Reflection

Reflecting on Health and Disease; and the “Clinicalization” of Sickness and Death

I have just been thinking again about my incurable/terminal cancer diagnosis back in 2009; I was prompted to this because I just had my annual appointment with my oncologist to make sure I am still okay—I still am. One of the consequences of my treatment, back in late 2009 and then through 2010 was that during my resection surgery they had to remove my right kidney in order to get clean tissue margins when they removed my tumor. So obviously this left me with one kidney, and a kidney that had gone through the ravages of the hardest hard-core chemo the body can handle (and it really can’t). My oncologist ran a test on my kidney function, well at least on my creatinine level, and it was a little elevated; even for someone with one kidney. This is not surprising, it has been this way since 2010. Nevertheless, he wants me to go to a nephrologist (which I have once, and should’ve been in contact with him this whole time), just so they can keep an eye on things and monitor the performance of my kidney. I will have to say, this has rattled me a bit; even though my oncologist said there is nothing to panic about. This leads me to what I want to reflect upon in this post; about the impact that clinical-medical diagnoses have upon the patient, but more importantly, how it reduces death and sickness to the hard and “cold” sciences (i.e. just the facts type of approach) rather than, as it should be framed for the Christian, from the perspective of God’s Providential care, and the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Todd Billings, a fellow theologian and brother in Christ, was diagnosed with a rare and also incurable cancer back in 2012. He, like me, has survived his cancer, and has even written a book on it Rejoicing in Lament, which I reviewed here. He is the one who started me thinking this way, and he was put onto thinking this way by a medical doctor and oncologist who has personal experience with dealing with cancer (as do so many of us), and he dealt with the death of his father from cancer. This doctor (his name is escaping me) wanted to delve deeper into patient care, and how that care engages with the spiritual and familial aspects of treating cancer patients; to get beyond the “science” of it all.

Billings has extended this out further, and placed this discussion into one wherein such topics should be seen as before God, first, and the science itself, while having its place, should lose its grip on being able to frame issues of health and death itself. I well might be recalling Todd’s premises wrongly, but this is what I am recalling at the moment (off the top). What I want to say, in concert with Todd, is that, at least for me personally, I do not like giving the doctors the last word. There seems to be this elevation of scientists in our culture, even for Christians, wherein they have gained godlike status; as if they have been imbued with some sort of control. But that is not comforting to me; what is comforting to me is that God is in control, that he alone gives life and takes it away (I Sam. 2.6). While scientism dominates our culture, almost in cultic types of ways, those who are suffering some of the most heinous diseases among us are ensconced, unwillingly, right in the middle of that culture, only to suffer through whatever they are suffering through with this type of clinical atmosphere surrounding them. To me this is just one more fall out of living in a post-Christian pagan/secular society wherein the secular has become the sacred, and the scientists have become its priests.

God’s Story in the Drama of Human Suffering: Applied to an Incurable Cancer Diagnosis

I wanted to share something I wrote on April 14th, 2010. I was still in the thralls of my treatment; I was totally beat up! I had gone through 6 cycles of very hard-core chemo, had lost over 50 pounds, and came close to losing my life without the intervention of the oncologists; i.e. from the treatment. At this moment they were just giving me time to recover to prepare for surgery (that would happen until May 6th). As I gained strength back, having a break from my chemo, I gained strength to write; and so I produced the following reflection on the story of Job. Here’s what I wrote:

In Bible study (or literary studies) there is a “device” called “dramatic irony.” The perfect example of this is found in the book of Job. We as the readers have a birds-eye view of the whole story; we see God’s discussion with satan in heaven, we see God giving satan space to slam Job for a “season.” Then we see the unfolding of satan’s attack upon Job, we go through all the false accusations of Job’s friends; we see Job in great pain and affliction, we see him wondering what’s going on, wondering where God was. We see Job in great mental, emotional, and physical anguish. Then we turn the pages and see God responding to Job — not in the way we might think either — and finally we get to the end of the book; we see how it turns out, how Job is blessed, even more so than he was before — mostly because He came to know the LORD in ways he never did before. My point, is that with Job we know he’s going to be okay (we know the end of the story); Job didn’t have our vantage point, he had to go thru it.

As I think about this, and my own precarious situation, it is amazing to think about dramatic irony; there is a story that has already been written by God, there is a so-called “back-story” going on here. To learn from Job, God is sovereignly in control of all the circumstances of my life; when I cry out to Him and wonder where He is and what He’s doing, to learn from Job, God is in control and every circumstance is ordered by Him. Beyond this there is a time of refreshing and rest coming; in ways that me and my family have never known (since we’ve never known the depth of suffering we are currently experiencing). There is great hope in looking at Job. God is in control, and He doesn’t want to keep that a secret; He also doesn’t want to hide that He is a God of great comfort, who doesn’t answer to us, but instead lovingly comes to us in His way, in His time. Dramatic irony is an ongoing reality, in my life, and in all of our lives; unfortunately we don’t know, specifically (we do in general as Christians), how each of our particular stories end (whatever kind of suffering or trial we are currently facing in life as God’s children). The good news is that God knows how each of our stories end and begin; He’s in control, and He just wants us to trust and rest in Him (I say to myself). [originally posted here]

As I contemplate this over 6 years removed from that time I am able to look back and see more of the story, but I still do not know the whole story of course. Like Job, like someone like Lazarus, just because my body has been “raised from the dead” “delivered from the valley of the shadow of death” I am still human and I am still facing my mortality on a daily basis. I have a greater confidence in God’s care and capacity to intervene, to break into my life in a very personal and concrete way. I have come to understand that my life is indeed but a vapor, but that ‘vapor’ is the LORD’s; He is in control of the vapors. The further out we get from my cancer free date (May 6th, 2010), the further away we seem to be removed from that strange world. But in honesty I don’t really feel that removed from it. I still have a 12 inch scar running from the bottom of my sternum to the top of my groin; I still have a horizontal scar running about 3 inches across my upper right chest from where they embedded my port under my skin; I still have some neuropathy in my feet from the chemo; I still have one less kidney; and I still have 6 inches of gortex holding my inferior vena cava together. Beyond that, and this is the more blessed part: I still have not forgotten the dramatic in-breaking of God’s life into our lives during that season. His provision and presence was other-worldly; He spoke with His still small voice into my heart words of encouragement; He pointed me to passages of Scripture before I even knew they were passages of Scripture and spoke those words into my life.

