life in the suture zone...

In the earthquake faults between tectonic plates, the suture zone is the in between place where they meet. I find in that a metaphor for the times in which we live... and invite your conversation in the suture zone.

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Location: Bakersfield, CA, United States

... a struggling, but mostly joyful, apprentice of Jesus.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

the great I AM (two)...

I have been struggling of late to get my arms around this concept of relational theology. I know that’s a great way to begin a blog post and it has you salivating to see what other pearls lay further into this tome. (That last sentence was written with a bit of self-deprecating sarcasm, if you can’t tell.) But relational theology is completely different than the systematic variety on which I was raised. Thus it is difficult to navigate. “So what’s new on the suture zone?” you may be asking.

If you are wondering what I mean by relational theology, I am speaking of the Story. Brian McLaren calls it The Story We Find Ourselves In (see his trilogy with that as one of the titles). That’s an appropriate description from my point of view. God has involved himself in the lives of people and we’ve been in an ongoing wrestling match ever since. The point of the narratives (and even the instruction portions of the Bible) is to describe the ongoing Story of God as he relates to humankind. There are all kinds of touch points in this ongoing saga. The one I would like to focus on is the call of Moses.

If you don’t know the story, Moses has left a privileged position in the royal court of the Pharaoh of Egypt to become a hunted murderer. He has spent 40 years in the desert tending sheep, finding a couple of wives, having children and basically forgetting his past life as royalty. In a strange God-encounter event, he spies a bush that burns but is not consumed. As he approaches the bush to investigate, he hears a voice claiming to be God. There follows an interchange between the two, some negotiating, some attempts at control and a call to mission. As often happens with these God-man wrestling matches, Moses ends up negotiating himself into a somewhat worse position than where he started out with God’s first request. This bargaining ends up plaguing him the rest of his life. (There’s a lesson just in that, I think.)

Then he (and his brother Aaron) lead God’s chosen people out of Egyptian slavery and toward the “Promised Land.”

That’s the story.

In the interchange between God and Moses at the bush, Moses asks God for his name. My understanding of that ancient culture in regard to gods and such, is that if you had the name of the god in question, you had at least some kind of leverage or power over the decisions that particular god would make and the interventions on your behalf that the god would perform.

Aside from the infinite claim of God’s name as I AM THAT I AM, is the recognition that this phrase could equally be translated “I will be what I will be.” In other words, God is making fun of Moses’ cheap attempt to gain an advantage over this God who calls Moses to this lifetime task. In short, God refuses to be manipulated. That, IMHO, is at least one of the things going on in this story.

How long has man been trying to define and manipulate God?

“Bless me and I will let you go,” Jacob told God at Peniel. Jacob lost the wrestling match that day and limped the rest of his life. (But he wouldn’t let go, to his credit. Nor did God choose to leave him. That’s relational theology.) Following up on the name thing, Jacob admits defeat by giving God his name, Jacob. He gets a new name out of it, one who wrestles or contends with God.

What does it mean that you cannot manipulate God? How many times have we tried? “If you will (fill in the blank), then I will (fill in the blank).” If you make sense to me, God, in my world, if you will act as I think you acted back then, then I will put my trust in you. It is the same as saying, “God, I want you to be this way because it suits me and my situation best.” For the most part, as I read the story, God is resistant to such attempts.

If you have been reading the comments to my posts, you may remember that Marshall reflected on his daughter’s struggle with the question as to why God appears to be different in the Bible than he is in her experience. She asks a very perceptive question. I have the same one. And I don’t have a satisfactory answer. I know that the miracles and other signs I read about there are less than evident in my experience. (That may be more a comment on me than on God, admittedly.)

But it appears to me that what God desired back then and desires still is to walk along side of us in the same continuing story, being who he will be despite our misunderstandings, our attempts to control him and our narrow focus on the outcome of our world. He keeps walking there, wanting the relationship even if it is one of struggle. Probably one of the most defining things about Christianity is its claim that God’s Holy Spirit is one who walks alongside his people, even entering them, cohabiting with them on the journey as the Story unfolds.

God who walks alongside us still, even in us, being who he will be, not necessarily who we want or expect him to be. Hard to get your arms around that one. (My arms are just not big enough.) Not real predictable, nor is it very comfortable. I’m afraid it’s all we get, though, other than exploring, “How does God interact in this story as reflected in the Bible? How is his character demonstrated, especially in the way Jesus interacts with people in the Story? How does his rescuing us through Jesus change us? How does it change the world?”

I know I’m no Moses. And I have yet to encounter any burning bushes out in Last Chance Canyon in the Mojave Desert. I could no doubt be accused at times of trying to manipulate him. The bush wasn’t Moses’ last attempt. Yet, as the story played out, God walked with Moses. Moses walked with God. In so doing, he grew and changed and became more humble and his face more and more reflected the presence of the living God. He stopped calling fire down on the heads of others quite as often as well.

Even Peter, James and John -- Jesus' closest associates -- were different men by the time they died. They walked a long time with God, who knocked off the rough edges. Hmmmm.....

May God in Jesus walk the same way with us, no matter where it leads.

Grace and peace!



Anonymous Marshall said...

Beautiful comments, Owen. Very loving yet thought-provoking.

For the occasion:

We inhabit a mystery, the question mark.
Physicists tell us that time does not flow,
that space is essentially nothing at all…
There may be a God, there seems to me to be,
although I concede as I kneel at Hidden Valley Park
to pray that the atheists who seek may know
a thing or two. I have thought sometimes the call
was audible, I have flown in liberty
from doubt. And I’ve curled in the shower begging God please
return the heart of my wife to me. He sees?
She’s gone. What once was a home is a carpeted box.
I flush the toilets. I finagle the locks.
God, I AM, are you distant? Near?
Why in the night does your light disappear?

May 25, 2005

10:55 AM  
Blogger Owen B. said...

Thank you, Marshall, for the poem. I am constantly amazed that I never really heard the plea of an old hymn I grew up with. It comes in the second verse, I think.

A constant sense
of Thy abiding presence,
where e'er I am
to feel that Thou art near.

How desperately I need that. Here are some of my reflections (not in poem form) from a week or so back:


Why is this dance with God so hard? Is it something about me? Where are you God?

There are moments when God twirls me around and gets my attention. I’m sure he’s there. Then he dips me so I’m hanging suspended just above the tragedy of the floor, held up only by his embrace. Don’t think I’ve ever hit the floor, at least not too hard. But I’ve seen that happen to others. Talk about wanting to cling. But there are other times when I feel like I’m dancing with air… nothing. What’s up with that?

I am fairly dense sometimes. What is blatantly obvious to others, I am oblivious to. Maybe it's just me.

Obviously, my thoughts are not finished in this. Most of life isn't. Anymore, I take great comfort in the Psalms. They are honest like your poem and this reflection, and help me remember that God's followers have always struggled through times of doubt and consternation and loneliness. Of course, that isn't a lot of help. But it helps some.

Grace and peace!

1:21 PM  
Anonymous Marshall said...

Owen & others,

I was working on the poem below before Owen left his comments immediately above this post.


Let us offer praise to God despite
our shivers in the graveyard of the night,
despite the arguments of atheists
of note - those great, bald, bloody fists.

Let us offer praise to God although
we starve or eat each other in the snow,
although we are convinced by weight of years
the ocean is accumulated tears.

Let us offer praise to God, who is,
for we are fleeting. Let us offer thanks
in spite of burn wards, cancer, death,
for dandelions, babies' breath.

Let us sing and let us dance -
faith is the essence of romance.

May 27, 2005

I reflect just now that if I had no Bible, I would still believe in a God. The universe is simply too finely tuned for it to be less than the product of Mind.

Having the Bible, I believe that the ancient Hebrews had genuine encounters with the divine. And I believe that the evidence is very strong that Jesus was divine. And I believe that I have experienced evidence of the Holy Spirit in my life.

Yet the way, for me, has been rocky, complex, frustrating. And my way, I think, has been relatively smooth. I believe that God is. Yet I know, too, that the worst conceivable thing can happen. And I simply don't know what that means...

9:31 PM  

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