Sunday Meditations: Inheriting the Nations

I’ve been in the Old Testament a lot this past week, and one passage that came up that I’d not considered much in the sense of… well, in any sense, really… is Deuteronomy 32, particularly verses 7-9.

Remember the days of old,
consider the years long past;
ask your father, and he will inform you;
your elders, and they will tell you.
When the Most High apportioned the nations,
when he divided humankind,
he fixed the boundaries of the peoples
according to the number of the gods;
the Lord’s own portion was his people,
Jacob his allotted share.

Deuteronomy 32:7-9 (NRSV)

The whole chapter is a reminder of God’s faithfulness to Israel and their mutual covenant.  What is also interesting is what this implies about the other nations.

This passage talks about when Elyon “divided humankind.”  He split them up into separate nations.  This is probably a reference to the story of the Tower of Babel.

What is interesting is that God gives the nations over to other gods, but he keeps Israel for Himself.  This is a theological summary, since Israel did not exist as a nation at Babel, nor are they listed in the tables of nations in Genesis 10 and 11.  But their ancestors were there, and out of Mesopotamia, God calls Abraham for Himself.  The other nations will serve other gods, but Abraham and his descendants will belong to Yahweh forever, even as they grow into numberless descendants.

But the nations are not just cut off from God and left to their own devices.  God growing His people in Abraham is the plan for eventually blessing all the nations of the world.

Deuteronomy’s concern, of course, is with the ongoing faithfulness and prosperity of Israel, and this passage serves mostly as a reminder of how special Israel is to God.  Out of all the other nations, Israel was God’s portion – His inheritance that He kept for Himself in the days when the other nations were turned over to other gods to go their own way.  This is meant to be both a comfort to Israel about her future as well as a reminder to special faithfulness to her God.

But this special portion has the long term trajectory of, eventually, blessing the nations.  And this trajectory is really long term.

The first five books of the Old Testament can sometimes really skew our notion of time.  There’s the story of Adam, then Adam’s sons, then Noah is pretty quick after that, then Babel, then Abraham, then Isaac, then Jacob, then Moses, you get the idea.  Because these stories occur one after the other, in our heads, we sort of place them one after the other – as though each of these things is only a few decades apart.  We forget that huge passages of time happened between the pivotal events the Old Testament tells us about.

And this section is no different.  How long will it take for one family to grow into so many descendants that they cannot be numbered and, by doing so, bless all the nations?  This is something that simply cannot happen within a few generations.  For centuries, your average Israelite would be born, live their lives, and die knowing that they were simply part of the long, mundane flow of history that was their current iteration of moving the plan forward.

Some of them lived in particularly interesting times, but many did not.  They would know of the promises of the past and how it brought them to where they were.  They would know where they were going as a people and their hopes for the future, but their own lives of quiet faithfulness were them passing the baton along – making a glacial movement forward of God’s plan.

And what was that plan?  The reclamation of the nations – the day when Israel’s God would be confessed as the God and Lord of all the nations – the day when God’s people would be everywhere, and we would not worship on this hill or that hill, but God would be worshiped in all places by all peoples.

There are points in history where this goal hit milestones.  In fact, as far as the New Testament is concerned, “the nations” are more or less the Roman Empire, and that Empire comes under the dominion of Christ in a pretty concrete way.

But we also know something the New Testament authors did not, and that is that “the nations” are bigger than the Roman Empire and outlying tribes.  And God’s people went about the task of bringing the news of the Creator God into those places as well.  There is still much to be done in that project.  And who knows?  Maybe we’ll discover other life in the universe and find that “the nations” are larger than we could have possibly imagined, just like Paul trying to imagine the Mauri or the Inuits or the Sioux.

Although the horizons may broaden with time, and although the concrete forms of the people of God may shift with circumstances, the mechanism continues to the same: the people of God remain a faithful witness that calls their neighbors into the family and service of this God, and in this way, all the nations are blessed.

Perhaps we are near the end of this project, or perhaps we are just a blip on an unbelievably huge timeline that takes the entire universe into its scope.  Those things belong to God.

In the meantime, we are called to faithful service of the God who made the heavens and the earth, and through this faithfulness, others will be called by His name.

 

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Sunday Meditations: Update and Worship Music

I realize the blog has been pretty silent, lately.  Work has got me deep in the trenches, and I also started a website to provide resources for recovering addicts, and adding content to that site takes like three times as long as it does to write content for this site.

Still, I have not abandoned this project.  I have thought I might take an intermission from the gospel of Matthew just to get the juices flowing again.  A friend asked if I might do some work in Romans, and that’s interesting to me, so I might do a little in that before getting back to the gospels.

This Sunday morning in church, we were taught a new song that we were told we might have heard if we listen to Christian radio.  As soon as I heard that, I knew we were in for a slog.

It’s not that Christian radio just churns out bad music.  That does happen, but I don’t know the ratio is much different than any other sort of radio station.

What prepped me for disappointment was this: songs you hear on the radio are pretty much designed for a solo performer with perhaps a backup singer or two.  Songs performed this way allow the performer a lot of room to artistically perform their vocals.  There can be frequent shifts in key or overall range of pitch.  In some lines, the lyrics might be spaced apart; in others, several words might run together to fit.  There’s no real set structure because the vocal performer has constructed a performance and, as an artist, will just do what they do to make the song work and present it as a work of art.

The same things that draw us to outstanding vocal performances are also the same things that make a song poorly suited for congregational singing.

I’m not saying congregational songs all have to be musically super-simple, although I do find there seems to be a trend in congregational songwriting that is trending more musically complex and lyrically shallow, which is the exact opposite of what I wish were happening.  But you want something that’s easy for everyone to sing together.  You want something that serves as a platform to assist a group of people expressing themselves together in worship without thinking, “Oh, is this the verse where we sing the third line really high, or is that the next verse?  Oh, this line was like twelve syllables shorter in the last verse.  How do we have to sing this to get it to fit?  Oh, wait, the worship leader is pausing.  She didn’t pause last time.  I’ll have to remember that.”

The thing is, a song may be very inspirational and powerful when a vocalist with a backup or two is belting it out.  And, since many “worship teams” are structured in a similar way, it may sound good in rehearsal.

But when a whole congregation is trying their best to sound like Bono or whatever because that’s what’s actually required to pull the song off, it ends up being a chore.  This bothers me because I have an idyllic picture of all God’s people, little children and grandparents, good singers and bad singers, able to worship corporately together and focus on all the right things while doing so.  The goal of a worship service, to me, is not to create a performance for the people in the audience.

I may be projecting here, somewhat.  Many Sunday mornings, I need corporate worship, and anything that draws me away from being able to pour myself out in worship and join communally with my brothers and sisters in that is most unwelcome.  I don’t want to be tripping over irregular meters and crazy pitch modulations so that we can sound like the CD, artistically delivering lines that basically come out to, “I think God is pretty sweet for vague reasons.”

But there’s something else that troubles me about this sort of worship song.

Let’s say everyone learns the song, learns where all the weird pitch changes and meter changes are, learns where the arbitrary bridge comes in, learns where you’re supposed to say the word “Jesus” before the chorus and when you aren’t, etc.  In other words, everyone can more or less sound like the vocalist on the radio.

Well, we still don’t have a congregation singing together; we have an aggregation of soloists singing the same song at the same time.

The next time the church in America has a big vote, one of the things I would like to vote for in corporate worship is a greater emphasis on our shared experience as the collective people of God and less emphasis on my individual experience.

This is not to say there’s no place for individual experience; it’s just that I have individual spiritual experiences all week.  I came to church to share the mysteries of our faith with brothers and sisters.

This is sort of a weird thing that has happened with evangelical churches in America.  We already evangelize people with a highly individualistic story, and then we describe church as a place where saved people, for their own good, should go to grow.  In other words, church becomes a collection of individually saved people in the same room as opposed to the assembling of the corporate people of God – and you happen to be a member of this group.

