Sunday, October 22, 2017

Ears to Hear

Jesus would sometimes interject his teaching with, “if anyone has ears to hear, let them hear” (Mark 4:23 NIV). In saying this, he acknowledged that some of his followers would perhaps listen without really hearing. There is often a vast chasm between a person's capacity to hear and understand and their actual willingness to hear and understand. In John 9, Jesus rebuked a group of Pharisees who, despite their functioning eyes and keen minds, refused to see what was vividly clear to even a recently-blind man. When an “expert in the law” asked him “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus, true to form, responded with a question: “What is written in the law?” But it's Jesus' followup question, “how do you read it?” that I find most intriguing (Luke 10:25-26 NIV). The world's greatest communicator was not only interested in what was said but also what this man heard. Are we prone to hear what the Word of God is saying, I wonder, or do we like many of Jesus' 1st Century friends and foes merely listen for what we wanted him to say?

Jesus knows all too well how our selective listening works—our human propensity toward confirmation bias. And there's times where he's almost purposely elusive when responding to a disingenuous question. He seemed to even let some folks walk away with the wrong idea, if that's what they had already set out to do from the beginning. Despite what he actually said, for example, some of his listeners heard the familiar voice of a nationalist messiah who promised to lead Zion's armies to victory over her Roman oppressors. Others, who were listening without the rich Jewish history of the long-promised coming of God's kingdom rooted in their hopes and dreams, might have heard a Gnostic who was always advocating for some ethereal life in the glorious hereafter. Even today, many hear in Jesus' teachings a justification for—or at least a compatibility with—moralism, Marxism, white nationalism/nativism, consumerism/economic greed (what we often rebrand as “prosperity” or “trickle-down economics”), or militarism, as well as a myriad of other “isms” that are clearly at odds (clearly to anyone who is actually listening, that is) with the historical Jesus of Nazareth's teachings.

It's not that Jesus wants to be misunderstood or that he's just careless in how he conveys his ideas. But maybe he can't, or won't, force people to understand against their hardened will (not at this particular juncture anyway). Perhaps this is one of many dignities God bestows on his image bearers: the ability to stop up our ears, close our minds, and shut our eyes to our Creator if we so choose (the ability to “resist” the whispers of his Spirit). Naturally, God will not bypass human volition as he carries out his sweeping project to restore our desire and ability to willingly submit to our Creator via the person and work of the new man, Jesus the Christ. Since Eden, the ability to choose has always been a noticeable facet of his plan for humanity. Many of the stories Jesus told about God's kingdom were crafted in such a way as to leave the hearer with a choice—a choice to believe or to doubt, to comprehend or to confuse, to seek Truth or to run from him. I maintain that Jesus' parables are most often simple and direct. However, the parable format allows lazy or intellectually dishonest hearers to impose their alternate meanings. I want to be clear that it's ultimately not Jesus' ambiguity but our own pride, preferences, preconceptions, and sin-stricken hearts that lead us astray.

As a confirmed skeptic (who has now been won over by Jesus and his good news), I've often wondered why God didn't eliminate any opportunity for doubt or confusion. Sure we have the Scriptures, numerous miracles, compelling prophecies, and Jesus' own resurrection, but the skeptic in me always wants more. How have so many of his misguided followers managed to become crusaders, inquisitors, slave holders, advocates for apartheid, and purveyors of the alt-right? How could they possibly hear approval in the words of Christ and veer so far off course? Why have others heard nothing at all? How is it that so many of his friends and foes alike mishear or misrepresent him? Why couldn't God shout even louder, so to speak, so that everyone, even those with the hardest hearts, couldn't help but hear him? Well, one day he will. Jesus promises “there is nothing hidden that will not be disclosed, and nothing concealed that will not be known or brought out into the open” (Luke 8:17 NIV). “Every knee” will eventually bow to him (Phil 2:10). But he wants us to be “hungry” and “thirsty” for him now, and we can't claim to be listening, as an act of our own volition, when at his return we have no choice but to hear. Paul explained to the Athenians how God had orchestrated human history “so that [we] would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us” (Acts 17:27 NIV). Maybe he presently speaks in a “gentle whisper” so that we will have to stop and truly listen in order to hear him (1 Kings 19:12 NIV). I like how the New Living Translation renders Luke 8:18: “ attention to how you hear,” says Jesus. “To those who listen to my teaching, more understanding will be given. But for those who are not listening, even what they think they understand will be taken away from them.” 

