Monday, March 21, 2011

Krispy Kreme and Water from a Rock

A few days ago, Jess, the kids and I were headed home from having dinner with some friends and we decided to stop for Krispy Kreme donuts along the way.  As we were making our way through the drive-thru, before we had even arrived at the window and received our box of sugary goodness, Hannah pipes up from the back seat with a bit of urgency/panic in her voice "Daddy, I want a donut too!"  Of course, I had no intention of ordering a dozen of the most delicious things on this earth and not sharing them with my children.  However, the tone in Hannah's voice conveyed to me that she was not so sure of this.

While this trip through Krispy Kreme's drive-thru didn't exactly provoke some kind of deep existential angst about my parenting ability, it did cause me to wonder why Hannah's first assumption was that I wouldn't share with her.  Didn't she remember that this was her daddy she was talking to?  Couldn't she just rest in the knowledge that I would share any good thing with her and that if didn't I share it with her it was because I thought it wouldn't be good for her?  And yes, in the few seconds that these questions were shooting through my mind I also remembered that she is only 3 and that such calm in the presence of such a strong desire is too much to ask of a 3 year old.

The truth is it often seems to be too much to ask of most adults as well.  In Exodus 17, the people of Israel are grumbling against Moses because they don't have any water to drink.  They say to Moses "Why did you bring us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst?"  On the face of it, that's actually not a bad question.  After all, no water in the middle of the desert is a pretty seriously problem.  I'd probably be grumbling too.  But what makes this grumbling so sad, so short-sighted is that the people of Israel have already seen what God can do.  God just delivered these powerless slaves from the most powerful nation on earth.  God just displayed his complete sovereignty over creation through powerful plagues of hail, frogs, gnats, blood, darkness, and even the firstborn of every Egyptian family.  Then God provided pillars of cloud and fire for guidance, made a path in the Red Sea for crossing, and provided manna from heaven for eating.  In fact, this wasn't even Israel's first grumbling specifically about water.  Just two chapters earlier God empowered Moses to turn the bitter waters of Marah sweet so that the people could drink.  One might think that after the Israelites had seen God handle all of that they wouldn't be too worried about a little water shortage.  They might reason "Hey, we don't have water but God has taken care of bigger problems than this.  He'll take care of us again."  Nope.  Just more grumbling.

Of course, we often don't do much better ourselves.  God has provided for us over and over again.  So many of us have never even known real need, the kind of need one might experience without water in the wilderness.  But when even a hint of trouble shows up, when just the chance of our standard of living being lowered comes along we fret.  We worry.  We grumble and complain.  In those times I have to imagine that God wants to say to us "Don't you remember that this is your daddy you are talking to?  Doesn't all your past experience tell you that I'll take care of you?"

As we awaited our treats in the Krispy Kreme drive-thru, I decided to tease Hannah about her uncertainty as to whether she would receive a donut.  I turned to her and said in  a mock seriousness  "What kind of daddy do you think I am?  Did you really think I was going to order a whole bunch of donuts and not let you have one?"  Hearing my serious tone she got kind of a worried look on her face which then began to fade away as she thought about what I had actually said.  Then realizing that I was obviously going to share with her a big smile came across her face and she said "Nooo" as if what moments ago had been such a major concern to her was now the silliest and most absurd thing she could think of.  Shortly thereafter we were all enjoying these little, round frosted wonders together.

Obviously, I would be a pretty immature parent if I had taken Hannah's lack of faith in me personally and prevented her from having a donut because of it.  Yet, it seems that is how we often think of God.  If God were really as simplistic as some theologies make him out to be then he would have simply punished the people of Israel for their grumbling and lack of faith.  Instead, God does just the opposite.  God provides for the people of Israel once again in spite of their immaturity and failure to trust.  This passage points us toward the reality that our relationship with God is just that: a relationship, a nuanced, sometimes complex, always mysterious relationship with the almighty God of the universe.  What it certainly is not is a system of rewards and punishments for good or bad behavior.  It is a relationship where God sometimes provides for us even when we fail to trust him and one where God sometimes asks us to trust him when it seems like he is not providing for us at all.  God faithfulness often overcomes our own unfaithfulness but he also asks to place our trust in him and not in the things he provides.

