Thursday, December 31, 2009

Part 3 - Final Thoughts

According to Bishop Wright, the gospels tell a double story:

“They tell the story of how the evil in the world - political, social, personal, moral, emotional, and demonic - reached its height. And they also tell the story of how God’s long term plan for His people, and if we can put it like this, God’s long-term plan for Himself, finally came to its climax. They are about the atonement with every line; they are about the problem of evil with every paragraph. They are about evil of all sorts converging like a dark storm cloud and about God’s representative Messiah going to the heart of that storm cloud alone. The gospels read in this way offer us a richer theology of atonement and a deeper understanding of evil in our own day.”

From the political evil of Rome and Herod to the casual injustice of Caiphus to the corruption of the Pharisees to the screaming demoniacs, we are able to witness what ultimate goodness does when faced with the dark reality of humanities malevolence. In Romans 12, Paul instructs us to “overcome evil with good.” Is this a call to righteous vengeance? No. Rather it turns us back to the cross, where Christ himself confronted social, economic, political and individual evil, defeating it through the power of the Spirit. According to Wright, God’s just response to evil is not simply designed to solve a philosophical puzzle, nor is it designed to help a world that’s gottten out of kilter; rather, His response is meant to bring to glorious fruition the creation which evil has devastated and “uncreated.” An answer to the problem of evil is found in the life of Jesus, where evil reached its terrible zenith, and the suffering servant withstood it to bring new life to His errant creation.

God’s restorative, redemptive justice is ever at work; we only need the eyes to see it. One way to learn what justice looks like is to examine how He has worked before; read the Bible, and especially the gospels, carefully examining Jesus’ handling of evil. Ask questions and seek answers, but reconcile yourself to the mystery of the Creator God.

Judging from the screams of the demoniacs echoing off the waters of the Sea of Galilee to the air of deadliness lingering over the killing fields of Pol Pot, there is the overwhelming sense that we live on an embattled precipice. This is not to suggest that the ultimate victory will not belong to Christ, but rather that we are purposed to be much more involved in the darkness of our present times than we are. Albert Einstein says, “The world is a dangerous place, not because of those who do evil, but because of those who look on and do nothing.” A theology of evil is not an easy framework to construct, but it is a necessary one. Careful study, active discussion and insistent prayer are critical places to start when facing the overwhelming reality of the human condition.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Part 2

In his book "Can God Be Trusted?" John Stackhouse says that ultimately we must face the reality that “as individuals and communities we are in a negative condition: we are not peaceful. We are corrupt, weak, mean, unstable and destructive of shalom.” Evil touches each of us, and it is an actuality that must be confronted by constructing a framework around all the horrible ambiguities of this exhausted earth. Before a framework can be sketched out we must examine several ideas which have been promoted and largely followed in the past century.

A common misconception springing from the enlightenment is that the world is gradually improving. This can be witnessed in the politics of the last several decades. In 2001 both George W. Bush and Tony Blair made the statement that the goals of their respective governments were nothing less than “ridding the world of evil.” According to this view, a little more democracy, a little more global planning, a little more progress, and the problem will be resolved. Such immature naivety has only contributed to humanity’s growing ignorance of evil as a reality. Another fallacy has been brought on by the relentless onslaught of post modernity. This position states that evil itself is abstract, just as good is abstract. Hand in hand with the relativism is a callous indifference which detracts from the repulsion necessary when encountering both daily evils and mind-numbing calamities. These philosophical attempts at saying what needs to be said fall sadly short of truth.

Conventional responses to the problem of evil have proven insufficient, and it is clear we can’t simply continue to ignore evil until it erupts in angry devastation. God has given truth and set His image in each of us, it is humanity which has distorted and marred those gifts. Mankind, in his disobedience to the commands of God, is the prime mover of evil. This distinction is necessary because without responsibility there can be no accountability. We are accountable to God for our actions done on this earth, but He has not left us in this state of depravity. God has taken responsibility for the world and assures us that He will bring to fruition that which He created in His own timing. According to Brueggemann, God has made this resolve “not in anger, but in grief and sorrow” because “the grief of God moves beyond vengeance.”

The Psalms offer a model for prayers of protest while the gospels illustrate what action should resemble through the life and words of Jesus. According to Walter Brueggemann, to employ the psalms for a “domesticated spirituality” is a misuse of their original intent. He says, “When we turn to the Psalms it mans we enter into the midst of that voice of humanity and decide to take our stand with that voice. We are prepared to speak among them and with them and for them, to express our solidarity in this anguished, joyous human pilgrimage. We add a voice to the common elation, shared grief, and communal rage that besets us all.” Learning to object and protest the evil in which we live is an indispensable part of a Christian response. In the midst of a darkness which encompasses and threatens humanity, the immanent God of love makes Himself visible, but, in the words of Henri Nouwen, “Can we recognize His presence?” Cultivating a theology which allows for an involved, suffering God requires us to read the gospels more holistically and to pray more fervently in light of what we find.

