Creative Redemption

This blog seeks to explore themes from the Bible, theology, spiritual formation, creativity, and responses to change and conflict to discover how to promote God's redemptive work in his creation.

Archive for the month “May, 2013”

No Power Ties Allowed

You’ve probably heard the discussion, usually in the context of politics or business, about what constitutes a “power tie.” Attention to this fashion detail serves as part of a larger agenda to project a persona to allow the individual to gain more power as much as to reflect existing power. (The power tie seems to be mostly a male game, but I’m probably just more ignorant of the female counterpart.)

The power tie reflects the way, in today’s climate, that one must not be too obvious in flaunting or seeking power. Consider the following illustration from the entertainment world.

Reese Witherspoon has generally been able to avoid the kinds of scandals that plague so many celebrities. Recently, however, when her husband was pulled over for driving while intoxicated – and she was in the car and under the influence as well – she committed a major celebrity faux pas. Ms. Witherspoon confronted the officer in the midst of doing his job with the question, “Do you know my name?”

This variation on “Do you know who I am?” particularly riles the rest of us common folk. We already know that celebrities get special treatment, but when they are so up front with their suggestion that they deserve deference even regarding violations of the law, the result is highly off-putting.

At the same time, how many of us would be happy to somehow attain a status that would bestow upon us such power? This desire adds to the unhealthy aspects of identity that prompt our attempts to distinguish ourselves or establish merit. God’s work to restore our identity through our identification with Jesus and his cross undermines these efforts.

Ironically, our problem goes back to the fact that God originally endowed humanity with great power: dominion over the entire creation. He continues to call us to that role, but the first sin corrupted and complicated our use of power. Below is a brief and incomplete survey of the “power problem” in the Bible:

  • Adam and Eve’s dissatisfaction with their dominion and desire to be “like God” represents, among other things, a power play.
  • The tower of Babel reflects a rejection of God’s will and an attempt to make the builders’ names great.
  • God begins his work of redeeming his fallen creation through an unlikely couple whose most significant resource is their faith in God. The selection of Abraham and Sarah begins a recurrent theme of working through the unlikely and unpowerful.
  • God manifests his power at times, but he primarily works through the weak to overthrow those who abuse their power.
  • God gives Israel victory in warfare, but he frequently does so through unlikely means (the walls of Jericho, reducing Gideon’s army, David vs. Goliath). He also restricts Israel’s military buildup and generally prohibits common abuses in warfare. God’s use of Israelite warfare fades throughout the Old Testament and disappears before the time of Jesus.
  • God enters his creation to overcome sin in the humblest possible fashion in Jesus’ birth.
  • Jesus’ three temptations in the wilderness seek to persuade him to pursue the fallen human path to power, and he categorically rejects this path.
  • Jesus refuses to pander to the power-seeking spirit of the day and warns his disciples against the danger.
  • Jesus responds to Roman and Jewish power, and accomplishes his victory, in the humblest possible fashion on the cross.
  • Jesus calls his disciples to the way of the cross and reminds us that his “strength is made perfect in weakness.”
  • The Bible closes with small, weak churches facing pressures of various sorts from the Roman world. John’s visions remind these churches that “The Lion of the Tribe of Judah” who has won the victory did so as “the Lamb that bears the marks of slaughter.”

The Bible does not call us to powerlessness. As God reminds us, “the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world” (1 John 4:4). History has demonstrated, however, that Christians are not immune to the typical abuse of power. As a result, we are to live like Jesus, serving as faithful witnesses who entrust God with all power. Like Jesus, we do not overcome by force, but by redemptive, sacrificial love.

The reason that God redeems in this way is not only the danger of our corruption by power. By power we could conquer and subjugate others. God himself can do that any time he desires. At present, however, his purpose is to soften hardened hearts and turn them back to him. Force cannot do that, but love can.

The Dark Side of Identity

One consequence of the proliferation of “reality” TV seems to be a growth in the competition-izing of life. Who will be the next American Idol or America’s favorite dancer or the top chef or model or fashion designer? And, as we are regularly reminded, no one remembers who finishes second.

It’s not as if we weren’t already facing enough pressure to navigate the often cruel world of high school, find the right spouse, and land a job that hopefully fulfills us and pays the bills. In the midst of all that, we wonder, “What makes me stand out from the crowd as someone special?”

When I was a kid, I occasionally had to accompany my mother to what was then called the “beauty shop.” The most interesting thing to do for a boy at such a place was to watch a row of women sitting with the top halves of their heads covered by dome-shaped hair dryers. The rather bizarre sight conjured up notions of torture devices or space travel.

Perhaps to preserve my young manhood, on one occasion I recall taking a book to read about great NFL quarterbacks. One woman asked, “Why does everyone want to be the quarterback?” Although I didn’t say it, I thought, “They write books about great quarterbacks, not great defensive tackles!”

