Sunday, November 30, 2008

Obsessions with obscurity

I think I have a strange obsession with obscure Bible characters. The one I’ve focused on this week is Ebed-Melech. If you don’t remember who he is or where in the Bible to read about him, my point is proven when I say that he’s an Ethiopian in Jeremiah 38. I taught on that passage this weekend, realizing that I couldn’t count on much common knowledge about the story from the audience. Ebed-Melech (literally “servant of the king” for you non-Hebraists) is obviously not his real name, but apparently the author thinks his actions, his office and his ethnicity are more important to note than his real name. As I look through my past lessons and sermons, I see a couple of other characters in those passages who have a similar profile. The widow Elijah stayed with in the land of Sidon in 1 Kings 16. The Canaanite woman who calls out after Jesus in Matthew 15:21-28. All of these have in common that they are not identified by name, but by ethnicity and some other characteristic. And I think these characters, and others I’m sure I will stumble across as minor characters in the metanarrative, teach us some significant things.
They are all part of the overarching story of God’s relationship with the Jewish people, but none of them are Jews. Yet they all show faith and are rewarded by God for their faith. These are reminders, before the book of Romans spells it all out for us, that God’s people are recognized not by ethnicity or circumcision but by faith, no matter what their ancestry. This is something to be very grateful for as gentiles. Our people received revelation later than the privileged Jews, and we ought to remember and give thanks for God’s willingness to extend salvation beyond his chosen nation and graft us into his people. If it’s notable when non-Jews demonstrate faith, then we should view it as notable when we non-Jews receive salvation, and give thanks for it.
These examples are part of a recurring pattern in Scripture of faith appearing in unlikely people and places. When it comes to assurance of salvation, these are a reminder that those who seem to have things going for them because they are associated with religion are not always the ones who show faith in the Lord. I think we ought to be careful in quickly assuring people of salvation based on words they said or on their associations with lots of other believers. When people doubt salvation, it ought to be an impetus to examine their actions and motives to determine whether the fruit of the gospel of grace is in their lives. I doubt anyone would have picked Ebed-Melech over the Jewish officials as most likely to be saved from death before the circumstances played out. I doubt anyone would have picked the Canaanite woman to receive special favor from God incarnate while the Pharisees received criticism instead, but her desperate pleas from sincere faith surprise us. Let us point people to fruits of conversion for assurance, not formulaic prayers and secure social connections with church people.
If these characters play a part and their names are never remembered, I guess they are a lot like most of us. How many people who play roles that are great in the kingdom of God will never be remembered by name in future generations? Yet our acts done in faith and worship will have a lasting effect. If no one can remember my name, will my acts of faith be worth remembering? Do I have the humility to accept being a nameless player in the drama of God’s redemptive action in the world?

The Dialogues of Nato (proving Matt Richey's statement about corniness)

I appreciate Austin Surls' question about spirituality - and I am incredibly annoyed by it at the same time, because it's so hard to clarify its definition. It seems, however, that "spiritual growth" as we use the term means growing in taking the good things God has put into our regenerated spirits and expressing them in very practical physical and emotional ways. There is also a certain tension involved in remembering that our spirits will last forever while our bodies and physical surroundings are destined to end before we receive new bodies and are placed on a new earth. Perhaps being spiritual means acting with our current physical bodies in htis temporary and broken physical world in light of the things that will be remembered, valued and rewarded when our spirits are brought into the newly perfected physical reality that is part of our future hope. Suggestions, postulations and I responding well to the question?
Matt Richey's question about God's love and hell also gives me some confusion. I like the worship song about the depth and breadth of God's love, but is it accurate when it says that God's love reaches to "the lowest hell"? It's easy to see how hell demonstrates God's justice, holiness and glory, but...oh, snap, I'm just repeating Matt's question. I have other questions on how "sheol," "gehenna" and "hades" are related, and how theology developed from the OT focus on the land and military judgment as the consequence of sin to the church's focus on the eternal state and helfire - it seems to be assumed by Jesus' culture, while it's not mentioned much in the OT.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Mystery of a God Who Allows Mysteries

