Preaching is Dangerous: Two good people (at least) left my church because of my last sermon

Image result for traveling with suitcasesTwo good people.  They were regulars, for years.  But one sermon sent them packing.  What happened?  I decided to be direct, to take on a poorly supported, terribly exegeted, yet popular view among many Christians.  I rejected it and suggested it was a dangerous view.  They didn’t like that, so they left.

Of course, I could put all the blame on them.  I could argue that it is pretty sad if people assume that every week when they go to church that the preacher’s job is to simply corroborate their theological stances and that they are to leave unchanged, but somehow blessed week after week.  I could argue that perhaps most church attenders (if not all) are looking for a place that simply confirms the way they already think and act, while allowing a very small space for very minor shifts.  I could argue that our sanctuaries have lost their edge and no one expects an encounter with God to really mess with their idols.

I could also put the blame on myself.  It wasn’t a great sermon.  I could confess that my critique of that beloved viewpoint was not communicated with charity or grace, but rather was dismissive and critical.  I could have admitted that I too held that view at one time but that as I carefully examined the evidence and looked at church history I had to leave it behind.  I could have given them some space to hold to a divergent view.  I could have recognized that some people, some good people, in my congregation probably still held that view.  I could have spoken as if I was speaking to a friend across the table, rather than acting as I might on Facebook ranting about a view in the abstract.

So what does this say about “prophetic” preaching?  I believe most genuine preachers want to be prophetic – they want to trust the Holy Spirit to use their sermon to speak into the lies and half-truths that infect people’s lives and inhabit our culture and even or especially our Christian culture.  If that is the case, how do we do that well?

Well, from the congregation’s standpoint, perhaps we need to warn them a bit more.  Perhaps we need to directly alert them to the fact that the word of God may not affirm their beliefs, even the beliefs that they believe are Biblical.  Perhaps we need to remind them that each one of us is a fashioner of idols.  If they forget that, and enter our churches to hear our messages and find those beloved idols being challenged, they will be shocked, and angry, and lash out.

From the preacher’s standpoint, I see a double call: we need to aim to be a centered church while also holding to the rule of charity.

A centered church: A centered church puts Christ at the center and aims for him in all things.  A centered church does not fixate on boundaries and does not love to declare who is in and who is out by whatever standard of measure.  A centered church preaches the gospel, a gospel center towards which all people can move, while a boundary oriented church cuts people out and declares there is no place for them.

A charitable church: Church is not meant to be a place where all people agree on all things.  Do we allow space for people to hold some unorthodox ideas?  (Can I admit that some of my own views are not spot on?) Can we have grace and tolerance toward people’s pet views and theological upbringings?  In other words, will we love people in their shoddy-theological states and point them toward Jesus or will be rip on their views and tell them they have no place at the table of Christ if that is how they think?

I believe last week I failed on my part.  I wrote a personal apology to one of the people for my failure – my failure in charity and in being properly centered.  I don’t know if it will make any difference to that person, but it will make a difference to me going forward.  Perhaps those who left our church also failed their own test.  But until I learn how to deal with the log in my eye, I have no right to a holier than thou attitude toward those who choose to pick up their idols and leave.

How did Grace become a pharmaceutical?

My heart and mind are bursting Image result for inklingswith enthusiasm today after having two separate sessions with two different groups discussing my book on Grace and its implications for life and ministry.  My purpose with these groups is to prove the truthfulness of what Eugene Peterson said to me once, “All theology is experience-able.”  This should particularly be the case when dealing with a subject so relevant as Grace, and even more so when intrinsic in the definition of Grace is our participation in the life, love, and activity of God.  Today was
proof of the relevance and I look forward to how this will continue to unfold.

My intention is to blog through the book as these conversations in community continue.  This will enable others to join in the conversation.

The introduction provides a very brief background to T.F. Torrance, a rationale for a book on his concept of Grace, commentary on T.F.’s reception by the academy and the church, a note on his writing style, and a statement on the methodology and approach which I am taking in the book.  The purpose and goal of the book is to translate and exposit Torrance’s theology through the lens of Grace.  It, in effect, is a relentless pursuit of what I believe is the core of his thinking and theology, and not only that, the core of the gospel revealed in Christ send by the Father in the power of the Spirit.

