Monday, September 27, 2010

God's PR Team

God has a PR problem.

As God's chosen people, Israel was to represent to the world the God who delivered them from slavery.  Instead of revealing himself to all people, God had chosen to reveal himself specifically to one group of people, one nation, Israel.  In turn, the Israelites were supposed to be a kingdom of priests, a holy nation, revealing God to all the other peoples of the earth through the holy, distinctive way of life to which God had called them.  Israel was, in essence, God's public relations team.

However, one of the major themes of the book of Ezekiel is how badly the people of Israel failed in this PR task.  God's chosen people have badly misrepresented Yahweh to the nations with their syncretism and idolatry which is so severe that Ezekiel describes his own people as a prostitute who gives herself out to everyone but her husband.  As a result, God's name has been profaned among the nations.  Instead of Israel bringing honor and glory to Yahweh, they have tarnished God's reputation, bringing shame upon the name of the God that they serve.

Anyone else who found themselves in this position would simply find new representation.  Any celebrity or politician would quickly fire their agent or campaign manager if they couldn't do any better than this.  And, in a way, that is what God does too... for a time.  God does allow Israel to be taken into exile because of their unfaithful representation of him.  Israel has to know that God will not tolerate his name being dragged through the mud in this way.  But even this is only for a time.

In Ezekiel 36, God promises to bring back the people who have misrepresented him so badly.  However, God makes abundantly clear in this passage that he is not doing this for their sake but for his own.  Having failed so badly at their task, there is nothing that Israel could do to deserve God hiring them as his representatives once again.  There is nothing that Israel can offer God.  Instead, God says that he will deliver his people once again so that God himself will be honored and vindicated, so that his holiness will be known.  God is doing this so that all the nations will know that God does not abandon his people and that God is powerful enough to save, even more powerful than the mightiest nations on earth.

However, God also will not allow these people to represent him as they are.  He will not deliver them back into their old land which he gave them just so that they can go back to their old prostituting ways.  No, God promises to cleanse his people and make them holy (even though they have not asked God to do this, of course, how could such an unholy people make such a holy request in the first place).  God even says that he will perform a heart transplant, replacing their heart of stone with a heart of flesh.  God is going to give this people his own Spirit so they will follow his Law and live the life God had always called them to live.  This is the only way for the perpetual cycle of sin to be broken; to have God's own Spirit at work within us.

As Christians, we believe that this promise has been fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ.  We believe that the Spirit of God resided in Jesus, empowering his life and ministry, and that this same Spirit was poured out upon his followers, the Church, the New Israel.  We believe that even though God knows our often whorish ways, he continues to call human beings to be his representatives in the world.  God calls us to be made clean and to allow his Spirit to work in us so that we might truly represent him in all of his holiness.

Of course, we also know that all too often God still has a PR problem today.  So many people claim the title "Christian" and by doing so claim to represent God in their thoughts, words, and deeds.  But somehow none of those thoughts, words, or actions seem to look much like Jesus and so God's name ends up being dragged through the mud once again.  Perhaps at the root of all this is our forgetting that what God does in us is not primarily about us but about God.  We shouldn't think for a minute that this is for our sake, for our happiness, for our own self-fulfillment.  After all Jesus taught that our first request in any prayer is for God's reputation to be honored; "Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name...".  We have been called to honor God in all that we do and it is for that task that God says he will make us clean, give is a new heart, and place his very own Spirit within us.

Monday, September 20, 2010

The Watchman

The beginning of Ezekiel 33 reiterates an idea found earlier in the book in chapter 3; that Ezekiel is a watchman for Israel.  The watchmen was like a military scout, the ancient version of an early warning device.  It was the watchman's job to be on the lookout for an approaching enemy.  If an army was approaching, the watchman was to sound the alarm so that the people would have enough time to get inside the city walls before the enemy was at hand.  Obviously, many lives depended on the attentiveness of the watchman.  If he failed to carry out his duties responsibly, it could cost a lot of people their lives.  On the other hand, if for some strange reason the inhabitants of the city were to ignore the warning of the watchman and then died as a result, this would not be the watchman's fault since everyone had the choice whether or not they would heed the watchman's call.

The watchman is indeed an apt metaphor for Ezekiel's role within his community and the role of any prophet in any community really.  In Ezekiel's context, the very real, literal army of the Babylonians has already come and carried Ezekiel and many of his fellow Israelites into exile.  Nevertheless, Ezekiel's role as watchman continues even within the exiled community, warning those around him of the consequences of unfaithfulness to God.  But like the watchman, it is only Ezekiel's job to warn.  He has no power to enforce the warning. As long as Ezekiel issues his prophetic warning then he has done his job and it is up to those who hear the warning to respond accordingly.

