The counterintuitive God

clockCounterintuitive: different from what you would expect (Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary). Like a clock that runs backwards, there’s little doubt: God is counterintuitive.

Take the incarnation, the eternal Christ clothing himself in human flesh. If the choice had been up to us, we might have chosen huge and flashy. Instead, to bear Emmanuel – “God with us” – the LORD chose someone humble and unknown.

Luke 1:28 (NIV) tells the story:

Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.

Who was this “highly favored” person? Mary was a young Jewish girl. There was nothing noteworthy about her. She had no powerful connections, no high birth to commend her. Yet God – who has a habit of doing the unexpected – chose her to bear the Christ child.

Besides using the unknown Mary as Christotokos – the mother of Christ –  another counterintuitive element of Christmas is tactics. Christ’s coming to earth was hardly the Powell Doctrine. The former American Joint Chiefs of Staff believed that – as a last resort – if the military must be used, then go big. Amass huge quantities of soldiers and equipment, then overwhelm the enemy. But on Christmas, God didn’t get the memo. He didn’t dispatch an army of angels (though an angel choir did sing for a handful of shepherds). Instead, God parachuted an infant Jesus quietly behind enemy lines, like a single SEAL in camouflage. In a world under the destructive thumb of the devil and his sinister band of brothers (1 John 5:19, Ephesians 6:12 ), this underwhelming response seemed counterintuitive.

Besides choice of people and tactics, a final counterintuitive aspect of the incarnation is love. For a creation that had hatefully snubbed its Creator, one might expect in return well-derserved wrath, God paying back hate with greater hate. Yet to our utter amazement, this “SEAL” sent by God came armed with only one “weapon.” Hate could never overcome hate; only love could do that:

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only son…

Paul in the cross discerned heaven’s jujitsu, writing to the Romans: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21, NIV). The cross is a counterintuitive demonstration of God’s love for us sinners who despised him (Romans 5:8). While God’s self-denying modus operandi makes little sense to human calculus, love is the powerful magnet that for twenty centuries has drawn people to their knees at manger, cross, and empty tomb.

Humble Mary, baby Jesus, love – These are three indications that we worship a counterintuitive God. The LORD acts differently than what you would expect. For the sake of our world, may we as Christ’s followers recommit ourselves to doing likewise.

Incarnation and holiness

mangerIt’s a persistent theme across the centuries. Spirit is good; flesh is evil.

Some of the ancient Greek philosophers taught the exaltation of the soul and the denigration of the body. Plato extolled the immortal soul while Gnosticism later picked up the theme, infecting early Christianity with the notion that salvation is achieved only when the soul is liberated from the prison house of corrupt flesh. Augustine never escaped the lure of this view, implying the dirtiness of the body by teaching that original sin is passed down through the procreative act.

The negative Greek view of human flesh is what makes the reaction to Paul’s teaching in Acts 17 understandable. He met with a group of Epicurean and Stoic philosphers at Mars Hill in Athens (17:18). At first, they gave him a polite hearing as he attempted to build a bridge to them, speaking of the altar he had discovered which bore the inscription “to an unknown God” (v. 23). But then Paul lost his audience as quickly as he had gained it. What did he do wrong? He affirmed that God had raised Jesus from the dead (v. 31). Nothing bespeaks the value and goodness of the human body like God’s willingness to restore one to life. The philosophers would have none of it.

But we’re getting a bit ahead of the story. Long before Easter comes Christmas. While Easter is the feast of the resurrection, Christmas is the feast of the incarnation:

The Word became flesh and made his home among us. We have seen his glory, glory like that of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth (John 1:14, CEB).

The eternal, Triune God who had made all that is and pronounced it “good” (Genesis 1) tabernacles among us as Emmanuel, God with us (Matthew 1:23) thereby dignifying humble flesh. If the Gnostics were correct to believe that the pure spirit of divinity could never stoop to inhabit a corrupt human body, then the incarnation becomes a non-sense. Yet we are not Gnostics and should resist their false teaching. Christian orthodoxy affirms that whatever the disobedience of Adam and Eve may have done to the human condition, God still sees in our body something already very good, something worth saving and perfecting.

