Wednesday, November 18, 2009

stardust, sex god and satan.

I'm sitting in Stardust Coffee and Video, this indie trendy coffeeshop in Orlando. There are shelves and shelves of old VHS and DVDs lining the walls. The room is set up sort of like a school cafeteria with long metal tables and functional white plastic chairs to match. Kate is entertaining house guests from Virginia and suggested we come join them today. I normally have my weekly meetings with Mitch at Starbucks, so I asked him if he wouldn't mind changing it up this week and meeting here.

The day started off with breakfast with Jeanne at Cracker Barrel. And also her telling off some shady adjuster on the phone from the unnamed insurance company she works for. Kate kept coming to the front porch, alternating between eavesdropping and giving me a play-by-play commentary of Jeanne's smack down.

We're both so proud.

Still sitting in the coffeeshop and waiting for Mitch to get here, I just finished reading Sex God by Rob Bell. My friends Josh and Jeanne have been telling me forever about how great this book was, but every time they tried to explain the gist to me, the gist always sounded weird. "Endless connections between God and sexuality" seemed a bit scandalous.

But it's good. And it got me thinking a lot. About relationships. And freedom. I'm journaling, watching the people around me, sipping too-sweet earl grey tea.

For some unknown reason, my Bible flopped open to I Chronicles 21. The first words I read were "Satan rose up against Israel and incited David to take a census of Israel."

This sentence struck me as a little weird. Why is David keeping tabs on how many soldiers had suddenly being labeled as satanic activity? Seems a bit heavy handed.

After all, David is warrior king over all of Israel. He is commander-in-chief, famous for leading a special fighting force of "mighty men," defeating Philistines and other neighboring warring nations. It seemed natural (and shrewd, even) for David to keep a running count of how many men he had. It's just keeping inventory. It's just smart.

The problem is, lately I have been realizing how playing the comparison game can be incredibly destructive.

And we all play it.

Somehow, what begins as harmless observation can slowly but insidiously begin to play upon our weaknesses and insecurities.

"She's more ... than I am." "Look at how much .... he has." "Why does everybody else seem to...?" "I wish I were married." "I wish I were single."

On and on. It's difficult, if not impossible, not to compare ourselves to other people, to complete strangers, to our friends, to our families. Either we are aching for that which we do not have, or we are finding our identity and security in how much we have in comparison to other people. We allow comparison to shape our choices, influence our relationships and give us a sense of validation.

We invite in the hierarchy and it destroys us.

In Chronicles, the story goes onto say how David ordered his right-hand man Joab to take the census. Joab protested, but he was overruled by David. So Joab went throughout Israel, counted the troops and reported back to David. Somehow (the Scripture doesn't say how exactly), David had a moment of realization that this was probably a bad idea. He acknowledges this, then God gives him three options for his punishment. And all three options (famine, sword or divine plague) involve a lot of death. David opts for something that doesn't involve an outside party coming in, so the Lord sends a plague to Israel. 70,000 people are slaughtered. And then on top of that, God sends in an angel to destroy the entire city of Jerusalem. As the angel was apparently about to wipe out the entire city, God suddenly called the whole thing off. But not before 70,000 men are killed and who knows how many families completely devastated from this loss.

Why all the destruction? It seems a bit extreme or irrational of God, perhaps. Crazy, even.

The truth is, I think God knows how comparison distorts our perspective. It destroys us. So in a very tragic way, maybe the destruction somehow equaled the magnitude of David's offense, not only against God but against himself.

David rose up from the obscurity of being a shepherd to being king over all of Israel. He defeated the giant Goliath, the Philistines, the Moabites, the Ammonites, the Arameans, the Edomites in a series of swift, merciless battles. He began to amass an enormous army as thousands began to rally behind him. And at every turn, he acknowledged God as the source of his victory, even bringing the ark of the covenant into the city as a recognition of God's glory and presence being the reason for every triumph. He always understood that his strength and identity was in God.

When David decided to take a census, however, something very subtle was changing within him. He began to shift his trust away from God and toward himself. Toward comparison. There's nothing inherently wrong with being wise and shrewd, but his actions revealed the truth of his motives. His identity was no longer in Yahweh-Nissi; it was in the strength of his own army.

I often wonder how often I take census in my own life. When I compare my abilities, the strength of my relationships, experiences and it either leaves me with an insufferable sense of pride or an self-destructive sense of inadequacy. Abilities, relationships and experiences are good things, but it's so subtle and destructive, how often embracing them can so quickly replace gratitude and humility with a sense of fear, pride, insecurity and inadequacy. I am struggling to relinquish my tendency to compare.

