Humans Are Seekers, Not Survivors

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Tower of Babel, by Lucas van Valckenborch, 1594, Louvre Museum

Human history is haunted by variegated expressions of religious faith, which is fascinating. To the best of our knowledge, humans are unique in the universe inasmuch as we are genuinely sentient. We have the capacity to make moral decisions both as individuals and as communities that are not fundamentally oriented around the survival of our species. Of course the macroevolutionary model is true, but it’s also the case that we operate on terms irreconcilable with a purely materialistic understanding of the evolutionary process. We are not chiefly survivors; we are chiefly seekers.

The Austrian-Jewish neurologist and psychotherapist Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor, devoted his post-WWII years to popularizing his theory that, rather than survival (as some Darwinists might have taught) or pleasure (as some Freudians certainly taught), meaning was the dominant pursuit of mankind. He argued that the search for meaning unconsciously motivates the decisions that we make, from Abraham’s desire for children to Jacob’s desire for blessing, to Paul’s desire for redemption.

Reductive though it may be, it is a helpful paradigm. Whatever we are, we are not merely the next step in the evolutionary meta-narrative (and it is a meta-narrative). We are creatures who seek out meaning and find it in places where it may or may not exist. Inevitably, then, we are creatures who seek God. Not only do we seek Him where He is (e.g. Noah, and Enoch), we also seek Him where He isn’t (“Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.” Rom. 1:22-23).

As far as I know, chimpanzees, who share approximately 98% of our DNA, are neither religious nor superstitious. Something is abnormal about humanity, and it probably comes down to more than simply something maverick in that remaining 2%. Plenty of theories have been put forth to explain them, and they’re not boring. But they’re also not terribly convincing. The various secular attempts to account for mankind’s insatiable religious bent are no more persuasive than the hypothesis, put forward by all cultures everywhere until relatively recently, that humanity was created by a personal being (or beings) who intends to have a relationship of sorts with us.

I’m a big fan of Yann Martel’s book Life of Pi. I originally read it as a freshman in high school, about a year before becoming a Christian. And I totally didn’t get it. On this side of the faith line, it’s much more resonant, and it provides about as good an apologetic as can be made for the existence of the divine. Granted, there is plenty to be said for classical apologetics. Despite the impassioned “Nuh-uhs” of the New Atheists, the Cosmological argument really, really is weighty. As are most of the arguments that occupy the arsenal of the average apologist.

But as a human on planet earth, living a life that takes place chiefly outside of an office with a desk, Martel’s “story to make you believe in God” really is all that. In the book, the narrator tells two stories, both of which bring about the same conclusion by all empirical evidences. One features his narrator surviving 277 days at sea on a life raft with a hungry Bengal tiger named Richard Parker, stumbling onto a “a floating island network of carnivorous algae,” and crossing paths with a cannibalistic survivor from another shipwreck. The second story has none of the more fantastical elements. He then poses the question: with both stories satisfying the empirical data, which was the better story?

It is conceivable that humanity’s seeker bent is somehow conducive to our flourishing as a species. But it’s equally conceivable, and bloody well more intuitive, that something more is at play.

God Gets His Hands Dirty

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The Seventh Plague: John Martin’s painting of the plague of hail and fire (1823)

“Then the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, When Pharaoh says to you, ‘Prove yourselves by working a miracle,’ then you shall say to Aaron, ‘Take your staff and cast it down before Pharaoh, that it may become a serpent.'”  So Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and did just as the Lord commanded. Aaron cast down his staff before Pharaoh and his servants, and it became a serpent. Then Pharaoh summoned the wise men, and the sorcerers, and they, the magicians of Egypt, also did the same by their secret arts. For each man cast down his staff, and they became serpents. But Aaron’s staff swallowed up their staffs. Still, Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and he would not listen to them, as the Lord had said.” (Exodus 7: 8-13)

A consistent, though rarely dealt with, theme throughout the Pentateuch  is that, for the sake of redemption, God gets His hands dirty.

