On Meeting Brueggemann: Scarcity & Abundance

Monday night I checked off a big item on my bucket list. I met Walter Brueggemann. (For those of you wondering, I readily admit I was every bit the theology-nerd fanboy I’d hoped I wouldn’t be when I turned around and saw him sitting in the seat behind me just before he got up to lecture. Seriously, it was pathetic.)

In commemoration of the occasion, I’ve been reflecting on the influence Brueggemann’s theology has had on my own understanding of what God is doing in the world. Although I’ve only come to his work in the last six years, he has left a deep and indelible mark on my life. One of the primary ways he has reworked my imagination is in terms of scarcity and abundance. Beginning with the first time I listened to his “Food Fight and Faith” lecture, these categories have really worked me over in pretty fundamental ways.

An overview:

When God created he created a world characterized by abundance and blessing. The birds of the air and the fish of the sea swarmed and filled the skies and seas. Humankind was commanded to fill the earth, subduing it and taking as their starting place the Garden where an abundance of food and provision was at hand. This abundance, however, was counteracted by the scarcity of a world in which sin had let death loose. In the end of Genesis 3, God describes how the world now will be and a paradigmatic part of that world is now scarcity, with the attendant anxiety that we will not have enough. (Adam’s curse that he will work the ground by the “sweat of his brow” and the earth will fight back with thorns and thistles is testament to this.) With the rejection of life (rooted in God) comes the fear of not having enough.

As such, in typically Burueggemann-esque language, we can note that Pharaoh controls all the goods of Egypt but has nightmares about running out (Genesis 41). He enlists Joseph to ensure a secure future and Joseph accomplishes this (for Pharaoh, anyway) by creating a monopoly over Egypt’s resources, money, and people (Genesis. 47). This progression of scarcity and fear ultimately leads to greed and then “violence against disposable people” – first the people of Egypt and then the Hebrews.

For Brueggemann, this cycle of scarcity, fear, greed, and violence is paradigmatic for the world we live in. This becomes a “totality” – the sum total of our experience, outside of which we cannot imagine anything else “working.” This is just the way things are in the real world. Borrowing from the work of people like Randy Harris, James Bryan Smith, and Richard Beck I’ve tended to talk about the same reality in terms of fear and power.

Against this “totality” – the realm of what is possible within the bounds of the way the world works – the kingdom of God provides an alternative reality in which God calls us back to his original intentions, which includes a return to blessing an abundance. Powerfully, Israel is called out of Egypt – who controls all the bread, and all the meat, and all the water – into the wilderness where they quickly conclude that they will die. They do this only to find that outside the reach of Pharaoh, outside the possibilities of the way things are, God does impossibilities and provides abundant bread, meat, and water.

Dealing with what God can do outside of our systems of scarcity and violence stands to have a profound impact on the way one does business in the world. These (im)possibilities have been a major meditation of mine over the last few years and I want to explore them more in coming posts.

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On Meeting Brueggemann: Scarcity & Abundance

Is It Like Jesus?

I was recently reminded of two episodes from my earlier life. The first is from back in my school days. The leadership of a supporting congregation asked me to come speak to them because they wanted to express concern over my use and promotion of the (then new) English Standard Version. After all, this new translation was endorsed by individuals who were persona non grata in our corner of Christianity and “we don’t feel comfortable using a translation of the Bible they endorse.”

The second came several years later when I was neck deep in congregational ministry. We were developing a sort of small group program and someone had suggested we call them “Brother’s Keepers” groups. The idea was immediately nixed by one of our church leaders who responded, “There’s a band that plays at one of those other churches up the road that call themselves The Brother’s Keepers. We don’t want to be associated with that sort of thing.”

It doesn’t matter that I could’ve named twice as many preachers that were verboten in our tribe that used our beloved King James Bible than I could the ESV. Nor did it matter that “brother’s keeper” found its origin in the Bible rather than with some contemporary Christian house band. In some ways, the corners of our tribe I used to inhabit had (sincerely and inadvertently) become primarily defined by how they differed from other faith traditions. “We don’t want to be like those churches.”

But, I’m going to admit: I’m not terribly interested in playing that game. I think there’s another metric we need to consider. I no longer really care whether or not something makes us look like some other church.

