Thursday, August 27, 2009

Genesis 1: An Introduction to Theology

We often refer to Genesis as the first of the five "books of Moses". Tradition holds that it was written by Moses during the Exodus or wanderings in the desert. The audience, then, was Israelites who had grown up in Egypt. They knew tales of their ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and had some conception of a God who had made a promise to them, but they had also knew about the Egyptian gods, and had their perceptions of what it means to be a god shaped by Egyptian mythology. For many generations after Moses, the Israelites struggled to understand that God was not merely a particularly powerful creature of the same type as the Egyptian gods, but something entirely different.

Understanding the Egyptian creation story gives us a greater understanding of the key lessons of Genesis 1:

-In the beginning, God. In Egyptian mythology, there was what we might think of as the void or the undifferentiated infinite waters. Swimming within that void were deities of the infinite, the watery abyss, darkness, and the invisible, and those gods oversaw the hatching of the egg that contained the creator-god Amen-Re. In Genesis, God is already there in the beginning, before the void or darkness or water. God is eternal.

-God created... and it was good. In Egyptian mythology, the waters are divided when the creator's egg hatches, as an unintentional side-effect. Amen-Re creates for himself a wife, the star goddess, who has an affair with the earth, so he separates stars from earth and puts the air between them as a guardian, declaring that the stars cannot bear children on any day of the year. This created a loophole for another god to add days to the year using light won from the moon, which allowed the stars to birth five more gods. Finally, humans are created by yet another god, as Amen-Re creates a place for them to live (Egypt) and other creatures to fill the land. Different segments of creation are unintentional or even against the will of the creator. In Genesis, God creates the sun, the moon, the stars, the earth, animals, plants, rivers, oceans, and eventually humans, all according to His own plan. Everything within creation is intentional, and it is what God wanted.

- God is sovereign. In Egyptian mythology, the creator loses track of some of his creations through the mist, gets fooled by loopholes and deception, and every night is "hidden" as the great primordial lotus closes up. Amen-Re often has no choice or no power; he is subject to his own environment and the doings of other gods. In Genesis, God is not subject to chance or environment or other creatures; He acts according to His will alone.

- God is separate from the universe. In Egyptian mythology, the gods are things like the sun, moon, stars, air, and moisture, and people are expected to revere those things. In Genesis, God creates each of those things, and none of them are treated as though they have their own personality or desire. They are treated as objects, not as agents; the sun and moon are not even mentioned by name. Similarly, livestock, the Nile, and Pharaoh were considered gods in Egyptian mythology, but God overwhelms those things during the plagues in Exodus. This leaves no room to worship any part of the universe.

When we read Genesis 1 in light of the Egyptian mythology that would have been familiar to its original audience, the main lesson becomes clear: unlike the Egyptian gods, Yahweh is eternal, sovereign over the universe, separate from the universe, and created the whole universe according to His plan and desires. Genesis 1 is not meant primarily as an introduction to history, but rather, as an introduction to Theology -- to what God fundamentally is and is not.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Respect For Authority

I was reading Romans today, and a familiar passage caught my eye. (13:1-6)

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except by God's appointment, and the authorities that exist have been instituted by God. So the person who resists such authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will incur judgement (for rulers cause no fear for good conduct but for bad).

Do you desire not to fear authority? Do good and you will receive its commendation, for it is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be in fear, for it does not bear the sword in vain. It is God's servant to administer retribution to the wrongdoer.

Therefore it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of the wrath of the authorities but also because of your conscience. For this reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God's servants devoted to governing.

It's been a long time since I read this passage. I think last time I read it, I took it at face value. And why not? I have been taught that God acts in chance meetings of friends, that he communicates in mundane circumstances and coincidences. Why couldn't he wield authority through the state? If it is written that government is appointed by God and that I am to respect it, I will do so. The case is open and shut.

It's been a few years, though, and my outlook has changed a bit. I've studied more history, I've seen an election or two. The political junkie in me has been steadily drifting libertarian, and views government, if not with a hostile eye, at least with a criticial one. Statesmen create states of varying quality, and I am quick to criticize the harm they do. Respect government as a God-ordained authority? That's hard to swallow.

These days, the theologan in me is alert for passages that don't make sense. A paradox means you have an unstated false assumption. Things that don't make sense are thus opportunities to learn.

When it's scripture that doesn't make sense, there's an extra tension. There are two ways to go -- faith or skepticism. We can declare that the passage must be taken at face value, run out, try it, see what happens, hold to it. Great discoveries can be made that way. Bull-headed zealotry happens that way, too, though. Or we can criticize the conclusion, puzzle over what it means, consider it a riddle and think about it until it makes sense. Great discoveries can be made that way. Sophistry and powerless faith happen that way, too, though.

