Monday, December 15, 2008 | By: Zachary Bartels

Wow, this is long. Just skip it.

I went to Sears yesterday. As always, I was careful not to enter the store near the creepy mannequins with no eyes, dressed in lingerie or by the sea of appliances, each one seemingly assigned three over-zealous, commissioned salespeople. Instead, I went in under that wonderful sign that says "TOOL TERRITORY."

I was there for one thing: a 40-thread tap to re-thread a bolt. Two bucks; could be purchased in two minutes. But I took the long way around, gawking at all the Craftsman tools. Now, I'm not the handiest guy in the world--I don't even know what some of these things do--but I know that I love to wander and take it all in. It's like a high of some kind. My fellow men can vouch for me here. Every handtool and (especially) every power tool elicits the same excitement/ longing/ wonder that a pinup from the SI Swimsuit Issue elicited when we were twelve. Look at a tool for more than three seconds and our minds begin to fill with all the possibilities of what we could accomplish if we owned it (and all the essential accessories). We go from ignorance to wanting the tool to needing the tool in a matter of a few seconds.

I know what you're thinking. You think I'm going to use this as a springboard to talk about materialism, avarice, etc., etc. Right? Wrong. The draw between a man and a new tool is a sacred thing. I would never drag it through the mud like that. After all, as Owen Wilson said in Meet the Parents, "What got me into carpentry? I guess I'd have to say...Christ."

No, I want to talk about building things. Creating things. I've been doing a little more of that lately. For my birthday in May, my wife and parents got me a table saw (Craftsman, of course) and, shortly thereafter, I purchased a router (ibid). I've yet to churn out a masterpiece. I'd eventually like to craft a large and impressive wardrobe or desk, but for now I'm slowly building up to it (clearly, I'm already crafting masterful puns). I made a couple of rather nice display shelves for my son's dinosaur collection (yeah, he's only six months old...never too early to start a dinosaur collection). They're pretty nice looking shelves. Maybe that's why I went so shelf-crazy, turning an unused doorway in the basement into a pantry, installing shelves for sorting recycling in the kitchen closet, a custom bedside valet with an assigned peg or slot for each of the thirteen items that I bring with me as I leave the house each morning... I've been pretty happy with the stuff I've created. There's something very satisfying about starting with a board or two and then sawing, routing, drilling, and sanding away what you don't want in order to create something you've envisioned.None of the stuff I've made has been perfect, but that's to be expected.

My most recent project was a little pen stand for my study at the church. A month ago, I sketched out the simple little item that I wanted to make. A finished block of wood with a Chi Rho in the middle and two pen flutes, one on either side. Easy. I finished the piece up today and I've got to say I'm very happy with it. Behold:

Again, it's not perfect (some little fuzzies dried in the polyurethane and there's a slight bump where the router slipped on the top edge), but for the most part, it looks exactly as I wanted it to...exactly as I envisioned it.

What's funny is how much went into that simple little piece. First, I had to acquire all the respective parts. My dad gave me the piece of ash for the base. I pulled the two pen flutes off of a hideous purplish pen stand I got on eBay for two bucks. The polyurethane and bolts came from Aco Hardware, and I had the stain left over from a project a few years ago. My friend Terry gave me the wood for the Chi Rho and let me use his scroll saw to cut it out. The assembly process involved sawing, routing, sanding, staining, drilling, gluing, spraying, and screwing. All that for such a simple little object and still it's not perfect. It's just as I envisioned it. But still not perfect.

Do you know why we can design, build, invent, and create? It's because we're made in the image of God. We bear the Imago Dei. Even though it was fractured by the fall, that image of God remains in all people, believer and unbeliever alike (which accounts not only for our creativeness in construction, but for art, science, mathematics, music, complex abstract thought, philosophy, charity, technology of all sorts, concern for the environment, religion, etc.).

