Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Blessings and Curses

So we have the nation of Israel for the first time divided, it seems, into units of less than twelve. There are six tribes on one mountain and six tribes on another, one group responsible for announcing the promised blessings of God and the other responsible for His promised curses.

Although it is weird in terms of Israel's history, as we saw yesterday for a variety of reasons, it's actually pretty common in the contemporary church.

It is the classic tension between grace and truth.

This is the tension we're all feeling right now, no matter which mountain it is that we're standing on. There are Christians out there speaking the blessings of God (grace), shouting from the mountaintops ideas like forgiveness, mercy, love. And they're not wrong. These are all promises of God, given to His covenant people under the New Covenant just as much, if not more, than the old one. Were these things not true, we should have to say that the Lord our God has lied to us.

At the same time, there are Christians out there speaking the curses of God (truth), shouting from the mountaintops ideas like hell, condemnation, and the need for repentance. And they're not wrong. These are all curses of God, pronounced upon His covenant people under the New Covenant just as much, if not more, than the old one. Were these things not true, we should have to say that the Lord our God has lied to us. 

The trouble for the modern church is that we have lost the Deutero-Joshua example of the two mountains. For us, there is only one mountain. Ours.

But see, this is what we're missing. When Israel did this little exercise, even though it seemed that they were divided into two, they were very much aware that they were still one whole. The two halves of the nation had one message, and as they proclaimed God's blessings or curses, they never stopped looking at each other. They were on two mountains, but they were both facing the same valley. They were keeping eye contact with one another. They were responding, in voice, to each other.

We've forgotten how to do this. For most of us, we are standing on our own mountain, wholeheartedly proclaiming either the blessing or the curse as though it is the entirety of God's story, as though it is the only covenant. We are shouting them into the sky, over the whole world, more like Leonardo DiCaprio in Titanic than like Israel on her two mountains. We're not looking at each other any more. We refuse to look one another in the eye. 

Not only that, but we don't even claim any more that we're standing over the same space. We won't even look toward the same valley. Those Christians...those heretical Christians standing on the other mountain...they're wrong. They're ruining everything. We laugh at them for the way they're shouting off their mountain, unaware that we're doing the same off of ours. And at the end of the day, our mountains are where we fall. 

Because unlike Israel, this is where we stay. We have no plans to come back together, no plans to meet again in the valley, no intentions of hugging our brothers and celebrating that only together do we have the heart of God's covenant, only in grace and truth do we proclaim what God has proclaimed. No. Ain't nobody got time for that any more. We'd rather die on our own mountains, shouting into the wind. 

And that's exactly what's happening. 

And that's exactly why this story from Israel's history is so important to us now. We're living it out all over again, but we've forgotten how the story goes. We've forgotten the very key dynamics at play here, specifically that on our mountains, we are only one-half of God's story; that it is incumbent upon us not only to look each other in the eye, but to speak into the same valley, to speak to each other; that at the end of the day, we are not two peoples of God, but one. One holy nation, one royal priesthood, one people of God. And these mountains? These are the mountains from which we speak, not the ones on which we die. 

Monday, February 27, 2017

A Tale of Two Mountains

There is an interesting scene that unfolds when Israel moves into the Promised Land and starts defeating her enemies, a scene that is set up by God's command through Moses in the waning words of Deuteronomy. 

Essentially, here is the plan: when you get to the place where God, your God, is giving you, then divide into two - six tribes and six tribes. Half of Israel is to stand on one mountain, and half of Israel is to stand on another mountain. There, from your places, recite the blessings the curses God made in His covenant promise with you. 


It's weird for a couple of reasons. First, it's a stark break in message from the God who seems to be immensely concerned with unity. Most of the time, God is calling His people together. He tells them when they must all assemble for this or that festival. He explains the concept of community accountability, where if one man is found in a certain sin, the entire community must come together to stone him to death. He emphatically explains to the three tribes who took their land on the other side of the Jordan that they still have a responsibility to fight for their brothers in the Promised Land before truly settling down.

Everywhere we see Him, God is always referring to the twelve tribes as one; they do everything together. There are twelve gems in the priestly ephod, but they are placed there together. There are twelve tribes in the camp, but they all have their places around the Tabernacle. There are twelve stones in the altar, but they were all gathered by the leaders of the twelve tribes themselves. This is the only time where we see God break Israel into real units of less than twelve. 

Six. And six. 

The second reason that it's weird is that there doesn't seem to by any rhyme or reason by which the six and the six are chosen. That is, if you read the blessings of the twelve tribes in other places, or if you read the descriptions of them and the way that they are, it's difficult to see how some of these tribes carry the blessings and some of them carry the curse. There are clearly at least a few that we would easily, by our human nature, place on the other mountain. 

That is, if it were up to us, we could tell you which rabblerousers were going to be the ones to curse Israel and which saints would be the ones to save her.

Third, most of us seem to have a real theological problem with the God who curses His people, so it's hard to imagine that His people at any time and place would be so willing to stand in the affirmation of His curses. It's why we preach about Heaven and not about Hell. It's why we talk about grace and not condemnation. It's why we talk about sin only in the nature of redemption. It just seems to us that if God was as loving and everything as He says He is, then all twelve tribes should have been standing on the mountain of blessing. 

Just sayin'. 

Finally, what is most weird about this whole thing is that after each statement of either blessing or curse is recited by the six tribes, all the people were to say (and said), "Amen." 

So there's a lot of crazy stuff going on here, just inside the Promised Land. And there's a lot that we can break down in all of this, which we'll do in the coming days. 

Friday, February 24, 2017

Worship or Rest

We've wound our way back, much like Israel, to the place where we once stood, faced with the question presented by the Exodus and Deuteronomy versions of the Ten Commandments: what, exactly, is the Sabbath? Is it a holy day on which we rest because God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh or is it a sacred day on which we worship because God, our God, delivered us from Egypt?


Just as we saw yesterday, the answer is not either/or but both/and. There is absolutely no tension in wholly and fully accepting both presentations as truth and fulfilling them simultaneously; they confirm one another, and they confirm the character of God. 

When we rest because our God is holy, we take a new view of creation. We stand back and see how the world is set in motion and, like our God, we declare that it is good. We have a moment to see ourselves, not in motion, but at rest - in a state of human being, not in human doing - and we can say that it is very good. In holy rest, we see what the world always knew - Creation itself has been given all that it ever needs, for it has been masterfully crafted by a great Artist and endowed with His very presence. On the Sabbath day of rest, we stop trying to improve it and stand back, letting the Artist speak. 

When we worship because God, our God, brought us out of Egypt, we free ourselves from the curse for just a bit. No longer do we have to toil for everything we've got. No longer do we cry out in labor pains; we're not responsible for life. God has given us everything, and He brings life. For the breath of this sacred day, Creation is restored to its intended design - God is our God. We exist in proper, worshipful relationship with Him. It is not that we have forgotten our fallenness; we have simply forsaken it for the better thing. 

