Friday, November 16, 2018
The world received a new chance in Noah. Not only has God decided not to destroy the world again, but God also made a covenant with Noah to protect and enhance justice in the course of human relationships. There is a new hope that humanity will improve its place in the world creating relationships of goodness, grace and forgiveness. But in just a few pages of this new history things fall apart.
Most of the stories in Genesis are character sketches of individual of faith. In them God places trust, confidence and covenant. It is through these important people that God’s plan and judgment is revealed to the people of God. But in the story of the Tower of Babel the narrator steps back to look at the cultural landscape after Noah to see a dangerous pattern developing.
The migration of the mass of people continued east until they came to a large plain with everything they needed. Instead of setting up an altar to God they decided to build a tower to rival the heavens. They wanted to make a name for themselves. They wanted admiration, power and security which they would get themselves without the help of any divine power. By their striving and willful self-reflection they desired fame, unity and political strength against God. They wanted what Adam and Eve wanted---freedom. But what they received was punishment.
God’s response to this new endeavor of humanity was not affirming. God saw it not as a rivalry, but as a dangerous experiment that will end in evil. God says, “Soon they will be able to do anything they desire.” God’s meaning is clear. The same behavior and violence that was in the world during Noah’s era will soon return with a vengeance here in the land of Shinar. However, unlike the world during Noah’s time this world is organized. They have teams of laborers and elites who tell them what to do. The leaders are providing the message which is one of power, freedom and security against anything outside themselves. They will soon exclude, demonize and abuse people who do not come under their shared vision.
What made their attempt at becoming this powerful nation so dangerous was that they all had the same language. They shared the same internal ways of interpreting the world through this common language, and were able to communicate with the same understanding of their experience. This common use of language was a powerful tool to build unity, which could be a good thing. But in the hands of those that use it to build a fortress of exclusion and justified abuse against others, it turns devilish. For this nation of people “sameness means rightness and power.”
This, of course, is an old sin of the communities of the world. Diversity, while it may be publically tolerated, is internally unacceptable and fearful and must be eliminated. We even have a word for this---stranger. The word comes from the naming of others who are different as strange. Once we are able to use this label with complete acceptance in the community then we are able to discriminate, exclude and even worse. God saw this inevitability as harmful and shameful. Instead of destroying the world God took the opportunity to scramble their languages. In fact the word used in Genesis is “confuse.” God’s intent was to bring confusion into the experience of the world through language for the purpose of avoiding more abuse, and the possibility that humanity will find tolerance instead of hate. But God created anxiety and fear to establish a dependent experience.
In Jesus the world was opened up to a new vision of tolerance and righteousness. Through his ministry we have all learned that those we have labeled as not worthy are worthy in God’s eyes. Therefore to walk in the vision of God we must learn how to see others as worthy as well. Jesus ate with those others saw as sinners, evil and unworthy. He was called out for it, but it didn’t stop him. He continued to show the heart of God to the victims of communities that say, “sameness is rightness.”
Then on a day when Israel celebrated a festival called Pentecost, the world was given an opportunity to share in God’s vision for the world. After the resurrection the disciples went out to preach, having received the power of the Holy Spirit, when something unique happened. Those from every nation were able to understand what Peter was saying. God had broken down the walls of language which God created to stop the possibility of harm to others. Now he is restoring common understanding through the Spirit. They were one in God, but only through the Spirit. Under the direction of the Spirit and in the guidance of God we are made one. We are an invisible Kingdom without walls with a mission to break down more walls of indifference derived from the faulty ideologies based on that evil assumption that “sameness is rightness.”
Friday, November 9, 2018
Noah’s story was not that of an old man who built a boat, but of a man who built a whole new world alongside and after an evil and corrupted one. Vigilance, cunning and an endless expenditure of energy and faith were needed to maintain his place in the world. Noah faced a world filled with people engaged in the lust for power, which they used to force and intimidate those around them. Their evil divided the world corrupting any decency they might have had. They became leaders over groups of people building a society that was devoid of justice but a kind of servitude to the heroes of the world.
He faced a world that didn’t temper their actions through knowledge of God in which justice and love were part of their consciousness. They instead confirmed if their actions were right by the rules of survival and need of the leader who brought fear to every person.
He faced a world that had grown up on lies because they had negated the truth. Justice was defined as fulfilling my need. Anyone who took that away from the group deserved punishment. All this negation led to violence.
For years Noah found a way to live among this system of abuse and evil. To do this he not only needed to be courageous, fearless, but he needed to be wise. He had to show he was not a threat to them while proving that they needed him in some way. The only way he and his family could have survived was through the constant spiritual direction from God. Noah managed a life among people who had lost their sensibility toward others, and used violence as a means to settle disputes, which perpetuated the illusion of righteousness by excluding others from their community.
In the midst of all this chaos Noah also managed to build a ship. He, also, built a life of integrity with God and others. He built a family with this same integrity while he built this ark. He stepped out of his role as a farmer and rancher to spend his time building a boat. I don’t think they had invented the term “mid-life crisis” during his era but I am sure they had a similar word for him, as he began this project. He became a man who was on the outside, even with his family. He was the man in his garage tinkering all day trying to build something nobody understands, like a computer, software program or an invention that no one see’s the relevance of. Therefore, his courage was not only his ability to negotiate his neighbors evil but his families’ ridicule, as well.
This is the side of Noah we know well. But he was also a man of sacred understanding. He is not only a man of action he is a man of silence and quiet before God. During his voyage he was alive to all the necessary tasks to maintain life on the boat. Animals, family and damage to the boat needed to be attended to. There was little time, most likely, for worship or prayer with the kind of silence and intensity he was used to. But when they landed, the waters receded and it was safe to get off the boat. The first thing he did was to build an altar to worship God.