The “meat” of the introduction is found in the section titled, “Background to Torrance’s Theology of Grace.”  This section brings to light the versions of Grace that Torrance understands himself to be combating.

Rather than going point by point through the material (you can buy and read the book if you want that), I’m going to drop in at a couple places along the way and do a combination of riffing on what Torrance is staying about Grace, and reflecting on the conversations I’ve been having with those who are on the front end of engaging with these ideas.

So….

What if we have misunderstood Grace?  What if, even in the Reformation, we have reduced it to something we can understand, manage, and control?  Torrance argues that our continual default is to naturalize grace by detaching it from the person and work of Christ.  Once Grace is detached from the person of Christ, it gets reduced to something instrumental, controllable, and impersonal.  In short, we turn it into a pharmaceutical (my term).  We turn it into a pharmaceutical when we treat grace like a supplemental add-on to the Christian life.  We say things and hear things said like, “…with the help of God’s grace…” you can do this or that.  Grace becomes our energy pill.  As a pharmaceutical, the Church and religious activities become the means by whiRelated imagech grace is dispensed.  We expect that by going to church, reading our bibles, fasting, praying, serving, etc…that we will “get” grace from that experience.

Forget the Catholics whom many Protestants so love to critique, let’s just look at how this plays out in the Protestant world.  Here’s a quote from page xxvi in the book:

  • “…the same errors and problems which plagued the Church before the Reformation reemerged afterwards; indeed Protestantism has shown an uncanny ability to replicate its own counterpart to nearly every flawed version of Grace which it opposes in Romanism. Torrance targets three particular snares which tend to besiege Protestantism: tendencies towards pietistic subjectivism, impersonal determinism and abstract extrinsicism.”

Pietistic subjectivism: Here we naturalize grace by melding it with common grace.  There is a mutuality between God and us and as we do our part and God does his part, progress is made.  We essential treat grace as something ‘infused’ into us, so we “grow in sanctification” and we “grow in grace” which is another way of saying, we get more of this thing, like muscle mass.  Now grace has become ours, because we’ve worked hard at it, we’ve trained for it.  Now it is “natural” to us when prior to our hard work it was not “natural” to us.

Impersonal determinism: Whereas pietistic subjectivism focuses on grace inside of us, impersonal determinism views it from the outside.  Here grace is treated as an impersonal force.  This is evident in both the theological position of limited atonement and also that of universalism.  Each in their own way imposes a deterministic framework upon God’s relation to humans, the former by limiting God’s gift of salvation to a pre-selected group, the later by forcing God’s gift of salvation upon everyone regardless of their own wills.

Abstract extrinsicism: Here grace is reduced to and controlled by legal categories.  This is grace on paper, where like an electronic bank transfer, grace is “imputed” to us, but that imputation takes place in ether world of “the cloud” and as such is abstract, distant, and external to us.  Grace in this form does not transform the person.  It bypasses the person, leaving them in the mire of their sin on an experiential level.  Cognitively, we know we are free and forgiven, but experientially we are still left on our own to fend for ourselves – until we die.

In one way or another each of these versions of grace convert “it” into a thing, “thingifying” grace into an instrument or pill that helps us live the Christian life.

Pick up any book on grace today and the assumed premise will be that grace exists as a fix for a problem.  How did we get here?  In short, we have not listened to Athanasius who sought to teach us that the incarnation did not take place because humans are bad, but because God is good.  We have reduced God’s gift of himself to a fix for a problem (humans are bad, sin must be forgiven), rather than recognizing it as God’s gift of himself so that we might participate in his life. (more on this next time)

I think this is where T.F. Torrance can become our best friend in leading us out of the quagmire of moralism, impersonalism, and extrinsicism that contaminates our gospel.  And finally, I’d like to think that my book could be particularly helpful there.  Here is the thesis as stated on p. xxviii:

  • “It is the argument of this book that this self-giving-for-participation movement of triune Grace functions as the presuppositional and allencompassing context materially undergirding and methodologically guiding the formulation of all of Torrance’s theology. Like leaven, Torrance’s concept of Grace permeates the whole and forms the basis upon which all other doctrines have their sustenance.”

