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Category: Soteriology

Where God Fills All Things

I’ve been reading biblical genealogies: Genesis 5, 10, 11, 22, 25, 36, and 46; Numbers 3 and 26; Ruth 4; Matthew 1; Luke 3.

I’ve noticed a pattern.

It’s a line. A man penetrates a woman (usually unnamed), and another man emerges, grows up, and goes on to penetrate another woman. Another man emerges –

Each son is a new man, and in a certain sense, a replacement for the man who came before.

I see a similar pattern in the rise and fall of civilizations, as illustrated in Daniel’s interpretation of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream.

I see a similar pattern in much of white, American Christianity, and I think it is because we do not believe in resurrection.

Christianity without resurrection isn’t just focused on the death of Jesus. Christianity without resurrection requires death. Any religion requiring death brings death.

In order to survive, Christianity without resurrection needs for its “competition” to be utterly annihilated (or erased through conversion and assimilation). Christianity without resurrection seeks the end of the world so that it might escape the world. Christianity without resurrection functions on earth as a system of violation, of oppression, of destruction, and of murder.

This pattern is the pattern of human history, and we find that this is an ancient pattern, present in all our systems, evident even in creation. But this is not the only pattern.

Each morning the sun penetrates our world, breaking into our consciousness as it rises above the eastern horizon. Each evening the sun penetrates the underworld, sinking down through the western horizon, leaving behind – at least for a time – its gentle afterglow. Every day, it is the same sun.

God also rises and sinks, penetrating both what is above as well as what is below.

“Therefore it is said,

“‘When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive;
he gave gifts to his people.’

“(When it says, ‘He ascended,’ what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things.)”

I’ve read that last line several times. If God fills all things, then God doesn’t need to delete anything in order for there to be space enough for God. The very existence of God disrupts our efforts to conquer and vanquish.

God even interrupts human genealogies. God penetrates a woman’s womb. God emerges from the same womb.

This, then, must be why it is that the Roman centurion – a living representative of the empire that has penetrated the Promised Land – is also the eyewitness as darkness comes over the whole land. As the sun’s light fails. As the curtain of the temple is torn in two.

God breaks into the world. God also breaks out. And God returns: in the garden, in the upper room, on the road to Emmaus, on a beach cooking fish over charcoals.

The line of domination is broken. And we are called, not to destroy hell, but to break in. We are seeds, nurtured in the belly of the earth, growing up into trees large enough that the birds of the air might come and make nests in our branches.

Then, as the morning sun penetrates our world from the eastern horizon and slowly but surely climbs the sky, all people might gather together beneath our branches, where God fills all things.

Depravity

02

My friends generally fall into two categories of thinking when it comes to questions of human nature:

1) People are basically good; 2) People are basically bad.

My Christian friends mostly fall into the latter category. They use a phrase – total depravity – as though it’s a kind of non-negotiable fact of life.

Or, sometimes, they talk about how everything they do is “like filthy rags.” I can’t help but think that filthy rags generally weren’t born that way. They get filthy from making other things clean. Which, I’ve come to learn, isn’t considered a helpful response.

We’re all evil on the inside.

Dark. Desperate. Depraved.

What a way to live.

Once, in a course on philosophy, the professor asked us if we thought human nature was good or evil. I raised my hand. I said it was good. The instructor, a Christian, asked how I reconciled my answer with scripture. I quoted Genesis 1:27. The easiest way to argue with that verse is to lay the blame for evil on the nature of God. Said instructor didn’t take the bait. He smiled. And he called on someone else.

Later, in a Sunday school class, I handed out blank pieces of paper and asked participants to write down one way in which they look like Jesus on the inside. I gave them five minutes of thinking time. To come up with just one thing. Lots of blank sheets of paper. And blank stares. I got an email from one class member. She suggested that Christians aren’t used to “thinking of something positive to say about themselves.”

Human survival requires both charity and social reciprocity.

But in the Church, it appears that we’ve plowed fields and planted them with self-doubt. Distrust. Disgust.

And we’re starving.

