Monday, October 26, 2009

You Be the Judge

We’ve all seen it: an umpire makes a controversial call. The managers come out on the field; there’s a lot of yelling and screaming; but in the end, nothing changes. Why? Because the umpire has the best view, and the authority to make the call. Not once have I ever seen an umpire's decision overturned after one of these tirades, have you? Yet, there comes a time when each of us is absolutely certain that we could be better umpires than God; that we could make better judgment calls if given the opportunity. In The Shack, Paul Young’s character, Mack, gets that opportunity. In the end he is certain about one thing: “I don’t want to be the judge!” Here are 4 biblical reasons why:

To let God be Judge is to be freed from the need to make final judgments about ourselves or anyone else. To let God be the judge means freedom! For though we all have to make judgment calls requiring wisdom and discernment -- Christ comes to take the matter of making final judgments out of our hands altogether — a role we’re totally unqualified for anyway. That's because when we’re in the judgment seat (to paraphrase Karl Barth) it usually leads to one place -- the place where we find ourselves innocent and everyone else guilty.

There’s a scene on an old Seinfeld episode where George Costanza (Jason Alexander) is attending a child’s birthday party at the request of his girlfriend, Robin. Her mother compliments him: "You seem like such a lovely young man." “Well, I do what I can,” George sheepishly replies. The next minute, George smells smoke in the kitchen and yells “Fire!” Then, he proceeds to run out of the kitchen in a panic, knocking over the clown, an old lady with a walker, and a couple of kids. "Get out of my way!" he yells, as he opens the front door of the apartment and runs away.

In the very next scene, George is outside getting oxygen from a group of paramedics. "It was an inferno in there!" he tells them. Suddenly the clown runs over to George: "There he is! That's him!" Several angry children and Robin's mother gather round. "That's the coward that left us to die!" they cry. The clown tries to hit George with an oversized shoe. "I saw you push the women and children out of the way in a mad panic….and when you ran out, you left everyone behind."
"Seemingly," George refutes. "To the untrained eye, I can fully understand how you got that impression. What looked like pushy, what looked like knocking down, was a safety precaution. In a fire, you stay close to the ground. Am I right? And when I ran out that door, I was not leaving anyone behind. I risked my life making sure that exit was clear. Any other questions?" The fireman offers just one more: "How do you live with yourself?" "It's not easy," George replies.
Now George certainly ain't "all bad" - but even he seems to know that he's not the "lovely" young man Robin's mother first oogled over! Paul was right: We all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God! (Roman 3:23). It's easy to make quick judgments, poor judgments , and to jump to conclusions. Paul gave some wise advice to the Corinthian church when he said: "Don’t get ahead of the Master and jump to conclusions with your judgments before all the evidence is in. When he comes, he will bring out in the open and place in evidence all kinds of things we never even dreamed of – inner motives and purposes and prayers” (1 Corinthians 4: 5/ The Message).
Not only do we make hasty judgments when it comes to our own guilt or innocence, or that of others, but we do it with God too – despite the fact that we see only a tiny portion of the big story of which we are a part. It’s really about doubting that God’s intentions…and God’s judgments are good. “The real underlying flaw in your life, Mackenzie, is that you don’t think I am good. If you knew I was good….then while you might not always understand what I am doing, you would trust me. But you don’t” (The Shack, p. 128). Listen to Deuteronomy 32: 3-4: “Ascribe greatness to our God the Rock! His work is perfect and all his ways are just; a God of faithfulness and without injustice. Good and upright is he! God is not just the final judge, he’s the best Judge; which means His judgment will be infinitely more just than any I could make about me or anyone else.

Secondly, to let God be Judge is to be judged by the One who was willingly judged in our place. To let God be Judge means the Judge has taken our judgment! The wonder of Jesus’ death on the cross is that the Judge of the universe stepped down from his chair as Judge, and took our place, the place of the condemned. Why? So that we might stand in the place of the forgiven! Paul says, “God made him to be sin who knew no sin, that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5: 21) or in another version: “God put the wrong on him who never did anything wrong, so we could be put right with God.” Now some may object: How does Jesus’ death on the cross prevent the suffering we see in our world? What can it really do to prevent the horrors of WWI, or Auschwitz, or Hiroshima, or September 11th from happening again? I love the final line of My Father’s World: “This is my Father’s world, the battle is not done, Jesus who died shall be satisfied, and earth and heaven be one.” Jesus did not come only to die for our sins, he did -- but he also came to confront the powers of evil, to show us how to set the captives free, and to work and pray for his coming kingdom “until earth & heaven be one.”