The Hebrew scholars tell me that the word used for ‘serpent’ in this passage is tannin, which is interesting because it differs from the word nachash used in Exodus 4:2-5 when God initially explains the signs to Moses. The significance lies in the connotations that each of the terms carry. Nachash is the term used in Genesis 3:1 in reference to the serpent in the Garden of Eden. Tannin, on the other hand, was more commonly used in reference to the sea monsters that pervaded ancient Canaanite, Phoenician, and Hebrew mythology. More specifically, the sea dwelling tannin were (generally) understood as the creaturely personification of chaos and evil.

Aaron’s staff is turned into a serpent (tannin), a feat that is then copied by Pharaoh’s magicians, and the serpent (tannin) that God produced out of Aaron’s staff devours the serpent (tannin) produced by the magicians. If the tannin described in this passage elsewhere refers almost universally to the anti-creational forces of chaos that oppose the rule of God, then it’s unlikely that the passage at hand is an exception. The initial showdown described in Exodus 7:8-13 is not, theologian Peter Enns has pointed out, merely a showdown between Pharaoh and Moses/Aaron. Nor is it a showdown between Pharaoh and Israel. At one level, it is a showdown between Pharaoh and Yahweh. But even that is too myopic a reading. What we witness in this passage is foreshadowing of the drama that will ensue throughout the rest of the Pentateuch, and the rest of the Biblical narrative as a whole: the Creator of the universe overcomes the chaotic forces of darkness (tannin) that have usurped the world on their own terms. He will overcome tannin, sometimes, inevitably, by employing tannin.

God is not Deistically removed from the plight of creation, looking down in stoic disapproval at the mess we’ve made; He is Theistically active in the redemption of creation, to the point that He will work within the bounds of the fallenness of the world to rescue it. Hence, God will spill blood in the process of bringing about the end of blood-spilling. God will bring about an end to human violence, sometimes, inevitably, through Divine violence. Throughout the scriptures, and especially the Old Testament, God wears the warrior hat, not because He is fond of violence, but because He is bringing about its end. In the pages of the Torah we watch Yahweh crush a thousand Pharaohs in order that one day the may never be another Lamech. (Gen. 4:23-24)

That is why the satisfied God, who created all things to share in His own satisfaction, will enact plagues on Egypt (Ex. 7:14-11:10, 12:29-32): in order to further His redemptive operation. It is true that Egypt was met with the consequences of their communal oppression of the Israelites. But at a more foundational level, God’s act of vengeance on Egypt was driven by His love for the world – a love that moved Him to get His hands dirty. I’m about to cross the line with some people’s patience here: this is why the same God revealed in Jesus Christ (Col. 1:15; John 1:18; Heb. 1:3), the God who is Love (1 John 4:8,16), ordered the slaughtering of the Canaanites and others (Deut. 20:17; Josh. 6:21). This is why the God who “desires that all would repent and be saved” (1 Tim. 2:4; 2 Pet. 3:9) would harden the heart of Pharaoh and bring him to his knees (Ex. 11:8-10).

The horrific violence performed and sanctioned by God throughout the biblical narrative, far from being a break from character, emanates from His own faithfulness to His promise to bring about redemption to a sin-shattered world. It is, in fact, a deeper, warmer love than is intelligible to us that prevents Yahweh from being deterred from His project of reconciling the world to Himself by His own innate desire to preserve the lives of those who would prevent Him. In the endeavor to bring about a kingdom that operates on love, He cannot tolerate those who persist in hate. What the story of the Torah teaches us, amongst other things, is that God so loved the world that He was willing to work within the bounds of its fallenness to rescue it.

