About Me

Arborg, Manitoba, Canada
Married to the love of my life with whom I (and God - all three of us) have co-created three incredible sons. Interested in philosophy, theology, and how to live Truth. Love music but couldn't carry a tune to save my life.

Monday, 16 May 2011

Scary Demoniac

Read Mark 5:1-20
What is scarier than a mad man, strong enough to break the chains used to bind him, running around in a cemetery naked, and terrorizing all passerby?
According to the story as recorded in Mark 5 (and Luke 8), it is a former madman, dressed and in his right mind, sitting at the feet of Jesus.
Why? When a mad man is healed, we should all be happy, right? Some say that the main concern of the townspeople was the financial loss represented by the loss of the pigs. That may have been a factor, but the way the story is told has me thinking there is something else going on here. If the main concern was loss of livelihood I would expect they would have come in anger upon hearing of the loss. However, both Mark and Luke say that the people who were told of the events that transpired on the hillside came to see what was happening and, when they saw the man dressed and in his right mind, sitting at the feet of Jesus, then they were afraid. Why? Why are they more scared when they see this man dressed and in his right mind, sitting at Jesus’ feet, than when he is running around on a lunatic fringe, naked and unstoppable?
And why, when Jesus’ words after his miracles are almost exclusively a strongly worded charge to tell no one, does he now insist that this former madman is not to accompany him as he desires, but rather, he is to stay in his home town when Jesus leaves, and tell everyone?
My suspicion is that the reason for the people’s fear is a recognition what has happened here is something which they do not understand, and cannot control. They had become accustomed to the lunatic raising cane, and they had an agreeable arrangement that they stayed out of his way, and he stayed among the tombs and disturb only the dead. It was an agreeable arrangement that made life work for all of them. Now along comes Jesus, he renders their careful arrangements moot, and they cannot understand how he did it, but they realize that this kind of remedial action could wreak havoc with their own lives, as it already has with the lives of their pigs. They do not know or understand Jesus and his actions, but they recognize a power that lies way beyond their ken and control. That is terrifying.
So they ask Jesus to leave; they beg Jesus to leave. “Please, just leave us to the lives we know. We are not interested in change, most certainly not interested in change we do not understand and cannot control. Please go away. Just leave us alone.”
So Jesus leaves. Why does he just leave? The man who was just healed wants to go along. Who would not? He has just been saved from a bondage he had never imagined he could overcome, a bondage which he never could have overcome on his own. With just a few words Jesus has freed him from his demons. Of course he wants to maintain connection with this source of healing.
But Jesus tells him to go home. “Go home and tell everyone what the Lord has done for you.” Why does this man get to talk about what God has done for him? On almost every other occasion when Jesus healed someone they are told to keep quiet about it. Why does this man get to tell everyone?
Jesus knew our appetite for easy answers. If there is a simple solution for our problems we will take it and avoid the hard work of achieving an honest understanding our problems in light of truth. We would rather pray about our problems and Voila! It is gone!! The problem is that easy answers are usually escape routes from our own culpability and responsibility. Easy answers are usually structures that allow or even enable us to live with our sinfulness, rather than addressing the root problem of our sinfulness. If people catch wind that Jesus can supply their wishes they will lose interest in having their needs answered, and Jesus wants to provide far more robust solutions for our challenges than merely granting genie-in-a-bottle responses to our fantasy wish lists.
Hence, in those areas where Jesus spends most of his time the siren call of easy answers suggested by the stories of healing will distract people from the whole hearted search for full-bodied answers. However, he is leaving the Decapolis, and the demoniac’s stories will not suggest the same easy answers because he will not be just a wish away. The former demoniac’s story (or testimony) of a life turned around through the mercy of Jesus will be able to function as a catalyst for soul-searching and possibility thinking regarding what could happen in the lives of the townspeople. The former demoniac’s encounter with Jesus can be the introduction of an encounter with Jesus that turns the town upside down, or rather, right side up even though they are currently unaware they are living life in reverse.
The demoniac’s encounter with Jesus becomes the door for the townspeople’s encounter with Jesus that introduces them to themselves. Just at the demoniac was living in a state of radical disconnection with the self he was made to be, and was restored to himself in his encounter with Jesus, so may his neighbours find themselves in their own encounter with their Maker.
For the moment, however, that prospect is too frightening. Finding the former demoniac, dressed and in his right mind, sitting at the feet of Jesus, is just too scary. “Please, Jesus, just leave us. We are fine with the way we are.”
Allan Hirsch tells us that the only place for the church to find its mission is in Jesus Christ. Institutions and structures are not a substitute for a radical meeting with Jesus the Christ. The only way for the church to be the church she was intended to be is when her sole purpose is to be Jesus to the neighbour. Authenticity is found in Jesus. Institutions and structures must serve the church, not the other way around. When institutions and structures become the definition of the church, then the church is not herself. When institutions and structures become the definition of the church, then the church is in bondage.
However, after living with these chains long enough we become comfortable with them. We learn to define ourselves by our maladies and the prospect of change becomes disconcerting and threatening. Our maladies become our normalcy, and the prospect of finding ourselves dressed and in our right minds, sitting at the feet of Jesus is just too scary.
Presumably we are not so scared of an authentic encounter with Jesus that we will ask him to leave. Hopefully, too, we will not pretend to be only single-mindedly welcoming of an encounter with the living God. A measure of trepidation only indicates that we recognize the potentially devastating consequences of such an encounter for some of our prized religious constructions that have heretofore provided cherished shelter from some deeply disturbing introspection and analysis of how well we reflect the image of our Creator in our selves and our church.
Nonetheless, assuming we do wish to invite Jesus to send healing into our own lives and our community, how do we do this? How do we distinguish institutions and structures that serve Christlikeness from those that interfere? Can we hope to have structures and institutions that reflect God’s wishes for our community any better than we ourselves reflect the same? If not (and I believe not), how do we allow an authentic encounter with Jesus to bring the healing to us that we believe God wants to bring to our community? Will we just be scary? Or will we be so scary that our neighbours will recognize a potential encounter with God? And how scary would that be?

