Tag Archives: embodied theology

Messy Genealogy

family-treeSo much of life is colored by how we tell the story. Which bits get highlighted and which details get left out determine how we interpret the events being narrated. Each historian has the opportunity (and the power) to weave the themes they want their audience to be influenced by into their telling of the story.

So when Matthew’s gospel opens with a genealogy that highlights the roles of five women in the bringing of the Messiah, we can’t help but sit up and take notice. What to a modern reader might seem like yet another male-dominated list of names tracing the royal lineage of Jesus would have stood out to a first-century reader as a radical departure from Jewish tradition.

1 This is the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah the son of David, the son of Abraham: 2 Abraham was the father of Isaac, Isaac the father of Jacob, Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, 3 Judah the father of Perez and Zerah, whose mother was Tamar, Perez the father of Hezron, Hezron the father of Ram, 4 Ram the father of Amminadab, Amminadab the father of Nahshon, Nahshon the father of Salmon, 5 Salmon the father of Boaz, whose mother was Rahab, Boaz the father of Obed, whose mother was Ruth, Obed the father of Jesse, 6 and Jesse the father of King David. David was the father of Solomon, whose mother had been Uriah’s wife…
Matthew 1:1-6

In this ancient patriarchal society, genealogical records only mentioned fathers’ names. To be fair, they didn’t necessarily even mention all of the men in the family line, often skipping over a few generations in an attempt to clean up and condense rather complicated family records. At first glance Matthew’s opening genealogy fits this pattern, presenting a tidied-up version of Jesus’ lineage such that it fits into three neat historical categories, each fourteen generations long.

But while Matthew opens his account with a traditional accounting for who Jesus was based on his lineage, he radically diverts from the normal way of doing it by including several of the significant women through whose wombs the seed was passed. Their names interrupt the tidy cadence of the genealogy like signposts popping up in a perfect line of garden vegetables. They simply can’t be missed.

This can be no accident. Far from tossing a bone to the ladies so they can feel somewhat included, Matthew is throwing the spotlight on these unusual women.
And unusual is too gentle a word to describe them. The first three were Gentiles and four out of five are recorded in the Old Testament as engaging in sexually scandalous behavior–not exactly the sort of women to be proud of in describing the purity of one’s pedigree.

So why would the opening lines of a gospel emphasize these particular woman as integral to the identity of Jesus? Is it merely, as some have hypothesized, to show that God can use anyone, even the lowliest and dirtiest of people, to bring about His good purposes?

While that may be true of all of us, settling so quickly on such a conclusion severely shortchanges the significance of these great women of the faith. They aren’t included simply as passive participants in the line of Christ. They are there because of their heroic feats of faith, their unique contributions something that God (and Matthew) considered worthy of honorable mention.

Just as Abraham expressed his faith in God by sticking with Sarah to produce the promised seed, Tamar expressed her faith by sticking with her unfaithful father-in-law Judah, seducing him into fulfilling the promise that he should have kept through his youngest son. And because of her (albeit unorthodox) initiative, Judah commended her as more righteous than he.

By faith both the prostitute Rahab and the penniless immigrant Ruth (stigmatized not only as childless but also as a widow) recognized the superiority of Yahweh over their own gods, forsaking their national identity, their cultural heritage, and their own lives to join themselves to Him, even when that meant throwing themselves under the bus for His less-than-perfect people.

And what do we say of Bathsheba? Actually, it almost seems that credit is being given to her jilted husband (who, by the way, was a Gentile). Uriah’s loyal service-to-the-death for Yahweh and His anointed, especially in the face of his king’s double betrayal, earned him an indirect role (and an honorable mention) in the lineage of Christ.

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.
Romans 12:1-2

Despite the way our tellings of Christ’s story tend to ignore and overlook these messy members of His family, Matthew’s gospel places them front and center. Each of these women represents not only God’s grace to the sexually impure and the social outcaste, they also represent the value God places on faith-filled, whole-bodied devotion. These are the examples He holds up to us of the kind of faith that pleases Him: women (and men) who offered their bodies to God as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing in His sight.

…and Jacob the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, and Mary was the mother of Jesus who is called the Messiah.
Matthew 1:16

So when we get to Mary’s offer of her body to God to use as He pleased, we see how it stood in a long line of similar women. Her readiness to offer up her reputation, her womanhood, and her very heart to His purposes earned her the title “most blessed of women” and the painful privilege of nurturing the Son of God. Hers was the example her Son would follow as He, too, submitted His body to God’s good but painful plan.

As Matthew’s opening genealogy so beautifully portrays, the heritage into which Jesus took birth was one of faith-filled, godly mothers. This telling of Jesus’ story confronts our andro-centric assumptions concerning who we identify as the key figures in redemptive history. It also challenges us as men and women to step up to the heritage of sacrificial faith that is ours as adopted members of Christ’s family.

The Worth of a Woman

img_1675Where does the idea of female inferiority come from? Why, when we survey the atrocities taking place around the world, do so many of them involve attacks on womanhood? Sex trafficking, rape, female genital mutilation, female feticide and infanticide, acid attacks, honor killings, and domestic violence just begin the list of far-too-common practices designed to degrade and destroy the essence of femininity (for more on this, see Darrow Miller’s excellent book Nurturing the Nations: Reclaiming the Dignity of Women in Building Healthy Cultures).

Sadly, the problem doesn’t just exist in headlines and far-off places. The lie of female inferiority springs up in our homes, our church gatherings, our light-hearted jokes, and our social interactions. Of course we would vehemently deny it, affirming that as Christians we believe all humans are created equally in the image of God. We might even go so far as to remember to include women when we cite our belief in the priesthood of all believers.

