Who is God Really? Faith Hacking #1

Our faith bogs down when we don’t know who God really is.

Sometimes we think God is so distant that he can’t make a differences.  Or we think God is so vaguely everywhere that God is really nowhere at all.

But we need to hack these understandings of God, take what is good, get rid of what is not, and see that God is more and better than merely distant or vaguely everywhere.

A Distant Star?

A neighbor once asked me, “When you think about God, do you get a picture of an old man behind a desk running the universe?”

Have you ever thought that? Many of us have from time to time.

God is in charge.  God is in control.  God is important.  And in charge,  in control, important people tend to sit behind a desk.

And certainly the Bible tells us that God is sovereign over all things, that God is high and lifted up, that his ways are higher than our ways.

It’s like God is a distant star hanging in the heavens.  If we look up at God as we drift along the ocean of life then hopefully we can navigated by God’s distant light.

The Distant God

On the one hand we should affirm that God is in charge and in control.

But on the other hand, when the storms of life come, rocking our little boats back and forth, the “Distant God” provides little comfort in our terror.

This view of God can’t fill us with a “living hope” (1 Peter 1:3) if he is so far away. Our faith easily becomes resigned and withdrawn. Our hope becomes shallow and depressed when God is so distant.

The Enveloping Cloud

In response to the “Distant God” we can over-compensate and think that God is everywhere all the time. We image that God is in everything, working through anything.

God is not a distant star. God is an enveloping cloud. God is close enough to touch, taste, and feel at every moment in life.

Floating on the ocean of life we don’t need to look up to the heavens for a guiding star.  God is all around we, tell ourselves. God is everywhere.

God is nowhere

Again, it is true that God is everywhere.  “Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?  If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there” (Ps. 139:7-8).

But claiming to see God everywhere can obstruct our ability to distinguish the illuminating work of God from shadowy semblances.  This kind of thinking, when absolutized, fails to distinguish good from evil in the world.  It can become wishful thinking that just looks away from pain, hurt, or suffering.

The Gracious Gash in the Universe

Our faith needs to hack these two understandings of God. We need a better way of understanding who God really is.

God is not just distant.  And God is not just everywhere.

The truth is, God is coming to us. As Joshua Ryan Butler says, God is a pursuing God.


Let’s just look at the baptism of Jesus.

 

As Jesus was coming out of the water, he immediately sees the heavens torn apart and the Spirit of God descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”

The Heavens Torn Apart

In the Bible, the tearing of the heavens meant God was coming down to save his people. “Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down” cries Isaiah (Isaiah 64:1).

With the appearance of Jesus God is not distant. God is not an abstract entity off in space somewhere. God is coming down to us in Jesus, right now.

The Spirit Descended on Him

Just as the Spirit of God hovered over the waters of creation, now the Spirit hovers over the one emerging from the waters of the Jordan, the one who will confront chaos and darkness. 

Through Jesus God is beginning a new work of creation, tearing open a new possibility for a wandering and estranged world.

It is as if

God has ripped the heavens irrevocably apart at Jesus’ baptism, never to be shut again. Through this gracious gash in the universe, he has poured forth the Spirit into the earthly realm.”
(
Joel Marcus, Mark 1–8, Anchor Yale Bible, 165.)

Faith Hack: The God who comes to you

Can we hack our understanding of God to make room for the God who comes?

God is not merely distant. God is not merely everywhere.  God is coming to you.  And God is coming to rescue you where you are, to bring new creation right where you are.

God coming to us is not merely as aspect of who God is. It is the defining characteristic of God. God always longs to be present and intimate with his people, with you.

As John 3:16-17 says,

For God so loved the world, that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.  For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.

How would your life of faith be different if you believed God is coming to you right now? Can you hack your faith to make it work better?

 

Don’t miss the other 4 “faith hacks” coming out the next couple of days. Subscribe and receive a free gift about how God’s glory and holiness doesn’t mean God hates us.


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Being the Temple for the World #1

Here is the complete series: 1, 2, 3a, 3b, 4, 5, 6.

 

newjer_02_0On Sunday we started new class on “God with Us: Being the Temple for the World”

I know that not everyone at Life on the Vine could make it, and perhaps others on the inter-webs might be interested, so I’m going to try and write up quick summaries of each class.

