If God Is For Us

The place we must begin as Christians is that God is on our side. As Paul says, “He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else?” (Rom. 8:32) This is what Jesus lived out in his earthly life. He embodied the reality that God is for people. He certainly opposed religious leaders who tried to misconstrue religion to make it burdensome. But his opposition was never against people in principle but always against those who stood in the way of the people coming to God.

The history of religions is rather different. Broadly speaking, religion (that which was thought up by us, not that which was revealed by God) grows out of the sense that we have displeased the gods. Religious practices were put in place to overcome that displeasure. Erich Neumann, in The Origins and History of Consciousness (a summary of Carl Jung) argues that this trope is beyond ancient, it is part of our primordial mindset.

Because the belief that the gods are against us, or at the very least, displeased, runs so deep in our consciousness, it is not surprising that it is a theme that weaves its way throughout the Old Testament. Since it is clearly present in the Old Testament, there is a tendency to say that this is how the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob truly is. It is a sentiment that is expressed in the extreme in Jonathan Edwards’ infamous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” It is a sentiment that the Apostle Paul wrestles with in his epistles. The theme has also shaped our interpretation of hell, wrath, and judgment.

But if God isn’t like this, why has God allowed the idea that he is angry with us to persist and even creep into scripture? The answer comes when we consider what was important to Jesus. His interaction with the woman at the well was typical. She was concerned with right theology. Being a Samaritan, questions about the correct place to worship—the Jewish Mt. Zion or the Samaritan Mt. Gerizim—were foremost. But Jesus essentially brushed correct theology off by saying, “But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him” (Jn 4:23). Instead he was far more interested in her life struggles than her theology. When he probed her mind, it had nothing to do with theology. “Go call your husband and come here” (v 16). Her life, it turns out, was a wreck, and Jesus was far more interested in getting her human relationships sorted out than sorting her theology.

“Who is my neighbor?” turns out to be a question that must be answered, not by the Rabbis in the synagogue (or the priests and theologians in the seminary) but by you and I as we walk or drive to work. As we read the Old Testament with this sensibility revealed by Jesus, we realize that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was as Jesus said and not like the old gods who were easily piqued and demanded that everything be just right. The living God demonstrated that he wanted those ancient wanderers to come along side God and wander with him. God is profoundly relational, and that’s what took center stage, not the need to get all our ideas about God exactly right.

I’ve never had foster kids, but as a pastor I’ve seen a number of them placed in the homes of congregation members. When the foster parent says, “I won’t beat you; you’re safe here,” it’s largely an empty statement, because it’s not the child’s experience. That is a message that can only be expressed through presence and action, not words. After several times when the kid messes up and is not beat, after several months of living in an environment that is actually safe, then the kid himself or herself will begin to say, “You won’t beat me; I’m safe here.” It does little good to tell the child, don’t cringe in fear. The good foster parent ignores that while working hard to create an authentically safe place. It is a truth that is revealed, not by words, but only in action and relationship.

We have come to believe in a wordy revelation. We hold the Bible in our hand and think that this is the divine revelation. But in a profound sense, it is not. The revelation is God who didn’t bother correcting all of the ancients’ misconceptions with mere words, but rather busied himself by creating a safe home (to carry on our analogy) so that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob could figure out on their own that, “You won’t beat me; I’m safe here.” The revelation isn’t what Matthew, and John, and Peter, and Paul wrote about Jesus, in a far more fundamental sense, Jesus himself was and is the revelation. To return to the woman at the well, Jesus didn’t start out by saying he was the Messiah, he let her figure it out on her own. And then when she finally put into words the outrageous idea that the Messiah might actually be present, he affirmed her insight. “Jesus said to her, ‘I am he, the one who is speaking to you'” (Jn 4:26).

Like the foster child, it does little good for God to tell us how to think and act. There is a primordial sensibility seemingly structured into our genetic makeup, if the neuroscientists are to be believed, that the gods are against us and probably enjoy messing with us. (Consider the story of Job.) The only way past that sensibility is to live through it and ultimately beyond it.

And so we end, full circle, where we began. “He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else?” (Rom. 8:32) This is what Jesus lived out in his earthly life. He embodied the reality that God is for people.

