Thursday, September 26, 2013

On Time

Time passes.  That much is taken for granted, but few realize how we picture the passage of time and how culturally conditioned that picture is.
We see time as a straight line, and we are on that line moving from left to right the way we read a sentence.   The future is in front of us, because where we are headed—where we are going to be in just a bit—is in front of us.  The past is behind us, because all the stuff we passed by along the way is behind us.  This imagery is reflected in our language: we go “back” in time and we look “forward” to some anticipated future event.  Paul even uses this imagery: “...forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead,  I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.”  (Philippians 12-13)
Other cultures view time differently.  In some, we stand still while time passes by us, as if time was a river that we are standing in facing downstream.  In this image, the future isn’t in front, but behind, and we can’t see what is coming.  We can see the past because it has already passed by and we can see it receding in front of us.
There are no real implications in the differences in these two views of the passage of time other than to highlight that our view of time is culturally conditioned.   There are, however, some ramifications in the way our culture treats time and the way other cultures do.  For instance, we schedule our worship services to begin and end at certain times.  We almost never begin a service early, but every once in a while we will start late, and we try to plan them so that they end right on time—usually an hour after beginning.  It’s acceptable to end a service a little early—there’s no such thing as a bad short sermon—but if services habitually end late, someone is going to get in trouble!  But in their book, Misreading Scripture With Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Read the Bible, E. Randolf Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien  note that in some cultures worship services always  start and end at the right time—although we wouldn’t think so.
In Indonesia, for instance, a service will be held at midday.  That’s not very precise; we’d like to know something more specific.  Is midday 11:00 a.m.?  Noon?  1 p.m.?  No, midday isn’t tied to a time, it’s tied to temperature: midday is when it gets hot.  When the day gets hot, people begin to arrive at the church for worship, and it may take an hour or more for everyone to get there.  Once everyone is there, the service starts, and in this way a service never starts late.  Richards writes, “So while in the United States church begins at 11:15 a.m., whether or not people are in the building, in Indonesia church begins when people get there. I always thought, Wow, some people get here early and some late. They didn't think that way. Arriving just took time.”
An Indonesian service might last two or three hours, but it never ends late.  It ends when everything that needs to happen happens.
In our culture, schedules reign supreme.  One of the reasons church leaders are so sensitive to ending a service on time is because if we don’t, we mess up people’s schedules, and that is rude and inconsiderate.  Sunday School classes have to begin, or we have to get home so we don’t miss the opening kickoff.
In Indonesia, the quality of an event matters more than fitting it into a set time period.  Even more significantly, they value people more than they value time.  “Relationships trump schedules,” Richards and O’Brien write, “so things begin when everyone who needs to be there has arrived.”
In our culture, time is money and we don’t like to squander either, yet we take little issue with squandering relationships.  When we come to the end of our lives, perhaps we will  find that we are rich in things but poor in friends.  
      Also, churches like to claim to be about relationships--with God and with others--but perhaps our cultural addiction to setting and keeping schedules actually undermines that claim.  What if the true worship of God can't be confined to a set ending time but needs to allow for the Spirit to have more freedom?  What would happen if we relaxed a bit and refused to start until "everyone" has arrived?  Maybe that's too radical an idea for our culture, but on the other hand, maybe it’s time for churches to reassess whether the church schedule is really more important than relationships with God and others.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Ancient History Repeating Itself

“He [God] expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!  Ah, you who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is room for no one but you, and you are left to live alone in the midst of the land!  The LORD of hosts has sworn in my hearing: Surely many houses shall be desolate, large and beautiful houses, without inhabitant.”
Isaiah 5:1-9

