The Reason for God

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. Reference: Romans 8:28

I have been reading Tim Keller’s book, The Reason for God, over the past few days, and finding it a useful and insightful book. One of the questions Keller addresses is this: Why does God allow suffering and evil in the world? Among other things, Keller reminds us that many of us have seen much of our own personal growth happen as a result of bad things happening to us. Although we would never seek to go through these bad experiences, we can acknowledge that they have shaped us, often in good ways. He suggests, then, that if we can see in small ways how good things can happen from bad things, it is not unreasonable to believe that the infinite God can “in all things…work for the good of those who love” God, as Paul writes.

I think this is a helpful perspective, and I’d like to suggest that a kind of “virtuous circle” happens when we acknowledge God is trustworthy in small things: we learn to trust God in bigger and bigger things, through bigger and bigger trials. Unfortunately, sometimes this means that God even sends bigger things our way in order to increase our trust in him and our faithfulness to him. I say, “unfortunately,” because it is not easy. Sometimes, it feels too much to bear. When I’m in my right mind, I remember what Paul says soon after this:

Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

I’d like to commend Keller’s book to you; it is structured around typical doubts that people (both Christians and non-Christians) have about God. Keller is respectful, modest and usually persuasive, and it may be that it will provide good hope to you or someone you know.

Patrick of Ireland

Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the LORD his God, the Maker of heaven and earth, the sea, and everything in them- the LORD, who remains faithful forever. He upholds the cause of the oppressed and gives food to the hungry. The LORD sets prisoners free.  Reference: Psalm 146:5-7

It’s St. Patrick’s Day, and I’d like to reprise some words I wrote about Patrick, whom God upheld, and whom God used to uphold the cause of the oppressed and hungry.

Patrick of Ireland
Will Fitzgerald
March 22, 2009

Once upon a time — and listen, for although this sounds like a fable, I will try to make every word true — once upon a time there was a young boy named Patrick, a young Christian boy whose father was a deacon, and whose grandfather was a priest. This happened a long, long time ago — you can tell because he has a Latin name, and it was son long ago that priests could marry — but people haven’t really changed that much. Patrick, though he was raised in a Christian household did not himself know God. I imagine he was like most people, just living his life out without much concern for spiritual things. Perhaps this was because he had a relatively comfortable life in a small villa with a father who made a good living. They didn’t really have a “middle class” back then, but he was something like a typical middle-class teenager.

But then something really terrible happened. Raiders attacked his parents’ villa, and Patrick was taken off to be a slave in Ireland. I suspect that his parents had plans for him to go off to the city to become an educated gentleman. Instead, he was taken off at age sixteen to become a slave. Instead of going to school, he was forced to become a shepherd. Day in and day out, night after night, during snowstorms and rain, he had to watch another man’s sheep. What a terrible and boring fate this was for him! His family gone, his friends gone, the knowledge that perhaps everyone he know had been taken for slaves, living a life of great isolation and physical hardship.

In that loneliness and emptiness, he began to remember what he knew about God. And he started to pray the prayers he had been taught; I don’t know what prayers, but I imagine he prayed the “Our Father.” He started praying more and more — in the fields at night and during the day, even waking up before daylight to pray, praying up to, he says, 100 prayers in a day. God started to burn in him, he says.

He was a slave until he was about twenty, and then something very spooky but real happened. He was sleeping, but he heard a voice saying he was going home soon. Soon after he heard the voice again saying that his boat was ready. He immediately fled from his slave-owner, for he recognized that this was a message directly from God. He had to travel two hundred miles to get to the harbor where the ship was, in a land he did not know, among people whom he did not know. But “by the power of God,” he says, he was directed to the ship.

Of course, he went to the ship the day he arrived at the harbor. He asked for a place on the ship — he apparently had some money because he said he could pay for a place — but for some reason the steersman got angry and told him to to away. After the visions and after walking 200 miles, I imagine he was disappointed. He headed back to the hut where he was staying praying along the way. As he was walking and praying, one of the men shouted at him to come back; he could get a ride with them.

