Sunday, June 25, 2017

Herma and Herman Neutics on the Interpretive Filter


“As human beings are biologically oriented towards homeostasis… we are creatures of habit. Adaptation and co-evolution is a slow process of acclimatisation to new sets of circumstances, but dissonance is interruptive… on a day-to-day basis, most of us cope with such dissonance through repression and denial, refusing to see the world in any way that departs from the customary. Hence most of us see very little. The seeing as has become a seeing as we want to see it. Graham Ward, Cultural Transformation and Religious Practice
We think that an important implication of Ward’s statement is that if our interpretation of the Bible squares in most important ways with what we already believe, it is probably wrong in important ways.
How do we combat this interpretive myopia? Question ourselves relentlessly. Read widely, especially views that are not your own. Discuss the Bible with those different (ethic, class, politics, experience, gender, etc.)

Friday, June 23, 2017

Resisting Trump with Revelation (34)

New Creation (21:1-22:5)

Gen.1-2 and Rev.21-22

This last scene of the vision of Revelation, the conclusion to Jesus’ sermon, takes us beyond the realm of sin and struggle to the fulfilment of God’s eternal purpose. Here we find the counterpart to Gen.1-2 as bookends of the entire biblical story which reveal the “point” of purpose of the whole story.

The creation stories reveal the Creator’s work in constructing a temple for he and his creatures to live together in intimacy and harmony.[1] That is his purpose and that for which God works throughout the biblical story. When this purpose is derailed by our sin, resolving that becomes the major focus of the story from Gen.3 – Rev.20. But that story serves to demonstrate not only the reclamation of God’s wayward creatures but most importantly their restoration to God’s original design. That’s what we find in Gen.1-2 and Rev.21-22, the only four chapters in the Bible in which sin plays no role. Here we find God’s purpose in embryo (Gen.1-2) and fulfilled (Rev.21-22).

And the temple God built in Eden at the beginning we find in Rev.21-22 at the end.

-The New Jerusalem, the holy city, is cubic-shaped. The only other structure so shaped in the Bible is the Holy of Holies in Solomon’s temple (1 Ki.6:20), where God dwelled. God’s fulfilled plan, his bride, his people, his new creation, is the site where God lives and shares fellowship with his creatures.

-This city becomes co-extensive with the new creation, matching the rivers flowing out of Eden to irrigate the then uninhabited lands outside, indicating they were to be settled, thus extending the boundaries of the nascent temple in Eden to include these outer lands as well. The embryonic Holy of Holies has become the worldwide Holy of Holies God intended.

-This new creation to be God’s “home” where he will “dwell” (21:3) which is temple language.

-we also find the river and tree of life of the garden, indeed the garden itself, enclosed within the new city (22:1ff.).

-Humanity will “reign” forever in the new creation fulfilling the mandate given our first parents to have “dominion” over the creation.

Numerous other lines of evidence confirm this identification (see Walton and Beale noted earlier). In Rev.21-22 we see what God had intended for his creatures and creation in full bloom!

We could say much more about this last scene of the vision but I think it is sufficient to note that ends Jesus’ sermon following the model of reading Revelation as a worship service I proposed in the beginning of this series. He closes it off, appropriately, with a Beatitude:  “See, I am coming soon! Blessed is the one who keeps the words of the prophecy of this book” (22:7).

Summarizing the Sermon

Chs.12-13 are Jesus’ sermon in a nutshell:

1.       Everything centers on Jesus himself, birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension (12:1-6).

2.       The decisive battle between God and the anti-god powers has been fought and the powers have been defeated by Jesus and cast out of heaven (12:7-12).

3.       The defeated enemies of God (Dragon and two Beasts) nevertheless continue their futile resistance as they await their destruction, especially by persecuting God’s people (ch.13).

This is, as you can see, the basic gospel of the early church. Everything in Revelation emerges out of this center and flows back into it.

As an “apocalypse” (1:1) Revelation unveils or reveals the truth of this state of affairs for the church. First, and directly, the churches of Asia Minor to whom it was directed (chs.2-3) and by analogy to the church throughout the ages (chs.7,14).

As a letter (greeting and conclusion), Revelation intends to be a pastoral resource for the faithful living of this gospel by the church living under the “death throes” of the powers.

As a “prophecy” (1:3; 22:7) it declares God’s word into the immediate situation of the seven churches and echoes through the journey of the church as an ever-pertinent reminder of our situation and God’s action and provision.

Revelation, according to Jesus’ sermon, is finally about “living as of the first commandment matters.” Or if Jesus is Lord, the Emperor/King/President/Queen, Prince(ss)/ Prime Minister, etc. is NOT, though they fancy they are. What does it mean to be faithful to the true Lord, Jesus Christ, while living in “the belly of the beast” of false lords pressing them claims on us at every turn? Whether in the 1st or 21st century this is always what is at stake in being the church. Revelation’s imperious and sometimes strident vision of the gospel is necessary for the church to:

1.       re-present Jesus Christ to us in his full stature as Lord of Lords and King of Kings

2.       remember who we are and what we are here for

3.       realize that every day and every action are fraught with “apocalyptic” significance in the ongoing struggle of the church to endure the death throes of the powers and bear witness to the gospel.

