Naming Kirk Aright

For those who know me only from such online venues as my blog and blog comments, my name poses a bit of a mystery–an enigma wrapped in a Twinkie, if you will. What do these letters mean? What does he go by? Shall we call him “JR”? “JRDK”? “JERK”?

I want to take this opportunity to clear the fog, step by step. Welcome to this “get to know you” episode of Storied Theology.

First, although my name ofttimes appears as “J. R. Daniel Kirk,” the reason for this is not that I go by J. R. To the contrary, the reason is that I go by “Daniel,” and therefore abbreviate my superfluous names.

What others do with their middle initials I must do with my first. It is my cross to bear.

Second, my name begins with a superfluous J for the following reason: My parents loved Pentateuchal source criticism and became enamored of the Jahwist’s understanding of Israel’s relationship to God. Every man in my family has the same first name: James.

And by everyone, I mean: My grandfather (Jim), his two sons (J. Thomas and J. Robert), my brother and I, my son and my nephew. But when one has the same name as everyone else, one cannot very well go by it, can one?

Third, then, I have the superfluous R. My dad’s name (see previous paragraph) is James Robert. I got named after dad. But then, one does not want two persons in the same house fighting over the same name, does one?

Thus, fourth, my parents bestowed upon me the name Daniel, foreseeing in a prescient moment that I would need a perennial and persistent reminder that God is my judge, since I have never seemed capable of listening to anyone else.

Fifth: please note that my name is Daniel. This has two syllables. This mystery is great, but I am speaking about being addressed by both of them. I am not Dan. Nor am I Danny.

Sixth, you might be asking yourself, why do I flout my superfluous letters rather than simply allowing “Daniel Kirk” to stand and clarify all potential misunderstandings?

To this there are two answers.

First, from my early love of J.R.R. Tolkein, C. S. Lewis, yes, J. I. Packer, and my later respect for N. T. Wright (time would fail me to speak of F. F. Bruce or E. P. Sanders)–I simply realized from the world around me that superfluous letters are absolutely sine qua non for an enduring legacy in the world of theological writing.

Second, well, let’s just say that it helps minimize the number of thank-you notes I get from grateful parents. Honestly, I’ve only gotten one, and it made me somewhat horrified for the poor lad who had done his fifth grade book report on my book.

Redemptive Acts and the Decalogue

In my first post on why I own up to the fact that I, like almost every other Christian, do not keep Sabbath, I began with what is perhaps the hardest obstacle of all for most Christians to surmount when wrestling with this issue: it is part of the Decalogue. The Ten Words. The Top Ten List.

Isn’t this, in some sense, conclusive?

Yes, of course it is. Now all we have to do is figure out what sense that is!

Last week, I argued that the identification of God with the Exodus event was one reason to approach the Decalogue with caution: the indicative of our salvation, from which our commands flow, is no longer being brought out of Egypt, but having been ransomed by Christ.

More needs to be said here.

First, the giving of the Law at Sinai, of which the Decalogue is the heart, is the covenant ceremony that creates the particular relationship that YHWH would have with Israel from that time forward.

Yes, they were in relationship before. Yes, there were other covenants to which YHWH was committed.

But this is the forming of a new national constitution, delineating what it would look like for YHWH to be Israel’s God and Israel to be YHWH’s people.

Second, the prophet Jeremiah anticipates that this very covenant that God made when he brought the people out of Egypt is going to be the point at which God’s greater act of deliverance supersedes what came before.

Jeremiah 31:31 says, “I will make a new covenant.”

The subsequent verse clarifies that this stands in direct contradistinction to the Sinai covenant: “It won’t be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand and lead them out of the land of Egypt” (Jer 31:32, CEB).

