The Beloved

I suppose I stopped hating myself the minute I realized I could hate my father, which was when I turned fourteen.  I hated him because he was cross when I wanted him to be kind or loving when he should have been strong; I hated him because he could have been more than what he had amounted to, from my perspective, a two bit hack traveling Jesus salesman,  and I hated him because he was no longer a super hero.  It’s hard to stay mad at some one who’s greatest genocidal crime is that he’s human and the fact was his faults were my faults.  I couldn’t hate my dad forever.

Eventually I found a bigger target for my angst: the church.  Looking back on it, I think I chose wisely.  Going after the institutional church is like hunting for a pink elephant in a bamboo forest…you can’t miss.  I brought the hammer down on pastors and elders and deacons. I critiqued antiquated programs and event driven Christianity. I pointed out the glaring inconsistencies of Protestantisms claim to “do it by the book” and then fail to look anything like the early church. There’s just something about having the final spear throw aimed at the lumbering dying mammoth that is so rewarding.  Looking back on it, I think the best part was the sense of worthiness that came with my criticisms.  With each virtuous attack I hurled out, I felt like I was becoming a better friend to God, who clearly needed me.  All of this was cathartic to say the least. I got to be “all about Jesus” while I made sure I wasn’t being the established church.  It’s a pretty easy way to feel defined, and valued, and loved.  Rather stupidly, one of us thought to try out our brilliant ideas for organic church.  Church sans leaders or programs or buildings or methods… Eventually we even added the jewel of intentional community to our already glimmering crown.  In the end, stripping everything also meant I lost my excuses.  Eight years into that journey I was left with no pastor to blame,  no mortgage to maintain, no board to blast.  The feeling of not being able to pass on my deep sense of loathing to anyone else is rather terrifying…my father…God…the church…all of them have born the brunt of something in me, about me.

At some point in the last six months I’ve had to acknowledge that most of this ancient history and present feeling, father hating, and church killing, is really about me.  Every critique, every cynical mistrust that finds it hard to believe others care for me–others enjoy being in the same room with me, all of this is mine.  I am not a super hero.  I am terrified in my own two cent hackery.  I need to be loved–and the easiest way to find sympathy is to be a victim.  On and on it goes.  What seems at first like Daddy Issues 101, is really just ME Issues 411.

Yesterday morning I felt fairly naked. Robbed of oppressors. Isolated from others.  Just me, Adam in the garden, filled with a knowledge that leaves me desperately alone in judgment of others, all the while actually in judgment against myself.  The early sun sort of filtered through the mossy stain glass of the trees I was sitting near. And as the sun hit me, without excuse, I felt compelled to say something I heard Henry Nouwen say once:

I AM THE BELOVED CHILD OF GOD IN WHOM HE IS WELL PLEASED!

It felt scary to even say out loud. Not because it was a statement about Jesus I was appropriating to myself, but because of how little I actually believed it inwardly.  The God I knew, who’s anger was only slightly turned aside by a fancy trick his son performed on the cross, who understood and agreed with me that I am the scuzz bag I feel to be, that God would never have condone being his beloved child.  Still…As those broad smiling beams of sunlight hit my face I touched something…delight.  It didn’t exactly feel like it belonged to me.  In fact, if I had to guess, I would say it was coming like some sweetly somber Johnny Greenwood guitar lick over the radio waves–from elsewhere…out there…but still…

I was, at this point, laughing.  I WAS the child God wanted and kept and held. He was ok with me. In fact, I guess (at least it seemed this way) he was more than just ok with me…he was overjoyed with me.

And, perhaps quite independently of all that, or maybe connected at a level I will never understood fully, I was ok with me too.  I was overjoyed with me as well.  Not narcissistic or out of wack self indulgent.  Just finally…fine with my own skin.

I suspect that’s what Genesis 1 is all about…creating…creating a new sort of human–one who feels secure as the beloved of God.  That’s why Jesus personifies the mystery so incredibly well.  Divinity and humanity comfortably at rest in one vessel.  A container holding all of God’s love. That’s what our great hope is, that we too with face unveiled–beholding him–will be transformed into him, the Christ…the beloved of God.  And maybe…just maybe…the first step isn’t pop psychology with dad or reimagining church…maybe it’s way more simple…it’s just saying, softly at first and then louder as we grow more bold: “I am God’s Beloved child in whom He is well pleased”.

when the plot falls apart.

