Monday, May 29, 2017

Curse God

I've just finished the book of Job in my daily Bible study, and here's what I love about Job: it's one of those books that brings us right up to the line, but doesn't cross it. A lot of the dialogue centers around whether Job will curse God or not, and he ends up doing just about everything but.

It's a little too close for most of us. We wouldn't go as far as Job goes in his blunt honesty, but I think that's kind of the point - we can go that far. We can be real with God. Job is. And yet, he doesn't sin in being so. 

We struggle, in our postmodern world in which just about everything is offensive and crosses some sort of line, to understand what it means to be raw-ly emotional and responsive to the world without "cursing" it (read: offending it). We read the way that Job calls God out, and we think that surely, he has offended the Lord somehow. Surely, God is not going to put up with this.

But look at what's happening here - for all Job's ranting and raving, for all his lamenting, for all the ways that he's pointing out what he believes is wrong here (and for the record, sometimes, he does seem to think that it is God who is wrong), what he's actually doing throughout his entire testimony...is affirming who God is.

And that's exactly what God expected him to do. That's exactly what God told the tempter that Job would do. You do whatever you want to Job, and he will continue to testify to who I am.

See, when Job says This is not what I expect from you, God, what he's actually saying is what he does expect from God. When he says this isn't just, he's saying that the God that he knows is just. When he says this isn't grounded in truth, he's saying that the God that he knows is truth. When he says that this is not what he anticipates God to truly be like, he's making a statement that he knows who God is.

And he's right.

This is what Job is trying to show us - when you know who God is, when you worship Him, pray to him, obey Him, and live your life for Him - then it's absolutely okay for you to put your feet down firmly on that understanding. When God has shown Himself clearly and demonstrated His own character and faithfulness, it's okay for you to demand from Him that He be who He claims to be, who He says He is, who He promises He is.

Notice that throughout the entire testimony of Job, the man never once says, God is not who He says He is. What he always says is, This is not who God says He is. It's not a sense of entitlement that God should be treating Job somehow differently; he's calling God to account on the basis of God's own testimony about Himself. He's very clearly saying, I know who God is, and this is not Him. And he's calling on the God he knows to step and be the God he's sure of.

He's trusting God to do just that.

To us, it looks really close to cursing God. To our postmodern minds, it seems very much that he's tempting fate here, pressing the line, testing the waters. He's pretty close, we think, to God just giving up on him and pushing him away. If Job didn't deserve all that happened to him before now, just let him keep speaking for a few more chapters, and we're sure that he'll get there.

But what's actually going on here, even in all his anger, even in all his grief, even in all his lament, even in all his protest, is that Job is praising God. He's making a bold, repeated, adamant testimony to who God is, even if that doesn't seem to be what God is acting like at this particular moment. He's banking his life on his theology that says that God is good and that God is still good. He's holding onto that promise, and he won't let go.

Even if his raw, scaly, diseased hands fail him.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Lesser Gods

Recently, I was reading an article in a Bible-related periodical, and the author indicated something to the effect that it was always in God's plan to give the non-Israel nations in the Old Testament over to lesser gods, with the intention of pulling them back into Himself later. That way, they would know the supremacy of His deity. 

It sounds good on paper, but theologically, there's a lot here to make us cringe.

Specifically, it should strike us right away that God never claims to be the greatest God; He claims to be the only God. So the idea that God would have been planning to utilize "lesser gods" from the beginning, that He has them in His employ for His purposes, is very troubling.

This is complicated a bit because throughout the Old Testament, God never seems to question the legitimacy of other gods. He questions their power. He calls them worthless. He says they're idols. He says they're not very good gods, but He never quite says they are not gods at all. So neither can we quite say that these other gods are not gods.

But it gets to the heart of this whole thing: what is a god?

We can't say that these other gods are gods in the same way that God is God. That, as we just introduced, creates a theological problem. It offers a pantheon of gods where our God says He is the only. It creates sub-gods interrelated with the Triune Godhead, and that doesn't work with the testimony of the Scriptures. It doesn't make sense with what God says about Himself very clearly.

What we can say is that there is a very clear paradigm for referring to things as gods that are not gods, but only because we have made them so. We do this all the time, particularly in the church. We talk about how easy it is for the idol of money to become our god. Or television. Or beauty. Or social standing. Or whatever it is. We call these things gods, but we would never think that up in the heavens, in the grand expanse of the cosmos, sits God, our God, money, television, beauty, social standing, etc. running the world. That's insane.

When we talk about other "gods," I think this is what we're talking about - we're talking about ideas and image and idols that the nations have set up for themselves and called them gods. God, our God, points out that they are worthless, but He doesn't say they're not gods. To the people, they are very much gods, and it's in God's interest to acknowledge them as such.

