104 Q.   What is God’s will for you
               in the fifth commandment?

A.    That I honor, love, and be loyal
to my father and mother
and all those in authority over me;^1
that I submit myself with proper obedience
to all their good teaching and discipline;
and also that I be patient with their failings—^2
for through them God chooses to rule us.^3

^1 Eph. 6:1[-9]; Col. 3:18, 20-24; Eph. 5:22; Prov. 1:8; 4:1; 15:20; 20:20; Exod. 21:17; Rom. 13:[1-5]
^2 Prov. 23:22; Gen. 9:25; 1 Pet. 2:18
^3 Eph. 6:4,9; Col. 3:19, 21; Rom. 13:[1-5]; Matt. 22:21


LORD’S DAY 39 (Q/A 104)
“Slave to No One, Servant of Christ”

This Q/A, and several of the Scriptural proof-texts attached to Q/A 104, have been abused by slaveholders/slavemasters to oppress and dehumanize their subjects; it’s been used to subjugate whole nations; it’s been misused to rationalize abusive relationships and domestic violence.

Lord Acton’s apt observation holds true: “Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely.”  In human hands and in the human will, we take God’s good gifts and twist it for our own ends and our own purposes; by dehumanizing our neighbor, we dehumanize ourselves, and become monstrous savages who commodify people, who monetize our relationships for our own ends.

Despite the misuses and abuses of the fifth commandment, Q/A 104’s explication of it, and the Scriptural proof-texts appended therein, there is great value in what is being said.

Do we honor our parents (or those whom we regard as our parents), whether they are living or dead,  in what we do, in what we say. Would they be proud of your action or your speech?

There’s a delight I have in seeing how my sons give me so many chances to throw a baseball or football, like as if we were playing for the first time. As my sons mature and grow in their strength and accuracy, they’ve already come to know what I’ve lived with all my life – I’m not a Babe Ruth, nor am I a Joe Montana. And with them, that’s ok. They give me the chance to throw yet another ball – sometimes the football spirals, more often it wobbles like a penguin flying in the air. And the chances they give me honor me for what I am able to teach them, even within my limitations.

Q/A 104’s beauty comes in the realistic recognition that all those whom we look up to fail us in small ways and big ways. Our family, our friends, our superiors…every single human being fails us; we fail ourselves. We are disappointed, hurt, wounded on every side. There’s no surprise there.

One of the powerful affirmations of the Reformed theological tradition is its view of humanity: we are 100% sinful as we are 100% redeemed.  The nicest, kindest person also has within, a heart that lurks with deception, trickery and cunning. Likewise, the meanest, baddest, rudest person has an element of God’s grace within.  This is not a semi-Pelagian reduction of the human nature; this is a true recognition that all of us, without exception, fall short of the glory of God.

Over the years, my sons have called me their hero. But they also know, and I know, that while I may be heroic at times, there are many more days when I rely upon their abundant forgiveness, patience and love towards me.

When we are servants to Jesus Christ and Christ’s way of seeing and doing things, we are free, we are set free to see ourselves and all people the way that Christ sees us and the way Christ relates to us.  In that way, we become bound not to ourselves, or the dictates of others, or guided by the definitions that others put on us, but by Christ. At the same time, we can receive the good graces from all people – what they have taught us, what they continually impart to us to show us God’s love – and enfold that into our lives and into our being.

In his treatise On Christian Teaching, St. Augustine provided a helpful hermeneutic to discern and determine whether a particular doctrine, and, by extension, a Scriptural interpretation, was on track with the overall Scriptural witness, in sync with the ancient, ecumenical theological traditions of the one holy catholic apostolic Church, and whether they comported with the thrust of God’s redemption in Christ through the Spirit.  His hermeneutic has been dubbed the “rule of love”: does the doctrine/interpretation enable the Church to love God more and deeply and to love neighbor more and deeply?

Augustine’s “rule of love” is most applicable to Q/A 104 and the application of it in our lives and in our relating to one another and how others relate to us. With the sins and failings of ourselves, of our parents, of our family, friends, neighbors, superiors, etc., are the graces that we offer and receive enabling us and them to love God and love neighbor more and deeply?


54   Q.   What do you believe
               concerning “the holy catholic church”?

A.    I believe that the Son of God^1
through his Spirit and Word,^2
out of the entire human race,^3
from the beginning of the world to its end,^4
gathers, protects, and preserves for himself,^5
a community chosen for eternal life^6
and united in true faith.^7
And of this community I am^8 and always will be^9
a living member.

^1 John 10:11
^2 Isa. 59:21; Rom. 1:16; 10:14, 17; Eph. 5:26
^3 Gen. 26:4
^4 Ps. 71:18; 1 Cor. 11:26
^5 Matt. 16:18; John 10:28-30; 1 Cor. 1:8
^6 Rom. 8:29-30; Eph. 1:10-13
^7 Acts 2:46;Eph. 4:3-5
^8 1 John 3:21; 2 Cor. 13:5
^9 1 John 2:19

55   Q.   What do you understand by
               “the communion of saints”?

 A.    First, that believers one and all,
as members of this community,
share in Christ
and in all his treasures and gifts.^1

Second, that each member
should consider it a duty
to use these gifts
readily and joyfully
for the service and enrichment
of the other members.^2

^1 1 John 1:3; 1 Cor. 1:9; Rom. 8:32
^2 1 Cor.6:17;12:12-21; 13:5; Phil. 2:4-6

56   Q.   What do you believe
               concerning “the forgiveness of sins”?

A.    I believe that God,
because of Christ’s satisfaction, ^1
will no longer remember
any of my sins
or my sinful nature
which I need to struggle against all my life.^2

Rather, by grace
God grants me the righteousness of Christ
to free me forever from judgment.^3

^1 1 John 2:2; 2 Cor. 5:19, 21
^2 Jer. 31:34; Ps. 103:3, 10-12; Rom. 7:24-25; 8:1-3
^3 John 3:18

LORD’S DAY 21 (Q/A 54-56)
“A Divided Community, A United Community”

Last week, we saw in Q/A 53 that even as Reformation Day necessarily recalls the theological and ecclesiastical divisions that resulted from the 16th century continental Reformation, the common unity effected by the Holy Spirit is comprehensive, continuous, and serves as our confidence and comfort in the triune God’s work through Christ to redeem a broken world.

