Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The Most Unlikely Story

Here we are, acutely self-aware creatures, standing around in a world that takes our breath away, wondering how we got here and why. The very fact that we ask the question says something important-perhaps, if we are conscious persons able to philosophize about our own existence, that existence was more than an accident. Isn't the very possibility worth a lifetime of exploration?

And so explore we did. Humanity ended up with a million gods and a thousand codes of ethics. We produced Socrates and Confucius and Buddha. And in the midst of the divine milieu arose a strange tribe who had no idols to bow down to. These children of Abraham insisted the creator of the cosmos spoke to them and made them promises, which they recorded generation after generation. Rather than one ancient myth, this tribe continued to produce an unfolding history of this personal creator's miracles and promises. They looked ahead to a day when a King would come, a King to restore them and reveal God's favor, who would atone for sin and bring freedom. And, quite audaciously, they claimed their King, once revealed, would turn out to be King of all the nations of the world. In a world of inter-changeable deities (Alexander sacrificing to Egyptian Amon, Romans calling Zeus Jupiter, etc.) this story of one God who would someday claim all the world as his people was nothing if not unique.

But how could such a thing ever happen? Can we really imagine people from foreign nations all around the world claiming the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as their own? Why would pagans bow to a Jewish Messiah? What would make the distant coastlands long for his instruction?

Yet, somehow, it happened. Today hundreds of millions all over the earth worship the God of Abraham. Members of a thousand languages name the "son of David" their King. The world's most unlikely story has, and continues to, come to pass.

And it all hinged on a moment in history, when a small group of forgotten, occupied people realized that God's King had been revealed.

John says it like this:

"We proclaim to you the one who existed from the beginning, whom we have heard and seen. We saw him with our own eyes and touched him with our own hands. He is the Word of Life. This one who is life itself was revealed to us, and we have seen him. And now we testify and proclaim to you that he is the one who is eternal life."

And Paul says it like this:

"He was revealed in a human body
and vindicated by the Spirit
He was seen by angels
and announced to the nations.
He was believed in throughout the world
and taken into heaven in glory."

Humanity once stumbled in the darkness, reaching for the meaning of existence. We longed for God, but how could we really know him? How could the unfathomable, the very one who brought all things in to being, every truly be known by us? But now curtain has been opened, and we see him. We see him love, we see him suffer, we see him rise. And we see him call to the nations- "Come walk with me."

Paul sums up this most unlikely story, the human story even now unfolding, like this:
"From one man he created all the nations throughout the whole earth. He decided beforehand when they should rise and fall, and he determined their boundaries. His purpose was for nations to seek after God and perhaps feel their way towards him and find him...God overlooked people's ignorance in earlier times, but now he commands everyone to repent from their sins and turn to him. For he has set a day for judging the world with justice by the man he has appointed, and he proved it to everyone who this is by raising him from the dead."

No more darkness; the King has been revealed. All may come to him, be made new in him, and take their place in the unlikely story.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

In the Face of Evil

Atrocities like the one that happened this week on the beaches of Libya (or the countless events like it that regularly fill the headlines) provoke deep instincts within us. We are disturbed, disgusted, and angry. We are fearful and nervous about the future. Inevitably, these events trigger our fight or flight mechanism: we either want to escape the deep darkness of our world, or we want to go to war with it. 
Fear, disgust and anger are natural reactions to 21 people getting beheaded on account of their religion, and we'd be numb (or perhaps sociopathic) to feel otherwise. 

But those emotions, and the escape and conflict they will ultimately inspire us towards, are ones that a follower of Christ is not at liberty to harbor. Feel them we must, but we have to, in the end, land somewhere completely different. 

God loves our world. He loves it with its extremism and its violence. He loves it with its abuse and addiction. He loves it with all its pettiness and arrogance and hate. The world that Christ plunged into, the world he let crucify him, is the very world we live in today. He still loves it, atrocities and all.

And a condition Christ puts upon his would-be disciples is that we must take that yoke of love upon ourselves. Sometimes we create mindsets and theologies that act as if Jesus suffered in the world so that we can take it easy. Our job is to put our faith in him, kick our feet up, and coast into heaven. I can imagine why one might try to arrive at such a worldview, but we have to be honest, open our eyes, and admit that this mentality has no connection to the Kingdom Jesus (or any of the apostles) declared. 

Jesus made it quite clear: He loves the world. This love is not passive- it is radical and all-forgiving. It moved him from heaven into earth, drove him to dive into the lives of broken people, propelled him to the cross. 

Then the says "as the Father sent me, I now send you." "If you would come with me, take up your own cross and follow in my footsteps." "Love, just in the same way I have loved you." "No student is better than his teacher, if they did this to me, they will surely treat you the same way."