It never ceases to amaze me just how foolish the very smart can be when I hear scientists who write scholarly papers, design microscopes, and construct incredibly complex computer models (all via the Imago Dei) attribute our creative abilities to some blind naturalistic evolutionary process. They're missing the most important piece. Observe: My wife and I have a cleverly designed banana stand on our kitchen counter to keep brown spots from forming at the point of contact. You never see one of those at a chimpanzee's place. And they'll never come up with the concept either. Never. Because, some simple tool use not withstanding, they lack something that we have. Chimps may have opposable thumbs, but they don't have the Imago Dei.

So our ability to saw, glue, hammer, drill, etc. and create a desired effect with wood and other materials is a reflection of God's own ability to create. But the reflection is far less impressive than the real thing. Let's compare: It took me a few days of stopping here and there to get everything I needed together to create a simple pen stand. God created the universe ex nihilo (that's out of nothing). I used a table saw, drill, screwdrivers (all gifts), a router (purchased), and scroll saw (borrowed). God creates using nothing but his own infinite power. When I got done, I looked at the end result and send. "Hm. Pretty good." When God was done, he looked at the result and said it was "very good." And he was being modest. When God creates, it's abso-stinkin-lutely perfect every time.

This is how the Image of God borne in humans compares to the one we're imaging (see also art, science, mathematics, music, complex abstract thought, philosophy, love, relationship with Creation, etc.) Even before the fall and the fractured Imago Dei, our reflection of God's image could never have led anyone to confuse an image bearer with the Original. Still, our ability to image God was sufficient to glorify him in a way that pleased him. Of course, since the fall, we've begun using the Imago Dei not to glorify God, but as a giant middle finger in his face. Just look at what we've done with technology, music, and art (see also science, mathematics, complex abstract thought, philosophy, love, relationship with Creation, religion, etc.)

We've fractured that image so badly that only God could put it back together. And that he did. That's what the cross was about--removing our sin, which condemns us, and re-assembling us as people whose wills are in line with his, whose Imago Dei once again glorifies him instead of openly mocking him. For those who have put their faith in Christ, we've been bought by a price and, using no tools but the blood of Christ and the Holy Spirit, he is sawing, grinding, and sanding away every part of us that doesn't match the original image in which he made us.

When I was a kid, I had a big, shiny sticker that said, "I'm okay, God doesn't make junk!" Really ought to have had a semicolon, but we'll let that slide. The issue I have with the sticker is that, while God doesn't make junk, it does not necessarily follow that everyone who gets his hands on one of those stickers is "okay." We've bent our wills away from our Creator's and fractured his Image in us. Thank God that he loves us too much to leave us in that junky state. Thank God that he's better at working with hearts than I am at working with wood.

Soli Deo Gloria,

Pastor Zach

BTW, if all this stuff about a new heart sounds good, but you don't think you've got it, click here for more about it.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008 | By: Zachary Bartels

Barth and Christmas

What does Christmas bring to mind for you?

For many, the first image is a Christmas tree covered in lights or Santa Clause delivering presents or maybe a serene image of Mary and Joseph hovering over a just-born but very clean (and ridiculously white) baby Jesus with his full mop of blonde (?!) hair parted neatly on the side.

Those same images are burned into my head as well, but lately when I think of Christmas, I see this guy:

That’s Karl Barth. He was the greatest theologian of the Twentieth Century (and so far, the 21st is definitely not looking like it has a prayer of topping him). I’ve often held that St. Augustine (remember Saint AW-gus-teen is in Florida, while Saint aw-GUS-ten is in Heaven) was the greatest theologian of all time, John Calvin was the second greatest, and Karl Barth was the third. None of them was perfect, but they all had amazing gifts for understanding God’s revelation of Himself to an incredible depth.

Yeah, that’s right—I want to talk about complex theology in the midst of this Christmas season. Why? Because Christmas is the most brain-bendingly theological day of the church calendar! When we get beyond the picture of some porcelain British toddler in a beautifully hand-crafted designer food trough, the actual historical event of Christmas threatens to blow our minds! Easter we can understand. Yeah, it’s hard to fathom how God in the flesh could actually die, but obviously he’s not going to stay dead. The resurrection is a foregone conclusion. Likewise, Jesus’ sinless life is a no-brainer. He’s God. He wrote the Law (both the Law written on our hearts and the one on Mt. Sinai), so of course we would expect him to both keep it and fulfill it.

