December 19, 2014

Waiting with no end in sight

Filed under: Uncategorized — kevinocoin @ 5:27 pm

Advent is all about waiting. If you are at all familiar with Advent, that much is clear. Through our imaginations, we put ourselves in the shoes of the original Israelites and await the arrival of the Christ child. And I contemplate when I have been in seasons of waiting and what I am waiting for right now.

But my thinking about waiting is narrow and truncated, because Advent happens for four weeks and then it is over. I know Christmas is coming. I know the date. And I can’t scrub that from my thinking. As much as I try to share the anticipation of the people of God as they waited for a Saviour, I know when and how he will come.

But those first-century Jews didn’t. They had their ideas about what the Messiah might be like and do, but they didn’t know all the details. But an even more poignant reality is that I imagine most people were doubtful, apathetic, or forgetful in the midst of the wait. They were in the tail end of a 400-year period in which there were no official prophets in Israel to speak to the people (though clearly God was at work getting ready for his Son’s arrival). To some it seemed perhaps as if God had forgotten about them, and so they were doubtful that the Messiah would come at all. Or perhaps if God had forgotten about them, the only response was to forget about God — to go through the religious motions, but not give God much more thought than that. It isn’t like anyone in the country got up every morning and exclaimed, “Okay, this is the day the Messiah will be born. I just know it!” Even if someone had tried that for a while, the disappointment would would have been crushing and the discipline quickly abandoned.

All that to say, I don’t think the post-Jesus Advent tradition as typically conceived can truly allow me to appreciate the skeptical/weary/desperate culture into which Jesus was born completely unexpectedly.

But another part of the Advent tradition serves us better here. While most of the Advent material directs our eyes to the past and the first coming of Christ, Advent is traditionally also a time to remind ourselves to look forward to the Second Coming of Christ. In doing this, we more authentically share a connection with those who first welcomed Jesus into the world. We, from our vantage point vis-à-vis the Second Coming, are looking forward to something, just as the ancients were. We are anticipating something of which we have a sense because of the gift of biblical witness to it (enough material to whet the appetite and stimulate the imagination), just as the ancients did. And we have no idea when Jesus is coming, just as was true for those at the first Christmas. When I look forward to the Second Coming of Jesus and experience first-hand that anticipation, curiosity, and cluelessness, I am better able to know what was true for those around the birth of Jesus. And in the midst of that, I am also skeptical and forgetful. Sometimes the whole idea of the Second Coming is hard to believe because the wait has been so long. And because urgency is hard to maintain every day for 2,000 years, there are perhaps a handful of days of the year on which I am even reminded or remind myself that he is coming back one day. But otherwise out of sight, out of mind.

In this we discover the gift of Advent — for four weeks we can look both forward and back and consider what it means to wait and prepare, even in the midst of our longing, doubt, and apathy.

Guilt, Shame, Conversion, and Discipleship

Filed under: Uncategorized — kevinocoin @ 4:05 pm

There has been a lot of talk about and research on the ideas of guilt and shame in the last several years.  Brené Brown in particular has done a wonderful job of opening up the conversation on this uncomfortable, messy, and often misunderstood topic.  The basic idea that Brown works with is that guilt is a feeling attached to behaviour (that a person has done something wrong; this is an emotion akin to remorse), whereas shame is a feeling attached to identity (that there is something wrong with a person themselves).  This idea of shame based in identity was first proposed by Helen Block Lewis in Shame and Guilt in Neurosis (1971).  Brown offers this distinction:

I define shame as the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection (

While this is a very compelling distinction, and one which I in fact share (in part), it is of course based in secular psychological research.  The question for the Christian then ought to be, “What might the Bible say about this distinction, if anything?”  At the very least, does it contradict any of the claims of Scripture?

Regarding guilt, in the Bible the term is always used in reference to some action, something done or even left undone.  A sin has been committed, and the person or people can both experience the feeling of guilt and have entered into the condition of being guilty.  It is an emotion and a state.  This agrees with the distinction offered by Block.

