one leper in ten
When John Wimber, late leader of the Vineyard, decided to pray for healing (because Jesus in scripture tells us to), he had to keep reminding himself to "teach the scriptures, not his experience". Because as he led his church into unfamiliar territory, no one was healed, many got sicker, and half of his people left. But one day, the story goes, after praying for a woman who was terribly sick in bed, he turned to her husband to give his well-rehearsed speech on how God doesn't always heal, and was completely surprised when the woman got up and got dressed--she had been totally restored to health.
It's with the same shock and amazement that I hung up the phone today after a conversation with a struggling woman that our church had helped get into a room. What was so shocking? For the four years I've been on staff at my church we have struggled to help the poor. We've tried to practice biblical compassion and generosity, but like Jesus who looks back over his ministry and bemoans the fact that in many places where he did miracles people hadn't changed, I look back on four years of giving money to the poor, think of all the times the recipients of our money promised to come to church and told us how this was going to help them turn a corner and not a single one has come back. That's not entirely true: many come back for more money. I'm no fool: I know that there are a lot of needs on the street and that our one-time gifts don't mean the end of trouble for the poor. It just seems that we become a money store, not a church full of people trying to help. But today was different.
This woman, just out of jail (after serving 15 years of a 30 year sentence), called the office. I hesitated to pick up the phone, imagining that I would have to give my practiced speech on how we really can only help with big gifts once and that we just didn't have any more money to give her ... I'm not proud of it, but I assumed she was just going to list a bunch more needs.
I picked up the phone and was instantly shamed. All she wanted to say was thank you. And she'd gone out of her way to say it.
She said how thankful she was to get our check and she was in her room and how great it was and how thankful she was and ... just thank you. That's all. Thank you. That's all she wanted to say. But that wasn't the end of our talk ... we talked for a long time, because I didn't want the conversation to end-- she was like the leper in the bible story: ten are healed by Jesus, but only one comes back to say thank you.
She didn't talk about her needs (she has plenty), just all the ways that God was meeting them, one by one, and that she wasn't worried. At one point I was listening to her and she started to sound like some of the grand faithful women in our church, reverent, mature. Beautiful.
I can't begin to describe the sense of privilege I feel to have gotten this call.
"Thing" as Theology
Barefoot Burned Again
Balking, buck naked, and a bit
Too high above the ground, I
Bend into myself and
Bury me against transparency--
Barely believing I could be
A big man or even a
Bold man. ... But
Before I break, the brothers
Breach the boundaries to
Bold me, beginner
That I am; and then I
Bend myself straight, and go
Back to the bush to be
Barefoot burned again
Icon of The Other
From our Pentecost service in 2005, "Stations of Pentecost": this station was about interacting with the "other" in our midst (the station included a "Phrasebook", like you'd use to get around a foreign country).
ICON OF THE OTHER
"When we encounter others, we are painfully aware of the effects of our fall from grace -- sin is ever before us. We choose not to speak because we are afraid of causing offense or being misunderstood. We read judgment or anger or impatience in their faces, whether it is there or not.
We have always believed that the Holy Spirit can help us know what to say, at the right time. Do we also believe that the Holy Spirit is at work in the other, translating our imperfect words into words of life?"
The Phrasebook had little spurs to conversation like, "Say what you're thinking -- God has been working on your thoughts", and "Don't be afraid of what you think a person thinks (you're probably wrong)", and, "Ask an honest question about them ... you might get an honest answer". The book also had room for people to write their own thoughts about the conversation.
What kind of Angels?
My wife is pastor over all the children's ministries at our church: her work often contrasts with mine (I pastor grown-ups). One Saturday night, as I was sweating some last-minute inspiration for a sermon I was going to deliver the next day, she came to me with our Metro canister vacuum and asked how she could strap it onto one of her workers so that he could pretend to be a scuba diver. I remember wishing that I could skip my talk and go hear hers.
This week she's reviewing Christmas plays, and one of the titles on the pile is "The Fumbly-Bumbly Angels". This is exceptionally cute, but caused my wires to cross several times leading up to last Saturday. My father had invited us to watch the Navy's Blue Angels fly over San Francisco During the Bay Area's Fleet Week festivities. So I've got a little war going on in my head between the angels, blue and fumbly-bumbly. I've got the "God loves and uses every helper, even the Fumbly Bumbly ones" thing in there, and I've got the "world's-greatest, military-precision, aerobatic demonstration team" image screaming around there too, threatening to dominate the fumbly-bumbly angels with the overwhelming force of the F-18 fighter.
Adults love power. It's hard to argue with the power and precision of the Blue Angels as a display of technological glory matched to a person's ability to master it. But once again, my wife's world trumps my adult world: I'd choose the fumbly-bumbly angels as models for my job any day.
Daddies draw distractedly down
Main Street, abstractly annoyed with ...
Directing diminutive teams of future
Producers in essential skills:
The Importance of a Full Plate;
How to Hate Family Time;
Giving Mommy Space ....