Did you notice that by the end of The Shack, Papa has helped Mack to identify the evidence that leads to the discovery of Missy’s body, and the conviction of her killer. God cares about Missy. God cares about the young girls being sold into forced prostitution in Cambodia. God cares about righting the wrongs that are a direct result of human pride and sinful disobedience. God cares about justice. N. T. Wright reminds us that we live between the cross and the crown, between Jesus’ victory on the cross…and the glorious new heaven and earth. Therefore, what Jesus did for us through his suffering love is not just a victory to celebrate – it’s an achievement to put into practice and to live out in the power of the Holy Spirit (see N.T. Wright, Evil and the Justice of God, ch. 3). This leads me to a third important point....

To let God be Judge is to trust that he is not simply justifying unspeakable tragedy, but redeeming it. Remember the words of Joseph in Genesis 50:20 (The Message): "You planned evil against me but God used those same plans for good" (cf. Romans 8:28). Just because God permits evil does not mean he intends it or even needs it to accomplish his purpose. Let me say it again, God permits evil. He does not intend it. He permits it because it is his will to have sons and daughters, not slaves; children who love him freely not by force; and that means freedom to love him or to hate him, even to crucify him.
“I am not evil,” Papa says to Mack. “You are the ones who embrace fear and pain and power and rights so readily in your relationships. Your choices are also not stronger than my purposes, and I will use every choice you make for the ultimate good and most loving outcome” (The Shack, p. 127).

But what about the evil no one seems to deliberately choose – a natural disaster or a plane accident? Does God redeem these tragedies too? The short answer is that we must trust he does. But it still helps to have a good example.... A member of my congregation recently shared with me an article in the Wall Street Journal about the crash that took place on the Hudson River after a small plane collided with a helicopter piloted by Jerermy Clarke on August 9th. What made this accident especially painful was the fact that the entire nation had been celebrating “the miracle on the Hudson” when Capt. “Sully” Sullenberger safely landed a US Airways plane on that same river in January of this year, saving all 155 souls on board. Father Jonathan Morris, a Catholic priest who witnessed the crash and ministered to the victim’s families had this to say: “The miracle I have witnessed since last Saturday's crash is certainly less joyous than the first Miracle on the Hudson ….but not for that reason is it less miraculous. For in the families of the deceased…I have witnessed inexplicable goodness and love.”

The fiance of the pilot who had just recommitted his life to Christ said this: "Please get the message to the families of the Italian tourists who were on Jeremy's helicopter how much we grieve for them. How sorry we are. And please, please, tell the family of the pilot and passengers of the small plane, that no matter the outcome of the investigation, we hold no hard feelings. We are suffering with them too." And what words were on the lips of the grieving families of the 8 Italian tourists who were killed in the accident, “whose vacation to New York had warped into a nightmare, ending with a view of Madison Avenue blocked off by five hearses carrying their loved ones back to the airport ….”? "Incredibile, incredibile," they repeated, in Italian…. “Thank God it happened here and not somewhere else….You, people of New York, this country of America, are the most wonderful people I have ever met. The way you have treated us. The way you have treated our relatives. I have never known people like you. You have been so, so very good to us. Thank you, thank you, thank you."

Father Morris reflects: “Capt. Clarke's loved ones—and all the families, for that matter—are cooperating in a miracle. In my opinion, they are giving evidence to the Judeo-Christian belief about how God responds to human-kind's suffering. We believe that God's response to our pain is a promise that he will bring forth a greater good out of every instance of evil and suffering in this world, if we let him. These families are bringing into the world and into our lives love and blessings that would never have been there had this tragedy not occured." That's not justification of suffering, that's the redemption of it. [For the complete story go to: ]