Sunday, 17 April 2011

Between Hope and Despair

Between Scylla and Charybdis
Between Hope and Despair

Address delivered at Heartland Community Church, Landmark, Manitoba, Palm Sunday, 2011

Read Walter Wangerin Book of God p. 764-767

I want to turn our attention to the themes of hope and despair in this story. What can we learn about hope from the people who so enthusiastically welcomed Jesus as he rode into Jerusalem on a donkey’s colt? How does the despair we encounter in this story alert us to the pitfalls that sometimes obscure for us the vanity of our hope? And how can a recognition of these hazards lead us not to despair, but to dig down deeper to a chastened hope that can sustain us through times of excruciating pain and disappointment?

We do not know exactly what was in the hearts and minds of those who threw down clothing and branches to pave the way for Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, but they are moved to ecstatic hopefulness by the appearance of One whom they acclaim as King, and to whom they look for some sort of salvation. Their cries included expressions of hope for peace and salvation, but to what extent Jesus’ riding on a donkey inclined their expectations towards a Prince of Peace rather than a conquering warrior king is uncertain. There is ample speculation that Judas was a Zealot whose expectations leaned toward a military champion who would overthrow the Roman oppressors and lead Israel back to her former glory as the sovereign power of the homeland originally promised to Abraham. Bible scholars tell us that the a king would ride on a donkey in a time of peace. That makes Jesus’ choice of a donkey in this case, a powerful statement of his intention to come in peace, and a purposeful repudiation any notion of a violent overthrow of Roman tyranny. Whatever the precise nature of the expectations held dear in the hearts of the throng, it is clear that this was a time pregnant with hope – hope that the fulfillment of a long awaited and dearly held expectation was imminent.

However, a week later the One on whom the crowd had hung their hope, was himself hung on a Roman cross. What happened? How was delirious hope so quickly and cruelly dashed? How was euphoric hope so suddenly turned to abysmal despair? And where was this throng when the personification of their hope was on trial for his life? We don’t know how many of these people were present at Jesus’ trial and crucifixion, but if present, they certainly seem to have lost their voice, as there is no record of any significant dissent at the travesty of justice that was perpetrated less than a week after this jubilant procession. For those who hoped in Jesus for release from Roman oppression the tables have been cruelly turned. The One who was to facilitate their freedom is Himself executed by the very Roman power that He was to vanquish. Now where is hope?

