Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Through Cyclones, Earthquakes, and Tornadoes

In recent weeks we have witnessed dramatic pictures coming from Myanmar, China, and our own country of devastation caused by cyclones, earthquakes, and tornadoes. Tens of thousands of people were suddenly ushered into eternity...sadly, most without knowing Christ. Millions of others had lives turned upside down...a few will never fully recover. Property damage is almost beyond comprehension.

The question I am often asked is, "Is God saying anything to us through these catastrophic natural events?" Let's turn to the Scriptures to seek an answer. First, we know that God has spoken strongly before through catastrophic natural events. It was with a flood that God destroyed the world during the days of Noah, promising afterwards to never again use a flood to destroy all living things. We also know that God used an earthquake to destroy the families of the rebellious Korah, Dathan and Abiram (read Numbers 16). And God used a strong storm to get the attention of Jonah. God even spoke to the children of Israel from a mountain burning with fire surrounded by the quaking of the earth, thus driving fear into their hearts (read Exodus 19 and 20).

But we also know that at times when we most want God to speak through a natural event, then He chooses to speak in a quiet voice, much as He did with Elijah (read 1 Kings 19). So, is this a "Moses Moment" or an "Elijah Moment?" Should we be anticipating God's voice, or does He remain silent?

A text I have shared with many in recent days is from Romans 8:20-22 which reads: For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Personally, I think we are hearing a lot of groaning today. I think we are hearing the natural world crying out in a multitude of ways that the time for its redemption soon draws nigh. The occurrence of strong earthquakes and destructive tornadoes has increased exponentially this past year. Volcanoes, some of which have been silent for years, are bursting forth. I think the earth itself is anxious for those days described for us in Isaiah when the curse will have been removed.

I know that some will be quick to label these events as evidence of "global change", previously known as "global warming." But I tend to see the hand of God at work. I recall the statement of Jesus to His disciples: There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of birth pains (Matthew 24:7-8). When a woman's contractions begin, a birth is imminent. As our earth increasingly groans, could it be a sign to us that a "birth" is imminent - that birth being the coming of the King to His Kingdom?

As we wait we can help those whose lives have been shattered because of these groaning - people in Myanmar, Central China, Kansas and Oklahoma, Iowa and Minnesota. We can be the Body of Christ reaching out to them as He would do.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Happy 60th Birthday, Israel!

On May 14th, Israel celebrated the 60th anniversary of its independence as a nation. The parents of this new state were zealousness of Zionism in the person of Theodor Hertzl and the ashes of the crematories in Germany and Poland. But, above all was the guiding hand of a God who had promised this strip of land to Abraham and his descendants.

Israel was truly born out of adversity. Following the end of World War II, as the death camps were being liberated by Allied Forces, the world began to see the images of the holocaust that had taken place during the preceeding years under Nazi rule. The images today still haunt a person, so one can only imagine what those pictures did for those who lived during those days. There was a sense of collective guilt on the part of many Western world leaders that such atrocities happened during their administrations. How could such evils be corrected? The viable solution seemed to be implementing an agreement made back in 1917 between England and leaders of the Zionist movement. This agreement, known as the Balfour Declaration, stated that the Jews should have their own homeland and that homeland should encompass what was known as Palestine...the ancient land of Israel. So, in November 1947, the newly created United Nations, in one of its first resolutions, created the State of Israel. And on May 14, 1948, Israel's new Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, declared Israel to be a free and independent state - a homeland for the Jewish race.

But, unlike many births, this one was not to experience many moments of joy. Immediately the neighboring Arab nations declared war upon Israel hoping to drive this new child into the sea. But God worked His miracles and Israel survived. (Read Larry Collins book "O Jerusalem!" to get a sense of Israel's birth and the miracles accompanying it). In 1967 and then again in 1973 those same neighbors attacked again with Israel defeating its enemies in most remarkable ways. And, from 1979 - the days of the First Camp David Accords - to 2000, Israel lived in an uneasy peace with its neighbors. That climate changed in 2000 with the Intifadah or Palestinian uprising under the leadership of Yasir Arafat. World leaders met in various locations and at various times to bring stability and peace to this region. But no sooner was the ink dried than attacks and counter-attacks prevailed. That continues until this present day. (Read Anton LaGuardia's book "War Without End" to better understand the history of this portion of the world).

