October 2008


Isn’t it amazing how, from time to time, God  let us in to see the way he is weaving together strands of our lives, especially when he wants us not to skim past something that’s really important?  In the last several weeks, as I was writing a piece at work about how the gospel calls us to be an alternate community, God had me pause and take another look at Genesis 1:26-27: “…Let us make man in our image, in our likeness…in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”  This verse was still percolating with me when in the last several days, I have found myself in the first chapter of Genesis in the book I use to meet with God in the morning.  The commentary by John Stott, an British Anglican theologian, about these verses has pressed the issue even more for me.  I wrote about it a little yesterday: what does it really mean for us as humans to be God’s image bearers?  And what does it mean for us as male and female to equally reflect his image? 

Also, in the last 2 days, by what might seem like a coincidence but which is of course by God’s design, a book mentioned to me separately by 2 dear and trusted friends, The Gospel of Ruth: Loving God Enough to Break the Rules by Carolyn Custis James, arrived in the post.  I’ve begun to devour it and can’t stop myself from mentioning it to anyone who will listen to me talk about it.   Without giving too much away, it’s a re-examination of the book of Ruth through the eyes of Naomi as a way of deepening our understanding of a woman who experiences tremendous suffering, and how this points us to God to us in a profound  way.  The author essentially makes the case for seeing Naomi as the female equivalent to Job!  Custis James was moved to write this after reading a book written about women in the UK called: Is God good for women?  I’m only in chapter 2 and want to encourage you, whether you are a man or woman, to get your own copy, so I won’t share too much of what I’m discovering but I can’t resist reproducing the paragraph I read on the train this morning, that is still ricocheting off my brain.  So here goes:

“A woman’s high calling as God’s image bearer renders her incapable of insignificance, no matter what has gone wrong in her life or how much she has lost.  Even if her community shoves her aside, turns a deaf ear to the sound of her voice, or regards her as invisible – even if she is forced into a passive role in the community – she remains vital to God’s purposes and is a solid contributor anyway.  She simply cannot be stopped.”  (The italics are the author’s, p.66)

How’s that for a call to action?

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I’ve been reflecting recently on the fact that our triune God created us in his likeness.  We’re told God created us “in his own image, in the image of God he created him;  male and female he created them” (Gen 1:27).  But what does it really mean for us to reflect God’s image?  I can’t say I’ve ever really stopped to take the time to think this through very carefully.  

Clearly there are aspects of God that we as human beings certainly don’t reflect, and this was true even before sin entered the world in Genesis 3.  For instance, we’re not all-knowing, all-seeing, all-powerful, all-loving, or unlimited by time and space, to name just a few of God’s mind-bending attributes.   But what are the aspects of God that he did create us with, that do make us bearers of his image?    Well, unlike animals, we have a sense of right and wrong, we are self-aware and rational, we are creative and able to appreciate our Creator, and we all have the capacity to comprehend God (J. Stott, 2006).  But in addition, and arguably most importantly, we were created to enter into and participate in community with God and with each other.  Since God exists as a community, and friendship and community existed even before creation took place,  as his image bearers we are similarly created to exist as a community, as a people.  Therefore we cannot live and flourish in the absence of community.

What then does it mean that as “male and female he created them” (Gen 1: 27)?  As I understand this, it means that the characteristics that make us either uniquely male or female together more fully, more completely reflect who the triune God is.  This is probably best understood in marriage which is sometimes described as “the sum of the whole is greater than the individual parts”, but I don’t think it’s by any means limited to only finding it’s expression in marriage. After all, the two genders were created prior to marriage (Genesis 2),  God as community existed prior to creation, not everyone is called to marry, and even for those who do marry, seasons of our lives are likely to be spent as singles.  Therefore I think “the sum of the whole is greater than the individual parts” is just as true for Christian community. Thus it is only in working together side-by-side as sisters and brothers, bringing to bear the unique aspects of what each gender has been created to be, will God’s kingdom come here on earth as it is in heaven, and begin to more fully and more completely reflect his image.

