God and the Global Outbreak

Pandemic. It’s not really a bad word. Literally, it means “all people.” In other words, it is a global outbreak. So, for example, if there were a pandemic of grace rather than disease, that would be right down our alley.

 
Humans have already survived the Black Death of 1347, the Bubonic Plague of 1665, the Spanish Flu of 1918, and countless others. Today we are talking about COVID-19. It is unfortunate and inconvenient and many of us have probably used some other words to describe it. But we can’t pretend it is not affecting us.

 
During the current crisis I can’t help but be reminded that God has worked during multiple times of trial and crisis. I propose the old texts found in the Bible as a valuable resource during these times we are unable to meet with larger groups of believers. Both Old Testament texts written for people in exile and New Testament texts written for dispersed congregations provide words that strengthen us for the unknown. As in those instances, it is God who will provide the necessary faith and hope needed to get through this global crisis.

Reframing the Grind: A Conversation About Thriving

First, a disclaimer. I am no expert on thriving in the grind of ministry. I am not sure such an expert exists. I would offer this, if someone claims to be an expert – run the other way. We would do better with less perceived experts and more companions for the journey. I am just a companion, an ally among allies who desires to see us all participate faithfully in the plan of God. Since I’m not an expert, let’s consider this a conversation starter. And as conversations tend to do, we may travel through several topics in the course of our time together. This conversation will be some sort of a cross between Biblical Theology, Eco-Systemic Theory, and Alice in Wonderland.

I hope this time together stimulates our thinking about how we approach ministry. I hope the churches represented become healthier due to our time together. I hope we are able to reframe our situations in ways that help us to see what God is up to.

We would like a formula for thriving in the grind. But, we’re realists here. We know there is no such thing. What we are able to do is explore some things to increase the likelihood of thriving.

  • We are more likely to thrive when we remember we are not the author of the mission; we are participants in God’s mission.
  • We are more likely to thrive when we are able to see ourselves as part of a story with a plot.
  • We are more likely to thrive when we realize we are not solo agents.
  • We are more likely to thrive when we understand that even our seemingly small decisions and behaviors influence the witness of the people of God.
  • We are more likely to thrive when we realize God has called the people we serve alongside of.
  • We are more likely to thrive when we realize crisis and complication can be opportunity and possibility.
  • We are more likely to thrive when we are not seeking for easy solutions.
  • We are more likely to thrive when we’re able to embrace the unknown in faith.

 

We serve between two competing realities. One of these leads to guys like Peter Drucker claiming that pastor is one of the four most difficult jobs in America. It can feel like endless meetings or balancing budgets or maintaining facilities. It can result in stress or feeling under appreciated. It can make things outside the church look much more interesting and profitable. This reality is in contrast with another reality. One that acknowledges we are joining in the plan of God in a Kingdom Mission. It can make things outside the church look like places of opportunity to make the gospel known.

Wendall Berry is a farmer and poet and philosopher. He has given us much to think about over the years. One of the things he gives us is this quote. “to speak of the health of an isolated individual is a contradiction in terms.” He is right. Life is more complicated than what one individual brings to it. Things will get more complex if you even add a cell phone or a Visa or fantasy football or Xbox, if you start adding people in your life, things will complicate fast. Yet, our reality is – we belong to a people, there is no way to avoid the complication. To talk about healthy individuals in the church is as strange as if we talked about having a healthy elbow, or one good eye, or healthy tendons while the rest of the body is breaking down.

In Systems Theory it is common to explore what is known as the negative interaction cycle. In a family, it will show itself. It can’t be covered up. A good systems therapist will not be looking to heal the diagnosed member of the family, but instead trying to convince the family that the whole system needs to be treated. So, a family of four comes into a session; mom and dad, brother and sister. The family is reporting all the problems brother has been having at home and now it is trickling into school and his best friend doesn’t even come around anymore. Meanwhile the therapist is watching what is happening in the room. And brother has pinched sister who is trying not to cry but is looking at mom who is trying not to be embarrassed but is looking at dad who is frustrated it always happens this way and he shames brother and proclaims “this is why we are here, help him please.”

