A Call and a Promise

2.1 The God who creates, the God who calls
2.2 ‘To listen to another Word’

2.3 A call and a promise

It has already been argued that discipleship is introduced through the spoken word of the triune God at the point of creation. Even in light of that which occurred in the garden and humanity’s failure to trust in that word, God graciously initiates a second call to discipleship. In the words of Derek Kidner, “the history of redemption, like that of creation, begins with God speaking.”1

Thus, in Genesis 12, we read that God said to Abraham, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing” (Genesis 12: 1-2, New Revised Standard Version). The nature of this call is seen in the first words that God spoke to Abraham; it is the verb ‘go’, literally translated, in this case, as a strong imperative command, “You must go!”2

This command is qualified in three different ways: Abraham was to leave his country, his people and his father’s house. He was called, therefore, “to leave behind the past, everything and everyone familiar to him, all the previous supports and influences he has known, and to depend on God.”3 For Brueggemann, this is a call to “abandonment, renunciation and relinquishment. It is a call for a dangerous departure from the presumed world of norms and security.”4

The call of God to Abraham, then, is one that is characterized by a specific directive, and in order to for Abraham to respond adequately and meaningfully, it would require a change, a move from the old to the new. Simply put, those called by God cannot remain as before; they must move away from perceived norms and securities and into the Way of faith.

Brueggemann further qualifies the call of Abraham by placing it within the context of his wife’s barrenness, as described in Genesis 11:30.5 For as he notes, “the summons is not law or discipline, but promise. The narrative knows that such departure from securities is the only way out of barrenness … to stay in safety is to remain barren; to leave in risk is to have hope.”6 The call is not a burden of rules and regulations, but rather a promise of hope.

Abraham could have stayed in his present situation and in so doing ignored the promise of God; he chose rather to embrace the unknown and receive the hope of life in the promise that through him, all nations would be blessed. It was a promise not only to Abraham, but also to the world around him; a promise that God had not forgotten his creation and his special relationship with humankind. Thus, it is at this point in the biblical story that “God calls an alternative community, an alternative to the cold barren ones who have ceased to listen and have therefore ceased to live and ceased to hope.”7

Through Abraham and his descendants, the divine-human conversation would continue, and all people would be reminded of God’s loving concern and continual presence among them.

This call, therefore, demanded an answer from Abraham in regards to the question of whether or not he wanted to step “out of the barrenness” and into the realm of promise. 8 While this call is indeed predicated on the imperative ‘to go’, Brueggemann notes, “With Jesus, as with Abraham, the call is dangerously open-ended.”9 Abraham’s story, then, is one through which “we become acclimated to the word ‘faith’ – trusting obediently in what we cannot control, living in obedient relationship to the One we cannot see, venturing obediently into a land that we know nothing about.”10

The disciple is one that embraces the unknown – “faith is a trusting obedient life on the road, the way. Faith is a resolute ‘Yes’ to the promise and commands of the living God, God as present.”11 As Abraham embarked on this new life of faith in response to the call of the living God, he literally had no idea where he would be led; he simply heard the word that God had spoken, and responded with a resolute ‘yes.’

With that in mind, a discussion on God’s call to Abraham would not be complete without addressing a later and more specific call. In Genesis 22, God spoke to Abraham and told him to sacrifice his son, Isaac. God had indeed kept his promise and had begun the process of forming a people through Abraham; and yet God proceeded to direct Abraham to kill one through whom his family line would continue.

This was a call to constantly remember the one who speaks; “Abraham had to learn that the promise did not depend on Isaac, but only on God.”12 This, in Bonhoeffer’s words and according to the Abraham story, is the nature of discipleship: “[Abraham] takes God at his word and is prepared to obey. Against every natural immediacy, against every ethical immediacy, against every religious immediacy, he obeys God’s word.”13 It is a call to hear, trust in and obey the word that God has spoken and continues to speak, no matter what the cost. Indeed, “the Abraham story narrates a way of living in which God is personal and immediate, in which God is embraced and followed, in which God speaks and is obeyed.”14

The nature of the call of and promise to Abraham, therefore, is placed against the backdrop of barrenness, and is offered by the only one who can offer to Abraham and his wife the promise of a new beginning; “there is no real Genesis, no new beginning for barren people, apart from the reality of this God.”15 To answer the call and place one’s hope in that promise “requires a decision and a radical repentance”; it also requires “a rejection of all posturing, a recognition that the world revolves around and is powered by this other one who will be trusted and praised.”16 This is a call, then, to return to the tree – Luther’s first church – and hear, trust in and obey the word that God had spoken.