They traveled for three days before they landed, and then the whole group started walking — after twenty-eight days, their food ran out, and it was uninhabited. His companions were kind to have taken him in, but now they were hungry and cranky, and began to taunt him about God, asking that perennial question: If God is so great and powerful, why isn’t God helping us?

Patrick had good reason to trust that God had something other than starving in mind for them, though, and he told them boldly that they should become Christians. He also said that God was going to provide so much food that very day that they couldn’t eat any more. And so it happened: a herd of pigs came by, and I imagine they had a pretty good pork barbecue. Their attitude towards God and Patrick changed that day; in fact, they had fire and food enough for the rest of their journey.

Patrick eventually was able to return to his kinsfolk, and he was glad to return, and they were glad to have him. But Patrick had another dream: a man named Victorius bringing letters from Ireland, and in his dream he read one of the letters. The letter said it was “The Voice of the Irish,” and he could hear the voices of people he knew in Ireland begging him to return to return to the land of his slavery. He started, and work up, “stinging intensely” from the call. He had another dream of God saying that it really was God speaking to him. And a third vision: the Holy Spirit praying over Patrick with the loud sighs “too deep for utterance.”

So he started to make plans to return to Ireland. Unfortunately, he return to Ireland was blocked by some of his elders who remembered a bad thing Patrick had done before he went into slavery, we don’t know what that bad thing was, but it was bad enough that the elders thought it should disqualify Patrick from going to Ireland as an evangelist. Patrick was really angry about this — so angry that he almost lost his faith. But God sent Patrick another vision, in which God reminded Patrick that Jesus himself had faced dishonor and that God would protect Patrick. And so God did.

And Patrick returned to Ireland to preach. He didn’t cast out the snakes; we don’t know if he used a shamrock to teach the Trinity; the hymns attributed to him are not likely to be by him. But we know he continued to face hardship. In fact, he was kidnapped at least one more time for two months. In all these trials, it seems as if God was good to continually remind him of God’s care for Patrick; even telling Patrick that he would be a captive for two months.

And God granted Patrick success. He baptized thousands of people. He wrote:

So, how is it that in Ireland, where they never had any knowledge of God but, always, until now, cherished idols and unclean things,they are lately become a people of the Lord, and are called children of God; the sons of the Irish and the daughters of the chieftains are to be seen as monks and virgins of Christ.

Patrick’s life was full of ups and downs, He was ashamed of his poor education (poor man, he only knew three or so languages and wrote his confession in Latin that was perhaps not up to par). He called himself a stutterer, though he preached to thousands. He felt that “poverty and failure suit[ed him] better than wealth and delight.” He certainly never got wealthy ministering to the Irish. He remained homesick, I think, to the end of his days—it certainly would have been an easier life if he hadn’t followed God’s call to Ireland. But he recognized the work of God through him, but he felt bound by the Spirit to remain in Ireland.

What lessons should we learn from Patrick and his life?

I pray that, like Patrick, we would see the signs of God’s work in the world, and follow those signs and do God’s work. I don’t think God always speaks in miraculous signs as God did with Patrick, but I believe God does, sometimes. In any case, our Bibles are full of messages from God about hwo we should go about doing the work God has for us.

I pray too, that we would see the trials and tribulations of this life as opportunities for God’s grace in our lives, as Patrick did. Patrick turned a life of exile and loneliness into a life of prayer and attention and learning obedience.

I pray that we learn, as Patrick seemed to know, when to throw our reliance on God in such specific ways as he did when he was confident God would provide food.

Finally, I want to quote Patrick, who saw his life as partially fulling the promise of God to bring “many from east and west” to sit together at God’s table.

So for that reason one should, in fact, fish well and diligently,just as the Lord foretells and teaches, saying, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men,’ and again through the prophets: ‘Behold, I am sending forth many fishers and hunters, says the Lord,’ et cetera. So it behooves us to spread our nets, that a vast multitude and throng might be caught for God, and so there might be clergy everywhere who baptized and exhorted a needy and desirous people.

Out of God’s glorious riches

I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being. Reference: Ephesians 3:16

Now, we can’t just leave that verse stand alone, can we? We need the whole paragraph:

I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.

