Sunday, January 29, 2012

Ish and Ishah

     Humans have a number of needs to survive, and among these are the need for solitude, and the need for intimacy, the need to be independent, and the need to be close.  Now, the Bible talks about this a lot in many different ways, and one of the best ways that the Bible talks about this is through story.  Genesis 2-3 is one such story.  At the beginning of this story, God has created the heavens and the earth, but he has not created anything on the earth—no plants, no animals.  Plants need someone to till the ground, and there was no one for that job.  So God creates a single human being—adam in Hebrew—out of the ground.  It happens to be a male, but that in some ways is irrelevant.  It could have been a female, and the story would remain the same.  And then he creates this wonderful place for the man to live, full of plants and trees, plenty to eat.  It’s got rivers and lakes and is just beautiful.  Every plant comes out of the ground, just like the adam.  And he gives the adam a job—to till and keep the garden. 
So the adam has everything he needs—a place to live, plenty to eat, and meaning and purpose.  He creates this thing, but realizes that it’s not finished.  It’s missing something.  Maybe God instantly realizes it, much like an artist who paints a painting and knows it’s not finished, but has a hard time putting her finger on what it needs.  Or like the cook who is creating a brand new recipe, and who dips his spoon and takes a taste and know it still needs something, but can’t quite decide what it is.  A little more salt, maybe?  Or oregano?  Maybe some ground ginger?  But maybe it’s not so instantaneous.  Maybe he doesn’t realize it at first.  The thing looks complete.   Two eyes?  Check.  Two ears.  Check.  Two arms, two legs, check, check.  Four fingers and a thumb on each hand.  Check.  But he notices that the adam seems, well, down.  He keeps looking for something, and never finding it.  He sighs a lot.  What’s wrong?  Beautiful place to live, all the food and water he could want, and a purpose-driven life.  What more could anyone possibly want? 
And then God realizes what it is.  He’s alone.  Now, everyone needs to be alone, but not all the time.  And this adam is alone all the time, and it’s affecting him.  He’s not sleeping well, he’s not eating, nothing seems to interest him.  And God says, “Not good.”  This is not good.  It’s not good for the man to be alone.  Alone is incomplete.  Alone is unfinished.  “I will make for him a creature that will make him feel whole and complete.”  So God starts to create animals out of the ground.  Notice everything is created out of the ground.  In the Hebrew, the generic word for a human being is adam, and the word for ground is adamah.  Adam from the adamah, everything from the adamah.  He creates the animals one at a time, and he brings each one in turn to the man “to see what he would name it.”  Another thing: the feminine form of adam is adamah, which means ground.  The word for male is ish, and the feminine form is ishah, woman.  God is waiting to hear that word, ishah.  But he doesn’t hear it.  He brings an animal, and the adam names it behemah, or cattle.  He brings another, and the adam names it something else.  Hour after hour this goes on, creating one animal after another out of the ground, out of the adamah, and still he doesn’t hear the word ishah.  The adam still feels incomplete. 
Finally, the Lord says, “I’m going to stop creating things out of the adamah for the adam.  If I’m looking for an ishah to complete the ish, then maybe the ishah needs to come from the ish.  So God puts the man asleep, and takes a rib out of him—“He’s got more, he’ll never miss it.”  And from the rib he creates another creature.  She looks a lot like the man, more than any other creature, but she’s different too, and in a good way.  And he brings the woman to the man, and the man cries out, “At last!  This is it!  This is the person who makes me feel whole, complete, this is my companion!  And she will be called ishah, for she was not taken from the adamah, but from ish.”  And then we get the only word of commentary in the text.  Genesis 2:24 says, “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.”  All right, here is the paradox: One is simply one, but oneness requires more than one.  Let’s say that again: one is simply one, but oneness requires more than one.  To be one is to be alone, but to have oneness is to be complete.  It is this oneness that we all want.  It is this oneness that we all desire.  It is this oneness in which we are created in the image of God. 
This is the paradox, the mystery of the trinity.  God is one, and to be one is to be alone.  He alone is God, and God is God alone.  But God is three—Father, Son, Holy Spirit—and so God is complete.  The nature of God is three distinct realities that together form a oneness.  We are each alone, separate, individual humans, but we are created bone of bone, flesh of flesh, from the union of ish and ishah.  And whether we are born an ish or an ishah, we alone are complete.  But we find oneness in another.  And oneness is part of who we are. 