Interview with “Trinity in you” (Part 3)

James: In your assessment do Evangelicals need to re-discover Trinitarian grace and participation or do they have a robust theology of life and Christian living?

Image result for graceGeordie: Evangelical theology, with all of its strengths, has some significant lacks when it comes to how we think and speak about sanctification because we haven’t grounded it in a very robust theology of the Trinity.  We’ve turned grace into a thing or a force or some generic divine favour, and in so doing we have depersonalized the gospel, the God of the gospel, and those caught up in the gospel (ourselves).  The fact is, grace is not a thing, grace is a Person.  Grace is Jesus Christ sent from the Father through the Spirit.  And he comes and dwells among us to live the life we failed to live and die the death we deserve to die and to take our redeemed humanity in him to ever live before the face of the Father in our name.  THAT is grace.  And THAT is amazing.  But it doesn’t stop there.  Grace is not a gift with “no strings attached” – that kind of a gift has no interest in relationship.  Rather, God gives himself to us in Jesus Christ SO THAT we might share in his life, so that we might participate by the Spirit in the Son’s life and love in the Father.  We are brought in and lifted up that we might know a life of love and trust and joy and service and faithfulness and compassion like Jesus does by fixing our eyes on him who fixes his eyes on the Father.

Of course, the Evangelical depersonalized version of grace creates significant problems downstream, specifically in the area of Christian formation.  Evangelicals love the Trinity (sort of), but talking about “it” a lot does not make us Trinitarians in practice.  No matter how regularly we recite the Apostles Creed most Evangelicals are functional Unitarians.  Cleverly putting things in threes only masks the problem.  Liberals and EImage result for trinityvangelicals alike have traded the objective reality of the gospel which resides in the person of Jesus for their own subjective creations that throw people back upon themselves in spite of how loudly they declare that they don’t throw people back upon themselves.  This impacts pretty much every aspect of our faith and life.  To be honest, a great deal of what I see churned out by the Evangelical world (which is my general camp), leaves a pretty uns
atisfactory aftertaste.  One core reason for this, I argue, is that we have the nasty habit of making it all about us.  In the book I make a distinction between what I call “Subjective Moral Formation” and “Objective Trinitarian Participation” as a way of highlighting the problem.  If you’d like, I can sketch that out a bit here.

James: Please, go ahead.

Geordie: Subjective Moral Formation essentially focuses on behavioral modification, and from that standpoint, it is reasonably effective.  On the surface this may not seem bad at all, but whatever “fruitful” change it produces comes at the cost of a self-focused, impersonal approach to the living God.  This version of Christian formation is subjective because the primary agent is ourselves, rather than the ascended Christ.  It is moral because its goal is development in virtue and other socially idealistic behaviors.  It is formation because it assumes that we can train ourselves – through specific practices, habits and attitudes – toward the achievement of predetermined behaviors and qualities which imitate Jesus.  Here’s the problem: anytime the Christian life gets reduced to individualistic and non-personal ideals or technique-focused programs, the living God is shrunk to the shape and size of a vending machine: programmable, predictable, and controllable.  Jesus gets demoted to the status of a moral example or a moral teacher (and not just by Liberals).  The end of subjective moral formation is an impersonalizing of that which makes us truly and properly human – a relation of dependence and trust with the living God.

In the book, based on my reading and unpacking of T.F. Torrance, I propose an alternative approach to Spiritual formation, which I call, ‘Objective Trinitarian Participation.’ Objective Trinitarian Participation takes place within the circle of the worshipping life of Jesus Christ, as participation in Jesus’ relation with the Father through the Spirit. It is objective because the primary agent is the living, ascended Christ. It is Trinitarian because its activity has its origin and continuation in and through the Holy Spirit sent by the Father with the Son.  It is participation because we are included: through our engagement in specific practices, habits and attitudes, the Holy Spirit continually leads us, through Christ, to the Father in every area of life.  From this standpoint, the main focus and concern of Christian formation is that the Father-Son relation be translated into the daily life of the children of God through the Spirit.  It’s a totally different starting (and ending) point.