Yes, I shared the common dream of athletic fame and glory. The fact that I was reading a book about sports, however, more accurately foretold my academic future. (Unfortunately, they don’t write many books about great academics either.) My athletic accomplishments were confined to backyard, intramural, and church league competitions, and the moments of glory were few even there.

I am thankful that I was able to perform well in school. Neither of my parents finished high school, but they placed me in a position to be successful. I was the first person on either side of my family to finish college. The opportunity to go beyond the bachelor’s degree and eventually teach at Lipscomb, while also serving in ministry, has been a great blessing.

Even in this context, however, I occasionally hear those nagging voices in the back of my head. “What about those more gifted and charismatic teachers and preachers?” “What about those in bigger churches who get the keynote speaking invitations?” “What about those who write more books, sell more books, have more Twitter followers, etc.?”

I share this little walk down insecurity memory lane not to provoke responses of sympathy or reassurance. I hope instead that you can resonate somewhat with these feelings and recognize how perilous our quest for identity can be. Questions like the ones above are understandable, but they are also dangerously misdirected.

Our experience in the world convinces us that we find a special identity by birth (e.g., a royal family, or one of wealth or power) or by accomplishments that set us apart from the crowd. Such a system inevitably results in a division between the “haves” and the “have-nots.” It also fosters pride, jealousy, and unhealthy forms of competition.

Identity in this context actually focuses less on who we really are and more on what will provide us with security and power. Ironically, however, those seeking distinctiveness through athletic or artistic or financial success frequently find their lives filled with insecurity because they realize how fragile is the status they strive to sustain. Those on the outside looking in, being unfamiliar with this insecurity, continue to long for what others have.

The biblical notion of identity, on the other hand, operates quite differently. Human beings are endowed with the capacity to reflect the glory of the Creator in a variety of ways. Rather than competing with one another for personal glory, God’s intent was that we combine our capacities to reflect his glory more fully. In the process, human beings find joy in fulfilling their high calling.

When Jesus calls us to find our identity by losing it, the goal is not to lose our true self, but to strip away human pretensions so that we can rediscover our true identity. Paul’s elaborations of the church as a body provide a glimpse of a healthier interplay between individual and corporate identity.

False, self-promoting identities that offer counterfeit security, however, retain a powerful appeal because they promise power. In the next post we will explore biblical examples of these alternatives, including false religious identities.

What “Self” Needs to Die?

In Luke 9, following Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Messiah, Jesus speaks to his disciples about the necessity of his suffering and death prior to his resurrection (v. 22). He then turns immediately to the necessity of his disciples’ denial of self and loss of their lives if they would ultimately save them (vv. 23-24).

What does this paradoxical and shocking demand mean? In some cases it could refer to martyrdom, a disciple’s willingness to follow Jesus in the experience of physical death for the sake of the kingdom. Jesus’ reference to taking up one’s cross “daily” (v. 23), however, points away from martyrdom as the primary meaning of his words.

Some might have concerns that this death to self refers to the loss of a disciple’s individuality, or uniqueness. Does Jesus seek to reduce his followers to a bland conformity, as with mindless cult followers? Such a view runs counter to the unity-in-diversity of the body of Christ.

Closer to Jesus’ intent, perhaps, is the death of what some have called the “false self.” This label refers to the masks we wear to protect an image we want to convey rather than our more authentic self. In addition to protecting our “image,” however, the false self also shields the true self from God’s transformative presence.

More broadly, we find our identity in attachments that, while not false, can interfere with pursuing our true human identity as revealed in Christ. Consider Paul’s description of his life before and after his encounter with Jesus.

If others think they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless. But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, in order that I may gain Christ . . . .

                                    –Philippians 3:4-8

Paul is no mindless clone. Nor does he speak as one from whom all he had worked to accomplish was stolen from him. Rather, he willingly surrendered both his birth status (an Israelite from the tribe of Benjamin) and the fruits of his labors so that he might find his identity in Christ alone.

In one sense, of course, Paul remained a descendant of Abraham through Benjamin. As he said of his first encounter with the Corinthians, though, he “resolved to know nothing among them except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2).

We should not take lightly either Jesus’ demand or Paul’s response to it. The call is both radical and painful, which is why Jesus describes it as a kind of death. The question for disciples, therefore, is whether we want merely to incorporate Jesus into the rest of our identity, or to determine to find our identity in nothing but Jesus Christ and him crucified.

Is such a radical choice really necessary? Consider Paul’s rebuke of Peter in Galatians 2. Peter, who had learned about God’s inclusion of Gentiles in his mission to the household of Cornelius in Acts 10, briefly reverts to his former identity when he withdraws from Gentile Christians at the arrival of some notable Jewish Christians.

