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Where are the Stories?

Nathan Aaberg —  September 30, 2016 — Leave a comment

I just had a powerful literary experience.

I listened to James Lee Burke’s The Tin Roof Blowdown read by Will Patton.

This crime/mystery novel is set in New Orleans before, during, and after Hurricane Katrina and features Iberia Parish Sheriff’s Detective Dave Robicheaux and a cast of many other unique characters.

james-lee-burke-the-tin-roof-blowdown

It is harsh, brutal, and shattering. There were days when I could only listen to about 30 seconds and then had to wait until the next day to listen to a bit more because some of the scenes were so life-like in their rawness and so full of potential for tragic violence.

Yet, the story, especially with Will Patton’s skillful reading, is simultaneously eloquent, poetic, and richly layered. It is filled with wonderful evocations of the beauty of New Orleans’ bayous and live oaks. And there is a deft Christian sensibility to it as well.

Through the book, the tragedy of the impact of Hurrican Katrina on New Orleans, particularly on the most vulnerable, went from being abstractions that I had carefully inventoried away in back shelves of my mind to tangible, heartfelt wounds painfully etched in my imagination through details and characters and subplots of the story.

Where are the stories like this of our destruction of God’s world and the communities that depend on it?

Where are the stories of Christians perpetrating this?

Where are the stories of Christians trying to heal and shepherd God’s living world?

I want to read those kinds of stories. I realize I want to write them.

Would they make a difference?

I’ll admit it. I’m a bit of a soccer nut. My family, for example, generally doesn’t watch television, but when the World Cup comes around once every four years, as it did last year, I break down and sign up for cable TV and DVR service and binge on as many games as I can manage, inviting friends over as well.

Spend enough time watching any sport, of course, and you’re likely to see deeper significance in it. While I’m tempted to, I’m not going to seriously suggest that God’s favorite sport is soccer. Nor will I suggest that the angels gather together to watch the World Cup, waving the flags of their favorite countries.

But I’ve long had some whimsical thoughts about some parallels between soccer and the kingdom of God.  The beauty of a blog is that you have the chance, like I am doing here, to explore those thoughts.  I hope there is at least a sentence or idea here that makes the reading of this rewarding for you.

image of Pele doing bicycle kick

Pele unleashing a bicycle kick. Brazil has long loved soccer and has long called it “jogo bonito” (the beautiful game).

I need to start by saying that I can’t recall ever hearing a sermon about the kingdom of God when I was growing up. So I’ve been shocked and surprised in my adult years to find that Jesus spoke so much about it

“Kingdom” refers to a place where the rules and intentions of a king are followed. In short, and to borrow the language of the Lord’s Prayer, it is a place where the king’s will is done.

For Americans who have grown up celebrating our revolution against a British king and have created a culture of freedom, it can hard to have any positive feelings about the idea of a kingdom. But the God that Jesus reveals to us is not comparable to a human king, and the kingdom that Jesus taught us about is not like any ruled territory in human history.

This is because the intentions and will of God are, from our human perspective, revolutionary. This is because God and God’s ways are the source of a truly abundant life. The kingdom of God is a state of being where love rules, where compassion reigns, where all are taken care of, where all have access to what they need, all are treasured, all are humble, and where God’s “electricity” (a wonderful metaphor used by Dallas Willard) runs through everything that is done and through everyone’s hearts. In short, the kingdom of God is the state in which we live individually and together with God, other people, and Creation as we were meant to.

God’s kingdom is truly a beautiful kingdom.

And when people, inspired by God and filled with God’s Spirit, actually live out God’s ways in this world, even for short periods of time and in imperfect ways, we get a small glimpse of what that beautiful kingdom truly will be in its fullness some day.

So what does this beautiful kingdom, which we are called to seek and to advance in this world, have to do with a beautiful game called soccer?  And what does the beautiful kingdom have to do with God’s beautiful world?