But Christmas? How do you make sense of that? That baby in the food trough just entered the world in the ordinary way. His gag reflex is not yet developed and so, after he eats from his mother’s breast, he spits up all over himself and his parents. Oh yeah, and he spoke the cosmos into existence without breaking a sweat. While learning to talk, he has to master each new sound one at a time (a phenomenon with which I am currently all too familiar). Some days, he’s working on a pleasant coo. Others are spent entirely on annoying grunts and squeals. But it was his voice that spoke from out of the burning bush and it was by his command that dry land appeared in the midst of the sea. His little muscles are almost useless lying there. He cannot yet roll over, sit up, or even hold his head straight. This makes him look pretty goofy, like a marionette with his strings cut. Yet, he is the God who rained fire and brimstone from Heaven to punish and destroy the cities of the valley. That seeming disconnect you’re sensing? That’s the theology I’m talking about. So brace yourself; we’re going in deep.

I studied a lot of Karl Barth’s writings in seminary. At the very heart of his understanding of God was the phrase “fully revealed and fully concealed.” God is both entirely transcendent—so far above us that he is entirely concealed from us—and entirely immanent—astoundingly close and accessible to us, perfectly revealed to us in Jesus Christ. That’s the mystery. That’s the tension. Of course, our natural human reaction to such tension is to try and solve it, remove it. Not a good idea.

Every orthodox doctrine of Christianity contains some of this tension and if the tension is removed, we wind up in heresy. Take for example, the doctrine of the Trinity. God is three and one. How is that possible? We want to alleviate the discomfort by over-emphasizing one or the other. If we lean too far toward “one God” that’s the heresy of “modalism,” which teaches that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all the same person wearing three different masks. This couldn’t be further from what Scripture teaches. If we lean too far toward “three,” we wind up with “tritheism,” a religion with three gods instead of one God. I suppose the natural solution would be to remove the tension by splitting the difference. God is “three and one,” therefore he’s two. I don’t even think that particular heresy has a name, but it’s obviously a very false teaching. God isn't big on compromises when it comes to who He Is.

Or how about the dual nature of Christ? Jesus is fully God and fully man. Over the centuries, many different groups have tried to eliminate this tension. A group called “docetists” (who were already around when John wrote his Gospel) went all the way to the “God” side and spread the false teaching that Jesus was not really man; he was God sort of “dressed up as” a man. I am so thankful that’s not true. After all, if he just seemed to be human, he couldn’t have paid for my sins! Others (particularly the liberal theologians of the early Twentieth Century) erred to the “man” side, teaching that Jesus was just a really good guy who had a lot of godly properties. This does eliminate the tension, but again, it leaves us still in our sins. In the Fifth Century, some Christians tried to compromise and split the difference, saying that God was sort of a hybrid—instead of having two wills, he had one: half man and half God. The church roundly condemned this teaching with the strongest possible language as it should have.

So where does Christmas fit into all this? Well, we have the same temptation with a God who is fully concealed and fully revealed. We can go to the one side and over-emphasize that God is so far beyond us that we could never know him in any real away—at least not during this life. So why bother? Just assume you’re probably wrong and so is everyone else. Or we can go to the other extreme and act as if we know everything there is to know about an infinite God (which would, in fact, make us omniscient and, therefore, God). Or we can try to split the difference and get our minds around a God who is partly concealed and partly revealed. I suggest that the last one is the most dangerous.

When, as Barth described it, Jesus slipped into this planet under the Devil’s radar as a “stealthy intruder here to take you out,” Jesus was God’s presence (and revelation) among men, the light shining in the darkness. To quote Barth,
This God is conceived where we all are conceived. He is born of Mary. She who conceived and bore Him plays our part in the wonder of Christmas, for it concerns us. God has come to us. Disguised in our flesh and blood is the eternal good

In the name of the Messianic King whom Israel expected, the Church has rediscovered the name of the eternal good in which she believes and which she confesses. The name is ‘Immanuel,’ God with us.

