Tag Archives: death

Help Us to Not Be Afraid; Winter Birch [Poems by Mom]

Life has been too busy of late for me to blog. Worse, I’m afraid I let my busyness keep me from even reading, until today, this post that Mom prepared a month ago.

A month is a long time when your father is battling cancer. It is also a long time when your mother’s neglected post is about the questions she is asking in the shadow of death.

Mom’s post is now slightly dated. Dad has already begun chemotherapy. Thankfully, he has not had any unexpected reactions to any of his treatments. But we expect he will be tired and weak for the next six months, and the possibility of too-soon death remains very real. The heartbeat of Mom’s post is not dated at all.

I will let Mom take over from here, except to ask you to please pray for my parents (and Mom’s friend mentioned below) as autumn, and perhaps winter, nears.


An autumn/winter poem in the middle of summer? Exactly. That is the question we ask of life right now…

Photo Credit: White Rabbit Studio via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: White Rabbit Studio via Compfight cc

When Autumn Comes Too Soon

I have a dear friend in the bloom of life, serving God in the summer season of family and church and witness. But autumn has suddenly grabbed her by the ankles and abducted her away from the perfect life-cycle that ends with a gentle winter waiting for release. Her remaining allotted number of years are now counted out as weeks instead, and time has turned traitor on us all.

My husband was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma a little over four years ago. Though a bit of a roller-coaster ride, the journey has not been too arduous up till now: three radiation sessions that were well-tolerated, and continued energy and good health otherwise. Now the lumps are multiplying and growing, some threatening to obstruct his airways, and so the oncologists are advising chemotherapy. That was the bad word we hoped to push off for many years and hopefully forever. Ken will be seventy in December and feels he has reached the biblically-allotted lifespan. But seventy in our day is not old, and Ken is a youngish seventy, still working hard much of the time. We are ready for autumn, perhaps, but winter?

I have been reading Psalm 90 the past months. I call it the Angry Psalm. Is God really so angry with us as the psalmist says? I have always loved this psalm, the security of having a timeless, eternal God as our dwelling place, the unfailing love that satisfies us every morning, and yes, the poetry of the piteous, poignant images about our numbered days, our little tale acted out during our directed time on earth.

Moses is credited with writing this Psalm: “A prayer of Moses the man of God.” That made me a little angry. Moses says we are consumed by God’s anger, and troubled by His wrath. But what does he know of threescore years and ten, living as he did to one hundred and twenty, and climbing his last mountain to meet God with mind alert, limbs still rippling with powerful muscles, and eyes as clear-sighted as a hawk’s? What does he know of wits stolen while the heart still beats strong, of eyes once love-filled glazing in confusion, of aging bodies lingering endlessly in uselessness and pain, or of believers in the prime of life struck down by rampaging warring cells in their beautiful bodies?

Then I calm myself down and acknowledge all the death and suffering and pouring out of judgement that Moses witnessed during the wilderness wanderings. He knew painfully well the “labour and sorrow” that can attend the longest lifespan. There is deep pathos and empathy in this psalm, and it is a prayer, so Moses dares to be as honest as we only dare be when we are speaking to God, pouring out our hearts before Him, when we are not presuming to speak for Him to others.

“How long?” Moses asks, and humanity has been asking this, the most frequently recorded question in the Bible, since time began. We ask it when time drags too long in the agony of an endless minute of unbearable pain. Our days too can be as a thousand years. We ask it when time flies away in a heartbeat, stealing our joyful hours when they have barely begun. How long will I have to treasure this moment? And we ask it when we bow before God and ache with the puzzle of life and time, and of God’s will in His measuring and meting out of time and what it brings. Why must life be so short and our troubles so long? So often our hopes spring up new and fresh in the morning, and by evening are withered and dry.

“So teach us to number our days.” Like Abraham I bombard God with numbers in my prayers. “If 1000 years are with you as one day, would it be such a hardship to give my friend fifty more? Thirty? Twenty? Please just ten?!” Can God understand how much we can long for time—more time—to watch time unfold with our loved ones, our children? But then, do I understand how unworthy I am of even one breath of life, one moment of time?