Finally, Scripture affirms that to let God be Judge is to be judged worthy of love and the opportunity to accept it. There’s a powerful moment in The Shack, when Mack is given the opportunity to sit on God’s judgment seat and make a truly God-sized decision. He is told he must decide which of his four children will be condemned to hell and separated from God! Mack despairs at having to make such a decision, which is the whole point. He falls at the feet of Sophia, a personification of God’s Wisdom, asking for mercy. “I don’t want to be the judge” Mack cries out, “Could I go instead? If you need someone to torture for eternity, I’ll go in their place. Would that work? Could I do that? Please, let me go for my children. Please, I would be happy to….Please, I am begging you. Please…Please…” Wisdom replies, “Now you sound like Jesus. You have judged well, Mackenzie. I am so proud of you….You have judged them worthy of love, even if it costs you everything. That is how Jesus loves” (The Shack, pp. 164-165). The judgment of God is ultimately the judgment that we are worthy of love, (Not because we have earned the right to be found worthy, but simply because we are his children) for Jesus says “it is not the will of your Father that even one of these little ones should be lost” (Matt. 18: 14). Yet God’s love is not something that will be forced upon us. He gives us the freedom to accept or reject it. For “To all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God” (John 1: 12). Or as Papa says: Reconciliation is a two way street, and I have done my part, totally, completely, finally. It is not the nature of love to force a relationship, but it is the nature of love to open the way’” (The Shack, p. 194). In the words of 2 Corinthians 5: 20: “We’re speaking for Christ himself now: Become friends with God, he’s already a friend with you.”
To sum up, letting God be Judge means trusting that he has the best view and the authority to make the best calls. As Judge he frees us from the need to make final judgments about ourselves or others; as Judge he is the One who was willingly judged in our place; as Judge he does not justify unspeakable tragedy, but redeems it; and (most important of all) as Judge he has judged you worthy of his love and given you the opportunity to accept or reject it: and that’s a judgment call that only you can make.

Monday, October 19, 2009

The Keeper of the Garden

One of my favorite memories from boyhood was visiting the Calvin Nursery that my mom’s sisters Pat and Gloria Gardner owned and operated in Malibu under the name of Pat's husband, Joe Calvin. As a boy, I remember my cousin Michael taking my brother and me on wheel barrel rides through acres of tropical plants, flowers, and trees. The nursery occupied three levels, and at the top of the hillside was the house where we had many family gatherings. This was a working nursery that employed as many as 10 migrant workers who my aunts housed and fed every night -- no discount store version of the real thing. It was rough around the various stages of disrepair. But it also had a sense of wonder... a horse named “Harry,” a soda machine filled with glass bottles of cola and orange crush, a majestic peach colored macaw, and lots of great hiding places for us to discover. It was a mess in some ways…but it was also wild and beautiful....

I think it's fair to say that our lives often feel like an unkempt garden, a random, chaotic mess...that even so, have a wild beauty that must be discovered and cultivated. In John 14, Jesus is preparing his disciples for his approaching arrest and his physical absence from them. The message he gives them repeatedly is “Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid… I will not leave you orphaned" (John 14: 1, 18). From infancy, one of our biggest fears is to be left alone. The face of our mothers is imprinted on our brains before we can even speak the word “mama” …and it’s the absence of this face, the realization that this face can go away, that unsettles us the most. None of us wants to feel alone…abandoned…without friends or family, let alone experience the loss of someone we love.
Yet many of us have been schooled in the idea that we are essentially alone; regardless of how many relatives we have, or how outgoing we are…we are alone in the universe. Life is essentially random and without ultimate purpose – that’s the message we hear from some quarters.

On top of this, we are very aware of our own imperfections and the messiness of our lives. Paul says as much in Romans 7:24 and then cries, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” In The Shack, Sarayu (a Hindi name which means 'Wind' - a beautiful name that Paul Young gives to the Holy Spirit), takes Mack on a tour of a Garden that is just outside the cabin and down a walkway. But this is no manicured and orderly “English Garden,” this is “chaos in color,” a wild spray of “flowers… randomly planted vegetables and herbs… confusing, stunning, and incredibly beautiful” that to Mack looked like a mess (The Shack, p. 131). Like this garden, the world we live in can seem random, disorderly, chaotic, but is this the deepest truth about it? No. Scripture says there is a deeper truth: that because of sin and evil we do experience alienation from God and one another, but “Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Despair is not God’s plan for us. We are not a planet of orphans…alone in the universe and without ultimate purpose. Therefore, Jesus says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid" (John 14: 1, 18).

Why should we not be afraid? Because, what seems like chaos to you and me – is a living fractal to God. The Garden that Mack sees is a mess…to which Sarayu replies, “From above it’s a fractal….something considered simple and orderly that is actually composed of repeated patterns no matter how magnified.” What’s a fractal? Scientists have discovered that fractals are complex patterns that are created by what seems to be random or chaotic movements. These complex patterns are recursive (repeating indefinitely), and beautiful to behold at every level of magnification. Examples of fractals in nature are ice crystals, clouds, coastlines, lightening, mountains, and body systems like arteries and the human brain. Click the following link to see just some of the amazing fractals that occur in nature.

I love those old Charlie Brown TV specials, and one of my favorite ones was “It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.” I love the scene where Charlie Brown goes 'trick-or-treating' with his friends. “I got candy,” says Lucy. “I got an apple” says Linus. “I got a rock!” says Charlie Brown. That’s the way we feel a lot of the time…like we're the ones who got stuck with the plain, ordinary rock, the broken egg yoke. But take a look, a good look, at that rock. It's filled with mountains and valleys and plains. Put a lot of these rocks together and you get a hillside, more of them and you get a mountain, and if you have enough rocks…you get the Sierra Nevada range or even Mount Everest. It’s just a rock; but at every scale of magnification, it is a thing of beauty -- it's a fractal!

