God Has Dirty Hands

“Enough. Enough now.”

-That guy in ‘Love Actually’ who also fights zombies on ‘The Walking Dead’

Like Jacob the night before meeting Esau, we all set-up camp alongside the Jabbok and endure seasons of struggle and storm. If you’ve followed my blog these last months I’ve tried to be honest about struggling with faith issues and the need to think through a few questions. But as Dr. Seuss so eloquently said in ‘The Places You’ll Go’ -the waiting place is not for you. It is only a place of rest -too many people make it their home. So before the Hakken-Kraks get me, I am breaking camp alongside the river and moving to green pastured thoughts. This doesn’t mean I’ve solved all my struggles, but it is time to share what I think I think.

I think a new world will break through this old broken one when God decides it is time, and it will be more than we can imagine. More inspiring than halos and wings are the images of a defeated evil one and a world set right by eradicating sin and death. Greed will no longer infiltrate systems, corruption will become extinct, and violence will be no more. Our days will be spent in a divine mixture of work and worship…and we will never attend a funeral. And  I don’t know how it will physically happen, but Jesus will be present. He will talk with us and we’ll hear his laugh. It will be very good.

However, that day hasn’t arrived yet. We remain in the muck of this embattled world, continuing to be affected by consequences of sin and fear of death. Our morality is broken, but so are our eyes, heads and hearts. All creation groans. The river of justice flows more like a stream while we cry out from her banks, “How long, O Lord?”

Sometimes we teach Christianity like The Claw from ‘Toy Story.’ We go about our usual business and every now and then The Claw reaches down, scoops one of us up and takes us to the promised land. It is worthy of our worship because it decides who will stay and who will go. (The metaphor really works in ‘Toy Story 3′ when The Claw saves everyone from the eternal fire.)

I don’t think this is what the New Testament teaches. Scripture teaches God has dirty hands. In the beginning of the Old Testament God hovered over creation. In the beginning of the New Testament God dwelt among creation. Rather than creating an entirely new space and cherry-picking only the best humans to populate it, God has chosen to work within this world -transforming it from the inside out- until it properly reflects Him and his love the way he originally designed. God is a fixer-upper. His divine patience with us comes from his immense love. The key word in the New Testament isn’t salvation, but redemption. We have more than a Savior to pluck us from the mire -we have a Redeemer who turns our wailing into dancing!

So until that day when we will stop counting days, God is working. He is working inside our hearts and minds, and through our hands and feet. We wait with expectation, but know there is work to be done. We must get our hands dirty too.

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2 Lessons I Learned From Our Kids Last Week

Another fish died last week. He had been with us several months, but we still hadn’t given him (her? I don’t know how one checks these things) a name. Perhaps I have a cold heart, but the emotional toll wasn’t deep. I couldn’t say the same for our 7 year old daughter. When she got home from school and received the news, her eyes welled up immediately and her hands turned into fists. Grief mixed with anger and someone was going to take the heat. She looked up at me and said, “It’s all your fault!” and ran into her room. Now the loss of the fish affected me -my little princess’ heart was broken. I gave her space for a few minutes, but not enough for the tears to dry on her pillowcase. I didn’t say much, just ran my fingers through her hair and told her I loved her. A minute passed. A big sniffle as her arm reached across her face to wipe the tears and she looked me right in the eye, “It’s not your fault.” We hugged.

How many times have I been on that carousel, blaming my Father for the losses I’ve experienced as I run into my room to cry? Or I run into my work or a hobby or a deep, dark emotional cave where I isolate myself from everyone -especially Him? And I’m hurting so badly and so busy blaming him for my pain I don’t notice his gentle hand holding my heart as he speaks soft words into my soul. I don’t take the time to look up at him and see tears in his eyes -not just because he hurts for the loss but because he sees I’m in pain. Jesus knew Lazarus would walk out of the tomb and yet he wept because he felt the pain of the sisters. That’s my king.

Our daughter is brilliant and daily quizzes me over shark facts and the ins and outs of minecraft. But more than anything else, our daughter knows we love her no matter what. It is repeated daily and, hopefully, lived continuously -she believes our love for her is unconditional and always seeking good. We would do nothing to cause her pain just for our own amusement. Her grief caused her to forget that for a minute, but a lifetime of love trumps a moment of pain.

God is good. It’s not his fault.

You need to understand the gravitas of Ti-Ti to understand this one. Ti-Ti is our 3 year old’s lovey. He is our Hobbes. Ti-Ti goes with us everywhere and has paid the price -he is raggedy and stinky and worn. We tried replacing him with a new one last year, but of course our son could tell the difference and refused the imposter. So it made sense to take him with us on our hike last week to enjoy the beautiful weather. My wife stuffed him in her purse, we all got in the car and then hiked through the woods.

