Tag Archives: metanarrative

Photocopying Heaven, or Why Church Matters

IMG_0776

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.

Advertisements

My bit of the story…

This time last year I was furiously finishing up writing a book on shame, wondering what next God would lead me to do. Was it time to launch a more public speaking ministry, or should I pursue a more academic track by doing that postgraduate degree down in Edinburgh? The last thing on my radar was writing a blog. I don’t even like blogs!

But what I intended as a sacrificial labor of love for others has turned out to be a blessed source of nurture and growth for myself. My motivation in writing is to address those topics that we often feel are too messy to have anything to do with God. We are comfortable confining them within the sterile walls of a counselor’s office, but we don’t know how to take them to church, to the Scriptures, or into God’s presence.

Writing this blog has taken me beyond just privately relating with God through the ups and downs of my own life to having to put into coherent words what it looks like to live the full range of human emotion and experiences coram deo, before the light of His face. More than anything, I want to capture a perspective of how He sees us: how our struggles make sense in light of His ongoing story, how His eternal story infuses meaning into our everyday experience.

We are part of an ongoing story, with God as the author, us as the characters, and our daily lives as the stage on which He is playing out a grand metanarrative.

The cerebral part of me far prefers doing theology “from above,” losing myself in lofty thoughts about the nature of God and His creative brilliance in littering His natural and written revelation with symbols and themes that point to heavenly realities. But living with my feet planted on earth—my soul splattered with its muck and my hands dirtied with its troubles—has forced me to take my theology to the bathroom. Who God is must be relevant to how I navigate even the most unpleasant or mundane of earthly circumstances. And actually, as I have learned to look more honestly at His Word, I’ve been delightfully surprised to discover just how “earthy” He can be.

Narrative theology has continued to unlock the Scriptures for me, meandering like a flexible stream through eternal truth and unpredictable experience, pristine worship and scrappy struggle, heavenly reality and earthly reflection. It is painful but rewarding labor to perpetually lay distressing human realities on the table next to my Bible and go looking for what God has to say about them. At the same time, it is a joyful act of worship to be able to discover His current awareness through His past interaction with people living the same kind of stories.

I have come to view life and read Scripture through the lens of an ongoing story, with God as the author, us as the characters, and our daily lives as the stage on which He is playing out a grand metanarrative that culminates in our shared glory. If you have wondered about my blog category called “Defining Metanarratives,” it is where I stick those posts that have attempted to retell that overarching story from different angles. This is the big story that makes sense of all our little stories.

Experiencing our little stories is what enables us to participate in His big story.

At the same time, experiencing our little stories is what enables us to participate in His big story. Taking the time to reflect both psychologically and theologically on my own past experiences and others’ ongoing struggles has deepened my appreciation of a God who has written Himself into such a convoluted, bitter-sweet plot line. And, in a roundabout way, it has trained me for the next step in my own story.

Later this month I will be travelling to Uganda to teach a masters-level class on spiritual formation. As I have spent this summer preparing for the course, I have been repeatedly struck with the pleasant realization that the massive amounts of reflection and writing I have invested in this blog over the past year have also been equipping me to teach Christian leaders in the developing world. I look forward to the privilege of getting to be a part of their stories as they bring God’s kingdom to their corner of the globe.

Because of this delightful addition to my workload, I am planning to scale back the frequency of my blog posts to once a week. I would rather sustain quality over quantity. I pray God will use what I have written and guide what I keep writing to help you experience your role in His story. It’s a joy to be living it with you.

Making Sense of Trauma

For the longest time I couldn’t understand what was going on in me. Why did my daughter’s little hands touching my throat suddenly make me panic? Why did my laughter now end in tears, happy moments suddenly dissolve into uncontrollable sobbing? Why couldn’t I respond spontaneously to the people and situations around me, instead feeling like I walked around in a daze, like I was watching my life from the other side of a glass window?

Our individual experiences of trauma are part of God’s bigger story.

It took a long time for my husband and I to recognize that I was experiencing the aftershocks of trauma. It took us even longer to understand what trauma is and how it works. Having emerged out the other side of those years of struggle and search to make sense of my nightmarish experience, I have come to see trauma as an integral part of God’s redemptive plan for creation. Far from being a recent psychological development, trauma is woven right through the fabric of the biblical meta-narrative. As shocking and inexplicable as the experience of trauma was for me, it was anticipated by God from the beginning.

So the LORD God said to the serpent, “…I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.” To the woman he said, “I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing; with pain you will give birth to children.
Genesis 3:14-16

Who else could have foreseen the cosmic repercussions of a serpent slipping quietly into the serene goodness of the garden? In an instant, the world as it had been was turned upside down. Death introduced. Life redefined. Intimacy shattered. Relationships fragmented. Fear and failure became ever-present companions, frustration and pain the new normal. And childbirth entered the scene.

I hear a cry as of a woman in labor, a groan as of one bearing her first child– the cry of the Daughter of Zion gasping for breath, stretching out her hands and saying, “Alas! I am fainting; my life is given over to murderers.”
We have heard reports about them, and our hands hang limp. Anguish has gripped us, pain like that of a woman in labor.
The voice of the Lord makes the deer give birth, And strips the forests bare; And in His temple everyone says, “Glory!”
Jeremiah 4:31; 6:24, Psalm 29:9(NKJV)

Throughout the story of Scripture, childbirth symbolizes trauma. When the prophets brought news of overwhelming disaster, they described it in terms of sudden pains seizing men and nations like a woman in labor. The overwhelming power of God’s voice is depicted as sending the deer into labor. And all of creation is described as groaning under the protracted, agonizing curse of childbirth.

Like labor, trauma seizes otherwise strong, stable men and causes them to uncontrollably weep and moan. It transforms intelligent, articulate women into incoherent, curled-up infants. Trauma overpowers everything else in our lives until it becomes our defining circumstance, the moment by which we count our time, the event that re-interprets all others.

Trauma is a horrific means to a desirable end.

But along with trauma’s devastation comes an opportunity for re-creation. Just as the overwhelming pain of childbirth prepares the way for a new life to emerge, the distressing blow of trauma can open the way for a new identity to be formed.

In bringing many sons to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the author of their salvation perfect through suffering.
…And again he says, “Here am I, and the children God has given me.”
Hebrews 2:10, 13b

Jesus’ experience of trauma was life re-defining, both for Himself and for all of us who cling to Him in faith. Through the agonizing pain He endured, He gave birth to a new family of people. And through the unspeakable horrors He experienced, He earned the right to be exalted over all of creation.

Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of birth pains.
Matthew 24:7-8

Jesus’ trauma was also part of a bigger story, the transition period in creation’s millennia-long birthing process. Ever since it was subjected to the curse, creation has been moaning, shuddering with the pain of bringing forth something new. Natural disasters. World wars. Like any woman experiencing transition in labor, the thought that this state of affairs might go on forever makes it unbearable.

I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. … We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.
Romans 8:18-23

But blessedly, the dark tunnel of trauma does not go on forever. There is an end in sight, one which is new and improved over the beginning. The events that leave us shattered and overwhelmed are making way for us, like the rest of creation, to undergo a complete over-haul. In the process we clutch ourselves in anguish and groan with the memory of what we have endured, but we also look forward in hope to a new, better day.

Our individual experiences of trauma are part of a bigger story, important pieces in a puzzle that God has been assembling since the beginning. Though it will never make sense to me on this side of glory, I have learned to see trauma as a horrific means to a desirable end. Damage bringing renewal. Death producing life.