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Thursday, November 26, 2009

Thanksgiving Day Blog

I recommend the Poverty and Justice Bible. It's from the Bible society and can be ordered for about 25$ on the Sojourner's website. In it, all the verses (well most of the verses) that deal with poverty & justice issues in the Bible are highlighted in orange. Over 3000 verses are highlighted.

Geek that I am, I immediately turned to some passages of Jesus' healing and found them not highlighted. I thought they should be because in the first century, someone afflicted with blindness or another incurable ailment would have been relegated to the fringes of society. So, they would have been marginalized and they would have been victims of injustice that Jesus freed. Why they weren't highlighted, I don't know.

That said, the Poverty and Justice Bible is a great help to the Christian who is truly interested in knowing God's heart. God is for the poor and God is for the hungry and the needy. That is not debatable. Read the passages highlighted in the Poverty and Justice Bible. If we take God's word seriously and we read these words of scripture, our lives will change. Our values will change. Our choices will change.

I am particularly grateful that my copy came just two days before Thanksgiving. I know Jesus appreciated a good party and there are times when feasting is appropriate. The food orgy I will experience with beloved family members over the next couple days is something to thank God for. However, the new Bible reminds me to keep the poor ever in my thoughts, and those thoughts guiding my actions.

I am equally grateful that I got to go on a mission trip to Arkansas earlier this year, serving the rural poor. And my wife is leaving next week for a mission trip to Ethiopia. She's going out of a love for orphans. We have a heart for the poorest of the poor. And our church, HillSong in Chapel Hill, has been an enormous support (through prayer and material support).

So, today, I am thankful. I am thankful for what I have. And I am thankful for the opportunity to be a part of God's work.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Continued Listening to and Talking to God

I am sitting in my parents' dining room. My sister and my sister-in-law (and her 2 kids) are here, as are my wife and our two kids. And, my parents and my grandmother. The only one not here is my brother who will join us briefly tomorrow before he and his family head to his wife's folk' place in the South. It is Thanksgiving week, and a week of family, food, football, and fun.

One of the highlights of my week home so far has been the initial theological conversations with my sister. Christy is a passionate, evangelical Christian, and her framework for her faith resides in the reformed tradition. I have unintentionally developed a rather sharp anti-reformed bias that I am now working through.

It's not that I want to become a Calvinist (reformed theology adherent). It's just that I want to celebrate the rich Christianity of Calvinists I love (like my sister). There is so much of God I see in the way she vibrantly lives her discipleship. I don't want to let useless prejudice against a belief system prevent me from enjoying and learning from the richness of Christy's faith.

And how silly is that anyway, to be predisposed to be negative toward someone because of their theological system? I suppose that some teachings are damaging (like those offered by the KKK or the Third Reich). But, many differences in theology among Christians who truly worship Jesus are minor when held in contrast with the essentials of the faith. By saying that theological differences are minor, I don't mean they are unimportant. I just mean that they should not prevent sweet fellowship in Jesus.

If that phrase "sweet fellowship in Jesus" sounds campy, I don't care. I need more of it. I enjoyed it while on a mission trip in Arkansas earlier this year, and I want more! After that trip, I said that if anyone in the church wanted to complain about something, they would be allowed to register their complaint after they had spent a week on a mission trip, serving the poor in Jesus' name.

Maybe the same criteria should stand for theological arguments. Before we argue predestination v. free-will, we have to go on a mission trip where we serve needy people out of our love for Jesus. If we do that then our hearts will be properly prepared to put theological nuance in its proper place.

This blog began as a reflection on the book of Job. The Bible studies on Job that I've been leading have come to an end. The blog will continue. I'll share my own walk with the Lord and what I learn from people; authors whose books I read, and thoughts from not-so-famous but extremely wonderful and smart people I know personally. Please continue to read along and give your comments.

Now, I am off to bed. I am looking forward to more enthralling conversations with my sister and sweet fellowship in Jesus with my family this week.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Preaching While Distracted

OK, this was an unexpected experience. Yesterday morning some things happened right before the church service began that got me mad. One of the people involved will most likely read this and I hope I am forgiven for being so short-tempered and reactionary. I should not have gotten as mad as I did. I tried to keep it to myself, but I was seething.

I shouldn't have been, but I was.

So, worship began and I started thinking, "How can I pull myself together so I'll be ready to preach?" I began having some honest talk with God on the spot! As we sang the worship songs, I was trying in my heart to focus my mind on the words, but the anger was burning a little bit.