Photo Credit: londonlass16 via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: londonlass16 via Compfight cc

Oh Ageless, Ancient One, You hold us in Your hands. How calmly You carry us. How angrily You consume us, mind and body, sweat and sin, turning us back to dust again. And oh, how quickly You awaken from somewhere in the back of our little wave-battered craft, to speak your transforming “Peace, be still!” into our anxiety of waiting and despair. In the twinkling of an eye, behold you come quickly.

I remember how Your Son counted out time in unbearable blistering seconds on the cross, measuring pain in the torturous traverse of the sun’s shadow on the dial, in its creeping rays across the turning earth, and in the trickle of blood and sweat down His disfigured face. He too finished his years like a tale told, a sigh, a moan. But He also finished it with a cry of victory! He had accomplished what You had assigned Him to do in His time on earth. I praise You that because of His finished work, we too can live lives that accomplish Your plan for us, whether our lifespan be long or short. Because Your Son provided forgiveness for our sin, we can be saved from wrath and live under Your favour. We can manifest Your beauty in our lives, Your glory to our children. We can safely abide in the eternal.

*******************************************

The following poems were written many years ago. The first one, Help Us To Not Be Afraid Of Your Will, was written in 1979 after my mother went for a biopsy of a breast lump, which thankfully turned out to be benign. The poem was written on my knees, a prayer for my mother, which I shared with her before she went to the doctor for the results. The poem meant a lot to her and so holds some nostalgia for me, despite its simplicity and lack of imagery.

In 2000–2001 I wrote a new version which I feel is better poetry: Winter Birch. However my husband says he prefers the original, that it is easier to follow. There is something about the repeated refrain, “Help us to not be afraid of Your will” that echoes the cry of the struggling soul. The most repeated command in scripture is “Fear not,” “Be not afraid.” How can we face an unexpected autumn, the chill of winter? God invites us to turn from fear to faith, from doubt to praise, and meets us with unexpected gifts in His hands. As we wait for Ken’s chemotherapy consultation we are asking God for grace to do that, and to move beyond fear and questioning to faith and hope.

—Elaine Gingrich, July 12, 2016


Dwight again: I want to underscore a pair of observations Mom shared. What is “the most frequently recorded question in the Bible”? And what is “the most repeated command in scripture”? Did you catch them? Here they are again, a painful, promising, perfectly-matched pair: “How long?” and “Fear not!”

Now on to Mom’s poems.


HELP US TO NOT BE AFRAID

When we must lay down the work in our hand
And all our projects and prospects stand still,
When our life’s pattern is not as we planned,
Help us to not be afraid of Your will.

When we stand waiting in doubt’s desert land,
Wondering if yet our life’s dreams we’ll fulfil,
When we pray, lifting our heart in our hand,
Help us to not be afraid of Your will.

When all the questions within us demand
That we find answers our deep needs to fill,
And there are reasons we don’t understand,
Help us to not be afraid of Your will.

When all alone and all trembling we stand,
Help us to feel what Your love is, until
Finally we see the good gifts in Your Hand.
Then we will not be afraid of Your will.

—Elaine Gingrich, November 1979

UPDATE: A friend of Mom named Kelsie Troyer put this poem to music and recorded herself singing it. Her musical setting is unpretentious and sincere, fitting for a prayer. Feel free to sing along:


Photo Credit: Maria Duynisveld via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: Maria Duynisveld via Compfight cc

WINTER BIRCH

Oh God, these winter birch that lift their limbs
Empty of obvious purpose to the skies,
Have known the autumn chill, yet raise their hymns
Of pearly praise to You. They ask no whys.

Their leaves fell too. They know of letting go.
They trembled in the blast of death’s alarms,
But do not seem afraid through wind and snow.
They wait for spring. And still they raise their arms.

And should the changing seasons strip us too
And leave us purposeless, yet, when we pray
Lifting our hearts in trembling hands to you,
We would not fear your will nor doubt your way.

Help us to praise, though scattered on the ground
Beneath us lie dear dreams and withered plans,
That like these birch that quietly astound,
We look up fearless with faith-lifted hands.

—Elaine Gingrich, June 1, 2000/January 2001


For the rest of the poems in this monthly series, see here.

And if you enjoyed these poems, or want to show your support for Mom and Dad in this difficult season, leave a comment here for Mom, or send her an email at MomsEmailAddressImage.php.  Thanks!