Consider our position and place in the universe. It may seem, at first glance, to be random and inconsequential. But in fact, our universe is a fractal. Five hundred years ago we could only see a tiny part of this pattern, our own sun and moon, and the planets orbiting it. Today, with modern telescopes we can see that the cluster of planets in our solar system moves within a larger cluster of stars in the milky way galaxy, and that it too is a cluster of a hundred billion stars that moves within in a supercluster of of galaxies; and that supercluster within countless a universe of hundredsd of billions of galaxies like ours, each with hundres of billions of stars.

And all this we can see because earth is uniquely positioned, at the outer rim of our own spiral galaxy, such that we have maximum viewing range of the observable universe. Imagine walking into Staples Center to see your favorite recording artist with some cheap tickets near the top of the nose bleed section; but as you enter the usher says, “Oh, we’ve been expecting you.” You follow him, puzzled, down to the stage level, passing aisle after aisle until you come to the front row, center section. “There must be some mistake,” you reply. “No Sir, as the usher motions you to your seat… “These is no mistake. These are compliments of the Management. ” Now that’s what God has done for each of us as residents of planet earth . He’s given us front row seats to the greatest show in the universe. There is no mistake. This is no freak accident, it’s a fractal!

God loves fractals – God loves bringing order and beauty out of chaos. The Bible tells us that “in the beginning there was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep; while the Wind (Ruach /Spirit) of God swept over the waters. Then God said, ‘Let there be light’” (Genesis 1: 1-2). We see chaos. We see a “formless void”…but the Spirit sees a fractal, swirling galaxies, planets, water molecules, forests, fish and birds in formation and you and me. We see randomness, but God sees his future home…. For Jesus says that “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” When we look at our lives, like this world…we may see chaos, we may see a mess…but the Spirit of God sees “home.” When you buy a house…you don’t see a chaotic mess, you see its potential, you see it with a new paint job, a remodeled kitchen, or different furniture. God sees our potential, as he saw the potential of that “formless void” before time began; and his promise is to come and make a home in us that’s fit for the King of the Universe.

So far we’ve learned that our lives often seem to us to be an unkempt garden, a chaotic mess, but that God sees the potential, the purpose, and the end result of his magnificent plan – a living fractal. How we get from chaos…to that magnum opus, is the story of the our partnership with the Holy Spirit….

Because, the Holy Spirit desires to partner with us in the working out of God’s good plan in and through our messy lives. There is a profound promise that Jesus makes to his disciples in John 14:23: He promises that when he leaves them physically, the Advocate will be with them forever. “This is the Spirit of truth….You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you” (John 14: 15-17). Who is this Spirit? It is the Spirit of the Father and the Son, it is the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of God. This is the Advocate (Greek: Paracletos, which literally means. “one who comes alongside to help.”) The Advocate is our Partner and Counselor, the one who comes alongside to help us in our need. At a recent Christian Legal Aid Breakfast, I was moved by the testimony of a young couple that had been helped by a Christian attorney through a very painful situation. Without naming the person they simply referred to the attorney over and over again as their Wise Counselor with tears in their eyes. The same Spirit that breathed life into chaos; the same Spirit who holds the universe together by the power of his word; promises to hold us together too…and more: to be our Wise Counselor, to teach us and train us to be men and women of the Way. “He will teach you everything,” say Jesus, “and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you” (John 14:26).

After Mack’s experience in the Garden, he remarks to Sarayu, “Look at this mess…and even though it seems like lots of work still needs to be done, I feel strangely at home and comfortable here.” Sarayu replies, “And well you should… because this garden is your soul. This mess is you! Together…you and I, we have been working with a purpose in your heart. And it is wild and beautiful and perfectly in process. To you it seems like a mess, but I see a perfect pattern emerging and growing and alive” (The Shack, p. 140).

