Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Sacred Trust

Last Thursday night, I was ordained as an elder in the Church of the Nazarene.  As I have reflected on my ordination over the last several days, there is one word that comes to my mind repeatedly: trust.  While ordination is an event filled with much meaning and significance, perhaps what it signifies more than anything else is that Christ's Church has placed its trust in you.  After seven years of education and three years of applications, interviews, and full time ministry, the Church has in effect said "We believe David Young to be a trustworthy steward of the gospel of Jesus Christ."

Of course, this sign of trust on the part of the Church does not come as a surprise.  I committed myself to be a minister of the gospel 10 years ago and have been on this path ever since.  I have been pastoring a congregation for 3 years already, my calling as their spiritual leader being a substantial gesture of trust to a 25 year old in its own right.  And I've known for several months that I had already been approved by the ministerial credentials board of our district, meaning that barring some unusual event I knew I would be ordained on July 15th, 2010.  And yet, in spite of all that, there was still something surprising, unexpected, subtly grace-filled about the ordination itself.  While it was expected, I know it was not earned.  In that sense, it was like the wedding anniversary of a strong marriage; while you've always expected that person you committed yourself to years ago to be by your side you still find yourself surprised by the grace that is their presence in your life.  While you expected nothing less, you also know it is infinitely more than you deserve.   

Even while I have oriented my whole life around this calling, it is difficult for me to comprehend that the Church has entrusted to me the same gospel which Christ entrusted to his apostles so many years ago; that Christ's Church has said "Yes, we believe, as you do, that the God who created and redeemed us has called you to this ministry"; to think that this apostolic faith passed on faithfully for centuries has now been laid on my shoulders by those who had it laid on their shoulders by others who had it laid on their shoulders...  It is exhilarating.  It is humbling.  It is terrifying.  It is affirming.  It is a sacred trust that I will not forget nor forsake but by the grace of God will give myself to as long as I shall live.

Monday, July 19, 2010

The Gravity of the God-Man

One of the greatest discoveries of the modern age is that of the nature of gravity.  Of course, all human beings throughout history have been familiar with the effects of gravity since anyone could drop an object and observe that it fell to the ground.  However, it took Isaac Newton (building on the work of several others before him) to recognize that gravity didn't just apply to things on earth but to the earth itself and all the heavenly bodies.  He discovered that there was a mathematical relationship that existed in the movements of the planets which was directly related to the mass of each body; the more mass an object had, the more attractional force or pull it exerted on other bodies around it.  Einstein would later discover that this "pull" was actually a curvature of space; that is, that extremely massive objects like the sun actually curved the space around them in such a way that it caused smaller objects (the planets) to "fall" towards it.  This curving of space created by the sun's enormous mass is what keeps the planets in their orderly orbit instead of shooting off into space.  Or to put it another way, we might say (in a scientifically imprecise way) that it is the "weight" of the sun which holds our solar system in place.

The final verse of Ezekiel 1 includes this summary statement: "Such was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord."  The entire first chapter of Ezekiel is a description of Ezekiel's vision of God.  Ezekiel begins by describing a storm cloud filled with fire.  In the cloud, Ezekiel sees four strange but magnificent creatures.  These creatures are somehow connected to wheels which turn out to be the chariot for God's throne.  All of the strangeness of this vision is meant to convey "the glory of the Lord".

Glory is one of those words we see in our English Bibles so often that we forget what it means.  How do you define glory?  The Hebrew word here is kabod.  It is most often translated glory but it also carries the connotation of being large or weighty.  That is, God's glory is his weightiness, his massiveness, his gravity.  This not unlike how we might use these words in English.  We might say that a politician carries great political weight or we might talk about how very charismatic leaders have a certain gravity about them in that they seem to have the ability to draw people into their sphere of influence.

Ezekiel 1 is a reminder of the gravity of God.  It is a reminder that this God who rides on his mighty chariot is a force to be reckoned with; a force so powerful that every other body in the universe is influenced by his movement.  Indeed, were it not for the glory and power of this God, the universe would fall apart and cease to be.  Even the king of Babylon, whose powerful armies have brought God's people into exile, is subject to the glorious gravity of this God.

But in the midst of all this massive, mighty, and weighty transcendence and glory we find something surprisingly inglorious.  Ezekiel's vision has been building to a crescendo.  First, we saw the mighty beasts and then the chariot they escort and then the throne of God on the chariot.  Now we have come to the part of the vision where we expect to see God himself.  Surely, with such mighty creatures to escort his chariot, God will be depicted as something greater still; some ten headed warrior creature that is unfathomable and indescribable.  Instead, Ezekiel sees "a figure with the appearance of a man".  To be sure, it is no ordinary man.  This man has the appearance of fire and glowing metal.  But a man nevertheless.