Jesus baptizes our imaginations in this sermon to more truly “see” or world and our lives in it faithfully. Similar to John’s hearing about the Lion of the tribe of Judah but on turning to see a slaughtered lamb, we need a similar jolt to our imagination that redefines reality for us. To wit, we really do live in a world where a dragon plots our downfall and recruits beasts to do its dirty work and attack us to hinder and derail our following the lamb. Our world is, as Luther put in his great hymn, filled with devils, this host of evil powers has been beaten by a man hanging on a cross and raised from the dead in 33 a.d.  The unfathomably counter-intutitiveness of this to our “normal” way of thinking requires the strong jolt of the bizarre and the fantastic this sermon offers for us to begin to get a grip on what follow Jesus in our world is all about. Quite a sermon, huh?

[1] See the work of John Walton and Gregory Beale for this reading of the creation stories.

The lab or the factory

Seth Godin's pithy insight. Is your church a lab or a factory?

You work at one, or the other.

At the lab, the pressure is to keep searching for a breakthrough, a new way to do things. And it's accepted that the cost of this insight is failure, finding out what doesn't work on your way to figuring out what does. The lab doesn't worry so much about exploiting all the value of what it produces--they're too busy working on the next thing.


Thursday, June 22, 2017

A Mantra of Grace

They do not deserve your sympathy in any way!” So Ares screams at Diana Prince, Wonder Woman, pushing her to drop the tank she holds threateningly over the evil Dr. Maru, her alter ego in the film, and then unleash her righteous anger on all humanity. He is desperate for her to give them what they deserve. Diana, however, somehow experiences an “aha” moment, a revelation, that “It’s not about deserve.” It’s about love.

I think about this scene often in our world, oh so desperate for someone else, some other group, to get what they deserve.

-Most of us want ISIS to get what we think they deserve.
-Others want Donald Trump to get what they think he deserves.
-Some want the poor and sick to get what they believe these people deserve, as in “Diabetics don’t deserve heath care”.
-Many still think homosexuals deserve to hear that “God hates fags!”
-Others believe the 1% deserve the judgment they will receive from God for their injustices.
-And on it goes . . .

Yet, “It’s not about deserve,” as Wonder Woman realizes. Jesus said it even more clearly as his executioners pinned him to the cross with nails: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”

A world based on desert and judgment will finally destroy itself just as it tried to destroy Jesus. It wanted to give him what it believed he deserved. Thank God, he demurred from responding in kind, he who alone knew we truly deserved. Perhaps Wonder Woman’s “It’s not about deserve” is the mantra of grace for our age. God knows we need it!

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Seven FAQ's about Christian Faith (and Seven More for Good Luck) 03

Ch.3: Is God in Control? Why Predestination Does Not Have to be Depress-tination

What Do You Mean By “Control”?

Is God in control of the direction and actions of history? Yes? No? Maybe? It all depends on what you mean by control.
-if you mean total control via a pre-scripted invariant plan drawn up by God before history began, No.
-if you mean that God is directing history to a preordained end through the real and responsible actions of creatures he has enabled to make their own actions and decisions, Yes.
The first is not love. Love creates new possibilities, growth, and futures. God’s love is both the expansive power of our growth toward new futures and that new future itself which brings each of us individually and as a whole to the fulness that is in Christ. Thus, the second option seems preferable. God establishes a good end for his creation and creatures and journeys with them in real relationships (in all their ups and downs) trusting his love to bring all things to that good end.
Because it’s love no causal or mechanical models will help us understand it. Love means relationship and relationship works on a different logic (if that is the right word) altogether.
“Here is God’s covenant with Abraham that is unconditional and unilateral. Here is God’s covenant with Moses and Israel that is bilateral and conditional. They are there together, and that interface of contradiction may offer us the most work to do but also the most honest disclosure of the truth of our life. The full tradition asserts that all of our relationships, including that with the Holy One, are an unsettled mix of unilateral and bilateral, of conditional and unconditional.”[1]
Just the brew we find pictured in the Bible’s portrayal between God and humanity. God’s full unilateral control and power over all his creation is everywhere asserted. Yet human beings must respond and act properly for God’s creation to be what God wants it to be. Somehow, these two realities, both ordained by God, interact in sometimes surprising and volatile ways, all the time working out and leading us to God’s settled end for us. Nothing is prescribed for us in a way that renders us automatons or puppets.
The story of the “hardening of Pharaoh’s heart” in Exodus is instructive here. If we read the story carefully we learn that both God and Pharaoh are agents who harden Pharaoh’s heart, neither alone. God acts sovereignly, Pharaoh acts freely. God’s declared intention to harden Pharaoh’s heart is achieved yet without bypassing the responsibility and response-ability of Pharaoh. An incalculable quality attends relationships. And it’s that quality that keeps us from “smoothing out” it’s logic in intellectual terms. That is, neither determinism nor free will is appropriate to the reality it seeks to explain. Intellectually, there’s “white space” between the two realities scripture requires us to hold together. Instead of filling it in with explanations which distort, we best leave it blank and persist in affirming both parts of what scripture affirms. And allow the mystery of how that happens to remain the prerogative of God.
Predestination/Election/Providence (PEP) are not synonymous terms but do converge in that each of them deal with the relation of divine action and human action.  Election is the primary term biblically but predestination is what most people usually call this issue.  I call it PEP here.
And I claim there is no reason why we should consider it depress-tination or be frightened at it.
Three observations about the relation of divine and human action.  First, PEP is not fatalism (a pagan Greek doctrine often confused with it).  PEP has nothing to do with a pre-scripted history that unfolds as foretold and cannot be changed.  Rid your minds of this notion if you hope to understand PEP. 
Second, God’s thoughts and ways are not our thoughts and ways:  Just because we cannot imagine how God’s sovereignty and human freedom can both be real without one canceling out or overriding the other does not mean God cannot manage it!
Third, the relation of divine and human action in PEP is asymmetrical.  Divine action is prior and primary, human action responsive to divine action.