It points to the ongoing reality that God is to be trusted and obeyed, even in the midst of a call that forces the hearer to renounce old comforts and relationships and pass along an unknown road. Kidner points out that “the call to forsake all and follow” is one that “finds its nearest parallel in the Gospels.”17 Brueggemann also makes this point, that this call is “echoed in the invitation of Jesus” 18; it is a call to constantly tune out and turn away from all other competing stories and return to the divine-human conversation which constantly offers the promise of new life. It is to be noted, however, that the promise of new life is rooted within the scope of human history; it is a promise to bless Abraham with descendents through whom the world would be blessed.

It is a call to come out of an old situation and enter into a new one, and it is a call that will have an impact on the present realities of the world; this is the call placed on Abraham, and it remains the call to discipleship.

1 Derek Kidner, Genesis: an introduction and commentary (London: Tyndale Press, 1967), 113.

2 David W. Cotter, Genesis (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2003), 89.

3 Ibid., 90.

4 Walter Brueggemann, Genesis: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Atlanta, GA: John Knox Press, 1982), 118.

5 “Now Sarah was barren; she had no child” (NRSV).

6 Brueggemann, Genesis, 118.

7 Ibid., 118.

8 Ibid., 118.

9 Ibid., 118.

10 Eugene Peterson, The Jesus Way: A Conversation in Following Jesus (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2009), 44.

11 Ibid., 46.

12 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, vol. IV (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2001), 97.

13 Ibid., 97

14 Peterson, The Jesus Way, 47.

15 Brueggemann, Genesis, 119.

16 Ibid., 119.

17 Kidner, Genesis, 113.

18 Brueggemann, Genesis, 118. Brueggemann here references this key Gospel verse: “For those who want to save their life will lose it; and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it” (Mark 8:35)

‘To listen to another Word’

2.1 The God who creates, the God who calls

2.2 ‘To listen to another Word’

It does not take long, however, for the divine-human conversation to be tragically interrupted. In Genesis 2:17, we read that God spoke a specific word to Adam, prohibiting him from eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. For Luther, this specific command acted as a call to trust in, worship and obey the God who had spoken; “it was God’s intention that this command should provide man with an opportunity for obedience and outward worship, and that the tree should be a sort of sign by which man would give evidence that he was obeying God.”1

Adherence to this command was to be, in effect, a tangible expression of early discipleship whereby Adam, Eve, and their offspring would demonstrate that they had heard the word that God had spoken and act in accordance to that word. It was a place where the divine-human conversation was to carry on steady and unbounded.

In Genesis 3, however, that conversation is brought to a halt by a crafty ruse, characterized by Luther in this way: “the chief temptation was to listen to another word and to depart from the one which God had previously spoken.”2 This is key in terms of understanding the nature of discipleship today. In this description of that which led to the inception of sin in the midst of God’s good creation, Luther is effectively shifting the focus off of the bitten apple to the spoken word of God; the point is not that Eve physically bit an apple or broke an explicit command, but rather that she failed to trust in and adhere to the word that God had spoken.

As Luther puts it, “the source of all sin truly is unbelief and doubt and abandonment of the Word. Because the world is full of these, it remains in idolatry, denies the truth of God, and invents a new god.”3 Whereas the tree was meant to be a place of trust and worship leading to obedience, it became a place where the word of God was questioned and twisted in a way that caused humankind to begin a pattern of being absorbed into stories that are not intrinsically our own. They are stories that de-emphasize our role as God’s partners in bringing about his loving purposes for the world, stories that offer cheap grace, and stories that cause us to forget the word that God has spoken and continues to speak.

Even as these competing stories developed and caused humankind to doubt the Word that God had spoken, God remained faithful to his creation and to humankind, constantly calling out in an attempt to re-establish that divine-human conversation.

1 Martin Luther, “The Pious Question: Genesis 3:1-3,” in Luther’s Works, vol 1: Lectures on Genesis Chapters 1-5, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 1958), 154.

2 Ibid., 147.

3 Ibid., 149.

Quick ‘Stoop Time’ Update

Slowly but surely, my little podcast is making a comeback.

I recently put out a call for some help with this venture in the form of a Patreon campaign boost, and lo and behold, it was successful enough to reach my base goal. As a result, I was able to fire up the SoundCloud account, making all past episodes available once again. You can listen there, or – better yet! –  subscribe on iTunes, Stitcher, and Google Play.

