Thursday, March 8, 2012

A Better Country

They desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, God has prepared a city for them. (Hebrews 11.16)

People of the Promise

I hadn’t counted on politics becoming a Lenten hazard. But it has. The US Republican primaries, European financial crisis, Iranian-Israeli saber rattling, Syrian tragedy, Afghani war, and ongoing human rights issues tied to industrialized Asia persistently intrude on Lent’s silence and contemplation. The world is in a bad way. We are in a bad way. Greed and power lust have poisoned the wells of compassion and empathy. Rarely do we hear officials put forth policy based on justice and righteousness. We seldom hear anyone equate political gain with moral equity and goodness. More and more, our journey across Lent’s wilderness resembles a hike through a minefield, a survey of scorched earth. Summoning the faith to find God in the midst of this is exceedingly difficult, since God adamantly resigns participation in human strife. God is there. But since this is our show, we’ve upstaged God. For me, at least, this Lenten experience could be called, “Looking for God in Hard-to-Find Places”.

Fortuitously, this year’s lectionary leads us back to our roots—to heroic Old Testament men and women whose faith hoisted them above human indifference. Their wildernesses were very real and the impact of social, economic, and political realities intruded on every aspect of their lives. Hebrews 11, one of the most glorious chapters in all of Scripture, collects their stories into an epic narrative of faith that speaks to us today in no uncertain terms. We might title it “People of the Promise”. It gives us a virtual roll call of individuals who believed God and transformed their belief into a way of seeing the world by seeing through it. As real as their hardships and dismay were, they focused on a higher reality—a new world of justice, righteousness, and peace that can, and will, result from pursuing lives of faith.

Looking Forward

The Hebrews writer refers to this new reality as a city, saying our hope in God’s promise of a better world goes back to Abraham, the founder of our faith. Verses 8-10 read, “By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.” The author resounds this note in verse 16: “They desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, God has prepared a city for them.”

When we revisit the sagas of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and the other legends Hebrews celebrates, we’re struck by the tumultuousness of their times and yet how they seem to exist out of time. They deal with crises of conscience, family tragedies, natural and economic catastrophes, political oppression, regime change, devastating wars, enormous social shifts, and every kind of moral chaos. Through all of it, they keep looking forward, pressing their way with unyielding faith in God’s promises, desiring a better country—a heavenly one, Hebrews says, meaning a world reconciled to God’s principles and intentions. Their promised land was one of peace, justice, and equity where God could find a proper home. And their unshakable belief that this world could exist propelled them ahead. More than that, however, their faith compelled them live in the wicked world as though the promised one already existed. How did that work out for them? Verses 32-38 tell us they made tremendous strides at times; at others, they suffered great setbacks and many of them paid severely for their faith. They made “their way as best they could on the cruel edges of the world,” the writer says. Yet through all of it, they held fast to God’s promises, even though, as Hebrews takes care to point out, every one of them died without seeing God’s promises come to fruition.

Will Easter Find Us Resurrected?

Lent’s call to repentance and self-examination turns our thoughts inward. We avail ourselves to its solitude and silence as a nurturing environment for inner peace and direction. But surely God brings us into the desert for more than a spiritual retuning. Surely what comes out of our experience should surpass what we gain from it personally. And it’s incumbent on us to ask, “What are we doing out here in the wilderness? What are these wilderness-wrought changes we undergo really for? Is there not a greater purpose at work here?” If we embrace the Old Testament titans’ wanderings and Jesus’s wilderness temptation as precedents, we can’t possibly accept the notion that Lent is all about us. Indeed, what happens to us during our season of consecration is meant to reshape us so that we can reshape our world. Relearning how to survive on God’s promises should, and must, rekindle our desire for a better country, a city founded on its Architect and Maker’s principles—a promised land fit for God’s presence, a new world. And thus, while we’re in Lent’s desert, we must keep looking forward, gauging our personal progress in context with how it equips us to usher in a new reality. How will we transfer the love, peace, and harmony we find to other lives and hateful, contentious, and distraught situations we enter? Will Easter find us resurrected as people of promise, even though it’s probable we won’t see the promise fulfilled in our lifetimes?

On further reflection, perhaps it’s a godsend that this Lent asks us to grapple with tensions created by pursuing faithful lives in the midst of sociopolitical strife and moral decay. Perhaps seeing a world gone wrong at every turn will return our sights to God’s promise of a righteous world, a better country—a heavenly one. Perhaps the extreme wickedness and loss of direction that surround us will galvanize our commitment to disarm minefields and replenish scorched earth. We pray this will be so, just as we pray that what the Hebrews writer says of our heroic ancestors will be said of us: God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, God has prepared a city for them. Amen.