We must avoid both pitfalls, and it's not a case of compromise. Sometimes God intends a plain truth or command, and we would dishonor it by watering it down. We do not honor the command to love our neighbor by philosophizing all day long about what love entails and who our neighbors are. Then again, sometimes a riddle is intended. When Jesus tells us to eat his flesh and drink his blood, the response shouldn't be, "That doesn't make sense, but I'll believe it on your authority" but rather, "What does he mean by that?" Sometimes the critical response is the intended one. No, it's not just one way or the other; there's no interpretational middle ground. Rather, you have to get it right in every case. The goal is neither literalism nor conformance to previous knowledge, but rather honoring what the author intends.

How do you tell? Try it one way and see where it takes you. Then try it the other. Hold on to what works and what makes sense.

Or, sometimes it's obvious. What's funny, though, is that I used to think this passage was obviously plain. And now I think it's obviously a riddle!

How can government be appointed by God? How could resisting it automatically incur his judgement? We have a proud tradition in the West of resisting unjust laws and unjust governments. We sailed to the new world to flee a government, and then rebelled against it on political principle. We make heroes of those who lied to Nazis to hide Jews or broke laws to shelter runaway slaves. They're not evil. They're not opposing God's authority. On the contrary, they're doing God's work!

Can Paul really mean that righteous people have nothing to fear from government? That seems crazy. Sure, with a good government, that's generally true. But it's an ideal. There's not a government anywhere that's so good it's always true. And there are a lot of governments under which it's not true at all. States are wrought by man, and are capable of great inhumanity to innocent man.

And here's the zinger--it's not even true of the specific government Paul was writing about. Rome was no servant of God. Paul had directly experienced that! Sure, Rome kept order, and the Romans were pretty fair-minded. But Rome had also been the power behind the crucifixion. Christians were being imprisoned and killed with the blessing of the state; Paul had participated. He himself had been beaten and jailed for nothing worse than preaching the gospel. In fact, come to think of it, he was probably writing these very words from prison.

Unjustly arrested, sitting in prison, he wrote, "it is God's servant for your good," of the very government that would someday behead him.

Really? Surely he doesn't mean that!

And yet his actions indicate that he does.

In Acts 16, Paul and Silas are attacked by a crowd. They're dragged before a magistrate, falsely accused, beaten, and thrown in prison. It wasn't just. It wasn't even legal. And then a miracle occurs--an earthquake cracks the jail's foundation, throws the doors open, shakes their bonds loose. If ever there was a time to thumb your nose at the government, that was it. And yet they stay there and wait for the guard, apparently out of respect for the law!

The theme seems familiar, somehow. David spared Saul out of respect for God's authority, even though Saul was clearly evil. Jesus went willingly with those who came to arrest him, and even healed them in the middle of an evil act. If your enemy is hungry, feed him. Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.

So submission has nothing to do with whether the government is good. You can still respect an evil government, and Paul clearly did.

But that doesn't solve the whole riddle. He didn't stop at, "Let every person be subject to the governing authorities" but several times declares actively that the government is God's servant to administer justice. "The person who resists such authority resists the ordinance of God."

But I think I get it now. He's not stating overt history. States are wrought by men in history, overthrown by men in history, resisted and assisted by men in history. Yeah, by God, too, sometimes (well, okay, always), but that's a separate theological mystery.

Government doesn't represent God, it serves God. Not in the sense that God controls it, or that he historically created it, or even that it is trying to do what he says. It is by nature God's servant, simply by virtue of what it is. Just as we are by nature God's ambassadors or we reflect God's image.

The role of the state is to administer justice, to run society, and that is a good service that is blessed and ordained by God. It is the nature of a government to attempt that. It is taking part in a relationship with its people that God has standards for. Nobody said it wanted to be God's servant. Nobody said it was trying to do his will. Nobody said it was doing a very good job. Nonetheless, by virtue of the relationship it takes up, by virtue of what it attempts to do, by virtue of wielding power secretly granted by God, it is God's servant. He will hold it accountable to his standards.

And we, as fellow servants, are to help it achieve its mission. To that end, we are to honor its responsibility and accountability to God, and respect the authority it has been given.

It extends, by the way. The teacher is a servant of God, whether he wants to be or not. So is the husband. So is the child. When you get right down to it, we are all responsible for wielding the authority we have been given according to his standards. And we are all responsible for helping those who have authority achieve the mission for which they have been given it. We are all servants of God.

Pursue righteousness. The statesman is responsible for his state, and the politician for his laws and influence. The state is not soulless, but is another servant of God alongside us, worthy of the right to succeed or fail, worthy of support, correction, and redemption. It may be corrupt; it may be senseless; it may be outright evil. The beating heart of the Christian always sounds redemption.

