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The Fall and Family 2: Generational Sanctification

Thursday, September 12th, 2013

On Tuesday I wrote about a pattern in Genesis that I find powerful for explaining the human condition: the consequences of the rebellion of Adam and Eve are felt in the family. The most intimate human relationships are where human sin is most acutely evident.

What I didn’t say, and should have made clear, is that God doesn’t defer hope from the time of Abraham until the time of Christ. The church is where God’s family is restored completely. But right there in Genesis, God is already bringing healing and wholeness.

Abraham is the first in the family to follow God. And he isn’t very good at it. He’s faithful with some things—he’s loyal to Lot and generous in his dealings. But the things Abraham gets wrong, he gets really wrong. Twice he claims his wife is his sister because he fears foreign kings will kill him to marry her. He fails to trust God to provide him an heir, so he sleeps with his wife’s maidservant. Abraham struggles to walk closely with God from the beginning of his story to the end.

Isaac, Abraham’s son, is no model Israelite either. But he makes steps in the right direction. Isaac, too, tries to pass of his wife, Rebekah, as his sister. But he only does it once. That means he’s twice as faithful as his dad.

Isaac’s son Jacob is a scoundrel. There’s really no way around that. But Jacob’s relationship with God is more intimate that his father’s or grandfather’s. He wrestles with God by the Jabbok River. Contending with God seems like a bad thing, really. But I think the point is Jacob (whose name was changed to Israel after this episode) realized God was his only hope. Jacob couldn’t rely on his wits to keep him out of trouble. He needed God’s blessing. And he refused to let God leave without blessing him. It may have been superficial faith. But it was authentic faith.

Jacob’s son Joseph was the real deal. He was Israel’s first theologian. He started out sort of a brat, but when he grew up he was the first in his family to be able to identify how God was at work in his circumstances. When he is finally reunited with his brothers in Egypt, years after they sold him into slavery, he told them, “It was not you who sent me here, but God. God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance” (Gen. 45:8, 7). He recognized God’s broader plan in his brother’s sin: “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Gen. 50:20). Joseph understood the character of God, and trusted it, more than Abraham, Isaac, or Jacob before him.

What on earth is the point? The point is that God worked to sanctify this family generation by generation. They grew closer to God over time, not because Joseph was so much smarter or holier than Abraham, but because God is faithful. And the closer they drew to God the more grace and forgiveness is evident in their families (Gen. 50:15-21, for example). That’s good news. That means the sins of fathers—divorce or abuse or whatever—don’t have to visit their sons and grandsons. It means we are not doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past. Not because we are smarter or holier than our parents, but because God is faithful.

The Fall and the Family

Tuesday, September 10th, 2013

In just two weeks (four class periods; six hours), my Bible survey class and I sprinted through the fifty chapters of Genesis. Tuesday we make our way into Exodus and out of Egypt. We’ll be in Babylonian captivity before you know it.

The benefit of this schedule we’re keeping is that by the time the course ends in mid December, students will have been exposed to the entire biblical story in one semester. It’s a view from 30,000 feet. And as I reported here, that’s more than most of them have ever had before. What’s disappointing about our schedule is that it leaves us very little time to reflect on some of the critical details. If the 30,000-foot view gives students a sense of the terrain, it doesn’t necessarily equip them to traverse it on their own. It doesn’t give us the opportunity to truly abide in any one episode of the story for long.

One thing I wish I’d had more time to explore is this (if you’ll excuse the somewhat grim reflections): when theologians talk about the consequences of the fall of humanity into sin (Genesis 3), we typically talk about the metaphysical effects of that rebellion. We are now, because of Adam and Eve, sinful men and women estranged from a righteous God. That’s true, of course. Paul spends a lot of energy in Romans making this point. What we talk about less, though, are the immediate, mundane consequences of the fall. Men and women are separated from God, indeed. But they are also driven from each other. They realize they are naked, and they are ashamed (Gen. 3:7). And that’s just the beginning.

There are echoes of the fall throughout Genesis. Every marriage in Genesis after Eden is marked by betrayal and manipulation. Abraham and Isaac both lie to protect themselves by claiming their wife is actually their sister (Abraham: Gen. 12 & 20; Isaac: Gen. 26). Jacob loves Rachel more than Leah. Rebekah helps Jacob trick his father into giving him Esau’s birthright. Every sibling relationship is fraught with conflict. Cain kills Abel. Jacob deceives (or takes advantage of) Esau. Joseph’s brothers resent him because, frankly, he’s kind of a jerk.

Yes, the fall severed the relationship between humans and their Creator. But the way humans experience that estrangement from God in Scripture is in the total breakdown of family relationships. The inalienable truth that mommies love daddies and they love their children lasts only a few pages in Genesis. The most intimate of human relationships become the venues in which the consequences of sin are most apparent.

