Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Bible In 1400 Words

So I started thinking in the shower about how I would present The Bible and how it all works and flows if I was given the task. Here we go. There could be a perception that there is a lot of discontinuity in the Bible and at times, that may almost be right. There are certain stories and topics that seem to contradict others and what not. However, there is a way of piecing all the really big themes together. Granted, this is only one take on it. I am sure that there are several themes that you could trace through all of scripture, however, that would be volumes of work. I plan on trying to sum up my thoughts in a single blog post. So, strap in.

We start out this story in a garden. And this place is good, God says so Himself. Now, whether you take the first part of Genesis literally or figuratively does not matter too much, the lessons remain. In the beginning was perfection and shalom. Shalom, a word that is translated as "peace" but goes so far beyond that. It represents completeness and being whole, lacking nothing. A great way to think about it was given to me some time back – Nothing is missing, nothing is broken. That’s shalom. That is where creation starts. There was not a single thing that was not perfect. There was no sin, there was no wanting, there was no strife or enmity. We shall call this the Edenic ideal. The way God wanted things to be. During this time, God dwelled amongst His creation, walking with them daily.

Sin enters the story and perfection and shalom are lost. But, God has a plan. He wants to make things right again. He wants to offer shalom, relationship, and dwell with his creation once again. The main reason that sin enters the world is that we tried to be on God’s level, and that is never good. We are asked to mimic Him in love and mercy, knowing that we will fall short, but we started wanting to be like Him in other ways, having knowledge that we are incapable of exercising rightly. God is the author of life, He gives it and can take it away for He is holy and just. Humankind tried to do this as well, we see it with Cain and Able and later on in the story God decides to start over new by wiping out humanity because “the earth was full of violence” (Gen 6:11). The Edenic ideal of shalom was long gone, and now people were deciding to play God, deciding who could live and who could not. God could no longer dwell physically with His people.

The next major piece in getting us back to that Edenic ideal was the Law. Now, this was an imperfect law and the Bible does not hide that in the least. It made great improvements on the culture of that time, but still there is violence and things that go against the ideal. As an example, things like polygamy and divorce were allowed in the Old Testament and Law. This was not God’s ideal, as can be seen by creation and as is attested to by Jesus himself, but the Law as a whole made great improvements on the standards of God’s people. As we progressed through time, our relationship changed, just as any normal human does. We don’t hand out driver’s licenses at age 5, the rules change as time progresses. The Law is talked about this way, described as a nanny or guardian (Gal 3), necessary for humankind in it’s young years.

This is a unique part of the story in terms of God’s dwelling. God is wanting to dwell with His people again, moving back towards the Edenic ideal, and so this is also a progression. God attempts to make an earthly location His dweilling place, but He cannot be around that which is unholy. This is one of the reasons that God has His people drive out the inhabitants who are defiling the land of Canaan. This is to be God's dwelling place on earth. The OT is in many ways about the external, including this arena.

One of the more helpful things to remember reading the OT is knowing the difference between something being described and something being prescribed. Many stories are recorded about people and a lot of it is far from good, after all, if someone were to catalogue your life in detail, you likely wouldn’t want your mother to read it. However, that does not mean that God wished every piece of every story in the Bible to happen. Sometimes it states clearly that this is no bueno. Sometimes though, the story is merely reported as it happened. It is described. So, it is necessary to do this at times in the OT when there is the feeling of discontinuity in the story I am unfolding.

The prophets make up a good bit of the latter part of the OT. They began to foretell of a time when things would change, and they particularly started condemning things like violence, injustice, and trust in military prowess. Idolatry was a huge concern, for nothing should be trusted over God. God is also consistent in His ethic of needing His dwelling place on earth purified. For this reason, God sometimes even purifies the land of His own people when they become corrupt, and He does this in the form of exile by foreign nations. Some of these prophets talked about a man who would change all this, and pointed to where the story was heading.