This morning, we trust in Your deep faithfulness,
and attempt to rest in Your wondrous love.
These are things we know of You,
and we are thankful.
Show us also things we have not yet seen or heard,
we pray this for our own lives,
and for the sake of those around us.
In the name of the wounded, risen Christ.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Hope and an Exhausted Earth part 1

Today, I miss being overseas.
Today, I am restless.
Today, old questions resurface with a new urgency.

I have recently listened to N.T. Wrights lecture titled, “God, the Tsunami, 9/11 and the New Problem of Evil” and have just finished reading Walter Brueggemann’s book “Praying the Psalms.” I highly recommend both. The next several blog posts are some thoughts about what they said. I think a lot of these posts will focus on evil, the vengeance of God, and the overwhelming reality of humanities condition. Maybe it will add desperation to our prayers.

When choosing to enter more deeply into humanities vast anguish and lostness it may surprise us to find God already there. Sometimes witnessed in the miraculous, but many times He remains constant among us in small, often unlooked for glimpses of His presence. Recognizing Him is in itself committing an act of hope. (I love that idea)

We are puzzled and shocked by a never-ending stream of violence, anguish, absurdities and hurt emanating from our televisions, newspapers, websites and radios. Often the hardest surprises come from within our very families. Sickness, emotional abuse and a lack of care add to the chaos and poignancy of our daily pilgrimage. The Book of Common Prayer says that we pray together “for all sorts and conditions of men”, Brueggemann would say that this becomes possible by being “attentive to what is happening in our own lives”, by adding our voice to the “common elation, shared grief and communal rage that besets us all.”

Stopping long enough to consider, we realize that things are not as they should be, that each of us suffers from a curvature of the soul. Many of these daily evils simply pass us by, and on the whole we continue to live untouched lives. But then there are the cataclysmic events which shatter our small worlds and leave us breathless. We just don’t have categories for this kind of darkness, often because we fail to acknowledge the darkness of our own souls. This realization shocks us, so we often fail to properly process evil, preferring to ignore it, enter it, or simplistically categorize it into ill-fitting boxes. Understanding why evil is there in the first place, and how God has dealt with it and will deal with it, and how the cross of Jesus has anything to do with these matters, are deep mysteries that an in-depth look at evil brings to the surface.

There is so much to be learned of God in His compassion and grace as well as His grief and anger. The last chapter of “Praying the Psalms” discussed the vengeance of God. In relation to the topic of mankind’s sin Brueggemann writes,

“Instead of humankind suffering, God takes the suffering as His own. God resolves to turn the grief in on Himself rather than to rage against His creation. God bears the vengeance of God in order that His creation might have compassion.”

This is perfectly seen in the cross, the place where the evil of the world reached its bloody climax and the wrath of God was poured upon the Son, that we might know mercy. There is such hope in this! At the end of a run this afternoon all I could do was sit down on a park bench facing the mountains and pray “thank you.” It was enough.

More thoughts coming soon...Lord willing. :)

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Crossing the wall

Last year I was in Israel, this is a story from my sister and I's midnight trek to Bethlehem on Christmas morning...enjoy!

There was tension as soon as we crossed the wall into Bethlehem at 1 AM on a rainy Christmas morning. We knew we had crossed a barrier, a visible and invisible line, a deep rift and a crack in the heart. While traveling through the rubble left after the collapse of the Soviet Union Alexander Solzhenitsyn said, “Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart, and through all human hearts.” Yet here, on the border between Israel and the Palestinian West Bank a 40 foot concrete wall testifies to man’s inability to see past the blinders of politics and religion. A kind of art adorned the high walls, angry protests against an enemy that existed more in the propaganda shouted from bull horns than in the daily headlines of the newspapers sold at the local cafĂ©. On one side the barrier screamed that Israel must die along with the supporting West, while the other side of the wall stood grey and faceless.
A stones throw from the wall the first houses of Bethlehem stood dark and empty. They were empty and deemed dangerous due to their close proximity to the 40 ft. concrete slabs jutting into the black. Walking the stone streets at 2 am we passed houses with painted murals commemorating fighters who had been killed in the war for the liberation of Palestine.

