On the “Nothing Here” Places

People here often tell you they want to die in this place. They say this even after telling you there is nothing here.

“You know,” says Robert Martin, paraphrasing a speech Anne Shelby wrote for their play, “if you look at the quality of life index, we don’t score very high. We don’t have museums, and we don’t have this and we don’t have that. But how many points would you get for our streams and for people who show up at your door with a casserole and say, ‘Call me if you need anything.’ How many points would you get for being able to grow up in a place where your parents and their parents grew up?”

There is a stubborn toughness in the kind of love for place those words express. It is a toughness that finds its mirror in the toughness demanded of all the people struggling in all the “nothing here” places all over the country. It is a toughness that rebukes the artificial stratifications of race. “All life is interrelated,” said King.

And surely, he would have welcomed “yesterday’s people” as co-authors of tomorrow’s hope.

Does God Slay Us? A Call for Lament

A brief devotion I shared for my class on the prophets based on Abraham Joshua Heschel’s chapter on 2nd Isaiah (Isaiah 40-66) in The Prophets.

 
 
I want to begin by reading a portion of the lyrics to a worship song that the worship band at my church played a few weeks back that got me thinking about suffering and God’s relation to suffering. It’s called “Though You Slay Me” and its by Shane and Shane.

I come, God, I come
I return to the Lord
The one who’s broken
The one who’s torn me apart
You struck down to bind me up
You say You do it all in love
That I might know You in Your suffering
 
Though You slay me
Yet I will praise You
Though You take from me
I will bless Your name
Though You ruin me
Still I will worship

Sing a song to the one who’s all I need 

This song is based on Job 13:15 where Job says, “Though he slay me, yet will I hope in him; I will surely defend my ways to his face.” It was written after one of the artists lost his dad to a sudden heart attack. He talks about the way God brought joy and praise in a time of great suffering for him and his family. But Is this song a cry of faith and trust in God’s sovereign will or is it harmful theology that makes God into an arbitrary tyrant who kills our parents to teach us a lesson?

Throughout Heschel’s work, the reality of suffering and God’s relation to suffering has come up often. As I’ve shared in our class discussions, this has created a struggle for me. In the chapter we read this week on 2nd Isaiah, we find that Israel is called to suffer as God’s servant on behalf of the nations, for the salvation of the nations. Think Isaiah 53. However, Heschel also makes what I think is a crucial distinction between different kinds of suffering. He says, “Not all the evils that befell Israel go back to the will of God” (p192). Yes, Israel was God’s chosen “Suffering Servant” but some of the suffering Israel experienced was pure evil at the hands of a wicked Babylonian empire. There’s a difference here: one kind of suffering comes from God; another kind comes from evil.

When I think about my life and future in ministry, I fully expect to face suffering as I try to be a faithful follower of Jesus. I’m learning to take Jesus seriously when he asks me to come and die. However, I’m also learning to recognize the powers and principalities, the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms, that are wholly aligned against the redemptive, healing, restoring reign of God. These are the forces on full display as Jesus is murdered on the cross;  these are the same forces that are shamed and disarmed as Jesus rises victorious from the grave. While they are utterly defeated, these same forces are the ones that steal, kill, and destroy our world today.

As we proclaim God’s reign of hope and justice in our world, we must recognize the difference between the suffering we are, on the one hand, bound to experience as we confront the powers and principalities that inhabit and empower evil, sinful structures and, on the other hand, the suffering meted out on the billions of poor, marginalized, and oppressed people by those same evil structures. In fact, all creation suffers and groans under sinful, evil structures inspired by the powers and principalities. The suffering we experience as we work for the salvation of others, as we follow the way of Christ as a community in a hostile world, is the only kind of suffering given by God; it is the only kind of suffering that can be called redemptive. I think we need to be careful, to seek discernment of the Spirit, so that we do not confuse this kind of suffering for the sake of others with the suffering caused by sinful structures or natural disasters or tragic accidents.

