Think Again

I am going to start by talking about the brutality of God in the Old Testament. Particularly Israel’s war on Canaan. I am going to share some viewpoints on how to reconcile these events within our theological framework. But, before some of you freak out (speaking from experience), please read to the end. Because, the points I am about to discuss briefly are not the point of what I am writing today. They are simply used to create some tension for my main point.

The Israelites were promised this land a long time before they took it.  Now the only thing that stood between them and their land was the dirty work of wiping out an entire ethnic group. And, they were given very specific commands from God on how to do it.

On the way to the land, they would encounter other cities who were not necessarily part of the territory they were to take. They were to offer them peace and if those people accepted it, they would merely become forced labor for the Hebrews. If they were not down with becoming forced labor and decided to stand up for themselves, then the Hebrews were to kill all the men and take the women, children and animals as plunder.  Not really a great choice, but hey, that’s life huh? They shouldn’t complain though. They could have had it a lot worse like the people of Canaan. When the Israelites entered Canaan, the directive from God was less complicated. Murder everything. Anything that breathes is to breathe no longer.1 If that story was made into a movie, you would not let your kids watch it.

So, what do we do with this? I mean is this the same God we talk about today who you can have a “personal relationship” with and who is full of grace and mercy? Why does he seem to be acting more like the other tribal Gods of the ancient world? Well, there are a lot of different ways in which we work this out theologically.2

We say things like “God does love, but he is also just. He sends people to hell. That is worse than genocide. Plus, the Canaanites deserved it. Those guys offered their kids as human sacrifice. So, they were just getting what they were going to eventually get anyway.” Now, I am treating these theological theories somewhat flippantly. I do not have time to deal with any of them in a serious way. Peter Enns (read my last footnote) offers another theory. What if God did not tell the Israelites to do this at all? What if the Israelites came to believe this over time and then attached God’s name to their plans and their desires? Humans do it all of the time. It is not far fetched. Remember, what I said. Keep reading. Do not shoot me yet.

Personally, I have entertained this theory before. For me, some of it has been bolstered by Jesus himself. We find Jesus, seemingly out of the blue, reverse centuries old Jewish law and not as if to say, “Hey, that time is over. I’m bringing in the New Testament homies.” Instead he seems to say, “You guys have had this all wrong the whole time.”  In Matthew 15:1-20, he suddenly declares that what you eat does not make you clean or unclean. It is not what goes in your mouth, but what comes out. His disciples think he is talking that crazy parable talk again and in private ask him to tell them what he really meant. He basically tells them that he meant what he said and that they need to get it through their thick skulls. He does not say, “Well yeah, that was the law, but now I am here and it is different.” He does not offer some sort of theological explanation. He just says they were wrong.

But we do not even have to flip forward to the New Testament. There are plenty of voices in the Old Testament that point out how the Israelite have drastically missed the point. Read Micah 6:6-8. From his point of view, God does not want all the animal sacrifices they offer. He does not need their olive oil and he definitely is not interested in disgusting human sacrifice.  Instead, he wants us to be just, merciful and humble people. These are just two examples among many, that to me, seem not to say, “Well yes, these are the laws, but things are a changing.” Instead, they seem to possibly say “You got this all wrong and you always have.”

Now, take a deep breath at let your adrenaline simmer down if you need to. None of what I have said is the point. In fact, I am not necessarily satisfied with or fully convinced of any of it. My point is not to change your theology in a blog post. More educated people than I write books on this stuff and there are a thousand opinions. These are big, multi-faceted questions. I have a bigger point.

I want you to Think Again.

I had a student in my ministry tell me that he was bored with Christianity because he basically already knew it all. Now before you dismiss that as typical teen bravado, I want you to hear how truly sad that is. Some teachers and preachers are better than others at the craft, but if you are bored with the sermons, maybe it is your fault. Could your preacher get away with sharing the “crazy” theory that I just did simply as a possible theological conclusion? No way. People would gnash their teeth or something. What do we demand from them? To teach us what we have already agreed upon but, dress it up differently to keep us interested. To do otherwise is to risk one’s livelihood.

That teen was bored with Christianity because we had left no room for mystery. We pay lip service to this tragedy with clichés like, “Don’t put God in a box.” That does not nearly go far enough. We cannot just be satisfied with pointing out the error of reducing God to a package that can be shipped by UPS. We must create space to imagine together. We must create space to publicly explore and question. There must be room to Think Again.

Yet, we are afraid to open the door to mystery because we see it as an elusive, smoke-like substance that we cannot control. Mystery is not flimsy theology. Mystery is not a lack of conviction. This is God-mystery. It is opening the door to God-possibility. This is awakening, engaging and interacting. This is alive and active, not only stone-chiseled history.  Mystery is not satisfied with an unassured shrug. Mystery demands that we Think Again. In this space. God captures our imaginations. In this space, we want to know Him, because we do not yet fully. In this space, no one has arrived, but we are all truly journeying unsure of what we will find.

