members, and even ourselves. “Hindsight is 20/20,” and we often ask ourselves after something has gone wrong in a relationship, “Why didn’t I see that?”

But the kind of love we all deeply desire is not a blind love, but a love that truthfully sees everything about us and still loves us. Love that is blind – that turns away from reality – is false love, while love that sees – that leans into reality – is real love. John 3:16 is such a revered passage of Scripture because it describes God’s love not as blind but as real love.

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. (John 3:16-17)

In the midst of a world stuck in the cycle of death, of blindness even to itself, Jesus the Son of God comes to bring liberating life and love. Even though the world could be condemned because of evil, sin, and injustice, God chooses a different route by sending Jesus to save the world. This is not because God is blind to the realities of the world, but because God desires a different way with the world. Jesus Himself echoes this later when He says, “the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28). We see in Jesus the Messiah that God’s love is an eyes-open love, leaning into the reality of our world and our lives. Jesus shows us just how far God will go to hold us in His loving embrace.

When the Angel Gabriel appeared to Mary, announcing God’s plan to bring the Messiah to birth through her, Mary was astounded. Her question, “How will this be?”, was both a question about the manner of the Messianic birth since she was a virgin and simultaneously a question about the possibility that something like this could occur in human history. When Gabriel emphasized God’s decisive plan to intervene through Jesus as Messiah, such knowledge eventually leads Mary to erupt with praise:

My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior…His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation. (Luke 1:46-47, 50)

That little word ‘mercy’ (Greek: ἔλεος) is an echo of the Hebrew word hesed, which refers to God’s uniquely steady and faithful love. Mary grasps, and shares with us today, that God sees what is really there in the world and still chooses to love humanity from generation to generation throughout the earth. Mary becomes a picture not only of humble obedience to God’s call, but also boisterous praise of God’s real, eyes-open love for humanity and all creation.

As we draw close to Christmas Day, let us join Mary’s wondrous call to praise our God whose love is not blind, but rather eyes-open about us and our world. Let us draw near with anticipation to experience once again   the tenderly tenacious love of God found in Jesus the Messiah.

The Weekend Wanderer: 24 August 2019

The Weekend Wanderer” is a weekly curated selection of news, stories, resources, and media on the intersection of faith and culture for you to explore through your weekend. Wander through these links however you like and in any order you like.

 

1619.png“The 1619 Project” – The New York Times unveiled a major new project last weekend, reexamining American history through the lens of slavery. “The 1619 Project is a major initiative from The New York Times observing the 400th anniversary of the beginning of American slavery. It aims to reframe the country’s history, understanding 1619 as our true founding, and placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are.” If you have difficulty accessing the interactive article at The New York Times, you can also read a static version of this first 100-page installment here.

 

Fleming Rutledge“The year 1619 and my home state of Virginia” – There were all sorts of reactions to “The 1619 Project.” You could read some of those at National Review (“What The 1619 Project Leaves Out”), Vox (“1619 and the cult of American innocence”), The Washington Post (“The 1619 Project and the far-right fear of history”), and The American Conservative (“The NYT’s Woke-ism Undermines Liberalism”). However, the article related to the 1619 Project that I found most interesting was theologian and preacher Fleming Rutledge’s personal reflections on “The year 1619 and my home state of Virginia.” In this, Rutledge wrestles with her own personal history and background, questioning what it means for the church and individual Christians to face into the present moment.

 

91857“Have Archaeologists Found the Lost City of the Apostles?” – “After recent headlines announced that archaeologists in Israel had uncovered the Church of the Apostles, questions followed. What church is this? And what do these findings tell us about the days of Jesus and his earliest followers? The world’s attention has turned to a small excavation on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee, a project I have been involved with as the academic director since the beginning. Our findings have rekindled the debate about the location for Bethsaida, the home of Peter, Andrew, and Philip referenced in John 1:44.”

 

article_5d24c3e7090fe“Fear of the Word”Hans Boersma at First Things: “My students are afraid to preach—not all of them, but more and more, it seems. And it is often the brightest and most eloquent, those who are least justified in parroting Moses’s excuse—“I am slow of speech and of tongue”—who lack the confidence to open the Scriptures for the people of God. I write now for them, though they are not alone: I have the same feeling of inadequacy, and I know that others do as well.”

 

Litter_on_Singapore's_East_Coast_Park.620_0“The tiny nation waging war on plastic” –  From BBC: “Over the years, the tropical island nation of Vanuatu has struggled with its attempts to eliminate single-use plastics, but thanks to an extensive campaign, the country is about to implement one of the toughest plastic bans in the world. Last year it banned drinking straws, plastic bags and styrofoam, but by December 2019 it will have added all single-use plastics to the list (ahead of the EU next year).”