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New Growth in the Soil of Decay

I haven’t posted anything for a couple of months although I have been writing quite a lot. But the tone of my writing has been too negative, so it’s ended up in the trash bin rather than the blog. It’s easy to be a critic; it’s easy to postulate about what’s wrong with the world. It’s better to find a way forward.

The most dramatic trend in the last two decades (if it were a play, it would be a grand denouement) is the catastrophic failure of Liberal culture. To be clear, I am not referring to liberalism and conservatism as we tend to think about it today. They are in fact two versions of Classical Liberalism, the broad category I have in mind. These two versions (that we call conservative and liberal) have suffered a catastrophic failure of vision and will. The reactions to this failure, nativism, nationalism, tribalism, political philosophies that are exclusive rather than inclusive, are seen with horror by those of us who are true children of the Enlightenment. And there are certainly reasons to be horrified by many of these expressions, whether its the denial of science, the tendency toward xenophobia, etc. What is more difficult to see is that all of these movements are new sprouts growing from the fertile soil of spoiled fruit. The nature of these new sprouts is what has captivated my thinking for the last while. Many of the sprouts are noxious weeds, but not all. It is in discerning the difference where dreaming dreams and proclaiming visions needs to become a core bit of our contemporary kerygma.

So where is the good in the midst of this collapse of the Enlightenment hegemony? First is the rejection of the inherent reductionism that marks the Enlightenment. Reality is made up of far more than science and empirical inquiry can study. Furthermore, the part of reality science to which science does have access, always turns out to be more complicated and interconnected than anyone imagined. As a result science studies a subset of that which is necessary for true knowledge.

Malcolm Gladwell is fond of using the automobile as an illustration. What is the ontology of the automobile? Said another way, what is its most basic function? What is it best at? We can consider the question from two different perspectives: intent and result. Intent looks forward ; it describes our hopes and desires, while results looks backward and describes what actually happens. The intent is that an automobile is designed to get us place to place. From this perspective the ontology of the automobile is as a conveyance, and it’s actually pretty good at that. But we could argue that looking back (considering cold, hard results rather than hopes and dreams) the automobile is even better at (1) killing and injuring people and animals, (2) polluting the air and other environmental degradation, and (3) undermining community by allowing and possibly encouraging the insular existence of the suburbs and exurbs. Looking back rather than forward, the ontology of the automobile may be better described as a destroyer, destroying life, environment, and community.

We more commonly call the gap between intent and actual results “unintended consequences.” There is a very real sense that one of the primary agendas of the Enlightenment was to take control of our world. Rather than leaving our destiny to chance and the vagaries of nature, we would control it and determine our own outcome. Now there is overwhelming evidence that we humans are incapable of this because we are not capable of considering all the consequences.

The anti-science backlash we see today, from anti-vaxxers to global warming denialists, is an expression of this exasperation we have with the hubris of science. Nature is brutal but it doesn’t seem to be quite as stupid as science sometimes turns out to be and there is a strong desire to to once again cooperate with creation rather than re-create it in our own fallen image. Of course the pendulum has swung too far. There’s a big difference between humble science and simply being anti-scientific. But we have an opportunity to learn humility and develop a new respect for the inherent wisdom of the created order.

A second “good” which is arising from the collapse of Classical Liberal culture is the rediscovery of our connectedness. The Enlightenment idea of the individual at its most radical rejected this connection. Ever since Descartes (the “I think, therefore, I am” guy), theologians have been fighting a rear guard action to re-establish the Christian idea of the “person”—a being whose self-understanding doesn’t come from within (the mind or the will) but from relationship. This emphasis on the untethered individual has been magnified with industrialization. The modern city, based on industrialization, which doesn’t need families or artisans who mentor other artisans, but only worker drones to keep the machinery humming, accompanied by the ease of transportation (have I said anything about the assumed vs. the real ontology of the automobile?) promotes individuality to the point of isolation.