I began by sharing about my aunts’ nursery and gardening business in Malibu…a family business, messy and beautiful all at the same time; but what I didn’t know until I grew older was that this nursery was a healing place too. Fifty years ago, Pat and Gloria and Joe bought that land with my grandpa after Gloria experienced a nervous breakdown and the end of an abusive marriage. The nursery was a fresh start for them and a new life. It was a place of quiet peace after years on the road, and the pain that went with it. I realize now that my aunts were not only Gardeners by name and profession, they were the Garden that needed watering, planting, and healing by the Spirit of God; and over the years, that’s exactly what Jesus did. What the Bible says is true, we are God’s field, God’s garden, and this same Holy Spirit, this Advocate and Helper, this Keeper of the Garden loves our messy's the raw material out of which Sarayu brings forth beauty and purpose and fruitfulness to the glory of God.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Jesus in Jeans

How do you imagine Jesus, his features, or the way he's dressed? In The Shack, author Wm. Paul Young describes him as “Middle Eastern...dressed like a laborer, complete with tool belt and gloves. He stood easily, leaning against the door jamb with arms crossed in front of him, wearing jeans covered in wood dust and a plaid shirt with sleeves rolled above the elbows, revealing well muscled forearms. His features were pleasant enough, but he was not particularly handsome….Mack knew instantly that he liked him (The Shack, p. 86-87).

What was it about Jesus Christ that drew people to him? Was it his appearance? The Gospels are profoundly disinterested in Jesus’ appearance. However, the prophet Isaiah suggests that when the Messiah comes, he will have “no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him” (Isaiah 53: 2). Along these lines, Mack bluntly remarks to Jesus, “I just thought you’d be better looking.” Jesus laughs: “By whose standards? Anyway, once you really get to know me, it won’t matter to you” (The Shack, p. 113). One thing is certain from those who got to know him first. In the words of Michael Green, Jesus was not “a miserable holy man that never laughed”, nor was he “a lifeless figure in a stained glass window” (Michael Green, Who is this Jesus?). Here are three observations that the gospels make with confidence:

The first is this: Jesus was great company: He helped us to see ourselves and one another as God does. Jesus was someone people wanted to be around…someone people really enjoyed getting to know. He was a carpenter …who mixed as easily with shepherds and fishermen as he did with the wealthy and influential of his day. He broke down all the usual barriers that kept people apart. Michael Green points out that a respected teacher like Nicodemus was as comfortable with him as a loose woman from a hostile neighboring town. He was surrounded by children one minute…and by crowds of grown men and women the next. Everyone who knew Jesus, knew that he helped people see themselves and each other as God does…with grace, forgiveness, truth, and love. As God instructs Samuel: “The LORD does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart” (1 Sam.16:7).

In Philippians 2, Paul exhorts the church to be a place of encouragement, compassion, sympathy, humility, in full accord and of one mind, looking to the interests of others not just one’s own…and then he sums up all he’s said in this way, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 2: 5). In other words, Jesus was an encourager, Jesus was compassionate, Jesus was humble, Jesus put the interests of others before himself! No wonder he was such great company…who wouldn’t want to be with a man like that?!!

Here's another observation: Jesus made God real: Those who met Jesus felt they had come into contact with God. The Gospels speak of a unity between Jesus and God that is utterly unique; a closeness like that of Father and Son. Paul speaks of how Jesus was “in the form of God” (Phil. 2: 6) and in Col. 2:15 that he is “the image of the invisible God.” Jesus says in John 14: 9, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father…Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me.” And again, in Luke 9: 46, “Whoever welcomes me…welcomes the One who sent me.” What’s significant is that Jesus not only called God his Father… but he encouraged us to call upon God as our heavenly Father too; to experience the intimacy that he already experiences with the Father in the Holy Spirit. Jesus says to Mack: “I am the best way any human can relate to Papa or Sarayu. To see me is to see them. The love you sense from me is no different from how they love you” (The Shack, p. 112). Obviously, we meet God in creation, through other people, circumstances and divinely orchestrated events; but it’s the witness of Scripture and countless millions that Jesus himself best reveals the character of God, and the heart of God.

Jesus wants to make God real in your life; he wants you to know that he was with you in the past, that he’s with you now, and will be with you in the future. How easy it is for us to be overwhelmed by fears and worries about the future…to say that we trust in God, but not practice that trust in real life. “Do you realize that your imagination of the future, which is almost always dictated by fear of some kind, rarely, if ever, pictures me there with you? To the degree that those fears have a place in your life, you neither believe I am good nor know deep in your heart that I love you” (The Shack, p. 144). Regardless of what your present life is like; or what your future holds…you and I can begin to imagine our present and future as a life with Jesus and his love.

Two weeks ago, I needed encouragement. The reason is not important; but in the morning the Lord gave me a clear word from Scripture that lifted my spirit…and then that evening, while waiting in line at the local Trader Joe's, something extraordinary happened. Standing in front of me in line was a pastor and spiritual mentor that I had not seen since 1985. It was his ministry along with my dad’s that most influenced me to enter seminary. I shared with him about my present life and ministry without any hint that I was in need of encouragement; yet out of the blue, he said to me, “Steve, don’t be discouraged.” It felt like Jesus was speaking to me in that moment; and I left the store feeling 10 feet off the ground. Jesus is alive…he makes God real…and I’ve experienced it -- again and again and again.