But our actions betray us. And they speak louder than our words. Why are feminine intuitions laughed at as if they were silly or baseless? Why is an investment in beauty put down as an unspiritual waste of resources? Why is work typically done by women less socially or economically valued than that done by men? And where in the world do we get the idea that men should play leadership roles and women should stick to support ones?

I wince to even raise these questions as I can already mentally hear the defensive reactions that I myself used to respond with. But the questions are valid, and they deserve a biblical response. Rather than raise fear, they should increase our faith in the ability of God’s Word to speak for itself. So rather than continue to dodge the inevitable bullet by avoiding this issue, I am stepping out in faith, hoping that doing this on a public forum will open the way for some healthy, edifying interaction.

My goal over the next several posts is to explore what the Bible actually says about women, with no other agenda but to (attempt to) leave behind my cultural assumptions and examine the Bible through fresh eyes. And I want to avoid the trap of skipping over the first 900 pages in my Bible and running straight to the last few that include the Epistles. As my childhood pastor used to repeatedly emphasize, Scripture should be interpreted with Scripture.

So my question is this: In the overarching narrative of the Bible, what is God’s purpose for women? Why did He create two versions of His image: male and female? What are our shared features and roles and what about us is meant to be different?

Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”

So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.

God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”
Genesis 1:26-28

Genesis 1, which lays the foundation for our whole story, paints a surprisingly undifferentiated picture of the nature and roles of male and female. Of course there is much more to follow from there, but allowing the full weight of this portion of Scripture to sink in begins already to form a different picture than what I had formerly imagined.

Somehow I suppose I have always inserted my own assumptions about the division of labor in the commission God gave to these first two image-bearers, as if He were implying that the man should take up the bit about ruling and subduing while the woman should stick to being fruitful and multiplying. Or perhaps the man’s area of dominion was the whole earth while the woman’s was contained within the walls of her home. But when I look more honestly at this text, the man’s mandate and the woman’s mandate are identical, because, in fact, there is only one mandate. Men are called to be fruitful just as much as women are. And women are called to rule and subdue the earth just as much as men are.

While the rest of the Bible will offer us plenty of opportunities to unpack what that might look like for each of the sexes, Genesis 1 drives a deep stake into the ground from which all other texts proceed. Male and female are equally embodiments of God’s very nature. And male and female are both called to be leaders, wisely governing the rest of creation as His representatives on earth.

As those foundational truths take their rightful place at the forefront of my thinking on this issue, I am increasingly appalled by the subtle but pervasive ways that we deny them. I am embarrassed to admit that the attitude towards women as inferior beings has found way too much space in my own values and thinking, to the point that I have avoided writing about women’s issues and have spent most of my life secretly wishing I were a man.

But if I, in my feminine form and intuitive responses, am a full-fledged likeness of my Lord, then I’m honored to be a woman. And if I, as a co-recipient of the creation mandate, have been charged with a leadership role over the earth, then I sure need to figure out how God is calling me to faithfully fulfill my commission.

And-It-Is-Not-You

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When our childhood rhyme ended with the finger pointing at me, that final verdict always left with me with a sense of “not good enough” (unless, of course, our lot-casting was over some unwanted task). It dashed my hopes of being the chosen one, singled out for some special privilege or honor.

In our life-long quest for significance, we dread that moment of being passed over for someone else. We want God to pick us for some major contribution to humanity or some significant kingdom work. It becomes increasingly disconcerting as life unfolds and we feel we have little to show for it. What happened to ending poverty by the time we were thirty, saving North Korea by forty, and publishing books on it by fifty? But perhaps we are looking at our lives from the completely wrong angle.

David was not It.

They brought the ark of God and set it inside the tent that David had pitched for it, and they presented burnt offerings and fellowship offerings before God. …

Ascribe to the LORD, all you families of nations, ascribe to the LORD glory and strength. Ascribe to the LORD the glory due his name; bring an offering and come before him. Worship the LORD in the splendor of his holiness. …  Let the heavens rejoice, let the earth be glad; let them say among the nations, “The LORD reigns!”

1 Chronicles 16:1, 28-31

After years of dedicated service to God by the power of the Spirit, David longed for nothing more than to build a monument to God’s name. This would be the culmination of all he had worked for. Zeal for God’s house had compelled him to complete the unsavoury task of purging the land from those God had commanded his predecessors to destroy, to set up a kingdom of righteousness and peace, and to retrieve the ark from its shed and bring it up to the highest point in his new capitol city. The final step would be to build a glorious temple in which it could be properly honored, a house of prayer to which all nations could come and from which God’s blessing could flow to the ends of the earth.

“Go and tell my servant David, ‘This is what the LORD says: You are not the one to build me a house to dwell in.

‘I declare to you that the LORD will build a house for you: When your days are over and you go to be with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, one of your own sons, and I will establish his kingdom. He is the one who will build a house for me, and I will establish his throne forever. I will be his father, and he will be my son. …

1 Chronicles 17:4, 11-13

Consulting the prophet on this plan almost seemed like a formality. After all, God had already anointed David as His chosen one to rule the nation. It made perfect sense that God would pick him to build the temple, too. But He didn’t. Instead He made some promise about David’s offspring getting the honor.

David said, “My son Solomon is young and inexperienced, and the house to be built for the LORD should be of great magnificence and fame and splendor in the sight of all the nations. Therefore I will make preparations for it.” So David made extensive preparations before his death.