What we must remember is that God is always present and bringing comfort in all our suffering because God loves us with an eternal, unending love. God even suffers with us. However, God’s comfort in our suffering does not mean that God condones it or that God has caused it. When Job said, “Though he slay me, yet I will hope in him,” God was not happy. Why? Because Job got it wrong. God didn’t slay Job – the enemy did (Job 1:11-12). Here’s what God says back to Job: “Will the one who contends with the Almighty correct him? Let him who accuses God answer him!… Would you [Job] discredit my justice? Would you condemn me to justify yourself?” (Job 40:2, 8). Job thought he was being pious but he had wrongfully accused God of being the source of the evil and suffering he experienced. By accepting this suffering as if it was ordained by God, he had called God’s justice into question.

Before we glorify in your sufferings, or tell someone to praise God for the suffering “God is putting them through,” let’s be very sure that we’re not accusing God of injustice. Instead of accepting this suffering, God may be calling us to oppose it, to cry out for God’s justice and mercy. Maybe the praise God is calling us to is the praise of lament: “lamentation is not the opposite of praise but a form of praise in which God is rightfully held accountable to God’s promises: to comfort the widow, heal the afflicted… lament is expressed not as an accusation but as… a call back to fidelity to the terms of the original covenant, and includes an appropriate expectation or longing, not a demand, the very possibility of which was created when love and covenant were first enacted” (Catherine Mowry LaCugna, God For Us, 341, 342). We lament because God loves us with an everlasting, covenant-keeping love. When we suffer – whether it comes from God or not – God does not require us to simply accept the suffering and act as though it were good a priori, as though God were “slaying us” so that we would “know God”; I think God calls us to lament.
 
UPDATE: In light of this post, see my thoughts concerning Vincent Donovan’s quote on the Christian Solution to evil.

Poison & Wine: Heschel’s Hosea

tumblr_mq65ayjwyg1rj588zo1_500In a song made popular by the folk duo The Civil Wars, “Poison & Wine,” the anguished love of a married couple cries out: “I don’t love you/but I always will.”[1] These are the honest words of two lovers whose commitment to one another has endured a severe test. Surrendering, they confess: “I don’t have a choice/but I’d still choose you.”[2]

This song of suffering love between husband and wife is the one that came to mind as I considered Abraham Heschel’s account of the prophet Hosea in The Prophets. “It is as if there were a dramatic tension in God,” says Heschel as he reflects on the intense harmony of divine anger and compassion revealed in the prophet Hosea’s words.[3] Yet, in a way reflected by the words of The Civil Wars, this harmony cannot last. The tension breaks as Hosea “flashes a glimpse into the inner life of God” where we discover that suffering love – and not anger – is the “decisive motive behind God’s strategy in history.”[4]

As scandalous as it seems, God is bound to Israel by an “ineradicable”[5] love: “I will not execute my fierce anger… for I am God and no mortal.”[6] Hosea does not merely feel God’s momentary, incidental reaction to Israel’s disloyalty; he is drawn into “the fundamental emotion… [existing within] the constitutive relationship between God and Israel.”[7] Hosea proclaims the very being of God as supreme love “expressed first in the bitterness of disillusionment” which “finds its climax in the hope of reconciliation.”[8]

However, Hosea does not merely proclaim this message – he lives it. The anguish in God’s voice belongs to Hosea as well. He has been educated in daath elohim – “the knowledge of God” – which plunges Hosea into the depths of “suffering together” with God where “both persons share the same feeling.”[9] Through Hosea, God calls Israel along with all those who would call upon God to “know” the emotions, concerns, and inwardness of God in a relationship of “constant solidarity.”[10] This is love like no other; this is hope beyond all hope.

Like Israel, I “forget” God and turn to idols. God looks and sings, “You think your dreams are the same as mine.”[11] Unlike Hosea, I have yet to feel the intensity of God’s burning anger towards the idolatry of my heart. Is it possible to “know” the God of profound love apart from “knowing” this rage? While I am overwhelmed by God’s faithful acts of love and compassion towards me, Hosea calls me into the deep, wild, raging currents of triune Love by the way of suffering, of self-emptying, the way of Christ in the power of the Spirit.