Souls die, God shrinks and evangelism fizzles in the absence of the divine mystery. May we be willing to Think Again.

 

1 Deuteronomy 20:10-17
2 among other resources, I recommend “The Bible Tells Me So” by Peter Enns. The beginning section of this post is heavily influenced by this book.

Make Level Paths

To their credit, these were basic necessities. It was not as if they were complaining about the sheets being two hundred thread count instead of Egyptian cotton. But, their perspective was severely lacking. They had seen some mindboggling events take place. Someone was taking care of them. Regardless, they were afraid, thirsty and “hangry.” Their perspective was so skewed that they started to think being oppressed slaves with full bellies, was better than free and temporarily hungry.1 This up and down of their emotions went on repeatedly and their lack of trust led to more and more disobedience. As had happened before, God got sick of this nonsense and wondered why He had ever decided to have kids. As the saying goes among parents, “Now we know why some animals eat their young.”2 But, he did not kill them. Instead, he just waited around for a whole generation of the formerly enslaved Israelites to die off so that He could work with the next, hopefully more reasonable one.

Harsh, but parts of all of us need to die.

Nobody likes it. Discipline hurts. It hurts emotionally and relationally. Even when done perfectly, it creates distance and can initially erode trust. With God, it gets even more complicated. Like the Israelites in the desert, even though things have worked out before, we are not sure if they will work out again. So, whether the threat of pain is on the horizon or currently raining down on us, we get scared, feel alone and lose trust. Then there is the confusion. Sometimes it is clear that the pain is our own fault. Our actions led right to it. Other times, we are not sure. Did I do this? Did someone else? Why? How did I get here? Where is God?… all that messy mess that messes with your head and helps nothing.

Sometimes there is an obvious, solid line connecting your actions to your hardships on the flow chart of life. You lied. She dumped you. You were late all the time. You got fired. You had a kid. Your mother-in-law comes to visit you more often. It is not always complicated. But, I have no idea why your child has cancer. I cannot explain why even though you have tried really hard, your life has ended up where you never intended it to be. I do not know if “this” will ever be over. Sometimes we deserve it. Sometimes we do not.

Either way – their fault, your fault, nobody’s fault – your modus operandi should be to endure any hardship as if it were discipline.3 If you are lucky, you have been disciplined properly before and, if you have been around long enough, you can look back and see that it worked out for the best.4 Maybe. That actually depends on you.

The death that takes place in discipline (or hardship endured as if it were discipline) is the risk God takes with us. Discipline can strengthen or injure. It can produce a deep soul dripping with peace, or a wounded one dry and drained. You can end up lame or healed. That part of you can die, or all of you can die.

It depends on which path you walk. One will provide the way through and the other(s) will break your ankles and leave you for dead. One is level. It is wide enough for friends. There are markers along the way. There are occasional shelters and streams where they need to be. Do not get me wrong, this is no “walk in the park.” This is still a hike with a full pack on a cold rainy day. There are still inclines that never seem to end and the worst thing you can do is constantly fill your mind with thoughts about when this is over. You need to just put your head down, accept it and hike.

The other path really is not a path at all. The other path is just you cutting out into the unknown driven by a toxic mix of emotion hoping to find your way out of the woods, hop in your car and drive anywhere else. That trail of discipline? No thank you.

So, you machete your way off the path thinking that you can figure out where to go. The hills still go up and down. It is still cold and rainy and your pack seems like it is getting heavier. But, the holes are hidden by the weeds, there are no shelters and you have seen no sign of a stream. As you walk deeper into the forest, anger and bitterness drives deeper into you. You have no path. Now you are lost.

When you are going through discipline or hardship endured as discipline, you need stability, level paths.5 The journey is arduous enough. The path you choose will determine if you make it through stronger of if you end up lame.

Making a level path is not finding a solution. It is moving forward and enduring as emotionally and spiritually healthy as you possible can. It is never neat. You will be covered in mud. Moving forward, not neatness, is success.

How do you make level paths? Here is some advice shared Sunday by the people of Venture Community:

Start Talking.
The confusion of the emotional response that comes so naturally cannot be navigated alone. You must have other perspectives. Yet, our tendency is to isolate and separate. Sometimes that is our pride. Sometimes that is due to the overly simplistic and unhealthy linear equation of doing right equals everything in life being right. Avoid that and avoid the people that espouse that. Find the deeper souls with scars and talk to them. Confess. This is not optional. With that, you may need to seek the shelter of a professional counselor. That stupid stigma of counseling is a thing of the past. Let it go. I have been to a lot of counseling. It has been great and I do not care what you think. I care what my wife and kids think and they are thankful for it.