Shame, however, seems categorically different. The overarching biblical sense of the word is ????.  It is hard for someone to make you feel guilty; but being put to shame is more manageable.  You may not even feel guilt about a perceived wrongdoing, but people around you can make you feel shame.  It is less easily “gotten over” or dealt with, like guilt may be.  Thus I think in general the action/identity dichotomy of guilt and shame does not seem to be in conflict with Scripture.

That being said, is there a difference in how guilt and shame function within the Christian framework?  The action/identity theme is helpful, but need to be nuanced.

The person who does not profess belief in Christ can feel both guilt and shame.  Whatever his or her moral framework or lack thereof, only sociopaths are exempt from these emotions.  But if shame is based in selfhood, how does shame function in the life of the non-believer.  The Bible declares that are people are created in the image of God and still bear that image, whether slightly marred or nearly unrecognizable through the degradation of sin.  Being that God is our creator, he is also the source of our soul and thus our identity.  He is the only one with authority to tell us who we are and who we ought to be.  From a biblical point of view, then, shame is the result of our not living into the identity we have in God.  Shame actually points to something that is true.  Shame says “there is something wrong with you.”  Yes, there is!  It is sin and unreconciled relationship with God.  One way to look at it is that guilt is the result of one sin; shame is the accumulated effect of a sin-lifestyle. In biblical terms, the non-believer carries the identity “sinner,” to which a feeling of shame in a natural and appropriate response.  Now if that is where the feeling of shame stayed, it would serve as a way to reorient ourselves to God who can deliver us from shame.  However, Satan quickly grabs hold of our shame and twists us.  The message of the Gospel is that God loves us and wants relationship with us, our feeling of shame notwithstanding.  But Satan tells us a lie: “There is something wrong with you.  How could God possibly love you?  Satan uses our shame to implicate and lie about God’s nature.  But as the Holy Spirit is active in a person’s life, he or she will see the lie for what is it and will flee to a God who loves as the only remedy for shame.  Neither guilt nor shame can be dealt with apart from God.

So then a person becomes a believer, but you don’t have to be a believer for any length of time to know that shame doesn’t end.  To what ought we to attribute this?  A few things.  Some feelings of shame are entirely illegitimate.  As with all things in Christian faith, the Bible stands as our guide.  If we have made a profession of faith, God is pleased with us and we have entered eternal life (Rom 10.9-13).  The Spirit we received when we confessed our faith assures us that we are children of God (Rom 8.14-17).  The Devil tries his old tricks with shame because they worked before, but in Christ that kind of shame need no longer have a hold on us.

But there is still a role for shame.  It actually starts with guilt.  We sin, either by commission or omission, either deliberately or unconsciously, and we experience guilt as the Holy Spirit brings it to our minds.  As we mature in the faith, we keep shorter accounts with God and go to him to ask for forgiveness and reconcile with others as necessary.  But there are times when we live sins unaddressed, and perhaps more sins pile on.  As I said above, guilt is the result of one sin; shame is the accumulated effect of a sin-lifestyle.  Which means that what begins as a guilt related to a single sin becomes shame, and we recognize something wrong within us — not that our identity stands as sinner any longer, but that the way we are acting does not match up with the new identity of redeemed person, holy one, that we receive in Jesus.  Again, shame by itself stands as the road sign telling us to do a U-turn and head back to God.  It is a recognition that things are not as they should be, that they are not well with our soul.  But again, the Devil can come along and twist it and make us think we have lost our privilege place before God or are somehow no longer worthy of his love, as if how we act would ever determine God’s love for us. So here is where I differ from Brown’s assertion that “shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.”  While I believe the first part, I do not believe the bold therefore is inherent to shame: that is the accretion of the Enemy. God desires always to connect with his creatures.

