Reflections on ‘The House Without a Christmas Tree’

Families have December traditions, but so do individuals within those families—perennial routines that need not involve everyone in the house. Last night I engaged in one of those traditions myself. I watched a 90-minute Chritsmas movie that I would try to catch every year growing up. (I say “try to catch” because streaming movies wasn’t a thing back then. We had thirteen channels and a TV Guide, and we had to make our schedule work around whatever it was we wanted to watch at the time it was on.)

Based on a novella by Gail Rock, The House Without a Christmas Tree always resonated with me as a child, not because we didn’t have a tree, but because the relational dynamics in the home seemed all too familiar. A grouchy, emotionally constipated father has a rocky relationship with his young child, who just wants to be loved. Just wants to be accepted. Alas, I could relate.

It’s a sad flick in many respects, but it trudges onward, executing a few subplots along the way and dragging itself toward a satisfying conclusion, though not in a Hallmarky kind of way. No one is happily every-aftering at the end of this no-frills, low-budget production. The characters are simply in a better place to live healthier, more integrated lives in the future. It’s a step forward, not a leap, but things are looking up when the curtain comes down.

Addie Mills (Lisa Lucas) is a feisty, precocious 10-year-old in 1946 living in rural Nebraska. She can’t understand why her prickly father won’t allow them to have a Christmas tree in the home. James Mills (Jason Robards) doesn’t communicate well with his daughter. In fact, he can barely look at her most of the time, only grunting out terse corrections of the chatty child when his annoyance threshold has been crossed. Reading the newspaper always seems more important to him.

Fortunately, Addie’s grandmother, Sarah Mills (Mildred Natwick), bridges the gap between the two combatants. Grandma helps Addie see the situation from her father’s perspective, that of a man who’s stuck in his grief, still lamenting the loss of his wife from ten years ago, shortly after Addie was born. Simultaneously, Sarah counsels her son to see the impasse from his daughter’s point of view, and the importance of loving the ones who are still with us, even if deep down we wish things were different.

As Christmas approaches, it seems Addie will never get her tree, something she believes would bring a modicum of cheer to an otherwise gloomy house. But then an act of generosity touches her father’s heart and teaches him an important lesson about the spirit of Christmas. Indeed, a universal theme in literature makes an appearance in the movie—the loving sacrifice of the weaker party softening the callous pride of the stronger party, prompting a genuine change of heart.

Addie becomes the catalyst for her father’s epiphany. It’s her sacrifice that jolts him out of the selfish rut he’s been stuck in for the past decade. Fortunately, he comes to see that God has blessed him with a truly remarkable child, whom he’s been using as a repository for his pain all these years. 

I suppose I always connected with this movie because my own father was much like Addie’s. And I likewise held out hope for relief and resolution someday. Dad was not a widower, but he did carry a lot of personal pain for other reasons. That pain came largely from his being the child of two alcoholic parents who were harsh with everyone around them. Being poor didn’t help, either.

The ensuing strife led other family members to develop ties to the mafia, first as an escape, then as a quest for acceptance, and then as a way of life. For that reason, I never met most of my father’s family. He never talked about his parents or siblings, and I only ever saw his mother one time—when she was in her casket. He was protecting us from his family, which was an act of love on his part that we knew nothing about when we were children.

Despite his pain—or maybe because of it—my father trusted Christ for salvation six months before he passed away. He came to see the kindness of the heavenly Father toward him, and it captured his heart. Genuine transformations began to take place in his life, and he was growing in grace by the time he left us. I’ll take that over a Hallmarky ending any day.

Image Credits: pexels.com; fuzzy64.livejournal.com.

From Humbug to Hallelujah: The Conversion of Mr. Scrooge

Ebenezer Scrooge is a name that has come into our vocabulary through the genius of Charles Dickens. If you haven’t read his classic novel, A Christmas Carol, chances are good you’ve seen it on stage or on television. Some of the more popular versions include:

  • Reginal Owen (1938)—one of the first productions in the modern era
  • Alastair Sim (1951)—still regarded as a classic, aesthetically pleasing rendition
  • George C. Scott (1984)—a rugged and highly regarded portrayal despite its various omissions
  • Michael Caine (1992)—a delightful children’s adaptation with the Muppets
  • Patrick Stewart (1999)—from a one-act play on the stage to a television movie
  • Jim Carrey (2009)—a noteworthy production with dark, realistic animation

Clockwise from upper left: Patrick Stewart (1999); Alastair Sim (1951); Reginal Owen (1938); Jim Carrey (2009); Michael Caine (1992); George C. Scott (1984).

Scrooge, of course, is the quintessential stingy old man who doesn’t want to be bothered with the feastings and festivities of Christmastime. He’s got a porcupine personality and scary looks to go with it. He’s got a hostile demeanor and a glaring eye to back it up. He’s got a roll of money in his pocket, but you will never get any of it. Yet, for all his material wealth, he’s a sad and lonely man. He’s a man in desperate need of redemption.

Scrooge has numerous modern descendants, too, both real and fictitious. Some know him as the Grinch who stole Christmas—the mean, green, furry creature who doesn’t know how to have any holiday fun, and doesn’t want anybody else to have any holiday fun, either. Some know him as the Abominable Snowman—the glacial beast whose mission it is to prevent children from giving and getting gifts on Christmas morning.  

Do you know Scrooge? Does a face come to mind even now? Maybe it’s a sour relative who’s grouchy and hates to decorate in December. Maybe it’s a cold-hearted friend who grouses about all the charity bell-ringers at the store entranceways. Maybe it’s an edgy parent who, with great irritation, follows you around on Christmas morning with a garbage bag so that scraps of wrapping paper never touch the floor. “Bah, humbug!” is the Christmas carol sung by such folks. They snort it out whenever they’re in the presence holiday warmth and good cheer.

But according to Dickens (and more importantly, according to the Scriptureswhich inspired the novel), such folks can change their tune. The dramatic conversion of Ebenezer Scrooge from a tight-fisted old grump into a benevolent big-spender and bringer-of gifts naturally warms the heart. Perhaps that’s because it’s what we all want for ourselves and our loved ones—a real change of heart. We may not like to admit it, but there is a little bit of old Scrooge in all of us.

For one thing, Scrooge is a businessman, and the drive for profit has become for him an obsession. How many of us today are motivated by the almighty dollar (or the pound, or the franc, or the yen)? Making the big bucks in Merchant Square has eclipsed any other goal in life. Scrooge’s focus is the bottom line, regardless of the human cost or the social implications. As a result, Scrooge is incapable of neighborly love. He lacks empathy and compassion. He’s callous and coarse. To put it bluntly, he’s a selfish pig. And that selfishness comes out in many ways throughout the novel.  

On the personal level, Scrooge is indifferent to the basic human needs of his own employee, Bob Cratchit, who exists for him only as a means to a financial end. He exploits Cratchit as much as he can, going so far as to save a few pennies on coal while Cratchit freezes in the next room over. Cratchit’s financial dependence on Scrooge makes him vulnerable to abuse, including the fear of losing his job at the slightest whim of his nasty boss.