And here, we have two truths that become abundantly clear on the Sabbath, and they live in harmony with one another: God is good, and He is for us. And are these not the two most fundamental truths of our entire faith? God is real, and He is here. God is Love, and He loves us. God created everything, but we are His treasure. This is the essence of the faith!

So it is interesting to see how the story of Scripture changes from one place to another, for example, from the outskirts of Egypt to the edge of the Promised Land, and to look at all of the factors that go into something like that and what such a change might mean. But we need not be troubled by what seem to be such dramatic differences in revelation. Quite often, they complement each other rather than being contradictory. We just have to figure out what's going on, why, and what it says about our God, in order that we might find what is both good and beautiful even in the mess. 

After all, isn't that all we're doing anyway? Looking for what's good and beautiful even in this mess....

Thursday, February 23, 2017

God Your God

It's easy to see how Israel's story changes from the outskirts of Egypt to the edge of the Promised Land. In those short forty years of wandering, the emphasis has changed from God's incredible, unchangeable nature to His more intimate, personal nature. The Lord has become God, your God.

In the verses that we've been looking at this week, that also means that the Sabbath has changed from a day of holy rest because the Lord is holy and rested on the seventh day to a sacred day of worship because God your God brought you out of Egypt. And this raises kind of the heart of Christian theology to question in a very profound way:

Do we worship God because He is holy or do we worship Him because He is our God?

It's not an easy question to answer, probably because the true answer lies somewhere in the both/and. The Scriptures plainly tell us to be holy because the Lord our God is holy, but most of us spend our whole lives trying to be like Jesus without ever being thankful for Him or in awe of Him or properly in love with Him. We fall in love only with the idea that He reflects in us, our ability to be like God because the Lord our God is holy. 

At the same time, if we focus exclusively on the intimate, personal relationship that we have with our God, we can become so thankful, so in awe, so in love with Him that we neglect to change our own lives or hearts in any meaningful way in order to be more like Him. Here, too, we fall short of what it is that God would have us to do. 

This is the tension that most of us feel more of the time than we'd like to admit. There are certain things in my life that I'm good at, gifts of God that come naturally to me. There are others that I have to work at and still others that I'm never going to do well. That's just the nature of who I am. On the one hand, my theology of God requires me to continue to diligently work at all of these things, in order to become more like my God. Be holy, for He is holy. 

At the same time, my fallen and humbled human nature fully recognizes that I'm not ever going to get there, and so in this case, my proper response must be one of worship and awe. I praise the things in God that I'm not good at. I love that He is so much better at these things than I am and that it's not all up to me to do these things in the world; He's already doing them. And I praise Him for the grace that He gives that enables me to keep trying. 

Too often, we think it has to be one or the other - that I must either worship God or become more like Him. That He must either be the Lord or God, my God. That I can either stand in awe of Him or stand in the nature of Him, but I cannot do both. The truth is, however, that it must be both. I must worship Him and become more like Him. I must stand in awe of Him and stand in the nature of Him, doing my best to both sing His praise and live His love. He must be Lord and God, my God. 

Indeed, He is the Lord, my God. 

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Slaves in Egypt

So by the time Israel reaches the Promised Land, the Sabbath has transformed from a holy day of rest because the Lord your God is holy to a sacred day of worship because the Lord your God brought you out of Egypt. Yesterday, we looked at how a man like Moses could potentially change the message, depending on which heart he was speaking out of.

But can we really blame Moses?

If we watch carefully, the longer Israel is in the wilderness, the more reminders of Egypt become a part of their story. God frequently reminds them of the place where they have been, perhaps because the generation that left Egypt is passing away and their children are coming up to take their place. These children (all of those who were under twenty years of age at the time of Israel's rebellion with the twelve spies) would have only a limited understanding of what was going on in Egypt. 

Like all children, they heard the whispers. They saw their parents' frustration, anger, exhaustion. They knew their fathers came home broken and tired, perhaps even bruised and bleeding. They knew their mothers felt helpless to care for the family. They knew the fervency with which their parents prayed, and then, perhaps, even stopped praying, since things never seemed to get better for them. They may remember the night that they slaughtered the lamb and painted its blood on their doorposts, for the first time ever, eating with their sandals on, bags packed and leaning, waiting, against the door. They would have had faint ideas about all of these things, but they may not have understood them.

They would have known better the difficulty that they faced in the desert. They would have remembered the morning that manna first appeared on the ground, the day that quail started to rain out of the sky. They probably remembered the day that they ran out of new recipes for quail and started to feel what God had predicted - complete disgust at the meat. They would know intimately the grumbling of the community of Israel all along this journey, and maybe here, they, too, would stop praying. Who is this God who brought them to this wilderness to die? What had He ever done for them?

This is why the longer they wander, the more reminders we see of God being the God who brought them out of Egypt. They don't remember, or perhaps they don't even know, what a big deal that was. 

And here's what I really think was happening: the closer Israel got to the Promise Land, to becoming the people of God that He had called them to be (and Moses makes reference to their becoming the people of God in Deuteronomy 27-28-ish), the more God was trying to establish Himself as their God. 

That's what makes Him different from all of the other gods that they were about to encounter.

It's great and all that God created them in the garden of Eden, in the image of Himself He created them. It's great that He put this whole world together and orchestrated everything just the way that He wanted it. It's great that He saw that it was good, then very good, then rested on the seventh day. But none of this essentially sets Him apart from any of the other gods, who also claimed to have created the world. Who also claimed to have a design in mind, great power, and an awesome plan. 

What sets God apart from the other gods is that He alone can claim to be involved in the lives of His people. These other gods? They required worship, but their interaction with the faithful was severely lacking. Their worshipers might say that they provided fertility or increased the crops, but that was only when the worship was just quite right. This is not the testimony of YHWH. His story is quite different.

So as Israel is set to encounter the Baals and Asherahs and Molechs, as they stand on the edge of what other nations claim as sacred space, their story of God transforms into the testimony of Him. No longer is He simply the force, the power, to whom all things must be credited. That's too easy; that can be said of any god. This is the God who brought them out of Egypt. This is the God who intervened for them of His own volition. They didn't ask to be brought into the desert; they didn't pray for the Promised Land. They grumbled about Egypt, and God said, "I got this." So slowly, but surely, as they wound their way through the wilderness, the story of God was quietly becoming the story of their God. 

And by the time they stand on the edge of the Promise, no longer is the Sabbath holy just because the Lord your God is holy; now, it is sacred because the Lord your God is your God. 

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Blame the Messenger

So when Israel first set out on their journey through the desert toward the Promised Land, they rested on the seventh day because it was a holy day, a day set apart by the Lord who also rested on the seventh day. But by the time they reached the Promised Land, the seventh day had become a day of worship, for the Lord their God had delivered them from the hand of Egypt. 

The first consideration we have to make when evaluating this dramatic change in the message is the nature of the messenger. In this case, Moses.

Moses was the man God chose to speak for Him - to Pharoah, to Israel; he was also the man to whom God chose to speak. And certainly, we see Moses saying some powerful things. He speaks to Pharoah (with his brother, Aaron). He preaches to the Israelites. He teaches them God's ways. He brings down the stone tablets from the mountains and explains to them the Ten Commandments. He listens to their troubles, mediates their disputes, responds to their complaints. Throughout Israel's journey through the wilderness, we see Moses again and again using his voice, and God's words, to guide them. 