1 Chronicles 22:5

While David could have thrown up his hands in frustration or withdrawn to lick his wounded pride, he instead embraced the grander vision that God had laid out for him. After all, this wasn’t all about him. It was about being a small part of God’s kingdom coming on earth as it is in heaven. He still longed to see that earthly replica of God’s heavenly dwelling built in its rightful place, so he dedicated himself to equipping others to do the work that he couldn’t. He threw himself into raising funds, organizing resources, identifying talent, training leaders, and casting vision for his successor to lead the nation in creating the masterpiece he would not live to see.

Solomon wasn’t It, either.

After receiving the tabernacle, our ancestors under Joshua brought it with them when they took the land from the nations God drove out before them. It remained in the land until the time of David, who enjoyed God’s favor and asked that he might provide a dwelling place for the God of Jacob. But it was Solomon who built a house for him. 

“However, the Most High does not live in houses made by human hands. As the prophet says: “ ‘Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. What kind of house will you build for me? says the Lord. Or where will my resting place be?

Acts 7:45-50

As much as it might have seemed that the climax of history rested on Solomon’s crown, he was merely a stepping-stone to the next phase of God’s dwelling among men. Yes, he fulfilled the prophecy about building a temple where God’s Spirit would live and respond to the needs of His people, and the glorious structure that he completed surpassed even David’s expectations. But it was only a miniature version of a greater one to come. In fact Solomon in all his splendor was only a shadow of another King who would build the biggest temple of all.

But even Jesus wasn’t It.

After His bodily “temple” was destroyed and raised again on the third day, He might have sat back and finally enjoyed the recognition of all those people who had doubted and derided Him. In a very real sense He had arrived at His destination, conquering renegade powers, delivering His people, and establishing His reign of righteousness and peace. But His vision was much bigger than that. He wanted to build a temple that would encompass the whole cosmos, one which would include Him as the chief cornerstone, but only be complete along with the rest of us, too.

 But very truly I tell you, it is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.

But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it. This is why it says: “When he ascended on high, he took many captives and gave gifts to his people.” 
(What does “he ascended” mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions ? He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.) 
So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up…

John 16:7, Ephesians 4:7-10

Like the Spirit who lived within him, Jesus found greater satisfaction in distributing power than in holding on to it. He moved out of the way so that the Spirit could come transform each believing body and our corporate Body into His sacred dwelling place. And the Spirit is still in the process of doing just that: distributing gifts to different ones of us so that we can have something to contribute to the building of this same Temple.

When I am tempted to think that my significance rests on single-handedly achieving some great feat, I need to look again at the story I am living. This is not a story about me. It isn’t even really just a story about God (though He is certainly the Author and Main Character). It is a story about us: God, humans, angels, cosmic bodies, and even the earth with its plants and animals. The temple we get to be part of is greater than the sum of its parts, filling Heaven and earth and filled with the Spirit of the Infinite God. No one of us could complete it in a lifetime. But with the Spirit’s help, each one of us gets to play a significant role in helping out.

What a relief not to be It!

Photocopying Heaven, or Why Church Matters

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Why bother with church?

Millennials may be the sort with the audacity to voice (and act on) this question, but they certainly aren’t the only ones who have wrestled with it. Apart from that inevitable conversation one’s committed self has with one’s sleepy self every Sunday morning, the question lurks in the shadows for most of us each time we once again experience dissatisfaction with the worship, frustration with the preaching, or debilitating isolation from the fake fellowship.

Why keep going back for more?

Deep down we know that there is more to church than simply being encouraged in our walk with God. If we didn’t, we would have quit long ago. We toss arguments about the Bible commanding it, about us really needing it, or (least convincing of all) Christian tradition demanding it in the general direction of the question, hoping it will go away. But millennials aren’t settling for our lame reasons, and neither should we.

It should come as no surprise that we struggle to see the significance of going to church. We have lost the plot (quite literally) on what we are doing while we are there. Why all the music? The talking? The strange rituals with water and food? Why all together? Because we are ignorant (or perhaps simply unaware) of the metanarrative we are participating in, we fail to see the point.

The story of the church began long before hipsters, seeker-sensitivity, Fanny Crosby, or the Reformation. It predates the Desert Fathers, the Apostle Paul, and even the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. In a sense, it began with Adam and Eve serving in God’s garden-temple, with Abraham filling the promised land with places of worship. But it really picked up when God commissioned Moses to build the first institutionalized structure for Him to meet with His people.

But why did they need a building to meet in? Wasn’t it enough that God was in their midst? Couldn’t each person simply have a nice prayer time or invite a few families over to their tent?

Those questions miss the point. They betray a fundamental assumption that the Church exists exclusively to meet the needs of its people, a fallacy almost as egocentric as thinking that God exists exclusively for me. Yes, this building would function as a visible reminder that God was with them (though the fire cloud that hung over their camp pretty effectively accomplished that purpose already). Yes, it would provide a central space where they could gather as a community and be taught by the Lord. But quite frankly, the architectural design of the tabernacle would be lousy for acoustics or visibility. It contained neither pews nor stadium seating!

The LORD said to Moses, “Tell the Israelites to bring me an offering. You are to receive the offering for me from everyone whose heart prompts them to give. …

Then have them make a sanctuary for me, and I will dwell among them. Make this tabernacle and all its furnishings exactly like the pattern I will show you.”

Exodus 25:1-2, 8-9

The point was that this first building project was to be a miniature replica of God’s temple in heaven. It was so important to God that Moses get it “right” that He not only spelled out in great detail how to go about making and assembling each part, He started out by inviting Moses up into heaven to show him the original. The dimensions, the spaces, the colors, and even the furniture were all carefully crafted to correspond with their heavenly counterparts.