The point of difference? Where the commandments are written:

No, this is the covenant that I will make with the people of Israel after that time, declares the Lord. I will put my Instructions within them and engrave them on their hearts. (31:33, CEB)

This is part and parcel with Jeremiah’s earlier claim:

So the time is coming, declares the LORD, when no one will say, “As the LORD lives who brought up the Israelites from the land of Egypt.” Instead they will say, “As the LORD lives who brought up the descendents of the people of Israel from the land of the north and from all the lands where he has banished them…

The preface to the Decalogue is overshadowed. The covenant of the Decalogue is overshadowed. And the Law on the heart replaces the Law written on tablets of stone.

The point in all this is to see two things: (1) the Decalogue is associated with the Exodus and holds its place as the defining covenant document of the people; (2) the OT expected that with a greater act of salvation, a new covenant would come, and this new act would transform the nature of God’s Instruction among God’s people.

It is in light of both of these dynamics that we make sense of what Paul will say about the place of the Law among the people of God. We’ll work that out a bit more, perhaps on Thursday, but here’s the summary:

The Decalogue, as the central component of the covenant identity of Israel, is precisely the point at which Paul insists that there is radical discontinuity in the story of God’s people because of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ.

Atonement Begins… When?

Tony Jones is hosting a series of guest posts on the atonement in the lead-up to Good Friday and Easter.

Mine is there today:

“Jesus died for our sins.” Often, the problem with this core piece of our common Christian confession is that we think we know what it means. And so we limit our understanding of the fullness of the atonement…

Forgiveness is not merely about having guilt forgiven. Forgiveness becomes the means by which we are freed from an enslaving tyrant…
(read the rest at Theoblogy)

Words of Wisdom

It’s not often that an interview leaves deep and lasting impressions.

Especially when it is someone else’s interview. And even more especially when this person did not take the job for which he was on the hot seat.

But such is the case for one series of conversations I got to be part of as a graduate student at Duke. The person being interviewed was Luke Timothy Johnson.

Johnson left me with three enduring impressions from those conversations almost a dozen years ago.

First, he spoke about the things he could do that anyone else could do just as well, but he gets to do them because he’s a seminary professor. He spoke of a reading group he was leading: Methodist pastors gathering and reading the Bible together.

For most of these pastors, Johnson asserted, this was the only chance they had to read the Bible with other strong readers of scripture. The enduring impression left by this comment was both negative and positive.

Negatively: most pastors never have the opportunity to read scripture in a context where everyone else isn’t expecting them to have the answers.

Positively: seminary is a tremendous gift inasmuch as seminary students are experiencing what may be their last opportunity to sit in a room with other strong readers of scripture to read together, question together, and learn from each other.

Each quarter I try to instill in my students a sense of grateful awareness about the preciousness and uniqueness of what they’re getting to do in the classroom and with their friends.

Second, in that same context, Johnson talked about how, as a professor, he is poised to serve the church. He put it like this:

“I fend off the academy with my right hand so that I can serve the church with my left.”

I can’t make that one any more tangible, but I’ll say that I have from time to time experienced the reality he’s referring to–and the [felt] need to beat back the academic beast in order to serve the church.

Third, Johnson spoke of different ways to envision a scholarly career.

If your goal is to finish your dissertation, you’ll never get done. If your goal is to get a job, you’ll finish your dissertation. If your goal is to get tenure, you’ll land a job. If your goal is to change the world? Ah–then you’ll get tenure.

What I have freely received, I hereby freely pass on to you.

Forgiveness

Forgiveness is powerful.

It is powerful when we long for it and do not receive it. It is powerful when we receive it and thereby receive newness of life.

This is the sermon I heard last night. The preachers? Despereaux and The Doctor.

The Tale of Despereaux is about a rat and a mouse, a king and a princess (or two).

When the rat causes the Queen to die from fright, the King becomes sullen and banishes rats from the kingdom. In a concurrent storyline, a jailer is racked with guilt for giving his daughter to be raised by relatives.

The rat needs forgiveness. The jailer needs to receive forgiveness.

And as much as they are imprisoned by their pasts, the king and to a lesser extent the princess are imprisoned by their grudge.

The story turns, we are told, when grief is overpowered by forgiveness. Forgiveness is more powerful than grief–and it becomes the source of new life for all involved.

Thus far, the children’s sermon.