Traveling Lent’s desert makes vivid our awareness that our world has become a minefield of strife, a wasteland of scorched earth. And that begs us to ask how spiritual transformation we experience during this time will bring about a better world.

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Postscript: Questions 12 & 13

When does Lent stop being about us and become something greater than us that leads to a better world?

How do we transpose our renewed faith in God’s love, peace, and acceptance into promises we bring to daily life and its struggle?

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Destiny vs Destination

Thomas said to Him, “Lord, we do not know where You are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.” (John 14.5-6)

Finding Oneself

I met a most fascinating woman many years ago—so long ago I don’t recall her name or the occasion that brought us together. But our conversation was unlike any I’ve ever had, because her story was unlike any I’d ever heard. She was near or past 70, and had just sailed around the world on a series of tramp steamers. The instant I heard this, my movie brain kicked in. I envisioned her voyage in black-and-white, with her wandering through one exotic port of call after another. Yet when I asked her what the experience was like, she said, “It was tedious.” I would imagine an adventure on that scale being anything but tedious, I said. “Oh, but it is,” she told me, “because of the scale of it. Most of the time is spent at sea on a working ship, with a crew that more or less puts up with you. I read a lot of books, spent most of my time alone, and stared at nothing but blue sea. And while I did see a lot of the world, the touring became secondary to the rest of it. I learned that traveling the world—flying here and there—is much different than sailing around it. You have no idea how big the planet is until you do that.”

Her appearance hinted that she was a woman of means. So I asked if the adventure ever got so tedious that she considered forgetting the whole thing and flying home. “The first two or three times we put into port I battled that,” she told me. “But I eventually realized I’d bit off something bigger than sailing from point to point. The trip stopped being about any particular destination. It became about me, and what I was learning about myself in the middle of nowhere. I began to understand time and space, thinking and not thinking in new ways. I learned how to wake up every day with no greater goal than letting the day be, and being in the day.” Though she didn’t articulate it as such, her comments rang with a sense of destiny, the process of finding oneself—in her case, of finding her place in the world by discovering how big the world really is.

Letting Each Day Be

In many ways, Lent calls us into a similar adventure. We set out across a vast wilderness that may increase our opportunity to experience new and unusual things. But, for the most part, it’s a solitary, increasingly tedious journey that hones our understanding of time and space, thinking and not thinking, listening for every new sound, and most of all, letting each day be while we learn to be in the day. The longer we traverse Lent’s monotonous expanse, we’re less concerned about its destination than coming to grips with our destiny. Being here, wherever we are now, subsumes our concerns about getting there, wherever that may be—whether it’s the cross and empty tomb, or finding a place in our Christian experience that we’ve never before reached.

The struggle between fixating over destination and finding one’s destiny is as old as the Christian faith. It’s the crux of Jesus’s exchange with Thomas in John 14. Jesus is prepping the disciples for His imminent death and departure, telling them that He’s going away to prepare a place for them. “I will come again and will take you to Myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going,” He says in verses 3 and 4. Thomas has no idea where Jesus is going and he panics to think he won’t reach the destination. “How can we know the way?” he asks. (v5) His question triggers one of Jesus’s most frequently quoted statements: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.” (v6)


Regrettably, this is one of those perfect storms where context, translation, and emphasis have got so garbled it’s possible—perhaps even likely—to read the passage and come away with the exact opposite of what Jesus is saying. To sort this out, let’s start by acknowledging concessions we have to make. With the Gospels being written roughly 20-50 years after Christ’s ascension (in John’s case, 50), we accept that Jesus’s statements, much like my recounting the conversation above, are approximations based on memory, not precise quotes. One concedes they’re more apt to be condensations of lengthier talks in which Jesus explained His teachings in greater depth. Then we must also allow for additional fuzz to accumulate by way of translation. Often what began as rhetorical gets transmuted into something more literal, as with this passage.

Jesus starts by comparing God’s kingdom to a “house” with “many dwelling places” (v2)—i.e., a spiritual realm with room for all. But the King James Bible and other versions translate “dwelling places” as “mansions” or “rooms,” suggesting a literal location that sounds more like a final, celesital destination than an ever-present spiritual abode. The emphasis shifts from Jesus leading us into a new way of life—which is how the original texts read—to a foretelling of life after death and the Second Coming. In this context, Thomas’s question makes sense. Who knows how that’s supposed to work? Thus, Jesus’s response is taken as an explanation that contradicts what He’s actually saying. “I am the way, truth, and life; no one comes to the Father except through Me,” sounds a whole lot like, “Unless you’re a Christian, you’re not going to Heaven.”