The cherubim are to have their wings spread upward, overshadowing the cover with them. The cherubim are to face each other, looking toward the cover. Place the cover on top of the ark and put in the ark the tablets of the covenant law that I will give you. There, above the cover between the two cherubim that are over the ark of the covenant law, I will meet with you and give you all my commands for the Israelites.
Exodus 25:20-22

Sure, a wooden box with gold overlay was a meager substitute for God’s heavenly footstool. And one wonders how the majestic cherubim who surround His throne felt about their man-made replicas being hammered in gold and woven into curtains. But the ark, the altar, the table with bread on it, the lampstand with its seven lights, and the tabernacle itself were all physical representations of a heavenly reality. What happened with them and in them on earth was meant to correspond with what was happening concurrently in heaven.

In the same way, when we meet as the church, we participate in heavenly realities. The plot has developed a long way since the time of that animal skin tent in the desert with its smoky meat sacrifices and rigidly defined spaces. In Christ, the veil separating us from God’s throne room has been torn and the edges of His tent have been stretched to encompass the whole earth. But we are still acting out on earth the story that He is unfolding in heaven.

What’s more, we are participating in heaven by what we do on earth. When we gather to sing songs of worship, we are joining our voices with those of the saints and angels before His throne. The prayers we say, the praises we sing, and the money we drop in the plate all ascend to His heavenly altar and invite Him to come down. In response, He feeds us from His Word and meets with us at His communion table. And then He fills us with His Spirit and commissions us to go out, carrying His blessing to the messy society, needy people, and parched earth around us.

Whether or not we realize it, all this is happening when we go to church. Our services may not reflect it, we may not feel it, but our presence and activity at church changes things, both on earth and in heaven.

It also happens to change us.

Priesting Lessons, or When God Invites Us to Dinner

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What does it mean for me to be a priest? Obviously some people are called into a specific type of priestly ministry, involving specialized training, recognition, and a particular leadership role within the church. But what about the rest of us? If a core part of our identity as believers is to be part of a priesthood, what does that actually look like?

Embracing our identity as priests should radically shape the way we go about our lives. Studying the Reformation with my children in our recent history classes has reminded me how life altering this doctrine was for the believers of that era. In a post-medieval context, it infused common people with a new boldness to approach God directly and to study the Scriptures personally. But how does this doctrine speak into an individualistic era in which we are more likely to think of our relationship with God as a personal matter and relegate our spirituality to what we experience in our private time with Him?

Then Moses went up to God, and the LORD called to him from the mountain and said, “This is what you are to say to the descendants of Jacob …
Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’
Exodus 19:3-6

Like us, Moses had a long way to go in figuring out how to do this whole priest thing. He, like his ancestor Abraham, had been chosen as God’s representative on earth. But what started out as the not-so-simple task of confronting a powerful government and rescuing a group of slaves quickly turned into an even more complicated task of leading an unruly nation through its unpredictable adolescence and into its high calling of being a kingdom of priests. For starters, Moses needed a little training himself.

Listen now to me and I will give you some advice, and may God be with you. You must be the people’s representative before God and bring their disputes to him. Teach them his decrees and instructions, and show them the way they are to live and how they are to behave.
Exodus 18:19-20

Thankfully God sent along his father-in-law, a veteran priest from Midian (and a fellow descendent from Abraham). In addition to his invaluable advice about empowering those under him to lead, Jethro also charged Moses with the dual responsibility of taking the people’s concerns before God and of speaking God’s concerns to the people. More than that, he called Moses to live before the people in such a way that they could see what it looked like to be a priest in service to God and imitate his example. Jethro himself led by example, blessing Moses and ushering him, Aaron, and all the elders of Israel into communion with God through a sacrificial feast.

When Moses went and told the people all the LORD’s words and laws, they responded with one voice, “Everything the LORD has said we will do.” … He got up early the next morning and built an altar at the foot of the mountain and set up twelve stone pillars representing the twelve tribes of Israel. Then he sent young Israelite men, and they offered burnt offerings and sacrificed young bulls as fellowship offerings to the LORD. …

Moses then took the blood, sprinkled it on the people and said, “This is the blood of the covenant that the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words.”
Exodus 24:3-8

Moses faced a steep learning curve as he was almost immediately called on by God to lead his people in a similar encounter. God was going to show up on a nearby mountain in His overwhelming power and glory. This was no small deal. It was God once again descending to inhabit a physical space on earth and to meet with His people. The first try at this on the mount of Eden had ended in disaster when the people-priests violated the terms of their employment and desecrated themselves with restricted food. This time around they would need to be more careful.

Moses went to great lengths to prepare his community for the day of God’s coming, telling them God’s words and ways, calling them to respond in obedience and faith, offering sacrifices of prayer and praise on their behalf, and teaching them to do the same. Using the same words our great High Priest would later speak as He introduced yet another communion feast, Moses applied the blood of God’s covenant to their physical bodies.

Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and the seventy elders of Israel went up and saw the God of Israel. Under his feet was something like a pavement made of lapis lazuli, as bright blue as the sky. But God did not raise his hand against these leaders of the Israelites; they saw God, and they ate and drank.
Exodus 24:9-11

And amazingly, the same holy God who had traumatized them with His life-threatening thunderclouds and earth-shattering voice now invited Moses and his companions to come to His place for dinner. Just as a select few of Jesus’ disciples would later get a mountaintop glimpse of His glory, God gave these mortals the opportunity to gaze on His beauty. Feet planted on earth and eyes gazing into heaven, they ate and drank with God.

The intimacy of this absolutely floors me! And yet this is the very sort of communion that we get to share with God each time we break bread and drink wine together in His presence. Not only do we eat and drink with God at the Eucharistic altar, we also dine with Him each time we invoke His blessing on our meal and receive our daily manna with thanks. In a very real sense, when we pray over our food we are functioning as priests.

