The Grand Paradox: a book review

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Ken Wytsma has done it again. His first book, Pursuing Justice, instigated deep awareness and powerful conversations concerning social justice, especially among evangelicals. The newly released volume, The Grand Paradox, invites readers into the current conversation on Christian spirituality with mature pastoral wisdom. The subtitle, “the messiness of life, the mystery of God and the necessity of faith,” aptly describes the interdependent threads which together strengthen the message of the book.

The Paradox of Faith provides a much needed fresh trailhead into the theological and philosophical undergrowth of these threads by refusing to offer patronizing anecdotes or simplistic solutions. Life is hard, often confusing. And that’s where faith has opportunity to blossom. Wytsma writes, “Faith is often characterized less by clarity than by confusion.” This is a long overdue corrective to the pervasive teaching (both within and outside the church) which declares clarity and certainty as a sign of faith.

In American church culture we make much of finding God’s will for our personal lives, our churches, our families. We devise mission statements, concoct lists of core values, and develop action plans which reflect those values. Then tragedy strikes, or something goes awry, or things simply don’t work out the way we envisioned. Did we miss God? Or are we just now being presented with an opportunity to meet him more powerfully than we ever thought possible?

Wytsma writes,

“We pray and seek God’s will as though He has a specific will for each of us–for each of the seven billion people alive today. I think it’s more accurate to understand Him as having one will that involves separate roles for each of those seven billion people. Rather than seeing myself as the central figure, I need to learn what the whole puzzle looks like so I can find where my little piece fits.”

So then, what is my role in his will. What is yours?

Jesus said in Matthew 6:33, “Seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things will be added to you.” Early in the book Wytsma reminds us of our first year Greek. Despite being commonly translated righteousness and interpreted as referring strictly to personal or corporate moral purity, the underlying Greek word has a dual meaning. Justice is the oft-forgotten doppelgänger. Such an understanding does not change the meaning of Jesus’ words; it does radically challenge our long-held interpretive assumptions, especially within evangelicalism.

It’s the sort of thing Jesus commonly did in his earthly ministry, creatively upending world-views which were contrary or divergent to his person and work. God is using Ken Wytsma to be that kind of gentle, but piercingly targeted messenger in my life and in the lives of those God is influencing through him.

There is far more to The Grand Paradox than what I have time or space to share here. I treated those items I felt were most meaningful to me. And in doing so, I hope I’ve encouraged you to consider buying the book. It has my heart-felt appreciation and endorsement.

I received a copy of this book from the author for free in exchange for providing an honest review. Thus, the opinions above are my own.

living excursus

/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/a9f/4366019/files/2014/12/img_3522.jpg While the culture swirls around me in a frenetic display of preparations for year-end celebrations, I’ve stepped far away from their activities to reflect upon my life. Consider it a living excursus, not unlike its literary counterparts. I also celebrate the ending of 2014 and the onset of 2015, but in my own way. In the quiet, the lull before re-engaging my neighborhood in mission.

I’m at that place where youth and age meet in conversation. It’s likely not what you might expect. Rather than age saying, “Let’s play it safe” and youth snorting in derision, it’s quite the opposite. I continue pressing into the margins, to the unsafe, uncharted, even–at times–undesirable places. In my early youth I secretly desired prestige, position, honor, and titles. In my public humility I privately craved approval. I wanted to be loved.

Through the years, I’ve learned increasingly that I have always been loved by those who matter most, foremost The Lord God, and also my family.

Therefore, I forsake the need for approval. I choose to take up, instead, the cross which Jesus Christ has set before me.

This gives me courage to seek out and try to help those who do not know God and who are vulnerable to the vicious cruelty of systemic injustice; that is, justice which we as a culture fortify via our collective behaviors and the actions of our elected representatives in government.

For the last few years I’ve struggled to make sense of my life and purpose. Formerly it was wrapped up in academia and being a children’s pastor. Now it continues to be shrouded in obscurity, like a winding, muddy mountain trail curving up into the fog bank into a dense stand of trees.

So be it.

You asked who will go, Lord. Here I am. Send me.

purpose

When I rise in the morning there is no soundtrack to inspire would be onlookers who might happen upon my ordinary story. There isn’t even closed captioning. Just a comical middle-aged man, struggling to get up while it’s still dark. Another day of labor. Filled with purpose.