Paul prays for the Ephesians that they be strengthened in their inner beings (their “inner man,” says King James, which always gets me picturing a tiny homunculus walking around my innards). But that strength and power has a goal in mind: to completely comprehend how wonderful Christ’s love for us is. And, as we know (and are known, says Paul elsewhere), we are completely filled with God. If we are to have God poured into us, we will need strength: this new wine in old bottles will burst if he doesn’t prepare us properly.

Here is one of those rare places in which the evangelical expression about “having Christ in our hearts” is actually expressed in the New Testament. Paul is mixing his metaphors all other the place here in his excitement and ecstasy as he meditates on the vastness of Christ’s love for us, so we don’t want to take him very literally. But it is interesting that having Christ in our (individual) hearts for an understanding of Christ’s love for us must happen “together with all the saints,” as if we just might need others, too, to comprehend this love. Or better, our joint understanding fills us up (as a body, not as individual bodies) with “the measure of all the fullness of God.” God is at work in us, one by one, and God is at work in all the church; now and in former times, and into the future. His power is expressed through love in us. And so we raise Paul’s doxology:

Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.

Separation and Peace

Now may the Lord of peace himself give you peace at all times and in every way. The Lord be with all of you. Reference: 2 Thessalonians 3:16

This is the final blessing from Paul’s second letter to the church at Thessalonika, and, as such is the last word from some of the earliest bits of the New Testament writings. Interestingly, it follows a fairly strong section on being separated from those who will not follow Paul’s admonitions, in particular, to those who are idle (not busy, but busybodies, as the NIV puts it). I suspect that Paul has in mind the very real possibility that there will be strife as a result of this command to separate. There is a very real tension between getting along and living a godly life together.

On the one hand, we have the words of “Millenium” (not inappropriate, given Paul’s treatments about the Lord’s returning):

Let all who would wish to see Millennium begin,
Come out and be separate from sinners and sin.
As soon as the churches are redeemed from sin,
The day of the Millennium will surely begin.

On the other, we have those–many of whom who are in the Mennonite Church–who shrink back at any thought of disfellowshipping or strong admonition.

How are we to bring the two together? In Paul’s particular case, he was confident that God would work in them:

The Lord is faithful, and he will strengthen and protect you from the evil one. We have confidence in the Lord that you are doing and will continue to do the things we command.

And he prayed for and blessed them, as we see in today’s scripture, as well as his blessing earlier in the passage:

May the Lord direct your hearts into God’s love and Christ’s perseverance.

Perhaps, too, we can pray for, and look for, God to work in the lives of people, even as we admonish them and (at times, hard though they be) separated from them, especially praying for restoration and protection from the evil one.

The vertical linearity is out of whack

Jesus said to them, “Only in his hometown and in his own house is a prophet without honor.” Reference: Matthew 13:57

When I was a kid, one of the US armed forces had this commercial in which a young man named Joey is home visiting on leave. The family is sitting around watching TV when the TV starts to go haywire. Joey says he’ll take a look at it, but the family is skeptical: “Joey can’t fix nuthin’!” is what I remember. But Joey calmly goes up to the TV and looks at the controls and says, “the vertical linearity is out of whack.” Everyone is amazed at the confidence and skills that Joey has received in the military.

He came to his hometown and began to teach the people​​ in their synagogue, so that they were astounded and said, “Where did this man get this wisdom and these deeds of power? Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? And are not all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all this?” And they took offense at him. But Jesus said to them, “Prophets are not without honor except in their own country and in their own house.” And he did not do many deeds of power there, because of their unbelief (Matthew 13:54-58).

Jesus didn’t get the honor he deserved as a prophet either. There’s a criticism of his parentage–they don’t come right out and say it, but they seem to be implying that he was illegitimate, and he is compared to the rest of his family, which they thought of as just an ordinary family. Of course, James would go on to become one of the most important leaders of the church, too; and Mary has been blessed and venerated by billions, so they were wrong about this, too. If they had asked their question in sincerity (Where did this man get his wisdom and great power?), they could have received the wisdom and power he had for them, but their hearts were hard.