James: What is your favourite TF Torrance quote?

Geordie: I’ll give you two, one short and the other more extended, but both of them capture for me the beauty and freedom we are invited into in Jesus Christ.  I am not alone.  My life is not my own.  I am included, caught up, enfolded, encircled, gathered up, secured, and the Spirit is the down-payment of the reality of this grace so that I might know it experientially even on this side of the veil.

“Christ’s faithfulness undergirds our feeble and faltering faith and enfolds it in His own.” (G&R, 154)

“The ascension means the exaltation of man into the life of God and on to the throne of God. . . . There we reach the goal of the incarnation. . . . We are with Jesus beside God, for we are gathered up in him and included in his own self-presentation to the Father. This is the ultimate end of creation and redemption revealed in the Covenant of Grace and fulfilled in Jesus Christ. . . . We ourselves are given a down-payment of that, as it were, in the gift of the Spirit bestowed on us by the ascended man from the throne of God, so that through the Spirit we may already have communion in the consummated reality which will be fully actualized in us in the resurrection and redemption of the body.” (STR, 135–36.)

James: In closing – In less than four lines what do you consider to be the “take home” message of your book Trinitarian grace & participation?

Geordie: Grace provides the heuristic key (the “logic”) for all doctrines that seek to order the relation of God and humans.  Grace is God’s gift of himself (from the Father, through the Son, in the Spirit) so that we might share in his life and love.  As we are taught by this grace, we become truly human, personalized persons, echoing by the Spirit the “Abba, Father” of the Son.

James: Thank you Geordie.

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Interview with “Trinity in You” (part 2)

James: What drew you to the theology of Thomas F. Torrance and to the themes of your doctoral research project – Trinitarian grace and participation?

Geordie: My “conversion” which I spoke of earlier was the discovery that Jesus never lets go of his humanity, but takes it (and all of us in him) with him to the Father. Up until that point, I saw Jesus’ humanity as a temporary necessity he undertook in order to accomplish a legal transaction.  Like many Christians, I had always assumed that after the resurrection when Jesus went up into the clouds he left his humanity behind and was done with it for good.  When Alan Torrance showed us that the Bible teaches otherwise, I was astonished.  For me, it was as if the good news of the gospel that I’d always known that Jesus died for my sin had suddenly become the amazing news of the gospel that Jesus had lived for me as well, and not only lived for me, but LIVES for me still!

Prior to this, my version of the Trinity was pretty much like tag-team wrestling – first the Father creates, then the Son redeems, then the Spirit carries us to the finish line.  Tag Team Wrestling - marquee

I remember being stunned when I read for the first time Torrance’s assertion that at the center of the New Testament is Jesus’ relation with the Father.  I had no way to conceive of Jesus as a man depending on the Father through the Spirit as having any relevance to the life of God eternally.  But if God’s intention is to make a space for humanity in the person of the Son within the life of God himself, then…well that’s a game changer.  I became entranced by the fact that God would love us so much that he would fulfil our side of the covenant by becoming human and living an obedient human life, and then dying an obedient sacrificial death, and that he would do all that so that we might share in his life and love.  If Christian faith is not simply about a legal transaction necessitated by our sin, then that begins to open up its meaning as a wondrous love story.  It also meant that my job now was not simply to respond by working hard for God, but something so much more wonderful: to participate through the Spirit in the Son’s relation with the Father.

James: What do these themes mean to you personally and in the ministry calling you have as Pastor of Adult Discipleship and Formation at Columbia Presbyterian Church?

Geordie: Personally, it has been incredibly freeing on so many levels.  On the outside people would look at me and think I had life pretty much together, but inside I felt terribly alone and vulnerable, deeply aware of my inadequacy, and fearful of what God and others expected of me.  I’d read, I’d been prayed for, I’d done counselling, I’d worked with a Spiritual director, I’d gone to Bible School, I’d gone to the mission field, I’d gone to seminary….but my theology was limited in its ability to adequately address the core issues.  In many ways, healing was sabotaged by my old theology of separation and performance.