My five rules for understanding PEP are these:

1.    PEP is the most radical way we have to say “grace.”
From creation to consummation and at every step in between the Bible affirms and proclaims that God acts first in gracious, creative and generative ways towards us.

2.    PEP is the most radical way we have to say “love.”

God is for us.  From all eternity God has determined to be for us, not against us.  What God is himself – an eternal communion of love given and returned between the Father and the Son in the Spirit – he is toward us.

3.    PEP means “victory/justice.”
God will prevail.  Somehow and in some way God will take this tale which so often seems “told by idiot, full of sound and fury signifying nothing” (Shakespeare, Macbeth) and bring it a fitting and flourishing end.  All things will be set right, judgment (however we envision it) will be executed, and shalom will reign throughout the ages of ages.

4.    PEP means “gratitude.”

Our lives are gifts, received with gratitude and lived with thanksgiving and generosity.  The primal human response to God is to say “thanks” (instead of the “You’re not the boss of me” our first parents offered their creator). 
5.    PEP means the “courage to live by the cross.”
All of this means that when the rubber hits the road we can and will “take up our cross” and follow Jesus wherever he goes and whatever he asks us to do.
Karl Barth calls the doctrine of election “the sum of the gospel,” the best of all words that can be said or heard!  As such it ought to inform and undergird all we are and do.  I hope some of my observations and rules help us recover the substance and vitality of this often wrongly maligned central truth of the Bible.   

[1] Brueggemann, 2011, 21.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Resisting Trump with Revelation (33)

The Great Judgment (20:11-15)

The Great Judgment

Images of power introduce this scene. A “great white throne,” an undescribed but imperious “one” sits on it. Creation felling in terror but finding no place to hide. Even more terrifying, the dead are all over the place. Famous infamous, unknown, uncared about, they’re all there. From the sea and Death and Hades the dead come. Before the throne they watch as “books” are opened, full of the deeds of the deed (20:13). Death and Hades join the two beasts in the lake of fire. The sea too, after disgorging its dead disappears and has no place in the new creation. The dragon is already caged in the abyss. The powers that oppose God are defeated.

Human beings still face a reckoning before God based on what they have done (20:13). And those who have not done enough to get their name written in the “book of life” join the evil powers in the lake of fire, “the second death 20:14). The first death, of course, is our physical death. The faithful who have experienced the first resurrection (20:5) have nothing to fear from the second death. Their names are written in the book of life.

Faith and Works

Protestants get all queasy when we read God will judge us based on what we have done. That smacks of salvation by works which is just what the Reformation of the 16th century fought to reject. Instead, “justification by faith alone was counterpointed to salvation by works as the evangelical truth. Salvation was either due to God’s work in Christ or due to our own efforts and accomplishments. This was an unfortunate binary as the scripture never places faith and works over against each other in this fashion.

When the New Testament does oppose faith to works, or works of the law, the issue is how we can identify the people of God. Is it those works that most set Jews apart from all other peoples: circumcision, sabbath, and food laws? Or is it faith in Jesus Messiah that marks out God’s people? There was never any question, whatever choice one made about this, whether works appropriate to the people of God were to be expected and performed. They were!

Faith and works should never have been opposed. Instead, we should have embraced an understanding something like this: we are saved by faith without works but faith which saves is never without works. Faith indicates who we believe in; works demonstrates and verifies that faith. To be judged by our works before God is but another way of determining the genuineness of our faith. Those who fail this examination of our faith are those who have failed to believe in the true and living God. And those who pass are those who have works which validate that faith.

And the latter need never fear that such faith is in vain! They will not be disappointed but rather validated and vindicated, no matter the suffering or even death that may have befallen them. For in the economy of the Lamb suffering and death are chief marks of faith and the primary ways God’s kingdom makes its way in our world.

Now the great drama is over. The struggle is resolved. Everything is back on track, restored to the role and purpose God ordained for it. All that’s left is to explore the pictures of this fulfilled state of affairs given us in chs.21-22.  

