Thursday, 29 April 2010


My friend Amy, without any reason, hates her name - so I googled it for her last night to see what it means. "Amy" comes from the old French "aimee" - "loved".

Loved. Warm; precious; held.

I wonder how differently we'd treat ourselves, and each other, if we knew ourselves loved. What kind of respect would we offer to the people we rub shoulders with every day, if we could see what makes them so precious to God that he would hurt for them? What if we could see the kind of beauty God sees when he looks at us? Do you ever wonder? Do you know yourself loved?

Sunday, 25 April 2010

God and the Politics of Circumcision

Ever wonder what God was thinking with the circumcision-thing? It doesn't quite match up with our God-as-prim-Victorian-grandfather concept, and I get the sense most Christians are happy to stuff the whole embarrassing issue deep into the dusty nether-regions of a cabinet marked "Old Testament Jewish Stuff"- which is full of things we don't use and don't really like but are too scared to throw out completely. (Kind of like that ugly green sweater your grandmother gave you for your birthday. You know you're never going to wear it, but you have to keep it in the back of the closet just in case she asks about it when she comes to visit.) "Oh yes, Grandfather-God, we do have your teaching on circumcision, it's right here somewhere...but it's all about the circumcision of the heart now, right? You changed your mind in the New Testament, remember?"

But secretly, don't you ever wonder why in the world God came up with something as weird as circumcision in the first place?

In Abraham's time, as throughout the ages, there were many gods worshipped. The difficulty a god always faced was in maintaining his followers' loyalty. Worshippers would stick to their guns only as long as they were either getting what they wanted or too scared of the consequences to go shopping for a new god. A good way to get people on board for the long haul was to require an enormous investment. So things like child-sacrifice were a common way to get people in so deep that it would be hard for them to walk away. Once you'd killed your youngest daughter and offered her to your god, you weren't as likely to say you were wrong and switch religions. Psychology calls this "investment theory". The Bible calls it an "abomination", a word that basically means "repugnant" or "disgusting".

For more or less obvious reasons, it was important for people to make a clear choice about which "god" they were going to follow. In the case of YHWH/Jehovah/the Living God, this was particularly important. He had told Abraham that through Abraham's descendants, he was going to bless the whole world. His concern was always that people should know who he was. If he was going to reveal himself, his followers were going to have to make a clear choice - otherwise, who would know what came from God and what came from any one of the variety of other deities worshipped throughout the ancient world? There clearly needed to be something that first, set his followers apart and made them distinguishable, and something that encouraged a loyalty that went deeper than a child's connection to the source of his supply of lollipops.

The ancient world wasn't squeamish about sex. It was an important part of life, and for most cultures, everything hinged on the ability to procreate. If you wanted to make someone really happy, you didn't tell them that they were going to win the lottery; you told them that their descendants were going to be many and powerful. The numerous wives weren't just harem-girls selected to keep their husband happy; they were primarily chosen to be mothers of children - insurance against the harsh realities of life in a time when disease, war, or famine could wipe out an entire people-group.

The root of our English words "testament" and "testify" is "testis" - a word that is interestingly close to "testes". Indeed, folks in patriarchal times didn't swear by laying their hands on their hearts, but by laying their hands on their fathers' testes - so say many historians. Abraham asks Eleazer to do this as proof that he will bring a wife for Isaac from Abraham's own people. (Genesis 24:2-4) They were recognizing the source of life swearing by their family's bloodline - the most precious thing a person or family had. A common and fearsome curse in Bible times was the cutting off of a bloodline. The person without descendants was a poor man indeed.

So circumcision was a rather ingenious linking of an Israelite family's commitment to God with the most precious thing they had: the ability to procreate and maintain their bloodline. It acted as a daily reminder of what their loyalty was, and it included the idea that a commitment to God was not something to be tossed out on a whim, but was to continue even beyond a person's lifetime and passed on to descendants. It set a people and their bloodline apart from others. It also meant that Jewish men were identifiable, and couldn't intermarry with other people-groups without their wives knowing that they and their families had been set apart to God. There would be no mistaking which God was working in and for and through the Jews.

Did God change his mind in the New Testament, then? "For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love." (Galatians 5:6)

"In Christ Jesus" are the key words here. Remember the plagues of Egypt, which started off general and then got specific, eventually requiring people to make individual choices rather than it just being enough that they were part of the right community or people-group? God is always moving from the communal, the visible, to the personal. In Jesus, people have at last become fully free because they are offered a choice that is made with the mature intellect. We may be socially pressured, even coerced, into some action - but the will is above coercion. Let's be very clear on this: it is an act of the will rather than any religious action or societal connection that makes someone a Christian.

Circumcision is neither here nor there for the Christian, just as bloodline is irrelevant. The "circumcision of the heart" takes place when a person exercises her will and chooses to separate herself to God, worshipping only him. This kind of circumcision is visible only in its results: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness.

So God hasn't changed his mind at all. He has only brought us from the concrete to the concept that underlies it; from the action to the intent; from the communal to the individual. The onlooking world could see that the Jew's hope and chief joy was linked to belonging to God, but the message is taken from the picture to the word in Christianity: our hope and chief joy IS God. We belong to him, body and soul and spirit - not because he has power over us, but because he loves us to his own hurt, and we have chosen him.

The God of the Bible is not prim or proper. He doesn't lift his robe and tiptoe around the messy awkwardness of human cultures. He allows himself to be revealed piece-meal to our imperfect understanding. Dear, wise God!

Sunday, 4 April 2010

Without the Shedding of Blood, No Forgiveness: Love's Imperative

Alone, in a garden damp and dim, see there beneath the olive trees a bent and wearied Jesus. He has not come away from the city shuffle for restoration, for rest. His knees press the dark earth; his head is bowed. He falls on his face - Why? Just a day ago, they hailed him king and strewed palm leaves in his path.