Q/A 54 through 56 speaks of our common calling in being the Church, the called out community that is holy because God is holy, and which is catholic because of the broadness of God’s work and the diversity of the members of the Church.  Because we have been assured of forgiveness and redemption, we are called to offer our whole selves to the witness of the Gospel. The Holy Spirit’s work, as the work of the triune God, is not just for a person, for a me, even as the Spirit’s work is deeply personal to each of us; when God touches each of our lives, it’s always in view of bringing us into a wider community – the community of God (who is perfect community – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), and the community which belongs to God (i.e. the Church).

As I write this reflection, delegates from the PC(USA) have joined several thousand Christians, communion of saints, for the 10th Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Busan, South Korea. The WCC, a fellowship of about 350 churches from six continents, offers common witness with/for about 500 million Christians from mainline Protestant, Eastern, and Orthodox traditions, as well as continuing relationship with the 1 billion member Roman Catholic Church (which holds full membership in the WCC’s Faith and Order Commission). Still yet, the WCC engages with Pentecostal traditions, other ecumenical bodies, and non-governmental organizations.  Even as I keep track of proceedings in Busan via the Web, Twitter, and Facebook from my home in New Jersey and upcoming travels to California and Kentucky, technology connects, as more decisively our common faith, common baptisms, and the common Table give powerful witness.  Added to this number, millions of others not part of the Council, but still part of the fellowship. Added to this, the communion of saints who have completed their baptismal journeys and who belong to the eternal company of the great cloud of witnesses.

While we confess our common unity that is decisive because of the triune God, we also experience deep division in the body of Christ. We in the Reformed tradition are still prohibited from sharing the Lord’s Table with our Roman Catholic and Orthodox sisters and brothers. But we can rejoice that after over 500 years of division, there is mutual recognition of our baptism between Reformed churches in the United States and the Roman Catholic Church. We in the PC(USA) have our own family divisions as congregations have been dismissed, or are in the process of being dismissed to other ecclesial contexts, even as we can confess quite confidently that the experience and visibility of division, while real and serious, do not, in any way, vitiate or diminish the unity which  the triune God has effected in Christ through the Holy Spirit.

This simultaneous confession of a body divided, a body united is not  a contradiction, but a tension which the Holy Spirit gives us faith, hope and live to live with, to pray with, and to trust in God’s work.

This is similar to Q/A 56 assuring us that forgiveness of sins has been effected by God through Christ and which the Holy Spirit’s work in our lives testifies to the complete and efficacious work of Christ, while at the same time we are continually called to confess our sins, to forgive those who trespass against us, even as we have been forgiven.  No contradiction, just a tension, in which the Holy Spirit is active, especially when the hard work of forgiving one another and forgiving ourselves need to happen.

We confess that we believe and belong in the one holy catholic church., even as we are divided, so that in our divisions we work and pray for the unity which we confess.

We confess that we believe in the communion of living saints, even as we are joined to the communion of saints who are absent from the body but present with the Lord, so that we may finish the race following the way of the Lord.

We confess that we believe in the forgiveness of sins, even as we need forgiveness ourselves and even as we need to forgive others, so that we may have a deeper and continual awareness of God’s own forgiving love.

In the tensions and ambiguities of our lives and faith, there, in the midst, at the periphery, and in the winds of the rhythms and vicissitudes of it all, the Holy Spirit is and always will be.


53   Q.   What do you believe
               concerning “the Holy Spirit”?

A.    First, that the Spirit, with the Father and the Son,
is eternal God.^1

Second, that the Spirit is given also to me,^2
so that, through true faith,
he makes me share in Christ and all his benefits,^3
comforts me,^4
and will remain with me forever.^5

^1 Gen. 1:2; Isa. 48:16; 1 Cor. 3:16; 6:19; Acts 5:3-4
^2 Matt. 28:19; 2 Cor. 1:21-22
^3 Gal. 3:14; 1 Pet. 1:2; 1 Cor. 6:17
^4 Acts 9:31
^5 John 14:16; 1 Pet. 4:14

LORD’S DAY 20 (Q/A 53)
“Hinge, Pivot, Fulcrum – On the Holy Spirit”

October 31 is Halloween, but, more importantly, it’s Reformation Day. Even as that day recalls the divisions that resulted within the medieval Church, it also points to division among the various Protestant factions as they, too, splintered into Lutheran, Reformed, Zwinglian strands, and even within those segments, there were further divisions along particular theological foci.  Reformation Day helps us to recall the formal cause of the continental Reformation was the doctrine of justification (salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ’s righteousness alone); the material cause was the doctrine of Scripture, resulting in an articulation that Scripture alone (sola Scriptura) is the unique and distinctive authoritative Word of God written.  I’ll reflect upon these doctrines in future sections of the Heidelberg Catechism and their applicability to the contemporary witness of the Gospel.

Martin Luther supposedly remarked that the doctrine of justification is “the article upon which the Church stands or falls.”  Anglican evangelical theologian James I. Packer described justification as the “hinge upon which everything turns.”

I think John Calvin and Karl Barth would describe the person and work of the Holy Spirit as the hinge, pivot, and fulcrum upon which all else balances. Calvin and Barth gave great emphasis to the person and work of the Holy Spirit as the person of the Godhead who unites believers to the ascended Lord and the heavenly Father, and to all of God’s people in all times and in all places. For instance, in Calvin’s own reformation of the medieval liturgy, he saw that in the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving of the Lord’s Supper, the portion called the Sursum Corda (“Lift up your hearts”)  in the dialogue:

The Lord be with you.
And also with you.
Lift up your hearts
We lift them up to the Lord
Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
It is right to give God thanks and praise.

This is the portion where the Holy Spirit lifts the heart/life/faith of the gathered assembly, thereby connecting the Church, the body of Christ, to the ascended and glorified Christ.