So here we are with human capacities (both our minds and our senses) that lack even the smallest capacity to comprehend God. Yet, by the grace of His revelation He invites us with these very capacities to “share in the truth of God and therefore in a marvelous way [be] made instruments of real knowledge of God (in His being for us and as he is in Himself.)” 2

Yeah, that’s deep. And maybe I’m just trying to get you to think some deep thoughts this Christmas. Maybe I’m trying to deepen the wonder and take it up a notch from the nostalgia that we often mislabel as awe.

I don’t want you to abandon the childish wonder of Christmas for a philosophical or theological discussion. Nor do I want you to compromise and split the difference. I want to challenge you to approach anew the wonder that is our infinite God having stepped into space and time to redeem the souls of men.

Yeah, there’s tension there. Don’t ease the tension; embrace it. Wrestle with it. It’s the tension that lets us know there’s something bigger than us going on.

Merry Christmas and happy wrestling!

Soli Deo Gloria,

Pastor Zach

1 Karl Barth, Christmas (sermon)
2 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, II.IV §29
Tuesday, December 2, 2008 | By: Zachary Bartels

Getting older...

I'm thirty.

No, that's not old in years. It's still pretty young. But old has several definitions and one of them indicates a state of mind. Some people, at thirty, are still more or less like they were in college (and still living more or less the same kind of life). Others are consumed with the daily grind or raising a couple of tweens.

Now, I haven't much thought about it, but in the back of my mind, I think I've always just assumed that I'm on the "younger" end of things for a thirty-year-old. I mean, I still listen to hip hop and punk music from time to time. I watch a lot of movies and can follow most pop culture references. But upon further inspection, these are not nearly enough to hold me back from my relentless and apparently passionate pursuit of boring-old-guy-ness.

So what are the signs? Well, here are a few:
  • My favorite cereal is no longer Cinnamon Toast Crunch or even Honey Nut Cheerios. It's Special K. That's right; if I could have any cereal on a given morning, I'd always choose Special K.
  • When I go to a concert, I don't want to mosh. I don't want to dance. I don't even want to stand. I paid good money to sit here and listen and that's what I want to do, thank you. Down in front.
  • When I read Calvin and Hobbes, I get a far bigger kick out of Calvin's dad (heck, I am Calvin's dad) than I do out of Calvin himself.
  • I think of ten-year-old songs that were popular during my college years as being more or less "new." (I seriously can't believe that Time of Your Life and Iris are actually a decade old; heck, the Coolio song in my last entry--the one that Erin and I used to crank in my car--is thirteen years old. How did that happen?).
  • In addition, I couldn't name one song that's on the top forty right now (if there even is still such a thing) and when I happen to hear said current pop music, I hate it 95% of the time.
  • So I pretty much just listen to podcasts of financial and theological radio shows. Wow, when I write that out, it's just... man, I'm old.
  • I frown when someone tells a dirty joke.
  • I wear a tie just about every day. And I like it that way.
  • I'm far more excited about watching everyone else open Christmas presents that I bought than actually opening presents myself.
  • I'd rather play Pac Man on my Palm than learn how to play some new photo-real, adrenaline rush video game. On second thought, I'd rather play cribbage or backgammon than any of that stuff.
  • When I employ slang whilst talking to the youth of my church, I can see them exchanging sidelong glances and trying not to snicker.
  • More often than not, the thought of going to a party drains me, rather than exciting me.
  • If the subject of music, television, fiction, newspaper funnies, shopping malls, etc. comes up, my first instinct is to begin a diatribe about how it used to be so much better.
  • I don't yet have the old-guy-up-at-dawn-ready-to-go thing down just yet, but I want it more than anything.
  • And here's the real nail in the coffin of my youth (at least by this particular definition)...I drink decaf at night now. Decaf. If my 19-year-old self could have a meeting with me, he'd beat the tar out of me for my own good.
Okay, all you people who read this blog and never comment (I know for a fact you're out there, as you reference specific entries in conversation; besides, Google Analytics doesn't lie)--how about you comment this time and tell me your own litmus test for losing the youthful edge. Have you crossed the line?


BTW, anyone can comment. You don't even have to sign up for anything.