Since the beginning of the industrial revolution there has been push-back, beginning with aid societies, and then the growth of labor unions. The shape of the current push against isolation is rather amorphous and it’s hard to tell exactly where it is going. But it is something that can be happily capitalized upon by Christian communities. Isolation is not normal. But rather than rail against it, we have the opportunity to offer authentic examples of the true alternative.

I went into some detail above about how trying to control nature almost always backfires. There is now an openness to the value of cooperating with nature. There is a parallel in our personhood. History shows that individualism and its resulting isolation, leads us to think of a neighbor who is too close to be a hinderance, and sometimes, even an enemy. But society is increasingly open to the value of relationships, the push and pull of communities, and the dangers of privacy as an absolute right. Just as we have an opportunity to reinvigorate the principle of cooperation with nature, so we have an opportunity to reinvigorate the principle of cooperation with other people in our communities and society.

There are other examples of this moment of opportunity in which we live, but 1,000+ words and two examples will suffice for now. Rather than complain about what might seem to be the collapse of society, I want to explore how we can capitalize on the tender shoots of positive growth that we see all around us.

Lazarus Saturday: Joy between Repentance and Mourning

It’s Lazarus Saturday today (Mar 31), which means Great Lent is over and Holy Week will begin in two days. Once again, here’s a quick overview of the differences between Orthodox and Western Lent and Easter/Pascha. First, the Orthodox will celebrate Pascha on April 8. (You can’t have Pascha until after Passover, which is Mar 30 – Apr 7 this year, so that puts Pascha on Apr 8.) Second, the Orthodox count all the days of the week in Lent while the Western Churches don’t include Sundays, so we get to 40 days in two different manners. Orthodox Lent begins on a Monday and then ends on a Friday (7 days x 5 weeks = 35 + 7 more days = 40). So Great Lent ended yesterday. The Holy Week fast begins on Monday. That leaves two days in between: Lazarus Saturday and Palm Sunday.

This interim time between the two fasts is an opportunity to reflect on what I have come to think of the three proper states of being for Christians. (This is my own thought; I haven’t seen it anywhere else, so consider the source and take it for what it’s worth.). Those three states are repentance, mourning, and joy. The Lenten fast is a season of repentance. Lazarus Saturday, Palm Sunday, and Pascha are seasons of joy. The Holy Week fast is a season of mourning.

This distinction was lost to me as a Protestant because Lent—that period from Ash Wednesday to the day before Easter—was an amorphous whole. As a result there was no specific season of mourning, except for Good Friday and maybe on that Sunday once every three years where that verse, “Jesus wept,” came up in the lectionary. I therefore want to consider the role of each in our Christian lives.

Mourning is a recognition and response to the fact that things are not right in the world. Geo Pallikunnel, a Syro Malabar (that is, the quite ancient Orthodox communion on the Indian subcontinent, also called the St Thomas church) theologian describes it this way. “Human nature is basically good, even though sin disintegrated it.” The world was created very good and humans were created in the image of God (thus we are basically good) but sin has marred and disrupted it. I especially like Pallikunnel’s use of the term “disintegration” in this context. In his monograph he describes our life of salvation in terms of our disintegration because of sin and Jesus Christ’s integration of our beings.

In this metaphor sin is more process than act. Things are coming apart at the seams and we know that this is not right, that things once were better (“very good” in fact) and should be better. But they’re not. We too often beat ourselves up for this state of affairs. We too often rage against our own frailties, our fellow Christians’ hypocrisy, and the evil that the world spawns. But such regrets and recriminations are not a proper Christian state of being. “Blessed are those who mourn …” says Jesus, not, “blessed are the angry.”

Rather than regrets and recrimination, our proper response (the second state of being) is Repentance. Repentance is not being sorry that I sinned; that’s, just … well, sort of sorry. Repentance isn’t an attitude, it’s an action; it’s turning around; it’s changing our direction. This is embodied in three specific actions: fasting, prayer, and alms. Said another way, repentance focuses on ourselves by denying (and thus, to a certain extent, taking control of) our out-of-control desires that are causing the disintegration of our being in the first place. Repentance is also focusing on others by truly looking at them in their life situation and helping to meet their needs which grow out of their own and the world’s disintegration. Repentance also focuses on God. The disintegration that I keep going on about is a symptom of a deeper problem. Cut off from God, who is life itself, all creation is dead (in the same way cut flower is dead—still beautiful and fragrant, but severed from its life-giving source). Repentance is specifically a turning toward God-who-is-Life-itself in order to re-establish the flow of life through prayer and the Eucharist.

