The Feast of God (serving up a heap of Death)

NOTE: This is a post I wrote some time ago, but since Thanksgiving is upon us once more, and since I really love Isa 25:6–10, a text I taught on in a lecture earlier in the week, I want to re-post.

Enjoy the feasting…

 

For Americans, Thanksgiving is a day of grateful feasting, a day when there is a greater ceremonial significance for the table, a day of solemn yet joyful reflection on divine goodness with fork and glass in hand.

Feasting can be holy.  We see Jesus regularly “at table,” as if affirming the dinner gathering as sacred time and sacred space.  For remembering and honoring Him, He gave us a meal—the grinding of unleavened bread with our teeth, the sweet touch of wine on our lips… “do this in remembrance of me.”

The holy feast has a long tradition for God’s people.  In Isaiah, we read about a special, eschatological feast:

On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples

a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine,

of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined. [Isa 25:6]

But while the mortal myriads sup such luxurious wine and munch on such a lavish, meaty spread, God Himself will be eating…

And He will swallow up on this mountain

the covering that is cast over all peoples,

the veil that is spread over all nations.

He will swallow up death forever;

And the Lord GOD will wipe away tears from all faces. [Isa 25:7]

While the redeemed and rescued are sitting at a sumptuous table celebrating salvation, God will be having His own meal.  Served at the feast of God is Death itself.  The massive jowels of the cosmic Lord will be grinding up the squirming, dying enemy of all flesh, that age-old foe so ruefully welcomed into a fresh, teeming world through another meal, a forbidden meal of fruit from an Eden-tree.  Splayed out on a platter and set before the hungry eyes of the Almighty, Death will be digested, perhaps singed to well-done by a consuming, holy fire.

Thanksgiving is a day to eat, drink, and be merry.  Christians ultimately do so not because they have a nice country in the U.S., but because a better country awaits, one in which the oppressive “covering” of Death will be crunched up and obliterated in the eschatological feasting of God.

To that, I say, “Cheers.”

Happy Thanksgiving, friends….

THMED 4

The UK Version of ‘TheoMedia': now available

My book TheoMedia is now a UK citizen, so to speak. The Lutterworth Press secured the rights to publish the book here and came up with their own cover design (which turned out very well, I think). The copies are being printed and available for order at their website.

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The difference between this version and the US version released a year ago?

An INDEX. And it is awesome (as far as indices go).

A big thanks to the folks at Lutterworth!

Submitting the PhD thesis

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[NOTE: Having returned to the blog after a long hiatus, I found some quirks in the blog theme I had been using. We will probably be trying a few other designs over the next couple of weeks, so please forgive the aesthetic shifts!]

 

On 15 August I handed over a 105,328-word document to someone behind a welcome desk in Durham University’s Palatine Centre. It was a rather unceremonious act  in form.

Not in reality. And the good folks at Flat White Coffee supplied a memorable scene that was ceremonious enough (note the “receipt” of my submission next to the espresso drink).

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As my wife pointed out—with a bound copy of the PhD thesis sitting between us on the dining table—that PDF is the most expensive thing we own… at least in a sense. Our lives have been hinged to the conviction that my vocational service to the church includes an academic slant. Multiple moves and costly degree programs have defined our past decade… along with the adventure of rearing 4 precious children amidst the pressures.

A “viva”(oral exam) still awaits. And yes, I am nervous about it. But for now, a few brief thoughts…

The Bio of the Book

I will post more on the topic and arguments of the thesis later. For fun, though I would just like to point out that 17 years ago I was sitting at a desk in the O’Callaghan house reading John’s Gospel and noticing a few threads that seemed worthy of further exploration.

14 years ago I started checking out PhD programs from the computer lab at Beeson Divinity School.

8 years ago I made my first (of two) exploratory trips to Durham.

And then a few weeks ago I turned in my third “book.” (Thanks for indulging the historical sketch).

 

A PhD is often a Pyrrhic Victory

I wrote once here at HR that the Christian vocation can often feel like a Pyrrhic victory. This is from that earlier post :

Pyrrhus was a Greek king who soldiered valiantly into the might and muscle of Rome in the 2nd century BC. After a brutalizing series of particular engagements, the battle dust began to settle and someone gave him the news that he was the victor.

Pyrrhus did not feel very victorious.

In fact, he felt messed up, broken down, and demoralized. To gain this “victory” he had sustained massive losses. Though most of the 15,000 corpses lying across the outskirts of Asculum belonged to the Romans, the Greek body count was grievously high (and the Romans had been much better resourced).

A Pyrrhic victory is one in which the gains are roughly commensurate with the losses. From the annals:

“Pyrrhus replied to one that gave him joy of his victory that one more such victory would utterly undo him. For he had lost a great part of the forces he brought with him, and almost all his particular friends and principal commanders….” (see here for Plutarch’s biographical sketch).

