Monthly Archives: June 2012
When I was a child, my uncle owned a laundry business. He and a business partner ran the laundry for several years. Eventually my uncle learned that his business partner had conspired to take complete ownership of the company. A legal battle ensued that eventually went to court. The court found in favor of the partner and my uncle lost the business. My parents told me that my uncle’s partner lied and produced counterfeit evidence in court. The court believed the deceptions.
That was my first shocking exposure to the reality that the good guys do not always win, especially in our modern system of jurisprudence. Reality justice is not like Perry Mason (or most of the Law and Order episodes) where the champions of truth and justice always prevail over evil.
Here are two verses in the Bible that help me understand justice and our imperative to pursue justice as Chrsitians:
Isaiah 1:17, “. . . learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.
Proverbs 29:26, “Many seek the face of a ruler, but it is from the LORD that a man gets justice.”
As our culture moves further from belief in a moral God who cares how we live (that is, he cares about our ethics), we will turn more to the courts of law for remedies. The courts will not be able keep up with the disputes if the general population turns away from God. The law, by itself, is insufficient to help a society thrive.
Proverbs 29:26, cited above, has more than one meaning. It means God has the final word on outcomes of justice. It means the people of a society must recognize that there is a moral God in order for human judges and leaders to do their jobs effectively. It means God’s perspective of justice should be, ultimately, more important to us than human manifestations of justice. It also means we should have realistic expectations about the ability of flawed human leaders and judges to dispense justice accurately and fairly in every case.
So, we know God loves justice and we are told by the Bible to pursue justice, especially for the marginalized. How? Well, I believe one of the most important things we can do to advance justice is to step out of our denial of hard-to-face injustice. For example, to this day there are Catholics who do not believe a small number of priests sexually abused children. Some human behaviors are so horrible we mentally can’t go there; so we deny it because it shakes our sense of well being to the core. It’s no different in evangelical churches. For instance, if a pastor destroys his marriage and his ministry because he had multiple affairs there will always be some in the church who do not believe it happened, even in the face of overwhelming evidence. I’m not suggesting we go through life looking for little injustices to pounce on, but perhaps it’s time to take off our rose colored glasses so we can help those hurt by serious injustice.
The Bible repeatedly mentions the fear of the Lord as a good thing for us to feel. For example, Proverbs 9:10 says: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.”
We often think of fear, especially irrational fear, as bad or unhealthy. So why does the Bible tell us to fear the Lord when we know the Lord is pure love? Why should we fear someone we love and who loves us back? After all, I don’t fear my wife (unless I slip up and criticize her driving).
The word fear in the verse above is translated from the original language as: terror, awesome or terrifying thing, respect, reverence. Except for the word awesome, these are not words you hear much in Christendom these days. But if we explore God in the Bible, the world around us, and observe his hand in the human race and in our personal life, a picture begins to form in our mind that reveals the otherness of God. He is not like us. The raw power of nature is minuscule compared to the power God wields. He doesn’t think like us. He doesn’t exist like us. Sure there are some similarities between us and God, but there are more differences.
I don’t believe that God likes to see us cowering before him as if he were some cruel tyrant or oppressor. Christ makes God approachable for us. Christ is an awesome (couldn’t help myself) advocate, but our problem is a dangerous proclivity to forget our place. A crucial step on the path to wisdom comes when we realize there is a moral God who cares how we live. That epiphany should rightly cause some anxiety. Of course we shouldn’t go through life expecting God to smite us any moment. On the other hand, we shouldn’t go through life feeling immune from God’s loving efforts to purge sin from our lives, even in unpleasant ways.
Here’s the point: The otherness of God is so foreign to us that a natural and appropriate reaction is a wholesome unsettling fear; a reverence for the sacred. It’s the awareness that I can’t draw another breath unless he is OK with it. He knit me together in the everlasting womb and he can take me apart as if I never was. My plans will never supersede his plans. He is amused by some of my plans that I think so important. His eyes pierce darkness and see all the thoughts of his people. He is a refining fire that makes us better people. If I commit to serve him, there is no telling where it will lead. He tests us to build our endurance. Any good that flows into my life spills from his cup . . . and he spills a lot of good into our lives. His purity unsettles us because we don’t have a paradigm in our mind that can hold it. What is perfect purity? It is something we today have never experienced in nature.
Don’t get me wrong, I embrace the God-of-love we celebrate in the modern church. Experiencing God’s love is transformational and healing. It feels good and is unlike any love we experience in nature . . . with the possible exception of the love a parent feels for his or her child. And yet experiencing God in ways that can elicit fear is uncomfortable, but ultimately just as transformational and positive. The fear of the Lord comes with seeking as much of God’s characteristics as possible. The fear of the Lord is fulfilling and also keeps us out of trouble. Even if we just explore the depths of God’s love, the deeper we go the more our unworthiness is evident; and yet his love is always more than enough to demolish our feelings of inadequacy. We think God sees our darkest and most secret stains—the shame we tell no one—and he will withhold his love. But he does not withhold his love. He pours it on even more. Who can understand that without a feeling of sobering reverence? The fear of the Lord and love of the Lord do not cancel each other out.