Our worship, if we’re not careful, can further entrench this highly individualistic way of thinking.  Our songs tend to have a lot of “me,” “my,” and “I” in them and not very much “we” and “us.”  There is a difference between a hundred people singing, “God has delivered me from my darkness” and the same hundred people singing, “God has delivered us from our darkness.”  The former is a group of individuals making individual declarations of praise; the latter is a collective making a unified statement of praise, together.

The distinction may be subtle to an extent, but when you add them all up, you end up with the lamentable fact that, in most churches, you could install dividers between all the seats and everyone would have basically the same experience they do, now.

This is not the emphasis of the biblical narrative, however, and it troubles me to see it incrementally fade from our consciousness as time goes on.  The Bible tells us a story about God calling a people to Himself and saving them when necessary.  It’s a story about Him and His special group, not a story about Him and a bunch of otherwise unrelated individuals who get together from time to time.

I think it’s totally appropriate to pursue an individual relationship with God, grow that, and express it.  I can easily do that on my own in the morning or sing along with the dude on the radio in my car or whatever.

But America already does enough to lock us into an individualized, isolated, self-oriented box during the week.  I don’t want to see that way of thinking entrenched in my corporate worship experience.  I don’t want corporate worship to be an intense, personal time with God and there just happens to be other people also having intense, personal time with God.  It’s a time for God and us – us having shown up, together, to meet with him as our forefathers did millennia ago.

And I would like to see our worship constructed along those lines.

Now, if only someone really, really wanted my opinion about this.

Sunday Meditations: The Alien God

First, I want to send a shout out to my Pinoy brothers and sisters who are reading the heck out of this blog article for some reason, according to the WordPress stats.  I was born in Manila and teach arnis, so the idea that anything I wrote is particularly helpful to you guys is pretty great.  Although, I don’t have comments turned on, so for all I know, the only reason that link is so popular in the Philippines is because you’re all talking about how dumb it is.

Second, the title of this blog post does not refer to extraterrestrial aliens, so if you came across this searching for information about Cthulhu or Manos or whatever, it’s not going to be here.

What I’ve been meditating on the past few days is how alien God is.  How otherworldly and just how other He is.

In Christianity, we try to represent both God’s otherness and God’s immanence, and in American evangelicalism, if I had to pick, I’d say the emphasis has been largely on God’s immanence.  In other words, the focus is on how near to us God is.  How we can talk to Him.  How He cares about our day to life.  How we can have a personal relationship with Him.

And none of that is wrong.  After all, God has not left us to mystically intuit Him.  God has acted in history, chosen a people, and shown us what He is like in mankind’s finer qualities of love, justice, and good judgement – and most clearly in Jesus Christ.  In the Old Testament, people speak to God in their language and hear back in their language.  Often, they speak very reverently.  Other times, just being flat out honest.  Jeremiah probably wins the Holy Cajones Award for flat out telling God that God deceived him into becoming a prophet, and God takes all this in stride.

God sends His Spirit at the end of an age to Jew and Gentile and, by doing so, unites all who receive Him to Jesus and Himself.  Through the Spirit dwelling in and among people, God is present among us throughout the world.  Jesus and His apostles encourage us to pray and tell God our cares because God cares about us.  The hairs on our head are numbered, and even though not a single sparrow dies apart from God, we are worth more to God than many sparrows.

So, please know that I am a big fan of the God who is among us with whom we can communicate and whose presence we can experience.

I think that in our pursuit of this experience, we can sometimes forget that this God who has made so many concessions to have a loving relationship with us is also a being who is wholly alien to our experience.

C.S. Lewis gave us a little picture of this by casting God as a lion (Aslan) in his books.  On the one hand, Aslan talks, reasons, lets children pet him, and so on.  But on the other hand, it’s a lion.  Lions are a little scary.  They have lion brains and feel lion things.  We don’t always know what a lion is going to do, and they are capable of great and terrible things.  Aslan is not a man in a lion suit; he is a lion who speaks with a man’s voice.

Long before there was a you or even a human, God dwelt in silence.  God can manifest locally, but in and of Himself, He has no sense of locality or containment.  He is not a man-shaped ghost; He is everywhere present.  He has neither eyes nor ears to take in sensory information, but He is aware of all information.  He is not a wizard.  He does not operate on the universe through magical powers.  He does not mystically force things to go His way.  We have absolutely no point of reference for how God works.

That black, pinpoint of mystery is important.

We can easily imagine, for instance, a very powerful being who has a will that they want to make manifest, so they wave their hands or exercise some kind of hidden power, and lo! what they will occurs.  This is how Greek gods work.  This is where our ideas of wizards and magicians come from.  This invisible power they exercise seems mysterious but, at the same time, the idea is very comprehensible to us.  We can imagine a person  or something like a person doing that.  They will it, and some manifestation of supernatural power moves and lightning shoots from Olympus or into a crowd of orcs.

But that is how we imagine will being made manifest – through the exercise of some invisible power that makes stuff happen.  But God is not an extraordinarily powerful man.  God is not a wizard.  God does not do magical stuff.

How does He do stuff, then?  We don’t know.  That’s just it.  We are not a being like God and can only conceive of Him working the way a very powerful created, localized being could work, even if we ascribe mythical, absolute power to it.  But He doesn’t work that way.  He does something Different than that.  We do not and can not have anything close to a concept of what it is God does that makes His will manifest, or if it even makes sense to talk about God having a will in any sense besides analogy.

This is why conversations about the sovereignty of God can get tricky, because the only way we can conceive of a being’s will definitively happening is to conceive of them making it happen.  How else?  What other way to do it is there?  That’s just it.  We have no way of conceiving of a being whose will is made manifest in any other way than them making it happen or setting it up to inevitably happen or whatever, because that’s the only way we can operate.  So, if God is sovereign, humans can’t be free.  And if humans are free, God can’t be sovereign.  Because that’s the only way we could possibly envision this playing out.

But what about an unlocalized, uncreated being who is everywhere present who is not even composed of matter or energy as we understand it?  It is here we have to admit that we only know of God what can fit into our brains and our methods of perception, and while that knowledge made be true, it is also incomplete and analogous, ultimately.  We have to acknowledge that God is wholly unique.

This is something to bear in mind when we think about “evidence” of God’s existence.  What are we expecting when we think about such evidence?  Are we expecting a localized being?  Are we expecting something so disruptive to what we normally perceive that there is no other explanation?  Are we expecting some kind of way to detect that the universe was first formed with invisible, magical power?

What if the fact that anything exists at all is evidence of God?  Why should anything exist?  Why should there be matter or energy?  I can think of an almost infinite amount of things that don’t exist.  The amount of things that actually exist versus the amount of things that theoretically could but do not is incredibly slim.  What if models of God waving His hands and using magic power to form the “natural world” and setting it into motion may be a useful picture to get us pointed in the right direction but are ultimately absurd compared to the reality?

If this were true, then the universe is constantly screaming to us that God is there.  Every natural process that exists that seems to get along just fine without magic powers pushing it along is like a neon sign telling us, “God is here, now.”  Every mundane event is a miracle, and every miracle is simply a disruption of our expectations to draw our attention to something – a sign!

Because then it wouldn’t be a matter of a natural, mechanistic world clicking along and God dropping some magic God power into it from time to time – the very evidence that people claim they are looking for when they say they want evidence of God’s existence.  We have a being whose actual operations occur in a manner wholly incomprehensible to us.  They do not fit what it would look like for a powerful being to operate within the confines of the universe; they are Something Else.

And we as human beings ought to embark on the scientific enterprise with great hope, because the universe that is so much like us in so many ways has so much to explore and so much to reveal to us as time goes on.  But our brains are part of the very reality that we study.  We have limits.  We will never be able to know, perceive, or even conceive of anything besides what we are actually capable of knowing, perceiving, or conceiving of.  And dare we say that the limits of human comprehension define what can and cannot be real?

We daren’t, I hope.

