Love Alone Is Eternal (Part Eight)

The Old Testament regularly sounds this theme, especially in what we call the wisdom literature (e.g. Job 27:3; 33:4; 34:14-15; Ps. 104:29-30). God upholds the creation through his Spirit. Even the natural processes of everyday life on our planet are credited by Jesus to the direct agency of his Father when he speaks of his Father providing sunshine and rain, feeding the birds and providing the beauty of the flowers (Matt. 5:45; 6:25-30; 10:29-30).

Extreme forms of immanence lead to pantheism, the belief that every creature is not only a manifestation of God, but is identical with God. A similar problem, and one that became more popular in the last century, is panentheism. Panentheism literally means “all-in-God” and posits the idea of God as an eternally animating force that interpenetrates every part of nature and yet timelessly extends beyond it. Unlike pantheism this thinking about God maintains a better Creator-creation distinction but it tends toward believing that the cosmos exists within God, thus it denies, in some way at least, the creation-Creator distinction required by a proper emphasis upon transcendence.

The simple way to say this is to affirm that God is both distant (transcendent) and near (immanent). He really is actively present and working in all things (cf. Romans 8:28-30). Yet he is “beyond” our universe. This means that we should always conceive of God as very near while we should never put him inside the world in such a way that he does not remain exalted over it and outside of it!

The Wonders of Creation

The vast majority of people who have ever lived have claimed some kind of belief in sacred mystery – God. It is sometimes argued, by modern secular writers, that the reason for this belief is that all pre-moderns were taught to think this way and people have simply found their beliefs confirmed by life experience. The conviction of the reality of God, or sometimes of multiplicity of gods as in Hinduism, is a common human characteristic it seems. Even moderns still believe in higher numbers than some would have us to believe. Throughout history a basic trait of all cultures has been a belief in divine transcendence.

Some reason that creation provides a strong argument for order and wonder, thus for the Creator. We are experiencing a revival of this type of “wonder” today. It is coming in a spiritual version of “back to nature.” Millions of young people in the West say they believe in God and experience him/her in a hike in the woods or rafting down a great river. But is this experience of “wonder” proof of God? Certainly not. These glorious experiences in nature feed what I believe is an internal sense of mystery, or divine wonder. We all share in this but this is not proof of God. And it is especially not proof that “God is love.”

Unknown-4Anthony de Mello expressed what I am trying to say by telling a simple Hindu story of what truly seeing the power of nature meant.

“Excuse me,” said an ocean fish. “You are older than I, so can you tell me where to find this thing they call the ocean?”

The ocean,” said the older fish, “is the thing you are in now.”

“Oh, this? But this is water. What I’m seeking is the ocean,” said the disappointed fishy as he swam away to search elsewhere (Anthony de Mello, The Song of the Bird (Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Company, 1982, 12).

If you pressed the Hindu storyteller to explain the moral of this story he would likely say the disappointed fish must come to know that he is not to look for something. Instead, he must look at the reality that is constantly surrounding him. This is how it is with our search for God. This is what Paul meant when he quoted ancient pagan poets who said: “For in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). God is a vast ocean and we cannot explain him so much as can simply knowing that he is and wonder.

People of faith believe, in one way or another, that God is the ultimate reality. They structure their lives, in various religious and non-religious ways, around the reality of God. Humans cannot be forced or coerced into such faith. We can only receive the witness given to faith and believe it or not believe it. Proof of God’s existence is tenuous, especially to skeptics. Proof of a personal, loving God– who is the Father, Son and Holy Spirit – is impossible to prove. Yet people who have come to know Christ are right when they structure their entire life around this truth: “God is love.”


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Moses: A Man Powerful in Word & Deed

In concluding a sermon series on the faith of our ancient fathers the Lutheran Church of the Master in Carol Stream (IL) completed a summer series with the story of Moses on August 24. I preached the last sermon in this series on Moses which included the story of the exodus of the children of Abraham from Egypt and the subsequent formation of the nation through the giving of the covenant and law at Sinai. It is hard to get much of this great story into thirty minutes but I did my best. The text for this sermon is Exodus 1:8–2:10.

Listen to the sermon here.

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Love Alone Is Eternal (Part Seven)

How do we understand God? Careful readers of the Bible since the time of the Jesus and the apostles have sought to understand the answer to this question, thus the meaning of certain prominent and recurring theological terms.  I am persuaded that the most basic of all questions really does come down to this: “How do we define or conceive of God?”