On the social level, Scrooge rejects an earnest appeal for charity on behalf of the poor and the destitute. In the novel he says, “I don’t make merry myself at Christmas, and I can’t afford to make idle people merry.” He suggests that the poor belong either in prison or in the workhouse. When told that many would rather die than go to either place, he replies, “If they would rather die, they had better get to it, and decrease the surplus population. Scrooge’s language is blunt, but the sentiment he expresses certainly finds harsh echoes in today’s political debates about many social issues.  

Nevertheless, while Dickens is a brilliant social critic of 19th-century England, his primary concern in the novel is not the conversion of his country but the conversion of Scrooge’s heart. Before societies can change, hearts must change. Scrooge’s own nephew gets it right early in the book. The spirit of Christmas, he says, teaches men and women to think of people below themselves as if they really were “fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.” How incisive. 

I saw a commercial on television one time where the announcer said, “Here is one place where class and skin color don’t matter,” and the screen showed a hospital maternity ward with dozens of multi-national babies wiggling around in their incubators. “And here is the other,” said the narrator, voicing over the scene of a quiet, green cemetery with dozens of tombstones. “Fellow passengers to the grave”—all of us. That itself should be enough to get us converted. It sure got Scrooge’s attention.  

Evangelicals often criticize Dickens because Scrooge’s transformation in the novel is not explicitly Christian. There’s no tent revival, no altar call, no baptism, and no clear profession of faith in Jesus Christ as Lord. There’s just a brilliantly crafted self-discovery followed by genuine remorse and a change of lifestyle—sort of like the old television program Touched by an Angel, where Jesus was seldom, if ever, explicitly mentioned.

I’m sympathetic to that critique, but it should also be pointed out that: (1) Dickens was a poet, not a preacher; (2) Scrooge’s nephew cries out, “God save you!” to his wretched uncle, and reminds him that Christmastime cannot be separated from its sacred source; and (3) Dickens has told us clearly in his novel that Scrooge’s transformation comes only after intervention from heaven. 

  • It’s the Ghost of Christmas Past that connects Scrooge to his own childhood suffering and therefore softens his heart a bit. 
  • It’s the Ghost of Christmas Present that connects Scrooge to the impending death of Bob Cratchit’s special-needs son, Tiny Tim, and his own responsibility for that death.  
  • And it’s the Ghost of Christmas Future that connects Scrooge to his hellish destiny—the fate of a wretched man with an uncaring, unconverted heart.  

Had the heavenly realm not invaded Scrooge’s life, he never would have changed. He never could have changed. He would have remained heartless.

When we leave the world of this classic novel and enter the world of real life, we can easily fill in the gaps, for the Scriptures likewise teach that only truth revealed from heaven can tell us the true condition of our souls and reveal what God has done about that condition.  

The Christian canon is about God showing us our hearts, softening our hearts, capturing our hearts, and regenerating our hearts. It’s about how God intervenes to save us. And God does not save us by sending us three ghosts. He saves us by sending us his Son, Jesus Christ. Indeed, God’s Christmas present to the world was himself wrapped in skin. Because of Christmas, we can say with confidence, “God bless us, every one!”

How well do you know ‘A Christmas Carol’? Take the quiz here.

Image Credits: shutterstock.com; imdb.com.

Mary Comforts Eve, Part 5: The Hands, Feet, and Faces

Today we conclude our reflection on Grace Remington’s “Mary Comforts Eve,” a simple sketch with profound theological messaging. In Part 1 we looked at the picture without comment, scanning the piece and letting it have its impact on us. In Part 2 we looked at the encounter in general, noting the significance of these two women meeting in the presence of Christ. In Part 3 we looked at the three types of fruit presented in the sketch, two of which are visible and one of which is not. In Part 4 we looked at the artist’s strategic use of color and how each one telegraphs important spiritual truths. In this last part, we look briefly at the hands, feet, and faces of the two women. They, too, tell a story.

Garrett Johnson has noted, “We find Eve; that is, we find ourselves, walking along our path, tripping upon the serpent’s scales, dolefully latching onto our symbols of self-satisfaction and divine pretensions.” Johnson is perceptive in his assessment of the fallen matriarch. A similar and contrasting observation can be made of Mary. She clings to nothing; instead, her hands are free to gently caress the one who desperately needs her Son, whom she will soon share with the world. Indeed, all of Eve’s children need her Son, and God brings him to us as promised though this young obedient servant of his.

The two women make contact through look and touch, banishing the isolation and alienation that often accompany sin. Yet there is a hint of reluctance on Eve’s part, so the scene has begun, but it is not yet completely resolved—leaving us to contemplate her response to Christ. And ours. 

Specifically, Eve’s right arm takes a defensive posture, as if she were trying to cover herself, even while holding onto the forbidden fruit. The bend in her arm forms a V, one of the universal symbols of women. Moreover, this V creates an arrow pointing down toward the serpent, which is entwined around her legs. Despite the entanglement, Eve is able to walk, though it is clearly difficult for her to do so. Her journey is encumbered every step of the way by the enemy, but the mother of the redeemer now stands before her. Consequently, Eve is stepping in the direction of hope—but not without assistance.

Eve’s left hand is touching Mary’s belly, but only because Mary has apparently pulled it toward the child, overcoming Eve’s hesitation. Her reluctance is no doubt rooted in her sense of shame and unworthiness. Mary knows, however, that it’s precisely for such people that Jesus has come. Confidently, then, she helps Eve touch the one who will undo the effects of her cosmic treason.

Additionally, Mary gently strokes Eve’s cheek with her right hand, giving her assurance that all will be well. The promised deliverer, “the seed of the woman,” has finally come. Jesus will take her shame and nakedness to himself on the cross, and in the process, his “heel” will be “bruised,” as the prophecy says. Crucifixion is ugly business, but no longer will Eve need to bear the weight of her own sin and all the calamity it unleashed on the world, for the world’s sin bearer is now here.

Mary, of course is stomping on the head of the serpent, rendering it impotent in the presence of the gestating Christ. This dramatic act portrays the protoeuangelion of Genesis 3:15, where God judges the serpent with these words: “And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.” 

Protestants need not object that Mary is the one crushing the serpent’s head in this scene because: (1) Jesus will do exactly that in his death, burial, and resurrection; and (2) Jesus will give his followers authority to do the same. As Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome, “The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet” (Rom 16:20; emphasis mine). Believers will share in the crushing because Jesus did the neutralizing of satanic authority: “And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross” (Col 2:15). Consequently, Eve is able to drop the forbidden fruit and step into the future with freedom, confidence, and joy. Will she do so? Will we?

Perhaps the most striking aspect of the sketch is the contrast of expressions. Eve’s face is crestfallen, downcast, and ashamed. She blushes profusely because of the humiliation that comes from having her sin exposed to the world. It’s difficult for her to look up, although she clearly tries to do so, daring to hope that Mary’s child might offer the relief her soul so desperately needs.