Meditating on this mystery humbles me, but it also comforts me, because it doesn’t make the natural world any less rational, scientific, or mechanistic – but it all becomes an instrument.  It’s a vehicle presenting to my awareness a being that would otherwise be unknowable.  I do not have to choose between scientific explanations and “religious” explanations because they are not positing two, different realities.

“The heavens declare the glory of God,” David says.  “The skies proclaim the work of his hands.”

And I must be careful that, as I pursue a relationship with God and can speak to Him as a friend about anything, that I do not fall into the trap of believing that He is just like me, only lots more powerful.  That I do not assume He is motivated the same way I am or makes decisions like I do or that the things that I see as I make my way through life will always be intelligible to me because there has to be some kind of rationale that I should be able to apprehend.

God is very near and has revealed Himself in all kinds of ways.  He is also Something Else.

Sunday Meditations: Mary the Revolutionary

I’m just about to finish the book A Complicated Pregnancy: Whether Mary was a Virgin and Why It Matters.  I’d only recommend the book to certain people.  Not because of the conclusions the author comes to, but because I don’t think the book is all that helpful in formulating your thoughts on the virgin birth.  It’s not a bad book, but the center of gravity is mostly on how theologies of the virgin birth and incarnation have duked it out with a special emphasis on avoiding a sort of docetism where Jesus doesn’t sweat, stink, spit, etc. like we do.  So, the book is especially valuable for people interested in the development of theology around these issues.  It may also be useful for people who don’t believe in the virgin birth and wonder about the ramifications for their Christian faith.

But in one of the chapters, the author talks particularly about Mary and how she achieved the place she did in theology, especially Roman Catholic theology, as well as specific cultures such as Central and South America.  He also discusses the primary lens that male-dominant theology has seen Mary through – emphasizing her submission and meekness and valuing her for her virginity, and in this, he also brings up certain feminist takes on Mary that are challenging and insightful.

I’ll admit up front, I’m not a big “-ist readings of X” kind of guy, but I like being confronted with readings that challenge my status quo, whether I end up agreeing or not, and one of the things pointed out was a certain revolutionary tone in Mary’s Magnificat – the prayer/song she bursts into when she visits Elizabeth and Elizabeth recognizes that Mary will give birth to the Lord.

The song is found in Luke 1:46-55:

And Mary said,

“My soul magnifies the Lord,
    and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
    Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
    and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
    from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
    he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
    and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
    and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
    in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
    to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

 

Luke 1:46-55 (NRSV)

Look at that last half.  In the arrival of Jesus, God has shown strength, scattering the proud.  He brings down the powerful from their thrones and lifts up the lowly.  He fills the poor and sends the rich away.  He helps Israel according to the promise He made to Abraham.

Mary, who is a girl probably between the ages of 12 and 16, sees in the prospective birth of Jesus an act of God whereby the powerful will be brought down from their thrones and the fortunes of Israel will be reversed.  It’s a very subversive and political song.  Mary believes that Jesus will be the beginning of God bringing down the powers that dominate Israel and putting the poor and humble faithful back on top.

In my mind, this actually helps explain why Mary reacts to the birth the way she does.  She is not some victim of forces beyond her control, and she just has to grit her teeth and deal with it gracefully.  She is instrumental to the revolution.  She is favored and all will call her blessed because of her role in bringing down the rulers from their thrones, sending away the rich, and liberating Israel.  It is not difficult at all for me to imagine a teenager with this sort of idealism and passion.

In the original Terminator movie, a woman named Sarah is told by a man from another world (well, the future) that she will carry the child who will liberate humanity from their oppressors in the future, so it is imperative that she stay alive, give birth to the child, and prepare him for his role.  In the later movies, we find Sarah becoming something of a survivalist and a soldier, acquiring the skills she needs to pass on her son.

This is 100% speculative, but I wonder what Mary taught her son Jesus in preparation for his role in God bringing rulers down from their thrones and exalting the oppressed of Israel.  Maybe she didn’t teach him military tactics or how to do a field dressing, but I’ll bet she passed along stories of the promise God made to Abraham, the glorious days of Israel under David and Solomon, and the weight of the Exile that, while technically over, was still going on.  I’ll bet she explained to him why they were poor and why Israel was poor and about the Romans.  She explained to him why some of his own people had become loyal to the Empire.  She explained the lure of riches and comfort what it does to a man’s heart when the alternative is poverty and death.  She explained the importance of loving his people and sticking by them on their side and not crossing over to the side of the rich and the powerful, of maintaining the faith of his forefathers and not giving it up for paganism or civil religion.

In other words, although I don’t know this and there’s no text I know of that says this, when I read those lines in Mary’s song, knowing her hopes and expectations, I can’t help but think she was instrumental in raising Jesus the prophet who would save his people, preparing him for his mission.

Yes, she was submissive to God’s will and obedient and a lesson to all of us in that way, but it’s not simply because she was a submissive person.  It was because she foresaw a great revolution at God’s hands, and she was going to play her very instrumental role in the movement.

Sunday Meditations: Let Your Light Shine

Today in church, we sang one of my new favorite songs.

Musically, it’s nothing great.  Lyrically, it’s fairly shallow and I’m not sure I could sign off on some of it without some qualification, but the chorus goes like this:

We are the light of the world
We are the city on the hill
We are the light of the world
And we gotta, we gotta, we gotta let the light shine

Ok, not exactly T.S. Eliot there, I admit, but the images it pulls together come from the Old Testament by way of Jesus Christ, and it always gets me going to sing those lines because it is a clarion call to identity and mission.

If it makes sense to talk about an overarching “story” to the Bible, it really gets rolling with Abraham.  The people who told the stories and wrote the writings that would become the Old Testament did so in a world that was already broken.  The opening chapters of Genesis are the prologue – the prequel – the setup.  They are the explanation of how the world ended up in the state that it was in to make something like Israel necessary.

But once the stage has been set – the world is full of injustice, violence, oppression, and ignorance of or rebellion against God – we get the calling of Abraham.  God is going to use him as the father of a new creation in the midst of the present creation.  His descendants will be priests to the rest of the world.  They will be called by God’s name to worship and serve Him, and in doing so, will establish a society that runs off of compassion, justice, mercy, restoration, and care.

This wouldn’t happen perfectly, of course, and was never intended to.  There’s a reason the Torah has redemptive and restorative laws in it.  But the idea is, even when you screw up, there’s a way to make things right, again.  Nobody is ever written off.  Not the poor, not the weak, not the sinners.

And this community is designed for evolution, too.  No set of laws can remain static forever and still be good laws.  Circumstances change.  The world changes.  Cultures change.  Sensibilities change.  And the Torah reflects this.

But though the laws change, certain principles continue to define this nation – loving God with everything you have, and loving your neighbor as if they were your own self, no matter what you happen to think of your neighbor at the time.

Israel’s mission in the world was not primarily to deliver a message or convey information; her mission was to be a new creation.  She was to look different than everyone else.  As a society, she was supposed to run off a different engine.  She was a model.  She was a colony that came from another world – a better world – a living incarnation that testified that Israel’s God was the true God and the world He wanted was not only better for the creation He loved, but was entirely possible.

Israel was meant to be a pillar of fire in the darkness, showing everyone the way through the wilderness, being the flesh and blood version of God’s Spirit in the world.  She was a light to the world.  She was the city on the hill.  Other nations were to look at her and go, “Yeah, we want that, too.”  In the eschatological visions of the prophets, they saw the nations repenting and coming to the true worship of YHWH with Israel showing them the way.  And, at times, she even seemed to be this.  Other times, not so much.

Because the cold of this world seeps into your bones.  The darkness has a way of reasserting itself.  You are called to be this model nation, but you look around at the neighboring nations and, before you know it, you start to want different things.  You want the gold and the buildings they have.  You want their luxuries.  You want their power, and you watch them and see what people have to do to get it.  You see what it’s like for the people on top of that nation and on the bottom, and in your mind you think, “That looks pretty good.  I just need to make sure I’m on the top.”