And that's really where this was going. It's not that the state always acts with the authority of God. The ideal of a good state bears the ordinance of God, and out of respect for that and for our particular state's position as God's servant, we must support and respect it. We are still required to oppose its unjust laws, to attempt reform, even to overthrow it if that is righteous. Righteousness is always a tradeoff, though, and that's the point here: one of the things we value is respect for the law. We may oppose it, but not without moral cost.

We may be called to principled rebellion. But we are not permitted casual rebellion.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

God Isn't Here Now -- Repost

June 12, 2005 -- Last reposted essay.

Belief is based more on emotion than some people realize. Consider the formidible evidence for the truth of the gospels--the manuscripts, the historical witnesses, the modern church. How frequently people respond to all that by saying, "Well... I can't explain it; something must have happened two thousand years ago in Palestine that I don't fully understand. But I do know that God isn't here now. I haven't seen him." 

Belief works that way--we are often willing to ignore a lot of evidence because it runs against a naive observation. We never understand all of reality, so there are always little bits of evidence that seem difficult or contradictory to us. We file them under the nebulous heading of "things I don't understand," and go from what we think we do understand. Even healthy thinkers do that, but regulating that nebulous cloud makes the difference between sober thought and delusion. People can come to very different conclusions from the same set of evidence simply due to what what they classify as good evidence and what they classify as inexplicable. Remember Jesus' miracles. They were good evidence for some that Jesus was from God; the Pharisees--completely in service to the belief that Jesus couldn't be from God--had to rationalize them as demonic or inexplicable. 

"He isn't here now" is the language of denial--it is shuttling convincing evidence off into that cloud of unknowing for a little while. Criminals say it about law enforcement--sure, there's a good chance they'll catch you later, but it's easy to believe they won't because they aren't here now. Adulturous wives say it about their husbands. The ancient priests thought it about God. "He isn't here now" are words that indicate a weakness of intellectual character: discarding something you know to be true because you want it not to be and... well... there isn't any immediate evidence for it.

How easily we shuffle things into that mental category of "dissonant evidence," that fuzzy sea of the inexplicable--when convenient. We know it is most rational to believe what seems most likely based on the sum total of the evidence, but to actually live that way takes such effort, self-examination, honesty and humility! We would rather let the desires of the present moment skew and warp the evidence to give us the answer we hope is true. The little bit of evidence that is present and immediate--the here and now now--irrationally seems like enough to overwhelm a sea of more convincing facts. We act against our true beliefs, temporarily convincing ourselves that they aren't true; that is a lack of faith. 

After all, faith is continuing belief in things unseen--but soundly known. Far from irrational belief in a far-flung hope, it is rational belief in what we know to be true, without giving in the desires and evidences of the here and now that are forever pressing in on our senses. 

So faith regulates belief--it controls what we consider good evidence and what we consider fuzzy; it is the manifestation of the discipline required to reject the everyday non-evidences that so easily sway: Nobody in the immediate room believes it; I wish it wasn't true; I haven't seen evidence of it in the last ten minutes. 

"God isn't here now" may seem compelling--indeed it must every time we intentionally sin. It may seem compelling enough to some that they are willing to discard mountains of evidence in service of this little observation. But it is the language of irrational denial, not of sober love of truth. It displays an inability to separate real evidence and truth from irrational hope and immersion in the immediate. 

Beware! In the end, reality is seldom kind to our delusions.

My Boss -- Repost

May 22, 2005

I recently got a new job, and it's a good one. Among other things, I have a very good boss--he takes care of us, makes sure we have the resources to do our work, understands our technical difficulties, motivates us without pressuring us, and protects us from the worst of the beurocracy. I was surprised once, after a hard day of work to hear one of my bosses say, "Hey! Take a break once in a while!" Would that I were so kind to myself.

A lot of the time, I am my own boss. Put more precisely, my fleshly desires and passions are my boss. My desires for entertainment, for pleasure, or for pride are so often what drive me. And I am not half so kind to myself as my boss at work is. I'll skip meals, deprive myself of sleep, deprive myself of time with God or with my husband, and never stop to rest--all in relentless pursuit of pride or pleasure. Half the time, I cheat myself of my pay: I'm up late seeking entertainment, and what I'm reading isn't really all that entertaining. 

Serving desire is a cycle of slavery--though hungers seem sated when we feed them, in reality they grow stronger and are only put off for later. Counterintuitively, they only really go away when we starve them. Literally, of course, we need to eat--but even the physical hunger goes away when you've fasted for a little while. And so many other hungers--hungers for entertainment of this sort or goodies of that sort--just disappear if we deny ourselves those things for a little while. On the other hand, they seem that much more indispensible when we indulge them. Small wonder I am such a demanding boss! 

There's another reason not to serve the flesh: it gets in the way of the spirit. You can't serve God and yourself. It just doesn't work. The selfish and the selfless can't both reign supreme in your character; the worldly and the spiritual are forever at war. If I want the peace that comes through service to God--the best boss--I must renounce service to myself. 