Jesus expressly is not talking about Heaven and most definitely isn’t putting up guard-rails that deny access to God. He’s talking about a truthful way of life, describing the believer’s destiny in life, not a destination after death. He’s telling us we can access God by following His way, believing His truth, and receiving His life. And here’s the final twist: Jesus is speaking as God, because Jesus is God. To come to Jesus is to come to God. Not only in this passage, but throughout the Gospels—particularly in John—we hear Jesus dispute the idea of exclusion, based on His understanding as God.

One With God

In John 10, He proclaims, “I am the good shepherd. I know My own and My own know Me, just as the Father knows Me and I know the Father. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to My voice.” (v14-16; emphasis added) Jesus’s comments about radical inclusion split His audience. John says many of them say, “He has a demon and is out of His mind;” others, who hear the promise of all-inclusive love and acceptance, protest, “These are not the words of One Who has a demon!” (v20-21) Not long after this, Jesus reengages the religious set and takes up the inclusion topic again. Verses 26-30: “You do not believe, because you do not belong to My sheep. My sheep hear My voice. I know them, and they follow Me. I give them eternal life and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of My hand. What My Father has given Me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. The Father and I are One.” (Emphasis added)

Let’s read this closely. “Sheep that do not belong to this fold” are people outside the strictures of religious law and tradition. Yet they listen to Jesus. Jesus knows them. To them He gives (present tense) eternal life—life now and always—and promises, “they will never perish” (future tense). Destiny, not destination. “What My Father has given Me is greater than all else,” Jesus says. Anything we point to in an attempt to deny Jesus’s message of inclusion is irrelevant. Any doctrine that says anyone who believes will be rejected—whether by creed or creation—is dismantled. “No one will snatch them out of My hand,” Jesus declares. “Nor will the power to include them be snatched from the Father’s hand, because the Father and I are One.” (Those clinging to a masculine God should note Jesus’s word for “One” is gender neutral, confirming God’s inclusive will and nature.)

A Present Calling

This teaching of inclusive unity between God and Jesus, between God, Jesus, and us, climaxes in Gethsemane, where Jesus prays, “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in Me through their word, that they may all be one. As You, Father, are in Me and I am in You, may they also be in Us, so that the world may believe that You have sent Me. The glory that You have given Me I have given them, so that they may be one as We are One. I in them and You in Me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that You have sent Me and have loved them even as You have loved Me. Father, I desire that those also, whom You have given Me, may be with Me where I am, to see My glory, which You have given Me because You loved Me before the foundation of the world.” (John 17.20-24; emphasis added)

Jesus prays that we access a state of being that witnesses His divinity and God’s love to the world. It’s a present calling to access our destiny in Christ, to be united with God as One. Jesus prays that we who believe the Good News passed down by the Apostles will be with Him where He is, to experience His glory revealed in that moment, when Death hovers and the promise of Life will not tremble—to know that God loves us from the dawn of time and will not relinquish that love for all of eternity.

Heaven sure sounds grand; eons and eons in God’s unfiltered presence, where death and hatred and suffering no longer exist. But—oh my—how much grander is the promise that we can access our destiny in God now, that we accept Christ’s way, truth, and life and know that we belong to God! To come to Christ is to enter Christ, to be received as one with God and to live in the world as sheep of a defiantly loving Shepherd. Wherever Lent takes us, I pray we discover our breathtaking destiny in this life as we go through its process.

Lent’s desert expedition opens us to the realization that coming to Christ is about accepting our destiny in present life, rather than focusing solely on a far-off, future destination.

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Postscript: Questions 10 & 11

How does accepting our destiny in this life—rather than focusing our energies on reaching a far-off, future destination—reshape our concept of faith?

What does accepting our destiny in Christ require of us in the here and now?

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Promises! Promises!

No distrust made [Abraham] waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what God had promised. (Romans 4.20-21)

The Debate Team

A close friend in recovery was explaining how the tone and emphasis vary in different 12-step groups he attends. One of them, he said, spends a lot of time on Step 3: “Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood God.” In their discussions, a phrase he didn’t understand at first kept popping up. “I decided to quit the debate team,” they’d say. I asked what they meant. “They figured out they weren’t going to make any progress as long as they argued with themselves about whether or not God exists, and wondered if God really cared about them,” he said. As long as they tried to intellectualize faith in God, they’d run in circles and couldn’t get well. “There are a lot of folks, with and without dependency issues, who need to quit the debate team,” I remarked. My friend nodded, “Yep. If you’re waiting for answers, you’ll be in a rut. At some point, you have to stop arguing and start accepting.”