It’s been, and still is, a long journey.  Baxter Kruger’s various books have been a tremendous source of help through the years.  In The Great Dance he speaks of the voice of the “I am not” that litters our life with insecurity, anxiety, and fear.  I have known that voice well – “I am not enough” – and when we are convinced that “we are not,” then we are driven to find a way to “become.”  (p. 75)  I’ve spent a lot of my life striving to become, to justify my existence if only to myself. Within this framework what else could I do but try desperately to achieve some sort of respectable identity or sense of self.  It is a rat race with no way out.  My old model of a Christian life encouraged this separation because it was fundamentally extrinsic: God is “out there” and wants me to “do better” so I work hard at doing better so that I can “be like Jesus.”  It all sounds good and biblical and Christian, but its real effect is to throw me back upon myself again and again and again.  That is what is so tremendously sad in the Church: people are doing what the church tells them to do and it has left them empty.

By contrast, the gospel, the real gospel, is that Jesus is on my side of the equation.  I am not alone.  I am included.  I am in and with him before the Father.  In him I am forgiven, reconciled, and justified.  I am adopted. I am secure – as secure as the risen Son himself – for he will never ever let me go.  My life is hidden with Christ in God (Col 3:3).  I am continually captivated by the idea that God’s intention is not simply my legal righteousness, but communion – to share in his life and love – and it is in this sharing that I find that I become properly human or “humanized” as Torrance likes to say.

It is this theological vision that makes me understand what the apostle Paul meant when he said that “the love of Christ compels us,” for it really does.  The challenge for me now is to learn new ways of praying and thinking and behaving that correspond to this reality that my life is not alone.  There is much in me that continues to resist this personalizing, humanizing, way of God. I am in the Holy Spirit’s school of the renewing of my mind (Rom 12:2; Eph 1:17-19) where I am learning, slowly, falteringly, what it means to be a child in God’s kingdom, led by his Spirit rather than by myself in isolation (Rom 8:14-16).

My enthusiasm for the amazing news of the gospel I have come to discover in Torrance is “complemented” by my concern regarding the state of Spiritual formation in the church today.  So much of what we tout as “spiritual formation” in the church is just self-help virtue ethics and workout programs with a little sprinkle of Holy Spirit on top.  It is not specifically a problem of the Spiritual formation movement, but of the entire theology that undergirds most of what is known as evangelicalism.  This presents a challenge, because the sickness is in the very water we drink and surrounds us on every side – our books, our “Christian” movies, our music, our programs, our sermons, etc.  My litmus test is this: what work does the continuing humanity of Christ at the right hand of the Father do in this or that teaching or message?  Image result for humanity of christIf the answer is “nothing,” which it usually is, then I know that the message I’m being given (in whatever media form it may take) is essentially Pelagian, that is, I’m thrown back upon myself to respond myself to God.  In other words, “It’s all up to me, and I’m all alone.”  I am saddened that the people in my church live under this Pelagian weight and they don’t even know it.  My passion is to do whatever I can with whatever gifts and opportunities God has given me to shine the light of God’s truth on who God really is, and what they are included in by virtue of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ascension in our place and on our behalf.

Interview with “Trinity in You” (Perichoresis Australia)

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James Chaousis for Trinity- in-You interviews Dr Geordie Ziegler, Pastor, Theologian and author of a newly released book from Fortress Press – Trinitarian Grace & Participation: An entry into the theology of TF Torrance.book cover

Last year It came to our attention that Dr. Geordie Ziegler, an American Presbyterian minister serving as Pastor of Adult Discipleship and Formation at Columbia Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, Washington, USA has written a significant book.  The book Trinitarian Grace and Participation: An entry into the theology of TF Torrance, is published by Fortress Press and will be available from February 1st , 2017.

This publication is based upon his doctoral dissertation which he completed at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland under the supervision of the late Professor John Webster.

We would like to introduce Dr Ziegler and his forthcoming publication to an Australian audience / readership, and inclusively of course to our global audience of supporters and viewers of this website.                                 

James Chaousis: It’s my pleasure to welcome Dr Geordie Ziegler to Trinity-in-You.