Friday, June 2, 2017

Traditions of Men

Jesus rebuked the Pharisees of his day for elevating their traditions above God’s word. He cited several examples of how their time-honored customs had subtly undermined, perverted, and even outright contradicted many of God’s commands. The Pharisees were, of course, deeply offended by this accusation. In their own estimation and by all outward indicators, they held God’s word in the highest regard. I think the poison that Jesus noted in the Pharisees' twisted traditions, however, often manifested without them even being aware. It’s easy enough to see the Pharisees as a group of men who simply set out to twist the word of God with their traditions, but I think this is a dangerous oversimplification of who they were (and, by extension, who we are). It’s truly astounding how self-deluded our sin-stricken human hearts can be, even effectively keeping us in the dark when it comes to our own deepest motivations and intents.
I want to be clear from the start that traditions alone aren’t the problem here. Jesus wasn’t waging a war against the human practice of making and keeping traditions (On the contrary, he utilized several existing traditions and even instituted a few of his own). I'm not with the overzealous crowd of Christians who dogmatically reject any tradition unless it’s explicitly outlined in Scripture (ultimately out sola scriptura-ing even Luther himself). That’s certainly not the drum I’m beating. There are numerous extra-biblical traditions that have been crafted by the Church with the intent of magnifying God, declaring his good news, and edifying his people. And in many cases they accomplish just that. Our Catholic and Orthodox brothers and sisters, as examples, rely heavily on tradition within their particular expressions of the Christian faith. Protestants, despite our reputation as being anti-tradition, hold fast to numerous extra-biblical traditions as well. And though tradition doesn’t carry the same weight as Scripture in our dogma, it certainly does at times in our actual practice. That’s where the problem lies. But if we can’t even distinguish between our human traditions and the word of God, we’re likely to cross this dangerous line without even realizing it.
Many Christ-followers, I think, fail to see the prevalence of identity politics and extreme nationalism, which have long found a home within the American Church (especially among evangelicals), as potentially the same sort of Scripture-stifling traditions that angered Jesus. It’s as American as apple pie, for example, for “Old Glory” and the “Old Rugged Cross” to share the same space in our church gatherings. So long have the two narratives (the story of our nation and the story of God) been made to walk together that many Christians can now no longer separate the two (and both get warped as a result). It’s easy to see how our pro-slavery, Christian ancestors blatantly misrepresented Scripture in their attempts to defend their traditions (just as the Pharisees had a mountain of proof-texts for their hypocritical nonsense), but hindsight is 20/20. It’s infinitely more difficult to see how our current Christian traditions, which inevitably intersect with notions of patriotism, individualism, economic theory, self-defense, immigration, race, gender and sexuality, healthcare, foreign policy, and environmental conservationism, are often at odds with God’s heart for kingdom loyalty, community, generosity, sacrificial non-violence, hospitality, justice and reconciliation, grace and truth, compassion, mercy, and responsible stewardship. Sociopolitical allegiances often come with deep seated traditions. If we’re not careful, these partisan values will skew the way we read Scripture, and our stubborn hearts will willingly devise all kinds of Pharisaical “explanations” for why the sacred text condones our present course.
Every church community (no matter how fresh and contemporary) will inherit, and likely create, traditions. As mentioned, this is to be expected and perfectly fine to a point. But we need to be able to properly name our traditions as such so that they don’t inappropriately find their way into the wrong category. No doubt there are some explicit biblical instructions regarding church structure and practice, but our traditions often come in just where the command leaves off. It can become understandably difficult to distinguish between the two.
The “sinner’s prayer” is a good example of a cherished, and somewhat recent, tradition that has become in many Christian communities the exclusive way in which one is ushered into the kingdom of God. I’m not saying that the common practice of leading someone in a prayer, as their first response to the Gospel, in which the new believer is encouraged to acknowledge their sin and ask for God’s forgiveness on account of Jesus’ death and resurrection is a bad thing or that it should be abandoned. The tradition is after all rooted implicitly in passages like Acts 2:21 and Romans 10:9-10. But I think we’re hard pressed to find the contemporary practice of what we now know as the “sinner’s prayer” explicitly modeled in Scripture. Let me reiterate: That doesn’t mean it’s a problem, but it probably means that it’s one of our traditions, and it should be treated accordingly. We don’t see Peter, after preaching the Gospel to the Pentecost crowd, saying “now with all heads bowed, and with every eye closed, can I get a show of hands for who would like to accept Jesus into their hearts as their personal Lord and Savior?” Likewise, Phillip, after declaring the Gospel to the Ethiopian eunuch, didn’t lead him in a prayer to “get saved.” And Paul, after preaching the Gospel to the Philippian jailer and his family, didn’t have them come to the front and repeat after him to receive Jesus.
The sinner’s prayer has risen to prominence within evangelical circles in the last few centuries and seems to initially have been adopted for the sake of well-intentioned expediency (particularly so that large crowds of people could be readily welcomed into God’s kingdom at big tent revivals). However, baptism, the new believer’s Scriptural first response to the Gospel, has been somewhat sidelined or even replaced by the rise of the sinner’s prayer. Baptism almost feels redundant within this new arrangement. We usually get around to it (Jesus commanded baptism after all), but it’s something like an afterthought, especially in many non-denominational, evangelical traditions. We sometimes have a waiting period on baptism (as if you’re buying a gun or something), maybe even with a prerequisite class before getting in the water (to be sure you understand what you’re doing, I suppose). I’m all for knowing what you’re getting into (“counting the cost” and so on), but you should have already been brought up to speed with an accurate presentation of the Gospel. If it wasn’t the invitation to be united with Christ in his death so that we may partake in his resurrection (as illustrated in baptism) then it wasn’t the Gospel we heard to begin with.
If someone insists they’re “Heaven bound” simply because they raised their hand or repeated a prayer—even though there’s no evidence they’ve been born of God, truly repented, are filled with God’s Spirit, and Jesus is now their King—then their faith is not actually in Christ and his “new creation” project but in a human tradition. Traditions are best used to point us to God, to magnify Christ in our lives and in others. Only a fool would put their faith in a human tradition, expecting it to act as a golden ticket, lucky charm, or a magical incantation, as if it could undo or supersede the word of God. That’s the backwards thinking of the self-deceived men who conspired to murder the Author of Life.
It’s difficult to really even know how many human traditions we each, and collectively, subscribe to. As I’ve suggested, many of our human traditions are intertwined with Scriptural traditions (i.e. the specifics of how we observe baptism and the Lord’s Supper, organize our Family gatherings, carry out communal worship, and structure church leadership). I think there’s room in the diverse body of Christ for our various distinct traditions (so long as our traditions know their place). When our human traditions become divisive or elevated above God’s word, we've gone too far.
We’re following dangerously in the Pharisees’ footsteps, then, when our preferred traditions become dogma. Many Christians take dogmatic stances on everything from teaching styles to carpet colors (growing up in the church, I feel like I’ve heard it all, every arbitrary position declared with the same zealous conviction as Stephen the Martyr). It’s perfectly normal to have opinions, but recognize that many of our subjective preferences are simply rooted in human traditions and not Scripture.
The main objective of this post is to encourage the reader to faithfully examine all dearly held human traditions. We must be ready to reject—with extreme prejudice—any traditions that undermine or contradict the commands of Christ (or he simply isn’t our King). It’s shocking how many of our political and religious traditions attempt to render Jesus’ commands to love our enemies, care for the poor, and take up our cross (as only a few examples) completely meaningless.
Our next step is to critically examine the traditions we hold to that don’t directly oppose the word of God (This can be the more difficult task of the two). Are these traditions ultimately helpful in achieving what they’re designed to accomplish (In other words, do they draw us and others closer or further away from Jesus)? Is there perhaps a better more effective way to pursue the same goal? Has our tradition in its current form outlived its usefulness? In this category, the conversation revolves around how helpful or unhelpful a given tradition is rather than declaring its inherent “wrongness” or “rightness.” Cross-cultural ministers of the Gospel are often more attune to this important process (with perhaps a clearer vantage point of typical American syncretism) as they seek to plant a pure seed in a foreign context. I’ve raised some of these questions elsewhere regarding the widely accepted building-centric nature of our gatherings. These are hard questions that we should have the courage to passionately discuss in Spirit-filled community (with grace and humility). If our goal is truly to glorify God by sharing the good news of Jesus (and not simply to maintain our own preferences) then our traditions should readily bend to that aim. None of our human traditions should be beyond the possibility of the chopping block. And if we feel that they are, then we know for sure that our traditions have become idols to us.

You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions. Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition” —Jesus (from Mark 7:8, 13a)

Friday, May 26, 2017

Winner Takes All


I've heard people cite Jesus' instruction to "render unto Caesar what is Caesar's" as an example of Christ delineating between the secular and the sacred. The popular American ideology that springs from this divides our lives into two categories: God is only after "spiritual things" like my saved soul, sincere heart, regular Scripture reading, solemn meditation/prayer, charity, and church attendance, we often think. He is not concerned—and neither should clergy be, if they know what's good for them—with 90% of my finances, my political outlook, and most everything else that falls within the sweeping "practical" or "secular things" category.