The God of the Bible is mysterious, and this is a wonderful thing. I have been both puzzled and awed so many times as I consider the way he works. The problem of evil has been presented by both Christian and non-Christian thinkers in every generation. God knew that people would wonder how such great evil can exist when the world was created by a good God. Why didn't he spell out for us more clearly his reasons for the way He orders things? Surely He is in the right, if only we could understand. But when Job questioned God about the sufferings he endured, God never really spelled out to him why he allowed those things to happen. Instead, the Lord reminded Job of the greatness, majesty and wisdom He possesses that transcends what every other being possesses. Job saw that he, as a mere man, was in no place to question God, and God saw that as a fitting conclusion. In Ecclesiastes similar questions come up about futility, injustice and suffering. Again, there is no clear answer to the questions given, but rather the wise teacher writing the book calls his readers to respond by enjoying the good things God has given in life and recognizing that God is in control of the mysterious things, even if we don't understand what's going on. There are some answers to this question in Scripture that give partial explanations, but no single, great answer that removes all doubt.
We've just finished discussions on election and predestination in Dr. Jacobson's Soteriology class this quarter. I've been struck by how the Bible says explicitly in several places that God has chosen to save the elect and that he is the one who ensures this process happens, but yet I haven't talked to anyone who felt like they were forced to be saved. I know many people who believe in irresistible grace, but none of them feel they have been dragged into salvation against their will, kicking and screaming. Through some inscrutable and delectable method, God causes or persuades those he desires to save to desire salvation. He doesn't explain why he passes by some, and he doesn't tip His hand as to precisely who every person he intends to save is, or exactly how he intends to save them. God doesn't offer any defense or explanation as to why he would pass by some and allow them to face judgment while he saves others who don't deserve it. We are simply told that He has chosen some "to the praise of His glorious grace." (Eph. 1:6)
The thing that amazes me is that our omniscient God leaves these questions hanging and allows foolish and blind human beings to rage against him, calling him cruel and unjust. And for a time, He has endured (and continues to endure) their anger, rebellion and slander against Him. He even graciously overlooks some serious complaining and grumbling from His own children, as I keep rediscovering when I recognize yet again that my attitude has turned sour and ungrateful. It's tremendous to observe that our God is so powerful, so mysterious, and so patient with our limitations and confusion. Why does He leave these questions hanging? Why does He settle for ambiguity, when He could clear things up pretty easily if He wanted to, and silence a lot of criticisms and complaints? I am left scratching my head, a bit confused, and once again I find my jaw beginning to drop as I ponder that He has acted wisely and mysteriously, to the praise of His great glory.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Responses to the blogging community

Another full post is in the works, but here's a little bit of material in the meantime: I appreciated my brother Matt Richey's post on a fuller pro-life position. It's so good to always seek out the areas where our thinking systems are inconsistent. War creates opportunities for human wickedness and cruelty to express itself, and is certainly not desirable. I see again and again just how quick our video-saturated culture is to laugh at violence, or to be intrigued with that which ought to be appalling, and not to feel any remorse because it's "only" a video or movie.

Venti Americano raises a good question about the term religion. Somehow we have to distinguish genuine practice of a relationship with God through faith from the many things that bring shame and scandal to the term "religion." I'm not convinced that we can honestly reject the term, because evangelicalism fits one definition of religion. But we must make a distinction when we explain our faith between true religion, which includes relationship with God and transformed living, and that which is hypocritical and uses the labels and structures of religion for harmful ends.

If you are one of the weirdos like me who has one foot in the Baptist church and one in the world that adores hip-hop, you'll get a good laugh out of the video my good friend Brad posted. Maybe we should get this choir to perform for NBS chapel.

