The Word is With

In the beginning, there was darkness. Then God spoke and He said, "Let there be light!" and His voice boomed through the primordial emptiness. And that voice became light, each syllable bright, each sound radiating. His word was light. "And there was evening and there was morning, the first day..." (Genesis 1)

In the hot desert of Midian, God spoke from a blazing tree. His words were fire and flame. "Moses, Moses. I AM that I AM..." (Exodus 3)

Atop the towering Mount Sinai, the Word of God came with a smoky cloud of darkness and a blasting trumpet. The Word of God was given in etched stone, finger drawn on two tablets. "I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me..." (Exodus 20)

Through David, the word of the LORD came in meter and time, in rhythm and Hebrew rhyme. It came in song and in poetry. God's word in verse and sung with notes in human voices. "Ascribe to the Lord the glory due His name; worship the Lord in the splendor of His holiness...!" (Psalm 29)

To Elijah, the word of God came in a still, small voice. "What are you doing here, Elijah?..." (1 Kings 19)

To Jeremiah, God's word came as a fire in his bones, as an internal burning passion, as a declaration which could not be kept silent. God's word was trouble and persecution, it was a dug-out pit and a kidnapping to Egypt. It was words spoken to a deaf and endangered people: "Come out of her, my people! Run for your lives! Run from the fierce anger of the Lord!..." (Jeremiah 51)

God's word was to Daniel visions and dreams. God's word was a statue and a rock, it was beasts and water and it was measured in weeks and days. "Unto two thousand three hundred days; then shall the sanctuary be cleansed..." (Daniel 8)

And the word of God to Hosea was an unfaithful wife, it was illegitimate children, it was loving the adulteress again and again. "I will marry you to me forever. I will marry you in righteousness and in justice and in lovingkindness. I will marry you in faithfulness and you will know the LORD..." (Hosea 2)

God's word came to Nehemiah as the permission of a Persian king and as a building of a broken down wall. "I had not told anyone what God had put in my heart to do for Jerusalem..." (Nehemiah 2)

It came to the writer of Chronicles through dusty old history books in which were written the deeds of the kings. "Jehoshaphat resolved to inquire of the LORD, and he proclaimed a fast for all Judah..." (2 Chronicles 20)

And God's word came through Joel and Micah, through Haggai and Zecharaiah and through Malachi and Amos. “But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” (Amos 5)

>> "In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of his being..." (Hebrews 1:1-3a)

"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not comprehended it. The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God-- children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or of a husband's will, but born of God. The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth." (John 1:1-5, 9-14)

The Word made flesh—what an astounding thing! The Word made like us and with us and among us! >> That Word speaks to us the most significant message: Immanuel, God with us.

God with us: this is the central miracle of Christmas, the locus of our wonder.

    Two thousand years on this side of the Incarnation and Christmas is for us much about lights and candy canes and stockings and jingle bells. And I love all of those things about Christmas! But in the last week I’ve been thinking about the Incarnation in a different light. 

    The deaths of Eric Garner in New York and Michael Brown in Missouri have reappeared in the news these last two weeks as it was announced that the police officers who killed them would not be indicted and brought to trial. Protests have filled the streets of the cities across our nation. Simultaneously, political pundits and talk show hosts have exchanged opinions, throwing praise and condemnation for the officers, for the rioters and protesters, for the dead men. Your Twitter feed and Facebook feed have likely surged with opinion pieces, snarky rejoinders, ALL CAPS COMPLAINTS, and political cartoons about police brutality, thugs, racism, justice and injustice. 

    So as we’re entering the Christmas season of cheer, I have death on my mind. I have on my mind the names of dead men—of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Rumain Brisbon, Ezell Ford—just 5 of those killed by police in recent months, unarmed young black boys and men. I have in my ears the cries of those black and brown voices who are threated by police, not always protected by them. I have on my heart the weight of a real history of inequality and injustice, of state violence against black bodies, of popular pathologizing of black minds, of criminalization of black communities. 

