Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Sentimental Does Not Equal Sacred

Sometimes I wonder if sentimentality contributes to a misunderstanding of the gospel more than just about anything else. We turn this cross-bearing way of life into an idyllic portrait of Jesus laughing and playing with little children and somehow the hope of all creation becomes nothing more than a Precious Moments figurine or a Thomas Kincaid painting or whatever other way we can find to turn the revolutionary message of Jesus into something that will stir our emotions and makes us feel more religious or good or spiritual for the moment.

Nowhere is this way of thinking more evident than during the Christmas season. We have these idealized versions of the birth of Jesus running through our heads (if we are even thinking about Jesus rather than the shopping we need to get done) where Joseph and Mary find a place to stay (after being turned away by the heartless innkeeper) just in time for her to give the world's cleanest and least painful birth to a child who "no crying he makes". Meanwhile, "the cattle are lowing", "the ox and the lamb kept time" while a little boy plays his drum, and "the ox and ass before him bow" (this must be a pretty gifted ox, bowing and tapping its foot in rhythm at the same time). Soon after the shepherds and wise men show up and the star which the wise men followed kindly serves as a spotlight on Jesus for a climactic end to the whole production. It's a little surprising we haven't found a way to get Santa himself into the story somehow. Perhaps his reindeer were pulling a sleigh filled with the wise men's gifts.

It's not surprising then that we try to make our own Christmas celebrations correspond in perfection to the idealized perfection we imagine encompassed that first Christmas. The tree, the gifts, the Christmas cards, the pictures, the dinner, must also be just as perfect as the perfect baby in the perfect manger or we'll have missed out on something. If the whole day doesn't culminate in some cataclysmic level of joy and absolute bliss, then it becomes a disappointment rather than a celebration.

But this all bears very little resemblance to the way Luke actually tells the story of Jesus' birth...or any birth story that has ever been told for that matter. Have we forgotten that this is an actual birth story of a real human baby?
The births
of my two children are two of the bloodiest, messiest, and most awkward experiences of my entire life and I wasn't even the one doing the birthing. If Jesus was indeed fully human as orthodox Christian faith claims, then why would we imagine that his birth would be any different? In fact, it seems that contrasting Jesus' kingly nature with the ordinary and even lowly nature of his birth is precisely part of the point that Luke is making in the way that he tells the story.

Luke begins the story of Jesus' birth by giving us some context. He tells us that it was in the days when Caesar Augustus had ordered a census to be taken of the whole Roman Empire. This was the first census taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria and everyone had to return to their hometown to be registered. So Joseph went with Mary to his hometown of Bethlehem. In telling us these things, Luke is giving us some historical background and setting the scene like the professional story teller that he is but he is also doing much more than that. When I talk about the birth of my son, I usually don't bother to mention that he was born during the Obama administration when Pat Quinn was governor of Illinois. That's because those details seem completely irrelevant to something as personal as the birth of my own child. For Luke, however, it is relevant to place the birth of Jesus in the context of the world powers of his day. This is because Luke wants us to see right away that this is not the birth of just another Jewish boy. It is not merely a personal, family event but one that has significance for the whole world. In fact, when many in the Roman Empire spoke about Caesar Augustus, they used words like savior and Lord. Augustus was known as the one who had brought peace to the empire. So when the angels proclaim to the shepherds that a savior had been born in the city of David who was Christ the Lord and they proclaimed peace on earth, this is no mere coincidence. Luke is saying in story form what all the early Christians believed; that even though Caesar was widely known as Lord and savior of the whole world, it was really only Jesus, a descendant of the great King David, who was the true Lord, savior, and prince of peace.

Of course, we might expect that if Jesus were the next world ruler then his birth would be announced in the capital city of Rome or at least at the Temple in Jerusalem and there would be trumpets and streamers and royal feasts with all of the most important people in attendance. Instead, he is born in a tiny village in the part of the house where animals slept. (This image of Mary being turned away by a heartless innkeeper even while she is having birth pangs in the middle of the night is reading a lot into the story that isn't there. Luke simply says "While they were there, the days were completed for her to give birth" so they could have already been in Bethlehem for a while when it was time. Furthermore, the word often translated as "inn", the place where there was no room, is probably better translated as family room or guest room (as it is in Luke 22:11). Most ancient houses had an attached but somewhat separate room where the animals slept which is probably where Mary and Joseph were. It is likely that there simply wasn't enough room for the birthing process in the main room of the house with many other relatives staying there for the census.) Additionally, Jesus' birth is not announced to VIPs and heads of state. It is announced to lowly, unimportant shepherds in the fields nearby.

The one true king, lord, savior, and prince of peace is born among smelly animals, laid in the box where those animals ate, and worshiped by unnamed, lowly shepherds. This is our gospel, our good news; that the king of all did not cling to his kingly status and use it against us but humbled himself to our lowly position so that we might be a part of his kingdom. We only cheapen this magnificent reality when we turn it into a sentimental, feel good, greeting card kind of idea that we celebrate once a year by gorging ourselves on shopping and food. God calls us to humble ourselves as well; to lower ourselves to the position of those in need, to learn what it is like to live in their flesh because that is what God did for us...and not just in December, but everyday, as a way of life. Only then do we truly honor Jesus as Lord.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

A New David

According to the opening verse of the book of Micah, the word of the Lord came to Micah "in the days Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah." This means that Micah was prophesying in the southern kingdom of Judah around the same time that the northern kingdom of Israel was being destroyed and exiled by Assyria. This brought the armies of superpower Assyria right to Judah's doorstep. In fact, Assyria did conquer many parts of Judah and Hezekiah was forced to pay tribute of gold and silver to prevent further destruction. Even then, Sennacherib, king of Assyria threatened to take all of Judah, especially the capital city of Jerusalem, by force. It was only because Hezekiah sought the Lord in prayer that Sennacherib was turned back and Jerusalem was spared.

Clearly, these were dark days for Judah, barely scrapping out an existence under the menacing shadow of Assyria's mighty power. Judah's spiritual health as God's people wasn't in any better shape either. The prophecies of Micah reflect this gloomy reality. The opening verses of Micah, which describe the mighty power of God as he comes to punish Judah for its harlotry, set the tone for the book as a whole.

While Micah certainly would not be mistaken for the most cheerful piece of literature ever written, it is not without its moments of hope and inspiration. One of those is the sermon text for the final week of Advent, Micah 5:2-5. There we are told that a ruler will rise up from Bethlehem, despite its small size, to shepherd the people of Israel. Bethlehem would be nothing but a small, completely insignificant place unworthy of mention by the prophet Micah, were not for one very important person who was born there. Bethlehem was the home of King David, the model king of Israel. Therefore, to say that a leader would arise from Bethlehem was to say that another David was on his way.

So often, this is the hope of the Old Testament. Repeatedly, the prophets find different ways to say basically this same thing: one day we will have a king like David again and he will be the savior of Israel, the one whose reign is the reign of God. Its no wonder then that the earliest Christians, who were mostly Jews and had their whole lives shaped by this hope, easily saw the promise fulfilled in Jesus. Matthew makes the connection to these verses from Micah explicit in his gospel by having the religious scholars quote them to the Magi who are seeking the new born king. It is this king and his kingdom whose beginning we celebrate at Christmas but the final fulfillment of which we still await.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Santa or Smelter?

We spend the season of Advent looking forward to the full establishment of Jesus' kingdom when he returns in glory. But what do you imagine that the coming of that kingdom will be like? Its so easy - especially this time of year - to think that Jesus is something like Santa; that upon his arrival everything we've ever hoped for will magically appear. Its easy to think that the kingdom of God will simply be the affirmation of all of our highest hopes and dreams for what the world should be. It comes naturally to us to think that we've got it all right, all figured out and that when Jesus shows up we will be vindicated and everyone will see how right we were. It seems to be human nature to assume that the arrival of God will require no change on our part; only on the part of others.

