Friday, May 29, 2009

The True Source of Optimism

The Enlightenment assumption of invevitable progress rooted in the perceived human ability to, through rationality and increased technology, free humanity from the vulnerabilities of nature, is collapsing. The postmodern critique has been relentless and, quite frankly, legitimate in many ways. Tthe "hermeneutic of suspicion" that is taking an ever-increasing grip on the psyches of the West, has created a culture of cynicism toward all institutions. Michael Foucalt and Jacques Derrida (both now deceased), the two most influential architects of postmodern literary theory, called for an aggressive deconstruction of all texts, exposing hidden power structures that demanded a bold challenge.

This theory seems to have taken root in the West. Words constantly are being parsed. Trust in an author's or speaker's credibility is seldom granted. (Unless the author or speaker is a deconstructionist--but shouldn't the deconstructionist also be deconstructed--I digress). In short, the modern spirit of optimism--"each and every day, each and every way we are getted better and better"--has given way to a gnawing pessimism.

And, again, the modern optimism in humanity's ability through reason to "pull itself up by its own bootstraps" should be challenged. As we face a major, and universal, economic crisis, wars, political upheavals, and the global proliferation of nuclear weapons, there seems to be little to be optimistic about. On the other hand, there is a biblical optimism that, I think, the people of God should boldly embrace. It's an optimism, however, that is theocentric, not anthropocentric--it is centered in the sovereign God, not the solutions of humans.

Take Caleb, for example. You might recall that he was one of the 12 spies sent to survey the Promised Land (Numbers 13-14). Upon their return, 10 of the spies saw no possible way for their unskilled army to conquer the “walled cities” inhabited by “giants” (13:28,33). By contrast, the minority report of Caleb (and Joshua) throbbed with faith, “Let us go up at once and take possession, for we are well able to overcome it” (13:30).

What made the difference? All spies described the same land, and recognized the obstacles. The 10 were consumed by their own inadequacies while Caleb and Joshua concentrated on God’s ability. In short, the real difference was their relationship to God (14:8-9).

The “grasshopper mentality” of the 10 resulted from looking at the opposition rather than the Lord. That’s always how its it when we diminish the power of God. The obstacles loom beyond reason. By contrast, Caleb viewed the difficulties as opportunities to display the awesome power of the Lord.

The optimism of Caleb was not rooted in the insufficient power of a “positive mental attitude“, or in the inadequacies of “believing in himself.” Rather, in humility, Caleb saw himself linked to God in sacred partnership. “If the Lord delights in us,” he reasoned, “we’ll succeed” (cf. 14:8). The “if” in this phrase did not suggest a gnawing doubt in Caleb of God’s presence. On the contrary, it was Caleb’s way of saying, “because God has told us to take the land, we will succeed!”

How is it with you? Are you facing a Kadesh-Barnea that could change the course of your life? It may be a circumstance to accept, a work to be undertaken, or a burden to be borne. Whatever we are facing, individually or collectively, let’s remember the spirit of Caleb. How shortsighted to fret about obstacles when we’re linked with God. Caleb won the battles of life because he first won the battle of faith, obedience, and full commitment.

Let’s not be overwhelmed by circumstances or awed by difficulties. They don’t really matter. It’s our attitude toward the Lord—His glory and His will—that really counts!

Friday, May 08, 2009

The Continuing Memory of Easter

William Willimon, Professor of Christian Ministry at Duke University, relates a personal experience that is particularly relevant to the continuing truth of Easter. Traveling in the South of England, Willimon’s car broke down. While waiting for repairs, he wandered through the yard of the nearby village church. Eventually, he found himself in the cemetery surrounding the building. In one corner of the cemetery was a beautiful, low, brick wall enclosing fifty graves. The grass had nearly choked the plot. A large granite slab, set in the wall, bore the words “WE SHALL NEVER FORGET YOUR SACRIFICE.”

The graves held the remains of fifty young men, around the ages of 17 to 25, and all from New Zealand. Willimon wondered who they were and why they died in this little English village, so far from home?

Since there was no clue at the churchyard as to who they were or the circumstances of their deaths, Willimon wandered back into the village for any information to quench his thirsty curiosity. Finding the town’s museum, Willimon inquired about the graves. The attendant at the museum responded; “Strange that you should ask, I have no idea, but given a few days I could certainly find out.”

Since Willimon would be gone by then, he asked around the village. Now one knew. Despite the impressive inscription in granite, they had been forgotten. No one could remember the circumstances of the unforgettable sacrifice.

Willimon’s story has profound implications for the Christian story. Try as we may, our finite human memories tend to obscure, and eventually lose the vivid picture of those who lived before—even those we love. As in the case of the New Zealanders, time tends to erase the memory of even great sacrifice.

That’s what makes the Easter story so impressive. We don’t simply keep Jesus alive in our collective Christian psyches, proclaiming him forever “alive in our hearts.” The Easter story is not a mere emotional recreation of a long-dead, Jewish hero. The resurrection of Jesus is a historical reality that continues to exert power in our broken world—that’s why we remember.

So, while Easter Sunday has come and gone for another year, we continue to remember Jesus. In so doing, we are not only reflecting on the gracious sacrifice of the innocent One. We are embracing—and encountering—the risen Lord of history, the continuing intrusion of God into our world. Hence we remember—and proclaim—“He has been raised.” Now that’s something that’s hard to forget!