Sunday, May 29, 2011
I had one of those paranoid Sunday morning wake-ups, the kind where you realize the sermon you prepared on Saturday may in fact have nothing to do with what God wants to say... good times. I may have written a sermon about what was wrong with "the church", specifically but not limited to the one in Uganda. I had Bible verses, stories, personal experiences, and everything. The problem... I didn't have the Holy Spirit and I wasn't focused on what was right about God/Jesus.
What I'd lined out would have made for a great conversation between friends, but a lousy presentation of the gospel. Ooops. Fortunately my stupidity found its boundaries before I stage dived into a crowd of none. I've not always been this lucky.
Something I've spent some time thinking about is how we inherently remake God in our own image. We round off his edges, change the meanings of his words and actions, interpret his behavior and teaching through the comfort of our own culture, and generally use wishfulness as a governing theological principle. Don't get me wrong, I like doing this myself, the only problem is we end up pulling a Greg Louganis off the edge of an empty boarding gate onto the concrete below. For all you people staring at us like we are complete nut-jobs, it's okay, we're totally qualified for this sort of thing... we're limo drivers.
After a few moments of motivated prayer my focus changed and I spent some time looking at God and the stuff Jesus said he came to do, I preached on that instead. Sure, I pointed out a few ways our lives and motivations are in danger if differing from what God said about himself and us, but that wasn't the focus.
To risk a Lloyd Christmas moment, it seems God is intent on restoration rather than destruction. It's not that God doesn't straight gank things from time to time, another traditional theological term (seriously you people need to spend more time in seminary), it's that "ganking" isn't the point, it's the natural side effect. Someone who goes out looking for demons to war against is stupid, like in a mentally distraught sort of way. Not because demons don't exist, but because they aren't the point. Loving people, healing them up, setting them free, opening their eyes to Jesus, etc. is the thing we are supposed to do. It's fine if a few scowlers get smoked in the process, but the point is the restoration of the will of God in the lives of others.
It's entirely possible for us to be right about the details, in a logical proof sort of way, yet completely miss the point. I'm getting to the place where I'd rather get the point right even if it means losing some of my surety on a few of the details. Having to say "I don't know and I'm not even sure exactly why it matters." about a bunch of doctrinal points is fine with me as long as I can say "This is the Jesus/God I know, and he has totally effed up my life and seems to take joy in making me uncomfortable." If the image you have of God/Jesus doesn't bother/threaten you, chances are you're crushing your eyes shut, clicking your heals together, and chanting "There's no place like home.". Only problem is, you ain't in Oz, Dorothy was an actress, and Toto is dead... I'm just saying.
Thursday, May 26, 2011
I’ve known all this for quite a while, it’s been real in my head for a long time, yet recently it slammed deeper into my gut and set with a new twist in my heart.
We return to my journey, my trying to find where I belong. The searching for home, so to speak, that brought me to that sweaty hotel room:
My search for God didn’t resemble the younger son’s rebellion and it was mercifully different from the older son’s rejection, though I did identify with him in a few ways. The similarity between the brothers and myself was that my attention rested on me, on my behavior, and on my desires. The motivation may have been better than either of the brothers, but the attention was just as broken. I often fall into the trap of thinking it is about me, about what I do or don’t do, about where I am or am not… On that occasion I felt some fear and loneliness, a little incomplete and lost, and maybe just a bit broken. I was reading a book by Vincent Donovan, a Catholic priest who became a missionary to the Masai in Tanzania. I was reading through the chapters, minding my own business, then God started to run.
I came to a section in the book where, after Vincent shared the gospel with a group of Masai, a man approached him and asked if he would speak with his son Ole Sikii. The son did not know God, yet he was very pious. Ole Sikii often led his tribe in prayers and ceremonies to a god he believed existed but didn’t know. The son desired to see and to know this god more than anything else.
The father told Vincent how his son had desperately pursued God (Engai) right up to His doorstep, but had been left alone:
A few days walk from his village there was a volcano called Oldono L’Engai (Mountain of God); it was believed to be the home of God. This mountain erupted regularly and with plenty of warning. Locals believed the eruptions were the result of God striking out. Villagers who lived close to the volcano often journey a safe distance away when the rumbling began. It was during one of these minor evacuations that Ole Sikii decided he would go to the home of God so he could see the face of God (Engai). As others walked away from the mountain, Ole Sikii walked towards it. He took very little food and water with him because he intended to fast much of his journey. In hope of seeing the face of Engai he climbed to the edge of the crater and spent three days staring down into the ominous mouth of violence and fire. After three sleepless days and nights, with hardly any water or food, Ole Sikii gave up and returned home. The face of God had eluded him yet again. Depressed and brokenhearted he wondered what else he could do to see the face of God.
