Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Let God Grow

You shall make for yourselves no idols and erect no carved images or pillars, and you shall not place figured stones in your land, to worship at them; for I am the LORD your God. (Leviticus 26.1)

Changing God

Listening to his podcast about Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8, I was bowled over when Shane Hipps, of Mars Hill Bible Church, offered this passing observation:

In the Bible itself, we have the story of a God Who begins with a narrower covenant and then constantly helps [us] widen and expand and evolve and unfold that covenant until it’s bigger and wider and wider and wider, and includes more and more and more people.

The message’s central theme, of course, is inclusion. Citing manifold laws and precedents that God overturns when sending Philip to the Ethiopian, Pastor Hipps makes an airtight case that radical inclusion is God’s will. This isn’t a new idea at Straight-Friendly; from the first post, it’s been the blog’s driving belief. What seized my attention was the premise that God’s story portrays a Creator perpetually revising the covenant with humanity, widening its reach so no one is excluded, a God Who keeps getting bigger and more open-minded, and One Who implicitly expects us to keep pace. While mulling this over, I recalled a similar thought my own pastor expressed recently. Our relationship with God is two-way, she said, “mutual and reciprocated and a joint venture.” In this context, she described a dynamic that “might be a little out-there for some of us to consider”: as we are changed, we are also changing God.

For many, belief in a persistently changing God constitutes heresy. The very idea is too terrifying to contemplate. And we have to ask why that frightens so many of us. Why must God be locked in position—frozen in time—so that every decision and move God makes in Scripture is regarded as final and irreversible? It seems our need for a changeless God is born of desire for God to live the way we live: routinely, predictably, safely. Yet saddling God with the past ultimately limits divine abilities we hope in and rely on—power to create and recreate, to renew and act anew, to interrupt inevitabilities and rewrite our stories, to respond fearlessly to our concerns. As we are changed, we are also changing God. As we obtain wholeness, our understanding and expectations of God expand. It’s a joint venture that won’t succeed if we don’t keep pace with God, or permit God to keep pace with us. We simply cannot grow if we don’t let God grow.

A Rebellious God

Suppose we take a fresh look at the terms of God’s covenant, initially laid out in the Ten Commandments. The first three clauses define how we should regard God: “place no gods before Me” (Exodus 20.3); “make no idols” (v4-6); “do not misuse My name” (v7). We conflate these edicts to mean, “I alone am God, and no other god is worthy of worship.” While that’s the gist of it, it’s not the whole. If it were, the first law would suffice. The interdictions against idolatry and misuse of God’s name are called out to reinforce our awareness that we can’t approach God like other gods because God is fundamentally not like them. The ban on images is meant to prevent God from becoming an idol—a static being whose traits and abilities are carved in stone. The misuse of God’s name is restricted to avoid limiting God to certain roles, realms, and responsibilities. God is the God of all, a living, evolving Entity that refuses to serve our purposes, but instead invites us to serve God’s purpose.

The covenant’s revolutionary nature is so staggering it baffles the Israelites. Even as God is dictating its terms on Mt. Sinai, they’re molding a fixed idea of God at the foot of the hill. It’s impossible for us to conceive their befuddlement when God breaks the mold. God won’t sit still long enough to be sculpted, propped on an altar, hung on a wall, or enshrined in a temple. This is a rebellious God Who ultimately refuses to be nailed down with such ferocity that Death itself comes off its hinges. The idea of a fluid, growing God intent on changing us, and changing with us, is so foreign to Israel that, like us, it keeps trying to bring God into conformity with what it imagines a god should be. That’s why God repeats the anti-idolatry edict again and again. In Leviticus, the worship manual for God’s people, we read, “You shall make for yourselves no idols and erect no carved images or pillars, and you shall not place figured stones in your land, to worship at them; for I am the LORD your God.” (26.1) It’s not only about Baal and other pagan deities. It’s about God, too. “Don’t carve Me in stone,” God says. “I am the LORD your God.”