Following along in the vein of “Story” I’ve had a further thought…

What happens if you’re watching Star Wars and the camera zooms in on Luke Skywalker…he’s summoning all power of the force to battle the Emperor when…BAM!  Bob, the mechanic, shoves Luke out of the way and co-opts the movie…around his plot?!?  Ridiculous right?  I mean, imagine, how boring is Star Wars when it’s central character gets side lined, and Bob–the mechanic who was simply meant to work on spaceships, suddenly becomes the main character.  Think of how mundane that story would be.  Maybe there would still be an epic struggle, but it would be in the background now, a subplot to the new central theme of “if Bob can repair the Galactic Cruiser today”.  Bottom line–it wouldn’t make for an interesting movie, let alone a trilogy or an empire of toys and comics.  Why?

Because plot is like a cart being pulled by the horse of the central character.  Think of Tom Sawyer.  I barely remember the book’s story as much as I remember who the story is about…Tom…

The movie Mission Impossible…it’s the story of a daring attempt for Ethan (played by Tom Cruise) to restore his name, to find out who the REAL bad guys are, and to bring them to justice…but the driving action is Ethan…the main character.

Without the main character–the plot falls apart…the cart doesn’t go anywhere unless it’s being pulled.

The critics are always saying this about big budget movies these days: “No one took the lead!” or “There was no compelling central character”.

So…you get it…

But the funny thing is…maybe we don’t get it…take the Bible for instance.

Who’s the main character?

And maybe you instantly answer: “God!”  And yes…that’s it!  He’s the central character…and that’s what we have to remember. Every story, each narrative, is an extension of His Story.  Every one else becomes a character helping lead His plot to fulfillment.  He is the star.

And it’s easy to know that…but what about approaching it story by story?  Take David and Goliath for instance. What’s it about?  The most true answer is: God…and probably more specifically how God champions the weak and overturns the proud and strong.  This is a reflection of God’s priorities.  But when was the last time you heard that message?  Instead, I’ve heard all my life…this is the “story of David and Goliath”…not God and Goliath. Hah!  See…it’s about David…for us…the central character in this story isn’t God, it’s David.  It’s about him using the tools he’s got on hand. It’s about his not wearing Saul’s armor. It’s about his trusting in God…etc…etc…and in that telling God is still there…but he’s sidelined. He’s Luke Skywalker pushed aside by Bob the Mechanic.

No wonder Scripture is boring to so many people.  No wonder we grossly misinterpret it.  No wonder it becomes a “me” centered promise book.  We’ve shoved the main character out of the picture.  And without the central forward mover…it’s just not a compelling story anymore.

I propose:

1)We plunge into the Story of God

2)We keep in mind that it’s a narrative about him…First that it’s a narrative first and foremost.  It is not a series of propositional truths and blanket statements. It is not a complex set of systematic doctrines.  It’s a story. And to quote Richard Rohr: “it’s all true and some of it really happened”…this means that the priority is not first historical, that’s secondary…the first priority is: what’s he doing? what does this reveal about his peculiar character and priorities? what are we learning about the nature and mission of God…etc…

3)We do all this in the context of community…where it can’t just be about me the individual…by virtue of it being interpreted in community it will automatically become  larger than us…

Story

This afternoon I was in a workshop with Don Miller (the author of runaway bestseller “Blue Like Jazz” that put my old stomping grounds Imago Dei and the emergent church on everybody’s map)…he gave his standard schpeel…”Story”….I was very moved.

So everything’s about story right?  And God doesn’t talk in propositions, instead he inspires people to tell and to write and to live stories.  For example David and Goliath doesn’t end with some great point: “…and the moral of this story is…” or as Don said: “and the five stones represent: faith, hope, love, tithe, and tie”…instead it invites us into a climactic narrative where our lives are inspired and challenged.  He doesn’t have to come out and say what the point is because wherever we are…that’s what the story ends up being about…how amazing is that?

Anyhow…it was beautiful and it inspired me to remember this fact: there is an epic story being told, the central character, the protagonist, isn’t you or me…it’s God…He’s the character who everyone revolves around and relates to and engages with.  His Story. And all the pain that he endures…the changes…the exhaustion…the promises and the breaking of them…all of them impact him…yet here he is…he is telling his story…but it’s an open source tale too. In other words the parts we have to play haven’t already been written for us…we write them ourselves.  We write our own parts and all building up to the climactic conclusion in our own little sagas (hopefully and desirably) of “well done thou good and faithful servant”…how will we arrive there?  Will we tell tales of new and shiny trinkets where we as character’s spend our energies and resources on securing, as Don said, “new Volvo’s and new gadgets and get to the end of the movie when the credits role and say…”wow…how unmoving!”…or will we live out our parts making decisions that matter…matter because they’re interwoven with the central character’s own journey…the central character, God.

Because it’s all about Story.