In other words, we are often all too eager to ask the question that the people of Israel ask in Malachi 2:17. "Where is the God of justice?" That is, "Why doesn't God show up and punish the wicked and reward the righteous?" Of course, in asking that we typically count ourselves among the righteous and therefore expect that there will be only reward for us.

In Malachi 3:1-4, God is indeed on his way. However, the messenger of the Lord reminds the people that he is not coming simply to dispense to them all of their wishes and desires. He comes as a refiner's fire and as a fuller's soap. It is Israel, God's own people, who are in need of cleansing and purification.

As the Church, we surely do look forward with great expectation to the coming of Jesus and his kingdom. We believe that it will bring the kind of peace, justice, and fullness of life for which we all long. But if we think that the coming of this kingdom will simply mean reward for us without refinement, then we have not understood Jesus' call to repentance. We too must be thrust into the flames and melted down so that all that contaminates our love for God and one another might be removed.

Lord, hold me in the fire, melt me, wash me, do whatever you have to do to to purify me until I am rid of everything that keeps me from being the beautiful and valuable creation you have made me to be.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Hope for a Ghost Town

"How lonely sits the city that was full of people. She has become like a widow who was once great among the nations." This is how the first verse of Lamentations describes Jerusalem after the destruction resulting from Babylonian exile. The city that had once been the center of a great kingdom, a city that had been full of people, commerce, and life, a city that was the envy of neighboring nations was now desolate and lonely. I imagine that Jerusalem must have been something like the ghost towns that speckle the western portion of our own nation. They were towns that sprang up rapidly, often due to natural resources such as oil, gold, or silver that were found in the area. However, once those resources dried up the towns that had sprang up around them often did as well.

According to Jeremiah, Jerusalem's problem was not a drying up of natural resources but it's failure to tap into its spiritual resources. Judah had turned its back on the God who had delivered them despite the fact that He had been their most faithful resource. As a result, God used Babylon to destroy Judah and its capital city, Jerusalem. Much of the city was razed to the ground and many of the inhabitants had been taken into exile . Jerusalem had become a ghost town with little hope of recovery or chance for a future.

Into this desolate situation, God speaks the words of Jeremiah 33:14-16 through the prophet to this lonely, helpless city. God promises that Israel and Judah's days are not over. Jerusalem will not be a ghost town forever. God will raise up a king from the line of David who will reign with righteousness and justice. This king will restore Jerusalem's fortunes so that it dwells in safety and prosperity once again. In fact, God says that this king will bring such great restoration to Jerusalem that the city itself will be called the "the Lord is our righteousness"; that is, the city itself will become a symbol of God's great care and covenant faithfulness to Israel.

As we enter the season of Advent, we remember that we await the restoration of our world as well. All of creation exists as a sort of ghost town, left desolate by the sin, violence, and pain that has rendered our world less than the rightly ordered, peaceful, abundantly life-filled world that it was created to be. We too wait for the arrival of our king who will restore our world so that all of creation becomes a testament to the Lord who is our righteousness.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009


I’ve honestly never been much of a TV junkie but it seems that the constant attention needed by two young children has made that quiet time at the end of the day in front of the TV to be a more appealing form of entertainment in my life. Recently, Jess and I started watching this new show called “Flashforward”. In the very first episode everyone in the world blacks out at the same time for 2 minutes and 17 seconds. Of course, this causes major catastrophes; planes crash when their pilots black out, cars pile up as their drivers lose consciousness, and surgeons black out in the middle of surgeries. Obviously, much of the show is spent trying to figure why these black outs happened and if they will happen again.

But the really compelling and creative part of the story line is that during those 2 minutes and 17 seconds of unconsciousness, everyone who survives has a glimpse of the future. In fact, as the story progresses you find out that everyone had a glimpse of exactly the same few minutes 6 months in the future. Not only that but all of these “flash forwards” correspond so that if you saw someone in your flash forward it means that they saw you in their flash forward. As you can imagine, these glimpses of the future have a great impact on how all the characters in the story behave in the present. Some want to avoid the future they saw at all costs, some desperately want it to come true, others wonder if they have any freedom to change it, and some become so obsessed with what might happen that they have trouble living in the present. Despite the varied reactions to the flash fowards, the one thing no one can do is ignore them. Every decision, though not determined by it, is directly impacted by this collective vision of what is to come. This is a story where the present is being shaped less by the past than by the future.

I find this to be a remarkable metaphor for the Christian life, especially as we enter the season of Advent. We, too, have been given a glimpse of the future. In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ we have been given a vision of the kingdom of God. We have been given a glimpse of how all life will one day be lived; in complete obedience to the reign of God. Of course, this vision has not yet come true; the kingdom has not yet come in its fullness. We have only gotten a glimpse of what to expect and we are left in the present trying to figure out how to best order our lives now according to this future that we await. Some in our world will do everything they can to prevent this future reign of God from taking place. But as Christians, we long for it desperately and we order our whole lives according to this kingdom that is to come but is not yet here.

This Advent season, as we await the return of our King, consider once again what it means to have your life shaped by this hope for the future. How does the glimpse of the future kingdom given to us through Jesus Christ change the way we are to live today? How will the decisions you make today, this week, and this month be impacted by the knowledge that God’s reign is on its way?

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Ideal King

I'm looking at a passage of Scripture this week that I've never given any serious thought to before. Now that I'm confronted with it, I'm realizing what a rare occasion this is for me. Obviously every time I come to my sermon text each week, I know I have a lot to learn about that passage. But it is very rare, if not a completely new experience, to find myself preaching from a passage that I haven't already done some study on or heard something about. I'm sure I've read 2 Samuel 23:1-7 many times before. I've read the Bible cover to cover a couple of times and I read 1 and 2 Samuel through as a whole once or twice back at the beginning of the summer when I knew I would be preaching from both books for a few months. In spite of that, I feel like I've never read 2 Samuel 23 before today.

As a side note, this is probably one of the reasons I'm sort of a Bible nerd; there is just so much there. I think I know the Bible pretty well and yet it is just such a vast and varied collection of literature that you could spend your whole life studying it without exhausting all that God has to offer through it. This is also just one of the reasons that I preach from the lectionary. By following a series of prescribed readings of four passages of Scripture for each Sunday over a three year cycle, I am lead to passages that I would not otherwise preach. This helps our congregation's life together to be shaped by the whole of Scripture, not just my own favorite texts.

Well anyway, on to the actual passage. I'm not sure yet how all of this will coalesce into a sermon but for now this is what I am noticing about 2 Samuel 23:1-7.

My Bible titles this section "David's last song". As such, it appears to be a summary of what David hoped that his reign as king was or what he hopes that the reign of future kings will be. It's almost like David's farewell speech or a final will and testament: his last chance as king to influence the course of Israel's history with a few final words. Perhaps, in this way it is similar to the book of Deuteronomy which is a sort of farewell speech from Moses as the Israelites are poised to enter the promised land but Moses knows he will not accompany this new generation in that joyous journey. So he does all that he can to set them on the right path since he can no longer lead them; he reminds them of what God has done and how they should continue to be faithful to God as a result.

Similarly, David holds up a vision of what Israel's king should be even after he is gone. He gives this vision of the king's role authority by saying that the Spirit of the Lord has spoken through him. At the center of this kingly ideal is righteousness; that is, the king must be one who rules justly and fairly out of reverence for God. David says the king who does this will bring life to his kingdom in the same way that sunlight brings life to the grass after the rain.

Then David says in v. 5 "Truly is not my house so with God?". This seems to be an odd question since David and the writer(s) of 1 and 2 Samuel know that David's house has not been this way with God. There were times when David had abused his power as king rather than reigning righteously and David was still reaping the consequences of that action through the misconduct of his children. David himself did not live up to the ideal portrait of kingly rule which he paints in this song.

