Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Sea

There is the sea, vast and spacious, teeming with creatures beyond number—living things both large and small. (Psalm 104.25)

The Most Sacred Substance

While Creationists and Darwinists bicker over the origin of life, both agree water existed before it began. Evolutionists cite water as the medium in which life spontaneously erupted and developed. Although their opponents differ regarding what transpired in the water, they concur it was there from the start, based on Genesis 1.2: “Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.” The implicit agreement between such dogged foes startles us with water’s distinction as the only tangible substance that predates life. We accept it as the basis of life, so much so we can’t conceive life existing anywhere without it. Yet very seldom do we consider water as our tactile connection to eternity and, hence, the divine.

Pass your hand through an open tap stream. Go to the river’s edge and scoop up some water. You have touched a thing older than time, a thing possibly as old as God, since we have no Biblical or scientific explanation for its genesis. Water is as impervious to time as its Maker. It exists in a closed cycle of evaporation and condensation that enables it to permeate the landscape and atmosphere. Like God, it flows where it will, rests where it will, and inhabits infinite forms, yet in all of them it remains invulnerable. It’s impossible to manufacture, contain, or destroy. When an organism dies, its water departs and reenters the life cycle. Thus, the water we taste, see, and feel is the same water that covered our planet from the start. It’s the water that felt God’s Spirit brush its surface. It’s the water that flowed in Eden’s delta, deluged Noah, obeyed Moses, and washed over Jesus in baptism. It’s the same water. Water is, has always been, and will forever be the most sacred substance on Earth. Why don’t we get that?

Tampering with the Tabernacle

Nowhere is water’s majesty more visible than the sea. By extension, nowhere do we find a clearer reflection of God’s creativity and energy. Like the water it contains—and the God it reflects—the sea has a life of its own that the rest of Creation draws from and is drawn to. It is, in every way, the reservoir of life and everything that occurs on the planet is made possible by it. The moisture rising from its surface collects in the sky to be transported across the land, where it rains down growth, sustenance, and refreshment. Then, in a miraculous feat of divine gathering, water that escaped the sea makes its way home, carving through mountains and plains, creating climates and terrain to support the planet’s vast diversity of organisms—or, in some regions, fostering diversity of life by its absence. Regardless where we are on the planet, the sea’s journey to and from us affects our lives.

Then there’s the sea itself—a universe we glimpse into and try to understand but can never inhabit. It’s a fearsome thing of astonishing beauty and resilience. Its majesty is displayed in immense tranquility as well as overwhelming ferocity. Because it is at once so familiar and yet completely alien to us, because it’s composed of Earth’s most sacred substance and filled with life forms older than we (another detail we all can agree on), the sea becomes the preeminent place to behold our Maker’s majesty. When Psalm 104’s poet extols the magnificence of Creation, he writes, “There is the sea, vast and spacious, teeming with creatures beyond number—living things both large and small.” (v25)

To be sure, all Creation reveals God’s nature and handiwork. All of it should be revered and cherished. But the sea’s prominence as giver and sustainer of life sets it apart as a tabernacle housing God’s majesty in all its mysterious wonder. And when our greed, curiosity, or convenience leads to tampering with the tabernacle on any scale, we shouldn’t expect to be rewarded. So while we can, and should, loathe BP’s recklessness, we’d do well to drop our stones, because none of us is sinless in this matter. We’ve all, at some point, in some way, put self-concern above reverence for the sea and the planet it nurtures.

