The Lord is Peace

Last night I was reading the story of Gideon, found beginning in Judges 6:11 and following.  For a long time the story of Gideon has been significant in my life.  I have probably preached from this story a dozen times through the years.  The part that always connected with me is the phrase that the angel of the Lord uses to describe Gideon when he first appears to him.  “The Lord is with you, O mighty man of valor”, the angel declares to a man threshing wheat in a winepress because he is afraid of the Midianites.  The irony of this phrase always brings a smile to my face.  But the truth that our identity rests not on how we see ourselves and not really how we are acting in any given moment, but on God’s Word to us is transforming.  It probably took me 8-10 times of preaching this sermon from the Gideon story to finally realize that the message wasn’t so much for whatever congregation I happened to delivering this sermon to at the time as it was for me.  Hey, I may be a bit dense but eventually I do get the message.  The theme of this message has been repeated to me in several other settings through the years.  Once, during a freedom ministries session, dealing with a wound from my past, the Lord shared the following words with me (as clearly as I know that God has ever spoken to me in my life), “You’re a bad-ass”.  (Don’t you love it?)  Another time, I was taking a day apart for extended prayer and solitude in the LBJ grasslands outside of Decatur, Texas on a bitterly cold day.  After spending hours in the freezing cold, praying, journaling and getting what seemed to me a big bag of nothing from the Lord, I made my way back to my car, barely able to feel my hands.  I got into my car and waited for the feeling to return to my hands and face, wondering out loud to God what the point of all of this was.  The gentle whisper came once again, as clear as a bell, “You’re not a wuss”.  So there you have it, three of the most significant words that have ever been spoken into my heart.

  1. “The Lord is with you, O mighty man of valor”
  2. “You’re a bad-ass”
  3. “You’re not a wuss”

Do you think that maybe God is trying to tell me something?

But as I read the Scripture last night, I saw something that I have never seen before.  The angel appears to Gideon, commissioning him for the task of defeating the Midianites, sending someone who considers himself to be “the least in my father’s house” in the “weakest clan in Manasseh” to defeat a great army.  Gideon goes to prepare an offering to the Lord and prepares a young goat, unleavened cakes and broth.  At the angels command, he took the meat and cakes and put them on a rock and poured the broth over them.  When he did this, “the angel of the Lord reached out the tip of the staff that was in his hand and touched the meat and the unleavened cakes.  And fire sprang up from the rock and consumed the meat and the unleavened cakes.”  Pretty cool.  Gideon is suitably impressed by all of this and recognizes that he has had a face to face encounter with the Lord.  God comforts him, as he is pretty dismayed over all of this and Gideon builds an altar to commemorate this visitation.  What struck me is what he named that altar, “The Lord is Peace”.  Jehovah Shalom for those who are into English transliterations of ancient Hebrew.  At first glance there seems to be a disconnect between the name of the altar and the experience and message of God to Gideon.  God is telling a seemingly insignificant, fearful man that he is called to win a great battle and that he is full of valor and strength.  But the result of the encounter isn’t “The Lord is Encouragement” or “The Lord is Strength for the Battle” but “The Lord is Peace”.  Huh?  Go fight a big battle and it’s all about peace.

But then I thought about God’s words to me and how they have affected my life.  One of the most disorienting, anxiety-inducing things you can ever do with your life is to try to be someone else.  Trying to live up to everyone else’s expectations of you is a sure-fire recipe for anything but peace.  I have always tended to shy away from confrontation, to fear getting angry and live a calm and predictable life.  I don’t want to ruffle feathers.  I want everybody to like me.  But I am called to be a fighter.  Not that people are the enemy, but I am called to be passionate about living in Christ and to not be afraid of speaking the truth when it is called for.   Sometimes others are just not going to like that.  We don’t wrestle against flesh and blood, but we are called to wrestle against “the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12).  But when we step into this fight the result isn’t chaos and anxiety.  It is peace.  Who would’ve thought?  The more I refuse to live timidly, the more peaceful I am.  We weren’t made to be wallflowers.  We were made to live life with real gusto.  This isn’t found in some “extreme” lifestyle, but in hearing the words of God and believing what He tells you about yourself.  Whatever battle God is calling you to fight, the surest path to peace is to fight that battle in obedience to God’s direction.

