ƒ Christianity for Thinking People: November 2007

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

A Life of Praise

I'm probably not the best person to be commenting on a life of praise. Those vocal "Praise the Lord" type of Christians actually bother me! I suspect that Christians like that are hiding behind a happy facade in order not to deal with the bitter pill of reality.

A number of years ago I called to console a fellow pastor for the loss of a stillborn son. I was more than a little unsettled by his "God-be-praised" lack of grief! I think there is definitely a "time to mourn" and that to be happy during such a time might be a sign of psychosis rather than spiritual maturity. So I'm more than a bit suspicious of "Be Happy" and "Praise the Lord" theology!

But then I did like the movie Pollyanna, well, sort of. I especially enjoyed watching the "Sinners in the hands of an angry God" preacher become a "happy texts" man in the end. If you don't get the reference then you'll just have to watch the movie! And of course the holiday classic, "It's a Wonderful Life" always moves me. And the Bible is full of moving stories of people that refused to succumb to despair but instead found a way to praise God in the darkness.

So in spite of my natural pessimism it is nearly impossible for me to totally discount the power of praise. But what is it that makes praise such a force for good in our lives? In reading the story in 2 Chronicles 20 it hit me that when we praise we are liberated from fear. Praise is evidence that our lives are no longer bound by the fears that paralyze and control us.

Praise is the natural outgrowth of our trust in the love of God in all circumstances. Like king Jehoshaphat in the story we move from absolute fear (vs. 3) to confident praise (vs. 21) by trusting the Spirit that says, "Do not be afraid nor dismayed" (vs. 15) Praise is a sign that we are not merely animals dominated by instinct. We are not like Pavlov's dogs in that our responses are not always determined by external stimuli.

The good news of God is that we don't have to be determined by the negative external forces around us. From a psychological point of view Christians can have an "internal" rather than an "external" locus of control. Our emotions do not ultimately have to be dictated by our circumstances. Obviously we will respond to our circumstances with appropriate emotional reactions. If someone we love dies then we cry! If our lives are threatened we will react with fear. However, beyond these immediate reactions we have the possibility of praise.

Praise is a form of protest against the status quo! In our praise of God we imagine a world beyond what we now see and feel. In praise we enact a world in which God reigns. Praise is an eschatological act. It brings God's beautiful future into our very painful present.

Praise is our way of saying "No" to the present world and "Yes" to the coming kingdom of God. Praise makes the kingdom of God present in the here and now! Like faith, and hope, and love, praise is a piece of eternity that becomes flesh and dwells among us. Praise is our witness to the reality that God is with us, even here, even now!

© Paul Fisher

Sunday, November 18, 2007

To Carry All Our Worry

I have faced machine guns, hit a Mack truck head on, and been stuck up a glaciated mountain overnight in inhospitable circumstances.

But I have also experienced bad stuff. Like times when my relationship with Angela was not what it should be and life almost seemed not worth living. In reviewing the 'crucible experiences' of my life, it is clear that the greatest challenges don't arise out of physical circumstances. I confess that Alister's bad experiences are laughable to most, as God has blessed me with exceptional relationships with my wife, children, extended family, professional associates and friends.

However, it is also clear, in reviewing the 'crucible experiences' of my life, that life's most mundane experiences can become trying beyond comprehension, as the following story illustrates. They say that the best and worst days of a man's life are the days his wife buys a travel trailer (a "caravan"). And the day she acquires the replacement trailer. And the day she acquires the second replacement trailer. Our correspondence with the travel trailer manufacturer is an inch thick, and I wasn't writing to tell them how pleased we were.

We finally got to the point where for sanity's sake there was nothing we could do but "let go and let God", as they say at Alcoholics Anonymous. We finally got to the point where we had no choice but to "carry all our worry" to God and wait for His deliverance (Wednesday's study, 1 Peter 5:7; Psalm 55:22; Matthew 6:25-33).

Here's an excerpt from Angela's prayer journal.

Right now I feel like the case is hopeless. I feel like I’ve tried so hard – maybe that’s the problem though? I’ve been doing the trying instead of letting go and letting God. But then I wonder if God thinks I am presuming on Him if I do nothing. Does God need my help? Does He expect me to do something? I find it hard to know what is patience and what is doing nothing. What is putting in an effort and what is doing it myself? I am going to leave it with God today – that’s extremely difficult for me to do. I so desperately want to pick up the phone and find out what’s happening. But I’m going to stop myself from doing that ... Maybe that’s patience because I’ve done my part in calling them.

I don’t know but I pray I’ll learn soon!

