Saturday, August 29, 2009

Mirror's Image (James 1:17-27)

James is a nice guy. Look at his metaphor in verses 23 and 24: “like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like.”

This is a nice guy way of saying, “really, really clueless.” Think about it for a second. What would we say about the mental abilities or attention span of someone who forgot what they looked like right after seeing themselves in a mirror? Not much, I imagine. Sure, maybe we want to forget that the mirror showed us more wrinkles or more gray hair than we’d want to see or admit was there, but we’re all too familiar with the actual image.

James is very concerned that people understand a crucial aspect of following Jesus – it doesn’t stop at our justification. We know that Jesus, in dying on the cross, healed a relationship with God that our own limitations, mistakes and disobedience had irreparably damaged. We say that God’s grace, working in that act of Jesus, “justifies” us. But God’s grace doesn’t stop there, and neither should the growth of our relationship with him.

Faith in God must produce a changed life, James believes, or else it’s no better than having no faith at all. In fact, it may be worse, because at least those with no faith at all may come to understand their lack of it and change.

Our friends who twelve-step understand this. Only the first steps of recovery involve stopping the behavior that’s destroying them. The rest involve life changes that are designed to produce people less inclined to need chemicals or behaviors to make it through their days. Visiting an Narcotics Anonymous meeting once, I heard a man talk about questioning a fellow addict who wasn’t using anymore, but hadn’t seemed to change his behavior much. “Big deal!” he said. “Now you’re a clean lyin’ thievin’ so-and-so, is all!” Of course, he didn’t say “so-and-so,” because people at NA meetings tend to have a free-range vocabulary.

Someone may hear what God has to say about humanity’s need for salvation, and that is good. They must hear that message. We had to hear it, and so do those who may not know about it. Even though God has been at work in their lives, preparing them for their encounter with his word, that word must still come to them somehow.

But only to hear it – even if we stretch the meaning of “hearing” to include hearing, listening, understanding and agreeing with – does not go far enough. We may become aware of the change that we need and that God wants to work within us and we may even agree that such change is possible. We may even agree that it’s a change that should happen!

If that’s where it stops, though, with us being hearers of the word and not doers, then what’s the point? James doesn’t use this phrase, but what he’s saying amounts to it: A difference that makes no difference is no difference. And it isn’t.

If we call ourselves Christians but we’re indistinguishable from those around us in our speech and actions, why would anyone bother to be a part of us? Why wouldn’t they stay home Sunday morning or hit the golf course or get in a good run or do any of a thousand other things that are open to them?

There are many agencies and groups that help people and they do good and I think it pleases God when his children are helped. Are we different? Do we do something different than these others? Not unless we remind ourselves that we don’t just help a needy human being, we help a brother or sister in Christ, someone Jesus loved enough to die on a cross for.

We have brain cells and such that store our memory of what we saw in the mirror so we can call it to mind if the need is there. Christian action in the world – doing the word as well as hearing it – serves a similar purpose. It stores up within us a reminder of whose we are, of who made us and who offered himself for us. When we serve others and show them love, we can recall that Jesus has served us and God has shown us love.

We can remember not simply who we are, but who we are intended to become: A reflection ourselves, showing Christ to all who see us.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Point of Worldview (Exodus 16:2-15)

Don’t you think that it’s good that God is infinite in all areas? Especially patience?

I bet if the Israelites took the time to think about it, they would say they should definitely be glad of God’s infinite patience. Because if it was even the tiniest bit less than infinite, they might very well have been wiped out down to the last atom.

Here’s a good example. Remember that a few chapters ago, the Hebrew people watched God work mighty deeds of power against the Egyptians, as they suffered plague after plague when they would not release their slaves. And maybe just weeks before this, they saw the Egyptian army destroyed in the Red Sea after they themselves walked through it on dry land. They sang songs of praise about it, highlighting how God’s great power was on their side. And now?

“We’re tired. We’re hungry. Are we there yet?” Words we’ve all heard, and words we may have said ourselves during a long trip. Words which prove that neither we nor the people we said them to have God’s infinite patience, if I remember my family trips correctly.