The father brought Vincent to his son and they began to talk. Vincent said to the son:
“Ole Sikii, you have tried as hard as a man can try. You left your father and family and home and went in search of God up that terrible mountain. You tracked and followed him to his lair, like a lion tracks a wildebeest. But all this time he has been tracking you. You did not send for me or look me up. I was sent to you. You thought you were searching for Engai. All this time he has been searching for you. God is more beautiful and loving than you even imagined. He hungered for you, Ole Sikii. Try as we might, we cannot drag God down from the heavens. He is already here. He has found you. In truth, Ole Sikii, we are not the lion looking for God. God is the lion looking for us. Believe me, the lion is God.”
These words struck me like a warm wave flooding through my spirit. I wept. It was as if God was speaking the words into the depths of my soul, into a place so private and intimate even I am unable to access it. The truth that my God is a God who runs after me, who hungers after me, who is not far off but is pressing in, devastated me. I was struck down, and when I stood up I was without my fear and loneliness. Though I was not yet complete, I was no longer lost or broken.
As I write this several months later, I am still in Africa and I still don’t know where I will be in a year. I’ve let go of most of the hopes and expectations society expects us to reach for. If the incarnation of those hopes come to me I’ll be okay with it, but I’m not looking for them, at least not now. The reality of the searching seeking Father, the one who runs to his children, is an overwhelming concept when grasped by those He calls His own. God found me in that hotel room because he was looking for me. He didn’t reveal to me my future, direct me where to go, or tell me what to do. He came to me when I was lost and broken and searching, and He said, “You are not the lion who has been hunting Me, I am the Lion who hunts you. I am the Father who is even now running.” This story isn’t about me it’s about God. The plot doesn’t depend on me making the right steps or following the right paths; it depends on God. The good news is our God is a God who hungers, our God runs.
Wednesday, May 25, 2011
I’ve often fallen into the trap of thinking I'm the one searching for God, it is I who pursue relationship, and the burden rests on me to press in. The problem with this is the focus, and eventually the burden, of relationship comes to rest on a person unable to carry it. The problem is “I” become the focus. I doubt the focus being on me is ever a good thing, least of all when it comes to spiritual issues.
It is good to pursue God. Desiring relationship with God is a passion intended to be at the core of each of us. It is the ever-present desire for completion and home, and it often bears fruit. But it’s God’s pursuit of us that is far more important and impressive. I sometimes forget my God is a God who runs after me.
In Luke 15 we see three parables frequently misnamed by our Bibles and preachers. Often referred to as the parables of “The Lost Sheep”, “The Lost Coin”, and “The Prodigal Son”, these parables are misnamed because the focus of the parables is not on the sheep, the coin, or the son. The focus is on an entirely different set of characters. According to the emphasis, these parables would more aptly be named the parables of “The Seeking Shepherd”, “The Searching Woman”, and “The Running Father”. The attention of these parables is not placed on the lost, but on the one who searches. In each of these stories, God is that person and we are not.
In each of these stories the attention is placed on the searcher rather than the behavior of the sought. We are never told about the emotions or desires of the sheep, or even if it knew it was lost. Knowing a little bit about sheep, it probably didn’t have a clue about a clue. Incidentally, being referred to as “sheep” is not very complementary. If you hear sheep and think cute lamb, the joke is on you. Lambs are cute; sheep are stupid, self destructive, suicidal, annoying, and filthy. Tending sheep, in the best of circumstances, is a constant battle to protect them from their own stupidity. When the Bible refers to us as a sheep, we should be offended and remorseful.
The coin connotation is less offensive, the coin is simply indifferent to its circumstances. As for the positives of being identified as sons in the third story, many of the congratulatory sentiments that may come to mind are quickly removed by spotting the tragic natures of the two boys. In each story we get clear pictures of the shepherd, the woman, and the father; these are the central characters within the parables. Jesus drives home the emotions, desires, and actions of these characters. Let me be clear, God is the point of these stories, it is His desires and actions that matter. I find it interesting the self destructive, indifferent, and ignorant characters portray us; while attentive, pastoral, protective, and always-searching characters portray God.
