Saturday, August 23, 2008

Through A Glass Darkly

When I arrived as a new pastor in a sleepy mountain town two decades ago, a pastor from another small church invited me to pray with him for God's revival in our high mountain valley. Soon, we gathered the new Episcopalian rector, two Pentecostals from neighboring villages, and a handful of assorted independent community church pastors. Most of the Baptist pastors would have nothing to do with us, nor would any of the other mainline churches. This ragtag band met together once a month for 10 years, praying for God to invade the valley in power, making it a haven of restoration for those bludgeoned by Gospel ministry in hard places, and sweeping through the hard ranks of unbelievers, bringing many to Christ. However, at the end of those 10 years, the founder of our group left for another call, and he was replaced in his church with a man who was ambitious and gifted, and who had no time to waste on praying with other pastors. In very little time, they reached what appeared to me to a modest circle of unchurched people. . . but mostly drew people away almost every other church in town. In the hypercharged climate of consumerism, people walked away from the communities of faith in which they had raised their children, cared for the sick, worshipped weekly for years, and broken bread together. They traded in the hard work of being a people of God to join the newest, latest, greatest thing. So, the town ended up with a megachurch, a broken unity among what had been like-minded churches, a competitive environment, and a strong surge of self and turf protection.

So, where's the worth in all of that? Where's the significance of years of investment that a number of caring people put into tearing down walls between Christians, building a unity that proclaims to the world that Jesus is risen (John 17:21,23), nurturing servanthood between congregations where it doesn't matter who gets the credit, and defeating the whole consumerism plague . . . undone overnight, in the name, supposedly, of Jesus?

On our two mens' climbing trips this summer, Dan Dermyer was our teaching pastor. And on Monday evening of both trips, he opened up the story of Job, which just so happens to be about this very subject. Job, as many of you may remember, was an innocent man who was visited by breathtaking calamity and loss. In fact, he pretty much lost everything: his wife, children, possessions, health, and his closest friendships. He was accused of being the reason for the losses, that it was God's punishment for being a sinner, and a hidden one at that. In spite of his protestations, no one believed him.

But as he gained traction in his rebuttals of these accusations, Job gathered strength of conviction, that perhaps God was the bad guy, that God was responsible for wronging him, that God was the author of these evils being visited upon him. Job throws his challenge at God, demanding an answer to the question, "So, why did all of this destruction happen? Where were You?"

Until at last God stopped him dead in his tracks with this question: "Will you condemn Me that you may be in the right?" (Job 40:8) To which Job crumbles and confesses that he is utterly wrong for blaming God, that God is never the author of evil.

And God, we notice, never answers Job's question.

God leaves it in the realm of what, for us, is mystery. Like looking into and through a mirror dimly (I Corinthians 13:12). As if the Psalmist had it right all along, saying, "Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain." (Ps. 139:6) Perhaps there are bigger things afoot, things beyond our ability to take in and understand and carry within us without doing inestimable damage by knowing them.

But in a sense, although one must wait for it for centuries, God does answer Job's question. "Will you condemn Me that you may be in the right?" For God answers in the Person of His Son, Jesus, who took upon Himself the utter condemnation that belongs to Job and issues forth from Job, so that Job might be in the right. And you and me, too.

Which tells me, in the end, that whatever is happening in wretched, destructive, unfathomable, agonizing, seemingly stupid and outrageous and wasteful events in life, which make NO SENSE AT ALL, and which call into question significance and worth and what really matters, that we will find in the end something better than a suffocating view of God's sovereignty that "makes every instance of pain and loss an indispensable moment in a grand scheme whose ultimate synthesis will justify all things. . . [but at the high price of believing] in and lov[ing] a God whose good ends will be realized not only in spite of - but entirely by way of - every cruelty, every fortuitous misery, every catastrophe, every betrayal, evey sin the world has ever known." (David Hart, "Tsunami and Theodicy", Wall Street Journal)

So, when we live enveloped by mystery, especially when it involves suffering, it is our comfort that the God we know through Jesus Christ "has come to rescue creation from the absurdity of sin and the emptiness of death, and so we are permitted to hate these things with a perfect hatred. . .and that [until that glad Day of salvation is upon us] the world remains a place of struggle between light and darkness, truth and falsehood, life and death. . . [and as a result] I can imagine no greater comfort than the happy knowledge that when I see the death of a child I do not see the face of God, but the face of His enemy."