This may seem like hair-splitting, but here’s why I think it matters.  To Brown, shame is at best unhelpful and at worst incredibly damaging, and therefore ought to be categorically rejected.  However, if the biblical vision of two different identities that the sacrifice of Jesus allows people to choose between, is true, then shame serves a useful purpose insofar as it helps steer people toward that choice.  It is a reminder for the non-believer and the wayward believer, that something is wrong and out to be address.  If we reject shame out of hand, we discard a valuable tool that helps us navigate the faith journey by pointing us back toward obedience in Jesus.  Because Jesus is the only one who has authority to speak into existence my new identity as saint, he is the only one who can properly deal with guilt and shame.  It cannot be done away with by ignoring it.  We do not actually have the power to justify ourselves and therefore end our own shame.  If shame must necessarily be bad, we think positive thoughts or repeat a mantra or go to counselling until it goes away, instead of submitting the feeling to God in prayer, and the God can remind us the shame is false because it is based on our forgetfulness of our new nature in Christ, or whether it is a genuine remind that we are not living into that new identity.  We actually circumvent the conviction of the Holy Spirit.  We still have guilt available to us, but that is often attached to a specific action that we would name as bad, whether illegal or not.  If we have no moral conviction or principle around it, we are not likely to feel guilty, and guilt isn’t something other people can easily impose on us.  We also have the feeling of embarrassment, but that depends on being discovered in something — so no discovery, no embarrassment — or it is usually related to something trivial that is not necessarily morally wrong, just not something you are supposed to do, according to social norms: burping, picking your nose, or forgetting to call a person you said you would.  So where does that leave us?  How might we expect to feel if God were trying to get our attention on something that you might not consider morally objectionable and that no one else knows about?  If there is no guilt or embarrassment attached to the action, there could be an surprisingly feeling of shame that points you toward an incongruity between your current actions and your new nature as saint wrapped up in the Christian worldview.

I say we need to keep shame but remind ourselves that the tendency that it evokes in us to run and hide and not seek connection, is in fact an aberration of the Enemy, not the real emotion that is hardwired into us to indicate we are not living into all we can be in Christ.  In some senses I don’t actually care what anyone calls it.  My concern is that we don’t label a certain feeling as bad or evil and then reject out of hand the whisperings of God’s Spirit to our own as he leads us in love in the way of Christ.

October 24, 2014

That’s a LOT of Money!

Filed under: Uncategorized — kevinocoin @ 4:57 am

Jesus is no stranger to hyperbole in his parables, but the parable of the unforgiving debtor (Mt. 18.21-35) takes it to a whole new level.

The story opens with a king who is looking to collect on his accounts, a slave is brought to him who owes 10,000 talents.  My first thought when I read that is some vague notion that it is a fairly large sum, then I wonder why a slave would have asked for and then be entrusted with that kind of money, and then I move on with the story. To clarify, we aren’t talking 10,000 dollars, nor even 100,000. One talent by itself was fifteen years wages for a labourer, the lowest earning person in ancient society. In Manitoba, a full-time minimum wage employee earns about $18,500 after tax. Based on that, 10,000 talents worth in today’s dollars would be 2.775 trillion dollars. I very quickly realize that amount is something no one person could ever hope to repay. Bill Gates himself, the richest man in the world with a comparatively insignificant net worth of $65 billion, would be unable to pay that. In fact, according to number published by Forbes, it would take over 1,000 of the richest people in the world today to combine their net worth to pay off that amount.

Jesus wants his listeners to understand that by no stretch of the imagination could the slave ever hope to get out of this one. When Jesus tells of how the slave begs for time to repay, the listeners probably scoffed at the idiocy. But then something marvellous happens: the king forgives the debt, just because the servant asks. I don’t think America, with a similar national debt, would have much luck begging for that kind of relief with its creditors. But the king did it, and those same listeners who scoffed at the stupidity of the servant probably gasped at the reckless generosity of the king. How could he stand to lose that kind of money? Humanly, no one could. But the king is standing in for God, who has no limit to his wealth, for he has created the world and owns the cattle on a thousand hills (Ps 50.10). Thank you, God, that when we as broken people come before you with a debt of sin this big and bigger, your resources are great enough to cover the cost!

But then the audience is once again shocked when the slave goes and asks for repayment from someone who owes his money — and a mere 13,500 dollars at that! The only way I can make sense of this is to assume that the slave didn’t actually believe he had been forgiven for the debt, and wanted to repay at least what he could of the debt. So he bullies those who owe him, completely forgetting about the grace he has received.  Needless to say, it backfires on the unmerciful debtor, the one who had owed and been forgiven a LOT of money.