Servantlike Images of a Self-Exalting God

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Christ Washing the Feet of the Apostles by Meister des Hausbuches, 1475 (Gemäldegalerie, Berlin)

“And they came to Capernaum. And when they were in the house, Jesus said, “What were you talking about on the way?” But they kept silent, for on the way they had argued about who was the greatest. And He sat down and called the twelve. And He said to them, “Anyone who would be first must be last of all and servant of all.” And He took took a child and put Him in the midst of them. And taking him in His arms, He said, “Whoever receives one such child in My name receives Me, and whoever receives Me receives not Me but Him who sent Me.” (Mark 9:33-37)

“If anyone would be first, he must be servant of all.” The question we have to ask ourselves when we want to be godly bosses, godly parents, godly pastors and godly professors is, “How can I be a servant to those over whom I have ‘authority’?” Jesus came as a servant, and He never met a person He didn’t serve. Even the religious leaders who met harsh reprimand from Him were served in the process. No one else was willing to call them to repentance, save for the recklessly self-marginalizing Essene cult, whose reprimand resonated only with fringe wilderness dwellers. There is nothing inherently unloving about issuing rebuke. It is only selfish rebuke, served out of unholy fire, with little concern for the propriety of the context in which it is issued, that is unservantlike.

Even if we are not leaders in any capacity, if we are faces in a crowd, we are called to the joy of being everyone’s servant. We aren’t called to be doormats. Jesus was everyone’s servant and nobody’s doormat. There’s a difference. A servant is constantly posing the question: “What is the most loving thing that I can do for this person in this situation, given these circumstances?” Becoming someone’s doormat is never loving because in doing so you are only helping them to become more of a monster. Being a servant in the way that Jesus was a servant means being bold and assertive, although never overbearing or coercive. It means loving yourself so you have a reference point on how to love your neighbor as yourself. It means respecting yourself so that you have a frame of reference from which you can understand what kind of respect to give other people.

Being a servant like Jesus means resisting the temptation toward laziness or idleness because there is always someone to serve.  As a husband it means taking every opportunity to give your wife a chance to rest from the rush of the day. It means doing the dishes so that she can watch television, or take a nap, or read a book (or whatever). As a father it means playing with your kids when you’re exhausted from the day, and trying to create opportunities for them to build a good life for themselves in the future. It means doing what you need to do to prevent burnout. If that means waking up early to spend time alone to recharge, do that. If it’s something else, do that. It means stirring your affections for your wife by reflecting on her best qualities and choosing to dwell on them.

If you’re aggressively introverted–like myself–it means sacrificing solitude to be with your friends and family. It also means protecting your time alone so that you’re in a position to treat people well and engage in friendship with them.

We are citizens of a kingdom where everyone serves everyone. At one level, our lifestyle of servanthood is a walking apologetic for the truth of Christ to a world ruled by self-interest. We are called to this life style in order to display the selfless love of the self-exalting God. How does that work? The gospel begins with a Trinitarian God, fully satisfied in the bounds of His own intrinsically communal existence, creating a world of creatures to be servants, lovers, friends–communitarians. He created a people with the end in mind of shaping them to become like Him. That doesn’t mean that we are meant to become gods, but that we are meant to become a community of mutual servanthood.

That God is passionate about being glorified is a given because He is intrinsically glorious, and the intrinsic glory that He embodies demands redamancy from all creatures who encounter it. But with that reality in mind, it is necessary to situate our theology in the simultaneous reality that the intrinsically glorious God whose glory demands worship is also intrinsically satisfied. He has no needs that are unmet within Himself. It is not simply because He “owns the cattle on 1000 hills”, but that any and all conceivable needs that a person might have are satisfied fully by the perfect community that He experiences between the persons of Himself.

That means that when He created people, animals, greenery–everything–He did so with no designs of seeing a personal emotional deficit filled. He did not create us to be loved but to give love. He did not create us so that we might satisfy His emotional needs, but in order to multiply His own satisfaction to a whole world of creatures. The self-exalting God is selfless because His glory is self-authenticating. He can put real weight behind His claims to love people because He has nothing to gain from dying for them. He is self-exalting because He bloody well ought to be.