What paradox is that! The road to satisfaction is through self-denial, and freedom comes through submission.

Intimacy and Holiness -- Repost

January 05, 2005

Sometimes when I come to pray to God, words spill out in a rush. Such a day was today.

I am painfully aware of my lack of self-discipline, as I need to look for a job, as I need to clean the house, as I need to lovingly encourage my husband. I find it so hard to get up and work--and though discipline is something you must exercise, and really I should just get up and do it, I find myself empty and unmotivated.

I am painfully aware of my cold-heartedness as well. My husband has been endlessly surrounding me with romance and delight these last few days, and I see myself slow to respond. I love him so much--so why do I still get easily angry, why do I still ignore him for petty entertainment, why do I still underestimate his needs?

Sensing that perhaps a deeper problem was my lack of a prayer life over the past week, I decided to start there. I went into the bedroom and fell down before God, and words began to pour out in a jumble. "Oh God, I'm so pathetic and undisciplined and I need you and I miss you and I saw this really cool movie last week, there was this one scene where... oh! I'm can't pay attention to you, what's wrong with me, God why isn't this working, I need your help, my husband and I played this really cool game last night..."

How casually I (and how casually we...!) sometimes approach God. As though he were not really God. Jesus' humanity and approachability is so much in the forefront of my mind that I forget God's holiness, his supremacy, his zealous nature. And so intimacy suffers.

The same thing happens between my husband and me. I become so familiar with him that I forget who he is. I approach him casually, as though he were just the guy I happened to be living with. I ignore his deeper nature and treat him as though he were merely a conglomerate of needs and services. And in the midst of the whirlwind of "I made your favorite dinner, when will you be home tomorrow?, I wish you'd turn off the football and snuggle with me, where are my keys?, I miss you, hey I saw this really cool game yesterday" . . . intimacy suffers.

Intimacy--when I can touch his spirit, and he can touch mine. It is so closely bound up with holiness--that fire of purity beheld with awe, that nature so terribly set apart and radiant. To be intimate with my husband, I see his spirit and his nature, and I approach him as holy and precious. Intimacy is not casual. It is not achieved when I pour out my mind willy-nilly because I think so little of my husband that I do not care what he thinks of me. That is casual nakedness, and though it is as naked as true intimacy, it is precisely the opposite. In such a case, though we seemingly bare everything, we do not touch each other. Intimacy is reverent, respectful, it despises boundaries, but it regaurds the other has holy, as precious.

It is that way with God, too.

Ecclesiastes 5:1-3

Guard your steps as you go to the house of God, and draw near to listen rather than to offer the sacrifice of fools; for they do not know they are doing evil. Do not be hasty in word or impulsive in thought to bring up a matter in the presence of God. For God is on heaven and you are on earth; therefore let your words be few. For the dream comes through much effort and the voice of a fool through many words.
God is holy. And though he is approachable, though he loves me, though I should not hide who I am or try to cover up my corrupt nature... I should always remember that I am talking to the creator of the universe, the final judge, the architect of history, the God whose holy radiance blinds and consumes. Moses dared to ask to be shown the glory of God, and God showed him his back, but could not safely allow him to see his face.

Remember who God is! He is the God who will have no less than utter faithfulness, who will rule supreme in my heart and share with no rival. He is the God who commands love, and who himself loves so grandly that he would die for us while we were still sinners. Read the zealous judgements of Jesus in the first few chapters of Revelation, and listen to the thundering voice of the jealous God on Sinai.

Shall I casually approach such a God?

Purpose and Temptation -- Repost

December 9, 2004

I had missed breakfast. The night before had been a late one, and the day was full. I resisted the alarm clock for one cycle too many, and breakfast fell off the priority list. It was nearly eleven o' clock, and I had taken the bus down to the University of Washington campus. It stopped four blocks shy of my destination--the bookstore--and so I found myself walking up the Ave. Not just any avenue; "The Ave" near campus is the collection of book stores, pawn shops, various novelties stores, and cheap restaurants that spring up around a University.

I was on a mission. I was in the middle of an art project for a friend--some pen and ink artwork--when I discovered that my crow quill nib wasn't functioning well and I needed a new one. A trip to the art store the night before had been a failure, and I was bound for the campus bookstore. I needed to be home by noon. I had $10 in my wallet, bus fare in my pocket, and not much else. I was hoping to buy some ink and a couple new nibs, and make it home in time to have lunch and get to my online tutoring session.

As I walked up the street at a quick pace, a sign caught my eye. I was walking past a chinese food restaurant--my favorite one, when I had eaten on the Ave more frequently--and noticed the posted menu. Lunches, $4.95 or less. The aroma of rice and good Americanized Chinese drifted out of the restaurant. I remembered that I hadn't had breakfast, and it was nearly noon. I had five dollars in my pocket.