Some Reflections of God and Violence

Old Testament scholar Stephen Chapman from Duke writes in the book Holy War and the Bible:

“Warfare in the Old Testament, as indeed all killing in the Old Testament needs to be recognized within Christian theology as a strictly circumscribed divine concession to the brutal reality of human sin (Gen.9:3-6). However, someone still might ask, ‘Couldn’t God design a world in which war wasn’t necessary?’' The appropriate theological response is that God in fact did so (Gen.1-2), but human sinfulness spoiled it precisely by generating violence (Gen. 6:11-13). Someone might push further and say 'Even with the advent of human violence, couldn’t God have devised a strictly nonviolent method for dealing with it?" Here again the theological response is that God did just that in Jesus Christ, but in order for Christ to appear in the fullness of time (Gal.4:4) it was necessary for God to elect and preserve the people of Israel. And apparently - this is the hard part - God was not able, given the violence of the world, to preserve Israel purely nonviolently although, even so, Israel's history witnesses to and moves toward nonviolence as it moves toward Christ.” (63-64)

Yes, that “hard part” is where many stumble today. They prefer to believe the authors of these kinds of texts got God wrong erroneously painting him after the style of the deities of the surrounding cultures. Thus, knowingly or unknowingly, they painted their “genocidal”[1] wars of aggression into Canaan as carried out at God’s behest and with his support. But God, whatever he was doing in and with the people at this point (which is not clear), was not involved in these wars and did not approve of them. Others take the same tack but actually accuse God of perpetrating these “atrocities” and is thus himself morally in the wrong.

Yes, this is a “hard part.” Simple answers here usually play us false. One such answer, we might call “justifying” says “The stories are true. God did what they say he did. And if he did it, it is alright because God after all can do whatever God wants.” I hope none of you readers want to take that line! Another too simple answer, the “suspicious” one faults God or the narrators for doing wrong or falsifying the story to justify the nation’s nefarious, self-serving acts.

I don’t believe either answer suffices. It seems inadequate to me justify God by appealing to a dubious “God can do whatever he wants” principle or because these stories are in the Bible they’re true. Equally, the “suspicious” answer seems inadequate too. Vindicating God by removing him from the stories is too easy in my judgment. As is blaming him for involvement in these wars. How else could God show himself a faithful king able to guide and direct his people in that time but by so acting. If God incurs guilt thereby, so be it. That seems part and parcel of the incarnational movement from God to humanity. Jesus incurred guilt through his baptism into full solidarity with his people and the world and so too we as his people incarnating him in our world are to bear sin and incur the guilt of responsible action in the world (Bonhoeffer). If that’s the price incarnation costs, that’s a price God is willing to play. And it seems to me a cost we as readers must pay to keep God ever-increasingly involved in the life of the church and the world.

This we might call an “incarnational” approach. Miroslav Volf offers another in which human pacifism is based on God’s non-pacifism.
“One could object that it is not worthy of God to wield the sword.  Is God not love, long-suffering and all-powerful love?  A counter-question could go something like this:  Is it not a bit too arrogant to presume that our contemporary sensibilities about what is compatible with God’s love are so much healthier than those of the people of God throughout the whole history of Judaism and Christianity?  . . . one could . . . argue that in a world of violence it would not be worthy of God not to wield the sword; if God were not angry at the injustice and deception and did not make the final end to violence God would not be worthy of our worship . . . in a world of violence we are faced with an inescapable alternative: either God’s violence or human violence.  Most people who insist on God’s ‘nonviolence’ cannot resist using violent themselves (or tacitly sanctioning its use by others).  They deem talk of God’s judgment irreverent, but think nothing of entrusting judgment into human hands, persuaded presumably that this is less dangerous and more humane than to believe in a God who judges!  That we should bring “down the powerful from their thrones” (Luke 1:51-52) seems responsible; that God should do the same, as the song of that revolutionary virgin explicitly states, seems crude. 

“My thesis that the practice of nonviolence requires a belief in divine vengeance will be unpopular with many Christians, especially theologians in the West.  To the person who is inclined to dismiss it, I suggest imagining that you are delivering a lecture in a war zone (which is where a paper that underlies this chapter was originally delivered).  Among your listeners are people whose cities and villages have been first plundered, then burned and levelled to the ground, whose daughters and sisters have been raped, whose fathers and brothers have had their throats slit.  The topic of the lecture:  a Christian attitude toward violence.  The thesis: we should not retaliate since God is perfect noncoercive love.  Soon you would discover that it takes the quiet of a suburban home for the birth of the thesis that human nonviolence corresponds to God’s refusal to judge.  In a scorched land, soaked in the blood of the innocent, it will invariably die.  And as one watches it die, one will do well to reflect about many other pleasant captivities of the liberal mind.”  (Exclusion and Embrace, 303-04) 


.        -Has God has forfeited his role as the Ruler of human history in a world rebelling against him (Psa.2) and using nations as agents of his judgments against one another (Isa.10)? Must God, then, not be continuing to employ violence or violent agents to achieve his will? Though God “does not willingly afflict or grieve anyone” (Lam.3:33), will he not do what is necessary for justice to prevail?

-God as Creator and Ruler of the world has certain responsibilities that he alone executes.  Humans are not to imitate everything God does, only what he instructs us to do.  And that is what we see Jesus of Nazareth doing and hear Jesus of Nazareth teaching us (become non-violent peacemakers, Mt.5:9). 

-Divine wrath is an expression of God’s love, just not a nonviolent love.  Like the discipline a parent gives to a child who has cheated and bullied his or her friends, God’s wrath stops or restrains evil from proceeding and offers relief and justice to evil’s victims. Indifference to such evil is the opposite of love. 

-As followers of Jesus, living between the time of his resurrection and return when sin and evil, though defeated lash out violently in their death throes against God and his people, we are called to live the life of the future now in the risk and vulnerability of loving others, even our enemies.  The hope that energizes such radical openness to others is grounded in the certainty that God is in control, ruling and guiding history to his eschaton when love will be received and returned by all.

