Like Reedeemed at Facebook

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

A Brick in the Pile

The genius of architects throughout the centuries is their ability to create magnificent structures from seemingly simple materials. The individual units used in the things they build amount to more than their sum, creating something beautiful from a mass of decidedly not beautiful things. For example, a brick. Bricks aren't particularly pretty. I mean, look at this thing:

Just a block of hard. Pretty simple. But look at the things people have built with bricks!
These look more like art to me than the 3D rectangles used to make them.

Many analogies are drawn in the New Testament about the basileia theou, the reign of God: mustard seeds, lost coins, body parts, and so on. But my favorite analogy right now (though not strictly a biblical one) is that of bricks. Of what is the kingdom of God made? It exists in space, for there are certainly places where we may say, "The kingdom of heaven is here." It exists in time, for there are days when it is easy to say, "The reign of the Lord is now." It exists in thoughts and in events, in consideration and in action. But in all these things, so far as we are aware, it does not exist without people.

Right now I want to stress my displeasure with the rampant individualism found in American churches. I do not like the idea of a "me and God" relationship, when the New Testament seems to emphasize a "God and me and you and them and us and everybody" relationship. But without the individuals the group cannot exist.

So it is with the kingdom: the Temple is built, brick by brick. And I believe we are the bricks. On our own, we're pretty plain, just lumps of hard. But our value is found in the use to which God puts us: bricks in the pile become bricks in the Temple. The question is, are we sitting in the pile, or have we been built into something bigger than ourselves? Unlike bricks, we have the option of staying in the pile. What will we be, the pile or the Temple?

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Physics and the Kingdom of God

CONTEXT: Over the past few weeks I've had the opportunity to teach the youth class at my congregation on Sunday mornings. The overall emphasis for the summer has been on learning about kingdom living: how we engage each other and the world within the context of the Kingdom of God (or heaven). This morning they were getting ready to leave for a week of camp. As this is the case, this post is just a recreation of the lesson from this morning, and so I feel the need to share it here as well. Now, on to the post.

In physics, there are two basic types of energy: potential and kinetic. Potential energy is energy at rest with the possibility of movement; kinetic energy, on the other hand, is the energy of motion. These two are in constant connection, moving fluidly from one form to the other with every motion and every stop. Potential energy is what might happen; kinetic energy is happening. A drawn bowstring, for example, is potential until it is released to kinetic movement. The same is true for a pencil teetering on the edge of a desk: once the pencil starts moving, the potential ceases and the kinetic takes over. This is basic physics at most (which is why I can grasp it).

Within Kioné Greek there is a language category called genitives. These are the "of" phrases, most commonly translated as possessives (though a whole range of possibilities exist). Genitives make up phrases like love and full armor of God, day of salvation, and the poor of the saints. Three types of genitive in particular are most interested in whether the noun with which they are connected has a some kind of verbal action. The first, the subjective genitive, makes the "of" word the one who carries out the action embedded in the noun. For example, "the expectation of the people" has in it the action of "the people expect." 

The second, the objective genitive, makes the "of" word the recipient of the action in the noun. "Demonstration of righteousness," therefore, shows "righteousness is being demonstrated" rather than "righteousness demonstrated something." 

The third, the plenary genitive, is a mixture of both. This happens when the "of" word could be either the subject or the object, possibly even both at the same time. The classic example of this is found in Mark 1.1, "The good news of Jesus Christ." Since "good news" (εὐαγγέλιον, euangelion) has a verb with the same stem (εὐαγγελίζω, euangelizō, which means "tell good news"), we must ask whether Jesus is doing the telling or the good news is about him. Since both are possible and probable, we can call this a plenary genitive.

The word for kingdom (βασιλεῦς, basileus), like euangelion, has a related verb (βασιλεύω, basileuō, meaning "reign"). Since this is the case, when we encounter phrases like "basileus of God" and "basileus of Heaven," we must again ask whether that word is being used like a verb. And I think it is.

