My Journey of Spiritual Reading

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Vacation Bible School

The following was from a piece of writing I did a few years ago during our church’s Vacation Bible School. It is VBS time again at our church and I was reminded of it as we made our way through the camp this year.  I thought I would share it on my blog. Hope you like it!

Interesting Side Note:  I was reading the Seven Storey Mountain for the first time during this episode.  I have read it twice more since then culminating in last month’s read which you can read about here.

The theme of our VBS this year was “God is with you wherever you go.” What a great theme for a bible school! We had fun, we sang songs, we talked about service to God and man, we played games, and we studied bible characters. It was a wonderful time with a great group of kids. It was a week of pointing kids towards Jesus. Those kids just about wore me out, but it was a good kind of tired, the kind that you are glad for.

Perhaps my favorite thing that happened this week occurred in a very small, out of the way corner of the children’s building and involved the smallest children present at Vacation Bible School. Our challenge for the day was to GO TELL and our Bible story focused on the the women coming back from the tomb and telling everyone that Jesus was alive.

After the opening rally, I had a break so I went to my office to read a new book I started (a great book called The Seven Storey Mountain). In the hallway adjacent to my office, I could hear the pre-K group getting ready to come down the hall. The ground below shuttered as if a great herd of stallions were about to break out upon it. And boy did they! They came careening down the hallway and with all the strength that their tiny bodies could muster they exclaimed, “Jesus is not dead. Jesus is alive!” My whole office shook with fervor of their gospel as did my heart. They repeated their message over and over as they made their way down the hall and out of the building.

It was a very poignant moment. Out of love, pure and undefiled love, they sought to share the gospel story to anyone and everyone with whom they came into contact. It did not occur to them that what they were doing might be politically incorrrect. They had no understanding of such a thing. Their abstract little minds could not imagine it to be so. Neither was it merely a good idea or a metaphysical concept they were declaring. This was no watered down or half-hearted Word they proclaimed. It was truth! And with the kind of faith that all of us should have, and the power of the very Spirit of God in them of which they know only enough to trust completely, they spoke boldly the truth of the gospel. Jesus is alive!

The greatest moment of VBS at my church was in a hallway adjacent to my office with hardly anyone else around. The loud and living Word of truth echoed throughout the cinderblock walls and the glossy tiled floors. It reverberated into my cold heart and there something amazing happened, the gaze of my soul was drawn back to my Savior. Can you imagine?  A bunch of three year olds tore through the church and at the same time, they tore through my heart and I was changed. Amazing.

Whoever then humbles himself as this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. – Matthew 18:4

The Fall According to Athanasius – Pt. 2

“For God had made man thus (that is, as an embodied spirit), and had willed that he should remain in incorruption. But men, having turned from the contemplation of God to evil of their own devising, had come inevitably under the law of death. Instead of remaining in the state in which God had created them, they were in process of becoming corrupted entirely, and death had them completely under its dominion. For the transgression of the commandment was making them turn back again according to their nature; and as they had at the beginning come into being out of non-existence, so were they now on the way to returning, through corruption, to non-existence again. The presence and love of the Word had called them into being; inevitably, therefore when they lost the knowledge of God, they lost existence with it; for it is God alone Who exists, evil is non-being, the negation and antithesis of good.”

What is death?  Death, as Athanasius is discussing it, is more than mere biological death.  Death is non-existence, it is the absence of life.  The phenomenon of non-life is what we are calling death.  What is life?  What we mean by life is more than biology and blood.  Life is a gift to us from our Maker.  We have life only through Him.  Not only that, but our desire to fully live, to be alive in the purest sense, is also a gift.  We, as a race, are imbued with the desire for real life.  We actively seek it.  Therefore, death, this absence of life, is not something that we would naturally choose for ourselves.

How, then, would any thinking person ever choose death?  Under normal circumstances, I don’t think they would.  If we say that we instinctively want to live and not die, then the only way that a person would willingly choose death over life is if they were deceived into thinking that death was life.  And this is exactly what happens in the Garden.  This story of the Fall is indicative of what continues to happen in mankind today.  Deception is the trick that death uses to get its foot in the door.  Once there, it begins to wreck havoc upon us.

If our sin nature can be described as imagining our existence apart from God, then sin begins to exert its control over us at the point where we choose death over life (or choosing life apart from God as opposed to Life with Him) because we mistakenly think that death is life.  Once we do this, we begin to come under the  dominion of death and we are powerless to stop it.  This is the process of corruption of which Athanasius speaks.

This process begins to overtake us in many ways.  Death’s corruption of us moves on unhindered to complete fruition unless acted upon by an outside force.  It becomes easier and easier for us to choose death over life, because we become more and more blinded to the reality of our existence.  Soon, we are lost, blind, and dying, yet, we have no idea that this is the case.  We wrongly think we are smarter than ever, seeing clearly to the path of true living.  There is no way out of this process of corruption of our own making.  The vicious cycle folds back onto itself.  This is the terrible domain of death.  We are dying and we don’t even know it.