10 minutes – later
I just felt like something would happen when I finally wrote this down. And sure enough, 10 minutes after I finished the above, I got a call from [the company] saying they would tag the [best trailer they make] for us, and someone would be calling me later today re the final price...

2 hours – later
This is incredible isn’t it? Several journal entries on the same day within hours and even minutes of each other. When I finally hand it over to God, it all just happens. We need to give up on trying to make it happen!

Just got a phone call from [the company] to tell me the final price. He goes through the, “Well, this is a 2008 model whereas the last unit was only a 2006; this is obviously a much better trailer" (yes, we know that ...) and I think, 'just tell me the price!' Then he says, “how about you pay $[x]?” I tried not to sound ecstatic. That’s just over half of what we would have been willing to pay for the upgrade.

"What’s more", he said, "[the company] would take care of [other stuff]."

So there you have it – unbelievable answers to prayer – and I did nothing!

That’s just the point though. ...

This whole story has taught me so much about God, my faith and trust in Him. At one point I found myself saying, ‘Why can’t I plan my life like other people? Some people plan what they’re doing for Christmas or next year, we don’t even know what we’re doing next week!’ But I realized, that’s where the blessings come in. If we’re totally in control the whole time, how can God have any input? How can we be led by God when we do all the planning? I know we do need to plan, (another, where’s the balance type thing), but I guess it’s ‘make plans but be willing to be flexible and go with the flow’, because it was only when I let all of it go, and said, ‘I can live with whatever’, that God had a chance to do something wonderful for us.

I'm looking forward to hearing your experiences of "casting all your anxiety on Him". Because He cares for you.

© Alister L Hunt PhD

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Indestructible Hope [2]

It is seldom that an entire book of the Bible is just one scripture passage within a week's study. So I took the opportunity to read the book of Habakkuk several times this week. What a cogent distillation of the questions thinking people have had through all ages about God, suffering, violence and injustice. I highly recommend reading it this week.
I have recently heard Habakkuk quoted repeatedly;
" ... the LORD is in His holy temple: let all the earth keep silence before Him."
I had presumed that it was Biblical liturgical guidance, in support of the idea that worshipping God in church should be a fairly dreary affair, orienting the worshipper toward God's awesome detachment from this world and our lives. Minimal participation in church worship ... just silent awe as a liturgical elite intercedes between Almighty God and man.
So it was liberating to discover that Habakkuk was not providing liturgical advice at all. Lets look at the context of this well-known text (Hab 2:20). Habakkuk is comfortable enough in his relationship with God to say to Him,
"God, if You are truly 'all good', how can You stand by and watch idol-worshippers prosper as they plunder those who worship You, the true God. Something is very wrong."
And God answers Habakkuk by saying,
"Habakkuk, you have no idea what is in store for the wicked. The apparent riches they are amassing are just more fuel for the eventual fire of their own making. Their theft will multiply their enemies. Violence will rebound with unspeakable violence. And grand parties will lead to drunken disgrace. "
Then we get to God's punchline - a very clever juxtaposing of two things.
"Habakkuk, notice that these evil idol-worshippers that appear to prosper are actually doing all the work, and their idols just sit there doing nothing and saying nothing. But My relationship with My people is the opposite. I am asking you to trust Me enough to let Me deliver you. It's the opposite with Me. In our relationship, you just sit there ... as idle and silent as those idols while I deliver My people. I am working in My heavenly sanctuary on behalf of My people, so enter My Sabbath rest and watch My deliverance.
Angela and I are learning each week to trust more fully in God's deliverance, and to silently wait on God's intercession on our behalf. It is not easy, but every experience strengthens our resolve to trust God more fully and rely on our own efforts less.
Next week I'll share a personal story of God's recent deliverance as we kept silence before Him ... after, of course, trying everything else including letters, calls, negotiation, threats, etc. : )
Happy studying.
© Alister L Hunt PhD

Indestructible Hope [1]

Hope has more to do with the present than it does with the future. Hope is not simply the ability to see a bright light at the end of dark tunnel. It is more than just a toughness of soul that helps us to hang on until things get better. Hope may include all of these things but from a theological point of view it is much more.

Maybe the starting point for hope is given in Job's experience, "Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind, and said: Now prepare yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer Me" (40.6-7) To be addressed by God is to be treated as an "I" rather than an "it" and that is a very hopeful beginning. Especially in an imperial world that often treats persons as "objects" with even less value than other material things. An example of this is in Revelation 18 in which the "bodies and souls of men" are listed at the bottom of a list of "merchandise" that starts with "gold and silver." Empire attempts to enslave the mind (psyche) as well as the body. Thus the liberation that God offers from the "principalities and powers" that govern human life is as much psychological as it is physical and spiritual. Hope is thus the liberation of the mind from the oppressive power of empire that seeks to diminish human worth and disempower human beings.