"Kingdom" is kind of like potential energy. Kingdoms have boundaries (though one of the kids this morning so accurately pointed out that God's kingdom has no boundaries), and are set in place. They can change, but often do not. Kingdoms are set in space with lines and markers.

"Reign," however, is more like kinetic energy. A reign is active, a time period. The reign of King Henry VIII is set from 1491-1547, and his actions marked his reign as one filled with marital uncertainty and a "do what I want" attitude. The reign of Henry VIII also has markers, but they are set in time rather than in space.

We need "kingdom." The spacial side of basileus is that it exists in this world, though not in any sort of geographical sense. There are places where it is found, both in the church and the homeless shelter, the drug rehab center and the sanctuary. Things like summer camp and worship services are most certainly markers of the kingdom of heaven, but they are potential. Until something is done, until action is taken and the move occurs from potential to kinetic, the potential goes unused.

The reverse is also true: without potential, can the kinetic exist? This is much like the issue of action and transformation: does God change behaviors by instigating inner transformation, or does he transform by giving new behavior? In a similar way we face the question of whether potential begets kinetic, or kinetic creates potential. It does not, however, necessarily have to be an either/or question, but a both/and since both are necessary.

We need "reign." We are not afforded the luxury of inaction when God so clearly desires good for the oppressed and mercy for the outcast. That God's reign in this world is active ought to be evident, but are we creating the evidence to be used? If we're not, then what are we doing with the potential kingdom?

The potential kingdom and the kinetic reign are mutually inclusive, each one requiring the existence of the other. Those who fight against the institution (corrupt though it may be in certain areas, but aren't we all?) do not know its power, and those who sit comfortably in their pews and let the world spin on without a second thought do a disservice to those who need to see God's reign most.

So what are we going to do?

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The Plain Reading

It is not an uncommon thing to come across a text in the Bible that simply seems to make a lot of sense on its own. Many of the Proverbs are like this, as are a great number of narratives available to us. There is not much particularly difficult about the stories of Joseph, Moses, Joshua, and David. The pithy, timeless statements of wisdom are usually easily decipherable or require little thought when left to themselves. These are texts where a plain or natural reading is generally sufficient. We don't feel like we're drowning in information when Jacob is tricking or being tricked, or when we hear that "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom." Even much of the story of Jesus (provided you don't do much cross-referencing between gospels) is fairly straightforward. "Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted" is read very naturally both by those who suffer and those who don't.

But sometimes a plain reading is inadequate. Taking words at their face value occasionally renders them incomprehensible. Any sort of apocalyptic literature (Ezekiel and Revelation, for example) leaves us with the impression that animals can talk, giant sky-bound wheels are normal, and dragons are real and have multiple heads. Sometimes the natural reading leaves us in states of being the judges rather than the judged, or with the ability to justify human indecency (e.g., Eccl. 7.16-17).

But even some texts with a plain reading can be misunderstood simply because of the incredible difference in time and location. The plain reading of the early parts of Genesis, for example, creates (pun!) the idea of a world where all living things were vegetarian, the heavens pour out like waterfalls, and people lived fantastic life spans. If we know nothing of other early creation stories of a similar time period and geographical location, we may not fully appreciate the emphasis of the text.

Thus comes the necessity of interpretation. I grew up with the notion of "speak where the Bible speaks, and keep silent where the Bible keeps silent." I eventually discovered this was not a particularly honest position, especially when we were told to stay away from drugs (not mentioned in the Bible) and that alcohol and sex were bad (quite the opposite impression of the whole of the Bible). We have been left an ancient and difficult book (or collection of books, rather) which requires that we interpret it for each new generation. The Apostle Paul could not possibly have foreseen a world where one can send a message to another thousands of miles away in mere seconds or less; where sex can be viewed with relative anonymity; where the population has reached billions; where homosexuals fight harder for marriage than most heterosexuals, among whom there is a very high divorce rate; where slavery is not only frowned upon, but illegal in most places globally. His world is so vastly different from ours of smartphones, air conditioning, and symphonic orchestras that we must be ready to interpret his words and the words of his peers and predecessors.