In a small way we have experienced the dramatic irony of God’s dealing with our life. We can look back at that part of the story and see how God has worked. More broadly we can look to God in Jesus Christ and have confidence that this same God from In the beginning to the amen has written the story of all of our lives in the life of Jesus Christ. We can read the drama that this life produces over and again from the Alpha&Omega of God’s finished work in Jesus Christ and know that the story ends very well; just as it did in a temporal sense for Job; just as that happened for Lazarus; and just as it has happened for me in this instance of living through (thus far) an ‘incurable cancer.’ Soli Deo Gloria!

Speaking Plainly as a Christian from my Own Experiences

I just want to write from the heart, and reflect on what I have come to learn of God in Jesus Christ over my life; and in particular over the last twenty-one years. This reflection will range from the intimate to the intellectual.

As a Child

I first heard the Lord’s voice when I woke up in the middle of the night, and knew that I was ready to ask Jesus into my heart—I was three and a half. I woke my parents up, and they led me in lookingatstarsprayer to Jesus. That same voice has continued to speak to my heart and at points wake me up (metaphorically) in moments when I need that, even now. He has never left or forsaken me; whether that be through depression, anxiety, doubts, or an incurable cancer diagnosis. The Lord of life has always been there; just as a faithful shepherd never leaves his sheep. He has laid his life down for me over and over again, as he always lives to make intercession for me. He has captured my heart with his heart of Triune love; a love that is not of this world, but has come into this world in the eternal Son. I have come to know that his love is not just for me, but for the whole world; that his love is bi-partisan and crosses every-and-any line humanity might attempt to draw—he transcends all lines.

As a Theologian

What theology has taught me is that God is Triune; that he is eternally Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and that his oneness is shaped by his threeness/his threeness by his oneness. I have learned that it was just this life, because of who this life was, is, and will be in itself, that the world was created; it was created so that the plenitude which is God’s life of self-given love and fellowship, could participate with the other—with us. I have come to learn that this Triune God is purely holy, that he can have no part in evil or darkness; but beyond that his holiness is defined by his just “isness,” it is because he is who he is in himself that he is holy—that he is set apart unto himself. The beauty of God’s holiness, I’ve learned, is that it is in his holiness that he is most open for the other; first in the Father-Son-Holy Spirit relation, but concordant with that, with us as his creatures.

As a Sinner

I’ve learned that as his creatures we have no life apart from him; apart from him we can do nothing. But because of sin, and our un-holiness we lost our way; we have separated from him. In this separation we wander aimlessly like wandering stars for whom the black darkness has been reserved forever; but he does not desire this for us so he sent his Son. His Son, Jesus, freely chose to be for us, to be God with us, Immanuel, and to bring reconciliation in himself for us, between us and God. Christ alone has been able to bridge the breach, that outwith his selfless work and wound for us, we would still be aimlessly fluttering around the universe with no hope. I’ve learned, and am learning that Jesus is the Gospel, he is the Good News that this world needs; that I need.

As the World

I’ve also learned that this world hates Jesus; that it would rather serve and worship itself. I’ve learned that the world, if it could, would crucify Jesus all over again; and that that spirit dominates this world system. I’ve learned that people would rather listen to their own voices, even in the church, rather than the voice of the living God in Jesus Christ. I see people every day, in this world, consider the blood of Jesus a vain thing; as if the shed blood of Jesus Christ is as common as the next fad. I see people every day walk passed the face of Christ as if his face is the face of just another religion. I am surrounded by people, in this world, who hear the Gospel, and count it as just one more power-play over their lives. I see people rushing to and fro never able to find rest; crowding their lives out with noise; self-medicating themselves with pseudo-intellectualism and entertainment; self-therapizing themselves with drugs, alcohol, and sex—the usual vices. I see people who look up into the sky on a dark starry night and only see a cold, black, empty space with no meaning behind it. I experience a world that is always learning, but never able to come to the knowledge of the truth; because they don’t love the truth, they love the lie. I see a world at war, a world bludgeoning itself into oblivion with hopes of exalting itself as God. I see a world with no peace.

As a Disciple, As a Witness

I have come to learn that Jesus is the peace that this world is looking for, but that it doesn’t ultimately want. But I want that peace, and by the graciousness of God in Christ I experience that peace every day; I want the world I am surrounded by to experience that peace, but they will not. I want the world I come into contact with every day to know that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; that God is love, and he comes with healing in his wings as the Sun of Righteousness. I want people to know that when they see the cross of Jesus Christ that this is God’s answer to the chaos in the world; this is where God’s Kingdom breaks into the hearts of men and women, boys and girls. I want the world to know that by God’s poverty in Christ, they have been made rich by the wonderful exchange that has taken place in the person of Jesus Christ; that the crooked has been made straight, the darkness made light. I want the world to know that Jesus has risen indeed! That the governments of this world rest on the Son’s shoulders, and that in Christ there is freedom indeed. I want the world to know that God has spoken, that he speaks in his Son; and that all who will can participate in the very life of God. I want the world to know that the holiness of God’s inner life has been opened up for them in Jesus Christ; that Jesus is the mediator between God and humanity, and that in him they can escape into the very sanctum of God—so close as to be at the very right hand of God. I want the world to know what it’s like to look up at the heavens, and the starry night, and see the majesty of God; to know that there is the theater of God’s glory, and he wants to share it with them. I want the world to know that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all; at his right hand are pleasures forevermore. I want the world to know that God’s heart breaks for them as a Father’s heart breaks for his prodigal son; he wants them to come home. I want the world to know that there is no suffering so deep that God in Christ hasn’t gone deeper; that he can meet us at the deepest point we could ever go. I want to be a testimony of this grace and mercy to them, to the world that wanders around as if existing is simply what life is.

