Friday, September 08, 2006

Big PUN, the notorious G.O.D.

Michelle Lopez, a wonderful at-home mom from Arizona, recently wrote:

Hi Melvin,

I am on another blog called Emerging Women. We have been discussing "If God Punishes", which has led to interesting thoughts. Obviously, I am rethinking Bible stories for children of preschool/ Kinder ages. One thing I would be curious about, should the focus of traditional stories be changed. I know that traditional stories ie Noah's ark, focused on the evil in the world, and that certainly has taught many "the punishing God". Do you think that in light of Jesus and his ways, that even if that was what was happening, through Christ that changed? If Jesus took upon himself the sin of the world and God doesn't see it any longer, shouldn't we focus on maybe how God cared for Noah and His family? Or in other traditional stories of punishment, can we turn them to focus on "choices made and redemption"? Especially for kids, I think that too much time has been spent focusing on punishment and fear.

For example, just tonight my daughter asked me if God was going to make her blind. She had watched a "Christian" video at my mother-in-law's house. I know I will have to deal with some of that, but I question "Is this really what I want my kids to take away about God?" I have been very careful and yet she is still getting messages like that, and thinks God will make her blind if she is bad. That bother's me.

How can stories be reconciled through the way of Christ? Christ acknowledged the Old Testament but was always concerned with the way that it was interpreted. Have we and are we still doing that with the stories we teach? I hope this makes sense. I would be curious to hear other ideas, or thoughts about this. Just thought I would throw it out.

Thanks again,


You raise great theological questions. I am humbled that you invite me to comment on them, and as in every act of humility I begin in prayer. I have no definitive answers. Nonetheless, I do have a few suspicions.

I'm not so much a dispensationalist so I don't believe things are starkly different after Christ than before. However, I do believe that through Christ our understanding of God has expanded, and we should allow it to continue to do so.

It seems to me that it would never be helpful to dismiss totally "punishment" from our understanding of God; if for no other reason, it would leave us with a skewed (toward indulgence, which is seldom, if ever, healthy) vision of what it means to be a parent. Rather I believe that we should allow God in the way of Jesus to redeem our understanding of what I would be more inclined to call 'discipline' and its function in child-rearing.

Let me rehearse some things you undoubtedly already know, just to give us the same frame of reference for the purpose of our conversation. I believe the goal of child-rearing is to equip our children to make as good if not better choices/decisions than we would--better being more toward God's kingdom, particularly more toward an others-interested love. What discipline does is make it less convenient to grow the way of self-interest--as we are apt to do (path of least resistance and all)--and more convenient to grow in a healthier, more abundant, others-interested direction (the way of Jesus). What happens at times, however, is that some are so determined to grow counter-fruitfully (I know that's not a word, but it should be :-) that they will sacrifice life and limb--theirs and others--to satisfy their self-interest. And what they discover sooner or later is that there is no sustainability (life) in self-interest. Eventually, self-interest ends up gobbling up the very thing one was after. The Apostle John puts it most succinctly, "In him [Jesus] was life" (1:5).

Thus, as Leslie (my wife) and I often say, our job as parents is to say, "No," 2 more times (one from her, one from me) than our children say, "Yes," and "Yes" 2 more times than they say, "No." And in doing so, we must be tireless and irresistible. For example, Les & I have taught our daughters how to ask for things early on. The youngest is 16 months, and her very few words include "up please," "more please," "[point] please". (It's a teacher thing; we got so tired of having students who would just declare a need out loud in class and expect someone to fulfill it!) Well, once our 3-year-old got 'please' pretty much down, she started to experiment. At first it was, "I want... [such-and-such]," and in the moment, if it's something we don't mind her having, it's easy to forget to make her ask properly. However, when we're on top of our game, we'll say no to anything she says "I want" for. Still, like any kid, she has sought to test our resolve. Her newest derivation on what we have taught her is to preface her desires with, "Maybe you should... [such-and-such-and-such]." Because we like to see her reasoning, this has been even harder to resist. Nonetheless, we know she'll never feel compelled to ask if she can get away with anything else. And we know the fruit her life will bear if she learns to manipulate before learning the humility and respect of asking. So tough and inconsistent as it may be at times, we strive to stick to our guns.

The way of Jesus has taught us these things and I believe I see them at work in God's good creation, so I have confidence in using them to inform my understanding of the dynamic between God and humanity throughout the Bible. I see God as Heavenly Parent working tirelessly to grow humanity toward life, yet many of the stories being about children who were determined even unto death (self-destruction) to think they knew better.

This is where I believe common language fails us: because I do not believe that common death (mortality) is one and the same with eternal death (separation from God). Maybe they would be, shy of the work of Jesus reconciling all things. But because of him, we live in hope that our stupidity that may lead to our mortal demise does not have to eternally separate us from the God who gives life.

So when I read the story of Noah, one of the lessons I see in it is that self-interest can't last always. When I read about Pharaoh Ramses, I see a man given the rare opportunity to resist God with resolve and what comes of that. When I read the stories of King Saul and Uzzah (the non-priest who touched the ark as David was returning it to Jerusalem), I see men who had accustomed themselves to exercising prerogatives (from the Latin meaning "before"+"ask") that were not theirs. All real lessons that must be learned. But all extreme examples of chastening which Paul is instructive in letting us know is not the first stage of God's discipline--not to mention that all struggle and/or misfortune is not an act of God's discipline (Bruce Wilkinson's Secrets of the Vine was real helpful to me in teasing this out). Still all these stories teach us that fire really is hot. Blessed is the person, young or old, who can learn from others' belligerence.

