Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Traveling Again

I will be absent from blogging for a few days. Unfortunately, I will have to endure some baseball games at Wrigely field in Chicago. :-)

My brother, Jack Hicks, is a radio engineer for the Washington Nationals. He makes sure the game is "aired." And it falls my lot to sit with him in the Press Box for the Friday and Saturday games this week. I think I will enjoy it.

Jen, Lacey and Ashley are also going with me. Lacey's birthday present is to see a friend she made while we were in Vienna, Austria for three months. They have recently moved to Chicago. And part of her birthday present is to visit the American Girl Store in Chicago--unfortunately, a potential tower of Babel to American consumerism. :-) But she has saved her money and she knows where she wants to spend it.

It is also the weekend of Chicago's "Venetian Nights" as well as the "Tasete of Chicago" where 100 eateries gather in Grant Park every night to feed visitors. One can taste almost any dish from around the world.

Shalom, and enjoy your holiday!

John Mark

Monday, June 27, 2005

Question About Death and Assurance

"Some people are afraid of death. I'm not sure but I am. I always think of what's going to happen when I die. Where am I going to go. I gest so scared. I'm not sure where I'm going to go anymore. That feeling is always stuck on my mind. I can't get rid of it. Do you think that way sometimes? Are you afraid?"

This was a question I was handed the other day on a piece of paper. It was anynomous and it requested I send the answer in an email. I thought I would share it here because these thoughts probably swirl in the mind of many people, including my own.

The fear of death is probably one of the most basic instincts of human fallenness. The fear of "nothingness" or "non-being" or something worse pervades human consciousness. Everyone, I dare say, experiences it. The night before my open heart surgery I remember anxious feelings about the unknown and the potential of death.

Death reigns in our world. Everyone dies. Death surrounds us. We can't escape it and so we fear it. It has a power over us--physically but also pyschologically, and more significantly, spiritually.

So, where do we turn when we feel this anxiety? Do we simply "get a hold of ourselves" and snap our thinking back into "right thinking"? Do we introspectively analyze our feelings and seek some kind of therapeutic resolution? I don't think either of those is very effective. They may bring momentary relief, but the reality of death is overwhelming and powerful.

Ultimately, we must look outwards. We must look beyond ourselves. Looking inward only creates more doubt as we see our own frailities and failings. We need to look at what God has done, how he has acted to redeem, and how he has acted against death.

Jesus came to liberate us not only from death itself, but from the fear of death and its existential bondage (Hebrews 2:14-15). The work of Christ has death--in all its aspects--in its crosshairs. It is the enemy Christ intends to conquer and defeat. Jesus conquers the fear of death and defeats its reality.

We can intellectually recognize this but emotionally embracing it despite our weaknesses and failures is much more difficult. Perhaps our problem is not so much believing that Jesus defeated death as it is believing that we are included in Jesus' defeat of death. Our problem is more existential than intellectual (though there are intellectual issues that are dubitable as well).

Emotionally we need to turn from introspection (e.g., constantly recounting our weaknesses and failures) to trusting acceptance of the work of Christ (e.g., faith in what God has done in Christ). We don't trust in ourselves, but we trust in God's work. Moving from fear to faith is a process. We should not expect instanteous faith nor a faith totally perfected by the complete absence of fear. It is a journey that we all share.

Fear is natural. Faith is unnatural. The movement from fear to faith involves a trust in the work of Christ, involvement in a community of faith that encourages and supports, and perseverance in the face of trials and troubles.

The night before my open heart surgery I had to face some fears. They were real. But here is what I did with them. I took my fear before God and confessed to God that I was afraid. I turned away from my weaknesses and rested in the confidence that God loved me despite my weaknesses. I focused on what God had done for me rather than whether I was good enough for God.

God loved us even when we were his enemies. He still loves us. If we seek him, he will find us. This is our confidence, and that confidence can overcome fear....but it is a confidence that comes through the process of walking with God together with others over time.


John Mark

Sunday, June 26, 2005

Thoughts on Unity

I thought I might share something of what I shared with the churches in Hawaii.

Unity is ultimately rooted in God's act for us in Christ. God creates the unity by his own act and we live it out in our concrete situations. Unity is grounded in the divine initative and manifested through divine gifts.

This is the context in which I think about baptism, Lord's Supper and worship as shared concrete realities through which we experience unity. They are divine gifts through which God mediates his grace and presence. As shared moments/events, we express and experience unity with other believers because God himself is acting in these moments.

Of course, these are not the only moments of God's acting. Nor are they only moments in which we experience unity or manifest it. Our sanctification--transformed lives of discipleship--also express and manifest unity with other believers as God works in us to conform us to the image of Christ. As we are progressively conformed to that image, we manifest unity (a shared life, a shared discipleship) with others who are also being transformed into that image. But baptism, worship and Lord's Supper are concrete (empirical) gifts of God that also communally and corporately manifest that unity which God himself created.

God acts through baptism. As we share those waters, our unity rests in the divine work and the divine initiative. Baptism as a means of grace bears witness to God's work in Christ and mediates the gracious fellowship of the triune God. Through baptism we participate in God's act in Christ and share the fellowship of the Father, Son and Spirit. As we share that fellowship, we are also in fellowship with all those who participate in that fellowship. The water unites us in a concrete way--not because of the water, but because God has acted to share himself through the water which we all share.

God acts through communal worship. As we assemble, God acts by lifting us up into his presence. The assembled people of God gather around the throne and participate in the holy assembly of the throneroom itself. We draw near to the throne, the city of God. We join the assembly of angels, the assembly of the witnesses of Hebrews 11, and we join the church universal around that throne (Hebrews 12:18ff). God brings us to his throne and gathered around the same throne we manifest the unity that God has created by his act of presence. We are one because we are around the same throne.

