Monthly Archives: September 2012

Plagues of Mercy

The plague stories in Exodus have always seemed a bit off to me. Looking back from our post-modern viewpoint, they feel like angry nine-year-olds fighting. Or a really bad marriage. Maybe that’s because Moses and Pharaoh are brothers, and nobody can hurt you like family. But when we take what is familiar to us and apply it to God, we always move in the wrong direction. We can’t extrapolate upwards. When we do, the plague story becomes another episode of daytime television. Our actions don’t tell us about God. God’s actions tell us about us. God’s actions tell us about him.

They tell us God is not magic.

He is not all, “Alla-ka-zam! Now you’re a fish!” which is how we tend to view the miraculous. Fantasy and magic are the closest we can come (beyond quantum physics, and who really understands that?) to miracles. But God is not Harry Potter, even with all of Ms. Rowling’s messianic sub-plots. Prayer is not a magic formula. The Ark of the Covenant is not a magic wand. We cannot bend the will of the Almighty to our own. When we accept this reality we begin to grow into a mature relationship with our Creator.

The plagues show God values choice.

What has always confused me about the plagues are the two verses (Ex 7:3, 14:4) when God says, “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart” as opposed to the two verses when the text says, “Pharaoh’s heart was hardened” (Ex 7:13, 8:19).  I could understand Pharaoh choosing to harden his heart. But God hardening Pharaoh’s heart just didn’t make sense. Either God was vindictive and blood-thirsty, which flies in the face of who I know God to be, or I was missing something.

And I was. Until I asked myself, “What if this is two different ways of saying the same thing?” God knows Pharaoh better than I know my wife. For God to say, “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart” is the same as God saying, “I will do something which will harden Pharaoh’s heart.” Like I know I my wife will get angry if I watch football instead of washing the dishes, God knows the plagues will harden Pharaoh’s heart. But here’s the catch, Pharaoh, like my wife, gets to make a choice. Pharaoh chooses not to let God’s people go. My wife chooses to throw a shoe at me.

God shows mercy in His judgement.

Even in her anger, my wife tempers her judgement with mercy. She throws a sandal instead a boot. Think about it. Couldn’t the Master of the Universe who spoke matter and energy into being simply destroy Egypt out of hand? The plagues look harsh to us, but so does the lex talionis. When God gave Israel the “eye for an eye” rule, it wasn’t to help them exact judgement, it was to limit their response. “An eye for an eye” does not mean you can gleefully blind your neighbor. It means if he backs into your Camry you can’t burn down his house in retaliation. What we see in the plagues is not God’s punishment, but God’s restraint. We see it over and over again in the books of Moses. God clothes Adam and Eve. He spares Cain. He saves Noah’s family. God actually allows Abraham to bargain him down in the judgement on Sodom. And God does it again with Pharaoh.

God shows Pharaoh how those with power should act. Remember who this Pharaoh is: he reneged on the relationship between his father and Joseph; he enslaved the Hebrews; he murdered their infant sons. This is not a nice guy. Yet God gives him the choice. He won’t zap Pharaoh for the same reason he won’t zap you or me.  God never uses power to overwhelm the human heart.  To do so would take away our ability to choose. And without choice there can be no love. This is God’s mercy. That he first loved us. And gives us the choice to love him back.

Uncomfortable Christianity

And I will say to my soul, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.”’
But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’
So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.”              (Lk 12:19-21, ESV)

Jesus is not interested in your comfort. Anyone who tells you otherwise is either lying or selling  something.

Were the Israelites comfortable in the desert those forty years? Was Peter comfortable in prison? Were the Desert Fathers and Mothers comfortable? Are the brothers and sisters comfortable in China, India, the Sudan?

“You fool!” Jesus cries out in Luke’s gospel. “You made yourself comfortable and look where that got you. You exchanged your luxury bed for a dirt bed, just like everyone else.” Never mind that comfort is an illusion in which we willingly participate. Picture the flight attendant asking if you’re comfortable. “Sure. You bet. I’m hurtling across the sky in an aluminum tube at 600 mph 36,000 feet above the ground where all it takes is one popped rivet to send us all crashing to a fiery death. But yes, my diet coke has enough ice, thank you.” Never mind that comfort is fleeting (see above parable, Lk 12:13-21). Never mind that comfort is entirely based on perspective — just ask the princess about the pea.

Comfort isn’t the goal. Comfort is a distraction. Comfort is the anesthetic the devil uses to lull us to sleep while he steals our life slowly. Comfort is dangerous, like leprosy. You know why leprosy is so horrible? Because the disease attacks the body’s nerve endings. That’s why lepers in pictures are always bandaged. Because they were always injured. Tell me, if you can’t feel pain, and you’re not paying attention, how do you know when your hand is on the stove burner?