The Wisdom Narrative

It’s common knowledge Genesis provides two (markedly different) Creation accounts. It’s seldom noted, however, that Proverbs 8 offers a third version we might call “The Wisdom Narrative.” As far as I know, it’s the only first-person testimony we have, other than God’s occasional mention of our origins. Here, “Wisdom” tells the story, prefacing it with, “I was appointed from eternity, from the beginning, before the world began. When there were no oceans, I was given birth.” (v23-24) The narrator goes on to describe the fashioning of the heavens, seas, and land, adding, “Then I was the craftsman at his side. I was filled with delight day after day, rejoicing always in his presence, rejoicing in his whole world and delighting in mankind.” (v30-31)

Of course, this is Solomon taking poetic license. Yet as believers striving to get our arms around our environmental responsibilities, we should incorporate his version into our awareness. Solomon tells us wisdom is older than water, which makes it key to environmentally sound behavior. Was it wise for BP to expedite deep-sea drilling without heed to warnings, precautions, and contingencies? No. Are we any wiser in ignoring warnings, precautions, and contingencies attached to goods and services we use or habits we’d rather not break? No, we are not. In light of the disasters we’ve seen of late and ongoing tragedies we’ve abetted, Wisdom’s closing remarks in verses 34-36 are chilling: “Blessed is the man who listens to me, watching daily at my doors, waiting at my doorway. For whoever finds me finds life and receives favor from the LORD. But whoever fails to find me harms himself; all who hate me love death.”

The sea is the tabernacle where God’s majesty is displayed in all its wonder. Tampering with it on any scale is not wise.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Left Behind

Anyone who runs ahead and does not continue in the teaching of Christ does not have God; whoever continues in the teaching has both the Father and the Son. (2 John 1.8)

Opening “The Book”

Part of me wishes modern Christians were as saturated with Biblical fascination as first-century believers were. Then again, part of me is glad we’re not. Right out of the gate, Acts 2.42 reports Early Church converts “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” In other words, they spent their waking hours together, sifting through Scripture, filtering it through the apostles’ doctrine, establishing it as their common bond, becoming intimately acquainted with one another around the table, and uniting themselves in prayer. Boy, doesn’t that sound ideal? Well, yes and no.

The first believers encountered the same challenges we face when discussing God’s Word—agreement. The only difference between them and us was they spent more time in study, which meant the average believer was more fluent in Biblical texts than today’s Christian. In part, this was because Jews comprising the Early Church’s majority could quote texts backward and forward. But the biggest reason involved unavailability of Christian writing. There were no gospels or epistles—no New Testament. Thus, the “apostles’ teaching” coupled oral history of Jesus’s life and ministry with Old Testament writing, more specifically, prophecy, since Early Church leaders almost exclusively relied on Messianic promises to prove Christ’s divinity and validate His message.

Yet the apostles discovered opening “The Book,” as they called the Jewish canon, declared open season on its contents. Alternative doctrines soon sprung up everywhere, all of them based on biased reading of non-prophetic passages. The unrecorded teachings of Christ were trampled by a stampede into new-fangled legalism and conventions crafted from Jewish law and ritualism. Despite the apostles’ concerted effort to halt this trend, it persists to this day. We still see doctrines quilted out of Old Testament patches improbably stitched together by New Testament threads teased out of context. That’s why, although I’d love more Christians to know God’s Word better, I’m relieved many don’t. Who knows how many more “Christian” schisms would subvert Christ’s message with woe-begotten emphases on arcane texts?

Where the Truth Lies

It’s often said there are as many meanings in Scripture as there are readers. Yet while we’re constrained to respect everyone’s right to believe according to his/her personal understanding or leanings, we’re by no means compelled to credence those beliefs—regardless who (or how many “who’s”) adopt them. At the end of the day, Christ’s teaching is where the truth lies. And any time we find scriptural interpretation at odds with the principles and practices He taught, we can dismiss it out-of-hand. It conflicts with truth. It may be lifted word-for-word from the Bible. It may be preached from pulpits. It may sound “godly” and profess “godliness.” But if it even slightly contradicts Jesus’s teaching, it’s unacceptable, extraneous doctrine that potentially leads to erroneous thinking and behavior.

Second John is addressed to a church—possibly the Church—teetering on disaster after entertaining doctrines contrived from scriptural selectivity. It appears the intended readers have fallen for deceptive teaching by assuming “scriptural evidence” makes it theologically sound. But listen to John’s response to their poor discernment: “Anyone who runs ahead and does not continue in the teaching of Christ does not have God; whoever continues in the teaching has both the Father and the Son.” (2 John 1.8) Contrary to what many thought then and many think now, the Gospel of Christ isn’t a jumping-off point to run rampant through Scripture and reach our own conclusions. Christ’s teaching is everything: the start, the course, and the finish. We continue in it. When we dash down secondary paths, we get ahead of ourselves. And when we run ahead, He gets left behind.