Monday, January 23, 2012

The Power of Real Friendship

Therefore when we could bear it no longer, we decided to be left alone in Athens; and we sent Timothy, our brother and co-worker for God in proclaiming the gospel of Christ, to strengthen and encourage you for the sake of your faith, so that no one would be shaken by these persecutions. Indeed, you yourselves know that this is what we are destined for.  In fact, when we were with you, we told you beforehand that we were to suffer persecution; so it turned out, as you know.  For this reason, when I could bear it no longer, I sent to find out about your faith; I was afraid that somehow the tempter had tempted you and that our labor had been in vain.  But Timothy has just now come to us from you, and has brought us the good news of your faith and love. He has told us also that you always remember us kindly and long to see us-- just as we long to see you.  For this reason, brothers and sisters, during all our distress and persecution we have been encouraged about you through your faith.  For we now live, if you continue to stand firm in the Lord.  How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you?  Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you face to face and restore whatever is lacking in your faith.  Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus direct our way to you.  And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you.  And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.

I’m attracted to the affection that is clearly a part of the relationship between Paul and the people in the church at Thessalonica.  There is clearly more going on here than just the relationship between a church leader and a church.  There’s a friendship.  

This is important for us to get, because in a world in which people were constantly separating themselves from one another—when if you weren’t from the same race and country and tribe and family, you were viewed with distrust, suspicion, and often outright hostility, the followers of Jesus were supposed to stand out and be different.
And what was supposed to make them stand out was not their doctrine and their belief, as important as those things may be.  What makes the community of Christ-followers different is the quality of their relationships.  This is so crucial that the apostle John wrote in 1 John 4:20 “Those who say, "I love God," and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.”

Do you really understand what this is saying?  That the real test of whether or not you are truly following Jesus is not doctrinal correctness, or church attendance, or sacrificial giving or serving, but the quality of your relationships.  What is going to attract the world to Christ is the quality of our relationships.  When there exists in a community of believers true love and affection between people who are deeply committed to one another as friends, people will be drawn to that community.

And that’s what I hear existed with Paul and the church.  And not just between Paul and the church, but between Paul and Timothy.  Timothy has only recently come to Paul from Thessalonica, and with great reluctance Paul is sending him back, because he wishes that they had more time together.  Ever had a friend like that?  Where every visit is too short, and you are reluctant to part?

There are few things in our lives more powerful than our friendships. Imagine all of the good things in your life right now. And if the one thing that was taken away from it was your friends, would any of the rest of it mean much?

The quality of our friendships makes all the difference in our lives.  It makes all the difference in our churches.  And it makes all the difference in our world.  The quality of our friendships—the sincerity, the openness, the authenticity, even vulnerability—has a lot to do with the effectiveness of our witness to the world.  After all, how good can our Good News really be if we can’t learn to love one another?

Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Biblical Context is Always Grace

Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.   --Hebrews 4:12

As Baptists we are part of a larger evangelical community that values the word of God and preaches and teaches it, and that’s a good thing.  There are some Christian traditions where the Bible is barely part of the landscape.  The sermons are based around the topic du jour , there are few opportunities to study and learn Scripture, and it just doesn’t play that big a role in the life of the church or that of it’s members.  So the evangelical emphasis on the Bible is good and important.  Having said that, we need to be careful to avoid a few problems.

One is thinking that evangelicals are the only ones who hold Scripture in such high regard.  That’s a fallacy that just won’t stand scrutiny.  The entire Protestant movement 500 years ago brought Scripture to the forefront.  The reason that many churches have the pulpit in the center of the platform rather than the communion table is that our spiritual ancestors were making a statement, that the preaching of the word of God was central to the life of the church.  But we have even seen the Catholic church move toward making Scripture more accessible to the average believer rather than just the province of the Latin-reading clergy.  We are not the only ones who hold Scripture in high regard.

Another problem to avoid is thinking that evangelical theology (or Baptist theology) is 100% right, in no need of correction, revision, or updating, and that everyone else’s theology contains some mixture of error.  I hope we have more humility than that, otherwise we think we have no reason to listen to anyone else; they should be listening and learning from us.  Today we have the ability to be in conversation with Christians not only across denominational lines but across national, ethnic, and cultural lines.  They have valuable insights into Scripture that we have never considered.  We need to listen.  We have much to teach, but also much to learn.

But perhaps the greatest problem to avoid is the tendency that some have to use the word of God as a weapon against others.  Probably all of us have seen the Bible is used to divide people.  We right, you’re wrong, the Bible tells me so.  We’re better than you, we’re superior to you.  We can’t associate with you. 
Invoking Hebrews 4:12, the Bible is used as a sword, piercing and dividing.  But let’s look at that verse closely.  It actually says that the Bible is sharper than a sword, not that it is a sword, but that’s a minor point.  It’s a metaphor.

But sometimes a translation can be literally accurate but miss the essence of what is trying to be conveyed.  The writer of Hebrews says that the Bible is able to pierce the heart.  It gets to the root, the core motivation of a person’s action, so a better translation might be scalpel.  A scalpel cuts, not so it can harm, but so it can heal.  It’s not designed to be used as a blunt weapon, but as a precise instrument in the skilled hands of a healer.