Unknown-2The late evangelical theologian Stanley J. Grenz said, “Perhaps the most deeply ingrained conception among Christian views of God as a being – albeit an eternal, uncreated being – who is both present within and exists beyond the world of created beings” (Stanley J. Grenz, Theology for the Community of God. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans 1994, page 78). This kind of thinking corresponds, at least to a certain extent, with the very language that the Bible uses about God, particularly in the Old Testament. Yet, as Grenz notes a great deal of this type of thinking about God owes its prominence to Greek philosophy, especially to Plato and Aristotle. This thinking led to the commonly accepted idea of an unchangeable God. In the twentieth century this kind of thinking has come under severe attack from every side, both inside and outside the church. The result has been a huge debate about time, eternity, God’s mind, his openness, etc.

In the midst of this century-long debate I think one thing stands out clearly – “The traditional discussion of God as a being is no longer helpful” (Grenz, 80).  I believe that the central truth we should take away from this oft confusing debate is that there is no God but the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. God is one but he is three persons bound together in a loving, social and perfect union. What this means, if you can bear a little theological sidebar for a moment, is this – the God of the Bible is the Father, the Son and the Spirit in their eternal inter-personal relations with one another. God transcends the world because God is self-sufficient apart from the world. He doesn’t need the world to be God. He is above the universe and comes to our world from beyond it; “God is in heaven, and you upon earth” (Ecclesiastes 5:2). Isaiah reported seeing the Lord, something rarely ever stated in the Bible. He said he saw God “seated on a throne, high and exalted” (Isa. 6:1). This is what I mean by transcendence. The extreme of transcendence is deism, the belief in a supreme creator who takes no active part, nor has any personal concern, for the world or human persons.

But God is also immanent. This means that God is always present to creation. He is not a passive watchmaker but a personal God who is involved with the natural processes of the world as well as with human events. Here is how Paul describes God’s immanence.

Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said,

‘For we too are his offspring.’ (Acts 17:22-30, NRSV).


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Lausanne Catholic-Evangelical Conversation

Today the second global Lausanne Catholic-Evangelical Conversation begins at Mundelein Seminary, near Chicago. I have the joy of leading this small group dialogue. Tonight there is an “open” conversation at Mundelein and you are welcome to come. If you have not registered it is free at ACT3.

UnknownOur special evening event begins at 7:00 p.m. It is a dialogue between Catholic and evangelical Protestant leaders who are in conversation about the work of global evangelization and Christian unity. Fr. Robert Barron, rector of Mundelein Seminary, and Rev. Norberto Saracco, pastor and evangelical Protestant leader from Buenos Aires, will each present a response to the subject: “Pope Francis and Unity in Mission Between Catholics and Evangelicals.” (Norberto is a personal friend of Pope Francis.) Responses will be offered to both presenters by Fr. Thomas Baima (Mundelein Seminary) and Rev. John Armstrong (ACT3 Network). The audience will then be encouraged to ask questions. The presentations will be made in Spanish and English, with attenders given the printed talk in their language of choice at the door.

Registration is free but seating is limited so please register online. The Conference Center at Mundelein Seminary located at 1000 E. Maple Ave. Mundelein, IL 60060.

Pray for me as I lead 26 people in a two-day conversation that we all pray will result in deeper unity and greater oneness of presenting the gospel to the whole world.

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Love Alone Is Eternal (Part Six)

The great English writer and poet Christopher Dawson said poetry is “the language in which man explores his amazement.” The same could be said of all great art, literature and philosophy. Yet above all this much more can be said about Christian faith. I believe we can only become truly open to eternal love when we have the “eyes to see.” These “eyes” come from grace alone.

The biblical statement “God is love” cannot be reduced to “God is loving toward us” or “God performs loving actions.” The statement “God acts in a loving way” is true but even this affirmation speaks of what God does. The biblical affirmation that “God is love” goes much, much further. It introduces us to the interior life of God – thus we can and should say that God is more than loving – because God is triune. As triune God’s love existed before anything created ever existed. Here is how the apostle expresses this when he writes of his own experience of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ:

We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us— we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete (1 John 1:1-4, NRSV).

The true God is revealed in a relationship that results in us entering  into communion with the Father and the Son. The entire discourse of our Savior given on the night in which he was betrayed and went out to face his own death (John 13-17) uses the language of communion and relationship. The prayer Jesus prayed for us, who believe in him today, is astounding when read in terms of this relational language idea. Read this prayer and realize that this is the Lord’s Prayer, at least the Lord’s Prayer for you and me. I have highlighted the portions of Jesus’ prayer that demonstrate the relational mystery of our union with the Trinity.