But the very next line of the song puts a different spin on things. "For He (God) has made an everlasting covenant with me (David), ordered in all things and secured; for all my salvation and all my desire, will He not indeed make it grow?" David's house being right with God doesn't seem to depend so much on what David has done as it does on what God has done. David's house is not "so with God" because David was perfect but because God has chosen David and his descendants. It is God's sovereign choice and not a mere accident of human history which has made David and his descendants to be the kings of Israel. Because of that, David holds out hope that despite his own household's imperfections, his descendants will still be "as the light of morning" to the kingdom of Israel. On the other hand, "the worthless" (a term used earlier in 2 Samuel to describe Sheba, a man who rebelled against David's reign as king) are thorns that have to be handled carefully but will be thrown out and burned up.

In short, this song is a reaffirmation of the kingly ideology that is prevalent throughout the story of David. It expresses the deeply held belief that David was not just a king but a righteous ruler put in place by a righteous God who would be faithful to Israel by keeping a descendant of King David on the throne forever and seeing to it that any who rebelled ("the worthless") against God's anointed king would be defeated.

Undoubtedly, the lectionary editors have chosen this passage for this final Sunday before Advent because it is Christ the King Sunday. Just as this passage expresses the ancient Israelite hope of what Israel's king would be, so it expresses our hope as followers of Jesus that he is God's true anointed, that he speaks for God, and that one day he will indeed reign in righteousness and that all the worthless powers that have threatened his reign as king will ultimately be defeated.

Friday, November 6, 2009

The Gift of a Future

Hannah's husband, Elkanah, was a man with a proud past. At least, that's the feeling I get from the beginning of 1 Samuel. Why would you mention four generations worth of ancestors unless some kind of pride was attached to that ancestry? Despite marrying into this proud past, however, there seems to be little hope for Hannah's future. In a world where women are valued by the children they provide, Hannah is barren. To be sure, Elkanah loves her deeply in spite of her barrenness but the story seems to indicate that even Elkanah's love is not enough to overcome Hannah's hopeless situation. (When Elkanah asks his wife "Am I not better to you than ten sons?", Hannah gives no answer and continues to pray for the Lord to remember her and give her a son.) To make matters worse, Elkanah's other wife, Peninnah, provoked and tormented Hannah over her lack of children.

Hannah's story is a microcosm of the story of Israel, particularly the place where Israel finds itself in Hannah's lifetime. Israel too has a proud past. They still remember the days that God delivered them with a mighty hand from slavery in Egypt. Israel has seen God do tremendous things in the past. But Israel's situation is now bleak and there is little hope for the future. The reactions of Eli the priest to Hannah's prayer is telling of the situation in Israel. When Hannah comes to the tabernacle to pray, Eli sees her lips moving but doesn't hear her speaking and assumes that she must be drunk. Was prayer in Israel so rarely seen that even a priest had to assume someone who was praying had just had too much to drink? Furthermore, Eli's sons offer no hope of better spiritual leadership in the future. And just as Hannah was mocked by Peninnah, so Israel was mocked by its rivals and their greater power, especially the Philistines.

Into this bleak narrative with no future and no hope, God breathes new life through the birth of a son. Samuel is the answer both to Hannah's prayer and to Israel's problem. Samuel is not only the overcoming of Hannah's barrenness. He is also the future leader of Israel; the one through whom Israel will have a hope and a future once again. Hannah and Israel both had a proud past and heritage but as great as that heritage was, it was not enough to make for either of them a future. Only God, by his gift to Hannah, could do that.

Our local congregation has a proud heritage dating all the way back to the 1920's, a long time for a Church of the Nazarene. Just a year ago our denomination celebrated its proud heritage of 100 years of holiness mission. And the Church around the world has seen God do many tremendous things over the last 2000 years. But no matter how proud we might be of our past, God's grace is still our only way into the future.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Unintended Consequences to Exceptional Faithfulness

Do you ever feel like all the good things you do don't really amount to much? Even though you are always trying to do the right thing, it doesn't seem to make any real difference? Or maybe that the world's problems are too big to be impacted by your minuscule contribution?

The biblical book of Ruth tells the stories of some people who weren't exactly VIPs. The story of Ruth isn't the story of great kings or mighty warriors. It's the story of an average woman and her daughter-in-law.

The story begins with something as mundane as a family's search for food. Elimelech and his wife, Naomi, journey to Moab with their two sons because they have heard that there is food there while Bethlehem, which means house of bread, has run out of bread. While they are in Moab, Elimelech and his sons die. This leaves Naomi with her two daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth. Naomi, looking out for the safety of her daughters-in-law in a culture where women are dependent upon men for income, urges Orpah and Ruth to leave her and go live with their own people so that they might find another husband. Naomi knows she is too old to remarry but she is willing to fend for herself if it means that Orpah and Ruth can start a new life. Orpah does the reasonable thing and follows Naomi's advice to go back home. Ruth, however, demonstrates exceptional, almost absurd fidelity to her mother-in-law and promises to remain with her whatever the circumstances. This is an exceptional act of faithfulness on the part of Ruth that goes well beyond any of the cultural expectations of her day.

But it turns out that this is not the only exemplary act of faithfulness in the story. Ruth manages to meet Boaz, a relative of Naomi. He also exemplifies faithfulness well beyond what is expected of him by taking special care of Ruth and seeing that her and Naomi have plenty of food. Ruth and Naomi take note of this special care from Boaz and Ruth uses it to the advantage of herself and Naomi by asking Boaz to "spread his covering over her", a sort of marriage proposal. Boaz says this act of kindness by Ruth is greater than her first (presumably referring to Ruth's kindness toward her mother-in-law which the story earlier indicated Boaz knew about). Boaz says that Ruth could have sought marriage with a younger man than himself but instead she has selflessly sought the marriage of a man related to her mother-in-law. This is significant because it gives Boaz the right to redeem (take ownership of) the land that belonged to Elimelech, Naomi's husband, thereby keeping it in the family. In short, Ruth has once again demonstrated remarkable faithfulness toward her mother-in-law by seeking marriage with her kinsman. Likewise, Boaz is remarkably faithful by taking responsibility for his dead relative's family when he is not obligated to do so.

As I mentioned before, the book of Ruth records a fairly mundane, everyday, family ordeal. These are just average people who exhibit extraordinary faithfulness in their ordinary circumstances. But then at the end of the book we learn an interesting fact; Ruth gives birth to a son with Boaz. His name is Obed. His son's name is Jesse who was the father of David. Though the lives of Ruth and Boaz may have seemed small and inconsequential, their extraordinary faithfulness lead to the birth of the greatest king in Israel's history.

The truth is we never know what kind of enormous consequences might follow from the simplest acts of faithfulness.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Job's Justification

This is our final week in our short trip through the book of Job. It turns out that this gloomy book has a happy ending. After enduring the loss of his family, wealth, and health, moral lectures about his own sinfulness from his friends, and even a few pointed questions from God himself, Job is finally vindicated. Although Job admits that he has spoken about things he did not understand, God's verdict is still that Job has spoken truthfully about God while his friends have not. Job 42 gives the details of Job's vindication and restoration. Job is blessed even more than before. He once again has his health, he is again blessed with 10 children, and his wealth in livestock is double what it was before. Job's restoration as a spiritual authority is symbolized in his sacrifice and prayer on behalf of his three friends which God accepts and his restoration to his former place of honor in the community is symbolized by all those who had known him before his suffering coming and dining at his house. Job was righteous before his suffering, he endured that suffering righteously, and in the end God vindicated or justified Job's faithful obedience as righteous by blessing him even more than he had before.