And just as communion is by nature a communal act, our priestly calling is anything but something to be limited to our private lives. We are those whom God has called into relationship with Himself so that we might represent Him to others and others to Him. His blessing on those around us is mediated by our faithfulness to intercede on their behalf before His throne and to speak on His behalf into their lives.

As we consciously live and serve in the presence of God, we become the bridge between heaven and earth, between God and man. That is what it means to be a priesthood of believers.

Dead before God

Hans Holbein, The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb
Hans Holbein,
The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb

Dear Weary Warrior,

I can’t imagine what you are going through right now. You have braved so many battles, stood strong through storms that would have sunk a lesser man.

From my youth I have been afflicted and close to death; I have suffered your terrors and am in despair. Your wrath has swept over me; your terrors have destroyed me. All day long they surround me like a flood; they have completely engulfed me.
Psalm 88:15-17

Anyone looking at all you have been through might be tempted to wonder why God has been so hard on you. After all, aren’t you His son? And yet He has allowed blow after blow to knock the wind out of you. The painful events that He has ordained for your life are so huge that your sufferings have come to define you.

For my soul is full of trouble and my life draws near the grave. I am counted among those who go down to the pit; I am like a man without strength. I am set apart with the dead, like the slain who lie in the grave, whom you remember no more, who are cut off from your care.
Psalm 88:3-5

No wonder you are a dead man, drained of life and numb before God. No wonder all you can do is lie there like a corpse, unable to work, unable to fight, unable to feel anything other than exhaustion beyond your years. You have born enough trouble and grief to count for many lifetimes. In fact, you have shouldered the weight of the world, and that cross has crushed you.

You have put me in the lowest pit, in the darkest depths. Your wrath lies heavily upon me; you have overwhelmed me with all your waves. You have taken from me my closest friends and have made me repulsive to them. I am confined and cannot escape; my eyes are dim with grief.
Psalm 88:6-9

Does the darkness of the grave disturb you? Do you feel like you should be able to resist this, too, to somehow throw off the grave clothes and dig your way out from underneath that massive stone? And yet you simply can’t. The life has been pummeled out of you until all that is left is an empty shell. As much as you would like to escape this current state, there is nothing you can do but lie there in the grave: helpless, still, undone.

Do you show your wonders to the dead? Do those who are dead rise up and praise you? Is your love declared in the grave, your faithfulness in Destruction ? Are your wonders known in the place of darkness, or your righteous deeds in the land of oblivion?
Psalm 88:10-12

Are you wondering about God’s purposes for your life? Statements about your glorious future probably feel like a mockery right now. The only thing you can see in front of you is the ugly black wall that traps you in. How in the world can your current condition bring glory to the God you have served? It seems to testify against His faithfulness and love, not to them. Wouldn’t a dramatic deliverance serve His purposes better than debilitating oblivion?

Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. …even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast. If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,” even the darkness will not be dark to you…
Psalm 139:7-12

But that isn’t what He has chosen for you right now. Resurrection might come in the morning, but for now He has provided night. This grave is your shelter from the storms that await you outside. It blocks the blinding light and muffles the sharp sounds that threaten to overwhelm you. Snuggle into its swaddling clothes and let the darkness hold you tight. You are here with God.

For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. …My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place. When I was woven together in the depths of the earth, your eyes saw my unformed body.
Psalm 139:13-15

He has been with you from before the time you had consciousness, before the time you were aware of your identity or your commission. He created you with the physical and emotional limitations that now hold you down. His perfect design of your body included the inability to pass through every storm unscathed, to resist succumbing to the death that now defines you.

All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be. How precious to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! Were I to count them, they would outnumber the grains of sand.
When I awake, I am still with you.
Psalm 139:16-18

In fact, this day is among those that He wrote for you in His book. For today your assignment is not to save the world, to preach the kingdom, to heal the masses. Today your job is simply to exist, cut off from the land of the living but near to the heart of God. Tomorrow will eventually come, when hope dawns and the “new you” emerges. But God is not in a rush to get you there. He created this gap between death and resurrection for a reason.

Today your job is simply to exist, cut off from the land of the living but near to the heart of God.

This is your space to simply be with Him, the Sabbath for your soul. Sleep in His presence. Lie numbly and do nothing in His presence. Cry if you want to, or let Him do it for you if your tears won’t come. You don’t have to answer the questions of the cosmos or figure out how this is working together for your good. You have committed your spirit into His hands. Now simply let Him hold you.

Today, darkness is your friend.

God: The Noble Mother

imagesIn a society embroiled with conflicting ideas about gender roles and sexual identity, writing about the feminine nature of a masculine God feels like gardening in a minefield. But to neglect or abandon this aspect of Scripture would be to deny a significant part of who God reveals Himself to be, effectively putting Him in the box of our own culturally conditioned “image.” As much as I shy away from the political and social agenda that drive similar conversations, Scripture itself compels me to take a deeper look at the maternal character of God.

A woman who patterns her motherhood after God’s example is worthy of honor and praise, because she has shown us God.

For years now I have read and reflected on Psalm 103 as an exposition on the fatherhood of God. It doesn’t take long to notice the judicial oversight and compassionate leadership of a father relating with his children in its underlying narrative. But only lately has it struck me that Psalm 104 is just as much an exposition of God’s motherhood, especially when laid side by side with Proverbs 31. The parallel imagery and language are so tight that I can’t help but think they were intended to be read comparatively.

