to walk worthily of the Lord, pleasing him in all respects

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Is God vain for expecting me to worship him?

With the release of the Avengers film, my sons have gone into geek overdrive. There was of course the obligatory four days of watching Marvel films leading up to our going to see the feature. I’ve even gotten involved (though usually immune to geekishness), especially since the film’s director, Joss Whedon, holds my allegiance since Buffy the Vampire Slayer days. Part of the boys’ geek routine apparently is researching information about the stars, often through IMDB and Wikipedia. The boys’ attention is drawn (oddly ) to the religious views expressed therein by the actors and crew of their favorite films. So they know that Joss Whedon styles himself an “angry atheist” or that Robert Downy, Jr. supposedly self-identifies with some combination of Zen-Buddhism and Jewish. Last night they told me that Stellan Skarsgård, who plays scientist Erik Selvig in both Thor and Avengers, is an atheist who “considersthe notion of God absurd and that if a real God were actually so vain as toconstantly demand worship, then he would not be worth it.”
When telling me about Skarsgård’s view, Samuel asked me whether I thought the Bible said that God demanded our worship. The injunction from no less than the 10 Commandments came to mind, “You shall not make for yourself an idol . . . you shall not bow down to them or worship them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of their parents, to the third and fourth generations of those who reject me” (Exod 20:4-5, NRSV). Jealousy is not far from vanity and so Skarsgård might seem to have a point.
However, I don’t accept Skarsgård’s understanding of God’s motive. I told the boys that I think that to the extent that God commands us to worship him it is not born out of any need that God has. He created us freely and sustains us freely; we have nothing that he has not given us. We are nothing except what he makes us. (This is why Kalistos Ware says “For it is only through thanksgiving that I can become myself.”) Furthermore, God does not demand of us what he hasn’t already given. I think worship is best understood as a pouring ourselves out to God; if so, then it is response to what God has already done; God pours himself out in creating the universe and in creating us. And especially in Christ, God gives himself fully to us. Deep calls to deep, says the Psalmist, and God’s outpouring evokes (or should evoke) our outpouring. God’s call for us to worship him is not a cry for attention; rather, it is a command in the same way that Jesus speaks to Lazarus at the latter’s tomb. “Lazarus, come forth!” Should Jesus have said please? Should he have let Lazarus decide to come forth of his own? Should Jesus have deferred to death? No; it is a command to depart death and to live. And to the extent God commands us to worship him, it is precisely of the same order as Jesus’ call to Lazarus. God calls us forth, from nothingness and then again from sin, nothingness’ reprisal, into life, which is to say, into relationship with him. He calls us to give our all to him (“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might,” Deut 6:5), and he does so because that’s how he himself engages in relationship - he loves us entirely.
So in short, I am OK with God demanding my worship. His demand is generated by a jealousy for me, he would love me fully. But how could I receive that love if I hold on to myself or to a myriad of other false gods. No, I must let go of all such and receive his love. True vanity would be to begrudge him, he who is my creator and savior, the Lord and my father, this expectation to follow his lead.

Sunday, April 08, 2012

Saturday, April 07, 2012

Lent, day 40: Holy Saturday - Embracng the Mystery

The fulness of God dwells in him bodily and yet he lay in a grave dead. I am learning to embrace the mystery of my Lord.

Ghirlandaio deposition Ognissanti
Col 1:26-27: “the mystery that has been hidden throughout the ages and generations but has now been revealed to his saints. 27 To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.

Col 2:2-3: “I want their hearts to be encouraged and united in love, so that they may have all the riches of assured understanding and have the knowledge of God's mystery, that is, Christ himself, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.

Col 4:2: “At the same time pray for us as well that God will open to us a door for the word, that we may declare the mystery of Christ, for which I am in prison,

Friday, April 06, 2012

Lent, day 39: Good Friday. Learning to Suffer Joyfully.

