Seeing Who We Really Are

We are making history. It may not feel like it, but it is true. This period of time will be much more than a footnote in future history books. COVID-19 will leave a lasting impression at least for a short period of time and in some parts of the world. But right now, it feels like we are driving with a blindfold on.

At the time I am writing this we have not met for five straight Sundays and have cancelled a sixth. It feels weird. We did not gather Palm Sunday, we did not gather during Holy Week, we did not gather Easter morning. Weird. Gathering for worship is a big part of who we are, to miss it is to miss something that defines part of us. And yet, this particular period of time allows us to explore other layers of our identity.

We can be sure this isn’t the first time the church has not been able to gather regularly. It is possible this is not the first time due to a virus. But, as before, the church doesn’t stop being the church on account of misfortune. While I am certainly not glad about the coronavirus, I do think that our experience of being the church in a less convenient situation is helping us to become stronger.

How do we continue the mission of the church during such a time? The truth is, we are learning on the fly. What we know for sure is that church is more than a Hillsong cover band followed by a Ted Talk. The current situation forces us to become more creative in our efforts to communicate our message and serve our neighbors. We are learning in a very unexpected way that we cannot function alone. Even our times of quarantine and sheltering in place are done for others.

This pandemic may end up helping us to see more clearly. It may help us to push back against the narrative of individualism. It may help us to recognize how we all depend on others. It may help us to become more cognizant about the needs of others. It may help us understand our mission more clearly. It may help us to see who we really are.

A Voyage of Who I Am

Modern technology is fascinating. On account of advances, I now know things I never imagined. We are able to come up with data for just about anything. One day I gave a blood sample and was later told my numbers for glucose, cholesterol, triglycerides, creatinine, bilirubin, protein, and many other things I cannot even pronounce.

 On another day I spit in a cup and now am told I am 54 percent English, Welsh, and Northern European. I am 36 percent Irish and Scottish. I am 10 percent Germanic European.

 Identity is a complex thing and we are obviously fascinated with it. I wonder if my combination of ethnicity is why I enjoy tea. Maybe why I enjoy fish and chips. Suddenly I have a craving for rashers and a desire to toss a caber. Maybe corned beef, bangers and mash. Maybe wursts. Maybe David Beckham or Harry Kane and I share ancestors. Maybe the Wesley’s or Shakespeare, hopefully not King George III (that sounds shamelessly American). Maybe I am related to Bono or William Wallace.

 It is interesting to discover details about ancestry and cholesterol and other things I now know about myself. It is fascinating to find out what I am made of. But it also reminds me of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. (Maybe I am related to C. S. Lewis). Anyway, I cannot help but think of this short conversation between Ramandu and Eustace.

 “’In our world,” said Eustace, “a star is a huge ball of flaming gas.’” And then Ramandu replies “Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is but only what it is made of.” Well played Ramandu… well played.

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.

Adventure and Text

I do not want to allow adventure to pass me by. Yet, the adventure advertised by politicians and others leaves me with doubts. Instead I find myself more and more in the biblical texts. These texts are far more imaginative than what others try to pass off as news. In the text I learn that I have descended from wanderers. I discover that my people escaped from slave camp. I am a descendant of spies sent to scout promised land. We were unlikely warriors who entered battle with weapons of clay pots and trumpets. While in the text, things begin to make sense. Turns out I am created for adventure. The mundane suggestions from others are woefully inadequate.

I am not the only one who feels this way. Others have been finding the same clues. There are others exploring the same texts and stories that make sense of life. We have been gathering for some time now, usually on Sundays. We retell our stories and encourage one another to practice what we have discovered. I am drawn to these people in the hope that together we will discover who we are and why we are here.

Fulfilling Our Niche

What are we to do when we gather as followers of Jesus? Can we begin with a meager “Hosanna!” or “Blessed is the King!” Does the text not tell us the stones will cry out if we do not? Virginia Stem Owens is a writer who enjoys playing with the sciences. I am fascinated by her contribution to this conversation. She suggests faith is always present in creation and that creation has always been more faithful than you and I.

Stem Owens tells us it is our place, our niche, “To give voice to the cry.” The stones are prepared and waiting to sing their praise song if we do not. She goes on “This is our big chance… Still the mute mountains, the dumb desert, the dying stars wait for us to provide a throat for their thanksgiving. There must be a great logjam in the cosmos. One can almost hear it groaning and creaking some summer nights, threatening to give way under the pressure of pent up praise.

