Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Papa's Touch Revisited

Thanks to all of you for your responses to my last blog, including my dad and son, and his friend C. N. I had no idea that it would stir up so much reflection. Mark’s comments, of course, were particularly pointed and raise a series of rather huge questions.

Papa has revealed his heart and will for the entire human race, and indeed the cosmos, in Jesus. Immanuel is not a theory, but a divine-human fact. Jesus Christ has embraced us all in his incarnate life, death, resurrection and ascension, lifted us up and established a real relationship with us in our darkness, sin and brokenness. In establishing a real relationship with us he has included us in his own relationship with his Father and his own relationship with the Holy Spirit—adoption. So in Jesus we see not a second plan or a half-time adjustment, or just another idea of God, but the one, eternal will and plan of Papa. Before creation Papa set his heart upon us all and determined that we would be brought into real and abiding relationship with Him through Jesus, His only son, so that we could experience life in His embrace.

The gospel is not the news that we can receive an absent Jesus into our lives, but the stunning news that Jesus has received us into his. We do not make Jesus Christ part of our worlds. He is the creator. He has given us a place in his cosmos. And even as we rejected our place in the great rebellion, he refused our rejection, came in person to bear our scorn, and reestablished real relationship with us, thus giving the fallen world a place in his relationship with his Father and the Holy Spirit. It is here that I am sometimes labeled a universalist because I will not budge on the fact that the Father’s Son has included us all, thus fulfilling his Father’s dream and will for us. What Jesus has made real in his own person through life, death, resurrection and ascension is the real world, the rest is what we bring to his table in our darkness.

I will deal again at another time with the problem of universalism (see The Great Dance and Across All Worlds, and just about everything I have ever written or spoken). Suffice it to say here that the universal inclusion of the human race in Jesus and in his relationship with Papa and the Holy Spirit is both great news and exposing news. It declares to the world who God is and why the Lord created this universe and humanity within it. And it declares to us who we are and why we are here and what is going on in our lives. The news of what Jesus has made of his creation in himself is fantastic news, full of hope for us all, but it is also news which exposes our utter blindness and brokenness. So it is in the light of Jesus Christ and of what he has made of us that we get a glimpse of where this is all heading and of what we should be experiencing in our lives. And it is in this light that we, at last, can see that there is a real and serious problem. Our salvation in Jesus Christ reveals we are all profoundly blind and destructive. We just don’t get it, don’t see it, don’t believe it to be true at all, and our unbelief has traumatic consequences.

Given that Papa has embraced us all in Jesus—and I do not mean the ‘good’ us, I mean the broken, blind, sinful us, for that is what happened when we rejected and cursed Jesus and he bore it without retaliation—we should see Papa’s touch everyday, all day long. And we should see personal, relational and international healing and wholeness emerging. For we are all included in the life and wholeness and beauty of the blessed Trinity. So when Mark asks his great question, ‘does God give moments like this to starving orphans in third world countries?’ my answer is, of course, all day long, every day. For Papa has embraced us in Jesus in real and personal relationship, and He does not live as if it is not true. It is not a question of whether or not Papa is present in all tenderness and care and love, for in the light of Jesus we have solid ground for knowing that He is so forever. It is a question of what we see and do not see, and of what we do to ourselves, to others and to creation in our blindness.

Let me put this another way. When we meet Jesus and see him as he is, I don’t think we will say, ‘Jesus, forgive me, for I overestimated your place and significance in the world. I gave you too much credit.’ And I don’t think we will ask Papa, ‘where were you?’ or accuse the Holy Spirit of dereliction of duty. For when we meet Jesus and see who he is and thus who we are and what is happening in this world, we will see both his presence in our lives and that we have been terribly and profoundly blind. Moreover, we will see that we have imposed our blindness upon Jesus’ world and people with devastating, if not traumatic consequences (check out our own marriages!). Then we will see how the Father, Son and Spirit embraced us in our sin, and even used us and our brokenness to break through not only our own blindness, but that of other’s as well. The Holy Spirit is a redeeming genius. In the light of Jesus we will see how and when and where the love and life, the care and burden of the Triune God was at work within us and in our lives.

Here is a great example. When Mark spoke of his ‘lying awake at night staring at the ceiling, thinking about those I know who are profoundly struggling, let alone all those around the world who need a meal or a safe place to sleep,’ I could not hear those words as Mark’s at all. Those are the words of Jesus himself—present, not absent. This is Jesus’ burden being shared with Mark and with us. For Jesus has included us in his life. Immanuel is not a theory. It is not a doctrine waiting for us to apply to our lives. Immanuel is the real world, Jesus Christ is present with us in our terrible blindness. As Jesus shares himself with us, we feel his joy and his burden, and we have moments when Papa’s presence breaks through our blindness.

We should see more of Papa’s presence and care everywhere, and we should be burdened when we don’t. For the Jesus within us knows his Father and His presence, shares Papa’s heart with us in our blindness, and shares our pain when his presence is violated in our lives.

When Mark cited Frederick Buechner’s description of compassion as "the sometimes fatal capacity for feeling what it's like to live in somebody else's skin. It is the knowledge that there can never really be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy finally for you too," I could only here Jesus again speaking to us all. For he is the only one who has suffered the fatal capacity of feeling what it is like to live in somebody else’s skin. And he did so because he committed himself to us before the foundation of the world, and he will not rest until we too feel his peace and joy, and until the cosmos is expressing his own relationship with Papa and the Holy Spirit.