A good systems therapist knows that if this family is given permission to think that brother is the problem then this family will fail. The system needs work or else dad will begin to isolate himself from these issues by staying longer at the office and mom will be attracted to some guy who has more executive function and brother will continue to communicate through his behavior that things at home are not good while sister will develop some disorder while trying to please them all. The fact is, brother probably pinched sister in front of the therapist hoping that the therapist would see the interaction cycle and be able to help. Here is something you don’t hear enough, pay attention to the troublemakers, they may be trying to help.

Here is some news, neither good nor bad. Churches also have negative interaction cycles. Sometimes verbal, sometimes actions… but the church is full of communication (and know this, all behavior is communication). On the other hand, we know we are involved in a Kingdom Mission. We are envoys of the King. We participate in forays and rendezvous into the world to spread Kingdom Mission. When honest we admit it is literally the greatest adventure possible. On the surface this sounds like exciting work, it sounds like something that would make a great story or even a movie. Yet, somewhere along the way this Kingdom Mission begins to feel like something else. It feels like a chore. It gets complicated. It feels like we are caught in a grind. To be a minister of the gospel is to be caught between two competing realities.

The good news is, even though churches come with complicated personalities and negative interaction cycles. Even when we see confusion and isolation and impossibility – God sees these things as opportunities for the Kingdom Mission.

This mission is real. It is not new. It’s been around for a while. Let us read an old text that reminds us a plan is in play.

Genesis 12.1-3… this Abraham story is one of our most important stories and without it the rest of the Bible would not make the same sense, yet we often look past it. This is the story that reminds us we are part of a long history of a people chosen from the world and for the world. As it turns out, God’s plan is a group project.

This becomes really important. There is a big difference between believing something and living in the narrative of the people of God. God did not make a people and say “that was fun, I better find something for those people to do.” No, God had a mission… and God made a people to do that mission. You and I will thrive when we remember that we have been born into the greatest of stories.

Everything that happens after Genesis 12 is in context with this text. We sometimes read about Abraham like he is a solo agent who will one day hand off to a solo agent. Probably because we convince ourselves we can manage things easier when we work solo.

But the idea of working solo is not part of the story. Before we know it, Sarah is playing a bigger part. She is barren, then she’s not. Then she has a baby. Things are getting more complicated and she hasn’t even got a cell phone or a visa yet. The story is becoming complex and there are sixty-five and ½ books left.

A girl named Alice went into a rabbit hole after a white rabbit with a waist coat and pocket watch and experienced an adventure she never imagined.  Yet another day, it was a rainy day, Lucy Pevensie stepped into a wardrobe during a game of hide and seek with her brothers and sister and became a vital part of a great adventure.  Another day Sam asks Frodo, “I wonder what sort of tale we’ve fallen into?”  We would do well to be asking ourselves that question.

I mention these stories because the characters were not looking for an adventure, they just found themselves in one.  I propose that life is like this.  We all find ourselves in a story that is not of our choosing.  We do not go out seeking such cosmic drama.  We do not know how we get tangled into the story that carries meaning for eternity.  We just find ourselves in it.

One April day a baby boy was born.  When his grandfather first saw him, he remarked “he is the ugliest baby I’ve ever seen.”  I did not choose to enter the world like this; it is just the way it happened.  I have never been asked to carry a ring to Mordor or had to battle a Jabberwocky or the White Witch. But I have landed in a story that is more grand than any I could have ever imagined. I suspect that my most difficult times are when I forget that I play a role in that story. Likewise, I suspect I thrive during the times I remember that.

It is the dilemma of being human and being called into the story of God. When honest, we know that ever since Abraham, the people who are called to provide the solution are part of the problem.

The Genesis text reveals something to us. God is up to something. In the midst of barrenness and other struggles to thrive God is up to something. God is calling a people. God is shaping the church to be someone that shows the world what Jesus is like. The world God so loved… this is God’s plan. We are part of a people.