Evangelists work hard to convince nonbelievers that we have offended a just God and need his help to atone for our sins. They aren’t wrong. But maybe it would be easier to convince skeptics of our dreadful situation if we asked them to look first at their family. Surely there’s enough divorce, abuse, neglect, and exploitation to convince even the most skeptical that the Bible understands the human condition.

It is remarkable to me that (if I’m right), the solution the Bible offers to this family problem is not the renewal of the family. It’s the church, the “household of God” (1 Timothy 3:15). It’s the safe place where people injured by their earthly families—and the single and the orphaned and the widowed—find spiritual family to nurture them in the Lord. God’s goal is not simply to make us right with him. He also provides the community in which all our most intimate relationships can be restored and sanctified. Thanks be to God!

Portrait of an Artist: Granddaddy

Tuesday, August 13th, 2013

Studying a book on portraiture

My granddaddy retired very young. I have vague memories of his retirement party; I was very young myself. But for the better part of my thirty-something years of life, Grandmother and Granddaddy have been retired.

Since they retired, Grandmother and Granddaddy have taken taekwondo, learned to speak French, criss-crossed the continental U.S., traveled to Europe, expanded their home from two bedrooms to three (with their own four hands—and my two in the summers), cared for aging and ailing family members, and have generally made the most of their time. They have been models for me of lifelong adventure and constant personal enrichment. And quiet, unassuming determination.

Even before they retired, Granddaddy was an artist. It was not his job, mind you. He was an electrician in the Navy during the Korean War. He was an inventory manager for a manufacturing company that made things for the military. He wrote a couple of computer programs. But he was always an artist.

And, in my opinion, he is and always has been a true artist, because he is an artist for art’s sake. He draws and paints beautifully, and most people never see his work. He does not create things with hopes of fame or fortune, but simply because he wants to create lovely things. That’s something I find hard to do. These days I rarely spend time writing unless I’m trying to meet a deadline or unless I have some reasonable expectation that someone will pay me for my effort. I think that’s why I hesitate to call myself an artist. I have a hard time creating something simply for the sake of creating it. My time with Granddaddy this weekend challenged me to take up my quill and write something beautiful, regardless of whether anyone else will ever read it.

This is Granddaddy’s eightieth year of life. His current project is painting small portraits of his parents and siblings. In order to do this well, he is poring over books about portraiture, taking painting classes, learning new techniques. Because anything worth doing is worth doing right, even if no one else will ever see the final product.

What the Zimmerman Trial Means to Me

Tuesday, July 16th, 2013

For the last several days since George Zimmerman was acquitted for the murder of Trayvon Martin, I have relied on other writers to articulate my thoughts and feelings about the verdict. Amy and I have been surprised by how emotional we’ve been about it all and about how closely to home the news has struck.

I want to make it clear that I don’t know what all this means or what we ought to learn from it. I don’t have any proposals for making America a better or safer or more just society. I don’t have any special wisdom or insight into race relations. But I’m a dad and, more to the point, I’m a dad who worries. And I’ve finally captured a few thoughts that have been circulating in my brain. In no particular order:

1. It’s time we admit race matters. I’m not convinced George Zimmerman is a racist. I’m not qualified to make that judgment. But I do believe that his presuppositions about black males contributed to his actions on the night he shot Trayvon Martin. If that’s true, then that means race matters.

Americans all know that race should not determine what we think of someone (i.e., whether we fear them or find them suspicious). Unfortunately, because we know race should not affect our judgment of people, we have convinced ourselves that race does not affect our judgment of people. And that’s just not the case. (For data, see paragraph six of this great post by Jen Hatmaker.) It’s time we admit that race matters, that it affects our decisions, that for all our efforts to be colorblind, we are not.

Be honest: how many of these statements do you agree with, whether or not you’d admit it out loud? I suspect all black men are aggressive. I suspect all Asian men are good at math. I suspect all hispanic men know how to hang drywall.

Saying these things out loud makes us feel racist. But we need to acknowledge assumptions if we hope to move beyond them.

I’ll start.

It shames me to admit that I sometimes feel uncomfortable or unsafe in the presence of unfamiliar black men—say, in elevators or on dark streets. By God’s grace, this is changing. But I’m learning what’s at stake if I don’t come clean about this fear. If I’m not honest about my feelings about race, I can convince myself that race doesn’t matter. But it does. And I think it’s time we all admit that. (For more on this, read—please read—these reflections from my friend Daniel Hill.)

2. It’s not easy to raise a black son in America. I can’t imagine what it must be like to grow up assuming that all the people who are supposed to look out for my best interest—policemen, teachers, neighborhood watchmen—will expect the worst of me because of the color of my skin. A friend of mine suggested this week that I will do my son a world of good if I’ll raise him to be articulate and respectful. Of course that will be my goal with all my children. But stories like the 2009 arrest of Henry Louis Gates at his own home remind me that black boys and black men do not always receive the benefit of the doubt. I always do.