I realize these brief comments require much further discussion to establish them as full arguments. But I want to register them here as a warning against a too easy acceptance of what I deem inadequate answers. Especially the “suspicious” answer because it is widely trumpeted on the internet. More and better thinking on the matter from all of us can only be a good thing!

[1]I wonder about the appropriateness of using the term “genocide” to describe God’s action in and through Israel here. Can the Creator and Lord of all be guilty of genocide? Can he not do with his creation what he wills (Rom.9:19ff.) without being regarded by those creatures as “unjust” or “unfair”?

The Neutics on Biblical Interpretation

Herma and Herman Neutics on Biblical Interpretation

This statement is at the heart of one's capacity to hear and heed God's Word:

“I believe that imagination is stronger than knowledge. That myth is more potent than history. That dreams are more powerful than facts. That hope always triumphs over experience. That laughter is the only cure for grief. And I believe that love is stronger than death.”

(Robert Fulghum, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten: Uncommon Thoughts On Common Things)

Monday, June 19, 2017

The Blathering Superego at the End of History

JUNE 18, 2017

LIBERALISM IS NOT working. Something deep within the mechanism has cracked. All our wonk managers, our expert stewards of the world, have lost their way. They wander desert highways in a daze, wondering why the brakes locked up, why the steering wheel came off, how the engine caught on fire. Their charts lie abandoned by the roadside. It was all going so well just a moment ago. History was over. The technocratic order was globalizing the world; people were becoming accustomed to the permanent triumph of a slightly kinder exploitation. What happened? All they can recall is a loud thump in the undercarriage, an abrupt loss of control. Was it Brexit? Trump? Suddenly the tires were bursting and smoke was pouring into the vehicle, then a flash. The next thing they could remember, our liberals were standing beside a smoldering ruin, blinking in the hot sun, their power stolen, their world collapsing, their predictions all proven wrong.

In the six months since the election of Donald Trump, American liberals have managed to regroup, assembling themselves into a self-styled “Resistance” and attempting to reassert control over a world they no longer recognize. But something happened out there in the desert. There is something off about them now. On every level, our most prominent technocrats have entered the new year like uncanny valley copies of themselves, stuttering and miming their old habits, with each take trying to remember what their lives felt like before the accident. They can’t quite get the message right. For months, serious journalists studied The Origins of Totalitarianism like a divination manual, wondering when Trump would pass his enabling act. First, the president was a fascist, until he failed to consolidate power. Then he was an authoritarian, until he showed no interest in micro- or macro-management. Then he merely had authoritarian tendencies, or something, and at any rate was probably a Kremlin agent.

The situation is no better on television. Rachel Maddow, once the charming spokesperson of a kinder world, crazily unveils tax returns she found in Al Capone’s vault. Keith Olbermann — never charming but at least self-confident — now squats on the floor in promotional photos, swaddled in an American flag. The newer stars of the left — the Louise Mensches and Eric Garlands — are using game theory to outwit invisible Soviet assassins. Elected Democrats are paralyzed. They repeat, over and over, that none of this is normal, commit themselves to the fight, and then roll over, confirming the president’s appointments, praising the beauty of a missile strike, or begging the FBI to save them. Hillary Clinton emerges from the woods to blame Jim Comey, the DNC, and the Russians for her loss, and the day before the United States withdraws from the Paris Climate Agreement, she tweets a covfefe joke.

On television, in journals, in the halls of Congress, none of the old methods by which American liberals enforced their claim to superior expertise are working anymore. For all their “resistance,” the greatest impediment to Donald Trump remains his own stupidity. Despite every evil and crime of his administration, the most ambitious Democratic victory on the horizon is making Mike Pence president. Our liberals are right: none of this is normal. This isn’t how it used to be. Everywhere, our best and brightest blink. Are they still in the desert? Is all this an hallucination, a bad dream?


Seven FAQ's about Christian Faith (and Seven More for Good Luck) 02

Ch.2: What is God’s will for Our World? For Me?

Knowing God’s Will

One of the great mysteries of Christian faith eddies around knowing God’s will. We pursue it like the holy grail, grasp onto any new spiritual technologies that promise us insight into it, or gurus who claim special competence in discerning it. We worry that if we miss God’s will for us our lives will drip away into a puddle of inconsequence. And no one wants that, do they?

Nevertheless, many of us give up on ever really knowing God’s will for the world and especially for themselves. The technologies don’t work and the gurus fail to deliver really satisfying results. So we muddle along or charge ahead doing the best we know how. Yet still we wonder about the big picture of God’s intent and purpose for the world. And what God really wants us to be about here.

Well, I’m neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet, but I do know what God’s will for this world is and what role(s) he expects you to play in it. Not because I have any special insight, or a new method, or have received some special revelation. I don’t and I haven’t. But I have read the scriptures carefully. And I offer my reading for your consideration.

Revelation 21-22 and Genesis 1-2: God’s Will for the World

If God has a purpose for creation and roles for us to play in it, where do you imagine we might find it?