Jesus modeled this servant lifestyle to us and called us to do likewise because we have been newly created by the gospel to be servants after God’s own heart and Jesus’s own example. The servant lifestyle to which we are called is not only an apologetic to a lost world; it is written into the DNA of our identity in Christ.

There Are No Magic Jesus Powers

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“And when they came to the disciples, they saw a great crowd around them, and scribes arguing with them. And immediately all the crowd, when they saw him, were greatly amazed and ran up to him and greeted him. And he asked them, ‘What are you arguing about with them?’ And someone from the crowd answered him, ‘Teacher, I brought my son to you, for he has a spirit that makes him mute. And whenever it seizes him, it throws him down, and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid. So I asked your disciples to cast it out, and they were not able.’ … And Jesus asked his father, ‘How long has this been happening to him?’ And he said, ‘From childhood. And it has often cast him into fire and into water, to destroy him. But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘‘If you can’! All things are possible for one who believes.’ Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, ‘I believe; help my unbelief!’ And when Jesus saw that a crowd came running together, he rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, ‘You mute and deaf spirit, I command you, come out of him and never enter him again.’ And after crying out and convulsing him terribly, it came out, and the boy was like a corpse, so that most of them said, ‘He is dead.’ But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he arose. And when he had entered the house, his disciples asked him privately, ‘Why could we not cast it out?’ And he said to them, ‘This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.'” (Mark 9:14-29)

“This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer” means that there are no magic Jesus powers. His healing ministry was not from His own power. He was not a magician. Contrary to popular misconceptions that assume that Jesus came to earth as some sort of Superhuman, Mark finds it very important to show us that Jesus’s miraculous exploits were the product of His being in step with the Holy Spirit through prayer. It is essential to historic Christian theology that when God the Son came to earth, He did so without any special advantages. He was a regular Jew with a 9 to 5 and a mom. All of the miraculous feats He performed, all of the counter-cultural teaching that He espoused, His supernatural compassion and concern for the outcast, His boldness, were all the product of His submission to and communion with God the Spirit, who indwelt Him.

This is important to grasp, in no small part because it clears the confusion that Jesus stirs up when He says to the original gathered Church, “Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.” (John 14:12) He really meant that we would do more than He did, not because we would be more powerful, but because as the Church multiplies and lost sinners are transformed into Spirit-filled believers, the ministry of Jesus itself multiplies and expands. Before His crucifixion, there was one Jesus who made disciples and incarnated the kingdom of God in the midst of a  broken world. Today, 2000 years after His resurrection, it is as though there are approximately 2.2 billion Jesuses walking the earth.

“This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer” also means that our ability to do anything spiritual, be it cast out demons (yeah, that actually happens), win souls for Christ, or overcome the darkness in us, comes from helpless dependence on God. We are not prayer warriors; the Holy Spirit is a prayer warrior. When we pray for ourselves, whether it’s for a greater love for the Father, a greater freedom from sin, a more obedient heart, etc., we are echoing the Holy Spirit’s earnest prayers on our behalf (Rom. 8:23, 26-27). Jesus walked in utter dependence on the Holy Spirit’s guidance as an incarnated human. We are no less dependent now that He indwells us. Every Christian believes in the Holy Spirit, but ‘believing’ in Him in any meaningful sense means living in a ‘dethroning’ submission to His lead. The person who believes in the Holy Spirit is always in prayer to seek His guidance. She is always communing with Him in prayer to know the Father more intimately. She is always laying down what remains of her stubborn will in prayer to let Him mold her into the image of Christ.

“This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer” because we can only “do greater things than these” as people who are pathetic, weak, and like Jesus, are desperately dependent on the Spirit of God to enable us to find and carry out the will of God.