I was once told, "The Bible is more than words on a page; it's also what happens between the page and your nose." We have to think about what's on the page, because the words themselves are not always so obvious. When Jesus says we must hate our families, is this a plain concept or does it require that we think about what he said and why? Was there something special about the 10 plagues that hit Egypt beyond their miraculous occurrence? How do we understand the prophet Obadiah without any knowledge of his circumstances?

We cannot afford to simply say to every situation, "The Bible tells me so." It has been too easy to justify actions of oppression with this line of thought. Once we know "what the Bible says," we cannot leave it there. We must delve deeper, and we must do something. We do not have the luxury of leaving interpretation to the hands of fate. So let's get digging.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Information vs. Transformation in Church Class Curricula

Though I don’t have the research to prove it, I suspect the American church has an increasing tendency toward biblical illiteracy. It seems to me that we no longer have the luxury to say in our sermons and conversations, “You know the story….” Indeed, if this is the case then we have something of a fresh slate to work from (in some cases). It is likely worthwhile to consider the possibility that relating texts like they’ve never been heard before has a power all its own. Such is something to consider both in the sermon and in the classroom. If we are less familiar with the Bible as a whole than we used to be (which I believe to be true), then a certain portion of the class ought to be informational. This may also be generally true: we come to class to learn something new. However, our church is at something of a disadvantage because we do not have a long-term plan for engendering biblical literacy or mandatory attendance like a school. However, the idea for a long-term plan is another discussion entirely. The point for the moment is that new information is given in the class format. A counter question arises: “To whom is the material new?” Let’s say the class is over the book of Job. If there is no previous exposure to the text, then the course could be spent gaining familiarity with Job’s story and the considerable dialogue. This could be a chance to explore basic issues like the time period of the events, the time of the writing, and other historical issues which affect the reading of the text. But which part do you begin with, the text or the background? If, however, there is a basic familiarity with Job’s story but not the dialogue, the story can be done briefly and focus could be given to the speeches, their ebbs and flows, their purpose, and the implications. If whole familiarity is already achieved, the interpretation and application of the text becomes a more probable reality. Becoming acquainted with Job, his friends, and God is not part of the process any more since this has already happened. That information could belong more to the realm of review.

But this is all dealing with the passing on of information. On the other end we have the issue of transformation. One of the most basic goals of Bible study is the building of faith. We are not saved by information, but by the grace which produces transformation. We can have all the information in the world but never act on it. If information does not influence belief and result in action, has the presentation of information actually accomplished anything? Theology is not solely information gathered, compiled, and published by scholars, but transformation and evolution. The purpose of the text is communication, to be sure, but the communication must have a result or we are left with naught but words on a page or scroll. A dear friend of mine once said, “The Bible is more than words on a page; it is also what happens between the page and your nose.” By this he meant that the Bible must be interpreted; it is also true that faith must produce fruit. Discussing Trinitarian theology and yet having an individualistic worship service simply means the discussion did nothing (though this is a drastic exaggeration, to be fair).

So here’s my problem: where is the balance between information and transformation in the creation of a curriculum for “Sunday School”? It appears both are necessary, but how much of each is best? Does this vary from group to group (also church to church, among denominations, even continents and hemispheres)? I think it does, but the question remains: Where is the balance?

Real life example: I am currently working on a curriculum for my congregation over the Minor Prophets (hence, MPs). I have the luxury of assuming a relative unfamiliarity with the text on the part of the church as a whole, along with apparent freedom to create the material as I see fit. However, I’ve gathered a group of people into conversation on the matter (who have been most helpful and will certainly be thanked profusely) to ensure that the curriculum is not just mine, but the church’s. I wouldn’t mind a lecture setting like a college course where information is passed on and the students have to take tests or get homework. But I have been reminded by some of the group that transformation is a key element in biblical study. They may not have said it in as many words as I have lavished upon this post, but they have redirected my intentions (as I has hoped they would) toward a more transformative goal.