Continuity in Christ

So how do we avoid being led astray by over-reaching Biblical interpretation? We maintain continuity in Christ. We’re blessed in ways the Early Church couldn’t imagine, simply because we have Christ’s lessons and the apostles’ expansion on His teaching in writing. We not only know where the truth lies. We know where to find it. Thus, it’s imperative we steep ourselves in His teaching so we’re fluent in everything He said and did. Saturating ourselves with Christ’s teaching endows us with faculties to evaluate the rest of Bible, both Old and New Testaments. Any passage or interpretation that doesn’t harmonize with His instructions is irrelevant. It interrupts our continuity and leaves Christ behind.

All the same, we mustn’t mistake continuity in Christ’s teaching to mean there’s no benefit in remaining Scripture. Both He and the apostles commonly cited earlier texts to uphold His teaching. Thus, the more comprehensive our scriptural knowledge is, the more astute our understanding of Christ’s doctrine will be. In Matthew 22, the Sadducees—an obstreperous sect that prided itself in splitting Biblical hairs—pose a ludicrous question about a woman who’s widowed six times and married seven. “Who’s wife will she be at the resurrection?” they ask. Jesus replies, “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God.” (v29) They got ahead of themselves and missed the point. (In essence, Jesus corrects them by saying resurrection isn’t about mortality issues; it’s about freedom from them.) Scripture reveals God’s power. It witnesses Christ’s Lordship. It proves His teaching. Using it for any other purpose destroys our continuity in Him. Running ahead gets us nowhere. When we leave Christ’s teaching behind we end up completely lost.

When we use Christ’s teaching as a starting point to reach our own conclusions, we get ahead of ourselves and leave His principles behind.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Washing Wounds

At that hour of the night the jailer took them and washed their wounds; then immediately he and all his family were baptized. (Acts 16.33)


Inasmuch as the ancient world trafficked in stardom, Paul qualified as a minor celebrity. He won early notoriety as an anti-Christian activist prominently involved in the prosecutions and persecutions of first-century believers. Then he reversed his position to become the Early Church’s most outspoken, fearless, and widest-traveled figure. Whether or not he was a recognized name to the general public we don’t know. But he was clearly a person of note to the religious and political establishment. If he were alive today, in our age of 24/7 gossip and scandal, his every exploit would be grist for the mill. One imagines catching items in the CNN news ribbon: Paul outrages Greeks with sermon… Paul survives shipwreck… Paul and associate, Silas, arrested for disturbing peace in Philippi…. That last item would generate several updates. Promoters bring public suit against Paul and Silas for exorcising Philippi’s top psychic… Paul and Silas flogged and imprisoned in Philippi… Local jail destroyed when earthquake strikes Philippi; all prisoners accounted for… Paul and Silas save Philippi jailer from suicide attempt… Jailer and family convert to Christianity; late-night baptism held at jailer’s home… Charges dropped against Paul and Silas in quake aftermath….

Like so many stories told in headlines, sensationalism bruises the humanity in this tale. When Acts 16 surfaced in lectionary readings a couple weeks back, a number of astute and unique perspectives restored the humanity for me—most notably in From Captivity to Freedom, a superb rendering of the story by our associate pastor, Larissa Kwong Abazia, and Claire’s compelling take on the jailer, Signs. The two dovetail perfectly, as Larissa challenges us to recognize how unusual experiences alter our perceptions of the mundane, while Claire leads us through the narrative inside out, placing Paul and Silas in service of the jailer’s story. I’ve reread the story numerous times since then. Every time, I’m shaken by verse 33: “At that hour of the night the jailer took them [Paul and Silas] and washed their wounds; then immediately he and all his family were baptized.” For me, at least, that’s where the real earthquake happens.