As Peter’s actions indicate, our prior identity does not die quickly or easily. When we choose to hang on to it, or even when we briefly revert to it, the consequences for our lives as citizens of the kingdom can be disastrous. The reason is that our sense of identity shapes our perceptions and attitudes in ways we do not consciously realize. Peter almost certainly did not act hypocritically.

Perhaps this dilemma of the unconscious inner struggle we all experience explains in part the prophet Jeremiah’s claim that “The heart is deceitful above all things” (Jeremiah 17:9). His conclusion derives not from his encounters with pagans, but with the unresponsive Israelites to whom God sent him.

The connection between Jeremiah’s claim and Israel becomes more obvious when we observe that the word Jeremiah uses for “deceitful” derives from the same root as the name Jacob. The patriarch Jacob attempted to gain what he desired through cunning and deceit. The person most deceived, however, was Jacob himself. He thought he could control outcomes, but he eventually learned that God remains in control. Only through a long, difficult process, however, was Jacob able to arrive at this conclusion.

If we seek to die to our false selves and the forms of identity through birth and accomplishment that so easily impede our kingdom identity, we will struggle as well. We will need God’s grace, not only in regard to his patience, but also in regard to his gracious means of reshaping us. Through practices such as prayer, solitude, and meditation, God can open us both to see ourselves more honestly and to find our identity in Christ more fully.

The Mind of God – In Memory of Dallas Willard

Like many others, I was saddened yesterday to learn of the death of Dallas Willard. Although I never met him or even heard him speak in person, I have been greatly blessed through his writings. My favorites include The Spirit of the Disciplines, Hearing God, and The Great Omission.

Although Willard grew up in very humble circumstances, he became a prominent academic as a professor of philosophy at the University of Southern California. Most of us, however, will remember him best for his challenging but accessible insights into the kingdom of God and spiritual formation as a means of shaping us into disciples of Jesus.

Christianity Today published an excellent tribute to Dallas Willard yesterday by John Ortberg. One quote Ortberg shared had to do with the distinction Willard made between the brain and the mind: “God never had a brain, and has never missed it.”

This quote reminded me that even though the human brain is one of God’s most wondrous and complex creations, it functions as a pale reflection of the mind of God. The brain is finite, whereas the mind of God is infinite; the brain struggles with complexity, whereas the mind of God creates complexity; the brain can be deceived, whereas the mind of God perceives everything clearly. In addition to the inherent limitations of the brain, its capacity has been negatively impacted by sin.

Dallas Willard was a brilliant, well-educated man, and a bit of the mind of God was able to shine through to the rest of us in his work. I also sensed a great deal of humility in him, however, and I am sure he would be the first to acknowledge his limitations. I think he would gladly echo the praise of another brilliant man when he reached the limits of his understanding:

Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!

How unsearchable his judgments,

And his paths beyond tracing out!

Who has known the mind of the Lord?

Or who has been his counselor?

                        Romans 11:33-34

What Is the Biblical Perspective on Change?

On one hand, resistance to change in the religious realm makes sense. Remaining true to at least the essentials of one’s religious beliefs stands as a mark of faithfulness (although agreeing on what is an “essential” almost inevitably results in disagreement). On another level, however, one could argue that change is at the heart of the biblical message.

The Bible does not typically use the word “change.” It centers instead on the rich theological vocabulary behind “re” language such as rebirth, renewal, restoration, redemption, reconciliation, repentance.  These words certainly signal change, though, and dramatic change at that.

Such language helps to address the ever-relevant question regarding change: Why? The words above share the assumption that: 1)God’s original creation has been damaged by sin; 2)God is at work to overcome this damage; 3)God has invited us to participate in his work. These realities call for change on three levels.

On an individual or personal level, this change means that God has made it possible to heal our broken relationship with him. Part of this healing involves an ongoing process of rediscovering what it means to fulfill our high calling to “image” him within his creation.

On a corporate level, God’s change language means that we have the capacity to heal broken human relationships and build healthier ones. It means that we can live in authentic community that bears witness to God’s ideal for community.

On a cosmic level, the biblical vocabulary for change envisions the extension of God’s work to the entire creation. The individual and corporate life of followers of Jesus impacts even this arena as God “makes all things new” (Revelation 21:5).

Each of these areas, of course, requires further elaboration. For the moment, it is enough to acknowledge how far God’s creation – including humanity – has fallen from its original glory and how long is the journey back. We human beings, who often resist change – and are the only part of the creation with much capacity to do so – introduced the fall. We also remain the only part of the creation honored by God to join in his counteractive response to the fall.

In the end, and even now, God is the mover of this grand story. If we are to answer his gracious call to join him, we cannot follow the general pattern of human history. Arguably, we cannot even follow the general pattern of church history. In the journey from the present to God’s promised future, change is a given, but what does it look like, and how do we get there? What are the primary obstacles in our path?

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