 

Bernard of Clairvaux“On Loving God” – I reflected this week on the influence of Bernard of Clairvaux in my grasp of God’s love for us as believers and our return love to God. Here is a summary of Bernard’s teaching in his classic work, On Loving God. “You wish me to tell you why and how God should be loved. My answer is that God himself is the reason why he is to be loved. As for how he is to be loved, there is to be no limit to that love. Is this sufficient answer? Perhaps, but only for a wise man.”

 

download.jpeg“How the great truth dawned” – One of the most fascinating figures of the 20th century for me personally is Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. His insightful critique of both repressive Soviet communism and unbound American capitalism from a deeply reflective and insightful Christianity is still as valuable today as back then. Here is Gary Paul Morson reflecting on “the Soviet virtue of cruelty” with a healthy does of Solzhenitsyn woven into the mix.

 

Bob Dylan - Slow Train Coming“Slow Train Coming” – This past week marked the 40th anniversary of the release of Bob Dylan’s “Slow Train Coming.” Loved by some and reviled by others, “Slow Train Coming” was Dylan’s first release after his conversion to Christianity and every song on the album reflects those themes. This article is Rolling Stone‘s original review of the album, in which Jann Wenner writes: “The more I hear the new album — at least fifty times since early July — the more I feel that it’s one of the finest records Dylan has ever made. In time, it is possible that it might even be considered his greatest.” While certain tracks are religiously strange (“Man Gave Names to All the Animals”), I still love some of the tracks on this album, such as “You Gotta Serve Somebody,” “Slow Train,” and “When You Gonna Wake Up?”

 

Music: “Slow Train” by Bob Dylan from Slow Train Coming; this version from a live concert in Trouble No More.

[I do not necessarily agree with all the views expressed within the articles linked from this page, but I have read them myself in order to make me think more deeply.]

Learning God’s Love with St. Bernard of Clairvaux

Bernard of Clairvaux.jpg

St. Bernard of Clairvaux, a Cistercian monk in 12th century France, rose from relative obscurity to influence many  aspects of church life during his time. Born within a wealthy, Bernard forsook all of that to bring enter into a small monastic community in Cîteaux, influencing his five brothers and around twenty-five friends to join with him. Over time, his strict renunciation of life’s pleasures and influential love of God brought him to leadership, first in forming a new monastic community in Clairvaux and later to be an advisor to church leaders. His least admirable legacy was helping to whip up interest in the Second Crusade.

However, what Bernard is often best-known for today is his writings on the love of God. His work, On Loving God (available in full here or summarized here), provides one of the most powerful explanations of both God’s love for human beings and human love returning toward God. Most notably, he outlines four degrees of love for God, which have provided a framework for growing in love toward God for many over the years. In fact, I first heard about Bernard of Clairvaux in a seminar on the love of God that I attended during my college years while at the Urbana conference. The speaker referenced Bernard again and again, and I figured this was someone who I needed to know more about.

When I returned to school after Christmas break at Wheaton College, I scoured the lower level of Buswell Memorial Library until I found works by Bernard of Clairvaux. This led me to a four-volume set of his 86 sermons on the Song of Songs (excerpts available online here). Convinced that, as Paul writes in Ephesians 5, the relationship of a husband and wife in Christ mirrors the love relationship that exists between Christ and the Church, Bernard preached these sermons on the Song of Songs as a means to better understand God’s love in Christ for His people. When you read those sermons, you know that Bernard knew the love of God that surpasses all our knowing. Eugene Peterson, that rugged pastor to pastors, once wrote: “Love is Bernard’s theme, a non-sentimental, hardheaded and warmhearted love that is equally informed by self-knowledge and God-knowledge” (Take and Read 10).

Reflecting on God’s love and our love back to God, Bernard once wrote to a friend: 

You wish me to tell you why and how God should be loved. My answer is that God himself is the reason why he is to be loved. As for how he is to be loved, there is to be no limit to that love. [1]

If you are looking for a good guide into the love of God, I cannot recommend too many more heartily than St. Bernard of Clairvaux.

 


[1] Bernard of Clairvaux, “On Loving God,” https://www.christianitytoday.com/history/issues/issue-24/on-loving-god.html.

Prayer as Living within God’s Power and Love (Ephesians 3:14-21)

This past weekend at Eastbrook, we began a new series entitled “Power in Prayer: Learning to Pray with St. Paul.” This first weekend in the series, I took us inside of Ephesians 3:14-21, one of Paul’s notable prayers from this circular letter sent to churches in Ephesus and the surrounding area. I structured the message around two deep longings in our hearts: to have access to power and to find love. Prayer is, in many ways, a direct connection with these longings, as we reach out for power beyond ourselves and also open ourselves to the deepest vulnerability and intimacy possible in the spiritual realm.

You can watch my message from this past weekend and follow along with the message outline below. You can also engage with the entire series here or download the Eastbrook mobile app for even more opportunities for involvement. Each weekend I am also providing some resources for prayer related to the passage or theme of the week.