Here’s a few of my favorite episodes, if you’re looking for a place to start:

Jeremy Taggart!

https://soundcloud.com/ian-cameron-mclaren/stoop-time-episode-4

Jonathan Torrens!

https://soundcloud.com/ian-cameron-mclaren/episode-26

Garrett McFadden!

https://soundcloud.com/ian-cameron-mclaren/episode-32

Those are the three biggest guests, but also be sure to check out Mike, Katie, Teresa, Chris and my wife Lauren, and the solo episodes (if you dare).

More coming soon, I promise.

Book Review: A Light So Lovely by Sarah Arthur

The one thing I can say for sure about Sarah Arthur’s A Light So Lovely: The Spiritual Legacy of Madeleine L’Engle, Author of A Wrinkle in Time is that it made me want to drop everything and read anything her subject has ever written.

In the year in which L’Engle would have turned, and when her most popular book was released as a major motion picture by Disney, Arthur – through personal reflection, second-hand stories and interview – paints a picture of the woman behind so many great literary works, writing specifically about her imagination, her faith, her pattern of defying categories, and what readers today can learn from her legacy.

From the official description:

Bestselling and beloved author Madeleine L’Engle, Newbery winner for A Wrinkle in Time, was known the world round for her imaginative spirit and stories. She was also known to spark controversy – too Christian for some, too unorthodox for others. Somewhere in the middle was a complex woman whose embrace of paradox has much to say to a new generation of readers today.

Sarah definitely seems like the right person to write this book. A graduate of Wheaton and Duke, the former long-time youth pastor she serves as preliminary fiction judge for the Christianity Today Book Awards & has been writer-in-residence for the Frederick Buechner Writers Workshop at Princeton Theological Seminary. She’s also written a fair bit in her own right, including some devotionals based on the Lord of the Rings books.

A Light So Lovely is a great look at what makes the author of Wrinkle in Time click, and I’ve put a bunch of the great author’s books on hold at the library as a result. Anyone interested in her work should check this out, but it’s also a great introduction and surely a gateway into the greatness of L’Engle.

Why ‘Somewhere North’?

I’ve written about this a couple times, but here’s a brief summary of why I keep calling my blogs ‘Somewhere North.’

The Spot

There’s a place in Scotland called Niest Point. It’s on the most westerly tip of Skye, and home to one of the most famous lighthouses in Scotland.

While living in Aberdeen in 2009, Lauren and I stopped there with her mom and stepdad during a week-long tour of the country. We arrived a bit before sunset, and quietly looked out over the cliffs as darkness fell somewhere over the North Sea.

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We weren’t there long, enough to make the modest hike to and from the point, passing grazing sheep along the way. But I consider it my favorite place on Earth, the happy, peaceful place I picture in my head in anxious times.

The Song

‘Somewhere North’ is by Derek Webb, one of my favorite singer / songwriters over the past two decades.

It’s from a Caedmon’s Call album, and it’s one of my favorite songs.

I once framed a photo of me as a child and gave it to Lauren, bringing Webb’s lyrics to mind:

I give my life and all I am
But what I have to give
So I hand you a candid photograph of this little boy
‘Cause I have nothing to my name
But I can give you that 

Shortly after Lauren and I got married, Webb came to Toronto and at one point in the show, he took requests. I called out this song, and he happily obliged, much to my delight.

Side note:  A few months ago, I was able to speak to Webb via Skype about the impact of his music on my life and how his newest album helped me when Lauren was going through cancer treatment last month. Part of that chat can be heard on this episode of his podcast, The Airing of Grief.

All that to say, that’s where I got the name for this blog, which I hope to make more use of in the coming months as I keep my writing muscles flexed.

Discipleship in the Old Testament

Picking up from On Losing the Story of Discipleship, here’s chapter 2 of my dissertation, a Practical Theology of Discipleship.

2.1 The God who creates, the God who calls

To fully grasp what it means to follow Jesus in the 21st century, it is important to go back to the beginning, to the story of a God who called all of creation into existence out of nothing, and in so doing, had in mind to form a people through whom he would show the world what he is like.

While the Old Testament texts do not explicitly invoke the language of discipleship, inherent within them is a sense of a God who creates and speaks, faithfully demonstrating that he is indeed deeply interested and involved in the present realities of the world. This is clearly seen in the act of calling out a people and giving them a framework by which they were to live in the world, with a view to embodying his loving purposes for that which he has created.