I don't think this is what Christ was saying at all when he held up the Roman denarius with Caesar's image imprinted upon it (Matthew 22). This is, however, what the Herodians, the Gentiles, and other earthly minded passers by would hear (Jesus' words were often multifaceted and intentionally layered). "This man is harmless," they'd think. Those attempting to ferret out Jesus' politics, would likely conclude, "He is something of a Gnostic who cares only for the unseen world." To Jesus' Jewish audience, however, they would instantly recall the "Imago Dei," how God has made humanity in his image. Jesus is saying that Caesar, shortsighted as he is, can have the metal with his imprint. God, however, lays claim to the person, body and soul. This should not be seen as a dividing of the spoils between God and Caesar. Any fool knows that if you get the man—his body, his mind, his heart, his soul, his ambitions and dreams, everything he is—you get everything else too. There is no aspect of life, of art, conflict, politics, economics, human sexuality, race, etc. that will not be affected (or "redeemed," to use biblical vernacular) by a reborn kingdom citizen.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Counted Worthy of Suffering


Many of my brothers and sisters have justified our dubious political alliances as unfortunate “necessities.” “We must use political power,” we say, “to fight the rise of religious persecution so that we can get on with the important business of declaring the Gospel.” But we forget that the Gospel is most powerfully demonstrated in our suffering, through our patient endurance, when we refuse to strike back or avenge ourselves, as we relinquish our rights, and instead say “Father forgive them; they don’t know what they’re doing” (“the victory of the cross will be implemented through the means of the cross,” explains N.T. Wright). We can’t accomplish our calling by seeking to evade it, and we can't expect to retaliate against our cultural and political adversaries and then afterwards effectively share with them a message of grace and forgiveness. A Gospel declaration without a clear Gospel demonstration always rings hollow to the hearer.
The current sociopolitical climate is characterized by fear, bitterness, and a reckless quest for vengeance that is dressed as righteous indignation. It has all the polarizing tribal “us” and “them” hallmarks of a genocidal civil war in the making. It seems the American branch of the “royal priesthood” would benefit from a reminder of our calling to be peace-makers, ministers of reconciliation, and faithful ambassadors of his cross and kingdom. Perhaps we could use a hearty refresher on the theology of suffering (what much of our family around the world lives so well). Lest we forget the counterintuitive genius of God, who bested Pilate, Herod, Caesar, and the unseen rulers behind them, disarming and subjecting them all to public shame with a bloodied Galilean who willingly hung naked on a cross (Colossians 2:15). And the ancient world was "turned upside down," not by political prowess or military might, but by the power of his Gospel as beautifully displayed in the blood-soaked Colosseum of Rome where an unstoppable Spirit-filled army of his offspring said in word and deed "I no longer live, but Christ lives in me." We don't seek out suffering, but it will certainly find us (John 15:18-21). And when it does, we mustn't compromise the Gospel which we claim to represent in our efforts to escape (no matter how good our intentions may be). To paraphrase Wright: Our suffering is not an unfortunate side effect of following Christ; it is the primary means by which he conveys his good news to a broken world.

Now my soul is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour. Father, glorify your name!” - John 12:27-28a

Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” - Mark 8:34b

The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name.” - Acts 5:41

Now I rejoice in what I am suffering for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church. I have become its servant by the commission God gave me to present to you the word of God in its fullness—the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the Lord’s people. To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery,

which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.” - Colossians 1:24-27

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Stacking Stones


After God miraculously stopped up the Jordan River so his people could at long last enter their promised land, he commanded Joshua to collect twelve stones from the temporarily-exposed riverbed. These stones, which represented the twelve tribes of Israel, would be stacked into a monument on the other side. Most of the Israelites who passed through the Jordan were born in the wilderness (You probably remember how their parents were barred from the land due to rebellion and unbelief). Second generation Israelites had only heard the stories of how God had dramatically rescued them from bondage in Egypt. So this became something like their very own Red Sea crossing. In the years to come, they could return to this location to look at the memorial and remember God’s provision. Their future children could run their fingers along the smooth stones taken from the floor of the Jordan and ask what it was like to see God roll the water back like a scroll. God knows the fickleness of human memory. He knows how easily we forget and how our hearts inevitably wander. The truth is that faith is unavoidably tied to memory, and sometimes our memory needs a little help.

I’m very sympathetic to honest skeptics (I’ve written elsewhere about my own perpetual journey through doubt). But when it comes to this sort of doubt, the kind that predictably emerges from our own forgetfulness, we have only ourselves to blame. If we’ve experienced God’s hand in our lives at some point, yet failed to document his faithfulness for future reference, then we’ve recklessly squandered his revelation. We’ve essentially been lazy with his grace.

I keep a journal, what I call my “faith book,” that acts as one of my more meaningful stacks of stones. It has something like a dozen entries. Only what I consider to be the most remarkable events make it in. When my memory fades, as it often does, I flip through this little book. It’s helpful to have my own voice, a younger me with a closer vantage point to the actual event, always ready to rebuke my unbelief. What was once clearly “miraculous” to us can sadly become merely “coincidental” if we fail to leave a record when everything is still fresh in our minds.

One of the stones in my “faith book” was given to me on December 6th, 2012. I was washing dishes on a Thursday afternoon (I know this because I wrote it down) while my one-year-old daughter took her daily nap. I had been volunteering with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship on a local college campus, and I had the opportunity to attend their upcoming mission conference in Saint Luis (Urbana is a massive international event that only takes place every three years). I couldn’t afford the travel expenses, though, so I would need to raise the funds if I was going to be able to make it. I sent out letters to my friends and family telling them about the exciting opportunity and inviting them to consider partnering with me financially. I put together a website with updates about my preparation for the conference and showed examples of the custom portraits that I was offering to sponsors (I was pretty sure the portraits would create some interest since I had worked as a professional artist in the past).

With only a few weeks until the conference, and despite my best efforts, I hadn’t raised a dime. I had been unsuccessfully looking for work, as well, and my wife was expressing serious doubts about the trip. I stood at my sink that Thursday with a sense of total defeat. Had God actually wanted me to attend this conference, I wondered? It had seemed so clear that he did. Did he care that I was spiraling down into a dark place? Was he even there (yeah, it was a pretty bleak day)?

Try me,” is what I heard, “see if I can’t provide.”

It wasn't audible. The best way I can describe it is as a familiar voice in my head that I can clearly distinguish from my own. I recognized it as him (Being a skeptic by nature, I fully realize that this explanation is weak at best, but it's the only one I have). He was inviting me to ask anything of him. Now I'm familiar with the Scripture that warns us not to put God to the test, but I tell you he seemed to be giving me a blank check. I've never had an offer like this from him before, and I can't say that I've ever had it since. With a heart still lingering in unbelief, I said, “it would really encourage me if I could get $50 toward my trip.”

Shortly after, my daughter woke up, and I took her for our regular walk around the apartment complex. We stopped to pick up the mail on our way back. My heart must have stopped when I pulled a $50 check out of an envelope addressed to me. The person who sent it, someone I hadn't even told about the mission conference, wrote a note along with their contribution apologizing for the “small amount.” Tears came to my eyes at the thought of God's grace. He doesn't owe me anything—certainly not another proof of his love.

I realize that the letter was obviously mailed before I made my specific request, and, of course, there was a human being who wrote the check and put it in the mail (More often than not, this is his way). But to this day, I'm absolutely convinced that any amount I had asked for would have been waiting for me in that envelope. The rest of my needed funds came in the last few weeks before my departure. The money was never an issue.

Christians tend to romanticize an imagined sort of spontaneous faith that doesn’t require any maintenance or reinforcement. But there’s a practical side to sustained faith that looks less like walking through a miraculously parted river (which, don’t get me wrong, is awesome when it happens) and more like humbly toting around heavy stones and then taking the time to stack them into monuments after the river has resumed its course. Genuine faith, the kind that’s useful in the real world, is typically built on the less flashy pastime of simply leaving a record for yourself and others. I'm certainly thankful to the writers of Scripture, who amidst shipwrecks, beatings, imprisonment, and exile took the time to leave us monuments. As a result, we now all share their Spirit-breathed stack of stones. So make time to properly document God’s handiwork in your own life. Take time to stack some stones.