Film producers would throw my script into the scrap pile. “Who cares about an old guy getting up at 4:25 am and going to work everyday? No one wants to watch that. We need action! Peril! Conflict! Lots of exclamation points preceded by saucy language, receding hemlines, and pyrotechnics!”

Therefore I’m destined to live in the invisible background of contemporary entertainment, not even meriting a cameo as an extra. I do so with purpose and with joy.

It allows me margin to listen with compassion to two elderly friends as they grapple with physical infirmity and concern for wayward adult children. It provides me space to join a group of friends in comforting one of our own who is hurting deeply.

It reminds me that I am not the hero of my story; I’m not even the protagonist. I’m just a simple player in a larger ensemble which is being refined for God’s glory so that his story may take priority in all of our lives.

I’m a follower of Jesus. The degree to which his person and work are magnified through my life will mark my level of obedience to the purpose for which he has made me.

Less of me, Jesus. More of you. Truly, to live is Christ and to die is gain.

pressing into the plot line

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I’m looking out my back window as I type these words. Spring rains nurture the green that I see as trees offer their array of praise to our Creator. The scene changes throughout the year, depending on the season. Just a few months ago there were no leaves at all as winter ran its course. It seems that nature understands it’s role in acting out its part in the story. But it’s not quite so simple for me. As I press into the plot line which God has designed for me, I do so with childlike faith in his providence, while lacking the clarity of future hindsight.

There is much I do not know and may never know this side of eternity.

Yet, I have a part to play to the best of my ability. So I seek God, crying out to him and striving to listen with an open, malleable heart. The two birds flitting among the trees just outside my window do so without a care for what tomorrow will bring. Their concern is the here and now. Food, drink safety, the stuff of a bird’s daily struggle to survive in a hostile, yet beautiful world.

God cares for those birds. In keeping with the words of Jesus in Luke 12:24, how much more does God care for you and for me?

The enemy of our souls tells us lies:

-you have no future because of your past decisions
-you are a fraud because you have sinned
-you have no value because who could possibly accept you?

or

-your future will be great, if only you do what I say…
-you can do whatever you want, if only you serve me…
-your value is vested in your willingness to bow to my wishes…

Either trajectory is full of lies from the pit of hell. They attempt to steal attention from Jesus Christ and place them on ourselves and on the devil.

But God reminds us in the text above that he does care for us, and in texts throughout Scripture that he does love us (John 3:16-17, Romans 5:8, etc). Therefore, my plot line is a carefully tended subplot to God’s grand narrative which expresses his love for all of humanity throughout history. So is yours.

That’s the promise and hope which the Holy Spirit seals in our hearts through Jesus. We have a relationship with God and he is involved in our lives as we submit ourselves to obedience to his Word. That is why I state with joy the memory verse the kids and I learned today in kids church: “Your statutes are wonderful. Therefore I obey them” (Psalm 119:129).

The darkness is now filtering out daylight as I take my final glimpse of the trees. The birds seem to be settling in for now. Their story continues. So does mine and yours. What will tomorrow bring? I don’t know.

But I plan and hope and continue to listen to what the Spirit of God is saying through Holy Scripture. Yes I press into the plot line, hoping that somehow my minor subplot will make a difference for someone tomorrow and in the days to come.

isolationism

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Isolationism. Usually we think of nation states such as North Korea when we hear this term. Yet it can also apply to individual persons. I value my alone time. Being around lots of people drains me, so I need solitude to recharge. However, there is a big difference between solitude and isolation, a discrepancy further contrasted when the cause of the latter is isolationism, the willful pushing away of other people, both to their harm and yours.

It’s not healthy. I know; I’ve tried it in the past. Like the glowing hands in the photograph above, the isolated person gropes about in the self-imposed condition of interpersonal exile. He becomes part of a diaspora with no real community, choosing instead unhealthy patterns of self-medication as a kind of pseudo-therapy. Pick your poison: it might be addictions to television, gaming, food or it’s lack, drugs, alcohol, pornography, online gambling, online shopping, social media such as Facebook or Twitter, and so on. Counterfeit relationships in place of the real thing. Or perhaps the person is not addicted to anything at all, save the desire to avoid the pain involved with human interaction.

Meanwhile real people who love us and reach out to us shake their heads in confusion, wondering how to help us break out of our homemade shells.