Inherent in any examination of the nature of discipleship is a sense of calling. Certainly this is seen most explicitly through the person of Jesus – namely ‘God with us’ – the one who provided the ultimate example of what it means to embody God’s loving and redemptive purposes for the world while concurrently calling people out to follow him. This, however, is a divine-human interaction that goes back to the point of creation.

In the words of Christoph Schwobel, “God speaks and the world comes into being. Humans are created in the image of the triune God as those creatures that are addressed by and enabled to respond to God. The creaturely responsibility lies in hearing and responding to God’s address.”1 With this in mind, the Old Testament must be read as the beginning of the “record of the divine-human conversation, of how God spoke in ‘many and various ways’ and of how humans are called to respond in speaking to God and speaking of God.”2 This has a direct bearing on any notion of discipleship today, for if the Bible is seen as an account of divine-human conversation, “one must take the Bible’s own claim seriously that this conversation does not finish with the completion of the biblical books.”3

This, then, is the basis for a biblical view of discipleship: human history is formed by a God who creates and speaks to his creation with a view to forming a special partnership with humankind, working together to fulfill his loving purposes for creation within the present realities of life.

1 Christoph Schwobel, “God as Conversation: Reflections on a Theological Ontology of Communicative Relations,” in Theology and Conversation: Towards a Relational Theology, ed. J. Haers & P. De Mey (Leuven: University Press, 2003), 46-47.

2 Ibid., 48.

3 Ibid., 48.

You Are Worthy of Love: On A Night With David Bazan

There’s certain music that resonates deeply, that provides a soundtrack to certain periods of life and forever reminds you of the feelings experienced during that time, however good or bad they might have been. Over the past couple of years, that kind of aural therapy has been provided for me by David Bazan and Pedro the Lion.

I first heard about Bazan and his band back in college, from a friend from Denver who highly recommended I check them out. I’m almost glad I didn’t back then; I honestly don’t think I would have been able to process it properly, to fully appreciate what he does with his voice, his words, his musical arrangments.

It’s only been in recent years that I came aboard, with enough years and miles behind me through which to learn about the doubt and loss that Bazan writes and sings about so masterfully. As I’ve gone through periods of theological and spiritual deconstruction, watched helplessly as my wife undergo cancer treatment and witness / experience the toll that has taken on our family of 5, and as I’ve come to terms with my own many failings and weaknesses, Bazan has helped remind me that I am not alone.

Lauren and I went to see a recently reunited Pedro in Toronto on Aug. 8, and it was such a treat to see them live. To give you a sense of how down to earth this project is, there’s few front men who can get away with hanging out on the street in front of the venue prior to the show, casually tossing on a hoodie and walking down the street to do whatever one does before taking to the stage in front of a throng of fans. Not only that, I perfectly timed my pre-show bathroom break, as Bazan walked in while I was doing my business, affording me (after we were both done, of course) the opportunity to tell him how excited I was for the show and how much I appreciated his music. I told him some friends of mine had hosted a house show of his, and he replied with a “fuck yeah, that was great … but tonight will be better.”

A brief interaction, but memorable nonetheless.

The whole show was predictably brilliant, but there were a couple moments during the show that I won’t soon forget. After promising not to talk much between songs, Bazan beautifully broke that promise by addressing the subject of mental health. His music has been described as “sadcore”, and it’s clear he’s battled his own demons over the years, a reality he acknowledged by admitting he often has trouble getting out of bed, the state of the world being what it is these days. But, he continued, it’s vital that we let our big feelings out of our hearts and mouths, to seek out a safe person who will be there in even the darkest times. And if we’re doing OK, we have to step up and be that safe person for others who aren’t.

It was more than I had ever heard about mental health in the Church that Bazan left and wouldn’t have anything to do with him now; but THIS was a potentially life-saving message, true good news – simply, we are not alone.

Later, he sang the following tune, and repeated the line “you are worthy of love” in a way that was impossible to ignore, that made you actually believe it.

No matter what you’ve done or what you’re going through, you are worthy of love. Surround yourself with people able to remind you of that.

Thank you for an evening to remember, good sir. I tip my cap to you, and very much look forward to a new Pedro album in 2019.

 

On Losing the Story of Discipleship

1.5 A loss of the story of discipleship

One possible overarching factor that might best explain why this gap exists is the loss of a scriptural story of discipleship, due, in part, to an ‘enlightened’ emphasis on individuality through the period of modernity, and the absorption of the church by the prevalent social, cultural and political and powers.