Monday, August 18, 2008

Remember the Bony Finger

How do you find the worth of something when it lies in ruins? When all of the marks of success, as we measure success in the dominant culture in which we live and move, are, at the very least, damaged beyond recognition? Where's the significance of one's work and life to be found when that work and life can visibly show little to no fruit?

I remember being a commissioner to the 1992 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A. The major issue before that G.A. was the adoption of a document that spoke out of both sides of the mouth about the life of the unborn, trying to affirm that people who had scruples regarding ending the life of a fetus could file for a conflict of conscience and redirect where their medical insurance premiums would be used; while at the same time maintaining the right of women to end that life if they so chose. I joined a cadre of like-minded commissioners, strategizing on many fronts to seek a better document, and a better solution for the PCUSA. We labored in 18 hour days for almost 2 weeks. And on the last day of the GA, we lost everything. Every motion. Every minority report. Every change in language. I walked off the floor of the last plenary session defeated and in tears. Where's the worth in that?

It's at this point that God has been insistently but mercifully helping me in recent weeks, regarding much more recent, bitter disappointments. As I wrote in my last blog, He has taken me back again and again to His love. That significance ultimately is found in the decision He has made in His freedom to love me. Us. His people. His creation.

But He has spoken another word to me, as well.


I must be quick to say, however, that I do not necessarily wield this word the way that all those within the people of God use it. I have no patience with those who approach theology as if it is a detached theoretical exercize, one which intends to make sense out of all of life, answering all but a very small number of questions. Theology in general, and sovereignty as an example of it, are always applied pastorally in Scripture. Truth about God is brought to bear on broken hearts, lost hearts, angry hearts, hopeless hearts. Scripture, I believe, leaves many questions unanswered, perhaps because the answers are too marvelous for us; we cannot attain to them.

The sovereignty of God, therefore, has become for me a pastoral word, one which quiets my heart and brings relief and comfort to me. It is not an appeal to a theological construct that explains who gets chosen by God and who gets consigned to hell. It is the quieting voice of the great shepherd of the flock, assuring me that there is much that I cannot see, but that He can. Reminding me that the story isn't over. That He has an uncanny way of turning things to the good, things that on the human side of responsibility have been done from ill motives and even hearts of evil.

This is the One who in His sovereignty chose a pagan king to rule over Babylon, and gave to him kingship and greatness and glory and majesty for the sake of the wellbeing and blessing of much of the ancient world that lay outside of the people of God, the Jews (Daniel 5:18). This is the same One who collected all of Daniel's prayers, not discarding a single one, and who as a result threw into being the answers to those prayers. . . only, they were being carried out in the realm of spiritual warfare, out of Daniel's visibility and awareness (Daniel 10:12). It is this sovereign One, who David says keeps "count of my tossings," that David goes on to ask, "Put my tears in your bottle. Are they not in your book?" (Psalm 56:8) In other words, God does not forget any of them, and they all matter to Him, and He weaves them all into His purposes.

When I came off the floor of G.A. that last time, Elizabeth Achtemeier stopped me. She was a theology professor at one of our seminaries, a brilliant, fiery, orthodox, godly woman, with a heart for all the little ones in the world, perhaps especially the unborn who have no voice of their own. And she in her frail 5 foot 3 inch frame wagged her bony finger in my face and said, "Take heart, Paul; for God will yet have His way. But you and the others have done your part: you were faithful."