It was time to show his gratitude, take time to listen to his own heart and to listen for the redemptive purpose of God. He was not interested in God’s new ethical demands for this new world, he was most likely interested in what God’s purpose was for him and this new world. He needed to listen as best he could in the silence of worship to figure out how to live out his life. As a man of action he figured out how to survive; as a man of sacredness he needed to figure out where God was walking in this world and follow him.
Being grateful reveals our inward understanding of God’s gifts to us. The reason for building the altar was to allow this inward understanding of God to show itself. Noah did not build this altar because of duty, but because he felt an overwhelming desire to stand before God in the most humble way he knew how. The narrator said that God was pleased with Noah’s worship. God was so overtaken by Noah’s heart reaching out in hope, God promised never to destroy the earth again even though the human heart is filled with evil. Noah’s vulnerable and open heart reached God’s heart touching it with the gratitude of a man who loved God above all things. God wanted to protect that genuine heart, therefore God promised never to destroy the earth and then instilled the basic covenants of justice that would guide humanity to more honorable relationships.
Behind justice and mercy for every living thing stands the necessity of worship. In order for our hearts to remain open and turned to the world with grace we first need to be silent before God. We need to build our altar in whatever fashion we like. For some it is sitting on a patio, walking down the street, sitting in our car or standing on top of a hill. Whatever altar you build it must be visited for it to be the kind of reminder useful for spiritual development.
We cannot afford to be like many leaders in the Old Testament who built altars for the people but never visited them. When this happens we forget our purpose. Paul reminds us of this truth when he says in Romans 12:1-2, “Be not conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind. Present yourselves as living sacrifices unto God which is your reasonable worship.” The only way to maintain our spiritual perspective is to visit our altars which then remind us of where we are and where we are going.
Friday, November 2, 2018
Christian inwardness is our chance to throw off the less than spiritual forces in us and put on the power of the spiritual goodness of God.
The world is becoming less compassionate and sensitive to the lives of others says one of our leading sociologists. This insensitivity arises from a kind of moral blindness created by an acquiescence to what we call normal. Instead of reaching beyond the banality of the world to our created purpose we accept the easy way. We were created in the image of God to care for each other and the world; yet we seem to be getting in the way of following that divine purpose. We don’t seem to have time for God, let alone the other people in our lives. The driving force behind this ever increasing loss of the other is our own selfishness. This is not new in the world of relationships, it has haunted us from the very beginning of our consciousness. Adam and Eve, as our historical and abiding parents, reveal to us that our problem is rooted in our own desires. These desires, most of the time, turn to fulfilling the self alone, not the needs of the other. It is difficult for us to get out of the way of our own self to find our true selves in God.
When we enter into prayer we must lose ourselves in this encounter in order to benefit from the relationship. We must be honest, open and authentic in this encounter with God to have any chance of speaking to us in the silence. We must get out of the way in order to come away from our time with God a changed person. The change that God is looking for in us is to become more aware of who God is and what God wants. From Jesus we know that God wants us to embrace the lost, the victims, the suffering of this world. God wants us to become more compassionate by losing our self in the divine wisdom and mercy. Selfishness prevents us from benefiting from our encounters with God. When we continue to allow our mind to control our prayer life with thoughts of what we want alone, then God can only speak to us in yes or no language. This limits God’s ability to speak to us in the silence. We push God into a corner without entrance into our life.
Dietrich Bonheoffer writes in 1942, “A Christian community either lives by the intercessory prayers of its members for one another, or the community will be destroyed. I can no longer condemn or hate other Christians for whom I pray, no matter how much trouble they cause me.” When we forget that our prayers are to reach beyond our inner walls of separation we remain selfish, instead of a selfless expression of what Jesus calls us to be. The prayer of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane continues to teach us the real heart of prayer. In the garden he is wrestling with his destiny, his purpose in life. His suffering was because in following his purpose it meant his death. His struggles culminated in his cry to his Father, “Take this cup from me.” Like all of us who face such things, we would cry out to the one who can change the direction of our history. But Jesus wants something else more than his own life. He wants to do the will of God. So the last word was not “Take this cup from me,” but “Not my will but thy will be done.” This is not just a set of words that show respect to the power of God. This is a change of being in the world with God. His inner life and vision of the world is in step with God. This is the benefit of prayer in a world that is losing its sensitivity.
We are often led astray by the advice of Jesus and the apostles to ask God for what you want and he will be happy to grant it. Those who are true prayer warriors know that it is not all about asking, it is about stepping out of the way so you can hear and see where God is moving. Prayer as only asking becomes one sided because we only hear our own voice. That is why the Psalms must be reevaluated for more than just expressions of wants and gripes with God. They must be seen as the tensions of the self that is in danger of becoming the louder voice in the relationship. These prayers are not prescriptive for our behavior. They are the soundings of both the false self and the real self trying to come to grips with the presence of God. Therefore when the Psalmist demands of God to kill his enemies or to make their enemies suffer, he is acting from that selfish part of his inner world that needs to be heard but then also healed. The worshippers are called on to sing and pray these liturgical writings, not to put them into practice by killing their enemies, but to bring the pain behind these words to God and wait for healing.
Prayer is a wrestling with God, as Jacob did, but it is also a wrestling with ourselves. We are called upon through the process of prayer to get out of the way so God can have his way. Prayer is drawing closer to God and those around us. Compassion and sensitivity are the end result of this wrestling.