Sometimes when I am standing on a high balcony, I think about jumping off the edge--not that I want to do it, but I think about it. I marvel at the fact that it is perfectly possible, and might be immediately fun (a few seconds of flying!)--and yet it is impossible, something I would never consider doing. The temptation is completely and utterly overwhelmed by a greater concern. I could jerk the steering wheel and go flying off the road; I could spend my life savings on candy; I could cut my finger off with the kitchen knife. But why would I want to? I'd never do any of those things. While it's physically possible for me to do them, it certainly isn't possible on the level of the will.

So it was with this chinese restaurant. Had I had a bit more money and a bit more time, I would have almost certainly stopped and had lunch. But I needed all of that $10--I ended up spending $9.74 on supplies. And I needed all of the time, too--I made it home just barely by noon. And if I didn't make it, well... I wouldn't finish my project for my friend. Or I would be late for my online tutoring session. Those just weren't acceptable options.

The smell reached out to me and made my stomach growl; the sign enticed me with yummy meals; I walked past without really a second thought. All down the street this continued--pizza places and used book stores cried out for my time and money. These weren't idle cries, either--there was the hamburger place I'd had many delicious lunches at, there was the bookstore where I found my Calvin and Hobbes book. And yet they held no power over me because I was on a mission.

Temptation is like that.

Temptation is thinking about and wanting to do something that you know you shouldn't do. And if it's a thing you shouldn't do, then there's a reason you shouldn't do it. If we were always sane and rational, that reason would overwhelm the temptation and we would never struggle with sin. But we aren't sane and rational. We desire to do what we shouldn't do--what in our heart of hearts we don't want to do. (What irony there is in that! Giving in to temptation isn't doing what you want to do, it's doing what you don't want to do!) Giving in to temptation is temporary insanity--giving up something that you know is more valuable to you, in exchange for something that you know is less valuable.

Why would I do that? It doesn't make sense. What is going on? It is that for a moment, I lack faith in something I know to be true. Though I know it, it is a distant truth, far away from the present situation, and I can doubt it. Or if not exactly doubt it, perhaps just ignore it for a moment or two. It is not present to me.

I know that I should be open and honest with my husband. I know that if I am angry with him, keeping it to myself is only going to hurt both of us in the end. And yet for a moment--when he asks me, "Hey... are you all right?"--for a moment I believe that if I just keep everything quiet, it'll go away. Why would I believe that? It's never true. I know marriage is better when I am honest and quick to resolve things; I know intimacy must be 100% or it's nothing, and that hiding things invariably cuts it off. Yet for a few seconds I do not believe it, and choose the lesser value--avoiding conflict. If in those few seconds, you could look me in the eye and say, "Do you really believe you'll accomplish anything by hiding your anger?" I would say "No." And if you further asked, "Then why do you do it?" I would have no answer. It is irrational, it is insane. I am believing things I do not believe, and doing things I do not want to do.

If that's the problem, though, the solution is as simple as walking past a chinese food restaurant to the bookstore. When the reason for rejecting temptation is present, is believed wholeheartedly, is exercised through faith, then the temptation loses all power. Why would I stop to eat when I have nibs and ink to buy? That makes no sense. The food looks yummy, yes, and I am hungry, yes, and I have the money, yes--but it just makes no sense. I wouldn't do that. And why would I hide my feelings when I love my husband and desire an intimate marriage? I don't like conflict, yes, I'm a wimp through and through, yes, I can deceive him if I try--at least for a little while, yes. But why would I do that? It makes no sense.

Powerfully felt purpose destroys temptation. Really, faith destroys temptation. That is the root of so many of the temptations I struggle with--I struggle with pride, because I do not really believe I am so far short of God's perfection. I struggle with anger because I do not really believe that my husband annoyed me by accident. I struggle with an inability to do housework because I do not really believe discipline, cleanliness, and taking care of my husband are important. I struggle with an inability to pray because I do not really believe God will hear me.

And perhaps there will be no better way to shield against temptation in my sane hours than to reaffirm to myself the truths that I know--exercise faith in them, remember them, make them present reality for myself. If purpose defeats temptation, then I will fix my mind on spiritual things, remember who I am in God and what I have been called to--that will surely rob many temptations of their power!

The right philosophy is found in Hebrews 12:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, we must get rid of every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and run with endurance the race set out for us, keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.

Why should I get entangled and burdened down with sin, when I've got a race to run? This is no narcisstic legalistic pursuit of purity. I have things to do, a person to be, a race to run--and I will run it! I won't look at the sidelines; the chinese food stores I pass will have no power over me. My eyes are fixed firmly on the race--on the back of the runner who went before me, in whose footsteps I dilligently follow.