That seems strange. Why should God acknowledge as gods things that are clearly not? Because what He's actually doing is acknowledging the peoples' God-hunger. Their God-longing. If He dismisses their gods out-of-hand, He risks alienating them from that thing inside of themselves that's actually searching for Him. But if He acknowledges what they're doing, He says, essentially, yes! Yes, you are looking for gods because you are a God-hungry people.

Then He can step in and say, "But here's where those gods of yours fail you. And where I never will."

Going back to the original article that prompted this discussion, I think it's true that God always planned to use the peoples' God-hunger to bring them back to Himself, even those outside of the nation of Israel. All men were created in the image of God, and there's something in every soul that is searching for Him.

But I think that the way that the article put it says something very, very different from this to the average reader - it suggests a legitimacy to the gods that God never gives them. It suggests some kind of elevated status that God doesn't actually affirm. God does not employ "lesser gods" in His work. He can't, for He repeatedly says unequivocally that He is the only God. We must be very careful not to suggest anything otherwise. 

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Purpose: Thing

You have probably figured out by now where this whole thing is going today, but for the sake of those who need to hear their own story reflected in this discussion, we're going there anyway. Sometimes, what God makes clear to you is not your people or your place, but your thing. 

There's something you do that God has created you to do, and that's what you ought to be doing.

We often think that this is the thing that we can't imagine not doing - the way a writer thinks about writing in the morning, a musician doesn't go far from her instrument, a contractor almost always carries his tools. That's certainly one indicator that you've found your thing.

But there are others, too. Sometimes, you find your thing because it's the thing you do naturally that others don't seem to understand. It's the thing you do that others run away from. It's the thing you do that makes people look at you and ask how - or why - you'd even do such a thing. 

Take, for example, police officers. They do what they do because they have a heart for protecting others. Firefighters have a passion for fighting fires. Doctors have a passion for healing. Nurses have a passion for caring. There are persons in this world who are just built for holding screaming babies, and they volunteer their time in NICU units, holding drug-addicted infants (who, I assure you, scream for hours on end). 

So when we talk about persons whose purpose lies in the things they do, we're talking about two groups - we're talking about those extremely gifted in something who can't imagine doing anything else and we're talking about those who mysteriously thrive in places where others would fall apart quickly. 

Regardless of how this call is uncovered, however, the truth is still the same: when you do what you do, you find your people and you find your place. 

Writers find audiences. Accountants find fund-holders. Teachers find students. Police officers and firefighters find communities. These are their people because this is what they do. 

They get up in the morning, put on their work clothes, and go to the place where they do it. They go t their offices, their classrooms, their studies, their squad cars, their firehouses. These are their places because this is where they do what they do. 

In the biblical witness, we see this in judges, in prophets, and in apostles. They can't help but do what they do. Judges are called to lead Israel in battle. Israel is their people because this is the nation they lead; the edge of the Promised Land is their place because that's where they are. Prophets speak God's word. They can do nothing less. Jeremiah said even if he tried not to, God's word was "shut up in my bones like a burning fire. I am weary of holding it in. Indeed, I cannot." The apostles spread the Gospel. They couldn't help themselves; it's what they were called to do. (The exception here is apostles like Paul and Peter, who were not only given a thing, but also a people - the Gentiles and the Jews.)

So once again, all it takes it one word for all three questions to be answered. One word. That's it. And then, you just have to move. In this case, go do your thing. Go do that thing you do, that God-given thing that you do. 

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Purpose: Place

In the same way that God might only reveal to what people He has called you, leaving the rest of the details to fill themselves in as you go, so, too, He might tell you only the place to which you are called. And once again, the details will fill themselves in along the way.

But you have to be willing to move.

This idea is a large part of the Old Testament testimony - it's Israel's entire journey, from the time that God first called Abram and promised him countless descendants in the land in which he was living to the day that He parted the Red Sea and started leading Israel to the Promised Land to the moment He called Ezra and Nehemiah back to begin rebuilding a ravaged Jerusalem. God's people have always been about a place, and it is no different for many of them today.

Today, this idea is likely to conjure up images of missionaries, those who have clearly experienced a call to a certain land. It's how they end up in places like Kenya or Ecuador or Papua New Guinea. We can't imagine that anyone would just pick up and go to a place like that unless it was the place to which God called them. And that's true. But this idea is not limited to such grand migrations.

It can be as simple as the pastor who knows he is called to a little country church. Or the volunteer whose best work is done on the streets. Or the couple for whom it's clear that "home" is a certain city, like San Francisco or Las Vegas. It can even be as simple as the student who knows God has called her to one university over another. 