What Color Is God-Part 4

Something in seeing God changes our experience of Him.  How desperately we need sight.  We need vision.  One of the old Jewish prophets wrote that without vision people perish.  That passage in the Bible gets quoted an awful lot. It always seems to come out to play right at the launch of a major building campaign or a fund raising drive for a local church.  It’s sort of become one of those, “Get on the band wagon—or else you will surely die” messages.  And I’ve always been amused as Christian leaders rally their troops around those types of announcements.  One church I attended raised a giant 50 foot banner across the sanctuary that said in big block print, “Building a Dream That Will Endure” as it prepared for an expansion to the current auditorium.  Ironically that same church closed up shop several years later.  Which brings up a thought, I understand that we need vision, but isn’t there such a thing as bad vision?  It reminds me of those commercials for Cornea Replacement laser surgery.  “Reduced Price!  Now only $300 dollars for one eye!”  One eye?  I heard a comedian start to joke about that once, “Who’s only getting half of the surgery done? Can you imagine them closing one eye for near sight and then opening it again to get far sight back?”  Ridiculous right?  Bad vision.
And bad vision always produces poor results.
That’s why during the Cold War the United States and Soviet Union dumped billions of dollars respectively into counter-espionage “disinformation”.  They knew that if your enemy is looking at a slightly maladjusted view of reality then their whole perspective will have been warped.  The Great Game, as they called it, was to feed one another vision—incorrect—worthless—deceptive vision.   Their spymasters believed that it would not be atomic bombs or nuclear holocausts that were going to win the war, but rather by neutralizing the adversary’s energies through fraudulent information.  They understood that resources are activated only as vision allows.
Today it seems like we, as Christians, exhaust ourselves on faulty vision.  We hotly debate side line issues and divide over personal differences.  We rally behind brick and mortar buildings and often fail to come together over God’s spiritual House, ordinary believers—men and women just like you and me, who house God’s own Life in our hearts.  We cheer for evangelistic crusades but forget to obey the Great Commission by actually discipeling new converts.  We put cash in offering plates but don’t give of our time, our energies, and our affections.  We cry saline laden tears at altar calls and healing prayer services but fall short of bringing over soup to the sick one or holding the basket case as they sob their confessions on our shoulders.
I read a study recently that suggested less than one third of Christian youth today maintain an active trust in Jesus Christ after they graduated college.  And I believe it too.  I have watched some of my best friends, the guys who led me back to the “foot of the cross” when I had wandered away, throw in the towel forever on some unpredictable battlefield later in their life.  One of my wife’s room mates from college just emailed that her own husband, a Seminary graduate pastor, had decided a short time ago that “following Christ is too hard.  It hurts too much.”   And so he quit.
Because bad vision is painful.
Because over time bad vision makes our eye lids hurt and our head ache.
Eventually the alternative of closing our eyes rather than seeing disappointingly becomes more equitable.
We need vision.  We need sight.  But not of edifices and edicts.
Not even of cooler looking cammo-Bible’s or Christian skateboarders or other pop culture poser’s preaching the same tired message of “Convert or die!”
Scripture has a very special word for the kind of sight we need.
Revelation.

Transient Presence

One of the most gripping things in Rob Bell’s book Velvet Elvis were the thoughts that revolved around our knowledge of God…and more importantly our lack of knowledge. He talked about Moses wanting to pin down God by knowing His Name (an Eastern concept and superstition that suggests if you know the secret name of something then you can know it fully…think of Simon the magician who goes around using the NAME of Jesus to perform magic…the Name is the Reality)….so Moses asks for a Name that will define and ultimately articulate who God is, hedge Him in, and give a human being a set definition for God’s reality…what does God do…He gives Moses the most unlimited, unconstrictive, nebulous Name ever…and the one that actually encompasses all and everything…I AM…absolutely everything…

Then Moses does it again…He gets tired of not seeing God, of not being able to identify God like the surrounding heathens–who can all demandingly look at and touch their deities. He asks to see God. But God won’t let him…God refuses to be identified again…instead He says, “Moses, you can see my back”…and that’s what happens. Moses is sheltered in the rock and looks upon God’s passing and sees His…backside…but Bell points out that the ancient Rabbi’s translated that passage as meaning something different than God’s rear end…they thought of it as Moses could only see where God had JUST BEEN. In other words…Moses didn’t know where God was right now, nor where He was going next, but only where He had just been.

How beautiful. How Transient. How utterly free.

A God who is unwilling to be defined. Who refuses to be categorized. Who tells us “I am…” but doesn’t finish the sentence. A God who let’s us see Him…but only in accordance with previous and perishable. A God who constantly leaves us guessing.

Is that my God? Am I constantly surprised? Do I even want to be?

Or do I, like we all do, want assuredness…constance…safety…security…stability…

I AM what I will be…

And while we may not like thinking of a God who changes, evolves, and emerges…maybe that’s exactly what He’s doing and has always done…maybe that’s why He refuses to hedge himself in with our puny defining characteristics…maybe that’s why His Story is so peculiar…

I want a God who conveniently fits all my preconceptions…or at least fits SOMEONE’S conceptions…Definable Jesus.