Walter Brueggemann, in his tremendous collection of essays entitled The Word That Redescribes the World: The Bible and Discipleship, outlines some ideas in regards to this loss of story as found in the biblical text. First, Brueggemann argues, “we have lost the text, in a measure, because we have wanted to press the text to yield dogmatic certitudes that it does not offer.”1 This brings us back to an emphasis on, among other things, following Jesus in terms of ‘going to heaven after we die.’ Rather than reading Scripture as a story that sheds light on how and through whom God has enacted his redemptive works in the present world, the Bible has become a book that is pillaged for the sake of extracting spiritual formulas or guidelines meant to reduce the need for active and costly obedience.

It has become a sort of guidebook seen as able to outline the process by which one can live a good and moral life and eventually end up in heaven. The text has become a veritable wellspring of theological and doctrinal information used to define truth about God without ever having to dive in to the relational and transformational heart of the text. And so, “the playfulness, openness, and ambiguity [of the text] were consequently made to yield to a scholastic pattern of conclusion that makes the text too predictable and familiar to bother with.2 In other words, if the means of achieving the desired result of going to heaven can be easily extracted from the text there remains no reason to examine scripture in terms of what it means to follow Jesus within the context of day-to-day life.

Secondly, then, as it pertains to the church in relation to the social, cultural and political powers, Brueggemann argues the following point: “We have lost the text, in a measure, because we have become knowing and technologically competent, and one cannot build public greatness on the irascible Holiness who subverts.”3 As a result, our desire is for a text that is “not so disruptive, either this one smoothed to management or another one in its place.”4 The volume of the text is turned down, therefore, “because we have become self-sufficient and affluent, and we no longer need to be reminded of the more dangerous powers that still float around in our bodies and in the body politic.”5 As the people of God become more ingrained into the fabric of society and culture around them and as humankind becomes more self-sufficient, discipleship becomes a lost art.

The text as a story that calls out is replaced by any number of competing stories battling for our allegiance, thus negating any notion of embodied participation in ‘the Way’ of Jesus. Again, if the masses already too easily believe themselves to be Christian, and feel as though the end will be neatly wrapped up in heaven for those who ‘believe’, then there is no need to look deeper into the text and allow it to inconveniently disrupt an otherwise comfortable life.

Brueggemann refers to this loss of the text as a sort of amnesia, rendering “the human community lean and without resources, unprotected from the past with the need to invent and reinvent endlessly.”6 In order to understand the nature of true discipleship in the 21st century, then, it is vital that the text be recovered and revalued as essential for all those who wish to follow Jesus. As Stanley Hauerwas asserts, “Scripture is the means the church uses to constantly test its memory;” true disciples “must struggle day in and day out with the full text. For the story the church must tell as well as embody is a many-sided tale that constantly calls us from complacency and conventions.”7 The Bible presents the story of the origins of discipleship, of the first followers of Jesus – the story of “the happy news that God has called people together to live faithfully to the reality that he is Lord of this world.”8

Furthermore, as Hauerwas argues in this strong statement, “there is no ‘real Jesus’ except as he is known through the kind of life he demanded of his disciples,” and it is within the pages of Holy Scripture that we find “the grammar of such a life.”9 Not only does the text remind us of how and through whom God has worked in order to bring about his redemptive work in the world, it also enables us to understand our place within God’s grand story and how all those that wish to follow him today may resist the trap of being absorbed into another story.

If the text is indeed a reminder that God has always been calling people to live faithfully to the reality that he is Lord over all creation, that he is deeply interested and involved in the present realities of the world and is calling a people together to embody his redemptive purposes for it, then knowledge of and participation in the text must be seen as essential to discipleship. The task at hand, then, is to attempt to create a sense of a biblical story of discipleship by directly examining the Old and New Testaments with a view to articulating the nature of discipleship in today’s context.

1 Walter Brueggemann, “A Text That Redescribes,” in The Word That Redescribes the World: The Bible and Discipleship, ed. Patrick D. Miller (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2006), 5.

2 Ibid., 5.

3 Ibid., 6.

4 Ibid., 6.

5 Ibid., 6.

6 Ibid., 10.

7 Stanley Hauerwas, “The Servant Community,” in The Hauerwas Reader, ed. John Berkman and Michael Cartwright (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2001), 373.

8 Stanley Hauerwas, “Character, Narrative and Growth in the Christian Life,” in The Hauerwas Reader, ed. John Berkman and Michael Cartwright (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2001), 251.

9 Stanley Hauerwas, A Community of Character: Toward a Constructive Christian Social Ethic (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1986), 41-42.