I want to know if it helps us look like Jesus.

If it looks like Jesus, I’m not going to fret over who else it makes us look like.

Is It Like Jesus?

Ash Wednesday

Elsewhere, I’ve reflected on the fact that the Christian Calendar is best understood as a discipline rather than mere tradition  – “Because this is the way we’ve always done it!” – and as such, there’s wisdom in its responsible practice. Specifically, practicing the Calendar asks us to exercise spiritual muscles we typically aren’t inclined to use. For me, this is perhaps most evident in the observance of Ash Wednesday (which is this Wednesday).

Kicking off the season of Lent, Ash Wednesday asks us to dwell on our own mortality. Across centuries, continents, and theological tradition Christians begin their preparation for Easter by marking their heads with ash and confessing, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” We begin preparing for the celebration of Christ’s victory over death by acknowledging and reflecting on the problem of death. In a culture that treats death as taboo, this is important: if I’ve learned anything, it is often the taboo things that exert the most influence over us.

That is, the specter of death drives an enormous amount of what is painful and broken in our society. And, against our inclinations to push death away at every turn, Ash Wednesday asks us to drag it into the light, dealing both with the ways death shapes us and with the ways that Jesus has set us free from slavery to it.

This is distinctly unpleasant — but like any discipline, it is necessary.

Ash Wednesday

Being Human – Part Four

This is the fourth installment in a series exploring some aspects of the biblical call to be human. Here is where you can find parts 1, 2, and 3.

The discussion of what humanity is centered on the creation narrative in Genesis 1:26-28. Today, I want to briefly trace one way that idea is used throughout the Bible. As a refresher, here is the text from Genesis 1:

Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”

So God created humankind in his image,
    in the image of God he created them;
    male and female he created them.

God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”

As we have already noted, being human is descriptive of a way of life rooted in relationship with God as his image bearers. Being human is more of a vocation than it is anything else. We have been created to be fruitful, multiply, fill, subdue, and hold dominion over God’s creation, on God’s behalf.

Much later, Israel’s Poet in Cheif – King David – will pick up this same language when reflecting on nature and the place humankind holds in it (Psalm 8):

O Lord, our Sovereign,
    how majestic is your name in all the earth!

You have set your glory above the heavens.
Out of the mouths of babes and infants
you have founded a bulwark because of your foes,
    to silence the enemy and the avenger.

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
    the moon and the stars that you have established;
what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
    mortals that you care for them?

Yet you have made them a little lower than God,
    and crowned them with glory and honor.
You have given them dominion over the works of your hands;
    you have put all things under their feet,
all sheep and oxen,
    and also the beasts of the field,
the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea,
    whatever passes along the paths of the seas.

O Lord, our Sovereign,
    how majestic is your name in all the earth!

David draws on the human dynamic we outlined in the last post. Humankind has been created “a little lower than God,” but has, “been crowned with glory and honor” and has been given, “dominion” over the work of God’s hands. When David contemplates the place of humankind in God’s cosmos, he draws on the Genesis language of vocation. This is what it means to be human.

Again, much later, the Hebrews writer will pick up David’s language (which echoes Genesis’ language) in making her or his case about the supremacy of Jesus. After quoting from Psalm 8, the Hebrew writer observes (Hebrews 2:8-9):

Now in subjecting all things to them, God left nothing outside their control. As it is, we do not yet see everything in subjection to them, but we do see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.

The argument is simple and powerful. God created humanity to rule as his representatives but we see that has not happened. Humankind has rejected and muddled up that vocation in endless ways, both large and small. But, Jesus came in flesh- “made lower than the angels,” as we are – and fulfilled the human vocation where the rest of us had not. At every point we have forgotten or forsaken our divine calling, becoming less than human, Jesus sided with God’s intention, being what he (as a human) was meant to be.

There are lots of things we want to say about this – and we will in future posts without throwing too much out at once. Here, let’s begin by repeating something we said last time and by adding something new.

First, Scripture takes a high view of humanity. Sin doesn’t reveal our humanity – “Oh, I’m only human, after all.” Sin reduces our humanity. It makes us less than human.