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Lord Abram went

The call of Abram is recorded in Genesis 12 but in order to understand the context of that call we must take note of the final verses of Genesis 11.  We hear in these final verses of Genesis 11 that Abram is one of three sons of Terah who lived in Ur of the Chaldeans (southern modern day Iraq).  One of Abram's brothers, Haran, died while the family still lived in Ur.  Abram's other brother, Nahor, was married to Milcah, Haran's daughter (so his own niece).  Abram was married to Sarai who we are told was barren and had no children.  In a culture where family and maintaining one's lineage was tremendously important, this is not a promising situation for Terah's family line.  One son is dead, another's wife is barren, and another is married to his dead brother's daughter with no mention of any children of their own.  Terah took this family of his and intended to move them to the land of Canaan but he never made it.  Instead, they settled in Haran (north of Iraq in eastern Turkey, interestingly bearing the same name as the son who has died) and Terah died there.

"Now the Lord said..." begins Genesis 12:1.  Into this bleak and unpromising situation, God speaks.  This is the God whose words create and give life.  This is the God who only a few chapters earlier was speaking all of creation into existence.  And his word will bring life into this situation as well.  God tells Abram to leave his country, his kindred, and his father's house to go to the land that God will show him.  God promises that if Abram will follow that command then this will not be the end of the family line but, in fact, just the opposite.  God promises to make Abram into a great nation and to bless him and all the families of the earth through him.

But as powerful as God's word is, as much creative and life giving force as it has, it does not work apart from Abram.  Here God does not speak and it become immediately so as in the creation story.  Instead, these words take the form of a promise to be fulfilled, a promise that Abram must continually choose to live by.  "So Abram went, as the Lord had told him..." says v. 4.  "The Lord said.... so Abram went."  If there is any arguing, any complaining, any hedging of bets on Abram's part, we are not made privy to them.  God commands and Abram goes.

At 75 years of age, with only his wife, his nephew, and his possessions, Abram went.  Some commentators point out that Abram's family had always lived a nomadic existence so this move would not have been an unusual one for him.  Still, the simplicity of the text is striking; "the Lord said Abram went."  There must have been some substantial temptations to stay.  Abram's family was weak and vulnerable, its future in question.  Perhaps if they could stay near some relatives they could work together to ensure their family's future.  Whatever the temptations to stay, God speaks and Abram goes.

The payoff is not immediate either.  God will bless Abram throughout his life and God will give Abram a son but he will never see the promise of land and "a great nation" fulfilled.  This will not occur until many generations after Abram's death.  Still, God's promise became the defining quality of Abram's life.

Haran is an easy place for us to get stuck.  After all, its not Ur.   Its not the starting point or the place of our loss.  We can look back over the path from Ur to Haran and say "Look, how far we've come" and pat ourselves on the back because we trusted God to come this far.  But its also not Cannan, its not the unknown, its not living by faith.  It is familiar and comfortable.  In a world where we feel threatened, where our future is in doubt, Haran seems like a safe place.

But the good news is that God still speaks...even in Haran.  And wherever God speaks, God's words can still create and bring new life.  But we must hear and obey the word that God speaks; "Go!".  Go away from what is familiar and easy and enter unknown territory and trust that I, God, will bless you and guide your steps.  We must go understanding that we may never see the promise fulfilled.  The real blessing may come generations after we are long gone but we go because it is the God who speaks life into existence who has called us to go.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Dust Thou Art...

Last night, I shared death with the group of people with whom I share life.  I reminded them that we are all headed toward the grave.  As I marked each of their foreheads with ashes, it occurred to me what an odd gathering this was; what an odd privilege my role in it was.  What other group of people pays someone to remind them of their mortality?  A lot of people get paid for just the opposite; to help others deny death, put it off, pretend its not on its way.  But here were these people coming to me willingly leaning forward to be marked with dirt and hear the words "You are dust...".

Then I had to mark my own wife, my own children with these same ashes.  It is one thing to mark a group of people for death who are mostly older than you, many of whom are already so pained with varying ailments that they are in little need of being reminded of their own mortality.  It is another to mark the one to whom you have bound yourself for as long as you both shall live.  It is yet another to mark these little ones whose death you pray you will never see.  But even in these little bodies that are so full of life and vitality, the decaying corruption of this world is already sown.  Even these are gifts from God who must come to know the way of the cross.  Even these can not be held back from the God who demands that we trust him with everything if we claim to trust him at all.  The imposition of these ashes was a three day journey to Moriah without leaving the sanctuary of our church.