To us a Savior is born. This was the part of God’s plan that would be the key piece in restoring the Edenic ideal He sought to establish from the beginning. Jesus taught enemy love, prayed for those who persecuted Him, and explained the intention behind the Law that He himself followed. It is in the ethics of Jesus that we begin to see the possibility of perfection and sanctity once again, but it comes at a great price. The ethics Jesus teaches (e.g. Sermon on the Mount) are extremely difficult to follow here on this earth, because they foreshadow something else. Most NT scholars agree that the miracles of Jesus point towards the future. When He healed someone of disease and forgave them of sin, He showed that in His Father’s kingdom, there will be no more sickness, no more sin. Jesus asks the same of us. We live a life that foreshadows a day when that Edenic ideal will be completely and utterly restored – the day that we get to be with God in heaven forever.

God’s dwelling can now be inside of humans, moving from external to internal. The blood of Jesus is able to purify in ways that no sacrifice before could, and so God’s spirit can finally reside within. This is why Jesus emphasized inner purity and extremely high ethical standards. A cleansing of the heart is needed, not of the land.

The rest of the NT is comprised of authors writing to ministers and churches, telling them how to be this Kingdom of God here on earth. And for quite some time, that’s exactly what they did. They showed love to all, even their enemies, they sought purity from the filth of the world, and they paid for it dearly because this world is not yet over. They were often martyred because living out Kingdom life of loving enemies and not fighting back on this side of heaven often does not work out by worldly standards, but it does point towards the future when all enmity and strife will once again be forgotten words.

So, you can see how eternity is bookended with places of perfect shalom – nothing is missing, nothing is broken. After the fall and the serious and quick decline of humankind, God has been working towards getting us back to that state of being, and it is most fully realized on this earth in the form of Jesus coming, redeeming us, dwelling in us, but also showing a completely weird and crazy set of ethics to live by.

So, that’s the Bible in under 1400 words. It’s not the complete story, but definitely a significant part of it. I hope you’ve enjoyed it and maybe gained something from it. Most of all though, I hope you seek to live out the Edenic ideal that God wanted for His creation from the beginning. Shalom to you. 

Monday, March 3, 2014

A Systemic Look At David

David, son of Jesse, is possibly one of the most recognized people in the entire Bible. His story is a rich and colorful one, his heart was one after God's own, but he was also a guy who failed at alot of things. It's the last two reasons that I think we like him so much, because he is such a prime example of what God's grace can truly mean. I'd like to take a very brief look at an aspect of his story that perhaps is overlooked though, and that is a systemic look. 

At the most basic point, systems theory "focuses on the interconnectedness of elements within all living organisms, including the family" (Gladding, 450). Many of you know that I am training to be a marriage and family therapist. It is through looking at systems and families' patterns of interactions that we treat both family and individual problems. More than pulling out a diagnostic manual or evaluating dreams, we think that most people are troubled by negative interactions within their family. Let me illustrate. As a youth minister, there's no doubt that someday a mother, father or both will drop a kid off at my door at tell me to "fix them" because they are misbehaving or doing whatever. At this point, I will politely tell them that they are most likely the problem, and without the entire family working together, the kid's problems will persist. 

So, it is through this lens that I want to look at David. What got David where he ended up? No doubt greed, lust, and a little thirst for fighting that he seemed to have, but what else?

Let's start at the beginning. We find David as a mere shepherd boy who is anointed by Samuel to be the next king. What major accomplishments does David have to deserve this honor (which really isn't too much of an honor because God wanted to be their only king)? Guarding sheep, and taking out a lion or bear on occasion with a slingshot. He was obviously pretty good with a sling, but he wasn't much of a warrior. Also amongst his accomplishments is harp playing, and he was pretty good at it. It was this gift that brought him to meet somebody, a king named Saul. The reason Saul needed some harp playing was because God's spirit had left him, and in fact, seemed to reside with David now. Saul now is tormented, troubled in the mind. Music seemed to help though.   