As one Resurrected

I’ve learned that there is urgency about the Gospel, and that this life is but a vapor; cancer taught me this the most. I learned that we as a people need to be ready to die, literally. But people don’t want to think like that, they don’t want to think they could die; but the fact is, they are. I’ve learned that Jesus is the resurrection and the life, and though we die yet shall we live. amen.

 

Doubting the Theologians and Biblical Interpretation

I am not totally sure what is happening to me tonight, but it is either conviction or an overly-sensitive conscience. I have been posting a lot on Karl Barth lately, and if not Barth my other usual suspects are Thomas Torrance and John Calvin. But I am really having a problem with all of this right now, and it is really bothering me. I am not confessing to some deep down angst about my reading of Barth, et al.; but what I am doing right now is being honest about something that has been bothering me for awhile. It is a personal thing really, and it involves some personal background snoopytheologyand history in order to provide the proper context for what I want to get off my chest.

As I have shared way too many times to count, in the past, the Lord got a hold of me in some pretty radical ways back in 1995 when I was 21. I grew up the son of a Baptist pastor, and became a Christian when I was a little kid; I even was a little evangelist leading my 5 year old friend to the Lord. I have always had a heart for Jesus, and a love for Him ever since He touched my heart at a young age (something like a Samuel experience—i.e. the way I came to Christ waking up in the middle of the night and wanting to ask Jesus into my heart, I went in and woke my parents up and they led me to the Lord at 3.5). And I grew up with that sensitive heart for him, and being involved in my dad’s pastoral ministry and evangelism from a young age into my teens. Out of high school I became lukewarm, but that was the point that the Lord got a hold of me again in some rough ways. It was during that time that I began to read through the Scriptures voraciously, memorizing books of the Bible, and feeling the need to tell every person I came into contact with about Jesus—in evangelical parlance I was “on fire for Jesus!” This led me into formal biblical and theological studies, and even to where I am with all of that today.

So here I am tonight (or early morning), and I have four books on my night stand about the theology of Karl Barth. I’ve already read untold books just like these ones over the last eleven years in particular; and the same can be said in regard to Thomas Torrance, John Calvin, and many other theologians (too many to be named). But what I am feeling really convicted about, if I should use that word, is a question that keeps haunting me with some intensity. The question is: who cares?! Who cares what Barth, or Torrance, or Calvin et al. thinks about what the Bible says? Isn’t the Bible itself capable of communicating what it means, in its own given context, without hearing from the theologians or even critical biblical exegetes? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not going anti-intellectual on you all, but this is an honest question for me. What is keeping what I am doing from being a so called reader response hermeneutic? When I read Barth et al., yes he and they offer some very interesting, imaginative, and even provocative ways to read Scripture and its inner-theo-logical implications. But at what point does their influence cease being interesting, and instead act as a regulative way that governs the way that I am interpreting Holy Scripture? My question isn’t just for my narrow list of teachers, but it’s for all theologians and challenges whoever someone’s favorite theologian or interpretive tradition is.

When I really committed to reading and studying Scripture, before God, some twenty-one years ago, I committed to know Him through His Word. I want to make sure that I am not conflating someone else’s word with His Word; and I am sure Barth et al. would want to avoid this same thing! But it seems to me that us Protestants have our own popes, and our own interpretive magesterium. I do believe that theological exegesis is inevitable, and in itself is not a bad thing. But I want to always make sure that I am being self-critical enough to not be reading my favorite theologian’s opinions (theologoumena) into Scripture as if Scripture is not perspicuous enough (and that principle itself comes from Protestant theologians) to speak itself from its own literary and theological context.

It doesn’t matter if its Karl Barth, Thomas Torrance, John Calvin, Martin Luther, Amandus Polanus, Thomas Aquinas, John Duns Scotus, John Webster, Peter Martyr Vermigli, Musculus, Junius, Arminius, Bullinger, Bucer, Baxter, Gill, Robert Jenson, Pannenberg, William Perkins, Francis Turretin, Vos, et al. et al. I don’t want to think that I am giving anyone the ability to fabricate or create meaning for Scripture that is not present in Scripture itself. Does this sound like I am being anxious? I think it does sound that way, because I actually am. I’ve studied too much at this point, and continue to study, and realize that it’s very possible to lose touch with the text of Scripture itself. Sure I can appeal to the reality of theological exegetical reality, and that we are finite human beings; as such we will always be fighting to know the depth dimension of Scripture deeper and higher than we do today. But in that process, again, I am really leery about getting too far removed in that rationalization, and allowing the theologians and critical biblical scholars too much voice, to the point that they are allowed to create meaning for Scripture that Scripture itself does not have in itself as it finds it reality in Jesus Christ (and this last clause comes from the impact that Barth and Torrance have had on me).

I just don’t want to lose my first love.

