Tuesday, December 21, 2010

lessons from university - part two

The first round of Christmas gatherings have passed. It has been a great chance to interact with people that we see a few times a year, and in the case of some, once every few years. One thing that I have noticed in all the family activities is how often we don't really understand the other. Small things are assumed or left unsaid and this can lead to misunderstandings. Just today, Dean said he would pick me up at a certain door at the mall at a specific time. I arrived at the correct time and waited just inside the door, watching for him. Unknown to me, he drove by a few minutes before I arrived, didn't see me, and parked just out of sight, waiting for me to come out the door. After about 10 minutes, I decided to call him and it was then that we discovered that we had both been waiting, but for different things. I had expected him to drive by the door and he had expected me to come out the door. We had not been clear on the details or who was to initiate contact once we were at the meeting place.

Another major lesson that I have learned in university (and will continue to learn) is that clarity is vital to understanding and being understood, not only in the realm of knowledge, but in any good relationship. When I grade essays, it is relatively easy to spot a student who has done their assignment the night before and hasn't really taken the time to organise their thoughts. There is a jerky or fuzzy style to the writing because they have not discarded the unnecessary information in order to let the main idea stand out clearly. The essay is often an unwieldy mess of words that makes little sense and has no identifiable point. A lack of clarity means that there is a lack of understanding. It becomes fairly easy to tell the difference between someone who comprehends a subject and someone who is regurgitating information, but trying to make it sound pretty.

In reading Exodus 34 this week, I realised that I have not clearly understood what the covenant words were for (the gist of this covenant is often identified as the ten commandments in Exodus 20). I assumed the commands defined the covenant and had to be obeyed or else bad things would happen; I saw them as directives that revealed a strict and hard-to-please God, tired of people who just didn't get it. In fact, this interpretation is a misreading of the words in the text. We tend to identify the basic theme of godliness as being summed up in the ten commandments, as if the life of one who is devoted to God could be reduced to 10 easy steps. But that is not what the writer is trying to say, in my opinion.

Right in the middle of giving these commands or covenant words (scattered throughout much of Exodus and Leviticus), God identifies himself in this way: God, God, a God of mercy and grace, endlessly patient—so much love, so deeply true—loyal in love for a thousand generations, forgiving iniquity, rebellion, and sin. Still, he doesn't ignore sin (from Exodus 34, The Message). These words are meant to keep the reader from seeing the lists of instructions as just so many rules to be followed by rote. These lists are not arbitrary directives from a controlling and self-obsessed deity. I believe they are meant to reflect the nature of a God that the people of Israel needed to get to know all over again: a merciful, gracious, patient, loving, and true God who is kind and yet does not turn a blind eye to evil (a complex intertwining of traits which we cannot fully comprehend). Someone much different from the tyrannical rulers they were used to in Egypt. Someone much different from the bloodthirsty gods of the pagans around them. Someone much different from the god they had conjured up with their fear and childish self-focus. This loving, patient God was showing them, in clear detail, what a people set apart looked like, what devotion looked like, what faithfulness looked like.

He was clarifying covenant for these people because they had forgotten what it meant to be a loving and devoted partner. Today, we still tend to use the word "command" more than "covenant" because we too have forgotten what it is to be a faithful companion and collaborator. We have to be shown again and again, by specific examples, what a covenant with a loving Creator looks like. And all too often we take these few examples and assume that this defines the covenant. We take the rules and commands we read (neglecting the important beginning, middle, and end bits that put it in the context of a much larger and all-encompassing covenant) and create a demanding disciplinarian version of God. We have taken God's offer of clarity - God's offer to see him, God's offer to come near and encounter him, God's offer to find out who he is - and muddied it by our penchant for a good list and a sorry distaste for mystery.
Let us look again at this God. Let us get to know him again, because I think we have forgotten what He is really like. God cannot be reduced to a Top Ten List.
This is a picture of the Christmas tree taken yesterday with my new camera: at twice the mega pixels as my old one, the clarity is astonishing!

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