“Does that little girl who's never heard the name of Jesus, cowering in a corner dreading another night of abuse, does she get to feel Papa's touch?” What we know about this little girl is that she is included, that Jesus (who has suffered the fatal capacity of feeling what it is like to live in somebody else’s skin) is with and in her sharing her terror whether she has heard of his name or not, that the Holy Spirit is bearing witness with her spirit that she is included and loved, that in Jesus Papa is present, and that she is living in a terrifying hell, which is the real world she experiences and wars against the witness of the Holy Spirit. And I would hazard a guess that she is getting a load of religious crap as well. She is in desperate need of embodied love and truth, for the Holy Spirit to reveal Jesus Christ not merely to her, but in her (as happened to Saul of Tarsus, Galatians 1:16). There is no hope for this little girl (or for Saul of Tarsus, or any of us) if Jesus Christ is not already in her, meeting her in her trauma and sharing himself and all that he is and has with her. And Jesus is not absent.

This little girl, I suspect, is a picture of the human race suffering abuse from all forms of darkness. Jesus has established a real relationship with us in our traumatic existence, and his presence in our hell is our hope. Having suffered from our hands the worst abuse imaginable, he is able to share himself with us in our pain. His presence commands us and frees us to see Papa everywhere, and to cry out for the Holy Spirit to give us eyes to see. And his freeing presence in our darkness burdens us for those who don’t see. We live in the joy and burden of Jesus himself, sharing his burden for the starving orphans around the world, and for fat materialists, and for those who tar Papa’s face with the brush of their own angst and create a religion to go with it, for those who have been abused and abuse, for those who hurt and feel ashamed of themselves, and for those who live as if they are the answer.

Paul’s prayer is universally relevant, “that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of Jesus. I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened, so that you may know what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints, and what is the surpassing greatness of his power toward us who believe” Ephesians 1:17-19).

And the declaration of Jesus, “I am the light of the cosmos; the one who follows Me shall never walk in the darkness, but shall have the light of life” (John 8:12).

May the Holy Spirit reveal Jesus in us, and give us the courage to take baby steps against the way we see things. And may he continue to apply his redemptive genius to our lives and use us to help others know the truth.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Papa's Touch

On a recent trip I found myself in the Singapore airport with nine hours until my next flight. While the Singapore airport is surely one of the most beautiful in the world, nine hours is a long time, especially in the middle of the night, and I had already traveled from Jackson, Mississippi to Dallas to Los Angeles to Japan. Needless to say, I was exhausted, seriously so. In fact, for about an hour I thought I was going to faint. A hint of panic swept into my soul as well as a good dose of doubt as to my sanity.

The first order of business was to find a place to exchange money and buy something to eat and drink. But everything was closed. So I walked and walked and walked. At length I stumbled onto an American Express currency exchange, got some Singapore money and set out to find food. I ate some fantastic shrimp soup and drank at least one quart of water. To my surprise the food and water did not help much. Still feeling faint I figured I needed to find the most comfortable chair possible, thinking I would probably pass out—an unknown vagrant half way around the world from home.

Out of the corner of my eye I caught a glimpse of what looked like an American football game on a huge flat screen TV in what turned out to be a Boston style pub, complete with Red Sox and Celtic memorabilia. Thinking I was delusional, I walked over to take a closer look. To my utter amazement, not only was it an American football game, but a replay of the Cotton Bowl. It was my team, the Ole Miss Rebels playing Texas Tech in one of the great bowl venues in our country. For those of you who do not know, I graduated from the University of Mississippi (known as Ole Miss), and we rarely have a great football team. But this year we did, and we ended up playing Texas Tech which was ranked 7th in country. According to polls, 91 percent of Americans thought Texas Tech would beat us without mercy. And they should have. It was a David and Goliath thing. But on New Years day the game was on, and we not only won, we dominated. It was one of our greatest games ever.

So there I was in Singapore, exhausted, teetering on the edge of fainting, and certainly scared, and there in an Irish pub was my team the Ole Miss Rebels on the big screen. It was an ESPN replay of the great game. What are the odds of such a moment? Who knows? Who cares? I did.

Of the thousands of folks passing through the Singapore airport on any given day, it is hard to imagine anyone who would be touched by an Ole Miss football game. But on that night, so far from home, Papa spoke to me loud and clear. Perhaps I should say, Papa spoke to me in the most personal and tender way.

There is something here about how personally Papa relates to us. The most important moments of faith are always intensely personal. I stood there and laughed as tears rolled down my cheeks, thinking to myself, ‘It is true. Papa is real. We are—I am—known and loved and cared for. Everything is going to be fine.’

I think this is a good way for us to pray for our friends and family. We ask Papa to speak to them in ways that may or may not be relevant to others at all, but are profoundly personal and tender to them.—and thus very meaningful. Isn’t that what Paul was praying for in Ephesians 1:15ff?

It is the Holy Spirit’s work to give us Jesus’ eyes to see Papa’s tender care, especially when we feel exhausted and alone.