I have been a bit of a drama queen over the difficulties of pursuing the PhD. (Please forgive me). But to be absolutely clear: it is miserably hard (though the academic stuff was often less difficult than the circumstantial).

A “Victory,” Nonetheless…

Though a keen sense of the sacrifice in writing that these certainly accompanies its submission, I am delighted to report that over the following days it gradually occurred to me that breathing was a bit easier (figuratively), as if I had been sucking in air for years with a boulder on my chest only recently lifted. The increased oxygen supply has been wonderful. Unburdened by the thesis, my lungs have been able to expand a bit.

And next…

Amidst sleeping a bit extra and reading fiction mostly guilt-free, I am now in quest for a job. And the viva looms nearer each day, for which I feel I must have John’s Gospel memorized in the Greek, along with all the writings of Alexandrian theologians in the first few centuries of the church. These scholarly endeavors are impossible feats, of course (at least for me).

But overall I am pleased to report a general sense of relief, and possibly an increased degree of sanity.

I feel almost 105,328 words lighter.

A Few Thoughts on Ferguson, MO

I do not prefer to write publicly about things that I do not understand. Especially over the internet. (Though I make attempts to write about the unfathomable grace of God, so there’s that).

The more emotionally and politically charged, the more I want to avoid commentary. When you write something for a more public reading, you are saying that your voice needs to be heard. Maybe that is pretentious. May the reader judge.

I’ll be honest. I have no idea how to make sense of the Ferguson situation other than we live in a world that has a compound fracture deep at its core. I believe Christian theology makes great sense of this in the doctrine of what we call “sin”, but I do not pretend to understand the complexity of the situation. I have no idea. I have never attended a protest or policed streets in the midst of one. I have never tried to captain a police force. Mayor a city or govern a state or president a country.

I am not African American so I have no earthly idea what that is like and the tensions that it creates to live as such in our society. I have never personally experienced anything in the US that would make me mistrust the intentions of the police (Haiti is a different story on that, by the way). I happen to know that there are lots of complicated reasons — racial, demographic, socioeconomic, geographic — that has shielded me from such an experience. Call it what you will.

I think the Ferguson situation reveals some realities about our culture any way you slice it. It reveals a lot about humanity. I say this not because I’m some sort of expert on any of it. I do, however, trust the voices of people whom I know, who understand the situation better than me and have experienced it different from me. If nothing else, they are troubled. And that troubles me.

I also want to be a person who can always empathize with those who are not like me, so I try to listen.

In all this, I’m just saying that I have no freaking idea.

But it makes me very sad.

Yesterday, a woman — who at least outwardly seemed like she lived at a different socioeconomic strata than me and her skin color was different — walked up to my place of work. She knocked on the door and asked for a ride to her job. I’ve grown up in a culture that has implicitly trained me to nurse subtle assumptions and judgments — not only in regard to skin color but socioeconomic too — in that moment. More caught than taught. I mean, I’ve grown up in Birmingham, AL. To claim otherwise is to kid myself.

But she had a name and a story. Heck, once in the 70s she was a guest at a military ball.

She had missed the connecting bus and would be arriving late to work without help. She needed a simple practical gesture of kindness. One that my workmates and me were able to give.

In the process, we made a new friend.

We aren’t heroes. Please. But yesterday, in light of the news from Missouri, it felt like we were able to participate in something bigger and higher. It seemed that in a small way we chipped away at something.


I cannot solve the world’s problems. But I can live thoughtfully, reflectively and, in general, pay attention. Lift my voice when need be. Support those who are working at a systemic level.

Maybe try a few small things too.

Help this neighbor who comes across my path. And Ezra — adopted son of my close friends whose skin color is different than my boy’s — can come over to play. And we can love him and see to it that we encourage him to be the man God would have him be. And I can listen to Calvin, from my doctoral cohort, and let him teach me something of what it means to serve Jesus in his neighborhood. And I can pray for JD, Liz and fam as they put the nose to the plow in a more direct way in Memphis.

And all along the way I can think about, talk about and honor the one whose cross broke down dividing walls of hostility and who has, by the way, been raised from the dead.

So I can hope too.

And that is not nothing.

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On the House Remodel & the Pastoral Ministry

My wife and I bought a house about a year ago.

We embarked on this adventure with a lot of plans to refurbish and remodel.

It’s been fun. And hard. And expensive.

Because of our budget, we’ve done nearly 100% of the work ourselves. We did pay someone to do something with our gas lines, which seems reasonable enough to me. I have zero desire to blow our house up. We’re at the age where not blowing our house up is worth more to us than the pride of knowing we did it 100% ourselves — but only barely.

Here’s an invaluable something I’ve learned: House projects are significantly easier if one uses the right tools.

I cannot tell you how many times I’ve busted my knuckles, wasted materials, and botched a project because I wasn’t using the right tools. I’ve worked on things and had the conscious thought, “Dang. They really should make something that does this, makes this kind of cut, fits there, etc.”