After the children were dismissed to bed, the adults’ sermon turned to the same theme. The Doctor was preaching, and his story was entitled “The Doctor’s Wife” (season 6, ep. 4).

The Doctor finds himself drawn irresistably toward the voices of other Time Lords. He knows there are no more Time Lords. But he is compulsively drawn toward the voices he has heard. He knows there are no more because he had to destroy them.

Why is he drawn, irrationally, to what he knows can not exist?

Doctor: “…there are Time Lords here. I heard them and they need me.”
Amy: “You told me about your people, and you told me what you did.”
Doctor: “Yes, yes. But if they’re like the Corsair they’re good ones and I can save them.”
Amy: “And then tell them you destroyed all the others?”
Doctor: “I can explain… tell them why I had to.”
Amy: “You want to be forgiven.”
Doctor: “Don’t we all?”

“You want to be forgiven.” “Don’t we all?”

Forgiveness is powerful. And lack of forgiveness is powerful. For both parties, forgiveness is a source of freedom. We need forgiveness. We yearn to be free.

Bringing the Sabbath to Bear On Today

As I mentioned yesterday, I’m not a Sabbath keeper. True confessions: I used to be hard core. But then the mental gymnastics to justify doing something completely different from the Fourth Commandment got to be too much.

I don’t keep the Sabbath and neither does any other Christian I know.

Also, I don’t go for abstracting “principles” to live by. They don’t work for me. I live in the world of particulars.

And stories.

And here’s the rub with that last bit: the story we live in, as Heb 4 tells us, is one whose ending is the Sabbath rest that awaits God’s people.

Earlier this week, I quoted the wisdom of Frank Kermode, channeled by Sam Sacks, about the importance of a powerful ending awaiting our story:

For life to have meaning, to amount to more than just a sequence of events, that meaning must be projected backwards from an ending that provides the key to interpreting everything that preceded it.

The ending of our story, the one that reaches back into our present and intrudes upon it, disrupting our present by its very present, is the future of Sabbath rest. It is the future that Christ has already entered into.

The Sabbath rest of God is therefore the future into which we have already entered as those who are “in Christ.”

In keeping with my (*ahem*) iconoclastic post from yesterday, this means that Sabbath for us is not one day in seven, but an eternal reality ahead of us that therefore intrudes upon every minute of our present.

I will sometimes say that part of our calling as Christians is to take hold of our future and bring it to bear on the present. So also here.

We are to be each day, as the people of Israel were to be on Saturday, a people ever mindful that we are a redeemed, delivered, set-free people. We are to remember that we are saved by God’s grace, and therefore to accept rest rather than working at our jobs as though our very souls depended on it.

We are a people whose salvation was won by an overturning of the economy of the world, and so we are to live as though the economics of seven days of work produces lesser returns than the economics of less–less offered in trust of the God who “supplies seed to the sower and bread for food.”

We are a people who are liberated, with a full liberation ahead, and so we are to use the day-by-day moments of our lives to make freedom and justice a reality for the other people we meet.

Most of all, our eyes should be fixed forward as we rest: knowing and believing that a day of rest lies ahead. Physical and mental rest, participating in the sacraments, working for the abolition of slavery, feeding the hungry–each of these might be a faithful anticipation of the sabbath yet to come.

So I won’t raise my eyebrows if you don’t take a day off. And I’ll try not to raise them if you do.

I Don’t Keep Sabbath (and Neither Do You)

A few days ago a friend I offered some of my typically unhelpful pastoral wisdom to a friend: “I don’t keep Sabbath.”

To which she replied, “What? Being on the Top 10 list isn’t good enough for you?”

Well played!

But no, it’s not.

Let’s get one thing out of the way: unless you’re a 7th Day Adventist, if you’re a Christian you probably don’t keep Sabbath, either.

What did you do last Saturday? Did you keep yourself from all your own thoughts and pleasures, giving your whole Saturday to the delight of the Lord?

