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Teaching and Repenting towards Hope

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. 1 Peter 1.3

The big theme for this blog is teaching!

Over the last month I’ve had a number of opportunities to be back in the classroom. I’ll briefly outline these, and then for those interested I’ve offered a synthesis of what I’ve been teaching.

Weekly Bible Study

Our Thursday Bible Study has spent the year-so-far working through the Bible using the Bible Project Book Overviews. I will be writing an extended update about this in the future, but for now I wanted to share that we finished “Ezekiel” this last week, and so we are more than half-way through. It has been a tremendous adventure!

Houston Baptist University

I gave a set of lectures titled “Divine Righteousness, Wrath, and Political Violence.” We examined a pattern within scripture where God’s righteousness is manifested as “political violence.” This the kind of violence that is experienced at the communal level (i.e. wars, famines, etc.). We looked at how this pattern of interpretation is taken up in the New Testament by Jesus and Paul. Rather than repudiating the OT pattern, both, in different ways, reaffirm the pattern’s validity but also point to the way out. Preparing these lectures gave me ample opportunity to revisit research I did while at St Andrews, as well as to explore some new territory. The current homeless ministry has added a depth and perspective that was certainly lacking before.

Oak Hill Seminary, London UK

In early May I was invited to give a lecture on Homelessness and Practical Theology. I reframed “homelessness” as an issue that scripture addresses, but not in the way that many of our materialist approaches adopt. We looked at how the Bible describes poverty in essentially relational rather than materialistic terms, and how God’s people are called, indeed obligated, to address it relationally. God acts to save the world by creating a new family, and it is our joy and mission to announce that the family of God is open to everyone.

Helping Humans Workshops

A number of years ago I put together a series of workshops called “Helping Humans.” These were designed to equip Christian volunteers to work more closely with the homeless population. Lorrie Hinkleman and I facilitated a much-abbreviated version of these workshops for a group in Crestline CA. My goal is to relaunch these workshops in full soon.

University of Redlands

I gave a lecture titled “Homelessness, Story, and Virtue.” Our society strongly connects a conception of the “good life” with material prosperity. I offered some reasons why this connection is fragile, and why we make the connection anyway: essentially, our perspective on reality comes from the wrong story. This diagnosis is based on the insight from, among other areas, a virtue ethic that connects the “good life” to moral goodness. Human happiness should never be divorced from virtuousness. When they are joined together our ideas about happiness might change a great deal. Given the university context, I used extra-biblical stories to illustrate this point. I prepared to discuss John Milton’s Paradise Lost and Fyodor Dostoevsky “The Grand Inquisitor” but time only allowed for Milton. Both stories include a protagonist who becomes “homeless,” but for diametrically opposed reasons. In Milton, Satan is exiled from heaven because of his rejection of virtue, and Adam’s restoration comes through its embrace. In Dostoevsky, Jesus is imprisoned because of his refusal to fall to temptation. The powerful Inquisitor, like Milton’s Satan, retains his power by turning vice into virtue. (Whew! It was fun.)

The teaching portion of the ministry is one that I wish to expand, and it is really delightful to teach for different contexts and audiences: folks experiencing So-Cal homelessness, Texan Christians, British seminarians, “church people,” and students in a secular university.

So there’s the “update” part of the update done; if you want to read some extended reflections from the last month, soldier on!

(Bear in mind that these reflections came out of teaching, primarily, in a university context. They may not be to everyone’s tastes!)

Repenting Towards Hope

As mentioned above, we recently covered the book of Ezekiel in our regular Thursday Bible study. Perhaps the most captivating vision in Ezekiel is the Valley of Dry Bones (Ezek. 37). Growing up, we had an old Bible filled with Gustav Dore’s illustrations. His depiction of Ezekiel’s vision has been etched in my memory.

The scattered bones, the moving skeletons, the procession of the dead, the addition of more and more flesh as the eye is drawn upwards, and the pensive figure of the prophet in the background… Dore captures the gravity of the scene perfectly. Our group had a powerful discussion about the significance of this vision, realizing that Ezekiel’s futurehope has now begun to come to pass.

Christ is “the firstborn of the dead” (Rev. 1.5), and He leads us on the way of resurrection life. A major theme of our ministry is that this Life should begin as soon as possible; that life in the Spirit, though mortal, is still what God invites us to enjoy now. Yes, it is in many serious ways a partial enjoyment, but it is nevertheless real. What glorious, good news!

I am daily impressed by how serious and important this message is for us today. Christians are used to hearing the truism “We live in a fallen world” but for many it is easy to be overwhelmed by that reality. Life is hard; sin makes it so. Sin makes a hard life harder, so what do we make of “salvation”?

Too often “salvation” has been preached as something to be enjoyed later… maybe much later: after death. In Southern California this “gospel” is everywhere; it may be the most commonly shared belief amongst typical So-Cal evangelicals. This so-called “gospel” isn’t totally wrong: total freedom from pain, temptation, wickedness, etc. has yet to be accomplished. And yet, much of salvation is for the here and now. It is a cruel “gospel” that says to someone whose life has been destroyed by sin that there is no healing, no balm, no end of wickedness “in this life.” On this account, Christianity could reasonably become a suicide cult. Thank God it almost never goes that way, but this malformed “gospel” still does a lot of damage.