The world is a place that thrives on division and power and control. It would be easy to blame the world. It would be easy to think things are beyond redemption, but ministry becomes more difficult if we think like that. When I remember that God has a plan to redeem even the worst of situations, ministry has opportunity to thrive.

When we resort to blaming and believing that things are beyond redemption, we are like the family we mentioned earlier. It is easy to forget that God is interested in the health of the whole system.

 

The book of Job introduces us to a day when the sons of God, Satan among them, presented themselves before the Lord. I sometimes wonder about those days. I wonder if on one of those days the Lord asked Satan, “Where have you come from?” And Satan would reply “From roaming about on the earth and walking around on it.”

And then Satan would continue, “I know that you desire humans be your image bearers, your representatives on earth. But the human experiment has been a disaster. They disappoint at every turn. Do you remember what happened in Eden? Have you forgotten the corruption of the days of Noah? Must I remind you what they were doing at Babel? Perhaps it is time to acknowledge that humans will never become the representatives you had hoped for.”

And the Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered the human Abraham? I have selected him to leave his home. His descendants will be many and his reputation will bring me glory. The whole earth will be influenced by this plan.”

Then Satan answered the Lord, “Have you considered his age? Have you considered he is childless and his wife is barren?” Then the Lord said to Satan, “Behold, watch this plan change the world.”

Before I knew anything about God’s plan to save the world, Mom and Dad started to take me to church. We talked about God in some ways that made God sound omnipresent, but indirectly we were taught that God resided at the altar. This was the place to find Him and the primary place we could go to talk to Him. But we also believed that God could be found in revival meetings, camp meetings, and preachers. And the louder the preacher was and the more the preacher chastised the listener, the more of God they seemed to have.

We also were taught where God could not be found. God could not be found in bowling alleys, skating rinks, movie theaters, or places where dancing was permitted. God could not be found around cigarettes or beer or people who cuss. It improved the odds of having an encounter with God if we only stayed away from the wrong places and the wrong people. Even other church groups were not as holy as we were and we had doubts they would even be in heaven. This influenced the way we prayed. It became essential to pray for others; after all we wanted them to become part of the right church.

So there I was at church. And I was singing… “I’ve got a tiger by the tail it’s plain to see; I won’t be much when you get thru’ with me. Well, I’m a losing weight and a turnin’ mighty pale. Looks like I’ve Got A Tiger By The Tail.…” Not gonna find that in a hymnal. Not the lyric you might expect to hear in Sunday School. But there I was in front of the class belting out the lyrics. The way the story was told to me, the teacher asked if anyone in the class had a special song they wished to sing. While older me can’t imagine myself agreeing to sing in public, apparently five-year-old me thought it was a good idea. Buck Owens would have been proud. My parents – not so much.

Soon we were attending a new church. As far as I know that wasn’t related to my song.  But from early on I was part of a community called church. I had no idea what that meant at the time. I had no idea how belonging to church would shape me or where it would take me.

But in this community called church I started to learn things. They had a book there called the Bible. It invites us into a story. I have become a big fan. Sometimes I explore this literature alone. This can be enjoyable and a reasonably helpful exercise. This allows me to move at my own pace. I can reread parts that I like best. I can turn the page if the reading becomes too uncomfortable.

Yet, the Bible is intended to be relational. It is written for a group. It is best explored in community. It is to be read in twos and threes and even larger gatherings. And the Bible makes it clear that one does not join this kingdom mission in order to stay out of trouble. The journey will take you to slave camp, through deep water, into the wilderness, and onto a battlefield with giants. The narrative explicitly calls us to follow one who was sentenced to execution. If safety is what you desire, if easy is what you are interested in, this journey makes no promises.

The Bible had invited me into its story. After hearing how a nation of slaves had been rescued and how a young shepherd had taken down a giant with a rock and how three young Hebrews had survived a fiery furnace, I knew that these were the kind of stories I wanted in on. (When my ancestory.com came back I was sure I was going to be related to these people. I was disappointed that David nor John the Baptist showed up in my family tree). And I remember as a youth wondering when we were going to stop talking about cigarettes and cussing and start getting into the good stuff. When do we get to fight the giants or overnight with lions? When do we get to toss someone over the boat to get swallowed by a fish? But then I looked around the room and I highly doubted that these were the kind of people who could do these things.

