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 “December, 2013”

On Listening to People with whom I Disagree

A recent book by Alan Gregerman carries the title, The Necessity of Strangers: The Intriguing Truth About Insight, Innovation, and Success. The author argues that, with all due respect to our usual circle of friends and family, we significantly shortchange our potential if we do not engage, learn from, and collaborate with “strangers,” that is, those who differ from us.

I agree with this basic premise, and even though the book focuses more on personal and professional growth, profound implications for the Christian and the church exist as well.

Before I turn to the reasons for Christians to listen to those who differ from us more broadly, let me mention a personal motivation for addressing this idea. The 140-character limit in Twitter creates a number of challenges. Thoughts expressed in this format resemble proverbs in their brevity. Like proverbs, these thoughts do not possess the luxury of larger context, leaving them open to interpretation (and misinterpretation).

Another danger accompanies such snippets when they originate from an outside source. Someone viewing the post might consider the one being quoted suspect in some way, and thus overly identify this concern with the one posting the quote. At a minimum, the one posting the quote “should have known better than to have cited such a disreputable person.”

For example, over the past year I have read from Richard Rohr’s works fairly extensively. On several occasions I have posted quotes from him on Twitter (linking also to Facebook). For those who don’t know him, Rohr is a popular but controversial Catholic priest and teacher. I don’t believe I have ever read anyone from whom I derived such equal measures of insightful inspiration (mostly in the area of spirituality) and significant disagreement.

As an academic, I have been trained to examine sources critically. This practice challenges the researcher to find and appropriate what is valuable while rejecting that which fails to meet the standard. The quality of discernment required for this practice understandably leaves room for disagreement.

While the critical approach forever remains an inexact science, the alternative necessitates the appointment (or self-appointment) of some individual or group to determine which sources are “safe” and which are “dangerous.” This judgment typically implies that the former merit implicit trust across the board while the latter should be avoided altogether. This approach saves time and mental energy for many, but it obviously carries its own dangers, not the least of which is the narrowed field of vision it imposes.

Christians need to listen to “strangers,” therefore, because they potentially have much to teach us. We should not be surprised by this assertion. The Bible’s claim that we are all created in the image of God suggests that someone who has never seen a Bible possesses capacity for insight into the truth. The Bible’s claim that we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God suggests that the most devout student of the Bible will not possess perfect understanding.

Christians also need to listen to “strangers” because we need to understand them if we are to fulfill our calling from God toward them. The writer of Hebrews calls Jesus our “sympathetic” high priest because of the great lengths to which he went to identify with us. A much smaller gap exists between us and our neighbors, but it remains a gap we are called to close in order to carry out our priestly ministry and to perpetuate Jesus’ incarnational presence.

One final thought: At times I find it easier to listen to Richard Rohr and other differing voices than those whose backgrounds and basic beliefs more closely resemble my own. Why? These are the times when the “strangers” reflect a transparency about their own limitations in understanding and a refusal to take themselves too seriously, while my friends sound so harsh, so confident of their monopoly on the truth, so predictable in their responses to every event. The latter stance suggests to me fear and insecurity rather than the fruit of advanced wisdom. 

What’s In a Name?

In Matthew 1 the angel reassures Joseph about the child Mary is carrying, although the news that the child “is from the Holy Spirit” surely raised a whole new set of questions. In verse 23 the angel instructs Joseph to name the child Jesus, “because he will save his people from their sins.”

A couple of biblical curiosities regarding the name Jesus may help us appreciate why its significance extends beyond what we usually recognize. First, let’s consider Hebrews 4:8 in the King James Version:

“For if Jesus had given them rest, then would he not afterward have spoken of another day.”

This verse seems to make no sense to a careful reader who recognizes the contrast in the passage between the rest promised to the Israelites in Canaan and the greater rest provided by Jesus. The confusion arises from the fact that the name Jesus comes from the Greek translation of the Hebrew name Joshua. I know of no other English translation that translates the name “Jesus” rather than “Joshua” in Hebrews 4:8.

This peculiarity of the KJV, however, reminds us that the name Jesus/Joshua means “Yahweh saves.” The Old Testament use of “save/salvation” focuses on rescue or deliverance. Psalm 80 provides a good example of this broader meaning. In the midst of calls for God to save, the psalm also appeals to God to “return” to them, to “restore” them, and to “revive” them. Salvation, in other words, refers not only to a deliverance “from” something, but also “back to” something.

The second curiosity about the name Jesus comes from within Matthew 1. Just after the command to name the child Jesus, Matthew connects Jesus’ birth to Isaiah 7 and the child who is to be called Immanuel (“God With Us”). Why would Matthew tie the name Jesus to a passage referring to a child with a different name?

