Wednesday, January 30, 2013

What Is In a Name?

The Old Testament uses many different terms when referring to God. The most common word for God, Elohim, is actually a description and not a name. In some ways, "Higher Power," introduced by Bill W. through Alcoholics Anonymous, is a great synonym for Elohim (more on this point in a future blog).

But did you know that God actually introduced Himself and gave His personal Name to Moses at the "burning bush" in Exodus 3?

Moses said to God, "Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, 'The God [Elohim] of your fathers has sent me to you,' and they ask me, 'What is his name?' Then what shall I tell them?" God said to Moses, "I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: 'I AM has sent me to you'" (Exodus 3: 13-14).

God, in essence, said to Moses that He could use His personal name, I AM. In the Hebrew, the actual Name is often referred to as the tetragrammaton, for the "four letters" that make up the Hebrew root: Y-H-W-H. Since the original Hebrew text did not include the vowel markings, the only way of knowing the pronunciation is through tradition. Since the verb "to be" would be a very common word, the Name is actually conjugated in an obscure form to avoid accidentally speaking it in casual conversation. The Name is probably close to Yahweh. And it would more literally mean something like "I will be."

[As an aside: the Third Commandment says, "Do not misuse the name of Yahweh Elohenu" or "Do not take the name of the LORD your God in vain" (Ex. 20: 7). Fearing the breaking of this commandment, a Jewish tradition arose to speak the word Adonai (Lord) whenever the name Yahweh appeared in the text. Thus a distinction between the kethib (the thing written) and the qere (the thing spoken). The Masoretic text is the result of hundreds of years of Jewish scholars' attempt to codify the vocalization of a text that originally contained no vowel markings. Whenever the reader came to the word, YHWH in the text, he was to speak the word for "Lord," Adonai (or sometimes the word for "God," Elohim). In order to ensure this, the vowels for Adonai were attached to the consonants for Yahweh which created a non-word, yahovah. So, Jehovah is actually a non-word that was never meant to be spoken. This is why the over 6,800 occurances of Yahweh are usually translated "the LORD" in most English-language Bibles.]

I have a kind of pet peeve over this particular issue. God told His people to use His personal name, Yahweh. I see this as an invitation into relationship with Him. It would be like the President saying, "I know I'm the President, but please call me Abe." In essence, he would be saying, "I want to relate to you and you to me on a personal level." To refuse to use "Abe" would be a refusal of relationship.

Not only that, it creates confusion at some points in translation. Case in point: "THE LORD said to my Lord" (Ps. 110: 1). Notice that the NIV translators use all-caps when translating Yahweh and lower-case when translating Adonai. This would be more accurately translated "Yahweh said to my Lord."

Or in Psalm 8: 9: "O LORD our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!" Doesn't it make more sense to sing: "O Yahweh our Lord..."?

I will continue the implications of the Divine Name in my next blog, but let me close this one with an observation. The God of the Universe is a personal God who created us humans with the capacity to enter into a relationship with Him where we can actually get to know Him. It doesn't make sense to get a personal invitation and then refuse it because we are afraid of Him.

Jesus came to us as the way that this personal God becomes accessible in a way that Israel could never seem to grasp. Don't you think it is time to accept that invitation?

More next week...

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Missional Churches

I heard the other day that churches tend to fall into four models: 1) The Refuge; 2) Attractional; 3) In Transition, and; 4) Missional.

The Refuge church is like a family that I can go to for safety, healing and where everyone believes the same things I do. "Maybe if we all just hang in there, we'll make it until Jesus rescues us." I think of Charles Laughton in the 1939 version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Playing Quasimodo, the hunchback, he swings in to rescue Esmeralda from being burned at the stake, carries her high up above the square to the top of the cathedral and, holding her above his head to the roar of the crowd in the square below, cries out, "Sanctuary! Sanctuary!"

The Attractional church model tends to focus on building great buildings and programs. "We've got something great for you--so come and join us." In the U.S., we have some wonderful mega-churches that can compete with Disneyland and the Mall as a must-see destination. This is American competition as applied to religion. And, in general, smaller churches have a hard time competing, like a local hardware store compared to Home Depot.

The Transitional church is the one that may be fed up with its former model, may be in decline. It is at the end of one model and trying to figure out where to go next. Or, it may even be the new church-plant that is seeking to become established.