October 9, 2014

Witness and Hiddenness

Filed under: Uncategorized — kevinocoin @ 7:10 pm
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This morning I read a passage that is very familiar to me, and to many others.  Jesus, in his Sermon on the Mount, speaks these words:

“You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Mt 5.14-16).

Jesus is very clear here; there doesn’t seem to be much to elaborate on. Then I discovered a cross-reference that pointed out how Jesus uses the same metaphor of the lamp in two other seemingly unrelated passages. In Luke we read:

“No one lights a lamp and puts it in a place where it will be hidden, or under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, so that those who come in may see the light. Your eye is the lamp of your body. When your eyes are healthy, your whole body also is full of light. But when they are unhealthy, your body also is full of darkness. See to it, then, that the light within you is not darkness. Therefore, if your whole body is full of light, and no part of it dark, it will be just as full of light as when a lamp shines its light on you” (11.33-36).

In the Matthew passage, the light on the stand is the visible witness of Jesus’ followers as they act as transformed people of God.  In the Luke passage, however, the lamp changes from shining light outward for all to see, to shining it inward to penetrate the darkness of one’s soul.  For Matthew, to put the lamp under a basket is to dim the light of Jesus shining out from us to be a witness in the world; for Luke, to put the lamp under a basket is to limit the potential for the light of God’s truth to shine into our interior lives.

At first I was confused.  Jesus seemed to be using the same metaphor to speak of two very different, even opposite things.  But then I realized that they are actually linked, even dependent upon one another.  Much of what Scripture speaks about when it reflects on the Christian life is the centrality of being transformed from the inside first, which then leads to powerful witness.  For example, Jesus speaks about himself as the true vine, from whom we as little branches draw our life and energy.  And he warns that if we sever ourselves from him, we can do nothing (Jn 15.4).  Likewise, it is no coincidence that many of Paul’s letters begin with a theology section that describes the new life the Christian has in Christ before it moves into a section of how to live.  For the Christians, ethics is rooted in ontology: we live in the way God desires us to live because we are fundamentally new beings in Jesus (2 Cor 5.17).  The “therefore” in Romans 12.1 marks this transition between identity and how that influences our actions.  Colossians 3:1-5 forms a similar hinge point in that letter.

In my mind, the metaphor in Luke logically precedes the metaphor in Matthew.  The reality of the light of Jesus shining into our lives and dispelling all the darkness, must first happen before the light of Jesus can shine out of us.  If the darkened life is dark indeed, what light can be reflected outward?  Our hiddenness can dim our witness.  When we refuse to let the light into all the dark corners of our soul, we take the lamp from the stand and put under a basket; we black out the windows of the city on the hill.

And then there is a third use of the lamp metaphor.

He said to them, “Do you bring in a lamp to put it under a bowl or a bed? Instead, don’t you put it on its stand? For whatever is hidden is meant to be disclosed, and whatever is concealed is meant to be brought out into the open” (Mk 4.21-22).

If the light on the stand is used to uncover and disclose, should Jesus’ followers themselves not also be exposed?  Our failures and follies and foibles must surely be made known to us by God who knows all.  And if we would dare to try to reflect the light of Jesus back to others like lights in a city on a hill or a lamp on a stand in the middle of the house, our sins and imperfections will surely also be seen. But if we endeavour to hide and withdraw into shame and hiddenness — if we try to not let the light uncover and reveal as it ought to — then it cannot shine out either.

