Applying Ezekiel to today

We’ve started a study on Ezekiel. The stories in Ezekiel are fascinating and peculiar, and so it is a joy for me to talk about what is going on in the text.

However, the strange-ness of the text makes it difficult to see how the text might apply to our lives. Going out and being like Ezekiel is not exactly an option: in the first five chapters, Ezekiel eats a scroll, is told to lie on his side for more than a year, create a mini-enactment of a siege, and run around the city hacking at a chunk of hair with a sword. Doing any of these things today would more likely result in somebody wondering what is wrong with you than having people assume such actions are God’s way of speaking today.

And yet, there is something to the startling nature of Ezekiel’s actions. They make people wonder (cf. Ezek 24:19). When we think about applying Ezekiel to today, the question we’ve been asking is what sorts of actions (or even words) we can do that would make people wonder about who God is and what it might look like to follow God.

Perhaps, as in the book of Ezekiel, it will appear as if those around us do not hear us. Yet, “whoever would serve as the messenger of God must recognize that the calling is not to success but to faithfulness.” (Daniel Block, Ezekiel 1-24, 131). In light of this, we shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves if we are not radically changing the world or bringing more people to Jesus. At the same time, we can trust the Spirit is working in the world around us (including the university) and that people will indeed ask us who God is and what faith and spirituality look like.

God who cannot be seen, known, or spoken about properly

Our discussions on Lauren Winner’s Wearing God and who God is have led us to recognize that despite being the God who sees us (and who we see), we can never see God fully. It is like Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle where “the more precisely the position of some particle is determined, the less precisely its momentum can be known.” In relation to God, Winner describes what that might look like: “I cannot describe God in the same way that I cannot describe a picture I am holding millimeters from my eyes – the picture is made strange and unknowable not because it is distant but because it is close.” Winner, Wearing God, 235.

She notes further that:

“God is boundless and perfect; human language is precarious and contingent and decidedly small. Perhaps, say some philosophers, the only true things you can say about God are what God is not – God is not unjust, God is not finite- because to say anything positive is to limit a limitless God. To speak about this boundless being with our pockmarked words might be insulting, or deceiving, or just plain false. Maybe we would come closer to telling the truth if we said very little, or nothing at all.” Winner, Wearing God, 228.

But since I do need to speak of God and definitely want to speak to God, I appreciate Winner’s wisdom in how to go about doing that:

“It is only through prayer that I become able to speak about God at all; it is only in speaking to God that I can say anything about I remember this morning how prayer is first and finally a confession of dependence on God, and it is that confession alone that drains my speech of the power and argument and self-assertion that speech usually implies.” Winner, Wearing God, 234

God as laboring woman

While there were many images in Winner’s book, Wearing God, that helped us grow in our understanding of God, the image of God as laboring woman (or nursing mother) wasn’t one that many people at Campus Edge could appreciate. This is probably due to the fact that most people at Campus Edge do not have children; yet, it is likely also due to the fact that birth and nursing are often hidden away from most people in Western society.

At the same time, through imagining God as a laboring woman with all of the messiness of birth, we recognized that we have often sanitized aspects of God. We sanitize how easy redemption was, including death on the cross. Should we not have the same unease with the picture of Jesus on the cross as we do with God as laboring woman? As Winner points out:

“The Crucifixion has become so sanitized in my mind, so normalized and familiar, that thinking of it does not shock me or disturb me or really produce much reaction at all, because I, along with much of the church, have turned a bloody state punishment into nothing more or less than tidy doctrine.” Winner, Wearing God, 154.

How does evolution affect the image of God as Creator?

Steve, one of Campus Edge’s board members, has spent a lot of time pondering how evolution affects our understanding of God. Two pieces of work that he has written explore how evolution can point to God’s power and awe-inspiring work.

He put together a blend of the words of David (Psalm 8 and 104) and Darwin, which is titled “Psalm 1859” (Darwin’s The Origin of Species was published that year). This was published by BioLogos as part of a two-part blog post about his trip to an evolutionary biology conference in the Galapagos Islands a few years ago. Part 2, which includes Psalm 1859 at the end, is here: http://biologos.org/blogs/archive/evolution-and-faith-in-latin-america-part-2. He borrowed directly from Psalm 8, Psalm 104, and The Origin with my point being that Darwin expressed the same wonderment at creation as did the Psalmist.

A more original piece that he wrote considers the past, present, and future of God’s creative work and our role in it: http://godandnature.asa3.org/poem-the-new-plant-and-animal-kingdoms-by-steve-roels.html.

God who provides

As much as I believe that God provides, I find it hard to live that way. Even if I believe that Jesus is the bread of life, I treat him a lot like I treat bread: as an extra to a meal, instead of being the basic sustenance of life.