But there is a reason that Moses is not permitted to enter the Promised Land with Israel, and this reason is because at some point in their journey, his words took an unfaithful turn.

The people of Israel were complaining again about not having even any water to drink out there in that barren wasteland. What had Moses done to them? What was God's plan? Were they brought out into the wilderness just to die? They'd rather be in Egypt. The Lord spoke to Moses and told him to take his staff out to this big rock that everyone knew about. There, strike the rock, and the Lord would send water pouring from it for the Israelites to drink.

So Moses goes out to the rock, raises his staff high, and says, "What's wrong with you people? Do I have to bring water out of this rock for you?" But he forgot to say "YHWH says." Thus, the words he spoke sounded like they came from his own mouth, not God's. And God was not too happy with this.

All it takes is one subtle little shift like this. All it takes is one moment when the messenger doesn't quite get it right, and all of a sudden, we see Moses' words becoming something altogether different than they always had been. For the first time, we do not see Moses humbling himself before the Lord for his error. We kind of see him pouting. The time will come when he even asks God to reverse his decision, to let him enter the Promised Land, but even here, he does not apologize. He does not prostrate himself. He doesn't confess that the Lord was right. He just wants to see Canaan. He thinks he should be able to see Canaan. But God does not relent.

And then when Moses begins to tell Israel its own story, right there on the edge of the wilderness, he says something interesting - "Because of you, I can't go to the place where you're going. You miserable, grumbling people who made me bring water out of a rock for you...." Even here, we see him telling the not-quite-true story of what happened at the rock. 

When we see, then, that in his deuteronomic sermon reminding Israel of all they have been through and all that God has given them to do to be faithful, we have to determine which Moses it is that is speaking. Is it the Moses who faithfully speaks God's words? Or is it the Moses who has a personal axe to grind? Is he reminding Israel of what God has said, or is he getting in one last dig at their complete faithlessness? It is not only a fair question, but an important one. 

Is the Sabbath a day of worship or is it a holy day?

Monday, February 20, 2017


On the seventh day, we rest. This is a clear command from God, given on the mountain at Sinai, carved with His own finger into the tablets of stone provided by Moses. You would think that, given all of the authority and power behind it, this commandment would never change. But something interesting happens to this third law in the wilderness. And if you're not paying attention, you might read right by it.

When the commandments are first given in Exodus 20, a very clear reason is given for the Sabbath - "In six days the Lord made heaven, earth, and the sea, along with everything in them. He didn't work on the seventh day. That's why the Lord blessed the day he stopped his work and set this day apart as holy." (v. 11)

Thus, Israel was given a day of rest.

And in fact, as we continue reading through the Old Testament, particularly the establishment of a faithful society in the early books of the OT, we see this pattern repeated over and over again. For six years, Israel worked; in the seventh, they rested. For six years, they employed slaves; in the seventh, they set them free. For six years, they collected on loans; in the seventh, they wrote off the debts. And for six cycles of seven years, they followed this pattern, but after the seventh, they celebrated a Jubilee. Certainly, the seventh was set apart as holy in many ways, which we only assume we can trace back to this command - the Lord blessed the seventh day.

But follow Israel through the wilderness for awhile and meet up with them again at the edge of the Promised Land. Fast forward from Exodus 20 to Deuteronomy 5, where Moses is preaching his final sermon and reminding Israel of their journey, of the promise of God, and of the commandments that God has given them. The commandments are the same - never lie, murder, covet, steal, etc. Even the third commandment remains the same- "You have six days to do all your work. The seventh day..."

...is no longer holy. 

Wait. What? Yes, you read that right. In the passage in Deuteronomy in which the Ten commandments are remembered and preached, the seventh day is no longer holy, and it no longer has anything to do with God's creation of the world. Look at what the Scripture says:

"The seventh day is a day of worship dedicated to the Lord your God. You...must never do any work on that day. ...Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God used his mighty hand and powerful arm to bring you out of there. This is why the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the day of worship." (vv. 12-15)

Be honest: how many times have you read right past this dramatic change in the Sabbath observance? How many times have you read right past these words that change the seventh day from holy to something different entirely, that take out the reason that we do what our God did and replace it with appreciation for what our God has done? 

Ask most Christians about the Sabbath, and they will give the Exodus explanation - we rest because God rested, because God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh. But stand on the edge of the Promised Land with Israel, and that is no longer the case. 

There is oh so much fun we can have with a passage like this, and we will have some of that fun in the coming days. So stay tuned. 

Friday, February 17, 2017

From Here

The final question we have to ask as relates to modern-day sanctuary cities, citing the biblical example of the cities of refuge, is what to do with the persons who have ended up here.

The cities of refuge were never meant to be home; at the death of the high priest, men went back to the places where they belonged - their homes, their families, their lands, their lives. So how do we deal with the thousands of illegal immigrants who now live in our sanctuary cities? At what point are they free to leave and to inhabit their own homes with their own families on their own land and live their own lives? 

That depends, of course, on the conclusions that you've reached to this point. 

If a criminal law has been broken, then it is not as simple as saying that we should just round them all up and ship them out. When someone leaves a sanctuary city, they get their land - and their life - back. So if we are going to send them to the countries from which they came, it is incumbent upon us to make sure that they're going back to a life there. We cannot just send them "away." 

This will bring us face-to-face, however, with the origins of illegal immigration. In trying to secure a land and a life for those we are deporting, we come to discover the very factors that led them to flee in the first place. We see the poverty. We see the insecurity. We see the war, the famine, the disease, the corruption, the trouble that makes a man pick up and leave everything, taking a chance on a better life even when that life begins with the breaking of a (criminal or covenant) law. 

As Christians, witnessing this trouble cannot be a neutral event for us. It must spur our compassion. Thus, we work either to restore the conditions to which the immigrant is being deported or we re-evaluate our position of the man who has come to dwell in our city of refuge.

If a covenant law has been broken, then our duty is to figure out how to restore the man to the covenant community that he has violated. This means making a way for him to leave the sanctuary city and establish himself in a place of his choosing.

This is the kind of thing that makes a lot of persons upset about the current system. They refer to all of the "handouts" that illegal immigrants receive, or even to the "handouts" that refugees receive. They don't understand what it takes to start a life all over again, what is necessary to establish roots in a new community. It feels like it's too easy, like it's too free, but this is the nature of covenant, is it not? Men must have a way to be restored to the community. In the case of illegal immigration, this sometimes means we have to give them a good deal of help in accomplishing this.

But men were never intended to live as refugees forever. So we have to do something.

This, I think, is enough to get us thinking about the idea of sanctuary cities from a theological point of view. It's not all politics, and it's not all humanity; it's love. It's love for the immigrant and love for our community and love for our country and love for our world and love for our God. It's love for each other. It's love at its core. And it's not easy. 