We who would claim we follow him must walk as he did. No room for hate. No room for fear. No room for anger. We cannot escape evil, nor are we to oppose it violently. We are to display to this world the reality of a crucified Jesus, a King of self-sacrificing love. 

Is such a thing even possible? Well, as Jesus once answered the disciples, "In human terms of course not, but with God all things are possible." If we are willing, God will transform us. If we confess our need to change our minds and repent, he will meet us. 

Christ commanded the early disciples to go into all the nations, to love and forgive and disciple the very enemies who wanted to kill them. The disciples, frail emotional types like you and I, were incapable of such a feat. Yet they gathered, and prayed, and asked God to change them. And God filled them with power from heaven-power that propelled them with love into a dark, cruel world. And of course, they subsequently turned that world upside-down. 

In the face of beheadings and crucifixions, wars and famines, riots and protests, we must repent of our instincts to fight or flee. We must get on our knees and cry out to our crucified and risen Jesus: "fill me with the power to love like you do." 

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

A Whole New World

The brokenness of our world is always a challenge that sits before the person of faith. Even the philosophers of ancient Greece wrestled with how their ethics aligned them with a world of struggle, dysfunction and suffering. The question is even more demanding to those who hold a belief in a personal, all-powerful god. In general, we tend to see two major ways people envision their spirituality relating to the surrounding world.

The first is conflict. Through this lens, the believer is driven by the conviction that God's ways are to imposed on a rebellious planet. The evils of society are to be confronted directly. In its most dramatic forms, you end up with all types of theocratic totalitarianism, ranging from the inquisition to Saudi Arabia. In its more democratic forms, you get political campaigns and zealous drives to legislate evil into a corner.

The second approach is escape. The world is evil, true, and therefore distracting. It keeps you from having the type of pure spirituality that you feel a pure God would want for you. Stepping into the world's mess introduces all types of difficult ethical dilemmas, and it's much cleaner just to stay out of the ring. This we see clearly in those who would establish various types of monasteries or communes on the outskirts of society, communities ranging from the Essenes of the ancient world to the hippies of recent times. Yet the approach is equally present in those who would call their spirituality a merely private affair- who would withdraw not to the edge of the city but behind the closed walls of their inner sanctum.

Both of these approaches, conflict and escape, ultimately do nothing for the world (if not make it much worse). And neither of them look anything like Jesus and what God was clearly up to in the world through him.

Jesus challenged the world, certainly (the religious world most pointedly). But challenging the world and its brokenness was not his mission. He in fact said that he came not as judge, but as rescuer (John 3:17). He sought no political power by which to enforce his values on society from a position of governmental authority (he refused any such position when the people wanted to make him king). He condemned the violent resistance of his followers against their enemies. He did clean the merchants out of the temple as a prophetic act, but this event stands out precisely because it was an exception-Jesus did not advance his Kingdom by conflict and the pursuit of power.

And who could accuse him of modeling some form of escape? Sure, he withdrew for times to pray and fast, but even then he let the needs of the crowds draw him back into engagement. The hands of Christ were deep in the mud and blood of the human condition. Compassion moved him into one town after another, into one broken life after another. Escape was not an option on the table.

So what was Christ's orientation to the broken world?

"The Kingdom of God is like a little leaven, which the baker took and worked into the flour until it permeated all of the dough." Matthew 13:33

Jesus neither escaped the world nor created a conflict with it. He just started a new world right in the middle of the old one. This new world, this new Kingdom, this new way to be a human being, would then, as it rubbed shoulders with the world we know, transform and renew it.

Imagine a world full of human beings dominated by fear and anger. Who when wronged return an eye for an eye. Who seek power and control. In the midst of that world (our world, we of course recognize) Jesus declares a perfect love that casts out fear, that overflows from within us towards even our enemies, that drives us not to rule, but to serve. Unlikely, is it not? Yet history would bear out that it happened.

The early Christ followers did what they were told: they transformed society by creating an entirely new type of world right in the middle of the old one. In the midst of a hierarchical pagan society, they reoriented as a new family: a family in which old and young, man and woman, slave and free, Jew and Greek, were united in Christ their King. No weapons necessary. No drive to escape the evil Roman Empire. No political campaigns or power plays. Just a little kingdom leaven working its way through Caesar's domain. The result-the transformation of the Roman Empire, culminating with Constantine bowing to King Jesus a few hundred years down the road.

But it didn't come cheap. In many cases their love cost them their lives, along with jobs, family members, and reputations. It cost them financially, as they gave to whoever was in need. In cost them pride, as they accepted as brothers and sisters those they previously looked down upon. Heaven on Earth, the great prayer of Jesus, always comes at the cost of the cross.