Consider the modes of living that the world would espouse to us as real life.  It usually falls under one of these headings: Money, power, knowledge, and fame.  That part of us that can imagine our lives without God would tell us that these things, or the pursuit of them, is life.  Therefore, because we all want to live, we design our lives around these things and we order our relationships and time to give us the best of these things which we think lead to life.  We try to take what we can from whom we can by any means we can, and we have the hubris to say that this is life!  All the while, we are in actuality moving further and further away from Him who is life.  As we continue along this process of complete corruption, we slip further and further from the truth.

And so this corruption eventually leads us back to the place where we were before Life was breathed into us, that is non-existence, for there is no existence apart from God.  We truly become that which the world would tell us we are in the first place – insignificant animals, byproducts of the alleged master of the universe, scientific process; aware only of our most basic consciousness and ultimately relegated to the biological dung heap of the cosmos.  At the end of our physical life, death takes off its mask to reveal its true nature and intention.

So, with the Apostle Paul, we cry out, “O wretched man that I am!  Who will set me free from this body of death?”

The Fall According to Athanasius – Pt. 1

I am reading through St. Athanasius’ On the Incarnation of the Word. It is a small book but it is a powerful one, especially considering its history and importance in the early church and subsequent centuries. Athanasius will put down the foundation for our modern understanding of Trinitarian theology – namely that Jesus is not distinct from the Father in essence, but He and the Father are One. He was known as Athanasius Contra Mundum or Athanasius against the world. Athanasius stood his ground in the face of opposition despite 17 exiles over five years from his Alexandrian bishopric. One biographer referred to him as Christianity’s first superhero, my kind of guy!

This book is foundational in Athanasius’ theological understanding and it remains a centerpiece of our Trinitarian doctrine today, and as such, it deserves a read. The first chapter of the book deals with Creation and the Fall. Athanasius gives some pretty good words to the Creation event, but I was struck by His description of the Fall of man.

“For God had made man thus (that is, as an embodied spirit), and had willed that he should remain in incorruption. But men, having turned from the contemplation of God to evil of their own devising, had come inevitably under the law of death. Instead of remaining in the state in which God had created them, they were in process of becoming corrupted entirely, and death had them completely under its dominion. For the transgression of the commandment was making them turn back again according to their nature; and as they had at the beginning come into being out of non-existence, so were they now on the way to returning, through corruption, to non-existence again. The presence and love of the Word had called them into being; inevitably, therefore when they lost the knowledge of God, they lost existence with it; for it is God alone Who exists, evil is non-being, the negation and antithesis of good.”

Athanasius describes the sinful nature within us in this way: it is a turning “from the contemplation of God to evil of their own devising.” What a tremendous understanding of the flesh! We have come to think of sin specifically as this thing done or that thing done. We name them with great names like adultery and gluttony, then we spend much of our lives merely trying to steer clear of them. I hope that we will stay away from specific sin like that – it is right that we should. However, the root of sin goes much deeper into me than merely staying away from specific sins (sin management.) It is my constant choosing of myself over God. It is contemplating the things I want and the things I think I need and the life I would like to live that is distinct from God. This is my sinful nature – that I could imagine myself without God.

“Surely,” you ask, “you do not mean that we should never think about ourselves! But we have to think about ourselves, at least some of the time, don’t we?”

Therein lies the problem. Imagining our lives, separate from God, and attempting to live in that made-up, pseudo reality is the root of all sin, if not sin outright. If we can convince ourselves that God doesn’t matter or is not relevant, that God is not concerned about our lives and how we live, or perhaps most devastating, that God is not absolute and Sovereign, then we can create a theology in our own image rather than one which is a reflection of Him. Our understanding of the universe then reflects our nature instead of His. We turn away from the moral absolutes of an unchangeable God and replace it with vagaries of behavior modification that allow me to more adequately reflect my own inflated self-importance.

Is the cosmos centered around its Creator, or is it centered around the creatures? The great deception is to think that it is centered around us and in particular, our desires born from an imagined world where we can live without God. It is from this fountain that all sin flows. When we begin to think that life can be found in any way apart from God, then Paradise is lost. Our thinking of ourselves, as distinct from God, separate, is the inherited legacy of our sinful fathers. That path did not bring them life and consequently, it does the same for us.  In the words of Athanasius, it puts us “under the law of death.” And that is exactly what God warned us about when He said, “From any tree of the garden you may eat freely; but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die.” – Genesis 2:16-17

What does this death look like?  Come back and check out part 2…

Herod, Bloody, Herod

In the book The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, Edersheim devotes a couple of chapters to King Herod who was Tetrarch of Judea at the time of Jesus’ birth.  Herod is on the short list of Israeli kings that most people can name.  We hear his name bandied about every Christmas.  We see him greeting the wise men on their journey to Bethlehem.  His duplicitous nature is on display for us as he tells the Magi to bring him word of the child so that he can come and worship the baby-king as well.  The bible lets us in on his real intentions and the Magi are advised in a dream not to return to Herod on their journey home.  When he fails to learn the identity or the whereabouts of Christ child, Herod initiates a blood bath by taking the lives of every child in the region under the age of two in a vain attempt to crush the threat to his rule.  Of course, his purge is not successful and we quickly move along in the Christmas narrative, he is nothing more than a slight bump in the story, and perhaps we put Herod back in the box with the manger scene and forget all about him til next year.

