Friday, January 28, 2011


In The Pursuit of God, A.W. Tozer writes, “God is a Person, and in the deep of His mighty nature He thinks, wills, enjoys, feels, loves, desires and suffers as any other person may.”
To think of God as a Person is a different kind of anthropomorphism than the kind encountered by the gods of the cultures surrounding ancient Israel.  Those cultures envisioned the gods as humans writ large.  Tozer is saying something more profound—that God is more than an unconscious Force, more than a Prime Mover of the universe, more than the collective consciousness of Nature.  God is a conscious being with a will, a personality, and the ability to be in relationship with other conscious beings.
It is this aspect of Personhood that Tozer explores in his book.  “In making Himself known to us He stays by the familiar pattern of personality.  He communicates with us through the avenues of our minds, our wills, and our emotions.”  So God is personal, but more than that, the Bible teaches that God is in pursuit of a relationship with His creation.  We may not be comfortable with the notion that God needs anything, much less a relationship, and we would be correct in that God is not in any way diminished were he not in relationship with any of his creation.  The Trinity says that God is always and eternally in relationship of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Spirit.  Yet the Trinity also says that God seeks out relationship with his creation because it is his very nature to be in relationship.  It literally is who he is.
Being created in the image of God means that we, also, were created in relationship, and just as God pursues a relationship with us, so also do we crave a relationship with our Creator.  Yet, our falleness reveals that we do not always pursue that relationship with God, and when we do, it is often not with the Creator that we pursue relationship.  In an ironic yet tragic twist, we seek to fulfill our desire for a relationship with the Creator by pursuing relationships with things other than the Creator. 
Thus we never find rest.  We are continually restless.  No matter how much we achieve, no matter how many friends or lovers we have, there is always that nagging sense deep within that says, “There has to be more than this.”  Because there is, we just have to look for it in the right place.
It’s not enough, however, to pursue and to be in relationship with God, because this Creator God not only is, but does.  He not only exists in relationship with his creation, but he also in active in, with, and on behalf of his creation.  God has a plan for his creation, and to be in relationship with this God is also to be active in God’s plan for his creation. 
This is where the doctrine of election truly comes to play.  Israel was chosen by God to be special instruments in accomplishing his plan for creation, and inasmuch as they cooperated with God in pursuing that plan, they were living within his will.  When they didn’t cooperate but pursued their own agenda—national wealth, the security of their homeland, self-aggrandizing worship to ensure their economic harvests—they were outside of his will.  This is what God called sin, and it is from what they needed to be saved.
As much as we need to pursue a relationship with God, we also need to pursue the agenda of God.  Sadly, it seems that few Christians can articulate what the Bible says is God’s will for his creation, other than to say that God wants everyone to be saved.  Well, yes, but what exactly does that mean?  If it only means that God wants everyone to go to heaven when they die—which is of course true—but if that is all one can articulate, then one has a very truncated understanding of God’s will for his creation.  In fact, that only says what God’s will is for heaven, but it says nothing at all about God’s will for this earth, his creation.
In the New Testament Paul speaks of the Church being God’s elect, but, like in Israel’s case, it is an election to play a role in accomplishing God’s agenda.  Yes, that means that those chosen are saved, and that those chosen have relationship with God, but all to the end that God’s will is pursued on earth, just like it is in heaven.  “Elect” is not just a status, it is a role to be fulfilled on behalf of all of God’s creation.  Election does not result in a group of people separated from everyone else for all eternity, but rather a group of people set apart for a role in bringing all peoples together.  God doesn’t choose some people to be his children, but chooses some of his children to help him rescue the rest of his children.
It is sad that, for many people, the will of God is such a mysterious subject, and we struggle to know what it is.  It is equally sad, if not more so, that for many Christians the issue of the will of God is framed as the issue of understanding the will of God for my life, as if my life is the center of God’s attention, when actually it’s the other way around.  We need to stop worrying about our lives and start worrying about the life of God, for the real issue isn’t whether we are going to invite God into our lives, but whether we are going to accept his invitation to share in his life.  We need to stop worrying about God’s will for our lives and start concerning ourselves with God’s will for the world, for when we understand that, we’ll see where our lives fit in the larger plan.
God pursues a relationship with all people, and he is pursuing his plan for all the people in all his creation.  Likewise, we need to pursue a relationship with God and, just as much, we need to pursue God’s plan for all the people in all his creation.
And in doing so, we find a life that is worth living forever.

