Friday, January 10, 2014

God’s Uphill Struggle with Humanity (Part 2)

Gabrielle Giffords believes there is real promise inherent in slow, step-by-step work toward a hard-to-reach goal in spite of all difficulties. The former Arizona Representative, brain-damaged three years back by a gunman wounded her and killed six others, speaks of the “gritty, painful, frustrating” daily work of rehab. Such work that has only partially restored her mental and physical functioning.

The experience has become a metaphor, for her, of the struggle for gun control. Because she has “seen grit overcome paralysis” in her own therapy, and she has committed herself to building, day by day and heart by heart an “advocacy community” that can take on the uphill struggle with the powerful weapons manufacturers and gun lobby. She believes in the promise of the cause, and will “cede no ground to those who would convince us the path is too steep, or we too weak.” (1) 

A promise pledged or inherent?

For me, Giffords’ experience is an almost exact parallel to God’s uphill struggle with the human race for the full dawning of the rule of God “on earth as in heaven.” The promise of the kingdom is a paradoxical one, echoing the dual usage of the word “promise.” On the one hand a promise is a pledge one person makes to another, a commitment to give a gift or bestow a boon. On the other hand, “promise” speaks of the inherent potential of a person, proposal or cause: “she shows a lot of promise.” The kingdom is a promise in both senses, but conventional Christianity has tended toward the first usage: the kingdom is something God has promised, so God will deliver it in God’s good time.

Both biblically and existentially, the two usages are intertwined so that one can't be true without the other. Humanity, made in the image of God, shows great promise. God’s promise to us is that we can have the kingdom IF we "seek the things" that constitute the kingdom: peace, justice, compassion, right relationship, and openness to grace. The covenant people of God, both in and beyond church, synagogue and mosque form such an “advocacy community.” 

Evolution informs

The ways we were formed by evolution make clearer why, like Giffords’ struggle against paralysis, the way to the kingdom is such an uphill struggle. “The human brain is wired, first and foremost, with aggression for survival,” says brain and spirituality researcher Dr. Andrew Newman. “The wiring for social awareness and compassion are more recent developments.” (2) The prophetic vision of the possible kingdom dawns millenia later, after the violent conflict humans fall into so easily becomes intolerable to illumined souls. God’s struggle with our species for sanity and sanctity is a mighty uphill battle. God holds no magic wand to "make it all go away," but is in the struggle with us and has the scars to prove it.

Rather than despair that almost three millennia after the vision of the kingdom dawned our species is still capable of so much destruction, we need to marvel that we’ve come so far against such great odds.

Next:  God’s Uphill Struggle with Humanity (Part 3)

1.  See her op-ed "The Lessons of Physical Therapy" at

2.  Newman and Waldman run the Center for Spirituality and the Mind at the University of Pennsylvania. See Andrew Newberg and Mark Waldman, How God Changes Your Brain. See

Sunday, January 5, 2014

IV. "Twelve Days" Reflections IV: God’s Uphill Struggle (Part I)

My soul has dwelt among
those who hate peace.
I am for peace, 
but when I speak, 
they are for war. (1) 

The Magi, come from afar, kneel in homage before the Child. St. Matthew’s gospel sees as the fulfillment of the “Star Prophecy": There shall come a Star out of Jacob, and a Sceptre shall rise out of Israel to smite injustice. (2)

As Persians, they may well have a special interest in a powerful Jewish leader, for the Jews live right on the dividing line between the Persian and Roman spheres of influence. The Magi, of the Zoroastrian priestly caste, may hope such a leader will deliver the whole Eastern Mediterranean once again into Persia’s hegemony.

Jewish resistance groups before, during and after the time of Jesus found great hope in the Star Prophecy. Marginalized, increasingly frustrated with the Establishment. they expected a definite and dramatic movement of God to usher in an era of great peace on earth, most especially for those with whom God is well pleased (3) as the angels tell the shepherds. Some expected miraculous rescue. 

And still we fight

Now, two thousand years later, Israel/Palestine sits uneasily on the same geo-political fault line between Persia and the West. A proxy war rages on its norther border in Syria between Saudi Arabia's Sunni Islam and Shi’ite Islam in Iran, modern day Persia. Iran has its eyes, once again, set on dominating the Middle East. The song of the angels goes unfulfilled still. 