I am tempted, like Sara in Genesis, to trust my own efforts in making sure things work out the way I want them to (especially if God hasn’t seemed to be providing). It’s hard not to want to take care of things myself – as our society values our ability to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps.

The chapter on bread and vine in Wearing God by Lauren Winner does a very good job in helping us explore how our mixed relationship with bread can help us see how we often have a mixed relationship towards God’s provision. Winner’s quote of Patrick T. McCormick captures this well:

“What, for example, does it mean to celebrate the Eucharist as food (bread and wine) in a place where we are increasingly obsessed with and yet deeply afraid and ashamed of food, where we idolize and demonize food, where we are increasingly disconnected from the sensual pleasures of good food, and where we have gone a long way toward losing our sense of food as a blessing that ties us to life and others? Or what does it mean to celebrate the Eucharist as body of Christ when our diets seem to be waging a war against our bodies (particularly against the bodies of women), when the ways in which we eat do not honor our bodies, or when our eating patterns seem indifferent to the suffering bodies of all the Lazaruses gathered at the edges of our tables, as well as all the Marthas waiting on those tables?” (Winner, Wearing God, 113)

Those of us who are able to provide for ourselves – and most graduate students are in this category, even if they are in the lower income range – have a vague sense of God’s provision, at least for our physical needs where that provision comes several steps removed from the food that is on our plates. This provision is less removed when it comes to our emotional well-being, especially amid the stresses of grad school.

Participating in the Eucharist, with its small quantities that can not physically feed us, provides an opportunity to see God’s provision anew:

“In the Holy Eucharist, we take a miniature sip of wine and small bite of wafer, and we call this God’s abundance. I believe by regularly proclaiming that God’s abundance can be found in something small, we are gradually retooling our understandings of what is truly necessary for life.” Winner, Wearing God, 102-3.

When we remember that the God who provides does not always provide as we want or expect, I believe we are more able to live fully into the belief that God does provide. More so, this provision is not just for me, but especially for those whose idea of bread as sustenance is not gourmet bread but Wonder bread that is cheap and readily available or corn tortillas or rice that almost fills the stomach when there is little else.

Whose image of God fits? Sara’s or Hagar’s?

Genesis 16 presents several images of God. One is that of Hagar, who calls God the one who sees her. The other is that of Sara, who speaks the following way about God: ‘The Lord has kept me from having children’ (v. 2) and ‘May the Lord judge between you [Abraham] and me (v.5).’ 

The contrast between the images of God held by Hagar and Sara continues in how each woman’s son is named. The name of Hagar’s son – Ishmael – means God hears, while the name of Sara’s son – Isaac – means laughter. In Genesis 16, God hears and responds to Hagar’s desires – seemingly without Hagar needing to tell God what they are. Sarah’s desires, however, are left unheard: God has kept her from having children. It is as if a cruel joke is being played on Sarah; her laughter (Gen 18:13) and that of Abraham (Gen 17:17) hopefully mark the beginning of their being able to see the good in God’s joke of giving them a son when it seemed impossible.

Hagar, who has been used and hurt by God’s people, is the one who has the understanding of God that we would want: God who sees us and whom we see; God who comes after us and finds us; God who gives us our desires before we even ask them. Yet, sometimes our experience of God does not look like that: as in Sara’s situation, sometimes God seems distant or present only through a lack of action. While the end of Sara’s story gives us hope, as does God’s reaching out to Hagar, this does not nullify the abuse and challenges Hagar faced nor the many years of difficult waiting that Sara faced (without any guarantee that God would ever hear).

Whatever image of God we have and whatever extent we feel seen and heard by God, we should be careful in how we judge another person’s image or experience of God. The story of Hagar and Sara shows a bit of the range of the experiences people can have with God and how this then complicates their relationship to and understanding of God.

The God who I (will) see

In Genesis 16, Hagar names God, ‘The God who sees me,’ because she says she has now seen the one who sees her. God had found her in the desert and told her that she would give birth to a fiercely independent son, a son who would be called Ishmael, meaning God hears. As the text does not indicate that Hagar had asked for anything specific from God, it appears that God heard her desires before she even voiced them. It is no wonder that she feels both seen by God and that she has seen God.

The God who sees me is a very powerful image of God, and it is an image that I sometimes wish was more part of my relationship with God. God often seems so absent. Despite knowing that I can pray to God and read the Bible whenever, and despite believing that God speaks through both these means, alongside of speaking through other people, my every day life seems to lack the wonder and expectation that God does see me, that God hears, and that I will see God.

The question I was thus left asking at the end of the study of Genesis 16 was what would happen if I imagined more often how God might delight in seeing me (the same way that I delight in simply seeing my daughter)? And what if we simply expected to see God more often? The Reformed tradition believes that God is already present and working at the university; this passage challenges me to develop eyes to see that.