Theology and Cancer: Genuine Christian Theology and How it Comforts Through Revelation

Cancer and theology: my friend Todd Billings has written a book on the relationship between cancer and theology; motivated by his own diagnosis with an incurable cancer known as multiple myeloma. As many of you know I too, back in late 2009/2010, was diagnosed with an incurable/terminal (typically) cancer known as desmoplastic small round cell tumor (sarcoma), or DSRCT. Both Billings and I have miraculously survived our respective cancers, and by God’s grace carry on.

fallleavesThroughout the rest of the post I would like to reflect on cancer and theology, and how they relate and even can inform each other. I am prompted to write this post because of a mini Facebook discussion I had yesterday with my friend, Derrick Peterson. He had written a blog post himself on proofs for God’s existence. Eventually in the conversation I brought up cancer, and how God had worked through that in my own life to assuage and in fact rebuff serious doubts I’ve struggled with about God for many years. The type of doubts I had were not unhealthy doubts, but doubts I believe that God in Christ allowed to come upon me to push me deeper into Him. Nonetheless, I had them, and they were very strong; they caused depression and anxiety; and I just wanted them to go away, so I studied and prayed a lot (we are talking over a season of probably fifteen years). But I am starting to digress, let me move into the post now, and try to bring cancer and theology together.

Christian Theology

The first question, if we are going to talk about cancer and theology is to try and define what in fact the entailments of a genuinely Christian theology actually are. This will be an important step, because in order to understand how theology can inform and relate to cancer, we need to have a solid understanding of what Christian theology is. To help us develop what genuine Christian theology is Scottish theologian Thomas Torrance will have the honors as he is describing Karl Barth’s way of doing theology as well as his own:

Because Jesus Christ is the Way, as well as the Truth and the Life, theological thought is limited and bounded and directed by this historical reality in whom we meet the Truth of God. That prohibits theological thought from wandering at will across open country, from straying over history in general or from occupying itself with some other history, rather than this concrete history in the centre of all history. Thus theological thought is distinguished from every empty conceptual thought, from every science of pure possibility, and from every kind of merely formal thinking, by being mastered and determined by the special history of Jesus Christ.[1]

This is the way I approach theology as well. It is to understand that Jesus Christ in a principled and even absolute way must be the center for knowing God for us; since as the Apostle John makes clear, that was a fundamental part of Jesus’ mission.[2] There are other ways of doing theology out there that don’t do theology this way; as we have noted elsewhere on this blog, classical ways for doing Reformed theology (and I am Reformed, so I will camp on this) are much more abstract and speculative—i.e. they don’t necessarily start with Jesus Christ in an intense way for doing theology. This is not to say that the piety of some of these practitioners does not attempt to make up the difference in some of these other ways of doing theology, but they are not directly given shape by starting with Jesus in the ways that Barth and Torrance do (as does Athanasius).  In other words, I would contend that starting theology with Jesus in a principled way starts with the triune idea that God is love; it does not work its way discursively towards that reality as some classical theologies might be wont to do.

At base then, at least for me (as an evangelical Calvinist, and student of Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance), theology is Jesus; theology is objective in the sense that God is God, but genuine Christian theology moves the object into the subject (without losing its objective character) in Jesus Christ. In other words, genuine Christian theology is by definition, personal and relational. It is both of these because theology is not an idea, or simply a discipline, but genuinely Christian theology is a personal subject, it is the triune God Self-revealed and exegeted in Jesus Christ. It is this type of revelation that makes theology so inextricable to something like cancer; cancer is personal. So it is fitting, if God who is wise in Himself, if He is going to reveal Himself to us in Christ, does so where we are; hidden in the midst of our squalor and various forms of human suffering brought on by the fall of humanity into the abyss of sin.

To drive this reality of a genuine Christian theology home even further, let’s hear from Karl Barth directly as he writes about what Martin Luther called a theology of the cross versus a theology of glory. This will serve as the bridge that brings my desire to talk about cancer and theology together. Barth writes at length:

[I]n contrast Luther tries to draw attention to the vacuum, to the fact that passion (suffering) stands at the heart of life and speaks of sin and folly, death and hell. These fearful visible thing of God, his strange work, the crucified Christ — these are the theme of true theology. A preaching of despair? No, of hope! For what does that break in the center mean? Who is the God hidden in the passion with his strange work, and what does he desire? Explaining Heidelberg Thesis 16, Luther pointed out that the strange work leads on to the proper work, that God makes us sinners in order to make us righteous. The gap in the horizontal line, the disaster of our own striving, is the point at which God’s vertical line intersects our lives, where God wills to be gracious. Here where our finitude is recognized is true contact with infinity. He who judges us is he who shows mercy to us, he who slays us is he who makes us live, he who leads us into hell is he who leads us into heaven. Only sinners are righteous, only the sad are blessed, only the dying live. But sinners are righteous, the sad are blessed, the dying do live. The God hidden in the passion is the living God who loves us, sinful, wicked, foolish, and weak as we are, in order to make us righteous, good, wise, and strong. It is because the strange work leads to the proper work that there can be no theology of glory, that we must halt at the sharply severed edges of the broken horizontal line where what we find is despair, humility, the fear of God. For despair is hope, humility is exaltation, fear of God is love of God, and nothing else. The center of this theology, then, is the demand for faith as naked trust that casts itself into the arms of God’s mercy; faith that is the last word that can be humanly said about the possibility of justification before God; a faith that is sure of its object — God — because here there is resolute renunciation of the given character of scholastic faith (infused, implicit, and formed) as an element of uncertainty; faith viewed not as itself a human work but as an integral part of God’s strange work, sharing in the whole paradox of it.[3]

For Barth, and now for me, genuine Christian theology, as the Apostle Paul so eloquently declares is the wisdom of the cross (see I Cor. 1.18-25). God in His ineffable wisdom humbles himself to not only become a man, but humbles himself to the point of death, the death of the cross (see Phil. 2.5-10). God reveals Godself, hidden in the manger, in the body (which was His own human body) of a growing boy, and finally in the public ministry of Jesus Christ culminating in his death, burial,  resurrection (see I Cor. 15.1-4), ascension (see Acts 1; Col. 1–2), and coming again (see I Thess. 4; Rev. 19–22). When theology starts with God’s life revealed in the eternal Son, Jesus Christ, it cannot but help but to be meaningfully personal and cruciform in shape, since this is the shape that is most fitting for God become man by His own free and gracious choice; and this concordant with His character (in His inner triune life in se).