I will remember the deeds of the LORD; yes, I will remember your miracles of long ago. I will consider all your works and meditate on all your mighty deeds. Your ways, God, are holy. What god is as great as our God? You are the God who performs miracles; you display your power among the peoples.” —Psalm 77:11-14 

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Requiem for a King


Saul, Israel’s notorious first king, is usually remembered for his role as the “bad guy” in King David’s epic story. He of course tried countless times to snuff out the shepherd boy who God had appointed to replace him. But people often forget that before he became the villain, he too was chosen by God (1 Samuel 10:24). His is a tragic story of a sometimes great leader with enormous potential who was ultimately overcome by his own insecurities, doubts, and fears.
Saul was tall, dark, and handsome (1 Samuel 9:2). He was every inch the picture of a king. He was also a fierce warrior with numerous military exploits to his name. God used him mightily to deliver the people of Israel from foreign oppressors. And to his credit, Saul had the courage to show up for his final battle, even knowing in advance that it would certainly end in his defeat and death.
From early on, Saul was unsure of himself (1 Samuel 9:21, 10:22). He had a less-than-accurate, understated perspective of who he was, who God had made him to be. When Samuel told him he would be king, for example, Saul insisted that the prophet had the wrong guy, that he was a nobody, and that “[his] family [was] the least important of all the families” in his small tribe (even though the text specifically says his father, Kish, was “wealthy” and “influential” – 1 Samuel 9:1, 21 NLT).
God fully equipped King Saul with his Spirit, gave him a “new heart,” and changed him into a “different person” (1 Samuel 10:6, 9). He had everything he needed to succeed, but time and time again he kept reverting back to the insecure guy who once hid among the luggage, frequently preoccupied with what people might think of him. He “felt compelled” to break God’s command when things seemed to be unraveling (1 Samuel 13:12). He was “afraid of the people” and sometimes allowed himself to be carried along with the prevailing streams of public opinion rather than holding fast to God’s instruction (1 Samuel 15:24). “Although you may think little of yourself,” said Samuel in his final rebuke, “are you not the leader of the tribes of Israel?” (1 Samuel 15:17).
Eventually, God revoked his life-giving Spirit, and Saul was overcome with depression and fear (1 Samuel 16:14). He spiraled down into a place of total darkness and basically lost his mind. At perhaps his lowest, he ordered the murder of 85 innocent priests and their families in a desperate effort to retain control of a kingdom that God had already given to another. He finally died on the battlefield, hopeless and alone, his enemies closing in around him, and left with the crushing knowledge that his three sons had been cut down.
Samuel was so deeply moved,” following God's rejection of Saul, “that he cried out to the LORD all night” (1Samuel 15:10-11). After delivering God’s message of judgment to the wayward king, “Samuel never went to meet with Saul again, but he mourned constantly for him” (1 Samuel 15:35). Samuel’s gut-wrenching response to Saul’s fall is very sobering, I think. Without it, we might be tempted to breeze right past Saul’s story on our way to King David. He can easily become a one-dimensional villain in our minds, a footnote in the narrative, simply a faceless antagonist standing between David and the throne. But if we deny Saul his humanity—his initial potential and the nature of his brokenness—we run the risk of missing his costly warning.
Saul’s low opinion of himself wasn’t a sign of humility. It wasn’t a virtue. It was rooted in his unbelief and maintained by his failure to fully grasp that God had chosen him, empowered him, and assigned him a task. Saul didn’t wear the crown because he was great. He wore the crown because God is great, and he ultimately lost it because he couldn’t connect the dots. It wasn't that he thought too little of himself. On the contrary, he thought too much of himself (or too often of himself). Saul’s fixation on his own inadequacies (that he wasn’t good enough, that he’d eventually be found out, that he’d lose it all to someone better) and his resulting jealousy and paranoia was evidence that his hope wasn't in God. His hope was in himself. His fears, which sprang from his self-reliance, became self-fulfilling prophecies. In the end, Saul fell on his own sword.

“A gazelle lies slain on your heights, Israel. How the mighty have fallen! Daughters of Israel, weep for Saul... How the mighty have fallen”

From the “Lament of the Bow,” a funeral song composed by King David, recorded in 2 Samuel 1 

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Bread of Life


Jesus is a master communicator. He is known for, among other things, his clever and concise story explanations for complex things. He would regularly draw out the inner workings of his listeners’ hearts—even exposing areas of which we ourselves were previously unaware—with accessible, yet provocative, parables about everyday life. With this young Galilean, you didn’t need to be an elite theologian or have a PhD in eschatology to get a taste of the kingdom of God. Jesus would explain it in down to earth, blue collar terms that resonated with his disciples and took root in their hearts. This talent for simple and effective communication is especially seen in Jesus' use of food and drink to convey the core of the Gospel—namely, that he is the Bread of Life.
After miraculously feeding a crowd of over five thousand people, Jesus explained to them that he was the “true bread from heaven” sent to satisfy their hunger and to give them life (John 6:32-33). He likened himself to the mysterious manna that God provided to the Israelites in the wilderness, and he claimed they would need to feast on his flesh and drink his blood if they wanted to live. This bizarre declaration wasn't any less jarring in Aramaic. There’s no linguistic nuance or cultural filter that makes his sentiment any more palatable. Jesus’ apparent invitation—no, insistence—that his followers cannibalize him was received as both disgusting and insane. Many of them left over this sermon. Even the Twelve were shaken but ultimately had “nowhere else to go.”
Later in the upper room, on the night he was betrayed, Jesus repeated this earlier controversial sentiment. He retooled the Passover meal, that was first enacted on the eve of the Exodus, in order to celebrate and declare an even greater deliverance. The Lord's Supper is one of two rituals that Jesus personally instituted among his followers (interestingly, his diverse body can rarely agree on the meaning or mechanics of either of these two rituals. In many cases, we've allowed practices that were originally designed to unite us to instead divide us). There are quite a few indicators that throughout the 1st Century Church the regular celebration of the Lord's Supper became the main event when the people of God would gather.
Breadcrumbs Leading to Jesus
Bread (a staple food item that represents basic sustenance in most cultures) is an essential element of human life that comes from outside of us. Like oxygen, we need it to survive, yet we can’t produce it ourselves from within.
God has designed human beings with an internal mechanism that reminds us of our need for this external sustenance. Dirt, rocks, sticks and such won't do. Only food will satisfy our hunger.
However, the bread won’t benefit us until we consume it. And it won't force itself down our throats and into our stomachs. We must decide if we will eat or not. In fact, we might have quite a bit of observable knowledge about bread and the human digestive system, but it's the one who partakes—even if they know nothing of how it works—that actually benefits from bread (and, in the end, has a greater sort of knowledge about bread).
Once we eat the bread, our body begins to metabolize it. The bread essentially becomes a part of us. It nourishes us and fuels our body from within. It gives us life.
And lastly, the bread is destroyed in the eating. We can't have our bread and eat it too. The bread simply won't survive its encounter with us if all these other things are going to happen.
Everything we've just considered about bread is of course obvious. The benefits of eating and drinking are intuitively understood, even by very small children, and, as previously stated, can be experienced apart from knowing how it all works. This is exactly the point. This is why it becomes a powerful, easily repeatable, and readily accessible picture of what Jesus has done, and is doing, in those who call him “King.”
Pass the Bread
In many cultures, breaking bread together is a very intimate communal activity. When we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, we preach the Gospel to our brothers and sisters, to ourselves, and to not-yet-believers who are looking on. As the Apostle Paul says, we “proclaim the Lord's death until he comes” (1 Corinthians 11:26). In this way, it’s both a declaration and an invitation—a family meal with much room still at the table.
It's not uncommon for the person officiating the celebration of the Lord's Supper, after they've explained its significance, to instruct not-yet-believers in attendance to let the elements pass them by. These uninitiated folks are usually told to come find someone after if they want to hear more about the Gospel. I think this common church practice misses the purpose of what's actually happening in the ritual. The Gospel is being proclaimed. That's the point of it all. If someone in attendance suddenly believes the Gospel message that we're collectively celebrating and declaring, even if they didn't believe only seconds before, they should be invited to respond by partaking (if you're from a tradition that would require baptism first, very well. I'd agree that baptism is the prescribed first response to the Gospel and the other ritual commanded by Christ. But make baptism readily available, and resume the family meal only after it's done). You don't present a Meal, describe how incredible it is, and then quickly whip the plate away from your dinner guest.
Our reluctance to let just anyone participate in the Lord's Supper is I think rooted in Paul's stern warning to those who would partake in an “unworthy manner” (1 Corinthians 11:27). If you look at the context, though, Paul was addressing a church that was making a mockery of the sacred ritual with their hypocrisy (he wasn't forbidding the newcomer who has yet to procure their PhD in soteriology). On the one hand the church at Corinth was declaring their faith in Jesus' Gospel by participating in the meal, but on the other hand they were completely contradicting the implications of the Gospel by excluding people who were running late to the gathering or weren't able to afford the fixings and so on. Basically, they turned what was meant as a unifying family meal into a free-for-all exhibition of human selfishness and divisive prejudice. As Jesus pointed out with his story about the unforgiving servant, we can't receive forgiveness from God and then withhold forgiveness from others. That's not how his Gospel works. Freely extending forgiveness is just one example of how a truly transformed person will naturally live in Gospel truth. Anytime we partake of the Lord's Supper while actively denying through our rebellion the Gospel that the meal illustrates, we're “guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord” (1 Corinthians 11:27). We're essentially making a statement that we don't in practice believe. We're taking his name in vain and trampling on his spilt blood. So we ought to “examine” ourselves before we eat and drink of the meal (1 Corinthians 11:28). Anyone who finds that they don't actually believe the Gospel (regardless of whether or not they say they do) should refrain from participating in the Lord's Supper. If we find that we do believe but are currently out of step with Jesus' Gospel then we must first acknowledge our inconsistencies and realign ourselves with our King. And whether we're responding to the Gospel declaration for the first time or for the ten-thousandth time, those who have been born of God will respond with repentance and then partake with gratitude.
Fortunately for us once-rebels, Jesus offers himself to all. His words of life are for anyone “with ears to hear,” and he invites everyone who is “hungry” and “thirsty” to be satisfied in him. He's given us a simple yet profound demonstration of his good news, something we can be reminded of often (since we typically eat at least three meals a day) and something we can in turn share with those who will be hearing it for the first time as we welcome them to our table. Jesus truly is the Bread of Life. Eat up!