When we got back to the parking lot we noticed the police cars. “Oh no,” is the quote from my beloved. We walked up to our car and sure enough the side window was smashed and her purse was gone. Three cars in a row -all victims to those preying on people who want to enjoy a beautiful day. We jumped through the hoops -talking with police, canceling cards, calling insurance, cleaning the glass -and there was nothing left to do. Just hoping the police will give us a call in the next few days to say they found her purse. So we loaded back into our car and headed home.

We are driving for about a mile when our son yells out, “Ti-Ti!” and my heart sinks. I glance at my wife who is in horror as the idea of Ti-Ti’s absence sinks in. You can have our money and break the window of our new car, but please don’t take the raggedy elephant! Now we’re all tearing up and our son is anxious like never before. He hasn’t spent a day without Ti-Ti. My wife replays the day and wonders if we had taken Ti-Ti out of her purse before the hike began. Did we put him in Daddy’s backpack? A lot happened in the previous hour and we can’t remember where Ti-Ti was left. The anticipation builds on the car ride home, and as soon as we pull into the driveway I reach into the back of the car for my backpack. I unzip it and there is a little worn, blue elephant trunk. Our son is elated and we are all relieved.

A little boy loses the most precious thing in his world, but I tell you the joy of the kingdom of God is like a little boy who finds his little blue elephant. Though he has wept, he rejoices. Though he was lonely, he is comforted. Though he was afraid, he now has peace.

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‘The King Jesus Gospel’ by Scot McKnight

After reading a few book reviews I’ve put together, I realized I’m not very good at reviews. Therefore, when I’m done reading a book I’ll write up what I believe to be its strong points. If those topics interest you then I suggest you email me and I’ll let you borrow my copy or go to amazon. Anyway, this week I finished Scott McKnight’s The King Jesus Gospel (2011), the second book of his I read (The Blue Parakeet is the other and I highly, highly recommend that one). Here are the 5 strongest points I got from this installment:

  1. He points out American Christianity is a salvation-centered culture. I’ve never thought about this before, but when he differentiates between salvation-centered and gospel-centered I see the point he is making. The gospel has become the means to the end (salvation). The only reason Jesus is important to us is because he is the conduit to eternal life. So we emphasize decisions over disciples. In order to have a more maturing, discipled culture we need to focus more (and be shaped by) the gospel message.

(40) “The Plan of Salvation leads to one thing and one thing only: salvation. Justification leads to a declaration by God that we are in the right, that we are in the people of God; it doesn’t lead inexorably to a life of justice or goodness or loving-kindness. If it did, all Christians would be more just and more filled with goodness and drenched in love.”

2. Jesus is the completion of Israel’s story. If you are a fan of NT Wright (which McKnight obviously is) then this point is already driven into your Bible reading. But it is still worth repeating. The Old Testament has great significance -it is far more than a placeholder or story fodder. Focusing our attention on a personal salvation (where it’s all about me and Jesus) puts him in a vacuum and makes the rest of the story background noise. We are missing the richness of the bigger story when we do this.

(62) “When the plan gets separated from the story, the plan almost always becomes abstract, propositional, logical, rational, and philosophical and most importantly, de-storified and unbiblical. When we separate the Plan of Salvation from the story, we cut ourselves off the story that identifies us and tells our past and tells our future. We separate ourselves from Jesus and turn the Christian faith into a System of Salvation.”

3. The Gospels are really 4 accounts of 1 gospel. I haven’t thought about it before, but Matthew, Mark, Luke or John don’t mention much about a Plan of Salvation. They tell the culmination of the story of Israel in the person of Jesus -mostly his death, burial and resurrection. “Gospel” isn’t a genre…it is good news.

(89) “The apostolic gospel, embedded in 1 Corinthians 15, announces the Story of Jesus at the completion of Israel’s Story in the Scriptures in such a way that Jesus saves people from their sins. This is the apostolic gospel.”

4. The Gospel must once again become the focus of the church -not salvation. Here we walk across the bridge from first century to modern application. If the early Christians taught by the disciples focused and were shaped by the good news of Jesus completing the saving story of Israel, then how will that change the focus of the church today?

(137) “Remember that the fundamental solution in the gospel is that Jesus is Messiah and Lord; this means there was a fundamental need for a ruler, a king, and a lord.”

5. McKnight closes with 5 ways to create a gospel-centered culture in the church today. 

(153-160) “First we have to become people of the story…Second, we need to immerse ourselves even more into the story of Jesus…Third, we need to see how the apostles’ writings take the Story of Israel and the Story of Jesus into the next generation and into a different culture, and how this generation led all the way to our generation…Fourth, we need to counter the stories that bracket our story and that reframe our story…Finally, we need to embrace this story so that we are saved and can be transformed by the gospel story.”