Second, in not sinning, Jesus got Genesis 1 and Psalm 8 right where we have not. Jesus is the only genuine human. In that, he stands to show us what it looks like to return to our humanity. Importantly, the Hebrew writer is eager to point out, he also makes that return possible.

Being Human – Part Four

Toward a More Robust Unity

One of the things I love about my Stone-Campbell heritage is its emphasis on unity. I’ve grown up hearing sermons about unity, participating in classes about unity, reading books on unity, articles about unity, and surrounded by people who are genuinely passionate about unity. This is good, after all, as we are quick to point out that Jesus claims the world will know who he is by witnessing our unity.

For all this talk of unity, however, there is one particular danger we have sometimes fallen into. Namely, we are often guilty of promoting unity without first understanding what the New Testament means by the notion, which can lead in some unhealthy directions in spite of our (very) good intentions.

We often want to talk about unity as if it were a horizontal thing brought into being when we agree with one another. This view of unity is problematic for a variety of reasons, not least of which is that agreement with one another does nothing to guarantee we’re agreeing on the right things. On the whole, if our view of unity entails us agreeing on everything we’re talking about uniformity, not unity.

For Paul, we didn’t create unity and it was rooted in something rather more robust than fanciful notions of comprehensive agreement. For Paul, Jesus creates unity on the cross and it falls to us to live in light of the reality he created.

This is a major theme in Ephesians. For instance, in 1:9-10, Paul says God is revealing the “mystery of his will … a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth,” and that he is doing this in Jesus. He returns to this theme, discussing it at more length beginning in 2:11-22. Jesus enacts God’s plan by going to his cross. Take a moment and read this text slowly. Take note of the division language in the text (e.g., “… aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenant of promise …”) and notice the language of unity (e.g., “For he is our peace, in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall …”). Who reconciles? Who makes peace? Who tears down the walls of hostility? Who reconstitutes disparate groups as one new humanity?

Jesus.

On the cross, Jesus unifies his people, tearing down walls and bringing them together in a new reality. In chapter 3:9-10, Paul discusses his role in God’s plan climaxing with the declaration that the very existence of God’s unified people – Jew plus Gentile, plus slave, plus free, plus female, plus male, plus rich, plus poor, plus young, plus old, plus “blue collar,” plus “white collar,” plus Republican, plus Democrat, plus, plus, plus … – is the demonstration of “the wisdom of God in its rich variety” to the divisive powers of the world.

This discussion is prerequisite to understanding the more explicit discussion of unity beginning in chapter 4. (After all, it begins with the crucial word therefore.) Having already established that Jesus creates unity, note carefully what Paul says. With humility and gentleness and patience, we are called to bear with one another in love. In so doing, we make every effort to maintain the unity we have in the Spirit.

This union is not the same thing as uniformity. It is more robust. Notice again that Paul says the sort of unity that Jesus creates among his people will require humility and gentleness and patience with one another. Perhaps even more tellingly, he calls us to bear with one another on the basis of our unity in the Spirit. In Tennessee, we say “bear with one another” this way: put up with one another.

That’s exactly what we’re called to do at times. We are not united because we agree on everything – or even on a smaller number of essential things. (And this is a notoriously difficult list to make, these essential things.) We are united because we are all in Christ – because we’ve each given ourselves to Christ. He is the one who tore the walls down. He is the one who ushered us into a new reality. He is the one who left us with the Spirit that holds us together. That’s perhaps especially true when we are disagreeing with one another. For Paul, unity can’t be reduced to agreement, but it does shape the way we treat one another in our disagreements.

Oh, and about agreement. I think agreement’s fine even if it isn’t the primary way of talking about unity for Paul. If you think about it for a second, when we’ve each committed ourselves to Jesus and we move toward him each day we also move closer to one another. A good many of our disagreements will be worked out over time because of this mutual movement toward Christ. Other disagreements won’t – and some won’t need to be. Either way, Jesus will teach us how to be agreeable and that makes a difference as we maintain the reality Jesus has brought us into.