Cancer

Cancer is one of the most visceral fearful things, it seems, in our society of which people hope they never have to face. The sad reality though is that statistically more than fifty percent of all North Americans will receive some sort of cancer diagnosis in their life time (probably most towards their aging years, but that is also unfortunately changing quickly). I had to face it, and many of you (God forbid it!) might well have to face it yourself; if not, someone you know closely will in their life time. So cancer, among other ills produced by living in a fallen world, is an inevitability (although I think through proper diet most of cancer could be eradicated) that we will face one way or the other.

As I described theology above, that was not an abstract exercise for me; that is real life. When I received my “terminal” incurable cancer diagnosis it was the God revealed in Jesus Christ, in the cross and resurrection where I found immediate hope, confidence, and comfort. I did not have to work through an abstract apparatus of theology in order to work my way to God; because of the theological moorings I already had I knew He was ever present in this real time of trouble. I already knew that the God who I desperately needed was a humble, but all powerful God, who is able to enter into the depths of death and sin, and overcome it because of the inner-strength of His triune life of love. I knew that God first loved me, because He wasn’t a God who just talked the talk but He walked the walk before I was ever born or thought of (at least humanly speaking). I knew that I had an immediate and direct access to God because He had made clear to me in His Self-revelation in Christ that He had already come to me by enfleshing Himself with humanity and entering into all my suffering and despair. I found comfort in knowing that not only was God all powerful, but that His almightiness was shaped by immediate and personal love. I knew that He had power over death, because while He might appear to be hidden in the cross, for those with eyes of faith it was there where I could see Him most brightly.

Conclusion

When I started this post I had mentioned that discussion I had had with my friend Derrick about God and doubt. God revealed Himself, and met me so strongly in the midst of cancer that many of the doubts I had dealt with prior (for around fifteen long years) were crushed. It was through encounter with the living God in Christ, as I woke up every morning only to remember that “oh yeah, I have an incurable cancer in my body,” that this God of the cross broke in quickly on that fearful thought and made clear that nothing could separate me from the love of God in Christ Jesus. This is how good theology ought to work. It shouldn’t, at base, be an elaborate, even scholastic web of intellectualisms; instead it should be able to bring knowledge of God in the spaces of life where we would least expect to find Him.

 

[1] Thomas F. Torrance, Karl Barth: An Introduction to His Early Theology 1910-1931, 196.

[2] See John 1.18.

[3] Karl Barth, The Theology of John Calvin, 46.

 

The ‘Return of Reason’ through Resurrection: A Parable in Daniel 4:28-37

28 All this came upon King Nebuchadnezzar. 29 At the end of twelve months he was walking on the roof of the royal palace of Babylon,30 and the king said, “Is this not magnificent Babylon, which I have built as a royal capital by my mighty power and for my glorious majesty?” 31 While the words were still in the king’s mouth, a voice came from heaven: “O King Nebuchadnezzar, danielprophet1to you it is declared: The kingdom has departed from you! 32 You shall be driven away from human society, and your dwelling shall be with the animals of the field. You shall be made to eat grass like oxen, and seven times shall pass over you, until you have learned that the Most High has sovereignty over the kingdom of mortals and gives it to whom he will.”33 Immediately the sentence was fulfilled against Nebuchadnezzar. He was driven away from human society, ate grass like oxen, and his body was bathed with the dew of heaven, until his hair grew as long as eagles’ feathers and his nails became like birds’ claws.

34 When that period was over, I, Nebuchadnezzar, lifted my eyes to heaven, and my reason returned to me. I blessed the Most High, and praised and honored the one who lives forever. For his sovereignty is an everlasting sovereignty, and his kingdom endures from generation to generation. 35 All the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, and he does what he wills with the host of heaven and the inhabitants of the earth. There is no one who can stay his hand or say to him, “What are you doing? 36 At that time my reason returned to me; and my majesty and splendor were restored to me for the glory of my kingdom. My counselors and my lords sought me out, I was re-established over my kingdom, and still more greatness was added to me. 37 Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and extol and honor the King of heaven, for all his works are truth, and his ways are justice; and he is able to bring low those who walk in pride. ~Daniel 4:28-37

Daniel, as a true prophet of the living God, his word, or God’s word came true for King Nebuchadnezzar. I see this as something of a parable (not that I don’t see this as a historical event, I do!) for humanity in general. We are all born into this world in the same state, with the same proclivity for an incurved existence as Nebuchadnezzar; it’s just that he had more available to him, as far as material and pleasurable resources. Nevertheless, he did what we do; indulge himself in self-adoration, finally to the point that God said that was enough—God graciously and mercifully humbled him.

It isn’t until God does the same for us, for modern humanity that ‘reason’ returns to us; reason being that orientation where we have right knowledge of God resulting in right knowledge of ourselves (something which Calvin knew something of). Aren’t all humans prone to live like socio-paths, like feathered loons (to one extreme or another) without a right orientation to God; without bowing the knee to God? Sure, we are good at fooling ourselves into thinking we are ‘normal’ sentient human beings who live relatively well ordered lives (at least relative to the Jones’ next door); we are good (well kind of) ordering chaos in such a way that we think we have got things together. But of course the knowledge of God, the knowledge of the cross won’t let us honestly live like that for very long; reason will return, and in this dispensatio it is at the cross where the humiliation and exaltation of God and humanity in Christ have met, where genuine reason and right-mindedness have come.