As a pastor, this is one of the responsibilities I hold within this community of faith and it is one of the most difficult of those responsibilities.  Especially in a culture where someone can easily find another church to attend if they don't like what you have to say, it seems almost impossible to speak words of warning like these in a way that is edifying and beneficial when someone is on the wrong path.  Perhaps what is worse though is the powerlessness I have felt when I have uttered those words of warning.  Such words are difficult enough when they actually lead to repentance but so often they actually lead to rejection and strife.  While I continue to pray that God will give me wisdom and humility in these matters, I have also began to learn the truth that not everyone heeds the watchman's warning.  Often we must simply speak the truth in love and leave the rest up to God.

Of course, it is not only my responsibility.  The entirety of the Church has a prophetic role to play and therefore it is a task left to all of us to speak words of truthfulness and warning to our brothers and sisters in Christ.  We are called to be watchmen to each other, reproving each other when we are not living up to the holy life to which we have been called.  It is my prayer that God will give us the courage to speak what needs to be spoken and the wisdom and humility to speak it well.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Obsessive Reading Disorder

My name is Dave.  I'm a readaholic.

I recently entered a 12 step program to help me address this issue.

Step 1:  Finish school and thereby finish all required reading.
Step 2:  Become pastor of your first church.
Steps 3-12: Have children.  Its not that these last ten steps mean you have to have 10 children.  Its more metaphorical than that.  Instead, these ten steps can represents the ten months you will go without sleep.  Or they can represent the ten times you will be woken up every night.  Take your pick.

Of course, its not like I hadn't dabbled a bit here and there over the last several months.  There was the reading for sermons and Bible studies.  But that's stuff that anyone could justify.

But then God decided to test me by allowing my children to actually sleep occasionally.  The more my children slept the more rested I was and the more free time I had.  It wasn't long before I started to slip back into my old habits.

I started seeing a counselor.  No, its not what you think.  I don't actually know of any counselors trained to treat obsessive reading disorder.  I was seeing this counselor to help me be a better counselor in my role as a pastor.  Little did I know the path this would lead me down.  He actually assigned reading for me as a part of my training.

So I started reading again.  It was slow at first.  But then something here or there would catch my interest.  The book I was reading on counseling was a kind of gateway reading.  It led me to reading a book on family systems therapy which led to reading a book on grief which led to reading C.S. Lewis.

But even at this point I think there still would have been hope for a quick recovery if it hadn't been for my wife.  She too had abstained for a long time because of our life circumstances which was part of what helped me to stay off the sauce.  But now someone had loaned her the Harry Potter series.  (I always knew those books were evil.)  She got a taste and it was all downhill from there.  She always had a book in her hand,  reading everywhere; on the couch in front of the TV, in bed, in the middle of the day!  It was awful.  The housework was neglected.  Children were left in my care for long periods of time.  It wasn't pretty.

Of course, what they say is true.  Its always the kids who suffer most.  I can already see how my wife's reading habits are impacting our children.  Hannah plays with letters as if they were toys and she is constantly asking me to read to her.  Malachi is not even a year old yet and he stares longingly at books as you turn the pages for him as if he can't wait for the day when he will be able to drink in their magic.  Poor kid.

But even with all the destructive effects of reading laid before me, I still couldn't help myself.  And so, after nearly a year without any binge readings, I picked up The Works of John Wesley, Vol.1.

And now its seems that things are worse than they were before.  That was less than a month ago and somehow I find myself already half way through volume 4.  I've even experimented with a few other books between volumes.  The worst part is that I can't stop thinking about when my next reading will be or what I'll read next.  Just the other day we were all in the van on the way to church and I pondered out loud to myself "I wonder if I should starting reading Luther in between volumes of Wesley so that I can compare them or if I should wait until I've finished all 14 volumes of Wesley so that I don't get them confused."  Jess was quick to point out to me that she didn't think this was a question that very many people asked themselves which I am pretty sure is just her way of telling me how special I am.  But just in case I was wrong, I decided not to tell her that I was already calculating in mind how long it would take me to get to Calvin and Barth too.

My addiction has become so severe that, as of late, I've actually tried to step back and reflect on where this compulsion for reading comes from.  For a long time, I could justify my addiction easily enough.  I was in college.  I was in seminary.  Everyone else was doing it.  I was just working hard to prepare for being a pastor and I could quit whenever I wanted.  I've even considered the very real possibility that my compulsion to read stems from having too much of my self-worth wrapped up in intellectual achievement. (I probably have the psychology reading I did to thank for that one.)  But the truth is, while all of those statements have some truth to them, none of them completely exhausts the compulsion I feel for reading.

The irony is (cue the serious part of the post) that as obsessive as my reading habits are I really do believe that this is one of the primary ways that God has chosen to work in me.  Perhaps that sounds like the ultimate crutch; like the alcoholic or drug addict saying "I can't help it.  This is just the way that God made me."  but it is, in fact, what I believe about myself.  That's not to say that I don't have to be careful about how much time I spend reading, especially in a profession where my use of time is largely self-directed and there are many important things to do in addition to studying.  I readily confess that it will always be a temptation for me to study to the extent that I neglect other important aspects of my role as a pastor (and as a husband and father).  I also recognize that when I find what I think is a good balance between reading and other aspects of life there may be others who do not agree with that assessment.