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Spring Leaves in Rain [Poem by Mom]

Mom’s poem this month is too good to miss, even if I’ve left it for the last day of the month. The poem grows from the image of “spring leaves in rain.” So I’ll surround it with photos of life outside our Iowa windows on this rainy spring day.

cowsdeck

“If haply…

cowbackground

they might feel after him,…

cowleaves

and find him,…

playset

though he be not far from every one of us.”
—Acts 17:27 (KJV)


SPRING LEAVES IN RAIN
(
Acts 17:27 KJV, Prov. 11:28 NLT)

Spring leaves in rain nourish me—
More skin than paper
They hang in soft folds
Of translucent baby green—
The colour of hope,
Draped like a lady’s delicate fan
From the old maple’s branches
Waiting to catch the breeze.
Pulsing with the potential
Of butterfly wings emerging
Flawless and limp
The doeskin softness fits with ease,
An almost transparent glove
Over my hand.
I trace the flow of life:
Liquid-sunshine slips
Through yellow-green veins
From stiff stem to tender leaf tips,
Through sturdy midrib lanes
To fragile feathering netted threads,
To waiting capillaries in weathered skin
To the deep veins feeding my hungry heart,
Blending with my warm blood life-red
To visit every cell that craves a reason to live.

Spring leaves in rain comfort me—
The softness is something I can grow into—
The feel of hope,
A kid-leather glove
Hiding my scarred skin
With a layer as vulnerable as love.
I would hold life as a pale young leaf,
As tender and unguarded,
As knowing as they are, as free of grief—
Fearing neither tear nor fall,
Knowing next year’s leaf already waits—
Winter bud of determination,
The Creator’s caring provision
For life’s scars and seasons.
I too can survive and reappear
Soft as a baby’s cheek,
Demanding no reasons;
Feeling after Him,
And finding Him, not far away, but near;
Tracing the abiding flow of life-sap—
The Sonshine in my veins—
From source to need,
As godly as a growing leaf.
             

—Elaine Gingrich, June 10, 2013/ February 2015


roadcorner

“The godly flourish…

wetleaves

like leaves in spring.”
—Proverbs 11:28 (NLT)


For the rest of the poems in this monthly series, see here.

And if you enjoyed this poem, leave a comment here for Mom, or send her an email at MomsEmailAddressImage.php.  Thanks!


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Defending Substitution: An Essay on Atonement in Paul — Gathercole (Review)

Gathercole, Simon. Defending Substitution: An Essay on Atonement in Paul (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2015). 128pp. Publisher’s description. (Amazon new price: $14.86 paperback, $9.99 Kindle.) Buy on Amazon.

There is a strong tendency in current scholarship on Paul to resist seeing Christ’s death as in our place, instead of us. Rather, scholars prefer a view of Christ’s death with us—where he identifies with us rather than dying a unique death alone for us. Indeed, the point that Christ’s death is representative and therefore not substitutionary can often be made briefly in passing, as if it were understood to be an uncontroversial thought. (Gathercole, 29. Emphasis added.)

It is this “uncontroversial thought” that Gathercole aims to challenge in this brief (128 pp.) book. I think he does so well.

It is important to recognize what this book is not: It is not a systematic discussion of the doctrine of substitutionary atonement. It is not a survey of all the texts that may support this doctrine. Nor is it a defense of any particular version of substitutionary atonement, such as penal substitutionary atonement. It is certainly not an attempt to assert substitutionary atonement as the only or even the chief theory of the atonement.

What Gathercole does aim to do is to provide evidence, based primarily on two Pauline passages, that substitution is one biblical and valid way of understanding Christ’s cross-work.

DefendingSubstitutionCover

Defending Substitution is based on several lectures given by Gathercole, but it reads very well as a book. Here is the table of contents:

Introduction

  • The Importance of Substitution
  • Defining Substitution: Christ in Our Place
  • Criticisms of Substitution

1. Exegetical Challenges to Substitution

  • The Tübingen Understanding of Representative “Place-Taking”
  • Interchange in Christ
  • Apocalyptic Deliverance
  • The Omission or Downplaying of “Sins”
  • Conclusion

2. “Christ Died for Our Sins according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3)

  • The Importance of 1 Corinthians 15:3-4
  • “According to the Scriptures”
  • Substitution in 1 Corinthians 15:3
  • Conclusion

Excursus: An Objection—Why, Then, Do Christians Still Die?