Lent is a season set aside to focus on this second state of being: repentance. Holy Week, in contrast, is not about repentance; it’s about mourning. It is looking at the incarnation (that is, the whole earthly life of Jesus Christ) as a prolonged death, a seeming disintegration of God. “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me!” And ironically, just as Jesus said would happen, as we mourn, we are comforted. As we mourn we see clearly the current state of affairs and that it is not the true or intended state of affairs. Furthermore we see that God hasn’t left us to our own devices, but walks besides us, suffers beside us, and is “disintegrated” (if we dare use that term!) on our behalf.

But mourning does not occur in a vacuum. We can dwell in this state of being because we know there is another state of being: Joy. Lazarus Saturday is a truly special day on the Orthodox calendar. Saturday morning there is a Eucharistic Divine Liturgy that is a foretaste of Pascha. Everything is light instead of dark. The talk is of victory rather than death. It is a foretaste of Christ’s victory over death. It is an absolute proclamation that what looked like divine disintegration turns out to be the re-integration of all creation with its Creator.

We Christians have no need to rage. (The nations rage and the Psalmist asks, “Why?”) Instead we can mourn for a season because there is a state of joy. For the most part we exist in these three distinct states of being (repentance, mourning, and joy) simultaneously. But the Church helpfully breaks them apart as three distinct seasons to help us understand this admittedly odd state of affairs. And these three seasons come together in a mysterious and wonderful manner on these two days (Lazarus Saturday and Palm Sunday) between the two very different fasts of repentance and mourning that precede the greatest of Feasts of Rejoicing: Pascha.

Jesus wept … Lazarus come forth … But surely he stinks and smells of decay! That is life in a nutshell. Amen.

 

Finding Nobility rather than Tragedy

There are two old men who smoke cigars every other week, early afternoon, at the Dublin House, where I am a member and go to smoke my pipe. When they come one wears various bits of northern Civil War garb while the other wears southern bits. There they sit, blue and grey, smoking cigars, and talking just a bit too loudly about the nobility of that War and, in particular, the nobility of the southern stand against the northern aggressors.

Racism is an overused word and I certainly resist the temptation to call them racist (they’re more likely merely ignorant, having never been to the south!), but my experience is different. Having lived a couple of blocks from Prospect Ave., the great divide between black and white, in Kansas City, having gone to seminary in Louisville, KY, my first experience with huge, fancy, white private schools built to get around the busing rules, and having spent a year teaching school in Port Gibson, MS, where boycotting white businesses was first experimented with during the 1960s civil rights struggle in the American south, I have a rather different perspective on the war, its causes, and its aftermath.

A few weeks ago, because no one was paying attention to their conversation, in spite of the fact that it was getting louder and louder, the two brothers finally engaged me about my thoughts on that noble chapter in our glorious American history. I had had enough and gave them my frank opinion about the tragedy of the event, the tragedy that has continued to fester ever since, the evil that spawned it (and continues), and their own denial about that particular ongoing chapter in our history, and thus their unwitting participation in that evil.

No doubt they had heard it all be for and even said, “God bless you,” on my way out the door. I found I was disgusted by their righteousness and nobility that whitewashed the tomb of racism that still stinks to high heaven down south of the Mason Dixon line and across the country as well.

I don’t claim to be innocent. I grew up in Montana with Indian reservations all around me, so the racism I am blind to tends to be toward the Native Americans and not the African Americans.

One of the momentous events in the version of Native American history I was taught practically passed by the house where I spent most of my young life. The story I learned in school was one of grit and glory, the Nez Perce helping various groups of western bound white settlers along the way even as they outwitted the five armies chasing them. General George Custer supposedly called Chief Joseph, “the greatest living Indian” at one point. Most of the Nez Perce considered him a coward, an opportunist, and merely the last man standing.