Soccer and the kingdom of God upend the established order

The odd thing about soccer, of course, is that, with the exception of the goalie, players control and advance the ball without using their hands or a tool such as a bat or hockey stick. This is a complete upending of the normal order of our human world. Our hands are the honored members of our body that carry out almost every practical and playful task. Our feet are the lowest caste. They are, for most of us (with the exception of a few folks with weird fetishes), mere transportation units.

Soccer puts our hands into an almost useless role while the feet are given eminence. And the royal throne of our intellect – our head – is made equal with our feet, our legs, and our chest in the effort to control and advance the ball.

If you are after efficiency and productivity, it makes no sense whatsoever to put your hands off limits. In every other sport, using our hands gives us great precision and control, whether it is shooting a basketball or hitting a serve with a tennis racket. And this is the way the world works in general. We seek out efficiency and convenience in how things are done. We look for power and control. We are compelled to find the fastest and shortest route to get what we want.

The kingdom of God that Jesus taught about upends the normal order as well. He said the first shall be last and the last shall be first. Jesus gave attention and compassion to the poor and powerless. He criticized the rich and powerful. He criticized and confronted the political and religious elites as well. He eschewed violence, a curse of his time and ours. He forgave those who put him to death.

As people called to advance God’s kingdom in this world, Jesus calls for us to love others, to know that the poor and the orphaned and the widowed matter, to serve our neighbors even when they are not like us, to humble ourselves, and to even love our enemies.

Most fundamentally, in Jesus, the God of the universe was so loving as to become one of us and to accept suffering and violence from us. To serve in love. To show us how to be completely dedicated to God’s purposes. To die because of us and for us. And through all of that and through the resurrection, to offer new life to this world.

This message has been around for nearly two millennia, and with familiarity and constant exposure, it’s understandable if this concept seems normal and even ordinary. But if you really think about it, this continues to be a revolutionary, radical, order-upending, paradigm-busting message.

Just as importantly, all of this runs counter to our world’s normal metrics for a successful life.

We tend to measure success in America today in tangible ways that reflect our power, riches, and personal advancement. These measures include the numbers in our bank accounts and retirement accounts, the kind of cars we drive, the value of our homes, our nation’s GNP, our economy’s growth rate, our children’s class rankings and grades and batting average and ACT scores.

How do love and compassion and all the “currencies” of God’s kingdom get measured? These are much more intangible things and often defy measurement and rationality.

And, curiously, soccer also seems deficient in measurements and statistics in comparison to other sports. Football and baseball, for example, generate a never-ending tide of numbers that can capture in a science-like way how well a team and individual players performed. For most of the history of soccer, however, how a team played and whether a player did well on a particular play or situation were more literary questions and best defined by story and anecdote than numbers.

How do you measure success and meaning in your life?

Limits bring creativity and beauty

Soccer is often called the beautiful game. Its beauty comes in part from its simplicity.  Its beauty also comes from how a well-knit group of players can move and create like a single organism that elegantly improvises within the general structure of a formation. But much of the beauty comes from how artistry and creativity have grown out of the boundaries and limits the game imposes on its players in terms of how they control the ball. It is a supremely enjoyable and always surprising thing to see powerful athletes using fine and careful movements with their feet, knees, thighs, and other parts of their body to move and control and even caress the ball. Here is a link to a video of great dribbling and ball skills that soccer can generate.

And here is a more playful one as three professional players in Europe show their skills against groups of kids in an exhibition.

God’s kingdom operates in a similar way. We are called to operate on love and selflessness, which run counter to the world’s drive for power and self-promotion. God’s kingdom is about freedom within limits. God’s kingdom is a state of being where we submit to God’s will and recognize that there are things we could do that we shouldn’t do because they would harm others and God’s world.

Living a Christian life is about God’s will being done even when we are sorely wanting our will to be done.

This translates into lives that are beautiful in ways counter to the mainstream. Christians at their best seek to serve others. They bear crosses and the burdens of others. They have integrity. They seek out challenges and work to mend brokenness in the world. They care for orphans and widows and the poor. They give generously and find ways to make ends meet while doing so. They try to create spiritual communities among diverse people. They submit to each other voluntarily. They take time for others and for God. They pursue peace.They love their enemies. They speak up for what is right even when that threatens their safety.