3. The Vicarious Death of Christ and Classical Parallels (Rom. 5:6-8)

  • The Translation of Romans 5:6-8
  • A Sketch of the Exegesis
  • Vicarious Deaths in Classical Tradition
  • The Comparison in Romans 5:6-8
  • Conclusion

Conclusion
Bibliography
Index of Subjects
Index of Authors
Index of Scripture and Other Ancient Sources

In the Introduction, Gathercole defines substitution as “Christ’s death in our place, instead of us… He did something, underwent something, so we did not—and never will—have to” (pp. 15-16). He carefully emphasizes scope and aims of his study:

The matter of what precisely it was that Christ bore in our stead will not be treated here… Substitution is logically distinguishable from related concepts such as penalty, representation, expiation, and propitiation… The investigation here is to be focused not on these other themes but quite narrowly and specifically on substitution… To repeat…, the aim here is not to say that Scripture teaches substitution rather than representation but to say that both are important parts of biblical teaching. (pp. 18-23)

Despite not focusing on penal substitution, Gathercole does provide three helpful responses to those who say that this doctrine makes Jesus the victim of “cosmic child abuse”: “First, such theological criticisms neglect the obvious fact that the death of Christ is not that of a third party but is the ‘self-substitution of God’… Second, …Jesus offers himself as a sacrifice in line with his own will… Third, …a response can also be offered that is more subjective but… certainly no more subjective” than the caricatures of “certain atonement theories as cruel, violent, unjust, and the like”: “this is not how millions of Christians over the centuries have experienced such teaching.” Indeed, criticism of penal substitution seem to come more from academia than from “the world’s lay Christians” (pp. 24-25).

In Chapter One, Gathercole responds to three atonement theories which aim to leave no room for substitution. The “Tübingen understanding of representative ‘place-taking’” (popular in parts of Germany) draws on a particular interpretation of Levitical sacrifices to assert that “when Christ dies, all die with him” (p. 36). A second theory, promoted by Morna Hooker, “considers substitution to be not only un-Pauline but actually something criticized by Paul” (p. 38). “Paul’s understanding of the process is therefore one of participation, not substitution; it is a sharing of experience, not an exchange. Christ is identified with us in order that—in him—we might share in what he is” (Hooker as quoted by Gathercole, pp. 40-41). A third theory, popular particularly in North America, is “apocalyptic deliverance.” This view, associated with scholars such as J. Louis Martyn, asserts that it was Paul’s opponents who emphasized that Christ died to provide forgiveness. For Paul, in contrast, “the human plight consists fundamentally of enslavement to supra-human powers; and God’s redemptive act is his deed of liberation” (Martyn as quoted by Gathercole, p. 44).

Graciously, Gathercole finds much of value in all three theories. (So did I.) But he faults each on several points, and all for downplaying the problem of sins (individual acts of evil), as opposed to Sin (singular, evil personified). He presents abundant evidence to show that sins were a frequent and important focus of Paul’s writings.

Chapter Two takes a refreshingly positive turn, with its constructive exegesis of 1 Corinthians 15:3. “Dying for sins,” Gathercole notes, is not the same thing as “dying for us” (p. 55). “The aim of this chapter, then, is to examine Paul’s theology of the atonement through the lens of the words ‘Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures’” (pp. 56-57). After demonstrating the importance of his chosen text, Gathercole assembles impressive linguistic evidence that Paul is alluding to Isaiah 53 in 1 Corinthians 15:3. This is important because “vicariousness—in the sense of exclusive substitution—is clearly present in the Hebrew text” and Greek versions of Isaiah 53 (p. 68). Multiple OT texts present a norm that forbids substitution (Num. 27:3; Deut. 24:16; Josh. 22:20; 1Kings 16:18-19; Jer. 31:30). “In this sense,” Gathercole observes, “Christ’s death is not according to the Scriptures” (p. 71). But Isaiah 53 turns the OT norm on its head, describing salvation being achieved through an innocent individual bearing the sins of others. “The default Old Testament position would be ‘he died for his sins’ or ‘we died for our sins.’ The miracle of the gospel, however, is that he died for our sins” (p. 73). Paul’s allusion to Isaiah 53 suggests that he understands Christ’s work as being, like the Servant’s, substitutionary.