When that happens, it feels just like I have a heavy, iron helmet weighing on my brow. It's just sitting there not allowing me to do anything other than frown. So, there I was, the pastor, singing praise songs and trying to get into it and all the while boiling and burdened under the weight of (unnecessary) anger.

Then, it was time to stand up and preach. I got to the lectern, announced the scripture passage, and glanced at my manuscript. Something surreal happened. For one of the few times in my life, I experienced two realities at the same time.

I was a preacher tasked with bringing God's word to God's church, and I was truly able to give it my best shot. I certainly don't think anybody would mistake me for John Wesley or Billy Graham or Fred Craddock, but I thought the sermon wasn't half bad. More importantly, I felt God speaking through me and afterward, others said they felt that way too.

At the same time, I was a listener. It was not an out-of-body thing where I was in one of the seats hearing and watching the sermon. But, I was definitely listening as God spoke the words directly to my heart and specifically to my situation. God was convicting me of His truth and my own sin. Obviously, I had not written the sermon to myself originally. The message was composed earlier in the week, before the Sunday morning incident took place. But, God in His wisdom used those words to speak to me.

By the end of the worship time, my anger had been replaced with gratitude. I was thankful for God's mercy, grace, and wisdom. I was also grateful for God speaking to me in such a way that I cannot possibly doubt that it was anything other than God working through my fragile ego. I hope next time I won't get so easily distracted. It's kind of foolish. But, I am glad to know that God is leading our worship whether I am at my best, or not in such a good place.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

In the End - God

Filled with anxiety and loneliness, Moses had reached his wits’ end. After leading the people of Israel out of Egypt, he climbed the mountain to receive the law and while he was up there, the people at the foot of the mountain forgot about him and about God. In his rage their idolatry and ingratitude, God thundered and threatened to wipe out Israel. Moses spoke out on Israel’s behalf and convinced God to withhold his punishing hand. “The Lord changed his mind about the disaster he planned to bring on his people” (Exodus 32:14).

Leading the people, receiving the law, contending with God – it all took a toll and Moses was worn out. So he appealed to God, and what exactly did Moses ask for? “Show me your glory, I pray” (Exodus 33:18). More than anything, Moses wanted to see God with his eyes. God granted that request – he allowed Moses to see his backside glory.

And what of Jacob, the man whose name would be changed to Israel? His brother Esau, a much mightier man, had threatened to kill him. That had been several years, 2 wives, 2 concubines, and 11 children earlier. Now, he was fearfully figuring out how to face the confrontation he had dodged for so long. The night before the meeting, an enigmatic, angelic figure wrestled with Jacob until daybreak. The contest ended with Jacob’s hip being permanently knocked out of socket. The assailant then blessed Jacob and Jacob concluded, “I have seen God face to face and yet my life is preserved” (Genesis 32:30). After that the reunion with Esau was peaceful and anticlimactic. The key event for Jacob was to see God.

Job presses God for many things. He asks that God relieve his suffering by taking his life (Job 6:8-10). Job asks God for pardon (even though Job never admitted sin) (Job 7:21). Job wants God to promise no rod of punishment because without that specter hanging over him he could speak and justify himself (Job 9:34-35; 13:20-23). Job declares his desire to speak directly to God and thus justify himself (13:3, 13-19; 14:15). He also asks why God hides his face (13:24).

Job also accuses God, “he has made me a byword of the peoples, and I am one before whom people spit” (17:6). “Know then that God has put me in the wrong, and closed his net around me. Even when I cry out, ‘violence!’ I am not answered; I call aloud but there is no justice (19:6-7).

Furthermore, Job talks a lot about what he would do. “Oh, that I knew where I might find him, that I might even come to his dwelling! I would lay my case before him, and fill my mough with arguments. I would learn what he would answer me. Would he contend with me in the greatness of his power? No; but he would give heed to me. There an upright person could and I should be acquitted forever by my judge” (23:3-7).

Job reasons, argues, accuses, makes claims, and makes assumptions. His own innocence is as clear as it can be in his eyes. I have cited a sample of the ways Job expresses his desire to go one-on-one with God. Job thinks he knows how this will turn out; he’s just not sure the opportunity will ever come. Job expresses both hope and despair, faith and faithlessness.