And then you feel threatened, and you start to look for something to save you.  And those other nations with their vast armies and chariots and superior metals and track record of conquest start to look pretty good.  It’s one thing to say you trust God, but the fact is that those spears and horses seem to be doing a pretty good job of keeping those other nations safe.  The harshness and the darkness of the world starts to press in, and trusting in God and keeping His ways seems like a thin cloak against poverty or destruction.  Let’s just do what everyone else is doing; just make sure you come out on top.

But, you see, this is the way you become darkness.  You may not become overtly evil, possibly, but you become darkness.  You are part of the undifferentiated environment that makes the world what it is – harsh, dark, hurtful, ignorant, a graveyard – a pyramid of bones that a select few can claw their way to the top of for a few, glorious moments before sinking under.

People from other nations walk past yours and mutter, “Move along.  Nothing to see here.”  And they are correct.  There is Nothing to see, there.  It turns out that you can actually build an empire of nothing.

Oh, how tempting it is, when you feel things starting to slip away from you, to become a predator in that darkness.  How tempting it is to tell yourself that the darkness is all there is.  Violence, resources, and power are the only currencies that will let you ride on top for a while until you fade, and this is what you should do, because this is the Real World.

Well

God wanted a people who would show everyone in the middle of that darkness that the Real World does not have to be like that at all.  There is another world, another age, another creation born from above that can shine in the darkness and silence every anti-sermon ever whispered from its corners.  And God is committed to the establishment of that world, so much so that He will raise them from the dead who share His commitment.  So much so that He will pour out His Spirit on all nations, resting those pillars of fire above everyone who will pursue His mission.  Tiny temples, tiny menorahs dispersed throughout this present creation.

If you think being the city on a hill or the light of the world means telling people a message to get them to pray a special prayer, your vision is too small.  If I live by myself in an apartment, I can make the parts of the world I touch look more like the world God wants.  If I have a family, I can treat them with mercy, justice, and compassion.  If I have a church, if I have a workplace, if I live in the woods, I can be something even when I don’t say something, and if I am being that something, then I am saying everything I need to say to earn the right to say more.

We want to call people out of this world, but what are we calling them into?  More of the same except with crosses and doctrine?  We lament people leaving the church, but what is their reason to stay if we aren’t being something different?  If we aren’t giving people a better world to live in?  What is the point in warning people about Hell if we are complicit in perpetuating or are functionally apathetic to the Hell they live in, now?  If salt loses its saltiness, what use is it?

When people in America think of the Christian church, what do they think of?  Do they see a better world?  Do they see a better offer than what they’ve got?  Are we known as the great hope for the world, lighting a path to a better future?  If you take away the words, are we offering anything at all?

Or are we known for ignorance, power plays, anger, self-righteousness, and all-consuming personal morality that we’d like nothing better than to make totalitarian?

If you want to be the light of the world, a city on a hill, you have to be something.  It has to look like something people can see, not just play a message they can hear.

I will grant you that there is a lot broken in the world, and it can be paralyzing to think of it.  But we don’t all have to do everything.  We can all, however, start with something.  Perhaps it is in a way I behave toward the people around me.  Maybe it’s in the way I do my work or behave toward my family.  Maybe it’s a little bit of time or money that I divert to something that is not strictly about my own advancement or pleasure.  Maybe its finding a small group of like-minded people who would like to start taking care of each other.  We can all find something to make the world God wants real in our midst.

And if we could do that – if we could be that thing in the world – we wouldn’t need to worry about secularism or “losing America” or whatever it is that panics our churches these days.  We would be doing our people of God thing, and if we were doing it well, there wouldn’t be a thing anyone could say to discredit it.  If we were doing it well, people would be coming to us.

You can see glimpses of this world.  It runs as an undercurrent through the Law and the Psalms.  It flashes sharply in the criticisms of the Prophets.  It burns brightly in the words and life of the man Jesus Christ.  It sparkles in the communal life of those first century believers after Jesus’ death and resurrection.

Pastors and Teachers, show us this world in the Scriptures and in our lives.  Prophets, tell us what this world looks like, today and where we need to be going and what we stand to lose.  Evangelists, announce to those who walk in darkness that this world has come, it shines, and it carries within its borders new hope and new life for all who will come – whose king is the risen Jesus and whose God is the creator of heaven and earth.

And if you are not any of those types of people, you have the most important and challenging job of all – being in your flesh and blood that reality you confess with your lips.  Being our fundamental apologetic and proclamation in your day to day life.  Taking your tiny corner of the world and lighting it up.

Sunday Meditations: Christmas in Another Age

Twenty-one centuries ago, Israel was in a very bad situation and had been for a long time.

Centuries before that, her leaders had forgotten her calling to be YHWH’s special nation in the world, and they had become like all the other nations.  They made and broke alliances, schemed for power and territory, and fleeced their own people for money and power.  The rich could get away with murder while the poor were ground down.  The gods of the surrounding nations were adopted along with their values.

While the worship of Israel’s God was maintained in a perfunctory manner, the nation’s heart was not in it.  Idols dotted the landscape and the hearth.  People chose the most non-viable animals to sacrifice so they could check off that box without any great loss.  Spiritually and politically, she had become a people who had taken the God of her youth who had walked with her for so long and relegated Him to a dusty closet while she pursued new loves.

But becoming like the other nations carried a terrible price.  She soon found herself on the wrong side of these alliances and, as the covenant with God stipulated, she was conquered by a pagan nation and exiled, losing her own, promised land.  There was a brief window when it looked like she might be restored under Persia, but more empires came through, and eventually the wheel stopped on Rome – the conquerors of the world.

Rome had their own gods – even their Caesars were revered as becoming divine.  While they interfered little in the daily lives of the common Israelite, they had a stranglehold on the power structure.  The High Priest was appointed with Rome’s consent.  The local “King of the Jews” was an Idumean who had helped Rome capture Jerusalem.  And of course, there were the steep taxes, grinding the people down into inescapable poverty – taxes collected by their own people complicit with the Empire.

Where was God in all of this?  He was largely silent.  On auspicious occasions, prophets would speak in His name warning Israel of her coming fate and urging repentance and heartfelt return to her God who would forget her trespasses and renew His vows and restore and protect her, but Israel did not listen.  She killed those prophets – those upstarts who would overthrow the cart.  Because, you see, the powerful did not care about the loss of their faith or who was in charge or whose symbol hung over the Temple – they cared about what they always cared about: their money, their power, their fame, and if Rome would prop that up, so much the better.

I believe in the sun, even when it’s not shining.
I believe in love, even when I feel it not.
I believe in God, even when He is silent.

Anonymous poem scratched into a wall in Auschwitz

It was four hundred years between the words of Malachi and the words of Gabriel.

Into this silence, God gave a sign that He was still with His people and would not leave them to their situation.  That sign was the birth of a special child to a young woman who would not ordinarily be having a child.  This child, the angel said, would save his people from their sins.  He was both the sign of God’s presence and actions as well as the promised king who would fulfill that sign.  He was the true King of the Jews such that even pagan outsiders recognized it at his birth – the stars themselves proclaimed as much.  Although we do not know the month or date or even for certain the year this happened, this great sign and promise is what we celebrate at Christmas.

This man would be God’s presence among broken Israel.  He would woo her back, showing compassion to the very least.  He would heal her of her sicknesses and cast out oppressive spirits.  He would teach her, shed tears over her, forgive her sins, and call her to repent – to turn away from the life she knew to once again embrace a faithful calling to a faithful God who would not abandon her to judgement.  He recreated her, forming the kingdom of God around fishermen, farmers, and tax collectors.  He raised up a priesthood from prostitutes, notorious sinners, beggars, and the lame and diseased.  He did not fashion an army with swords and armor, for he saw that such was the way of destruction.  Rather, he committed the faithful spirits of his people into the hands of their God who would act.

His kingdom challenged the kingdom that was.  His warnings challenged the leaders of Israel who had sold their souls.  His message of a new regime where the high would be brought low so that the faithful could reign was met with hostility, and this dark, broken world that he challenged killed him, demonstrating the might of the present evil age over the so-called Messiah.