Did you recognize that your Saturday is to be a day not only of your own personal rest but a day on which you give rest to anyone who might be required to work so as to serve you? In other words, did you refrain from shopping, from eating at restaurants, from driving your cars (traffic enforcement, you know), from letting your kids do homework, from writing your sermon?

The seventh is the Sabbath, according to the Top Ten list. If you’re not setting aside Saturday, you’re not keeping the Sabbath, however helpful or noble your pattern of rest.

But not only don’t we keep Sabbath, we have two very good reasons based on our storied theology.

“I am the Lord your God who brought you up out of the Land of Egypt, out of the House of Bondage.”

What doth this preface to the Ten Commandments teach us?

The preface to the Ten Commandments teacheth us that because YHWH was the God of the Israelites, and his great act of redemption for them was leading them out of the Land of Egypt, that therefore they were bound to keep these Ten Commandments.

Ahem. Sorry. I fell into Westminster Shorter Catechism mode there. Well, sort of.

The point I wish to make (ok, ok, I make it in distinction from the Catechism, so shoot me) is this:

The particular indicatives of God’s acts of salvation produce particular imperatives that we are called to obey.

For us, the great act of redemption is not God’s deliverance of Israel from Egypt but, instead, our deliverance from enslavement to sin and death by the death and resurrection of Christ.

In other words, what Jeremiah anticipated, that a day would come when people would no longer say, “As the Lord lives who brought us up out of the land of Egypt” has now come to pass.

God has a new name, tied to God’s new work.

As the Lord God lives who did not spare his own son but delivered him up for us all; as the Lord lives who justifies the ungodly; as the Lord lives who gives life to the dead and calls into being the things that are not.

So, what? Isn’t there a Sabbath rest any longer for God’s people?

Funny you should ask.

Hebrews tells us, unequivocally, “Yes.”

And it is the Sabbath rest that lies ahead of us, the eternal rest for those who faithfully follow Jesus during the full course of their life on earth (Heb 4:1-11).

True Christian sabbath is not a day. Or an afternoon. Or a principle. It is an eternal future that God has prepared for us.

So, what does that mean for now? For the author of Hebrews it means, “Keep going!” But there might be more. More on that tomorrow.

Bacon in America

Today, myriad conversations and data-points came together in an unexpected way. I did not undergo a paradigm shift. I recognized that a paradigm shift had occurred under my nose. Under my nose, that is, where I smell the rich, salty, fatty, delicious scent of bacon rising from the pan.

The shift, in short is this:

Bacon has replaced beef as America’s iconic meat.

This awareness came when a friend linked the following, a bacon casket:

Once, there was beef: “It’s what’s for dinner.”

The Golden Arches testify to America’s insatiable hunger for the hamburger.

And what typifies manly carnage night if not the steak on the grill?

But bacon is the new beef.

Bacon is the gateway drug that gently extends its hands to those on the vegetarian wagon, and lowers them to the ground on which the rest of us trod.

Bacon is the material with which we say I love you in giving a dozen long-stem.

Bacon Roses from Instructables.com

And, bacon is what we now say when we can’t find the words to say what we need to say:

It used to be that “crisp bacon” was redundant. But now we know about thick bacon, cooked in the oven at 420, from a cold start, for 20 minutes. Still chewy. Melting in our mouths.

Whether we’re wrapping our hotdogs with it, enfolding a roasted date, or sprinkling it on our fudge brownies, bacon is our new iconic meat.

Holiness and Grace

God is the God who loves in freedom. There’s Karl Barth’s core contention about God. But what does this love in freedom look like?

§30 of The Church Dogmatics is devoted to exploring the perfections of divine loving. It begins with the apparent opposites of Grace and Holiness.

Holding together these two dynamics of the Divine action and being is a perennial difficulty.

The Grace of the Stamp Comes With the Judgment of the Postmark

It becomes rather easy to point to people, usually on our right, who seem so excited about the divine holiness that their version of grace seems rather… well… ungracious.

With equal ease, we can turn to the people on our left who affirm grace (probably with the unassailable adjective “radical” or something) to the extent that their vision of divine love removes God’s otherness, God’s holiness.