These qualities are what set the first Christians apart from the followers of other gods in the Roman world. Clement of Rome writes of Christians choosing to go to prison in order that others might be set free and of Christians becoming slaves so that the money generated could ransom other slaves. Early Christians also spoke against infanticide, which was common, and even rescued and adopted infants.

Another example is Paul Brand, a Christian who was born in India to missionaries. He dedicated 19 years of his life as a doctor to living in India and was the first doctor to understand that leprosy didn’t directly make tissue rot. Brand exemplified the combination of selfless compassion and service with a creative, intelligent mind that carefully examined the workings of the human body in the desire to reduce pain and suffering.

The kingdom of God in action - Paul Brand in India.

The kingdom of God in action – Paul Brand in India.

The story of Dirk Willem is another example of how a Christian committed to God’s ways and God’s kingdom will not follow the status quo. Born in the Netherlands, Dirk was an Anabaptist, which was considered a heretical belief by the Christian authorities of the time. He, like many other Anabaptists, was imprisoned for this action because it rebelled against the orthodoxy of infant baptism and against the marriage of nationalism and particular forms of Christianity. At least 1,500 Anabaptists were tortured and killed by the authorities of ostensibly Christian European states. Seeking to avoid that fate, he escaped over a prison wall during the middle of winter. A guard pursued him over the ice of the nearby lake. When the guard fell through the ice and called out for help, Dirk turned back to help because he believed the Bible taught that Christians should love their enemies. Dirk was recaptured as a result and died a horrible death.

And that is a story that also reminds us that in our world the evil and self-centered forces of this world (even those that sometimes operate under the banner of God) sometimes win out, at least temporarily, over God’s kingdom.

Here’s a particularly whimsical thought – in the confrontation between the goalie and an attacking player, I see soccer capturing the same drama of the conflict between the kingdom of man and the kingdom of God. And oftentimes the result is the same as in the story of Dirk Willem. The goalie, who has the ability to use his or her hands (our tools of efficiency and power), often turns back shots on goal, just as the world often seems to snuff out and reject what is selfless, good, pure, creative, and loving.

Those rare moments when the attacking team is able to use a combination of teamwork and skill with the ball to move the ball past the goalie’s outstretched hands is a small foretaste of the better world to come.

The same joy and fervor that we hear in Andre Cantor’s voice announcing a goal by the United States in a 2010 World Cup game against Algeria will be the passion and intense joy that the world will ring out with when it is fully enveloped by God’s kingdom.

The Beautiful Kingdom and God’s Beautiful World

God’s beautiful world is an essential part of God’s intentions for his kingdom. Living out a beautiful God-focused life necessarily means preserving and mending God’s beautiful world.

Watts Peaceble Kingdom

However, just as the urges of nationalism and power often won out over true Christian values in the course of European history, it has been all too common for the actions of Christians to be driven solely by the drive for efficiency, power, and convenience when they interact with God’s Creation. Too often we feel that when it comes time to make decisions about how we treat God’s earth it’s entirely permissible to turn off the “electric current” of God’s love that is to flow through us.

We compartmentalize where we are called to be holy and where we can just do what is convenient and normal in our fallen world.

We can see the result of that around us. We’ve relentlessly pushed back nature. Diminished it. Treated it with violence that our culture does not see as violence. Much of human history has been tragically defined by our drive to meet the needs of ourselves, our communities, our countries, and our species at the wholesale sacrifice of the other living things and the living systems with which we share this world.  Too often Christians have too often gone along with this and even been apologists and cheerleaders.

This is the despite the fact that a domineering and self-focused use of our creative powers in the world is not in tune with the chords that we hear in the Bible of how we should be and how we should live.

The sobering challenge, however, with living in this world is that even if we desire to live out a loving, patient, compassionate, and self-controlled life we must still take from the world to survive. We must eat. We must have shelter. Something must die for us to live.