She, cold and conquering, fit
To be tried, uncovered in ball cap,
Flocked in vests of polar tech, V-8
Insulation against the weak and the wait,
Commands by a power
She doesn't understand.
We Christians are not to worry about judgment (aargh! But we want to!). It will be taken care of ... it is the territory of God the father, the son to whom it is given (but who also did not concern himself with it while he was here), and the Spirit who reveals by recalling the words, works and wonder of Jesus. Matthew 11.20 records an interesting perspective on this: Jesus "began to denounce the cities in which most of His miracles were done, because they did not repent." ... Jesus doesn't look back wishing he'd taught more on sin: he knows his presence was enough to reveal (to judge) the clear difference between good and evil, and the many simply failed to respond. Contrast Peter in Luke 5 (s v.8), who does respond to the miracle of Jesus with a new awareness of his sin.
Jesus lets his words (John 12.47) and his works (Matt 11) be the standard, the plumb line by which we are judged. He is not concerned with naming our failures (unless we are part of the arrogant class who teach lies in the name of God): he is concerned with meeting us and throwing his arms open. We accept or reject this miracle.
The God and gods of this generation.
In the computer world, programs that don't distinguish between uppercase and lowercase letters are said to be case-insensitive. For example, Web browsers don't care whether an address is written with capitals or not. WWW.CAPS.COM will get you to the same place as www.caps.com. During the dotcom boom we saw companies play around with capitals as if no rules applied. Names more often had capitals within them than at the beginning. Some names of companies had no capitals at all. If the above title were the name of a dotcom it may read, "caseInsensitive" or caseinsensitive.com". It is no coincidence that this generation also embraces the impersonal, case insensitive god and gods of a relative society.
While Web browsers don't distinguish between capital and lower case letters, The difference between God and god is certainly more important than the Internet generation is likely to discern. Though religion in the Internet age continues to be case insensitive, God is what God is, and that is not mere god.
Ask anyone what they think of capital-g God and they will likely respond as though you meant god: "you have yours and I have mine", or "I have my own religion", or finally, "don't impose your view of god on me". This last is a conversation-killer, as if my God is of my own making, or as if my "view" has an impact on the reality of my God. What else can I say if my god is a product of my own delirium? I wouldn't want to follow a figment of my imagination either.
When I use the name God, I mean it in the most specific, unique sense. God--One who exists outside of me. That in and of itself demands a response. Perhaps the demand is why people rebel against God and choose instead to take any appearance of the one God who makes claims on our independence and reduce it to one of many visions, one case-insensitive option among many. Yet, God is a personal noun, not an impersonal one. God is absolutely case sensitive.
This is very similar to the business/work/life ethic that was the death knell of suits in the office and of capital letters in names. As this generation became more confident in its own abilities, for various reasons, previous generations--their opinions, their behavior, their right to authority--were rejected.
While the absence of capital letters in names of dotcoms probably owes more to the nature of Internet addressing than to an attitude, one sees a parallel between the casual, make-your-own-way, approach to life of the Internet generation, and the way that generation deconstructs the one God into many, smaller, casual-dress gods.
Joshua (successor to Moses) says to the Israelites, "Choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell; but as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD."
God is one, says the ancient Hebrew Shema (Listen, O Israel, the lord your God is one!)
Friendship with God
We know something of the Cosmic God, Ruler of the Universe. He is the creator, the all powerful: He calls to the heavens, and His voice shakes the mountains. This cosmic deity is the Christ Pantokrator painted up inside the dome in the Orthodox Church. He is a bit angry looking and--compared to the multitude of Biblical characters painted on the plaster walls--He is the furthest from the people.
But how accurate is this cultural/architectural portrayal of God? In the patriarchal societies of the Orthodox traditions, somehow the male Jesus is limited to playing the part of the stern almighty. In churches in Greece, Mary is painted over the door, as if only Jesus' mother has the feminine quality of mercy, necessary to welcome the lost sheep home again.
But this is not true to the Scriptural portrayal of God as our friend. The "cosmic God" is too easy to ignore, too far away to matter. But a God who invites Himself into our living room, shares intimate truths with us, and requires the same transparency in return ... this God is impossible to ignore.
You are my friends if you obey me. I no longer call you servants, because a master doesn't confide in his servants. Now you are my friends, since I have told you everything the Father told me. (John 15.14,15 )
If the God of the universe really wants to call me friend, some questions come to mind: When Jesus says, "You are my friends if you obey me", do I want this friendship or not? Does the thought of obedience make me feel more like a friend or a servant? Historically, if the Orthodox traditions are any clue, we are fixated on the 'obedience' and not on the 'friendship'. If the friendship is a reward for obedience, then I may be in trouble. But I believe the truth is subtly different: obedience is a sign of my desire to be a friend to Jesus, a result of my honest desire to be true to Him. I can show myself to be a true friend of Jesus by practicing obedience.
These questions are important to me, because it is the possibility of friendship with God that makes his cosmic stature bearable for me. I believe Jesus desires my friendship. And I want it too, so I am willing to consider obedience to God, though I may avoid it otherwise.