I barely feel equipped to make my son healthy lunches when Amy is out. Much less do I feel prepared to teach him how to respect those who, through no fault of his own, may not respect him until he has shattered their presuppositions.

3. What we call “justice” is really just the efforts of frail humans to make the best of bad situations. No one wins in a case like this. A son is dead. A man has to live with the guilt of taking a human life. In this scenario, “justice has been done” means legal culpability has been established and the legal consequences of one man’s actions have been decided. But wrong has not been put to right. Societal equilibrium has not been restored. Injustice has not been defeated.

It’s important to remember that the American justice system is not a fool-proof system. It’s a great system; maybe the best in the world (I don’t know all the systems, so who am I to say?). But we’ve spent the better part of 400 years figuring out how to apply in practice the values and ideals we hold in principle. And we’re only people, and people make mistakes. Yes, the jury has spoken. And the jury is made up of people who leave their turn signal on for 45 miles on the interstate, who can’t figure out the self checkout register at Wal-Mart, who we are sure the rest of the year are to blame for ruining America. I’m not saying they got it wrong in this case; I don’t know. I respect our system. I am confident in our system. But our system does not achieve ultimate justice.

4. The gospel is our only hope. Some have quoted Colossians 3:11—”here there is no Jew or Gentile”—to remind us all this week that our primary identity is not racial but spiritual. Christians are one in Christ, for sure. However, I think Paul’s point in Colossians is that from God’s perspective there is no Jew or Gentile, etc. No one has special access to God based on genetics, and no one is excluded by genetics. But the book of Acts tells us that, from a human perspective, the challenges that arise when Jews and Gentiles (or African- and Anglo-Americans) worship together do not disappear. The gospel doesn’t help because it tells us we are all one. Coca-Cola commercials tell us that. The gospel transforms us because it teaches us that, in Christ, we can acknowledge and embrace those who are not like us. Confession and forgiveness are required for things to be on earth as they are in Heaven (i.e., one in Christ).

Our Next Church Wish List

Monday, July 1st, 2013

Seven and a half years ago we drove away from our East Texas wedding, crossed Arkansas through the middle, turned left at Memphis, and made the long drive with no turning that takes you to Wheaton, Illinois. Next week we make darn near the same trip in reverse to begin the next season of our life in Arkansas.

A lot has changed in that seven and a half years. We have more stuff. For the northbound trip, we pulled all our worldly belongings in a trailer behind my dad’s pickup. For the southbound trip, we’ll rent a big truck. Also, our family of two has grown by a cat and a kid. We’ve become grown ups, more or less. At the very least, we have a better idea now who we are and what we want than we did seven and half years ago. But that’s another story.

One thing that’s changed since that last cross-country move is what we look for in a church. Seven and a half years ago, my main criterion was that the church we attend must be completely unlike the church I grew up in. That’s not very mature, I admit, but it’s the truth. I didn’t really care where we went as long as it was different. Now our priorities have changed. This isn’t an exhaustive list, but this time we’re looking for a church:

1) that functions like a family. This is more than smiling and hugging and knowing everybody’s business. It means that older men and women rise to the challenge of offering guidance and godly example to younger men and women (as here and here). It means weeping with those who weep and rejoicing with those who rejoice. It means bearing one another’s burdens—whether physical or financial, spiritual or emotional. We found this sort of community at Immanuel Presbyterian Church, and now I can’t imagine living without it.

2) that creates opportunity for intergenerational fellowship, worship, and service. This is related to number one, but it deserves its own line.

A church

3) in which men and women of color hold visible leadership positions. Here’s an item I didn’t anticipate. Amy’s background in international churches has had her longing for a culturally diverse community for some time. But the older Jamie gets, the more eager we are for him to experience—and for him to see us experience—the spiritual leadership of godly black ministers.

4) in which children are invited and encouraged to participate in the worship and mission of the church. There’s a theme developing here. Basically, I’m for having the generations together more often than they’re apart. We want our children to know ow to worship and serve because they have done it all their lives.

And, most important, a church

5) captivated by the majesty of Christ and animated by a vision of the gospel that brings life and light to the darkness. Jesus is not my homeboy; he’s my savior and king. And I’d like to worship in a church that keeps that straight. A vision of the majesty of Christ should send us out into the world with confidence and joy, whether we’re barbers or bankers or editors, to do whatever it is we do for Christ and his kingdom.

There are other things to consider, to be sure. And maybe a week from now I’ll have a slightly different list. But these items are priorities for us. We’re eager to see where God leads. And I’m interested if anyone else would like to share their own top 5 (for the sake of conversation).