As all those resistance groups, including the early followers of Jesus found, the great Promise of the Kingdom, or just Rule of God, did not descend miraculously from heaven.  Such disappointment as they endured at the failure of their hopes came, I believe, from a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of biblical prophetic vision.

The prophets seldom predict; they warn, they challenge. They foresee what will happen IF people do not change their ways. What if prophetic visions of great promise contain the same challenge: this is what can happen IF you change your ways. The great era of peace can come, the vision says, when you seek the things that make for peace. (4)

The visions do not come so much from “above" as from “below,” that is, out of the heart and very guts of human yearning—visions of what must be if the human enterprise is to succeed. They arise from the seed of god-likeness planted in us all, sparked into life by visionaries who see clearly what must happen for human good. They reveal targets for our striving.

Resource rather than Rescuer

In this context, God becomes Resource rather than Rescuer; "Emmanuel" to work with us and through us to follow the Star toward the goal: peace-making, which cannot happen without justice-making and the building of compassionate community. Conflict between mutually loathing persons and powers seems, tragically, an "easier" way for the humans species. 

But the end of that road is death, especially with our current weapons of mass destruction, nuclear and biological. The prophetic vision of swords into plowshares (5)is the only feasible way forward for human survival. But the struggle uphill is hard, very hard. For us, and even, apparently, for God. 

Next: God’s Uphill Struggle with Humanity (Part 2) 

1) Psalm 120:6-7
2) Numbers 24:17
3) Luke 2:14
4) Luke 19:42
5) Isaiah 2:4

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Reflections During the 12 Days: III. Christmas as Paradox

My mother (as I shared in the first of these meditations during the 12 Days of Christmas) never made sure and certain promises. “Promise us,” we’d say; she’d respond with “If I can...I’ll try...” and, most commonly, “We’ll see.....depends.”  Frustrating. 

The Bible, by contrast, is full of promises: the promise of the Land, an everlasting covenant with Israel through Moses and David, the promise of Israel’s return from exile and restoration, and repeated promises of “justice and peace forever” The promises come from heaven, but on the ground frustrations abound: returning exiles experience danger and scarcity, “forever” ends up being “for a while,” and justice is too often delayed. Promise and frustration finally find their focus in Messianic expectation. 

Christian Christmas itself embodies the tension between these promises and the frustrations about fulfillment. The Babe born to be king of Israel—if we take the angel’s message at face value*—dies on a Roman cross. What can a believer in the Promising God make out of this?

Escaping the Dilemma

There are a couple of easy ways out of this dilemma. You can chose the traditional “spiritual not earthly Messiah” option. Jesus changes hearts, not nations, forgives sin and only “puts down the mighty from their seats” in a psycho-spiritual way. The Messianic expectation used earthly metaphors to talk about interior realities.

Or you can choose the more modern way out: the “real” Jesus was a profound teacher who didn’t pretend to Messianic stature. The burning Messianic promise at the center of the New Testament arises from the mistaken assumptions of early disciples and later story-crafters.

I’d rather live in the discomfort of the paradox: the ever-tantalizing promise of God’s rule of justice, mercy, love, and “peace on earth” and the ever-recurrent reality of injustice, hard-heartedness, hatred, conflict that, again and again, frustrates its fulfillment. Even the biblical “minimalists” who see the Messianic claims as a distortion laid on Jesus believe his proclamation “The kingdom of God is at hand” comes from his own mouth.

Promise or Vision?

Which lands us squarely in what I call the paradox of messianic faith that is at the heart of Christianity: a just God who presides over an unjust world, yet promises the triumph of justice. From Job’s dung-hill to the martyrs under the heavenly altar the cry goes out, “How long, O Lord; how long?”

But what if the Promise actually comes to us as a vision of the possible from the heart of a God who really, really, wants to save humankind? Save us from our ominous self-destructive capacities. Save us and the planet from the destruction we bring to it, and, ultimately upon ourselves. What if the "promise" is a seed of yearning and hope planted in our very nature? As a lure to activate our own search for the "things that make for peace?"**

What if Jesus’ challenge to change our ways and believe are what this not-quite-a-promise vision depends on? What if humanity's only hope is rising to the challenge of this vision?

Next: God’s Uphill Struggle With Humanity

* Luke 1:32-33:  "...and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David: And he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end."

** Luke 9:42