…you are clothed with splendor and majesty. He wraps himself in light as with a garment; he stretches out the heavens like a tent and lays the beams of his upper chambers on their waters. He makes the clouds his chariot and rides on the wings of the wind. He makes winds his messengers, flames of fire his servants. He set the earth on its foundations; it can never be moved. You covered it with the deep as with a garment; the waters stood above the mountains. But at your rebuke the waters fled, … they went down into the valleys, to the place you assigned for them.
Psalm 104:1-8

Like the wife of noble character in Proverbs 31, God is described as a fastidious homemaker. He takes care to dress Himself gloriously and to decorate His home beautifully. Light is His favorite garment and sky-blue the color He chooses to paint His downstairs ceilings. He employs the elements (wind, fire, and water) as His domestic help. And although He initially carpeted the whole downstairs with water, He decided to rearrange the floor plan to include large patches of dry land, too.

He waters the mountains from his upper chambers; the earth is satisfied by the fruit of his work. He makes grass grow for the cattle, and plants for man to cultivate– bringing forth food from the earth: wine that gladdens the heart of man, oil to make his face shine, and bread that sustains his heart…
You bring darkness, it becomes night, and all the beasts of the forest prowl. The lions roar for their prey and seek their food from God. The sun rises, and they steal away… Then man goes out to his work, to his labor until evening.
Psalm 104:10-23

Like that industrious Proverbs 31 woman, God’s lamp never goes out at night. He works all day watering His garden, feeding His household, and making sure that each member of His brood is well looked after in body and spirit. And while the rest of the family sleeps, He keeps vigil over the prowling “night owls” to make sure they get their tummy full, too. Around the clock He keeps up His work of tender nurture, creative provision, and loving care.

How many are your works, O LORD! In wisdom you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures. There is the sea, vast and spacious, teeming with creatures beyond number–living things both large and small. There the ships go to and fro, and the leviathan, which you formed to frolic there.
Psalm 104:24-26

His motherly ingenuity and domain are anything but small in scope. Just as the woman of noble character engaged in global commerce, buying from and supplying ships that crisscrossed the seas, He fills the earth with His handiworks, too. In fact, He repurposes the oceans as playgrounds for His “little ones” and as sidewalks for His children to ride their boats around on.

These all look to you to give them their food at the proper time. When you give it to them, they gather it up; when you open your hand, they are satisfied with good things. When you hide your face, they are terrified; when you take away their breath, they die and return to the dust. When you send your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the earth.
Psalm 104:27-30

But beyond being a cosmic homemaker, universal food supplier, and global nanny, God meets His offspring’s greatest need through the gift of His presence. He doesn’t simply bring them into the world and then abandon them. As long as He is nearby, His dependents learn and play and grow in peace, assured that all is well with their world. But the second they can’t see His face, they have every cause to panic. Their lives are utterly contingent on His.

He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.
He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge…

But I have stilled and quieted my soul; like a weaned child with its mother, like a weaned child is my soul within me.
Psalm 91:1, 4; 131:2

And so like the children of the Proverbs 31 woman, God’s children rise up with blessing and praise for all He is and all He does. We approach Him confidently when we need something, snuggle under His sheltering wings when we are scared or overwhelmed, and rest peacefully against His chest when we simply desire the reassuring comfort of His presence.

Her children arise and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praises her: “Many women do noble things, but you surpass them all.”
Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting; but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised. Give her the reward she has earned, and let her works bring her praise at the city gate.
Proverbs 31:28-31

The point is that God is not only the perfect father: He is also unapologetically the ideal mother. This is no cause for confusing gender or reinterpreting the divine, but it does liberate us to relate to Him with the same intimacy and security we experience with a mother. It also sheds a new light on the significance of human mothers as image bearers of God’s maternal attributes. A woman who patterns her motherhood after God’s example is worthy of honor and praise, because she has shown us God.

The Suffering Credential

IMG_0307I’m sitting alone in an urbane, international airport, but my mind is still with the rural, northern Nigerian pastors whom I’ve been with all week. Something about these men—their lives, their testimony, and the zeal with which they serve God despite all the odds—commands my respect.

Ironically, one of the themes of our time together was the role of suffering in the life of a believer and, in particular, in the life of a minister. I felt grossly inadequate teaching this particular audience about the spiritually developmental benefits of suffering. Unlike when I present this message to a western Christian audience, my point became less of an exhortation to embrace suffering and more of an affirmation to those who already have. These pastors face the daily threat of their daughters being kidnapped as prize-brides for Muslim men and of their newly converted church members being assaulted or killed by their former communities. Diocesan meetings often concern how they can hide their at-risk daughters or members in each others’ homes as they bear together their heavy financial and safety risks.

Pastor's children enjoying their meal together during our conference.
Pastor’s children enjoying their meal together during our conference.
My affirmation fell on parched soil. Compared to their colleagues in the widely popular prosperity churches (who generally avoid rural, predominantly Muslim areas for their ministry contexts), these humble servants of God feel like losers. Their trousers are ripped from repeated attempts to kick-start their decrepit motor bikes, their wives have to make soap and sell whatever they can to keep food in the childrens’ mouths, and their success rates in church growth have hardly put them on the map.

But I couldn’t help mentally making the comparison between these African church leaders and their Western colleagues, too. They lack the academic credentialing and rigorous theological training that the Western church values as a fundamental qualifier for pastoral ministry. This is not to say their hunger for further knowledge is lacking (it’s anything but), but rather that opportunities to acquire it are rare prizes. And yet their opportunities abound for acquiring a very different sort of ministry credential.