The first two parables in the trilogy are useful and enlightening, but it is the complex and comprehensive nature of the third that stands out. The clear attention to the searching characters in the first two parables establishes the father as the primary character of the third. We can be distracted by the behavior of the prodigal son, and by his brother, but the power and the focus is on the father.
The father is a burden to the younger son; he is a backup plan and a means of survival. To the father, the son is a prized possession and someone to be sought regardless of his behavior. The son, for his own reasons, was disrespectful towards his father and only cared about getting his stuff. Disrespectful is actually a drastic understatement. To do what he did was akin to telling his father, “I wish you were dead, the only thing I’ve been sticking around here for is your money. But it looks like you still have a bit of life left in you, so why don’t you do us both a favor, cut me a check, and I’ll be off.” At that time and in that culture the father would have been well within his rights to kill his son on the spot. In fact, that is probably what his community expected and wanted him to do. Instead, the father released half of his wealth to his son. The curious thing is, half the family wealth was more than the younger son was entitled to regardless of the circumstances.
As we all know, the son went off and wasted everything. He squandered it; he didn’t even have respect for the wealth that came from his father. He took the things representing a lifetime of his father's hard work, sacrifice, and diligence; he took his family’s reputation and good name, and pissed all over it. Everything he did was a systematic rejection of his heritage, community, family, and father. There wasn’t a bridge he didn’t burn or an insult he didn’t throw. In short, the dude laid down the mother of all sins then set out to top it.
The expected came to pass and his bad decisions resulted in bad things happening to him. He reached the point where he was alone and his life was worth less than that of pigs. Still only caring about himself he hatched a plan to avoid death. With survival as his hope, knowing his father wasn’t a bad employer, he decided to a risk a return.
During his trip to his father he rehearsed his plea for mercy, “Dad, I’m a really bad person. I sinned against you and against God. I know I’m not worthy to be in your family anymore, but I want you to treat me like one of your employees.” In his desperation and brokenness he continued to focus on himself. He returned to his father on his own terms, formulating a contract that made him comfortable. He never repented; he never changed, or even tried to change. The flaw in his core was fully intact when his father saw him. But this story isn’t about the son.
The father is the one who looked for the son. The father is the one who ran to his son. The son who had nothing but ingratitude and shame to offer, refusing even a change of heart, was the one the father desired. It was the father who ignored the son’s attempts to make himself “okay” with the father, who rejected the terms, or contract, of acceptance. It was the father who made the son family again and threw a celebration on his behalf.
The Father didn’t reclaim the son out of obligation or according to conditions, but with a passion and a joy he wanted the whole community to share in. It was the behavior of the running father that mattered; the behavior of the son was never accounted for. In that culture a person in the father’s position would have been humiliated by his son’s request, would have been humiliated by his son’s treatment of the family wealth, would have been humiliated by his son’s return, and would have been humiliated by running in public. Yet he ran. He ran to his son because he wanted to be with his son and because he loved his son. This parable is about the father.
As impressive as the moment is, the story doesn’t end with the father's embrace; we don’t get the happy ending, the pat on the back, the “well isn’t that nice”. The dark twist to this story is there were two lost sons. One ran away the other stayed on, but neither knew the father. If it is the story of the younger son that makes us happy, it is the story of the older son that should disturb us, especially as Christians. As Christians we are no longer in much danger of being the younger son (though it may have been our place once before), it is the plight of the older son that should scare us.
It was good the older son worked for his father, it was good he honored his father and never went away, but that had nothing to do with why his father loved him. He never went away, but he was lost. The older son rejected his father by refusing to share in his joy, by refusing to accept relationship with his father on his father’s terms. In the same way the younger son had no idea who his father was neither did the older son. By choosing to set the terms of relationship he became lost by his own design. He thought he had a right to be respected and treated well by his father because he did his work, because he fulfilled his side of the contract he had written for himself. When the older son saw the way the father treated the younger son he refused to share in his father’s joy; he refused to come in to the father.
As with the younger son, the father looked for and went out to find the older son. He tried to welcome the elder son into his home. He tried to pull his older, stubborn, disrespectful, and self-pitying son into relationship with him, “Everything I have is yours, be happy with me, and join in the celebration.” Again, it was the father who did the seeking and the searching.