We could go quickly to the Christian interpretation of these events and settle the matter by recasting the crucifixion as not merely a political setback, and not even cosmic defeat, but the most monumentally pivotal victory ever to occur in the history of the universe. We would not be entirely remiss in doing so, but I fear we would be covering too much ground too quickly. That Christian understanding of the event of the cross we whole heartedly take to be true, thank God, but what does it mean for us to place our hope in that interpretation of this event? How would that understanding have impacted the jubilant throng of Palm Sunday when the terrors of the day we have come to call Good Friday transpired? Is there a thread of hope that runs between these events or must one give way to the other? How do we anchor our hopes so that they are meaningful for the life we live day by day, without anchoring so that our hope is susceptible to a cruel uprooting in the same mundane events? How do we anchor our hope deeply enough to withstand the ravages of a life that sometimes gets very messy, without anchoring at such a remove from ordinary life that the security of the anchor point becomes meaningless? How can we hope in the Jesus who rides the unbroken foal of a donkey into Jerusalem on Sunday, without losing all hope when that same Jesus hangs on a cross on Friday? How can hope not be shattered, and how dare we respond with anything other than despair, when it is not only our hopes, but our God himself who hangs on a cross?

The answer, I think, is as new as today, and as old as Genesis, and it is not an answer, but an invitation. The answer lies not in a formula or theological creed or religious activity. The answer is not the end of a search, but the beginning of a journey that starts at the cross and must never get past the cross, and can never get past the Jesus who both rode the donkey and hung on the cross, but then rose on the third day, burst the confines of the grave, and conquered death and sin, our worst enemies, and now lives forever.

A clue to the answer is found in the substance of Jesus’ expression of despair in his lament over Jerusalem “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes.... because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.” (Luke 19:42, 44b). The people were still consumed with what they hoped God would do for them, so much so that when God became flesh and moved into the neighborhood, they did not recognize that their God who they hoped would do things for them had done better than save them from a distance. He did not merely offer them a homeland and freedom and hope and peace, but he offered them his very self, and they did not recognize him. They didn’t notice that their hopes had been wildly exceeded, they only noticed that they did not realize their dearly held dreams. In their obsession with their dreams they missed their God when he walked among them.

So often we put our hope in what we want God to do for us, rather than in the God who wants to be for us. Now, it is not entirely wrong to have hopes for what God can do for us, but our confidence needs to be in the God who wants to be for us. This is not to say that God does not want to do things for us, but that the things we hope for may or may not line up with what God wants to do for us, and what God wants to do for us is always a function of who God wants to be for us.

This is why the answer is as old as Genesis. When God created all the heavens and the earth God said
Let us make mankind in our image....
So God created mankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.”
I won’t pretend to unpack all of the theological significance of these statements, but it is clear that at the heart of who God is there is a relationality - for God says “Let us make mankind in our image”, and that relationality is at the core of what it means for mankind to be created in the image of God “in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” We are created for relationship – with God and with each other, and it is in relationship that we find our anchor point for hope. It is in the knowledge that God is for us, and in responding in gratefulness with our being for God, that we find a deep hope that exceeds anything we could hope for in terms of what we wish God to do for us. It is in our relationship with one another that we encounter images of God in each other, and find hope in our being for each other and in our being for God together. This does not preclude our doing things for each other and for God, but our being for each other is both expressed in, and exceeds, the things we do for each other.

Now how could the throngs that lined the road to Jerusalem on Palm Sunday have recognized Jesus as God, and as their hope, not only as their liberator from bondage to Rome, but their hope for freedom from themselves and their willing servitude to the real enemy Jesus intended to vanquish? By what sort of dynamic or discipline or experience could the people of Jerusalem have been expected to hope for more than what they wanted Jesus to do for them? And how do we learn to respond to Jesus in a way that exceeds what we wish him to do for us?