Only later do I find out that “they” have indeed made a tool for just that. “They” also have a thing called a Dremel, which does everything. I saw one of these at a friend’s house and it blew my mind. I digress.

Interestingly, in my remodel projects sometimes I had the tools. But, I didn’t feel like going to my storage to rummage around for the right one. This was almost always foolish. It caused more work and strain and time and trouble. Ironically, I didn’t go through these steps because I thought something else would do the trick. That it would work better or faster or quicker. It almost never worked out this way.

Remodeling a house is like Christian ministry.

As a pastor, there are things you are trying to accomplish, cultivate, remodel, fashion, and shape. To put is succinctly, your endeavors are to the end that Christ would be formed in people. To see them grow up into Him.

Turns out, there are tools for this.

Historically, we’ve called them “means of grace.” In the tradition from which I hail (somewhat loosely, I’m an eclectic mess), it is Word and Sacrament.

Whenever and wherever the Word is preached, declared, proclaimed, announced, read aloud, taught, heard, thought about, wrestled with, discussed, studied, struggled with, batted around, obeyed, embodied, etc., the Spirit of God is at work to form and create and re-create and shape and remodel the hearts of people.

Every time.

I honestly believe this.

Further, whenever baptism and Communion are enacted and administered and shared, God is doing something to us and for us. There is a holy participation in something grand and inexplicable. This one is, perhaps, harder to understand and explain and elaborate upon, but something is happening nonetheless. Some tools are fully functional, even though perplexing.

I certainly believe there are other aspects of the pastoral ministry. Care and counsel, spiritual direction, hospitality/table fellowship all comes to mind. I practice these passionately and believe in them sincerely.

However, Word and Sacrament — this is the core. The essential tools. The sine qua non of the work.

We have the tools. We should use them because they really help — like A LOT.

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Psalms of Lament

There is a collection of ancient Hebrew poems that express confusion, despair, doubt, fear, anger, loneliness, depression, anxiety, and stress.

The frustration and angst, often, is directed toward God himself.

And these poems make the cut. They get put into the Bible.

They are the Psalms of Lament. Apparently, the Hebrews believed that we could live those feelings and experiences before the face of God.

We live in a world that seems increasingly chaotic and a lot of people are tired of pretending everything is fine. They see the fracture in the universe. They see it out there, and they feel it in their own chests.

Unfortunately, many churches exclusively offer peppy, happy-go-lucky gatherings, convincing those in attendance that cliche God-stuff can be mixed in as an add-on to their life and it will all be fine.

A lot of people buy in. But, a lot of people are not buying it.

Too often, Christians fail to speak into the dark places. Secular voices, however, are attempting to address these issues, and people are listening — a point made so wisely in a recent article. (The title of the article is “In Sweden, Human Darkness is Confronted by the Arts Not the Church: If the church is to survive, it doesn’t need to be nice – it must address the big existential questions of sin and death” Read this!)

TS Eliot wrote,

“Why should men love the Church?…
She tells them of Evil and Sin, and other unpleasant facts.” *

I find it encouraging to know that the Bible offers language, modes of prayer, and worship in our darkest times. We can tell of these unpleasant facts, yes, but we can also offer a way to worship in the midst of them.

The Psalms of Lament are that pathway. We have such a resource to offer people in dark places.

The good news in these Psalms is that Jesus felt those feelings too. From his cross, he cried the cry of one of them, “My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me?”

He went into that dark place for you and for me.

I think we need to recover these ancient texts.

Not to necessarily dwell on them exclusively — because life under God’s rule is filled with pure joy and beauty also. We are followers of a resurrected Lord for goodness sake. This means there are all kinds of reasons for hope and joy and celebration.

But we should recover these Psalms and carve a space for them into our rhythms of worship.

We need them to speak for us when we just aren’t sure. Which happens to be a lot of the time…

  • T S. Eliot, The Complete Poems and Plays, 1909-1950 (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1971), 96.

The PhD: Nearing Completion

Dear readers…

My blog writing has dwindled from irregular posts to blankness. I am in the final throes of writing my PhD thesis, so my energies are getting channeled to the end of submitting 100,000 of what I hope is solid work. My sporadic use of social media has mostly been tabled (and to be honest, that has been rather nice).

For those of you interested (and don’t feel bad if you are not), here is the thesis title:

“Johannine Theosis: The Fourth Gospel’s Narrative Ecclesiology of Participation and Deification”

I will explain more eventually. For now, I am pleased to report that I just finished the introductory chapter. After I finish combing through the 100,000 words, revising here and there, I will submit a draft to my supervisor (within a few days). After taking his final suggestions into account, I will then print this massive Word doc, bind it, and mail it to the yet to be confirmed examiners. A “viva” (oral defense) awaits later in the summer.

Regular writing here at Hopeful Realism will resume eventually. But probably after this exciting and grueling season comes to an end.

Thanks to those of you who have kept checking in!

~Andy

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