But his reign of terror neither ends nor begins around the manger.

Outside of the Gospel narrative, we find much more about the bloodlust of Herod.  He is a king who is constantly obsessed with losing power and there are several reports of his killing anyone who gets to close to his power, including sons, wives, and other family members.  He was exceedingly trigger happy with his army, sending them out on a moment’s notice to fight against a people or a region who he suspected of insurrection.

Edersheim tells us that Herod’s “reign (is) almost unparalleled for reckless cruelty and bloodshed, in which the murder of the Innocents in Bethlehem formed but so trifling an episode among the many deeds of blood, as to have seemed not deserving of record on the page of the Jewish historian.”

Near the end of Herod’s life, he imprisons several hundred jewish leaders with orders to keep them imprisoned until Herod’s death. Upon Herod’s death, all these leaders were to be executed so that there would be mourning in the land.  This is Herod – ruling King of Judea.

This Herod is no mere nativity piece.  Herod stands much larger than an inconsequential monarch seemingly “in the way” of the larger Christmas story.  He is antithetical to it.  He, like the rest of the world into which Jesus is born, is working hard against Incarnation.  And so it is today, where so much of what we talk and think about are of so little worth.  We are deaf to annunciations that happen over and over again.  It is not a great time for Christmas.  It never was.  Yet, now, as then is the perfect time for Christmas.  For Christ desires to be born into the dirty, inhospitable places, places like Bethlehem of Judea where some nut job named Herod is ruling, and places like my heart, where another nut job (me) tries to pretend he is in charge.

O holy Child of Bethlehem!  Descend to us, we pray;
Cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today!
We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell;
O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Immanuel.

For more about the (im)perfect timing of Christmas, check out this podcast by Bob Adams, pastor of FBC Bogalusa, LA.

Old Books and C.S. Lewis

I recently added AthanasiusDe Incarnatione to the list of books I want to read.  It is an almost 1700 year old book written by one of the strongest proponents of orthodox Trinitarianism at the council of Nicea. If I was a real man, I would read it in Latin, but, alas, I am not a real man, so, English it is!  I found a decent ‘ish’ translation for my Kindle and read the introduction last night.  The introduction is by a guy you might have heard of – C.S. Lewis.  As is often the case with Lewis, his writing is so good that I was distracted from continuing on.  I just wanted to kind of sit and think about what He was saying.  I thought I might provide some excerpts for us.  You can read the whole thing for yourself here.  It is a really great argument for reading old books.

There is a strange idea abroad that in every subject the ancient books should be read only by the professionals, and that the amateur should content himself with the modern books.  This I have found as a tutor in English Literature that if the average student wants to find out something about Platonism, the very last thing he thinks of doing is to take a translation of Plato off the library shelf and read the Symposium.  He would rather read some dreary modern book ten times as long, all about “isms” and influences and only once in twelve pages telling him what Plato actually said.  The error is rather an amiable one, for it springs from humility.  The student is half afraid to meet one of the great philosophers face to face.  He feels himself inadequate and thinks he will not understand him.  But if he only knew, the great man, just because of his greatness, is much more intelligible than his modern commentator.  The simplest student will be able to understand, if not all, yet a very great deal of what Plato said; but hardly anyone can understand some modern books on Platonism.  It has always therefore been one of my main endeavours as a teacher to persuade the young that firsthand knowledge is not only more worth acquiring than secondhand knowledge, but it is usually much easier and more delightful to acquire.

Every age has its own outlook.  It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes.  We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period.  And that means the old books.  All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook – even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it.  Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without a question a good deal which we should now absolutely deny.  They thought that they were as completely opposed as two sides could be, but in fact they were all the time secretly united – united with each other and against earlier and later ages – by a great mass of common assumptions.  We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the twentieth century – the blindness about which posterity will ask, “But how could they have thought that?” – lies where we have never suspected it, and concerns something about which there is untroubled agreement between Hitler and President Roosevelt or between Mr. H. G. Wells and Karl Barth.  None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books.  Where they are true they will give us truths which we half knew already.  Where they are false they will aggravate the error with which we are already dangerously ill.  The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books.  Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past.  People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we.  But not the same mistakes.  They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us.  Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction.  To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them.