The Sameness Burden

So what are we saying? Is it possible that belief in a changeless God can lapse into idolatry? Absolutely—if it inhibits God’s growth and movement in our lives. Who God is doesn’t change. But how God works, what God thinks, and the way God moves are constantly in flux. We see this spelled out in Lamentations 3.22-23. “The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases, God’s mercies never come to an end,” it says. Now watch this, “They are new every morning.” God’s love doesn’t change. How God loves us, however, is new every day, because we’re new every day. The writer ties a bow on the idea of a steadfast God Who is full of surprises by declaring, “Great is Your faithfulness.” Faithfulness—constancy, engagement, and presence—is the marker of a growing Creator, Who’s worshiped and trusted. Sameness—predictability, rigidity, and intimidation—is symptomatic of a stunted God, Who’s idolized and feared. God-with-Us grows alongside us, keeping pace with us and expecting us to keep pace with God; God-with-or-without-Us does not. Every morning brings the new mercy of letting God grow, as well as a fresh opportunity to grow with God.

We’re one week from the start of a new Lenten journey that leads us into a desert of discovery, where we seek new insight and experience with this God Who won’t sit still. Millions of believers will travel with us—some of them open to surprises and new mercies sprinkled across 40 mornings, others trudging along, doing the same old thing and looking for the same old God. The latter group views the desert as a place without beauty, where little besides monotony and routine flourish. But if we enter this season determined to let God grow, new life will spring up at every turn, as God gets bigger and God’s covenant expands and God’s presence becomes more vividly known in our lives. In Isaiah 43.18-19 God tells us, “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” As we prepare to enter Lent’s wilderness, let’s relieve God of the sameness burden—the former things, the same-old same-old. Let’s heighten our awareness of new things springing forth. Let’s ready our hearts and minds to let God grow.

O God, we confess to burdening You with sameness that stymies Your growth in our lives and the world around us. We’ve placed our need for predictability, routine, and safety above Your desire to grow. Teach us to prize Your faithfulness. Enable us to see newness with each morning. Give us courage to let You grow at will, to welcome changes in You as we are changed. Amen.

We simply cannot grow if we don’t allow God to grow.

Podcast link:

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Choose to Touch

A leper came to Him begging Him, and kneeling he said to Him, “If You choose, You can make me clean.” Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out His hand and touched him, and said to him, “I do choose.” (Mark 1.40-41)

A Very Big Deal

Some time back, while putting away laundry, my partner Walt called, “Honey, come look at this.” He pointed to a nasty stain that filled a corner in our linen closet and crept across the ceiling. “Mold,” I gasped. Walt asked, “How can that be?” And that really was the question, as the spot, in our apartment’s driest corner, was the least likely place for mold to sprout. We started running scenarios that might account for a sudden outbreak of fungal growth. Where had we gone wrong, we wondered. What had—or hadn’t—we done? How could we clean it up and prevent it from returning? What if it we couldn’t stop it? It was no big deal. Yet it was a very big deal, because mold is unsightly. It signals uncleanliness. Soon we were scrubbing down the closet as if prepping it for delicate surgery. (We never solved the mystery of the mold’s origins.)

How embarrassing for a guest to spot the mold before we did! Yet, as terrible as that prospect seemed, it was nothing compared to what we’d face in ancient times. Hebrew Law considered mold and mildew in one’s home or clothing as types of leprosy—evidence of sickness that might infect the community. Anyone who saw our mold would have been religiously obligated to report us as “unclean.” Until we were ritually cleansed and our house put right, we’d be labeled lepers. And there are other telltale physical symptoms unrelated to mold and mildew that presented the same fate. If winter air chapped our lips or sunburn caused our skin to flake, we’d be lepers. If we had psoriasis, eczema, or any kind of rash, we’d be lepers. If inflamed nerves surfaced as hives or shingles, we’d be lepers.

Leprosy in Scripture isn’t just the ailment now known as Hansen’s disease—a neurologic malady that dries up one’s flesh and often scars limbs. It’s a catchall for many conditions (some infectious, some not) that alarm primitive people. Lepers may be called unclean. But they’re viewed as unsafe. You don’t hang around them, touch them, eat with them, speak to them—you don’t get close enough to breathe their air. Thus, when we open Sunday’s texts to find Elisha helping Naaman, a pagan military leader afflicted with leprosy, and Jesus cleansing a leper, we note these encounters are a big deal, a very big deal.