As I've been working through the book of Job, I've been struck many times by the parallels of Job's suffering with the life of Jesus. I've often wondered if Jesus' own reading of the book of Job as he grew up was instrumental in shaping his own understanding of his messianic mission; if perhaps passages like these in Job and the suffering servant passages in Isaiah led Jesus to the conclusion that he could suffer righteously. As I was reading this last chapter of Job today, I was struck once again by the parallels between Jesus and Job, especially as Paul sums up the story of Jesus in Philippians 2:5-11. The pattern of movement from greatness to obedience in humiliation and suffering to restoration and exaltation as a result of that obedience which we find in the book of Job is the same movement found in the Christ hymn of Philippians 2.

The pattern in both of these stories shows that God will ultimately vindicate those who place their trust in him; Job's fortunes are restored and Jesus is "exalted to the highest place and given the name that is above every name". But this pattern also clearly shows that the kind of trust that God requires is not easy trust that is only present when things are going well. Real faith, real trust is the kind that endures the suffering of Job, the kind that carries a cross.

Monday, October 12, 2009

An Offensive God

The God portrayed in the book of Job is problematic.

This God makes deals with Satan. He allows a righteous man to suffer tremendously through the loss of his whole family, all his possessions, and even his own health. In fact, he not only allows it. It seems God almost encourages this process to take place, dangling Job out in front of Satan like some kind of bait by saying "Have you considered my servant Job?" This is anything but a comfortable image of God. It offends our sense of justice. What kind of God is this who invites affliction upon the most righteous and faithful of his servants? Its not exactly this God that we have in mind when we think of proclaiming the gospel to the world. Its not exactly the kind of God I really want to preach about. Its not the kind of God that I want to think about as I go to visit a dear friend and saint in the hospital who is suffering. Is God simply testing her as he tested Job? And if so, how can I love a God who would be so capricious with his people?

God's answer? It comes in Job 38 -41. The short version: I am God and you are not.

It's not exactly satisfying or comforting. In all honesty, its still offensive. In fact, its a kind of non-answer that changes the question that is being asked. We ask whether or not God is righteous and just. God asks who we are to ask that question.

I believe that God is just in all he does and that he cares deeply about seeing justice done in our world and that one day he will recreate this world in full accordance with his righteousness. But even as important as justice and righteousness are to the character of God, they do not exhaust the mystery of God. God will not be held captive or boxed in by any concept or definition, not even ones as important as justice and righteousness.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Why Me?

Why me? What did I do to deserve this?

Usually, these are words that we hear in the context of suffering and hardship. Often when something bad happens, one of the first things we ask is how a good and all powerful God could let something like this happen.

I don't want to dismiss the problem of evil. I think it is a worthwhile endeavor to seriously ask why a good and all-powerful creator would allow evil to exist in his creation. But I do wonder why we never ask those questions when things are going well. Why is it that we never say "Why me?" in reference to all the good things in our lives.

I have had the good fortune of being born to parents who cared for me very much and who saw that I had every advantage they could provide. I've had the luxury of spending seven years of my life in a classroom where it was my privilege to spend my days pondering the mysteries of God and how I can live in that mystery and help others to find their place in it as well. I have a wife who is selfless and loving in a way that challenges me; a person with whom covenant faithfulness is as easy as it ever can be in this life; a person with whom it is the very definition of blessedness to share life. I have a daughter who constantly surprises me with her ability to find new ways to make me adore her more than I ever could have imagined. We expect that Hannah will have a little brother any day now as well. We all live in a spacious and comfortable home and have no idea what it is like to even think about missing a meal except by choice. I pastor a church of caring and compassionate people who are dedicated to Christ and are seeking to be obedient to him. Why me? Why should I enjoy all of these things? Or any of them? What could I have done or ever do to possibly deserve all of this?

I know there is a lot of legitimate pain and suffering in our world. I'm not trying to paint a rose-colored picture that ignores the dark places of our lives. But why is it that we consider good things the norm? Why do we regard them as things to which we are innately entitled but then lay all of the problems at God's feet or assume that they prove that God can not exist? Why should there be good rather than evil? Why should there be something rather than nothing?

These questions have been on my mind for some time now but they are brought to the forefront as I come to the book of Job this week. Job is caught in this strange cosmic test where God allows the Satan (in the Hebrew of Job, the definite article is affixed to its name) to take away every blessing Job has and to curse him with severe illness to see if he will remain faithful to God. Job proves remarkably true to the test saying that he must accept evil from the Lord as well as good. Later in this book he even makes this unbelievable confession of faith in God even in the midst of all his suffering where he says "Though he slay me, I will hope in him." (13:15)

I imagine that if some mysterious being of temptation called the Satan still has conversations with God like the one in the book of Job, then he must say to God "Of course, Dave Young reverences you. You've given him everything! But take away all that you have given him and then let's see what kind of faith he has!" When I think about my life in comparison to Job's, it seems laughable for me to even talk about trust or faith in God. But it is my hope that God's Spirit is working to form Job's kind of faith in me

Sunday, September 27, 2009

James 5:13-20

I made this video for this Sunday in case the baby was born late Saturday night or early Sunday morning. No baby yet so it wasn't used. This is my first time doing something like this for a sermon so it's certainly no work of art but I thought since I took the time to make it I might as well post it here.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Community of Healing

Our sermon text for this week is James 5:13-20 in which James encourages the church to be a community where healing of all kinds takes place. James urges the church to pray and anoint one another for physical healing while also seeking healing through confessing sins to one another and holding each other accountable. As a result, this Sunday we will have a time of healing and communion in which we will anoint and pray over those who are seeking healing and then join together at the Lord's table.

Sadly, just this morning I read this article which reminded me of how badly passages like this one have been abused. This kind of stuff irritates me and even produces some hesitancy in me to engage in any kind of healing practice at all simply because I don't want my faith to be associated with this kind of misguided thinking.

Nevertheless, it is pretty clear in scripture that God heals. God especially did so in the ministry of Jesus and his disciples. In fact, perhaps the first and most important thing we should recognize about the healings that Jesus performed is that they were a part of his kingdom proclamation. Jesus came announcing that the kingdom of God was near and that as a result Israel's exile was over; Israel's wounds as a nation would be healed. Jesus' healings were a kind of prophetic and symbolic act to match his words about the kingdom. Healing in the ministry of Jesus functioned as a sign that God was really bringing the kind of renewal that Jesus proclaimed. While different authors in the New Testament may not agree on precisely how, they do seem to agree that healing would be a part of the Church's continuing kingdom proclamation. The Gospels and Acts attribute many acts of healing to the apostles. Paul regards healing as a spiritual gift of some within his congregations. James puts healing in the hands of the elders of the local congregation.

Of course, if God healed through Jesus and continues to heal through the Church, then one of the first questions that is often asked is why God doesn't heal everyone who is sick or hurting. If God can heal one person, why does he let another die? Often questions like this are born out of deep personal pain and grief. Why didn't God heal my loved one? I think it is precisely when we try to give a blanket answer to every individual instance of suffering that we stray from the witness of scripture. There are instances of people being healed by Jesus because of their faith (like the woman who had been bleeding for 12 years in Mark 5) but there are also instances of people being healed because someone else interceded with faithfulness on their behalf while the person themselves made no confession of faith to be healed (Jairus for his daughter in Mark 5, the friends of the paralytic in Mark 2). There are instances of people suffering because of sin but there is also Job who suffers in spite of his righteousness and even Jesus who suffers, at least in part, because of his righteousness. There are those like Joseph whose suffering at the hands of his brothers is used by God for a greater good but there are also the prophets who cry out on behalf of those who suffer meaninglessly at the hands of those who oppress them. The reality is that when the Bible talks about suffering and healing the issues of sin, faith, and God's will all come into play but not always in the same way. When we try to fit these things into some neat formula where we say that sin = sickness or faith = healing or that God has some great plan that required our particular instance of pain, we give very poor witness to the God who is working to heal all of us.