And this is one of the many reasons I really do adore God. He destroys the hierarchy. In Christ, there is ultimate inclusivity. And security. A constant invitation to simply draw from His infinite love and grace where there are no conditions, no fear of abandonment. The invitation to know God, and for Him to know us, every messy, human inch of us, and be loved unconditionally. That height and depth and width of the kind of love astounds me. It's unheard of.

Yahweh-Nissi. God is my victory. Through Christ, He is my strength, my source, my identity, my security and I don't need to compare myself to anyone.

And neither do you.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

the astonishment of God

Throughout all of the Gospels, we constantly read about how the people who encountered Jesus were astonished. They were amazed and captured by His power to heal, His spiritual authority, His teachings, His ability to expose the motives of the Pharisees, His defiance of social or cultural expectations, His claims of divinity. We often talk about being amazed by God or amazed by grace. And these of course are right, necessary, beautiful and worshipful reactions. Yet it never occurred to me that God Himself could be amazed.

There is, however, one time any Gospel writer uses the word "astonished" to describe Jesus. It happens when he encounters a centurion, a Roman soldier who seeks him out and implores Jesus to heal his sick servant. Jesus offers to go to the servant and heal him. But the centurion declines his offer, stating that he is confident that Jesus need only "say the word" and his servant would be healed. He responds to Jesus, saying, "For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, 'Go,' and he goes; and that one, 'Come,' and he comes. I say to my servant, 'Do this,' and he does it." Like the regimented soldier that he is, he understood Jesus to be a man of authority. He intuitively understood that somehow Jesus held the very power of life and death in both the supernatural realm and the physical realm. He knew in the power of the unseen could affect what was seen, and that this power could defy the limits of space and time.

"When Jesus heard this, he was astonished and said to those following him, "I tell you the truth, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith. I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth."
Then Jesus said to the centurion, "Go! It will be done just as you believed it would." And his servant was healed at that very hour"

In short, Jesus was astonished. The Greek word used for "astonished" here is "thaumazo." This is the only time this word appears in Scripture. The "thaumazo" means "to wonder, wonder at, marvel, to admire." For the first time, this story struck me as an incredibly poignant moment. I was suddenly fascinated by this idea that the image of the invisible God, the Logos, the ultimate Truth and Reality manifested in a human being to actually be astonished at something.

I am currently enrolled in a Worship Leadership class at Florida Christian College. Simultaneously, I've been keeping up with my friend Greg's Theology of Worship class that he teaches at his home church. So I am learning that there are all of these smart and fancy theological words that smart and fancy theologians have when it comes to the language of God, words like "transcendence" and "immanence."

To put it simply, transcendence describes those qualities of God that exist above our concepts, ideas, categories. These are the traits of God that transcend time and space. Traits like his independence, his unchangeableness, his omniscience (all-knowing), his omnipresent (present everywhere). "Immanence" refers more to those qualities that relate more to humanity and his involvement with creation. This includes traits like wisdom, goodness, love, etc.

There seem to be a lot of human traits that we share with God. According to Scripture, humanity was created "in the image of God." Within the creation of that "image" God instilled in us qualities that He himself has and that we have a capacity for, including wisdom, goodness, love, patience and will. There is an enormous, infinite chasm, however between God's more transcendent qualities and what we actually experience, such as omniscience, or all-knowing.

Because God is all-knowing, God does not have "faith" in the traditional sense. Unlike humanity, He is not subject to uncertainty or unknowns. Since He knows all things, He doesn't necessarily have "faith" in anything.

This seems so divergent from human experience. We experience uncertainty all the time. I felt this so strongly when I was in Australia earlier this year. Every day, Walt and Jeanne and I would wake up in a different hostel, and we only had vague ideas and loose itineraries about where we would go and what we would see as we road-tripped around the continent. With that immense freedom that comes with traveling, there is also the instability and anxiety of unknowns. When Jeanne and I moved to Sydney, we knew few people and had no idea where we would live or find jobs. Then, upon moving back to Orlando, we initially had no idea where we would live or find jobs. Even now, I live in a constant state of uncertainty about my circumstances of what the future holds.

This is why faith is so beautiful and difficult at the same time.

However, until recently, I never thought about the flip side of this philosophical coin: God, being all-knowing, does not experience faith Himself. This is one trait that He does not share with humanity. Since He is sovereign and knows all things, He has no need for faith himself. And so, maybe God is actually astonished by faith? Could God actually be impressed by faith?

I think so.

And it's not in a condescending "Aw, is that cute!" the way a father would be "impressed" by his daughter learning to tie her shoes or something. This is an actual astonishment, a thaumazo. God marvels and wonders at people having faith.