The eerie part of this story is we don’t know how it ends; we are left looking at the older son facing a choice, the same choice each of us must face. Will he accept the father on the father’s terms, or will he remain outside? The story doesn’t tell us what the older son decided, it leaves us questioning and incomplete, as if the decision is still being made. Without knowing it, many of us ponder this request in our hearts in much the same way.
Tuesday, May 24, 2011
There is this "thing", book, whatever that I've been working on. Previous posts have included parts or aspects of it, so this shouldn't come as a great shock to some of you. I'm at the point where I can say with great (wavering and uncertain) confidence that I'm almost done. After letting it sit for a few months I came back to do the "final edit", or as final as it can be before I start the next one. In any case, the next few posts are sections of a chapter I was happy to read for a gazillionth time, so I figure you might like it:
Chapter ? The God who Runs
Several months ago I found myself in a small hotel room in downtown Kampala. It was the start of an extended mission trip, and up to that point I had spent a few days seeing the city, visiting a friend, and waiting to see what came next. I had plans to meet up with a ministry in a nearby town but the final contact hadn’t come through yet. This hotel room became the venue for the culmination of a long emotional journey towards the heart of God.
Ten years before, during my senior year of university, I told God I was ready to go wherever He wanted me. I didn’t care where it was as long as He was there. I was ready, I grew up in ministry, I was about to earn my business degree, I had no debt, and I was unattached. In addition to a genuine desire to serve God, I figured the timing was right and things were going to happen.
Things did happen, but not the ones I anticipated. Over the next ten years I traveled around the world, took advantage of opportunities to serve God, worked with Churches and ministries whenever I could, made friends who will be in my life as long as I’m breathing, started and graduated seminary, and drew closer to God, but I never found my “Calling”. The place where God’s plans and my desires collided in an official “This is it! This is what I’m doing, this is who I Am.” realization, never materialized. How I prayed and where I looked never seemed to change the result.
The surface of my life was peaceful and full of life, but there remained a deep current of unrest and unsatisfied desire. It seemed I was always looking for God, always looking for where He wanted me to be so I could start the rest of my life. I never took serious jobs, always preferring to stay flexible and available for the next step. I wouldn’t be surprised if this was also the reason I only rarely pursued serious “relationships”, and why the ones that I did start didn’t last long. In both of these circumstances, work and women, I always knew there was something else. For good or bad, I wasn’t willing to settle for the things in front of me to the forfeiture of what was to come.
As my years accumulated and the practical aspects of my life remained unchanged, the deep unrest went from a youthful turmoil to a matured melancholy. I found a strange balance of searching for God while walking with God. I’m not sure if these descriptions make sense but they are about as close as I can get to describing where I was.
More than a few friends, who seemingly had no interest in ministry or missions beyond building trips in Mexico and helping out on Sunday mornings, heard God’s call and were on their way. Other friends found their carriers, got married, bought houses, started families, etc. I was grateful and happy for all of them, but these moments brought with them their own confusions. I can honestly say I’ve never envied my friends’ lives, but I’ve wondered at the contrast with my own.
I knew I could force the issue, but it never felt right and I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I found myself in a strange balance between trying to be patient while at the same time attempting to avoid passivity. It was on this foundation I found myself under a mosquito net in a small sweaty African hotel room, a bit tired and confused, reading a book and looking for God.
Sunday, May 22, 2011
If a surgically enhanced bombshell, defying both nature and gravity, comes bounding out of the surf in my direction the chances of me looking at her eyes are slim to none. If I get slapped, or if her boyfriend is there, gets pissed, and throws down... fair play. This has never happened to me. What has happened you ask? Well, I've been walking through a crowd after a pro-life march, and while I crane my neck around in all directions looking for my folks, get accosted by a group of young girls who accuse me of learning at them... seriously? I'm not saying that had I been a 14 yr. old boy this wouldn't have been the case, I'm just saying this couldn't have been further from my thoughts or intentions at the time. Then there was that time I got dragged out of church by someone I thought was my friend and watched as he did everything he could to keep from trying to beat me up (I say "try" because, lets be honest, I'm pretty freaking spectacular... and humble). It took me a few moments to realize he wasn't joking around and he actually thought I was trying to steal his wife away from him. I still remember the feeling of staggering around in confusion wondering what just happened and if there could possibly be any truth to what he was saying. I can laugh off most things, but this one is still hard for me. Oh, by the way, I wasn't trying to steal or insult his wife. The only people as confused by the incident as myself are the friends who know me well............
and this is why I don't do free association blogging
.......... okay, right so... deep and spiritual... I guess my point is this: actually being "known" is freaking rare. People interpret you through their own expectations and experiences, as if you are a character in their own play. I know I do this as well, kinda like a paleontologist (thanks Friends for that word getting locked in my memory) adding muscles, skin, and behavior patterns to a pile of bones someone else found under a rock somewhere. We take what we are given and we add to it until we get something we feel comfortable classifying and relating to. My close friends, the ones I value and would do almost anything for, are the ones who know the real me, or at least enough of the real me to not place me in the cretaceous period.