Practicing hospitality – a sermon excerpt on Romans 12

The following is excerpted from a sermon that I preached at a wedding earlier this summer:

When most of us hear the word hospitality we think of an elegant house with fine dishes and a delicious meal. There is polite conversation and good guests go home at the proper time. But, sooner or later, the house will get dirty, there won’t be enough time, and even the beautiful new dishes will break. If hospitality is about providing a great meal in ideal circumstances, most of us – even the most ambitious of newlyweds – will fail.

Romans 12 gives a much broader picture of hospitality than that of fine dining and polite conversation. The challenge for many of us who’ve grown up in Christian circles and have heard this passage dozens of times is that we stop wondering what the text means. Even though what is said here is echoed in multiple places in the Bible – like Paul’s letters, Proverbs, and the Old Testament law – we still have a tendency to dismiss these words. It’s easier to have a limited picture of what love and hospitality looks like – and so limit the LORD’s claim on our lives and in our relationships.

Yet the love the Bible talks about is no small thing. God’s abundant love was involved in the creation of human beings – including how Adam and Eve were made for and given to each other. God’s persevering love is seen in the prophets who were sent to woo the Israelites for centuries despite their consistent rebellion and turning away. And finally, God’s deep love is shown on the cross, as Christ offered up his life to save sinners.

It is this deep love of God, as expressed in many ways throughout the whole Bible, that paints the picture for the love that is to be present in all of our relationships. It is an incredible challenge, and so Paul, the author of Romans, breaks love down into a set of manageable commands in Romans 12.

Verse 9 says Love must be sincere. In other words, love must be genuine and real. Loving in a way that is sincere means to live without hypocrisy: good relationships require deep honesty with each other. That level of vulnerability is hard in any relationship. We’re afraid the other person will love us less or might even use our weaknesses and fears to hurt us.

Love that is honest and sincere also means not always acting as how we feel but as we believe we ought to live. There will be times when you are tired or feeling hurt and helping and/or speaking graciously to the other is something you do, not because you feel like it, but because you know that this is what true love looks like. Acting the way you ought is part of being devoted to one another in love and honoring one another above yourselves.

In verse 13, we finally come to the verse on hospitality. The world around us seems to tell us that it’s the pretty table and fine dining. But for most of us that’s unattainable. And true hospitality is hard to do. Oftentimes it is easier to provide a nice meal or even some delicious banana bread and then leave. Or stay only for polite conversation. It is harder to be genuine and open, to honestly express our lives enough that we can actually rejoice with each other or weep with each other.

Hospitality is about making space for the other person – welcoming them as they are. It’s the very practical side of loving one another. It is offering food not just for the body, but also for the soul.

Giving of one’s oneself – through love and hospitality – can be overwhelming. It is hard not to feel like we’re giving too much of ourselves and will burn up. But the first part of the chapter doesn’t command us to be sacrifices that burn up, but instead living sacrifices. If our hospitality and loving is not being re-filled with God’s energy, then no matter how great our love or hospitality, our sacrifices are as empty as the ones that the Old Testament Israelites offered in the midst of their sinning.

So how do we not burn up? By recognizing that we are not alone in providing hospitality – we do it with each other. And we need to accept hospitality from each other, recognizing that this is God’s gift to us, as well. And lastly, we love and practice hospitality only in and with God’s help. Verse 12 points to how to do this difficult task: Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.

Practicing hospitality where we open ourselves and our lives to each other, welcoming each other deep in love is hard. But it is good. And knowing God’s great love for us, we can trust that God will bless our relationships and our efforts to serve the LORD.

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Reflections on Ecclesiastes from a previous study

While most people do not particularly enjoy the book of Ecclesiastes, it has a particular appeal to graduate students. There’s something about all the assignments that need doing, the high stress, and the uncertainty of the job market that allow the words of Ecclesiastes to be words of truth and hope.

So it should not come as any surprise that this is not the first time Campus Edge has done a study on Ecclesiastes. The following is a reflection on that study:

The students of CEF have been toiling their way through this especially difficult message: according to the author of Ecclesiastes, there is no point to any endeavor in this world; whatever he tries, “this too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.” That’s not quite the message of hope we at CEF wish to convey, unfortunately. We generally aspire to be more uplifting than that. Reading further through the text doesn’t seem to offer any relief, either. The theme persists. Despite our persistent need for and belief in hope, however, and in God’s unfailing grace and love, the Bible sometimes offers a message that is far grimmer. One of the things that we strive to do in CEF is address the Bible realistically. Meaning, the bad with the good. Or rather, the sad with the good. This leads us to read texts such as Ecclesiastes, in which we are confronted with the author’s ceaselessly mournful anthem that life lived on Earth is meaningless, meaningless, utterly meaningless.