Prior to our Ash Wednesday service yesterday, I took a half day journey through Weldon Springs.  This time of year, this place that is normally teeming with life and beauty was filled with the browns and grays of decay; too late in the year to be blanketed by snow and too early to show many signs of spring.  While I walked through the decomposing leaves and lifeless brush, one thought seemed to occur to me repeatedly: "In spite of the appearances, no one doubts that the new life of spring is on its way."  It might not come as fast we'd like but we all take it for granted that spring is near.  I had come to the park expecting the dull lifelessness of late winter and that is exactly what I saw.  And yet, all I could think about was the life that would soon surround this lifeless trail.

As the Church, we are not called to be a merely optimistic people but a hopeful people.  What I mean is that we are not a people who simply ignore the death and decay of our world believing that its not really that bad or that it will work out somehow.  Instead, we are a people who mark ourselves with dirt, who gather around a table and meal that commemorate a painful and unjust death, who put the cross at the center of our existence precisely because we recognize just how bad it is and that things will not simply work themselves out unless God intervenes.  But while we are not merely optimistic, we are hopeful because we have no doubt that the new creation is on its way.  It might not come as fast as we'd like it to but we all take it for granted that God's redemption of our world is near, that the kingdom of heaven is at hand.  We are a people recognize the undeniable gravity of the tomb but who also look into its darkness to find it in empty.  We are a people who acknowledge that we are dust but who also believe that the God who originally formed us from that dust of the ground can also raise us anew after we have returned to it. 

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Trust and Obey

If you've grown up in church, Genesis 3 is one of those passages of scripture you have heard so often that it becomes difficult to hear at all.  One's inclination is to quickly read over thinking "Yeah, yeah, I know all of this.  Let's get to something more interesting."  Additionally, it is one of those texts that has had all kinds of tradition and centuries of theological debate poured into it.  We designate this passage as "the fall" and we're off to the races discussing the doctrinal of original sin before we've even heard the Word of God.  But before we assume that we already know that this is a story about the devil tempting Adam and Eve to fall from their created glory, let's pay attention to the details of what these verses actually have to say.

First, it is worth noting that the serpent in the story is never equated with Satan by scripture itself.  Later Jewish and Christian tradition will certainly make that equation and it may not be a wrong conclusion to come to it but it is not one that we will find in the book of Genesis.

Second, many translations describe the serpent as "more crafty" than any other animal.  We thereby assume that the serpent is a schemer, a deceiver, one who intentionally outsmarts the man and the woman arguing and persuading them into sin.  Again, that may not be entirely wrong.  Later in the chapter the woman will accuse the serpent of deceiving her and God does not argue with her assessment and punishes the serpent accordingly.  However, craftiness does not necessarily convey the idea of deceitful scheming.  It can simply mean wise, resourceful, and sensible.  It can carry a meaning similar to that of the steward in Luke 16 whom Jesus commends in his parable for being cunning in his use of unrighteous wealth, an example he calls upon his followers to imitate.

Third, the conversation between the woman and the serpent is not presented to us as in anyway unusual.  The serpent does not contradict God's command and never says something that is blatantly false.  The serpent simply asks the woman questions and not unreasonable ones at that.  We could read this story as nothing more than an innocent theological discussion, the world's first Bible study.  The serpent and the woman are simply discussing God and God's commandment.  In fact, if either of them is twisting God's command it is the woman who adds the prohibition  "neither shall you touch it" (3:3) whereas God had simply said not to eat from the tree.

Finally, when the man and the woman do eat from the tree which was forbidden to them they do in fact have their eyes opened.  The serpent was right!  The man and the woman gained knowledge; knowledge which apparently God had been keeping from them.

So what went wrong here?  There doesn't seem to be some grand sinister scheme here.  This all started out as a simple conversation and it ended with a gaining of knowledge.  

But somewhere in the midst of this story was a serious breach of trust and obedience.  God had provided everything for this man and woman.  He had placed them in the midst of this luscious garden that provided food for them.  They had no need of anything.  And the only thing that God asked for in return was for them to trust him; to trust that he could provide for them, that he knew what was best.  God had given them every reason in the world to trust him and all he asked for in return was that they obey this one commandment, avoid this one thing, and thereby show that they trusted God.  But somehow along the way the woman and the man failed to see God as someone they were in trustful and obedient relationship with and instead began to see God as something to talk about, an object of discussion.  They began to think that they knew better than God did, that they could make decisions for themselves instead of trusting in their creator and so they tried to become their own gods, the rulers of their own lives.