This is a reminder that for all God's glory and transcendence, for all God's wholly-otherness from us, this God is still for us, connected to us, inseparably like us in some way because God created us to be that way.  "So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them."  Not only did God create us in his image but God took on our flesh to redeem us.  While I don't imagine that Ezekiel had Jesus in mind when he saw this "figure with the appearance of a man", it is nearly impossible for us as Christians today not to thnk of Jesus when we here Ezekiel's depiction of God.  And we should, for this God in his mighty chariot is the man who was nailed to a cross.  The God whose gravity holds the unverse in place is the man whose death curves the space of our spiritual reality so that we would be drawn to God and no longer sinfully bent in on ourselves.  The gravity of God is most perfectly revealed in the humility and weakness of Jesus Christ. 

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Where God Shows Up

I often wonder what it is like for our soldiers in Iraq.  These soldiers are so far away from home in a part of the world completely unlike anything they have known before.  They are away from their family and friends.  And with the things that go on in any war zone it must, at times, seem like hell on earth.  I have to imagine that at least some of the time they must feel like they are in a place where there is no God.  It must have felt something like this for Ezekiel and his fellow exiles as well. 

Ezekiel is a weird book.  So weird, in fact, that some have speculated that Ezekiel suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or something like it.  Some scholars have speculated that the trauma of exile made Ezekiel see and do some very odd things.  Whether we agree with that assessment or not, it at least speaks to just how odd Ezekiel was in his prophecy.  So its no surprise that in chapter 1 of Ezekiel we read about a very strange vision.  We hear about a storm cloud that resembles fire and glowing metal and out of the storm cloud comes four strange creatures, each with the face of a man, an eagle, a lion, and a bull.  These creatures also have wings on their human shaped bodies while they have the appearance of bronze and the ability to dart back and forth like bolts of lightning.  The spirit of these creatures is also somehow connected to the wheels which accompany each of them.  As we will hear more about next week, above these creatures is God seated on his throne. 

While these all sounds very strange to us, this kind of vision was actually somewhat typical in the ancient near east.  There are numerous examples of ancient artwork in which a nation’s god or king is depicted is just this way.  The king or god’s throne is held up and carried by magnificent creatures as a way of representing that king or god’s importance and honor.  It will not do to have your god ride around in a regular old chariot.  To really convey the honor and transcendence of your god, he needs other-worldly beings to chauffeur him around.  Ezekiel’s very strange vision is really no different, it speaks to the honor, glory, and transcendence of the God of Israel.  The magnificence of this vision is meant to convey the magnificence of the God who is seen in the vision. 

But in all this other-worldly magnificence, what is probably most significant for our understanding of this vision is something as boring, mundane, and unmagnificent as a bit of geography.  We hear in the opening verse of Ezekiel that this vision takes place on the banks of the river Chebar in Babylon.  I mentioned before that the situation of Ezekiel and the exiles might have been something like that of our soldiers, only it was probably really much worse if you can imagine that.  Ezekiel and his fellow exiles were taken against their will to this godless foreign land after watching their home be destroyed never knowing if they would return  In fact, to get a sense of the anger and grief of these exiles, all you have to do is read Psalm 137.  This Psalm tells of exiles who sit on the banks of Babylon’s river, grieving the loss of their homeland.  And at the end of the Psalm we hear these grieving exiles say “O daughter of Babylon, you devastated one, how blessed will be the one who repays you with the recompense with which you have repaid us.  How blessed will be the one who seizes and dashes your little ones against the rocks.”  The pain of these exiles runs so deep that they are calling blessed the one who will have the opportunity to take the Babylonians babies and throw them against rocks.  There can be no doubt that these exiles find themselves in a lonely, painful, and seemingly God-forsaken place. 

And that is why it is significant that Ezekiel has this vision on the banks of the Chebar River.  Ezekiel does not have this vision in the safety and security of his homeland.  He does not have this vision in the sacred space of the Temple.  Instead, in the very place where the exiles sat and wept for their homeland, in the very place that the exiles wished that the babies of their captors would have their heads dashed against the rocks, in the darkest place Israel had ever known, Ezekiel saw God. 

Not only did Ezekiel see God but this God has got wheels!  Ezekiel sees God seated on a chariot.  As any teenager can tell you, wheels represent mobility, freedom, access to a whole new world.  Their meaning is no different here.  Ezekiel’s vision of God seated on a chariot means that God is not bound to the Temple in Israel.  God did not die when Israel was defeated.  God did not cease to be present with Israel simply because the Temple had been destroyed.   Because this God is free to roam wherever he likes, free to go wherever he pleases, and he chooses to go to places like God-forsaken Babylon.  God chooses to meet us at the river banks where we have shed our most painful tears.  God makes a habit of showing up where we least expect him. 

During assembly this week, Kay and Lindell Browning, our missionaries to the Eastern Mediterranean region spoke about their time in the Middle East.  Lindell spoke about how much he loved the nation of Iraq (modern day Babylon) and he talked about how God was working there and in countries like Yemen (even though there are only two house churches) and Turkey (where its 99% population of Muslims regularly persecute Christians).  Even in these seemingly God-forsaken countries, God is at work. 

The question for us is not whether or not God is at work, the question is whether or not we have the eyes to see that God is present where we least expect – on the banks of the Chebar River, in modern day Iraq, and in those dark and painful places in our own lives.