“What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make and end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from.”[1]

I agree with Eliot. Let’s make our start at the end, the last scene in the vision of the book of Revelation, chs.21-22. Here we find the purpose of God fulfilled in vivid picture language. The fluid imagery of the Seer allows the pictures to coalesce into one grand image. First, we have a new earth and a new heaven. Then the holy city, the New Jerusalem, the bride of the Lamb, descends to the new creation. And becomes coextensive with it. So new creation = New Jerusalem. The shape of the New Jerusalem is cubic. Only one other structure in the Bible has this shape – the Holy of Holies in Solomon’s Temple. This was where God dwelt in the temple. Only the High Priest, and him only once a year, on the Day of Atonement, could enter this part of the temple. John seems to suggest that the fulfillment or full fruition of God’s purpose renders the entire new creation a Holy of Holies in which God and all his people can live together in harmony and fellowship through the ages! If this is true we ought to be able to find evidence of it in the creation stories of Gen.1-2.

And we do, if we read them in light of their cultural context. It seems clear in light of the work of Greg Beale,[2] John Walton,[3] and others that Israel’s creation stories narrative God’s building a temple for him to inhabit to be with his people. Where, after all, do gods live but in a temple? It’s all embryonic and at its earliest moments in Genesis, of course. But the world is structured on the pattern of Solomon’s temple – the Garden of Eden = the Holy of Holies, Eden = the Holy Place, and the uninhabited lands outside Eden = the outer Courts where foreigners may go. Further, the river flowing out Eden to water the uninhabited lands suggests they’re meant for habitation. And we know from Genesis 1 that humanity is mandated by God to exercise dominion over the whole creation. Thus it seems God intends his creation in toto to become a temple where he and his human creatures will live together in fellowship and love.

And that’s just what we’ve seen in Revelation 21-22. God’s eternal purpose, then, his will for this creation is for every nook and cranny to be a creational temple. That’s what he’s up to throughout history. This is where the whole thing is going. Creation’s destiny.

Genesis 1-2: God’s Will for You and Me

Within the creational temple God is building you and I have been given roles to play. The best roles, in fact. High privilege and high responsibility. First, we are made in God’s image. We are meant for relationship with him, his adopted children as it were. As children of the Great King we are also royals. And as such appointed God’s representatives, his ambassadors, charged to reflect his character and will and exercise dominion throughout the creation.

The form of this dominion is given in Genesis 2 where the Lord places Adam (humanity) in the garden to “keep and till” it (2:15). In addition to its horticultural meaning this pair of words, used together, often refers elsewhere in the Old Testament to the work of priests in the temple. We are to be royal priests. That’s our identity; that’s our vocation. God’s will for us. Wherever we are and whatever we do.

If in our royalty we represent and reflect the character and will of God, as priests we stand before God and between God and the world and the world and God. The core of our vocation, then, or our efforts to do God’s will, consists in mediating the presence of God to the world and holding the world in all its pain and brokenness before God. One of a priest’s primary tasks was to help the people “discern distinguish between the holy and the common, and between the unclean and the clean” (Leviticus 10:10). This ancient language from a scheme of dividing the world we no longer use or understand very well basically means living according to God’s design and order in his world. Or, in the language I have been using, reflecting God’s character and will throughout the world. Dietrich Bonhoeffer emphasizes this as he reflects on the church’s role in a world-come-of-age:

“(The church) must tell people in every calling . . . what a life with Christ is, what it means “to be there for others.” In particular, our church will have to confront the vices of hubris, the worship of power, envy, and illusionism as the roots of all evil. It will have to speak of moderation, authenticity, trust, faithfulness, steadfastness, patience, discipline, humility, modesty, contentment. It will have to see that it does not underestimate the significance of the human “example” (which has its origin in the humanity of Jesus and is so important in Paul’s writings!); the church’s word gains weight and power not through concepts but by example.”[4]

We are to help those “in every calling” learn to how express and embody their “life in Christ,” their life “for others.” As we do this, we will draw near to them, embrace them in God’s gracious welcome and hospitality in spite of (or perhaps because of) their sin, bear their burdens in joint responsibility for the pain and injustice of the world, and hold them before God in hope that Christ will also welcome them into in his kingdom as he will us, through his gracious love and mercy.

That’s God’s will for you and for me, friends. Paul puts it this way: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18). It’s not the job we do, the decision we make, or path we take that is specifically God’s will for that we might miss if we decide wrongly and place ourselves outside the will of God. If it is important to God’s purposes that we be somewhere or play some particular role, God can be trusted to make that clear to us (think Moses or Paul). Lacking such specific direction, or even with it, our vocation remains as Bonhoeffer so ably described it above.

For most of us I suspect, there are any number of job we might hold, tasks we might undertake. We must use our best judgment in deciding between such opportunities when we face them in the resolve that whatever decision we make God’s will for us in those places or doing those tasks we will seek to express the life “for others” that embraces and holds them in God’s gracious presence. Only by defaulting on this resolve do we place ourselves outside the will of God for us. Only if we fail to live as God’s royal priests helping to extend the boundaries of his creational temple to embrace the ends of the earth do we fail to do God’s will.


I submit that God’s will is not a mystery shrouded in confusion or darkness. It is not a guessing game we must play with God throughout our lives. We do need to be fearful of living outside God’s will but not because we don’t know it but because we choose not to do it.