The Reformed prayers at the Lord’s Table depends upon the Holy Spirit to bless the gathered assembly and to make the bread and cup be the communion of the body and blood of Christ.

The Holy Spirit applies the benefits of Christ’s life, death, resurrection, and ascension to believers. The Holy Spirit enables, empowers, comforts, and teaches what Jesus taught. The Holy Spirit breathed life into Christ in the deathly tomb.  St. Augustine, in attempting to describe the metaphorically the internal life of the triune God, called the Holy Spirit the love which the lover (the Father) and the beloved (the Son) share.

Recall the Heidelberg Catechism is concerned about giving comfort and confidence in our life and in our death, in body and in soul, and the basis of such comfort and confidence.  Q/A 53 is concerned with how the benefits of the redemption effected by Jesus Christ is received, lived out, sealed in our lives.

The first section of the answer to Q. 53 drives home the point that the Holy Spirit’s unity is with the heavenly Father and with Jesus Christ.  The work and witness of the Holy Spirit in our lives and in the world are integrally related to that of the Father and the Son; theirs is a complete unity, uniformity, and unanimity…a perfect love.

The second section of the answer to Q. 53 emphasizes the gift of the Holy Spirit. The triune God gives the Holy Spirit, who is God.   And as gift, the Holy Spirit works in our lives for our benefit, comforting us, and abiding with us forever.  As gift, the Holy Spirit, as with the entirety of the Godhead, cannot be managed, cannot be controlled…only received. But even here, nothing of our will can negate or vitiate the determined work of the graciousness of God. The Spirit will come whether we want the Spirit to come or not; the Spirit will prompt us, will prod us. It’s in the interaction of the  Holy Spirit with us that the dynamic and authentic relationship that God desires with us and for us happens…in the messiness and beauty of life.

Spirit of the living God
Fall afresh on us.
Melt us, mold us, fill us.
Spirit of the living God
Fall afresh on us.


50   Q.   Why the next words:
               “and is seated at the right hand of God”?

A.    Because Christ ascended to heaven
to show there that he is head of his church,^1
the one through whom the Father rules all things.^2

^1 Eph. 1:20-23;5:23; Col. 1:18
^2 Matt. 28:18; John 5:22

51   Q.   How does this glory of Christ our head
benefit us?

A.   First, through his Holy Spirit
he pours out gifts from heaven
upon us his members.^1

Second, by his power
he defends us and keeps us safe
from all enemies.^2

^1 Eph. 4:10
^2 Ps. 2:9;110:1-2; John 10:28; Eph. 4:8

52   Q.   How does Christ’s return
               “to judge the living and the dead”
                comfort you?

A.    In all distress and persecution,
with uplifted head,
I confidently await the very judge
who has already offered himself to the judgment of God
in my place and removed the whole curse from me.^1
Christ will cast all his enemies and mine
into everlasting condemnation, ^2
but will take me and all his chosen ones
to himself
into the joy and glory of heaven.^3

^1 Luke 21:28; Rom. 8:23, 33; Phil. 3:20; Titus 2:13
^2 2 Thess. 1:6-7; 1 Thess. 4:16; Matt. 25:41
^3 Matt. 25:34

LORD’S DAY 19 (Q/A 50-52)
“Superlative of Superlatives”

My late maternal grandmother, Purificacion Dionida, who diligently attended and taught Sunday School classes for older adults used to describe God as “the One to whom all good superlatives belong.”  If she were alive today, she would spurn the use of email or Facebook; from her little desk, she churned letters from her manual typewriter, or her preferred method: the good ol’ hand-written letter.  I recall several birthday and Christmas card/letters where she reminded me to always pray and thank God with every good superlative.

It wasn’t until I began seminary that I learned of an ancient Near East way of expressing preeminence was to compare one unit to a larger unit: king of kings, lord of lords, song of songs. That is to say, of all the kings, this king is the real deal and surpasses all others. This lord surpasses all others. King Solomon’s song is the par excellence of all songs.  Thus, superlative of superlatives.

In the last three weeks, no matter your political persuasion, there was annoyance and downright frustration at and directed towards Washington D.C. as open conflict erupted between Democrats and Republicans, factions within the Republican Party itself, between the House and Senate, and between the Congress and the White House, resulting in a government shutdown and a debt ceiling crisis that would have resulted in the U.S. government defaulting on its debts, with dire consequences for the global economy.

In the midst of the partisan gridlock, whose consequence was the furloughing of 800,000 federal employees (including a cousin of mine who worked for the Department of Energy who was told that he would be receiving an IOU), the chaplain of the U.S. Senate, Barry Black, would daily invoke the wisdom from on high. This caught the attention of The New  York Times, which on October 6 wrote a piece titled “Give Us This Day, Our Daily Scolding: Senate Chaplain Shows His Disapproval During Morning Prayer.”

Here’s what he prayed on October 3 in the Senate chamber:

Have mercy upon us, O God, and save us from the madness. We
acknowledge our transgressions, our shortcomings, our smugness, our
selfishness, and our pride. Create in us clean hearts, O God, and renew
a right spirit within us. Deliver us from the hypocrisy of attempting
to sound reasonable while being unreasonable. Remove the burdens of
those who are the collateral damage of this government shutdown,
transforming negatives into positives as You work for the good of those
who love You.

         (Congressional Record, 113th Congress, 1st Session, vol. 159, no. 135, p. S7143)

Or this on October 4:

Today, give our lawmakers the vision and the willingness to see and
do Your will. Remove from them that stubborn pride which imagines
itself to be above and beyond criticism. Forgive them for the blunders
they have committed, infusing them with the courage to admit and
correct mistakes. Amen.