I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.” —John 6:51

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Made for Worship


In the biblical creation story, we’re told how God uniquely created human beings in his image. He generously gave the first humans “dominion” (a kingdom term) over creation. They were to spread out, fill the earth, tend to and harness/maximize creation’s unbounded potential. Connected to the Tree of Life, God’s image-bearers were meant to be an extension of him, to be living monuments to his greatness. Humanity’s initial task, then, was to be the chief worshippers within creation, to reflect God’s goodness to the world, and to lead creation in symphonic worship of the Creator (N.T. Wright develops these ideas in Simply Christian and some of his other work far better than I could hope to here). We were created to be his administrators, ambassadors, priests (within a creation that is meant to act as his temple). Heaven (“God’s space,” as Wright would say) and earth (what we think of as “our space”) naturally and peacefully coexist when God’s design is working properly. It seems he has always planned to rule over his good world through his human image-bearers (an arrangement he refers to as “his kingdom”). In order to effectively fulfill this monumental task, however, we must first be enthralled with God. We must be genuinely exuberant evangelists of his beauty and his goodness. We must accurately reflect his love and his justice with our every thought, word, and action. Herein lies the problem. We immediately notice (following a brief look at the news, a peak out the window, or an honest appraisal of our own inner thoughts) that this isn’t even close to happening as it was initially planned. Something has gone wrong.
Unfortunately, the first humans quickly became idolaters (the true epicenter of all rebellion and even death itself). They were tricked into gazing longingly at the creation instead of the Creator (which, it turns out, is a poor substitute for him). They rejected the Tree of Life for a lesser tree (and the enemy of God, after first believing his own lies, erroneously convinced them that they were indeed hungry, that they were lacking something, before they foolishly ate). Humanity has been idolatrous ever since: We ravenously chase after sex, money, power, status, human relationships, and counterfeit significance—the typical pantheon of human idolatry. Yet we're never satisfied. By default, we now worship the creation rather than the Creator, and all of creation suffers (“groans”) as a result. These created things were never evil, but our inappropriate and unfounded fixation on them as false gods has wreaked havoc in God’s once-good world (ironically, creation withers when it’s the object of our unhealthy infatuation). Worst of all, It isn’t currently a suitable temple for his dwelling and we are far from the priests we were meant to be (as with every thought and action we blaspheme the divine image we bear and so lie about him to the creation we were designed to tend).
Idolatry, exile, and death are reoccurring, cyclical themes in humanity’s painful story (therefore, miraculously breaking this cycle and reversing its effects is at the heart of the all-encompassing redemptive story of God. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves). The story of Israel, in particular, is marked by this tragic cycle (their history is somewhat of a retelling of the creation story and a microcosm of the universal plight of humanity). We read how God created a people from the dust (an idolatrous community of desert-dwelling slaves who were built up into a mighty nation of worshippers), established them in an Eden-like paradise (a promised land “flowing with milk and honey”), issued his Law (an expounded warning against the forbidden fruit and detailed instructions for legitimate worship), gave them dominion (a kingdom), and charged them with being his representatives and priests. Unfortunately, the Israelites inevitably rejected the Creator and abdicated their noble vocation in favor of idolatry (several times, in fact). However, none of Israel’s story is wasted (as we might be tempted to conclude). The law and the prophets are not simply chronicling “failed attempts” at returning to Eden that ultimately lead nowhere. Lest we forget, Jesus is the product of their story, a descendant of Abraham, and heir to David’s throne. He redeems all of their futile efforts and otherwise wasted blood, sweat, and tears.
Defining a proper place for legitimate worship is a major theme throughout Scripture (the burning question of “where to worship?” is posed to Jesus by the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4). Remember, a post-Eden world is somehow defiled by human idolatry and rebellion. God views even inanimate objects like the soil and the crops—all of creation, really—as corrupted by human sin. The crux of the Jewish Law, delivered through Moses, then, was to create something of a clean space for legitimate worship to happen and to produce temporarily clean people who could utilize said space. The designated place for worship was initially the mobile, tent-like, Tabernacle, which later transitioned into a stationary Temple. This holy space, made clean by God’s presence, can be thought of as a place where heaven and earth intersected. The Israelites, of course, understood that God was everywhere (as seen in David's rhetorical question, “where can I flee from your presence?”—Psalm 139:7b), but he had also disclosed his desire to dwell with them in a unique way. Though he was omnipresent, Jerusalem, specifically the Temple, would be where the Creator of the cosmos hung his hat, so to speak. God’s continued dwelling, however, was somewhat contingent on whether or not legitimate worship was taking place. Though he was incredibly merciful—“long suffering”—in regard to this requirement, prolonged idolatry would eventually prompt him to revoke his life-giving presence (as seen in Ezekiel's vision of God’s glory leaving the Temple).
There's an awesome prophecy in Ezekiel chapter 47 about life-giving water that's flowing out of the Temple, cleaning and rejuvenating the land as it goes. In this vein, Jesus introduced the novel (and incredibly dangerous) idea that he himself was a living breathing temple of flesh, a new place where heaven and earth intersected. He was effectively bringing the presences of God to those who were most in need, overlooked, and counted out. This revolutionary arrangement would naturally supplant the physical Temple and its geographic limitations. Jesus was/is, after all, the exact image of the invisible God, the fullness of the Creator dwelling in authentic bodily form. He is as superior to the brick and mortar Temple as a real person is to a paper doll (even more so). He invites his followers to partake of him, to miraculously become an extension of him, and, by doing so, to become active participants in this expanding, heaven/earth intersecting phenomenon. In doing this, Jesus is restoring to humanity—to those who believe—our original vocation as priests. Through his death and resurrection, we’re made clean (qualified), and by the sending of his Spirit we’re enabled (empowered) to finally break free of our idolatry and to become true worshippers once again. We're given a new heart, a heart of flesh, one that has the capacity to truly worship God in spirit and truth (Ezekiel chapters 11 and 36, and John 4).
There’s nothing that the eternal Son of God values above his Father. Ultimately, everything that the Son does is resulting from his affection for the Father. And inversely there is no one in whom the Father is more pleased than his “only begotten.” Jesus is the type of worshipper that all humans were meant to be, and, as such, he is the only human uniquely qualified to reclaim our image-bearing birthright and the kingdom that was originally entrusted to us (Daniel 7:13-14, Revelation 5:9-10). He means to make many sons and daughters who will reign with him. Far more than simply describing our “personal salvation,” the Gospel tells us of the Father-sent, Spirit-empowered, eternal Son’s relentless mission to produce the sort of worshippers that his Father deserves. It’s a story about idolaters being redeemed at great cost, priestly vocation being reinstated, and finally all of creation being restored to the temple it was always meant to be—all to the glory of God and for his express pleasure.
We're made to worship, and we inevitably will do just that. The question is simply what, or who, will be the recipient of our worship? There are essentially only two possible outcomes: Either we'll worship the creation (the cast shadow, the dream, the painting) or we'll worship the Creator (the living Figure that casts the shadow, the Dreamer, the Artist). There's nothing else.