In sum, the will of God for our world is for it to become a worldwide temple where God will live with us forever in his shalom (peace or universal well-being). God’s will for each of us is to serve in that temple as royal priests declaring and demonstrating the way of life God intends for his creatures. We do this in whatever jobs, occupations, roles, or tasks we assume. We can do this knowing that God has blessed us, that is equipped and fortified us, for just such service. Thanks be to God!

[2] Beale, 2014.
[3] Walton, 2009.
[4] DBWE 8:14361-14367.

A Whitewater Faith for the 21st Century

Our culture is often likened to whitewater rapids - ever-changing, unpredictable, dangerous. There are some rules for rafting these whitewater rapids, though, that might give us some guidelines for navigating these cultural rapids. I've translated them into biblical guidelines for a "whitewater faith" for navigating such times.

1. Rest during the calms because there is more turbulence coming/"Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy"

2. When a rock looms ahead, lean into it not away from it/"Take up your cross and follow me"

3. Whatever else you do, never stop paddling/"Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you"

4. Let everything else but your life jacket go if you fall into the water/"There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved" (in the sense that whoever finds salvation in whatever ways owes that salvation to Christ)

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Seven FAQ's About Christian Faith (and Seven More for Good Luck) 01

(A new series of posts)

Ch.1: Is God Mad at Me?

What Are We Made For?

We are made to be loved and love.

Love is what God is and God made us to be like him.[1]

Love is the energy that moves us. The soil in which we bloom. What makes us who we are meant to be. The necessary and sufficient condition for full humanity. It is God’s glory and ours too.

More to the point – this is the point! The only one that matters. Without a deep awareness and assurance of our Creator’s love is both disposition and action our lives becomes desperate and distorted searches for it. Surrogates abound: family, children, job, stuff, status, wealth, achievement, sports, health, and other deities we create to fill the god-shaped hole inside us. The 17 century French mathematician and philosopher Pascal says it well:

“What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself.”[2]

Every human beings needs to know in heart and mind that their Creator is love, made them from that love, for that love, to be lover themselves of him supremely and every other human being as well.

We knew that at the creation. The picture of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden is of creatures well-loved, lavishly provided for, and given an identity and vocation far more than adequate to secure their sense of significance and security.

Whatever exactly we parse the significance of Adam and Eve’s breaking relationship with God to mean, it at least means that we know this originary divine love now by default. It’s absence. Or better, our inability to sense and live out of it. For the Creator’s love and care for us never wavered. Indeed, it only intensified or solidified (if I may use such terms) with God’s absolute unwillingness to acquiesce in our rebellion.

Some religions and spiritual philosophies present human beings as part of or an expression of their deity him-, her-, or its- self. Divine love here is simply the self-love the deity.

Others allot but a bit role to humanity. We do the grunt work the gods have tired of and want relief from.

Yet others value humanity highly. So high, in fact, that we are very nearly aliens in our bodies and earth-boundedness. If we can find and practice the proper spiritual insight and protocols we may make our way toward the blessed state of union with the deity (personally or impersonally considered) when death finally frees us to “shuffle off this mortal coil” (Shakespeare) and we may rejoin the “spiritual” from which we came.

Nowhere, however, do we find creatures begot by the Creator’s love alone, beloved for no reason but that love alone, trusted with the immeasurable privilege of being God’s royal children and priests in the temple of his creation, destined for life with him forever in communication, communion, and community, asked only to love and trust the Creator’s love for us and mature into the full stature of humanity God designed for us. St. Irenaeus, the great 2nd century theologian said it well: “The glory of God is humanity fully alive and life is beholding God.”[3]

Life as gift and grace. As love and latitude. Freedom and fealty. The unfathomable reality of living God’s life in a human key!

Nothing but love and God’s provision for human well-being, goodness, and eventual maturity at the beginning. And, as we will see, nothing but that at the end and at every moment in between.

No “God With a Scowl”

Flash forward to our world today. Sadly, this biblical picture of God as the ever-loving Creator and Redeemer, ever-seeking, ever-welcoming Parent of wayward children, ever-patient care-taker of his wondrous creation unwilling that it or its creatures fail to reach their intended glory, this view of God has been often hidden, obscured, or even contradicted by his own followers, of all people!

Too many people today, maybe even you, dear reader, think of God a the aloof, demanding, vengeful, deity who must be assuaged and persuaded to accept his human followers only after he requires Jesus to die for us, taking his Father’s wrath on himself and protecting us from it.

Even then, after Jesus’ death and resurrection, God seems, to hear many of his followers tell it, obsessively concerned with his rules and our following them. A regimen of what the late Dallas Willard called “sin-management.” Both the left and the right have versions of this deformity of the gospel.

“On the Right, the gospel is “vampire faith” (they want Jesus for his blood), it is shaped by atonement theology and obsessed with atonement theology, and it is about “relief from the intrapsychic terrors of fundamentalist versions of hell.”

On the Left, the gospel is about “good acts” and activism and “self-determined acts of righteousness.” So the Right is about proper beliefs and the Left about proper behaviors.”[4]

From either direction, then, much American Christianity leaves us bereft of the Bible’s God who far from being distant and demanding has shown himself in Jesus to have drawn near and consider us dear, arms open as wide as possible to welcome us ungrateful and undeserving creatures home again, wide enough with love enough that even without the nails his arms would remain bound to the cross in divine welcome.