At Peace With God, At Peace With Men -- Repost

An old essay. November 28, 2004 -- Catherine

I don't always sing in church. This is not out of apathy--quite the opposite, it's easy to sing. Raised in the church, I've always been expected to sing--we got in trouble for not singing in my family! It's ingrained habit; when everyone is singing, I have a hard time going against the crowd. I feel like I'm doing something wrong, like everyone is struggling not to stare at me. But this is a point of integrity for me: I will not look like I am worshipping if I am not; I will not look like I am repentant if I am not; I will not gently sing songs of tender worship if I am torn up in raging turmoil. Many's the Sunday that I've come unrepentant and been convicted by words I could not sing--and crumpled on the pew in silent prayer as the congregation sang enthusiastically and clapped around me.

Today was like that. Not for the usual reasons, either--not because I was immersed in petty distractions, or holding on to some lingering sin. It was because of a misunderstanding between my husband and a friend. Harsh words had been exchanged on her blog the night before, with no resolution. After a few half-hearted attempts at singing, I gave it up. I couldn't worship wholeheartedly, having been part of giving offense to a friend. It just wasn't right to sing with a smiling face, as though all was normal. All wasn't normal.

Relationships are things you can compartmentalize. I can give offense to my husband, yet be at perfect peace with my mother. I can have an all out fight with an old friend online, and it has no effect on my relationship with my friend from church. Yet when it comes to God, it isn't so--every relationship spills over into that one. Not because other relationships directly affect that one, but because our sins do. My friend may hate me, and I can still be at peace with God. But if I have done any wrong to her, I cannot be at peace with God until I have set it right--because a sin against my friend is a sin against God. In this case, repentence requires action.

Leviticus 6:2-7

When a person sins and commits a trespass against the Lord by deceiving his fellow citizen in regaurd to something held in trust, or a pledge, or something stolen, or by extorting something from his fellow citizen, or has found something lost and denies it and swears falsely concerning any one of the things that someone might do to sin--when it happens that he sins and he is found guilty, then he must return whatever he had stolen, or whatever he had extorted, or the thing that he had held in trust, or the lost thing that he had found, or anything about which he swears falsely. He must restore it in full and add one fifth to it; he must give it to its owner when he is found guilty.

Then he must bring his guilt offering to the Lord, a flawless ram from the flock, convertible into silver shekels, for a guilt offering to the priest. So the priest will make atonement on his behalf before the Lord and he will be forgiven for whatever he has done to become guilty.

We in the church often have some unhealthy attitudes about the law. Some are inclined to try to obey it to the letter, others are inclined to scorn it as no longer useful. We are not under the law, but God used the law to teach some very powerful truths about himself and about righteousness, in some very simple and beautiful ways. Though we are not required to follow it, there is much that it can still teach us.

I was reading Leviticus a few days ago and was struck by the beauty and simplicity of the commandment. Several times in sequence, the law states that someone who has done wrong must bear his punishment for his iniquity under the law, and then also offer his sacrifice to be reconciled to the Lord. Not just one, and not just the other--both are needed, and then you will be forgiven. What a powerful, practical picture: do right by your neighbor, and do right by God. Who could fail to learn the lesson, with such laws! Would that it were such standard procedure for me--as soon as a trespass were known--to go make things right with whoever I've wronged, and then go make things right with God.

Too often I can be found hiding in the Bible, praying, pretending that all is well and ignoring the fact that there doesn't seem to be anyone on the other end of the line. Too often I suppose that I can experience revival from God while simultaneously becoming slack in my relationship with my husband. Too often I find myself too much of a wimp to go and be reconciled to my neighbor--and am surprised when I find I cannot worship!

Matthew 5:23-24

. . . if you bring your gift to the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother and then come and present your gift.

Worship is mutual enjoyment of each other--it is the fruit of a relationship that is at peace. If I attempt to worship, I am asserting that--as far as I know--the relationship is at peace. And if I am aware of some sin that I have committed, then I am an unrepentant sinner--I am declaring that it is okay. That's not right.

I am not advocating postponing worship until the whole world is at peace with me, and my life is super--far from it, worship must take place in the midst of the storms of life. But I cannot expect to sin against a friend and have God take no notice. I am called to live at peace with all men inasmuch as it is in my power; if I do not honor my husband, if I do not honor my parents, if I do not submit to my fellow believers, if I do not love my friends, it is a small wonder that my relationship with God suffers as well.

If someone has something against me, I should leave the altar and be reconciled. What could be more appropriate in church?

Faith - Repost

Another old essay. November 24, 2004 -- Catherine

I spent most of yesterday frittering away my time. I read internet forums I don't particularly like; I played video games I didn't particularly care about. Addiction to the internet is one thing, a constant problem of mine (though I think it's now in remission), but this wasn't it. This was rather a dull wasting of time. A bit of clay, an old science fiction book, a square piece of paper would have served just as well.