Mary’s gaze is priceless. She smiles gently at Eve, knowing full well that her child is the hope of the world and the remedy for all its miseries. She conveys no sense of judgment, haughtiness, or condescension toward Eve, only love. Her eyes are wider than Eve’s because she knows from the angel exactly who this child is and what he has come to do. Eve is still in the process of discovery, so her face is not yet relieved of all its agony, nor is she yet able to look at Mary directly.

King David had a similar experience. In his prayer of confession to the Lord over his sin with Bathsheba, he pleaded to God, “Hide your face from my sins and blot out all my iniquity” (Ps 51:9). So ashamed was he of his sin that he asked God to stop noticing it, something he was unable to do himself (cf. Ps 51:3). But as soon as the king made that request of God, he virtually reversed course and cried out, “Do not cast me from your presence (literally, “your face”) or take your Holy Spirit from me” (Ps 51:11). Did he want God’s face to stay or go?

The crisis was devastating to David. In v. 9, he wanted God to hide his face from his sin, but in v. 11, he didn’t want God to hide his face from him. The dilemma was acute. If God chose to look on David’s sin, it would produce in him a deep sense of unbearable shame; if God chose not to look on him at all, it would produce in him a deep sense of awful abandonment. Neither option was pleasing to David, and his only hope was that God would somehow find a way to cut the Gordian knot of unacceptable choices. The knot is finally cut by Mary’s child, who grew up and became “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). 

I, too, know the shameful blush that comes from sinning against God and wounding others—precious people made in his image who deserved better from me. Maybe you know that feeling, too. We cannot undo our own treason against God, but Jesus can. Be assured that the grace of God in Christ is greater than your failures. Humbly accept his gift and turn from what made it necessary in the first place. If your face is downcast in shame, humiliated by your own sin, dare to look at Christ by faith this Christmas. You’re why he came. 

We’re why he came—sons of Adam and daughters of Eve. As the old carol says, Jesus came “to save us all from Satan’s power, when we are gone astray.” Indeed, he came to be “the glory and the lifter of [our] head” (Ps 3:3) so that we could look God in the eye again, stepping into the future with freedom, confidence, and joy. He came so the ancient blessing given to God’s people could fully and finally be true:

The Lord bless you and keep you; 
the Lord make his face shine upon you 
and be gracious to you; 
the Lord turn his face toward you 
and give you peace (Num 6:24-26).

Amen.

Part 1: The Gasp
Part 2: The Encounter
Part 3: The Fruit
Part 4: The Colors
Part 5: The Hands, Feet, and Faces

Image Credits: elledecor.com; illustratedprayer.org.

Mary Comforts Eve, Part 4: The Colors

We continue our reflection on Grace Remington’s “Mary Comforts Eve,” the portrayal of a hypothetical encounter between the two main mothers of Scripture—the mother of the human race and the mother of the new human race. The descendants of the former are spiritually broken and stand in need of redemption; the offspring of the latter is spiritually perfect and thus stands able to serve as humanity’s redeemer. The colors in the sketch assist the artist in telling the story.

Eve is covered in her own beautiful brown hair, and brown is the color of the earth. In fact, the garden floor in this sketch is also brown. It’s the earth from which Adam was created by God. Eve, who was derived from Adam, was therefore made of the same “stuff” as Adam. As such, Eve is of the earth, and to the earth she will return in death because of her sin (Gen 3:19).

On a side note, what Eve is wearing underneath her hair is not immediately apparent in the sketch, but Scripture tells us it would have been the garment of skin that God had made for her so her shame and nakedness could be covered. God replaced the garment of leaves she made with her own hands with a more suitable covering made by his own (Gen 3:21). The theological point is that salvation is never rooted in human effort; it is always rooted in divine grace. Self-salvation is no salvation at all.

And do note that it was God who drew first blood on the planet, not Cain. God sacrificed the life of one of his own creatures so that Eve could be spared the imminent death sentence she rightly deserved. Somewhere in the garden, a bloody carcass lay dead because of Eve’s sin (and God’s mercy in covering that sin). 

Mary is covered in a garment of snowy white, which is the color of purity. In Catholic theology, Mary’s purity is due to her own “immaculate conception” in her mother’s womb, preserving her from spiritual depravity. In Protestant theology, however, Mary is a member of the fallen human race like any other woman. As such, she needs a Savior, too (cf. Luke 1:47). Her purity comes from the fact that “the Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God” (Luke 1:35). I hold to the latter view, as the former is a late theological development with no biblical warrant. 

In any event, the white garment signifies that just as Mary is made pure by the gracious presence of Christ in her, so the fruit of Mary’s womb, Jesus, can make Eve and her descendants pure, too—but only through the cross, which also makes an appearance in the sketch.

In addition to her white robe, Mary is also draped in a blue head scarf, and blue is the color of the skies and/or heavens. She herself is not from heaven, but she carries the one who is—Jesus, “the man from heaven” (1 Cor 15:14-49). Ominously, her headscarf forms a crown in the shape of a cross, which corresponds to the awful prophecy Simeon gave Mary just after the birth of Jesus: “And a sword will pierce your own soul too” (Luke 2:35). 

Eve’s “crown,” on the other hand, is earthy brown—a row of curls made by her own tainted fingers. It’s a hint, perhaps, at the crown of thorns that will go on to encircle the head of Christ in his atoning work on the cross. But notice further that the blue cross seems to flow like living water down Mary’s shoulders and back, directly toward the head of the serpent. The crafty beast will soon get what’s coming to him.

The fair skin of the women is not historically accurate. They would have been much browner in tone, Easterners as they were. I suspect the fair skin represents an application of the universal biblical story to the specific race of the artist—an acceptable practice if applied across the board with equal acceptance. That is, were the artist non-Caucasian, Eve and Mary might well be portrayed in that artist’s race, too. “Red, and yellow, black, and white—they are precious in his sight.”

The garden arch is predominantly green, which speaks of life, abundance, and divine goodness, a theme discussed in the previous post. Moreover, the archway is lush with ruddy-yellow fruit, an indication of the kindness, grace, and provisions of the generous God who gave it. He delights in giving good gifts to his children. The single forbidden fruit in Eve’s right hand is solid red, distinguishing it from the copious good fruit made available to her throughout Eden. The serpent is green, too, because it’s a living creature, but it also features dark splotches, an indication of its sinister intentions toward God’s treasured child.

Best of all, the encounter takes place in a yellow-gold light, one that illuminates the entire scene. This color can represent both royalty and divinity, so the stage is awash in the presence of God. That presence envelops both Mary and Eve. Moreover, the in utero Christ is “Emmanuel,” God with us. The point is that God is here. He is in this scene despite the presence of the sinner and the serpent. He has not been put off. He has not abandoned his people.

The implication is that God is with us in our moments of failure and shame (as represented by Eve) as well as our moments of faithfulness and obedience (as represented by Mary). He does not run away. Rather, he pursues us with his “goodness and mercy…all the days of our lives” (Ps 23:6). 

That pursuit took Jesus to another garden—the Garden of Gethsemane, where he “prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground” (Luke 22:44). Quite significantly, the first blood shed by Christ in his Passion was not drawn by human hands (cf. Gen 3:21). He bled freely of his own accord in the garden before placing himself into the hands of his captors. In other words, he had already given what his tormentors would claim they had taken (cf. John 10:17-18). 