I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.” —Romans 12:1

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Saving the Story

Saving Private Ryan is one of my favorite movies. It's a powerful World War II film about a small band of U.S. soldiers who are ordered to journey behind enemy lines to retrieve Private James Ryan after three of his brothers are killed in separate engagements (and all within days of each other). Ryan's would-be rescuers are initially resentful of their dangerous task, questioning why the life of a single ordinary soldier—who they've never even met—carries more weight than all of their lives combined. Somewhere along the way, though, the mission becomes more than just saving Ryan: The band of searchers also seek personal redemption, desperately striving to accomplish one decent thing, to regain a measure of their humanity amidst a multitude of unspeakable acts, to “earn the right to go home.” It's an incredible story about sacrifice and redemption with several unforgettable scenes.

Stay with me. I'll do my best to come to the point shortly.

Now suppose, for a minute, I ask two people (We'll call them Kate and Greg) what Saving Private Ryan is about. Let's pretend Kate has only seen the film once, while Greg is the movie's all time “biggest fan.” How about we go a bit further and say Greg has seen Saving Private Ryan no less than 100 times, he knows every line, and can even do a spot on Tom Hanks impersonation. His enthusiasm for the film has prompted him to become a World War II history buff who can elaborate in great detail about nuanced 20th Century European politics, precise troop deployment and military tactics during the invasion of Normandy, and he can even tell me what Himmler's favorite color was. Greg went so far as to become fluent in German, so he wouldn't need any of the subtitles. Now suppose our first person, Kate, after only one viewing, can more or less tell me what the movie is about (though she may have forgotten some of the character's names and certain details here and there) while Greg, on the other hand, is completely unable to explain the plot (even in the most simplest terms). Lets say Greg (who, remember, can act out every individual scene) earnestly describes Spielberg's gritty war film as a “romantic comedy.” Anyone who's seen the film, with its graphic violence and sombre tone, knows Greg is way out to lunch with his description. Given what we know about Kate and Greg, which of the two would you say has a firmer grasp of the story? Now suppose we're talking about a much more significant story than Saving Private Ryan. A similar occurrence to what I've just described with Greg, our fictional “movie buff,” unfortunately seems to happen way too often when Christians attempt to tell the story of God. They may be extremely well versed on several of the individual components, but they're, in many cases, tragically unable to identify the main beats of the narrative or even the overarching point of it all.

The Disconnect

One of the reasons for this inability to see the big picture is due to the disjointed way in which we typically learn the story (or better said, the way we learn the stories). N.T. Wright, in How God Became King, discusses how we tend to miss the forest for the trees in our reading of the four gospels, and I think the same can be said for our reading of the whole story. In Sunday School, we're taught moral lessons from the biblical characters' exploits (courage in the face of persecution, for example, through the tale of Daniel and the lion's den, learning to trust Jesus as Peter steps out of the boat, etc.). And then later in “big church,” we learn important theological concepts like the nature of the Trinity, the sufficiency of the cross, and so on (We tend to work backwards, though, using the stories as explanations and evidences for the important doctrines that we've isolated and to reinforce our resulting sophisticated theological models). Unfortunately, we quickly develop tunnel vision (the kind that has allowed Christians through the ages to justify the genocidal underbelly of “manifest destiny,” slavery, segregation, rabid nationalism, social isolation, consumerism, apathy toward refugees and immigrants, pursuing safety and security over the Gospel, etc.). The simple truth is we tend to live our lives based on our perception of what the story is about (including where it's all headed), even if the narrative we're operating under was merely Frankenstein-ed together in our subconscious from all the loose bits and pieces.

Maybe to me the story is best described as a low-budget indie film that gives an artsy close-up of my own “personal salvation” (in which the original widescreen narrative is conspicuously truncated, I'm the main character, and passages like Jeremiah 29:11 were obviously written with me in mind). It could also be more of a buddy comedy that follows me and my wisecracking, pocket-size Jesus as I’m “tossed to and fro” on a wild romp through relativism (In this version I'm too “authentic” for organized religion, so I pretty much improvise the story all by myself as I go). Perhaps I see the story as the feel good movie of the summer that whimsically chronicles my prosperous “best life now.” Maybe I’m at the other end of the spectrum, and it’s an intense thriller that’s built around a great escape theme (where my role in the unfolding narrative is to hunker down in this present liberal “hellhole,” withdraw from society, gather as much “helpful intel” from questionable pseudo news sources as possible, and wait for the hero to suddenly and dramatically break me out and relocate me to a beach in Tahiti). Perhaps I see the story of God unfolding like a political propaganda film that equates the U.S. to the kingdom of God and nationalistic endeavors of “making America Great again” with the Great Commission (in this script, the epic “spiritual battle” between the elephant and the donkey is center stage). I guess I could even see it as a bizarre sci-fi, in which the audience is frequently asked to suspend its disbelief, as nothing in the story makes any sense (I’m looking at you, Joseph Smith). Some say it’s a “love story.” We're probably getting warmer (It ends with a wedding after all). But if it’s a romance, it’s no Sleepless in Seattle or The Notebook by any stretch. It would have to be much more one-sided, something like When Hosea Met Gomer.