Notice the way that God addresses Israel in Isaiah 41.14, "Fear not, you worm Jacob, You men of Israel! I will help you, says the LORD And your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel." Why does God call Jacob a worm? Because the people of Israel had been in captivity in Babylon for decades and they had internalized the Babylonian's negative image of their nation. And that was a big part of the problem when the time came for them to return to their own land and rebuild their nation. The prophetic task involved energizing and empowering Israel for the hard task of nation-building that lay ahead of them. Internally, they were in no condition to do this because their social inferiority to Babylon during the long capitivity had become an inferiority complex for the nation. But God addresses the "worm Jacob" as the "men of Israel" and thus restores the dignity needed for the worms to become men again.

God is always working to empower those that have been disempowered by the violent and imperial powers and empires that have dominated history since nations were formed. The names may change (Assyria, Babylon, Rome, Germany, Russia, Iraq, Iran, America) but the underlying reality is the same. And Christians in all times and all places are called to struggle against the forces that constantly seek to colonize and control both minds and bodies. And in this struggle hope is the power that subverts the powers that be.

Hope ultimately has a christological focus because Jesus is the center and source of our hope, "For consider Him who endured such hostility from sinners against Himself, lest you become weary and discouraged in your souls" (Heb. 12.3). Such hope gives us strength to resist and courage to confront the external forces that make people feel less-than-human and worth nothing. The One that died on an imperial cross says, "Do not be afraid; I am He who lives, and was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore."
© Paul Fisher

Monday, November 5, 2007

Struggling With All Energy

I've often thought that the story of Jacob's struggle with "the Man" in Genesis 32 gives a new meaning to the old hymn, "He Touched Me." Jacob experienced the divine presence not as a healing touch but as a crushing blow that brought great agony. Carl Jung (Freud's most brilliant and wayward disciple) said that if the Bible (particularly the story of Job and the book of Revelation) teaches us anything it is that "though God can be loved, he must be feared."

As in so many other stories in the Bible, in Genesis 32 we again encounter the image of a violent God. But then as Alister suggested last week maybe these stories reveal more about the human misperception of God's character than anything else. Maybe our struggles with the God-that-crushes is really a struggle with our own internal violent demons. Maybe we project our own violent tendencies into the external world and especially onto God. I wish I had more to offer on this but "maybe" is the best I can do right now.

As much as the story troubles me on one level it also deeply inspires me on another. For example, I absolutely love Jacob's defiance, even after having his hip disclocated (or whatever the exact physical injury might have been). The "Man" says, "Let me go" and Jacob says, "I will not." That reminded me of God saying, "Let my people go" and Pharoah responding "I will not." The human will really is an imperial power. This is why tyrants and dictators of all stripes attempt to break it with violent force. So I applaud Jacob for refusing to submit to what he perceived at the time as divine violence. Somehow his faith recognized that behind what he experienced as the divine-power-to-crush was ultimately a divine-will-to-bless.

To me, the most profound moment in the story is the question in vs. 27, "What is your name?" The last time that Jacob had heard that question was when asked by his old and dying father Isaac. At that time Jacob had lied and said "Esau" in order to get what he wanted. As I see it these are the two defining moments in Jacob's life. In both instances the question is "What is your name?" I think Jacob spent most of his life pretending to be what he wasn't (Esau) in order to get the blessing that he desperately wanted. But he finally realized that it was enough to simply be Jacob. And the irony of it is that when he stopped trying to be something he wasn't (Esau) he became a new man and received a new name (Israel). How much of our lives do we spend trying to take what can only be received as gift?

Interestingly, the story itself does not name Jacob's assailant. Jacob even asks, "Tell me your name" but rather than an answer gets a probing question instead, "Why is it that you ask about my name?" Why is naming so important to us? Maybe it gives us a sense of control in that what we name we somehow think we know. By naming our children we indelibly place our stamp upon their lives. Giving something a name defines it and limits it and signifies our mastery over it (like Adam naming the animals and then his wife, which might have been an even bigger mistake than eating the forbidden fruit!). But in this story God is the nameless One. We can encounter but never control God. Every god that can be named is an idol of our own making. God will never comfortably fit in our small mental boxes.

I like the final image in our story: Jacob limping out into the bright light of a new day. He may not look like much of a hero but he has wrestled with (his perception of God) and prevailed! As the hymn says, "Now I am no longer the same. He touched me, . . . and O the joy that floods my soul!"
© Paul Fisher