Just as the people who watched and shouted and worshiped as Jesus rode into Jerusalem on that donkey’s foal, so do we often find ourselves shivering in a religious ecstasy when it seems that our expectations are coming to fruition, only to find our hopes dashed when events seem to just as suddenly turn against us. Sometimes our euphoria rides the wave of a new religious experience, or an overwhelming sense of God’s presence and direction in our lives, or a satisfaction when our efforts begin to reap anticipated results, and sometimes we could be hard-pressed to distinguish this sort of elation from that which we experience as our favorite hockey franchise embarks on a post-season quest for the Canadian Holy Grail - aka the Stanley Cup. None of these things are intrinsically bad, and in fact all of them can quite legitimately be a source of satisfaction, adding meaning and enjoyment to our lives, but all of them - all of them - can also serve as place holders in which our kingdoms dangerously mimic God’s kingdom, surreptitiously obscuring critical distinctions between our efforts to build our own kingdoms, and our participation with God in building his kingdom. Programs and buildings and dogma can be very useful, even indispensable, tools we use as we work with God to build his kingdom, but God’s kingdom is about people first, and that means relationships.

This is not to say that despair and disappointments will all disappear when we place our hope in a relationship with our God, and all of our God’s children. Even if the people of Jerusalem had recognized their Saviour on Palm Sunday, they would still have been crushed on Good Friday, for how can we not be crushed when God hangs on a cross? We cannot truly understand the emotions and despair of Good Friday, because on our side of the resurrection we know that Sunday’s a’comin’! However, there is something profoundly significant in recognizing our God not merely as a God who can do great things for us, though surely he “is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us.” (Eph 3.20). There is something profoundly invigorating in seeing God not simply as a genie who we hope will bend to our every wish, but as the God who is for us, and “if God is for us, who can be against us?... No,” Paul says, “in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom 8:31, 37-39)

This relationship with God is part of the treasure that we carry “in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. (So that, while w)e are hard pressed on every side, we are not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.” (2 Cor 4:7-9)

However, we do not live this relationship in an individual vacuum. We live out this relationship in the community of faith, and in recognizing the image of God in each and every act of God’s creation, particularly in our brothers and sisters with whom we journey, we retain remnants and glimpses of God to help carry us through our disappointments. It is in the hope that is nurtured in relationships of mutual caring that we see Jesus and experience that relationship which sustains us when things do not work as we wish, or even as God wishes.

That is why the answer is as new as today. Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts. Instead, reach out in response to his invitation to walk with Him. Reach out and join hands with your brothers and sisters as we learn and grow into Him together. Anchor your hope in the Promise that is as old as Genesis, and as new as today. “And surely,” Jesus promises “I AM with you always, to infinity and beyond!” (Mt 28:20)

Monday, 17 January 2011

The Dangerous Idea of God

One of the most profoundly meaningful, and yet insidiously dangerous ideas to percolate through human thought is the idea of an omnipotent sovereign Deity that common humanity is privileged to engage in mutual dialogue. Historically this connection to deity has given courage to persecuted saints and anguished parents, and it has been the impetus for sea changes in civil rights and social policy. Brave souls who championed causes such as the termination of slavery, and the overthrow of despotic regimes through non-violent means, as in Ghandi’s India, have cited the will of the Almighty as support for their cause. On the other hand, the dark side of this privileged communication has been worked out in atrocities such as the Crusades and the Inquisition, and from the deadly persecutions of the Reformation, to the ongoing pograms based on religious convictions. The tragedy of the World Trade Centers, to the extent that it was perpetrated in the name of Allah, is neither the most costly, nor the most fiendish, it is only the most recent example of the extremes of horror that can arise from an insufficiently self-critical enactment of the will of God.

Eugene Peterson says it well in his introduction to Amos: “Religion is the most dangerous energy source known to humankind. The moment a person (or government or religion or organization) is convinced that God is either ordering or sanctioning a cause or project, anything goes. The history, worldwide, of religion-fueled hate, killing and oppression is staggering.” (The Message)

Why do I see a pernicious danger in the idea of the Christian God? Allow me to establish at the outset that I am not advocating any form of atheism or agnosticism, but rather a chastened theism. I am emphatically not suggesting that the idea of God is so dangerous as to necessitate our relinquishing any such notion. What drives my concern is neither new, nor is it radical. It is merely the first glimmerings of the recognition that we must maintain a distinction between our concept of what, or better Who God is, and the God Who Is. We must let God be God, work with all that is in us to understand this God, without ever confusing or identifying the Sovereign Lord with our understanding of Him. We must allow God to be bigger; to be more just, more loving, more merciful; to be simply more than we know Him to be.