Yep, it’s a complicated history, so I just started reading Kent Nerburn’s book, “Chief Joseph & the Flight of the Nez Perce.” In the introduction he says, “A fine story, full of pathos and nobility and all the poignancy of the American Indian struggle.

A fine story, but false. Or, to be more accurate, only half true. The real story, the true story, is every bit as poignant and every bit as dramatic. But it is obscured by the myth because the myth is so powerful and so perfectly suited to our American need to find nobility rather than tragedy in our past.

Seeking nobility rather than tragedy … I was immediately reminded of the cigar-smoking brothers. Not all tragedies are noble. And in the case of both the American Indians and the African Americans, not all tragedies are in the past.

Forgetting to Look Up

The world has lost its bearings. Not that ideologies are lacking, to give directions: only that they lead nowhere. People are going round in circles in the cage of their planet, because they have forgotten that they can look up to the sky

and

Because all we want is to live, it has become impossible for us to live.

Eugene Ionesco, Romanian/French playwright, speaking at the 1972 Salzburg Festival.

That last bit would have been more appropriate to post on Mardi Gras, given what has become of the beginning of Lent in our culture. But I posted it now because Ionesco rather misses the point.

Lot’s of us look up, but there’s nothing to see and nowhere to go except the vast emptiness with the occasional star in between. Because of the blindness of sin, we not only fail to see, we are incapable of seeing—truly seeing—the Creator in creation.

No, Ionesco is mistaken, we need not bother looking all the way to the sky. We should rather humbly limit our upward gaze only as high as the cross.  From it we learn that death to self is more blessed than living to live, for in this particular path of death lies the possibility of truly living and the fullness of life.

Have a blessed Holy Week.

The Daughter of a Voice

In John 12:28f, Jesus says, “‘Father, glorify thy name.’ Then came there a voice from heaven, saying, ‘I have both glorified it, and will glorify it again.’ The people therefore, that stood by, and heard it, said that it thundered: others said, An angel spake to him.” A.T. Robertson (in Word Pictures) observed the Rabbis called the audible voice of God bath-qol, or “the daughter of a voice.” Now that’s a weird bit of trivia to throw into the commentary that I want to explore.

Consider the question of talking. When I talk to another person there is physical distance between us and that physical distance can be considered a metaphor for the distance between what I mean and what you think I mean. I can never fully say precisely what I mean. As a result, the person hearing my words may hear something rather different than what I mean. There is no direct connection between what I intend to say and what the other person hears. My meaning gets interpreted into words which go from me to you. Those words then get interpreted back into your meaning (or understanding). Hopefully my meaning and your understanding are pretty much the same thing.

We can describe this as a mediated process. Between my meaning and your understanding are several steps that mediate the two. My meaning can never directly touch your understanding; it must be mediated by something. Now this sounds very similar to something else. Moses wanted a direct apprehension of God, but God said, nope, won’t happen. “No one can see my face and live” (Ex. 33:20). God’s presence (that is, his face) had to be mediated by something else in order for us to apprehend God. Thus the Rabbis tended to view the shining glory of God (expressed in Moses’ burning bush, the cloud of the Exodus and the glory that dwelt in the temple), not as God in and of himself but rather as a created container that veiled the true presence. These were all mediated and not direct experiences.

Evidently (if I’m reading Robertson’s quotation of the Rabbis correctly) the Rabbis considered the voice of God a mediated experience also. It wasn’t actually God’s voice, it was “the daughter of a voice.” (That sounds a lot like the distance between my meaning and your understanding that I tried to describe above.) With all of this context in mind, something quite ironic happens in John 12. We have Jesus Christ, the one John calls both “the Word of God” and “the Son of God,” physically present with the people. In the midst of this scene the disembodied “daughter of the voice” of God comes booming out of heaven (v. 28). The irony is while they were curious about Jesus and wanted to see him, they thought the voice from heaven sounded down right angelic! God was right there but what caught their attention was the thing that pointed toward the sky, where they assumed God was supposed to be.