What would happen if we stepped into our place? If we fulfilled our niche and gave voice to the cry? Stem Owens asks “Would morning stars sing together as they did when the cornerstone of creation was laid… Would the hidden sea creatures, full of a barbarous beauty, echo from the salted depths, and the innards of earth have themselves in roiling, molten music?”

She goes on “They are waiting – the mammoths metamorphosed into oil among the ferns, the ozone layer hovering like an eggshell over us, the alpine meadows sighing down mountainsides, the grizzlies and mosquitoes licking blood from their snouts – they are waiting to be sprung from their bondage to decay, to lift up and up and up their hearts. They are waiting for us to get our act together. To find out the answer to our interminable question of who we are.”

A Gathering at the Cross

The first century view of crucifixion makes John’s account somewhat surprising.  The Gospel of Mark includes darker and more disturbing parts about the death of Jesus.  Ben Witherington suggests that Mark’s gospel provides “gut wrenching feelings.”  Some of the things that provide such feelings include darkness at noon, earthquake, additional mocking, splitting the temple veil, and the cry “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”  The Gospel of John includes none of these and Witherington concludes that John’s telling of the crucifixion as a moment of triumph is intended “to produce different emotions and reactions.”  I agree.

Such a victorious version of the crucifixion leads us to ask whether John is guilty of leading readers astray.  If crucifixion is the final chapter, then the answer is yes and Billy Joel’s sermon “Only the Good Die Young” is the one we should be singing.  But we have “the benefit of hindsight and insight.”  The crucifixion is followed by resurrection and in that context triumph and victory are in play.

John wants us to know that Jesus continues to make decisions even from the cross.  And here we have no small decision.  After this, John says that “all things had already been accomplished.”  The scene is simple.  Sympathetic viewers were at the cross.  Jesus saw his mother.  Jesus saw the disciple he loved.  He speaks to his mother.  He speaks to the disciple.  “From that hour the disciple took her into his own household.”  Here a new family is set in motion.

In the presence of the crucified Jesus, relationship changes.  Two individual followers become family.  When we gather together in our groups of two, three or more, we gather at the cross.  When we choose the way of the cross, we join others who are in relationship with Jesus.  We are not spectators, we are participants.  God comes near when we participate in His plan, even when we do not understand.

The two people identified at the cross are identified only by their relationship with Jesus.  As his mother and the disciple whom he loved lose Jesus physically, they find themselves a new family.  On account of what happened at the cross, we define ourselves differently.  Our identity is no longer determined by relationship with mother and father.  Instead we are defined according to our relationship with Jesus.  We are identified as part of a community that meets at the cross in relationship to a crucified King.

We participate in a community with other unlikely participants.  A tax collector, a fisherman, a farmer, a barista.  The guy who shakes your hand tightly, the girl who sings off-key, the family with the noisy children, the lady who wears too much perfume.  At the cross, we participate with a family that we do not choose.  We participate in a family where the only thing we have in common is relationship with a crucified Jesus.

John does not call us to the cross that we might feel pity for an innocent who died an undignified death.  John invites each of us to stand at the cross to witness the crucified King.  John wants us to know that Jesus remains in control.  Even on the cross, he is able to complete the work he was sent to accomplish.  Like adding the final pieces of a portfolio, he establishes a new family and fulfills scripture.  Only then does he submit his work to the Father “It is finished” and give up his spirit (it was not taken from him).

At the cross, Jesus joins us as a new family of disciples who will continue to follow together.  Following Jesus will now include interdependence on one another.  We are not isolated followers, we are not called to be.  Instead, we join others.  We join people who are not like us in any other way except that we gather at the cross of Christ.

A Look at the Cross reminds us that when we come into relationship with the crucified Jesus, we come into relationship with a collection of others who participate in that relationship with us.

A prayer of response by Susan Vigliano; “Lord, I invite you to shape and form my identity in such a way that I reflect your new order of family.  Who is my brother, mother, and sister in my new adopted family?  I have a natural God-given love for my natural family and close friends, but I need your agape love to love the unknown, different, sometimes unloveable people whom you now call my brother.  Help me, Lord, to love like you love.”