Christmas as the moment when the Word became flesh is the celebration of God’s good creation as symbolized by the tiny body of a baby boy. Our body was never meant to be viewed as a brake on our spiritual progress, as something that weighs down our escape from this world. Far from a hindrance to our relationship with God, the body – properly viewed – becomes an instrument of praise. For every follower of Christ, our body becomes the very temple of God’s Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19). Our body – what God already pronounced “supremely good” (Genesis 1:31, CEB) – we give back to the Lord so that it may be purified and set apart for sacred use (Romans 12:1-2). We worship God with our body. In so doing, our body becomes a vehicle the Lord can use for holy purposes.

The next time you are tempted to think of your body as an obstacle to fulfilling God’s mission in your life, remember that the eternal Christ never spurned a body. Instead, he saw the incarnation as necessary, a human body as essential to fulfilling his divine calling. This Christmas, let us thank God for the body he has given us, and with joy give our body back to him for his sacred use.

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Image credit: Tou Logoi Logou

 

Africa and the re-enchantment of the West

By Douglas Baulch (Douglas Baulch) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Merlin the magician
Vampires, wizards, witches, zombies – enchantment pervades the NetFlix movies we stream, the television programs we watch, and the books that sell by the millions. Science may be taught in our classrooms – the “Star Trek” franchise still has a following, after all – but it’s the paranormal and the supernatural that are all the rage. In North America and Europe at the close of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st, we’re seeing what may be termed the re-enchantment of the West.

As a missionary serving in Africa, I find this phenomenon fascinating since Africa arguably has never been de-enchanted, nearly a century of colonial rule and decades of post-colonial Western influence notwithstanding. Teaching a class of pastors in Benin some years ago, one told the story of seeing a mob with sticks chasing a stray dog. They beat it while the animal tried to escape. Finally, the bleeding dog fell to the ground under the pummeling of the crowd, then before their eyes changed into a young man, complete with bleeding wounds on his body. The pastor wanted to know: What does Christian theology have to say about that?

Recently I ordered a textbook for a theology course at the unversity where I teach. The book was published recently in the West, by Western scholars. Though the book has much to commend it, my Kenyan students will look in vain to find any framework by which to respond to the question the West African pastor asked me, yet Benin and Kenya are close in outlook. In January 2016, a story was reported in multiple news outlets that breathes the same enchanted worldview. Purportedly, a Kenyan man had his motorcycle stolen. To find out who had taken it, and to get it back, he went to the witchdoctor, who allegedly sent a swarm of bees. The bees split into two groups, one enveloping the missing motorcycle, the other attacking the supposed thief. As reported in one French language edition of the story, people sent for the witchdoctor, who then made the bees leave. One Kenyan official gave an alternative explanation, reporting that a queen bee had become lodged in the handlebars, which explains the swarming of the rest of the hive. It was one event but explained through two very different pairs of spectacles.

The re-enchantment of the West and the ongoing enchantment of sub-Saharan Africa raise several questions in my mind:

  1. What place does science education have in curriculum of public and private schools? Is its purpose de-enchantment?
  2. Does an acknowledgment of cause/effect in the universe as explained by science necessarily exclude supplementary explanations of other agents such as witchdoctors, or – to use the Western paradigm – witches, warlocks, or wizards?
  3. Must Christian theology in a postmodern world rediscover categories that appear in older systematic theologies, including the discussion of angels and demons? Are there any other voids in our teaching that encourage African Christians to seek explanations – and sometime, solutions to their everyday problems, like stolen bikes – in sub-Christian ways, by means other than addressing their needs to God in prayer?
  4. Western views of magic as portrayed in fiction suggest both benevolent and malevolent forms, so-called “good witches” or “good wizards.” Can we mentally compartmentalize this as harmless fantasy – merely the entertaining product of a healthy imagination – or are we unwittingly encouraging dabbling with very real malevolent forces, to our own spiritual harm?
  5. How do we adress issues around magic while avoiding sowing fear, keeping our eyes firmly on the truth that Christ has vanquished evil in all of its forms? In desiring to be relevant, is it possible that we’ll end up making the devil and his minions larger and more powerful than they are? We must not inflate the power of the demonic by giving it undue attention, detracting from the surpassing greatness and power of the Triune God, a God who is never far away but present and active in our world.