Prisoner of Fear

As Larissa points out, Paul and Silas’s imprisonment is largely due to the Apostle’s annoyance with the psychic. She’s been trailing them all over town, declaring them “servants of the Most High God, who are telling you the way to be saved.” (v17) Paul’s concern about being made a spectacle of rouses him to disable the psychic’s gifts and inadvertently puts him and Silas center stage—the very thing he wants to avoid. He’s not overly mindful about what will happen to the psychic—a slave to several hucksters—now that she’s stripped of her gifts. She’s a problem and he just wants her to go away. That's why his self-interest backfires. He and Silas become slaves to the same corrupt regime that exploited the psychic. Curiously, they don’t seem to get this. There’s no record of any remorse on their part. Instead, they persist in their impetuosity. When the earthquake hits around midnight, they’re entertaining the other prisoners by “praying and singing hymns to God.” (v25) Such bravado!

The jailer is the story’s true prisoner of fear. He’s an order-taker whose job depends on loyalty to the bosses, with no confidence it will be repaid. He’s an easy target if things go wrong and the blame-game starts. Despite their indifference to the psychic’s fate, Paul and Silas shouldn’t be jailed in the first place. The psychic’s owners are guilty here, first for exploiting a gifted woman and second for fomenting controversy to humiliate and silence Paul and Silas. Since they, not the disciples, are in bed with powers that be, they’re whom the jailer fears most. In the aftershock, he sees the jail doors flung open and starts to commit suicide. Better to die than suffer the same fate as those he keeps. Now we see Paul’s compassion. In the shaking, he’s come to his senses. “We’re all here,” he shouts. The jailer asks, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” (v31) He’s looking for pragmatic advice—what to do to keep his job. But Paul and Silas offer him something greater: freedom from fear. “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.” (v31) What we see next is simply amazing.

The jailer and his family believe and are saved. In Early Church times, baptism immediately followed a convert’s confession of faith. In Acts 2.38, Peter tells the onlookers at Pentecost: “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” Baptism “sealed the deal” and inducted new believers into the Christian household of faith. But the jailer won’t wait for proper induction. His faith secures his inclusion before it’s officially acknowledged. Instinctively, he honors Christ’s command to do for others what he would have them do for him. Before a basin of water is drawn for his baptism, he draws water to wash Paul and Silas’s wounds. He ministers to them first.

We Can’t Wait

Once we remove the headlines to discover its humanity, what does this story say to us? A number of things, actually, all of them loosely connected to a random geological event, a shaking that alters perceptions and topples traditions. First, we shouldn’t revere church leaders as ideals. They're human, every bit as vulnerable to impatience, impetuosity, and shortsightedness as we are. They will make mistakes that perplex us and get them in trouble. Second, we need not live in fear of powers that be. A Higher Power capable of shaking the very foundations of power, loosing shackles, and opening doors, exists. But third—and most important, I think—we can’t wait for proof of inclusion to obey Christ. Instinctively, we must make washing wounds our first priority.

The jailer could have balked at Paul and Silas’s message of faith. “Fix this mess first,” he might have said. “Then I’ll believe.” He could have looked at their wounds and said, “Once you accept me, I’ll take care of you.” But he didn’t. We can’t, either. In the rubble of allegedly secure structures, we can find faith to believe. Before we’re fully accepted or acknowledged, we can heal. When the jailer washes Paul and Silas’s wounds, he baptizes them. The water he pours into their injuries witnesses the Spirit that flows through him prior to formal acceptance. May that same Spirit flow through us. May washing wounds be a ministry we share.

We can’t rely on leaders to live up to our ideals or structures to remain sound. We can’t wait for acceptance to wash wounds. We can’t—we won’t—be afraid.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Time on the Wheel

I went down to the potter’s house, and I saw him working at the wheel. But the pot he was shaping from the clay was marred in his hands; so the potter formed it into another pot, shaping it as seemed best to him. (Jeremiah 18.3-4)

Shaped by Weaknesses

My cousin and I were having a heart-to-heart discussion about past mistakes we’d not been comfortable sharing when we were younger. We marveled at how essential our foolishness became to our growth and maturity. The feeling no one understood planted in us a calling to understand. The fear our mistakes were unforgivable taught us why forgiveness is such a gift—not in terms of being forgiven, but in being able to forgive. The pain and isolation we suffered heightened our compassion for those suffering pain and isolation. Would we do things differently? Probably. We would be better for it? Perhaps not.