It’s too easy when reading about ancient history from the Bible to allow our eyes to roll back in our head out of boredom.  Most of that boredom is because we think that it just isn’t relevant to our lives today.  So I promise to get to the relevance at the end if you promise to labor through the history.  No fair skipping to the end.
God called Israel out from among the nations to use them as a shining example of how a nation founded on justice, righteousness and seeking the common good for all could prosper and enjoy both the Lord’s blessing and the Lord’s protection.  Instead, Israel used their “calling out” as a sign of a status over against the nations.    They took for granted their blessing and protection by God, not understanding that  it was conditional—inasmuch as they upheld justice, righteousness, and seeking the common good, they would enjoy God’s blessing and protection.  If they didn’t, then they were no different than any other nation and therefore useless as a shining light to the nations.  God would not give them special blessing and special protection because they were not in fact special at all.  On the other hand, God would grant to any nation that upheld justice, righteousness, and seeking the common good special blessing and special protection because that was his intention from the start.  Israel would show the nations the special benefits that accrue to those who uphold justice, righteousness, and seeking the common good, and all that followed suit would also enjoy those special benefits. 
A quick word about definitions: in the Bible, “justice” and “righteousness”  were virtually synonymous.  Righteousness wasn’t a status given to those whose sins were forgiven, it was the act of doing the right thing.  Justice wasn’t about punishing offenders and rewarding law-abiders, it was about taking care of each other, particularly the weakest and the poorest.  The phrase I’ve used, seeking the common good, captures the essence of both words.  The earth belonged to the Lord, and the fullness therein was to be shared with all so that everyone had enough.
Israel didn’t do this.  Those who had a lot took from those who had little, until those who had little lost what they had to those who already had too much, and even became debtor slaves to them.  The uber-rich added house to house and field to field—the house and field of their neighbor, until they had more house than they needed and more field than they needed to feed themselves.  And their fellow Israelites didn’t have field enough to feed themselves.
So God withheld his protection, and soon Assyria descended upon the northern kingdom and destroyed it; the tribes were dispersed, never to be seen again.  You would think that the southern kingdom of Judah would learn a lesson, but in some ways they became even worse, and in 586 B.C. they suffered the same fate at the hands of the Babylonians.  When people are in need, God hates hoarding.  When a nation allows a few to have way too much while many have insufficient resources and many more have barely enough, God’s blessing and protection goes away, and his judgment follows.  It’s the biblical pattern.
Relevance: the top 1% own 39% of the world’s wealth.  In the U.S., 95% of the wealth created in the 3-year recovery from the recession went to the wealthiest 1% of Americans.  Now go back and read Isaiah again and see if the history of ancient Israel has anything relevant to say to us today. 

Monday, September 9, 2013


Last week Austin and Pam went out to lunch together and had some quality mother/son time.  At one point she said to him, “This might sound like an odd question to you,  but I'm just curious: what would you say are two things that you have learned from me?”  Austin thought for a few seconds and said, “Compassion and patience.”
Pam is truly a compassionate person.  When she sees another person in pain or suffering, it’s as if she can feel it herself.  There have been many times when we have been watching television and a news report comes on about some tragedy somewhere in the world, and she feels the sorrow so badly she starts crying.  The desire to alleviate human suffering is behind her involvement over the years in the medical field, her work as a volunteer EMT at the Walkersville Rescue Squad, and her leadership in our fledgling Stephen Ministry.
And as far as patience goes, if you were to look the word up in the wouldn’t find Pam’s picture anywhere near it!  Now, Pam is fully aware of the fact that she is quite patience-challenged, so she said to Austin, “I get the compassion part, but how have you learned patience from me?”
He said, “Well, Mom, I’ve had to learn to be really patient with you!”
Patience is the kind of thing that can’t be easily learned.  It’s only needed during times when things get under our skin, when we are anxious about something, when our circumstances really need changing but they don’t.  I don’t need patience waiting for my next dental appointment, unless I have a tooth that is really hurting and the dentist can’t see me for two weeks.
One of those Bible verses that always make it onto bookmarks and paintings in the Christian bookstore is Isaiah 40:3—“…but those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”
Do we really understand what that verse is saying?  Isaiah is writing to a people who keep trying to take matters into their own hands that rightly belong only to God.  They anoint kings, raise an armies, enter into alliances with other nations so that they can defend themselves against their enemies, and all the while God is saying, “I am your defender.”  They worship the fertility gods of other nations in an effort to ensure that their crops and their livestock will produce enough that they can feed themselves and live, and all the while God is saying, “Hey, don’t you remember when I gave you water and quail and even manna from heaven in the desert!”
But before we look down our noses at the Israelites, we need to fully grasp the extent of the waiting that is required.  The Israelites were slaves in Egypt for a few hundred years before the Lord sent a deliverer.  At the time of Jesus they had been waiting for over 400 years for the Messiah to arrive; modern Jews have been waiting for more than 2,400 years for Messiah.  It’s been almost 2,000 years since Jesus promised to return to earth, set the world to rights and bring to completion his kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.  I mean, c’mon.  2,000 years!
Maybe we’ve never really waited.  It didn’t take Christianity that long before it started anointing kings, raising armies, forming alliances, judging sinners—you know, getting about the business of setting the world to rights for Jesus.
As if he needed the help.  And as if we wouldn’t make a big mess out of it.
2,000 years does seem like a long time to wait for anything, until you consider this: the main thing waiting does is keep us from trying to do the things that only God can and should do.  Trying to do God’s work for him is actually the Original Sin of Genesis.  Waiting for God—letting God be God and accepting that we are not-God—is something we should always do.  It’s the wait that never ends.
So why hasn’t God acted decisively to set the world to rights?  Maybe he’s waiting for us to stop trying to do his job.