God sacrificed the life of his only Son so that we could be covered by him and spared the imminent death sentence we rightly deserved, similar to what happened in Eden. One hymn writer described it like this: “Amazing pity, grace unknown, and love beyond degree.” The result is what the Apostle Paul argued in 1 Corinthians 15:47-49:

“The first man was of the dust of the earth, the second man from heaven. As was the earthly man, so are those who are of the earth; and as is the man from heaven, so also are those who are of heaven. And just as we have borne the likeness of the earthly man, so shall we bear the likeness of the man from heaven.”

In other words, we can go from earthly brown to heavenly blue, wearing snowy white—all because the golden Christ once became bloody red for us.

No wonder Mary is comforting Eve.

Part 1: The Gasp
Part 2: The Encounter
Part 3: The Fruit
Part 4: The Colors
Part 5: The Hands, Feet, and Faces

Image Credits: elledecor.com; illustratedprayer.org.

Mary Comforts Eve, Part 3: The Fruit

We’re reflecting on Grace Remington’s “Mary Comforts Eve,” a simple pencil-and-crayon sketch portraying a hypothetical encounter between the two towering matriarchs of the human race according to the Christian Scriptures. My comments are from the perspective of a Protestant evangelical pastor and seminary prof with an appreciation for what this Catholic nun has produced, even though our views on Mary and the church will not always align completely. No matter: it is my privilege to learn from (and be blessed by) others.

Remington does not consider herself to be a professional artist. She simply likes to doodle while thinking and studying. She got the idea for this piece while pondering the differences between Mary and Eve. Interestingly enough, the practice of Bible journaling art has taken off among evangelicals in the last decade or so. In an age of ubiquitous online memes, this practice is a welcome trend, and getting started is not difficult. I’m not an accomplished artist, but I can’t study the Bible without a pencil in my hand, either. There’s a treasure trove of truth gems in the canon to sort out. Some of these gems make their way into Remington’s sketch.

The scene portrays three kinds of fruit, two of which are in plain sight. First, there is the good fruit of Eden, scattered throughout the garden archway. It’s important to note that there’s much more good fruit available to Eve than the one bad fruit she wound up eating. As noted in a recent post, God’s openhandedness is seen on the very first page of Scripture: “Then God said, ‘I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food’” (Gen 1:29). Right out of the gate, God is a giving God, and generosity is seen as a prevailing attribute of his.

It’s not specified in the text how many edible plants and trees with fruit were available for the taking. Were there a hundred? A thousand? Ten thousand? A million? We don’t know, but the scene is marked by lush and lavish provisions from the hand of the benevolent God who gave them. Indeed, Yahweh is portrayed as a God of abundance. He says to the first human, “Eat!” and only one tree was said to be off limits—“the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (Gen 2:17). 

Celebrate the goodness of good in this divinely intended imbalance: God gave ten thousand “yeses” to one solitary “no.” Consequently, he’s not a stingy, crotchety God at all; he’s a God who overflows with blessings, provisions, kindness, and grace. And even the one “no” he gave was for our benefit, not our misery. Indeed, it was meant to prevent our misery.

Alas, Eve ate the one bad fruit of Eden, which is the second fruit visible in the picture. This fruit was “good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom” (Gen 3:6). What made it bad was not its internal composition but the fact that God said it was off limits to Eve. In the sketch, she is still clutching the forbidden fruit, which brings with it all the miseries of guilt, shame, and despair (as seen in her downcast, blushing expression), as well as crippling bondage and eventual death (as seen in her legs, which are encoiled by the serpent).

Every descendant of Eve, save one, has experienced this sense of guilt, shame, despair, and bondage. Such is the beguiling nature of sin. We want what we want, and we take what we want, ignoring the clear instruction of our kind and generous God. Consequently, we are justly placed under the sentence of death for our spiritual treason. “In the day that you eat thereof, you shall surely die” (Gen 2:17). Is there no hope? Is there no way out? Is the human race irreversibly doomed? Blessedly, God’s grace is much greater than human rebellion.

The way out is the third fruit in the Remington sketch, the fruit of Mary’s womb, soon to be born. “Blessed are you among women,” said Elizabeth, “and blessed is the fruit of your womb” (Luke 1:42). Mary’s fruit—Jesus—is the way out. Indeed, he is “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). He is our hope. He is our deliverer. He is our salvation from guilt, shame, despair, bondage, and death. In fact, Mary’s fruit is the fulfillment of the protoeuangelion in Genesis 3:15. Jesus is the good fruit that can undo the effects of the bad fruit.

And yet on the cross, Mary’s fruit looked exactly opposite of Eve’s fruit. The crucified Christ was seen as worthless, not pleasing to the eye, and foolish—another messianic pretender who got himself killed. But Scripture tells us he was wounded for our transgression. He was bruised for our iniquity. Our punishment was upon him. And by his stripes, we are healed (cf. Isa 53).

Both women in the scene are looking at each other’s fruit. Eve gazes at Mary’s fruit—the fruit of the coming Christ, while Mary gazes at Eve’s fruit—the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. While only Eve touches the fruit of the tree, both women touch Mary’s belly since both need that fruit for their own salvation. And both are mothers of Christ, the good fruit who “comes to make his blessing known far as the curse is found.”

Part 1: The Gasp
Part 2: The Encounter
Part 3: The Fruit
Part 4: The Colors
Part 5: The Hands, Feet, and Faces

Image Credits: elledecor.com; illustratedprayer.org.

Mary Comforts Eve, Part 2: The Encounter

We’re reflecting on the pencil-and-crayon sketch titled “Mary Comforts Eve” by Grace Remington, OCSO, of the Cistercian Sisters of the Mississippi Abbey in Dubuque, Iowa. The image first appeared on a greeting card and is available for purchase online. I received my own copy last year as a gift for participating in a friend’s wedding. He knew of my appreciation for the piece, so he surprised me with a print of my own. 

The scene shows an encounter between Eve and Mary even though they were not contemporaries. In fact, they lived thousands of years apart on the timeline. As such, the piece functions as a historical hypothetical. What might it look like if Eve were to meet with Mary? What might the nature of their interaction be? 

The sketch, then, is a thought experiment. How would you picture an encounter between these two women? Would their conversation be cold? Awkward? Condemnatory? Hostile? Would there be a conversation at all? Using her theological imagination, Remington gives us a glimpse into how such a meeting might go.

Eve, of course, is “the mother of all the living” (Gen 3:20). She represents the entire human race, tainted as it is by sin. In the Genesis account, she was blitzed by her own disobedience to the clear command of God not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen 2:16-17). Consequently, she was judged along with her husband (Gen 3:16-19) and banished from the garden of Eden for the rest of her life (Gen 3:24). 

Before her expulsion, however, God made a promise that a descendant of hers would someday come and destroy the serpent (the creature who enticed her to sin), with her own offspring getting seriously wounded in the process (Gen 3:15). The prophecy is rather cryptic, but the implication is that a special descendant from Eve would reverse the damage done in Paradise.