For all of the spiritual experiences I've had, from the cool and fun to heartbreaking and difficult, the one that anchors me in my relationship to God is the one where he made it clear the depth to which he knows me. There wasn't any fire or lightning, no one walked on water, and there were no audible voices, but I knew God was looking into the core of my being in a way that created an intimacy refusing definition, and said "I know exactly who you are, I know the deep things about your personality and desires, the things you yourself are unaware of, I know everything you have done and thought, and I love you." I was split open and raw in a way that makes vivisection and that dream about going to school/work naked, Disney-like in comparison - that said, I would LOVE to see Sesame Street do an episode on both those topics. I was raw and known by God in every way possible, and him knowing me that way made me love in a way I didn't know possible.
The irony is the curse associated with that long moment of intimacy, nothing else compares. Even in the best of my human relationships, in reality or in hopes, I'm always left knowing there is something more.
Sunday, May 1, 2011
After the last post about forgiveness and stuff, my dad told me he couldn't forgive Hitler because Hitler hadn't done anything to him, to forgive him would be presumptuous and arrogant. He had a valid point, but I think there is more to it. My hatred of Hitler indicates a wrong done, not on the scale of death-camps, persecution, etc. but a wrong none the less. If I hate someone there is a need to forgive them. If I said, "Hey, I forgive you man, we can just forget about all the millions of murders you committed and do our best to make sure you aren't judged.", then yes, I would have no right and it would be epically presumptuous and arrogant. I don't think that's what forgiveness is though.
I don't think forgiveness equals forgetting, or frees people from the consequences of their actions. God is the only one even capable of walking out either of those actions. I think forgiveness is the act of releasing another from the anger we hold against them, and the attempt to love them for who they are rather than hate them for what they have done. I may not have the right to make this statement, not that that has ever stopped me before, but until Jews, as individuals and a community, learn how to forgive and even love Hitler, he will continue to do violence against them - against us. This goes for the African community and it's history of slavery and oppression, the First Nations people and the wrongs done them, Americans and 9/11, etc.
Some may say this is impossible and unreasonable - I would agree. To forgive and even love ones enemies IS impossible, at least for us. Fortunately or unfortunately, for Christians, Jesus has freed us from the impossibility that once governed us. We don't get to fall back on, "It's too hard.", "It's not possible!", "You can't ask me to do that!", etc. Wat is possible, natural, and just, according to our own eyes, no longer applies to us. If we claim Christ, we claim his standards... even the sucky ones. The upside to this whole thing is we learn to forgive and love our enemies, not by forgetting or ignoring what they have done, but by flinging ourselves on what Jesus did. We don't depend on our own ability, we surrender ourselves to Christ's.
I'm glad some form of justice found bin Laden, I just don't want my joy to come from it. There is a huge difference between bin Laden and the people who shot him; there is a huge difference between those who went to the streets to celebrate 9/11 and the terrorists who committed those acts and the ones who celebrate the death of bin laden, but does that difference reach our hearts? As people, deep down, are we so different? If, on a grand scale, hatred is the greatest violence we do against each other and the specific actions the easily condemnable fruit of that hate, can we ever cling to moral high-ground and the justification of our hatred at the same time?
*Before anyone gets mad at me: I see no contradiction in forgiving the person who wronged you and then testifying against them in the knowledge they would be punished. Forgiveness doesn't preclude consequences for actions, it heals the deeper wounds and divides untouched by law. I'm not a fan of the death penalty in the U.S., but I've never apposed it or argued against it. It is a limited tool of little value, but as a justifiable consequence for actions it is valid. The issue is hating the executed rather than recognizing the deeper tragedy of the thing and the one that made it necessary.
If we punish the actions brought about by hate without renouncing the hate in our hearts, we can proclaim "The king is dead..."