The questions are not easy, and they are not limited to just the few that I have been able to present this week. But hopefully, this can be used as a launch pad for learning how to think about some of the tougher issues that are facing us in our modern times. I have drawn no conclusions and have tried to give ear to both dominant sides of the issue; the conclusions are yours to draw. The only thing we cannot do is to ignore the issue entirely. It is real. It is here. And it demands a response. 

Whatever you do, whatever you think, whatever conclusions you draw, let it be done in wisdom, in grace, in compassion, and in love. 

Thursday, February 16, 2017

The Law

Simply deciding that the law was either covenantal or criminal does not end the discussion about what to do with the illegal immigrant...or the sanctuary city. There is yet another question that must be answered.

If you determine that the law that was broken is covenantal - that is, that it has to do with relationship more than with "right" or "wrong." Then you have to ask yourself how this broken covenant can be restored. 

Essentially every law that God ever gives us in the Scriptures is a covenantal law. And overwhelmingly, the solution to the breaking of the law is some way by which the offender is able to come back into the community. This is true of the covenant between man and God, where God consistently pursues the faithful in order to bring them back into relationship with Him. This is true of the covenant between men, where God always seeks to figure out how to atone for the offense and bring the two back into the same community. It is true of the accidental murderer in the city of refuge. Only on very rare occasions is there no way for the offender to be restored to community, whether the covenant he broke was between men and God or between men and each other. 

Thus, if you have determined that the law broken in the immigration issue is covenantal, then the next question to ask yourself is how this covenant relationship can be restored. (And note that God's answer is never, "Go back and do it the right way." God always meets persons where they're at and provides a way forward.)

But let's say that you determine that the law that was broken was criminal - that is, that it has to do with the ordering of society more than with communal relationship. Then you have to ask yourself whether the criminal law is a good one or not.

It offends most of our sensibilities to think about breaking a law at all. Most of us drive close to the speed limit, pay for everything we take from a store, register our vehicles properly, etc. But the testimony of Christian history is that sometimes, in order to do the right thing, we have to do the wrong thing. 
For a long time, Christianity was illegal. Yes, illegal. Even before the widespread persecutions began, the New Testament records for us that the apostles were ordered not to preach the Gospel. Not for any reason. Not anywhere. Not to say a word about it. And their response? "We couldn't obey that law even if we tried." It was a law binding upon them, issued by the governors and courts, but they refused to obey it. (And that's how most of them ended up dead.)
Christians in Nazi Germany refused to obey the government's orders and assisted their Jewish brothers and sisters in escaping persecution. Churches offered safe harbor during the Civil Rights movement. Christians provided safe houses along the Underground Railroad. Over and over and over again, the history of the church is that it has stood on the front lines of social justice in the face of the law of the land. 

So the question is - is immigration one of these issues? Again, I'm not going to tell you what to decide; that's up to you. But the question is: are the current laws regarding immigration good ones or are they ones that stand in the way of our living out grace and love according to God's laws (covenant laws)? We cannot just say the law is the law is the law; that's not what church history tells us to do as Christians. We have to determine the merit of the law and where it falls within God's plan for redemptive love. 

These are not easy questions, but they are necessary ones. The issue, like all other issues, is not black and white; it's a thousand shades of grey. What are the laws? What kind of laws are they? Are they good laws? How do we reconcile them? What ways have been made for a man to come back? Where is community life in all of this? What is criminal? 

What is Christian?

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Against the Covenant

The other legal issue that we have to consider, biblically, when talking talking about the idea of sanctuary cities in our modern time is what kind of law we are talking about. When someone says that an immigrant is illegal, what does that mean? 

To some, a law is a law is a law. Illegal means a law has been broken. Thus, a crime has been committed. Thus, justice demands penalty for the trespass of the law. But in Israel, at the time when cities of refuge were first established, the people weren't really talking about a criminal code. In fact, God never really talks about a criminal code. To God, the law is covenantal.

And it's covenantal in two directions. First, it is covenantal between man and man. These are the rules for living together in community; these are the expectations of mutual relationship. I don't steal your ox and you don't steal mine. I don't charge interest on a loan and neither do you. These laws were created not because they formed an orderly society, but because they established the groundwork for an authentic relationship.

Second, the law is covenantal between man and God. It's a reminder of what faithfulness looks like. When we talk about covenantal ideas, we're talking about agreements in which one party's breaking of the faith does not free the other party from keeping it. So if you steal my ox, this does not free me to steal yours - stealing an ox continues to be wrong because it is anti-covenantal. If I take your ox anyway, it disrupts the relationship between you and I because we begin to exist in a tit-for-tat rather than respect and love, and it disrupts the relationship between me and God because I have precisely done the very thing that He desires me not to do.

So that brings us back to the question of the illegal immigrant. What is the law that is being broken here? Is it a criminal law, one that has been issued for the purposes of ordering society and making something civil? Or is it a covenantal law, one that has been established for the purpose of establishing authentic relationship?

The argument here could go either way. (Remember when I said I wasn't going to tell you what to think about this, but rather how to think about it?) Some may say it's a criminal law, for the purposes of nothing more than ordering society and making a way for certain things to occur, like record-keeping, taxation, national security, whatever. Some may say it's a covenantal law, that the laws on immigration are meant to ensure a personal investment in the American way of life and therefore, obeying those laws is the first sign of respect that an immigrant shows in coming into this covenant. 

Fair enough. Both arguments have some strong support to them, depending on which way you lean. That then introduces, does it not, a second question: to what law are you bound?

Imagine yourself living in a sanctuary city, or in a city that is thinking about becoming one. Civic duty, perhaps, bounds you to the criminal law in a certain way. Just as it is incumbent upon you to report someone who is breaking any other law, it is incumbent upon you to report someone who has immigrated illegally. But you are also bound by a covenantal law, one that commands you to look other human beings in the eye and love them. 

I don't imagine everyone in the cities of refuge was comfortable with the idea that murderers could live there scot-free. And that's what they were - murderers. Unintentionally, of course, but they had killed someone. Most of us would be a little uneasy about that. Most of us are a bit uneasy about immigrants living next door. It's a natural human reaction. But that's why we are given the minds to consider what it is that binds us. Is it civics? Is it covenant? Is it a mixture of the two? Is it something else entirely?

Again, I'm not going to tell you what to think. But this is something that we have to consider when faced with this issue. What law binds us? In what way does that law bind us? Are we living here civically or are we living here covenantally? What do these things demand of us? What do they require? 

And what if...well, stay tuned. There's something more to say about criminality. Tomorrow. 

Tuesday, February 14, 2017


The first question we have to ask ourselves when talking about sanctuary cities is whether or not a law has actually been broken.

Men in the Old Testament did not run for refuge unless they had actually killed another man. Thus, when we talk about the idea of refuge in the modern day, we have to ask whether those who are seeking refuge have come across the border illegally. In most cases, this seems to be a fairly simple question to answer. 

But the question is rarely so simple as it seems.