These are areas that are ripe for theologizing based upon solid exegesis of biblical material. Having been trained in a Western setting, I did not have eyes to see Scripture in-light of the kind of question that the Beninese pastor asked me. After twenty years in Africa, I’m more sensitive to such questions. However, they are better dealt with by local African theologians who can marry scientific explanations (where applicable) to the more supernaturalistic worldview that they know so well and that is apparent in Scripture.

In light of the re-enchantment of the West, we are witnessing a golden opportunity for Western and African Christian theologians to put their heads together to provide biblical answers to practical questions but from a holistic worldview. Let us not be satisfied to let vacuums in our thinking persist. Answers that honor God are there if we are willing to seek them. We owe the church and our world nothing less.


Photo credit: By Douglas Baulch (Douglas Baulch) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

A ceremony to remember – Brad and Emily

croffords_weddingOn November 4, 2016 – in Des Moines, Iowa – I had the honor of performing the wedding ceremony for my son, Brad, who married Emily (Em) Papp. What a day of joy that was for me, Amy, and all gathered! With Brad’s and Em’s blessing, I share below the wedding homily delivered that day.


“Be kind, tenderhearted, and forgiving”

Ephesians 4:32 (NLT)

Emily and Brad,

Today is a day of great joy, a day that together you have anticipated for a long time. Life offers us many gifts. We are grateful that in God’s timing, you have received the gift of each other.

As a couple, you have done what many have tried but failed to do. Over several years, you have found creative ways to make a long-distance relationship flourish. Through 11 hour drives between Iowa and Oklahoma, through many “Skype dates” and too many text messages and phone calls to count, you’ve nurtured your love and watched it grow. That effort is praiseworthy. Look around you. On this your wedding day, we your family and friends strongly affirm our love and support for you. We who have walked the same road before you say with confidence that the person who finds a trustworthy companion for life has found a very good thing.

As wife and husband, you are beginning a new and rewarding chapter in your story. You will now enjoy companionship in close proximity and the many joys it brings. Yet most married couples can testify to the adjustment that newlyweds must make, moving from the all-too-familiar “I” to the less familiar “we”. Deuteronomy 24:5 speaks of the challenge of two becoming one:

“A newly married man doesn’t have to march in battle. Neither should any related duties be placed on him. He is to live free of such responsibilities for one year, so he can bring joy to his new wife.”

The Apostle Paul, though unmarried, provided simple advice that is useful to everyone but particularly for spouses early in their marriage. In Ephesians 4:32 (NLT) he writes: “…Be kind to each other, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you.”

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The high-wire of sound doctrine

high-wireFalse doctrine can have a ring of truth to it. That’s what makes it attractive. But there’s a catch: Wrong teaching results when a single truth is isolated from other balancing truths.

Two examples come to mind. The first is from Psalm 46:10a (NIV): “Be still and know that I am God.” In our frenetic world, many of us need to rediscover the practice of quietness. Catherine Marshall spoke of the “prayer of relinquishment.” We must come to a place of stillness where we acknowledge that God is God and we are not.

Yet for the person who has trouble gearing down and waiting on the Lord, there is a polar opposite. This is the individual who is passive almost to the point of fatalism. Their motto is que sera, sera – whatever will be, will be. Such a person doesn’t need Psalm 46:10; instead, give them a dose of James 2:17. Tell them that faith without works is dead. Remind them to put feet to their prayers.