    And I wonder: What does the Word-made-flesh have to say to our world this Christmas season? This December, as we watch our sensationalist news programs and see our Christian acquaintances exchange acerbic commentary across our computer screens, what does the Word-made-flesh have to say? What does it have to say but that which it has always said in the largest possible letters?: Immanuel, God with us. 

    That Word says that God is compassionate. Compassion means to suffer with. God suffers with. He sees our pitiful position. He hears our hurts and our long songs of lament. He has made Himself woundable and He is wounded. Scripture says, “Jesus saw the large crowd and had compassion on them” (Mark 6:34); it says that “During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears” (Hebrews 5:7); it says that “Jesus wept” (John 11:35); it says that “Since the children have flesh and blood he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might … free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death" (Hebrews 2:14-15). 

    So even now we may entrust our laments to Immanuel. We may cry to him in our pain and know that He hears us, and that He feels that pain too. We may mourn for our neighbors, our brothers, our sons and know that we do not weep unseen and alone. God is with us, suffering with us. 

    And it would be enough unexpected grace to know that God cared from a distance. But the Word of Immanuel preaches a greater message still: God with us, not only in compassion, but in real presence. God makes Himself present. God with us. God, the high and holy one, with us, the lowly and wicked ones. God, the unbounded and infinite one, with us, the fragile and feeble ones. God, the powerful and majestic one, with us, the human dust particles on one of His tiny planets in one of His little galaxies. God with us. 

    The Word-made-flesh says particularly that God is with the weak. It’s why He came to us. While we were yet powerless, while we were still sinners, His enemies, God came to be with us. And the consistent picture of Scripture is that God is with the weak, and this picture comes into crystal clear focus in the Incarnation. Listen to the song Jesus’ mother sang (Luke 1:46-53). “...He remembered the humble state of His servant… He has scattered those who are proud… He has brought down rulers from their thrones, but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.” Over and over and over and over again God has spoken of His concern for the weak, for the poor, for the outcast, for the outsider. But in these last days He has spoken by His Son, and He has said in no uncertain terms that He is on the side of those without power. 

    God goes to the suffering, God meets the lonely, God cries with the crying, God overthrows the rulers, God exalts the lowly, God liberates the oppressed, God punishes the unjust, God comforts the poor. 

    Oh, that we might be like this, our God! Oh, that we would be less impressed by the powerful and more impressed with the poor! Oh, that we might love justice and labor against injustice! Oh, that we would love like He loves! Oh, that we would go where He goes! 

    But we are hard-hearted. We will not listen to each other. We would rather post scathing blogs than have a conversation. We will lock our doors against those who say they feel unsafe. We will travel across town to avoid hearing a nuanced story. We will blame the dead and ignore the living. We will not choose charitable speech. We will offer contempt instead of compassion. We will distance ourselves from those who disagree. We will yell far that people are racists; we will loudly accuse people of race-baiting.

    Will we let the Word-made-flesh speak to us this Christmas? Will we hear His message of compassion, of presence, of solidarity with the weak? The second Person of the Trinity humbles Himself; He shrinks Himself down to dwell in Mary’s womb; He binds Himself to humanity with an umbilical cord; He gasps for air and cries for milk.

    Will we see in His humility a call to be compassionate, to be present, to be in solidarity with the weak? Will we wonder not only at the miracle of His physical body, but at the miracle of His Spirit-ual Body, the Body which we are?---and will we honor that miracle by dwelling together in the bond of peace? 

Photo by ginosphotos/iStock / Getty Images
Photo by ginosphotos/iStock / Getty Images

    Will we worship this infant King, and then follow Him?

    We were impressed by the burning bush and the pillar of fire. We thought God was close in the Angel and in the Shekinah. But God wanted to be closer still. God-nearby-us wasn’t good enough for him. He gave Himself to become God-with-us. Glory! Alleluia! Amen! Now go and do thou likewise.