         (Congressional Record, 113th Congress, 1st Session, vol. 159, no. 136, p. S7171)

What Chaplain Black expresses and invokes upon our policymakers is what only the God of gods, the Lord of lords can do and accomplish: the humbling of hearts, minds and wills that have gone wayward, that arrogates to itself authority, ultimate authority, to determine the fate of not only the 800,000 federal workers, but 300 million Americans, and, beyond that, the economy and livelihood of nearly 7 billion. Deep down, when given the right circumstances, capacity and power to effect  one’s intentions and will, human nature likes to lord over others.  Altruistic, noble aims may be articulated, but the heart is deceitful and can quickly transform to the miry muck where, by the time we know it, we think our position, or those who have joined us, are now the superlative of superlatives…the bottom line and the top line.

Q/A 50-52 are remarkable in asserting both the ultimate and decisive lordship of Jesus Christ and the benefits that emanate from that reality. This goes against human effort – individual, collective – to control others, to lord over others.

Q/A 50 reminds us Christ is head of the Church, and through Him, God rules all things. All. Not some, not part. All.

Q/A 51 reminds us that through the Holy Spirit, Christ provides and Christ defends and protects. Not in the past tense, but continually in the present and ongoing.

Q/A 52 reminds us that Christ is the judge….judge of the heart, judge of our lives, judge of all.

Christ’s ascension, and through Him, the gift of the Holy Spirit, expresses the totality and comprehensiveness of His rule and ways.

When the nonsense of human exercise of authority results in injustice, suffering, violence, or the neglect of the poor, needy, and sick, we find our true and certain hope in the Lord Christ, who is the superlative of superlatives of all that is good and righteous.

This is far from a complacency, apathy, or indifference towards the world and the world around us. Far from it.  The Protestant Reformers were not escapists. Remember that the Heidelberg theologians were commissioned by the political leader of the Palatinate region, so the Reformed faith that was being expounded was a thorough-going public theology.

Q/A 50-52 is a stark reminder for both those who govern and those who are the governed that all works, all service – indeed every facet of our lives and our relationships – are to be done with and in the view that the triune God, through Christ, in the Spirit is the head, is the defender and protector, is the judge. And whenever our human natures inch towards or are comfortable in feeling like the superlative of superlatives, there, at the door of our hearts, and at the doorstep of every power and principality, is the ascended One, knocking, and setting us and the world properly in its place, in this life and in the life to come.

Lord’s Day 18 (Q/A 46-49): OUR LIFELINE

46   Q.   What do you mean by saying,
               “He ascended to heaven”?

A.    That Christ,
while his disciples watched,
was taken up from the earth into heaven^1
and remains there on our behalf^2
until he comes again
to judge the living and the dead.^3

^1 Acts 1:9; Matt. 26[:64]; Mark 16[:19]; Luke 24[:51]
^2 Heb. 4:14; 7:15[-25]; 9:11; Rom. 8:34; Eph. 4:10; Col. 3:1
^3 Acts 1:11; Matt. 24:30

47   Q.   But isn’t Christ with us
               until the end of the world
               as he promised us?^1

A.    Christ is true human and true God.
In his human nature Christ is not now on earth;^2
but in his divinity, majesty, grace, and Spirit
he is never absent from us.^3

^1 Matt. 28:20
^2 Matt. 26:11; John 16:28; 17:11; Acts 3:21
^3 John 14:17[-19]; 16:13; Matt. 28:20; Eph. 4:8, 12;
also cited: Augustine, Tractates on the Gospel of John 50

48   Q.   If his humanity is not present
                wherever his divinity is,
                then aren’t the two natures of Christ
                separated from each other?

A.    Certainly not.
Since divinity
is not limited
and is present everywhere,^1
it is evident that
Christ’s divinity is surely beyond the bounds of
the humanity that has been taken on,
but at the same time his divinity is in
and remains personally united to
his humanity.^2

^1 Acts 7:49; 17:28; Jer. 23:24
^2 Col. 2:9; John 3:13; 11:15; Matt. 28:6

49   Q.   How does Christ’s ascension to heaven
                benefit us?

A.    First, he is our advocate
in heaven
in the presence of his Father.^1

Second, we have our own flesh in heaven
as a sure pledge that Christ our head
will also take us, his members,
up to himself.^2

Third, he sends his Spirit to us on earth
as a corresponding pledge.^3
By the Spirit’s power
we seek not earthly things
but the things above, where Christ is,
sitting at God’s right hand.^4

^1 1 John 2:1-2; Rom. 8:34
^2 John 14:2; 20:17; Eph. 2:6
^3 John 14:16;16:7; Acts 2; 2 Cor. 1:22; 5:5
^4 Col. 3:1; Phil. 3:14

LORD’S DAY 18 (Q/A 46-49)
“Our Lifeline” 

My family and I just returned from an exhilarating moderatorial trip to visit our sisters and brothers of the Yukon Presbytery, 22 congregations faithfully serving the state nicknamed “The Last Frontier.”  The largest state in terms of square miles, there are many parts that are not populated, left for many to behold the pristine surroundings, majestic snow-capped mountains, roaming caribou and brown bear. In Anchorage, we were at the Presbytery meeting where I witnessed and experienced something remarkable that I often don’t see in meetings: presbyters sharing the joys and struggles of their congregations, praying over each others congregations by name, praying for each other, laying hands on each other. In the time I was with the presbytery, there was a small portion for a nominating committee report, but so much of the time was spent in worship, in fervent prayer, in feasting over  the traditional maktuk (whale meat, skin, blubber), and sharing one another’s lives.  During one open mic time, an elder prayed, “Lord, thank you that we are not alone.”

We traveled to the northern slope, about a 2 hour flight from Anchorage to Barrow, the northernmost city in the United States, as it sits on the Arctic Ocean. I had the privilege of worshipping with the Inupiat and Tongan community of the Utqiagvik Presbyterian Church, founded on Easter Sunday in 1899 by famous Presbyterian missionary, Sheldon Jackson. Barrow is a whole different world than Anchorage and with the rest of the United States.  Barrow is literally a desert: dry cold, compacted snow and ice, no vegetation. We were there for 32 degree Fahrenheit temperatures but temperatures during the winter dips to a deadly  -45 degrees, with wind chills bringing that to nearly -70 degrees. Fruits and vegetables are flown in, making garlic at the local market cost $6.19/lb. Most people have, at most, a high school education, if that. Many people earn money through the oil and gas industry. Imagine the opening snowstorm scene of Star Wars, Episode 5: Empire Strikes Back…that’s Barrow.  Natives subsist on whale, seal, caribou, bison, duck, and geese.  Alcoholism, substance abuse, domestic violence and sexual abuse are commonplace. During the months of November and December, people in Barrow live 24/7 without daylight. From mid-May to mid-July, they live 24/7 with only daylight.  It’s a whole world away from Middlesex, NJ or from so many parts of the lower 48 states.