So how do we live out loving lives as followers of God while consuming God’s world?

I believe the beautiful game has something to teach us. Within the limits of love, patience, compassion, and self-control (as well as the other fruit of the Spirit we read of in Galatians 5:22), we can bring all of the creativity we have been blessed with to bear on how we use God’s world. We can minimize our negative impacts and actually contribute to the abundance and vitality of this world.

And people are already doing this, including many Christians. There are countless examples from the business world. Patagonia, for instance, is developing a wet suit made not of petroleum-based neoprene but from a rubber extracted from a desert shrub. Subaru’s plant in Indiana reuses or recycles 99.8% of materials left over from assembly of the vehicles.

You’ll find inspiring examples in agriculture as well. Gabe Brown has attracted considerable attention for the way he and his family are regenerating the health of the land in innovative ways on their diversified 5,000-acre farm and ranch near Bismarck, North Dakota. They have more than doubled soil organic matter by using no-till methods combined with cover cropping that uses diverse seed mixes and grazing with multiple species. The result is a place that is full of life and exceptional productivity without the need for synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, or fungicides. The home page of the Brown Ranch website begins this way:

“We believe that faith, family and working with the natural resources that God has provided allows us a meaningful life. We enjoy using these resources to regenerate landscapes for a sustainable future.”

God calls for us to live just this way – creatively, energetically, and passionately. Indeed, part of what it means to be human and to be created in God’s image is an ability and a drive to be creative. We are not merely to avoid doing bad but to proactively do good. We are to be “peacemakers” as we read of in Matthew 5:9.

Our tremendous creative capacities, both as individuals and groups of people, are to be used within the limits of what God desires from us, limits that are defined by love and justice and peace. One of the limits defined by love is the commitment to flourishing in a way that does not diminish the ability of life on God’s earth to flourish.

Living out a whole faith within God’s beautiful kingdom should and will produce a beautiful life and a beautiful world. And living that way offers the enjoyment to which the Brown Ranch mission statement refers.

Living that way should be our goal every day (pun intended!).

Living that way, even as we wrestle with the practicalities of survival and the flourishing of our communities and families, is one of the great challenges of the Christian life.  It will require from us every bit of wisdom, artfulness,humility, creativity, and Spirit-inspired teamwork within the body of Christ that we can muster.

Let’s get on with it.

I am reading from Psalms these days. The passionate expressiveness of this poetry moves my heart.   Anger, despair, joy, faith – they pervade the Psalms. I felt compelled to try my hand at writing one myself, and so here is my first attempt. It is inspired by the plight of tigers, especially the Siberian Tiger. Tigers in their own way and in their natural habitats are kings as David was a king. I’ve rooted the psalm in the themes and even some of the words and phrases of the psalms in the Bible. See if you can identify them. Am I being anthropomorphic? Of course. But I believe that one of our roles in the world is to be the voice and celebrator of the whole world. In the Bible, many creatures and even hills and cedars have voices. In Revelation we read of all of life praising the Lamb. So why not in psalms?

Hear my plea, O LORD, and deliver me,
   for I am near death and my people will perish with me.

You are my Creator and Sustainer,
   from your hand I have received my prey.
You watch over the world;
   you care for the land and water it;
   you know every bird in the mountains.
The hills and every living thing sing to you;
   you are worthy of praise without end.
You have known our people from generation to generation;
   you have known that even in our might we worshipped you.
In mysterious ways you gave us stealth and power,
   we have ruled this land of snow and forest at your leave.
   When have we betrayed you?