Personally I went through a season of life (many years ago) where I thought I was losing it, mentally. The only place where I found intellectual and heart solace was in the place where Nebuchadnezzar found it; with the recognition that God alone rules heaven and earth, and it is therein where I found my place as His creature. Reason for humans can only be present when they are rightly oriented to God. That orientation does not come willingly, but only through God’s choice for us in Jesus Christ to put us to death with Him at the cross; and then to raise us with Him as new creations—that’s the reason that radiates God’s Kingdom, the resurrected life of the eternal Son, Jesus Christ. Reason has returned for humanity in Christ, in His resurrection, and now in our participation with His resurrected humanity.

 

Without holiness I can’t see God. That just won’t work

“14 Pursue peace with all people, and holiness, without which no one will see the Lord …”[1]

This will just be a short reflection on the profundity of this verse; I need to reflect on this verse, and contemplate the depth dimension present in it. I think sometimes when we read this verse we might read it as a purely futuristic thing; indeed, it has that element. But Christian theology, properly understood, knows that things such as holiness, God’s holiness, is indeed something/one that bobbygrowgrowbobbycan only be fully realized in consummate form — but it is just this reality that implicates the present. I believe that the eschatological reality, some call this glorification, when holiness will be required to stand in the presence of God, much like Moses did, and was hidden in the cleft of the Rock, is required in the present. Eschatology shapes the present reality we inhabit; eschatology is God come in Christ in the first and second advents, and in every parousia in-between (which happens on a daily basis as God in Christ by the Holy Spirit breaks into our lives moment from moment, even if we fail to recognize that). So, I along with Augustine, believe that without present and ongoing holiness in our lives, without our active participation in koinonia of God’s life that’s mediated to us through the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ, we cannot see God.

I want to know God, I see no other meaningful reason for living. I have nothing on this earth but Him (and all that He has given me freely in the Son, including my family, friends, loved ones, etc.). The Psalmist, king David captures this well:

ג Gimel

17 Deal bountifully with Your servant, That I may live and keep Your word. 18 Open my eyes, that I may see Wondrous things from Your law. 19 am a stranger in the earth; Do not hide Your commandments from me. 20 My soul breaks with longing For Your judgments at all times. 21 You rebuke the proud—the cursed, Who stray from Your commandments. 22 Remove from me reproach and contempt, For I have kept Your testimonies. 23 Princes also sit and speak against me, But Your servant meditates on Your statutes. 24 Your testimonies also are my delight And my counselors.[2]

‘I am a stranger in the earth,’ and I need the holiness of God to surround me; I desire to actively walk out of His holiness as I walk in the step with the Spirit (Gal 5), in the works He has already prepared for me to do in Jesus Christ on a daily basis (Eph. 2:10). But I so often fail, and miserably so. I quickly look at the stormy waters surrounding me, I see the dust cloud of Pharaoh’s army pursuing, all I can see is the Red Sea before me; and I turn inward, I start looking at my navel instead of Jesus’ pierced navel. And in the midst of this loss of focus I go to my high places, where the groves seem green and above it all; but what I quickly realize is that these luscious high places are only filled with idols that I’ve created, idols that can’t breathe, or talk, or provide solace and hope (Ps. 115). I’m like Israel of old, the Israel that Christ became, that I (we) might become Him (II Cor. 5.21). I realize that if I think I will live this life without sin I make God a liar and His truth is not in me (I Jn. 1.8, 10). So yes, I do things that are not holy, I sin, and I do what I don’t want to do (Rom. 7); but it is here where the wisdom of God in Jesus Christ breaks in (I Cor. 1.18-25), he sprinkles my conscience with His blood that I might worship and serve Him, the living God (Heb. 9.14). I know without His gracious intervention into my life I will not see Him; I can’t live life that way, I won’t!

There is hope, even when I fail, He wins; He overcomes (I Jn. 4.4)! Even in my failure, in my sin, in my idolatry He is ever present. I want His holiness to dominate my life, for without it I cannot see Him! I don’t want His holiness to dominate my life in abstraction, but in concretion; and so as I cry out to be released from this body of death I look to Jesus (Rom. 7). I look to His body, and I know that by His stripes I am healed (Is. 53; I Pet. 2.24); because I am one spirit with Him (I Cor. 6.17), and because of His poverty I’ve been made rich (II Cor. 8.9), and now I am seated with Him in the heavenly places far above all of the crap of this world (Eph. 1.19-23), I have great and abiding hope! I choose to stand in the power of His might, and battle on! (Eph. 6.10ff; II Cor. 10.5ff). amen. 

 

[1] Hebrews 12.14

[2] Psalm 119.17-24

Being Needy and Finding Jesus in the Gospel of Mark

Earlier today I posted this on my Facebook wall: “Reading the Gospel of Mark: Jesus is surrounded by needy people, not people who are not needy. I’m glad I’m a needy
grunewaldperson.” I want to expand on that statement in this blog post.

It is interesting, I have spent years studying hermeneutics; and have even taught a biblical interpretation class to underclassman at my alma mater in years past. But when it comes right down to it, as I continue to read through the Bible, year in, year out, quite often the way I end up reading the Bible is through a lens of travail; through a lens of suffering and tribulation. This doesn’t mean that I have forgotten the christocentric lens of biblical interpretation, or chucked the literary tools I have learned to study Scripture; but what it does mean is that as I read Holy Scripture I encounter Jesus Christ in living breath on its pages (which is the christocentric lens). And in particular moments like I am facing now (I was just laid off of my job at the railroad a few days ago, and don’t know what to do at the moment), when I approach Scripture, I tend to read it with an eye towards being encouraged and comforted by who God in Jesus Christ is for me (pro me). And so this morning I decided to read through the Gospel of Mark (along with my ongoing Bible read through which I’ve been doing since 1995, 35x through), and given the circumstances we are facing as a family (with me unemployed once again) I noticed this time through that the sorts of people hanging around Jesus in the Gospel of Mark look a lot like me.