But the Israeli people continue to survive. To be honest, they do more than merely survive...they thrive on making the land better. Swamps, once home to deadly malaria, now are homes to banana plantations. Deserts, once inhabitable, now produce some of the finest citrus fruits in the world as well as some of the most beautiful flowers. Israel continues to be a land of contrasts - one can step from the 21st century into the 8th century BC in a matter of minutes. There is a mutual respect of the ancient with the modern. Jerusalem is the city where the three monotheistic faiths meet...often with controversy and chaos rather than with peace and understanding.

So, I want to add my anniversary greetings to this nation that I have come to love so very much. It is not a perfect country. But it is the nation where the King will some day reign. And it is that hope and promise that make Israel a nation worthy of our attention.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

"The Shack" - The Concept of Trinity

One of the most difficult of doctrines emanating from the pages of Scripture is that of the Trinity. While the word "trinity" is not found within the Bible, one cannot deny that the portrait of one God existing as three persons is present. We know those as God-the Father, Jesus Christ -the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Usually, when a human author attempts to explain the Trinity, he begins with one person of the Godhead, then proceeds to the second and then to the third. In many ways we isolate the one from the other two. Yet, in his book "The Shack", the author William Young attempts to have all three persons of the Godhead in one location at one time. You might remember from our previous study, that he portrays God as a large African-American woman named "Papa." Jesus is pictured as being a Middle Eastern man who, we later find out, occupies himself with carpentry. And the Holy Spirit, named Sarayu, is a woman of Asian decent dressed in blue jeans and a brightly colored blouse. Yes, I have to admit that when I first read those descriptions (pages 82-85) I was taken back. To describe God and the Godhead in those ways seemed almost blasphemous. Then I remembered how often the biblical writers themselves often used human phrases to help us to understand God: "the hand of God", "the arm of God", "the eyes of God", and "the face of God" just to cite a few. I think Young is doing something very similar. He is trying to help us to understand God in the midst of this fictional setting.

Once I got past the descriptions, I was intrigued as to how the author portrayed the relationship that existed between the participants in the Trinity. There was an intentionality about those relationships, yet there was some levity as well. I have to be honest and admit that I don't often view the members of the Godhead as having a good time together. In fact, the account I usually draw from my study of the Word is that there is a seriousness and even a sobriety between them. Could it be possible that the Father, the Son, and the Spirit actually enjoy each other's presence? Could it be possible that they enjoy some humorous dialogue over a meal together? I know this, when we get to heaven we will find that there was much more to the relationship between the members of the Trinity than we ever considered here below.

If I had a complaint about how the Trinity is portrayed in "The Shack" it is the lack of a semblance of authority between them. In fact, the author strongly states that there was no "chain of command" between the members. He writes: "It's one reason why experiencing true relationship is so difficult for you," Jesus added. "Once you have a hierarchy you need rules to protect and administer it, and then you need law and the enforcement of the rules, and you end up with some kind of chain of command or a system of order that destroys relationship rather than promotes it. You rarely see or experience relationship apart from power. Hierarchy imposes laws and rules and you end up missing the wonder of relationship that we intended for you." (pages 122-123).

From my own study of the Scriptures, I have tended to observe that there was a delineation of ministry - some would use the word function - between the members of the Trinity. God, the Father, was the creator and sustainer of life; Jesus Christ is the redeemer and our blessed hope for tomorrow; the Holy Spirit is the one who causes us to understand God's Word and reveals to us the person of Christ. Also, the Bible describes a system of hierarchy almost from the time of the creation itself. God placed men and women - He used the term "mankind" - as head over all His creation. That describes a hierarchy. Then, following the fall, God placed Adam as head over Eve. More hierarchy. Jesus Christ, although He proclaimed His equality with God, nevertheless strongly asserted His obedience to the will of His Father. That seems to imply some type of hierarchy. I don't tend to think that hierarchy is as detrimental to a relationship as Young seems to believe it is.