Saturday, January 22, 2011


That’s my riff on the popular WWJD fad a while ago.  “What Would Jesus Do?” isn’t a bad question.  We confront all kinds of circumstances that Jesus never confronted, and it would be nice to know what Jesus would have done had he, for instance, been given the choice of paper or plastic.  (I can never remember which is the more responsible of the two.  Of course, more responsible than either is to buy a couple of those cloth shopping bags and keeping them in the car.  I just keep forgetting to bring them in with me to the grocery store, so I end up with my groceries stuffed in multiple plastic bags [My grocery store no longer asks me whether I want paper or plastic—they probably got tired of people trying to remember which one they were supposed to say.  Or with Christians asking themselves, “What would Jesus do?” and then standing there holding up the line while trying to figure out the answer.])
(You know you’re getting carried away with a parenthetical thought when you have a parenthetical thought within a parenthetical thought.)  (And then follow it up with another parenthetical thought.)
What was I talking about? 
Oh yeah, DWJS and WWJD.  So people got those little rubber bracelets with WWJD on them to remind themselves to act like Jesus would have acted had he been a 21st Century American.  Which is interesting because so many 21st Century American Christians don’t even understand how Jesus acted as a 1st Century Jew.  But anyway, like I said, WWJD is not a bad question, but rather than wondering what Jesus might have done in our situation and then, maybe, doing it, it occurs to me that we ought to first worry about doing the stuff that Jesus actually did tell us to do. 
You know, like love our enemies, make peace with our accusers, turn the other cheek, put the sword away, deny ourselves, take up crosses, not worship until we’ve reconciled with anyone we’ve hurt, etc.  Stuff like that.
I mean, we don’t have to wonder about that stuff.  He said it.  Of course, that doesn’t keep us from wondering whether he really meant it, or was just, you know, making a point or something.
I think he meant it.  He went to a lot of trouble just to say it, and he was willing to die because some of the stuff he said offended powerful people who had the ability to have him crucified.  And he never once, not once—not while they were punching him, not while they were pulling his beard out, not while they were scourging him or nailing him to the wood, said, “Dudes, c’mon, I didn’t really mean it, I was just making a point!”
 So he said these things and he meant these things, and they are pretty straightforward.  Seriously, “Love your enemies” is rather clear, isn’t it?  You can word-study the thing if you want, but there are only three words in the whole phrase—four in the Greek, which, translated literally, would be “You love your enemies.”  Which removes whatever ambiguity one might find there.  “Who, me?”  “Yes, you.  You love the ones you hate.”  Pretty clear.  And he meant it, which means you don’t really get to call yourself a follower of Jesus if you aren’t at least trying to not only stop hating but to start loving the ones you have been hating.  Or if you aren’t seriously seeking to forgive those who have hurt you, or seriously seeking reconciliation with those you have hurt.  I mean, what does it mean to call yourself a follower of Jesus if you aren’t actually following him—you know, actually doing the stuff that he told you to do?
Ah, but there’s the rub.  People don’t call themselves “Followers of Jesus”, they call themselves (and each other) “Christians”, which has come to mean a person who has accepted as factually true certain data about Jesus—his divine sonship, his virgin birth, his sacrificial death, and his bodily resurrection.  Say yes to all that stuff, pray a prayer, and you’re a Christian.
And there’s nothing else you have to do.  Including the stuff that Jesus told us to do.  That’s like extra credit, good for some jewels in your heavenly crown.  Or maybe for the fanatics.
Well, among the many reasons that Jesus died is that he believed what he said and he wouldn’t back down at all, even with death staring him in the face.  Therefore his followers better take what he said very seriously.  So instead of wondering What Would Jesus Do? maybe we ought to simply Do What Jesus Said.


I’m ordering bracelets.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Sticks and Stones

Since the tragic shooting last week in Tucson, a lot of debate has been thrown around about the connection between it and the increasingly inflammatory political rhetoric that has characterized public discourse in the Information Age.  Personally, I don’t make much of the connection, at least directly.  The shooter is mentally unstable and, according to the news, doesn’t seem to be tied to any particular political ideology.  And the fact of the matter is that inflammatory political rhetoric isn’t anything new; it’s as old as politics.  Have you ever read some of the things that were said about George Washington in the papers while he was president?  As bad as it can get, today’s rhetoric doesn’t touch some of the outlandish things that were printed in the early days of the republic.
Of course, in order to read those things you had to a) be able to read, b) buy a newspaper, and c) read the inflammatory article.  Today, not only can most people in the country read, but political rhetoric is not limited to newspapers, pamphlets, and speeches.  Blogs, books, Tweets, texts, YouTube, email, radio, television, online newpapers and magazines all make information—or disinformation—widely and instantly available.
So whether or not there is a direct connection between a particular event and the rhetoric being flung around, words matter more than ever.  Sticks and stone can only break bones, but words can sully a reputation, destroy a career, lead innocent people to believe falsehoods, and grind to a halt the forward progress of an organization—or a nation.
All people of faith must remember this when entering into the realm of politics.  Unfortunately, too often people of faith get sucked into lowering themselves to the often rancid level of political discourse when in fact we are supposed to bring something different to the discussion—if not new ideas, at least a new way of discussing the old ideas. 
My friend Brent Walker, Executive Director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, recently wrote the following:
Our public debate has moral fiber for all of us -- people of faith and non-believers alike. In our pluralistic political culture we will seldom all agree on much of anything, and it is a sign of a vital democracy to debate our differences with passion and intensity. But we must always speak the truth, and do it lovingly and with a touch of humility.