Take the first chapter for example. John the Baptist was as needy as they come. He lived out in the wilderness on a diet of honey and wild locust; a homeless peripatetic prophet with nowhere to lay his head. And yet his whole existence was consumed by pointing people to Jesus. He didn’t worry about his clothes, or his personal well being; he was concerned with pointing his finger to Jesus. He was seeking God’s kingdom first, and God in Christ was making sure that everything else was being added unto him (like food, clothing, etc. — all of his needs were being met).

The next characters we meet, still in chapter one are: Simon, Andrew, James, and John (vss. 16-20). From a material standpoint they became immediately needy (which would be indicative of their spiritual need as well); they walked away from their livelihood as fisherman to follow Jesus. They no longer had a steady or stable financial situation, and yet like John the Baptizer they were willing to seek Jesus first and be consumed by Him; they were willing to let Him worry about their physical needs (and spiritual). So more needy guys.

Still in chapter one in verses 21-28 we encounter, with Jesus, a guy who is demon-possessed, in the temple of all places; another needy guy. What does Jesus do for him? He casts the unclean spirit out, and brings healing to this spiritually destitute man. Jesus was there, not having any place to call home, to minister the power of God to this man, even as Jesus Himself had his own material and physical needs. In the following pericope in verses 29-31 we meet, with Jesus, Peter’s mother-in-law; she had a fever, a physical ailment. Jesus touched her, healed her, and she served Him; as if nothing could stand in the way of Jesus being magnified. It was out of her need that Jesus healed her, met her need, which allowed her to serve Jesus.

And as something like a summary of what has already happened previously in verses 32-34 the whole city gathered at Peter’s mother-in-law’s house and Jesus healed the multitudes of various physical and spiritual ailments. Jesus was surrounded by the needy. Now wouldn’t you know it, here I am, with my beautiful family, not sure what we’re going to do with my job loss, standing as it were at Peter’s mother-in-law’s front door and seeking the healing and ministering touch of this great and mysterious man named, Jesus of Nazareth.

In many ways because of His ministry in the past, in similar situations where I’ve been unemployed, or in even more extreme circumstances, had an incurable/terminal cancer, it is as if I can see Him stretching His healing hand out and moving it in my direction. I can see myself in His story, like the one narrated in the Gospel of Mark, and know that Jesus, my Lord, is the same Jesus who spent time with and ministered to all of these other needy people we just took note of. I find confidence, and hope from all of this; but still wonder just how the Lord will touch my neediness this time. It seems like His ways are not my ways, and His thoughts not my thoughts; and even though I can’t quite see how He’s going to work it out and meet the need this time, I am confident that He will indeed meet it. He has never left or forsaken me or my family yet, and I am positive He’s not going to this time either!

I am needy.

Experiencing Resurrection Hope: A Reflection on the Feeling of Being Set Free from Cancer

Today was a long day coming; it represented a certain kind of landmark for me and my wife and kids! Today was the last time I had to have a CT scan to check if I had had a recurrence of my cancer; a rare and aggressive, and “incurable” cancer known as desmoplastic small round cell tumor (DSRCT), sarcoma. I was diagnosed with it in November 2009, and immediately started heavy resurrectionholechemotherapy. I had surgery May 6th, 2010, and some post-chemo which we ended early in late June 2010. Each year after that was a year where the goal was to remain cancer free, even though usually this kind of cancer comes back, and with a vengeance.

From the day I was told that I had a large mass by my right kidney, in October 2009 all the way through my treatment, the Lord impressed upon me many things with His still small voice as He spoke to my heart. One of the first things He spoke to my heart, before we ever knew exactly what this large mass was, was this:

“This sickness is not unto death, …”

When the Lord spoke this to me I didn’t realize, at first, that it was from John 11:4; but I did finally realize that these words came from that passage, and I gained encouragement from that. Not because I was afraid to die (although I surely didn’t want to), but because I looked at my young wife and young kids, and my heart broke to think that I could be leaving them; that was really a thought too much to bear. So I sought solace in these words from the Lord, and hoped against hope that I was really hearing from Him and not from my own self-talk. The Lord continued to speak to my heart along the way, and as He did each step of the way it was confirmed that I wasn’t hearing from my own self-talk but His still small voice.

Now we have come to a point as of today where that long road just hit a real landmark! What the Lord had spoken to me way back then was confirmed in a very striking way today. Even as the anxiety welled up in my heart the last couple of days, even as I began to psyche myself out and start thinking that every little tinge and inkling of nerviness that I felt in my abdomen might be the cancer returned, the Lord spoke to my heart, as He did in days past, and said: “when it’s gone, it’s gone … today will bring good news!” I had no reason to doubt that I was hearing from the Lord, because every time He had spoken to my heart like this in the past it was confirmed; over and over again!

My oncologist told me today that as far as someone can be cured from the type of cancer I had that I am cured! If you knew the demeanor of my oncologist you would understand even better how significant it is for him to say something like this.

But now I feel somewhat strange. I have never felt “guilty” before, and honestly to say that I feel guilty now is probably not the right language to describe how I feel. The right language is probably more like: “I feel deeply humbled!” But there is that tinge of “survivor’s guilt.” I’ve been following other people who have been diagnosed with DSRCT, even people years after my diagnosis, and they are no longer with us. Although I do know of a few who are doing well right now, which is very encouraging and hopeful; and I have great hope for them! All I can really do is put my hand over my mouth, and know that I stand before a Holy God! There is a tangible sense that I am alive only because the Lord wants me to be alive; that I live solely by the grace of God, and from His breath. This does not seem like an abstract or intellectual thing to me at the moment; it seems concrete and real, and it is!

