to be with God

Heather has been struggling for a couple months now with tendinosis in both elbows, which severely limits her ability to work. It been very difficult for her. And one of the most difficult issues has been something I've also been struggling with, which is how much our value depends on the work we do.

It's really a widely accepted thing. People who do more valuable work get paid more, honored more, their needs are met first, they are more protected. Those who don't produce much of value are treated as less valuable people. "Value," of course, being determined by the group, the society. And the fear of being considered "less valuable" is deeply ingrained in us. Because, if we are to survive, we need the help and support of the people around us. If they start to consider us less valuable, even expendable, we instinctively feel threatened. If the group doesn't need us, can we count on them to take care of us? And that's not an irrational fear. The less valued are elbowed to the fringes of society all the time, and we all see the suffering that results.

It's easy to think the same way when "the group" is the church, too. There are "callings" that are considered more valuable, and honored more. Our perceived "vocation," perhaps even more so than our career, often contributes significantly to our sense of personal value. And with the church, there's even more tendency to think that the value the group assigns us is our actual value.

But Jesus didn't teach us to think like this. He taught that God values us like parents value their children, not according to how much we produce, but from the depth of his love for each of us. Our value doesn't increase as we can serve God more, or do more for God's kingdom. And it doesn't decrease as we get older and can no longer work. God doesn't provide for our needs and protect us because we are valuable members of his work force, but because he loves us and wants to take care of his children. We need not fear becoming expendable to God.

Sometimes, though, the emphasis on Christian "mission," or on "working to build the kingdom of God," gives the impression that Jesus' message to us is that we are invited to work for God. But is that really the "good news"? That we're hired?

No, God doesn't want us for our work. We are not called for our labor value. God wants us for us. To be with him.

This is the good news that Jesus announced, that we can be reunited with God, our father. I like how the parable of the prodigal son illustrates this. It is not because the younger son is a valuable worker that the father welcomes him back. The father runs and embraces him on the road because he is his son, his beloved son. The father's joy is that his son is back, with him again. And the older brother's fault, though he is a faithful and valuable worker, is that he keeps himself apart and will not go in. The father's desire is just for him to be with them also.

There's a deeply ingrained drive to try to increase our value in the eyes of others, through hard and successful work. But this should not be driving us as followers of Jesus, and children of God. Jesus offers us the freedom to help others as God's love inspires us, without fear that our value depends on the intensity or success of our work. And Jesus offers us the truth that God just wants us to be with him, whether we're working or not.

Jesus didn't tell Mary to work hard like Martha. He said that Mary had chosen the better part—chosen to be with him.


"the vocation of the people of God"

I've been wondering lately what my role will be now that much has changed here. And I was reminded of this passage (from Jacques Ellul's The Politics of God and the Politics of Man) that's been so important to me over the years:

The action we attempt will always be regarded by the world as a failure, and the more so the more it is authentically faithful. We cannot be successful or show the church to be effective in the world unless we adopt the world's criterion of efficacy, which means adopting its means as well.

As the world sees it, action which is faithful to God will always fail, just as Jesus Christ necessarily went to the cross. Such action always leads to a dead end. It is always a fiasco from the standpoint of worldly power. But this should not worry us. It does not mean that our action is in truth ineffectual. Efficacy measured in terms of faithfulness cannot be compared at any point with efficacy measured in terms of success.

...These successes, this efficacy as it would be called from man's standpoint, and especially in our own society, will never amount to anything more than the approval given by the world, by society, to certain acts and means. It is the stamp of a group of men, a social body. But if we do not believe that society is good and right, this approval proves nothing except that the action is in conformity with the world. It does not mean that the world has changed; quite the contrary. Each time the people of God becomes effective according to the world's criteria, this only implies that society has absorbed our action and is using it for its own ends and for its own profit. ...The efficacy we think we have is simply a power in the world's service, for the perfecting of its own being, for its better organization....

There can be no question of securing the approval of the world or its conformity to us. ...We have simply to be, and we can only be a question put within the world, a question invincibly confronting it. This is our efficacy. It is the efficacy of the question, a question which society and sociological movements cannot assimilate. Israel and the church have never been efficacious except to the degree that the world has been unable to assimilate them. This is the vocation of the people of God incomparably more authentic than "service" or "works."