Finally, Jesus’ life was profoundly human: He modeled for us how to be a humble vessel of God’s grace and power. The final aspect of Jesus' character that I want to zero in on (because the New Testament certainly does) is his humanity. Paul says in Phil. 2:7 that Jesus “emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in human likeness.” Paul is speaking about an incredible mystery…the mystery of the incarnation…the mystery of God humbling himself in Jesus Christ… becoming a flesh and blood human being. In my previous blog, we talked about the mystery of the Triune God…one God, three Persons; and that the disciples saw in Jesus the very presence and power of God at work. Christians rightly affirm Jesus’ divinity… but we have to be careful not to so emphasize his divinity that we forget to honor his humanity.

Some may object: If Jesus was fully human, how did he supposedly do all those miracles? How did he feed the five thousand? How did he cleanse the lepers and open the eyes of the blind? How did he preach and live such a life of humility and grace? Is this not testimony to Jesus' divinity? Listen carefully to the words of Christ in John 5:19: “Very truly I tell you,” Jesus says, “the Son can do nothing on his own, but only what he sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, the Son does likewise." In The Shack, Papa says to Mack: “Although [Jesus] is fully God, he has never drawn upon his nature as God to do anything. He has only lived out of his relationship with me, living in the very same manner that I desire to be in relationship with every human being. He is just the first to do it to the uttermost – the first to absolutely trust my life within him” (pp. 101-102). In other words, Jesus was human. At 12 years old he wandered away from his parents to talk with the rabbis in the temple. In the desert, he grew so hungry he was tempted to turn stones into bread. He told funny stories about camels trying to squeeze through a needle’s eye to make a point. He wept at the tomb of Lazarus; and sweat drops of blood in Gethsemane.

I began by asking the question, “What is it that draws us to Jesus today?” Here is what some of my own church members told me this week: Jesus is approachable and personal ●he always knows exactly what to say ●he’s merciful and kind while being Lord ●he’s human, he can identify with me ●he’s available, never puts you on hold ●he’s friendly and helpful ●strength of man, gentleness of woman, he’s complete ●his way with children ●his humility ●his kindness ●he’s approachable ●his compassion ●how real he is ●he’s humble, loving, accepting, especially to the poor ●his courage; unconditional love ●he showered his love upon the sinners of his time, prostitutes, drunkards, sick, poor, those the religious judged and scorned ●his calm, restful completeness, his perfect obedience to the Father as an inspiring example to us of how to live, and finally, ●he’s down to earth, literally. I'm impressed by the consistent portrait of Jesus that emerges in these 21st century descriptions of Jesus; and I love the humanity of Jesus expressed in these words!

There’s a scene in The Shack, where Jesus drops a bowl in the kitchen. As the bowl crashes to the floor, and splatters food all over Jesus, Papa and Sarayu (the Holy Spirit), all three start laughing. Sarayu teases Jesus about how clumsy humans are. Then, Jesus begins to lovingly wipe the food off of Papa, including Papa’s feet. Now, the truth is, I break dishes all the time, but Jesus? It's been observed that we often put people we respect on a pedestal…a pedestal so high, we end up de-humanizing them. Pastor Bruce Humphrey points out that to dehumanize often refers to treating a person less than human; but it can also simply mean “to divest of human qualities.” By imagining that people we admire are so far above us; we actually dehumanize them...we make them unreachable and unrelatable.

Why do we do this to Jesus? Could it be that we actually want to see Jesus as strange and other worldly because it's easier to ignore him that way? After all, if he's really "un-human" we don't need to take his teaching or his example that seriously. On the other hand, if we can see that Jesus is as fully human as Scripture testifies, eating and drinking, laughing, weeping, at times getting angry with us, trusting moment by moment in the Father’s help….If we could picture, for a moment, Jesus in jeans, down to earth (literally); fully God yes, but also fully human, with a work shirt and a tool belt around his waist, then perhaps we could see ourselves in jeans too…called to be in his company, to have the same mind and attitude that he has, trusting the Father’s life in us as he does, called to be humble servants as he was, and to live as ordinary human beings, to the glory of God!