And then they go one more step. “Would that we had died in Egypt, where we had enough to eat even if we were slaves. Now we’re going to die of hunger!” Which apparently is a lot worse than dying in the brick pits or laboring under the broiling sun. I’m not sure.

But God says, “I’ll give them food, but I’ll test them.” Remember, these people will have to re-take their ancestral homelands. In the four hundred years since Jacob, his sons and their tribes left for Egypt, other folks have moved in and they’re not likely to get up and say, “Welcome back! Just keeping it warm for you!” They have to become a nation, and God will test them as to whether or not they are ready to be a nation. Their complaining, I am sure, places that issue in question. After four hundred years of being under someone else’s thumb, they may have some growing up to do.

So God tells Moses, who tells Aaron, who tells the people: That evening, God will send them meat and in the morning they will have bread. And it happens just that way. Flocks of quails cover the camp and the people have meat to eat (I heard it tasted like chicken).

In the morning, there is dew (which makes you wonder just how much of a barren wilderness they were in when they started their griping). When the dew lifts, there is some white flaky substance on the ground. “What is it?” they ask.

I’m pretty sure Moses counted at least to ten before answering. “It’s bread from God,” he says. He doesn’t say, “It’s the bread the God who gave us meat last night promised, you simpletons!” but he probably thinks it.

The Hebrew people are not yet ready to be a nation. Not only are they not really “grown up” enough for the responsibility, if you will, they don’t seem to come anywhere close to understanding their relationship with God. What had God promised them? Deliverance, right? In what bizarre dictionary does “I will deliver you” mean “I will bring you out to the desert to die?” How do those things go together at all?

But the people have not yet learned to depend on God and his promises. They’re still stuck with a worldview that’s focused on things in this world, on the here and now.

God intends for them to become a people who focus on his promise and on his will, but they are not there yet. Until they can switch worldviews, or maybe shift their paradigms, if you will, they will not be ready.

We’re in the same place a lot of the time, I think. We are constantly learning how much we need to depend on God, as well as how often we fail to do that.

Paradigm shifts aren’t easy, though. They are more than a simple change of mind. They represent a whole worldview moving from one way of thinking to another.

The ancient mathematician Euclid had five postulates that could be used to help define geometry. The first four were more or less obvious to any observer, but the fifth looked different. It sounded simple: Any two lines that weren’t parallel would eventually meet. But for two thousand years, mathematicians failed in every attempt to prove it using the other postulates.

They could prove the first four, but not number five. Then in the early 1800s, several mathematicians working at about the same time hit on a similar idea. They had tried to prove the postulate by looking at what would happen if it weren’t true. If it was true, then a system without it would eventually have a flaw, and that flaw could be reversed to show the proof.

Except there was no flaw
. Euclid’s geometry, which had stood for nearly two thousand years, was only one kind of geometry that could be figured out. There were other geometries that were internally consistent and complete, and at least one of them described the real world better than did Euclid’s. Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity is based in this kind of “non-Euclidian” geometry.

In order to understand the world the way it really was instead of the way it seemed to be, scientists had to shift their paradigms. Reality looked like one thing, but it was actually different.

To the Hebrew people, reality looked like they were out in the desert with nowhere to go and no chance of survival. But the actual reality was that they were being invited to follow God’s path and depend on God’s promise, and they wouldn’t know that until they shifted their understanding to one based on God.

To us, reality may seem like we’re stuck in our own limitations, mistakes, errors and even sin. No matter which way we look, we do not see a world that looks like a God made it, or people, including ourselves, who show the image of God that’s supposed to be there. It’s as obvious as the fact that two parallel lines will never meet or that people who stay in the desert face death by starvation.

God’s paradigm, of course, is different. Every day he calls us to follow him though it may send us down paths that make no sense or bid us do things that look pointless. Pray? Do the right thing? Obey the commandments? Love one another? Deny ourselves? In what world do these things make sense, because they sure don’t always seem to in the world I live in.

And God answers: In the world I am making, and in the world I’m offering you the chance to make a little more real.