Wednesday, May 14, 2008

“Roots is a philosophy of ministry that focuses on processes not on events”: our ministry partner Felix Ortiz teaches this over and over again but I don’t think I ever fully appreciated God’s use of process until my study this week study of Exodus. This year Mae, Janelle and I have been on a whirlwind trip through Scripture as we try to get the big picture of who God is and what He’s up to without getting bogged down in specifics like, “what do those ten horns stand for?” We started with Job (job.doc) where we saw God as both transcendent (“Did you put the stars in their place? Do you storehouse the wind?”) and imminent (“So Job… Let’s talk…what do you think now?”) both free to do what he chooses to do and responsive to Job’s request for a face to face meeting.

Then we moved on to Genesis where what stood out to us was the depth and breadth of mankind’s sin— The LORD saw how great man's wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time. The LORD was grieved that he had made man on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain (Genesis 6:5,6)—as well as God’s decision to enter into covenants with humanity in general, though Noah, and with one group specifically, though Abraham. Next we flew ahead to Revelation to see how the story ends…to get a glimpse of God’s “end game” where what hit me personally was the realness, the solidness if you will, of sin.

Matter seems real, especially what you can touch. In school we’re taught that matter can neither be created nor destroyed; it exists and won’t stop existing even though you can change its shape. For example, although a log disappears when you burn it, anyone who cleans fireplaces will tell you it’s still around. Because we don’t “see” sin, maybe its effects but not the sin itself, we don’t think it’s real in the same way that a book or water is real. We forget about it and we think it’s gone. But Revelation made me see that that perspective is as naïve as when children cover their eyes and think that because they can’t see you, that you can’t see them. Sin is real; it has a solid presence and it has to be dealt with as witnessed to by the pouring out of the bowls of God’s wrath.

All my life I’ve had a tension in my mind between the passages of the Bible where it talks about people being held accountable for what they have done and where it says “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” but in these readings it became clearer: I am accountable for every one of my sins. They don’t evaporate because I’m “a Christian.” They are real, solid, registered in my account… BUT, and of course this is why it is really good news, if I “die with Christ” then his death pays for them. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Our pastor has been preaching on the 10 commandments so after Revelation we jumped to Galatians to help us put into perspective the relationship between Christians and the Law. As I mapped out the contrasts Paul emphasizes (Galatians.pdf), I saw the great divide is not between the law and grace but between human efforts, or “works” of any kind, (it just so happens that for the people at that moment it was trying to keep the Jewish law) and Jesus’ work. What I took away from that study is the desire to live more aware of the fact that I died with Christ so my fleshly desires are dead and the life I live is Christ’s, which is a peek ahead at the process I mentioned earlier.

From Galatians we flipped back to Exodus with the idea of looking for what we can learn about slavery and freedom because Galatians talks a lot about the two. None of us got more than halfway through the book and none of us had any notable insights into slavery or freedom but our group isn’t about sticking to a schedule, but following where God leads us as a result of the time and energy we choose to put into it.

We were all very familiar with the story of the plagues and the Passover but that didn’t keep us from being struck by the process of it all. Why did God put up with Moses whining and waffling? Why did God harden pharaoh’s heart? Why so many plagues? Why not just soften pharaoh’s heart and get the people out as soon as Moses walks into the country? Why could the sorcerers produce some of the signs like frogs but were stopped up at gnats?!?

For quite a while now the idea of “multifaceted good” has been at the forefront of my thinking about God and his actions. If I can accomplish something, one good, worthwhile thing, with my actions, I’m pleased. But God accomplishes a wide variety of good things through every step of his plan—various kinds of good in the lives of each individual touched or involved as well as good in the community, in the world and in the heavenlies. So as I look at the process of the exodus I assume that He is working out a multi-faceted good in the lives of each individual as well as in his overarching plan. I trust that the process did not include an ounce of unnecessary suffering for man or beast. The fact that the Exodus happened 430 years “to the day” after the Israelites had gone to Egypt shows me the detailed precision of God’s process; it may be mysterious, inscrutable to me, but I can rest in the assurance that no detail has been overlooked or underestimated.

Process chafes me. I am impatient: although it is incomprehensible for Tim, I often read the end of books first; I like knowing how a movie ends; I tell jokes badly because I just want to get to the punch line. God however is not impatient. He is more like our chef friends who are willing to cut pasta noodles by hand or let meat cook all afternoon because they know that the process produces the best results.

In Exodus we see that the process from slavery to freedom does not end as soon as the Israelites leave Egypt or cross through the Red Sea. From our vantage point we know that God’s people are on a path that will leave many dead in the wilderness because of their lack of faith and will eventually send the whole lot of them into exile. Living in the promised land of milk and honey and in the intimate exclusive relationship of being His people and having Him for their God seems to be almost a mirage, something that looks like it could be a real possibility but quickly vanishes, or more accurately a shadow whose reality is found in Christ.

Since I undervalue process, I want to jump in my own life from the Passover (“Thank you Lord for providing a way of escape from the just punishment for my sins through the blood of Jesus”) to eating grapes in the Promised Land. But Exodus reminds me there is probably much more process ahead.

After crossing the Red Sea Moses and the people sang, “In your unfailing love you will lead the people you have redeemed” (Ex. 15:13). The images conjured up in my mind which by those words contrast sharply with the very next thing that happens: they travel for three days without finding water and then when the do find some it’s bitter. I don’t think this is a coincidence; I think it illustrates Galatians 3:3, “Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?” I think there were Israelites who thought “Thank you God for getting us out of Egypt. Thank you for the land you’ve promised to give us. We’ll take it from here.” And God is saying to them, “Uh, hello down there. Yoo Hoo. Remember me? I do have big, wonderful plans for you but you can’t make it without me. Really, you can’t. That’s not a criticism, just a fact. But it’s fine because as we work this out together you will get to know me and we will have an amazing time. The truth is that I am what makes the promised land so good, so really you can have the best part right now, though I don’t deny that there are parts of me you will enjoy more when you get where I’m taking you. But please don’t slip into thinking that I’m an accessory to your plan. That won’t work and I’ll have to let you find that out the hard way. So if you’re thirsty, hungry, whatever, tell me and I will answer that request in real, sometimes really surprising but always real, ways.”

I don’t think I’ll ever become a gourmet chef, or do anything else that requires patience and process on an hourly basis, but at least now I see my impatience in stark contrast to how God works. And hopefully next time I feel like I’m wandering in the desert thirsty, instead of questioning His love, I’ll try to remember that it probably is in fact a sign of his love that He won’t let me get too far own my own.

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