But God was neither thwarted nor unmoved by this willing sacrifice, and He raised Jesus from the dead, exalting him above all worldly powers, giving him the name that is above all names as a reward for his faithfulness, vindicating his message, his identity, and the future that waited for his people.

God marked the beginning of the end of their age by sending the Holy Spirit, letting them know the time was near.  Now, instead of one Jesus, there were thousands of Jesuses, spreading his message and doing his works.  Gentiles who heard what God was doing turned away from their empty lives of dissolution and pursuit of power to follow the true God, having believed in what God had done in Jesus.  And lo, they also received the promised Spirit, being adopted as sons and part of the same destiny as faithful Israel!

Jerusalem would be sacked and the Temple – that last vestige of the old religious regime of oppressive power – would fall, but that kingdom Jesus had built survived, spread, and grew like sown seeds.  And these plants grew, Jew and Gentile together, until the day when Caesar himself bent the knee and declared Jesus the Lord of the Roman Empire.  Jesus, centuries after his death, had conquered the world, and Israel’s God was the God of all nations.

The trajectory of the world was never the same after that.  No, things did not always go well for the kingdom, nor did they always act in a manner consistent with their identity and calling.  But despite these ebbs and flows, the faith spread outside the bounds of the known world at the time of the New Testament and into all the globe.

That kingdom as we knew it is gone, now, and its influence is receding.  We find ourselves in a situation that, at times, looks very much like exiled Israel, first century Israel, and the early church all at once, along with our own unique particulars.  When we read the Scriptures, we find narratives that sometimes seem to fit our own situation and sometimes do not.

We have our own set of crises, too.  Certainly, in parts of the world, faithful followers of Jesus are actively persecuted.  In other parts, they are not but look suspiciously like an Israel right before the Exile, having the forms of religion but without the heart – the intense love for God that is coupled with an intense love for neighbor that manifests as a just and compassionate society.  The rise of secularism in the West makes faith untenable for some and perfunctory for others.  Environmental damage creates more and more palpable effects.  And looming over all of this is the prospect of mankind’s destruction – individually by Death, corporately by war, and all created things by the slow death of the universe itself.

Is this where God has brought us?  Were the powerful events of the past just high points on the road to ultimate futility?

The people of God have asked themselves this question at many times throughout history, and always their trust was rewarded, even if it came through dark times.

Our prophets need to rise up and have the guts to speak.  I don’t mean the milquetoast “God is releasing angels of harvest” sort of prophets that tell us nothing and lead us nowhere.  I don’t mean the prophets who affirm the world powers and assure us of peace and safety under their rule.  I mean the ones who can show us the signs God has for us that He is with us in these moments and has not left us to our fate.  I mean the ones who can tell us where our road will lead unless we turn to greater faithfulness and what that faithfulness will look like in our time, in our world.

We celebrate Christmas not only as a commemoration of the powerful, world-changing work God did in Jesus in the past, but as a sacramental sign and seal of a current and future hope – a hope of new creation and the road to get us there.  The signs and the events they heralded were once new, tentative, and uncertain things.  The signs to our age will be as well.  Let us find them where we may as candles of hope lit against this present darkness, and in those times when all we can see is darkness, we can live in trust, anyway, knowing that our God has never failed us.

Sunday Meditations: Doubt and the Silence of God

The issue of the silence of God has come up in a few conversations I’ve had with friends over the past few weeks, primarily on the issue of recovery.  Why is it that we can earnestly pray for insight or healing or spiritual growth or changing circumstances – all seemingly things God would want – and yet we often get nothing back?

This is not a question unique to individual, contemporary Christians.  The Bible records God’s people struggling with this phenomenon almost from the beginning.  Where is God?  Why isn’t He saying or doing anything?  How long does He intend for these terrible circumstances to go on?  Why do the wicked prosper and the righteous experience troubles?  The Old Testament is full of this wondering and, not uncommonly, followed up by accusations.

Part of this is the problem of evil – how can there be a good, omnipotent God and also so much evil and suffering?  That is a very worthy issue of meditation.  However, I want to focus particularly on the issue of silence.  I want to talk about the experience all people who follow God seem to have: the experience of earnestly reaching out to God for something and getting nothing back – no response, no feelings, nothing.  Dead air.

This is where our atheist friends have a very simple and cogent point: you get nothing back because there’s nothing there to give you something back.  You pray and nothing happens because God doesn’t exist.  This is a very good argument.  It explains the particular data under consideration with the fewest number of entities.  I’ll circle back around to this as well.

One of the things that distorts the Old Testament in our heads is the time dilation produced by the stories being one right after the other.  A lot of times, we skim over all the boring genealogies and references to other kings to get to the meat of a story.  Because of this, in our heads, we perceive the stories in the Old Testament as happening very closely together, as if Noah went through his flood, and then next week, Abraham was called.

If we pay attention to those time indicators, though, we realize that rather large amounts of time pass between many of those stories – sometimes years, centuries, or longer.  In our heads, the Old Testament presents a world where God is constantly talking and doing supernatural things, and certainly there are stretches where that’s what’s portrayed.  But when you pull back and look at the landscape of the stories, you discover that there are countless days, weeks, months, years, decades, and centuries where nothing of the sort happens.  Even in the midst of some of God’s more talkative eras, those events are portrayed as special.  For every day God says something to Abraham, there are many weeks or years where He says nothing to Abraham.

So, even though we have perhaps the greatest concentration of spectacular stories of God’s presence and intervention in the Old Testament, it does not give us a picture of daily communication or intervention from God being a common thing.  What is far more common is silence – God’s original language.  God’s people may be praying regularly, but God isn’t regularly talking back or acting in response, and often that response is delayed far longer than the people praying hope for.  They are making their way in a difficult world, and events challenge their faith, their theologies, and their identity, and they cry out and, often, get nothing back.  Even when God does respond, we need to pay attention to those time indicators.  Often, entire generations are born and die without God responding.

Sometimes, the theological interpretations of these stories in the Bible give us insight into God’s planning and reasoning in these stretches of silence, but they often do not.

I can’t help but think of the contrast of this picture with our contemporary evangelical pictures and expectations of how “life with God” is supposed to go.  I am often discouraged because I don’t always feel God’s presence, or I pray at night and it seems like the only audience is the ceiling.  I certainly have experienced my share of weird stuff, but there’s only a small number (approaching zero) of things that can only be explained by a supernatural intervention.

But reading about my spiritual forefathers comforts me, in a way, because not experiencing these things is pretty much the default for the faithful people of God.  The coming of the Spirit changes this, somewhat, but I’ll look at the experiences of someone who really had the Spirit in a moment.

What I want to do is really internalize the fact that faithful God-worshipers were born, lived, and died in Babylonian captivity.  Not just some, but the overwhelming majority of God’s people who were faithful, loved God, believed the Scriptures, and obeyed Torah did so without ever seeing a prophet arise or a fire and light show, much less individually hear from God or see Him act in some unmistakable way.  Rather, we see people looking at their perfectly normal, unremarkable lives and experiences – or even looking at circumstances that would seem to contradict the idea that God was there or that God was good or that God was trustworthy – and just assert that He is, in fact, there, and everything around them was a testimony to this.

But this understanding is challenged, and people struggle with it, individually and collectively in the Bible.  And this has never gone away.  To this day, rabbis continue to reflect and write about this issue.  Struggling with the silence of God despite the faithful and earnest outcries of His followers.

When we read of Jesus in the gospels, we see his own followers and advocates struggling with doubt despite a relative lack of silence.  John the Baptist wonders if Jesus is actually the Messiah.  Peter is walking on freaking water and begins to doubt.  Even if you don’t believe the miracles in the gospels happened, the narrative tells us their presence did not have the impact one would expect.  To the gospel writers, it didn’t seem weird at all to have people doubting even in the face of spectacular events.