A Strange Collection of People

We are a collection of people, an assembly who gather to listen and to respond to words from God.  Yet, most of our time is spent in a world full of non-gatherers, people who believe differently.  Some of them are sympathetic to what we’ve been doing and what we’ve been talking about; others find us to be strange, irrational, and even foolish for what we’ve been up to.

A casual glance at us among those who think and believe differently does not reveal much.  We shop the same markets and wear similar clothes.  We read and write the same languages.  We eat the same foods and drive the same cars.  We attend the same schools and receive the same medical treatment.  We experience the same weather and have the same health problems.  We cheer for the same teams and vote for the same politicians.

We participate in similar everyday activities but we are part of a covert operation.  We are looking for different signs.  We are listening for a different voice.  Like Joshua and Caleb, our opinion is in the minority.  We are saying things that no one else is saying.  Bringing news that no one else is telling.  We claim hope that others do not.  In fact, we strongly disagree with the majority opinion.

We look the part with our clothes from the mall and our modern transportation.  Yet, the fact is, we are aliens.  Our allegiance lies elsewhere.  We are guilty of treason.  We live a double existence.  Like exiles in Babylon, we work to maintain our identity in a land that tries to convince us that things are ok as they are.  That this world is all there is and there is nothing outside of these borders.

In exile, it is possible to forget the mission.  We spend so much time being saturated with this world that we adopt its habits and customs.  We can forget what we are about.  There is the temptation to defect.  Here in exile, we must maintain our double existence.  This requires everything we’ve got.  We must be vigilant.

We gather to retell old stories and drink our wine and eat our bread.  We are sent out with instructions to become as children, wash the feet of others, forgive as many as four hundred and ninety times, put our weakness on display, turn the other cheek, to love our enemies.  We are participating in a mustard seed conspiracy.  This is not the way that people expect kingdoms to come.

Yet, we are the evidence of this Kingdom.  We enter as agents of the King and reflect His character and strategies.  This is war and we are part of it.  C. S. Lewis speaks for us when he says “we are living in a part of the universe occupied by the rebel.  Enemy-occupied territory – that is what this world is.  Christianity is the story of how the rightful King has landed, you might say landed in disguise, and is calling us all to take part in a great campaign of sabotage.”  We are sent into enemy occupied territory looking for places where God is at work and joining Him there.  To borrow a phrase from John Piper “prayer is primarily a wartime walkie-talkie.”  For us, prayer is a tool in our arsenal of sabotage.  How can we blame the powers that be for wanting to remove it from the public sector?

We will be outnumbered.  Our methods will be unpopular.  We will be misunderstood.  But we must stick to our covert ways.  We walk the streets as people involved with business, as technicians, as people with trades, as retail operators, as educators, as medical personnel, as executives and assistants.  Yet, these things are cover for our other work.  We are agents of another Kingdom.  Others may not take us seriously.  They still have confidence in the empire that appears to have all the goodies, the power, and the answers.

We know that this way of life is temporary.  We do not have confidence in the strategies of this world.  Neither our best science nor our best social programs can fix it.  The established systems and the old certainties are no longer certain.  Yet, we have a great hope.  We believe that another Kingdom is in play and we are called to utilize the strategies of this Kingdom.  A Kingdom that takes shape in out of the way places, in unexpected ways, and through unexpected people.  Like an unexpected collection of people who may appear strange as they take the ways and words of their King seriously.

The Sixth Day

I am in the garden.  Turning soil.  Mixing compost.  Planting onions and lettuce.  I roll up my sleeves and reach into the earth.  I breathe in the smell and look forward to picking vegetables from the backyard.  I am thinking about Genesis where on the sixth day God rolled up His sleeves and reached into the earth and formed a human, an earthling.

Genesis says that God gave the earthling a name and then breath.  Genesis says that God looked at this breathing, moving, artistic creation and “behold it was very good.”  It is not recorded but I suspect that He also said “wow.”

I find it interesting that God planted a garden and placed the earthling there to cultivate and to keep the garden.  Barbara Brown Taylor thinks that while working in the garden you remember “where you came from and why.  You touch the stuff your bones are made of.  You handle the decomposed bodies of trees, birds, and fallen stars.  Your body recognizes its kin.  If you have nerve enough, you also foresee your own decomposition.  This is not bad knowledge to have.  It is the kind that puts other kinds in perspective.  Feel that cool dampness?  Welcome back to earth, you earthling.  Smell that dirt?  Welcome home, you beloved dust-creature of God.”