Jesus Enthroned The fifth thing I am learning from Colossians is found in Paul’s statement, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church” (Col 1:24, RSV). Christian ministry (and all are who Christians are ministers) is about joining in the sufferings of Christ for the benefit of others. The God who has hidden us in Christ at his right hand and will reveal us in glory calls us to share in Christ’s suffering in this present life, and to do so joyfully. How? Only God knows.

Thursday, April 05, 2012

Lent, day 38 (Maundy Thursday): Speaking up for Jesus

The fourth of six things that I am learning from Colossians is that I need to reconsider how I relate to unbelievers. Paul tells the Colossians, “Conduct yourselves wisely toward outsiders, making the most of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer every one” (Col 4:5-6). For as long as I can remember, I have struggled with sharing my faith with non-believers. People will ask me what I do for a living and I tell them I am a professor; when they ask of what, I say of ‘ancient Judaism and Christianity.’ I don’t say “Bible” or “New Testament” or “Theology” or even “Religion”–unless I am speaking with someone I know is religious. I made the decision a while back not to wear my identity on my sleeve as a way to make others feel comfortable as well as to focus on living the gospel, not wearing a title. It is true that people often change their tone a little when they find out I’m a Bible professor, as well as when they learn I am an associate minister for a church; I don’t know if I’m overly sensitive (about this–I do know I’m overly sensitive generally), but I think that people become a little more defensive, a little more on guard. As to living the gospel, I do that some time; but very often I just hide, hoping not have to show my real identity.

But this cannot do. In Christ I believe are all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (2:3) and Christ is indeed my glory (1:27, 3:4). When I am speaking to a fellow believer or when I am teaching or preaching at church, I am bold to say how much I love Jesus (as well as how much I am wholly unworthy of him). Yet Christ is not just a treasure for those who believe in him; he isn’t just Lord of the church. He is the cosmic Lord; all things come to be through him, hold together in him, and exist toward him. His claim is total and his value is universal; no one escapes his gracious dominion.

Which of course is a little bit of a difficult conversation starter (even with many believers). So what to do? Paul’s instruction here is, be wise. The wisdom of Christ is not the wisdom of this world; as Paul describes it in 1st Corinthians, and as it’s glimpsed in Colossians in Christ’s radical vulnerability, the Christ’s wisdom looks foolish to this world. So I can’t put on airs of worldly wisdom; I must practice the wisdom of Christ, bold yet vulnerable love, lavish yet purposeful love. “Must” isn’t right here; I can practice this wisdom, because Christ loves me this way.

Next Paul says, ‘redeem the time’ - capitalize on the time I have. My head is too much in the clouds or too much on where I’m going; I don’t see that my real vocation is to the moment, to the people in my life right now and to the opportunities to glorify God to them through word and deed. I definitely worry too much and that too is incompatible with the gift of the present moment.

Third, Paul says “let your speech be gracious.” Gracious here is the same word that is usually translated “thankfulness” or “with gratitude” in Col 3:16 (see NRSV and NIV, respectively). I remember a former philosophy teacher of mine, a good man whom I respect very much. He and I would talk a lot about religion; he tends toward non-theistic eastern religion and yet he was very respectful and interested in my own religious views. Since he’s a philosopher of religion, he interacts with lots of believers and he once told me that he found it odd how much so many Christians sounded like used car sales people; they are pushing hard to sell something they themselves seem to have deep, unspoken reservations about. I’ve wondered about this; to the extent that he’s right, I think part of the problem is that people don’t trust God’s grace. Many speak the gospel more out of fear or obligation than out of a sense of gratitude for what God has done. I wonder if what Paul means by ‘gracious speech’ is speech rooted not in desperately trying to convince people I’m right but in a recognition that God is God and his love is for us humans regardless whether I or anyone else accepts it.

I don’t want to step on people’s toes or push myself on others; but the God I believe in is great and luminous and worthy of praise. I have no excuse not to recognize these things freely to his glory and to the benefit of those I know. That’s part of the reason why I’m blogging right now.

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