A second example has to do with how we describe God’s character. I’m reading through A More Christlike God by Bradley Jersak. It’s representative of 21st century North American writers who emphasize the love and grace of God, and what amazing attributes of our Triune God these are! For those who have lingered in oppresssive, legalistic settings in the church, a book like Jersak’s is salve for a bruised spirit, just what the doctor  ordered.

But love and grace are not all Scripture has to say about God. Have we so emphasized these two truths that we risk losing sight of counterbalancing truths apparent in the life of Christ and the New Testament as a whole? Jesus was willing to make a whip and drive moneychangers from the Temple, an event so pivotal to the narrative that it is recorded in all four Gospels (John 2:13-17, Mark 11:15-17, Luke 19:45-47, Matthew 21:12-13). And the writer to the Hebrews thunders that our God is a “consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:29, NIV). The same Bible that affirms God’s love affirms God’s wrath. If we are unable or – worse yet – unwilling to hold these twin truths together, then we’ll merely repeat the mistake of the Israelites who got bored at the foot of Mt. Sinai, forging our own golden calf, reshaping God into how we imagine the LORD should be instead of bowing before who God actually is. God ends up as the stereotypical doting and permissive grandpa, the substitute teacher who kids at first think is fun but ultimately whose clueless classroom management cannot earn their respect.

Sound doctrine is a balancing act. Scripture is nuanced and we can’t afford to lean too far in one direction or another, or we may tumble off the high wire. Let’s avoid falsehood by continuing to balance truth with truth.

_________

Image credit: Music Teacher’s Helper

 

 

Mirrors and transformation

hand_mirrorWhen I was young, barbers cut your hair with the customer facing away from the mirror. Then, when the cut was done, they’d dramatically spin you around for the big reveal. It’s been a long time since I’ve had a barber do that. But even if you’re sitting facing the mirror throughout the hair cut, you’ll never know what it looks like in the back unless they give you a hand miror. Then, you can tell by the reflection of the hand mirror into the larger mirror whether the cut in back is correct.

The apostle James knew something about the value of mirrors. In James 1:23-25 (NIV), he writes:

Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it–not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it–they will be blessed in what they do.

James lived centuries before the invention of motion pictures, but if he lived today, I think he’d agree that film can serve as a mirror, revealing the character of the one who looks in it. I was reminded of this tonight watching the 1967 masterpiece, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?

John Prentice (played by Sidney Poitier) – an accomplished tropical medicine doctor – is a 39-year-old widower. On vacation to Hawaii, he meets the lovely 23-year-old Joey Drayton (played by Katharine Houghton). Together just 10 days, they fall madly in love and plan to marry. There is only one hitch. Prentice is African-American (or “Negro” as was the common label of the time) while Drayton is white. While the fiancée insists her liberal activist parents (played by Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn) will have no problem with the union, the fiancé is not so sure. They fly to San Francisco to meet Joey’s parents and have dinner. Suffice it to say that the daughter has naively misread her parents, particularly her father. The angst ratchets up from there and the hard lessons begin.

The movie takes me back to a Sunday dinner conversation around 1975 when I was twelve. My paternal grandmother – a fine Christian  woman now decesased – was visiting. That Sunday our pastor and the evangelist (who was at our church holding a revival) were among our dinner guests. When we were all done eating, we lingered around the table, enjoying good conversation. Somehow, we got on to the topic of so-called “interracial marriage.” When my grandmother expressed her opposition to African-Americans and white people marrying each other, she point blank asked the ministers what they thought. There was a long, awkward silence. The question clearly made them uncomfortable. Instead of answering, they changed the topic.

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? (GWCTD) made viewers squirm in 1967, and eight years later around my family’s dinner table, the same topic made people squirm. I wish that I could say that in 2016 we’d put race issues behind us. Sadly, they seem as alive as ever. Yet when the topic does arise, instead of talking it through and listening to each other, are we like the pastor and evangelist? Do we squirm, anxious to change the topic?