Monday, October 5, 2009

Papa & the Trinity

“So what do you think God looks like?” Willie chuckled… Mack grinned at the thought. “I don’t know. Maybe he’s a really bright light, or a burning bush. I’ve always sort of pictured him as a really big grandpa with a long white flowing beard, sort of like Gandalf in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings (The Shack, p. 75). A. W. Tozer once observed that “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us." That's because our images of God not only effect how we feel about God but how we feel about ourselves and those around us. Like Mack, in Wm. Paul Young’s book, The Shack, many of us have distorted images of God…distortions that can only be changed by an encounter with the true God at the point of our deepest hurts and disappointments.

One of these distortions is the God who is abusive and cruel. On a cold winter day, Mack stumbles down his icy driveway to retrieve the mail and finds a cryptic note waiting for him: “Mackenzie, It’s been a while. I’ve missed you. I’ll be at the shack next weekend if you want to get together. – Papa.” The note seems to be a sick joke because the shack is the symbol of Mack's great sadness, the focus of his nightmares -- where his 6 year old daughter was brutally murdered. That the note is signed by “Papa” makes it seem all the more painful. Let's just say that “Papa” may be his wife's favorite name for God…but it was never Mack’s. That’s because there is another great sadness rooted in Mack’s soul…a sadness much older than the tragic death of his daughter, and that's the painful memory of his drunken, abusive father who used to beat him senseless with a belt and Bible verses.

When Mack decides to return to the shack in response to the strange note; he finds it empty and unleashes all his rage on the hateful place until he falls asleep in exhaustion. But it’s as he rises to leave and return to the car that the shack and the woods all around him are suddenly and beautifully transformed. He is drawn back to the front porch…and after a knock on the door, meets Papa…but in a way he never would have expected. For Papa appears to him as a large African American woman with an irresistible loving embrace. Later, Papa asks him, “Why do you think it’s hard for you [to call me Papa]. Is it because it’s too familiar…or because I am showing myself as a woman, a mother or…maybe it’s because of the failures of your own papa? Mack gasped…. “Maybe it’s because I’ve never known anyone I could really call ‘Papa.’” “If you let me,” Papa replies, “I’ll be the papa you never had” (The Shack, pp. 93-94).

In some theological circles, one of the criticisms of The Shack is that it pictures Papa for much of the book as a mother figure. Is the author simply trying to be edgy for edginess’ sake? I don’t think so. For as the book makes clear, the image of God as a good and loving Father is vital. But the reality is that for some (like Mack) seeing God as Father is also painful. The healing of Mack’s image of God will take time; so Papa reveals “himself” first as a loving mother. Can this be Biblical or helpful? Let's think about it. In Genesis 1:27 we read that “God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” The image of God is reflected not just in man, nor only in woman, but man and woman together. In Deuteronomy 32:18 Israel is urged not to forget “the God who gave you birth." In Isaiah 49:15 God’s love for Israel is compared to that of a nursing mother: “Can a woman forget her nursing child….even these may forget yet I will not forget you.” Then, in Isaiah 66: 13, God assures Israel that “As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you.”

These images of God as a comforting mother must be joined with Jesus’ revelation of God as Father: “When you pray, say “Our Father" (see Matt. 6:9, 23:9, cf. Rom. 8: 15-16); for God is “the Father of all compassion” (2 Cor. 1:3); the merciful Father who welcomes his runaway son home with open arms (Luke 15) and blesses us with “every good and perfect gift” (James 1:17). Jesus’ revelation of God as merciful Father is well known…but what do we do when our own image of father has been spoiled by past hurts? In The Shack, it’s the mother image of God that helps Mack come to know God as a loving Father too.

My maternal grandfather was beaten by his father until he finally ran away from home at age 16. As is often the case, the abused became the abuser. He treated his daughters and his wife in hurtful ways; but it was my mother’s loving care of my grandpa in his old age that changed him. It was the love of my mom, not his father…that finally helped him experience and receive his heavenly Father’s love. Praise God for that! Some of us have been treated in hurtful ways; but the spiritual truth we have learned is that God wants to be the Papa you never had; that God is the father of all compassion; and like a mother God promises to comforts her children.

Another distorted image we have is the God who is distant and unapproachable. One of the most helpful things about The Shack, is how it illustrates the love relationship between the three persons of the Trinity: Papa, Jesus, and Sarayu (a Hindi word for wind, representing the Holy Spirit). I want to talk more about Jesus and the Holy Spirit over the next two weeks, but for now let me share a more general word about the Christian belief in a Trinitarian God. It's important to understand that this doctrine was born not of abstract theological discussion, but the disciples’ real life experience of the One True God, whom they found to be physically present in the person of Jesus -- in his life, death, and resurrection; and afterward, in his continuing presence through the Holy Spirit. Thus Jesus’ disciples, who were good Jewish monotheists, came to believe by experience that the one true God is over us (the Father), that God is beside us (Jesus), and that God is within us (the Holy Spirit)!