In a brief excursus Gathercole explains why, if Christ died for us, believers still die. He suggests that Paul writes about death in four ways: (1) the physical death of believers, which he often “undermines” by language like “falling asleep”; (2) “the death to sin and burial in baptism that occurs in Christian initiation”; (3) the death of unbelievers, the penalty for sin and living according to the flesh, which Paul describes without softening, using language like “perish”; (4) the death of Jesus, which Paul never softens with terms like “falling asleep,” nor finalizes with terms like “perishing.” “The main point to conclude is that believers do still go on to die death #1 above but will not ‘perish’ (#3 above)… Christ has undergone a death like death #3 above to save us from death #3; therefore death #1 is not nearly so serious—it is a mere falling asleep” (pp. 80-83).

In Chapter Three, Gathercole asks what examples Paul might have had in mind when he writes that “for a good person someone might perhaps even dare to die” (Rom. 5:6-8). He concludes that “the most natural link in Romans 5 is with examples of vicarious death in classical texts (broadly understood). There are a number of such classical works… where this same substitutionary language is used” (p. 90). The most prominent of such classical examples is Alcestis, who was referenced by writers spanning a time from Euripides (c. 438 B.C.) to the second century A.D. and beyond. The story of Alcestis was part of common culture in Paul’s day: “An exact contemporary of Paul, the philosopher Musonius Rufus, uses Alcestis” as a positive example (p. 96). There are interesting parallels between accounts of Alcestis and Paul’s language in Romans 5 and elsewhere: classical writers said that Alcestis “dared” to die “on behalf of,” “in place of,” or “instead of” her husband, who is described as a “good” man. Other substitutionary deaths are described by classical philosopher and writers, but they are understood to be rare (cf. Paul’s “one will scarcely die… perhaps… one would even dare to die”), occurring only in the contexts of conjugal love, the institution of friendship, and family ties. “Paul sees that there is common ground between these pagan instances and the death of Christ”but “for Paul the differences are more striking than the similarities,” for Jesus dies for “the ungodly… sinners… enemies” (p. 104). Yet the core similarity remains: in these classical examples, “the death ‘for’ another is not merely a death ‘for the benefit of’ another—‘for their sake’ in a general sense. Nor is it death with them. Rather, it is… a death that averts death” (pp. 106-107). Thus Paul’s apparent allusion to these classical examples supports the conclusion that he sees Christ’s death as being substitutionary.

I find little to fault in Gathercole’s book. A few times I wondered if there was a bit of slippage in his logic, with him (a) proving that Paul was interested in our need for forgiveness for individual sins and then (b) using that evidence as proof that Paul believed in a specifically substitutionary atonement. But might not representation also be—at least theoretically—a solution for the problem of sins, with us dying with Christ for our sins (rather than he dying for our sins)? But this tentative critique is peripheral to Gathercole’s main arguments.

This book left me hungry for more. Other texts should be tested for substitutionary theology (Rom. 4:25; Gal. 1:4; 2:20; Heb. 2:9; etc.), and I would like to read an equally careful defense of a specifically penal substitutionary atonement. But what I liked best about this book—besides the excellent exegesis of its two main texts—was Gathercole’s repeated insistence that we allow for the NT’s multiple images of the atonement.

Let me end as Gathercole himself ends:

The choice between salvation as dealing with both ‘trespasses’ or ‘debts’ (plural) and with liberation from the power of (the) evil (one) was a choice apparently not faced by Jesus in his formulations of the Lord’s Prayer. Similarly, we need not be forced to opt either for Jesus’s substitutionary death, in which he deals with sins, or for a representative or liberative death, in which he deals with the power of evil. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder! (pp. 112-13)

Gathercole achieves his goals well in this book.
I give it 4.5 out of 5 stars.

What did you learn from this review? Do you have other favorite resources for understanding Christ’s work of atonement? Share your questions and insights below!


Disclosures: I received this book free from Baker Academic through the Baker Academic Bloggers program. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 http://www.access.gpo.gov/nara/cfr/waisidx_03/16cfr255_03.html.

I am a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.com.


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