But, interestingly, this phenomenon of God’s silence occurs in the life of Jesus.

Even though, historically, Christians have disagreed (and continue to disagree) on the exact nature of Jesus’ relationship to God, the one thing most Christians have agreed on is that the relationship is uniquely close and that by observing Jesus we get our clearest picture both of what God looks like in the world and what faithfulness to God looks like in the world.  If anyone’s prayers are heard, if anyone is constantly aware of the presence of God, if anyone has unbroken mystical communion with God and fellowship in the Spirit, it’s Jesus.

So, what happens with Gethsemane?

The night of Jesus’ capture prior to his execution, Jesus knows what’s going to happen to him.  And he is in distress about it.  Extreme distress.  So distressed that he could die.  Faced with these circumstances and this distress, he turns to God in prayer.

But God does not respond.

Jesus does not get a feeling of peace in his heart.  Jesus does not receive ministration from an angel.  Jesus is not delivered.  None of those things happen.  Not only does the text not say they happen, but the things Jesus actually does tells us they didn’t.

He prays for hours.  He does not pray and come to peace with it.  He’s at it for hours.  He has to keep waking his disciples up and is genuinely upset that he is suffering so much and they are falling asleep.  He is praying so earnestly that sweat like drops of blood begins to stream from him.  For hours.  And what is he praying for?  He’s praying that these terrible things that are about to happen to him won’t happen.  He wants it to go away.  He is scared.  He is looking at torture and death being the very next thing he experiences, and he is desperately crying to God about it.  For hours.

This is not a picture of a man who was given a “peace about it” or whose faith left him serene in all circumstances.

Thank God for the Gethsemane story.

Jesus pours himself out to God for hours, begging for deliverance, sharing his fears and distress, throwing all that out into the night sky, and nothing.  Nothing!  And how does Jesus respond to the silence?

“Nevertheless, not my will, but Yours be done.”

Jesus is faithful and trusts God in the silence.  He is Israel pleading with God about her troubles and seeing no intervention, and he does what Israel is supposed to do: trust anyway.

I have heard it said that the only time someone can be courageous is when they are afraid.  Perhaps the only time someone can truly trust is when they have reason to doubt.

And of course, we know how the story ends.  Jesus has to go through those terrible experiences, and not only that, but he feels forsaken by God while they happen.  He is not serenely enduring the cross.  His life is slipping away from him, and he is not comforted by the presence of God.  And yet, AND YET this man says, “Into Your hands, I commit my spirit.”  That resolution that he will trust in the face of circumstances that, empirically, are clearly telling him that God is not there, and Jesus genuinely feels like God is not there.

And that man who trusted is raised from the dead and given a name that is above all rulers and powers.  His trust was not in vain.  His trust was rewarded!  But it can’t be trust if you don’t actually have to trust.

Folks, if Jesus has to go through this, surely any of us will.  Servants are not greater than their masters.  But take heart, Jesus tells us from two thousand years ago, because he has overcome the world.

I have never been confronted with the circumstances Jesus was confronted with, or even Israel in her day to day.  I have a long projected lifespan (although any random circumstance can cut that short).  My sufferings are relative to my lot in life which, compared with Jesus or even most people in the world, is pretty great.  Their are faithful Christians in Haiti who are living under a corrugated metal lean-to who will likely die that way, and I agonize in my warm bed at night because I pray and don’t feel anything in response.

Still, our feelings of suffering are relative to our own circumstances; they don’t come from an objective comparison.  When I pray and don’t feel like anything has actually happened but me talking aloud to no one, or when I pray earnestly for a condition to change and absolutely nothing happens, I also doubt.  I doubt, just like you.  I wonder if there is really a God there.  If He is there, is He anything like what I conceive Him to be?  Does He hear me when I pray?  Does He care?  Is He going to do anything?

It is in those moments, and it is arguably only in those moments, when I can trust.  And trust does not look like feeling different.  Trust does not look like getting the response I want when I want it.  Trust does not mean getting outcomes that make sense to me, theologically.  Trust does not mean emptying my brain so that I can adopt a view of the world that I strongly, strongly suspect is not real.

If Jesus is to be my guide in this matter, trust is acknowledging the reality of my feelings, the lack of response, the terrible outcomes, and in the face of that seemingly overwhelming tide saying, “You know what?  F*** it.  I’m going to trust, anyway.”

Jesus probably didn’t say “F*** it.”  That’s an Anglo-Saxon word.

I have read enough, seen enough, and believe enough that I will live with my real doubts, real fears, real feelings of being alone, and real circumstances – knowing full well I might never feel differently and my circumstances may never change – and trust, anyway, as many of my brothers and sisters have before me and do now.

That may end up making me a huge idiot.  I don’t care.  I’m an adult, and I don’t need to justify my trust to anyone.  Nor my doubts, so those folks out there who think I don’t have true faith because my life isn’t an unending stream of supernatural communication from God and constant validation of my faith, I don’t need your feedback, either.  I have to live my life, not you.

The reality for me is that these periods of silence are punctuated by fruits of the Spirit, communion, powerful changes, and yes, even the occasional event that’s hard to explain any other way.  And when I don’t have these moments, others do.  And even if we didn’t, the fact is, that when I hear the word, I believe.

Perhaps part of trusting God, despite how I feel or what I believe I really need from Him, is trusting that His silence is the best thing I could be getting at the time.

Sunday Meditations: Forgiving Evangelicalism

In a recent conversation with a friend, I pointed out a glaring inconsistency in my own behavior (one of many, I assure you).  I will be congenial and polite to atheists, but I will flame the eyebrows off evangelicals, who are arguably much closer to me in many respects.  Obviously, I’m not saying those roles should be reversed – I should be congenial and polite to everyone.  But it’s interesting how emotionally affected I get when I encounter evangelicals engaging a discussion by quoting Bible verses that “obviously” mean what they think they mean or accusing someone who understands those passages differently as not taking the Bible seriously.

If you recognize a flaw in yourself, and you find that flaw in someone else, it’s hard to react neutrally to that.  We often are either much too complacent about that flaw because we empathize, or we hate that flaw in ourselves so much that we find it intolerable in anyone else.  I have been in that second category most of my life and am trying to move away from that, but nevertheless, because I have come out of a sort of fundamentalist evangelical framework, when I run across people saying the exact things I would have said five years ago, it makes me crazy.  It’s intolerable.  This is something I try to keep in mind when an atheist who has left Christianity seems so over the top in their rhetoric about it.

So, a large part of my disproportionate reaction to fundamentalism\evangelicalism (honestly, whatever historical differences used to exist between those two groups, they barely exist now and are more aesthetic differences than actual differences of content) is a character defect in how I view flaws in myself as well as those same flaws in others.  This is something I know about myself and have known for a long time, and I’m working on it and making progress, although I’m not yet where I want to be.

But there is another facet to this behavior: I believe, in some sense, that I have been wronged by evangelicalism.  Again, I keep in mind this is how some atheists feel who leave Christianity behind.

Let me say at the outset that there is a big difference in an objective sense between feeling wronged and actually being wronged.  Surely, evangelicals did not intend to wrong me and could persuasively argue that the grievances I have from evangelicalism are not real grievances.  However, subjectively, there’s no difference at all.

I grew up in a fundamentalist Baptist denomination.  I have run into groups that are more fundamentalist than the one I grew up in, but they’re pretty few and far between.  In this upbringing, I learned the following things:

  • The Bible is, more or less, a transcript of God’s own words, and the best way to understand it is a plain language literalism unless it gets too crazy to do so.
  • Everyone is going to Hell unless they pray the Sinner’s Prayer and mean it.
  • Once you pray the Sinner’s Prayer and mean it, you will go to Heaven when you die.
  • It is your responsibility to get as many people as you can to pray the Sinner’s Prayer and mean it.
  • A day is coming when Jesus will rapture all the Christians to heaven and destroy the world.

Now, in fairness, many evangelicals would look at that list and disavow some of the items as written.  The people who taught these things to me would also probably disavow some of the items as written.  I wrote them from the standpoint of a child learning these things.