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Book Review: Greg Boyd “Benefit of the Doubt”

Continuing my struggle through the relationship faith and doubt have, I turned my attention to Greg Boyd’s Benefit of the Doubt: Breaking the Idol of Certainty (2013). Boyd is a scholar and local pastor (in Minnesota!) who has written many books on faith. This book spends the first third poking holes at “certainty driven” faith. That is, people who are seeking absolute conviction in their belief system. He gives 9 reasons why this type of faith is damaging and unbiblical. What he believes it boils down to is this type of faith is more concerned with the feeling of rightness than seeking true faith. And when we put a feeling above truth (or anything for that matter), Boyd argues we have turned to a form of idolatry -hence the title. benefit-of-the-doubt-2

He spends the next third contrasting certainty-seekers with those who accept doubt in their faith. They are ok to answer “I don’t know” to a number of questions, and they embrace doubt as an opportunity to grow rather than shun it. This is a much more biblical model of faith -highlighted in Israel’s wrestling with God (alongside the Goshen and throughout history).

The biggest difference he can find between these two approaches is the first appeals to a contractual agreement between us and God. We will believe hook, line and sinker what is taught us (and never question it) and in return God will bless us with eternal life (most expect a good life now too!) When times of difficulty arise, certainty seekers appeal to God by listing how they’ve kept their end of the bargain, and why isn’t he keeping his?

Doubt-accepters, on the other hand, don’t appeal to the contract because they know they have not kept their end. They haven’t bought into everything, so if God will only bless the “obedient” ones (i.e. total believers) they don’t stand a chance. They appeal instead to the covenant, a more relational component.

Boyd spends the majority of the book laying a groundwork for the difference between these views: contractual and covenental. For many, scripture is the foundation. Yet scripture is so vast, spanning centuries, genres, authors, cultures, etc. -including images of God. Sometimes God is seen as a warrior, a judge, a shepherd. So there are times God intentionally punishes, blesses, etc. And if the foundation of our understanding the character of God is scripture, these conflicting images will often be the sources of our confusion. For example, something bad happens to you. Is this God punishing you? Is he testing you? Is it something to learn from? Boyd counters this foundation stealing from Paul -the foundation of our faith is Christ alone. That is, the best picture we have into the heart and mind of God is in the ministry, specifically the cross, of Jesus. So there were times God revealed himself as a warrior, but his true character is a self-giving, sacrificial servant. So when those bad things happen to us, we don’t wonder if God is causing our plight because that’s not his nature. He doesn’t exist to punish us.*

Boyd’s focus on putting Christ at the center of scripture and foundation of our faith is a strong point in the book. Rather than excel at biblicism, he calls us to know the person of Christ. Scripture helps us identify his character, but it isn’t limited to scripture. He often reverts back to the metaphor of marriage to describe our relationship with God. For certain-seekers, faith is based as a contractual agreement: I will say or do the thing my church teaches is the essential thing to say or do and then I’ve got a golden ticket into heaven. You promised God! Growing a relationship, growing in faith isn’t a priority -we just want the prize at the end of the game. Rather, biblical faith is covenantal. We are connected to someone over our lifetime to grow -not just as individuals but as a committed pair to each other.

Where Boyd got a little confusing is where he strayed off topic. This is a heady book, and the three sections are connected, but the strands holding them together get pretty loose. Maybe it was all tied together and I zoned out (a real possibility), but the second and third sections unpack so much more than dealing with faith and doubt. He gives an entire new understanding of what faith in God really is. Still, it is to be commended he gave a new place to land (even if I have my doubts). It always bugs me when an author spends a whole book deconstructing something and then leaves you with a mess to clean up by yourself. Boyd challenges certainty-seeking (and doubt-shaming) by calling the church to focus more on Christ instead of biblicism. That is a strong foundation to run with.

*This is a different view from what many of us were taught: the Bible is the perfect Word of God. It has no errors and means exactly what it says. Boyd counters this with 2 points: Jesus is the Word of God, not scripture. And the Bible is perfect for what God has called it to do -that doesn’t mean it has to be historically accurate. (For another view similar to this one, look at my review of Enns’ book)

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Struggle 4: Voices

Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”

The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’”

“You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” -Genesis 3:1-5

Losing your job. Burying a loved one. Addiction. Random Tuesday afternoon thoughts. Acrobatic exegesis. The difficult conversation you keep postponing. Certain events in our lives heighten those voices in our heads replaying the serpent’s cunning words to humanity, “God is selfish. God is out to get you. God is holding you back.” 

We believe them sometimes because…well, because life happens. Bad things drop us to our knees, and like Job we gaze at the stars, yell out and beat our chests. But unlike Job we get no audible response. How easily our perception of God can shift to God the Unconcerned or God the Punisher.