So, in the face of an unbelieving world that has no use for such partially blind faith, I have been going back to that very thing. To trust the One I cannot see, who is doing a work I cannot see, because of promises He has made in and through Jesus Christ.
It is enough.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

If You Can't Get Out Of It, Get Into It

It's been a full two months since I even have attempted to sit down and write. A wilderness time for me. I have languished in the in-betweenness of my life, not sure where it's headed, not clear what my job description at work is yet, and certainly not sure what God is wanting from me, at least in terms of direction. I belong to and have poured my best energies into a denomination which is self-destructing, and there is no sense of security that it will hold together long enough to get to retirement years. I have pastored in four wonderful churches, our personal, visible investments in each certainly diminished if not exposed as failed. Many of the relationships that mattered the most to me here in Kansas City in the last 5 years have been damaged. So, I have thought a lot about worth. What has worth?

Over the last two weeks, I have been in Colorado, helping lead two mens' climbing groups. We successfully got55 of 56 men and boys to the top of at least one "14er," a summit whose elevation is above 14,000 feet. At least 14 of those men summitted their very first 14er. It's a very rewarding experience to help "midwife" this kind of life experience, especially when it draws men closer together (because they need each other), brings men to life changing transformation through Jesus Christ (because they need Him), and exposes men to a new lifestyle in which they take care of themselves and the creation. It was helpful to me, because it provided a climate in which to think about what is worthy. . . that is, what has worth.

That's what I'm going to write about over the next few weeks. Any of you who never have a qualm or fear or wonderment about "worth," you can skip this blog site for a while. But for those of you who, like me, struggle with a sense of lost worth or confusion about what really matters, or who cry out for meaning and significance and don't want to miss what God might have in mind. . .I want to share what God's been illuminating to me.

In Outward Bound, the outdoor training program that challenges people to take responsibility for their lives, they have a saying: "If you can't get out of it, get into it." That is, if you can't evade the circumstances you are in, if the issue won't die, if the storm or the cliffband or the injury or the lack of equipment won't disappear, face it. Throw yourself at it. Turn your full attention to it. Take responsibility for what you have control over.

So, ironically, here's the first and foremost thing I am re-learning about worth. Worth begins, ALWAYS, in the heart of God. Worth and significance are found in the love of God. Period. And my part, what I have responsibility for in order to find my way into that love and thus to hear that worth experientially, is to surrender to His love.

In these two weeks, I have had time to sit with the Word of God, allowing the Holy Spirit space, I guess, to imprint pictures somewhere inside of me; to mediate truth in head and heart, making it come alive to me in Scriptures like this one:

"How can I give you up, O Ephraim?
How can I hand you over, O Israel?
My heart recoils within Me;
My compassion grows warm and tender.

I taught Ephraim to walk. . . but they did not know that I healed them.
I led them with cords of kindness with the bonds of love;
and I became to them as one who eases the yoke on their jaws, and I bent down to them and led them.

I will not execute my burning anger, I will not again destroy Ephraim;
for I am God and not a man, the Holy One in your midst,
and I will not come in wrath." Hosea 11:3,4,8,9

And this:

"Fear not, O Zion; let not your hands grow weak.
The LORD your God is in your midst, a mighty One who will save;
He will rejoice over you with gladness; He will quiet you with His love;
He will exult over you with loud singing (some translations say "He will dance over you").
I will gather those of you who mourn for the festival, so that you will no longer suffer reproach."

Zephaniah 3:16-18

And this:

"This I know, that God is for me." Psalm 56:9

So, whatever the events of my (and your?) life that scream worthlessness, or at least the questions about what matters in your life,

and especially if you find that you can't get out of having to deal with such questions,

I would recommend that you press into the storm and discover that in the awfulness of self-doubt and woundedness and feeling like a loser, you would discover there is One awaiting you in the hard place who also knows the pain of self-doubt ("Father, is there another way?"), aloneness ("Father, where are You?"), and resolution ("Father, into Your hands I surrender"). Because of love.

So, if you can't get out of it, get into it.