I believe the thing we must hold on to is the truth that "God is not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance," and we should tell our stories from that point of grace. What is God doing in these stories to reconcile us unto Himself [unto each other, unto creation or unto ourselves]? How is She loving us back to Herself and discipling us in the direction of good health and sustainability? That is my focus [(communicated age appropriately, of course)]. Fear may be a good attention grabber, like spanking--and sometimes we need our attention grabbed--but neither is a good reconciler or teacher.

I pray some of that helps you continue to process through how best to teach your children. We're all still in process on this thing for sure. What are you thinking in response?

Much love,
Melvin Bray

What do you think, other parents?

Thursday, August 31, 2006

And It Was Good

Download an enhanced podcast of "And It Was Good", complete with audio and visual accompaniment (for viewing in iTunes or on an iPod)!

Learn with me this poem of prose of when the earth was young,
Of mysteries twice forgotten, of dreams yet to come.

Critique of its scientific realism brings little to the matter.
Truth is God sees... says... creates... and invites for us to join her...

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.

Now the earth was formless and empty,
darkness was over the surface of the deep,
and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.

God said, "Let there be light."
And there was light.
God saw that the light was good.
God separated the light from the darkness.
God called the light "day."
God called the darkness "night."
    There was evening, and there was morning.
    It was day one.

God said, "Let there be a huge space between the waters.
"Let it separate water from water."
    And that's exactly what happened.
God made the huge space between the waters.
God separated the water that was under the space from the water that was above it.
God called the huge space "sky."
    There was evening, and there was morning.
    It was day two.

"Let dry ground appear." God said, "Let the water under the sky be gathered into one place.

    And that's exactly what happened.
God called the dry ground "land."
God called the waters that were gathered together "oceans."
    And God saw that it was good.
Then God said, "Let the land produce plants.
"Let them bear their own seeds. And let there be trees on the land that bear fruit with seeds in it.
"Let each kind of plant or tree have its own kind of seeds."
    And that's exactly what happened.
The land produced plants.
Each kind of plant had its own kind of seeds.
The land produced trees that bore fruit with seeds in it.
Each kind of tree had its own kind of seeds.
    God saw that it was good.
    And there was evening, and there was morning.
    It was day three.

God said, "Let there be lights in the huge space of the sky.
"Let them separate the day from the night.
"Let them serve as signs to mark off the seasons and the days and the years.
"Let them serve as lights in the huge space of the sky to give light on the earth."
    And that's exactly what happened.
God made two great lights.
God made the larger light to rule over the day. God made the smaller light to rule over the night.
God also made the stars.
God put the lights in the huge space of the sky to give light on the earth.
God put them there to rule over the day and the night.
God put them there to separate light from darkness.
    God saw that it was good.
    And there was evening, and there was morning.
    It was day four.

God said, "Let the waters be filled with living things.
"Let birds fly above the earth across the huge space of the sky."
So God created the great creatures of the ocean.
God created every living and moving thing that fills the waters.
God created all kinds of them. He created every kind of bird that flies.
    And God saw that it was good.
God blessed them. God said, "Have little ones and increase your numbers.
"Fill the water in the oceans. Let there be more and more birds on the earth."
    There was evening, and there was morning. It was day five.

God said, "Let the land produce all kinds of living creatures.
"Let there be livestock, and creatures that move along the ground, and wild animals.
"Let there be all kinds of them."
    And that's exactly what happened.
God made all kinds of wild animals.
God made all kinds of livestock.
God made all kinds of creatures that move along the ground.
    And God saw that it was good.

Then God said, "Let us make humanity in our likeness.
"Let them rule over the fish in the waters and the birds of the air.
"Let them rule over the livestock and over the whole earth.
"Let them rule over all of the creatures that move along the ground."

So God created humanity in his own image,
in the image of God, God created him;
male and female God created them.

God blessed them.
He said to them, "Have children and increase your numbers.
"Fill the earth and bring it under your control.
"Rule over the fish in the waters and the birds of the air.
"Rule over every living creature that moves on the ground."

Then God said, "I am giving you every plant on the face of the whole earth that bears its own seeds.
"I am giving you every tree that has fruit with seeds in it. All of them will be given to you for food. "I am giving every green plant to all of the land animals and the birds of the air for food.
"I am also giving the plants to all of the creatures that move on the ground.
"I am giving them to every living thing that breathes."
    And that's exactly what happened.
    There was evening, and there was morning. It was day six.

So the heavens and the earth and everything in them were completed.

By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing.
So on the seventh day he rested from all of his work.
God blessed the seventh day and made it holy.
He rested on it. After he had created everything,
he rested from all of the work he had done. [Genesis 1:1-2:3, NIV & NirV]

Like any poem, this one has rhythm and brilliant imagery;
So much for us to learn and hear, to taste and feel and see.

A poet likes to play with words: make light of dark and heavy;
Then speak of rest for One not tired to teach us to live justly.

There's so much meaning one could derive from how the story's told.
But disproving science is not the point of a story that's this old.

One thing we know: poets repeat ideas of great import',
Like counting days and countless good God found in her own art.

Of truth, I know not what to make of all I hear and see,
But there is of late a blessed thought that whispers joy to me.

Of all the things that God could boast and pen by poet's hand,
He said, "It's good," a fleeting phrase written as if in sand.

It was not "perfect," or "great," or "pure," or any grand such thing,
provisional praise for an evolving world that yet was still becoming.

So when my children at times insecure struggle with who they are
"Simply 'good' is good enough," comes God's affirmation from afar. [Epilogue added January 2009]

~The artwork featured with this rendition of the creation poem was created by Holly Sharp.