After all, if there is a singular answer to our suffering within the New Testament, that is it; that God is working to heal all of us from creation's sin sickness. This isn't just some theological cop out that values the spiritual over and apart from the physical. The reality is that if God healed everyone then we would all go on perpetually existing in this sin-soaked reality of death and decay. The promise of the gospel is the promise of resurrection and new creation. The individual instances of healing within our world, however we wish to categorize them: miraculous or medical; physical, spiritual, or relational; they are all forerunners and anticipations of what God will one day do with all of creation.

Until that day, the Church must be a community which witnesses faithfully to God's healing power. This means that we will continue to trust that God can and does heal in all kinds of ways in our world today (including by means of modern sciences) and we will not resort to simplistic answers when God does not intervene in a way that we would consider miraculous. It means that we will be a people of healing through love, service to others, prayer, accountability, and intentional reconciliation. But perhaps above all, it means we will be a people who live with the radical trust of Jesus that can pray "not my will but thine" even as we face our own death; a faith that God's grace can be seen most powerfully in our weakness, a hope that God's ultimate healing is yet to come.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Simple Wisdom

I've been enjoying preaching from the Epistle of James over the last few weeks. I've really come to appreciate James' simple but profound wisdom. Much of his writing resembles the wisdom literature of the Old Testament such as the book of Proverbs. Its a kind of wisdom that is not especially difficult to understand and yet it captures so much truth about life that if we could just manage to live it out then the world (and the Church, for that matter) would be a much better place. Some of James' wise aphorisms that we've looked at so far include (in my own words):

"Our anger doesn't acheive God's righteousness."

"A faith that doesn't include works, especially works on behalf of the poor, isn't faith."

"We can't be wreckless with our words because they have enormous power."

On the other hand, I have to admit that I find James a bit difficult to preach from precisely because of this simplicity. James often seems to be so straight-forward and to the point that it doesn't seem like there is much on which to elaborate. So as I begin to work on my sermon from James 3:13-4:3 for this coming Sunday it's tempting for my sermon to look something like this:

"James says that if we are living by God's wisdom then we won't allow selfish ambition to lead to quarrelling among us. Amen. Have a good week everyone and enjoy getting home early to watch football."

Of course, I don't think we come to church each week just to hear something new. After all, what can be said that hasn't already been said? We come each week expecting to hear those same old words we've heard many times before believing that they can still breath new life into us. James' own letter is a perfect example of that. He doesn't say much that wasn't already stated in the Old Testament or in one Rabbi or another's comments on that Scripture. In fact, some commentators accuse him of not saying anything that is distinctly Christian in his letter. Nevertheless, James carries out the task of a preacher; he elucidates the words of Scripture for the life of his congregation so that those words might come alive in them and that they might become more Christ-like in their life together.

So, while James's wisdom maybe be relatively plain and simple, it is still wisdom nonethless. It is still a word that the Church must hear. There are still too many of us who consider ourselves wise but have not yet learned the wisdom of God. There are still too many fights among us because we play by the world's rules of selfish ambition instead of God's rules of service, gentleness, peace-making, and the foolishness of a crucified messiah. And we still too often desire the wrong things or the right things for the wrong reasons instead of desiring and seeking what God has for us. The wisdom of God is not practical knowledge for better living or abstract philosophical sepculation. It is learning to live with humility and trust in the God who has drawn near to us in the person of Jesus Christ.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009


I spend a lot of time working with and thinking about words. The words of Scripture. Words on this blog. Words in worship, sermons and lessons. Words in meetings, conversations, and counseling. And so often those words feel so empty and powerless. In my post just yesterday, I mentioned how often images seem to be able to stir us and provoke us so much more than words can. Even in daily life, words often seem meaningless apart from action. We often won't really deeply trust someone's words until we see that those words are accompanied by appropriate actions.

Perhaps this is because we are all so surrounded by so many words...and so many of them lack depth and meaning. In addition to the 10,000-20,000 words that the average person expends on their own each day, we are inundated by the words of politicians, newscasts, podcasts, facebook friends, blogs, books, sermons, and advertisements. In the midst of all those words, it is easy to begin to wonder how any of them can stand out, how any of these many words can have any real power. Sometimes it seems like there are just a whole lot of people talking and not very many listening. And what good are words in a world where no one is listening?
All of this makes the words of James 3 seem like a bit of hyperbole. Surely something as simple as words could never be as destructive as the fires raging around Los Angeles right now. Surely James is exagerating to make a point. Stick and stones may break my bones but...

...but our kids learn that saying because they need a defense against the words that they know can indeed hurt so badly. Of course, its not just children who have suffered at the words of others. I think everyone has seen or personally experienced friendships, marriages, careers, reputations, families, or churches that have been ripped apart by nothing more than words. The simple words we use to label whole groups of people perpetuates our biases against them. Even the words we use to describe God, whether in our doctrines or our prayers, play an important role in whether or not others will come to know the God we serve.

As inexplicable as it sometimes seems amidst the vast sea of words that floods our world, somehow our words still have power, remarkable power, sometimes the power to give life or to destroy it. As Christians, there have been too many times where we have not chosen our words carefully enough. In our sermons and our prayers, in our evangelism and our prophetic proclamation, even in our conversations with one another, we have too often been wreckless with our speech. As the Church, we must always strive for our words to be a faithful witness to the Word.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Jeans and a T-Shirt

Most Sundays I wear black pants with a nice shirt and tie. Occassionally, usually when we have communion but sometimes for other special events, I'll wear a full suit. This Sunday I went to church and preached in jeans and a t-shirt without having shaved for a week and without having showered for a few days. I did this hoping that my outward appearance would add to the message that I was preaching from James 2. (You can listen to my sermon here.)

When I first decided to do this, I honestly didn't think it would be that big of a deal. Many people in our church dress up on Sundays but there are several who dress pretty casually as well. Aside from that, I thought everyone would just assume that I was dressing this way to make a particular point and that everyone would simply wait to see what that point was. In fact, early in the week I think the only reason I would have not dressed this way would have been because I thought it might not be provocative enough to make it worth it. I was surprised by how much tension a simple change in clothing created for both me and for others.

I am a jeans and t-shirt, shave when I feel like it kind of guy. But in a context where most were dressed better than I was and I was expected to be dressed nicely, the comfort of jeans and t-shirt was made to feel uncomfortable and awkward. Never in my life have I wanted to shave and put on a freshly ironed shirt and a tie like I did this past Sunday morning. Perhaps that says more about my own insecurities than anything else but I think it opened my eyes to some things about church as well.

For one thing, this experience was a fresh reminder of how intimidating it can be for someone to visit a church for the first time and how much we as a church must do to help them overcome that anxiety. It's not that the people in our congregation aren't gracious and welcoming. They really, really are. Our congregation is made up of some of the most hospitable and caring people I have ever met. But if I can walk into a church where I already know that I am loved and respected and still be preoccupied with what everyone is thinking about me simply because I am dressed differently, I can only imagine that feeling of insecurity and introspection must be magnified ten fold for a visitor who doesn't yet know whether this is a place where they will be loved and accepted or not. Again, I want to be very clear that this is not a condemnation of our church. I don't think my feeling out of place had so much to do with how everyone responded to me. It had more to do with knowing that the way I was dressed did, in fact, make me out of place. It made me stick out like a sore thumb. Believing that I am not an especially insecure person, I have to imagine that anyone visiting our church for the first time would wrestle with the same feelings because they would also know that they would stick out like a sore thumb regardless of how they are dressed simply because everyone knows that they are new. This speaks to the fact that a smile, a hello, and handshake often won't be enough to overcome the large amounts of anxiety that come with stepping into a completely new and different social situation such as visiting a church.

More to the point of my sermon yesterday, I have to imagine this feeling would only be magnified even more if someone felt like they stood out not only because they were new but also because their clothing made it obvious that they were of a different economic class than most of the people in our church. In churches we often say its important to maintain our buildings and an over all professional appearance in the way we do things so that people feel safe and comfortable in our churches. But honestly I have to wonder exactly what people we have in mind. If everything we do is designed to make upper-middle class families feel more safe and comfortable, won't those same things by their very nature usually make individuals who don't fit that mold feel all the less safe and comfortable?