We started with the question of “What does the phrase ‘God with us’ make us think about it”?  Answers ranged from this being a comforting promise to it being a truth that can seriously let us down.  Is God ‘with us’ in our ideas, opinions, our community, the world?  And really, how, when, and where is God ‘with us’?  Is “GOD with us” or “God with US”?  And what does this have to do with “salvation”, and “eschatology”, and all those other theological words?

God With Us

After this discussion I began to set the terms and outline for the class.  The first is “God with us.”

When we look at Matthew’s Gospel we see an angel of the Lord come to Joseph and tell him not to put away Mary for the child was from God.  Matthew then tells us that All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,’ which means, ‘God is with us’” (Matt. 1:23).

This statement, Emmanuel, God with us, sets the tone for God’s work in Jesus, that now in a new way God is going to be with humanity.

And we see this confirmed at the end of Matthews Gospel:

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age. (Matt. 28: 16-20)

In a sense, Matthew is telling us that God’s work of salvation is not so we can be with God “up” in heaven some day, but that God desires to be with us on earth everyday.

At the end of Revelation we hear of the New Heavens and the New Earth (as one).  A voice declares: “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God” (Rev. 21: 3).

Heaven and Earth

This allusion to Revelation leads us to our second guiding term, or terms: Heaven and Earth.

Just think of the Lord’s Prayer: “Our Father, who are in heaven, hallowed by your name. Your kingdom come; your will be done; on earth as it is in heaven.”

Jesus understands the work of prayer, indeed, the work of God, to be that of bring God’s kingdom rule and kingdom will from heaven down to earth.  These are not mutually exclusive terms, but rather ones that are separated for a time but being slowly brought back together.

The question for this class is “Are there other places, other ways of heaven coming to earth?” beyond just Jesus in the incarnation and the final end, or the finalé, of all creation?

Place, Person, People

The answer is emphatically yes, that God has been and will be “with us” in different ways.  In the following classes we will broadly look at three ways that God has been with us.

First, God’s presence was principally located in a Place, the Temple of Israel.

Second, God’s presence was principally located in a Person, Jesus the Son of God.

Third, God’s presence was principally located in a People, the Church,  new Temple.

But before we get to all this, we are going to start with Genesis 1 and 2 and ask if we can see God’s presence dwelling with humanity at the very beginning and what this might mean for the rest of the story.

So this Sunday we’ll be talking about Genesis One.


Here is the complete series: 1, 2, 3a, 3b, 4, 5, 6.

Deeper Than We Thought (2): The Colorblind Racism

 

Those brought forcibly to America for slavery are now forcibly carried away through imprisonment.

Cimagesolorblind Racism

Two weeks ago I talked about how in my journey of sanctification I seem to be really working only on two or so deeply ingrained sins that seem to keep popping up in different ways. Just when I think I have gotten over it I find it sprouting up again: instead of the fruit of the Spirit, these are the weeds of the flesh, and they are hard to pull out.

Similarly is our societal problem of racism: just when we free those imported here from Africa from slavery then up comes Jim Crow laws; and just when that oppressive system is struck down through the Civil Rights Movement comes a new form of “colorblind” racism.

Just what this “colorblind” racism is and how it has come about is the subject of Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. Her conviction is that “we have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it” (2).

Today I’m going to look at her compelling narrative (chapter 1) about the three stages or systems of racism in the US: Slavery, Jim Crow, and Mass Incarceration.

The reality that demands explanation by citizen of the US is “the stark and sobering reality is that, for reasons largely unrelated to actual crime trends, the American penal system has emerged as a system of social control unparalleled in world history” (8).

My brief summary here does not do justice to Alexander’s detailed and persuasive argument (I would let you know if I’m not persuaded).

Slavery

In colonial America, laborers were needed to farm the land, and while we often think of the idyllic farmer and his wife tending their own plot on the frontier, most often it was indentured servants who worked for wealth landowners, especially in the southern colonies. These landed elite needed cheap labor to make their “New World” venture profitable back home.