And that is probably why we see it so rarely today. To be frank, conflict and escape are easier. A spirituality that finds it's mission at the ballot box, or in the quiet security of the garden with an open book of theology, is much easier to swallow than one marked by an uncompromising love for the broken world. It just has little to do with following Jesus.

So let us take up our cross and follow him. Let us dive into the heart of the brokenness around us and start a new world, a new story, right in the midst of it. Oh certainly there will be a measure of death involved; we must expect it. But there will be a great deal of resurrection as well.

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

The Problem

Call it the problem of evil, the problem of pain, or the problem of suffering. It constitutes the most common argument against the existence of God, the number one reason cited why we should not believe in an omnipotent creator. It is not a new argument, not some recent realization finally articulated. It has always existed, and the problem of evil is one thoughtful believers have always wrestled with. The Psalms are full of such wrestling, the book of Job is a tribute to it. And though the argument is not a new one, it is always being rearticulated, and whenever it is it creates a storm of cyclical debate with it.

I understand the problem. I have to wrestle with it myself. I get why it lies at the center of mankind's rejection of God. But there is something in the argument that I think is deceptive, something often overlooked. It is that thing I want to expose, before offering a response to the argument.

The problem of evil goes something like this: Premise 1: An omnipotent creator is capable of creating  a world free of pain, suffering and evil. Premise 2: A good creator would of course want to create such a world. Premise 3: We live in a world that is obviously plagued with suffering, therefore there is either 1) no creator, or 2) he is not omnipotent, or 3) he is not good.

I readily accept premises 1 and 3. 2, however, is a bit more complicated. Might it not be the case that the existence of some form of pain, evil or suffering might be allowed by God to create the opportunity for some higher good that only the existence of those negative things makes possible? Might there be something even loftier, like redemption, or victory, that is only possible with the existence of ideas like ruin and defeat?

You might not agree- you might say permitting the existence of pain or evil is not worth it. My question though- is it not philosophically possible to imagine that certain goods only exist because of the presence of certain evils? My answer is that yes, certainly that is a logically coherent possibility.

But, you might say, our world has too much pain, too much suffering, and much of it does not fit into the nice box of what we might call redemptive suffering. I would answer that though I sympathize with the argument, it is an emotional one, not a truly logical one. If we accept the premise that some measure of suffering and evil might be necessary to create the opportunity for the highest good, how do we think can determine how much suffering is too much? How might we even begin to judge such a thing?

The true answer would be "because it feels like too much suffering to me." And as I said before, I get that. The issue is that it's just not a philosophical argument, it's an emotional reaction to how we see the world, from our limited human perspective. Let us call it what it is, and dispense with the notion that it is some sort of philosophical disproof of God's existence.

However I do readily admit that, even if it is an emotional, rather than philosophical, stumbling block to faith, it is a very real one nonetheless. So how does the Bible deal with it?

To live a life of faith is to embrace a level of mystery. This is a distinctive feature of faith. Those who would make the spiritual walk one of easy answers and iron-clad certainities are typically in the most danger of putting God into a cage, and themselves and those around them along with him. I will not pretend the Bible lays out a strong, clear explanation of why there exists the measure of suffering that we see around us. It does, however, tell us much about God's character, and where he is in the midst of human suffering.

As with many aspects of the human experience, it comes to a head in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Here we have Christ, God's appointed King, the word of God in human flesh, stepping into our bloody and broken story. He is by no means aloof to suffering. He doesn't offer clean philosophies to help sanitize human pain. He instead is moved with compassion. He weeps with the mourners of Lazarus. He touches the lepers, embraces the outcasts. He sweats blood in Gethsemane, surrenders peacefully to accusers, and proceeds to be beaten to a a pulp. He submits to the cross, the height of everything evil in his day.

In Christ we see a God who is fully compassionate towards our suffering, to an extent that he would join us in it. And then, three days later, he steps out of his grave. If the crucified Christ is God's declaration that "pain is real, and I am alongside you in the midst of it," then the risen Christ proclaims, "but evil will not last forever."

From a different perspective, the Bible would tell us that it is a part of our rebellious nature to accuse God of not being good. Satan, after all, means "the accuser." He is the one who would accuse God before humanity, and accuse humanity before themselves. And yet the point of the cross and the resurrection is that in the end, when we all see God for who he is, we would confess that he is in fact "righteous"- innocent and good in all he is and all he does.

I don't expect the above paragraphs will convince the skeptic. Faith, in the end, is much like love. The perspective of the person in love is vastly different than the perspective of the onlooker who sees two people fawning over each other shamelessly. Christ as God's answer to pain is nonsense to one oustide looking in, but for others, well, it is not merely a philosophical answer that seeks to explain everything, but something much deeper, something far more beautiful and mysterious than that.