Establishing the Story's Important Landmarks

Back when I was an art student, my figure drawing instructor would teach us to roughly block out our construction lines and basic forms before drawing in the details and shading. One of the marks of a novice is how they're always too eager to move on to the fine tuning before laying a proper foundation, and it shows in their finished composition (No amount of shading can make up for a poorly constructed and disproportioned figure). The figure we're drawing here is Jesus. He frames the unfolding story from Genesis to Revelation. He's the Author, the Protagonist, the Beginning and the End.

So here's my best attempt at identifying the main beats of his story:

The story began with God (the only Hero in the narrative)
He created an Ideal universe by the power of his Word
Humans were made in his image as his representatives (God's plan is to reign over his creation through his human administrators). They were instructed to multiply and fill the earth.
A single law was given…
Followed by rebellion/exile/bondage/death (With the rejection of the Tree of Life, all of creation was broken and heaven and earth were torn apart)
A broken man and his family were chosen as representatives to a rebellious humanity (God is set on his original plan to reign over his creation through his image bearers). He promised to multiply them and bless the whole earth through this man’s Seed.
An expanded law was given…
Followed by continuing cycles of rebellion/exile/bondage/failure
God sent his Son, just as he promised, as a descendant of the man “who believed” and as a stand-in for his inadequate family. He accomplished on their behalf the task of keeping God’s law and reconciling the Creator and his broken creation (by way of his life, death, and resurrection). As the only obedient image-bearer (the perfect Representative), he reclaimed the family of faith’s original birthright and vocation (which also happened to be humanity’s original birthright and vocation) and dealt a fatal blow to rebellion and death.
Everyone who acknowledges God’s Son as the rightful King is invited to participate in his kingdom as redeemed and restored representatives. These redeemed kingdom people—who are collectively an extension of the King, his “body,” his “church,” his “bride”—are the true family of faith as they are marked, empowered, and led by his Spirit and instructed to multiply and fill the earth (by sacrificially and incarnationally declaring and demonstrating the story of what God has accomplished through his Son).
He writes his law on renewed hearts...
And by God's grace, his renewed people inherit obedience/reconciliation/freedom/LIFE (and the mended become menders).
All authority has been given to the King. He oversees his advancing kingdom, through the power of his Spirit, as he's presently seated at the right hand of the Father.
The human rebels who tragically opt out of God’s active redemptive plan for his universe, along with the instigator, will be judged by the King upon his physical return (at which point he will “make all things new” by raising the dead/swallowing death up forever, banishing evil from his universe/fully restoring his creation, completely reunifying heaven and earth with his presence, and submitting everything to his Father).
I see the story of God as a big-budget (considering that the Director has literally poured his blood, sweat, and tears into its production), sweeping, redemptive story of how God is taking back his rebel world through the person and work of Jesus.
Core Themes
There are several significant themes threaded through God’s story. I’d like to briefly highlight a few. Redemption and restoration are among the most frequently reoccurring themes: that is taking something spoiled, spent, wasted, and ruined and making it new again (usually at great cost). God’s propensity toward redemption and restoration is illustrated on just about every page of Holy Scripture. He is gloriously inefficient in his stubborn refusal to simply scrap broken things and start again.
One of my personal favorites is the underdog theme. God has a noticeable affinity for the long shot. He often takes the youngest, weakest, unskilled, outsiders, never gonna happen, lowliest tribe, least likely, lost causes and losers and makes them into kings, prophets, freedom-bringing, giant-slaying, miracle-working, champions of God. He brings his best news to shepherds, beggars, orphans, widows, the marginalized, and the outcasts. In God's kingdom, “the last will be first, and the first will be last” (Matthew 20:16), and the King will wash their feet. “He has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts,” says Mary, the mother of Jesus, “He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:51b-53). God's own Son comes to us from a poor family, a marginalized ethnic group, laid in an animal feed trough, and raised in a hick-ville, backwoods part of Judea, formerly uneducated, and, for all intents and purposes, homeless (“he had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him”—from Isaiah 53:2). According to Paul there is a method to the Creator's madness, “God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him” (1 Corinthians 1:27-29).
Another reoccurring theme in God’s story (and the mechanism by which he carries out redemption and allows for restoration) is this idea of substitution: a person or a people standing in for others (this is no doubt difficult for individualistic Americans to accept, but none of the story makes any sense without comprehending God’s thinking on this). The first humans were assigned the task of tending to the world and being God’s go-betweens, his representatives or stand-ins to/from creation. Adam, as our first father, acted negatively in this capacity. In God’s mind, since all of humanity proceeds from this man, there is continuity between Adam and us. All of humanity has inherited his rebellion against God, his failure in the garden (we all subsequently contribute our own personal rebellion as well).
Redemptive human substitutes (as a foreshadowing of the ultimate stand-in) are often used of God to rescue by way of their own suffering. Joseph, as an example, was rejected by his brothers, sold into slavery, wrongly accused and thrown into prison, eventually vindicated, elevated, and ultimately used to rescue his family, the people of Egypt, and most of the Near East. According to Joseph, the whole thing was God’s plan to turn evil back on itself, to bring about good.
Abraham and his family, which eventually became a nation, were also said to serve as a stand-in for humanity. God purposely used Abraham’s family to retell the story on a smaller more intimate scale (he’s a skilled storyteller who knows good stories need characters, faces, and flesh for humans to connect). God promised to bless this family so that they would be a blessing to everyone else. They were to be a nation of priests, or go-betweens, leading the world back to the Creator and mediating between the two. But, as Wright points out, the proposed rescuers needed rescuing themselves. So Jesus (as the descendant of Adam, Abraham, and King David) stood in for all of humanity, but, more precisely, as the heir to David’s throne, he stood in for Abraham’s family of faith (who, in a sense, was standing in for the rest of humanity). That gets a bit convoluted, but it’s important to understanding the progression of the story (how the sub-story of Israel plays into the story of God). The gospels make it clear that Jesus was standing in for Israel, fulfilling their vocation, as he was depicted symbolically retracing their historic steps (He was called out of Egypt, passed through water, and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness for forty days, and so on). At every turn, he was faithful where his ancestors failed (he withstood temptation in the wilderness, he perfectly upheld the law of God, he overcame in the garden). He’s Israel’s divine do-over—and, by extension, he’s humanity’s do-over too.
Another important theme that drives the narrative is God’s desire and promise to dwell among his people. God is of course everywhere to begin with (“omnipresent”), but he hasn’t made his home, his dwelling, everywhere and in the same way (Just as a husband and wife can simultaneously occupy a room, perhaps in a state of disinterest or strife, and yet still fall short of the closeness that God is after). Before Adam’s rebellion, the Creator and his creation enjoy a state of indescribable unity. It’s far beyond just occupying the same space.
This early idyllic state embodies God’s original intent, in which all of creation acts as his temple, his dwelling (a fully unified heaven and earth), and he reigns over the natural world through his human administrators (Genesis 1:26, 28). We can see, then, how the shattering of this paradise, due to human rebellion, causes destructive ripples throughout all of creation.
After the Fall (the rending of heaven and earth), God illustrated his promised return, in the dwelling sense, through a number of artifacts, icons, and “holy” places (the Ark of the Covenant, the Urim and Thummin, the Temple, etc.). These were objects or locations (in which heaven and earth symbolically intersect or “interlock,” as Wright would say) that prophetically pointed forward to the scene described in Revelation when paradise is restored, God comes to dwell among his people on earth, and we see him “face to face.” Solomon’s Temple (as the pinnacle of these holy spaces) illustrated this same longing for a return to Eden, when creation effectively functioned as God’s temple, with numerous pictorial examples of trees, fruit, animals, and nature.
Jesus—a genuine human who is also the exact image of the transcendent Creator—is the ultimate example of heaven and earth intersecting. He is “God with us,” and, as such, he naturally supersedes all the illustrations that came before. In John’s Gospel, Jesus describes himself as the true Temple of God. He tells the Samaritan woman at the well (in response to her question about where one should worship the God who dwells in heaven) that a time is coming (and has come) in which location will no longer be an issue. Through the person and work of Jesus (which includes the sending of his Spirit), God has extended this heaven-and-earth-intersecting phenomenon (illustrated in “spiritual hotspots,” so to speak, like the Temple, but truly realized in Christ) to everyone who wants in. This present existence—being a Spirit-filled extension of the Living Temple, a mobile, kingdom-bringing spiritual hotspot—is merely a taste of what’s to come.
The full consummation of this theme comes with the physical return of Jesus and the complete restoration of his creation. At which point, he will “dwell” with his people in a freshly restored and seamlessly reunified, heaven and earth. The story of God, then, is a long and painful round about trip back to the beginning. Well, almost. It’s a bit more than just ending up back home where we started. Paradise begins with the early seeds (two image-bearers and endless potential) of what God ultimately envisioned and is finally reborn with a whole city, made from “living stones,” of redeemed and restored administrators who possess intimate knowledge regarding the weight of rebellion, the sting of death, the high cost of redemption, and the unfathomable distance our King will go to put things back on track.
Simple Steps Forward
We might have added a third character to Kate and Greg: Let's call him Phil. Phil has really only seen about ten cumulative minutes of Saving Private Ryan (He was in the bathroom, getting snacks, talking, and sleeping through the rest). He probably still has a strong opinion about the story, though. And if any questions come up, Phil will likely ask Greg (he's the expert after all). One of the most immediately helpful remedies for the mass confusion surrounding the story of God is for all Christians to simply see the whole movie. I’m a slow reader, myself, and getting through all 66 books can definitely seem like a daunting task for a newcomer (especially Numbers), but a through-the-Bible-in-a-year format (in which the whole Bible has been conveniently broken up into 15-minute daily readings that correspond to a calendar year) has really been helpful to me (it’s exciting to start spotting repeating themes and important parallels, especially when you progress through the Old and New Testaments concurrently). There are also a bunch of great audio and video options to have Scripture spoken to you on your computer or smartphone if reading isn’t your thing (You can even find one with a British accent for when you’re feeling particularly classy). Don't be dissuaded by those who imply anything short of reading from a page is somehow a less “spiritual” method of learning the story (especially if you're an auditory or visual learner). I recommend changing versions each year, too, in order to have a fresh look at something that may already be familiar to you (I like the NIV and ESV in most cases, but I also enjoyed reading God’s story by way of the NLT this last go around). The big idea is to consume and metabolize the story, though, in whatever format compliments your individual learning style.