As I grew older and moved in circles that were less overtly fundamentalist but still thoroughly evangelical, I began to take on more nuance and depth theologically than the statements as portrayed in that list, above.  Yet, at core, all the basic elements were essentially the same.

Yes, we acknowledged the language in the Bible was shaped by the culture and experiences of the men who wrote it, yet, functionally, it still behaved as if it were a transcript of God’s own words that were best understood in the same way one understands a newspaper.  Yes, we acknowledged that conversion is a matter of the heart and not reciting a special prayer, but the fundamental predicament and solution were the same.  Yes, we acknowledged that it might not be in the best interest of the gospel to badger continually everyone I knew into converting, but the danger was real and imminent and I always needed to find those tactically sound moments to bring the issue up again, engage strangers, etc.  Yes, we acknowledged the rapture idea might be a little iffy and we looked for a new heavens and earth, but it was still a discontinuous destruction of the world in favor of spiritual realities becoming concrete.

In other words, some of the contours got softer and there was a lot more meat on those bones, but the skeleton was largely intact.  Here’s what the Bible is, here’s the core problem it defines, here’s the solution it offers, now go and help fix it before it’s too late.

This core defined my thoughts on God, myself, my relationship to God, the role and meaning of the Bible, the significance of Jesus, what I thought of my fellow man, what were the evils of society and how should they be fixed, my hope for the future, etc.

If it were just a matter of a set of beliefs that I later came to be somewhat critical of, it might not be that big of a deal, but there were a host of practical effects that came from it.  I ruined friendships because of this set of beliefs.  I held people in contempt because of this set of beliefs.  I held myself in contempt because of this set of beliefs.  I threw myself into supporting those who were rich, white, and powerful because I thought they had the best chance of making those beliefs the law of the land.  I held myself back from various experiences because of those beliefs while condemning others for having them.  I was self-righteous because of those beliefs.  I gave up a National Merit scholarship to Harvard and a dream of studying at Oxford for a sectarian college because of those beliefs (and also, the application for Harvard was super long).  I blew off “liberal” professors who tried their hardest to teach me realities about the Bible because they were not reinforcing my beliefs.  I learned nothing from very smart people because of those beliefs.  I could go on and on.

And in the darkest moment of my life (to date, anyway), these beliefs did not help me at all.  In fact, they made things worse.

But it’s not just those effects, either.

Because, you see, I loved the Bible and still do.  The whole time I thought I was “taking the Bible seriously,” I was embroiled in a program designed to keep me from ever doing that.  I revered the Bible, certainly, but I didn’t know the Bible.  Yes, I knew the content of its text very well, but I already “knew” what it meant – it meant the evangelical story.

I was not encouraged to find other possible readings to decide if they might fit the text better.  If someone presented information about the Bible that might undermine the evangelical claims about the Bible or its teaching, that person was to be refuted or ignored.  They were portrayed as “attacking” the Bible when, 90% of the time, they were just trying to understand the Bible for what it actually was as opposed to what we kept tribally saying it was.  Data that supported the narrative was let in; data that contested the narrative was soundly denied and rejected.

In such an environment, I would never get to know the Bible for what it is, because I was already committed to an idea of what the Bible must be.  I would never get know what a given text meant, because I was already committed to an idea of what the text must mean.  And I was committed to the enterprise of protecting and strengthening those preexisting commitments.  If something challenged those commitments, by definition that was false teaching and rejected.  In this way, evangelicalism became infallible by proxy.  Their story could not be critiqued because their story was the only measure by which critique could occur.

At no point did anyone ever intend for any of this to be harmful to me.  People taught me these things out of love and concern, for the most part.  But looking back over my life, it’s hard for me not to see that it was harmful all the same.

I have grievances against evangelicalism.  I was hurt by it, hampered by it, and I am still angry about it and resent it, and that bleeds over into anger and resentment toward those who champion it, even though I would have been right there with them a handful of years ago.

Today, I do not think I have latched on to a higher truth that evangelicalism has missed.  If anything, I’m far more skeptical about anything I think I know.  This is where I perhaps part psychological ways with most post-Christian atheists; they tend to believe they have left lies for the solace of the True Truths of naturalism, positivism, and empiricism.  I just have left a system I believe has truth in it, but is not wholly tenable, and I do not think I have found the True Truth.  I am just profoundly skeptical of any justification I have for being dogmatic.  Or others, for that matter.

Sometimes, I bounce off all kinds of crazy walls, trying things on for size to see if they fit better, and eventually rejecting them when they don’t, or modifying them if they’re close, but always realizing that this is my best guess at the time.

Ultimately, I am recognizing that all my beliefs have a level of tentativeness associated with them.  This has created in me, not a spirit of despair, but a spirit of inquiry and discovery – a spirit of reforming and always reforming.  One might say that it is dangerous to put much trust on a system that is always shifting to some degree or another, and you’re right!  This is why I have to trust God, who is what He is no matter what I or anyone else says about Him.  He is bigger than my understanding at any given time, and He knows I am dust.

And I think He wants me to forgive evangelicalism, and I think He’s my only hope of doing so.

Sunday Meditations: God Incarnate

There’s an old joke that is in every preacher’s Bag o’ Sermon Illustrations that goes something like this:

A man’s neighborhood began to flood.  Many of his neighbors had evacuated.  Others left with early rescue efforts.  But this man was a man of faith and believed God would save him, so he prayed earnestly.

Presently, some people in a long rowboat came by.  “Get in the boat!” they yelled.  “We have enough room and can get you out of here!”

“Thank you, but no,” said the man.  “I have faith that God will save me.”  And he returned to his prayers.

Over time, the waters rose.  The man had to move to the second floor of his house.  Outside, a motorboat pulled up outside his window.

“Come out the window!” they called.  “We’ll get under you and you can drop to the boat!  We’ll take you to safety.”

“No,” replied the man.  “God Himself will save me from the flood.”  And he went back to praying.

The waters rose, and the man had to climb up onto his roof.  Eventually, a helicopter flew overhead.  A man leaned out with a megaphone and said, “We’re going to drop a ladder down to you!  Climb up and we’ll take you to safety.”

The man cupped his hands around his mouth and yelled, “No!  God will save me!”

Eventually, the waters rose over the man’s head, and he drowned.

As he was ushered into Heaven, he made his way to God’s throne room and said, “I don’t mean to complain, but I died in a flood, and I prayed constantly for you to save me!”

“I know,” said God, “but what else did you want Me to do?  I sent you a rowboat, a motorboat, and a helicopter.”

*rimshot*

The reason this joke plays to us is because we understand that the man in the story is expecting God’s intervention to be a dramatically supernatural affair, and because of this, he’s not only blinded to, but actively rejects, the more mundane forms of salvation that get presented to him.  Because they are mundane, he does not discern the salvation of God behind them.

When we read the Bible, we are drawn to the big fire and light shows of God’s supernatural intervention.  But the glare from those displays obscures the much more common portrayals in the biblical stories – that perfectly “natural” things occur, but God’s purposes are behind them.

When Israel goes to battle with nations far more powerful than herself, she does not expect that a giant warrior surrounded by blazing light will appear before her or that a horde of angels with fiery swords will carve a path through the enemy.  Yet, she does expect to win the battle – with swords and spears and casualties.  However, because God is with her, she expects success even in the face of overwhelming odds.

The spread and cure of disease.  The intervention of nations.  Peculiar cattle breeding results.  The kindness of strangers.  All of these perfectly “worldly” things are presented to us in the Scriptures as (potentially) manifestations of God in the world.  The Semitic concept of a miracle isn’t necessarily something that disrupts the natural order of things, but rather is a clear sign from God.  This may include the sun standing still in the sky, but it also includes the birth of a baby at an opportune moment.  A man levitating in front of his house is not a miracle because it signifies nothing, but meeting a foreigner who waters your cattle for you or receiving a child you’ve prayed for can be miracles because of what they signify.