Not long ago my daughter, Rachael, worked as an event coordinator at a historical site in California. During the holidays she came up with the cool idea to have a Christmas carol singing competition in a beautiful garden venue which was part of the historical site. She called the event “Fa-La-La: A Christmas Carol Showdown!” Secular and religious Christmas carols would be welcome.
Once the date was set, Rachael set about the task of booking singers and musicians. She also sent a message to almost fifty pastors in the community inviting them to send singers from their churches. She eagerly anticipated a strong response from the church community. She worried too many churches would want to participate and she would have to turn some away. Not one pastor responded.
Now before you pastors out there get your hackles up, I will offer these valid reasons for declining to participate in such an event: The Christmas season is an insanely busy time for pastors and congregations, including everyone who sings on church worship teams or in choirs. There is also a difference between providing religious music for worship as opposed to entertainment. Some Christians are uncomfortable with the prospect of offering the sacred as part of an atmosphere of entertainment. Also, word of mouth is probably more effective for marketing a church than participation in some types of community events. I get it! I’m sure there are other valid points I have overlooked.
My biggest concern is the message the silence from fifty pastors sends to Rachael and her generation. Will she and her generation gradually lose interest in Christian churches unwilling to participate in a variety of ways within their cities and hamlets? Church outreach can be much more than a harvest festival with free hotdogs, face painting, and bouncy houses in the park or passing out food and toiletry kits to the homeless under the bridge when The Salvation Army, the Gospel Mission, and other churches are already focused on meeting those needs. No, I don’t think bouncy houses are bad but I wonder if we often duplicate what every other church is doing. I also wonder if we church dwellers get so busy (like at Christmas) that we don’t recognize those God moments such as when someone like Rachael hands us a fun, no-cost, community outreach opportunity on a silver platter.
Yes, the Fa-La-La event was a smashing success. About two hundred people attended. Rachael booked an opera singer, a folk singer, a special-needs singer, a hip hop singer, and a big band. Everybody had a great time . . . especially Rachael’s proud father. I admit the event was all about entertainment and sentimental feelings and longing for a Norman Rockwell Christmas. But since our culture is enamored with entertainment in many forms, maybe the American church should look at entertainment as a mission opportunity to open doors, or to get people who never go to church in those doors. God can certainly turn something entertaining into something sacred and life-changing.
I do not suggest churches need to do more. Most are already too busy. My suggestion is that we church dwellers insist on building in some flexibility on the church calendar of events so that when a golden opportunity to be present in the community—and try something new—comes along, we can participate. Our young adults have oodles of ideas on how to improve the way we do church. I hope we don’t crush their enthusiasm.
In the May, 2012, issue of Smithsonian magazine you’ll find an article titled “Onward, Voyagers” by Timothy Ferris. The article is an update on the twin Voyager space mission which, as Ferris puts it, “. . . has been outbound for the past 35 years . . .” Here are a few highlights from the article that provide a grand picture of our temporal home in the cosmos:
Voyager One is now 11 billion miles out from Earth. The Voyager probes are traveling at a speed of 40,000 mph relative to the Sun. Radio signals of Voyager One, traveling at the velocity of light, take 16 hours to reach Earth. Radio signals from the two probes, captured daily by the Deep Space Network’s big dish antennas, arrive at a strength of less than one femtowatt, a millionth of a billionth of a watt.
Here’s another fascinating excerpt from the Ferris article: “People ask when one of the Voyagers will encounter another star. The answer, according to JPL’s (Jet Propulsion Laboratory) navigators, is that Voyager Two, 40,000 years from now, will pass within 1.7 light-years of the red dwarf star Ross 248. But what that really means is that Ross 248, sweeping by Voyager Two like a distant ocean liner viewed from a lifeboat, will be seen from the perspective of Voyager Two to slowly brighten over the millennia, then get dimmer for many more.”
Wow! Sort of makes you feel . . . lonely in the cosmos. If the magnitude of God’s creation eludes you, try this: Late some night go outside and look up at the heavens and try to bend your thought to the regions behind the light of a full moon. If you are like me, your comprehension of the distances beyond the moon soon peters out, or you get a headache from straining for a measurement to which you can relate that’s not beyond human intellect. It’s just easier to go inside and shut out the night. Anyhow, that’s the point—God’s love transcends our ability to measure it. We can’t get our head around the distance and void in the universe any more than we can fathom the depths of God’s love. Or can we?
Jesus is our context. He brings the everlasting love of God within our comprehension, and goes a step further by actually placing that love in the believer’s heart. He can do this because he is also God. He stepped out from the everlastings and entered our little world. His sacrifice endows us with more than a peek at God’s love. The life and Sacrifice of Christ reveals the invisible depth of God’s love for all, who are willing, to see and receive. What a paradox—the incomprehensible love of God can be known because Jesus walked this tiny rock in the cosmos. That is so cool!