Over the past few years, I reacted against blind and ignorant faith, and chose to embrace doubt and skepticism for a season of my life. Faith seemed the easy route, the uninformed route, what people do who have no idea of the bloodstains and injustice of church history, the suffering of the world or even cultural and historical context of Scripture. Culture today declares faith to be the enemy of reason and that doubt is the source of true liberation for humanity. Even in churches recently, I have noticed a tendency to elevate doubt and cynicism over faith.

I love in Kierkegaard's "Fear and Trembling," how he argues that faith is actually a more difficult, higher plane of existence than doubt, and actually worthy of this deep astonishment. He delivers a beautiful passage on Abraham, named "the father of faith" to all future generations. He describes the impossible faith behind Abraham's choice to obey God and sacrifice his son. Kierkegaard writes: "...but Abraham was greater than all, great by reason of his power whose strength is impotence, great by reason of his wisdom whose secret is foolishness, great by reason of his hope whose form is madness, great by reason of the love which is hatred of oneself."

While I was at Hillsong Church, they launched their Faith Hope and Love album recording, and so these themes of faith, hope and love seemed to penetrate the culture of the church. Hearing the basics of faith and hope preached week after week, I began to realize something was breaking down within my own heart, in regard to remnants of cynicism and doubt that still remained. I began to remember how difficult and beautiful faith can be. I witnessed firsthand what incredible faith and vision can wield a powerful influence in the world. I began to actually believe in faith again, despite its inherent difficulties.

And yes, if you believe in Jesus and have committed yourself to following Him, you know these difficulties I'm talking about. You feel this all the time when you can't seem to make sense of circumstance, when prayer seems stagnant, when change doesn't seem to be happening. A life of faith is absolutely hard. It's not easy by any means. We don't have complete knowledge. That's what makes faith faith. That's what makes hope hope.

I think that's exactly why God, in His infinite wisdom and knowledge, is still astonished by it.

Faith is not an experience God Himself has. It's something that He in his omnipresence that He does not relate to. And maybe he got a glimpse of it again, as Jesus, marveling and wondering at the faith of the centurion.

So it is incredibly beautiful to imagine God as being one who marvels and delights in us as we engage in our faith. It's kind of like enjoying watching someone else dance, even though I myself cannot move in that unique way.

Andrew Peterson wrote a song several years ago called "No More Faith." In it, he sings about the day coming when only love will remain, because the need for faith and hope will pass away.

I say faith is a burden
It's a weight to bear
It's brave and bittersweet
And hope is hard to hold to
Lord, I believe
Only help my unbelief

Till there's no more faith
No more hope
I'll see your face and Lord, I'll know
That only love remains

Uncertainty will pass. The unknown will become known. And here will no longer be any space in this universe for faith and hope, because Reality will overwhelm and cause our three-dimensional existence to expand and explode into glorious eternity and infinitude.

May we live bold, astonishing lives of faith.

"Now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love." [i corinthians 13:13]

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

from the corner window seat on Orange and Kaley.

The great Christian revolutions come not by the discovery of something that was not known before. They happen when somebody takes radically something that was always there' (H. Richard Neibuhr)

I was reading Titus this morning and was kind of struck at the introduction of the book. I just recently learned this (yeah, yeah I know I'm a late bloomer. This is what I get for skipping out on Bible College), but all of the epistles in the New Testament are introduced in the same fashion, typical of correspondence in 1st century Palestine. The author identifies himself. If it's Paul, you can be sure that his introduction usually includes an incredibly long run-on sentence in the original Greek and likely translated into English. It includes the name of the person to whom the letter is addressed, which in this case is Titus. And usually it includes the traditional blessing of some form of: "Grace and peace to you from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Savior.

A couple of things recently occurred to me. First, this is bizarre in American culture because when we typically write letters (which, if you still are fortunate enough to have people in your life who actually still write handwritten letters then good on you, mate!), we say "to whom" first and then there's the body and text of the letter and then we conclude with "from" or "sincerely" or "much love" or "cheers", etc. It's flipped. We do it backwards. So finally realizing something as insignificant as the structure of New Testament letters made me realize how personal and intentional and fraught with purpose all of these letters are. I know whenever I write a letter it's usually because I am particularly moved and inspired or frustrated or angry and want to communicate clearly my thoughts and perspective on any particular matter to a specific person. This is why I love literature like Oscar Wilde's De Profundis or Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet or Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Letters from a Birmingham Jail. There is a personal intent and honesty and urgency in letters that is different from blogs or books or memoirs. There is a beautiful, naked eloquence about personal correspondence.