In spite of all that, I still believe that reading and study are and will likely always be one of the primary means of grace in my life.  This is about more than having answers or being prepared.  This is about how God is shaping me as His servant.  I believe this because I know how God used my time at ENC and NTS to transform me as a person.  I believe this because I know that now, as I've dedicated larger amounts of my time to studying once again, I feel God working in me in new ways again.   These last few weeks that I've spent reading Wesley have been some of the most intense time of spiritual formation I've experience in the last couple of years.  God has spoken to me about weaknesses and blind spots in my life and ministry while also helping me let go of some burdens that I've been holding onto for quite some time.  I'm looking forward to finding out what else the Word can work in me through the written words of others in the months and years to come.

Monday, September 13, 2010

The Whore

Ezekiel 16 is the "R" rated version of Israel's story.  It speaks of the city of Jerusalem as a baby girl who had been left for dead, unwanted and abandoned to the elements.  But God sees this poor child, cleans it up and cares for it.  Then when the child has grown into a sexually mature woman, God enters into covenant relationship with her, binding himself to her as a husband to a wife.  This woman is given everything; fine clothes, jewelry, fine food.  God says through Ezekiel that her beauty was made perfect and she rose to be a queen.

But then, instead of being gracious to God, her husband, for all he had done for her, saving her very life and give her everything she had, she began to trust in her own beauty.  She thought that somehow she had been deserving of all this instead of recognizing it for what it was; pure gift.  So she begins to attract other men by her beauty.  The very gifts that had been given to her, the fine clothes and jewelry, are now used as tools of her prostitution.  She spread her legs open to anyone who passed by her.  Her whoring became so shameless that even the women of godless, pagan nations were shocked and embarrassed by it.  In fact, God says that she was worse than a prostitute because at least a prostitute receives payment for her act but her lust was so insatiable that she began paying others to be their prostitute!

This is the story of God's chosen people from God's perspective.  Israel had been nothing.  God called Abraham to be the father of this nation before there was any nation of which to speak.  And even once there was a group of people known as the Hebrews, they were poor, powerless slaves in Egypt; a child wallowing in its own blood abandoned to die at the hands of the world's cruelty.  It is that helpless, meaningless people with whom God chose to work.  God entered into covenant relationship with those slaves, binding himself to them at Mt. Sinai.  He made them into a mighty kingdom adorned with all the finest clothes, jewels, and foods the world had to offer.   And then somewhere along the way, Israel forgot what it had been.  Amidst all the gold and jewels, the wealth and power, it was easy to forget about the nothingness Israel had once been.  It was easy to forget that all of these things were sheer grace.  And so Israel began to depend on its own might and strength; its military and political alliances, rather than trusting in God.  Israel not only began to worship the gods of other nations.  It became so desperate for allies that it began to pay other nations for the privilege of being their servants.  The little baby which God had rescued had become the whore who embraced anyone but her rescuer.

Of course, Israel's story is our story...and that's a particularly difficult pill to swallow because it is to say that we are a collective whore or at the very least that there are whorish elements to our story.  We, too, were once a people who had nothing to offer to God.  We were wallowing in our own sin, left to succumb to its evil power.  But God rescued us, cleaned us up, cared for us, entered into covenant relationship with us and as if that weren't enough he lavishly blesses us on top of all that.  But somehow all that blessing seems to go to our heads.  Somehow we begin to think that we are deserving of it, that we have done something to earn it.  We forget what we were before God found us.  We forget that this is all sheer grace.  And so we begin to take the very gifts that God has given us and we use them to satisfy our own lusts, whatever those might be.  We begin whoring ourselves out to the latest church growth method or the current political sensibility or the newest self-help book or whatever it is that will take our money, our time, and our attention.  We will embrace everyone and everything except for the one whose embrace we truly need, the one who rescued us from our filth and made us his own.

And we shouldn't make the mistake of thinking that God will simply ignore or tolerate our whorish ways.  God says that Jerusalem will be stripped naked before her lovers (Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon) and that they will take her fine clothes and jewels and tear down her houses of prostitution and then hack her into pieces with a sword.  God uses Babylon to destroy Jerusalem and carry its inhabitants into captivity.

As serious as this punishment is, we also know that it is not the end of the story.  Despite all of Israel's unfaithfulness, God restores this broken child once again.  Despite all of our unfaithfulness, God can restore us as well.  It will mean that we have to humble ourselves and openly bare all of our sin and shame.  But if we will confess and cease our whorish ways, then there is forgiveness, cleansing, and transformation even for us.