Dr Geordie Ziegler (Geordie): The pleasure is mine.

James: Please share with us something of your background and your current ministry at Columbia Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, Washington, USA.

Geordie: My Christian journey has been quite eclectic.  I grew up in a Presbyterian Church in the San Francisco Bay Area, but I’ve had the opportunity to study in a variety of countries, beginning with a term during college in which I attended Torchbearer Bible Schools in both Sweden and Austria.  After teaching English in China for two years, my wife and I moved to Vancouver, Canada where we attended Regent College.  Most recently, we spent six wonderful years in Scotland, so that I could pursue a PhD in theology at the University of Aberdeen.  In between all these study ventures I’ve served as a pastor in various Presbyterian churches – four years, nine years, and about three and a half years so far at Columbia Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, Washington (which is just outside of Portland, Oregon).

At Columbia I serve as Pastor for Adult Formation and Discipleship.  For me, it is an exciting place to be because we are working very hard to flesh out in our life together a vision for the church that functions as an intergenerational family of missional disciples.  We want to learn from Jesus how to live by listening to him and doing what he says; we want to see ourselves as sent by the same Spirit that sent and empowered him; and we want to do that together in the midst of all our diversity and differentness rather than as isolated individualistic Jesus Green Berets.

James: Geordie, thank you for that profile. What was influential in your decision to re-locate to Aberdeen, Scotland for some half-dozen years for post-graduate studies, leading to the completion of a doctor of philosophy program?

Geordie: That’s actually a pretty special story to me.  The origins go back to my time at Regent (94-98).  My major mentors there were Eugene Peterson and Jim Houston, and I took every spiritual formation course I could from them.  Regent is a special place for a variety of reasons, but one of the things that I think makes it particularly unique is that there is a pervasive concern to think through every subject matter from a Trinitarian perspective.  This was the case whether the subject at hand was prayer and worship, the arts, creation care, or “secular” work.  My theological professors were Stanley Grenz and J.I. Packer, and I owe them much, but in the summer before my third year I had the opportunity to serve as a teaching assistant for Alan Torrance, a visiting lecturer from St. Andrews Scotland, and from that point on everything changed.  Sitting in class and listening to Alan teach with such joy and passion and clarity, and then reading his uncle Tom’s book, The Mediation of Christ changed my life. I don’t know how to describe it other than to say it was like a conversion experience.

That was 1996.  Since that time, for more than twenty years, I have been on a joyful quest.  After earning my M.Div. and getting ordained in the Presbyterian Church I kept looking for ways to grow in my experience and understanding of the Trinity.  After a couple of years I joined a group of pastors reading Eastern Orthodox theologians and learning about spiritual formation practices within that stream of the Body of Christ.  Yet all along the way I felt like I was just skimming the surface of the issues.  Eventually, I started to look for formalized educational opportunities that might be helpful.  As a pastor, with no intent of leaving pastoral ministry, I naturally looked at D.Min. programs but was advised by the director of one of the programs that my interests were too specific for a D.Min. and that I should consider a PhD.  To be honest, a PhD had never crossed my mind at that time.  But three years seemed like a necessary and reasonable season to achieve the focus I was looking for, so I started looking at various options.  In February 2007, my wife and I took a reconnaissance trip out to Scotland since that was clearly the best place for me to study the thought of a pastor and theologian who himself was from Scotland.  We came home loving Scotland, but not clear on whether a move there for me to pursue this crazy dream was what we were supposed to do.  I remember being quite anxious that we didn’t have any certainty at that time.