This year at Redeemer, our theme is the gospel and community. Specifically we are reflecting together as ministry leaders how we as gospel-centered people are called to be a “city on a hill”, an alternate New York City, and how we live this out, not as individuals but as a collective whole.   It’s a complex topic with many facets and an especially challenging concept for western-educated, individually-minded folks.

This morning I found myself in Isaiah 42:1: “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him and he will bring justice to the nations.”  This is God prophesying through Isaiah about Jesus.  It also points to the time of Jesus’ baptism where the 3 persons of the trinity were present, with the Spirit descending on Jesus as a dove and the Father declaring: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased” (Mk 1:9-10).  As I lingered on the verse in Isaiah, I began to meditate on the mystery of the trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, equal in power, different in roles, co-existing perfectly together in love and service from before the beginning.  And,  I saw for the first time a new image of us as a gospel-centered community.

  • “Here is my servant” – serving each other means putting the needs of others before our own; 
  • “whom I uphold” -upholding each other means bearing each other’s burdens, encouraging each other, confessing our sins, and extending forgiveness to each other;
  • “…in whom I delight” – delighting in each other means spending alot of time together, enjoying being with each other, and celebrating the joys of each others’ lives. 

Serve, uphold & delight!  What a beautiful prescription of how we corporately and collectively can be image bearers of the triune God we serve.

One of my spiritual mentors is Henri Nouwen, a Dutch-born Catholic priest who taught for 20 years at Notre Dame, Yale & Harvard, and yet spent the final years of his life ministering to the physically & mentally disabled in the community of L’Arche (French for ‘ark’ as in Noah’s ark) outside Toronto.   In his reflections on Christian Leadership, ‘In the Name of Jesus’, Nouwen describes how he went from the most elite university in this country, teaching in an atmosphere where his performance as a teacher and his record as a prolific writer were what counted, to serving as the priest in a community of folks, most of whom had never attended university and for whom the numerous books he’d written carried no meaning or significance.  It was a stripping away of all that he had come to value as part of his very identity.  And yet he came to see that this process was for him utterly life saving because his success was “putting his soul in danger”.   The signs of this for him manifested themselves as loneliness, a lack of contemplative prayer ,and a lack of focus on that which was important and instead responding to those things which felt ‘urgent’ at any given time.  

As I reflect on his danger signs, I can think of a few of my own.  Four years ago, my soul reached a point where it was close to the edge of the danger zone.  Despite passing a physical exam with flying colors, I was frequently fatigued, functioning on very little steam, turning down requests on the weekends to hang out with friends due to being drained, and questioning what happened to the abundant life that Jesus tells us he’s come to give us.  To keep my soul from slipping off the edge, I ended up resigning from a job where I’d spent most of the previous decade and spent extended time – over 2 years -in a remote part of western Uganda as a missionary with World Harvest Mission.  It was both a rich and revitalising experience.  However, though times of sojourn are sometimes what God provides to restore our souls, how do we maintain more of a balance and vitality in the day-to-day? 

I’ve now returned to New York City, and begun working full time again.  I know this time around I need to pay more attention to the signs before I reach the danger zone.   Better yet, I want to prevent those danger signs from even emerging.  But how do I attempt to do it, especially in this pastoral role where there is always more one can be doing?  By having a regular and intentional rhythm of work & rest.  For me, resting means drawing clear boundary lines when I’m not in the office or on call:  no checking of work email, no follow-up phone calls, and at least one evening during the week plus at least one weekend day which is not spent meeting with leaders or otherwise doing something that is work-related, but having down time.  Alone.  I’m an introvert and spending time alone is the way I re-charge.  Most of all, I cherish taking a monthly soul care day which is a time of extended prayer and meditation with God, where I also reflect and journal about the condition of my heart and soul, especially over the  previous month.  Eating healthy foods, sleeping 7 to 8 hours every night, laughing, just playing and making time for things I really enjoy are also a key part of the mix.  Yes, paying attention to my physical health also highly impacts my spiritual health, so it’s vitally important as well.   And of course I can’t remain out of danger in isolation.  I need people who love me enough to speak into my life when they see signs of fatigue or excessive self-absorption or imbalance.  And I’m grateful for the friends God’s given me who care for me in this way.