I say “cannot” but that is not fair, really.  From a human point of view, in which it is all up to us, my screw ups would certainly spell the end of any witness I might have. (Incidentally, it is precisely when we buy into the “it’s-all-up-to-us” view that we are most prone to hid our stuff, which just dooms the potential for true witness).  But the success of Jesus’ witness, as much as we become his partners in this mission, does not depend on us getting it right.  Sometimes, it actually depends on us getting it wrong.  Because Jesus’ light shines out from us in spite of our brokenness and darkness, and Jesus’ light shines out from us because of our brokenness and darkness.  If you took a clay pot and smashed it, put it back together with super glue, and then put a lit candle inside and placed it in a dark space, the light would shine through all the cracks.  The light would actually be more visible than if the jar were entirely sealed and flawless.  Tbis is the way of grace and what keeps us moving in spite of ourselves.  This is not to suggest that we linger in darkness and deliberately wander away.  Paul writes: “What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means!” (Rom 6.1-2).  The light of Jesus shining into us and out of Jesus is mean to dispel the darkness.  It is meant to renew and reinvigorate and release.  And when we experience that, we will be great witnesses for Jesus, because we then speak about a redemption we know first hand — one that depends entirely on Jesus, but invites us to be partners in the project.


April 20, 2014

Lenten Learnings

Filed under: Uncategorized — kevinocoin @ 11:31 am

Today ends my lenten fast from media and digital technology.  For more details of my fast, read the previous article from Feb 15, “My Lenten Fast.”  It has been a great experience, and I have learned some new things and rediscovered things I have known.

(1) I can find distractions aplenty if I seek them out.  A huge reason to do this fast was to excise distraction from my life.  I had become too distracted and wasn’t using my time well.  So I thought I would cut out media and tech and replace that with more deliberate time investing in relationship with God and others.  And it really worked.  When you don’t have the radio on the car, you create space for prayer.  When you aren’t reaching for games on the phone or checking Facebook, prayer becomes a more real and compelling option.  But that doesn’t mean I was entirely free of distraction.  There are lots of other things that can get in the way, and if I really didn’t want to spend time with God or my own thoughts, a good old-fashioned paper book was a great diversion.  Distractions are always available, particularly if I go looking for them.

(2) It wasn’t as hard as I thought it might be.  I wasn’t sure what to expect, but this fast actuality came more naturally to me than I thought it might.  I was even looking forward to it since I had decided on the project.  I think part of it was because I had seen for some time the negative consequences of being so distracted.  But I think it is always because distractions quickly lose their lustre if you take the time and have the courage to take a step back.  When you give yourself a little perspective, you can see the little distractions and diversions with which we so often fill our lives for what they really are — amusing, but ultimately unfulfilling and unimportant, particularly in contrast to the investment in relationship that I had decided to concentrate on.  Distractions are always at hand, easy, and quick, but they aren’t really all that meaningful.

(3) Social media inflates your sense of self-importance.  Not too many days into the fast, I heard a great quotation that I really wanted to share with people.  Normally, I would hope on Twitter, which is linked to Facebook, and send it out there.  The totally unrealistic and unexamined assumption I had in doing that was, because it was on the Internet, everyone in the world had access to my wisdom and wit.  This is technically true, but how many people actually bothered to read it, let alone reflect on and be impressed by it?  Very few, I am sure.  Social media actually seeks to create for you a disproportionate sense of your own importance and connectedness.  I may think I am clever, but few take the time to admire.

(4) Tech and media is part of the very fabric of our lives.  I said that it was easy to abstain — when I was aware of it.  But there was lots of times I found myself reaching for the iPad or the radio dial, without even realizing it.  As the fast went on, these times became less, but I was struck by the prevalence of these things and how much we thoughtlessly plug in or consume media.  It takes deliberate training to abstain.

February 15, 2014

My Lenten Fast

Filed under: Uncategorized — kevinocoin @ 2:11 pm

I am fairly a distractible person.  It is rare for me to dedicate my emotional and mental energy to one task for any length of time in one sitting.  This doesn’t need to be  a downside, but I recognize the pitfalls of it.  Distractions can easily worm their way into my thoughts, particularly since I bought an iPad and iPhone.  Digital distraction is now never more than a swipe away.  I have recognized this for some time, along with a growing sense of unease.  So this Lent I have decided to do something about it.

So here are the rules for my electronics and media fast in the season of Lent.

(1) No electronics.  No computer, iPad, iPhone, TV.  This means no games (old fashioned board games still allowed), blogging, Starbucks card app, surfing the net, social media, etc.

Where this does not apply is to telephone, email, calendaring, texting, online banking, etc.: things necessary to life and work.