About a month later our church hosted a guest preacher, Dr. Andrew Purves, who had come at my invitation to lead a pastors preaching workshop for our presbytery.  Andrew is one of the premier Torrance scholars in the United States and I waImage result for andrew purves theologians greatly looking forward to picking his brain about the idea of a
PhD and Torrance scholarship.  Andrew was (and continues to be) extremely
encouraging and gracious with his time, but the God moment happened on Sunday morning as he was preaching.  The time was approximately 9:48am and he had just finished his sermon on Phil 3:12-14 about how Christ has grabbed hold of us and will never let us go, and as Andrew finished his prayer and went to sit down something happened that never had happened before nor has ever happened since – the traditional congregation clapped.  They clapped.  And here’s the thing.  They weren’t clapping for Andrew or for what a great sermon he gave.  They were cheering God, cheering the good news of the gospel that they had just heard and they were compelled to respond to with something like…gratitude and joy.  It was in that moment that I received my call to go to Scotland.  I felt God clearly saying to me, “Geordie, you need to go to Scotland to study Torrance so that you can come back to the Church and communicate this incredible gospel as clearly as Andrew just did.”  From that point on, I had no doubts.

10 years in the making…

book author picAfter completing my seminary studies at Regent College, I was fortunate to be called to serve as Associate Pastor for Congregational Care and Spiritual Development at Fremont Presbyterian Church in Sacramento.  I was installed at Fremont in 1999 and enjoyed 8 ½ years of serving alongside the wonderful people there.

My primary focus at Fremont was in the area of spiritual formation, which suited me well after having studied under Eugene Peterson while at Regent.  But Regent had planted some other seeds in me that were also looking for a way to grow – specifically, in relation to the Trinity.  I had grown up with a very abstract and functional view of God as Trinity: abstract in the sense that it was sort of irrelevant or at the very least confusing; functional in the sense that the easiest and most common way they were talked about was like tag-team wrestlers – the Father creates, the Son saves, and the Spirit leads the Church through to the end.  Well, Regent had suggested to me something more integrated and relational and I was looking for ways to explore that territory and mine its depths and fruitfulness for Christian living today.

Fast forward to March of 2007.  It was Sunday morning and we had a guest preacher, Andrew Purves, whom I had invited to do a pastors preaching workshop for the presbytery.  The time was approximately 9:48am and Dr. Purves had just finished his sermon on Phil 3:12-14 about how in his life, death, and resurrection to the right hand of the Father, Christ has grabbed hold of us and will never let us go, and as Andrew finished his prayer and went to sit down something happened that had never happened before nor has ever happened since – the traditional congregation clapped.  They clapped…after the sermon!  And here’s the thing.  They weren’t clapping for Andrew or for what a great sermon he gave.  They were cheering God, cheering the good news of the gospel that they had just heard and they were compelled to respond to with something like…gratitude and joy.  It was in that moment that I received my call to go to Scotland.  I felt God clearly saying to me, “Geordie, you need to go to Scotland to study trinitiarian theology so that you can come back to the Church and communicate this incredible gospel as clearly as Andrew just did.”  From that point on, I had no doubts.

Shortly after that I submitted my resignation and a few months later we had sold our cars, our house, our children (no, we didn’t do that!), and most of our other possessions, and moved to a small town (Banchory) outside of Aberdeen, Scotland where I began post-graduate studies.  It was a long journey.  What I assumed would take 3-4 years ended up taking 6 (and then some), but by the summer of 2014 I had submitted and defended my thesis and was “doctored.”

And now the fruit of that looooong season has finally been published by the good people of Fortress Press in their “Emerging Scholars” series under the title, “Trinitarian Grace and Participation: An entry into the theology of TF Torrance.”  What’s the book about?  Well, basically, it is about Grace, and that Grace is not a “thing” or a “force” or some “legal status” we have before God; rather, Grace is a person (Jesus) in whom we are included, and because of whom we have communion with God.  That is, through the Holy Spirit we are brought in and lifted up to fellowship with the Father through the Son.  We think that grace exists because we are bad, but actually grace exists because God is good.  Sadly, most Christians most of the time live as if it is all up to us and so we work really hard to be good people – we do “churchy” stuff, we read our bibles and say our prayers and serve the needy…when all the time God isn’t interested in our goodness.  What God wants is for us to share in his life and love.  That is the gospel: through the Spirit, you and I are included in Jesus’ relationship with the Father.

It’s been a wonderful journey, and it has changed me in many ways.  It changes how I pray, how I parent, how I worship, how I think about service, how I preach and teach, how I relate to difficult people….  My prayer is that it will do that and more for Christ’s Church.