This caution may fall on some ears as unduly radical. To others, who have firsthand experience with the negative impact of the way in which certain ideas of God are worked out, this caution will come as a relief, even a salvific call to return to the God for whom the best name we have is simply I AM. The One whom Moses encountered in the burning bush was not inclined to share with Moses a name which would serve as a neat handle fostering an excessively familiar grasp on the Almighty. The I AM would not bestow on Moses a secret knowledge which would allow him to claim privileged access to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. This access would only be facilitated in a continuing relationship of understanding through obedience.

This caution is an imperative hedge against the danger inherent in an idea of a sovereign and omnipotent God with whom we have a privileged communication. Failure to maintain this distinction between God as we know God, and God as God is, has culminated in the deaths of untold millions through the ages. More to the point for North American Christianity, the blurring of this boundary has caused the unnecessary ostracization of sincere seekers who could not, or would not, respect the categories established by others within which the hand of God was to be recognized.

One of the most seductive dangers in this understanding of God is the notion of a privileged authority which allows one to speak with authority in the Name of the Lord. This desire is often nothing other than a manifestation of laziness, such that one prefers to invoke an unassailable authority for confirmation, rather than engaging in the discipline of working out the details of right and wrong in the arena of mundane life, which is often both confusing and messy. In this case the desire to declare with authority that “Thus saith the Lord” or “The Lord told me . . .” is a symptom of a disease which we must extirpate.

Even the prophets who spoke these words always did so with an element of risk. God clearly instructed the Israelites to test the words of every prophet to see that they were indeed the words of the Lord. God’s word would never advocate turning aside to other gods, it would always prove true and, most importantly, it would always be consistent with God’s character. If signs and wonders were purported to vouch for a message, and if these signs and wonders were actualized, they did not guarantee that the message so endorsed was indeed from God. The final test of any message was always the conformity of the message itself to the character of God. To speak presumptuously and falsely in the name of the Lord was punishable by death. (Deuteronomy 13)

The historical test of actualization meant that one would not always know immediately whether what was said in the name of the Lord indeed came as a word from the Lord. It might take some time for such affirmation. We forget this element of waiting because we read the recorded words which were proven in the course of time, but we read it all as past history. We have no way of knowing how many other claims of divine authority were expunged from our historical records because they proved false, and therefore related claims of divine authority were shown to be obviously specious. Hence, there is a false sheen of immediacy in our understanding of the authority contained in the words “Thus says the Lord” which these words never really enjoyed in their historical context. However, even the actualization of supporting signs was not sufficient to establish a message as coming from God. The final test of a message inescapably demanded sober evaluation, reflection, and judgement as to the conformity of the message to what was already known about God, and the purposes of God.

Israel’s history is rife with examples of conflicting claims made in the name of the Lord. There is the well known story of Ahab asking Jehoshaphat to join him in battle against Aram. Jehoshaphat was willing to go with Ahab, but he insisted they first inquire of the Lord. Ahab called in his prophets, about four hundred, and they unanimously endorsed Ahab’s desire to go to war, saying “The Lord will give it (Aram) into the king’s hand” (1 Kings 22:6). Jehoshaphat was not satisfied with the word of these prophets and asked if there was not another prophet of whom they could inquire. Micaiah was brought in, though Ahab despised him because he never had anything good to say, and true to form, Micaiah predicted disaster, including the death of Ahab. In mockery, Zedekiah, one of the 400 prophets who endorsed the conquest, slapped Micaiah in the face and noted the irreconcilable discrepancy between the spirit’s initial message through Zedekiah, and his subsequent word to Micaiah. Nevertheless, Jehoshaphat agreed not only to go into battle, but he even agreed to go dressed in royal robes while Ahab, obviously spooked by Micaiah’s prediction, went in disguise. The king of Aram instructed his soldiers to engage only Ahab in combat, so the soldiers looked for signs of royalty and chased Jehoshaphat down. Apprized of their error, they left Jehoshaphat unharmed, and an arrow shot at random found it way between the pieces of armor worn by Ahab, and he died.