Go ahead, next Sunday morning. have a look around the room. You may decide you would’ve have picked someone else for this task. For that matter, look around the room here, in your wildest dreams would you have thought this would be the people chosen to lead the way in the Kingdom Mission? Because that is exactly what God is thinking. Go ahead… take a look this is the group God has called to serve in the WCD of the CCCU. We belong to a long history of people called to put the plan of God into action.

That reminds me, I have been spending time at the compost bin. Confession… I have compost issues. (I love compost). I freeze kitchen scraps until I can dump them into the compost bin. I don’t drink coffee but I frequent coffee shops so I can collect used coffee grounds. I rake leaves from the woods into the yard so I can add them to the compost.

Compost is amazing stuff. Adding it into the garden feeds plants, holds moisture, fights disease. I have been making compost all winter and have big plans for it this spring. But compost doesn’t start out so amazing. It starts as onion peels, celery butts, potato skins, the tops of tomatoes, the inside of peppers pieces of newspapers clumps of hair, feathers, eggshells, grass clippings, coffee grounds. The list goes on. It starts out kind of slimy, kind of smelly.

As I turn the pile, I occasionally recognize some of the individual scraps but the contents are being transformed into an entirely new material. They may not seem like much before they become a part of this collection. But together, this stuff is something. Turning the pile permits air to enter and allows the pile to breathe.  Turning it into the garden helps to hold moisture, fight disease and feed plants that will feed us.

I am turning the compost and can’t help but think about the church. I can’t help but think that individuals who become part of this gathering are no longer what they used to be. I can’t help but think of how God is turning this group into something new. I can’t help but think of the big plans God has for this group together as a source of blessing and hope for the earth.

Yes, we look around and we might not see the church we dream of. Individually we are a broken, wounded, divided, spent, used, messed up group of scraps. But together our individual-ness, even our natural abilities and inabilities, takes a backseat. We may not look like much as individuals, but together we are God’s plan in action. Gathered and turned by the Spirit, we bring new hope to the world.

Have you read The Fellowship of the Ring recently? You can’t help but think about the impossible odds against the company sent out to destroy the ring and defeat the evil Sauron. Yet, the task must be done and it appears the wrong team has been chosen to do it. Tolkien leads us on an interesting adventure. As necessary as this adventure may be, success does not seem likely when we look at a company that consists of a dwarf, an elf, a wizard, two humans and four hobbits. The task is great, the company appears small.

Go ahead and look around the room on a Sunday morning… you might think you’re in over your head. God keeps calling people to the Kingdom Mission who seem less than capable to accomplish the task. Things are more difficult for my ministry when I forget what God has planned for these people. Ministry becomes more difficult when I start to think I know what these people are capable of. When I remember that these are the people God has called to the Kingdom Mission – ministry tends to thrive.

You have heard this before, but we need to say it again. We did not design the mission. This is not our plan. Our ministry is to join with Jesus in his ongoing ministry as he offers himself to others through us. When we fail to understand ministry as union in Christ all things are cast back on us. What can we say about a ministry that becomes dependent on our skills? It is a guarantee we will lose our witness and probably any joy that comes with serving. It should be our prayer that we become a vehicle, not a barrier, so we might become accomplices in the ministry of Christ. We simply want to piggyback onto the ministry of Jesus as the ministers of Christ.

When we forget this is his ministry – we will struggle. On the other hand, when ministry is thriving, it is because we are getting in on His plan.

One of the beauties of working with Jesus is the company of God. God does not work alone. God works as a fellowship. We are introduced to God as a Trinity.

Trinity is not just systematic theology. Trinity is the fellowship of Father, Son, and Spirit. God is in relationship. To participate in mission is to participate in the fellowship and activity of the Trinity. God is love because Father, Son, and Spirit are in relationship. Trinity is God in community.

