Thursday, February 14, 2013

Lent For Everyone, Day 2: Preconceptions, Race and Faith, and In-Crowd

Look at me go! Second day in a row, and I'm blogging again! Wow! Again, no promises that this'll last, but hey, what can I say: I sat down to write out notes on this chapter, and I ended up with nearly a full page of notes. If I keep that up, my week-long summaries are gonna be way too long to read. So at least this week, I'll spare you the experience of wading through all that and break it down daily.

Family Stories and Preconceptions

For today's reading, Wright takes us through Matthew, Chapter 3, and John the Baptist's famous ministry “preparing the way for the Lord.” One of his first comments was on the way family stories can affect the way we view the world, and how that shows in the Jews' excitement over John's message (when you consider that they fully expected the Messiah to come in with an army and actually set up an earthly kingdom). The first thing this brought to mind was my husband. 

See, when he was a little guy, his dad was obsessed with sports. And I'm not overstating when I used the word obsessed. Every minute that he was home, he was glued to the television, taking in the race or the game. So much so that he couldn't even be bothered to explain the rules and nuances of the game to his first son so Hubby could join in the fun and bond with his dad over touchdowns and wins. So my husband, predictably, grew up hating sports, because he had from a young age associated them with the neglect he felt from his father. But there was another, more subtle effect this experience had on him: his dream and goal in life became to be a husband and father. Because he had so missed the involvement of his own, he wanted to somehow fill that void by being an engaged husband and father to his own wife and children. So a simple thing like his dad's love for sports became a pivotal influence for my husband's personality and life. I couldn't really think of a Biblical application for this, it's just an interesting tidbit to go with Wright's thought on family stories affecting behavior. (The good news is my father-in-law has greatly improved over the years and is now a very engaged and loving father and grandfather!)

But more on the Jews and their story: it seems obvious that the main reasons the Israelites were so eager to check out this John guy was that they had a full expectation of the Messiah being an earthly king who would come in and establish his reign, outing the Romans, and making the Jews a sudden first-class culture on the map. The were eager and excited to get involved in what seemed like an impending political overhaul. It's interesting to think about that now that we know that Jesus's kingdom would reign not over populations and institutions, but over the hearts and minds of men. We may even get a little bit of what I like to call historical condescension: “Oh, I would've known better. It's so OBVIOUS from Scripture that Jesus would die on the cross. I wouldn't have been fooled.” 

But if we push past that first instinct, doesn't it also make you kind of uncomfortable? Like, what kinds of things are we expecting from God that probably aren't going to turn out exactly as we imagine them? Or perhaps won't be anything like our expectations? Take the End Times, for example. Christian mainstream culture has built up the End of Days into a pretty basic, established timeline, reinforced by Bible scholars, artists, and authors. Books like the Left Behind series and pastors encouraging people to make “post rapture” videos and letters have us pretty well convinced of what will happen and when. Almost as convinced, say, as the Jews were of their conception of the awaited Messiah. But what if it's nothing like what we imagine? What if the figurative things are literal, and the literal things are actually figurative? What if our timelines are way off? What if The rapture ISN'T pre-trib like we all expect (and hope!)? It's kind of a scary idea, huh? Gives you a little more empathy with the Jews of John the Baptist and Jesus' time. And I wonder... if any of those what-ifs were true... how would that work to weed out true believers from those of us just plodding along on the beaten path of Christianity that others have laid down for us?

Imagining God

Unleavened Bread for our class Communion.
Baby helped make it!
Last night, I taught a lesson on worshiping Jesus through remembering to my GAs. We ate unleavened bread with grape juice and had a great discussion about the Passover and Jesus' Last Supper. At one point, we imagined we were at Jesus' last supper and we invited him in to join us. After eating our bread and “wine”, I let the girls have a few minutes to share things with Jesus, ask Him questions, do something for him, etc. I was really impressed by some of the things my girls came up with, but some of the most striking things were shared by one of my girls (we'll call her Missie). She asked Jesus what color God is.

Growing up in Idaho, race was rarely an issue that was discussed in my experience. There just isn't a ton of variety in Idaho. Sure there's a healthy community of Hispanics. But at least in my school district, the majority of people were white. The US Census Bureau's statistics for Idaho put the demographics at 90% white, and about 10% Hispanic, with other races in the decimal percentages. We had a few African American students, and several Asian or Hispanic students as well. But by and large, race wasn't an issue because there wasn't a whole lot of variety. Those people who were different were commonly valued more because of their difference, and the rich ethnic background and perspective they often brought to the table (I'm sure others growing up in Idaho have had different experiences, but I can only speak to my own.). So when I moved here to Maryland, the race-issue kind of smacked me like a surprise 2x4 upside my unwitting head. Here, with the demographics split almost 60/30, race is a much larger issue because there is a lot more interaction between racial groups. And not all of it is positive. Working with children for much of the last eight years (God bless their candid honesty!), I have been witness to some pretty colorful and eye-opening comments and opinions on the importance of race, and even sometimes of one race's superiority or inferiority to another. These things strike me as ridiculous and totally out of place in our evolved American culture, but I suppose to someone whose family has been dealing with racial issues on a daily basis for generations, such things die hard. And the comment that followed on Missie's question-- “Because I think he is white and he hates black people”-- was a heartbreaking thing to hear for a teacher who has spent the last three years of this little girl's life trying to teach her that God loves everyone. The worst part? She is black. She thinks God hates her, because of how she was born. What a horrible concept to live with!