The economic need of the elite eventually settled on the solution of slavery of Africans (because Native Americans were too wild (they tried) and the idea of enslaving fellow Europeans was not entertained). Racism (the pseudo-scientific and social belief that Africans were inferior humans) was utilized to justify slavery in light of what seemed to be a contradiction of the American claim of the freedom and equality for all (i.e. freedom and equality did not conflict with slavery because these enslaved people were not really equal and could not actually handle freedom). The social and psychological benefits of racism split the poor white workers from the enslaved black workers, ensuring that both groups would never unite and rebel against the economic elites. Racist ideology therefore did double duty in justifying the institution of slavery and in creating distance between poor white works and enslaved black workers who material lives were almost indistinguishable (classic move to divide and conquer the working class by the economic elites…something that is happening to this day, as we will see).

The economic needs of slavery created the psychological and social reality of “racism”. But the twist of history is that the “fiction” of racism as proved more durable than the “reality” of slavery, which did eventually come to an end in the US.

Jim Crow

After the Civil War Reconstruction came the KKK Redemption campaign (historical term for reclaiming the South for whites) that effectively instituted post-slavery racial inferiority for African Americans. Vagrancy laws forced recently freed slaves to work their masters again (basically it was a crime not to have a job every day), and petty crime such as “mischief” and “insulting gestures” were harshly enforced against African Americans.

During this time, political conservatives, liberals, and radical populists sought out poor white swing votes by pandering to racist fears (again effectively splitting the poor working class so as to keep poor whites and blacks in their place, but now convincing the poor white class to do the dirty work of race policing). As William Julius Wilson notes, “As long as poor whites directed their hatred and frustration against the black competitor, the planters were relieved of class hostility directed against them” (34) Again, those who would most benefit their own economic destinies by working together (poor whites/blacks) are split by racism, a perception of racial inferiority created to explain and sustain the economics of slavery.

And so Alexander says, “History seemed to repeat itself. Just as the white elite had successfully driven a wedge between poor whites and blacks following Bacon’s Rebellion [a multi-racial rebellion against the plantation elites in 1675] by creating the institution of black slavery, another racial caste system was emerging nearly two centuries later, in part due to the efforts by white elites to decimate a multiracial alliance of poor people” (34).

Mass Incarceration

After the Civil Rights Movement, overtly racist ideology could not be utilized within economic and political discourses to motivate policy. But this does not mean the sentiments disappeared from individuals nor that politicians stopped playing off racist fears for swing votes. Rather, through a linguistic mutation centering around the themes of law and order a new racist discourse developed: this was the “colorblind” emphasis on “crime” and “criminals”.

During the Civil Rights Movement political activists were cast as common criminals violating proper law and order. Segregation was cast as reasonable for sustaining law and order, a system now thrown into chaos.. Those opposed to the Civil Rights Movement attempted to criminalize those advocating for equal rights and equal access.

While the attempt to criminalize Civil Rights activists as a way of saving Jim Crow segregation ultimately failed, the focus only “law and order” by getting “tough on crime” became the blueprint for the next iteration of racial oppression.

In Congress and on the street, those who had previously cast a ballot for segregation (of housing, education, employment) would uniformly vote for strict crime policies that implicitly targeted black and brown populations.

Indeed, as has happened before, the poor white voter was split from the poor black voter under the guise of “getting tough on crime.” While conservative politicians are traditionally aligned with corporate interests and business elites, these conservative politicians could grab poor white votes by playing up racial violence and the need for getting tough on crime. A “colorblind” rhetoric aimed against crime (and those on welfare) was clearly understood to be directed at garnering white votes but impossible to prove as overly racist.

This “getting tough on crime” instituted through the “War on Drugs” (begun in the ‘80’s) is the reason the US incarcerates the highest percentage (by far) of its population of all countries, and why in the last 30 years our prison system has grown by 350%.

Once in place, “The system functioned relatively automatically, and the prevailing system of racial meanings, identities, and ideologies already seemed natural. Ninety percent of those admitted to prison for drug offenses in many states were black and Latino, yet the mass incarceration of communities of color was explained in race-neural terms, an adaptation to the needs and demands of the current political climate. The New Jim Crow was born” (58).