Salvation as Restoring the Image and Likeness of God

A couple of years ago I came across an article written by David Bentley Hart, an Eastern Orthodox Christian theologian and writer.  The article was about Gregory of Nyssa (or another of the Greek Fathers) but it wasn’t the article itself that stayed with me.  For some reason, what struck me wasn’t anything about the article itself.  Instead it was the sudden realization that I knew almost nothing about Eastern Orthodoxy.  Of the over 1 billion or so people living on planet Earth that profess Christianity, well over 300 million of them belong to one form or another of the Eastern Orthodox Church.  So I was almost offended at myself that I knew next to nothing about a faith tradition that encompassed ~30% of my brothers and sisters in Christ.

I responded to this in a way that is quite typical of me.  I started reading books about Eastern Orthodoxy.  Well, to be more precise, I have read two books.  They were both written by Bishop Timothy Ware, an English convert to Orthodoxy who spent 35 years as a lecturer of Eastern Orthodox studies at Oxford.  The first book, “The Orthodox Church” is a very straightforward introduction to the history and theology of Orthodoxy.  It could very easily be re-titled, “Orthodoxy for Dummies”, which suited me quite well.  The second, “The Orthodox Way” was a more difficult read.  It covered more of the devotional practices and mystical theological currents of Orthodoxy.  It very much illustrates the broad cultural differences that make Orthodoxy seem quite unusual to a Westerner like myself.  Often it seemed as if I were reading a foreign language but at the same time I enjoyed the read a great deal.

One of the differences that was noted was the language that is used in describing the relationship between God and humanity.  In Western Christianity this relationship is very often in described in legal terms.  The problem that humanity faces is described in terms of sin as offending the demands of a just and holy God.  Correspondingly, salvation is described in terms of the work of Jesus on the cross satisfying these demands on behalf of humanity and thereby justifying those who receive this work by faith.  This is certainly quite Scriptural and accurately describes a great deal of the dynamic of sin, atonement and salvation.  Eastern Christianity, however, very rarely uses this kind of language.  For Eastern Christianity, the emphasis is much more on creation and re-creation.  Sin is described much less in terms of offending the demands of a just and holy God as it is in marring the image of God that is humanity’s created nature and reducing the likeness of God that is found therein.  Salvation is then described as the restoration of the divine image and likeness as a new creation via the agency of the Holy Spirit.  Salvation is presented much more in terms of healing and forgiveness, while present, is not emphasized to near the same degree.  Again, this is certainly Scriptural and an accurate description of much of the dynamic of sin, salvation and atonement.  I am struck by the difference in emphasis.

The purpose of this post isn’t to choose sides in some sort of salvation debate or even to simply point out differences in language.  It is to consider whether I have missed something important about God’s work in my life.  I don’t often think about what it means to be created in the image and likeness of God.  I have often thought about being born-again and being a new creation in Christ, but I don’t tend to make the connection between the two.  N.T. Wright famously talks about salvation in terms of participating in the New Creation.  This rightly points out the continuing work of God in the world “setting things to right” as well as our part in co-laboring with God in this work.  But for some reason I have left a gap in my understanding of what that looks like in my own life.  Salvation is not a mere transaction, it is a way.  There is an exchange taking place, but it is continual.  There is a great juxtaposition of images between Genesis 2:7, where God breathes into Adam (face-to-face) the breath of life and 2nd Corinthians 3:18, where we with unveiled face (translated sometimes as face-to-face) are beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord and are being transformed into that same image (there’s that word again) by the Spirit (breath) of the Lord.

It would do me well to hold that image in my mind.  Each day as I pray, worship or engage the presence of the Lord in any way a transformation is taking place whether I see it or not.   Something precious is being exchanged in that engagement.  Something living and eternal.  Something that has been lost, wounded, marred or damaged is being healed and restored.

The American Dream, Contentment and Our Assumptions

Up front I want to acknowledge the debt for much of the information in this post to Walter Russell Mead, who among other things is a Professor at Bard College and blogs at The American Interest (he is actually the editor-in-chief of The American Interest as well).

As a Christian, whose citizenship is truly in the heavenly kingdom, and an American, I often find myself living with the tension that the assumptions that come with with this kind of dual citizenship.  Reading the New Testament, looking at church history and the circumstances of Christians in many parts of the world today lead me to a stark conclusion.  My life as a Christian in America, by any sort of comparative standard to the lives of Christians throughout history and around the world today, is profoundly abnormal.  To begin with, I have experienced next to zero persecution for my faith in Christ.  The worst I have experienced is ridicule (and almost all of that has been behind my back, I have very rarely been ridiculed to my face) and the occasional minor ethical quandary at work.  Second, by any reasonable standard (historical or contemporary) I am wildly wealthy.  I have never wondered where my next meal will come from and the only housing issues I have had were a result of my own over-spending (not a lack of income).  Other than my wife’s student loans, my family is in debt to no one.  Finally, I am in a thriving, incredibly healthy local church.  I can only speak from my own experience here, but in my opinion this is unfortunately very rare.