It’s not fun to look in the mirror of movies like GWCTD. They force us – indeed, they force me – to take stock of my own prejudices. Do I really believe, like Martin Luther King, Jr., that what matters most is not the color of one’s skin but the content of one’s character? And surely this is larger than skin pigmentation. What about those who are followers of other religions not my own? To adapt King’s maxim, do I truly believe that what matters most is not the “color” of one’s religion but the content of one’s character? We say as followers of Christ that loving God and loving others is the essence of our belief system (Mark 12:28-31). But are we living up to that profession when we seem ready to write off more than a billion people in our world – to “other” them – because a tiny minority among them has done heinous things? Where is the Christian love in that? 

Film is a mirror. Sometimes when we look in the mirror, we don’t like what we see. Yet the jarring realization that our attitudes are ugly can be the opportunity for change. James 1:25 holds out the hope of “freedom.” When we listen to God’s law of love and continue in it, God can liberate us from the prejudices that bind us. Only then can we be “blessed” in what we do. Using the mirrors he places in our lives, may the Lord Christ open our eyes to the hidden but deadly hatred that lies in our hearts. May he transform us into the kind of people whose love knows no boundaries!

6 lessons from a climb

My companions on our November 12, 2016 excursion (left to right): Daryl Johnson, Matt Madtes, and Jordan North
My companions on our November 12, 2016 excursion (left to right): Daryl Johnson, Matt Madtes, and Jordan North

It’s an exaggeration to call it a climb. Ascending to the top of Mt. Longonot (2,560 meters above sea level) in Kenya’s Rift Valley is more like a steep hike. While you may not need any gear beyond a good pair of running shoes or hiking boots, plenty of water in your backpack, and a camera, reaching the summit of Longonot yields some rich life lessons. Here’s what I’ve learned from three times up-and-down this fascinating dormant volcano:

  1. Walking alone is O.K., but having companions is better. Conversation along the path helps pass the time, and when you get tired, an encouraging word from a friend can do wonders. Sometimes, you can even lend a steadying hand when the path gets too rocky for a fellow-traveler.
  2. Be willing to guide another hiker on to the right path. A seasoned hiker on the way up saw that I had taken a wrong turn on the way down, that I was heading for a dead end. He spoke up, warned me of the danger, and voice-guided me back to the right path. I was grateful.
  3. You need nourishment on the trail. Even if you’ve eaten a good breakfast, the hike is a long one. Make sure to eat something along the way. I shared a bag of raisins – one of my favorite healthy snacks – and others shared their snacks with me.
  4. Stay together. One of our group got a burst of energy and blazed ahead. When he realized several of us were taking too long, out of concern, he doubled-back to check on us. We need people like that for whom “winning” is less important than making sure every one is still making progress.
  5. Carry a walking stick. Especially on the way down, your legs will weaken since the path is steep and you feel like an 18-wheeler braking as it descends. The stick helps you balance and takes some of the weight off your legs. And if a snake should appear – always a possibility in Kenya – at least you have a weapon for defense! I always carry my four iron. I’ve never hit golf balls far with it, but it’s plenty useful on Longonot.
  6. The scenic summit makes the tough ascent worth it. On the way back down, hikers verbally spur on those still struggling to ascend: “Keep going! It’s beautiful at the top.” In the case of Longonot, successful hikers are rewarded with the sight of a massive crater lined with verdant trees. The air is fresh and the view of the Rift Valley is breathtaking. All the effort pays off.

As in hiking, so it is in walking with Christ. It’s not “Jesus and me.” Rather, because we are part of a community of faith, it’s always “Jesus and we.” Take spiritual nourishment along the way and stay together.

Paul reminds us: “If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Cor. 15:9, NIV). The goal for every follower of Christ is eternal fellowship with the Triune God, resurrected life together in a new heaven and a new earth (Revelation 21:1-5). This is the “view from the top” and it’s worth every sacrifice.