It would be easy to leave things here, and just criticize those stupid people of Nazareth, but it’s better, though harder, to ask in what ways our wrong beliefs or disbelief hinder the work of Jesus in our own lives and the lives of those whom we love. I was accused yesterday by someone of “not acting Christian” towards him, and he was right: I couldn’t believe that good could come of a particular situation, and my attitudes and emotions got in the way of the love I would prefer I would have shown. Still, I know that in some sense I have enough faith that God can work in this situation, and I need to live this out today.

Are there ways you can recognize anew the power of Jesus today? And honor him as who he truly is?

Ausbund 119 redux

Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.  (Ephesians 5:1-2)

Yesterday, I began to discuss hymn 119 in the Amish Ausbund, a text sung (I believe) by the Amish during foot-washing services. The text does an excellent job of describing some of the many ways Jesus gave himself up for us, and how and why we need to follow Christ’s example. Here is a rough (very rough!) paraphrase of this 25-verse hymn text:

Our desire to achieve perfection in Christ marks us as his righteous ones; this is what God desires for us. He wants us to live in peace and unity, always working, always ready. Christ calls out to us weary ones, and tells us that he will lead us into his Father’s kingdom, to eternal peace, joy, and great unity. Here on earth, we must try to do our Father’s will as will be done in the kingdom of heaven, mortifying the flesh now that it might be renewed later, diligently sweeping out the old leaven, so Christ’s goodness might be implanted in us.

We especially see this in the Christ’s example of service: he did not come to be served, but to serve that we might have life. In great humility and lowliness, he demonstrated this by washing the feet of his disciples, and tells us we should take this to heart and do likewise. His love extended even to his death on the cross.

So, if we wish to be like Christ, we must love one another at all times, in deed and not only in words. If we have any of the world’s goods, and see our brother in need, we must respond quickly. If we are faithful in small things now, we will be entrusted with greater things later.

Paul shows us that if we do not seek our own, we will find true humility and thus glorify God truly. We must have the mind of Christ, who did not consider himself equal to God, but sought to be our servant. He came to earth, showing his love and humility; we should act likewise. Then, we will attain to pure love and unity in the Spirit, one in the bond of peace.

Brothers and Sisters, since we are all members of one body, we should prove faithful by loving one another and thereby praising God, for God has provided love in all things. Anything done without love helps no one. If you neglect your neighbor (who we can see), how can we say we love God (whom we cannot see)?

God, we ask that you not fail us in our distress, but make a way for us to love courageously.

Von Herzen woll’n wir singen In Fried und Einigkeit

I am about to come and gather all nations and tongues, and they will come and see my glory.  (Isaiah 66:18)

God declares that all tongues will be gathered, and by this, metonymically, all human cultures. The Tower of Babel is the metonymic opposite: a story in which human cultures are divided because humans stop speaking the same language (people from Carrolton County, Georgia; County Cork, Republic of Ireland; Mumbai, India; New York, New York; and London, England would agree that speaking the ‘same’ language doesn’t guarantee a non-divided human culture).

As a linguist of sorts, I would like to believe that God will maintain and encourage human language even as God gathers all people together. Human language both calcify and extend the human capacity for understanding; this must surely be true of God’s glory as it is of other things. When Charles Wesley wrote, “O, For a Thousand Tongues to Sing My Great Redeemer’s Praise,” he captured some of this delight in and need for new ways of expression.

As an example, I’ve been working on a translation of song 119 from the Amish Ausbund, which I believe is used in Amish foot-washing services. The first half verse is:

Von Herzen woll’n wir singen
In Fried und Einigkeit,
Mit Fleiß und Ernste dringen
Zu der Vollkommenheit.

Literally, this is something like:

From the heart, we desire to sing
In peace and unity,
With diligence and earnestness heading
Towards perfection.

The fact that “Einigkeit” (unity) and “Vollkommenheit” (perfection) rhyme in German makes it easier to remember that our unity is part of our becoming perfect. German’s tendency to use “Germanic” instead of “Latinate”  roots makes it easier, perhaps, to remember that “unity” is one-ness (Einig-keit) and that perfection is “coming to fullness hood.” These small facts about language and culture help glorify God in slightly new and different ways. God’s glory is so great. If we are to sing “in peace and unity/in Fried und Einigkeit,” we will need a lot of help.