My enemies seek to take my life and take this kingdom from me.
   Across cold rivers I am driven to my last stronghold.
Men, even men who call upon your name, hunt me day and night;
   I have no rest, no place to rest my head.
You have given men creative power beyond all imagining,
   but they forget you and rule as tyrants,
They are cruel and perverse shepherds;
   They say, “We are gods! The world is here for our pleasure.”
Beasts of steel devour the pines and oaks of the forest;
   the deer and wild boar find their sustenance no more,
Their stomachs empty, they groan and despair;
   I search in vain for them, and in hunger I groan.
I, the hunter, am now hunted;
   on the land and through the air the chariots of men pursue me.
Their hearts overflow with greed and cunning.
   Gold, not your love, is their master.
As men worship you as the Creator and celebrate their salvation,
   I face the end of my days and the fading away of my people.
Alone I find no trace of my kind in all the snowy vastness.
   I have no sons nor daughters to rule after I am gone.
Is this fear? Is this dread that fills me?
   My spirit, like snow in the wind, knows no peace.
 
But I trust in you, my Creator,
   I turn to you for help.
You will not turn your face away forever;
   will you turn your face away forever?
Save me so that we will persist in this land,
   deliver this land and its many creatures.
You have showed men your light and righteousness;
   you can fill them with love and righteousness.
When they follow you and give their lives and hearts to you,
   they bear abundant fruit that brings light and joy.
Change their hearts, LORD, change their hearts;
   help them bear the good fruit of a living earth.

You will not forget me, LORD.
   You will not forget.
You will again sustain me.
   You will deliver me.
The hills and woods will again praise you and I with them.
   We will sing.

 

 

For at least 15 years and probably longer, I have been trying to reconcile the loving heart a Christian faith calls us to have with the violent treatment of God’s world by our civilization and with the complicity or unconcern of many Christians. I have become convinced that the Christianity we often see and experience is neither a whole Christian faith nor the whole Christian life God desires.

And I can’t be quiet about that any more. I can’t accept that any more. So I begin this blog.

So what does a whole Christian faith look like?

The movie Amazing Grace, which dramatizes William Wilberforce’s work to abolish the slave trade in England, begins with an incident based on a true event in Wilberforce’s life. In the opening scene, Wilberforce and a friend are traveling in a carriage in a driving rain. Wilberforce is exhausted and sick from years of efforts in British Parliament that had been fruitless to that point. They hear terrible sounds outside. A horse is being whipped mercilessly by two men. The horse struggles¸ suffers. The men whip harder. Despite his friend’s entreaties and despite his ill health, Wilberforce gets out of the carriage and stops the abuse.

Would you and I?

We should.

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William Wilberforce

Like Wilberforce, we should feel compelled by our Christian faith to open the doors of our carriages and do our part to stop that violence and move our world towards the Biblical vision of the peaceful kingdom. Like Wilberforce, our whole Christian faith and life should include compassion and mercy for the whole world and an active commitment to stop cruelty and violence to the whole world.

My hope, desire, and prayer are that more Christians will come to a whole faith that includes a concern for the world around us. My hope, desire, and prayer are that this concern and compassion will translate into ways of living that bring life and goodness to the world rather than violence and diminishment.

And as I write this first blog, I could think of no better way to highlight some of the themes that you’ll see in posts to come than to meditate on the lessons we can learn from Wilberforce’s life:

Christian faith changes everything: His conversion in 1785 and the counsel of a Christian friend led him to devote his life to loving his neighbor by wrestling with his country’s practices towards African men and women from 1787 to 1825. It was a thankless, draining quest that exposed him to derision. He ultimately died before the fruits of his labors were completed in the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, but his role in passing the Foreign Slave Trade Act of 1807 (which outlawed the involvement of British ships in transporting slaves) laid the groundwork for abolition. Wilberforce gave his life to God, and his heart was transformed. He received a calling. Although he was not perfect by any means, he answered that calling with all of his life out of love for God and his fellow man.

One’s heart is either full of compassion or it isn’t: Interestingly enough, Wilberforce also helped found the first anti-cruelty society in Western civilization and spoke in support of anticruelty legislation that passed in 1822 after two decades of struggle. Wilberforce couldn’t ignore cruelty and violence to African slaves while ignoring cruelty and violence towards animals.