Toward a More Robust Unity

I’m So Spiritual

In my (admittedly limited) experience spiritual is one of the most meaningless words in the contemporary Christian vocabulary. Anymore, the term is ubiquitous and much of its use leaves us with the nagging notion that we often don’t have a clear idea of what we mean when we use it. Perhaps more troubling, when pressed on its meaning, many of us use it in ways that are contradictory to some pretty major ideas in the New Testament.

(By the way, this includes me. I’m not picking on anyone here – and certainly not condemning. Just this last week, I went on about something being spiritual and wanted to kick myself after I caught it. As contemporary, Western Christians, it’s simply part of the cultural air we breathe.)

So, how can we talk about something or someone being spiritual in a healthier way? Let’s do a little digging.

You might be surprised to know that the word spiritual is relatively rare in the English New Testament. In the NRSV, spiritual appears 33 times in 28 verses that are almost exclusively found in four of Paul’s letters. In fact, 55% of occurrences are in 1 Corinthians alone. The primary Greek word translated spiritual is the adjective pneumatikos. It is related to the Greek word for spiritpneuma – which may be why it is so easy to assume that spiritual is the opposite of physical. (More on that later.)

Here’s how the New Testament uses pneumatikos, with each instance of the word rendered like so:

  1. Romans 1:11 – “For I am longing to see you so that I may share with you some spiritual gift to strengthen you … “
  2. Romans 7:4 – “For we know that the law is spiritual; but I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin.”
  3. Romans 15:27 – “They were pleased to do this, and indeed they owe it to them; for if the Gentiles have come to share in their spiritual blessings, they ought also to be of service to them in material things.”
  4. 1 Corinthians 2:13 – “And we speak of these things in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual things to those who are spiritual.”
  5. 1 Corinthians 2:15 – “Those who are spiritual discern all things, and they are themselves subject to no one else’s scrutiny.”
  6. 1 Corinthians 3:1 – “And so, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ.”
  7. 1 Corinthians 9:11 – “If we have sown spiritual good among you, is it too much if we reap your material benefits?”
  8. 1 Corinthians 10:1-4 – “I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ.”
  9. 1 Corinthians 12:1 – “Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed.”
  10. 1 Corinthians 14:1 – “Pursue love and strive for the spiritual gifts, and especially that you may prophesy.”
  11. 1 Corinthians 14:47 – “Anyone who claims to be a prophet, or to have spiritual powers, must acknowledge that what I am writing to you is a command of the Lord.”
  12. 1 Corinthians 15:44-46 – “It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body. Thus it is written, ‘The first man, Adam, became a living being’; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. But it is not the spiritual that is first, but the physical, and then the spiritual.”
  13. Ephesians 1:3 – “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places …”
  14. Ephesians 5:19 – “… as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts …”
  15. Ephesians 6:12 – “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”
  16. Colossians 1:9 – “For this reason, since the day we heard it, we have not ceased praying for you and asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding …”
  17. Colossians 3:16 – “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God.”
  18. 1 Peter 2:4-5 – “Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”

First, let’s make some observations about how Paul uses the term in 1 Corinthians, as spiritual is a relatively major topic of discussion in the epistle. In chapters two and three, Paul contrasts those who are “spiritual” with those who are “of the flesh.” Here, spiritual does not refer to something that is spirit, but something that comes from / originates from / or is rooted in the Spirit of God. Conversely, something is “of the flesh” not because it is physical but because it comes from / originates from / is rooted in that which is physical (read: not the Spirit).

By way of illustration, we might remember the way the Preacher talks of things being “under the sun” in Ecclesiastes. “Under the sun” was an idiomatic way of talking about life without God. The Preacher had been seeking meaning apart from God and found his purposes thwarted by death at every turn, so he concludes that life “under the sun” is meaningless. In 1 Corinthians 2-3, Paul is working with a similar thought. The spiritual person is the person who’s way of life originates with God’s Spirit. The fleshly person is the person who seeks a way of life apart from the Spirit. Both sorts of life are physical – they are lived out in bodies. Both sorts of life will involve similar things – eat, sleep, drink, work, play, enjoy relationships, etc. – but will go about those things in very different ways, as they begin from very different starting points.