Not our God…the One who is absolutely free…

Crucify my sedate images to the fixed permanence of your cross…leave it there…dead and buried…then rise again in my imagination, walk forward, then ascend upward…God…be free to MOVE again in me!

Does the Bible make sense? Part 1

(Greg Boyd is also talking about these issues over at his blog: check it out.)

PLEASE…FEEL FREE TO COMMENT…

recently I’ve had a slough of conversations about the ways we approach Scripture. For the most part these conversations have ranged from conventional in their exploration and understandings of the Bible all the way to quite liberated and liberal in their perspective.

Essentially they all start in the same place: why did God change? Maybe you’ve never been exposed to this question, but it’s one that haunted me as a teenager and actually factored in to my abandonment of Christianity around the age of 14 (I hope it’s apparent that I’ve since reengaged the Faith)…so I’m really familiar with the question. It targets the deep concern raised by an apparent shift from the violent and vindictive actions attributed to God in the Old Testament and the peace loving and pacifistic God Incarnate of the New Testament. When someone goes down this rabbit hole it’s really quite alarming because there are some HUGE differences between the two presentations, at first blush. How does one resolve the warrior YHWH who condones the near annihilation of an entire species, including “innocent” children in the Flood, YHWH who demands genocide against the Amalekites (men, women, children, and even animals) and then when Saul spares the king and choice animals (reserving them for a certain bloody execution and sacrifice to come), God via Samuel becomes outraged…when He said genocide–that’s what He had meant; the God who understands and is sympathetic to David’s outraged pleading for YHWH to bash skulls against the rocks and drown victims in blood…that God…how does one resolve Him with Jesus who in a timelessly endearing way looks down from the cross, eternally turning the other cheek and walking the extra mile, and issues “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.” How do those two images reconcile? That’s the question.

For some (mainly evangelical fundamentalists) there is no discrepancy. They argue that actually the irksome and easily irritated God of the Old Testament really didn’t change that much. Observe Jesus’ often irate behavior to the religious and the rich. And, they point out, we cannot forgot how Jesus himself speaks more about hell than any other author in the Bible. Then they conclude by pointing out that Revelation does conclude the scripture with a thundering judgment of the living and the dead and even depicts an on-par with the OT blood bath where the gore is so incredible that it issues like a river up to the neck of a horse…the last picture of God is that of a warrior gleefully whirling around beating brains in judgment of sin’s committed–they contend. So…in the end the problem lies not in our interpretation of the OT but rather in our Mr. Rogers stylized vision of Jesus–at least they say…therefore–no problem at all…no discrepancy between the Old and the New–ALL ANGRY ALL OF THE TIME. And while I can appreciate their point–especially that the Peace of God and the Mercy of God may be terms that we interpret through Sesame Street filters–I would say it becomes incredibly hard to avoid Jesus as God Incarnate boldly proclaiming a Gospel that leaves no room for enemies for all have been called into friendship–even those who hate us and do all manner of evil against, to which we owe nothing less than the same grace we ourselves have received.

And there lies the beginning of the doubt seed regarding Scripture: “the same grace we ourselves have received”…or as Jesus actually puts it “the same mercy that our heavenly Father has given to us”. And it leaves many–thoughtful, hungry, and intellectually curious–Christians asking: “Looking at the OT, did the heavenly Father really EVER, even once, GIVE said MERCY?” Wasn’t it Abraham who tried to talk a perturbed God out of destroying a town full of many wicked but undoubtedly innocents as well? Wasn’t it Moses who had to pacify God from annihilating the Israelites just because they had gotten tired of eating the same main course day after day and started to grumble (I mean, I can understand being annoyed with grumblers…but even by human standards–especially the standards of a father of small children–a holocaust is hardly the recompense for complaining). Was God truly a God of justice and compassion and mercy? Or…or…or was he something different than represented in the New Testament…did God change? Or even worse can the Bible be true at all? Why was God so angry? Did people just not hear God correctly? And…if those things are true and assuming people did hear God correctly, can I possibly trust that kind of God?

These are the questions.

I’m going to propose several possibilities beyond the standard fundamentalist approach. I don’t necessarily advocate all of them…to be honest no one of them is probably nuanced enough to handle the complexities of the situation. But it is not merely a question of Old Testament understandings–but actually of “how the Bible can possibly make sense”. So…before you shut your Bible forever…before you write off the Old Testament and the book of Revelation…keep reading. I’m not an OT scholar…but…I’ve come to some perspectives that allow me to hold some of these questions and their answers (or lack thereof) in tension in a way that not only does not eradicate my faith but actually strengthens it. What are your thoughts? let me know…we’ll be moving forward in the next several days.

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