In line with my earlier posts about the purpose of Christians engaging in seeking to help the poor and better the world, I want to share a poem I ran across last week that has encouraged and inspired me. (Please forgive the hints of sacramentalism - there is still much to be learned from it).

A Future Not Our Own

It helps, now and then, to step back
and take the long view
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts,
It is beyond our vision.

We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny
fraction of
the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.
Nothing we do is complete,
which is another way of saying
that the kingdom always lies beyond us.

No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No programme accomplishes the
church’s mission.
No set of goals and objectives
includes everything.

This is what we are about:
We plant seeds that will one day grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing
that they hold future promise
We lay foundations that will need
further development.
We provide yeast that produces effects beyond
our capabilities.

We cannot do everything
And there is a sense of liberation in
realizing that
This enables us to do something,
and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a
step along the way
an opportunity for God’s grace to enter and
do the rest.

We may never see the end results,
But that is the difference between the master
builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders,
ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.

Bishop Ken Untener of Saginaw
(often attributed to the late Archbishop Oscar Romero)

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Reading the news with whoever-the-author-of-Hebrews-was

People killed. Homes burned. Refugees gathering in camps, fearful for their lives and wondering where they’ll be safe, or if they’ll ever be able to return and rebuild their homes. You can find a story like this during any given week coming out of some part of the world. But this particular story has even more interest and concern on our part – the attacks are specifically targeted against Christians. Believer’s homes and church buildings are being burned, and the militants have even made attacks on the refugee camps set up by the Indian government. The numbers as of October 25th showed 38 dead and 30,000 homeless. Who is attacking these believers and why? Hindu hardliners in the Northeast Indian provinces of Orissa, Bihar, Kerala and Uttar Pradesh have unleashed violence on the Christians there, and have continued even after a government force was deployed to attempt to stop the attacks. Tim Sullivan of the Associated Press cites Hindu leaders who claim that there has been a “cultural invasion” by Christian missionaries in the area. Sullivan explains that their primary complaint is with regard to government jobs that are reserved for underprivileged groups, especially the Dalit caste (sometimes referred to as “untouchables”) and tribal peoples. The tribal groups have mostly remained Hindu, but an increasing number of Dalits have become Christian. The Hindus hold that their Christianity should disqualify them for the jobs, but they have gotten positions anyway. Christian groups in the area have been active in providing education and medical care for Dalits, who have been repressed for centuries by the caste system, and this has surely had an impact on the number of converts. The Hindus, however, accuse the Christians of bribing the poor to convert.

The reference to a culture war is sobering. I am reminded of the blessing that the culture war we talk about waging as American Christians does not result in actual violence and deaths. God has been good to us in our country by granting us peace between religious groups. The Indian Christian groups (many of the “missionaries” referenced are from other regions of India, not from the Western world) are fighting a culture of systematic religious, economic and political repression of Dalits with the compassion and desire for justice that characterizes the people of God. And they are facing a physically violent war.

The author of Hebrews exhorts his readers to “Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body.” We ought to respond by praying sincerely for our brothers and sisters who are being mistreated.

Christian leaders in the region are showing admirable courage and faith in the face of persecution. Juria Bardhan, Gospel for Asia's state leader in Orissa, said about the situation, "We know the Lord is in control. Many of our pastors have said, 'Even if they kill us, no problem. This will cause thousands to come to Christ,' " For others, the situation is not so certain. Sullivan’s AP article concludes with his conversation he had with a Christian who had been threatened and commanded to convert repeatedly by armed Hindus:

"What can we do?" asked Digal, the man dangling his baby. "They are trying to force us to become Hindu."

So will he convert?

"I don't know," he said, staring down at the ground. "I haven't decided yet."

Let’s pray for strength and faithfulness for our brothers and sisters, for peace to come to the region, and for their persecutors to see the love of God in them and come to belief. Let’s also praise God that he is at work in a place like Orissa, which used to be 2% Christian and is now 28%.