It’s a little trickier if it turns out we’re Greg, the confused film enthusiast, who already considers himself an expert. It’s incredibly difficult, once we’ve firmly established in our mind that Saving Private Ryan is a romantic comedy, and spent years interpreting each of the individual grisly scenes with that understanding in mind, to then humbly step back and look again with new eyes. There are many of us who, like Nicodemus, need to unlearn what we've learned so we can start over from the beginning. Jesus of course commended the “Gregs” for their thoroughness in some areas. Greg's extensive historical knowledge, for example, could potentially give him a greater appreciation for the film (a depth that Kate may not experience with her single viewing and lack of background info). It's awesome if one has studied Hebrew and Greek and given a lot of thought to historical context and complex theological concepts. But Jesus also sternly rebuked the Gregs of his day for being overly attentive to small things while neglecting the “weightier,” or “more important,” aspects of the law (the aspects that reveal God's heart for “justice, mercy, and faithfulness”—Matthew 23:23). I've read and heard many respected teachers and theologians who, despite their extensive biblical knowledge, sometimes express gross ignorance about core themes of the story of God (as seen in many of their conclusions, allegiances, and endeavors). Our mastery of the individual components is pointless if, like Greg, we fail to comprehend the overarching story.

Learn to tell a 3-5 minute version of the Story of God from Genesis to Revelation (Just thinking about the overarching story and how best to tell it is incredibly good for us). Practice with other Christ-followers, and ask for feedback (People aren't always hearing what we think we're saying, so this becomes a very helpful exercise). If we've succumbed to the story of God—been transformed by the good news of his better kingdom—then we need to be ready to explain to onlookers just exactly what's happening (not only within our own lives, but what God is up to in the world and where it's all headed). I've heard it said, "The Gospel found you on its way to someone else." Become a great story teller, like Jesus, and share his good news often and in everyday life. Be familiar enough with the story to be able to contextualize the Gospel to your hearer's specific brokenness (the story doesn't change, but what we emphasize and how we deliver it should be customized as the Holy Spirit leads us). Jesus addressed a promiscuous woman's underlying longing, for example, by offering “living water” that would satisfy her true thirst. In an earlier encounter, he told a jaded theologian that he would need to start over and be “born again” (this time, by way of the Spirit). Jesus also invited a young rich man of power to give it all up and find his treasure and identity in the true King instead.

A film like Saving Private Ryan has an actual story that the writer, director, cast and production team are trying to tell. We, as the audience, aren’t at liberty to just rewrite the movie as a slapstick comedy, a horror film, or a western. We’re of course free to create our own stories, but we shouldn’t commandeer or misrepresent someone else’s story. All the more, we should take the time to get God's story right. Remember that our understanding of the story will inform how we live our lives (for better or for worse). So let's invest in developing a strong foundation built around the main beats of the narrative and a firm grasp of the overarching themes (It's all well and good to progress on to deeper truths, but we should first get the basics down). Ultimately, it's through the story of God that we come to know him, know ourselves, and become known. As we faithfully read the script, we find that God has written each of us into his epic redemptive tale. But if we fail to see the story unfolding—what God is up to in the world—then we'll undoubtedly miss our cue, and the story will simply carry on without us.

...beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, [Jesus] explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.” - Luke 24:27

(The Bible Project has a bunch of great videos that guide you through God's story book-by-book. They just finished their through the Bible series, and they also have some great theme videos. I highly recommend them as a resource.)