In the end, Job gets what he desired – a hearing with the Almighty. God shows up. And God does not answer any of Job’s complaints. God does not give Job opportunity to ask any of his questions. Those questions seemed huge to Job when he laid there wallowing in his own (very real and very sharp) pain. But the largess of Job’s issues shrink to nothingness when God speaks from the whirlwind. In the end, Job only gets exactly what Moses got; exactly what Jacob got. Job gets the physical presence/manifestation of God.

Swiss theologian Loenhard Ragaz states concisely the divine response to the problem of suffering in Job. “God does not involve himself with arguments for and against his dominion, but lets himself be seen. His answer consists in His manifesting His greatness in powerful speech and creative deeds. This rather than arguments of God’s defenders [Elihu and the three friends] causes Job to go silent and beg God’s forgiveness. He has been afforded no incite into the enigmas that have tormented him, but he has seen God himself” (from The Dimensions of Job, edited by Nahum Glatzer, p.130).

The end of the book of Job is God – Job meets God. In chapter 42, there is a denouement, and what is said there is very important theologically. But, the big issues of justice and suffering are not resolved by book’s end. The only place the reader of Job, attentive to Job’s pain as well as his own, can land is in God. The sum of God’s testimony is to simply show up and be seen. That enough was overwhelming to Job as it would be to anyone.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

How much Change is Possible?

I find myself repeating sins so often I get exceedingly frustrated with myself and I wonder if change is possible? I believe I am forgiven, but I also believe that it is possible when one is in Christ and has the help of the Holy Spirit to stop sinning or at least sin considerably less. Yet, I say the same mean things to my wife that I said a month ago or a year ago. I lose patience with my kids as quickly as I did in the past. I struggle with other sinful attitudes as much as I did when I was a young believer.

Writing in the mid-20th century, Jewish scholar Leon Roth said in a article entitled 'Job and Jonah', "If [people] are allowed the right to moral change and even encouraged to change, no science of human behavior is possible" (The Dimensions of Job, edited by Nahum Glatzer, p.72). The assumption is that science is based upon observed repeated patterns. So if the possibility exists that a human being will react completely differently to the same external situational and moral stimuli than his previous reactions, then a cause has to be ascertained. If the cause is not measurable, then there can be no science of human behavior.

I don't know if this is what Roth meant. What I glean from his observation is that spiritual change cannot be measured by science. But, he thinks Job at least vindicates God's confidence in him (1:8; 2:3) by clinging to faith when faith appears impossible. Job is suffering and believes that God is the cause of his suffering, yet he also believes God will be the source of his salvation.

The verse Roth points to is Job 13:15. In quoting this verse, I add the 16th verse and I offer here the New King James Version.
"15 Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him. Even so, I will defend my own ways before Him. 16 He also shall be my salvation, For a hypocrite could not come before Him."

Clearly, clearly, Job is saying God slays him and at the same time, Job trusts God and calls God "salvation." Furthermore, Job implies that God is a defender of integrity when he says "a hypocrite could not come before him." Thus Job is either insane (blaming God and relying on God simultaneously), Job utters faulty theology, or Job moves from blaming God for his fate
to reliance upon God for deliverance. Such movement is questionable in the short span of two verses.

However, human suffering can drive a person to express a range of emotions and thoughts from steadfast stoic clarity to maniacal ramblings. I don't think Job was insane, but I think his suffering was so intense, he sounded insane. I do think his faith and his emotion swung wildly due to his circumstances - wildly enough to express the diversity of thought we see in a single sentence in verses 15-16 cited above.

And, I believe the theology in Job is shaky throughout (except chapter 28 and 38-41), but that's intentional. Satan, the wife, the three friends, Elihu, and Job are all unaware of the depth the complexity of God. But their collective ignorance doesn't shut them up. Quite the opposite. The entire book is a stream of talkers who don't know enough to be quiet when their speech exceeds their knowledge. I hope this blog isn't another example of such empty exhortation.

In a round about way, this brings me back to my original quandary. Can someone grow spiritually to the point that in what they learn about God, they grow closer to God and actually change (by sinning less and living more righteously). I think the answer is "yes."

Job said,
2 "I know that you can do all things; no plan of yours can be thwarted.
3 You asked, 'Who is this that obscures my counsel without knowledge?'
Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know" (42:2-3, NIV).

