Monday, May 22, 2017

Centered on Jesus: The Story and Other Stories

Lesslie Newbigin (1909-1998) was a missionary and bishop in South India. He is a favorite of mine. In describing his experience in evangelizing people of other faiths, Newbigin said,
I approach them by saying I would like to tell you my beautiful stories about God and I would like for you to tell me your beautiful stories about God.

It is a wonderful approach exhibiting a welcome humility, generosity, and hospitality. It acknowledges that whatever beautiful truth we Christians have to offer the world; we are bound to find beauty and truth elsewhere.

I have been inspired, informed and edified by many of the beautiful stories of other faiths. I have read many of the scriptures and stories of other faiths. I believe that the Holy Spirit sings in and through many of them. We do well to carefully and respectfully learn from their wisdom.

It is tempting to leave it at that. It is tempting to claim that all these stories along with the ones Lesslie Newbigin told about Jesus and Christianity are equally beautiful and equally true. It is a popular approach. But it does not actually work.

When we try to claim all stories are equally beautiful, we are just ignoring or denying the fact that we actually have in the back of our minds another overarching story that we consider even more beautiful and that incorporates all those lesser stories. We use our own overarching story to measure the relative beauty and truth of other stories. There is no escaping this.

Christians believe that all creation is part a central beautiful story spoken by a three-personed God who is love. This story centers on the self-emptying incarnation of God in the person of Jesus who entered into the mess we have made of the world and ourselves coming alongside us to redeem, reconcile, and restore all things. It is a story of forgiveness, healing, and transformation. Christians believe that to be the most true and most beautiful story. All other beautiful stories participate more or less in that story and are measured by it. To be a Christian is to have your story caught up in that story, transformed by that story and defined by it.

That is the approach of Justin Martyr, one of the earliest Christian theologians. He died around 150 AD. In one of his theological works (The First Apology), he wrote of the logos spermaticos, which is Greek for "the Seed of the Word." Justin suggested that if the world was created through the Word (John 1, Colossians 1) then we should expect to see the seed of that Word planted by the Holy Spirit in all cultures. Echoes and fragments of the good story that is the gospel are everywhere.

Christians do not have to embrace an exclusive version of truth that can learn from no one else. Christians would do well to look more carefully at the beauty of other stories and be open to learning from them. But still we claim that the story of Jesus Christ is at the center of all. He is the Way, the Truth, the Life.

It was always Lesslie Newbigin's hope that in exchanging beautiful stories others would be persuaded to see this and make the story of Jesus their own. We claim humbly, reverently, and gently if we are to be true to the story (1 Peter 3:13-16) – that Jesus remains Lord and the measure of all other stories.

That is not just the case with other "religious" stories. It includes the beautiful stories we are told by Hollywood, Wall Street, Madison Avenue, and the Pentagon. It includes the beautiful stories of America and every other nation-state that would claim our ultimate loyalty. It includes the beautiful stories of every political party. And it includes the beautiful stories we tell ourselves to justify ourselves or to affirm our own prejudices. The idea that all stories are equal, actually serves the purposes of these other powerful stories and leaves them unquestioned. The story of Jesus challenges them all.

Here is another quote from Newbigin:
I more and more find the precious part of each day to be the thirty or forty minutes I spend each morning before breakfast with the Bible. All the rest of the day I am bombarded with the stories that the world is telling about itself. I am more and more skeptical about these stories. As I take time to immerse myself in the story that the Bible tells, my vision is cleared and I see things in another way. I see the day that lies ahead in its place in God’s story.

To be centered in Jesus Christ does not mean that Christians have all the truth there is to have or that we can learn nothing from those who have beautiful stories of their own. We should engage others and their beautiful stories with humility and openness.  But, we will measure all stories – including some told by Christians – by the Story of Jesus.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Delight – Every Blade of Grass

I mowed my lawn yesterday and was reminded of this poem by Walt Whitman:

A child said, What is the grass? fetching it to me with full
                        hands;
How could I answer the child?. . . .I do not know what it
                        is any more than he.
I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful
                        green stuff woven.
Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,
A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropped,
Bearing the owner’s name someway in the corners, that we
                        may see and remark, and say Whose?
– Walt Whitman, A Song of Myself from Leaves of Grass

I am taken with Whitman’s image of grass as a “scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropped.” Think about that next time you smell mowed grass. Something as common grass (at least in the American Midwest) bears “the owner’s name someway in the corners” if we just pay attention. Of course, this is not just true of grass. As John Calvin said,

There is not one little blade of grass, there is no color in this world that is not intended to make us rejoice.

All of creation is the handkerchief of the Lord designedly dropped in God’s ongoing courtship with each of us.

All this thinking about grass reminded me of this wonderful line from the Talmud, the ancient compilation of Jewish moral and ethical debate:


What a lovely image. And, again, this is not just about grass, but about God’s intimate care and delight in every aspect of creation. One of the Hebrew words translated “delight” in the Old Testament is chaphets (חָפֵץ) the root meaning of which is “to bend over.” With delight, God bends over each blade of grass and all of creation whispering “Grow, grow.” May we take the time to pay attention with all our senses to rejoice and delight in the wonder of creation, large and small. May we receive it all with gratitude as a handkerchief of the Lord, a scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropped. bearing the owner’s name someway in the corners.

And this is true as well of each human being – more so as humans are that part of creation made in the image of God and to whom God has entrusted the earth (Psalm 115:16). How would it be if we engaged one another as a “gift and remembrancer designedly dropped” in our paths to draw us deeper into the life and love of God?

Jesus said, “See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven” (Matthew 18:10). That makes we wonder if maybe it is not just every blade of grass that has its angel that bends over it in delight. Each of these little ones – every child – has its own angel bending over it whispering, “Grow, grow.” I suspect that does not end when a child is fully grown. If there is an angel bending over you even now in the name of God’s delight whispering, “Grow, grow,” what new growth might it be drawing you toward?