We were astounded by how much we’re shaped by weaknesses. Remorse is a powerful motivator and sorrow often steers us to happier places. How we’re affected by our failure indubitably affects our response to failure around us. As we talked on about this “shaping” business, our thoughts turned to the Jeremiah passage about the potter. And we noticed something that neither of us ever considered before—something that may have changed us both forever.

The First Half of the Story

“I went down to the potter’s house, and I saw him working at the wheel,” Jeremiah says. When he enters, the potter's been at the wheel quite a while. He doesn’t say what’s gone into getting the clay this far. But it's clear Jeremiah only observes the back half of the story. The clay has already taken the shape of a pot—a vessel. Even at this late stage, there are issues. “The pot he was shaping from the clay was marred in his hands; so the potter formed it into another pot, shaping it as seemed best to him,” we’re told. (Jeremiah 18.4) The pressure of the molding causes the potter to start over again. The process has reached a point where his sole concern is the vessel. The metaphor is very clear. We are clay in our Potter's hands and He patiently works at the wheel, molding and remaking us until we're shaped to His pleasure. Still there’s more to this than shaping a vessel. The first half of the story is buried in the clay.

Jeremiah doesn’t see the potter dig the clay out of a pit, or how he holds it in his hands, warming it to his touch. He kneads it to make it more malleable. Once he’s confident this inert lump can become something useful, he puts it on the wheel. As the clay revolves, flaws and impurities come to the surface. Some are inherent to the clay. Some are imbedded by the carelessness of others—shards of glass, cast-off paper and twine, bent nails, etc. With each spin, the potter meticulously pulls these unworthy bits from the clay. He smoothes out the flaws and reinforces the weak spots. As he continues, the clay falters. Forces at work cause it to buckle and collapse. The potter knows he’s working with an unwieldy medium. It’s sticky and resistant. So he introduces water to increase its pliability. He’s prepared to refine his approach, recalibrating his touch until the clay becomes the vessel he envisions. This is the part of the story Jeremiah witnesses—the reshaping of the pot. But what he misses—what we miss—is the time on the wheel that makes the clay useful.

Clay Beginnings

We are vessels with clay beginnings. Our Potter doesn’t take us off a shelf of prefabricated pots. He digs us out of the pit. He sees in our raw material something He can use. And long before we achieve any recognizable form as His vessels of honor, He works with us, removing our impurities, smoothing out our flaws, reinforcing our weak spots. The water of His Spirit makes us pliable and easier to work with.

Rather than lament past failures due to inherent flaws and impurities imbedded in us by others’ carelessness, we rejoice. All those “lost” times were not lost at all. They comprise the first half of our story—the time on the wheel needed to make our clay useful. We’re not pretty during this phase of our shaping. It’s a messy, messy experience. The beauty comes later, when the vessel becomes a recognizable product of the Potter’s patience. But even then the vessel’s value is in the clay—its strength to withstand future heat and pressure because of its time on the wheel.

We waste too much worry trying to escape or explain our past, when we should embrace it (in all its messiness) as essential to our making. Battles with guilt and resentment are futile relics of a time before we discovered our Potter held us in hands all along. “Being confident of this,” Philippians 1.6 encourages us, “that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” The good work in us began long, long ago, long before being aware we were clay in the Potter’s hands, long before we responded to His touch, long before we believed we could become honorable vessels. We’ve been on the wheel longer than we realize. And yes, we've got a long way yet to go. But once we recognize how much the Potter's already done with us on the wheel, trusting His care and judgement become part of the process.

Long before we take shape as worthy vessels, the Potter works with our clay.