The tension that I experience most often manifests itself in a lack of contentment.  There are many reasons that I think this struggle is not uncommon for a person in my circumstance (that is, an American Christian with some level of affluence).  But the one that I am thinking about today can be broadly categorized as the assumptions surrounding The American Dream.

At this point it is important to define what I mean by The American Dream.  Before I can do that accurately, a little historical perspective is necessary.  What I define as The American Dream hasn’t always been The American Dream.  For much of the early history of The United States, The American Dream was wrapped up in the ideal of the family farm.  For much of the 18th and 19th century the representative American owned and farmed a small piece of land.  Almost all of U.S. domestic economic policy revolved around the assumptions of a society of small farming households.  Westward expansion, cheap land, relations with Native Americans, the Erie Canal and the transcontinental railroad all are better understood with the perspective that one of the federal government’s main concerns was always to make life easier for family farms.  This was true right up until the Great Depression.  Social and technological changes that began well before the Great Depression finally reached the tipping point and The American Dream changed.  The closing of the frontier and the industrialization of commerce (including agriculture), combined with the effects of the beginnings of a true global economy placed the small family farm in danger.  After the crucible of Depression and World War, a new vision emerged.  The American Dream 2.0 wasn’t about the ownership of land and farming.  It was about an owner occupied family home, preferably with a nice little patch of lawn (which incidentally is one of the most agriculturally and environmentally useless ways land can be utilized) surrounding it.  The assumption that surrounded this vision of The American Dream was debt-financed living.  The mortgage, not land and the associated produce of the land, became the central economic feature of most American families.  The central place the mortgage occupies is so ingrained in American life that we rarely consider life without it.  If you rent (as we currently do) that is only seen as preparation for home ownership and the accompanying mortgage.  When families talk about paying down debt, it is consumer credit (paying off credit cards), student loans or car loans that are the main discussion.  Life without a mortgage is almost unthinkable.  It is the province of the insanely rich or the retiree who paid off the mortgage after making decades of house payments.  The policies of the federal government have been built around home ownership financed by mortgage.  Our tax policies favor it (think of the mortgage interest deduction) and our monetary policy assumes it (the Fed manipulates interest rates with mortgages top of mind).  This vision of The American Dream is in trouble, given our out of control debt problem at every level of society (from consumers through every level of government) and the breakdown of the social model of stable jobs in factories, banking and the government (think of the problems teachers are facing right now with school district and state financing budget crunches).  The entitlements that generations took for granted (Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid) are also in trouble and are going to change, although it is yet to be determined what will result from these changes.  And finally, the housing sector, with its built in assumptions of home values always rising, has been in free fall for the past 3+ years and the bottom isn’t really in sight.  How this will play out in American society is unclear and I am certainly not qualified or visionary enough to really predict that.  But that isn’t really what this post is about.

What I am really thinking about is how ingrained the assumptions around The American Dream (at least the current version) are in my life and how they have affected the way I look at faithfulness and contentment.  In Philippians 4:10-14, the apostle Paul lays out the vision of Christian contentment.  Paul has learned to be content in any and every circumstance.  He has experienced poverty and plenty and knows that the key to contentment in not found in the amount of possessions we have.  But it is amazing how much possessions and related factors (job environment and stability, income and career status) have consumed my definition of contentment.  My entertainment choices often revolve around home ownership (HGTV, DIY, House Hunters, Home Makeover, etc.).  Have I allowed my life to be defined by assumptions that have almost nothing to do with the biblical model of faithfulness and contentment?  I am afraid that often they do.

I don’t know what form The American Dream 3.0 will take.  I don’t know if there even will be one.  But the model of life that is full of contentment that I find in Scripture is not so dependent on social upheavals and financial circumstances. There is a lot more to learn by looking at the way The American Dream and how our interaction with that dream shapes our thinking as American Christians.  But for now I thinking a lot more about contentment.  I am thinking about the peace that passes understanding and that is not dependent upon things that can and will change.

P.S. – A fuller treatment of the information regarding The American Dream is found in Walter Russell Mead’s blog “The Death of the American Dream I” found on the website of The American Interest.  Pretty worthwhile reading as he also goes into the effects of divorce and fractured families on our economy’s struggles.