“I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world (John 17:20-24, NRSV).

Words like these underscore the truth that we call the social Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit in eternal communion. Salvation is much more than rescue from perdition. It is a relationship of love that binds us to each person of the Trinity through the mystery of redeeming grace. This revelation of the divine mystery of God’s being means that God is eternally relational. This also means that whether anything else existed or not God would still be eternal love because the three persons who comprise the one God are a “relational” and “eternal” Trinity. The important thing to see here is that God is not an impersonal being with an abstract nature. The God who reveals himself is Father, Son and Holy Spirit – a living, joyous, interpersonal reality. “At the core of all being, there was, and there is, fully actualized mutual love, an indescribably rich, inimitably relational, intensely personal plenitude.” (In material I propose to write on the Trinity I will look at this truth much more carefully at a later date.)


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Jeff’s Story

Last week I shared Sophia’s story. If you did not read this blog and see the video then please go back to September 2. Read my words and watch the 90-second video. Maybe even share this material with your church, your pastor, or your outreach team.

I am personally called to promote a vision I call “missional-ecumenism.” One way this vision works best is to get local churches to work in partnership as they reach into public space with the good news. In one case I know about here in the Chicago region a Catholic Church, and two Protestant churches, began a Crossroads Kids Club together.

I believe that we must get outside our church buildings and church systems and make new disciples. From what I can see this is not happening, or rarely happening. We should begin with children before they are adolescents. Why? Far too soon these children will find their identity and cultural formation from a gang, or at a minimum from entirely anti-Christian influences. Crossroads can change this pattern. But without local churches who will step out and act with vision and faithfulness it will not work.

Today I share “Jeff’s Story,” a wonderful story of life-transformation.

One of the advantages of seeing this ministry up close for all these years is that I now see the longterm fruit of Crossroads being reproduced in changed lives. This is not theory. Readers of my frequent posts might be inclined to think that I am “down” on most church outreach. The truth is that I am down on most of it because it doesn’t work and it is not solidly rooted in telling the Great Story. Crossroads is different. It tells the Christian story, over a three-year period, and it does this very incarnationally. The curriculum is solid, the ideas are tested and the fruit is solid and real.

I would be pleased beyond words if a movement for such clubs spanned the nation. You can be one of these pioneers who helps to feed this vital movement. Contact Crossroads for yourself.

I am often asked, “If you do not think we can change our culture through politics, and I am sure that we cannot, then how would you propose that we change it?” Here is a positive answer. It may be the best I’ve seen to be really honest. Mobilize Christians to reach the most reachable and teachable in our communities. If you change these kids you will impact (and potentially) change the future. I dare you to try!

It has always interested me how very few Christians have any idea how the Sunday School movement began. As a result most Christians think that Sunday School is all about educating children from Christian homes. Nothing could be further from the truth. I encourage you to read the Sunday School story online. Once you have read this story you should be able to easily see why the “real” answer to the modern need for reaching and educating children lies somewhere outside the church. Most kids from non-Christian homes will have no realistic opportunity to know the Bible, or hear the gospel, unless  something like Crossroads grows and reproduces itself into a large and national movement.

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Let’s Talk with Mark Elfstrand – August 15, 2014

I mentioned in my September 3 blog post that I would appear on Mark Elfstrand’s Chicago program (4:00 to 6:00 p.m.) on WYLL as a “Resident Theologian.” Here is a short appearance I made with Mark taken from a live broadcast on Friday, August 15. It includes my response to his question about the pastoral ministry of Mark Driscoll in Seattle. I had declined to provide a public response to Mark’s very public issues until I was asked a straightforward question on this particular program. Listen if you would like to hear how I responded to the concerns that surround Rev. Driscoll.


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Love Alone Is Eternal (Part Five)

Every Christian I have ever met, if they have living faith in Jesus Christ, knows that God is love. Yet few Christians in the West live like they really believe this to be true. These words – “God is love” – express life’s most fundamental decision.

Unknown-1Pope Benedict XVI’s first encyclical put it this way:

Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choir or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction. Saint John’s Gospel describes that event in these words: “God so love the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should . . . have eternal life (3:16). In acknowledging the centrality of love, Christian faith has retained the core of Israel’s faith, while at the same time giving it new depth and breadth.The pious Jew prayed daily the words of the Book of Deuteronomy which expressed the heart of his existence: “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God is one Lord, and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might (6:4-5). Jesus united into a single precept this commandment of love for God and the commandment of love for neighbor found in the Book of Leviticus: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (19:18; cf. Mk 12:29-31). Since God has first loved us (cf. 1 John 4;10), love is now no longer a mere “command”; it is the response to the gift of love with which God draws near to us (God Is Love, 7-8).