On one side of the wall is a people who have undergone a holocaust and now desire freedom from living in fear, freedom from always being the victim. Contrasting this are the walled-in, a people who desire freedom from Israel and their land returned to them. And there, in the very midst of the turmoil, is Christ. The One who was birthed in a cave, crucified on a hilltop, raised from a tomb, and now stands before the Father interceding for us. In His divine freedom He chooses to see us, be with us, and deliver all these groans to the Father.

Arriving at the Church of the Nativity everything ceased to exist except the flickering candles, the thick smell of incense, and the low murmurings of the monks. The church was vast and empty except for a small, crowded room underneath the main floor. Sitting atop the steps that descended into the basement, we watched the faithful through the arched doorway; they were lighting candles to symbolize the One who came as light. A few robed Pilgrims came and went; their incessant, echoing chants remembering the innocent Virgin Mary and the Incarnation of Christ. I thought about the razor wire, the wall, the bombings in Gaza and Sederot and the aching and pain of two peoples who each desired a form of peace. The sacred, unfamiliar chanting thus became a voice for the dying in which we are all engaged, partly because the world is a place of death and is passing away, partly because God gives new life, but only in the pain of death. “It is because God is at work even in the pain of such death that we dare enter God’s presence with these realities. They have to do with God.” (Brueggemann)

Leaving the church several hours later we joined the mass of men gathering at the wall. It reminded me of the cattle chutes I had worked during a summer in Nebraska, narrow avenues into which men were driven as they crossed the checkpoint from the West Bank into Israel. Five a.m. was definitely not the time to cross; the morning rush of men going to work caused an uproar when the border failed to open on time. The restless shuffling of several thousand men replaced the silence of the predawn streets of Bethlehem and the holy peace experienced in the Church of the Nativity.

The darkness covered individual features; each man was just a darker shadow till one by one we stepped through the fluorescent lights of the security block. Beneath the bright lights and searching hands we were all proved as human; the uniformed guards, the turbaned men and the unlucky tourists. In our individual and collective existence there resembled something of the image of God, a God who became man for the shouting guard, the angry Palestinian, the crying child and the frightened mother.

At the close of the bloodiest century ever suffered by man, humanity is faced with the reality that the walls which separate us are often necessary because of the relentless hate harbored in the darkness of our hearts. They are necessary because the One born 2,000 years ago has not yet come again to set all things to right. And so we wait, secretly longing that the evils which touch us would have ended yesterday, and that the disclocatedness which is a reality would have already been redeemed.

I am a witness, and to not attempt to portray what I saw and felt would only add to the injustice experienced on both sides of the wall. Wiesel says, “I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. “

This Advent, teach us what it means to live expectantly for your return.
We are a people grown weary of waiting.
“Our time would be a good time for your kingdom to come,
because we have had enough of violence and travail.
Give us the grace and the impatience
to wait for your coming to the bottom of our toes,
to the edges of our fingertips.” (Brueggemann)
Come soon, Come here,
to our shut down places,
to those without homes,
to those without families,
and to us who have all these and still choose to live in our several worlds,
Come soon, Come here.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Pursuer

"God has not been trying an experiment on my faith or love in order to find out their quality. He knew it already. It was i who didnt." ~ Lewis

Our faith is as small as the doubters who came before us... maybe smaller because we at least have an Advent on which to remember His faithfulness. Yet God, the first mover, the initiator, the constant pursuer, seeks us even in our doubt. Have you ever marveled at the fact that you couldn't escape God?

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Empty Chairs

These are good times, though they are tiring.

And now I sit alone in my room, my only company being the two empty chairs of my roommates. I love these moments of solitude. Much can be learned from an empty chair. We remember the friends and family which have filled the empty seat before, and we remember those that are no longer with us. In tribute to them we endeavor to always keep enough room for one more to join us in our struggle homeward. And lastly, an empty chair can teach us to be willing to lose, because life is momentary, fragile and unsure, and people come into our lives and leave again in a moment.

Perhaps what we don’t realize is that squandering is a doorway through which God enters in. we are guilty of “dolling out” our love and care because it is so immediately satisfying, but slowly we exhaust our hoarded resources and have failed to fill them because we felt no need to. There is a relief in coming to the reality that Jesus is not only all we need, Jesus is all we have.

I’m going to try and post some prayers and thoughts about advent in the next several weeks because, to be honest, I feel like I’m missing it in the blur. I am failing to sense the stillness of the eternal in the chaos of the hours. This prayer is written by Walter Brueggemann:

In our secret yearnings
we wait for your coming,
and in our grinding despair
we doubt that you will.
And in this privileged place
we are surrounded by witnesses who yearn more than we do
and by those who despair more deeply than do we.
Look upon your church and its pastors
in this season of hope
which runs so quickly to fatigue
and this season of yearning
which becomes so easily quarrelsome.
Give us the grace and impatience
to wait for your coming to the bottom of our toes,
to the edges of our finger tips.
We do not want our several worlds to end.
Come in your power
and come in your weakness
in any case
and make all things new.