Men who murdered someone and ran for refuge had not intended to murder anyone; it was an accident. Something went terribly wrong, and someone ended up dead. In order to not complicate the matter unnecessarily, and in order to prevent an actual crime from being committed in revenge, the accidental murderer was given refuge. The refuge, then, was not a shelter from the law; it was a protector for it.

If a man who showed up at a sanctuary city was actually a criminal - that is, if he had intentionally done wrong - even the city of refuge would not protect him. 

Now, it's easy to say that this is apples and oranges. No one accidentally ends up sneaking into a foreign country and trying to establish a life. Those who have come here illegally knew exactly what they were doing. Therefore, none of this applies, right? 

Not necessarily. In most of these cases, we are talking about persons who didn't intend to be in this position. For those that take a hard black and white view of this issue, that will be hard to hear. But overwhelmingly, people tend to want to stay wherever home is. They don't want to leave their families behind. They don't want to leave their homes. They don't want to start all over with whatever they can carry on their backs. They don't want to live a secret life of sneaking around, always worried about being caught. They didn't intend to be immigrants at all. 

But something, somewhere, went terribly wrong. Their home was overrun by drug cartels. Their opportunities were taken away. Their fields were stripped bare by enemies or natural disasters. Their homes were ravaged by nature herself. Something went wrong and life where they were wasn't working any more; it not only wasn't working - it wasn't possible. Maybe their children were being kidnapped. Maybe their husbands were being threatened. Maybe their wives were being raped. There are as many reasons to leave home as there are immigrants, and for most of them, it's not because they want to live as secret refugees in a new land where their very first act will be to break a federal law. 

Thus a very real human element is introduced into the discussion. Are these bad persons? Is the man who dropped his stone and accidentally killed a passerby a bad person? If a man is swinging his hammer and the head flies off and hits his brother, killing him, is the man swinging the hammer a bad person? If a man's entire life and home comes under siege and he flees to a new land under cover of darkness to save his childrens' and wife's life, is he a bad person? 

One of the arguments being raised right now is that there is a faction of criminality among illegal immigrants. Fair enough. There is a faction of criminality in every population, including non-immigrants. The sanctuary city is not a refuge for that. These cities of refuge do not protect those who are intentionally doing harm. They are not shelters for the drug trade. They are not safe places for sex offenders. They are not free reigns for murderers. The sanctuary city does not protect the criminal. So this argument is null. 

There is another consideration to be made when we start to look at the law in relation to this issue. That's coming up tomorrow. 

Monday, February 13, 2017

Sanctuary Cities

There's a lot of talk in the news right now about so-called sanctuary cities, a handful of places in America that have declared themselves to be refuges for illegal immigrants. Most of the talk is highly political, but this provides an excellent opportunity to step in and talk about how we, as Christians, need to think about some very Christian ideas in our very modern world.

And sanctuary cities are a very Christian idea.

(Sort of. Since the idea of the sanctuary city is actually an Old Testament idea, it should more properly be called a Jewish idea...at least until and unless we can bring it into the New Testament a little bit with the testimony of Jesus.)

When Israel moved into the Promised Land after an entire generation of wandering in the desert, they divided the land up among tribes. Larger tribes got more land; smaller tribes got less. And scattered among them all, the tribe of Levi got towns and cities here and there. (As the servants of God, they did not get a whole parcel of land as their own as the other tribes did.) Among all of this land, six cities - six in all the land of Israel both east and west of the Jordan - were set aside as cities of refuge. Sanctuary cities. And all of the sanctuary cities belonged to the tribe of Levi. 

This was not a coincidence, but we'll get to that later.

The idea was pretty simple: anyone who accidentally committed a murder could run to the sanctuary cities and be safe from the vengeance of those who might be after him. He was free to live in the city of refuge with his family and property, establish a home there, and live without fear. The city, and the Levites in charge of it, would protect him; the tribes, and the faithful among them, would respect the city. As long as the man stayed inside the city's walls, no one could touch him. All told, it was the safest place for a man to be.

The sanctuary city presumed the man's guilt; it was never a question whether he had done what he was accused of doing or not. Innocent men did not need to seek refuge. The question was whether what he had done was a criminal act or something less. If he intended to do what he had done, then it was a criminal act, and even the city of refuge would not protect him. If he did not intend to do what he had done, then the act was something less and the city was his new home.

The city was not, however, his permanent home. After the death of the high priest, the man was free to leave the sanctuary city and return to his home. This was true whether the high priest died seven hours after the man reached the city or seventeen years. He could leave the city and those who would come after him would have no recourse to do so; if they took revenge on him after this point, they would be guilty of murder themselves. And with intent behind their act, they would have no refuge to turn to.

If you're paying attention, you already have about a hundred questions about how this works - or doesn't work - in the frame of today's debate about such things. Maybe you're thinking that illegal immigrants are guilty; they broke the law intentionally, so none of this applies to them at all. Maybe. (Maybe not.) Maybe you're wondering when it will be safe for illegal immigrants to leave these cities and set about establishing their homes in their own places. Maybe you're thinking it's time for them to go to their real home, the places they came from. Maybe you're trying to figure out if places like San Francisco are really full of modern-day Levites; are these the servants of God? Maybe you feel like you're a servant of God, and you're trying to figure out how to create a refuge. Maybe you're wondering about the truly guilty in the midst of the guilty innocent and how to tell the difference...and what to do with it. 

My aim this week is not to come to any political conclusions. Sorry. But I do recognize that there are Christians on both sides of this issue trying to figure out how best to love God and love His people in the midst of all of this, and I think there are some distinct ways that we can, as Christians, begin to think about these issues. So I'm going to step into some of these questions - not because I have the answers to them (you will come to your own answers), but because it is important that we learn how to think about them (not what to think, mind you; only how). So stay tuned for all of this. It's going to be fun. 

Friday, February 10, 2017


The other big lesson that we need to take from Israel's journey from one desert to another is that there is a way to be faithful in the desert. 

In fact, it is in the desert where Israel's faithfulness was not only tested, but learned.

We have to draw a big distinction here, and it is one that we often ignore: there is a difference between faithfulness and obedience. Israel's obedience had been building for a little while.

For example, it is obedience when Israel sacrifices the first Passover lamb, smears the blood on their doorposts, and eats the meal with their sandals on. It is obedience when they ask their Egyptian overlords for jewelry and other valuable possessions. It is obedience when they follow Moses into the desert. And it is even obedience when they follow the pillar of cloud and fire from one desert to another. Obedience is one thing, and it's what we most often talk about when we talk about the Exodus event. But I'm not talking about obedience.

I'm talking about faithfulness.

A year after they left Egypt, Israel is still wandering in the desert. They shouldn't have been; it's been far longer than even the long way should have taken. They haven't even engaged in their big act of disobedience yet, the one for which they were sentenced to 40 years of wandering. They're just...there. Slowly winding their way, they hope, toward the Promised Land. 

But even with all of the bumps in the road, as the one year anniversary approaches, Israel starts asking questions about the celebration of the Passover. And this is an act of faithfulness. 