If our congregation is studying the MPs, of whom they know little or nothing, how much information can the curriculum give without overwhelming and overruling the potential for transformation? What is the transformative power of the MPs? How does what these 12 prophets have to say matter to the church today, and to what use can they be put?

Again, I believe there must be a balance, but it must be reached carefully. For others in similar situations, I applaud you for the delicate work you have pursued and pray blessings upon your work that it may be used by God for the transformation of his church. As always, leave comments below and get the conversation going!

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Truth and Time

A couple days ago, something incredibly normal happened. As we were about to go to bed, my wife asked me whether I had locked the door. I responded in the affirmative (while glancing around most suspiciously), at which point she looked at the door and discovered I had, in fact, not locked the door yet. She promptly called me out on this, and I had a goofy response: "Well, it's about to be true!" What I didn't realize when I said this was that my response would spawn a convoluted path of thoughts and possibilities within my mind. I began to consider whether truth had a temporal dimension.

At first, it was kind of an exercise in language: In which tenses does truth exist? Obviously, truth can exist in the past and present tenses: "I locked the door," or "I am wearing pajamas." But can truth exist in the future tense? "I will finish my homework" can have two outcomes: completion or non-completion. The issue is whether the statement will become true, because it is neither true nor false at the moment of speaking. These were some of the initial thoughts, and they only got more complicated from there. (Feel free to skip a few paragraphs; it might be a while before I get to anything resembling a point.)

Next, I began to wonder how things are true. "This bag has 30 jelly beans left." The statement is true, until a jelly bean is added or removed. Does this mean once an addition or subtraction occurs that the previous statement is rendered false or that the truth has changed? This has become a question of assertions. The circumstances have changed, so the claim must change with it. This is a key element of scientific pursuit. Even if I believe there are actually only 12 jelly beans, that does not change how many jelly beans there are. Likewise, belief in a geocentric solar system or a flat earth does not alter reality. The issue with the jelly beans is an issue of quantitative truth.

But what about qualitative truth? If I claim, "God is ancient," the claim states a quality. In this case, the quality cannot change, because the quality is inherently time-bound and God does not become less ancient as time progresses. If we claim something is new, however, that claim can change. "This is my new book." The newness of the phone will decay over time, eventually leaving me with an old book. Again, this is a temporal quality, but the quality changes. If I claim an object is made of silver, a quality of material, can that quality change? The silver can become tarnished, be crushed and melted, frozen, or worn, but it has not stopped being silver. What about qualities such as "good" and "evil"? A good thing can become bad, and vice versa; so does the claim have to be revised with the circumstances?

As far as I could tell, it was possible for truth to change. But this seemed only to apply to verbal assertions: one could make a claim that, at that moment, was indeed true, but the factors contributing to the truthfulness of the assertion could be altered. So I considered whether there is actually such a thing as absolute truth, truth that does not change with circumstance. If all things can and do change, with change being the only constant, then why not truth? But this thought is bound up in words: the things which are believed to be either true or false are found in words. Whether observed or not, whether stated or not, the earth does not cease being spherical. It may in some point in the future become otherwise (pending some enormous disaster that breaks it apart), but the truth is not found in the words, but in the reality that shapes them. (And this all is by no means all that crossed my mind; it's simply all I could remember pondering.)

If you were skipping around, here's where you should pick back up. One of the key elements of the Christian faith is a future claim. We are told Jesus will come again, that bodies will be resurrected, that heaven and earth shall be remade and God's kingdom rightfully restored to the returning king. But is this truth? By faith we believe it to be true. But can it be called "truth" if it hasn't happened yet? At this point, it's an assertion. An assertion we believe to be true, but an assertion nonetheless. I'm not debating God's faithfulness; quite the contrary, I hope to affirm it. By saying, "God is faithful," I make a claim about the past and, through the past, about the present. While past evidence does not necessarily predict the future with absolute certainty, God does not appear to have given me reason to suppose he has been unfaithful. So, with the past in mind, I look to the future, however uncertain it may be. I continue searching for truth and its complicated dimensions, only to be reminded occasionally how simple the truth can be. Can truth exist in the future? Maybe, but if it does, it has not happened yet. Whatever future truths our world holds, may we encounter them with faith in God's faithfulness. For with uncertain apprehension and trust in that faithfulness may we step boldly into each new moment.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

She Talks to Angels

Suffering is a part of life. We may ask why suffering exists, why there is evil, and why such things must occur within nature and humankind. In the realm of natural evil we find destructive weather and disease, and they seem to be part of a neutral, impersonal chaos. But if God permits such events to occur, then they hardly seem neutral.