I, scooped from the earth, now flesh given breath, am in the garden.  Turning soil, mixing compost, planting onions and lettuce.  I roll up my sleeves.  I breathe in the smell.  I reach into the earth.  It gets under my nails.  In my hair.  It’s caked on my knees.  I call it dirt.  But I think about the sixth day when God first formed a human from this stuff and all I can do is say “wow.”

Work and Discipleship

It is a good thing to work a job.  It is a good thing to put out a quality product.  It is a good thing to provide a service that is helpful to others.  It is a good thing to contribute to community and society.  “Go… get a job” is a message that is heard clearly in our culture.  This is not a bad message, in fact it is quite a practical one.  However, as Eugene Peterson has pointed out, it becomes important to connect this message with another, “Go… make disciples.”  It is essential that our work become part of our Christian experience.  In order for work to have lasting meaning, the conversation about jobs must include discipleship.

Work is a context to obey the great commission.  Without this context, we risk the danger that we will add to statistics of job dissatisfaction and loss of meaning.  We tend to place value on certain jobs, the bible does not.  We tend to hand out respect (and money, we tend to confuse respect with money) to certain jobs over others.  The bible knows that these things are fleeting.  In fact, the bible suggests that those who take on a job in order to gain respect ought to be pitied.

It becomes important to be able to talk about work in relationship to meaning and purpose.  If we are unable to see how everyday work is related to “Go… make disciples” we are either going to become discontent with our job or become careless about our faith.  We will likely be unhappy “making a living” and trying to make up for a lack of meaning with additional recreational or spiritual activities in hopes to find meaning.  That doesn’t have to be the way it works.  Nearly any job can be a context for discipleship to occur.  If we take this message seriously the present becomes filled with energy.  And the future opens up with possibility.

I think of the tax collectors and the soldiers who approach John the Baptist.  Two vocations that probably seemed outside the will of God to those in John’s congregation.   But John simply tells them to start doing their work differently.  I think of two tax collectors that encounter Jesus.  Matthew leaves his job to serve.  But Zacchaeus starts collecting taxes differently.  Prior to meeting Jesus, they both served the dominant regime.  After meeting Jesus, they both worked for another kingdom.

You can work a job that no one else would want and be smack in the middle of the will of God.  You can work the most desirable of jobs and be struggling to find a niche in the kingdom.  The kingdom appears far less interested in what you do for compensation than we do.  It is far more concerned with the way faith is demonstrated.  So, go ahead and follow through on culture’s expectation that you get a job.  But whatever you do, be sure to make disciples.

Genesis and Average Guy

For all the value of science, Genesis doesn’t start there. Nor does it begin with a mathematic solution. Instead, when God begins to speak in Genesis, He speaks to us with story. His word comes to us as story. Genesis invites us to join a story.

This story begins big, cosmic… but doesn’t take long to become more familiar and personal. The God who has an interest in the heavens and the earth has a strong interest in people. The God interested in the way that sunlight reflects off the moon, the way the ocean waves crash against land, desires to talk to Adam and Eve.

This is an amazing thought. That God who looks after light and dark looks after humans. The God who is concerned with moon phase and sunrise and ocean tides and gravity. Who has an interest in positioning stars to take on shapes for our viewing pleasure. That the Creator of the universe would take an interest in someone like me living on a pebble traveling through this grand universe among other grand universes is a grand thought.

Yet, He has provided gifts of sustenance and warmth and shelter and refreshment and oxygen and grandeur. He gives skills to make things happen. He puts His stamp on me. And knows the number of hairs on my head. He knows that I like to watch things grow. That I like starry nights. That bird song is way more interesting to me than it used to be. That I enjoy watching my breath against the dark sky. That I am becoming more opinionated as I get older. He knows that I get attached to people and places. He knows that I like some smells that others do not. That my favorite window in the car is the one in my roof. That I like competition. That I like to laugh. He knows that my left knee slows me down sometimes. That I secretly think I am a treasure hunter. He knows the things that make me say wow.

This is a story about God and we are a part of it.