In the midst of these contexts, faithful Christians serve. The Utqiagvik Presbyterian Church is the oldest and biggest community in Barrow. Of the 4500 residents of this village, most have been one time or another been baptized at the Church, and almost all can expect to be buried at a funeral officiated by whomever is serving as the pastor at any given time.  I am deeply grateful to the Utqiagvik community, who are faithfully and humbly served by Pastor Duke Morrow (who is also moderator of the Yukon Presbytery) and his wife, Li (short for Lisa). They’ve been there for 2 years. Duke is from Detroit. When he passed out in the sanctuary one time, he had to be airlifted to Anchorage. While there is a local hospital, any major medical procedures need to be done at Anchorage. He and Li continue to serve faithfully; it is a true calling.

Throughout this particular trip, I couldn’t help but think of our visit two months prior to the Synod of Boriquen in Puerto Rico. That context, too, is a different world from what many in the PC(USA) are accustomed. These two contexts, on diagonal opposites geographically, are different and distinctive, yet united. We are united, we are not alone.

I thought of the four sections of this week’s Heidelberg Catechism.

Q/A 46 through 49 discusses the meaning and purpose of our Lord’s ascension. In my travels, I’ve spoken extensively about the importance of the ascension, as connected to the resurrection, as connected to the crucifixion, as connected to Christ’s ministry, as connected to Christ’s incarnation.  In the ascension, we confess Christ’s full presence by virtue of the giving of the Holy Spirit (who is also referred to in several of the apostle Paul’s letters as the Spirit of Christ), and we confess at the same time, without contradiction, Christ’s full absence.  Jesus Christ is fully present and fully absent.  Christ did, indeed, ascend bodily into heaven as testified by holy Scripture.  Through him, our heavenly Father gifted to us the Holy Spirit. By the giving of the Holy Spirit, we live with the trifecta gifts: faith, hope, and love. It is with and through these gifts of God for the people of God that we live, and move and have our being in the life and heart of the triune God…because of the Holy Spirit.  What this means is that we live, at the same time, with a degree of certainty, and a degree of mystery. Binding these two together is the Holy Spirit, who unites us to the Lord Jesus Christ, to our heavenly Father, to the communion of saints, both the living and the dead, in all times and in all places.

This is a remarkable reality and confession. This is a benefit of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We have in heaven our eternal high priest, the Lord Christ, who forever prays for us, intercedes for us, saves us.  How do we know and trust this? Because of the convicting power and presence of the Holy Spirit, who, as Jesus taught his disciples, teaches and comforts us in the ways of Jesus Christ.

Whenever we human beings try to tilt the balance towards so much certainty – we become prideful and frustrated towards others whom we judge not to be as enlightened or wise as we are. When we tilt the balance towards so much mystery – we become cynical, where an unhealthy sense of doubt can creep into our faith, and, at its worst, we can become like what Jesus described, a reed blown here and there by every wind of doctrine, not anchored to the certain redemption of Christ’s salvation and God’s revelation in Christ. So many conflicts erupt when we want more certainty and thereby become overly dogmatic, or when we want more mystery and thereby want more freedom from strict rules or laws.

What the Holy Spirit does because Christ is ascended is anchor us to the heart and life of God, anchor us to the Good News of Jesus Christ, uniting us to the wider family of God, as a sure guarantee that we are never alone.  The Holy Spirit empowers us, enabling us to live lives that testify of Jesus Christ, and the goodness and grace in Him.  So, whether we are in a winter desert, in a sandy desert, on a tropical island, in the corn fields of Nebraska, the beaches of Malibu, or whatever might be the case, we are never alone. Our lifeline is the Holy Spirit, who unites us to the triune God and to all of God’s people, pledging to us that God is for us, God is with us, God is in us; in other words, that God is God, and we belong to God.

Lord’s Day 14 (Q/A 35-36): NOT FAD, NOT COOL, BUT TRUE

35   Q.   What does it mean that he
“was conceived by the Holy Spirit
and born of the virgin Mary”?

A.    That the eternal Son of God,
who is^1and remains
true and eternal God,^2
took to himself,
through the working of the Holy Spirit,^3
from the flesh and blood of the virgin Mary,
a truly human nature^4
so that he might also become David’s true descendant,^5
like his brothers and sisters in every way^6
except for sin.^7

^1 John 1:1;17:5; Rom. 1:4
^2 Rom. 9:5; Gal. 4[:4]
^3 Matt. 1:18, 20; Luke 1:27,35; Eph. 1
^4 John 1:14;Gal. 4:4
^5 Ps. 132:11;Rom. 1:3
^6 Phil. 2:7
^7Heb. 4:15; 7:26

36   Q.   How does the holy conception and birth of Christ
               benefit you?

A.    He is our mediator^1
and, in God’s sight,
he covers with his innocence and perfect holiness
my sinfulness in which I was conceived.^2

^1 Heb. 2:16-17
^2 Ps. 32:1;1 Cor. 1:30

 LORD’S DAY 14 (Q/A 35-36)
“Not Fad, Not Cool, But True”

I’m frequently asked in my travels how can the Church connect with young people. Broader still, how does the Church connect to people. Period.

I intentionally stay away from  the vocabulary of relevance. Instead, I draw from homiletician Jennifer Lord’s reference to insights from neurological science,w hich understands our “emotional brain” acting as a valve that latches onto certain things while letting go others. This is called “salience,” or that which “jumps out” at you.

Salience, not relevance.  Salience has the quality of surprise, of mystery.