As a result of such natural evil, a girl was born with cystic fibrosis. As Amanda's parents struggled through her affliction and ultimate death, so too do we struggle with the problems of evil and suffering. At this point, I would invite you to help with the creation of a film to fashion a narrative out of Amanda's story. Ross, the director over at G&H Media, has a Kickstarter campaign running (click here to check it out), and the film desperately needs more funding. If this story is to come to life it must have a better budget than it has currently. Give it a look, check out the promotional video, and offer others the opportunity to learn more about those who suffer, specifically from cystic fibrosis. The campaign closes May 29th (just 18 days away), so help these guys out; help this family tell their story!

Thursday, May 9, 2013

More Than You Can Handle

I heard many things about God and the Bible growing up: what God wanted from me, how I was supposed to act, and the necessity of going to church, among other things. And while my understanding of these particular concepts has changed over the years (drastically, in some cases), there are a few cases where what I heard was downright false. I don't think I would go so far as to say I was intentionally lied to, since so many of the people I knew then meant well and surely love God. Even so, there are a few points where claims were made that have no foundation in a biblical text or even within most of Christian history. This is one of those points.

Now, while this image is meant to be humorous (which, I admit, it is), it poses a serious problem. First, this is not in the Bible. The text we usually mean to reference is 1 Corinthians 10.13, which deals with the issue of temptation, not the terrible crap that happens in our lives. Second, if it were in the Bible, I firmly believe that human experience has proved otherwise. God consistently gives people more than they can handle. It seems to me that if God throws stuff at people "because they can handle it," it portrays him in a slightly sadistic light. But the other day, my brother (who had a pretty similar upbringing to my own, as it turns out) made an excellent observation: If we could handle everything, what need would we have for God? This is a valid question.

Believing God will not permit temptation beyond our capacity is most assuredly different from believing God will not give us more than we can handle. For J. M. Hicks (Yet I Will Trust Him, 1999), the question of divine permission is key to understanding God's place in a suffering world. This appears to be true both in terms of what God permits in our temptation and in our trials.

But I've had times where it was more than I could handle. Some pretty terrible things befell me in elementary school: verbal abuse from a teacher, being bullied by students as a result of that teacher, and the school administration turning a blind eye from my suffering. It was more than I could handle. And God let it happen. I wasn't tempted to curse God; in fact, I was too young to know what that was. Even so, it was so much that, at 8 years old, I was considering suicide so I couldn't hate those people any more. I had a friend who died from a heart condition at the age of 16. I've lost several great-grandparents during my life, my living grandpa has had multiple kinds of cancer, and I've finally had to think through the possibility of losing one of my parents.

My own personal sob stories aside (and I'm certain others have much more difficult tales than I), the Bible's reaction to God's actions are more than enough evidence to show how God consistently seems to let people down or put them through unspeakable things. The lament witness throughout the OT (Psalms, Job, Lamentations, sections of the Prophets) and small portions of the NT (references to the previous  shows the authors and nation of Israel to be in a position of finding themselves having been given by God more than they could handle. But even Job, when placed in a situation beyond what many of us will (hopefully) ever understand, could not turn from God.

God gives us more than we can handle. And whether we continue obstinately chanting, "God is good," or we ask, "God, why have you forsaken us?" let us not abandon the conversation with him. At least, not permanently. We may all experience times when we can no longer sing the Lord's song (Ps. 137), but a time will come when the song returns. And what a glorious day it will be when the song returns.