His comment reminded me of something our pastor said recently: “God promises to hold our questions, to stand with us in the gray.” But we must first believe that, if we’re to know God’s presence in our questions. Without that little faith leap, our inner debates will continue. The arguments won’t go away. The doubts won’t ease. Nowhere in Scripture are we told—nor do we see—that God despises questions. Nearly every great hero in Scripture, from Abraham to Jesus and the Apostles, wants answers that never come. Even when God does reply, the answers aren’t what the askers are looking for.

When God calls Moses to lead Israel, the tongue-tied shepherd asks, “How can I convince the people to follow me?” God says, “Tell them, ‘I AM has sent you.” (Exodus 3.14) When the angel informs Mary she will bear the Christ Child, she asks, “How is this possible?” The angel explains, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.” (Luke 1.35) When Paul asks why God doesn’t relieve the “thorn in his flesh,” God says, “My grace is sufficient.” (2 Corinthians 12.9) Time after time, we hear people whom God uses ask God for answers; time and again, we hear God say, “You’re gonna have to trust Me with this.” In Love Wins, Rob Bell writes, “There is no question that Jesus cannot handle, no discussion too volatile, no issue too dangerous.” Questions don’t scare God. They scare us and until we learn to live with them, we’ll be stranded on the debate team, making no progress toward wholeness.

Hoping Against Hope

If faith in a God Who promises to hold our questions seems like a stretch, this next bit may be a mind-bender. As a rule, God makes promises that raise new questions we can’t answer. In Sunday’s Old and New Testament readings, we revisit the story of God’s covenant with Abraham, a 99-year-old whose elderly wife, Sarah, is barren. “I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you,” God vows in Genesis 17.6 Unfortunately, the chosen passage stops short of Abraham’s question. In verse 17, he laughs as he asks, “Will a son be born to a 100-year-old man? Will Sarah give birth at 90?” All God says is, “Yes,” without explaining how it will be possible. It’s a promise riddled with riddles, yet Abraham is prescient enough to resist arguing its impossibilities. He quits the debate team. He accepts God’s promise as is. And God honors it.

In Romans 4, Paul retells Abraham’s story, writing, “Hoping against hope, he believed that he would become ‘the father of many nations’… He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what God had promised.” (v18-21)

Hoping against hope is one of those oblique phrases Paul likes to use when he wants us to figure something out on our own. God’s covenant with Abraham is a hopeless proposition. He and Sarah have tried for decades to get pregnant with no luck. To appease Abraham’s desire for a child, Sarah permitted him to sleep with her maid and suffered the humiliation of watching her husband rear an out-of-wedlock son. Of all the promises God could have made, God bases the covenant with Abraham on the most hopeless, emotionally charged aspect of his and Sarah’s union. Unanswerable questions had to perplex them. (When Abraham tells Sarah about God’s promise, she laughs, too.) Yet Abraham hopes against hope. He sets arguments aside. “No distrust made him waver,” Paul says.


All of my life I’ve heard people say, “God said it, I believe it, and that settles it.” If only that were so. More often than not, believing what God says can be very unsettling. At some point, we have to turn from hopelessness and cling to hope that makes no earthly sense. At some point, we have to understand we may never understand. Like Moses, we answer God’s call on the strength of Who God is. Like Mary, we trust the Holy Spirit is working in us to give birth to something miraculous. Like Paul, we rely on God’s grace. And, alas, sometimes like Jesus, we hang in torment and cry, “Why have You forsaken me?” And yet, like Abraham, we also recognize trying to figure God out is our surest way to get in God’s way. “He grew strong in his faith,” Paul says, “as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced God was able to do what God promised.” That’s how we quit the debate team—realizing our inability to understand has no bearing on God’s ability to do what God promises.

Promises! Promises! The Bible overflows with them, and with them come, Questions! Questions! that rarely provide Answers! Answers! We have to learn to live with that, to accept that just because God says it and we believe it doesn’t always settle it. My friend shared another statement from one of his groups that helps greatly, I think, with how we can learn to live with God’s promises, our questions, and the absence of answers. One of the participants said, “Let God be with you now. Don’t drag God back into yesterday or push God into tomorrow. God with you now is enough.” God promises to hold our questions and stand with us in the gray. That’s a promise too wonderful to debate.

More often than not, God’s promises raise questions we can’t answer, leaving us little choice but to trust God to hold our questions and stand with us in the gray.

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