We take for granted that we have a sense of where God is and what God is supposed to do. The longer we’re Christians and part of a congregation, the more comfortable we become with how it all works, and by extension, where God is and what God is supposed to do. As a result, the longer we’ve been doing this, the greater the danger that we will settle for the daughter of the voice of God rather than the living God.

We need to learn to seek for God without mediation. The living God … and by definition, if God is living, God will exist beyond our expectations and even beyond our desires … The living God is a bit tricky to commune with. Compare this relationship with that of a close friend or spouse. Just about the time you have the relationship figured out and start taking it for granted, the other does something unexpected and you end up responding all wrong. It is the same with God but even more so. If we are truly communing with God that relationship is growing and changing day by day. If we get too comfortable, we end up “communing” with a mediated God, the God of last year, God, but mediated by our expectations from an experience in the past. The result is we are attracted to the booming sound, the mere daughter of a voice, when we could be communing with the Son of God himself.

At the end of this passage Jesus says he will draw all people to himself (v. 32). And indeed, at the beginning of this passage we find foreigners asking to see Jesus (v. 21) no doubt because they are drawn to him. That might seem straightforward, but it turns out to be more slippery than we imagine. On our way to see the Son of God we get distracted by the daughter of a voice. It’s beautiful and awesome; the text even tells us it’s angelic (v.29). But it’s not Jesus. And that’s the trick. We have to be discerning enough to recognize the difference and we have to be picky enough not to settle for the mediated experience.

 

The Gospel of Joshua

It’s been a long time since I read Joshua. Given it’s horrific violence, it doesn’t show up in many devotional reading lists, so it may be a while since you’ve read it too. The story line centers on the genocide of the local residents so God’s people can have the land. (Not a story that matches our modern sensibilities.) And yet Joshua, the leader of this merry band of pirates, has long been considered a type of Christ.

For this to make sense we must remember that the ancient church didn’t venerate the book because it was history. This is not to say that they didn’t believe the book to be true. The fact that we tend to equate truth and history says a lot more about our distorted and reductionist modern sensibilities than it says about the ancient church. They no doubt would have found our tendency to reduce “truth” to these tiny little boxes (scientific method, historical method, textual criticism, empirical evidence, etc.) bewildering. So it is indeed the case that for most of history the church has considered Joshua to be primarily a foreshadowing of Jesus Christ. (They even share a name, Joshua being a Semitic form and Jesus being a Greek form of the same name.) Just as Joshua cleansed the Land of evil, so Christ cleanses us of evil. Just as Joshua led the people from wandering into the promised rest, so Christ does the same thing.

Joshua not only foreshadows Christ, the book shows us something of what the church should be. We need to have a “take no prisoners” attitude toward our corrupted nature and thinking, our mixed loyalties, and our fondness for our culture. Every time Joshua and the army compromised on the “take no prisoners” policy, things started going bad. This, according to the tradition, is the picture of our Christian life. Any sort of compromise will eventually lead to some sort of failure or downfall.

Aside from these two traditional themes, there is something else to be learned from Joshua: God seems quite comfortable being the God of really nasty and not nice people. And I’ll go one step farther. God is far more comfortable with really nasty and not nice people than we are. My perspective might be shaped by the congregations I served, which were mostly aging, midwestern, and quite proper socially, but I think it is true of American Christianity in general that we tend to conflate manners, niceness, and social acceptance with Christian maturity. We tend to confuse business acumen with wisdom. In the language of Joshua, we’re less interested in taking the Promised Land of our soul and more interested in letting Christ move in next door … as long as he’s a nice and polite neighbor.

One of the dangers of our sensibility is that it tends to blind us to our own nasty-and-not-niceness. As long as everyone stays polite and fits in with the religious culture, we tend not to be self-critical. This is one of the few “blessings” of radical Islam. They can see our failures to which we are blind. They look at the Western churches that reside fairly comfortably in Western consumer culture, and what they see is the corruption. They are horrified and are pretty sure that a real god would have no interest in being the god of infidels like us.

But it is precisely at this point that the divine grace of God’s eternal covenant reveals itself. It turns out that we have more in common with Joshua and his merry band of pirates than we’re comfortable admitting. Amazingly, in spite of the denial of our own predicament, God remains faithful to his covenant people “to the thousandth generation” (see previous post). This overwhelming reality of divine grace then gives us the space to safely admit that we have failed spectacularly. And this is the first step to true repentance and the process of rooting out all that is evil in the Promised Land of our souls.