Then the Jews demanded of him, “What miraculous sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?”
Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.”
…the temple he had spoken of was his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said. Then they believed the Scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken.
John 2:18-22

When questioned by the Jews about His own ministry credentials, Jesus pointed to His upcoming suffering. He could have bragged about His personal line with the Father or performed a few exciting miracles. But instead He pointed to the greatest miracle of all: His willingness to suffer for a cause that He valued more than His life. Of course the capstone of that miracle was the fact that He would rise from His suffering, but without death there would be no resurrection.

We put no stumbling block in anyone’s path, so that our ministry will not be discredited. Rather, as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: in great endurance; in troubles, hardships and distresses; in beatings, imprisonments and riots; in hard work, sleepless nights and hunger; in purity, understanding, patience and kindness; in the Holy Spirit and in sincere love; in truthful speech and in the power of God…
2 Corinthians 6:3-7

Paul, too, defended the credibility of his ministry by pointing to his own suffering. The validation of his right to speak so authoritatively was how much he had endured for the sake of his message. Yes, the message was truth whether or not its bearer had been persecuted for it, but the proof of its worth and the depth of his ability to deliver it were forged in the fires of suffering. This minister was able to comfort because he had been comforted. He had the right to call others to persevere under severe trials because he had already done the same. The knowledge of his book learning had taken on a third dimension of messy life experience, and that became his leading credential.

As I consider the massive gap between the church in the West and the church in Africa, I think we have much to offer each other. I’m delighted to be a small part of bringing some of our training in Biblical knowledge and study skills to the Global South, as a number of other Western groups and churches are doing. But I think we also need a good dose of what our African and Asian contemporaries have to offer. Their suffering has earned them a right to be listened to and respected. It has also given them insights into God and His Word that we cannot see until we share similar experiences.

We may have more educational credentials. But they far outrank us in the suffering credential. Perhaps we would do well to request their help in our area of need.

The Dance of the Eunuchs

attachmentLunchtime conversations in our home are rarely conventional. In response to a series of questions my children had about bisexuals, trans-genders, and eunuchs, I recently found myself telling the story of the time a gang of eunuchs showed up at our house to dance.

In the region of South Asia where we lived, eunuchs held a despised but critical position in society. Whether by birth or by the hands of men, their condition disqualified them from normal family life. Instead, they were raised by fellow eunuchs who dressed like women and made their living by singing and dancing at the birth of each new baby in the community.

Somehow the idea of hurting sexual misfits is easier to embrace than the reality.

My neighbors had told me stories of these intimidating she-men, how they wielded their power to bless vulnerable infants in order to extract gifts of food, money, and clothes from terrified families. If you didn’t give them what they wanted they could become quite aggressive and even turn their blessing into a curse on your child! So of course when a gang of heavily made up, sari-clad men showed up at our door, I politely but firmly did everything I could to avoid a debacle of dancing eunuchs celebrating the birth of my newborn son.

Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Go south to the road–the desert road–that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” So he started out, and on his way he met an Ethiopian eunuch, an important official in charge of all the treasury of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians. This man had gone to Jerusalem to worship, and on his way home was sitting in his chariot reading the book of Isaiah the prophet. The Spirit told Philip, “Go to that chariot and stay near it.”

Then Philip ran up to the chariot and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. “Do you understand what you are reading?” Philip asked.

“How can I,” he said, “unless someone explains it to me?” So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him.
Acts 8:26-31

But repeating the story these thirteen years later, I’m not so satisfied with my response to them. I’m soberingly reminded of another eunuch who was turned away by people but lovingly pursued by God.

What attracted a sexually-altered Gentile foreigner to even attempt entry into the Jewish temple in Jerusalem is beyond me, especially considering he may have encountered prohibitions against “his kind” in his reading of the Old Testament. Obviously it hadn’t gone well. Far from the soul filling, heart-renewing experience that temple worship was meant to be, this man was leaving frustrated, confused, and empty.

The eunuch was reading this passage of Scripture: “He was led like a sheep to the slaughter, and as a lamb before the shearer is silent, so he did not open his mouth. In his humiliation he was deprived of justice. Who can speak of his descendants? For his life was taken from the earth.”

The eunuch asked Philip, “Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?”
Acts 8:32-34

But he hadn’t quit on his quest. A passage of Scripture had gripped his heart, and even the humiliation of having come so far for nothing did not deter him from pursuing it. Who was this Suffering Servant whose description matched his own so miraculously: someone who had been forced to submit to a humiliating “shearing,” who had been deprived of his dignity and right to justice, and who consequently would never experience the social honor or personal joy of being able to have children?

Yet it was the LORD’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and though the LORD makes his life a guilt offering, he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the LORD will prosper in his hand. After the suffering of his soul, he will see the light [of life] and be satisfied…
Isaiah 53:10-11

If there was hope for such a Man, then there was hope for him. Could it be that God would accept this crushed half-a-man after all and turn his degradation into celebration? Was there some way in which God could transform his dried-up, socially cut-off self into a flourishing, reproducing member of a community?

And the good news that God sent Phillip to share was yes to all the above.

Let no foreigner who has bound himself to the LORD say, “The LORD will surely exclude me from his people.” And let not any eunuch complain, “I am only a dry tree.”

For this is what the LORD says: “To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose what pleases me and hold fast to my covenant–to them I will give within my temple and its walls a memorial and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that will not be cut off.
Isaiah 56:3-5

This story makes me weep with relief and joy over the grace God would show to a wounded outcaste. And yet where was that compassion when the band of eunuchs showed up at my door?