(2) No media.  No radio, podcasts, You Tube, music, TV, Netflix, movies, or magazines.  Paper books are allowed.

This will leave me alone more often with my thoughts, eliminate distractions, and make more time for focused engagement in relationships.  In stead of electronics and media, I plan to insert prayer.  I don’t know yet what this looks like.  I am researching something even as structured as praying the Divine Office in some form.

Anyone ever done anything like this before?

June 6, 2013

Simple (not easy) instructions

Filed under: Uncategorized — kevinocoin @ 12:51 pm

I came across a single verse a few weeks back that has consistently stuck with me.  It is in Deuteronomy, which means immediately my ears perk up, because I know Deuteronomy is Moses’ farewell speech, and anyone’s last words tend to be very important.  And the verse is in a section about true and false gods and prophets.  It is Moses reminding people of who the one true God is and how the people ought then to respond.  He says this:

You shall go after Yahweh your God, and him you shall revere, and his commandment you shall keep, and to his voice you shall listen, and him you shall serve, and to him you shall hold fast (Dt 13.4).

What I like about this is simply that is it so short and direct.  I think to myself when I read this: “If I just did this, my relationship with God would be significantly different (read: better).”  It is very simple, true, but it ain’t easy.

The verse is divided into six imperatives, each of which I want to treat briefly and separately:

(1) “Go after”: this could also be rendered “follow.”  Following means allowing someone else to take the lead and walking behind them.  This is actually a great encouragement to me because it means I don’t have to blaze a trail and bushwack.  God goes ahead of me and he makes a way.  He takes the hits because he is at the front of the pack and he deals with the obstacles.  Now, following does mean that I have to have a clear sense of where God is going.  This isn’t always easy.  Frequently I know he is ahead of me+, but I don’t know which way he has gone.  The Israelites had the benefit of a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire at night.  I don’t.  So it is a bit more challenging, but far less challenging than trying to break trail myself.

(2) “Revere”: this could also be rendered “fear”.  Personally I connect with God best when I have a proper perspective on how big God is and my relative importance and finitude.  I love passages like Isaiah 6, where God is pictured as so enormous that the only thing that can fit into the temple is the hem of his robe.  When I have this perspective and know that as much as He loves me, he is king and I am not, it helps me live as I should.

(3) “Keep”: this could also be rendered “guard”.  We keep or guard something that is important to us, that we cherish.  Do we treat his commandments in this way?  Could we say: “the law from your mouth is more precious to me than thousands of pieces of silver and gold”? (Ps 119.72)

(4) “Listen”: this could also be rendered “obey”.  We obey those whom we respect and who we recognize as having authority over us.  And to obey we need to listen, and to listen we need to recognize what we are hearing.  Jesus said his sheep know his voice (Jn 10.27).  To be honest, much like how I don’t always know where God has gone off to, I am not always confident that I know his voice.  But that comes as I spend more time with him, and as I shut up long and eliminate noise from my live long enough to hear it.

(5) “Serve”: Pretty straightforward.  I am reminded of Paul’s exhortation to serve others as if serving the Lord (Eph 6.7).  We own our full allegiance to God, not other deities, but even in that, we serve others as if serving him.  Jesus  reminds us that as we serve those in need, we are truly serving him (Mt 25.40).

(6) “Hold fast”: this could be rendered “cling”.  I regard this as a summary statement for the verse.  All the other five things are in some respect action-oriented items.  There is activity and action in following and listening and serving.  Clearly clinging is an action as well, but I know less than the other verbs what that actually looks like.  Instead, I think of it more as an inner attitude.  To cling to God means to regard everything else as unimportant (or at least less important).  There is a desperation, a “this is my only chance”-ness to the idea of “cling” that speaks to an attitude to fulfills the other imperatives and ultimately makes them truly possible.

April 5, 2013

The Role of the Spirit

Filed under: Uncategorized — kevinocoin @ 11:11 am

Every once in a while, as you become more familiar with Scripture, you notice connections and parallels you hadn’t picked up on before.  This has happened with me with Romans 8, which I have been spending a lot of time thinking about as I endeavour to commit it to memory.  There is lots of talk in the chapter about the battle between the flesh and Spirit, but what really struck me in particular about that was how Paul describes what the Spirit does for us.  And in speaking about this, he uses the same phrase (“that very Spirit…”) in two separate places.  The repetition is what first made me notice this.