It's faithfulness because we see in them the desire to observe the Passover. Not only the desire to observe it, but the intense desire to observe it. And faithfully so. Those who are unclean at the time of the appointed festival come to Moses and ask him how they are supposed to participate. They want to participate! Their uncleanness separates them from the rest of the community. They aren't supposed to be able to eat the meal. They aren't supposed to be able to take part. But they want to! And they want to know if there's any possible way that they can.

Many of us probably are not going to be this excited about God's festival. Not here. Not now. It's been a year. We haven't even seen a glimpse of the Promised Land yet. We've moved from one desert to another to another for what seems like forever. Most of us are the kind of people who say, "You know what? I'll do the faithful thing when I'm out of this wilderness." We don't have time for God in our wandering. We don't have time...or we don't have heart. We're weary. We're exhausted. We're kind of upset, if you want to be honest. This God should have delivered us by now. There's no food here. No water. We're living in tents. 

We'll celebrate the Passover once we get to Canaan.

That is not, however, the testimony of Israel, and we would be wise to pay attention to their witness here. In spite of everything they were going through, the same kinds of setbacks and frustrations and exhaustions that we often face, they desired to celebrate the Lord's festival. They desired to keep the Passover. They desired it so much that they were willing to look their own uncleanness in the face and beg for there to still be a way. That's incredible!

Were that we would be so faithful....

...even in our deserts. 

Thursday, February 9, 2017

From Sinai to Paran

The first lesson we need to learn from Israel's journey from the desert of Sinai to the desert of Paran is that there is a distinguishable difference between deserts. If there were not, the Scriptures would simply tell us that Israel remained in "the desert." 

This is something that sneaks right past most of us. To us, a desert is a desert is a desert. We live in a world of black and white when it comes to God - favored or not favored, blessed or not blessed, desert or Promised Land.

But that's simply not the testimony of this journey in Numbers. There is clearly a difference between deserts; there is something that sets apart the desert of Sinai from the desert of Paran (and later, if you keep reading, the desert of Zin). And what is this something?

The mountains.

We cannot afford to overlook this. Later on in their journey, and even beyond that as they settle into the Promised Land and struggle through exile, Israel is able to remember the different scenes of their Exodus journey not only by the deserts, but by the mountains. Hey, do ya'll remember that time in Sinai when....? And then when we were at Paran, there was that....? 

They do not say, Gosh, ya'll remember those forty years we were in the desert? No. It's never the desert; it's the specific desert - the desert at the foot of a certain mountain.

The same is true for us if we're paying attention. Most of us just feel our wandering, our lostness, our wilderness. Most of us focus so much on the desert that we don't see the mountain. And then one desert looks like another looks like another until there is just for us one: desert. But the truth is that most of us don't stay in one desert for such extended periods of time. Our deserts are changing.

Because our mountains are changing.

Talk to anyone who feels like life is just "one thing after another" and we can see this plainly. They're stuck in the desert without recognizing their mountains. They have gone from health scare to job loss to foreclosure to relationship stress to rebellious children to falling away to...you name it. And with eyes locked on the dirt and the dust, they haven't realized what God has done in each of these places; it all feels like the same place. 

But if we take the time to look up and see what the mountains are in this desert, we start to develop a different perspective on things. Look up at the mountain of health and the desert is the scare. It's hard. It's no fun. It's a wasteland. But when the health scare passes, when the diagnosis comes, when the healing is setting in and taking place...and there's still another desert, we have to learn to look up again and see what this mountain is. Is this the mountain of a job? Fantastic!

That doesn't sound like the answer most of us would give, but here's why it's so crucial: when you recognize that your mountains are different, you recognize that your deserts are different, and you are able to remember what God did you for at the last one. If you never look up and realize that you're in a different place, you spend your whole life waiting for God to do something, and you miss all the things that He's already done. 

If you make it through the desert of a health scare, God has done something for you. He has provided in the desert in some way, shape, or form. If you then find yourself in a different desert but you do not distinguish between the two, it's easy to think that God hasn't done anything at all. Life just keeps piling up, and God is nowhere to be found. But if you are able to recognize that this is a different mountain, then you are able to turn and look at the mountain God just moved (and moved you from) and say, okay, God has done something. He did something there, and He will do something here. 

It's not easy. Even Israel struggled, quite often, to keep believing in God in a new desert. But at least they were building chapters into their stories. At least they were able, when reminded, to see what God had done in one place and to recognize that this was not quite the same place. There was something new about Paran, about Zin; this was no Sinai. Yet they never long forgot Sinai, either. 

We have to be willing to do the same. Even if it's hard. Even if we don't get it quite right. We have to be willing to see and to understand that our stories are being told in chapters, that our deserts are on the move and even though a desert seems like a desert seems like a desert, the mountains that define them are different. And herein lies the key to discovering God. 

For He does move mountains.

That just doesn't mean there's not another one just around the corner. 

Wednesday, February 8, 2017


In the second month of the second year after the Israelites had left Egypt, one month after they had celebrated the second Passover, the column of smoke and fire that had been guiding them through the wilderness lifted and began to move. The people packed up and began to follow. Numbers 10 tells us that this was the first time they had moved. 

Up to this point, the Exodus journey has actually been going pretty well, relatively speaking. The community is primarily faithful. Most of their big acts of unfaithfulness haven't happened yet. You know, all of the things we associate with their Exodus journey going so terribly. 

But here's the difficult truth about Israel's first move through the wilderness: So the Israelites moved from the Desert of Sinai and traveled from place to place until the column of smoke stopped in the Desert of Paran. (Numbers 10:12)

After a whole year's sojourn in the desert, when the Israelites were, we figure, fully aware that the entire journey should have taken no more than a few months, after their faithful celebration of the second Passover, after they had asked Moses how the unclean among them could take part in the Passover out of their great longing to do so, after faithful step after faithful step, God led them out of the desert they were in...to another desert. 

No wonder Israel was frustrated!

I think this is a story that most of us can relate to, even if we don't really put it into these terms. We say things like, "It's been just one thing after another." What we mean is - as soon as we seem to have overcome one thing in our lives, there's another one just around the corner. We heal our bodies, only to have our cars break down. Or we fix our cars, only to have our homes fail. Or we end one relationship, only to have another one fall apart. It's one thing after another after another, and I think all of us, at one point or another, have had these seasons where we feel like if we could just get through this desert...only to find out there's another desert awaiting us.

And it's not - we have to recognize this - it's not necessarily anything of our own doing. As I said, to this point, Israel's been pretty faithful. They've been on board. They've been holding out their hope. Tentatively, maybe (or Tent-atitvely?), but they're holding it. They haven't seen the Promised Land, but they are still fairly certain that they're going to. They've seen God's presence on the mountain. They've heard His thunder. They've watched His pillar come to settle on the Tent of Meeting, right in their very presence. They could not possibly be more convinced that God is present among them, even if they might also be starting to wonder if God's presence is doing them any actual good at all. 

Still, He leads them only from one desert to another.

There are, I think, at least two big understandings that we need to take away from this moment in Israel's history, two recognitions that may help us in our own seasons of wandering. (There are probably more than this, but I will pick just these two for now.) Stay tuned. 