The tension my clothing created for many in our congregation was palpable. A few found it to just be fun or relaxed but it was easy to see that there were several who were made uncomfortable by what I was wearing. This was a real example of how visual images and symbols have a power to provoke us in a way that words often do not. I imagine that I could have come up with all kinds of clever ways to talk about how God chose the poor but none of those would have had created the same kind of tension that my clothing did. I am not endorsing a crass theatrical approach to preaching where we do whatever we have to do to get and keep people's attention. However, I do think that good preaching allows the gospel to challenge us in ways that are not easily resolved. Of course, bringing that kind of tension to a worship service can be a risky thing. There's always a chance it will be badly misunderstood. There is a constant temptation to clarify what you mean, to help others work through the tension, to make everything plain and simple so that you are sure everyone is "getting it". But when we move too quickly to resolve the tensions that the gospel creates in our lives, we deflate its ability to move us to a new place, a place closer to God. So here's to hoping that the tension created by a simple experiment with jeans and a t-shirt moves myself and the people with whom I minister a little closer to the God that we serve.

Monday, August 31, 2009

God Chose the Poor

"If a man comes into your assembly with a gold ring and dressed in fine clothes and there also comes in a poor man in dirty clothes and you pay special attention to the one who is wearing the fine clothes and say 'You sit here in a good place,' and you say to the poor man 'You stand over there or sit down by my footstool,' have you not made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil motives?"

"But James, this is simply the way the world works! You are being naive and unrealistic to think that it can work any other way." is the response that I imagine would be likely from the first recipients of James' letter upon hearing these verses. This is because the scenario that James describes in these verses would have been the cultural norm for any social gathering of his day. This was known as the patronage system. In order for most groups or gatherings of any kind in the first century to survive and thrive they needed a wealthy patron, someone who had the resources to meet the needs of this group. In return for their support, the wealthy person enjoyed a position of status and honor among that group. As a result, the wealthy were often looking for projects they could patronize which would improve their own standing in society and anyone with some kind of civic or religious cause was usually looking for a wealthy patron. Within this intricate cultural system of patronage, it just made sense that a church would give preferential treatment to a wealthy individual in hopes of receiving their patronage just like any other group would.

But in contrast to this "normal" way of doing things, James says that God has chosen the poor "to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which he promised." This is not just a nice play on words to say that the poor really don't have it so bad because they can still be spiritually rich even if they are materially poor. It is a reminder that God really has chosen the poor. When God delivered Israel from Egypt, he was delivering them from slavery; the most severe form of poverty. Likewise, the Old Testament prophets repeatedly spoke of God's concern for the poor. As a prophet himself, Jesus spent his time with the poor and said that in his kingdom they would be blessed. Therefore, James tells this church that they are not supposed to operate like the rest of the world, giving preferential treatment to those with wealth and influence in hopes of receiving something in return.

Of course, this is not a problem confined to the early church. We may not be a part of a patronage system but many churches today still know what it means to have a large portion of their budget depend on the giving of one wealthy family within their congregation. Many churches openly admit that the "target audience" they are trying to reach consists of upper middle class families much like themselves. Countless churches have relocated when their neighborhood no longer consisted of the demographic to which they had become accustomed to ministering. The bottom line for those of us who are committed to a local church is that there has always been and will always be a temptation to evaluate others in terms of what we think they can contribute to the ministry of our church. When we do that, we forget that the person before us, the one we are tempted to evaluate as a potential resource for our ministry, is the very one to whom we have been called to minister. James reminds us that if we are to truly be the Church, then we can not regard people as a means to our own ministerial ends. In ministry, people, rich and poor alike, are the ends.

Monday, August 24, 2009

What's Our Politics? Wrath or Sacrifice?

Healthcare Reform. Town Hall meetings.

Is your blood boiling yet?

If you've watched any news in the last month, then I imagine that a very specific flood of emotional images comes to mind for you as they do for me upon hearing those phrases. Yelling and screaming. Guns and crowds of protestors. Lies, rumors, deceptions, mistrust. Fear. Anger.

As I've watched this flood of angry images pass across my TV and computer screens over the last few weeks, I've also been contemplating James 1:19-20 which stands at the heart of our sermon text this week.

"Everyone must be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger for the anger of man does not acheive the righteousness of God."

I'm not saying people don't have a right to voice their opinions, even angrily if they want to, or that the health care debate isn't important. In fact, I don't even offer these verses of scripture as a criticism of those who have made their voices heard in these town hall meetings. After all, James wasn't speaking to the American political process. James was speaking to the Church.

What concerns me is how often the Church follows this same model. We angrily shout and clamor for our voice to be heard above all others fearing that if its not then the whole world will just go to hell. Sometimes it seems like we almost wear our anger about certain issues as a badge of spirituality as if our passion about that subject shows just how spiritual we really are. "You're face doesn't turn red with righteous indignation at the first mention of helpless babies being aborted? And you call yourself a Christian? You don't launch into a passionate tirade or roll your eyes in disgust and disdain every single time someone forgets the countless starving children around the world? How could you possibly be a follower of Jesus?" But James puts it simply; our anger does not acheive God's redemptive purposes in our world.

Of course, I'm also not suggesting that we just not care; that we not have any passion about anything. There's a third way that is an alternative to apathy and anger. It's the way of sacrifice; the way of the cross, Christ, and His Church. It's caring enough to actually do something about it while also recognizing that the fate of the world does not rest squarely on your shoulders but on God's.

This passage in James is bookended by the language of sacrifice. In 1:18, James says that God has "brought us forth by the word of truth, so that we would be a kind of first fruits among his creatures." The "first fruits" were the very beginning of the harvest brought as a sacrifice to God in anticipation of the rest of the harvest to come. The imagery here indicates that the Church is a sacrifice in anticipation of God's harvest, that is, the coming of God's kingdom and the renewal of creation. Likewise, James closes the chapter by saying in v.29 that "Pure and undefiled religion... is this; to visit orphans and widows and to keep oneself unstained by the world." "Unstained" is again the language of sacrifice, indicating that the Church is to be a sacrifice to God without spot or blemish.

In between these verses, James makes it clear that the only way that the Church can be this kind of unstained, first fruits sacrifice is to be people who not only hear the Word but people who live it. If we hear the truth, shout angrily about how miserably our culture fails to live up to it, but then are not willing to make any sacrifices to live out the gospel, then we are like a person who looks into a mirror but fails to actually see ourselves for who we are. In contrast, we must be a people who look deeply into God's law, allowing it to reveal to us our need for radical tranformation so that we might not live by a politics of wrath but by a politics of sacrifice.

Friday, August 21, 2009

The Kingdom Experiment

Fortunate are those who are poor. Truly privileged are those who mourn. Favored by God are those who are persecuted and oppressed. It is with these words, normally called the beatitudes, that Jesus begins the Sermon on the Mount.

You can sense the tension we feel when we read these words by the way we normally try to explain them. We know that the poor, those who mourn, and the persecuted and oppressed are not really blessed. Blessedness means that it is obvious to everyone that God is taking care of you. It means that all your needs are met. The poor, persecuted, and mourning are those who have not had their needs met. They are not blessed. So we often say that Jesus meant that these people are spiritually blessed in spite of not being physically blessed. Or we turn these statements into a checklist of Christian morality. In other words, the Christian must be a gentle, merciful, pure in heart, peacemaker. There is some truth in both of these statements but I think somehow they miss the point that Jesus is really making.