There is a new and exciting trend these days. A new model of church that many are calling the Missional church. It seeks to move out of merely existing as a refuge for its members (although there are always elements of refuge in healthy churches). And, although it may have elements that attract seekers to come--it is not focused on in-house programs as a way of reaching others. Instead, it is a model of engagement with the surrounding community in a meaningful and loving way. It is primarily a "go-ye" rather than a "come-ye" approach.

Check out an old Ingrid Bergman film sometime, The Inn of the Sixth Happiness. The missionary, Gladys Aylward, lives out a life service in a northern province of China until the invasion of the Japanese empire through Manchuria. She serves the local Manchu lord as the "Chief Foot Inspector." And even though she has a thankless job, she becomes known as Jennai, "the one who loves," by everyone in the province. That is the Missional church model. The scene of her local feudal lord coming to faith is powerful.

Now don't get me wrong, I think that we can benefit from all of these models of church. But in my current journey with Jesus, I feel Him drawing me towards this new (old?) approach. Karl Barth, early 20th century German theologian, once defined the church as "community for the sake of the world." I like to modify this slightly to "Christ-centered community for the sake of the world." That means that church itself exists primarily for the sake of others.

So, even though Jesus said that He would "build his church and the gates of Hades will not overcome it" (Matt. 16: 18)--His instructions to the church were "go into all the world and make Jesus-followers out of every ethnicity and culture, baptizing them in the name of the Tri-une God (Father, Son and Holy Spirit), and teaching them to obey everything I have taught you..." (Matt. 28: 18-20).

The downside of the Missional model is that it is much scarier. As Jesus says to the 72 disciples in Luke 10: 3, "Go! I am sending you out like lambs among wolves." That is not a pleasant thought. It is not a very attractive model. "Hey! Come to our church. We promise you will feel as secure as a lamb thrown into the middle of a pack of wolves!"

And yet this is the call. Who wants to join me on this wild new adventure?

Thursday, January 10, 2013

To None of the Above

On December 28, 2012, there was an interesting op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times that caught my attention, "Spiritual but not Religious" by Corinna Nicolaou. It was a nice companion piece to the lead story that ran on CBS Sunday Morning on December 16th, "None of the Above,' a reaction to a recent Pew Study. Both of these stories share one thing in common, they are describing a growing segment of society who choose "none of the above" when asked their religious affiliation.

This does not mean that Nones do not believe in God or some kind of higher power. In fact, the percentage of Nones who are Atheists is very low. Majorities of Nones pray, may attend church and claim to have deeply spiritual experiences. What they have in common is a disconnection from traditional organized religion.

One very interesting and important phenomenon happened in the 1990's. In the 70's and 80's, the Nones were around 7-8%. Then in the 90's, they jumped up to 14-15%. Although the Pew Study is a different one, it says the number has risen to 19.6%.

Bradley R. E. Wright, in Christians Are Hate-Filled Hypocrites...and Other Lies You've Been Told, points out that the 90's saw the rise of conservative political activism among Evangelicals, led by groups like "Moral Majority." The conjecture is that some Christians who were not as conservative as these organizations moved away from their church affiliation during this time and have left formal association.

Nicolaou, in her article, refers to American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, by Robert Putnam and David Campbell. "Putnam and Campbell say the rise in Nones appears to be tied to the perception, particularly among young people, that religion and conservative politics go hand in hand. I can't wrap my head around a God who is more concerned with our private parts than with the content of our hearts."

As someone who believes in the Gospel, my heart is saddened to think that there is a significant group who may not hear the good news because the church cannot push through cultural barriers to reach them. In 1 Cor. 9: 20-22, Paul discusses how he "incarnated" the Gospel to whatever cultural group he was trying to reach for a higher goal. "To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews...To those not under [Torah] I became like one under [Torah]... so as to win those not under [Torah] the weak I became weak, to win the weak..." (1 Cor. 9: 20-22).

"I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings" (1 Cor. 9: 23).

It seems that, if we are going to reach this growing segment of our population with the Gospel, we are going to have to be careful not to mix our religious identity with our political identity. It is not wrong as members of the church to be good citizens and participate in the political process. But when our politics become part of the church "brand", then we begin shutting the door to a potential soul whose politics may differ from us. (See my blog, The Church and Politics, 6/14/12).

If I am sent to preach the Gospel to the Nones, how can I "become a None, so as to reach the Nones?"