Keep Walking. Remember. Walking is not solving it. It is not getting out from under it. You cannot just make this happen. Hardship and discipline are about enduring. You cannot just lay down or constantly sulk. You must pick it up and walk with it. One step at a time. Sometimes you need to just shut off your brain, put your head down and hike.

Develop Rhythm. When you are literally hiking a long distance, you have to have a plan of rhythm. You need to set a reasonable pace. You have to determine resting points. You need to plan out how much water you should drink so that you stay hydrated and do not run out of water. You cannot just figure it out along the way when you are hiking twenty to fifty miles non-stop. Trust me. The same goes for our emotional and spiritual health. We need breaks, food, water and we need these scheduled on some level. Whether that is reading, creating, exercising, or time to just sit and be, get some rhythm.

7 Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father? 8 If you are not disciplined–and everyone undergoes discipline–then you are not legitimate, not true sons and daughters at all. 9 Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of spirits and live! 10 They disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share in his holiness. 11 No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it. 12 Therefore, strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees. 13 “Make level paths for your feet,” so that the lame may not be disabled, but rather healed. Hebrews 12:7-13

1 Exodus 16:3
2 Exodus 32:10
3 Hebrews 12:7
4 Hebrews 12:9-11
5 Hebrews 12:12-13

Blame, Run,Compromise or Kill?

They were losing their nation and the end was near. It was a nation that was founded on a faith in God and He had blessed them for it. At one time, it had been a super-power, but those days were over. This nation of faith looked nothing like it had in its glory.

Where was God? Why had He allowed the ungodly to gain so much power? Was there anything that could be done? Could they get back to the time where things were as they should be –  time where people honored God and God blessed them?

Different parties had different ideas on how to respond. Leaders in the faith community saw the downfall as a product of the sinfulness that was becoming increasingly pervasive. They had no doubt about where to place the blame for the condition of the nation. Others felt it was a lost cause. The system was too big and powerful and the only way to reclaim any part of life was to separate, isolate and run somewhere else in order to rebuild society from scratch knowing at least what not to do. Those who had become enlightened to a better way could live out a holistic communal life in the woods or something. Another group agreed that the situation was unfixable, but instead of escaping, they made the best of it. They gave in, compromised and did what they needed to do to make sure they won at least some of the time. And, as always, there were the violent. In action and speech, their conviction was that their nation needed to be taken back and they were willing to do it by force and rebellion. Four ways to deal with the state of the nation; blame, run, compromise or kill?

None of them were completely wrong. Blame? No matter how you specifically define it, immorality was flowing freely down the pipeline and there was no shortage of supply. Run? The system was huge and seemingly, if not actually, insurmountable. There was definitely a better way to exist, but change from within would take generations if it were even possible. Starting over somewhere away from the Crazytown? That definitely had its appeal. Compromise? Escaping the system was not a realistic option for the masses. Making the best of it and obtaining some success was the only thing within the scope of influence of their limited power. Kill? That is what anger eventually demands and their anger was constantly boiling. The powerless often turn violent and the powerful call them uncivilized. Yet the powerful commit smug violence on the masses shrouded by a blanket monogrammed as political policy. Blame, run, compromise or kill?

These were the political parties in the days of Jesus in the tarnished nation of God’s people – the Pharisees, Essenes, Herodians and Zealots. Today we might relate them to the fundamentalists, hippies, career politicians and militia patriot groups. But, there are no black and white lines, really. I used to be more of a fundamentalist. I would love to just escape into the woods. I have voted while only considering what is best for myself and, man, sometimes getting into a fight is just an easier solution.

Do not worry. Jesus knows that during an election year the Facebook struggle is real. His news feed was full of comments from friends in all of these camps. Judas could be surprisingly Pharisaical and a slimy compromiser.1 John seemed a bit hippy-ish with all of his love talk.2 Matthew had sold out and taken a cushy government job collecting taxes.3 Simon, well he was a literal Zealot, not to mention the tendencies of the Sons of Thunder wanting cause mass destruction.4

He taught them all a new way.

He replaced blame with introspective grace. Running turned into self-sacrifice. Compromise was reformed into character and killing gave way to mercy.  Grace, sacrifice, character and mercy.

But, these have become platitudes. Too often they are nothing more than ideals we affirm and then quickly set aside to make way for the “real” issues and arguments. These are not the words that color our public discourse or undergird our political stances. Why?

Because we do not really believe in them.