I think the book of Job shows that closeness to God is dependent upon the person honestly acknowledging what is not known instead of hiding behind conventional theology. A theological presupposition is not enough to draw conclusions about a situation in which the facts are known. Because my theology tells me God punishes sinners, I cannot assume when I see a suffering man that he must have sinned and must now be in the midst of divinely imposed punishment. Reality simply isn't that cut-and-dried. Job shows that situations arise that are beyond our understanding.

His faith statements show that we can stay with God even in our suffering. Our faith can endure. "Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him. " This is one of many expressions of hope sprinkled in among Job's mournful, angry, lugubrious lamentations. Considering what he went through, this statement is enough to show that I (and others in more comfortable life circumstances) can grow in faith and grow in Christ. But we only by admitting that we need to and when only begin grow when we admit what we don't know.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Truly Amazing (Job 38-42)

Our American 21st century culture is individualistic to such a damaging extent that we lose sight of community. We forget that we are part of something bigger than ourselves and we think the country exists to serve us and not vice versa. We want a church that meets our needs instead of searching for a church that gives an opportunity for the individual to sacrificially serve God and serve people. We’re very comfortable with the notion of a personal relationship with Jesus. We like it personal and private. We expect God to be interested in us. Twenty-first century Americans expect everyone to be interested in them. Why should God be any different?

It really is an awesome thing that God would take interest in people or in an individual person. That’s exactly what happens in Job chapters 38-42. God speaks to Job. What statement does God make?

God asks, “Have you commanded the morning since your days began, and caused the dawn to know its place, so that it might take hold of the skirts of the earth, and the wicked be shaken out of it” (38:13)? Obviously, the answer Job has to give is “um, no; no I have not commanded the morning since my days began.” God has.

God asks Job, “Who has cut a channel for the torrents of rain, and a way for the thunderbolt, to bring rain on a land where no one lives, on the desert, which is empty of human life, to satisfy the waste and desolate land, and to make the ground put forth grass” (38:25-27)? Job must answer, if he is truthful, “You have done that, God.”

Throughout the conversation, it repeatedly established that God is God, and Job is not. God is talking about awesome features of the creation, places inaccessible to man (e.g. “the storehouses of snow” – 38:22). Even the example of rain in the desert (v.25-27) shows God involved with the earth completely independent of man. God has interest in this planet God made. God does not need man’s advice or help. In all that is said in Job 38-42, God never mentions human beings as God discusses the creation.

Leo Perdue of Brite Divinity School points out the fact that God ignores humanity in these chapters. Perdue writes, “In a striking repudiation of an anthropology in which humans are kings in God’s creation (see Psalm 8), Yahweh speaks of sustaining a world hostile to human life. The anthropological tradition grounded in the metaphor of humanity as king is shattered” (p.174, Wisdom and Creation: The Theology of Wisdom Literature). Nowhere in this address to Job does God repeat what is said in Genesis 1, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion” (1:26). Perdue feels that God’s speech in Job makes humanity look small and insignificant.

J. Gerald Janzen of Christian Theological Seminary looks at the same evidence. In Job 38-41, God speaks of creation, but never mentions mankind. However, Janzen’s conclusion (in the book Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching: Job) based on what is happening in the book of Job is different than Perdue’s. Janzen thinks the speech raises the importance of humans in God’s view because while humanity is not accounted for, the conversation is with a person. God doesn’t talk about men and women, but he talks to a man!

So which scholar gives a more helpful reading of Job 38-41? I think both contribute to our understanding of what God is saying. Perdue shows what we all know implicitly but sometimes need to be reminded of. God is God and we are not. God doesn’t exist to meet our needs. God is creator of a world that overwhelms us and it is an act of God’s grace that God would ever deign to speak to a person. Janzen points out that God does in fact extend that grace in the speech to Job! Job has longed for an audience with the divine and he gets it. He is not told why he suffers, but he hears from God, he lives, and in the end (Job 42), his blessings are restored.

Of the many conclusions I draw from the book of Job, one is this. We in 21st century America may feel entitled to be self centered, however, we are small. In the grand scheme of the universe, we don’t matter. God does not have to speak to us. But, God wants to. Furthermore, in Jesus Christ, God became one of us in order to redeem us. That’s the extent of God’s love for us. Love isn’t an obvious motivating force in the book of Job, but when we read it in light of the cross, we realize that the God who doesn’t need us loves us and because of that we have significance. Humans count and humans matter because humans are invited to be in relationship with God. Job lived in that relationship and we are invited to as well. I find that truly amazing.

Rob Tennant