The actual mechanics of such a system of mass incarceration will be the themes of the next couple of chapters looking at the process of being arrested, the judicial process, and life after release.  These will be the themes of later posts.

ATV-prison-massWhat do you think?

In my last post I asked these questions:

  • Or, why does America have the largest incarceration rate of the “free world?
  • Why is that when people of all racial backgrounds use and sell illegals drugs at a similar rate, that people of color are disproportionately imprisoned for drug crimes?
  • Why does America imprison a larger percentage of its black population the South Africa did at the height of apartheid?

Do you have other answers than the one that Alexander is aiming at?

The poor you will always have with you.

jesus-whipping-bankers

For the poor you will always have with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish:
but you will not always have me. (Mark 14:7) 

From crude realism to hopeless resignation, this quote from Jesus is confusing at best and disheartening at worst.

What? So poverty and inequality are just a fact of life?  Things really aren’t going to change?  In Kingdom of God is really so ineffectual?

But Nicholas Perrin has helped me see a different perspective on this saying that revolutionized how I read it and how we should see the vocation of the church (in his excellent Jesus the Temple).

Counter-Temple Movement

Perrin understands Jesus and his movement as a “counter-temple movement”, and by counter-temple he doesn’t mean against the temple all together, but against the current sinful administration of the temple.  Jesus is against the temple as it is because it isn’t participating in and pointing toward the true eschatological temple to come (Ez. 37:26-27).  Jesus was seeking to establish a true and living temple centered on himself and his movement outside the jurisdiction of the current temple establishment (just think of the temple sayings and activities of Jesus and the temple imagery applied to the early church… I’ll post on this more latter).

In light of this, part of what it would mean to establish the true temple would be to instituted the jubilee practice of forgiving debts (Deut. 15:7-15; Lev. 25), an action that was supposed to be regulated by the priests through the temple treasury, which rarely, if ever, happened.

Jesus and his movement, through living with and as the poor, and as those who attempted to be a clearinghouse for the redistribution of wealth, was in fact functioning like the temple as it was supposed to.

“The Poor You Will Always Have With You”

So when Jesus says, “The poor you will always have with you” he isn’t making a broad social observation about the current and future state of the world, certainly not one based in crude realism (as if he were saying, “There just is and always will be poverty in the world.”)  Rather, he is naming part of the inherent calling and purpose of his movement: “You will always have the poor with you because you will be the place that poverty is being overcome through the alternative economy of grace as the new temple”. 

Jesus is really naming a vocation for the church, not a reality in the world.

The church will have the poor because part of being the church is being with the poor.  If the church is not with and among the poor it is in danger of encountering the prophetic critique of Jesus himself through his Spirit, the same critiques he directed toward the temple establishment of his time.

The Work is With

This could mean all sorts of things for a local congregation: working in homeless shelters, educational programs, debt relief, or other practices of living an alternative, Kingdom-economy.

But we must remember this vocation is not just for the poor, it is with the poor.  This is not a vocation from a distance, but a work that is with the people.

Is your local church with the poor in some tangible way that makes sense in your community? If not, then perhaps you are not being built into the temple of God’s dwelling, a place in which God dwells among the fatherless and the widow, the downtrodden and the poor.

The Forgotten Lesson of Bonhoeffer, and the American Church

I am worried about the rising popularity of Bonhoeffer in the United States.

Very worried.

I’m worried not because of his theology, or his political views, or his activism.

I’m worried because so many people are interested in him…so many different people.

Some people laud him for his non-violent pacifism, and other for his violent attempt at activism. Some laud him for his commitment to community, and others for his religion-less Christianity. Some laud him for his non-metaphysical theology, and others for his pastoral care. Some laud him from the far left, and others from the far right.

When this happens we have to dig deeper and ask, “Is there something we are missing here?”

The Forgotten Lesson of Bonhoeffer

We often think of Bonhoeffer as a hero of the church, but I think of him more as a cautionary tale.

The forgotten lesson of Bonhoeffer is not that we should all strive to be more like him, but that we should strive to be a church that wouldn’t need him!

article_images-3_8_Pastors_Does_the_American_Flag_Belong_in_Your_Church_766070041I worry that people will either look for the next Bonheoffer or try to be the next Bonhoeffer in some heroic protest, rather than entering the more humble protests of daily life. I worry that people will think that large gestures of protest are the way to change the world, rather than entering on the difficult daily path of ordinary resistance.