Too often, discussions of relevance become about marketing, branding, and messaging without the more essential and difficult work of change to the essence, to the heart and soul, of the Church community.  Relevance often gets lumped with “contemporary,” morphing into conversations about strategies of how to make a worship service more “hip”; that somehow putting a drum set or a Powerpoint projector in the sanctuary and having a pastor remove the Geneva gown, preach without manuscript/notes in order to preach “from  heart” — that somehow these cosmetic changes will make a community “cool” and therefore “relevant.”

God’s revelation, God’s incarnation, God becoming flesh and blood as Jesus Christ – has nothing to do with the latest fad, or the cool factor. God taking on the human nature was not, and has never been about relevance. It’s about salience – the surprise, the mystery that almighty God through the Holy Spirit would take on the flesh and blood of Mary to be in solidarity with humanity. It was so shocking, so unexpected that the Scriptures attest that he was not accepted by his own home/people (John 1:11).

God as Jesus Christ by the power and work of the Holy Spirit becomes for us what we cannot be apart from Him – fully human who live as image-bearers of God.

We do one of two things, or both: we seek to be in solidarity with each other but fail to fully grasp what it means to be in solidarity; or we do the opposite and separate ourselves from one another through violence, hatred, unforgiving hearts.

To the former – our attempts to fully be in solidarity with one another eventually falls short because of our limitations as human beings. Every attempt I make to pray for and understand the plight of our Syrian and Lebanese sisters and brothers, even with a personal visit there last May, I cannot fully grasp their experience and situation. We see this play out in church and in the culture in our attempts to be more racially-diverse, to combat racism and to undo racism. Even on the best days when folks seek to understand the past-present wounds and scars of those who have been on the receiving end of racism, the attempt to be in full solidarity falls short.

To the latter – human alienation, separation, division, and brokenness – we do that too, and we seem to do it well as innate to our natures .

Q/A 35-36 shows us that God does not seek to be cool, or to take up the 1st century fad; God seeks to be true – true to Himself – the loving and gracious God who seeks to reconcile the world to Himself and sets Himself on the path to do just that.  God’s words, God’s will, God’s intention, and God’s actions are one and the same. God is true to Himself.

And God is true to us. God knows us more than we know ourselves. Even with our sin that prevents us from fully being in solidarity with God, with each other, and ourselves, God commits Himself to reconcile us, to make us whole.

The freedom that we have in God’s incarnation as Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit is that even as we are to truly love one another and be in solidarity with the human condition on the micro- and macro- levels, to pray, to listen, to empathize with the joys and struggles of our neighbors – we can live in the freedom that even with our best efforts, we cannot fully know. We are to be true to who we are.

Even as we are to be true to who God is to us.  To be true to who God is to us is to be true to God’s true self to us – as our Almighty Creator, as our Savior and Lord.  In other words, to be true to who God is to us is to worship….to give God the worth due God’s name because of what God has revealed and given to the world in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit.

A lifelong commitment to live as image-bearers of God can only come when the Holy Spirit births in us the life of Jesus Christ. No strategy can do that; that’s the Holy Spirit’s work and power. And with the Holy Spirit in charge, we cannot manage when or how birth, rebirth, and the daily re-birthing occurs. In not knowing the when or how, in not being able to control or manage the work of God, then our life, our new life (and even death) is about receiving gift, receiving that which God births, and receiving the One whom God births.

And that’s precisely the point…the salient point.

Lord’s Day 13 (Q/A 33-34): BEING A CHILD

33   Q.   Why is he called God’s “only begotten Son”
when we also are God’s children?

A.   Because Christ alone is the eternal, natural Son of God.^1
We, however, are adopted children of God—
adopted by grace through Christ.^2

^1 John 1:29;Heb. 1:2
^2 Rom. 8:15;Eph. 1:[5-]6

34   Q.   Why do you call him “our Lord”?

A.   Because—
not with gold or silver,
but with his precious blood—
he has set us free
from sin and from the tyranny of the devil,
and has bought us,
body and soul,
to be his very own.^1

^1 1 Pet. 1:18-19; 2:9; 1 Cor. 6:20; 7:23


Lord’s Day 13 (Q/A 33-34)
“Being a Child”

This week, and the two preceding weeks leading to this one, have been heavy. So much is on the line. There is a decisive debate that is occurring in the United States and around the world as attention is placed on Syria and President Obama’s intent to use a military strike in response to the use of chemical weapons allegedly by the Syrian government, which resulted in the indiscriminate death of hundreds of Syrians, including many children.

I’ve been saddened by the deterioration of a bona fide protest by the Syrian people against their own government two years ago that has spiraled into utter tragedy and exhibitionistic violence that is senseless and meaningless. I grieve the death of so many, the reports I received when our moderatorial delegation was in Lebanon last May and met some pastors who risked their lives to travel from their churches in Syria to tell their stories of survival, and watching neighbors die, and countless churches and mosques turned into rubble.

As a father, I am responsible for interpreting the world to my young sons, even as I have to have them exposed to the world. It’s a delicate balance. It requires prayer. It’s overwhelming for me, and it’s overwhelming for them because it’s a lot to receive. What I’ve observed over the last year is that their prayer bandwidth has expanded as they see much more of the world outside of Middlesex, NJ, as we have family discussions at the dining table, and as we bring prayers about our fragile world.

What the fragility and instability of our world brings me to is back to the foundation of who I am, who we are. To be in solidarity with the children, and to be in solidarity with my own children, is to claim my own childhood, to be childlike in seeing the world where I must come before our God in prayerful trust, confidence, with the tears in my heart, with the anguish I feel in my soul at being powerless in not being able to stop the violence that continues as I type this reflection.

Q/A 33 drives home for us that our belonging-ness to God is so connected to Jesus Christ, as God’s only natural son, with great intention. Our heavenly Father loves His Son, of course. And therefore, anyone connected – adopted – with His Son, has intentionally been chosen, that great effort, great effort has been expended to bring you and I into the family, into the relationship that the Father and the Son share.