And this God loves to get in on difficult moments. This God loves to get in on the complications of life. This God wants to move into the grind of ministry. We know this because this God has always spent a lot of time in a place called impossible. What do we see when runaway slaves are caught between Pharaoh’s army and the Red Sea? Not the same thing that God sees. Can three Hebrews walk into and out of a fiery furnace without a scratch? God likes those odds. Can the blind see? Lame walk? Can lepers be cleansed? Can someone be raised from the dead?

Just saying, the God I once thought resided only at the altar has been busy in a lot of different places. God is active in the Kingdom Mission. God is active in the grind of ministry. God loves to get in on difficult moments and redeem them. And this God has chosen to partner with us. No wonder Romans asks the question… “who can be against us?”

We are God’s chosen. Yet, we have not pulled this off perfectly. We swing back and forth between two realities. Still, God has not lost confidence in this plan to love the world through a people.

That is why it is important for us to keep getting together. Our gatherings are not just rituals on a check list. Not just necessary so church staff can earn paychecks. These gatherings have cosmic implications. As God told Satan in our fictitious conversation about Abraham, “’watch this plan change the world.” God gathers these groups together to show the world the ways of God. The church is God’s show and tell.

We gather because the world needs to see there are people who look out for one another when things are good and when things are not. The world needs to see there is something out there stronger than the common divisive rhetoric and behavior. The world needs to see that when Jesus enters a group, something interesting and flavorful starts to happen. We keep getting together so the world might become curious about this plan of God’s to work with a people. God wants the world to know that it is possible to thrive during complicated times. God wants us to thrive in the grind of ministry.

Politics and Theology

Recently, Wayne Grudem became news when he responded to an editorial that supported the removal of the president from office. In his disagreement, he wrote a response which resulted in my discovery of his book Politics According to the Bible: A Comprehensive Resource for Understanding Modern Political Issues in Light of Scripture. I don’t know why I wasn’t aware of this massive book (601 pages) before now, but it definitely sheds light on Grudem’s interest in making his opinion known.

Grudem writes as a systematic theologian. It may be that systematic theologians can’t help themselves. They cannot help but systematize and categorize and organize everything into tidy compartments. After all, such thinking gives clarity to complicated issues. I suspect that Grudem sees this book as a “theology of political thought in America.” Others might consider it propaganda for an American political party. I am left wondering if there is anything wrong with encouraging a reading of the biblical metanarrative in ways that influence our thinking about all matters (including politics). Maybe a new hermeneutics text is in order.

As we know all too well, it is quite easy to read our presuppositions into the text, it is quite another matter to read the text into our presuppositions. Though I suspect his motives are good and likely spurred on by moralism and ethical concerns, in the end Grudem seems to present a god in the image of a particular sector of American politics. I am just saying, whether that is your preferred sector or not, that is a small and temporary god. You may agree with many or all of Grudem’s conclusions yet feel uneasy about what is happening here.

Grudem appears content to do the thinking for the reader. You may never have to think for yourself again. If you are curious about what the biblical text says about nearly any public issue, all you have to do is consult Grudem’s massive volume for the answers. As with all attempts of talking overly systematic about God, this tames the deity and promotes a false confidence that we have this thing figured out. My friend Wayne (a different Wayne) would say this is disrespect toward a God who wired us for critical thinking.

This book runs the risk of replacing church with politics. Why go to church if the thought process is the same as CNN or Fox News or Facebook or Twitter? Why go to church if the preacher will simply be coughing up the same stuff you hear all week long?

A Cold, Dark Night in the Basement

Twenty-two of us gathered around a table in the basement last night to talk about Christmas. We also eat at these gatherings. We seem to take cues from those first century gatherings we read about in an old book we call Acts so when we get together we are often eating (I suspect some come for the eating). We weren’t quite talking about Christmas, but about Advent. One has to go through Advent in order to get to Christmas. We are preparing. We are waiting. We are getting ready. In a way, I suspect we are like shepherds tending sheep in the fields or like Magi traveling from the east.