“Whose Rage Might Be Bottomless”

Ryan Ellington

Rembrandt_Christ_and_the_Woman_Taken_in_Adultery Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery by Rembrandt

All who held stones,
heavy, thirsty after blood,
felt well that it was time to depart–
dropped what treasure lay
sinister in their grip.
Ashamed at what?
God knows.
Set forth to where?
Even God knoweth not.

Moved incurably by one statement
no one should even make sense of:
“He who is sinless among you,
let him be the first to throw a stone upon her,”
a non-sequitur, to be honest.
Is she less guilty if the high priest has a penchant for buggery?

But all the men with their girded up loins
knelt low, from humility or necessity,
(who knows? What even became of them?)
picking up their cloaks to return to their wives
till only one remained,
one without sin
whose rage might be bottomless,
as far as she knows,
that temptress, or devil, or victim, or kid.

There…

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There’s a Place At the Table for the “Faithless”

Ryan Ellington

SaintThomas The Incredulity of Saint Thomas by Caravaggio

I am not God. That is ultimate reality. But only because it contains so much in so few words. “I am not God,” means that God exists. I can reason my way into an explanation for the universe that does not require a creator, but that isn’t the point. God is present in the statements, “God does not exist,” and “There is no God.” I think that you can commune with God, live with Him and love Him with the best part of yourself if you struggle and even fail to believe with your head and your gut that He is real.

The Christian religion recognizes the contradictions in man. We believe, and walk against the grain of our defining beliefs. God promises rest to people who need it. The God revealed in Jesus, who is Jesus, invites one and all to His table…

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Sunday Sermon: Feeding The Multitudes

Ryan Ellington

FeedingMultitudes_Bernardo Feeding the multitudes by Bernardo Strozzi

“Now [the disciples]  had forgotten to bring  bread, and they had only one loaf with them in the boat. And [Jesus] cautioned them, saying, “beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.” And they began discussing with one another the fact that they had no bread and Jesus, aware of this, said to them, “why are you discussing the fact that you have no bread? Do you not perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Having eyes do you not see or having ears do you not hear? And do you not remember? When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you take up?” And they said to Him, “twelve.” [And He continued,] “and when I broke the seven loaves for the four thousand, how many baskets full of broken…

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Stop Looking For A ‘Better Offer’

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Burning Bush by Sébastien Bourdon

“Y’know, the internet has kind of jacked us up.” said the sage-like 30-something year old whom I overheard at Starbucks, “People won’t commit to anything anymore. It’s like they think they’ll get a ‘better offer’ at the last minute. You’ll say, ‘Do you wanna meet at McDonald’s sometime and catch up?’ and they’ll be like, ‘That sounds great. So, maybe.'”

Those words hit me like a welcome punch in the mouth. They’re so relevant – for me, at least.

Humans are inclined to be noncommittal with personal relationships. In  my experience, it’s because (among other reasons) we believe that there must be something better to be had elsewhere, with someone else, and perhaps for some people, as someone else. As though we’re hanging on for dear life to the idea that our life might be better if only we were connected to a different community, had a different set of obligations, etc.

But it’s a cover. It’s a sneaky sort of blame-shifting technique. And it’s convenient. It gives us a tail to chase that can occupy us for life and get us off the hook from admitting to the fact that our reluctance to grow close to people, to commit to a certain life course, to really live our lives is rooted in the fear that we’re gonna get life wrong.

A lot of people are terrified of real relationships and struggle to make basic life choices. They have trouble committing to any path in particular because they have no idea who they are or what they are doing. They feel as though they have been thrust into adulthood with no real preparation, like somebody signed them up to be a grown up but never bothered to teach them quite what that meant. Most of us have felt the pangs of this, but have struggled to find the words to describe it.