First, Paul writes: οὐ γὰρ ἐλάβετε πνεῦμα δουλείας πάλιν εἰς φόβον, ἀλλὰ ἐλάβετε πνεῦμα υἱοθεσίας, ἐν ᾧ κράζομεν, Αββα ὁ πατήρ:αὐτὸ τὸ πνεῦμα συμμαρτυρεῖ τῷ πνεύματι ἡμῶν ὅτι ἐσμὲν τέκνα θεοῦ (For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God) Romans 8.15-16, NRSV.

So Paul talks about the Spirit as one who reminds us that we have been adopted by the heavenly Father, and therefore that very Spirit, by way of discharging that duty, reminds us that we are God’s adopted offspring.  He never ceases to whisper this to us, that we may live in the freedom that comes with being part of God’s family.

Next, Paul writes: Ὡσαύτως δὲ καὶ τὸ πνεῦμα συναντιλαμβάνεται τῇ ἀσθενείᾳ ἡμῶν: τὸ γὰρ τί προσευξώμεθα καθὸ δεῖ οὐκ οἴδαμεν, ἀλλὰ αὐτὸ τὸ πνεῦμα ὑπερεντυγχάνει στεναγμοῖς ἀλαλήτοις (Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedeswith sighs too deep for words) Romans 8.26, NRSV.

So Paul speaks about the Spirit as assisting us, His children, in our weakness, and therefore that very Spirit, by way of discharging that duty, speaks to the Father emotions that words cannot express.  He prays on our behalf so that we need not be worried about how to express ourselves.  Prayers are being offered even when we are unawares or too warn out to find the right words.

The Spirit does both these things for us, as well as many others mentioned in Romans and elsewhere, but these two pieces of his job description jumped out at me due to the repetition.


March 27, 2013

The Chain of God’s Action

Filed under: Uncategorized — kevinocoin @ 1:59 am

I have been memorizing Romans chapter 8 recently, and this week I got to these words:

28We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. 29For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his son, in order that he may be the firstborn within a large family. 30And those whom he foreknew, he also called; and those whom he called, he also justified; and those whom he justified, he also glorified. 

It’s an interesting logical progression: first comes foreknowledge, then predestination, then calling, then justification, then glorification.  It seems a pretty complete list, other than that we might expect sanctification inserted into the list between justification and glorification, based on what we know of Paul’s theology from elsewhere in Romans as well as other letters.  But these verses more or less offer a insight into the chain of God’s action toward us as he calls and molds us, based on his purposes.

March 13, 2013

The Many Branches of the Church

Filed under: Uncategorized — kevinocoin @ 7:32 am

In my experience, many people both inside and outside of churches in North America have an overly simplistic view of Christian denominations and their lineages.  The two main categories I often hear used are “Catholic” and “Protestant.”  According this thinking, there are those who are Catholic, and then everyone else, whom we lump together a Protestants.  But the catch-all label of Protestant both misunderstands the historical record, and doesn’t respect how Christians in various denominations understand their place in the midst of this history.  To my mind, there are actually seven distinct/major branches of Christian faith, none of which can be collapsed into any other.  Let me explain.

First, there was simply the Church.  There really was only one entity that claimed to represent Christ in the world.  Some may not have agreed with official church doctrine, and there were small groups 0f people who were branded heretics, but from an “official” standpoint, there was the one, holy, catholic (read: universal), apostolic church.

Then, in 431, at the third ecumenical church council at Ephesus, there was a significant disagreement among those represented, and some Christians would leave the fold and establish an independent church which still exists today as the Assyrian Church of the East and claims 400,000-500,000 modern-day adherents.

20 years later, the scene was to be repeated.  At the fourth ecumenical council at Chalcedon (451), there was again enough theological controversy to create another division.  What is now called the Oriental Orthodox Church still exists today in places like Egypt, Eritrea, Armenia, and Ethiopia.