 
Our conversation actually included a prophet for hire and a donkey who talked. These are great stories but it was the words of the hired prophet that stick out in a context for Advent. “I see him, but not now; I behold Him, but not near; A star shall come forth from Jacob, A scepter shall rise from Israel.”

 
I love these meetings. While I do not tend to like labels, we have had people who call themselves Congregationalists and Methodists and Lutherans and Pentecostals attend these meetings. What do you get when you put a group like this in the basement with a holiness preacher for the purpose of listening to old texts together? I think you get a great picture of church. Sometimes this text simply fascinates us. Sometimes it creates more questions than answers. Sometimes it challenges us in ways we did not expect. But we always benefit when we get together for the purpose to hear what it says.

 
It is our hope that our readings and discussions lead to things like belief and behavior and belonging. If they don’t, then why spend time in the basement on a cold, dark night anyway? We don’t want to be a people who just talk about things. We want these things to spill out onto the street and into the surrounding community. What happens at 212 N High Street, doesn’t stay at 212 N High Street.

One Opinion

The older I get the more I realize how opinionated I am becoming. I even form strong opinions about things that don’t matter much. One of these is about award shows. (Seriously, does anyone else think this is simply marketing disguised as entertainment)? I have friends who love them. I know people who throw parties on award show night. I am that guy sitting in the corner wondering when real entertainment will ever make a comeback. 

If there have to be award shows, why do we give so many? Let’s just give awards that matter. I think we can narrow it down to one award. One hit song will not get you mentioned. One great performance will not earn you a nomination. Let’s give the award to someone who has done it again and again. Someone who has given years of performance that shapes, influences, and entertains. I understand that no one would go for this idea, we can’t just give the awards to Betty White and Willie Nelson every year. 

I realize that some may think my opinions are a bit over the top. But I do struggle with the people that are put in front of us as people to admire and imitate. I can’t understand what makes the masses stand in line to be amused by trivial stuff that will be out of season next year. 

There are people to admire. There are people it would be worthwhile to imitate. But these people do not get invited to news shows, they don’t become internet sensations, they aren’t interviewed by journalists. No one gives out awards to people for their integrity or humility or their ability to do the right thing for a long time. 

On wiser days, we might check to see what the Bible says. As it turns out, the Bible is full of people who aren’t very heroic. Check the resumes of these people, they lie and cheat and commit adultery. It almost seems like the Bible does this on purpose. We don’t get a lot of people to admire. Instead, what we find in the Bible is a lot of God. When one of these people fall, God picks them up. We start to realize these stories aren’t about floods and giants and lions and big fish, these are stories about God. 

The Bible doesn’t want us to become roadies for some heroic spiritual superstars. The Bible doesn’t let us celebrate one good hit along the way or allow us to follow religious celebrities. Instead, we are encouraged for a long-haul journey with God.

The Story Isn’t Over

Readers of the Bible know the story isn’t over. The principalities and powers appear to have the upper hand. There are still dragons out there. A roaring lion still prowls about seeking whom he may devour. And a battle continues to be waged. A resistance group continues to infiltrate society. Maybe you belong to it. Maybe you know someone who does. Maybe you are thinking about joining. It might not look like it on the surface. But readers of the Bible know the resistance is winning.

Bio – Early Years

We lived in a rural setting saturated with Appalachian influence. Appalachia presents a great deal of cultural uniqueness and this includes its spirituality. We agreed with ideas about the omnipresence of God, but indirectly we were taught that God resided at the altar. This was the place to find Him and the primary place we could go to talk to Him. But we also believed that God could be found in revival meetings, camp meetings, and preachers. In our part of the world the louder the preacher and the more the preacher chastised the listener, the more of God they seemed to have.

We were also taught that God did not reside at bowling alleys, skating rinks, movie theaters, or places where dancing was permitted. It improved the odds of having an encounter with God if we only stayed away from the wrong places and the wrong people. Even other church groups were not as holy as we were and we had doubts they would even be in heaven. This influenced the way we prayed. It became essential to pray for others; after all we wanted them to become part of the right church.