In issuing his first encyclical Pope Benedict expressly said that he wanted to clarify some essential facts concerning the love which God mysteriously and gratuitously offers to man.(According to its etymology, an encyclical, from the Greek egkyklios, kyklos meaning a circle) is a circular letter. In modern times the term is used almost exclusively to denote certain papal documents explicitly addressed to the universal church.) Deus Caritas Est (God Is Love) was the first such document written and published by Pope Benedict XVI. It contains some of the richest and most highly developed doctrinal teaching on God and eternal love ever written.

Everyone needs love. And everyone desires love. But clearly not everyone understands love. The truth is that there may be no more misunderstood word, or subject, in all of human history than love. To say the word is problematic seems to be obvious to anyone who speaks English.

To say that “God is love” is to make the most astounding statement about the nature and essence of God ever made. It exceeds our imagination. At the center of what appears to be darkness and absence Christianity asserts that there is presence and love. “The world is filled with a Presence for which we may have no name, whose existence we cannot prove, but which we can recognize, experience and marvel at.”


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Love Alone Is Eternal (Part Four)

Last week I posted three blogs on love (August 26-28). I began to show why love is eternal. The reason is to be clearly rooted in the eternal mystery of the biblical truth: “God is love” (1 John 4:8, 16). Today I want to take another example that demonstrates my affirmation – the person of Christ.

Nestorius believed in Christ and followed him as a deep thinker. He insisted that the eternal God could not truly be born of a woman. He thus denied that Mary was “The Mother of God.” (This language, which troubles some modern readers who can say Mary was the mother of Jesus, but not the mother of God, must be properly understood in its original doctrinal development and context.) When this affirmation was originally made it was intended to underscore the fact that Jesus was fully human. He could only be fully human if he was conceived in the womb of a real woman, namely Mary. And he had to be birthed in a normal human way. (Remember, the idea of the virgin birth is generally misnamed since the church really confessed a virginal conception!) Why did all this matter? Because God was truly in Jesus, and Jesus was in all ways true human flesh. To say that Mary was “The Mother of God” was important in order to make this singular point clear: Christ’s humanity, contra Nestorianism, was totally real.

Later another controversy arose regarding human freedom and salvation. Pelagius insisted that we are free, so free that we could work out our own salvation by keeping the law. We were not mortally wounded by the fall thus we were fully able to make our own effort and (in essence) save ourselves. This error was another denial of paradox. The Manicheans tried to solve this difficult problem I will address later about God’s love and the existence of evil. They embraced a form of philosophical dualism, thus solving the problem of God’s goodness and the presence of evil by teaching that there were really two gods. One god was responsible for the good and the other for the evil.

On and on we could go surveying the rise of ancient Christian errors but here is the important point. Each one of these Christian heresies arose inside the church, under different forms and with many differing labels. But in every case the mainstream Christian tradition eventually emphasized that the church should hold to both sides by embracing the paradox of the faith.

But doesn’t this kind of thinking, and the language that goes with it, deny human logic? The church answered, over time. In effect it said that all truth has elements of paradox in it. Such paradox points us to the totality of the Mystery, the mystery of our faith. These are not contradictory truths but “partial glimpses of the One Unknowable and Inexpressible Truth” (Who Is God?, Irma Zaleski, 74). Divine truth, including the great truth of all –“God is love – can never completely convince our rational minds and answer all our questions. Your life is “a journey into the unknown, incomprehensible and often frightening reality of God. We must accept this fact of our life of faith and learn the art of unknowing” Irma Zaleski (Who Is God?, Irma Zzaleski, 74).


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Let’s Talk with Mark Elfstrand – August 1, 2014

On Friday, August 1, Fr. George Koch (Resurrection Anglican Church, West Chicago), and Rev. Ian Simkins (Poplar Creek Church, Bartlett), both members of the ACT3 board, joined me for a lively in-studio “Pastors’ Roundtable” dialogue on WYLL in Chicago.  Mark Eflstrand, the show’s host, is a long time friend. I met Mark when he hosted a program on WORD in Pittsburgh many years ago. He then spent many years as the anchor for the morning show on WMBI in Chicago. Now he has moved over to WYLL. This allows us even more freedom to work together in the media. This was my first live program with Mark. I hope there will be many others. I will also join him as a “resident theologian” for some  shorter segments (by telephone) which I will also post for you to hear online.

Please let me know if you find this helpful.

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