Because total depravity isn’t sustainable. Because belief in total depravity interferes with our ability to recognize and share from our gifts. Because belief in total depravity interferes with our ability to recognize and accept others’ gifts. It’s killing the work and witness of the Church. It’s killing the Church.

It’s killing us.

A friend asked me what happened. “Church used to be fun,” she said. And we didn’t get a chance to finish the conversation, but when we do, I think I know what to say.

Filthy rags can be overwhelmed by shame, paralyzed by questions of how and why and what if I’d only. But filthy rags – used to do what rags are made to do – get good things done. Which is good.

But in the Church, it appears that we’ve plowed fields and planted them with self-doubt. Distrust. Disgust. And we’re starving.

Negative Attention

02

They called me names. They mocked my appearance. They scoffed at my opinions, disdained my attempts at humor. They sometimes threatened violence. A kick to the face broke my glasses once. They called it an accident.

Considering what I might do, I realized that I could leave. I didn’t have to stick around, and I didn’t have to take it; so I resolved that I would show up one more time, if for no other reason than to announce my intention to quit. Mind made up, I felt good. But that night, I made a discovery that changed the way I see. And instead of leaving, I stayed.

They needed me too much.

It was my freshman year in college. I was volunteering with middle school students at a local church. They were horrible, and they wouldn’t leave me alone.

That was the key to my epiphanous moment: they wouldn’t leave me alone.

Other adults in the room didn’t get punched in the back during worship. Other adults in the room didn’t suffer sotto voce critiques of their facial features. Other adults in the room – as far as student behaviors indicated – weren’t even visible.

It wasn’t fair.

That I’d been given so much power.

Edwin H. Friedman claims that “people can only hear you when they are moving toward you,” and for absolutely no good reason, these students had decided to move toward me. They had given me the power over what they heard and how they heard it.

If what has value is like a radio signal in a sea of static, then these students had decided that I was the signal. Other adults in the room were just noise.

I have to admit that, along with the students, I too suffered serious and prolonged bouts of immaturity. In other words, I recognized the power I’d been given, but I didn’t use it well. And the next year, a new group of volunteers – younger and demonstrably cooler – joined the work, so I had to learn to share attention, to be part of a team.

Fortunately, I mostly grew up over the intervening years without growing too “old” to relate. But that time of my life – that discovery I made on a Wednesday night in October, 20 years ago – pointed to a truth that has opened ministry doors in dozens of contexts.

What, exactly, did I learn? That negative attention is attention. When people are moving toward me, whether from loving acceptance or annoyed engagement, they are also attuned to the signals I send. They choose to hear me.

It’s a truth that has helped me to re-perceive what feel like attacks, to see them as opportunities for relationship, as indicators that I have value.

When a parent sends me an email, questioning my judgment, I can rejoice that this parent trusted me enough to start a conversation, to tell me what she really thinks, to give me the opportunity to respond.

When a retired college professor invites me to coffee, sits across from me, and proceeds to tell me why I’m an idiot, I don’t have to hear the isolated critique. After all, I don’t have to take it personally.

I get to.

He has a Ph.D., national recognition, decades of academic experience, and he’s decided that I’m worth his time.

When an elder at my church questions my character in an embarrassing, semi-public, quasi-accusation, I look up and see that she’s looking into my eyes. That she’s not angry. Just afraid. And that thing she just said might be more about her than about me.

What do I do? It depends.

Mostly, I try to receive the gift of attention as a gift, to truly be thankful for the influence I’ve been given, for the value that’s been communicated. I try to listen and really understand. I try to give back.

I’ll admit, it doesn’t always end in raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens. But more times than I can count, that parent has volunteered to work in my classroom, that retired professor has shaken my hand and asked if I would be his friend, that elder – in tears – has called to talk about her son and to ask for my forgiveness.

And I pray: God, help me to have the grace to see a world filled with opportunity, a people filled with potential, fields white for harvest. Help me to love my neighbor as myself. Help me also to recognize when my neighbor is trying to love me.

Help me to love my neighbor as myself. Help me also to recognize when my neighbor is trying to love me.

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