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Wednesday, October 21, 2009

A Great Multitude from Every Nation

This blog is called "Honest Talk with God." In the summer of 2006, I was honest with God. Living just outside of Washington DC, I loved the diversity of the community. We had neighbors from Ghana, Jordan, England, China, and El Salvador. As a pastor, I helped ordain pastors from China and Ghana, I baptized people from Laos, Argentina, and Sudan, and I worked in ministry with people from truly exotic places like Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and North Carolina.

You may read this and think, "big whoop!" To me, it was huge. Before going to Northern Virginia, I had prayed that God would bless me with friendships with people from backgrounds different than my own. At the end of my seminary life in 1997, I was painfully aware that almost all my friends were middle class white people. Don't get me wrong; I love middle class white people. But there are billions in the world who are not white and do not speak English as a first language and do not come from the economic and socially dominant Caucasian group. I felt my view of humanity and my relationship with God were both severely limited by the fact that my relationships didn't go beyond people who were like me.

So, life in Northern Virginia was a blessing that amazed me for 9 years. But in the summer of 2006, God was telling me it was time to leave that wonderful place and go somewhere I didn't think I wanted to go - North Carolina. I knew our family was headed to a wonderful church. I never worried about that. But I did not know that the beautiful diversity I so treasured in Arlington, VA would also be found in Chapel Hill. And I told God that. I told God I was happy and grateful to be called to serve an exciting church and I was grateful for the challenge. But, I was also worried that what I valued might no longer be a big part of my life. I was worried that God was calling me away from something (a diverse community) that helped shape. I told God and God just chuckled. I had no idea what was in store.

Was I ever in for a happy surprise! Over and over in North Carolina, I am blessed to meet people who have lived in Carrboro all their lives. These are wonderful people who show me God and I love them. And over and over in North Carolina, I am blessed to meet people who have lived on three different continents. No, it's not the same as Northern VA or DC, but it is just as enriching. And the while the diversity is different in shape than from in DC, it is just as beautiful in the South.

A story from this past Sunday illustrates well my experience.

In our 2 & 3 -year-old class, we had two children. The little boy is 2 and he is Ethiopian, adopted by an American family. The little girl is 3, and from a Burmese family who came to America as refugees, fleeing the oppressive military government in what is now Myanmar. This little girl comes to church with her sisters. She is quiet as a mouse and calm as can be - when she is with her older sisters.

On Sunday, the sisters tried to drop her in the class and then go on to their classes. She became inconsolable. She was weeping, crying, screaming, and kicking. Apparently, her confidence and calm are dependent on keeping her sister in sight. With adults she did not know, she was terrified. The poor thing could not calm down. Who knows what she has been through in her young life?

The teacher of that class and our children's minister are both great and both were admirable in their patience and love for this distraught girl. And one other person showed great compassion. The 2-year-old Ethiopian, calmly, lovingly, approached the crying girl and hugged her and stroked her and wordlessly loved her.

Ultimately, she would not calm down until we went and brought her sister. But, that thought of an Ethiopian boy expressing deep concern and genuine love for a panicked Burmese girl while in a Sunday school class in North Carolina brought to my mind one of my favorite scripture passages. People talk about having a life verse. This verse is one that has been a powerful motivating force in my life.

Revelation 7:9 - "After this I looked and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, "Salvation belongs to our God who seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!"

Monday, October 19, 2009

The Whirlwind

In a recent discussion group, we all agreed that the book of Job is “thick.” I think by this we mean that there is deep theology, deeper than it first appears. The theology in Job is layered. What most casual Bible readers remember about the book is that Satan is permitted to do horrible things to Job (take Job’s property and wealth, kill Job’s children, and then destroy Job’s health). God permit’s Satan to do these things in order to show that Job will remain faithful. Then, in the end of the book Job is vindicated and the three friends who accused him of sinning are condemned and they are only forgiven when Job prays for them. This is the snapshot that most people I talk have of Job.

At a slightly deeper level, but still near the surface, people who have suffered greatly read Job as a source of hope and rationality. They see in Job an innocent sufferer and they hope his perspective on his unexplained woes will give them perspective. They hear Job say in 1:21: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there; the Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” Then in chapter’s 3-31, they hear Job wish for death, accuse God, hope for a redeemer, hint at the hope of resurrection, and mournfully lament what once was.

As readers of Job move beyond the clich├ęd “patience of Job” and deal with all the emotions of the dialogues, and as readers consider the theology of Job’s friends, and as readers consider the theology of the young man, Elihu, who speaks in chapters 32-37, it becomes clear why a discussion group would describe Job as “thick.” The layers of ideas seem unending. Tracing one thread of thought unearths a dozen more. Choose your theme – resurrection, justice, theophany, suffering, retributive theology, nonconformist theology, substitutionary redemption – it’s all in Job. And what makes it even more dense is our tendency (appropriate, I think) to read Job influenced by our own experiences of suffering and justice and conformist and nonconformist theologies. So, we aren’t just dealing with Satan and God, Job and his friends, and wisdom and Elihu. We’re also dealing with what our own experiences tell us about the issues raised by Job, God, and the rest.

One could read Job for years and not get to all the ideas and discussions this brilliant piece of literature has birthed. That said, I recommend reading Job in anticipation that you will actually hear God speak. It has been hard for me to do this because I have been blogging on Job, leading small groups on Job, and writing newsletters columns on Job. What helped was doing my daily Bible reading and reflective journaling through Job, one chapter at a time. I was unprepared for what hit me.