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Just As I Am

In looking at this interaction between Moses, Aaron, and the magicians of Egypt in which the magicians' response to the powerful acts of the Almighty Lord was to make things worse for Egypt, an obvious question comes to mind: 

Why didn't the magicians prove their power by removing the plagues inflicted by the Lord?

That only makes sense, right? If you're all of a sudden up to your ankles in frogs by a mighty act of the Lord and you want to show that you are powerful, you would logically think to remove the frogs, not add to them. I think. I mean, I understand how bravado works, but a plague on your people is no time for bravado. And if you're trying to prove to this plagued people that you can protect them, the way to do that is not by adding more frogs up to their knees. 

But here's the truth about men: they've never really been interested in proving themselves more powerful than God. It may seem that way sometimes, but that's not really what we want. If we are more powerful than God, that makes us responsible for a lot of things. It puts a lot of things in our hands and, well, we'd rather keep our hands clean. And if we find that we are more powerful than God, then that silences the question. There's no longer another way out. 

Follow me here. If I am more powerful than God and yet, I run up against a problem that I cannot solve or a feat I cannot perform or a need for a strength that I don't have, then I am defeated. Plain and simple. God can't save me, since I am more powerful than Him. So where my ability ends, so ends everything. And what I find is that even though I have found myself to be more powerful than God, there is still something more powerful than me. I learn this every time I am faced with the confession, "I can't." 

If, on the other hand, God is not bigger than me, then when I run up against something that I cannot do, there is a chance, no matter what else I believe about Him, that He can. There's at least that chance. And in the nature of the relationship that I have with God, this means that this is not defeat. At least, it doesn't have to be.

This is great news! All things being what they are, if I am going to find that there is something bigger than me, better that it is the knowable God than the unknowable unknown.

And yet, even in being bigger, God cannot be far too much bigger. And this is why we are so interested in being God's equals. If we can do what God can do, if we can bring more frogs, then we might be drowning in frogs, but we have no great need for Him. If my power is as great as His power, then I can do most things on my own. It is only in those rare situations where I discover that something still is bigger than me that I must turn to Him.

Put simply, we want a God Who we can hope in, but not one in Whom we have to trust.

That's the heart of our rebellion. That's how we end up heaping frogs upon frogs, blood upon blood, flies upon flies. That's how we end up making things worse instead of trying to make them better. That's how we look at everything God has done and declare, I can do that, without it ever occurring to us that we might just be making things exponentially worse for ourselves. We can, so there's no need to trust.

But on the rare occasions that we find that we can't, at least we have hope. 

Monday, February 6, 2017

Double Trouble

One of the more interesting stories of God's provision and power in the Old Testament is the story of the plagues that He brought upon Egypt in attempting to prove to Pharaoh that these were His people and He was, indeed, their God.

When we read about the plagues, a few things strike us essentially right away. But some of the narrative seems to sneak right by us. Take, for example, the royal magicians. 

Through the first several plagues, God shows His power through Moses and Aaron, who, with a simple strike of their staff, turn the water in the Nile into blood and bring a weight of frogs upon all the land of Egypt, among other things. Then Pharaoh, in his stubbornness and in his unwillingness to admit that there might be a power in the universe greater than himself, calls in his magicians. And they, too, strike the water and turn it into blood. They, too, bring a weight of frogs upon the land.

The narrative is meant to question the power of God. It's no big thing, Pharaoh argues, that God can do these things. It's not even a big thing that He has done them. The magicians can - and now, they have - do the same things. Most of us read these stories, and this jumps right out at us. We understand what this was meant to do.

But do we understand what's really happened here? In attempting to show that God is no big deal, that whatever He can do, we can do better, the Egyptian magicians have just made things exponentially worse. There were tons of frogs. Now, there are tons and tons of frogs. 

Imagine being somewhere in Egypt not privy to this display of bravado. Imagine being in your own house or in the marketplace or out in the fields somewhere. All of a sudden, the whole place is teeming with frogs. Tons of them. Frogs covering everything! Before you can even figure out what's going on, there are more frogs! Tons more frogs. There is not, I don't think, a universe in which the average Egyptian follows the narrative that is occurring in the high places of their country. There is not an Egyptian among them who sees the first set of frogs and thinks, "The God of the Hebrews is doing this to us!" and then, when the second wave hits, declares, "Oh, it's no big thing. We have done this, too." There are simply frogs, then more frogs, and far too many frogs.

This is the kind of trouble that we get ourselves into all the time. We know that there are certain things in our lives, in our stories, that God is solely responsible for. We know there are things that He's done and things that He's doing. But in all our bravado, in our desperate need to prove ourselves powerful, we declare that we can do the same. It's no big thing; we, too, can produce frogs out of nowhere. 

But what we've really done is just bury ourselves deeper. Because what's very interesting here is that for all the frogs that the magicians made appear, they could not make a single one disappear. They could bring the plague upon the land with their power and special abilities, but they were powerless to clear it out. Pharaoh had to have the men of God pray in order for the frogs to go away. He had to turn to the very God he had been so interested in disproving in order to find relief not only from what God had brought upon him, but from what he had brought upon himself.

I believe we could rightfully call this "double trouble."

There are many things that we can take from this story, a lot that we can learn. But we have to first see what's really going on here and understand how this story continues to be our story. We are still trying, in our own ways, to be just as god as God - just as powerful, just as poignant, just as impressive or spectacular or even right. And we've convinced ourselves that the best way to do this is to double our troubles, to bring even more frogs upon our land. 

We're in deeper than we ever imagined....

Friday, February 3, 2017


The final hallmark of a spiritually autistic society is its quiet engagement with the sacred. One of the common misunderstandings about a physically autistic individual is that they are not engaged in this world, that they are somehow living apart from it, that whatever goes on here doesn't much affect them or doesn't make much sense to them. But the the truth is that an autistic person doesn't miss much. 

The same is true of the spiritually autistic.

Those around us who we think are most disengaged are, in fact, not missing much. Their eyes are wide open; they have to be. The burning hope within them won't let them close their eyes, even if they can't seem to make contact with faith. Because of their heightened sensitivities, they are exceedingly aware. It's just that we have not yet figured out how to tap into what they know.

This is not unlike autism in general, in which many of those who are blessed with this condition harbor incredible secret gifts. It can take awhile to figure out the beautiful that is borne within them, but when we do...wow. Some autistic persons can sit down at a piano and just let music flow out the tips of their fingers. Some can pick up a paintbrush and create a stunning image with seemingly little effort. Some can sing. Some can do math. Some can shoot pool. Some can fix cars. Some can build things. Some can...you get my point. 

Some of the most beautiful prayers I have ever heard have come from the spiritually autistic, those it would be easiest to think would have no idea how to pray. Some of the most amazing worship I have ever engaged in has been led by the spiritually autistic. Some of the most pointed biblical exposition I have ever read has been written by the spiritually autistic. 

And what's even more than that, what is perhaps most impressive when we think in terms of an autism in particular, is that the most beautiful communities that I have ever been a part of have at their core a spiritually autistic individual, someone we would be led precisely to believe knows nothing about humanity, nothing about relationship, and nothing about community.