Give us the wherewithal to long though we are weary, to remember even when our minds feel numb. The gift of advent is so deep that we do not want to miss it; but many of us, myself included, are helpless to sense the joy of your presence. Come soon, Come here.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

A Story For An Image.

Two mutes led us through the winding, sullied roads to the top of the muddy hill. It seemed like it would never stop raining. I sighed; there was really nothing else to do. The camp continued on forever, an entire people made homeless. The sight from the ridge revealed yet another valley filled with ripped tarp hovels. In such places you would think the world must have gone mad. On the side of the hill five bearded men worked diligently on nailing thin sheets of plywood to a small frame. Doctors Without Borders had supplied the resources for the construction of toilets for the 22,000 Rohingya refugees. The metal on the outhouse roofs contrasted starkly with the black plastic which filled the surrounding hills.

Turning back to the interior of the camp we descended into more of the same; more tarps, more mud, and more crushing passivity. A rising wind grabbed at corners of the tarps and snapped them like sails in a gale. The scream of a playing child or yell of an angry mother were the only sounds that broke the weariness of inaction. Men sat everywhere.

At times I thought, “If I don’t go on it will stop,” like the man who reads half a book and thinks if he quits that the story is finished. What he doesn’t realize is that each page adds a greater depth to the characters; just as each face I passed by revealed more about the camp than I knew moments before. Every successive sight begged the question, “What is it to suffer loss, to be permanently wounded, hopelessly defeated?”

Ducking inside a tea shack my interpreter and I found the 10 by 16 foot plastic room already crammed with men trying to escape the rain. Their stares were filled with curiosity and resignation and sorrow. A space was made for us on one of the plank benches. Other men who had seen us enter crowded around the entrance. I was like a traveling circus, something to relieve the tedious boredom for a few hours. But I would not stay long, and life in all its complicated horror would continue.

I listened for a long time, each man shouting in turn to be heard over the din of rain beating against the black tarps. A gray-bearded man with bloodshot eyes began, propping himself up by his arms. The empty space where his right leg should have been gave him the look of half a man. He spoke of home and fear and death and the depths of evil to which man sinks. His story was echoed by others who recounted torture and brutalization and tire-burnings and senseless hate. I asked another man, Omar, to tell me his life story, and where he came from. Omar’s answer did not match the wrinkles of experience that creased his brow and grew out of the sides of his troubled eyes. All he said was, “I don’t know, I can’t remember.” He had no beginning, nothing to which he could connect his later life – and how does one relate a life without a seed, a source, a commencement?

The travail had not ended since the arrival in the camp. An aged man with black eyes told me he had buried his son that morning under a grey sky and without tears. It was then that I realized the tragedy I shared with these men and with God. Sitting there in the presence of a human being, awe suddenly seized me, and I pitied him. Evil had done its work, though. Hate had still prevailed. Sin, in all its terrible complexities and distortions had corrupted the pure image of God placed in him. My heart ached. I’ve seen what we have done to that image, how we have wounded and marred what was put inside of us as good and right. When human beings turn their back on God and embrace the distortion of the image place inside of them, where is God to be found? Something resembling God was buried in the red clay with the son, suffered silently with hunger, screamed with the playing children, and shouted loudly the story of injustice. God is the mute, the amputee victim, the father, the aid worker, but he is also the torturer, the military guard, the corrupt official.
In that unbearable moment of reality I grieved for the huddled men in the tea shack, but I grieved also for humanity because I realized how sick we are. Reaching out, I placed my hand on the shoulder of God’s image and said, “I’m sorry about your son.” The father broke internally, the black eyes softened, the proud face fell and the bony shoulders sagged with age and grief.

Tell me, how does love respond to that?

Love doesn’t shut its eyes; it bears witness and endures the sights it beholds. A face grants permanence to statistics and desperation to prayer. Love delivers all these internal sighs to God. It longs for someone to be fed as much as you long to be fed, clothed as you are clothed, sheltered as you are sheltered.
It was finished. The circus was over. I rose and left the tea shack, the men, and the camp. Glancing back on that stretch of exhausted earth I sighed. The last thing I saw were the shiny metal roofs of the toilets on the hill. Could a glimpse of hope look like a toilet? Perhaps. But injustice will happen again tomorrow, it is a constant in life, like a memory.