When I think of Paul Zahl, I think of those moments in a sermon or talk he is delivering when he says something which fundamentally alters the way you view the world. Friends of mine and I refer lovingly to this phenomenon as “bomb dropping.” The miracle of these moments lies in how Paul brings to light some truth which is simultaneously the opposite of everything you have ever heard, and yet also so completely true to your experience, resonates so deeply with your heart, that you immediately know it to be right. As a mutual friend once put it, Paul has a way of illuminating realities that are (just like the Gospel!) at once counter-intuitive and yet completely intuitive.

 

Memorable “bombs” include the time he wrote the word “discipline” on the chalkboard during a lecture on Galatians, and then, with one strong, wide stroke, crossed it out, to the delight of some and the disbelief of others.

 

Another is a sermon he delivered one December in which he advised that every congregant go home and tear up their Christmas shopping lists, then wait for the inspiration of the Holy Spirit to descend such that we might actually buy our loved ones gifts out of love (i.e. grace) and not obligation (law). This was the same Christmas during which he declared that gifts, far from being unimportant, were actually the only thing about Christmas that mattered, inasmuch as they were tangible (incarnational?) expressions of affection.

 

The latest “bomb” moment came during the most recent Mockingbird conference, when Paul declared, to all assembled: “we are monists.” Now, on the surface of things, monism is something against which any self-respecting evangelical (in the historic sense) would rightly rail. We are not Buddhists or New Agers, after all. We do not believe that the universe is one entity, that we are ontologically united with all creation. We believe that the Creator and the creation are distinct, indeed that Christians run into huge trouble when they try to ascend above their creaturely station, when they try to be God, rather than acknowledge their human limitations (WWJD, anyone?).

 

That being said, what Paul said is fundamentally true, and of great comfort, in this sense: we believe, as Job did, as St. Paul did, as Jesus did, that all things come from God, both “good” and “evil”, and that He is, as someone once wrote, “at work in all things for the good of those who love Him.” That is to say, God is for us just as much (more!) in our defeats as in our victories, in our impasses as in our overcomings. As Paul (Zahl) said, “God is in the obstacle”, and not just the way through, for it is in the obstacle, in God’s willful frustration of our fleshly aspirations, that we are “liberated from [our] bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God” (Rom 8.21).

 

Monism in this sense – God in all things and for us in all things – is so fundamentally true  to the Biblical witness, as well as to our lives and our hearts, that it is beyond debate. Christans are monists: people who have come to understand that God is irrevocably and in everything on their side, even and especially in the darkest places, and this knowledge is of great comfort to world-weary pilgrims. Thank you, Paul, for constantly reminding us of this truth. Never stop dropping bombs!