This is, perhaps, the best-kept secret of autism. It is not that these persons are so disengaged as to have no community at all; it is often that they are so deeply engaged as to have the largest community. It seems they play no favorites and have no profound attachment to one person or another, but this does not mean they do not have attachment to persons at all. On the other hand, I know autistic individuals who are keenly aware of their communities and will even say, "I have had a completely fulfilling social experience simply by sharing the same space with you." 

This doesn't make sense to most of us, but we have to figure out how to understand it. We have to figure out how to tap into these hidden gifts that make the spiritually autistic around us so poignant. Herein lie the gifts of the Spirit. Herein lie the sacred things. They are so disengaged from the world as to be profoundly engaged in it, with all the holy things in the depths of the spirits. If we do not understand, it is not because they have not told us; it is because we have not heard.

We have not figured out how to listen, and it is to our detriment. We have not figured out how to communicate, and that's our burden. We have not figured out how to create the spaces in which the spiritually autistic flourish, and so they are growing outside of us, carrying holy treasures in clay pots that we'd far rather sell at a dime a dozen than to pour out on our altars as living sacrifices. And we are wrong

We. are. wrong. 

We are not, as the argument that began this discussion goes, living in a spiritually illiterate world. No, those around us know the sacred quite well. We are living indeed in a spiritually autistic world, and it is we who have fallen short. For though they are speaking the language, we have not figured out how to hear it. When we do, we will uncover a vein of tremendous beauty that runs through our unspoken world. There is something sacred going on here. Were that our eyes were as open as theirs to see it. 

Thursday, February 2, 2017

A Powerful Hope

One of the most common misconceptions about autism is that a person with autism does not have feelings. She feels "nothing." He lacks empathy because he cannot understand what it is like to "feel." This is not quite true. While it is true that from the outside, it may seem this way, many persons with autism actually feel too violently. (This is not to say that they have violent emotions, but rather that the power of emotion is so overwhelming as to be assaulting.)

Anyone who has unintentionally interrupted the routine of someone with autism knows this. Anyone who has turned the house upside down to find the toy train that is most meaningful or the stuffed bunny rabbit that's missing knows this.

See, the truth about autism is that many of these individuals are actually feeling their way through the world; it's all relational, both humanly and spatially. And the realities of this are so overwhelming that it is easier to go numb than to live this way. So often what you see is the numbness, for the reality of feeling in a world that pays so little attention is too heavy a burden to bear.

And this is profoundly true of our culture at large. The postmodern world runs on feelings. There is no right or wrong; it's whatever feels right or wrong to you. There is no truth or lie; it's whatever feels true to you. The only standard of a man's existence is whatever he feels that standard to be. The only judge of a woman's life is whatever she feels that it is.

To look at us, you'd say that we just don't care, that we are completely oblivious to the anything else in the world besides ourselves and our own little world. But that wouldn't be true. Most of us have just had too many feelings, been dependent upon what we feel as the basis for reality for so long that we've gone numb to feeling altogether.

But we're still, secretly, feeling our way through the world. It still feels all relational to us, both humanly and spatially.

That's why faith is poised to be so powerful. It is emotional. It is experiential. It is, to some degree, a sacred feeling, not in terms of it being only one thing but in terms of it being something that we must feel. (So in terms of a feeling sacred may be less misleading than a sacred feeling, which can so easily be misread.)

For those who live outside of the faith, the overwhelming feeling is hunger. It is ache. It is a longing for something meaningful in a world of our own construction. It is a dream of words that don't just create reality; they are real. The spiritually autistic go numb to this ache because the world makes no room for it, but it is there. Give them anything even close to a meaningful faith, and their hands will instinctively reach for it. Tenderly, slowly, with a measure of reserve and eyes unable to look, but they will reach for it.

For those who live inside the faith, the overwhelming feeling is often hope. It is confident assurance. It is faith itself. It may seem that we're living without it, but the truth is that hope burns so deeply inside of us that it becomes a violent hope; it's overwhelming. The spiritually autistic go numb to this hope because it seems dangerous here, unpredictable, unappreciated, even, but it is there. Give them anything even close to permission to hope, and their hearts will instinctively reach for it. Tenderly, slowly, with a measure of reserve and eyes unable to look, but they will reach for it.

This is just one of those beautiful hidden mysteries I've been working toward in a spiritually autistic society. We think that people just aren't feeling things any more, but that's not true. Most of our world, whether in the faith or out of it, are feeling things too violently. They're literally feeling their way through the world, but at some point, with no return on their investment, they're going numb.

And this is a shame. For here, right now, is where we are most poised to learn what it even is to feel. Here is where we are best able to learn about the hunger, to learn about the ache, to start to understand a violent hope, which, contrary to what it may sound, is a profoundly beautiful thing. It's a sacred feeling or, again, as may be even more poignant, a feeling sacred. 

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Found Out

Another hallmark of our spiritual autism is that we are living in a world at large that can no longer look faith in the eye. 

They say that this is faith's fault, that faith itself has become so disgusting, so detestable, so hypocritical that it is impossible to look at it. When they do, they say, they discover faith to be a mere shadow of its glorious self, something far less than they imagine that it ought to be. It is repulsive in its shortcomings. So, they say, we cannot look.

Eye contact is an intimate experience. It is, among other things, a testimony of respect. When you look someone in the eye, what you are essentially saying is, "You have my undivided attention." You are worthy of my time and energy. I am making an investment in you. And I am choosing, in this moment, to see only you. 

But what you are also saying is, "And I am giving you permission to see me."

This is our real trouble. It is not that we find the faith so repulsive that we cannot look at it; it is that we find ourselves repulsive in its eyes, and we cannot allow it to look at us. Let's be honest - most of us struggle to even look at ourselves. We cannot bear the mirror.

It is because our culture has given us something of a self-worship. Rather than demanding more of what we say or do, our culture has declared that the only measure of who we are is what we will be. And in order to live up to this high expectation, most of us have simply convinced ourselves that we're almost there.

We're good people. We don't do malicious things to others. We mess up sometimes, sure, but who doesn't? We have a textbook understanding of who Jesus is and that, we think, makes us Christians, or something like them. At least enough like them that we need not fear the wrath of God or the condemnation of Hell. We are, after all, good people. 

But look faith in the eye and it looks right back at you and somewhere in its vision, you see the true reflection of yourself, which is, in faith, a fallen man. You see all that God had hoped you would be and all that you really quite aren't. You see the high demand God has placed on your life and the so much less that you've settled for. You see the amazing love that God has for you, a love that carries you all the way to the Cross with Him, and you see where you've stumbled, refusing even to try to stand back up again. 

Looking faith in the eye exposes us to see ourselves in her reflection, and the trouble is that most of us cannot bear to see who we really are. It is not that faith is harsh or critical; we do that ourselves. We see but dimly in her glass, and what we miss is that little twinkle of grace that betrays our own anxieties. For we are too busy condemning ourselves to see how much she loves us. 

And so, we turn away and we can no longer look faith in the eye.