The next division to occur was far larger.  For quite some time, tensions had been simmering between Catholics in Western Europe and Catholics in the East (Eastern Europe, Turkey, Palestine, and parts of the Near East).  Eventually this came to a head in 1054 when the Pope (who was mostly regarded as the spiritual leader in the West) and the Patriarch of Constantinople (the spiritual leader in the East), excommunicated each other.  There were some attempts over the next hundred years to bring reconciliation, but the divide only seemed to widen, leaving the Roman Catholic Church much as we think of it today, and the Eastern Orthodox Church.

The next big change came during the Reformation era in Europe (1520s and onward).  The most famous Reformation was the Protestant Reformation: think Martin Luther (Lutheranism), John Calvin (Reformed Church), and John Knox (Presbyterianism).  These men departed from Catholic teaching but still valued the role that the government could play in the church and society, and so they stuck with the idea of a state-sponsored church.  So if the ruler of your certain country was Protestant, so were you, and don’t cry about it.

There were those who liked some of the theological innovations of the Protestant reformers, but didn’t think these went far enough.  In particular, they valued the role of conscience and didn’t want to force their faith on anyone through the conformism of a state church.  They believed churches should communities of people who intentionally and willingly followed Jesus Christ as the Lord of their lives.  As such, they also believed in baptism for those who chose to pursue it and understood that it meant a voluntary surrender to a life of following Christ, whereas in the Catholic and Protestant traditions, baptism was largely practiced on infants.  These people were known as the Anabaptists.  Modern versions of Anabaptism include the Amish, Mennonites, and Brethren in Christ.  They borrowed elements from both Catholicism and Protestantism, mixed with their own theological ideas.

Also around this same time, King Henry of England had a disagreement with the Pope over whether Henry could obtain a divorce from his first wife, Catherine, on the grounds that Henry believed his marriage was cursed (the proof being they could not have a child).  The Pope forbade such a move, so Henry took things into his own hands, declaring himself as the head of the Church in England instead of the Pope.  But really this was the only issue the King had with the Catholic Church.  He was still a staunch defender of Catholic theology and most of its practice.  And throughout the history of Anglicanism it has often resembled Catholicism very closely in belief and practice.  So it is not Catholic, because the Pope doesn’t command leadership, but neither does it share the theological emphases of Protestantism.  And Anglicans themselves don’t see themselves as Catholic or Protestant, so it requires its own category.

Finally, we have what we call Evangelicalism, or sometimes Restorationism, which by far captures the greatest diversity of denominations and movement.  These denominations began separating themselves from the Anglican and Protestant churches in the mid-18th century.  They sought to recapture the enthusiasm, theological purity, and emphasis on personal holiness that had, they believed, been lost between the time of the early church and their own time.  This category includes Baptists, Pentecostals, Nazarenes, Evangelical Free, Vineyard, and Methodists, among others.  Most “non-denominational” churches also embrace the Evangelical ethos.  A scholar man named David Bebbington, in a highly influential 1989 book called Evangelicalism in Modern Britain, identifies four main criteria of an evangelical church (see below).  All evangelical churches will share these.

(1) Bible — an emphasis on the Bible alone (as opposed to “Tradition”) as the final and authoritative source of all spiritual truth and matters of Christian and Church life.

(2) Cross — an emphasis on the all-sufficient atoning work of Jesus on the cross.

(3) Conversion — an emphasis on the fundamental importance of having a personal relationship with Jesus as one’s Lord and Saviour, and the necessity of having a personal conversion experience.

(4) Activism — an emphasis on expressing the good news of Jesus to others through sharing one’s faith and social action.

So the major branches are (1) Roman Catholicism, (2) Oriental Orthodoxy, (3) the Assyrian Church of the East, (4) the Eastern Orthodox Church, (5) Anglicanism, (6) Protestantism, (7) Anabaptism, and (8) Evangelicalism/Restorationist.  Thinking in terms of these several major categories of Christian faith can help us understand the diversity of perspectives within the universal Church and put the brakes on any simplistic reduction of faith to an unhelpful dichotomy between Catholic and everyone else (i.e. Protestant).

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