Truth Be Told

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Friday, June 20, 2014

Without Exception

The other day I observed a Twitter exchange between Pope Francis and Miroslav Volf.

Pope Francis (‏@Pontifex) Tweeted:
“God does not reveal himself in strength or power, but in the weakness and fragility of a newborn babe.”

To which Miroslav Volf (‏@MiroslavVolf) replied:
“@Pontifex How true! And yet the babe grew and taught with power and authority, and the crucified one was raised from the dead in glory.”

Since moving to the Navajo reservation more than a decade ago I have done much thinking, studying, praying and reflecting on the dynamics between power and authority. And God has given me a few insights over the years. So when I read these tweets I had an instant desire to jump in and be a part of the discussion. But there was a problem. Pope Francis is the leader of the Catholic Church with over 1 billion members worldwide. And he has 11 million Twitter followers (between his various accounts in 9 different languages).  Miroslav Volf is a national, even global, voice in his own right. He heads the Center for Faith and Culture at Yale University and is described as a Croatian Protestant theologian and public intellectual who is often recognized as "one of the most celebrated theologians of our day." And he has 11 thousand twitter followers.  

And then there is me, Mark Charles. I do not lead any organization nor do I work solely for a specific group, ministry or church. I am merely the son of an American woman (of Dutch heritage) and a Navajo man, who is living on our Navajo Reservation and trying to understand the complexities of our countries history regarding race, culture and faith so that I can help forge a path of healing and reconciliation for our people. And I have a grand total of 710 twitter followers (@wirelesshogan).

In terms of power, platform and voice, Pope Francis is Goliath, Miraslov Volf is David, and I am Jesse's long lost nephew, the youngest son of his step-sister's fourth cousin. On a power scale, I have no place in this discussion. And even if I were to tweet something in response to Pope Francis or Miraslov Volf, the worldly chances of actually being heard by either of them are almost non-existent.

But to me, that is the beauty of Pope Francis' tweet. God’s rules are different than the world’s rules.  God does not use the mighty things of this world to proclaim his glory, but the weak, the forgotten, and the over-looked.  And that is the hope which I both hold onto, and preach to our Native peoples and communities throughout the country.  For living on the reservation is very lonely. Our nations and peoples have been pushed aside to scraps of land that are largely unwanted and out of the way.  As a result, a majority of the country is unaware that Native communities actually exist. And of the few who are aware, those who do come to visit us are either giving us charity or taking pictures at the “Native American Zoo,” and then quickly leaving before any real relationship can be built.

And so, after many years of living in solidarity with my people, studying the scriptures, and looking closely at the model of Jesus, I can wholeheartedly agree that, as a rule, "God does not reveal himself in strength or power, but in the weakness and fragility of a newborn babe."

But, Miroslav Volf is also, mostly, correct when he says "The babe grew and taught with power and authority, and the crucified one was raised from the dead in glory."  Yes, Jesus did teach with authority and yes, he did rise from the dead, in glory, three days later. But the overemphasis that Dr. Volf places on power, making it a method equal, in the ministry of Jesus, to authority, I believe is inaccurate.

Power is the ability to act. Authority is the right of jurisdiction (the permission to act).

In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus comes onto the scene quickly. Already in Chapter 1 he is amazing people for "he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law." But he doesn't stop there. Just a few moments later, while in the same synagogue, he is confronted by a man with an unclean spirit. Unfazed, he speaks sternly to the spirit telling it to "Be quiet!" and "Come out of him!" The spirit responded by violently convulsing the man and coming out of him with a shriek.  And then we are told, "The people were all so amazed, that they asked each other, 'What is this? A new teaching and with authority! He even gives orders to evil spirits and they obey him.'" (Mark 1:22-27)

Sometime later, Jesus was crossing the lake with his disciples. He was tired, so he took a nap in the back of the boat. A furious wind storm came up and waves began breaking over the boat. The disciples woke Jesus up and asked him "Don't you care if we drown?" Now that line is frequently misinterpreted as the disciples crying out in fear for Jesus to rescue them. But I do not see evidence of that. I think they were mad. Several of them were experienced fishermen. They spent much time on the water and had undoubtedly experienced situations like this before. This storm was dire enough to warrant an "all hands on deck!" The boat was taking on water. This was not a time for sleeping, no matter who you were!  I don't think the disciples had any other expectation of Jesus than for him to wake up, grab a bucket, and help them bail water out of the boat. This is evidenced by their reaction to what Jesus actually did. For he didn't grab a bucket, but instead he stood up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves "Be still!" And nature listened. The storm died down and it was completely still. Only then are we told that the disciples were terrified, and asked each other, "Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!" (Mark 4)

Throughout his ministry, Jesus continually demonstrated that his words and actions were not demonstrations of his power, but an exercising of his authority. And this quite literally freaked people out. For he did not talk like someone who studied the scriptures; he spoke like someone who wrote them. He did not cringe when confronted by the blowfish tactics of the demons. Because he knew, that they knew, that they were submissive to him. Nor was he fearful of the destructive power of nature, because he was there when his Father spoke all of creation into existence.

For power to be effective it must be demonstrated. Authority is inherent and requires no demonstration.