Wishing Him Well But Withholding My Applause

       About a week ago, former pastor Ryan J Bell wrote a piece giving a brief history of his religious experience and announcing his plans to "try on" atheism for the year of 2014. (You can read that post on his just-for-the-project blog HERE and see a catalogue of his contributions to The Huffington Post, where the article was published, HERE.)  He says, "I will not pray, read the Bible for inspiration, refer to God as the cause of things or hope that God might intervene and change my own or someone else's circumstances." Unsurprisingly, the reactions have been varied. Some are supporting his experiment in living without God as an undertaking of intellectual virtue, moving beyond the answers of faith to seriously consider the atheistic alternative. Others are doubtful that one can play atheist and not let one's religious convictions, however troubled, get in the way. Many are endorsing Bell's efforts as a laudable act of refreshing honesty, finally admitting the doubts that many religious people keep hidden. 

       Some Christians are of the mind that his experiment in atheism is "courageous," "brave." They see this "journey into atheism" as a bold authenticity demonstrated in the face of the inevitable backlash (which has manifested itself, in part, in losing his adjunct teaching positions at Azusa Pacific University and Fuller Seminary; read Bell's own summary HERE). In this telling, Ryan Bell is the unpopular man standing for his convictions as an act of heroism, spiritual authenticity, and intellectual honesty. The cheers go up: "Courageous! Way to stand out on your own, Ryan! Way to do the unpopular thing!"

       It's easy to start nodding along to this cheerleading. After all, many of us still consider Ryan Bell a part of our religious community. Present circumstances and choices notwithstanding, he lived as a Seventh-day Adventist believer and pastor for decades and many of us were blessed by his words and example. At least on the emotional level, he's still one of "us." And for people both within and without the Adventist community, there's a righteous urge to stand with the guy catching trouble for being "true to himself" and to protect him from bad things that might look like persecution (usually labeled as "hate" by the fifth post in a comments section). Further, many of us religious people DO have unanswered questions about a lot of things and if we've ever felt that the church was an unsafe place to share our sincere questions, there's something about Ryan's experiment that sounds so . . . exhilarating. 

But, having no ill will toward Ryan Bell or any of his supporters, I submit that

people who believe the gospel of Jesus Christ should not be applauding this experiment in atheism and should instead see it for what it is: an abandonment of Jesus and His gospel. 

So let's talk a little bit about courage.

       Having questions about the reality of God's existence is not inherently courageous nor inherently cowardly. Sometimes atheists wonder if maybe there is a god out there after all. Sometimes theists wonder if "God" is just a figment of the collective human imagination. Also, sometimes I wonder if there are mice in my apartment or if I'm just imagining those sounds. Wondering isn't necessarily brave or courageous; it is a reflex, sometimes nurtured into a habit, of the mind.

       Yet what one does with those questions, those wonderings, those doubts may be cowardly or courageous. And the evaluation one makes on this point––commendably courageous or unforgivably cowardly?––is a moral one, it rests on a certain construal of reality and so of morality. Those with a Christian construal of reality have no grounds to consider this experiment an act of moral virtue.

       Perhaps observers from all sides could agree that an experiment like Ryan Bell's is "dangerous," in that it is endangering the convictions and lifestyle that he has maintained up till now. Depending on your philosophical leanings, this danger could be the worst thing in the world or the best––is he moving closer to or farther away from truth? Is he moving closer toward or farther away from actual reality? Your answer depends on what you think is true and what you think is right. 

         A citizen who gives intelligence to an enemy power is doing something really quite dangerous: he is in danger of being discovered and convicted and executed for treason. High-risk! Most of his fellow citizens will condemn his dangerous behavior as treacherous still, helping the "wrong" people; most with interests in the foreign power will commend his dangerous behavior as courageous, displaying a self-sacrificial willingness to aid the "right" cause. 

        Shall we call Ryan Bell's experiment courageous? I speak here to my fellow Christian believers, the saints who are in Christ Jesus. Shall we commend Ryan Bell for bravery, applaud his gumption, shield him from any Christian critique? Though some have, none of us should.

Why not? 

It is not because I wish to uncritically silence every doubt knocking about in the heads of thoughtful people. 

It is not because I think doubting God's existence is a sin. 