Although I generally try to forget my Junior High years, I have at least one vivid memory from my days as an awkward, pimpled-faced teenager:

The year was 2008, and I was sitting in a certain teacher’s classroom (whose name will be changed to protect the innocent). We were doing a practice TAKS test. Now, or those of you who didn’t grow up in the Republic of Texas, the TAKS test was an end-of-year test that that a lot of kids could take with their eyes closed (I wasn’t one of them) which measured the student body’s comprehension of the core materials for the year. And since state funding for each school was partially tied to their TAKS scores, my school made sure to put us through a couple of grueling practice tests throughout the year before the real thing came around each April.

So I was relaxing at my desk in a classroom filled with students whose last names began with letters that show up early in the alphabet: Ellington…Delgado…Gately…etc. A little timer on Mrs. Cruella Deville’s desk went off, and she told the class to put our bubble sheets into our test booklets and pass them up to take a 5 minute bathroom break. I did not hear this, because I was spaced out, thinking about frisbees or something, and I tucked my bubble sheet and booklet into the small cubby under my desk.

After the break was over, Mrs. Cruella Deville picked up the booklets and began passing them back out to each student. When she had passed out the last booklet, she noticed that my name had not been called.

“Did you not pass your booklet up?” She asked.

“Oh…uh, no.” I replied, a little embarrassed.

She paused for a moment, as though unsure of what to say. She was a sarcastic woman, and generally had a clever quip for each situation. At this moment, however, her wit failed. As she turned around and walked back toward her desk, she said to the whole class, “Have you noticed that when we have to do something as a class, Ryan is always the one doing it wrong?”

The class laughed. I joined, half because I’ll laugh at almost any joke ever (that’s still true today) and half because I figured that I’d rather laugh with them at my own expense than be laughed at. But beneath my happy-go-lucky disposition, her words stuck. Not because I especially valued her input, but because it was something I was used to hearing. All throughout the earlier years of my life, I was told by teachers and other grown-ups that I couldn’t do anything right. Eventually, I started believing it.

And so a pattern sprouted up: nearly every time something I was involved with really began to require me to commit, to lock-in, I would bail. I would keep everything – friends, commitments, goals – at arms length, because I was convinced that if I ever got deep into anything that I would mess it up. I fundamentally believed that I was a screw up.

Now, I’m not recounting this story to have some kind of pity party. The point is this: for the longest time, I was horrified to commit to anything, or anyone, and I thought that I was the only one who lived this way. As far as I could tell, everyone else had their lives together, and that I was the odd one out. But as the years went on I realized that I wasn’t the only person in the world who had let my insecurities run my life – not by a long shot.

I’m an introvert, but I’m your friendly neighborhood introvert, so I have a lot of one-off conversations with people that I meet in coffee shops and bookstores. One thing I try to gather in each of these chance encounters is how does this person see the world? What I’ve found is that although every person that I meet is unique and vibrant, many share one thing in common: terror. Most of the people that I meet seem terrified to be alive. Just the other day, I asked a guy what time it was and you’d think I was interrogating him at gunpoint.

I don’t blame them.

A lot of people, like the guy I quoted at the beginning of this post, blame the internet for my generation’s anti-social, anti-commitment bent. I don’t. I’m not convinced that having all of this technology and information at our fingertips has made us more anti-social and noncommittal; I think it’s given us an outlet to retreat into a “safe” place. A place that isn’t real. A place where nobody judges us, and we can’t mess up our lives. The Facebook versions of us are stable, funny, and safe. Even when the Facebook me ‘can’t even’, he’s doing just fine. Not so for real life.

And it’s in this fear of marching on into the future, this uncertainty of whether we can handle the weight of being present in our own lives as adults, in the messiness of community with other, equally uncertain people, that most folks collapse, and choose to retreat into themselves rather than muster up the courage to be. 

Stop looking for a better offer. Take hold of the life that you have, the family you have, the you that you are. Stop looking for an escape route. Commit yourself to be an active participant in the life that is happening around you. Don’t retreat into yourself, or your smart phone, or your books. This is all there is. Reject the urge to sleepwalk through everything. Be present in your own life. “Do not be afraid.”