Jesus certainly fits the bill of “God With Us,” but Matthew also takes into account the larger context of Isaiah and the nature of the divine presence. The promised sign of Immanuel comes in the context of a faithless king, Ahaz, who turns to Assyria for help rather than to God. How does the promise of God’s presence overcome such unbelief, and what does the salvation God’s presence brings look like?

Isaiah 7 helps prepare the way for one of the most famous messianic promises in Isaiah, the “Suffering Servant” in chapters 52-53. To fully appreciate the Suffering Servant, however, we must go back to 41:8, where God speaks of Israel as his servant. God goes on to describe Israel as a blind and deaf servant, frustrated with the failure to bring God’s salvation to the earth. As the servant theme moves toward its climax in chapters 52-53, it shifts from Israel as servant to the servant who acts on behalf of Israel, and ultimately on behalf of all nations.

Notice in Matthew 1 that Jesus “will save his people from their sins.” Jesus comes to Israel not just to provide forgiveness for their sins, but also to rescue them from the power of their sins that has frustrated them as servants of the Lord with a mission in the world.

The opening verse of the classic 18th century hymn, “Rock of Ages,” by Augustus Montague Toplady acknowledges this larger dimension of Jesus’ salvation:

Rock of Ages, cleft for me,

Let me hide myself in Thee;

Let the water and the blood,

From Thy wounded side which flowed,

Be of sin the double cure;

Save from wrath and make me pure.

What a marvelous gift is the forgiveness of our sins! Yet forgiveness of sin does not exhaust the meaning of salvation from sin. To limit it to forgiveness misses a vital dimension of Jesus’ role as Savior. Not only does it reduce his work in our eyes to a self-focused “get-out-of-jail” card, but it also dangerously distracts us from sin’s power over our lives and minimizes our role as a redeemed people in God’s larger purpose.

Forgiveness of sin suggests an end in itself; salvation from sin points us to deliverance for something better. It frees us from sin’s power to drag us back down to the world’s pattern of fearing and judging and condemning and hating. It sets us free to be servants of the Lord who follow the path of Jesus in the fullest sense of that name. Sin alienates us not only from God, but also from ourselves, from one another, and from the creation. Salvation sets us on the path to restored relationships across the board.

Now that’s really good news!

Beware the Trap of “Special” People

“Well, isn’t that special?!” We didn’t find it hard to catch the sarcasm when Dana Carvey’s “Church Lady” uttered her trademark line on SNL. In general we use the word “special” with a fair degree of ambiguity. Special education, for example, applies equally to children struggling with learning disabilities and those classified as gifted.

Similarly, we tend to view both the worst of sinners and the most virtuous as special, or exceptional. Doing so, however, can yield serious spiritual dangers for us on both ends of the spectrum.

On the negative side, consider how we tend to view the Bible’s portrayal of the fickle Israelites or the unbelieving Pharisees or Jesus’ clueless disciples. Through them the Bible challenges us to humbly consider our own resistance to God’s revelation. Instead, don’t we more often dismiss them by demonizing them as pure evil or bumbling failures?

The Pharisees actually illustrate this danger. According to Jesus, the Pharisees honor the burial sites of the prophets and claim they would not have participated in shedding their blood, yet their treatment of him links them to past persecutors of the righteous (Matthew 23:29-32). Similarly, Jesus’ opening sermon in the synagogue at Nazareth, in which he links the residents of his hometown to those in the unbelieving days of Elijah, turns these pious villagers into a mob intent on murder.

On the positive side, we also tend to attribute the success of those who stand out from the crowd to some inherent quality or advantage. This pattern applies to “genius” in intellect, artistry, and athletics (in spite of Malcolm Gladwell’s proposals in Outliers). We follow the same pattern with “spiritual giants.”

Dallas Willard’s penetrating essay, “Living in the Vision of God” (The Great Omission), addresses the way followers in a movement tend to lose the vision of the founder. Part of the problem, Willard says, is the followers’ “assumption that the founder or leader is ‘unusual’ or ‘abnormally gifted’ to relieve themselves of the burden of genuinely being like him or her.”

The danger of viewing others as “special,” therefore, lies in the disconnect it creates between us and them. To set the wicked and unbelieving apart for our judgment allows us to retain a smug sense of superiority that makes us more vulnerable to the same failings.

On the other hand, to place on a pedestal those in whom and through whom God is evidently working carries an equal but opposite danger. Honoring them – or even envying them – might seem to reflect humility, but in reality it keeps us from being open to God’s work in and through us.

Willard acknowledges the existence of servants of God who are marked by something special. He insists, however, that what sets them apart is their openness to the vision of God, not some quality unavailable to the rest of us. If such servants (or those who desire to follow them) shift the focus from sustaining the vision of God to sustaining the results of the vision by their own strength, they lose access to that which is special.

Perhaps we would do well to paraphrase Jesus’ words to the rich young ruler: “Call no one special but God.”

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