Only in a world completely different from ours could these statements be true. In our world, the powerful, influential, and violent inherit the earth, not the gentle. In our world, the merciful are usually taken advantage of rather than receiving mercy in return. In our world… well you get the idea. What Jesus is describing in the beatitudes is a world which operates by different rules than our own. He is describing the Kingdom of God, a kingdom which is backwards and upside down in comparison to the kingdoms of this world. These words are not an observation about how things are or a checklist of Christian virtues. They are a promise of what is to come, a promise that one day things will really be different. They are a promise that one day those who mourn will find real comfort and that the violent and powerful will not always control everything and that mercy, purity, and peace are really possible.

As followers of Jesus, we live in the hope of these promises. It is the promise of God’s kingdom which sustains us as the Church. However, it is not our mission to simply sit around and wait for this kingdom to show up. We aren’t called to just get by in this life until Jesus fixes everything. Instead, the hope that we have for the future impacts how we live today. Because we believe that our world will play by different rules when God’s kingdom finally comes, we want to live by those rules now as witness to the new reality that we anticipate with eager expectation.

This fall, we are going to participate in a small group study entitled The Kingdom Experiment. It is a study centered on the beatitudes but it is much more than just a Bible study. It is an experiment in intentionally living out our hopeful anticipation of the Kingdom of God. In addition to a lesson on one of the beatitudes each week, there will also be experiments from which to choose. These experiments are challenges to live out the kingdom value of that beatitude throughout the week. Each person in your group will choose which ever experiment they want to try that week and journal about it before your next meeting. Your meetings each week will consist of discussing your experience from the previous week as well as the beatitude for the next week. I believe that this study can help us to see the Kingdom of God in new ways and I hope that you will prayerfully consider participating.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009


I haven't posted anything other than my ramblings in a while so I thought I would share a few of my favorite photos from this summer. As I was looking through these photos today, choosing some to post, it reminded me again of just how much beauty and life surround us all the time. Undoubtedly, there is much ugliness and brokenness in our world but there is also such an overwhelming and lavish wealth of God's creativity constantly surrounding us... such a means of grace.

You can click here to see the album I've been building all summer long.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Lord, Hear Our Prayer

The Old Testament reading for this week is Solomon's prayer dedicating the newly constructed Temple in 1 Kings 8:22-53. As I read over it, I realized that even though this prayer was prayed specifically for the Temple and the people of Israel, it is a prayer that the Church would do well to imitate today. Below is my own paraphrase of this passage as a prayer for the Church. It is not meant to be a precise parallel to the passage. It is only meant to be an example of how Solomon's prayer might serve the Church today.

O Lord, the God of Israel, the God of the Church, there is no one like You in heaven above or on earth beneath, keeping covenant and lovingkindness to Your servants who walk before You with all their heart. You are the God who kept your promises to David that his descendants would sit on the throne of Israel as long as they walked in your ways. So also may your promises to David's descendant, your Son, Jesus Christ be confirmed in your Church.

Is it really possible for God's own Spirit to dwell among us, mere human beings? Behold, heaven and even the highest heaven cannot contain You, how much less this feeble church building which we have built or these feeble bodies in which we live! In spite of our feebleness Lord, have regard for the prayers of Your servants and our supplications. O Lord my God, listen to the cry of Your people and to the prayer which Your servants pray before You today; that Your eyes may be open toward this people whom you have made Your home night and day, toward the people of whom You have said, "My name shall be there," to listen to the prayer which Your servants shall pray in this place. Listen to the supplication of Your servants, Your Church, when they pray in this place; hear in heaven Your dwelling place; hear and forgive.

If one of us sins against our neighbor and we then we promise to make things right and we come to this house and repeat that promise before You and God's people, listen from heaven and act accordingly. Judge and reveal any wicked way in us. Vindicate us when we act in accordance with Your righteousness.

When Your people suffer loss and defeat because we have sinned against You but we then turn to You again and confess Your name and pray and make supplication to You in this house then hear in heaven and forgive the sin of Your people and bring us back to the place of faith which you gave to our spiritual mentors.

When the heavens are shut up and your showers of blessing cease because we have sinned against You but we then pray in this place and confess Your name and turn from our sin when we are afflicted by You, then hear in heaven and forgive the sin of Your servants and Your Church. Indeed, teach us the good way in which we should walk and soak us with Your showers of blessing once again.

If there is shortage of food among us, if there is disease or injury, if there is economic downturn, if there is job-loss, if there is war, if their are political rivalries, whatever plagues us, wherever anyone is in need, whatever prayer is made by one of Your people or Your people as a whole, all of us knowing our own afflictions and our desparate need for You, hear that prayer in heaven, Your dwelling place, and forgive and act and render to each according to all his or her ways, for You alone know the hearts of all people. May we live with respect for Your righteous judgments and live in the faith of those who have journeyed this way before us.

Even Lord, those who are not a part of this congregation or this denomination or this nation, even those who do not call themselves Christian, even those who do not know you, even those who are considered religious outsiders, when they hear of Your great power and Your great mecry and they pray to you, hear them! Answer their prayers so that all the peoples of the earth may know Your name and reverence You as we do. May they know that you have built up the Church, Your people who are called by Your name.

When Your people go to battle, whatever kind of battle it might be, and we go into that battle prayerfully following only Your lead and not our own, then Lord hear our prayer and sustain us in the cause that You have given us.

When we sin against you, for we know that we are not without sin, and You are angry with us and deliver us over to the destructive forces of our world so that we live in exile from Your Holy presence, if in that exile we repent and pray to You in the midst of our captivity, if we return to You with all our heart and with all of our soul and we pray to You, then hear our prayer and our supplication in heaven, Your dwelling place, and forgive us of our sins against You and forgive our transgressions and make us objects of Your compassion just as you did when you brought us up out of our slavery through our Lord Jesus Christ, who is our Exodus. May Your eyes always be open to the prayers of Your people. May You listen whenever we call upon You for you have set us apart for Your holy purposes as Your very own inheritance by the redemption and liberation that comes through the life, death, and resurrection of Your Son Jesus Christ, in whose name we ask all these things. Amen.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

A Conversation about Creation.

Recently, I have been enjoying a coversation over facebook with my cousin Steve, who directs a Christian campground ( here in Illinois. He believes that the scientific theory of evolution contradicts the first two chapters of Genesis. I, on the other hand, believe that the theory of evolution can co-exist with a less literal reading of Genesis 1 and 2. I thought it would be worth reproducing my rather lengthy response here on my blog. I thought about posting our smaller exchanges within this conversation to give more context to this discussion but I didn't want it to become overwhelming. (This is already pretty long as it is.) I think what I've wriitten here can more or less stand on its own and represents well why i read Genesis 1 and 2 the way that I do.
I, too, am glad that as you mentioned in your response and as I mentioned in our previous discussion that we are in much more agreement than disagreement here. We both agree that God created which is the important affirmation as far as our faith is concerned. However, as we’ve already seen in the discussion so far this question is connected to other important ones such as how we interpret scripture and the nature of God. So while I don’t think we have to ultimately agree on the issue, I think it is worthy of the discussion.
First, I want to address what may be a difference in the way that we are using the term “literal”. For example, in your opening line you say that there are “poetic books in the Bible that have very literal application to our lives.” By that, I assume you mean that the Bible has a very real or true application for us which we are really meant to live out. Obviously, I agree wholeheartedly but I don’t think I am using the word in the same way. In other words, I’d have to assume that by your use of the word that the less literal something is then the less true or real it is. We often use the word that way in common parlance. For example, I might say “After such a difficult week of work, I was literally spent.” Of course, what we mean in such an instance is to say that we were really tired and so we add the word literally as a way of emphasizing that. However, in reality we were not actually spent as some kind of currency which is what “literally” would really mean in this instance. On the other hand, when we are being very technically specific and we use the word “literal” in reference to language or literature, it is in no way an indication of how true we think something is. You can see this in the example above. To recognize that being “spent” is not a literal designation of us as a commodity which can be traded but that it is a metaphor for how tired we are does not make it any less true. It only says something about how we have chosen to communicate that truth. To say that we are “spent” communicates the same thing but in a more vivid and meaningful way than simply saying “I’m really tired.”