[1] John Paul White, Joy Williams, and Chris Lindsey, Poison & Wine, The Civil Wars, 2011 by Sensibility Recordings LLC, Compact Disc.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Abraham J. Heschel, The Prophets, 57.

[4] Heschel, 58.

[5] Heschel, 52.

[6] Hosea 11:9, NRSV.

[7] Heschel., 59.

[8] Heschel, 63.

[9] Heschel, 73.

[10] Heschel, 74.

[11] Poison & Wine, The Civil Wars.

Amos, Over-Realized Eschatology, and the “Here and Now”

This morning at church we introduced a new worship song to be our “anthem” for the coming year. It’s called “Here and Now” and it was written by Eddie Kirkland out of North Point Community Church in Alpharetta, GA. It’s a great anthem song… just take a listen:

It’s got that “Let’s go change the world” kind of vibe right? If there’s one word I would choose to describe this song, I think it would be: confident… possibly too confident. Just read the chorus:

Let Your mercy rise
Let Your hope resound
Let Your love in our hearts be found

Let Your grace run free
Let Your name bring peace
Heaven come in the here and now

That’s a bold claim: heaven come… right now! If that line sounds familiar, it’s because Kirkland borrowed it from Jesus’ instruction to the disciples about how to pray. In Matthew’s version of the “Lord’s Prayer,” Jesus tells his disciples to pray “Our Father in heaven,hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:9-10). When Kirkland sings “heaven,” he’s using a shorthand version of “[God’s] kingdom come, [God’s] will be done.”

But, what do we usually think of we think of the word “heaven”? Most Christian folk would probably think of angels, clouds, harps, no tears, perfect peace, life with God, etc, etc… They might also think of the “opposite” of heaven, ie hell, fire, brimstone, judgement, eternal punishment, and all the rest. When we ask about heaven and hell, we’re asking about what happens when we die;  will we exist throughout eternity and what will that look like? Basically, we’re asking this: “what’s the end game here? when I come to my end (ie death), what happens next?”

In the wide and wonderful world of theology, these are questions about eschatology; personal eschatology to be precise. So, how do we make sense of these personally eschatological questions about heaven and hell in light of this song? It seems like the song has a different understanding of “heaven” since the lyrics are asking God to bring “heaven… in the here and now” – not when we die. For those who sing this song, “heaven” seems to be a reality that is experienced in normal, everyday life. God’s mercy and hope, grace and peace, God’s love is here – right now! Why wait till your dead to start living right!?!?!

The theological perspective behind this song is what most theologians would call a “realized” eschatology. Instead of thinking that eternal life with God will only be real some time in the future, after death, eternal life can be “realized” today, here and now. We can see it and touch it and feel it; life with God can be “real”-ized, ie become real. Personally, I think this is a great approach. Eternal life begins now. Nowhere is this clearer to me in Scripture than in Jesus’ “mission statement” in Luke 4:18-19:

The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

Now, there’s a lot of great stuff in this verse, but I want to focus on that last phrase: “the year of the Lord’s favor.” One important thing to note is that Jesus is quoting from the prophet Isaiah; mostly Isaiah 61:1-2 and some other phrases pulled from other parts of Isaiah 40-66. Isaiah was an Old Testament prophet and who was writing to God’s people as they were exiled in Babylon. In chapters 40-66, Isaiah is proclaiming a hopeful vision; God will bring Israel home; a new end was in sight for Israel, a new day was dawning – the “day of the Lord.” You could say that Isaiah 40-66 is all about eschatology. Israel’s future is at stake and they need hope. When Jesus quotes this passage, he’s saying that the “day of the Lord” has arrived, the “year of the Lord’s favor” has come, Israel’s hope was to be “realized” in him! This passage is a cornerstone for those who espouse a “realized eschatology.” You can see strong influences of this passage in the lyrics of “Here and Now.”

