Monthly Archives: November 2011
“I don’t believe in karma,
I don’t believe in luck
I’m sad as hell in this place
but don’t believe I’m stuck
I’m running out of energy
but I don’t believe I’m running out of time
I’m running on caffeine and anger
and I don’t believe in holding it inside
There’s a time for everything
and everything will be okay in time”
“I once believed that God became flesh in order to destroy flesh that I might escape flesh on the day God destroys all creation. I now believe God became flesh in order to test flesh by death and make flesh new by resurrection that I too might be resurrected on the day God restores all creation. If it’s not a completely different gospel, it’s certainly better news.”
The first quote I guess you could say is a note from my 23 year old self. It is from lyrics to a song I wrote back when I was trying to be a rock star. The song was called “Sometime Somewhere.” It seems somewhat applicable today despite me being in a drastically different place in life than I was 12 years ago. The second quote is a note to self from the not too distant past. Back in May, my final question during my denominational exams before the Classis of Holland in the Reformed Church of America was this: “Describe one way you have changed or matured in your faith journey during seminary?” The above quotation about flesh and resurrection was my answer.
I don’t like to quote myself often. But I these two seemingly disconnected fragments were running through my head this morning in conjunction with each other and with the 1965 protest song “Eve of Destruction.” For me I suppose this is all serving as a reminder that my current lot in life is but one small speck in a vast cosmos, in a human drama that predates me and will likely continue after me (unless you know something I don’t know). In this I am neither insignificant nor omni-important. I am trying to do my part to make the world a better place. But no matter how fantastic or shitty life seems at the moment, all things are in God’s hands.
I know this seems a counter-intuitive claim when times are tough for us personally. Times have indeed been tough for me lately. I graduated from seminary in May. I have been looking for a church for the past six months. Despite several interviews all I have to show so far is tried and tested patience and tenacity and a stack of rejection letters. I have also been looking for any part time job in the meantime to supplement my wife’s income. But despite 20 or so job applications or resumes sent out, 11 years experience in retail, and a couple of degrees under my belt I still have not found work. Like many others – especially in Michigan – my family is feeling the sting of these tough economic times.
Recently my daughter has been experiencing hindering muscle contortions in her arms and legs. Yesterday we received a tentative, preliminary diagnosis of Torsion Dystonia. I have a form of this called Cervical Dystonia which manifests itself with odd postures, some discomfort and contortions mostly in my neck (which makes job interviews all the more interesting). With my diagnoses and a history of tremors and spasms on my father’s side of the family, her condition is quite possibly genetic in origin. We are still in the midst of much testing and waiting to find out if this is indeed what has been bothering her. While now I am hoping and praying she does not have to be treated with deep muscle botox injections someday (as I know how painful it is to receive them), I am nonetheless very happy and relieved to be moving towards some clarity and potential treatment for our baby girl. But it does not always feel like this too is in God’s hands.
My faith informs me that God has a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in Christ, things in heaven and things on earth. But in the face of true tragic and evil occurrences in the world this claim often seems absurd. Take recent headlines in Uganda for instance. So many men, women and especially children are suffering there. For some time the “Lord’s Resistance Army” has been abducting children, killing or forcing the children to kill their own families and then training the boys to fight wars and forcing girls into horrible forms of slavery (an estimated 66,000 children have been abducted). For several years there has been an ongoing outcry in Uganda and around the world against a still pending proposed anti-homosexual bill supported by some prominent American “evangelicals.” If passed it would demand the death penalty for homosexuals and jail time for people “protecting homosexuals.” And most recently reports are surfacing that child sacrifices have resurfaced in Uganda over the past several years to appeal to deities for wealth. God is in control? God is making all things new?
While many people in Uganda and around the world cry out with the Psalmist, ‘How long O’ Lord,’ I too often repeat another cry of the Psalmist – the one repeated by Jesus on the cross – ‘My God! Have you forsaken us?’ And it seems like all of creation groans with us like a woman crying out from labor pangs. In the midst of personal crisis or natural disasters we may question the strength of our faith or God’s Character. But in the face of war, atrocity, injustice and violence – especially when acted out in the name of God – many question the validity of faith in general or the existence of God altogether. I am one of those who question. My personal conviction is that Christians ought to take more seriously than anybody else the Marxist critique that religion is a tool of the upper-class to prevent people from protesting their present sufferings. In the face of so much abuse of religion I would probably have agree if it were not for a couple of often forgotten, perhaps absurd, yet indispensable tenets of the Christian faith:
1) Contrary to much popular belief my faith does not inform me to roll over and play dead. Yes all things are in God’s hands and at the end of the day it is God who makes all things new. But the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are full of prophetic laments and protests against the systems of injustice in this world. They are full of instructions to take care of the orphan and the widow. They also contain the assertion that in Christ all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. And while the powers that be at present may kick and scream and rage against it, God is reconciling himself all things in Christ. We are invited to be part of a counter protest movement, daily declaring to these powerful systems that their days of corruption and abuse of power are numbered.