The most significant impact on my spirituality during this time was my parents. They had become serious about their own spiritual lives and we were barraged with spiritual influence. We began attending church three times a week. We were frequent attenders of revival meetings. We listened to Christian programming on radio. We were encouraged to pray before bed, before our meals, and without ceasing. We were encouraged to memorize scripture. Somehow Mom and Dad were able to sort through the excess baggage and unnecessary furniture that came with much of Appalachian spirituality. Even more, they were able to point us in the direction to begin a journey with God.

Much of this was due to the high regard they gave to the word of God. The Bible was not just any book in our family. It was the book where we learned about direction and the place we learned about God’s will. I learned early that the Bible invites us into its story. I had discovered how a nation of slaves had been rescued. I had learned a young shepherd had taken down a giant with a rock. I had learned that three young Hebrews had survived a fiery furnace without a scratch. I discovered that a runaway prophet was swallowed by a big fish. These stories were eye opening for me. There were no doubts these were the kind of stories I wanted in on. I was convinced I was related to these people.

Our Story Began in a Garden

We are told the human story begins in a garden. We are told there were trees pleasing to the eye and they were good for food. We are told there was gold and aromatic resin and onyx. I imagine it to be a place where the wind blew the scent of lilac and lavender and honeysuckle. A place where fish and frogs and turtles splashed in its waters. I imagine laurel and ferns and other ground cover where canines and felines and bovines made paths as they made their way through.

I imagine it to be a place where these trees reached upward, deciduous and conifer, boasting seasonal bloom and color. Trees that became home to owls and woodpeckers and cardinals. I imagine the garden to be full of amphibians and birds and insects that joined as a great choir. I imagine sunny skies by day and shimmering night lights. I imagine brilliant colors on the horizon both evening and morning visible from strategic places in the garden. I imagine a dazzling creation display. While my imaginings are tainted by my local eco sphere, there is something we are told for certain. This is a place where God dwelt with his people.

When humans entered Genesis, we entered as stewards of creation. We also entered as representatives of God. Genesis not only tells us who we are, but what we are made for. We bear the image of God. This is not only a statement about identity, but also about mission. The primary task of an image bearer is to represent the one whose image you bear. Image bearers are to reflect the Creator’s wisdom into the world.

As image bearing representatives, we are designed to work with God toward His purposes. We are designed to use our gifts to follow God’s plan. Yet, we often use our abilities to generate other gods. We abort God’s plan and work toward our own glory. We literally sabotage the very thing we have been made for. The biblical storyline essentially says that by worshipping other gods we give ourselves to wilderness wanderings and exile, principalities and powers. If we expect the world to take us seriously, we need to become more serious about our role as God’s representatives.

A Discussion About Sin

Here is how N. T. Wright describes the common view of sin in The Day the Revolution Began “A killjoy, finger-wagging, holier than thou moralism” that focuses on “small personal misdemeanors” and ignores “major injustice and oppression.”  Such a definition eventually arrives at “A severe story line that cheerfully sends most of the human race into everlasting fire.”

The Greek word for sin means “missing the mark.” It is a picture of shooting for a target and failing to hit it. Wright suggests this is far different than receiving a long list of things you must and must not do. He proposes it was wrongdoers who used to worry about sin, but no more. Now “The people banging on about sin are those who think it’s someone else’s problem.” Some of us still try to cling to the old rules. Others have become trendier and thump the pulpit “against fossil fuels rather than fornication.”

What I like most about Revolution is N. T. Wright’s attempt to be faithful to the biblical storyline. His attempt to talk about sin in context of the biblical story results in stimulating discussion. He is convinced we have tended to talk about sin in ways that the bible does not. Wright suggests our conversation about wrong behavior usually sounds like failure to keep a moral contract. He goes to great length to tell readers that sin is more serious than breaking a moral code.