They can’t, unless we are willing to abandon isolationism. Don’t worry, you can still enjoy your solitude. But let others be with you, love you, challenge you, comfort you, and most importantly, laugh with you.

Isolationism is an attribute of hell. Let’s send it back to where it belongs and begin encountering others in community. It will hurt at times. Deeply. Jesus modeled the response we need to own in such circumstances when on the cross and about to die he said, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”

If he can do that for me, surely I can be willing to extend grace to others, even when it hurts. See you out there in the real world. It’s dangerous, but it’s also filled with divine appointments to love in the way of Jesus.

Photo above by Glen Alan Woods. It depicts a black light “hands” puppet show during a recent 180 session.

storm clouds, sunshine and triggers

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Spring time in Portland, Oregon offers a variable mixture of clouds, drizzle, hard rain, and brightness as the sun competes with the vaporous canopy below in its effort to supply illumination and warmth. The clouds cast a dark pall at times, making those of us confined to the soil long for the illusive orb in the sky, especially after a long winter. When it arrives in all of its glory, we bask in its embrace. And then the cold, dark drizzle returns, as if to splash reality in our faces, causing us momentarily to forget the peaceful contentment which accompanied the sun’s brief sojourn. The contentment becomes a memory and the drizzle soaks into our very being, penetrating our moods and our outlooks on life.

For some people, weather has that kind of direct impact on them. For others, what I’ve just described is more suitable as a metaphor, illustrating the ebb and flow of hope and despair, happiness and sorrow, contentment and depression.

We all have triggers. Certain things set us off: a situation, memory, word or phrase, setback at work or in a relationship… The triggers can be potent, even debilitating. Triggers are sometimes like a mist which reduces visibility to near zero; sometimes they are like torrential downpours, or punishing hail storms.

What triggers affect you, causing you to nosedive into depression? What triggers obscure your awareness of God’s grace and love? What triggers motivate you to isolate from people?

For me, part of the battle is becoming aware of my triggers, naming them and understanding the impact they have on me.

Such awareness reminds me daily of my desperate need for Christ Jesus. So, I turn to him when depression slams me; he alone can vaporize the storm front. When anger burns deeply due to a perceived injustice or frustration, I remember to give myself an emotional time out and consider the attitude of Jesus in Philippians 2, and throughout the gospels.

It’s not easy coming to terms with triggers and our responsibility in dealing with them. Heart level stuff is hard. But there is hope. I cling to that hope daily in the person and work of Jesus. Without him my efforts inevitably will fall short.

Next time a trigger strikes, remember that hope points to God’s grace which is secured for us by virtue of the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

As I wrote that last line, loud thunder reverberated through my window. Even so, I cling desperately to the promises of Jesus. My sin and shame is dealt with on his cross. Now I press in to closer communion with the resurrected Lord.

Will you join me in this journey?

Photograph above by Glen Alan Woods

thankful for a hard week

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This week was eleven years in the making. My car is showing signs of its age, or perhaps more accurately, my lack of timely upkeep. Repairs cost money. Although it runs relatively fine, I trust it less than in the past to get me to and from work on the other side of Portland. So for the last few days I’ve relied on Trimet. It’s meant far more walking, waiting, and paying attention to arrival and departure times. All of this, added to a physically demanding work week full of specific frustrations, provided a mirror in which to examine my attitude and character. I didn’t enjoy the view, but I’m thankful for it.

The rumors are wrong so far: the bus drivers and MAX train operators are timely and safe, and mostly friendly. The downside is that it turns a normal 2-3 hour commute into a 4+ hour commute. The upside? Lots of reading time.

Currently the renowned theologian, Thomas C. Oden, has my devoted attention as I study his Classic Christianity. It’s a required read for any pastor, seminary student, or person interested in engaging a rigorous and relational conversation with historic Christian orthodoxy. No politically correct syncretistic babble here. Rather, it faithfully listens to the fathers and mothers of the Church as they struggled to interpret Scripture for application in their contexts.

I’m thankful for this extra time of undistracted reading, but I’m primarily grateful for the opportunity to see myself a little more clearly. Growing up really is hard to do.

My car will be fine. I almost have the money saved up to do the necessary repairs. However, this experience may well encourage me to continue using Trimet more often, especially on days when the benefits outweigh the extended transit times. Who knows? Maybe one of those benefits will be continued growth in maturity.

That’s worth a boarding pass.