Perhaps the greatest consequence is that lacking a real moral or political theology evangelicals (and everyone else!) fill that essential information from somewhere else. The primary place is the liberal ideal that human life should be spent acquiring as much stuff as possible with as little interference as possible. A result: our “mercy ministries” are reduced to creating feeding troughs for humans. Or, thinking of Dostoyevsky: the anti-Christ “benevolence” of the Grand Inquisitor. On the other hand, we might slide into a full-blown Randian nightmare where altruism is weakness, and a human’s dignity is exactly equivalent to their net worth.

In this part of the world we have been living inside of a deeply problematic story. Following Alasdair MacIntyre , after all the modernists rise and fall only Nietzsche remains on his feet. Become the Ubermensch; self-determination is a human right; acquire riches; drive your enemies before you; become John Galt. In this story, repentance plays only a negative role.

God help us to see that this isn’t so.

God help us to have a “living hope” (1 Pet. 1.3)!

Living hope is hardwork, not least because it requires changes in the present for the sake of the future. In other words, it requires a lot of repentance. Our essential need for repentance is right on the surface of the Biblical narratives. Over and over and over again a pattern emerges from the scriptures: if you reject God then you will become a slave to something terrible. Repent and you will be saved from this fate. Nevertheless, we bury the call to repentance as deeply as we can. It is buried so deep that some might even suppose that it is somehow unloving or “un-Christlike” to make repentance an immediate concern.

We bury what is right on the surface: God stands ready to help us turn things around.

The pain of repentance is that it requires the stern conclusion that we have messed things up. That is the hard pill to swallow. But the promise of repentance is that things can and will be truly better when we follow Jesus. Perhaps we ignore this promise too much, and if we paid it more mind it would wipe away the pain! What if we situated repentance within the story of God, in which the lost sinner is (actually!) a sinner and that to be “found” is really (really!) to experience a fresh new way of life?

But if this is the story we live in, then the only way out is repentance. Not just the falsely vilified “homeless” who doesn’t measure up, but all of us. But repentance is hard.

In terms of “story,” this terrible situation, needing-but-not-wanting-repentance, is vividly illustrated by John Milton’s Satan in Paradise Lost. Milton explores the infernal logic that drives Satan’s action: in his initial rebellion and as he considers the possibility of repenting. While reading Milton I was struck by how sympathetic a figure Satan becomes when read through the lens of contemporary pop-psychology. Milton’s Satan rejects repentance for reasons that are all too relatable: it would cost too much; it would be humiliating; he would be sure to just fall again later. Repentance would require shouldering the burden of gratitude and responsibility; it would be too shameful. And so determined, he resigns himself to his fate,

So farewel Hope, and with Hope farewel Fear,
Farewel Remorse: all Good to me is lost;
Evil be thou my Good; by thee at least
Divided Empire with Heav'ns King I hold
By thee, and more then half perhaps will reigne;
As Man ere long, and this new World shall know.
Paradise Lost, 4.108-113

Milton here gives us an astounding insight into nature of hope. Why do fear and remorse depart with hope? To hope requires a vision of the future that is better than the present, and to hope for better requires an understanding that the present is not as it should be. Hope is optimistic about the future but, if not pessimistic, it is at least sober about the state of things as they stand. Hope requires a submission, therefore, to judgment. It requires confession, an admission of fault. Absent faith, hope also locates us in a place of uncertainty, “What will happen next, anyway?” To hope that we might improve is therefore dangerous, and thus must include some fear. To hope that our situation will improve also includes shame, remorse. If things are not going well, and, to varying degrees, this is “our fault” then to hope therefore requires that I risk experiencing shame. I will look bad; I will feel bad. This is what Milton’s Satan cannot abide. In order to avoid fear and remorse, he jettisons hope and must turn his reality on its head, “Evil be thou my Good.”

In our age, fear and remorse are things you can be rid of with a good counselor and a good pill. The Street provides its own remedies. Phobias and shame are mental states that no one should suffer. Further, those who perpetuate such states are toxic and cruel. So farewell.

But at what cost? What if the reopening of a hopeful horizon for the future requires enduring the pain of fear and remorse? What if things have really gone wrong, and the only way back is to endure humiliation and risk? Going back to Ezekiel, what if “life” as it stands is actually a pile of scattered bones? Admitting this is a challenge not just for homeless folks, but for all of us who have been storied into the world of late modernity. Repentance was never easy, but now it is harder than ever.

Christians are in radical need of a “re-storied” existence; we are in radical need a reenchanted imagination.

Hope is hardwork, and if I’ve learned anything from my experiences with “church” in the last couple of years it is that Christians, especially our leaders, are deeply allergic to doing hard things. But Peter Leithart gives me some inspiration,

“The church is a community of hope, and all of the churches ministries and activities express and nourish hope. The word nourishes hope; prayer nourishes hope; singing nourishes hope; baptism nourishes hope; the Lord’s Supper nourishes hope. When we open our homes to the homeless, feed the hungry, and clothe the naked, we act in hope and bolster hope, as the Spirit builds our confidence in God’s promises and good gifts.” (“Radical Hope” Plough Quarterly)

So if you are feeling hopeless, go do something worthwhile for Jesus!

Enough for now! Thanks to those who read all the way through.

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