The second thing I observed is actually that this 1st century style of writing letters closely mirrors the way emails are set up. In fact I can only imagine the Book of Titus being prefaced by this way:

From: Paul, a bond-servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ, for the faith of those chosen of God and the knowledge of the truth which is according to godliness, in the hope of eternal life, which God, who cannot lie, promised long ages ago, but at the proper time manifested, even His word, in the proclamation with which I was entrusted according to the commandment of God our Savior.

To: Titus, my true child in a common faith

CC: The rest of the world

Subject: Grace and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Savior

Okay so maybe the CC thing is a bit ridiculous. So before you shake your head at the initial cheesiness of this, this whole idea of how correspondence is set up in the first-century culture has really has made me contemplate who I am and how I interact with people. With a clear "From" and description of himself, Paul not only has an incredibly strong sense of identity, but an eternal perspective and a story which affects his decisions, his life purpose. He boldly and clearly identifies himself as an apostle and He affirms the faithfulness of God, both personal and corporate. He lives through the certainty of his identity. Over and over we read about how Paul has all the necessary qualifications: He was a Pharisee, a teacher of the law, one endowed with leadership ability and incredible spiritual authority. He is naturally charismatic. And yet, all of these things he considers to be "rubbish, that I may be found in Christ."

He doesn't find his identity in external strengths that society esteems or even internal strengths that could give him a sense of superiority. He finds his identity in the eternal love. And all his energy and ambition and pursuits are focused and channeled to one end: God's glory and his kingdom.

Not only that, I recently discovered that that greeting of "grace and peace" prefaces nearly ever single letter that Paul, Peter or John ever wrote. It appears 13 times and always at the beginning of the letter. At first, I always dismissed this to be some kind of standard greeting, something nearly devoid of meaning. Like how people politely say "God bless you" when somebody sneezes. It always kind of seemed peripheral, like the phrase was just thrown in there to sound religious and proper.

But I realize what kind of transforming power that greeting can have if the intent behind it is genuine. I can't say that I approach all of my relationships and interactions with people with this underlying theme of "grace and peace" informing my every action.

How would actually living through the reality of grace and peace, allowing an understanding and experience of grace and peace to reform and reshape my identity and my relationships with other people? In this case, I would not merely be following a list of religious rules or being guilted into acting a certain way out of obligation or fear or compulsion. But rather, I would be living through the new creation that I am, the identity that God has given me, a Spirit-created heart that is fundamentally different from the habits and intuition of this world. Allowing God's grace and peace to overflow out of my life into the lives of other people has radical ramifications.

I think far too often, we as believers neglect the gospel of grace. We become far more concerned about asserting our own opinions, standing on our soapboxes of theology and philosophy, finding our strength by excluding rather than including, clinging to our perceptions and preferences at the expense of unity that we forget the fundamental truth of the gospel: grace.

And I of course am the first to admit that I am guilty of this.

One thing that I've become increasingly aware of within myself is to be increasingly self-critical, almost to the point where I tend to assume responsibility for things that I shouldn't. I apologize unnecessarily. I assume all of the blame when blame should be shared. This has become increasingly obvious in the way I fail or disappoint the people in my life.

In effect, I don't have grace for myself.

Or sometimes the extreme opposite becomes true. I endlessly excuse myself and other people's faults, avoiding God's gentle but firm reminder that He is here not to make me feel better about myself but to slowly recreate me as a new person.

Both tendencies, I've realized, is massive evidence of pride. What looks like selflessness can actually be a passive way to hold God and other people at arms' length. What looks like tolerance can actually be an avoidance of conflict, born out of fear and insecurity. These are things that I am working through and I pray for continued grace.

I'm still wrestling through the ramifications of this, but I do believe that at least God is calling me to begin with prayer. It's clearly not my purpose to fix other people or impose my view on them or to convince people of this or that. Rather, it's simply to serve in love, allowing grace (a sober acknowledgement of brokenness and an unconditional acceptance of it, which I can only do because I myself have been the undeserving recipient of such grace from God) and peace (active reconciliation and restoration) to reform my perspective, my actions, my motives.

So if anything, like Paul I want to find complete security of my identity in God. To find my disordered loves and idols and misplaced securities to be swallowed up in His deep and utter love that He has lavished on me in Jesus. I want to allow His perspective and love for me redefine who I am, rather than be subject solely to the whims of culture, experience, my childhood and relationships. Like Paul, I want to have that eternal perspective of grace and peace affecting me, transforming me, redefining me.

So please have patience with me when I fail as I undoubtedly will. This pattern is doomed to repeat itself from the Garden all the way to the City.

But thank God for Jesus. Seriously.

Grace and peace to you all.

"The kingdom is eternal, the gospel of Jesus becomes internal, and that becomes visible externally in the world." -Pastor Joel Abell