This despite the fact that I had a lot to do. I have a husband to take care of--and we barely talked. I have a Sunday School class to prepare for, and I barely looked at my material. I have things to study, a house to clean, things to research, things to write--and these are things I love to do! And yet for a few hours, I decided they didn't matter as much as enchanting my silver dragon scale mail that last notch.

I love my husband, and I know he loves me. I love to spend time with him--much more than I love gaming or even research. I love to serve God, and I have so many projects in the works for the building up of the church--I love that so much more than I love debating, or writing, or killing dragons. I love God himself--so much more than anything else. So why do I do what I do?

If I believe in God, why do I not speak to him? Do I think it doesn't matter? Do I think that because I can't see him, he doesn't care?

If I believe in God, why can't I remember how important it is to build the church? Why do I blow it off for wasting time?

If I believe in God, why do I sometimes casually--knowingly!--disobey him? Do I think he doesn't see? Do I think it doesn't matter?

Jesus said, "remain in me and you will bear much fruit" and "apart from me, you can do nothing." I know and believe this--wholeheartedly. I trust what Jesus said, I have seen it at work in my life, I know this principle backwards and forwards. But if that is so, why don't I take his advice? Why do I visit, but never abide?

The common theme here is that I have no discipline. That's true. That's something you exercise, and I need to hit the spiritual gym. Equally true--and a connected issue, as these spiritual issues so often are--is that I have no faith.

Faith is two things, but they are really both the same. Faith is believing in something firmly enough that you act on it--the more you are willing to act on it, the more you will risk on that belief, the greater your faith in it. I have faith that the floor will support me when I stand on it. Faith is also believing in something even when you can't see it. I have faith that my husband is at school right now, even though all I really know is that he left the house and will return in a few hours. These are the same--the faith in the latter case is the trusting something you already believe to remain true when you can't watch it. I believe my husband goes to school because I have seen him do it so many times in the past, and I know him and what he is up to. I believe it so soundly that I no longer need to see it--faith provides the evidence for the continued belief.

To believe something and yet act as though it isn't true is a lack of faith. This seems to be my malady. This is no intellectual, evidential struggle--as though I were wondering if God is there or not. In my sane moments, I know he is. Rather, this is a spiritual struggle--sometimes I do not trust what I believe. I am like the disciples in the boat, who had seen Jesus feed 5,000 people from nothing. They believed that he could provide for them--they had seen it with their own eyes!--but still they wondered where they would get bread. I believe in God; I lack faith.

But here's a secret about faith: If you have a little, it grows. You must have something to start with--the soul-deep doubt of the Pharisee and the skeptic gives nothing to work on--but a little bit grows. You have to nurture it, you have to exercise it, but it certainly responds to encouragement. Like discipline and like a conscience, it is something you can exercise or abuse--and so cause to grow or wither. But discipline is more like a muscle, something you exercise every day; faith is more like love, or like a fire--something you nurture and provide for, and it grows with a life of its own. Faith and obedience reinforce each other; so do doubt and disobedience. The old hymn got it right--Trust and Obey.

You only have what you have, to start with. But it's up to you--it's up to me--whether we'll use it. And thus the command: Have faith!

Integrity - Repost

I'm going to bring over a series of old posts from another blog, which I've lost control over. This was originally written by me on November 16, 2004. -- Catherine

I thoughtlessly tapped on the door of the elevator with my key, as I waited to arrive at my floor. The elevators in this apartment building are slow, and they wait a long time to open the doors. I looked underneath where I was tapping, and realized that the elevator door was keyed up terribly. Streaks and marks everywhere--in places clear through the many layers of paint down to the metal. There was the odd obscenity or few tally marks. I looked over and realized that the metal walls nearby were scratched up as well, and the "Dover" brand mark had "Ben" written in front of it in permanent marker.

Who does that? I've known a lot of residents of this apartment building; this is a nice place. The people who live here are nice people--families with children, students. The managers are awesome, the grounds are incredibly well-kept.

As I reached my floor, I stepped out, and glanced back as the door closed behind me. It was completely bare--the solid paint unmarked by keys. The carpet was clean, the surrounding walls immaculate. Not so much as a dirty handprint.

Why? After all, the same people wait for the elevator as wait in the elevator. I wondered momentarily if the grounds people kept the outside of the elevator cleaner, but I doubted it--they clean the elevator daily; last year when they repainted the door, they painted both sides of it. Of course, the reason why there are marks on the inside but not the outside is obvious: On the outside of the elevator, any door could open on the long hallway on either side, at any moment. Inside the elevator, you have complete privacy. Once you enter and the door closes, you are guaranteed to be alone for a few moments.