This criticism set aside, I found "The Shack" to be a fascinating study of the relationships between "Papa" and Jesus and Sarayu. I also became engrossed with the development of the relationship Mack had with all three Persons during his weekend stay. I believe Young was reinforcing the biblical principle that God desires a living relationship with each one of us. And sometimes that relationship becomes most acute during times of suffering and heartache.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

"The Shack" - Who Is God?

One of the great questions that confront readers of "The Shack" concerns an understanding of God. Yes we do a lot of talking about God and sometimes even hint that we know God. But, I believe if we were really honest with ourselves, most of what we understand about God could fall into either one of two stereotypes. William Young mentions both. The first is that of the old grandfatherly type. Young has his God character say to Mack Mackenzie: To reveal myself to you as a very large, white grandfather figure with flowing beard, like Gandalf, would simply reinforce your religious stereotypes, and this weekend is not about reinforcing your religious stereotypes (p. 93). There are those moments when we want God to wipe away all our hurts, to solve all our problems - always to our best interest, and to give us our every desire. We want God to "make everything better." But God does not always do that. In fact, I have found that He very seldom does those things. I need to come to the realization that He is God and I simply need to trust Him.

The second stereotype is also confronted in this book. Young has Mack say these words in a conversation with God: "But if you are God, aren't you the one spilling out great bowls of wrath and throwing people into a burning lake of fire?" Mack could feel his deep anger emerging again, pushing out the questions in front of it, and he was a little chagrined at his own lack of self-control. But he asked anyway, "Honestly, don't you enjoy punishing those who disappoint you?" (p. 119). In my teaching of the Bible I have had many students whose understanding of God was founded upon a similar thought. God was angry. God was vengeful. God always got even. In response to this statement, Young has his God character respond with words that cause serious reflection: "I am not who you think I am, Mackenzie. I don't need to punish people for sin. Sin is its own punishment, devouring you from the inside. It's not my purpose to punish it; it's my joy to cure it" (p. 120).

Read that statement once again...slowly. "Sin is its own punishment, devouring you from the inside." Now read Psalm 32:3-5. Sin consumes us. God offers us a cure...deliverance from the power of sin and from the penalty of sin. Yet many people continue to succumb to the disease of sin by refusing God's offer. Could we say that God's wrath that is now and will be in the future poured out upon the world is a consequence of mankind's refusal to accept God's offer rather than His punishment upon sin?

Well we have not touched upon how Young created God's character in his story. I honestly admit I was not prepared for that presentation. In fact, it almost caused me to quit the reading. For I was not ready to receive God in the person of a "large beaming African-American woman" who desired to be called "papa." I immediately was tempted to say, "Hey, this is very New Age, for don't they describe God as being a woman?" But, I continued reading, and slowly I began to understand why the author described God in this way. He was forcing me to think of God outside of those stereotypes that I so easily ascribe to God. He was asking me to see God as greater than anything I could envision. I don't think the author was saying that "God is a woman." No, because at one point in the story we do see God taking the form of a father figure.
Nor do I believe that the author is asking us to see God in everything around us - sort of a pantheistic view. But the author is most definitely challenging my concept of God. Even the dialogue within the story invites me to rethink that concept. And, I must say, that, after reading "The Shack" I have had a desire to reread especially the Old Testament to gain a better understanding of God in order to know Him better.

Reader, don't let the appearance of God as a large African-American woman deter you from proceeding further into the book. Remember, this is a work of fiction and some literary license is granted in that genre.

In our next meeting I would like to address the subject of the Trinity and how the author understands that concept.