If we begin with this idea – spiritual is that which derives from (or is driven by) God’s Spirit – we will see it makes sense of the majority of the texts in our list – particularly for the discussion in 1 Corinthians. In chapter 10, Paul points back to the time when God miraculously provided food and water for Israel. Their food was spiritual in that it came to them by the power of God’s Spirit. Of course, he connects this to the Christian communion meal. While the bread and cup come from more “material” methods the meaning and power of the meal is driven by the Spirit. (Read 9:11 in this light – even that which is not expressly spiritual [i.e. from the Spirit like manna and water flowing from a rock were] is co-opted into the spiritual life as Paul has described it. For Paul, material things are not in opposition to spiritual things, but are to be used as a part of our life driven by the Spirit of God.) Later, the “spiritual” gifts are embodied abilities and practices that came from the Spirit. In Ephesians and Colossians, the church will sing “spiritual” songs – songs anchored in the life and power of the Spirit. (This is a mark of being “filled with the Spirit” [Ephesians 5:18].)

In our current context, it is important to note that the dominant context for spiritual is an embodied experience that is rooted or driven by the Spirit.

First, while there are physical things (as in 1 Corinthians 9:11) and purely spiritual entities (as in Ephesians 6:12), God created humans as physical beings meant to live life in a spiritual context. While our underlying Platonism may lead us to think that “material” things – like bodies with all their passions, emotions, and urges – are bad, this is not so in Scripture. God created us to be embodied spiritual creatures and called us “very good.” The problem of sin and death has less to do with the fact of our bodies than it does with the distorted ways we’ve used those bodies apart from God’s Spirit. (Augustine calls these our “disordered loves.”)

Second, this helps us understand the implications of saying things like, “Jesus has a spiritual kingdom.” To my knowledge, the New Testament never makes this claim and it can only be accurate if we understand spiritual as Paul does in 1 Corinthians. The kingdom is driven by God’s Spirit, but it is very much a physical experience that pertains to the ins, outs, ups, and downs of our earthly existence. When Jesus defines the kingdom, he doesn’t define it as a thing that is separate from “the cares of this world” (as we often refer to them in the Churches of Christ), but as God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven (Matthew 6:10). (This week’s readings from the Book of Common Prayer have included Psalm 72 and the language of the poem is striking in its revelation of what God is concerned with as Sovereign.) The spiritual nature of the kingdom is not a dismissal of the world, but a radical reorientation of the way we look at the world.

Third, as we’ve already hinted, Paul’s notion of spiritual doesn’t minimize all the “secular” things we do, but reorients them. Things like prayer or worship aren’t the only spiritual activities Christians are involved in. We are called to see everything as spiritual because the entirety of our life is being reshaped by God in Christ. Shopping is spiritual. Work is spiritual. Eating is spiritual.  Rest is spiritual. Play is spiritual. Politics are spiritual. Our relationships are spiritual. Sex is spiritual. On and on this goes. These are all things established by God to be used for human flourishing within a proper relationship with him. Spiritual is not the rejection or diminishing of these things, but realizing their fullness when we place them in their proper context. (Augustine would talk about this in terms of properly reordering our loves.)

Last, and we’ll have to explore this more later, Paul gives shape to speak of our future hope. In the resurrection, we will be given spiritual bodies. This is not non-physical bodies (an oxymoron), but bodies that are fully plugged into their proper source of life – the Spirit. A common confession for Christians around the world is that we believe in “the resurrection of the body.” Confessing this within the larger story of Scripture has some pretty profound implications – both for the future and now. We’ll pick those up in the future.

I’m So Spiritual

Immigrants & Refugees in the Bible

Sometime last year, Arnold Robledo and I did a quarter-long class called “Immigrants and Refugees in the Bible.” Preparing for this class was life-changing for both of us. Now, I can’t make any claims for myself — I stuck to the script — but Arnold outdid himself in this class. Below are the links to all 13 sessions. We need to be talking about this as we struggle for what it means to be faithful to Jesus amidst the current debates about refugees. My prayer is we will always be shaped more by Scripture than our own fears or those with governmental power.

Session One

Session Two

Session Three

Session Four

Session Five

Session Six

Session Seven

Session Eight

Session Nine

Session Ten

Session Eleven

Session Twelve

Session Thirteen

Immigrants & Refugees in the Bible