It is at these times we most desperately need the voices of the saints, reminding us the core of God’s character is good. I don’t mean that in an “all the time” cliche, but in a “that’s the foundation of the validity of the Bible” way. If God isn’t good then the sacrifice of Jesus is more appeasement than atonement. If the grace of the New Testament is just a hybrid of throwing a virgin into a fiery volcano, then can we really trust this god to stand by his word?

So the gospel, atonement, sanctification, and all those church words we use hinge, for me, on the goodness of God. And I choose to believe he is good. He has our best interests at heart. I base that belief not on great theological study or unwavering confidence in my logic. I don’t believe in the goodness of God because of Moses, the Law, the great stories of the Old Testament, or even Paul’s inspired proofs. I don’t believe in the goodness of God because of my church or some supernatural experience I had when I was 11.

I believe God is good because of Jesus.

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Struggling Within Faith Part 4: Are Faith & Belief Synonymous?

You and I are standing on the river banks growing more curious about the other side. We are in our Sunday best, so the idea of swimming across isn’t an option. You glance downstream and notice several rocks that might form a step bridge all the way across the current. Some of the rocks are boulders, several feet in diameter, but others look smaller than our fist. “Let’s go for it,” you say as you step onto the first stone.

“Do you think they’ll hold us?” Displaying my pessimist side, I’m worried we’ll get half way out there and either have to turn back or be stuck. “Do you have faith we can make it all the way across?” There are a lot of variables: the rocks, the current, our balance and weight. I look down at my outfit. The price to pay if we fall in is pretty steep. I think about other times I’ve challenged my balance and the negative results that followed.

“I believe there are enough rocks within stepping distance, and I believe they won’t tip over when we step on them,” you respond. You’ve already convinced yourself and you’re imagining all the fun on the other side.

“Yeah, I believe it too. But do you have faith we’ll make it?”

Are faith and belief synonymous? If not, what is the difference between the two?

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The Jesus Bridge

At the worship service we attended Sunday, the preacher challenged us to articulate our understanding of what God was up to according to the Bible. If we were unable to do so on our own, he gave a sermon that summed up his understanding. He used the well-known picture seen below. God is holy and mankind has sinned, causing a chasm to form between Creator and created. We can try all we want to bridge the gap with our good deeds, but we’ll always fall short. The only way we can get to God is with the “Jesus bridge.” Through his sacrifice we have access to relationship with the Father and life in his name. This is why Jesus is good news.

Jesus-Christ-The-Bridge

I don’t have a problem with this picture. I just think it is woefully incomplete. It indicates the effect of sin is a valley between humanity and God, but that is only the beginning. It misses the mark of showing us the valleys that exist between humans caused by sin.

When everything was right between humans and God, relationships between humans were right. That is, Adam looked at Eve and there wasn’t brokenness. He didn’t try to one-up her or wasn’t jealous of her or didn’t take advantage of her, and vice versa. They were able to be vulnerable and trusted one another. Each had their place in the system of creation and they were content. This wasn’t just two people in the marriage relationship, but symbolize all humanity. As the writer of Genesis tells us,

Adam and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame. -Gen. 2:25

They didn’t feel shame to stand before God naked, but also felt no shame to stand before each other naked. No judgements. No lack of self-confidence. No wondering if the other person is about to start laughing. Next time you stand naked before someone (hopefully only your spouse), see what kind of emotions and self-doubt run across your mind.

It all changed with sin. As soon as it entered creation, there was a valley, a separation between humans and God:

Adam answered, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.” -Gen. 3:10

Suddenly Adam was afraid. There was a shame quality for him to stand before God that he’d never felt before. That’s the valley between humanity and God the preacher talked about. But another valley formed just as quickly -the valley between humans:

The man [Adam] said, “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.” -Gen 3:12

He threw her under the bus. No longer a team. Sin brought shame. Shame brought self-preservation. Self-preservation brought judgements of others. And left unchecked, this brings death to all relationships. The text doesn’t say it, but Adam and Eve couldn’t stand before one another without shame. Sin had sunk its claws in.

I cannot escape the fact I view myself in relation to other people. This may be subconscious, but there are times I look at people and think I’m better than them or they are better than me. Sometimes it is about race, gender, nationality, bank account, religion, fame. Other times it is because my lawn looks nicer than theirs or my kid can run faster than their kid. I am constantly pitting myself against others. To acknowledge this is to admit my shame.

To compete, evaluate and judge, we say, is human. But it is not. It is humanity and sin mixed together. This is the separation we feel among one another. True humanity, as we see in the Garden in Genesis and on the Cross at Calvary, is the ability to look at every human and love them without shame. To serve them without fear and think of them with kindness. And this is why I see the simple picture as incomplete. Jesus isn’t just the bridge to God. He’s also the bridge to one another. And I can’t help but think this is a major component of what God has been up to the whole time.

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