On being a political (and ontological) alien

PhotoWe returned to California for Christmas this year, in part to get our visas renewed as they were set to expire at the end of January.  Residing in a country while on a visa is a strange experience, all too common for many in our world, yet fairly rare for those like myself who grew up in the USA.  Don’t get me wrong, the people of Scotland have welcomed us with open arms, and among other things, we benefit greatly from the national health care here (they’ve fixed four broken arms for free already).  But the fact remains, from the government’s perspective, we are short-termers here who ultimately don’t belong once our visas expire.

As ‘foreigners’, we had to send off our passports along with loads of paperwork to the UK border agency who, behind the impenetrable walls of non-communication which only government agencies can muster, held our precious documents (in spite of our paying for ‘priority’ service) long enough so that we had to delay our return flights five days because you can’t enter a country in which you are not a citizen without a passport (not withstanding our kind Canadian friends).

This experience has got me thinking about different ways of viewing the Christian life.  The typical way we tend to think of our activities as followers of Jesus are are as things which we do, yet we don’t do alone.  We serve, we believe, we worship, we pray, we have faith…and God comes alongside us and helps us as we do it.  We do things with the help of the Holy Spirit.  In this way of thinking, God is our helper who enables us to live as we were meant to live.  If you were to examine much Christian-speak, this is pretty much how we talk about stuff.  Maybe this is how you have generally thought about it.  It is certainly how I often think and speak.

And yet, is this right? And more importantly, does this way of thinking and speaking serve us well?

Does this not foster an image of our existence in which we have our lives over here and God has his life over there, and under certain circumstances our paths cross, either through God’s active intervention or our exercise of faith?  And doesn’t this way of thinking suggest that our relation to God is basically extrinsic or external?  As if at the core, once all the fluff of our religious activities get culled away, the truth is that we and God don’t truly belong to or with one another?

Photo (1)This way of thinking reminds me of our visa status here in Scotland.  That visa in my passport is a constant reminder that i don’t truly belong here.  My life here and all that I do is done, not as a citizen, but as someone who doesn’t truly belong.  We may get to be here for a time and enjoy its benefits, but in the end, we have none of the rights nor permanence of citizenship.  We are outsiders.

But what if we were insiders?

What if the real truth is that everything we do as followers of Jesus is done ‘in Christ’?  What if Jesus, whom we Christians say is God as a man, is not just the ‘top up’ or ‘helper’ who perfects our imperfect acts of faith?

What if Jesus’ self-offering – his faith, his prayer, his worship, his service, his sacrifice, his obedience, his everything-that-we-Christians-do-to-please-God – is our personal answer to God?

What if there were nothing we could add to what Jesus has already done?

What if the life that Jesus lived and lives is so full of grace and so full of God and so full of us, that nothing we do is done on our own any longer?  And the focus, the priority, is all on Christ and what he did and what he is doing and what he will do?

What if we are already included?  What if we already belong?

What if we didn’t have to try to get God in on our stuff, or try to get in on God’s stuff?

What if we were already ‘in’?  

Wouldn’t that make all that we do simply a sharing in his life?  Wouldn’t that make all our actions, our faith, our worship, our prayer, our service…all acts of participation.  We get in on something that already is, and that already includes us.

It would be like living not as superficial visitors or vacationers on a temporary visa in the land of God, but as those who truly belong.  It would take us out of the realm of living like government-sponsored aliens and plunge us into the joy and mystery and intimacy of an eternal family.

image

As a citizen, as a full member of the family, I can cry ‘Abba’ and know I am a beloved child forever and always.

Now of course, like all analogies this one does break down if pushed.  But I think the difference between visiting and belonging is both fundamental and practical.  As a visitor I could be kicked out if i don’t meet the legal requirements required by my particular visa.  However, as one who belongs, the only mode appropriate to me is that of prayer, thanksgiving and praise.

I’ll give T.F. Torrance the last word on this one:  “We are with Jesus beside God, for we are gathered up in him and included in his own self-presentation to the Father.  This is the ultimate end of creation and redemption revealed in the Covenant of Grace and fulfilled in Jesus Christ….” (Space, Time and Resurrection, p. 135)