So, this is all great stuff but what’s the point? Realized eschatology is cool and all – “Heaven come! Now!” – but it can go too far. We Christians can sometimes get so fired up about how powerful and loving and just God is that we get a bit over confident. Our eschatology becomes over-realized. In our zeal for “the day of the Lord” to come, we forget how God became vulnerable, emptied himself, and overturned all the expectations of God’s people for a quick, catastrophic overthrow of the Roman empire and a triumphal return of Israel and its king. We forget that Jesus was murdered on a Roman cross.

I mention Amos in the title of this post. I think this prophet has a good word for us to remember as we long for “the day of the Lord”

Woe to you who long
for the day of the Lord!
Why do you long for the day of the Lord?
That day will be darkness, not light.
 It will be as though a man fled from a lion
only to meet a bear,
as though he entered his house
and rested his hand on the wall
only to have a snake bite him.
Will not the day of the Lord be darkness, not light—
pitch-dark, without a ray of brightness?

Amos wrote these words to a group of people who had lost sight of what it meant to live as God’s people. Even though they “worshiped” the God who had rescued them from slavery in Egypt, injustice had become the norm in their society; the poor were trampled and sold for a pair of shoes. For this people, Amos says the “day of the Lord” – the day when justice rolls down like a mighty river and righteousness like a rushing stream – will be a day of reckoning, a day of emptying, of crucifixion. These folks just didn’t realize that God actually despised their worship.

As I sing this song at my church over the next few weeks, the words of Amos will be looming large in my mind. Can I really sing it with authenticity? Do I really understand the cost of following Jesus into the “day of the Lord”? If “heaven” does come, will it be “as though [I] fled from a lion only to meet a bear”? The world I live in is very much like the world of Amos; violence, injustice, and suffering seem to rule the day while I live in relative comfort and security. In other words, I have a lot to lose. Realized eschatology is great, and I’ll still sing this song, but I must remember and begin to live as if I really believe that God’s grace, this experience of eternal life that I can see, feel, and touch right now, is not cheap: “[Grace] is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship).

May God continue to lead me, to lead us, on the downward way of Christ. May I decrease, so that Christ may increase. May God’s light shine into the darkness of my heart and my world to expose the ways I bring “hell” to myself and others all while praying for “heaven” to come.

Newbigin: Evangelism as Overflow

A community of people that, in the midst of all the pain and sorrow and wickedness of the world, is continually praising God is the first obvious result of living by another story than the one the world lives by… and where there is a praising community, there also will be a caring community with love to spare for others. Such a community is the primary hermeneutic [interpretive] lens of the gospel… a congregation that has at its heart a joyful worship of the living God and a constantly renewed sense of the sheer grace and kindness of God will be a congregation from which true love flows out to neighbors, a love that seeks their good regardless of whether they come to church.

Lesslie Newbigin, “Evangelism in the Context of Secularization,” in The Study of Evangelism: Exploring a Missional Practice of the Church

I must say that I agree. The “other story” we live by as followers of Jesus is the one where God becomes a particular person whose Spirit-anointed life, death and resurrection both inaugurates God’s saving reign over all creation and secures our hope in a future where that reign is made perfect and complete. As we come to know this person Jesus, we come to know God’s gracious, loving welcome. Our response to that welcome is simply to welcome others. A community is formed… a community where hope overflows.

Welcoming Hope [Romans 15:13]

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Romans 15:13

As I meditated on this verse, one phrase kept jumping out at me: “as you trust in Him.” I thought about it a bit more and it seemed to beg the question: “for what? What is the goal, the end, the vision that Paul is wanting the church at Rome to trust in God for?”

I started thinking about the whole letter of Romans to put this verse into context. Among the many theological nuances and levels of thought weaved into this letter, Paul is, on the whole, addressing a situation of deep disunity and distrust among Jews and Gentiles trying to be God’s people in Rome. The first 9 chapters lay the theological foundation for the new community in Christ that he envisions in chapters 12-15. However, this is not just any community but the “body of Christ”:

For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.

Romans 12:4-5

This is the vision Paul has been developing when we arrive at Romans 15. In this chapter, Paul is really driving his message home loud and clear. Verses 5-7 really capture, for me, the main reason he has written this letter:

May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had, so that with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.[Welcome] one another, then, just as Christ [welcomed] you, in order to bring praise to God.