When I consider Syria and when I consider the children – the ones who have survived, the ones who have died – and consider my own children, and my own state of being a child – I must place all of them, all of us, myself included – into the hands and heart of our heavenly Father. As an adopted child of God, I am reminded again and again to go back to the One who adopted me, who saw from the beginning that I have nothing, that I am powerless, that on our own, we’d be in the wilderness – forsaken and forgotten. Our adoption in Christ is never a state of being removed from the trials of life or the hard realities of it; our adoption in Christ is to anchor our childhood to the parenthood of God.

Q/A 34 hits the nail on the head. We are so powerless and we are so precious, that God moves heaven and earth, God as Christ, leaves heaven to descend to earth, to redeem us, to free us. When the temptation of human nature is to respond to utter violence by inflicting more violence, or to retaliate with more words and wars – we are in desperate need to re-direct our heart’s and soul’s course. When we are set on a glidepath of being wayward children whether individually, as a family unit, a community, a group, a state, a whole nation, a civilization — we are in definite need of a One who can take it all – heaven and earth, who can move mountains and hearts.  The One who holds us all and this fragile world is “our Lord,” the Lord, Jesus the Christ.

Our Lord is not a theoretical, abstract, unreachable sovereign ruler who lords over us. Connecting Q/A 34 to Q/A 33, He is both our Lord and the Son of God, through whom we are intentionally adopted, whose love is unshakeable, who did not make a mistake in loving us, in setting a course to hold us and this fragile world in His care.

What we are called to do as adopted children, freed by our Lord to live in and with the love of God, is to pray and serve with childlike trust. And as with a child, to ask our heavenly parent – Why, Father? How, Father? How much longer, Father? We need your help.  Thank you.

Lord’s Day 12 (Q/A 31-32): ELECTIONS

31   Q.    Why is he called “Christ,”
               meaning “anointed”?

A.    Because he has been ordained by God the Father
and has been anointed with the Holy Spirit^1
to be
our chief prophet and teacher^2
who fully reveals to us
the secret counsel and will of God concerning our deliverance;^3
our only high priest^4
who has delivered us by the one sacrifice of his body,
and who continually pleads our cause with the Father;^5
and our eternal king
who governs us by his Word and Spirit,
and who guards us and keeps us
in the freedom he has won for us.^6

^1 Ps. 45:[7]; Heb. 1:9
^2 Deut. 18:15; Acts 3:22
^3 John 1:18; 15:15
^4Ps. 110; Heb. 7:21; 10:12
^5 Rom. 8:34;5:9-10
^6 Ps. 2:6; Luke 1:33;Matt. 28:18;John 10:28

32   Q.    But why are you called a Christian?

A.    Because by faith I am a member of Christ^1
and so I share in his anointing.^2
I am anointed
to confess his name,^3
to present myself to him as a living sacrifice of thanks,^4
to strive with a free conscience against sin and the devil
in this life,^5
and afterward to reign with Christ
over all creation
for eternity.^6

^1 Acts 11:26, 1 Cor. 6:15
^2 1John 2:27;Isa. 59:21;Acts 2:17; Joel 2:28;Mark 8:[34-]38
^3 Rom. 12:1;Rev. 5:8[-14];1 Pet. 2:9
^4 Rom. 6:12;Rev. 1:6
^5 1 Tim. 1:19
^6 2 Tim. 2:12


Lord’s Day 12 (Q/A 31-32)


Mike Ditka, the former head football coach of the Chicago Bears and New Orleans Saints, observed that, “Success is not permanent and failure is not fatal.”

The Reformed theological tradition’s important emphasis on God’s sovereignty and human responsibility. The relationship between the two, while not equal as God’s sovereignty initiates, governs, originates and fulfills, still human responsibility is serious business because we are created in the image of God and are responsible for our  choices and our actions.

While I don’t know if Ditka is Reformed in his theological orientation, his insight speaks wisdom to our human tendency to equate our success primarily or exclusively to ourselves, or delude ourselves in thinking that our strategies have some sort of enduring permanence; or on the opposite side, thinking that any failures, limitations, defeats somehow permanently delete any hope we have of recovering and starting all over again.  On one side, our souls are tempted to arrogance, pride, and grandiosity akin to the builders of Babel; on the other side, our hearts can be enticed to wallow in self-pity and despair.  In both instances, it is a functional atheism that forgets who God is, or takes for granted who God is and how God has elected to be with us, for us, and in us.

Elections are sacred acts because through it choices are weighed, and those choices are then expressed through votes.

God has conducted an election. His election is a decisive one – we are always on the “winning” side, there are no “losers” – and the guarantee of the election, the process of the election itself, and the outcome of the election are predicated on God through Christ in the Holy Spirit.

Q/A 31-32 is a healthy dose of God’s sovereignty-human responsibility — a theological reality that sometimes gets consigned to a daily Post-It note, when in point and in fact, what we do Sunday through Saturday, in our lives as followers of Jesus Christ, in our work places, in our families, in our schools, at the grocery line, in our retirement homes, in hospitals, in hotel rooms, on airplanes, in the playground, on sporting fields, in our churches — all of these places we live, and move and have our being – are the arenas in which God’s sovereignty and human responsibility interact.

Q/A 31 tells us as that Christ is the anointed one, the elected one, chosen by God, to take on the three offices – the so-called “munum triplex” (three offices) – of prophet/teacher, high priest, and king.  The Reformed theological tradition speaks extensively about this triple office exercised by our Lord Jesus Christ.  His holistic ministry, both when he was on earth with the early disciples and upon his ascension to heaven, involves:

-Instructing us in the ways of God, the work of God in salvation, leading us to righteousness and holiness|
-Interceding for us – that even when we cannot pray or are unable to pray, even when you are asleep! –   our High Priest Jesus Christ prays for you, prays with you, and by His Spirit – gives us the words to pray
-Guarding and keeping us – King Jesus doesn’t leave the citizens of His kingdom  to fend for themselves. We are his precious ones, purchased not with silver or gold, but by His own precious blood. Why would He leave us, therefore? We are never outside of His protection.