It is not because I'd like to see atheists (or doubters) dehumanized or treated without respect. 

It is because my commitment to the person of Jesus Christ will not allow me to applaud the move of someone who is, in his own words, living "as if" God doesn't exist. It doesn't allow me to think that "God is big enough to handle my questions" means "It's acceptable to turn my back to Him and look to profit from writing about it." 

        I know a little something about Christian faith and Christian doubt. Several years after my spiritual conversion I spent quite a while in the land of This Might All Be A Weird And Time-Consuming Sham. And what my sojourn there taught me was that a Christian can have legitimate doubts and explore their real possibility from a place of faith. To atheists, this may sound like hopeless intellectual hypocrisy, but everybody has questions and everybody has got to explore those questions from some place. In consideration of all He has done on my behalf, I'd like to literally give Jesus the benefit of the doubt.

       ––Which is what I wish Ryan Bell would do. He has his reasons, perhaps not all shared publicly. He has a personal history unique to him and a relationship with God that I can't pretend to give a reliable judgment about. I'm not looking to offer any judgment on issues of his salvation or conscience or motivations. 

        I wish rather to speak to the well-meaning Christian faithful in my Facebook feed, my Twitter timeline, and my RSS feed: side with faith, side with Jesus. If you're a person who has embraced the "Jesus. All." ethic, recognize that what Ryan's doing isn't that. It's anti-Jesus, taking off his personal faith to live in skepticism. Wish Ryan well, greet him warmly if you meet him, pray for him, but don't offer applause for his 365-day renunciation of the gospel and of God. 

         Maybe at the end of 2014 he'll find theism is an intellectually and experientially viable option, maybe he'll even return to Christian faith and to the Church. That's what I'm rooting for, but in the meantime, I'll hold my applause. 

So. I have some news.

No. I'm not pregnant.

Important things happen that don't involve babies, you know ;)


I have resigned from my position as a pastor with the Oregon Conference in order to pursue doctoral studies at the theological seminary at Andrews University. Yes, my knowledge addiction has taken me this far.

Seek Knowledge. Affirm Faith. Change the World.

Seek Knowledge. Affirm Faith. Change the World.


Q. What are you doing your PhD in?

A. Religion (Theological Studies)

Q. When do you start?

A. August 2012.

Q. Why are you waiting a year?

A. Because right now my brain is tired from three full-time years of MDiv coursework, and I'd like to start the PhD excited rather than exhausted. Also, taking a year off of formal coursework will allow me to narrow down my interests, to study for (and pass!) the prerequisite German and French exams, to save a pocketful of change, and to read a bunch of books that have nothing to do with theology but will nourish my creativity.

Q. How long will it take to do a PhD?

A. If I was really fast, 3 years. If I'm really slow, 10 years.

The entrance to Andrews University. Come visit sometime.

The entrance to Andrews University. Come visit sometime.

Q. What are you going to do once you've finished the PhD?

A. Start paying back my loans.

Q. No, seriously. Are you going to be a professor? I thought you were a pastor.

A. People who have 10-year plans use a lot of erasers because you know what? Life changes. People change. Loves change. Doors turn into walls and walls into doors. The horizon expands and contracts and sometimes you're in the fog and sometimes on the bluff. So I don't know what I'm going to do when I'm done with this degree. I would love to be able to return to full-time ministry and I think the local church context is a really important and really fun place to do ministry. But classroom ministry might be cool too. And I shed more than a few tears saying goodbye to my campus chaplaincy job. Let's revisit this question in 10 years and we'll see what the Lord has done with me.

Q. Are you crazy?!

A. Yes, a little. This is clearly the crazier path financially because I just let go of a real job with a real salary and real benefits in order to get an expensive degree which will provide no salary-raising qualifications in the end. // And it's crazy, too, because I don't really know if I can do this PhD thing. Supposedly it's really hard. And the only way to find out if I can do it is by trying. So, here we go!

headed into the risky future of the unknown road. here we go!

headed into the risky future of the unknown road. here we go!