I make an informal study of common-man grafiti--not the sort that people plan and put up on a wall with spray paint for a purpose, but the sort that is done spur-of-the-moment with a key, marker, pen, or whatever else is handy. It appears most where there is privacy--inside the elevator, inside bathroom stalls. To a lesser degree, in public places where no one is looking at you--on desks in classrooms, on park benches, on wooden railings at quiet bus stops. Privacy brings freedom of expression, and I am interested in what people express: obscenities, initials, delcarations of love. Occasionally nothing, just slash marks--people seem to love to mark up clean surfaces. And yet it's all someone else's property--somehow we know it's not ours to mark on, and we wouldn't do it if anyone was watching.

Freedom is acting without restraint. When we are allowed to do exactly what we want, when nothing binds us or limits our actions, we are free. It is in moments of freedom that we find out who we really are. In moments of privacy or anonymity, when social restraint is lifted, we are free. We then see who we are. Alone in the closed elevator, alone in the bathroom stall in the quiet bathroom, alone in the car--anonymous among the mass of drivers, in complete anonymity on the internet. And most ultimately, in our own minds. In the realms of private thought and fantasy, we achieve the ultimate privacy; what we desire, what we fantasize about, how we act in our fantasy worlds reveals how we act most freely.

We are ugly in our most private places. We write obscenities in the bathroom stall. We rage in the car. We scowl in the elevator, and kick the door. On the internet, in a new place where nobody knows us, we are free to rage against those we don't like in real life. In the realms of fantasy, we conquer our enemies and spit in their faces--filled with pride, anger, or lust. If these are free expressions of who we really are, then it is a good thing we are not truly free.

We are beasts inside, degenerate and hateful. The world and the church have different solutions to this. The solution of the world is to restrain us--to watch the beast and restrain him, to make him pretend that he is civilized. Society restrains the individual so he can't act out his fantasies; social pressures keep him on a leash. God, on the other hand, wants to change the man from the inside out--not to change how tightly he restrains himself, but to change who he is in the car, who he is in the elevator. God is not interested in restraining our corrupt nature; he is interested in transforming our nature--so that we are not evil people pretending to be good, but actually good. Then we can be free.

That's why integrity is so important. Integrity is being transparent--visible clear through from the shell to the core. It is being the same person in reality as you are in your fantasies. It is being the same person with your friends as you are in the elevator. It is being who you appear to be. If we are transformed by God, we can live with integrity because who we are is not something we need to hide. And if we want to be transformed by God, we must have integrity: we can't change as long as we mask how corrupt we are.

This is a lesson I've had to learn so many times. Even in marriage, I have a habit of hiding who I am and how I feel. Yet the same feelings that are obviously ugly and sinful when they are expressed are somehow tolerable when I repress them. The anger I feel at my husband, the selfishness I harbor--these things are allowed to flourish across my nature because I keep them hidden, and I am never forced to confront who I truly am. If I lived with integrity, how quickly would I repent!

Integrity is especially important in the church because the church helps us be the people God intended us to be. In the church, we have powerful ideas of how we should be, powerful standards, powerful ethics. The easiest route for anyone to take is to conform by pretending they're someone they aren't--by "being on their best behavior." But this is precisely what we must not do. When I was in choir, my mom would sometimes tell me, "If you're going to make a mistake, make it LOUD, so we can find it!" If we are forever hiding our flaws, we will hide them from even ourselves. The church cannot convict us, cannot help us change, if we do not let it see who we really are. As long as we are hiding--as long as we restrain ourselves for the sake of social peace--things seem okay. And so we will never ask God to change us.

Within the church, so many people respond to sermons, to moral teaching, with heavy weariness because they are following the world's model for behavior in the church. Here is yet another way I must restrain myself. To change by controlling your nature--by trying to restrain yourself even in your thoughts--is tiring and difficult. And yet this is our habit because everyone does it--somehow everyone is fake at church, and we simply assume that is what Christians do. Unconsciously, we think being saved means God gives us the strength to keep ourselves in check. In fact, God wants to change us. In that paradigm, a new moral command is no burden--it is an inspiration.

Living with integrity is having faith in your character. Bucking all social pressures and being who you are allows others to see you for what you are, and complain about you. It allows you to see who you really are--and this brings repentance and so allows God to change you. To be continually trying to conform to socially acceptable behavior is both wearying and sets the bar too low. But to be free reveals who we are--it allows us to honestly compare ourselves to God's standards. And it means that we change by submitting to God, and changing from the inside out; permanently, effortlessly, and radically.

Some bemoan the lack of integrity in the church, saying that we ought to be the same person on Saturday night as we are on Sunday morning. But in fact, that's exactly backwards. On Sunday morning, we are rediculously restrained by churchy social standards; on Saturday night, we are free. What's needed is not further restraint, but integrity. We need to be the same person on Sunday morning that we are on Saturday night.