This makes me wonder how often we form ideas in our heads of who God is based not off of Scripture, but off the things we hear from those around us, and from our own experiences in the world. When I picture God now, I usually picture an amorphous and almost alien bright light surrounded by chanting angels, a la Revelation 4. But honestly, that image has changed for me over the years. When I first came to Christ, I probably pictured God in one of the most common conceptions: a stern old man with a white beard, glaring down at me from Heaven with grandfatherly disapproval  A sort of “I love you, but you're doing everything wrong” sort of guy. (And yes, he was white.)

But in Matthew 3, we get a very different perspective of God, one I am going to call “Farmer Jehovah” (and, as it always does, the Bible very explicitly neglects to mention color, implying perhaps that God's color is not important at all, and there is no good or bad color or race). God is pictured chopping down those trees in an orchard that aren't bearing fruit, and later, he is using a winnowing fork to clear the threshing floor and gather up his wheat. After reading these verses, I'm now picturing a sun-tanned man in overalls and a flannel shirt, mopping the sweat from his brow with a handkerchief as he goes about caring for his land. But where am I on that land? Am I a fruit tree, or a dead stump? Am I grain, or chaff? With this new perspective of God as a farmer, what does it say about me in relation to Him?

There's not a whole lot of gray area here. In this scenario, I am either harvested produce or trash, a waste of space to be cleared away to make more room for useful crops. Kind of scary, because if I'm really honest, I spend a lot of the growing season sitting around on my keester, soaking up the rain and nutrients God provides me with and letting them evaporate right off without producing anything more than an occasional hopeful bud that eventually shrivels up and drops to the ground. But I don't want to be chopped down and dragged away for firewood. I want to produce! So I need to get cracking!

Jesus Got Baptized

This is just a quick thought, but I felt the need to point out, not only to others, but mainly to myself, that even Jesus got baptized. But if baptism is a physical representation of dying to self to live for God, did He really need it? Of course not! He was God! But he says it was “ Necessary to fulfill all righteousness”. When He says "all", I'm thinking he met all as in “everyone else's idea of”. Meaning, even though he really didn't need John's blessing to begin His ministry (which is sort of like a boss asking his assistant's permission to start the meeting), he wanted it anyway in order to establish that He had gone through all the required steps of faith, and in order to model it for those who would want to follow him. This is a good thing for me to remember next time I'm dusting off my high-n-mighty attitude on alcohol, dancing, role-playing games, or other taboo-in-some-circles topics. Even Jesus did what was not necessary for him in order to keep others from stumbling.

In the Crowd

In his post, Jordan took a moment toconsider where in the crowd he would have been at John the Baptist's ministry on the river Jordan. Jordan would put himself with the Pharisees and Sadducees, but though we are like minded in a lot of ways, I don't think I would be there with him. In fact, I would probably be standing in the back, alternately listening casually and poking fun at the crazy man's wild hair and rustic clothing with a few of my less serious friends. 

Odd, how I consider myself an outsider: when I came to Christ at 16, I immediately started running my school's Lost and Found student ministry club for two years, and while I took a hiatus from leadership during my 2 years in college, I was heavily involved in the campus student Bible study where I met my husband. And then I started teaching GAs and have been since, for almost 8 years. I may in fact have done more ministry work than most people my age who grew up in the church. 

So what gives me the outsider-mindset? Maybe the fact that, with non-believing family, and one foot still very firmly planted in the world (via Darkon, blogging, RPGs, and other activities that have me frequently interacting with non-believers), and not having been normalized to Christian culture in my formative years, I tend to see Christian habits and tendencies with a worldly perspective. Now sometimes this makes me a better Christian, because I stop and apply critical thinking to a tradition or doctrine before just automatically applying it to my life.

But others times it makes me cynical and “too cool for school”: not wanting to be considered one of those “crazy Bible-thumping fundamentalists”, I join into the ridicule and criticism of the church and its leaders. And even if every word I say is true there are two important questions to ask myself:

  1. Am I saying it with the right spirit?

  2. Am I saying it to the right people?
The answers are usually no, and no. I'm usually trying to make myself look cool and critical in others eyes, not honor God. And while the things I'm saying may sometimes be true, I need to be drawing these people closer to God, not giving them another excuse not to kneel at the throne of grace. This same attitude is one I get upset with my GAs over when I am trying to do a serious lesson with them and they keep laughing and making light of it, yet I exemplify it! In a way, this is hardening my heart, and, like soil for seed, only a soft, pliable surface is open to receiving truth. Note to self: do not harden heart!

(And as a side note, don't worry, Jordan! I think you're plenty weird! ;) )

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And that's all she wrote for today. Stay tuned tomorrow as I go for Day 3 of consecutive blogging! Also, happy Valentine's Day from our family to you!

How do you imagine God? How has it changed from when you first accepted Christ? How do you think your race has factored into your conception of Him? Leave a comment below with your thoughts.

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