Narrow Bible readings vs. hearts open to God’s Spirit and Kingdom: You would be hard pressed to find a verse in the Bible that specifically calls upon believers to jettison the institution of slavery. There are slaves throughout the Bible. Neither Jesus nor Paul or anyone else in the Bible directly challenges that institution. Yet, there is no question in my mind that the evolving moral awareness of the world, driven by God’s Spirit, made it a godly thing to eliminate slavery. Thankfully, many Christians became convinced of that.

However, there have been churches and Christians that have justified slavery and many other hideous things their country or civilization have done by selectively using Bible verses to reinforce their self-serving preferences rather than being open to the guiding, challenging Spirit of our loving God. Too often churches and Christians have fallen into the same stance toward the non-human world. They use a narrow theology and a narrow reading of Bible verses to justify a dominion that is antithetical to the loving, humble, patient, and self-controlled character the Spirit of God offers and is ready to fill us with. And if they don’t explicitly justify cruelty and violence, churches and Christians will suggest the question of how we treat God’s world is a minor one. Or they will assert that caring for God’s world is a dangerous path that could lead to paganism or worse.

Overlooked threads in the Bible: The whipping of the horse in the movie brings to mind the complex story of Balaam’s ass in the Hebrew Testament book of Numbers. This story tells of the pagan prophet Balaam who beats his donkey three times when the donkey disregards Balaam’s directions on where to go in order to save him from an angel sent to kill Balaam (it is a complicated story). In Numbers 22:28, the Bible says God opened the donkey’s mouth, and the donkey speaks, asking Balaam, “What have I done to you to make you beat me these three times?” Curiously, it is the donkey that can see the angel at first and not Balaam. Have you heard of that story? I hadn’t until I began reading the Bible closely. And what I’ve found is a profound presence of God’s Creation in the Bible. It’s a seam that runs through it that the dominant theologies we hear from pulpits largely ignore. The thread is sometimes ambiguous, but on the whole the Bible leaves no doubt that all of nature is part of God’s redeeming purpose.

Justice is more than just individual choices: Wilberforce’s conversion didn’t lead him to be convicted that he personally needed to be nicer to the African slaves he met and that would be enough. His conversion led him to address a systematic, abusive, violent, hateful institution that was completely incompatible with God’s love in a systematic way with countrywide implications. It’s time Christians acted in the world at a wide enough scope to change the institutions of the world that are abusive and violent towards nature.

Community is needed: Wilberforce worked together with other people to abolish slavery and had close friends who he turned to for support and encouragement. He also formed the anti-cruelty society in partnership with others. I have often felt alone in having the convictions I am trying to articulate in this blog within the Christian world. I hope this blog will be a way for you and I to learn of other Christians and churches that are already living out a whole faith. I hope, too, that this blog can connect Christians who share these convictions with each other.

For too long, we have not had a whole faith. We have had a faith that has so emphasized salvation as a blessed escape from this world that we’ve forgotten that God loves this world. We’ve not seen that the incarnation of Jesus into human form is a powerful theological statement of the sacredness and value of this world. We’ve been blissfully unaware or unconcerned about how this world is treated. And we’ve been deeply suspicious of anyone who does show concern or asks us to be humble and compassionate towards the living things we share this world with.

This needs to change.

In many ways, humanity’s dominion of the world is more perverse and counter to God’s desire for a peaceable kingdom than ever before. Yet, at the very same time, the seeds and stirrings are there in the world today for a transformation as revolutionary as the abolition of slavery. This transformation has the potential to change humanity’s dominion of the world from being defined by selfishness and greed to one of generosity, selflessness, creativity, and love.

In short, it has the potential to move closer the world closer to what God showed humanity it could be and should be in Jesus. Our Christian faith should naturally inspire us to be part of this transformation. In fact, if we are truly to be the salt of the earth, Christians should be proactive leaders in this transformation and play the same kind of role Wilberforce did in the movement to abolish slavery.

I hope you’ll join me in exploring what that looks like. I hope you’ll join other Christians who are working to preserve this world for people and for the other living things with which we share this world.

I hope you’ll seek a whole faith.