This continues through the New Testament as well.  The sharp division we draw between “physical” and “spiritual” or “natural” and “supernatural” just does not seem to exist in the New Testament.  The upcoming war with Rome, casting out demons, the spiritual reformation of Israel, the manifestations of the Spirit, the spread of the worship of Israel’s God to the Gentile nations – these things are all part and parcel together and roll together as a narrative about what God is doing in the world.  It is we, not the Scriptures, who have filtered anything out of the narrative that reeks of the material or political.

And we do this to our detriment.

Sure, this principle can be misused.  Every time a hurricane hits, some televangelist ascribes it to the judgement of God for some perceived sin or another.  And if you and I should meet when I am experiencing tragedy in my life, you are not allowed to mention “God’s plans” to me for some time.

But these abuses do not change the fact that the narrative we receive from Scripture is that, while God is capable of doing big, supernatural, dramatic things, these are noteworthy for how unusual they are.  What is far more common are the simple mechanisms of biology, physics, politics, and the human heart operating at a level that everyone can observe, but with eyes of faith see that God is in them.  The spiritual work of God is incarnate in the dirt, spit, and blood of history, both in the larger picture of God’s people through history and our individual lives as well.

How often, for example, have we prayed and prayed to God for guidance, for internal peace about a stressful situation, or to sanctify us in a particular area and help with our struggle with a particular sin, and yet we don’t tell a single human being about any of this?

One of my favorite, wonderful, messy passages in the Bible is James 5:13-18:

Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective. Elijah was a human being like us, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain and the earth yielded its harvest.

James 5:13-18 (NRSV)

I love that passage for bundling all that together.  You pray, you talk to your elders, you confess your sins to one another (as opposed to God alone), and it is through these mechanisms that you will be healed.  Healed physically?  Healed spiritually?  Forgiven?  yes, all of those things.  It’s all a ball of wax to James, and it involves other people.

Because, you see, barring some dramatic supernatural event, God will not verbally assure me that my sins are forgiven.  God will not verbally counsel me or offer me words of encouragement.  God will not physically hug me.

But a human being – created in the image of God and a temple of His Spirit – can do all those things.  The search for communion with God ought not create lives of isolation, but rather lives of community with those who carry His image into the world.  The search for His mighty works should not focus on fires from heaven or a miraculous cure of disease, but rather the spread of His love and justice in the world and the powers of death being beaten back in laboratories, hospital tents, revitalized communities, and disaster recovery centers.

And perhaps an individual whose life is on a direct course to its own destruction begins to course correct.  They have an internal prodding to be different.  They find hope, support, and guidance from others who have walked that path before them.  Perhaps a life of patterns and behaviors that have all but stripped that divine image from them begins to fracture and a new life begins to emerge.  Is that simply healthy human interaction or good psychology?

Yes.  I also call it a miracle.

Sunday Meditations: Hope of an Afterlife

I’ve been a little blog silent for a while.  The series on how ethics are pursued in the Bible (and beyond) was an intensive effort for me, and I was all meditated out.

When I was in college, I asked a guy in my Intro. to Philosophy class if he would still be a Christian even if he would still end up in Hell.  After class, he caught me on my way out and said, “Probably not.”  That kind of honesty is what spurs good spiritual growth.

The ideas around what happens to us after we die are a big part of the messaging in the evangelical world, today.  The entire story of God and His people is told in a way that orients it around what is perceived to be the key problem: sinners who die go to Hell.  This begs a solution: Jesus paid the penalty for your sins so, if you believe, you will not go to Hell and will go to Heaven, instead.  This also defines an ongoing ethic: Try to help as many people not go to Hell as possible and, along the way, make sure you are living/believing in such a manner so as not to end up in Hell, yourself.

I’ve written before about some of the weaknesses I think this story has, both from a biblical perspective and a practical one, and I don’t plan on revisiting all that.  I do want to use it to stage a question: how much of our Christian hope hangs on a specific idea of the afterlife?  It’s a worthwhile question for a couple of reasons.

One reason is that, even though the subject of what happens after death does arise in the Bible a fair amount, it’s hard to take all the biblical data and create a picture that makes all the data fit nicely and neatly.  Depending on what passages you look at, some sound like death is simply the end.  Others sound like our spirits all collect in some common place.  Some indicate an ongoing spiritual experience that can include reward or punishment.  Other passages seem to indicate a physical resurrection.  Some passages indicate that we are conscious and aware after death, while others describe the experience as being “asleep.”

Arranging the material chronologically helps some, especially as we pull in commentary and extrabiblical literature to help us out.  We begin with the idea that everyone dies and goes to a final rest that is more or less common to everyone.  The way your life continues in world history is through your descendants, hence a huge Old Testament emphasis on having lots of children that is not really picked up in the New Testament.

As we move forward, we pick up ideas like their being places of imprisonment or bliss after you die.  There are pictures of national resurrections of Israel that cause / overlap with / become a nascent hope of a physical resurrection.  By the time we get to the end of the New Testament, we have two resurrections: one of the martyrs at the time of the coming of the Son of Man, and one at the final judgement.

But even this does not give us sharp boundaries.  These historical ideas of the afterlife are not like Neapolitan ice cream with well-defined strata.  Bits and pieces of these ideas end up in places we would not expect them, going in both directions.  Diversity exists on the issue at many points in biblical history and in the church going forward.  So, today, while we might generally agree on some common eschatological elements (e.g. the Apostles’ Creed “the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting”), what happens to us after we die is murky and seems always to have been – for obvious reasons, I guess.

But the second reason is more practical.  I sometimes wonder if our conception of the afterlife does not become our source of trust and hope as well as our motivator for action.  In other words, it becomes an idol.

Death is a scary prospect, and the older I get, the more this specter likes to hang around.  We don’t want to die; we want to go on.  But there is a subtle, yet important, difference between saying, “I am not afraid of death because I trust that God will take care of me, even beyond death” and saying “I am not afraid of death because I know I’ll be in Heaven after I die.”  One of those commitments urges us to commit our spirits into the hands of God believing He will do the right thing.  The other commitment urges us to believe in a particular metaphysical outlook and draw our confidence from our certainty in that concept.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not suggesting that trust in God for what happens to you after you die and a belief in Heaven are incompatible.  But my question is: where is your trust, really?  What if you don’t go to Heaven when you die?  What if you wink out of conscious existence until God restores you in a new earth?  Or, to really challenge ourselves, what if God had given no indicators about resurrection at all?  What if, when we died, we just stayed dead and that was that, as far as we know?

My point is this: if we take away your certainty about the afterlife, do we also take away your devotion to God?  What is the basis of your faith?  On what grounds is God worthy of worship?  Are loving God with all one’s heart and loving your neighbor as yourself worthy pursuits even if the reward of an afterlife isn’t waiting in the wings?  Is your pursuit of following Christ primarily a mechanism by which to ensure your own survival?

Like most things, this is a process.  I believe at this point in my life, I am slowly (sloooooooooowly) coming to the position of trusting God instead of my cherished outcomes, and I like to think this is a deepening of what it means to have faith – to recognize that my Self is not something I created and does not belong to me by right.  It was given.  It’s a gift.  When the time comes when I no longer have that gift, I can throw myself into God’s arms trusting that, whatever He’s going to do, it will be right.

And when we look back at those little intrusions of the hope of resurrection into the earlier parts of the Old Testament, we discover something interesting.  This forecast does not come from supernatural revelation, but from someone assuming that God will keep His promises and concluding that the grave cannot be the end.  The faith of those saints was not in a doctrine of the afterlife or a specific conception about exactly what would happen, but their trust was in the faithfulness of God.

And if God has made promises, and God is trustworthy, and God is capable of delivering on them, there is nothing that will prevent that from happening, not even death itself.  In this way, the hope of a life after death is a negotiable byproduct of first and foremost being convinced about who God is and what He is like and placing your trust in that God, both for the trajectory of this life and whatever may come afterward.