It is not at the level of works and their results that this efficacy may be seen; it is at the level of inassimilability.


runaway hit

We hosted a retreat last week, a fun time. Ian especially enjoyed playing guitar with our friend Al. And a lunchtime mishap turned out to be inspirational...


"like a bureaucracy"

I found this passage in an interesting novel by Mischa Berlinski, called Fieldwork. A missionary to the (fictional) Dyalo people shares his view of their gods:

Nobody knows what the spirits really are—maybe they're fallen angels, that's certainly a possibility, or maybe some other being created in the spiritual realm. The biblical evidence certainly associates the spirits with Satan. But you know how I've always thought of the Dyalo spirits? They're like a bureaucracy. Like a giant powerful bureaucracy, which imposes a million and one rules on the Dyalo. Fines them a pig or chicken or something worse when they do something wrong. Punishes them, kicks them around, treats them like dirt. You ever try to get a residency permit here in Thailand? Go from office to office, lose two whole days? It's like that all the time for the Dyalo. If the spirit of the big rock makes your kid sick, ask the spirit of your ancestor to protect you. So you slip him a bribe, a chicken, a pig. Maybe he'll help you, maybe not. If not, you go to another spirit, try and bribe him. So it goes.
Or maybe "the spirits" are just idols, creations of the people who serve them, another very biblical interpretation. But I find it interesting that he notices the similarity there. Between the oppression of the spirits in a more primitive culture and the oppression of a more "advanced" bureaucratic political system in our culture. If they are both indeed the creations of "We, the people," of course, then the similarities are not surprising.

We pity people bound by their group's superstitious beliefs, while not even aware of how idolatrous our group's beliefs are, which control so many aspects of our lives.


homer the heretic


in God

Our boy often comes out with some interesting (or odd) statement right as he's falling to sleep. Yesterday, laying in the quiet darkness with him, I hear:

Let's pretend that God is the house. We're going to sleep in God...

Then he did.


"He raises the lowly"

Thinking back over this past year, I felt too overwhelmed to try to distill a haiku this Christmas (last year's is here). But in church last week I was moved by the reading of Mary's magnificat. Her words have been so important and meaningful to me over the years, and this year they seemed especially powerful:

My soul glorifies the Lord.
My spirit rejoices in God, my Saviour.
He looks on His servant in her lowliness;
henceforth all ages will call me blessed.

The Almighty works marvels for me.
Holy His name!
His mercy is from age to age,
on those who fear Him.

He puts forth His arm in strength
and scatters the proud-hearted.
He casts the mighty from their thrones
and raises the lowly.
He fills the starving with good things,
sends the rich away empty.

He protects Israel His servant,
remembering His mercy,
The mercy promised to our fathers,
to Abraham and his sons and daughters for ever.


From The Onion:

Dazed Mike Pence Wakes Up 15 Miles Outside D.C.
After Asking God To Deliver Him From Evil


praying for things

From a letter to a friend today:

I was just reading a similar saying of Jesus this morning (Mt 21.21-22):

Jesus answered them, "Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only will you do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, 'Be lifted up and thrown into the sea,' it will be done. Whatever you ask for in prayer with faith, you will receive."
It seems to me the key is "if you have faith," or asking in faith. Your Mark passage (11.24) uses the term "believe." And I think it should be obvious it's not about believing in ourselves, or having faith in the power of our own prayers. It has to be faith in God, in other words believing that what we pray for is what God wants. Not insisting on it, but believing, submitting to what God wants. And if it really is what God wants, then we can be sure it will be done.

This brings us back to "thy will be done." Which is really the right attitude, of course. But we don't need to just leave it at that. I don't think the best we can do is just pray "thy will be done" in some general sense, like "Just do what you want, God—you're going to anyway!"

I believe Jesus showed us that we can pray in faith, praying that God's will be done, while learning (as you said) to hear more clearly what that will actually is in our circumstances. So we can begin to pray more specifically and with more confidence as we learn to hear and know God better. And Jesus wants us to understand what God is doing and consciously will it with God (Jn 15.14-15):
"You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father."
Yes, "thy will be done" is good. But it's better when we can pray with understanding and agreement for the good that God is doing, freely and consciously willing the good with God. I hear Jesus inviting us into that.