Only a Father's ear is bent to listen to his bewildering grief. Hear the gentle voice of the One who once said "Let there be..." and there was - world, light, and life. His words now are pleading. "O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless, not as I will, but as You will." (Matthew 26:39)

Why is he there - Son of the Living God - weak and heavy-hearted and alone?

With what strange purpose has he come?

But a word, a look, an outstretched arm, and every enemy of God is annihilated. As God, must not his power be absolute? Then why this bending, this pleading, this humiliation?

"Then the men stepped forward, seized Jesus and arrested him. With that, one of Jesus’ companions reached for his sword, drew it out and struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his ear.
'Put your sword back in its place,' Jesus said to him, '...Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels?'" (Matthew 26:50-53)

We all know how the story ends. (Or is it the end?) Some of us have celebrated today the triumph of an empty tomb, a risen Saviour. It is enough for us to know that He is alive now, that we are free. We face indignantly those who will ask their questions and examine skeptically such a gift.

But what does it all mean, really? Almighty God with his face in the dust; the King of Kings beaten and bleeding-? And now...God communicated with no miracles, no thunderings, but a book?

We speak of a God whose power knows no limits, and we are quick to remind skeptics that in the past, some have had demonstration of the vast might of our God. Where is it all now? Why doesn't He rise up and destroy His many enemies?

Ah, friends, here is Love. Here is a God of mercy, whose Lordship over you and me is not maintained by power, but by the undeniable claims of inexorable Love. Those who question him are not struck down, punished, destroyed. Instead, he speaks gently, simply. He uses not the language of the heavens, incomprehensible to the human ear, but communicates his vast mind through the imperfections and approximations of words and sentences. He will convince by Truth rather than power. "Come now, let us reason together," says the Lord..." (Isaiah 1:18)

This is not the Almighty we have imagined, but God reasonable and knowable. "No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you." (John 15:15)

There is much chatter these days about Jesus the Teacher, who came to tell us a better way to live. This is not what the Bible says. "Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners". (1 Timothy 1:15)

Why did Jesus have to die? He begged his father for "another way" - why was there none found?

"...without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins." (Hebrews 9:22)

But again, why?

"Sin, when it is finished, brings forth death..." (James 1:15)

"For the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for one’s life." (Leviticus 17:11)

Sin is, by its very nature, destructive. That is what makes it sin. When destruction is chosen, it has power. By the choice of our first parents, our world has for a long time been under the destructive power of sin. In vain we have devised programs and plans to deal with power it has over us. Time and again, we have found ourselves defeated, on every level. Do you, like me, ever wonder why?

It was the strength of that first choice that made sin so powerful. Unlike the rest of God's wonderful creation, we humans were not spoken into existence. The Creator formed us with his own hands, and breathed into us the breath of his own life. We are something more special than we imagine. We are made like God. Like Him, we are creators. To us has been entrusted an awe-ful choice: Love or Self. Without such a choice, we could not share God's ability to love. But our choice is dangerous and powerful because it has been entrusted to us by an omnipotent God. A choice for self allows destruction a rightful place in our world - a place sanctioned by God when he offered us the power and the freedom. Our decision to satisfy self gives evil a moral right over us - we've chosen it, havent' we?

But Adam and Eve didn't make an informed choice. Isn't this what you wanted to say? They were innocents, tricked by the enemy of God; an enemy who deceived even angels with his beauty and power. The Bible warns us about his devices, but it refuses to leave the blame fully with him. "Each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire." James 1:14 Temptation comes, not from without, but from within; from what we desire. I am not talking about the manifestation of desire, like wanting chocolate, but the deep choices we make that decide whether or not we will give in to a "want".

The only way for God to not snatch back the choice he had already given was for him to accept the destruction himself in order to offer them a new choice - an informed choice.

Jesus was not murdered. He was not overcome. He came to die. His death was a choice. Even the cross did not kill him - he yielded up his own spirit. "Then Jesus, calling out with a loud voice, said, 'Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!' And having said this he breathed his last." (Luke 23:46)

The God of the Universe has been affronted by an enemy who gathers support with the lie that divinity is rooted in power. God's inherent right to rule has been called into question, and a mutiny begun in the heart of his precious project - a world of people who are able to choose between Love and self. He hurls no lightning-bolts in responding to the assault, and to the underlying question: Is he only God because his power is Supreme? Could another be God if the position were wrangled from his grasp? Patiently, painstakingly, he answers by folding his great power, and hiding his vast beauty. His right to be God is founded firmly on the inherent, inarguable supremacy Love.

So Jesus takes on humanity and subjects himself to the humiliation of death. So God reasons with men and reveals himself to sin-impaired intellect in a book. He is worthy to be worshipped not because his power is unassailable (though it is), nor because his beauty is captivating (though it is) - but because the goodness of Love is undeniable. Whether with the right of monarchy or with strength of dictatorship or with common understanding of democracy, the Living God is Ruler by every right because He is Love.

Isn't the beauty of Love fully displayed in the death of Jesus Christ? Isn't its immutable strength made known in his rising again? Who can fail to be convinced that Love is better, greater, more worthy to rule than anything that relies on mere power?

He reigns!

"'Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the Lord Almighty." (Zechariah 4:6)

Mercy and truth are met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other. (Psalm 85:10)

Saturday, 3 April 2010

A Prayer

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;
Where knowledge is free;
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow
domestic walls;
Where words come out from the depth of truth;
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the
dreary desert sand of dead habit;
Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought
and action--
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.

(Rabindranath Tagore)