That special descendant from Eve is now here in the scene, gestating inside Mary and soon to be born. Though a virgin, Mary will give birth to the one who is none other than “God with us” (Isa 7:14; Matt 1:23). He is the one who will reverse the curse that has befallen the planet (Gen 3:17). They will “give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins” (Matt 1:21). Note that in Remington’s sketch, Eve is back in a garden again. Her banishment has ended, and Jesus is the one who ended it!

The nature of Eve’s encounter with Mary is revealed in several clues throughout the sketch, which we’ll look at in future posts. For now we’ll simply mention that it does not go unnoticed in Christian theology that Mary is a kind of new Eve. Indeed, the Fall began through the false belief of one virgin (Gen 3:4-6); the Restoration began through the true belief of another virgin (Luke 1:38). 

Irenaeus (ca. 130 – ca. 202 A.D.) wrote, “The knot of Eve’s disobedience was loosed by the obedience of Mary. For what the virgin Eve had bound fast through unbelief, this did the virgin Mary set free through faith.” Tertullian (ca. 155 – ca. 240 A.D.) wrote, “What had been reduced to ruin by this sex, might by the selfsame sex be recovered to salvation. As Eve had believed the serpent, so Mary believed the angel. The delinquency which the one occasioned by believing, the other by believing effaced.” 

We have in this scene, then, an encounter between human sin and divine grace. Which will win? Remington leaves no doubt as to the outcome.

When God showed up to save the world from the consequences of Eve’s disobedience (and her husband’s), he came as a baby in the person of Jesus Christ. A crude manger—an animal feeding trough—would serve as his first bassinet (Luke 2:7, 12, 16). He would go on to die for the sins of the world and be raised to new life on the third day. Shockingly, God’s entire rescue project hinges on Mary, a young woman from a nowhere town and a no-account family, saying “Yes” to the impossible. She carried the weight of world’s salvation in her womb.

So, Eve is the mother of Mary, who is the mother of Christ, who is the creator of both. Jesus came from both in order to redeem them both. And us.

Only God could author a story like that.

Part 1: The Gasp
Part 2: The Encounter
Part 3: The Fruit
Part 4: The Colors
Part 5: The Hands, Feet, and Faces

Image Credits: elledecor.com; illustratedprayer.org.

Mary Comforts Eve, Part 1: The Gasp

Seldom do I look at a work of art and gasp audibly, but that happened about a year and a half ago when I saw Sister Grace Remington’s “Mary Comforts Eve” for the first time. The tears came quickly, followed by a time of personal worship and a whole lot of gratitude for what the sketch is seeking to communicate. I find it to be conceptually simple, artistically straightforward, theologically rich, and spiritually hopeful. Many months later, I’m still moved by its message. 

Let’s take the next several days to talk about what we see here. (I’ll be making short posts only as the dissertation process has begun in earnest.) If you haven’t viewed the piece yet, maybe you’ll gasp, too. Lest I diminish its impact in any way, I’ll simly place it here without comment for now. Just as I needed to sit with it for a while before saying a word, maybe you’ll need to “treasure up all these things and ponder them in your heart,” too (cf. Luke 2:19). Like Mary. 

Part 1: The Gasp
Part 2: The Encounter
Part 3: The Fruit
Part 4: The Colors
Part 5: The Hands, Feet, and Faces

Image Credits: elledecor.com; illustratedprayer.org.

‘God’s Many-Splendored Image’: A Review of Harrison’s Theological Anthropology

In many respects, Nona Verna Harrison’s book God’s Many-Splendored Image is a helpful and hopeful work on the subject of Christian anthropology. To those who might be jaded by the often harsh and unnecessarily critical Augustinian view of post-lapsarian personhood, this text can serve as a positive respite. But it is only a respite; it is not the final word, nor is it the only word that needs to be considered. From where I stand, GMSI is a legitimate counterweight to the despairing extremes of Reformed anthropology, and there are certainly many virtues here to extol.

But a counterweight is simply that—a correction to excesses; it cannot stand on its own, not if it seeks to be biblically faithful, historically comprehensive, and fully correspondent to our common human experience. This assessment is no slam on what the book seeks to accomplish. Harrison shows us one important facet of the theological diamond, and she makes it sparkle in brilliant, emotionally satisfying ways. Still, there are other facets to consider.

In this review, I’ll offer my positive assessments of the book. Then I’ll share the helpful challenge the book has made to my own spiritual formation. And finally, I’ll conclude with my concerns about the book as a whole, with a concluding question for the author.

Positive Assessments

I was delighted to see Harrison’s references to the issue of disabilities scattered throughout the book. She speaks of “Lepers as God’s Image” (pp. 99-102); “Affirming Royal Dignity Today” (pp. 102-106); and “Maximus the Confessor’s” contributions (pp. 131-37). The author repeatedly connects the personhood of those with disabilities to the image of God while highlighting several key figures in church history who have done the same. Indeed, Harrison notes that part of what it means to be made in the image of God is that persons have “a legitimate sovereignty rooted in their very being” (p. 90). As such, care should be taken to safeguard the sovereignty even of those with disabilities, not just the population at large. 

That sovereignty, however, creates a host of ethical challenges concerning the degree to which certain disabled persons—depending on their capabilities and functionality—may determine the nature and extent of their own care and participation in society. For example, declining eyesight may require the revocation of a person’s driver’s license. Increasing dementia may require the transfer of banking privileges to a responsible family member. Both of these actions we’ve had to take with my mother-in-law within the past few years. A guiding principle in such situations would be to work toward preserving both individual dignity and public safety as degrees of sovereignty are being surrendered. That’s not always an easy balance to find, but relational theology requires the effort.

Harrison puts the issue of imago Dei under the theological microscope using the lenses of early Greek sources. This approach is a welcome methodology, as nearly every non-Eastern Orthodox retrospective on theological history shreds the philosophical traditions standing behind the development of Christian doctrine (especially Plato and Aristotle). F. Leron Shults, for example, does a fair amount of shredding in his book Reforming Theological Anthropology: After the Philosophical Turn to Relationality—a journey that gets laborious and overly critical at times.

Harrison, on the other hand, recognizes that all theology is contextual, so why not give our ancestors in the faith the benefit of the doubt? Examine what they were doing in their context rather than sitting in judgment of their work with what amounts to an attitude of “chronological snobbery.” For example, she can call Origen “a third-century student of Platonic philosophy” (p. 12) without listing all the obligatory caveats and warnings about how Platonism is incompatible with biblical Christianity. Kudos to her for letting the early Christians speak from where they stood. We probably would have done the same had we been in their sandals. 

And it has to be said that the very fact of Origen’s Hexapla tells me he was quite advanced in his intellectual capacities. How many of us today could translate the Scriptures in to six languages at such a young age—let alone any age? I suspect Harrison takes the approach she does because of the value she places on humility. Let these early writers be who they were at the time they wrote.