The words of the prophets and the actions of Zedekiah indicate that they all wish their words to be heard as the word of the Lord, however it is only Micaiah’s words which prove true, and it is Micaiah’s words which are recorded as the word from God. With the benefit of this historical perspective we find it easy to judge which words are from God, but it is highly unlikely that Jehoshaphat would have agreed to go into battle, much less so deliberately placed himself in a position of mortal danger, had he been equally certain which of the prophets in fact spoke the word from the Lord. Nevertheless, it is indubitable that the word of the Lord became clearer in the course of his experience. (For additional stories showcasing premature proclamations of the ‘word of the Lord’ see, for example: King Saul’s confident assumption that God had at last delivered the elusive David into his hands [1 Samuel 23:7]; The account of the man of God who listened to another prophet whose version of the Lord’s instructions conflicted with his own understanding, for which error the man of God forfeited his life[1 Kings 13]).

However, the false sheen of immediate authority implied in the declaration that “Thus says the Lord” is precisely the site of the danger inherent in the idea of a God whom we know intimately, and in whose name we dare to speak. An appeal to authority which allows us to circumvent the hard work of deciphering the right thing to do in a particular situation makes it all but certain that we will not exercise discernment, and if we do not practice discernment, we will never develop discernment. This is a recipe for trouble in any case, it is a recipe for disaster when we operate in the arena of divine proclamations. It seems positively counter-intuitive to rely on authority as a means of circumventing careful discernment in matters of utmost importance when the authority invoked clearly disavowed this approach long ago.

In Jeremiah 23 God spoke through Jeremiah, decrying the glib way in which words were declared to be the oracle of the Lord. It seems to have been a rather standard practice that anyone who had anything to say would routinely claim to be speaking in the name of the Lord, though more often than not there was no connection to the Lord’s desires or intentions. God declared Himself to be so sick of this practice that He ordered the people to put an end to all such claims. Instead, they were to enter into conversations with one another in order to discern the will of God by mutual sharing of what they heard the Lord saying to them.

This method was implemented in Jeremiah 26, when Jeremiah was on trial under penalty of death for speaking against the temple. Jeremiah insisted that his proclamation of judgement was the word of the Lord, and this judgement was carefully investigated in order to ascertain its provenance, and its conformity to messages previously recognized as coming from God. Some wanted Jeremiah executed for his blasphemous talk, but the consensus was that his message was consistent with the principles of God’s judgements, therefore Jeremiah’s life was spared. It is noteworthy that even a prophet like Jeremiah had his claims of speaking the word of the Lord vetted by peers, and it was only on the basis of such validation that he escaped the death penalty for some of his harsh proclamations.

All of this is not to suggest that the word of God is not sufficient to establish a matter. Quite the contrary, it is precisely because it is the word of the Lord alone which can establish a matter that any human declaration of a message from God must be carefully weighed in order to ascertain its authenticity as being the word of God. Therefore, what I would advocate is that, rather than purging this dangerous idea of God from our theology and conversation, we eradicate all pretensions of a God’s-eye view, and vow never to be satisfied with buttressing our most controversial proclamations with the self-righteous indignation of the declaration that “This is God’s word!” as though that should be enough to stifle any further discussion. We need not, we must not, we dare not, relinquish our concern to hear the voice of God in our lives, but that voice must always be tested in the fires of life, in community with believers of all persuasions.

In this context we need not forswear all attempts to speak in God’s name, but when we do so we must always recognize that we speak what we hear, and we may (and often do) hear incorrectly. It is vital that we learn to hear God’s words in an expanding community of believers. The last Word always belongs to God and we will at times need to wait patiently for that Word to be heard more clearly. In the mean time we continue to work at an understanding of God’s Word in our daily lives, an understanding which must ultimately be lived, not merely intellectually comprehended or evangelically propagated.