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Posts Tagged ‘identity’

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.

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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.”

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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.”

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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