I also smiled with delight when I kept bumping in to Harrison’s metaphor of human beings as “works of art” having a few tears and tarnishings on them because of sin (e.g., “God invites us to remove the dirt hiding in these facets and polish them until they show with the beauty God bestows on each of us”; p. 5). I share a similar view. I do so because the metaphor is legitimately derived from Ephesians 2:10, where Paul refers to his readers as God’s poiema, or “workmanship” (i.e., his “poetry”). It’s an uplifting image, especially in light of the metaphor he uses nine verses earlier where he tells his readers they were “dead in sin.”

I was also sympathetic to Harrison’s concern, stated various times and in myriad ways, that, “Many outside the church think Christianity teaches that human beings are inherently bad and guilty and that human freedom is dangerous and gets us in to trouble. Many inside the church fear they might be right” (p. 4). Used wrongly, human freedom can get us in to trouble, but that doesn’t mean we’re “inherently bad.” Perhaps “inherently broken ever since Genesis 3” is a better way to say it. That expression retains the glorious value of human personhood without diminishing the real problem that exists in our species.

A Challenge to My Spiritual Formation

Harrison is at her best when she shares vignettes from early monasteries and other faith communities, and then derives thoughtful applications from them for our day. The stories on pp. 58-62 were especially poignant, and I found them to be particularly challenging to my own postures and demeanors as a pastor. She writes charitably of Abba Poemen’s gentle treatment of a sinning brother, which was more likely to lead him to repentance than a severe rebuke. She also speaks of the compassionate treatment of a young pregnant girl by Bishop Ammonas. Such “wise and discreet actions moved everyone involved toward healing,” she writes (p. 61). Christ would be pleased not only with such an outcome, but the method by which they got to that outcome.

I need to hear these stories as a pastor who is sometimes called to respond to people’s sins and failures (not to mention my own). Defending God’s righteousness does not have to involve denuding people made in the image of God of their royal dignity. (Cf. Joseph, a righteous man, had in mind to put Mary away secretly so as not to subject her to public shame.) We can shame people for their past, or we can inspire them toward a better future. Those who’ve been on the receiving end of the latter approach seem to have deeper and longer lasting transformations, not to mention deep bonds with those who restored them gently (cf. Gal 6:1).

Indeed, Harrison models this latter approach herself throughout the book. Rather than “scolding” other camps for their missteps or excesses, she quietly puts the responsibility on her own shoulders by saying things like, “I am thankful to those who manifest the image of God in their character and actions, because they make it easier for me to find and know God” (p. 58). It’s a beautiful sentiment beautifully stated.

Some Issues with the Book

My two issues with GMSI were: (1) the selective nature of citations from the early church, leaving us with the impression that Augustine invented the concept of Original Sin; and (2) the lack of a sufficient hamartiology by which to account for both the biblical record and the sad state of human affairs that we’re all a part of today. 

Harrison will routinely speak of humanity’s “fallen condition,” but she devotes little energy to exploring where that condition came from, and how it comes to us today—outside a brief hat tip in the direction of a misuse of human freedom. Well, we already knew that, but where did our universal impulse to misuse our freedom come from, and why does everybody, at some point, do it? Any doctrine of sin must seek to account for its ubiquity, intensity, and propensity. Harrison doesn’t really go there, except to acknowledge that sin is a sad fact of life. Period.

There is wide variegation among those who took up the issue in antiquity, even before Augustine, so, it is misleading to suggest that the Western Church, and its post-Reformation acolytes engaging in ad fontes, are to blame for people’s low self-esteem today. Jewish literature had spoken for centuries of human sin deriving from Adam (e.g., IV Ezra 3:7; Sifre Deut 323; 2 Esdras 3:10, 21-22, 26; etc.). The Psalms and the prophets also made similar connections (Ps 51:5, 10, 143:2; Isa 64:6; Jer 17:9). So did the Gospels (John 1:13, 3:6, 5:42, 6:44, 8:34, 15:4-5) and the general epistles (Jas 3:2; 1 John 1:8, 10, 5:12). 

Then, of course, there are “The Two Adams” teachings in Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15. Under Adam’s headship, the whole race is broken and destined for death; under Christ’s headship, many are made whole and destined for life. Add to these two central passages the existential struggle of Romans 7, and it was only natural for subsequent thinkers to synthesize the biblical (and experiential) data the way they did. Here is a sampling of nascent concepts concerning Original Sin prior to Augustine. Quite significantly, not all of them are from the Western church.

From 100 A.D. to 200 A.D.

Irenaeus: “Men cannot be saved in any other way from the ancient wound of the Serpent except by believing in Him who according to the likeness of sinful flesh was lifted up from the earth on the tree of testimony and drew all things to Himself and gave life to the dead.” (Against Heresies 4:2:8)

Irenaeus: “Just as the human race was bound to death by a virgin, it is released through a virgin, the obedience of a virgin evenly counterbalancing the disobedience of a virgin. For the sin of the first-formed was wiped out by the chastisement of the First-born, the wisdom of the Serpent was conquered by the simplicity of the dove, and we were released from the chains by which we were bound to death.” (Against Heresies 5:19)

From 200 A.D. to 300 A.D.

Cyprian: “[Since] nobody is hindered from baptism and from grace, how much rather ought we to shrink from hindering an infant, who, being lately born, has not sinned, except in that, being born after the flesh according to Adam, he has contracted the contagion of the ancient death at its earliest birth, who approaches the more easily on this very account to the reception of the forgiveness of sins—that to him are remitted, not his own sins, but the sins of another.” (Letter 58, To Fidus)

From 300 A.D. to 400 A.D.

Hilary of Poiters: “[David] does not think he lives in this life, for he had said: ‘Behold I have been conceived in iniquities, and in sins did my mother bear me.’ He knows that he was born of sinful origin and under the law of sin.” (Exposition of Psalm 118)

Ambrose of Milan: “Before we are born we are stained by contagion, and before seeing the light we receive the injury of our very origin, we are conceived in iniquity. [Scripture] does not say whether that of our parents or our own. [But] in sins his mother gives birth to each one. Nor does [Scripture] state here whether the mother gives birth in her own sins or whether there are already some sins in the one being born. But, consider whether both are not to be understood. The conception is not without iniquity, since the parents are not without sin, and if not even a child of one day is without sin, so much more are those days of the maternal conception not without sin. Thus, we are conceived in the sin of our parents and are born in their iniquities. But birth itself also has its own contagions, and the nature itself has not merely one contagion.” (Defense of the Prophet David 11)

Gregory Nazianzen (an Eastern Father): “Let the word of Christ persuade you of this, also, as He says that no one can enter into the kingdom of heaven unless he is born again of water and the Spirit. Through Him the stains of the first birth are cleansed away, through which we are conceived in iniquity and in sins have our mothers brought us forth.” (Oratio in natalem Christi.)