If you were a guest at the wedding at Cana, you went home, not amazed with Jesus' power to turn water into wine, but instead with the incredible extravagance of the hosts of the party, for they saved their finest wine and served it last. (John 2)

If you were one of the professional mourners outside of Jairus' house, you went home that evening, not amazed at Jesus' ability to raise a girl from the dead, but instead ashamed at your own stupidity, for you could even tell the difference between a dead girl and a sleeping one. (Mark 5)

Throughout the Gospels, Jesus was confronted with the temptation to demonstrate his power. Satan tempted him. The scribes and Pharisees tempted him. The people tempted him. Even his own disciples tempted him. But again and again Jesus declined, sometimes forcefully with a rebuke, and other times quietly by simply walking away. He did not need to prove himself to anyone. He knew he was the Son of God and his identity did not need validation from the world.

But it cannot be denied that Jesus did some pretty spectacular things and that God showed His pleasure and His approval in some very powerful ways. After all, Jesus’ birth was announced by a host of heavenly angles. Yes, they were singing to shepherds, but nevertheless, very powerful. And how about the rising from the dead? The curtain ripping? The dead being raised? The earthquakes? And the mid-day darkness? All incredibly powerful displays.

So why am I writing this post? Aren't they both right? Has not the truth been proclaimed to both the 11 million and the 11 thousand followers on Twitter? Does clarification really need to be made to yet another measly 710 Twitter users. Yes! I believe it does. Because I have seen exchanges like this numerous times before from my powerless position here on the Navajo Reservation. I have seen the uncomfortable truths of God's character and His call immediately explained away with the quick pointing out of a few exceptions to the rules.  This happens so frequently that I fear we may have forgotten what some of the rules actually are.

God chooses the foolish, weaker, lowly, despised things of this world - and the things that are not - to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. (1 Corinthians 1:27-30). These are God’s rules.

The weaker, second-born son, Jacob is the rule.
The slave, become prisoner, Joseph is the rule.
The prostitute, Rahab, is the rule.
The foreigner, Ruth, is the rule.
The shepherd boy named David is the rule.
The fisherman, Peter, is the rule.
And the babe, wrapped in cloth, and born in a barn is the rule.

The highly-educated Pharisee named Saul is the exception.

The rich, young ruler, walking away from Jesus, is the rule.

And the camel, named Zacchaeus, going through the eye of the needle is the incredibly rare exception.

As American Christians, these rules make us uncomfortable. For we live and follow Jesus in the wealthiest, most militarily powerful nation in the history of the world. And even though the founding fathers read the Bible and prayed to God, our nation has an incredibly dark and unjust history. Yet many still fancy the United States, and the American church, as the new Israel, with this continent being our “promised land” over which we have a manifest destiny.  And so we cannot even begin to imagine that we just might, instead, be one of the other empires in the Biblical narrative, on the receiving side of God's anger.

This is because we have taken the exceptions and made them our rules.  And so when we hear the rules, because we do not align with them, we must quickly point out the exceptions. For the exceptions are what explains our existence and what justifies both our actions and our in-actions.

Pope Francis articulated the rule.

And Miroslav Volf quickly countered with an exception.

I do not know why he did it, nor can I judge what was in his heart. If he had said it in a lecture, I would have raised my hand. If he preached it in a sermon I would have approached him during the coffee time. However, he tweeted, so I was compelled to respond through my blog. Because for the past 500 years my people have experienced the fruit of a nation and a church which arrogantly proclaim that they are the exception: the Doctrine of Discovery, the forced assimilation, the boarding schools, the marginalization, the empty charity, the flaunting of wealth, and the refusal to reconcile. And while I do not deny that God is at work and has accomplished much good through both the United States and the American church, I feel the need to exhort us to be silent and allow God's prophets to speak and remind us of His rules.  No matter how uncomfortable they may make us feel.

"God does not reveal himself in strength or power, but in the weakness and fragility of a newborn babe."

Thank you, Pope Francis. Please pray with us, the church in America, that we may aspire to follow the example of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ:

“Who, being in the very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death – even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:6-8)

For what Jesus modeled so plainly is very unsettling. That the glory of the Father is revealed by following His rules, without exception.

1/7/14 8:01 AM


WHITE OWL Sydna said...

Inspired. Thank you.

Wanda B. said...

Thank you for putting your words into this blog. They are way too powerful for a tweet. Wanda B.

Wanda B. said...

Oops, maybe I should have used the words "spoken with authority" rather than "powerful." Your point was well stated. Wanda B.

Sam said...

Thank you. I was able to hear you speak at Calvin Seminary once or twice, I believe on the concept of culture in worship. Your words here are important words for someone like me, and for all of us. If I had Twitter I'm sure I'd be follower #711. :)

Trish J said...

I cannot thank you enough for this reflection. I happen to be reading Jackson Lear's book "Rebirth of a Nation" which touches on the development of attitudes and structures that have been so destructive in American life.

Carol Brown said...

Thank you for putting words to your ruminations. Humility wears well but can be an uncomfortable garment.

BrotherBrendan said...

I repent on behalf of my ancestors for what America did to its native peoples.

Josette P. said...

Don't you think that is the weak, the fallen, the .... there is always the power to rise again ? And this is the incredible gift we have received.

And ... don't be shy: one person is equal to another person, this does not depend on the number of followers.

Anonymous said...

The prophecy says that someday God *will* reveal His true power, strength, and authority. Don't put too much faith in the words of an earthly ruler. Only God has all the answers.

Unknown said...

Wow, Mark. Thank you for this very insightful writing. I had the pleasure of meeting you at NAIITS last week. Lord help us...and keep working in your world.