I often run into that one myself. Sometimes, I wonder what in the world I am doing as a seminarian. I look around at my peers, and I'm not sure how I fit in. But then I'll go to an on-campus class and feel so at home that I start to have this undeniable sense that this is my place. This is exactly where God wants me to be. And since this is my place, I open my eyes anew and see that these are my people. And since this is my place and these are my people, this is my thing. At least, for now.

The same is true for anyone who is called to a place. When you get to where you're going, you find the answers to your other burning questions. 

The pastor who is called to a little country church finds his congregation when he gets there. They are his people, not necessarily because he would have chosen them, but because this is his place. It's his place and their place, so they are his people. The woman whose best work is done on the streets is a woman whose people are street people. I mean, this isn't rocket science. A couple who finds themselves called to San Francisco may discover that their people are the LGBT community; a couple who calls Las Vegas home may be peopled with prostitutes. Forgive the stereotypes for a minute, but you see what I'm saying - when God calls you to a place, the people you find there are your people. 

And whatever you do for them there, that's your thing. The pastor may not have ever owned a dog, let alone a chicken. He may not have cared for a cactus, let alone a garden. But in the country, he may find himself doing just this. Why? Because there's a certain economy in the country that runs on eggs and zucchini. (Just kidding. A pastor never has to grow his own zucchini - he gets plenty as it is.) A woman who works on the streets may have zero practical nursing experience, but out here, she bandages wounds. Why? Because there are plenty of wounds and no nurses.

Once again, we find that purpose doesn't have to give all the answers before you go. It starts with just one word. It can start with a people, as we saw yesterday, or it can start with a place. When you go on God's word, the rest of the questions tend to sort themselves out. You go to your place and there, you find your people. Because it's their place, too. And you find your thing. Because it's clear what they need. 

So the best thing you can do if you know where God is calling you, is to go. Just go. See what you discover when you get there.

And do good. 

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Purpose: People

When we talk about what it is that God has called us to in our lives, there are really three possible broad answers: people, places, or things. It's very rare that God would give us the answer to all three before we move, which is why most of us never end up moving at all. We want to know everything, but God usually only gives us something. 

But moving on something opens up everything. 

For example, if you are one of those persons that God has called to a certain people, you probably know it. Maybe you have a heart for prisoners. Maybe you have a heart for the sick and dying. Maybe you have a heart for the naked and homeless. Maybe you have a heart for the abused and abandoned. I just had a friend this morning tell me that he thinks middle school students are the most absolutely awesome human beings on earth. Great! Then you know the people to whom God has called you.

A lot of us at this point would likely sit back, saying, "Okay. I know the people to whom God has called me, but where do I find these people and what on earth do I do with them?" We wait until God has answered these questions, and as a result, we end up never moving.

What we have to be willing to do is to go. You don't have to know where, exactly, God is sending you. That will all work itself out. And there are some very practical ways to get going just knowing what people God has called you to love. 

If you've been called to prisoners, where do you think you might find them? In a prison, of course! That's your place. You might say, oh, no, I don't know that for sure, but if those are your people, then that is your place. There are no two ways about it. If the sick are your people, then the hospital is your place. If the dying are your people, it's hospice. These are your places not because you're completely enamored with them as destinations, but because you love the people there. 

And when you love the people in your places, you come quickly to know what your thing is. It's a natural byproduct of being there with them and figuring out what it is that they need. If your people are abandoned children and your place is deep within the foster care system, then your thing is being present. It's being there. It's going to basketball games and school lunches and birthday parties. It's showing up when you're expected and sometimes, even when you're not. It's doing all the little things that these kids ought to be able to rely on but can't in the people who are "supposed" to love them - because you love them. They're your people, so this is your thing.

If your people are the poor, then your thing is being a resource. It's being a valuable wealth of information, contact, and love. That's what they need from you. This doesn't mean you have to be their financing. Or their mortgage payment. Or anything like that. That's not it at all. It means that you bring the wealth of who you are and serve as a resource for those who are without resources in the world. It means sometimes, you're a ride for the person without a car. It means sometimes, you're the companion for the lonely. It means you're the one who sees who society often looks right past. If the poor are your people, this is your thing. It just naturally is so.

Most of us wait until we know everything before we're ready to move, but there are those of you right now who know who your people are. You know who God has called you to love. And you know what? That's absolutely enough to move on.

Go to your people, and you'll find your place. Find your people, and you'll find your thing. Your heart for them will tell you what they need, so then, go and do that.

That's purpose.