This idea of the three-personal God is not stated directly in Scripture… but it is strongly implied; as when Jesus is baptized in Matthew 3: 13-16. “When Jesus had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Jesus' great commission is that his disciples "Go and make disicples....baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit" (Matthew 28: 16-20). Paul reminds us that "There is one Lord...[and] one God and Father of all" (Ephesians 4: 4-6). Jesus, the Spirit, and the Father…all present…and in loving inter-relationship. The ancient blessing of Paul in 2 Corinthians 13:13 that we hear every Sunday underscores this relationship: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.”

Papa tells Mack that "All love and relationship is possible for you only because it already exists within me, within God myself" (The Shack, p. 103); and later: “Mack…we want you to share the love and joy and freedom and light that we already know within ourselves. We created you, the human, to be in face-to-face relationship with us, to join our circle of love” (The Shack, p. 126). For some of us, feeling a closeness in our families was not possible. Due to bitter division or unresolved anger, we felt distant from our parents or siblings. Our home didn’t feel like a “circle of love” but an empty shack, cold, and unwelcoming. But the spiritual truth is that we were created to share in the loving fellowship of the three-personal God. Can we truly be part of this fellowship, this circle of love? That’s Jesus’ prayer for us in John 17: 23: For “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us…so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me."

Perhaps the worst distorted image we have is the God who will abandon us and forget us. I referred earlier to a scene just before Mack meets Papa, when he is taking out all his anger on the shack with his fists. He cries out to God in his sorrow: “So where are you? I thought you wanted to meet me here. Well, I’m here God. And you? You’re no where to be found! You’ve never been around when I’ve needed you – not when I was a little boy, not when I lost Missy. Not now! Some ‘Papa’ you are!” (The Shack, pp. 80-81). That’s the way he feels, but is it true? The Shack (and Scripture) seeks to convey a very different spiritual truth; that The true God will never forsake us; and, when we feel lost, God knows exactly where we are. “It is the LORD your God who goes with you; he will not fail you or forsake you,” says Moses (Deut. 31:6); and David writes in Psalm 9:10, that “you, O LORD, have not forsaken those who seek you.” It is Jesus who compares God to a Shepherd who diligently searches for the one lost sheep until he finds it (Luke 15, 19:10).

But how do we square this truth with Jesus’ cry from the cross, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” It seems that God did forsake and turn his back on his own Son. How can we be sure he won’t do the same to us? In The Shack, Mack brings this very point up to Papa, “How can you really know how I feel?” Then, Papa looks down at her wrists…and Mack sees the scars that are identical to those Jesus has on his hands. “We were together” says Papa.
Mack objects. “At the cross? Now wait, I thought you left him – you know – ‘My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me?” Papa responds: “Mackenzie, regardless of what he felt at the moment, I never left him…I never left him, and I have never left you” (The Shack, p.98).

In fact, the Bible never says that the Father abandoned Jesus on the cross as our sin bearer, only that Jesus asked the question. Emphasizing the unbreakable bond between Father and Son, Jesus said, “I am in the Father and the Father is in me” (John 14: 9-10); and Paul that “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.” When I finally realized that the Father suffered for us in Christ, it transformed my view of the cross and Jesus’ pain.

I was about five years old when I badly cut my finger in an accident, and had to be taken to the hospital for some stitches. Perhaps many of you can remember something similar happening to you or to one of your own children or, as I'm painfully aware, something much worse. I’ll never forget the doctor putting me under some bed sheets and making them very tight so that I couldn’t struggle. My dad was in the room…but I was screaming and crying for him. Finally, the frustrated doctor asked him to step outside. “Daddy, don’t leave me!” I cried, as I watched him walk outside the room. As a parent, I know now more than ever that not for a minute did my dad stop loving me, even though he had to put me in the hands of the doctor who would temporarily cause me pain. He never abandoned me; he was with me in his heart; and years later told me about how painful it was for him to leave me there.

Papa never abandoned his Son…even in his moment of greatest suffering; and Papa will never abandon us either. Papa and Jesus were together that day in the Holy Spirit. Papa gave himself for us on the cross in his Son to show us forever and for all time that his forgiveness and love is greater than this world’s greatest sadness or our greatest sin. Let God heal the distorted images you have of him that are based on demonic lies, past hurts and disappointments. “If you let me,” our Lord promises, “I’ll be the papa you never had." And, may I add, he'll be the Papa every single one of us really needs.