Basil of Caesarea (an Eastern Father): “Fasting was established in paradise by law. For Adam received the first commandment: ‘From the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you must not eat.’ But, ‘you must not eat’ means fasting, and the beginning of the Law. If Eve had fasted from the tree, we should not need [forgiveness]. For it is not the healthy who need a physician, but they who are sick. We have fallen ill through sin; we are healed by penance. But penance without fasting is vain. The accursed earth shall bring forth thorns and thistles for thee. Are you not ordained for sorrow and not for delights?…Because we did not fast we fell from paradise. Let us fast, therefore, that we may return to it.’” (Sermon 1)

John Chrysostom (an Eastern Father): “When Adam sinned that great sin, and condemned all the human race in common, he paid the penalties in grief.” (Letter to Olympia)

John Chrysostom (an Eastern Father): “Christ wept because mortality had transgressed to the point that, cast out from eternity, it loved the world of the dead. Christ wept because the Devil made mortal those who could have been immortal.” (Homily on the Resurrection of Lazarus)

John Chrysostom (an Eastern Father): “It is clear that it is not the sin which comes from transgression of the law, but that sin which comes from the disobedience of Adam, which has defiled all.”

Conclusion

In his book Against Julian, Augustine answers the charge that he invented Original Sin by seeking to: (a) show it from the Scriptures; and (b) show it from the Fathers. In light of the foregoing evidence, it is difficult to maintain the charge that Augustine was being innovative. One can say he may have been out of biblical balance at times, but he was not out of biblical bounds. To the extent that Harrison helps put us back in balance, we can all be grateful. But it must be said that the textual impulses leading to the doctrine of Original Sin don’t go away because they’re ignored or minimized. Better to wrestle with the doctrine honestly, as did Blaise Pascal:

“Certainly nothing offends us more rudely than this doctrine; and yet, without this mystery, the most incomprehensible of all, we are incomprehensible to ourselves. The knot of our condition takes its twists and turns in this abyss, so that man is more inconceivable without this mystery than this mystery is inconceivable to man.”

If I could talk to the author directly, I would ask her, “Given the variegated hamartiology of pre-Christian and early-Christian writings, are you content to be only one, albeit an important, facet of the theological anthropology diamond?” Given the inherent humility with which she writes, I am quite certain that Harrison would say yes.

Image Credit: wallpapercave.com.

A Look at ‘Love (III)’ by George Herbert, from ‘The Temple’

George Herbert (1593-1633) was a highly regarded poet and priest in the Church of England. His “metaphysical” poetry is top-tier reading in my world—always passionate, ponderous, and elegant in its devotion to Christ. His composition “Love (III)” is a gem of image and inspiration, written as a dialogue between a host (divine Love) and a guest, who is the speaker.

The poem comprises three stanzas with six lines each, and an ABABCC rhyme scheme. The meter alternates between a loose form of iambic pentameter and iambic trimeter. It can be read as a prompt and response. Below is the text of the poem, my brief analysis of it, and a short reflection on why it speaks to me. Additional biographic information on Herbert can be found here

George Herbert ( 1593-1633). Welsh-born English poet, orator and Anglican priest. Engraving, 18th century.

1
Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back 

                              Guilty of dust and sin.

But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack 

                             From my first entrance in,

Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,

                             If I lacked any thing.

2
A guest, I answered, worthy to be here:

                             Love said, You shall be he.

I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear,

                             I cannot look on thee.

Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,

                             Who made the eyes but I?

3
Truth Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame

                             Go where it doth deserve.

And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?

                             My dear, then I will serve.

You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:

                             So I did sit and eat.

Introduction

In the preceding poems, “Love (I)” and “Love (II),” Herbert has labored to rescue the word “love” from its inferior meanings in secular usage. God, he claims, is the “Immortal Love,” and his “Immortal Heat” is totally other than human love, which is often selfishly expressed. Here in “Love (III),” Herbert shows the selfless nature of divine love, portraying not only that God is “Love,” but how God is “Love”—he is a gracious and welcoming host to broken people.

Analysis

Lines 1-2
Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back / Guilty of dust and sin.

In the presence of pure Love (i.e., God), the poet instinctively shrinks back. The next couplet explains why, but the opening line communicates Love’s disposition by echoing the sentiment of Song of Solomon 5:6, “I opened for my lover, but my lover had left; he was gone. My heart sank at his departure.” The reason for the poet’s hesitancy is then revealed; he feels “guilty” in the presence of Love. Indeed, he is guilty—on two counts in Herbert’s theology: he is sinful by birth (“dust”) and sinful by action (“sin”).

Lines 3-4
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack / From my first entrance in,

Love is portrayed here as an attentive host, noticing immediately the poet’s hesitancy (“slack”) to be in his presence. The adversative “but” indicates a strong disposition on the part of Love to overcome the poet’s hesitation. Who will win the battle of wills—the poet or Love?

Lines 5-6
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning, / If I lacked any thing.

Love steps toward the reluctant poet, not in aggression but in gentleness. He comes “sweetly questioning” him, harkening back to God’s gracious pursuit of the disobedient Adam in Genesis 3, an encounter that arguably features more grace than judgment. Moreover, Love acts here as both a selfless and other-centered host, asking if the poet “lacked any thing.” Clearly Love wants to overcome the poet’s fear and shame of being in his presence, speaking and acting in such a way as to put him at ease.

Lines 7-8
A guest, I answered, worthy to be here: / Love said, You shall be he.

The poet responds that he lacks a person worthy to be in Love’s presence. In other words, it’s not so much that the poet has a lack; he is the lack! He feels that he does not deserve to be there. Love disagrees, resolutely stating that the poet himself will be deemed worthy.

Lines 9-10
I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear, / I cannot look on thee.

The poet refutes Love’s contention that he could be considered worthy. After all, his defining attributes include being “unkind” and “ungrateful”—the very opposite of Love’s defining attributes. Such a disparity in moral character renders the poet incapable of looking directly into the eyes of Love (“I cannot look on thee”).

Lines 11-12
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply, / Who made the eyes but I?

Love initiates a gentle touch, employing a smile to indicate acceptance of the poet and delight that he’s there despite his feelings of guilt and shame. Love poses another question, forcing the poet to consider a new, more hopeful perspective: “Who made the eyes but I?” The implication is that Love is the poet’s Creator, and he did not create those eyes to look away from him in guilt but toward him in fellowship. Love is pressing the poet here to find his identity in Love’s original design for him, not his sullied record.

Lines 13-14
Truth Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame / Go where it doth deserve.

The poet protests again, resisting Love’s continued kindness because he has “marred” (i.e., stained or compromised) his eyes through un-love, possibly referring back to the deficient expressions of human love portrayed in the previous sections of the poem. The moral crimes producing his sense of shame render him worthy of condemnation and, thus, unworthy of Love.

Lines 15-16
And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame? My dear, then I will serve.

Love reminds the poet that Someone “bore the blame” for his moral crimes, a reference to Christ and his atoning work on the cross. Captivated by the reminder that no blame remains, the poet now feels compelled to serve Love (“My dear, then I will serve”). His attitude is reminiscent of the prodigal son’s intention to return to his father as a hired hand, not as a son (Luke 15:18-20). 