As we faced today, as I woke up I had that feeling like I once had when I first realized that I had a terminal cancer. It is a feeling of darkness, and no future; as if each minute is the only future I have. It is a crazy sense to have this; it is the sense of my own mortality, and I don’t like it at all. Fellow cancer-brother Todd Billings describes this aspect of a cancer diagnosis well as he describes the impact his early cancer diagnosis had upon him:

… Less than a week earlier, the doctor spoke the diagnosis to me, about which he had no doubt: a cancer of the bone marrow, multiple myeloma—an incurable cancer, a fatal disease. I had been in a fog ever since. How was I to face each day when my future—which had seemed wide open—had suddenly narrowed? My “world” seemed to be caving in on itself with fog in each direction I turned, so that no light could shine in.[1]

I felt this way again today. But by God’s grace the fog blew out, and the “Sun of righteousness” came with “healing in His wings;” and the future opened up once again. But the future has opened up with a sense of soberness about it; where I know that I am not my own – that I have been bought with a price, with the blood of Jesus Christ. I know that someday, and most likely very soon, I will stand bodily before the very One who has seen fit to touch my body as He touched Lazarus’, and give account. The future holds that great day when I will meet the One who kept speaking to my heart over and again, even today; I know His voice, and I know for sure that one day soon I will see the lips that spoke to me today, and yesterday.

Thank you to each of you who have lifted me and my family up to the Lord, our Great High Priest through all of this! We still need prayer, and I covet it! Thank you, and thank you dear Lord for sparing my life for your own loving and gracious reasons! Soli Deo Gloria

 

 

[1] J. Todd Billings, Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer & Life in Christ (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Brazos Press, 2015), 1. Todd Billings is doing well, and is in a state of “remission,” but I like to call that “cancer free.” He continues to teach theology at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan; and he continues to receive maintenance chemo. Please keep him in prayer, that the Lord would continue to sustain him and his young family, and that the cancer that has threatened him will understand that it is not lord, but that Todd’s Lord is lord, even over Todd’s unwieldy cancer. Pray the Lord puts Todd’s cancer in its place; the Lord has done that, may He continue to!

The LORD Is My Shepherd: Reflections on Seasons of Life, Anxiety and Cancer

Sometimes it is good to reflect upon what the Lord has done for you, for me, personally. It is good to reflect upon this great salvation God in Christ has wrought for us! I am in the state of mind to do just that, and so for the rest of this post I am going to get a bit personal and reflect upon what God has done for me, and how He has worked His life into my life through some really rather hard shepherdJesusthings.

I was in Las Vegas with friends, it was somewhere around 1994 (I was out of high school for around 2 years), and my walk with Jesus, even though I had grown up in the church, was a pastor’s kid, and had a sweet walk with Jesus prior, was now in a lukewarm state. We were in Vegas for a week, and every night as my friends were getting ready to go out and hit the casinos, every night around the same time, 7pm or so, I would get hit with a heavy hand of oppression and anxiety; I’d never had an anxiety attack before, but that’s what hit me at those times every night we were there. It kept me from going out with my friends, and eventually led me to leave Vegas, early ahead of my friends. It was through these circumstances that the Lord got a hold of me; when I got home I continued to experience these anxiety attacks, and it got worse. It was spiritual, spiritual warfare, depression, oppression, and it actually lasted for years, probably 7 or so! It is hard to describe exactly what I was going through, I shared it only with my parents at that time, and they walked with me through this. It drove me to God, it drove me to Holy Scripture, and caused me to commit myself to reading through the Scriptures over and over again (and that has lasted ever since); the Scriptures became my sanity, the mind of Christ had to become my mind by the Holy Spirit, my own mind was betraying me. This pushed me to despair of life itself, but to the point where I didn’t trust myself, but in the One who raises the dead. This pushed me to enroll in Bible College and finally Seminary. This pushed me to evangelize anyone and everyone I could; Christians and non-Christians alike! This pushed me to devour Bible commentaries, to read theologies, and this continues to be a fruit. This pushed me to have sympathy for people, in general, Christian and non-Christian alike; which I knew wasn’t me, but Christ in me, the hope of glory!

Then in late 2009, early 2010 I was diagnosed with an incurable, terminal cancer for which there was no protocol, and no real treatment; I was faced with my mortality, and the reality of life like I had never been before. The Lord walked with us, me and my young family through that valley of the shadow of death in such tangible ways that it is hard to describe. I was scared, and my life was narrowed down from having dreams and hopes for the future, to having dreams and hopes simply for each day. The Lord showed Himself to me in ways that transcend understanding; when I would wake up in the middle of the night full of fear of death, and feeling a sense of utter darkness and despair I would cry out to the Lord and He would lead me to just the right places of Scripture, the Bible would literally fall open to places where it was as if He, the Lord was speaking directly to me; and He was! When I would wake up in the morning and for a brief moment forget that I had cancer, but then only to quickly be confronted with that dire reality that indeed I really did have a terminal cancer, with all the attendant fear and anxiety that came along with that, the Lord would quickly rush to my heart and tell me it was going to be okay, that He was with me and that He would never leave me, or my family, and that He would never forsake us, I had just enough hope to get up and push on.

There is so much more I could share from both of these seasons of my life that I just covered, but that will have to suffice. The result of all of this is that when faced with life circumstances that seem overwhelming I have this deep and abiding confidence in my God, in my Father that it is all going to be okay! That even though I can’t see how something is going to work out, and there seems to be these huge mountains, these insurmountable mountains facing me, I can look back at God’s faithfulness and have real living hope. Because of the anguish and sorrow that has come in all of this, there has been a deep and abiding hope and joy pushed into my heart; and I know without a doubt that God is faithful even when I am faithless. I know that the provision I think I am providing for my family is really provision that God is providing for me and my family; I know that my sustenance, both physically and spiritually is not contingent upon what I do, but it is contingent upon who God is and what He continuously does in accordance with that. I know that God is a God of grace, and that He truly is Lord, that nothing in this world is greater than He is, that He has overcome this world! I know, and am continuing to learn that there is nothing too difficult for the LORD (Jeremiah 32:17).

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. ~Psalm 23