In other words, Jesus Christ has your back and mine, through and through.

Q/A 32 doesn’t let us off the hook. As Q/A 31 asserts that Christ as prophet, priest and king is for us, is with us and in us…we are responsible to live lives worthy of the calling…worthy of the election.  As Jesus is God’s elected One, the exclusive One chosen to save, redeem, deliver, and reconcile, we are the elected ones in Him.  When God elects in Jesus, the elected One, no hanging chads are used, no appeals process is in order, no contesting of the election can ever occur.  You and I are elected in Christ, the elected One.  What this means is that every moment of everyday of our lives, we are to live out that election.

What do you elect to do, therefore, as a Christian?  What do you elect to do, Sunday through Saturday, 365 days a year, as one who has been given the name of follower of Jesus Christ, a “Christian”?

Notice the language of Q/A 32. As Christians, our lives derive from the life of Jesus Christ. That means that as Jesus Christ lives out His calling/election as prophet, high priest, and king – we, too, have a calling that is prophetic, that is priestly, and that is “kingly” in some way – all of which derive and find their basis in Christ’s own election/calling, and Christ’s own life.

Prophetic: As Christ has the exclusive calling /election to proclaim and teach the counsels, wisdom, and ways of our heavenly Father….you and I have a prophetic calling that is joined to that of our brother and our Lord…we, too, are to teach all that Christ has taught us, to teach one another what we have seen and heard, the ways of Jesus, to proclaim the salvation of God.  But again, it’s not by our strength or by our will, nor by our success, nor by our failure.  Christ speaks, and Christ calls us to proclaim in His name, to do that which He did in obedience to our heavenly Father.

Priestly: As Christ has the exclusive calling/election to intercede for us, to present us and our prayers to our heavenly Father..you and I have a priestly calling to daily present ourselves to God, to make a choice to follow God, to pray to God and for one another, to daily elect that we will live out our calling. But again, this priestly calling is impossible to do consistently and constantly. Thanks be to God that Christ who is our High Priest intercedes for us and with us, to live out our calling.

Kingly: As Christ has the exclusive calling/election to rule and reign over us, to call us to obedient life, to sustain us, to protect us, and to govern us so we are never away from Him,…you and I have a “kingly” calling to strive with our freedom, to take the reins of our wills, our choices, our decisions, our actions, our emotions – as we seek to live faithfully and fully into our calling/election as followers of Jesus Christ. But again, it’s not by our own wills alone, nor is it finally about striving or an onerous burden heaped upon us. Thanks be to God that Christ is and forever will be king, and that means, even as brokenness and hurt are deeply seen and experienced in the world around us, both near and far, we pray and serve and live not in vain, but as citizens of Christ’s kingdom who have been called and elected.


Lord’s Day 3 (Q/A 6-8): OUR COMMON LOT

6  Q. Did God create people
so wicked and perverse?

A. No.^1
God created them good and in his own image,^2
that is, in true righteousness and holiness,
so that they might
truly know God their creator,
love him with all their heart,
and live with God in eternal happiness,
to praise and glorify him.^3

^1 Gen. 1:31
^2 Gen. 1:26-27
^3 2 Cor. 3:18; Col. 3:10; Eph. 4:24

7 Q. Then where does this corrupt human nature come from?

A. The fall and disobedience of our first parents,
Adam and Eve, in Paradise.^1
This fall has so poisoned our nature
that we are all conceived and born
in a sinful condition.^2

^1 Gen. 3; Rom. 5:12, 18-19
^2 Ps. 51:5; Gen. 5:3

8 Q. But are we so corrupt
that we are totally unable to do any good
and inclined
toward all evil?

A. Yes,^1  unless we are born again
by the Spirit of God.^2

^1 John 3:6;Gen. 6:5; Job 14:4;15:16, [35]; Isa. 53:6
^2 John 3:5

“Our Common Lot”

Last week was busy with laws in legislative halls and the U.S. Supreme Court. Historic immigration reform legislation was being debated in Congress. The Texas State Senate was embroiled in procedural gymnastics (complete with a 13-hour filibuster) that made any parliamentarian heart’s delight as a bill regarding abortion headed for a showdown. The U.S. Supreme Court handed down rulings related to the Voting Rights Act, the Defense of Marriage Act, and the status of same-gender marriage in the state of California.  My Facebook and Twitter feeds were buzzing, several folks describing the week as a “roller-coaster,” no doubt as each of these legislative and judicial moves were celebrated by many and bemoaned by many, depending on one’s perspective.

Continue reading “Lord’s Day 3 (Q/A 6-8): OUR COMMON LOT”

Lord’s Day 2 (Q/A 3-5): MIRROR, MIRROR

3     Q.   How do you come to know your misery?

       A.    The law of God tells me.^1

^1 Rom. 3:20

4     Q.   What does God’s law require of us?

A.    Christ teaches us this in summary in Matthew 22:37-40:
“‘You shall love the Lord your God
with all your heart,
and with all your soul,
and with all your mind.’
This is the greatest and first commandment.
“And a second is like it:
‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’
“On these two commandments hang
all the law and the prophets.”

5     Q.   Can you live up to all this perfectly?

A.    No.^1
I have a natural tendency
to hate God and my neighbor.^2

^1 Rom. 3:10; 3:23; 1 John 1:8
^2 Rom. 8:7; Eph. 2:3

“Mirror, Mirror”

In the 140,000 miles I’ve traveled thus far as General Assembly moderator, I carry in my briefcase a framed drawing that my eldest son gave to me one Father’s Day depicting he and I holding each other’s hands. Within this frame, I placed photos of both of my sons, and four trading cards they gave to me from their prized Pokemon card collection. This frame of mementos, together with a card from my wife that remains in my carrying case, accompanies me in hotels, meeting halls, church sanctuaries, assembly meetings, countless airports and rental cars. They speak to me when I can’t FaceTime or Skype with my family; they tether me to home.

Continue reading “Lord’s Day 2 (Q/A 3-5): MIRROR, MIRROR”