Pain and discomfort are teachers we need to survive and grow. Yet we avoid them whenever and wherever and for however long as possible precisely because they hurt and make us uncomfortable. One of the innate goals we share as humans is to exist in a state of stability and stasis. We don’t like change. It makes us uncomfortable.

And when we become uncomfortable, we react.

1 Step – Pushed one step beyond our comfort zone, we experience discomfort, so we grumble, whine and complain. Biblically speaking, we murmur (Ex 16:7-8, KJV).

2 Steps – When pushed two steps, we get angry. We step up our complaining to argument. We are uncomfortable enough that we want somebody to do something to change this mess. We don’t just call the manager, we demand a refund.

3 Steps – Anger morphs to fear when we are pushed one more step. Not cowering in the corner fear, but mobilizing fear. “By thunder, this business can not continue (because I’m scared of: where it may lead, how I’m feeling, the loss of control). If nobody else is going to do something, then I will.” When we’re afraid, we push back.

4 Steps – Call it rebellion, resistance or anarchy. When you push a human being too far, too fast, that human will turn and fight. It’s pure panic. That’s why lifeguards don’t jump in to save a drowning person unless they have to. A drowning person will happily climb up your dying body in order to breathe. In business, this looks like firing. In marriage, divorce. In religion, crucifixion.

This is what they did to Jesus. He pushed and he pushed and he pushed. Until they killed him. And this is the God who wants you to be comfortable? I don’t think so.

Jesus didn’t humble himself in obedience to the point of death, even death on a cross, so we could be comfortable. He died so we could be free. He lives so we can grow and transform and be re-formed into his image. Jesus makes us uncomfortable, on purpose. Because then and only then do we dare to change. My prayer is that God would lead you into a time of what Bill Hybel’s calls “holy discontent”. May the one who made the world make you uncomfortable enough to seek His kingdom, that you may find the deep and abundant life you seek.

Christian Training Center

The Church is not a “happy” factory. Happiness is a by-product. The goal of the Church is not to produce happiness, or even happy people. The goal of the Church is to produce disciples of Jesus. The idea that Church is the place we go to feel happy is a modern phenomenon, like talk radio and Styrofoam. For most of history, the Church was not viewed in terms of feel good. The Church was seen as the Bride of Christ, or a hospital for sinners or the defender of the Faith.

The Bride of Christ calls to mind spotless white, veils, chastity and purity. The idea of a people set apart, consecrated for the Lord. We still see this image in some of the holiness churches who value purity above all else. The Church as hospital is another ancient image, a place where sinners go for diagnosis and treatment. A problem with this view is that the Church so seldom discharges anyone. Defender of the Faith, which has such a medieval flavor to it,  is another historical view of the Church. She alone has been given true Faith and right understanding which she must defend against heretics, infidels and fools.

It is this “Church as bastion of defense” that has flowed into the “Church as museum” we too often in the mainstream denominations today. That’s the problem with defenses. Once employed, they are difficult to remove and though you remain safe inside, neither can you leave. In the museum church you can’t touch anything or change anything or speak too loudly. Crushed velvet, marble floors and furniture polish. If your congregation worries about fingerprints on the brass, you know what I’m talking about.

And museum is but one step removed from club. In a club, you may come and go as you please. But you have to be a member to get inside. Which is sickening, really, when you think about it. Because clubs — every club, every where, even if they start otherwise — always end up existing for themselves. It is the nature of anything exclusively insular to eventually turn inward upon itself.

Donald Miller gives us a great blogpost on the image of the Church as school. He writes, “The only difference between the church and another educational institution is that nobody ever graduates from the church. We just keep going to school.”

What about Church as training center? The CTC.

Not like a gym. Well, not only like a gym. Because a gym, like a club, exists for its members. And the Church exists for those who are not. More like a sports practice. But no, that’s not broad enough, either. Boot camp? Gladiator training? Undergraduate degree? A little OJT? Yes and no and more. The Church is the Christian Training Center which operates like:

  • a bride – ready and radiant to live in new relationship with her love
  • a hospital – you go to find out what’s wrong with you, for treatment and healing so you can be released into new life
  • a defender – who guards preciously the precepts of the ages that they may be shared with those who come after
  • a museum – where the past is maintained not for its own sake, but for the sake of the future
  • a club – whose only purpose is to bring new people inside
  • a school – with the purpose of teaching only what you need to know to graduate so you may leave quickly to pursue your calling.

The Church is the training center where you are fed, filled and fortified to go back into the world, at once sent and led by Christ, to love and to serve the least of these.

“Think of the enormous l…

“Think of the enormous leisure of God! He never is in a hurry. We are in such a frantic hurry. We get down before God and pray, then we get up and say, ‘It is all done now,’ and in the light of the glory of the vision we go forth to do the thing. But it is not real, and God has to take us into the valley and put us through the fires and floods to batter us into shape, until we get into the condition in which He can trust us with the reality of His recognition of us.”

Oswald Chambers, Daily Thoughts for Disciples, Sept. 5

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