We say we do, but if we are honest, they feel too passive and permissive. “If this nation is going to be changed, it will take strong leadership, resolve and tenacity.” That is why the Israelites thought their Messiah was going to be a dynamic military leader who would rally God’s people and overthrow the pagans in power. In that context, a crucified Messiah makes no sense and even Peter thought it was a stupid idea.5 Things like grace, sacrifice, character and mercy do not a war win.

This is the difference between the way of Jesus and the way of man. At the crux of Christianity is this moment of crucifixion that made no sense at that point in time because it was not simply about that point in time. The crucifixion (and resurrection) was the moment of revolt in a story much larger than Israel’s oppression. Israel thought they were the larger story, but the larger story was world-wide redemption. The larger story was Creator/Creation reconciliation.

In the smaller stories of people and nations at finite moments in time, the way of man seems best. When we as Christians live with one foot in the smaller story and one foot in the larger, we become tempted to attend to grace and mercy once the necessary dirty work is done. But, the way of Jesus demands that we participate in a larger story even as we still live moment to moment in smaller stories. The way of Jesus demands that we operate with grace, sacrifice, character and mercy even when it seems idealistic and naïve to do so. We cannot blame, run, compromise or kill in an effort to make it safe to eventually live differently.

In these moments, moments like today in our nation, each of us displays what indeed we really believe. In these moments, moments like today in our nation, each of us makes clear the size of the story in which we truly participate.

 

1 Matthew 26:8-16
2 1 John 4
3 Matthew 10:3
4 Mark 3:17-18; Luke 9:54
5 Matthew 16:21-22; 1 Cor 1:21-25

Her

It was a bad situation. There was plenty of blame to go around, but the result left one girl in a lonely place – married, but not loved. Simply put, she did not have the body to compete.1

But, tucked away in the middle of the story of these dysfunctional people and their messed up family, is a moment of gentle beauty.

When God saw that she was not loved, He blessed her.2

He… blessed… her.

I was a bit surprised when I watched the documentary 20 Feet from Stardom to hear Sting admit that luck is a huge factor that separates the backup singers from the stars.

“It is not the brightest who succeed… Nor is success simply the sum of the decisions and efforts we make on our own behalf. It is, rather, a gift. Outliers are those who have been given opportunities — and who have had the strength and presence of mind to seize them.”3

The fact that Bill Gates had access to a time sharing terminal in 1968 when no other teenager did, is an important detail in his story of success.4 Hard work is too no doubt.

Let me step off of this upward ascent to a macro level of commentary on the state of equality in our world and bring this down to me, you and everyone else around me sitting here at Starbucks. Yes, my life is that cliché.

We cannot forget that the fruits of our labor were grown in a soil fertilized with luck or unearned blessing. So, do not think that you are a self-made man, because you are not. This is why you are responsible for equality. Whatever it looks like within the power of your title or the scope of your influence, creating equality is your responsibility. When the blessed bless, space is made for reconciliatory equality. When we think too highly of the role we personally played in the story of our success at any level, we become selfish and even undermining. Equality is all of our responsibility and it is realized when we use our opportunities to create opportunity.

Jacob could have blessed his wife. Rachel could have pulled her sister up. They did not. God filled the gap left by their inattentiveness.

But there is more to this story than creating equality. It is about who she became. She was a second place prize, but she became the mother of half of the tribes of a nation. Equality is not just about the experience of the one person. It is about the loss we will all unknowingly experience when they are not enabled to become what they are meant to be. We will never know what life altering influence someone would have had because the door was never opened to them. Creating equality is not charity, it is unleashing a potential – a potential for goodness and innovation that we so desperately need.

And so I return to her. Her prayers, that left unheard, leave us all the poorer. Her leadership that could have helped to better navigate that treacherous path. Her heart and her deep theology that could have brought healing. Her wisdom and poise that would have provided steadiness. She is more than a compliment. She is an equal image bearer of God.

Your theological conclusions may not allow it 5, but I believe there is a wasted potential in her that cannot be denied. It is like saying your Elder Board could not benefit from the skill set of Condoleezza Rice, or listening to a sermon from Mother Teresa would not be more beneficial than half of the ones I preach. Just admit that Nancy Murphy could teach a better adult Bible class than most of us.

But, the likes of these gifted women walk within the walls of your faith community carrying a suppressed potential of truth, wisdom and goodness like huge water jugs on their heads of which we may never drink. This is not a post meant to change your theological conclusions. I simply ask that you lay the potential of her next to your theological conclusions about her.

And then think about which we need more of. Her or your conclusions?

 

1 Genesis 29:17
2 Genesis 29:31
3, 4 Outliers Malcolm Gladwell
5 Personally, James V. Brownson articulates theological conclusions on this topic that I would concur with in Chapter 4 of his book Bible, Gender, Sexuality.