I believe that the same is true when we come to the creation narratives. To say that I don’t take the creation stories literally does not mean that I regard them as somehow less true than if I did take them literally. It is actually a statement about the kind of truth I believe is being communicated in those stories. I don’t think that those stories were intended to communicate the “how” of creation. I believe it is the purpose of science to answer the “how” question. I believe the purpose of the creation narratives is to answer the infinitely more important questions of “why were we created?”, by whom were we created?” and “what does it all mean?” (This, by the way, is what the writers of the article meant when they said that the Bible is sometimes treated like a science book. They mean that some look to the Bible for the answer to the how questions when that is not a question that God or the Biblical authors intended to address within Scripture.)

You might ask then why I get to decide which kinds of questions the Bible can answer and which it can’t. The answer, of course, is that I don’t. However, what I believe that I can and must do as a faithful reader of Scripture is to pay attention to the cues that the Bible itself gives as to what kinds of questions it is trying to answer. One of those cues is the fact that the Bible is always concerned with who God is and what God is doing. Even the books of the Bible that we normally call historical are not history in the sense of simply keeping records of human actions. No, they unapologetically make God and what God is doing through human beings the center of the story at all times. I think that by it’s own contents Scripture shows us that it’s primary purpose is not to describe what happened (history) as much as it is to say what those happenings communicate about who God is (theology). The Bible suggests itself first and foremost as a book of theology before it is anything else. As such, we should look to it for theological answers rather than scientific and historical ones.

However, this by no means settles the question. This is because more so than many other religions, Christianity’s theology is connected to its history. In other words, God often reveals himself to us through historical events, the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ being the primary example. In those places, the “how” question of history becomes inseparable from the theological question of what it all means. For example, Paul says in 1 Corinthians, “if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins”. This is an example of history and theology being inseparable. Jesus’ resurrection can not simply be a metaphor for new life in Paul’s theology. If Jesus has not been bodily raised in a very literal and historical sense, then we are all hopelessly lost in the power of sin because the new age in which the Spirit of God has been poured out on all believers has not actually begun as Jesus’ resurrection indicated in Paul’s thought.

So then, the question becomes this: “Why would I interpret this passage in 1 Corinthians so literally while interpreting Genesis 1 and 2 more metaphorically?” My answer is that hopefully the only reason I would do this is because a careful reading of scripture taking into consideration all of its literary, cultural, and historical complexities urges me to do so. It is NOT because I believe that science demands that I believe something other than what the Bible says. It is very important to me that in my own personal journey and growth in faith, I did not begin to read Genesis 1 and 2 metaphorically because I felt I had to do so in order to be considered intellectually respectable in light of scientific evidence. I did so because I believed and still believe that a faithful reading of Scripture pushed me in that direction.

So why did I feel that Scripture itself pushed in that direction? Again, it is important to go back to the distinction I made above concerning how we use the word “literally”. All good Christians read the Bible literally in the colloquial sense of the word. That is, every committed Christian believes that the Bible is really, genuinely true and that it has very real meaning for our lives today. That much is non-negotiable. However, we’ve already noted in our previous conversations that no one reads the whole Bible literally in the technical sense of that word. For example, it would simply be foolish to think that when Jesus says in John that he is the bread of life or a vine (and the disciples the branches) or a shepherd that Jesus meant for us to take any of these things literally. They are obviously metaphors. The point that Jesus is making with those metaphors are really genuinely true but they are not literally true, that is, they are not communicated in a literal way. I hope that simple example is enough to illustrate that no one reads the whole Bible literally and that everyone who has ever read the Bible has made decisions about what to take literally and what to take metaphorically.

So then, how do we decide what should be taken literally and what should be read in some other way? Of course, most of the time this comes to us intuitively, as it does in the examples from John’s gospel. It just makes very little sense to read the text any other way. But what do we do when it’s not so obvious? How do we decide in places where there are often disagreements such as in Genesis 1 and 2? Again, my hope is that we pay attention to the text itself and try to hear it as clearly as we can through all the years of history and the cultural and linguistic differences that divide us from its original writing. After all, history, culture, and language are exceedingly important factors when it comes to our ability to discern metaphorical language. If someone from your mom and dad’s neck of the woods said to a person in my town who is not a sports fan “I bleed orange.” they may simply wonder if that person has some kind of blood disorder rather than recognizing that they are indicating their loyalty to the Clemson Tigers. How much more difficult is it for us then reading a text written in a vastly different language and culture thousands of years ago? With that in mind, I think the following factors are significant in how we decide to read the Genesis story.

Adam is the Hebrew word for humanity. I think that if we were reading any other story and in the story there was a character named “humanity” we would immediately assume that we were not supposed to understand this story as a historical account but instead as an observation about the plight of all humankind, wouldn’t we?

There are actually two creation stories. The first story is Genesis 1:1-2:3. The second is from 2:4-2:25. Notice how 2:4 starts the story over again. (This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created…Wait, I thought we just heard that account?) The stories do no contradict each other but they certainly tell it differently. In my opinion, this pushes us toward the conclusion that neither account was focused on the “how” of the creation. Instead, each was focusing on a different aspect of its significance.

These stories are not unique in the literature of the Ancient Near East. Most of the cultures that surrounded Israel told somewhat similar creation stories. The theology of Israel’s creation story is obviously very different from those of these other cultures. However, the way the stories are told, the images and literary devices that are used are not too dissimilar to those of the pagan cultures that surrounded Israel. It seems to me that God used the literary conventions of the day to express through Israel his role as creator. If this is the case, then again it seems that the “how” is not as important as the “who” and the “why” since that is what would set this story off from other stories of its kind.
Of course, this does not make it an open and shut case by any means. But I think these kinds of things at least urge us to seriously consider whether we are missing something if we read these passages literally.

I want to address one last important question you brought up in your note. You wrote “IF the Genesis accounting of creation is meant to be poetic, but Evolution is really how man was created then it’s very deceiving.” If I understand you correctly, what you are saying is “If God used evolution, why not just come out and say that plainly and clearly in scripture? Why bother using metaphorical language when it runs the risk of being so unclear or even misleading?” I think there are a couple important things to address here. First, I think that God reveals himself to humanity in ways that make sense in the culture and time he is speaking. For example, when God revealed himself in Jesus he did not come as some eternal, angelic being. He came as a 1st century Jew to speak to 1st century Jews. Similarly, I don’t think it would have made much sense for God to speak to ancient Israelites about creation in the terms and categories of thought that were only developed in recent centuries. God spoke through the literary conventions of the day.

Second, I think it is very unlikely that the ancient Israelites who first told and heard these stories found their metaphorical quality to be as misleading as we might. I hope that I’ve already shown that some of the reasons that the metaphorical quality of the text might seem misleading are only because of the language, culture, and history that stand between us and it. I suspect that if we were ancient Israelites hearing this story we would intuitively “get it” much as we get the metaphorical language of our own day which is so common that we forget it is even metaphorical.

Third and most importantly, I think that God would reveal himself through metaphorical language and therefore take the chance of it being misunderstood because metaphorical language expresses something deeper and more meaningful that plain, literal language can not. Just as “I’m completely spent” communicates something a little more than its literal meaning of “I’m really tired” and “I am the bread of life” is so much richer and deeper in meaning than whatever literal meaning to which we might try to narrow it down. So also “The Lord God formed man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and man became a living being” says something more profound in that single sentence about the relationship between God, humanity, and the earth than could be said in thousands of words of plain, literal writing. Metaphorical, poetic, narrative language has the power to express something that technical or literal language can not.

So there are some of the reasons that I read Genesis 1 and 2 the way that I do. I’ll look forward to hearing what you think about all that. Hope all goes well during your camp this weekend.