But how does friendship with God work? God is called many things in Scripture. For example, the Hebrew El Shaddai does mean "God Almighty". Next to this, how do we name God "friend"? The following passages help paint the picture.
Psalm 145.18: The LORD is close to all who call on him, yes, to all who call on him sincerely.
James 4.8: Draw close to God, and God will draw close to you.
Leviticus 26.12: [God says,] I will walk among you; I will be your God, and you will be my people.
Exodus 33.11-14: the LORD would speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend. [.] Moses said to the LORD, "You have been telling me, 'Take these people up to the Promised Land.' But you haven't told me whom you will send with me. [.] And the LORD replied, "I will personally go with you, Moses. I will give you rest -- everything will be fine for you."
John 15.12, 13: [Jesus says,] I command you to love each other in the same way that I love you. And here is how to measure it -- the greatest love is shown when people lay down their lives for their friends.
John 15.15: I no longer call you servants, because a master doesn't confide in his servants. Now you are my friends, since I have told you everything the Father told me.
This God is so driven by his desire for an intimate relationship with his people that not only does he come down from his throne in the dome of the heavens to "walk among us", but as a sign that there is no limit to his love, this God of the cosmos will lay down his life for his friends.
The Near Side of Hell
Hell is always depicted in Gary Larson's comic strip, The Far Side, as a place where doomed souls are herded about by tall goateed men with horns and tridents. In one strip, three devils laugh out loud as they look through the slips of paper deposited in Hell's "Suggestion Box".
This is a fairly common portrayal of Hell. Not the part about the suggestion box, but the appearance of a devil or devils that rule over Hell, dealing out misery to the damned. But this is surely a mistake. Devils, demons, Satan himself are all angels, created beings, who operate on a plane somewhat closer to God for a season, but with no less accountability for their behavior. Satan himself is doomed, along with his rebellious followers, to the same fate promised to all who reject God in this age.
Then the Devil, who betrayed them, was thrown into the lake of fire that burns with sulfur, joining the beast and the false prophet. There they will be tormented day and night forever and ever. (Revelation 20.10)
The Scriptures never suggest that there is any power in Hell. This is one of the terrifying things about it. There is no longer any hope of success. There is no authority, no promotion, no release. All those who resist God to the end, demon and human, will suffer the same fate.
This reality is pictured with terrifying intensity in Auguste Rodin's bronze monument, The Gates of Hell. This pair of 20 foot-tall bronze doors are meant to be more than a picture of the entryway into Hell. They are meant to be a window.
In the sculpture, all is swirling bronze torment: each tiny figure takes turns grasping desperately at another, then being grasped. Each mouth is open, gasping for breath in exhaustion, all thirsting. Each being--devil and human--trades off the roles of tormentor and tormented, neither role satisfying, neither of power, but all of chaos.
16 April 2001
the word in context
The Word in Context
In the first chapter of the gospel of John, we read about the epic, ordering activity of The Word. We understand this Word to be the same Son of God who appears on Earth in the flesh and takes the name Jesus. He is present at the creation of the world where once there was only chaos. The Word itself brings order and is the stuff of the initiating speech of God when, in the beginning, that one says, "Let there be ...".
We experience the work of the Word in creation. But we experience the Word itself in His coming.
"The Word became human and lived here on earth among us. He was full of unfailing love and faithfulness. And we have seen his glory ." (John 1.14)
Because we humans fall so short of this glory, His becoming human seems contrary to that power and predisposition of the Word to move things from chaos to order, from darkness to light. But this becoming-like-us has a purpose.
The first words that John records being spoken by the almighty Word signal this purpose. The days of universe making are done for the Word: chaos has been overcome. In his becoming human, that power has been left behind, for a season. The Earth has different problems now, requiring a different language. The Word who-was-in-the-beginning enters fully into the present, and there meets you and me.
After the cosmological drama of the Word in verses 1 through 14, the first words of Jesus recorded in the Gospel of John are addressed to two potential disciples who have begun to follow him down the street. He says to them, "What do you want?"
This exceedingly prosaic query hints that the God of the universe has actually come not just as a human, but to be human and meet us humans right where we live. He does not say "Thus saith ." or "Worship me". His first utterance, as recorded, is to ask what we are looking for
We see the same pedestrian concern when God speaks to Elijah on Mount Sinai (1 Kings 19). Elijah has been running for his life and just as he gives up, hoping to die, an angel spurs him on for the forty day journey to Sinai. There, after hiding out in a cave during a windstorm so strong it tears rocks loose from the mountain, and an earthquake and fire (none of which--however mighty--contain
God), God speaks in a gentle whisper: "What are you doing here, Elijah?".
of God suggest that the mighty works of God--for example the creation and care of the universe--were simply how God set the stage for the more important work of caring for us.
12 October 2001
Donne's Holy Sonnet
Batter my heart, three-person'd God; for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o'erthrow me and bend
Your force, to break, blow, burn and make me new.
I, like an usurpt town, to another due,
Labour to admit you, but Oh, to no end,
Reason your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv'd, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved fain,
But am betroth'd unto your enemy:
Divorce me, untie, or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.