But as the next couplet indicates, such an economic arrangement is not Love’s intention. The poet is made worthy by Love, so Love will serve him, not vice versa. The image is taken from Luke 12:37, where, quite shockingly, cultural norms are stood on their head when the master starts serving the servants: “It will be good for those servants whose master finds them watching when he comes. I tell you the truth, he will dress himself to serve, will have them recline at the table and will come and wait on them.” The biblical scene is almost scandalous, but this is what Love looks like, and this is what Love does. 

Lines 17-18
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat: / So I did sit and eat.

In the end, Love wins (“So I did sit and eat”). But he wins by overcoming the poet’s reluctance with kindness, not coercion. And “winning” here takes the form of Love serving the poet a meal made by his own hands (“my meat”). Love doesn’t win by punishing the poet for his moral crimes; the claims of justice for those crimes have long since been satisfied. Consequently, all that remains now is for the poet to allow his guilt and shame to melt away in the presence of Love. When that happens, a delightful meal of peace is shared at the table of brotherhood. That was Love’s aim all along.

Why This Poem Speaks to Me

I could well be the broken poet. I have plenty of moral crimes to my name, and they render me “unworthy” in the presence of Love. But God’s deepest desire has never been to play the part of my vindictive Judge; his desire has always been to be my gracious host and share a meal with me at his table (cf. Rev 3:20). He can do so without compromising his holiness because Someone “bore the blame.” My blame. 

Consequently, my own guilt and shame can melt away in the presence of Love, and I can look at God again—in the face of Jesus Christ.

So can you.

Contact me if you’d like to know more about how to begin a journey with Jesus.

‘The Crisis in Expository Preaching Today’ by Walter C. Kaiser, Jr.

Review of Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., “The Crisis in Expository Preaching Today,” Preaching (September/October 1995): 4-12.

Summary

As the title indicates, Walter Kaiser believed there was a “crisis in expository preaching” in the pulpit. That was 25 years ago this month. Has the situation gotten better or worse over the past two and a half decades? A recent Gallup poll suggests that “sermon content is what appeals most to churchgoers,” and not just any sermon content, but content based on the Bible. Maybe Kaiser’s warning was heeded after all.

Kaiser argued that there never was a widespread demand in the American church for systematically laying out and explaining biblical texts for contemporary listeners. That was a crisis to him because only expository preaching could afford the Scriptures their rightful place in setting both the agenda and the diet for a congregation’s spiritual health.

Moreover, the much revered Old Testament scholar contended that only expository preaching could successfully confront the crisis of truth and the widespread assault on authority that was rampant in society at the time. Postmodernism eroded the concept of truth and rendered the Bible a mere “dialogue partner,” he said. Scripture was the main casualty of the revolution, having been lost in the clamor for relevance, relatability, and the trendy “meeting of needs.”

“Rather than Scripture declaring what God wants to say to us, the crowds that come dictate what is acceptable, popular, nonthreatening, and preachable for modern audiences” he warned. The absurdity of this reversal is that “the people, who theoretically are in need of spiritual help, are prescribing for the spiritual physicians what it is they need!”

“Rather than Scripture declaring what God wants to say to us, the crowds that come dictate what is acceptable, popular, nonthreatening, and preachable for modern audiences.”

The remedy for this “contemporary morass that preaching has fallen into,” he said, was to preach the whole canon of Scripture—faithfully, exegetically, and systematically. This includes the Old Testament as well as the New. Parishioners must see the organic unity of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation.

“Modern congregations have lost their sense of direction because they do not know either the beginning, middle, or end of the plan that God has laid out so clearly in the Bible,” he wrote. Preachers must avoid getting “stuck” and simply going over and over again the same old elementary truths of the gospel, thereby serving only milk to their people and not solid food.

Given our gravitation toward those portions of Scripture we know best, preachers must endeavor to exegete for their people the whole counsel of God, he said—book by book, chapter by chapter, paragraph by paragraph. “A consistent and systematic exposition of the Scriptures will help restore order, end the habits of a violent society and repair damaged relationships at every level of society,” he wrote.

Evaluation

Kaiser made a strong case for the preacher’s systematic and exegetical approach to expository preaching. “If the sermon is to have any authority in this day and age, it must have the divine authority claimed in the text as its warrant,” he noted. This kind of logic, which permeates the article, is as inspiring as it is foundational.

“If the sermon is to have any authority in this day and age, it must have the divine authority claimed in the text as its warrant.”

Kaiser probably could have addressed other important homiletical issues in his article, such as cultural intelligence, the ethics of persuasion, and communicational effectiveness in our day. After all, our society as a whole doesn’t seem to be any healthier than it was back in 1995, despite the uptick in biblical exposition. What good is expository preaching that doesn’t connect, inspire, or persuade?

Still, as many pulpits began slouching toward a foggy future at the behest of spiritual gadflies and cultural malcontents two and a half decades ago, Kaiser envisioned a glorious church whose life would be built squarely and unashamedly on the firm foundation of God’s authoritative truth—the sacred Scriptures.

Gallup seems to agree. At least for now. Not that Kaiser needed the confirmation.

‘The Supremacy of God in Preaching’ by John Piper

Review of John Piper, The Supremacy of God in Preaching, rev. and exp. ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2015). ISBN: 978-0801017087. (Page numbers refer to the 1990 edition.)

Overview

The Supremacy of God in Preaching is an exhortation to those who exhort. Brief yet piercing, the book serves as a clarion call for preachers to strike the right balance of gravity and gladness in today’s pulpit, while setting forth a clear challenge for more God-glorifying, Christ-honoring, and Spirit-empowered proclamation. “Our people are starving for God,” says John Piper, former senior pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota. “Preaching that does not have the aroma of God’s greatness may entertain for a season, but it will not touch the hidden cry of the soul: ‘Show me thy glory!’” (9, 11).

piper-john-the-supremacy-of-god-in-preachingWriting from a Reformed Baptist perspective, Piper passionately contends that a weighty, theocentric sermon is not primarily the product of homiletical technique, but rather the result of the preacher’s personal holiness and a God-immersed life. Citing Robert Murray M’Cheyne, Piper contends, “It is not great talents God blesses so much as great likeness to Jesus. A holy minister is an awful weapon in the hand of God” (11).

The book is divided into two parts. The first is titled “Why God Should Be Supreme in Preaching.” Here Piper offers four chapters on what he considers to be, “The Goal of Preaching,” “The Ground of Preaching,” “The Gift of Preaching,” and the “Gravity and Gladness of Preaching.” The second part of the book focuses on the practical outworking of these chapters and is titled, “How to Make God Supreme in Preaching: Guidance from the Ministry of Jonathan Edwards.” Here Piper develops three chapters on a set of imperatives taken from the life and pulpit ministry of his hero Jonathan Edwards, the famous American philosopher/theologian/pastor: “Keep God Central,” “Submit to Sweet Sovereignty,” and “Make God Supreme.”

The Supremacy of God in Preaching, which grew out of the 1988 Harold J. Ockenga Lectures on Preaching at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and the 1984 Billy Graham Center Lectures on Preaching at Wheaton College, was voted “Book of the Year” by Preaching magazine.  Continue reading “‘The Supremacy of God in Preaching’ by John Piper”