Often, when faced with the more challenging aspects of our Christian faith, it becomes our natural instinct to seek out the redemptive qualities and focus more on those things in which we can find grace easily than those in which not only is it difficult to find grace, but perhaps simply beyond reason to even try. When faced with a ‘graceless’ message for weeks on end, though, this is not an option. For two hours, every Thursday, we force ourselves to grapple with words we don’t like, but which are God’s words, nonetheless. God’s Word. God’s truths are indomitable. We cannot force meanings that do not exist; we cannot pretend comfort where, genuinely, there is discontent. Time to face Ecclesiastes head on.

“Then I thought in my heart, ‘The fate of the fool will overtake me also. What then do I gain by being wise?’ (2:19) …All [man’s] days his work is pain and grief; even at night his mind does not rest. (2:23) …Again I looked and saw all the oppression that was taking place under the sun (4:1) …If you see the poor oppressed in a district, and justice and rights denied, do not be surprised at such things. (5:8)”.

Sitting in a circle in a comfortable living room, with apple cider and Hershey’s kisses, the anger and bitterness that show through the author’s voice serve to disillusion us of our cozy creature comforts. Caramel kisses and all, this world can be a crappy place. We struggled with these words. Our conversation may have sounded like this:

“I don’t get it.”
“But he’s probably going to say that life is meaningless unless you have God.”
“Not really.”
“I don’t get it.”

Through all the chapters, the message of hopelessness is scantly redeemed; dismayingly so. Now, here comes the part where I ought to explain that the whole thing is really about God’s love and grace, etc., etc.; but really, I’m not sure it is. As we discussed, we began to be somewhat burdened with the author’s unflagging resentment about the state of the world. Strangely, God plays a small role in this book of the Bible. Over and over, the writer brings into focus the lives of humans, and the terrible things they do to one another. Coupled with inevitable death and the dogged presence of evil in the world, like the author, we too began to feel bleak. As we read, over and over, it began to dawn on us that Ecclesiastes is not about God and his message of hope so much as it is about people, and their legacy of fallibility. Not one of us can deny that we have felt the weight of the insurmountable quandary that is living with an expectation of grace in a world that so frequently seems bereft of it. Solomon, or whoever writes these pained words: that’s me. I feel that. I ache as he does. I lament, with varying levels of silence, the state of affairs when I look at the world’s stage. If I’m honest, if I’m seeing it right, his cry is my cry. Yes, God offers grace and love. In a world where we just don’t see it enough, however, the relief of raising a fist and clamoring out our indignation at injustice is vast. Sometimes, when you want to be angry with God—and there will be times when you will— Ecclesiastes gets it.

Melody, Campus Edge November 2011 newsletter.

 

Religion, Academia, and Pluralism

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, pluralism is “a state of society in which members of diverse ethnic, racial, religious, or social groups maintain and develop their traditional culture or special interest within the confines of a common civilization.” On the basis of this definition, it is almost impossible to live in today’s society without being affected by pluralism. This is exacerbated by the reality that Christianity (along with Islam and Judaism) tends to be against (religious) pluralism, while the academic context (and society at large) is for religious pluralism.

Some quick googling of pluralism and the Bible confirms the sense that many Christians see pluralism as evil (or, at least, wrong).

Yet, simply saying that Christians need to hold to certain truths (i.e., Jesus being the way or the Apostle’s Creed) is in adequate in relating to pluralism. A text like Acts 17, where Paul speaks to the Athenians about their worshiping an unknown God, is much more helpful. Stories do a better job than truth claims in addressing how one lives in a society that sees these truth claims as being exclusive, “fine for you, but not for everyone,” or even unloving.

As we’ve been addressing this question of how to live as Christians in the (academic) world, a helpful definition of pluralism has been that of the Pluralism Project at Harvard University.

“First, pluralism is not diversity alone, but the energetic engagement with diversity. . . Mere diversity without real encounter and relationship will yield increasing tensions in our societies. Second, pluralism is not just tolerance, but the active seeking of understanding across lines of difference. Tolerance is a necessary public virtue, but it does not require Christians and Muslims, Hindus, Jews, and ardent secularists to know anything about one another. . . Third, pluralism is not relativism, but the encounter of commitments. The new paradigm of pluralism does not require us to leave our identities and our commitments behind, for pluralism is the encounter of commitments. . . Fourth, pluralism is based on dialogue. The language of pluralism is that of dialogue and encounter, give and take, criticism and self-criticism. Dialogue means both speaking and listening, and that process reveals both common understandings and real differences.”                                —Diana L. Eck, 2006

Living well in a pluralistic society doesn’t mean believing (in) nothing – instead, it means knowing what I believe well enough to recognize and listen to what others believe, so that together we may challenge and encourage each other.