This ersatz surrogate deity, the one I call the “God with a Scowl,” rules with an iron fist. We live in fear of failing this God. Moral failure, social or political “backwardness,” arrogant self-righteousness, doctrinal aberrations, all place of on God’s “bad side” liable to and worthy of a good old-fashioned jolt of divine wrath. One or a combination of these things (depending, of course, on one’s theological outlook) inevitably turns our view of God into that of God “with a scowl.” Obsessively concerned with our performance and ever-ready to avenge any misstep, the burden of maintaining our relationship with God falls squarely on us.

When an author like Philip Pullman writes a trilogy of children stories (His Dark Materials) which portray God as a moral iron fist (the God “with a scowl”) who terrorizes humanity and the church as his earthly authoritarian representative, and when the church promotes boycotting his movies as anti-Christian because Pullman kills off this deity, we see this distortion of the gospel revealed in all its ugliness. We ought to cheer for the demise of this deity whether Pullman believes it to be Christian God or not. This God needs to die!


God “has shown himself in Jesus.” Ah, there’s the magic word. Jesus of Nazareth, Israel’s Messiah, shows us who God is in the fullest measure possible. In fact, the most radical thing Christian faith says about God is that he is Jesus-like! We can’t say Jesus is godlike unless we mean the deity he has shown God to be. We can’t try to fit him into views of God we have gotten from somewhere else. Because we don’t know who or what God is apart from him!

Jesus’ birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension brings to a climax the long story of God with Israel in pursuit of his eternal purpose for his creatures and creation (see the next chapter for more on this). In him

-the God who desired to draw near to his people draws as near as possible by becoming one of us (Matthew 1);

-the God who rescued his people from slavery in Egypt rescued all humanity from slavery to the devil by dying for and God raising him from the dead (Hebrews 2:14-18);

-the God whose established his presence in the midst of his people in the temple physically, now indwells his people personally and in Jesus they become his new temple (John 2:22; Ephesians 3:19ff.);

-the God who wants to be the center of his people’s life makes Jesus the center point of the whole cosmos (Ephesians 1:10); and

-the God who always wanted to be at home with his people, finally is (Revelation 21:3).

From the uttermost to the innermost, the smallest to the largest, the best to the worst, Jesus makes it clear that God has loved his people and his world lavishly, abundantly, generously with no regard to the cost to himself and for the benefit and well-being of all he has created. He reveals the God “with a scowl” to be a fraud, a massive and destructive hoax perpetrated by powers of evil that oppose God[5] and seek to undo his work in the world (more on this (d)evil figure in a later chapter).

Jesus is the face of God’s faithfulness to all he has promised his creatures and creation. And that faithfulness means love, compassion, justice, forgiveness, welcome, and a good future for us.

His heart is God’s heart, his hands and feet God’s embrace of and action for us, his words God’s wisdom, his death the extremity of God’s compassion, his resurrection the enormity of God’s power and resolve – in short, God’s utter faithfulness to be with us, in us, as us, an economy of gift and grace, friendship and fealty, abundance and adoration throughout the ages.

Jesus – we know God is not mad at us, you and me, because of him. And because of him we know God is not mad at the world, vengeful, or out to get us for our sins. In fact, God does not even treat us sinners or allow sin to color his relationship with us! Karl Barth says it beautifully:

"[Man's] legal status as a sinner is rejected in every form. Man is no longer seriously regarded by God as a sinner. Whatever he may be, whatever there is to be said of him, whatever he has to reproach himself with, God no longer takes him seriously as a sinner. He has died to sin; there on the Cross of Golgotha...We are no longer addressed and regarded by God as sinners...We are acquitted gratis, sola gratia, by God's own entering in for us."[6]

“We are no addressed and regarded by God as sinners” – that’s the grace of God in nutshell! Is God mad at and vengeful toward us? Perish the thought! Such a blasphemous idea is a lie of the enemy. No matter how loudly shouted or often repeated it is a lie! If you’re feeling unloved or under condemnation by God boldly grab the truth and throw it back in the face of the accuser (the (d)evil). The glory of the gospel is that “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them” (2 Corinthians 5:19). Did you hear that? “Not counting their trespasses against them.” That means your trespasses and mine – everyone’s.

God is not made at or vengeful toward us. Never has been! Brokenhearted, yes. Had to practice tough love toward us, yes. But love it was and love it remains. As the God character in “The Shack” repeatedly intones, “I’m especially fond of you.”

And God is!

[1] I know God is not male. But English unfortunately does not have generic pronouns so we have to make a choice. My choice, and it’s not the only way to go, is to go ahead and work with the “improper” pronoun that the biblical text gives us. And use the full variety of images, male and female, scripture offers to craft a view of God that is neither male nor female but grounds both in God’s being. Like I said, this is my choice of a way to go. If another person chooses to do differently, like use “Godself” in place of pronouns, that is fine with me. I find that cumbersome but it is another way to go.
[2]Pascal, 1966, 75.
[3] Against Heresies, Book 4, 20:7.
[5] Whether or not we personify this evil as a “devil” figure or not, the crucial thing is to recognize that there is some intentional organized opposition to God in his universe. The evil we face is more than the sum total of humanity’s misdeeds and failures.
[6] Barth, 1949, 120-121.