Somehow the idea of hurting sexual misfits is easier to embrace than the reality. We have come a long way in raising awareness about the injustice that forces many prostitutes into the sex industry and the shame that keeps them there. But how many of us have invited a prostitute over for tea? Similarly, I think we have a long way to go in compassionately seeking to understand the dynamics at work behind people’s aberrant sexual preferences and in reaching out in genuine love.

I detest the way I allowed my fear and discomfort to stand in the way of loving those whom Jesus came to restore.

The good news that God commissions us to share is yes to all the above.

My children asked me what I would do differently now, if I could. I wish I could go back and invite the eunuchs in for a cup of chai and serve them some of the celebratory sweets essential for all such occasions. I wish I could prepare bags of lentils and rice as a thank you gift for their coming (even if I did decline their services). But most importantly, I wish I could look them in the eye and give them the dignity of being treated like any other person on the planet: a loved sinner for whom grace is available.

I may not get another chance with the dancing eunuchs, but I suspect that more opportunities surround me than my eyes (or heart) have been open to.

May God find me worthy in how I respond.

In A People Garden

IMG_9140Would the world be a better place if it weren’t full of people? People, not things, perpetrate violence and atrocities on the earth. People pollute the ground with their waste and the air with their emissions. People overfill certain parts of the planet, cementing over its other inhabitants and upsetting their life-sustaining cycles and webs.

The narrative that rises from focusing in on these harsh realities can often cast people in the role of barbaric imposters, of foreign invaders whose very existence on the earth brings nothing but harm. But is this the picture that God sees? What story does He tell about how we fit in His global garden?

Last Sunday I encountered one of those a-ha moments in which my experience suddenly fleshed out my theology. Literally. I had spent the afternoon meandering quietly through a private walled-in garden. Blooming roses crept up ancient stone walls, weeping willows swayed beside a meandering stream, and birds, wind, and water mingled their voices together in peaceful song. That evening, as the garden began to fill with people coming in for an open-air concert, my mind cynically assumed that the perfection of the garden would be marred with their fabricated fashions, noisy chatter, and energetic gestures.

But to my surprise, I discovered that, far from messing up the beauty of the garden, the people completed it. Their vibrant colors, sounds, and movements filled the garden with a new element of life that I hadn’t even noticed was missing. In fact, as I looked around the by-then familiar green-scape and listened to French horns sounding across the distance, it struck me that the people were the most beautiful flowers in this garden. They were the crowning touch. Their creative accessories complimented the decorative designs on the plants. Their effervescent spirits animated the terrain. And their artistic composition filled the space with melodies that the birds quickly picked up and played back.

As I reflected further on this unexpected discovery, I realized that I was experiencing a foretaste of the garden-city, the new creation for which we long and towards which we proactively work as we wait for God to bring His kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. This garden resonated with echoes of Eden, bringing human “progress” in harmony with natural development.

Then God said, “Let the land produce vegetation: seed-bearing plants and trees on the land that bear fruit with seed in it, according to their various kinds.”
And God said, “Let the water teem with living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the expanse of the sky.”
So God created man in his own image… God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it.”
Genesis 1:11,20, 27-28

In the beginning the world was empty, the ground was bare. God planted grass and trees, animals and eventually people in His fertile garden, giving them all the same commission: Live. Grow. Blossom. Reproduce. Spread out. Fill the earth with your unique contribution to its vast array of textures and colors, functions and sounds. Testify in your own limited way to the presence and nature of your Creator. Echo back to Him the song of creation, imitating His innovative work in the world.

God … will uproot you from the land of the living. The righteous will see and fear; they will laugh at him, saying, “Here now is the man who did not make God his stronghold but trusted in his great wealth and grew strong by destroying others!”
But I am like an olive tree flourishing in the house of God…
Psalm 52:5-9

Of course the story goes on to show how we have abused our role in God’s garden, stealing the fruit that wasn’t ours to eat and oppressing our fellow inhabitants with our selfishness, greed, and outright contempt. And God has much to say about how He will come and tend His garden, uprooting the weed-like plants who defy their Gardener’s order and choke out His other plants.

The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted… to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion– to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes… They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the LORD for the display of his splendor.
Isaiah 61:1-3

But God also intervenes in His garden to nourish and restore the plants that have been trodden underfoot or impeded from what they need to grow. Jesus came to walk among hillsides of tender shoots, watering weary souls, restoring withered limbs, and even raising dead branches. He cut off fruitless vines who were leeching life from those who needed it, and He grafted in foreign vines who longed to be included under His life-giving care.

The righteous will flourish like a palm tree, they will grow like a cedar of Lebanon; planted in the house of the LORD, they will flourish in the courts of our God. They will still bear fruit in old age, they will stay fresh and green, proclaiming, “The LORD is upright; he is my Rock, and there is no wickedness in him.”
Psalm 92:12-15

God takes great delight in His people garden. He shines the light of His face on us in warming, life-giving relationship. He satisfies our parched hearts with streams of living love. He crowns us with beauty and fills our branches with fruit, the satisfaction of a project successfully accomplished or the fruition of a dream finally fulfilled.

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. … No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. They will see his face… They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light.
Revelation 22:1-5

And best of all, God is in the process of planting us as near to Himself as it gets. He is gathering His vast array of plants into one garden-city, built out of organic stones and filled with the light of His presence. Even as we wait for the fulfillment of His story, we are already flourishing in His courtyard, rooted by His stream, and abiding in His Vine.

IMG_9033So who or what are we in the story of creation? Would the world be a better place without us? I am reminded that, according to God’s narrative, humans are the pinnacle of creation, the apple of His eye. Without us, His garden would be beautiful but incomplete. Our expansion is what He intended from the beginning; our advances are potential reflections of His image within. We are an integral part of His earth, planted here to thrive.