“If You Choose”

To be fair, Elisha treats Naaman with extreme caution. The commander’s king refers him to Elisha, who’s said to have power to cleanse lepers, and his arrival in Israel creates a lot of anxiety for its monarch. First, he’s not happy about a highly esteemed foreign leper traipsing the countryside, where he’s sure to be shunned by common folks—for good reason. But more than that, Israel’s king worries that failure to remedy Naaman’s condition will stir up trouble with the referring king. Once Elisha catches wind of the problem, he assures his king there’s no need to worry. “Send him to me,” he says. But when Naaman lands at Elisha’s door, the prophet doesn’t risk his health to greet him personally. He forwards a most unusual—and simple—protocol via his servant. He directs Naaman to wash in the Jordan seven times and his skin will clear up. The rude reception and silly advice initially outrage Naaman, whose servants rush to point out if the prophet had asked him to do something difficult, he would have complied. So Naaman does as told and, as promised, the seventh bath restores his flesh “like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean.” (2 Kings 5.14)

In contrast, Jesus responds to a leper’s plea for help with flagrant compassion bordering on recklessness. The leper kneels before Him and says, “If You choose, You can make me clean.” (Mark 1.40) The text goes on: “Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out His hand and touched him and said to him, ‘I do choose. Be made clean!’” Jesus touches the man. Jesus chooses to touch him. Jesus cleanses him. Straightaway, He sends the man to a priest to verify his leprosy has been cleansed, warning him not to tell anyone what happened. But the man can’t keep his secret. “He went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word, so that Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country; and people came to Him from every quarter,” verse 45 reports.

Lepers and Prophets

The two accounts are just similar enough to reveal striking differences. Both Elisha and Jesus possess curative powers and confidently respond to the lepers in unconventional ways. Yet Elisha’s curious decision to treat Naaman at arm’s length also reveals self-concern we don’t find in Jesus. Elisha obeys the Law prohibiting contact with lepers and thus protects his health. Meanwhile, Jesus defies the Law—as well as social taboos and nature itself—by touching the leper. In doing so he debunks the myth that lepers are unsafe, untouchable. The man’s cleansing will not only clear his complexion; it will restore his acceptance into community. After being pushed aside for reasons he can’t control, he will once again belong. And his belonging is more important to Jesus than any criticism or exposure to infection that may result from choosing to touch the man. Mark suggests Jesus’s warning not to divulge how he’s cleansed is a precautionary measure to ensure He can move freely without being inundated with requests for healing. Yet the man’s excitement and gratitude demonstrate what happens when those isolated by affliction and prejudice are restored. Their witness inspires others to find Christ.

So where are we in these stories? Well, basically, we’re everywhere. We’re lepers and we’re prophets. On one hand, we’re afflicted with infectiously toxic ideas and habits that cause us to dry up, marring our appearance and vexing us with discomfort. We’re beset by moldy attitudes that permeate our lives. And we can respond to our situations like Naaman, whose pride almost stops him from humbling himself in obedience to the prophet. Or we can emulate the leper who boldly kneels at Christ’s feet and prays, “If You choose, You can make me clean.” As prophets, we’re also endowed with gifts to restore others who’ve been unjustly denied because of superstitions, ignorance, and fear. In relationship to them, we can be like Elisha, and treat so-called pariahs at arm’s length, telling them what to do without actively engaging in their restoration. Or we can follow Christ’s example by defying taboos and fears with a cleansing touch.

Leprosy comes in many forms. It grows in closets. It seeps into the fabric of life. It discolors skin and disfigures limbs. It infects surroundings and cripples many. Yet it need not destroy us. There is cleansing in Christ’s touch—the defiant power to rejuvenate and replenish our sense of belonging. And once restored, the cleansing power we receive is ours to share with those suffering similar conditions. It’s a secret we can’t keep. It inspires us to move toward them. It changes how we view people who’ve been religiously and socially labeled “unclean.” It humbles us so we no longer distance ourselves from victims of isolation and prejudice. It’s a secret that empowers us to reach for them—to say, “I do choose to touch you. Be made clean!”

Gentle Savior, revitalize our sense of Your cleansing touch. Restore our awareness of the power that You display when we choose to touch others who suffer from isolation and prejudice. Rid us of fear and reluctance so that Your story may continue to be told through us. Amen.

We are all lepers cleansed by Christ’s touch. And we are all prophets who know the power of choosing to touch others plagued by taboos and prejudices.

Podcast link: