Theology of Disability

Do you have a “theology of disability”? Probably not. I didn’t either until I read Julie Clawson’s post. Julie has a theology of disability and this is what she says about it:

“I want my theology of disability to be that God made me to be me and uses me as I am. But the Bible seems to contradict that and tells me that I am unwanted and incapable of serving God because of my arm. I have chosen to just go ahead and serve God (as a disabled woman that obviously isn’t in the Orthodox church), but some days that choice can be hard to align with scripture.”

The thrust of that post (if you didn’t click through and read it first) is that Julie read Leviticus 16:21-23 and it really disturbed her. It made her ask these questions about disability and God: “How does not being physically perfect disqualify a person from serving God? How does this (disability) make me any less holy than others?”

I originally wrote a post that tried to answer those questions, but I’ve decided not to share it. Instead, I’m going to articulate the beginnings of my (unoriginal?) theology of disability.

In the beginning (because that truly is where everything started) God made human beings without disabilities. No, the Bible doesn’t explicitly say so but there is no reason to assume that Adam or Eve were missing limbs or were disfigured in some way. I’m not aware of anyone ever suggesting this was the case. (However, I did meet a man in Ukraine who thought that Adam and Eve were able to fly!) Then came the Fall. The whole of creation became corrupted both materially and spiritually. Disabilities, deformities and defects entered the picture along with death disease and man’s inhumanity to man.

I believe that generally (which allows for exceptions) God doesn’t make people disabled, defective and disfigured. And while he may allow such things to exist/happen (and on occasion afflict particular people with them) God doesn’t desire humankind to be disabled. Nor do I think that God ultimately rejects people because of their physical imperfections.

What is God’s attitude toward the disabled? I think we need to look at Jesus (the exact representation of God’s being) to find out. When we see Jesus interact with the disabled, we don’t get the impression that they were unwanted by Him. We get the opposite impression: He wanted them to come to Him. He wanted to heal them. (“Lord if you are willing…” “I am willing…”) And I think that reflects God’s attitude toward the disabled. He longs to restore them to the wholeness that humans had before the Fall. He didn’t make humans to be blind or deaf or deformed. He doesn’t make them that way now. True, He allows physical defects but the miracle healings of Jesus point to a time when He will no longer allow the Curse to afflict His people that way. When the kingdom of God comes in its fullness, the people of God will receive their new bodies. Their imperishable and incorruptible bodies. There will be no disabled people for there will be no disabilities. The old things will pass away and He will make all things new.

And that is the beginning of my theology of disability.

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Intimacy with God

In July, I’m going to be speaking to/with a group of young Christian leaders about intimacy with God. I’m thinking the topic through and these are some of my thoughts.

What is intimacy?

Intimacy is that characteristic of a relationship which can be called “closeness”. We can think of it as a deep knowing of the other. Often, we associate acceptance with that deep knowing, but not always. Sometimes, that deep knowing results in rejection, which is why intimacy can be frightening.

What is intimacy with God?

God is The Other. The regular word for that is Holy. Separate from all, particularly His creatures. If He is by His nature so completely Other, what are we talking about when we talk about intimacy with God? How is it possible to be close to Him, to have a deep knowledge of Him? I think we are talking about knowing God deeply. Not knowing about Him, but knowing Him. I think this is possible because God wills it. He wants us to know Him deeply and so He reveals Himself to us, becomes vulnerable to us.

How do we know that God desires intimacy with us?

There are many ways to characterize the story we find in the Bible. One way is to see it as the God’s pursuit of intimacy with his creatures. The story begins with God and mankind living together in Eden. After the relationship is fractured and even though He drives Adam and Eve out of the garden, God spends much of the rest of human history attempting to “be their God” and getting them to “be His people”. This is particularly true of Abram and his descendants. The history of Israel is a constant vacillation between being close to God and fleeing from God with frequent expulsions by God. Yet, the promise always remains: one day God will restore the relationship with His creation, with mankind. Then He comes to be Immanuel, “God with us.” Most people call Him Jesus. Jesus lives and dies among us, and then when He is raised to life, He leaves us. Yet, He gives us His Spirit and through His Spirit He is always close: with us even. Finally, when Jesus returns, we read in the Revelation that “the dwelling of God is now with men”.  This is the story of God’s pursuit of intimacy with us.

How can we become intimate with God?

Jesus did not come to show us how to have an intimate relationship with God. He came to make it possible. So, intimacy with God begins with Jesus. Once we become His disciples, He gives us His Spirit and our journey into intimacy with God begins. Pragmatically speaking, we can get close to God in a variety of ways. We draw near to Him through worship, prayer and obedience. We come to know Him through studying the life of His Son and emulating Him. We learn about Him through the stories, songs, poems and revelations found in Scripture. All of these things take time and effort. History is the story of God’s effort to have an intimate relationship with His people. We should expect that our story of intimacy with God will involve effort on our part as well.

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(Beginning) Thoughts on Fasting

There’s a chance that I will be speaking to a group of young (in the faith) Christians this summer about intimacy with God. The material that I’ll be using lists fasting as one of the ways we can nurture intimacy with God. As I read through this section of the material, I was deeply frustrated and disappointed with the misapplication of Scriptures to support various statements about fasting and as a result, I’ve been reading and thinking about the subject for the past several days.

Fasting is not something that Western, Protestant/Evangelical Christians as a whole do either well or often. Consequently, coming from neighborhood of Christianity, I don’t know much about the practice. I can only think of one time that I fasted for a spiritual purpose (incidentally, without receiving the desired result). Obviously, I’m not exactly qualified to speak about it, but I have begun to develop some more nuanced thoughts on the subject.

Previously, my lone thought on fasting was that it’s not required. That’s it. Since it’s not required of Christians, it’s not worthy of further consideration. That was before. Now, I still think that fasting is not required of Christians but it’s definitely worth much further consideration. (Funny how having to teach on the subject has been the catalyst for my further consideration of fasting.)  For example, why bother fasting if it’s not required? What are the benefits of fasting? What are acceptable and unacceptable ways to fast? And finally, with regards to the material that I may be presenting in July; does fasting really nurture intimacy with God?

These are the questions that I’m in the process of answering for myself. At the moment, my answers are not fully formed. I can say with confidence that fasting with proper motives and attitude coupled with prayer nurtures intimacy with God. Not because God is enamored with fasting. It’s not something that God finds more or less desirable in comparison to the other activities which also nurture intimacy with Him. Fasting simply is one of many ways we may choose (or not) to draw near to God. And like every imperfect act motivated by love for God and desire to please Him, God responds graciously according to His wisdom.

I’m not planning on taking up fasting any time soon…but I might.

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Stewardship and the Tithe

The Bible tells us that “the Earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein”. This is not only poetry but a fact of the material universe. All matter, space and time belong to Him simply because He is the Creator.

We are His Creatures, along with all of the animals, however we were set apart from them from our beginning. God made humans to “subdue” the Earth and to “have dominion over the fish… birds… and every living thing that moves on the earth”. Our purpose from the beginning is to serve God by ruling His over His Creation and our fellow Creatures. The Earth and all that is in it belong to God (ourselves included), but we have been entrusted with caring for His possession. We are by design God’s stewards and as God’s stewards, we must give an account of our stewardship to Him.

It is with this firmly set in our minds that we begin to think about stewardship of our personal finances.

The Bible affirms that “a worker is worthy of his wages”. The use of our skills, talents and physical labor are genuine contributions that we make to the world and it is right to expect a measure of compensation for them. In the days of Moses, when God entered into a unique relationship with the people of Israel, He required that a tenth of “the increase” of every Israelite be given to God. This tithe was to come from the produce of  their labor. While I know that this ten percent came from their crops  and animals, I think it might have included any cash which made up their “increase”. This 10% was then given to the priests for their use in the performance of their duties before God and for their sustenance. Today, despite the absence of a priesthood and a temple, many Christians believe that God still requires ten percent of their income to be devoted to doing the will of God in the world.  Are they correct?

In the Book of Acts, James tells the church, particularly Paul and Barnabus, that the Gentiles who were turning to God through faith in Jesus should “abstain from the thing polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood”. The giving of tithes was not imposed on Gentile Christians at that time. In fact, at no point in the New Testament, are Christians instructed to give ten percent of their income. However, the apostle Paul does have something to say about giving.

When he wrote to the church in Corinth, Paul praised them for their generosity toward the church in Jerusalem. He explained his reason for sending some “brothers” to them to “arrange in advance for the gift” they had promised to give to the Jerusalem church. His reason was that he wanted their gift to be given willingly, “not as an exaction”. With regard to this specific occasion of giving, Paul says that “Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion…” He also goes on to note that the Corinthians’ generous contribution to the needs of the Jerusalem church was directly tied to their “confession of the gospel of Christ” which came from their “submission” (possibly to his apostolic authority or to God Himself).

There is no command here, but certainly there is a principle. That principle may be worded like this: Christians should willingly give of their means to meet the needs of others (particularly other Christians) with the understanding that doing so is an extension of their confession of the gospel.

Some people need more than a principle to guide them on this matter. They want a commandment. Since the Law of Moses gives such a commandment, many Christians are keen to seize upon it, give their ten percent and move on. Personally, I think that setting aside ten percent is a good place to begin when learning the discipline of giving. However, I believe that we should not settle on ten percent without revisiting our giving ever again. As we become more conformed to the likeness of Jesus, we should expect our generosity to increase as well. I think that teaching the tithe as a requirement of God upon Christians today is misguided and prevents many from maturing in their relationship with God.

God, make us more confident in your provision and more generous with what you have provided.

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(Im)Perfect Love

I’m not perfect.

You’ve said it. Or you’ve heard this said by someone else. Usually, it’s an excuse. It’s a common attempt to justify a defect in one’s character or a moral failure of some sort. Rarely is it ever a confession.

I confess. I am not perfect. Specifically, I’m not perfect in love…for anyone. Particularly God. Over the past several months, I’ve been made acutely aware of the imperfection of my love for God. Not surprisingly perhaps, this awareness has come about through experiencing intense fear. Deep, gut-churning fear. Fear of cancer. Fear of death.

I’ve been struggling with depression and what appears to be an anxiety disorder for probably more than year. I’ve had panic attacks in connection to some minor illnesses and stress. It began when migraines lead me to fear a brain tumor. A case of pneumonia drove me to obsess over my ability to breathe. Acid reflux in conjunction with my obsession with my lungs resulted in two emergency room visits. An infection in my intestine (like giardia lamblia) had me worried about colon cancer. In sum, no matter how minor or fleeting my illness, in my mind I was terrorized by the expectation (not the mere thought, mind you) of my imminent death.

As I have prayed about and through these experiences, God has comforted me in unexpectedly intimate ways. He has also given me a new insight into our relationship; while His love for me is perfect, my love for Him is not. Eugene Peterson’s rendering of 1 John 4:17-19 says that perfect love leaves no room for fear, particularly fear of death and  fear of judgement. Another translation says that perfect love drives out fear. (I can’t help thinking of Jesus driving out demons.) I can’t help but think that there would be no possibility of panic attacks, irrational fears of impending death, if I loved God as perfectly as He loves me.

When I talk about loving God, I’m not talking about that emotional sensation of affection. I’m talking about the intentional choice to believe that He is set upon doing good to and for me. If I were choosing constantly to believe His promise to raise me up to new bodily life, why would I fear dying? Wouldn’t I be like Paul and say that dying, for me, would be gain? Would be a benefit?

I have confessed to God the imperfection of my love for Him. It’s not been a guilt-ridden confession, but rather an expressed agreement with what He has brought to light in our relationship. And for His part, God has been faithful and just. He has comforted me as He promised he would (faithful) and He has forgiven me as He promised He would (just). The panic attacks have subsided, however the fear has yet to completely abate. But I believe it will. I believe that ongoing confession of the imperfection of my love for Him which leads to my fear (whether in formal counseling or not) will keep me honest before God. And God, in honest relationship with me, will in His own time perfect my love for Him and release me from my fear of decay, decrepitude and death.

I will wait on the Lord.

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Who are the Children of God?

A few days ago, I read a news story about the new pope and an address he made to a crowd outside the Vatican. In the story and in his address to that crowd, the phrase “children of God” appeared and it got me to thinking. Who are the children of God?

There are basically two views on that question. One view says that all human beings are children of God. The other view says only some humans are children of God. In the first view, every person on the Earth is a child of God because God is the creator and we are his creation. In the second view, only some people are God’s children because God has made a distinction between those who are his and those who are not. Both views are appealing in one way or another. In the West, we like to say that “all men are created equal”, while at the same time we also like to say that “everyone is special in his or her own way”. The first view appeals to our democratic values while the second appeals to our sense of self-worth. Which view is the correct one? Or could they both be correct in some manner? If there is answer to the question “Who are the children of God?”, I believe it is going to be found in the Word of God.

A simple search of the exact phrase “children of God” over at the Bible Gateway yields only New Testament references from the English Standard Version. Now, I must admit that such a search is hardly scholarly, but it is not without merit. In fact, it’s probably as good as any leaping off point to begin a detailed study of the concept. However, this will not be a detailed study. After all, there is a reason that this blog is called “Armchair Theologian”.

In the first chapter of the gospel of John, we see that the children of God are those who receive Jesus and “believe in his name”. In the eighth chapter of Romans, Paul speaks about those who are “in Christ Jesus”. He says that the Spirit “bears witness” with the spirits of those who are in Christ Jesus (himself included) that “we are the children of God”.  Finally, the third chapter of 1 John says that it is “evident” who the children of God are because they no longer make it a practice to sin.

There is much more that can be said about who are the children of God. I’m thinking particularly about a conversation Jesus had with his fellow Jews about who was his father as opposed to who was their father. Then there’s the question of becoming a child of God. Whatever we may say about the technical aspects of how someone becomes a child of God, we must agree that the Word of God says that those who put their faith in Jesus receive the Spirit of God and are counted as God’s children. Since not all humans put their faith in Jesus, not all humans receive the Spirit of God and consequently are not counted as His children. I’m sure that’s not an appealing view to most Westerners these days (both inside and outside of the church) but I’m also pretty sure that this is the view contained in Scripture.

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Letter to the Pastor: Baptism

Pastors and preachers get a lot of hate mail. At least that’s my impression. It’s not uncommon for “brothers and sisters in Christ” to take issue with something said in a sermon and then rip the poor preacher a new one in a vitriolic missive, which may or may not be anonymous. It’s an occupational hazard, I’m sorry to say. However, I too have wanted to address things that were said, but haven’t felt like I had the proper relationship with the person to go to them. On one hand, the pastor/preacher has said something publicly which I feel needs to be addressed. On the other hand, I don’t want to attack anyone. So, I’ve decided to post my e-mail on this blog. Why? First, because whenever we say things in public, then we should expect to have them addressed publicly. Second, what I want to say doesn’t get treated like hate mail and filtered into the Spam folder right away. So, here’s my letter to a pastor I heard recently teaching about baptism. 

Dear Pastor,

At the risk of coming across as a Critic rather than a fellow Christian, I feel the need to address a contradiction I heard in your sermon recently on baptism. I’m pretty sure that most folks didn’t catch it and I expect you didn’t catch it either.

You wanted to make the point that baptism doesn’t save the believer in Jesus. You stated that “baptism is a work”. Later in your sermon, you said that believers must “submit to baptism”. I believe that the second comment reveals a contradiction in your understanding of baptism. I will explain why.

First, I think we agree that a “work” is something that some one does. The idea that you wanted to communicate is that the believer can’t be saved by anything the believer does. Nothing the believer does can result in God choosing to save the believer. However, I suggest to you that baptism is not something that the believer does. As you said, the believer “submits to baptism”. The work is done to her. S/He does not do it. Someone else does it to her.  So in your sermon, you directly stated that “baptism is a work” yet you implied that it isn’t. Why is this important and not just quibbling about words?

The Evangelical way of reasoning about the role of baptism in salvation goes like this:

  1. We are saved by grace through faith, not by works.
  2. Baptism is a work.
  3. Therefore, baptism does not save us.

This reasoning doesn’t hold up once you realize that baptism is not a work; at least, not a work that a believer does.I believe that this confusion about baptism being a work makes it difficult to understand that part in Peter which states that  “baptism now saves you”. How can he say such a thing when Paul says that we are not saved by works?  Paul doesn’t trump Peter does he? Peter doesn’t supersede Paul does he? Of course not. We both know that these two apostles are not contradicting each other. So how can we make sense of this? I think we have to start by letting go of the idea that baptism is a work. Then, we can think again more clearly about the role of baptism in the salvation of sinners. Perhaps we can also think more clearly about the relationship between “work” and salvation as well. After all, what sense does James make if we are “saved by faith apart from works”? What sense does Jesus make when he welcomes people into the”joy of your Master” based upon the good works they did for the hungry, naked and imprisoned? It’s all Scripture, so it’s all got to be true together at the same time.

I hope that you’ll give this some thought and see how baptism is not a work and that perhaps it has a different sort of role in salvation than the one that you spoke about recently.

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