But here’s the question: who is the surgeon, and whose heart is being judged?  Your own.  Not someone else’s.  It’s not your job to judge the heart of another.  Judge your own heart.  Deal with the log in your own eye, rather than the speck in the other guy’s eye.  The writer of Hebrews is saying that the Holy Spirit uses Scripture to cut through all the clutter—all the self-justification, self-deception, self-righteousness, and sometimes our own naiveté—to expose our true motivations to the light and judge whether they are helpful or harmful.  And if they are harmful, they need to be cut out.  That’s an act of grace.
People often pit grace and judgment over against each other, but they work hand in hand.  Judgment is about revealing the reality of a situation so that it can be corrected if needed, and that is an act of grace.  And that is how God uses Scripture in our lives.  

And that’s what he will do in other people’s lives.  That’s his job, not ours, and we have to trust that God is fully capable of doing his job.  We have to let God be God.

The very essence of the message of the Gospel is grace, and grace is the context in which the Bible is to be interpreted, taught, and used.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Get Amazing Results Really Slowly!

     Gore Vidal has said that one of the characteristics of our society is “a passion for the immediate and the casual.”  I think that’s a pretty good analysis.  Go through the checkout line at the grocery store, and look at the magazine headlines.  “Lose 10 pounds in 10 days!”  “Amazing Abs in just 30 Days!”  And we fall for it all the time.  We buy it and try it.  Like moths to a light bulb, we are drawn to things with the words “quick” or “fast” in them.  Ever see a magazine headline that says, “Lose ten pounds really slow!”?  “Amazing Abs in Just Five Years, If Ever, Because the Model on Our Cover is a Genetic Aberration Who Even Still Could Only Eat Lettuce for Two Weeks Before the Photo Shoot to Look This Way!”?  No, and you never will, although these headlines are more honest.
It’s got to be immediate because we don’t have time.  We’re busy!  And if we don’t have much time, then we can’t get too heavily involved in it either.  It’s got to be quick and easy.  I think that’s what Vidal meant by casual.  We can’t afford anything that’s too intense.  Look at those same magazine covers, and you will also see that they promise their programs are easy and don’t involve hard work or sacrifice.  “Eat What You Love And Lose”  Great!  Potato chips and ice cream!  “7 Secrets of an Organized Home.” Just 7!  And they’re secrets!  By that they don’t mean that nobody knows about them, they mean that they produce great results with little effort.  And that’s what we need because we don’t have much time!
There’s another aspect of our society that Vidal didn’t mention except by implication: we have a passion for anything that stimulates us, that excites us.  We are easily bored.  And the unpardonable sin in our culture is to be boring.  We abhor bored.  We need to be stimulated constantly. In our culture anything can be sold if it’s packaged freshly, but when it loses its novelty it goes on the garbage pile.  Because we are easily bored, we have to fill our lives with more stuff, which means we have less time, so the stuff needs to be quick and easy, but quick and easy doesn’t really provide the results we want, and without the results we get frustrated and bored, so we add more stuff that promises to be quick and easy and exciting, which means we have even less time, so things have to be even more quick and easy…
And we are worn out.  And the words of the prophet Jeremiah challenge us:  “If you’re worn out in this footrace with men, what makes you think you can race against horses?” (Jeremiah 12:5) 
…or fly with eagles?
…or walk with God?
We live in a culture where people are worn out from the footrace with men and have no energy left to walk with God.  People want to walk with God, but the principles of immediate, casual, and stimulating still apply to their desire.  As Eugene Peterson points out, “It is not difficult in such a world to get a person interested in the message of the gospel; it is terrifically difficult to sustain the interest.  Millions of people in our culture make decisions for Christ, but there is a dreadful attrition rate.”
Walking with God is something that is done when there is adequate time.  Lacking that, we squeeze it in where we can, meaning it’s better if it gives us the results we want quick and easy, without hard work and sacrifice.  And we bore easy.  So we want to be stimulated with lights and music and funny stories and visual effects.  We want special events like rallies and conferences and new programs!  We want to go see a new personality, hear a new truth, get a new experience and somehow expand our humdrum lives.  Spirituality in America is caught up in the latest and greatest.  We’ll try anything—until something else comes along.
It’s ironic that the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, an atheist who announced that God was dead, provides us with a spiritual insight that provides an answer to the mood of our culture.  “The essential thing ‘in heaven and earth’ is…that there should be a long obedience in the same direction; there thereby results, and has always resulted in the long run, something which has made life worth living.”
For the Christian, discipleship is a long obedience in the same direction—and the direction is set by Jesus.

Long, not quick.
Obedience, which takes discipline and commitment.  No one is casually obedient.
In the same direction, which can get pretty tedious.  It’s not very stimulating.

But at least it’s honest, and can deliver on what it promises—a life worth living for all eternity.