The Hebrew and Christian Scriptures enjoin us to tell the truth, speak from the heart, avoid slander and keep our word. For the Psalmist it was a condition of entry to the Tent of Meeting in the temple. In his first letter, St. Peter says to be ready to make a strong defense of the hope that is within us, but to do it with "gentleness and respect."

Unfortunately, rather than raise the level of debate in the public arena, all too often we bring the low level of political debate into our churches.  As you might imagine, I know a lot of pastors and church leaders, and few can say that they have never witnessed this in their churches.  Whether in the open at business meetings or through the grapevine where the gossip occurs, most have not only seen it, they have been the target of it.  All have been hurt by it.  Some have left their churches because of it; other have left the ministry because of it.  And that’s just pastors.  How many have left the church because of it?
This is not a new issue for the church, just as it’s not a new issue in politics.  As Brent noted above, the ancient Israelites dealt with it, Peter wrote about it, as did James, who called the tongue “a restless evil, full of deadly poison.”
Words matter.  They have the capacity to wound or to heal, to bring people together or keep them apart, to build the Kingdom of God or to forestall it.
In our speech we can be followers of Jesus, or we can be followers of Rush Limbaugh or Keith Olberman.
But we can’t be both.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Ins and Outs

I must be the most uncool person around.  Maybe you had long ago come to that conclusion, but it is something that, though I had sensed it, was recently had confirmed when I looked at the Washington Post’s list of “What’s In, What’s Out for 2011.”
Who gets to decide this stuff anyway?  I’ve always wondered about that.  Does the Washington Post have an exclusive bead on what’s going to be out and what’s going to be in this next year?  How do they find this stuff out?  I mean, they outed Nixon, so I guess they’ve proven that they can find out stuff that nobody else knows about.  Maybe the reporters who wrote the article, Monica Hesse and Dan Zak, have some source that they meet in some D.C. parking garage, their very own “Deep Throat” of Coolness. 
But I rather doubt it.  I don’t know who Monica Hesse and Dan Zak are, but I have a feeling they are less like Woodward and Bernstein and more like the cool kids who all ate together in the high school cafeteria, scorning the rest of us who, for reasons unbeknownst to us, didn’t cut it for coolness.
So why do they get to decide what’s in and what’s out for next year?  If I and some of my friends were allowed to decide, then maybe “Late Night Theological Discussions at the Frederick Coffee Company” would be “in” and me and my friends would all be cool.
Except “Late Night Theological Discussions at the Frederick Coffee Company” sounds pretty nerdy any way you cut it, doesn’t it?
Back to the list.  Here’s how I realized that I am so far from being cool that you can’t even see it from here: I don’t even know what most of the stuff on the list means.  For instance, apparently “Mummblecore” is out and “The King’s Speech” is in.  Huh?  What is “Mummblecore” and why is it out?  More to the point, how did it ever get in?  And how did it get supplanted by “The King’s Speech”, whatever that is?  See, I’m so uncool that I didn’t even know that something that is out was once in and what is now in, I haven’t a clue what it actually is.  What king, and which of his speeches?  Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech was “in” from the moment he gave it, and it’s never been out, so I don’t imagine that’s what they are talking about.  (And the nerd in me snickers to the rest of the kids at my cafeteria table that the cool kids probably don’t even know who Martin Luther King, Jr. is.)
Don’t think that I picked the most obscure pairing on the list, for almost all of it is like that.  Apparently, “Epic” is out and “Brobdingnagian” is in; “Tiny houses”: out.  “Teepees”: in.
Here’s one I understand, but don’t.  “Brussels Sprouts” are out and “Sauerkraut” is in.  Excuse me, but how were Brussels sprouts ever in?  And why are they replaced by sauerkraut?  If it were my list I’d replace Brussels sprouts with potato chips.  In fact, that’s what I do, and it works for me.
Want more?  OK, just so you’ll know, “Circumnavigation” is out in 2011, and “Sofalizing” is in.  That’s upsetting, because on my list of goals to accomplish this next year, “Sailing around the world” was number 6, right after “Watch all previous seasons of ‘The Big-Bang Theory’ on DVD.”  “Bobbleheads” are out and “Throttlenecks” are in.  I’m sorry, but as a life-long baseball fan bobbleheads are never out.  If the Orioles have a Nick Markakis bobblehead giveway this season, I’m there, wearing my brand new Nick Markakis Orioles jersey.
(And, no, that is not nerdy.  It’s not at all like going to a Star Trek convention wearing a Spock outfit.)
“Oprahism” is out, but I got tired of her a long time ago.  Unfortunately, it’s been replaced by “Atheism.”  I’m not sure there’s much difference, but there has arisen a more militant, confrontational form of atheism these last few years.  It doesn’t bother me as much as you might think, because atheism in any form requires as much faith as theism, maybe more.  And anybody who has the capacity for great faith is not beyond the reach of the Kingdom of God.
One final “out/in” pairing: the cool kids have declared that “Betty White” is out and “Anne Meara” is in.  Anne Meara is a nice character actress, and I’m glad that someone is giving her some love.
But Betty White will never be out.

OK, I’m done.  Now I’m just going to sit here with my friends and have my chocolate milk and bologna sandwich.