Cut scenes, David goes to bring food to his brothers who are in a standstill battle. While he's there, he sees a pesky oaf named Goliath who is cursing God's name and decides that this simply will not do, so he decides to take him out. Saul doesn't seem to recognize the newfound hero (1 Sam 17:58), even though he's the musician. Before David goes out against Goliath, Saul tries to give David his armor. It doesn't fit, and David essentially says "that's not my style." But, from the get go, you can see Saul's potential influence. He tries to make an ironclad warrior out of a shepherd. 

There are perks to doing the king a favor: riches and Saul's own daughter. So now David is Saul's son-in-law. David also befriend's Saul's son Jonathan, and the two become as close as brothers. He's now in the family. Saul even makes David commander over his men of war because he continues to send David out to fight and he has success. Things are looking up for David it would seem. The people even sing songs about him (while simultaneously insulting Saul) "Saul has killed his thousands, David his Tens of Thousands." It's hyperbole, but it does show society's expectations of David, this new war hero. 

This song made Saul pretty upset, and the next day Saul actually hurls a spear at David. TWICE. David never once retaliates against Saul, and Saul sends David out to fight the Philistines in order to get him out of his sight. Saul even uses his own daughters as a means of bribery (marriage for to get David to go out and fight against the Philistines more and more, hoping that at the frontlines, David would die (sounds familiar). Saul continues to try and kill David, creating more and more violent situations, both by himself and by other enemies. All the while, David does what he is told, never retaliates against Saul, and is blessed by God (in many ways, but to Saul's distaste, by keeping him alive). (All this can be found in 1 Samuel 16 and onward). 

Cut forward a few years and David is now King, the best that Israel ever saw except for God  in the beginning and Jesus himself. God tells David that He has blessed him, taken care of him, and considers him a wonderful servant. However, God tells David he will not be allowed to build the temple because "You have shed much blood and have waged great wars. You shall not build a house to my name, because you have shed so much blood before me on the earth" (2 Chronicles 22:8). Also amongst David's issues (although not connected to the temple) is his most famous encounter with Bathsheba, a married woman. He and Bathsheba get pregnant, which David tries to hide. He goes so far as to have Uriah, her husband, killed by sending him to the frontlines, a trick he learned from Saul. Maybe David learned from Saul that all it takes to get a woman you want is a little bloodshed. Violence was Saul's answer, and unfortunately, David occasionally acted in the same way. 

So you can see that Saul had a huge impact on David, and society did as well. A shepherd boy becomes a warrior with too much blood on his hands because of the world he was thrust into. God gave him victory, but not always the battle it would seem. David lived up to the expectations that both Saul and the people of Israel had of him - he killed his tens of thousands. 

This is all incredibly fascinating because it shows the true power of systems. As I have said, I think that most of our problems are caused by the negative interactions that we have with other people, especially those closest to us. I do not think that there are genetic factors that solely lead to our downfall, I think we learn it. 

There is another lesson to be learned from David though. Despite all of the negative familial impact he had from his father-in-law and society's thirst for a warrior, he also shows us that people can choose to be different, although constantly impacted. David is called a man after God's own heart because of how repentant and servantlike he was. David was influenced negatively, and it shows, but he also made distinct decisions to be different. It is these decisions that we admire and preach on time and time again. At the end of the day, we are responsible for our decisions, but making the right decision might very well mean looking at the influences that you have in your life at both a familial and societal level. David made the decision to not retaliate against Saul, to seek after God, to follow His guidance, and to repent when he messed up. 

So, I hope you enjoyed this perspective. I also hope though that you are able to examine your systems and truly seek to follow after God with all of your life, as well as set the example of how a system can influence for good as well. May our families and churches be places where we set the right example, and may we be called a people after God's own heart. 

Work Cited: 

Gladding, Samuel T. Family Therapy: History, Theory, and Practice. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill, 2002. Print.