I think I’ll call it “The Gospel of Joshua.”

 

To the Thousandth Generation

To prove that I actually was paying attention at worship on Sunday (see previous post) I heard something that had never quite registered in the Ten Commandments when the Old Testament lesson (Ex. 20:1-17) was read. “You shall not bow down to [other gods or idols] or worship them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments” (vv 5f).

That phrase “to the third and the fourth generation” has been part of my consciousness for as long as I remember. Of course I’ve heard preachers talk about it, but I’ve also heard psychologists and crime experts use the phrase when talking about a whole host of societal troubles being generational. But on Sunday it was the following phrase that jumped out at me: “But showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.”

I wish I was still in an academic community, or at the very least still had access to a good theological library because I have a hunch. When that sentence is viewed as a whole, the first half has the feel of folk wisdom. I wonder if that’s not how the people viewed their world apart from any divine revelation. The sort of troubles that were self-inflicted not only affected you, but also your children and grand-children to the third and even fourth generation. I’m wondering if that’s not just how people viewed (and still view) the world. I want to be very clear that I’m not offering an interpretation; I’m speculating. I’m speculating that the explanation of this first commandment begins with a bit of popular wisdom: things you cause have consequences “to the third and the fourth generation.”

Let’s assume I’m correct for a moment and the explanation for this commandment begins with how people think about the world. God then starts with that assumption and expands (or explodes) it beyond all recognition. Let me rephrase it as follows: “You tend to think in the negative. You think that if you break the covenant it will have consequences not only for yourself but for your offspring for several generations. But your perception of me (that is, God) is backward. The covenant is everlasting, and if you worship me instead of other gods, I will show you unwavering covenant love for a thousand generations (ie, for as long as you can imagine).

We tend to think, “What are all the ways that this can go wrong?” It’s human nature. But I suspect that God is rejecting that sort of thinking and telling us to replace it with a different question: “What are all the ways this can go right beyond our imagination?” We can imagine a lot of bad things. In contrast to our imagination, God is offering us unwavering covenant love beyond what we can even imagine.

So, if there’s any actual Old Testament scholars out there who have the tools to research this stuff, I ask you if I’m on to something. Is the whole “third and fourth generation” thing actually a bit of folk wisdom, or am I completely off base? Whether it is or not, this first commandment is a remarkable statement of divine mercy. Thanks be to God.

 

Have You Ever Seen a Picture of Jesus Cleansing the Temple?

The sermon I heard on Sunday, based on the Gospel lesson about Jesus cleansing the Temple (Jn 2:13-22), caught me completely off guard. We were reminded that we see copies of the Ten Commandments for sale everywhere, even the grocery store (the Old Testament lesson) and images of the cross are ubiquitous (the epistle), but, according to Fr. Jay, you’ve probably never seen a picture of Jesus with a whip in his hand cleansing the temple. At this point I don’t know where the sermon went because I found the statement completely at odds with my experience.

Actually, this image was one of the more common in my childhood. It wasn’t in our home—being fairly hard-core iconoclasts, we didn’t have pictures of Jesus in our home—but it was common throughout the education wing of the church building. Our denomination was quite horrified by all that stuff we thought was idolatrous and for the most part, the only images that were acceptable—pictures for the kids in the education wing—tended toward the dramatic and led to a good story: Adam, Eve, and the snake, Moses with his staff over his head, the Ark with the Animals streaming in, Jesus with the sheep (actually, that one was in the sanctuary, so go figure), and of course, Jesus at the temple, driving out the animals, money changers, etc.

While I don’t know about denominational policies and practices as a whole (I was just a kid, after all), I know that even in college this image (by this time, not a picture on the wall, but a mental image—we were iconoclasts after all) of Jesus, with whip in hand, driving the money changers from the temple was a big deal. For the rest of the sermon (which after this was sort of like Charlie Brown’s school teacher going “Wah, wah, wah” in the Christmas special) I pondered why this image was so central to the tradition of my childhood.