Wright tells us we have willingly “handed over control to forces that will destroy us and thwart our original purpose.” We have rejected our God given vocation to be “image bearers” and have given our authority to other powers and forces within creation. These forces have taken that authority and “run rampant, spoiling human lives, ravaging the beautiful creation, and doing their best to turn God’s world into a hell.”

Wright labels this “Idolatry” which he explains “covers a lot more than simply the manufacture and adoration of actual physical images.” This happens when we place anything above the Creator. When humans worship parts of the created order or forces in creation, they give away power to those forces which will then rule over them. Sin then, is not simply the breaking of a moral code but is missing the mark of genuine humanness by worshipping idols rather than the one true God.

Sin is bad. But Wright wants us to know that it is a symptom of a deeper problem. And that problem is addressed by the biblical storyline. “The problem is that humans were made for a particular vocation, which they have rejected.” And “This rejection involves a turning away from the living God to worship idols.” And “This results in giving life to the idols – ‘forces’ within the creation – a power over humans and the world…”

When humans fail in their image bearing vocation, the powers seize control. And the Creator’s plan for creation does not proceed as intended. The problem is not that humans have misbehaved and need punishing. The problem is that we have refused to play our part in God’s creation. It may be a moral failure but is also a vocational failure. To worship creature rather than God is to choose death. Genesis 3 is deeply etched in the biblical storyline and the pages of history. Obey the serpent’s voice and you forfeit the right to the tree of life. Just as the prophets insisted, exile is the result of sin. Leaving the land is as leaving the garden.

Welcome to the Revolution

I recently picked up N.T. Wright’s The Day the Revolution Began. Admittedly, I loved it as soon as I read the title. I loved it even more after being pulled into the biblical storyline and enjoying Wright’s ability to pull me into the narrative. Here is an excerpt from the first page; “Another young leader had been brutally liquidated. This was the sort of thing that Rome did best. Caesar was on his throne. Death, as usual, had the last word. Except that in this case it didn’t…” He goes on “Something had happened that afternoon that had changed the world. That by six o’clock on that dark Friday evening the world was a different place.”

Crucifixion was intended to demonstrate who holds the power. And that the powerful were willing to use extreme pain, brutality and shame to make that message clear. Crucifixion was designed to stop a revolution in its tracks. Wright tells us that when Jesus told followers to carry their cross, they would not have heard this as a metaphor. In opposition to the worlds displays of power, the shame and horror became part of the meaning. The biblical storyline became clearer for the followers of Jesus.

The biblical storyline is not the only thing that helped shape the meaning of the crucifixion. There were already existing meanings of the cross as a death instrument that were influential. Wright gives three meanings for crucifixion in the first century. 1) The cross carries social meaning. Simply, we are superior and you are inferior. 2) The cross had political meaning. We are in charge here and you are not. 3) The cross had theological meaning. The gods of Rome and Caesar (son of a god) are more powerful than your gods. As Jesus hung on the cross, these meanings were heard loud and clear and appeared to be true.

Wright spends significant time talking about the themes and narratives that early Christians would have already had in their heads that allowed them to make sense of the crucifixion the way they did. We might ask, alongside Wright, “Why did they not see this as an end of a potential Jesus based revolution?” Instead they saw crucifixion as the beginning. The New Testament insists that when Jesus of Nazareth died, something happened that changed the world.

Early Christians started talking as if this shocking, scandalous execution launched a revolution.  They began to see this as the pivotal event in the story of God. In fact, this was the vital moment in all of human history. God had put his plan in operation – his plan to rescue the world. They saw the crucifixion as the inauguration of God’s plan. The early Christians insisted that followers of King Jesus became part of the difference. The New Testament, with the cross at its center, is about God’s kingdom coming on earth as it is in heaven. According to Wright, the first sign the revolution was underway was the resurrection.

Wright wants us to recognize the cross as more than allowing for personal salvation, more than a ticket to heaven. He does not deny personal meaning for individuals, but wants to be clear that the cross carries significant meaning for the wider world. Wright wants us to know that Jesus died so that we could become part of God’s plan to put the world right. Welcome to the revolution.