Romans 15:5-7

So, what is Paul instructing the church at Rome to “trust in God” for? Becoming one mind and one voice, having the same attitude of Christ towards each other, knowing and experiencing God’s gracious welcome and then welcoming others in the same way. This, I think, is what Paul is asking us to trust God for: unity that is experienced in community, the specific, unique – even holy – community of the body of Christ.

So, we’re trusting God for community in Christ, but how is that related to hope? It’s interesting to me how Paul asks “the God of hope” to fill his readers with joy and peace – not with hope. Paul wants them to overflow with hope, but he doesn’t ask for hope directly. Why not? Why ask for joy and peace if he wants the church at Rome to be filled with hope?

As Christians, what is the source and ground of our hope? The simple answer, for me, is Easter: the empty tomb, the risen, resurrected, reigning King, the Lord, Jesus Christ. When Paul asks for joy and peace, I think he’s trying to remind his readers of their only real source of hope in the one who has defeated death and overcome evil. Jesus is alive and Jesus is our hope. But here’s the key: Jesus isn’t just up in heaven somewhere. Jesus is alive and well yesterday, today, and tomorrow. How? Through God’s people, “the BODY of Christ,” the community of men, women, and children that welcomes one another as Christ has welcomed them. This community is – by and only by the power of the Holy Spirit – the resurrected body of Christ!

We welcome hope when we welcome one another as Christ has welcomed us. Our hope is found in the community enlivened by the Spirit to be the hands, feet, and voice of Jesus Christ to us. Our hope is real because we know it by name, we can touch it, be hugged by it, and hear its voice.

Paul’s prayer in Romans 15:13 reminds the Romans that they need God’s joy because community is can sometimes be discouraging. It can be confusing and even upsetting, so we need God’s peace. As we trust in God for this provision, we experience the Holy Spirit’s power to “stay at the table” with each other and welcome one another even in the midst of our pain, confusion, and imperfect attempts to love one another. Then, I think, one day, we’ll be able to step back and say, “Here is my hope. In these people, in this place, as we come together and trust in God to fill us with joy and peace by the power of the Spirit; I have hope because I’ve known Jesus, I’ve felt his touch and heard his voice. He’s alive.”

Of course, this hope is experienced incompletely, inadequately and in ways we can’t plan or control. These experiences and moments of hope may be fleeting. The phrase “trial and error” comes to mind. “Community” does not “equal” hope and not just any “community” can claim to be “the body of Christ.” So, we move forward humbly always taking time to discern the Spirit – because, without the Spirit, we’re as good as dead.

Will Campbell on Hope and Discipleship

[Jesus] never demanded of the people who wanted to follow him that they must first know this or that, this creed, or that catechism, the nature of the Trinity or the plan of salvation, or subscribe to an Abstract of Principles to the satisfaction of the Sanhedrin. He had not insisted on any systematic belief whatsoever.

He talked of such things as a cup of cold water. Ah, but we must build a global sprinkler system. And while we are appointing committees and electing boards and creating giant agencies to build the global sprinkler system the one near at hand perishes from dehydration as we pass by on the other side.

The inherent danger in creed, in belief over faith, Edith Hamilton said, is that belief is passive. Faith is active and leads to discipleship. Creed, or belief, simply requires recitation. What’s the point in believing a whale swallowed a man unless we understand that it is a story about justice?

The problem with biblical literalism is that it is biblical illiteracy. The words are known but not the tune. The Bible is a book. A book about who God is. It is not a scientific dissertation to be required in Caesar’s academy. But again I wander.

Where, then, is there hope? If not in institutions, in bigness, in belief, certitude or creed, where is it? In freelance acts of discipleship, I believe. Certainly grace abounds and there is hope.

…There is hope, for there the star of Christmas shines again and there the Star of David glows anew. For there is Immanuel: God with us.

Will Campbell, in remarks given to the Associated Baptist Press in 1994.

A tough word for a seminarian to hear, but a good word nonetheless.