God acts through the Lord's Supper. God is not passive at his table. Rather, he is the active host who invites and calls us to sit a his table in his kingdom. We sit at the same table by divine invitation and initiative. Once again, we manifest the unity that God has created by sharing the same table.

The common thread here is that unity is focused on the divine act, not ours. Our acts manifest the unity that God has created, and these specific acts are divine gifts to humanity for the purpose (at least it is part of the purpose) of experiencing and manifesting that unity. Unity is something God achieves and we manifest. It is not found in the human mechanics of these acts, but in the divine act which gives meaning to the divine gifts through which we bear witness to the unity God has created.

Friday, June 24, 2005

Back in the Saddle

I just returned from twelve days in Hawaii. It was a wonderful experience. I spent several days with my daughter, Rachel. It was her HS graduation present. She could choose anywhere she wanted to go, but she had to go with me and only me. Poor me, she chose Hawaii. After some days with her, my wife (Jennifer) joined me for the last several days in Hawaii.

Kevin Gilbert ministers for the Wahiawa Church on Oahu. He had asked about coming there several times. Consequently, I combined ministry with pleasure--or perhaps a pleasurable ministry--and consented to speak at the church several times while there. I spoke there on Friday and Saturday evening, and then at a combined service with the Christian Church in Haleiwa on the North Shore. I spoke on unity: shared water (same baptism), shared worship (around the same throne), and shared table (same Supper).

Kevin (Ph.D. from Southern Seminary in theology) is now Academic Dean at the International College and Graduate School in Honolulu. It is an interdenominational undergraduate school and seminary.

God blessed us with a wonderful time of re-creation through scenic beauty, wonderful weather, enjoyable fellowship and historic tours (Arizona Memorial). And our most enjoyable moment was a time of fellowship last Sunday morning with a combined gathering of members of the Church of Christ and Waialua Christian Church on the North Shore. God is good.


John Mark

Friday, June 10, 2005

Working Vacation in Hawaii

I am sorry that I have not posted in quite some time. I apologize to those who regularlly keep up with my blogs.

This past week I was in Memphis teaching my class entitled "Providence and Suffering." And tomorrow I leave for Hawaii and will be gone till June 22.
When asked to come to be with a church in Hawaii for a weekend, well, it is hard to say no. :-)

Seriously, I leave tomorrow with my daughter Rachel who recently graduated from High School. Her graduation gift is to spend some father-daughter time with her "old man" but she gets to choose the place. So, tomorrow we leave for Hawaii. Jen will join me there on June 16.

Upon my return from my "working vacation," I hope to pick up the task of blogging once again.

Romans 15:13


John Mark

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Waiting with Hope

Yesterday I reflected on how we might think Christologically about our suffering. Jesus united with our suffering and we unite with his. We become one and together endure the suffering. We share the fellowship of his suffering just as he shared ours. Thus, through suffering we are one with Christ. It is journey through suffering together as he pioneers a path out of the suffering and into glory. Our suffering, then, is never meaningless --though it is often and sometimes impossible to find any specific, particular meaning-- in the sense that is shared suffering with Christ on the journey to glory.

I find great comfort in my identification with Jesus in suffering. I don't want to distant him from my suffering when he came to suffer with me. And I don't want to distance his suffering from myself as I want to experience Christ, both in the fellowship of his suffering and the power of his resurrection.

Another source of comfort in suffering--and part of the perfecting that takes place within suffering--is pneumatological. The presence and function of the Holy Spirit provides the real ground of comfort and hope in our present endurance and groaning. There are several dimensions of this "Spiritual comfort" as I see it.

1. Presence. God has poured out his love into our hearts in the person of the Spirit. Romans 5:3-5. We boast in our sufferings because it produces character and character produces hope. But this is only because God's love is present in us through the poured-out Spirit. We experience the love of God by the Spirit.

2. Groaning. The Spirit groans with us. Romans 8:26-27. Our groanings in the midst of suffering are neither irreverent nor improper. The Spirit validates our groaning by groaning with us. He groans alongside of us and for us. He speaks words we cannot express and connects us with God in ways that are beyond human words. When I groan, God groans with me.

3. Hope. The Spirit gives hope to our hearts. Romans 8:24-25; Romans 15:13. Here it is easy to "water down" hope as some sort of "future longing," "wishful thinking," or "pie in the sky kind of expectation." However, this hope is both a present reality (and thus comfort) as well as a future expectation. This hope is the presence of the future in our hearts. By the power for the Spirit, the God of hope fills our hearts with comfort and joy. Authentic hope is living in the present as if the future has already arrived. It is the certain joy of the future.

Comfort in the midst of suffering is not achieved by human psychology or by "getting hold of ourselves." Authentic comfort--a comfort that is abiding, eternal and empowering--is a gift of God by the power of the Spirit. The community of God might be the instrument by which God gives this peace, and thus the community is extremely important in partnering with God in this comforting, but the comfort, I think, is a direct experience/encounter with God that yields peace, joy and contentment.

It is not a momentary or instanteous event. It is a journey, a process. It involves community. It involves spiritual disciplines. It involves communal worship and private time with God. But it is ultimately God's act. God gives comfort; we don't comfort ourselves.

A theology of suffering should reflect on the triune character of God's involvement with our lives. The Father created us, loves us, and pursues us. The Son suffers with us and for us. The Spirit lives within us to comfort and engender hope. The Triune God will reverse the curse of the fall, put an end to all suffering and renew his earth for our embodied existence with the Father, Son and Spirit in a fellowship of shalom and joy.