Even in those dark, dirty, dangerous, disreputable places in our own town - those places that good church folk like ourselves would never be found – God is present and at work even there and he is calling us to be a part of that work with him.  Our God is not limited by our church building or any building.  I wonder what would happen if the same could be said about God’s people? 

Monday, July 5, 2010

Jesus and Me?

Throughout Galatians, Paul has been arguing against the Teachers who came to his churches in Galatia after him to preach a "gospel" which required Gentiles to follow works of the Jewish Law, which Paul says is really no gospel at all.  Having addressed this "no-gospel", Paul now turns to addressing its effect on community life in Galatia.

With two opposing authorities in Galatia (Paul and the Teachers), it is easy to see how division and strife would develop within the community.  The Teachers were telling the Galatians that Paul's gospel was incomplete and in order to be truly spiritual they had to follow the Law.  This could easily breed a kind of spiritual arrogance among those who did choose to follow the Teachers and become obedient to the Law.  The Law observant believers likely would have looked down upon their non-observing brothers and sisters who would have in turn likely resented their condescension.  It is possible, if Paul's argument won the day in Galatia, that his letter may have even reversed and exacerbated these circumstances.  Perhaps upon receiving Paul's letter, the non-observing Gentile believers might now feel that they were spiritually superior since they had not placed their trust in the works of the Law.

In response to all this, Paul says
"Bretheren, even if anyone is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself so that you will not be tempted."
Paul wants his churches to be free of this spiritual arrogance so he attaches spirituality to responsibility.  In other words, Paul claims that to be spiritual is not a matter of status or privilege; it is not something to be used to raise your own standing in the community.  To be spiritual means to have a responsibility to your brother and sister in Christ.  Paul is in essence saying "If you really regard yourself as the spiritual one, then it is up to you to take responsibility for the growth and maturity of those who are less spiritual."  One's spiritual health is not something to be compared to or lauded over the the spiritually immature.  It is to be used to make them healthy as well, to restore them.

However, just as important as restoring that brother or sister is how one goes about restoring that brother or sister.  Paul says it must be in a spirit of gentleness.  To point out someone else's spiritual weakness to them in a reckless or uncaring way is just another form of spiritual arrogance.   The purpose of Christian accountability is not to tear others down by reminding them of all that they've done wrong.  The purpose is to bring them back on the right path.  Therefore, as Paul alludes to in Ephesians 4:15, it is important not only to speak the truth but to do so in love.  We certainly must speak the truth to a brother or sister we believe to be headed down the wrong path but we must do so in a way that has the good of that brother or sister in mind.

Paul also says that this restoration must be done "each one looking to yourself so that you will not be tempted."  That is, the process of restoration must not only include gentleness on the part of the one doing the restoring but also humility and self-reflection.  Before we try to restore someone else from their sin, we must take an honest look at ourselves to make sure that we are not being tempted by precisely the same thing we are attempting to correct in someone else.

After speaking of bearing one another's burdens in this way, Paul says in v. 5
"For each one will bear his own load."
At first glance, these statement might seem contradictory.  How can Paul say "carry each other burdens" and just a few verses later say that each one will carry his own burden?  As is often the case with Paul, the important difference between the two statement is their place in the timeline of God's salvific work in history.  In v. 2, Paul speaks with a present imperative, telling the Galatians to bear one another's burdens now.  In v. 5, Paul uses a future tense verb to say that "each one will bear his own load".  Often when Paul speaks of the future, he has the final judgement in mind.  That future judgement is the day when everyone will finally be responsible for their own lives; we will each bear the load of our lives before God.  But, Paul says, until then we are to bear one another's burden.  That is part of the very purpose of the Church's existence; to hold each other accountable and to restore each other when we have fallen short.  Furthermore, the extent to which we give ourselves in that of bearing each other burdens is part of our own "load" which will be judged on that final day.

The kind of accountability that Paul envisions here is certainly a challenging and difficult thing.  It is sadly a rare thing in the Church today.  For many of us, it is difficult to get up the courage to hold our fellow disciples accountable for fear of coming off as "holier than thou" (and too often we have also made the mistake of actually acting as if we really were holier than the person we were calling to repentance).  To make matters worse, when these rare instances of accountability do occur many Christians respond defensively by saying "That's none of your business.  That's between Jesus and me!"  At best, this is only a half truth.  There will indeed be a day on which all of our deeds are only between us and Jesus and we will be held accountable for those deeds.  At worst, a statement like this one reflects a complete failure to understand the Church and its crucial role in our salvation.  If everything about the Christian faith really is just between me and Jesus, then why bother with Church at all?  The whole truth is that God has designed our salvation in such a way that it is wrapped up with the salvation of our brothers and sisters in Christ.  God meant for us to be on this journey together.  To try to walk this path alone is to be sure that we have wondered down the wrong path.  To be on the right path is to find ourselves surrounded by a community of people who are willing to have their course corrected by those with whom they journey.