The answer was actually rather obvious. The Bible Church was a weird confluence of the Reformed and Holiness traditions. I call it weird because on theological grounds we rejected holiness doctrine in favor of a Reformed view of salvation (salvation by grace alone through faith and not of works) but at the same time, on practical, everday grounds, being holy was a very big deal. (“We don’t drink, and we don’t chew, and we don’t go with girls that do,” to quote the popular doggeral.) Drinking and smoking (illegal drugs like heroin and legal drugs like opiods weren’t much of a thing yet, so those weren’t on the list) weren’t allowed because the body was the Temple of the Holy Spirit. That image of Jesus, whip overhead, cleansing the Temple, was the icon par excellence of our Christian life.

This whole question of whether I’d ever seen an image of Jesus with a whip above his head cleansing the temple was so arresting to me because I’ve been pondering the book of Joshua. (Speaking of weird, that’s a weird turn for this essay to take, but stay with me. Oh, and I suspect there’s an essay on Joshua coming up eventually.) I recently read Joshua and this trip through the book I was taken by how violent the story is, what with all the genocide, etc. But the church of my youth didn’t treat Joshua primarily as a history. I know that’s odd. The denomination completely missed the point of the early chapters of Genesis, treating them as history, but tended to focus on Joshua and Judges as stories that were types of Christ. We didn’t revel in the violence, we saw in the violence the profound difficulty in living a holy life. If you don’t stamp evil out completely in your life as in the Promised Land, that evil will come back to haunt you.

Similarly, the image of Jesus snapping the whip and driving the money changers from the temple was the image of the danger of allowing the secular world to impinge on the sacred. It was the summation of the tragedy described in Joshua and Judges. It was the single picture of the whole Old Testament story of promises to God undercut by our failure to root out the evil in our lives.

I wonder if anyone else remembers that Sunday School picture in the same way I do.

It’s not so much a picture of violence as it is of purity. As Mt. 11:12 says, “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.” (Caveat: I’m no longer sure this is the correct interpretation of this verse, but this was certainly how we viewed these words of Jesus at Bible College. It was a description of the difficulty of living the pure life that John the Baptist embodied.) As a result, after I became a Presbyterian and started doing those things that so horrified the Bible Church of my childhood, finding this text at the midpoint of Lent seemed not only natural, but inevitable. It’s at this point, when all of our good intentions have been revealed for what they are, that we are faced with this icon of purity, of Jesus in our hearts driving out the impurities that we have come to accept with thoughtless ease.

So that’s what I got out of church this week. … I still sort of wonder what Fr. Jay was talking about after the part about the picture of Jesus and the whip in the temple. 🙂

Rights, Responsibility, Freedom, and Self-Control

In the previous two essays about political Liberty and Rights, I emphasized that one of the assumptions about rights built into the Enlightenment was that they were necessarily connected to responsibility. One of the early critiques of the Enlightenment that has become increasingly obvious over the decades is that many of those Enlightenment assumptions were not a result of Enlightenment ideas, but were rather leftovers from the Christian worldview out of which the Enlightenment grew. Responsibility is one of those leftover ideas. The logical conclusion of Enlightenment political theory is Libertarianism, a political philosophy in which there is very little room, if any, for responsibility for others.

While the Liberty and Rights pairing is not a specifically Christian pairing (Liberty, in Christian theology has a different set of implications, especially as Paul uses it in contrast to the Mosaic Law) there is a close analog in Christian theology: The pairing of Freedom and Self-control.

Fr Thomas Hopko, in vol 4 of a slender set of theology books designed for lay readers and church Bible Studies called The Orthodox Faith, contrasts freedom and self-control. “According to the saints, self-control is one of the main elements of the divine image in man, coextensive with the gift of freedom which is often explained as the essential and basic element of man’s likeness to his Creator.”

Just as rights and responsibility are two sides of the same reality, so self-control and freedom are two sides of the same reality. True freedom is achieved in the ability not to exercise it. Similarly, in political philosophy, true rights can only be exercised to the degree that we recognize our responsibility to others, to order, and to the polis in general.