You see, Bonhoeffer had to be Bonhoeffer because the national church in Germany failed to be the church at all.

This is the forgotten lesson of Bonhoeffer: The Church in Germany had failed!

Headed toward Failure?

So I’m worried that everyone interested in Bonheoffer might not be learning the real lesson: that we in America might be the type of church that, in a time of crisis, will capitulate to preserving the American Dream rather than living as a Kingdom Reality.

During this 4th of July weekend, are we Christians in America more American than Christian? How would we know? Does that distinction even makes sense? And if it doesn’t, then I worry that we have turned to Bonhoeffer into an inspirational story rather than a cautionary tale.

Let us not make Bonhoeffer merely into a Christian Celebrity…

Mastering Objectivity? Or Subject to the Bible

Tim Challies ended a recent post criticizing the practice of Lectio Divina by saying, “This, then, is a danger in Lectio Divina, that it may teach us to approach the text subjectively rather than objectively.”

But what is the big deal about reading the text subjectively as opposed to objectively?

man-inserting-memory-card-in-brain3 Subjects of Scripture

It is a typical concern of those defending expository or expositional preaching that they are seeking “objectivity” in their study as opposed to others who are succumbing mere “subjectivity”, but beyond the concern that such a simple opposition is wildly naïve philosophically and practically, this dichotomy often does the reverse of what it hopes to do (secure the authority of scripture from human manipulation).  

To understand this we need to remember the three ‘subjects’ of Scripture.

1) The subject matter = the text of Scripture.  This is the written word which is often equated with the “Word of God” without further reflection.

2) The subject (as person) = God who spoke and speaks through the text.

The true subject of Scripture, toward which our study ought always to lead, is God, who in Christ through the Spirit, is making all things right.

We read the first (subject matter = Scripture) so that we can encounter, know, and experience, the second (subject/person = God).

And all this leads to the third subject:

3) The subject = the reader, who is made subject, or is subjected to, or subjugated by, the text to God so that as to become slaves to God rather than to our own passions, desires, and deaths.

I believe those advocating for the ‘objectivity’ in study and preaching desire that we would be slaves of the text, and God, rather than masters of the text, but through this opposition of objectivity and subjectivity, which all to often relies on faulty philosophical assumptions, this perspective ends up becoming masters of the text rather than slaves of it.

“Although I wouldn’t have known how to talk about it then, slowly but surely the Scriptures were becoming a place of human striving and intellectual hard work. Somehow, I had fallen into a pattern of using the Scriptures as a tool to accomplish utilitarian purposes rather than experiencing them primarily as a place of intimacy with God for my own soul’s sake.” Ruth Haley Barton, Sacred Rhythms

So perhaps we should stop striving for a mythical “objectivity” through which God will speak to us, and instead embrace all the processes which we might become “subject” to the text, especially the meditative practices that lead to our own subjective un-mastery of God.  Indeed, this is to understand Scripture within the God’s power to save rather than just God’s information to teach.

And tomorrow, on the Missio Alliance Blog, I’ll be posting about why I’m “Against Revelation” because it obscures the power of God behind the desire to know stuff about God. Stay tuned.

And see Mark Moore’s great response to Challies in his “Is Lectio Divina Really Dangerous?

More Than Splitting the Difference: Missio Dei (a)

CHT174193

So often we want to jump right into joining God’s mission because we feel we already know what God’s mission is.  But before even asking, “What is God’s mission?” we need to ask, “Who is this God on mission?” and “How does God go about this mission?”

Is God distant? Is God everywhere? These are the questions for us in this third video of our “More than Splitting the Difference” series as we explore why it is so hard to push beyond this right-left polarity and a “best of both worlds” approach. The hope is to offer a more than “third way” for mission among evangelicals and beyond (and check out Prodigal Christianity for a bit more on what I’m talking about here).

To keep the videos short I split this one up, with the second part coming on Monday (although something happened to speed up the first 10 seconds. Sorry).

And please consider subscribing to the post on the right, or following me on these other streams.

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