For Barth, these must be held together. And this means that God’s grace will be known as God comes to people whose sin must be overcome. This love, found in grace and holiness, is truly divine love because it is not conditioned on the creature’s merit and cannot be dissuaded by the creature’s demerit.

We truly are sinful. God truly does love the sinful world. And it requires the overcoming of sin for God to do so.

I have a couple of words of concern.

First, I was uneasy with Barth’s projection of grace into the eternal divine identity of God. Grace, as Barth defines it, is about God overcoming the sinner’s resistance with divine love. So he must appeal to “mystery” as to what this attribute of God might look like in God’s eternal self-relations.

This sounded to my ears like special pleading: anything that doesn’t make sense we just call it “mystery” and anyone who challenges us is impious.

Second, and perhaps related to the first, this section could have used a lot more cross. Where is the place where mercy and justice kiss if not there? Yes, he brings in the cross in the small print toward the end, but I think that should have framed this whole conversation.

We know grace when we know the work of God in Christ–the son-giving Father and the self-giving Son; the son who knew no sin being made sin for us; God did what the Law could not, sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as a sin offering.

Overall, however, the chapter resonated with me. I read it fresh off my evening walk, in which I had listened to my favorite podcast right up to the point where it was asked, “Did Jesus have to die for our sins to be forgiven? He forgave sins on earth, so was the cross really necessary for that?”

I answer yes.

What Jesus shows as his kingly prerogatives in Mark 1-8 are those that become fully and eternally his through his cruciform coronation and resurrection in Mark 15-16.

We learn in his life who Jesus is for us–the grace of God among us; but there is a judgment that is due us as well, and this judgment must be dealt with for the rescue to be consummated.

Barth’s insistence that the God of grace is known only in his holiness, and that the holy God is known in grace, is a helpful corrective–corrective to me, who would much rather have the grace without the attendant judgment.

But God is the “holy one” precisely as the God “of Israel.” God is holy as God is in covenant relationship with God’s people.

The Holy One is the God of Grace.

The Leaders Feared the Crowds

“For.”

“Feared.”

Two little words. Perhaps too much overlooked as we read the account of Jesus’ temple-clearing action in Mark 11.

After Jesus overturns the tables and condemns the would-be “house of prayer for all nations” as a “robbers’ den,” Mark writes:

The chief priests and the teachers of the law heard this and began looking for a way to kill him, for they feared him, because the whole crowd was amazed at his teaching. (Mark 11:18, NIV)

Let’s start with “feared.” In my experience, when the crowd’s delight in Jesus is taken up, we tend to interpret this as a cause of jealousy for the religious leaders.

But fear? What do they have to be afraid of?

To come to the other little word, why would the crowds amazement at Jesus be, itself, a cause of fear?

To get at this, we need to get past the idea that Jesus was enacting a “cleansing” of the temple–as though he was hoping it would be transformed by a single outburst.

No, Jesus is not cleansing the temple. He is enacting a prophecy of the temple’s destruction.

In the OT passage from Jeremiah that Jesus cites, the crime of the people is in committing all sorts of injustice and then coming to the temple as though it is a talisman that will keep them safe. No, Jeremiah says, this is no safe haven for robbers, keep up your current ways and you will be destroyed.

Jesus’ action in the temple is a prophecy of temple destruction in the line of Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and others.

Perhaps we are to understand that the chief priests and scribes saw all too clearly the implications of Jesus’ actions: he was claiming that they themselves, as the caretakers of the temple and the temple system, were the objects of God’s coming judgment. If the people were amazed at Jesus’ teaching, might these crowds turn on them?

Here is a cause of fear: when the prophet promises that the institution from which you find your maintenance, that you uphold with your Rome-given authority (*ahem*), has looming over it the judgment hand of God–and the people hear this word with delight.

This is not jealousy at Jesus’ popularity. It is fear at the all-too-clear implications of his message, a message directed, so it would seem, at them.

Telling the story of the story-bound God