Resources for prayer

Our life of prayer is fueled by accurate knowledge of God’s power and love. Read through these verses and use them as material for prayer, both this week and in the future:

Understanding God’s love is central to our growth in faith and prayer. Here are some resources that may help us better understand God’s love:

Read More »

A Crash Course in the Gospel (Ephesians 2:1-10)

Ephesians

One of my favorite books of the Bible is the Psalms. Through the Psalms I have learned how to pray. One of my other favorites is the Gospel of John. John’s telling of Jesus’ story has helped me connect my spiritual longings with the revelation of God in Jesus Christ so powerfully. Right after the Psalms and John comes Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. Here, the basic contours of right thinking about God and right living with God come together in such a short space that every sentence strikes with power.

This past weekend at Eastbrook Church, as I continued with our series “Ephesians: A Crash Course in Basic Christianity,” I had the privilege of addressing one of my favorite Scriptural texts in this favorite book of mine. I turned to Ephesians 2:1-10 for “A Crash Course in the Gospel.”

You can watch my message from this past weekend and follow along with the message outline below. You can also engage with the entire series here or download the Eastbrook mobile app for even more opportunities for involvement.

Read More »

Finding Love: Mary

advent-mary.jpg[This is the devotional I wrote for the fourth week of Eastbrook Church‘s Advent 2018 devotional. Join in with the daily journey through Advent here.]

“My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed.” (Luke 1:46-48)

“Love is blind.” At least, that is how the saying goes. The phrase means that when love is in play, a person is prone to overlook, or just plain fail to see, the problems within the person being loved. There is some truth to that, but the kind of love we all deeply desire is a love that truthfully sees everything about us and still loves us. Love that is blind – that turns away from reality – is false love, while love that sees – that leans into reality – is real love.

John 3:16 is such a well-known Scripture passage because it describes God’s love as real love. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him” (John 3:16-17). In the midst of a world stuck in the cycle of death, Jesus the Son of God comes to bring liberating life. Even as the world could potentially be condemned because of evil and injustice, God takes a different route by sending Jesus to save the world. Jesus Himself echoes this later when He says, “the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28). We see in Jesus the Messiah that God’s love is an eyes-open love, leaning into the reality of our world and our lives. Jesus shows us just how far God will go to hold us in His loving embrace.

When the Angel Gabriel appeared to Mary, announcing God’s plan to bring the Messiah to birth through her, Mary was astounded. Her question, “How will this be?”, was both a question about the manner of the Messianic birth since she was a virgin and simultaneously a question about the possibility that something like this could occur in human history. When Gabriel emphasized God’s decisive plan to intervene through Jesus as Messiah, such knowledge eventually leads Mary to erupt with praise: “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior…His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation” (Luke 1:46-47, 50).

That little word ‘mercy’ is an echo of the Hebrew word hesed, which refers to God’s uniquely steady and faithful love. Mary grasps, and shares with us today, that God sees what is really there in the world and still chooses to love humanity from generation to generation throughout the earth. Mary becomes a picture not only of humble obedience to God’s call, but also boisterous praise of God’s love. As we draw close to Christmas Day, let us join Mary’s wondrous call to praise our God whose love is not blind, but rather eyes-open about us and our world. Let us draw near with anticipation to experience once again   the tenderly tenacious love of God found in Jesus the Messiah.

Reflect:

  • What difference does it make to you that God loves you—no matter what, just as you are?
  • Who in your life needs to hear that God loves them…absolutely and completely? How and when will you tell them?

A Prayer for the fourth Sunday of Advent (from the Revised Common Lectionary):

O God of Elizabeth and Mary,
you visited your servants with news of the world’s redemption
in the coming of the Savior.
Make our hearts leap with joy,
and fill our mouths with songs of praise,
that we may announce glad tidings of peace,
and welcome the Christ in our midst. Amen.

Join in with the daily Advent devotional here.

You have loved us first: a prayer by Søren Kierkegaard

soren_kierkegaard_drawing_niels_christian_kierkegaard.jpg

Father in Heaven! You have loved us first, help us never to forget that You are love so that this sure conviction might triumph in our hearts over the seduction of the world, over the inquietude of the soul, over the anxiety for the future, over the fright of the past, over the distress of the moment. But grant also that this conviction might discipline our soul so that our heart might remain faithful and sincere in the love which we bear to all those whom You have commanded us to love as we love ourselves.

You have loved us first, O God, alas! We speak of it in terms of history as if You have only loved us first but a single time, rather than that without ceasing You have loved us first many things and every day and our whole life through. When we wake up in the morning and turn our soul toward You – You are the first – You have loved us first; if I rise at dawn and at the same second turn my soul toward You in prayer, You are there ahead of me, You have loved me first. When I withdraw from the distractions of the day and turn my soul toward You, You are the first and thus forever. And yet we always speak ungratefully as if You have loved us first only once.

– Søren Kierkegaard