The rest of Genesis 3 describes the disastrous consequences of that human attempt to be gods.  The man and woman's lack of trust in God's command obviously harms their relationship with God.  While previously humanity had enjoyed a meaningful fellowship with his creator, now the man says to God that he hid himself because he was afraid.  The previous relationship of trust and obedience is replaced with one of fear.  But it is not only the relationship with God that is impacted.  Our relationships with one another immediately begin to degenerate as well.  When God asks the man if has eaten from the tree the first thing he does is lay the blame on his wife and when the woman is asked the first thing she does is pass the blame on to the serpent.  The relationship between humanity and creation is corrupted as well, the earth no longer bearing fruit effortlessly as it once did.  Finally, this damaged relationship with God even impacts our relationship with ourselves.  Prior to eating from the tree, the man and the woman walked naked and proud through the garden.  Their bodies were creations of the almighty God, nothing of which to be ashamed.  (I get a pretty good representation of this when Malachi manages to get away from Jess or I in the middle of changing his clothes.  He proudly streaks through the house as if to say "Look at me!  I'm naked and its fantastic!)  But now the man and the woman are so ashamed of their bodies that they have to make impromptu clothing out of fig leaves in order to cover their shame.

This story is a microcosm of Israel's and of all humanity.  God also created Israel as a nation, graciously delivering them from their slavery.  God gave them manna and quail in the wilderness and led them into an abundant land in which to live.  God provided everything they could possibly ask for and gave Israel every reason to trust him and all that God asked for in return was that trust and obedience.  But repeatedly the people of Israel act as if they know best, they want to be in charge, they want to make the decisions, they want to be gods for themselves.  There are a few glimmers of hope along the way; individuals like Abraham, Moses, and David who exhibited remarkable trust in God but at times even they failed to trust God completely.  The story of scripture is that God keeps calling us to place our trust in him.  God promises that he will provide, he will defend, he will protect, if only we will trust and obey but instead our response is often "No thanks God.  I think I can do better on my own."  Over and over again, our story is a failure of trust...with the exception of one man.  There is one man to whom God said "just trust me" and he did no matter the circumstances.

In the gospel reading for this week (Matthew 4:1-11), we hear a story that sounds eerily like the one in Genesis 3.  Jesus is praying and fasting in the wilderness and the tempter shows up to have a theological conversation with him.  In this conversation, the devil makes some very reasonable, we might even say sensible and crafty suggestions.  Each of these suggestions is essentially an alternative to the cross.  The devil is saying "Hey look, if you are really God's Son, the rightful king of the world, then you shouldn't have to go through the messy and painful business of a crucifixion in order to inherit your rightful kingdom.  Surely there is an easier way.  If you can turn stones into bread, that will surely get the people excited.  If you jump off the Temple and survive, that will get people talking and you'll be king no time.  Or let's just cut straight to the point, just bow down to me and I'll give you everything."  And nowhere along the way can we say that the devil has said anything blatantly false.  In fact, we know that Satan was right to say that most people will follow whoever can produce food and miracles.  The devil even quotes scripture in this conversation.

But at stake in this story is the same thing at stake in Genesis 3.  Will Jesus trust his own judgment when he sees an easier path to the same result or will Jesus trust his Father?  Will Jesus grasp at power as Adam and Eve grasped the fruit of the tree or will he cling to his Father's direction no matter where it leads him?  And we shouldn't turn a blind eye to where this path leads; straight to the cross and into the gaping jaws of death in a stone sealed tomb.  But Jesus chooses trust and obedience over his own life.  Jesus trusts his Father even to the grave.  Jesus believes that his Father can provide even on the other side of death.

Paul tells us in Romans 5 that Jesus' trust and obedience has undone the impact of Adam's lack of trust and disobedience.  He says just as sin and death spread to all of humanity because of what Adam, so also life and righteousness have come to all because of what Christ has done.  Our broken relationship with God, our broken relationships with each other, our broken relationship with creation, even our broken relationship with ourselves can be mended because Jesus trusted his Father and that trust transformed our world.

The essential element of our faith hasn't changed from Genesis 3 to the life of Jesus to our own day.  God is still calling us to trust him.  God's call is still for us to obey his commands because we believe that he is God and we are not and therefore he knows what is best.  God's call is for us to be a people who live in faithful obedience no matter the circumstances because we believe in a God who raises the dead.