On the 38th day of this practice, I turned to Job 38 and read “Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind: Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?” The crescendo blew me away! I instantly realized that I was not hearing the empty platitudes of the three friends or the puffed up arrogance of young Elihu. This was not the bitterness of Job’s wife, or the sinister deception of the Satan. This was not the schizophrenic rambling of the chaos of Job’s agony, nor the glimpses of hope inside of Job fighting to keep him sane. This was not even Sophia, the simple but unshakable wisdom of Job 28. This was whirlwind – something wholly other.

I thought, OK, it’s time to do my daily Bible reading. For me though, there was nothing routine about it. God asks Job, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me if you have understanding” (38:4b). From that point, I feel a sense of who God is. Reading in this way is not a critical, scholarly approach and does not account for the questions raised by good critical scholarship. Those questions are helpful and necessary, but they are secondary. This sense of the God of creation shows that all human wisdom is secondary. The density of the dialogues and ideas that flow without end but with much repetition throughout Job are important, but also are secondary. At the heart of the matter, God matters.

It is beneficial to study in depth the specifics of the whirlwind speeches, but at the outset, it is sufficient to note that God’s answer to Job “out of the whirlwind” puts the rest of the book of Job in perspective. God has noticed Job and heard Job, but God is still God. God notices you and me and God loves us, but God is wholly other, supreme beyond measure, and worthy of worship. That’s what we see in the whirlwind speeches and we see it right from the start in Job 38.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Death of Conventional Wisdom

Ideas that are generally accepted as true – conventional wisdom; anything outside the boundary of conventional wisdom draws a second look, the occasional judgmental sneer, and uncomfortable head-scratching. The conventional wisdom I have found most often in the minds of well-intentioned church going Christians is as follows: God is always right and never to be questioned. Everyday folks who depend on their faith in God for their sanity reach blindly for that uncritical line of thinking.

A beloved friend dies. Standing around his casket, those he left behind put forth somber, unreasoned philosophy. “It was his time to go.” “At least he’s in a better place.” “God took him home.” Why do they think such thoughts? It’s conventional wisdom and it would be disquieting to go against it.

No one has the courage to say, “Why the heck didn’t God help them find a transplant for him? Other people get transplants and live a long time. He was only 58. He had many good years left. What was God doing, sleeping on the job?” No, we don’t say that. It never occurs to one that he or she might question God. Conventional wisdom doesn’t question the Almighty.

In the book of Job, we encounter conventional wisdom first in Satan, and then in the words of Job’s wife. Then the seemingly endless cycle of dialogues provide tiresome repetitions of conventional wisdom from the mouths of Job’s three friends Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar. Finally, a sixth character comes along – Elihu, the angry young man.

The narrator tells us Elihu is angry because Job’s three friends cannot correct Job’s mistaken assessment of his situation. Elihu agrees with their theological position, but it enrages him that they could not answer Job in his relentless commitment to his own innocence. Furthermore, Elihu is outraged that Job would make such claims. Elihu has quietly waited, and now it is his turn and he spews forth conventional wisdom so forcefully, it is almost convincing.

I am appreciative of Gerald Janzen’s commentary on Job (Interpretaion series, John Knox Press). He details 8 ways in which Elihu is off base. This was helpful because by the time I finished reading Elihu’s words (Job, chs 32-37), I wasn’t sure if he was a wise man or another foolish blowhard. The ambiguity is intentional. The book of Job raises questions more than it gives answers. The book of Job provokes discomfort more than it provides spiritual security.

Is something true if someone yells it loudly, with conviction, over and over? Elihu comes off as convincing, and like the three friends, much of what he says is something I would agree with. I would say it if I could be as poetic. But, Job reminds us that it is OK to question God. It is ok to stomp on that conventional wisdom that God is never wrong and is never to be questioned. Just because Elihu gets mad and upsets everyone around him with his anger outburst doesn’t mean we acquiesce and not speak truth.

I don’t think God is ever “wrong.” But if the circumstances of my life suggest that justice has been perverted, I should yell at God, appeal to God, seek God, and demand an audience with God. God is never wrong, but – conventional wisdom aside – God is to be questioned. Abraham - Moses – Job – Paul; those in the Bible who have enough wherewithal to question God are of the most use to God and in the closest of relationships with God.

Elihu is still among us telling us when times get tough, God must have willed it. We can’t question. We just accept it, praise God, and keep quiet (ironically – he has the longest uninterrupted speech in the entire book). We don’t dare question! The problem is if we never develop a dynamic, conversational relationship with God in which we can bring our hard, even unanswerable questions, our faith never grows. In fact, it decays to nothing more than empty ritual and creeds and confession spoken with no conviction. When we confess faith but don’t believe what we are saying our faith is dead.

It’s scary to question God. God is unpredictable.

Still, I believe the best (not the easiest) course for you and for me is to shuck off the confines of conventional wisdom, and dive headfirst into the swirling waters of living faith. Deal with God in a relationship that is unique in that God is interested in you and your interplay with God will be unlike anyone else’s. Be unconventional. Ask questions, upsetting questions, questions that embarrass conventional wisdom. (I hope our church can be a place people feel free to ask those questions.) Be completely real with God – even when you’re mad at God. In the end, like Job you’re drawn closer to God.

The people who stay with conventional wisdom have no idea who God is.