Of course, these systems sometimes raise their ugly head even within the scriptures themselves in the form of patriarchy, slavery or other institutionalized transgressions against humanity. Unfortunately this is the kind of thing that does often become a tool in the hand of the powerful, claiming the Bible and religion in general to be in on the sanctioning of oppression. And this all becomes fuel for the fire of righteous indignation –in the believer as well as in the nonbeliever – against the misuse and abuse of religion. One of my theological heroes Jürgen Moltmann has addressed this quite eloquently:
Observations about cultural history of this kind have little to say about the content of the narratives and testimonies about God in the Old and New Testaments… The fact that the Bible grew up in the world of patriarchy and slavery still does not tell us anything about the presence of eternity at that time or about the future in its past… No one reads the Bible in order to take over a world picture that is past and gone. No one has to adopt the social concepts and the patriarchal sexual hierarchies of the Bible. If that were so, for biblical reasons we should have to reintroduce slavery into Christianity, revert to absolute monarchy instead of democracy and so forth.
I am reminded of these words often as I attempt add my small voice to the chorus that cries out against patriarchy, sexism, homophobia, racism, classism and other forms of injustice. And as I confess and try to expunge such sickness of heart when it crops up in me.
2) Also contrary to popular belief, the rules or Karma and perhaps Deuteronomy, my faith does not inform me that everyone gets just exactly what they deserve. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God by loving God, walking in God’s ways, and observing the commandments of God, then you shall live and become numerous, and God will bless you in the land says the deuteronomic historian. But God calls Abram and blesses him based on nothing he has done. And God declares Abram righteous not because of the good things he has done, certainly not for the lack of trust and respect Abram sometimes showed in God’s presence. Rather God blessed Abraham because of God’s claim on Abrahams life: God declared “All peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” And in this Abraham places his faith. This blessing of the whole earth has and always will be the reason God calls a worshiping community into existence. Jesus told Nicodemus that God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.
The church too exists for the sake of the world and not for its condemnation. In the meantime as Jesus reminds in the sermon on the mount we should pray for those we perceive as our enemies and remember that God for whatever reason causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.
When a deuteronomic or karmic faith is our lens for viewing the Christ event it can indeed quickly become aid to the powerful systems of injustice currently in place in our world. I think there is an ever present temptation for Christians especially to develop an attitude of ‘let’s just grin and bear our present suffering. Someday it will be over and the good people like us will bask in glory and the bad people will burn.’ But when we view God as entering into our suffering with us – for our sake and the sake of making the whole world new it radically changes everything!
I again turn to the German theologian Moltmann who in World War II became a prisoner of war to the British, during which time he was given his first Bible, and in his language he was ‘sought and found by Jesus.’ After surviving a few years of war and witnessing several deaths, including a friend who died in his arms, Moltmann became a POW on February 15, 1945. It was in the camp Moltmann was confronted with “a feeling of profound shame at having to share in shouldering the disgrace of one’s own people.” This made him all the more surprised and forever changed by the kind and loving ways of the Scottish men who worked at the camps and their families. They treated him and the other prisoners with dignity and respect. This, together with a Bible given to him by a Chaplain at the camp turned Moltmann’s despair into a new hope for life. He writes about his discovery of Jesus in the gospel of Mark,
Then I read Mark’s gospel as a whole and came to the story of the passion; when I heard Jesus’ death cry, ‘My God, why have you forsaken me?’ I felt growing within me the conviction: this is someone who understands you completely, who is with you in your cry to God and who has felt the same forsakenness you are living in now. I began to understand the assailed, forsaken Christ because I knew that he understood me. The divine brother in need, the companion on the way, who goes with you through this ‘valley of the shadow of death,’ the fellow-sufferer who carries you, with your suffering. I summoned up the courage to live again, and I was slowly but surely seized by the great hope of the resurrection into God’s wide ‘wide space where there is no more cramping’
The rest of Moltmann’s life could be aptly characterized by the title of his first book, “a theology of hope.” This hope led him to seriously consider and participate in various liberation theologies, to speak up for women, to lend his white European voice to the endorsement of American Black theology in the 60’s and to be an early voice in articulating an environmental theology of creation care and not dominion. Despite personal sufferings greater than I have known and an up close view of some of the greatest atrocities humanity has known, Motlmann refused to believe we were on the eve of destruction. He refused to believe this because of his profound sense that God is with us in our suffering and gives us voice to cry out against suffering! We cry out against the oppressor. And we cry out with Jesus to God, ‘Have you forsaken us?’ God is big enough to handle or complaints. Our complaints are a sign of faith not doubt, even though they might express confusion as to God’s timing and even seeming lack of presence at times.
God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. This is the gospel or in Greek εὐαγγέλιον (euangelion). It is indeed good news! This good news gives me comfort in times of personal crisis. It also gives me a prophetic voice to speak out against injustice in the world and to admit and submit before God the evil that crops up in me. And it gives me a vision of hope to offer a hurting world. I have gone through some pretty difficult times lately. I too am saddened and outraged at the evil in the world. And in myself. Life can be fantastic and life can be quite shitty at times. The world is full of captivating beauty and at times overwhelming ugliness. When life is great I am learning to accept this as a gift from God and refuse to believe I have done anything or believed anything or said anything “right” in order to deserve it. And when life is painful and headlines are tragic, I too refuse to believe that we are on the eve of destruction.