Monday, September 24, 2007

A Letter to Rachel

A Letter to Rachel
(Rachel is my church member since she was a baby. She has bone cancer.)

Dear Rachel,

There are times in our lives when we encounter trials, challenges and problems. As Christians, what do we do with it? How do we deal with it? Where can we find God in the midst of all these challenges? These questions may arise from challenges like having bone cancer. These are very difficult questions but valid ones. For a suffering person like you, Rachel, you have every right to question God why. Remember Job’s story in the Bible? He questioned God and even held God accountable for all the miseries and trials he suffered. You have been told by people around you, like Brother Roberts and your grandmother, who God is but you may still be asking what kind of a loving God would allow you to have cancer. Your own situation may give you a different concept of God.
I will try to discuss with you a way of understanding God. Since God is the God of Israel, we must understand God through God’s relationship with God’s chosen people – Israel. To look at God as a Christian is to look through the lens of Israel. What I will be offering here is not direct answers to the questions but insights to help you navigate through all these questions. But what we may first need to do is to deconstruct your preconceived notion about God. Then we will try to reframe an understanding of God with respect to God’s relationship with Israel and with the world. Only by understanding God’s relationship with the world can we look at our sufferings and trials as Christians.
Let me speak now in general terms and ask these questions: What is our concept of God? How do we perceive God? Our most common answer is that God is a good and loving God. But God can also be a mean God, especially for those Christians who may be suffering. Remember the Bible story where God used Assyria and Babylonia to destroy Israel and Judah, killing many women and children? This contradicts a concept of a good God. The point here is not whether God is bad or good but to emphasize that we cannot define God with one word and mean that the opposite of that word do not describe God.
To stress my point, “no word, concept or image can capture the meaning of God.” We cannot say that God is good and mean that God is not bad. We cannot capture the meaning of God with any single definition. If we confine God to a single definition (i.e. God is good), to think of a good God that allows a faithful Christian to have bone cancer becomes problematic. Therefore, let us not confine our meaning of God to a single definition. In fact, we may never be able to capture the whole meaning of God. God is so great that we cannot fully describe the meaning of God with any words . We cannot fathom the wholeness of God.
This leads me to another question. Do we think that our belief in God is a reason for God to give us good life? When you mentioned that you were a third generation Christian, were you expecting to be awarded by God for it? Is our Christian faith based only on a relationship that if we believe in God then God will do good things for us? Is our relationship with God then just a ‘cause and effect relationship’? Is our faith in God a cause that will effect and give us good things in life – like when our parents promise us to buy us new shoes only when we get good grades in school? Our faith in God does not work that way. Our faith gives us a relationship with God. But what kind of a relationship? We must understand our relationship with God by looking at how God related with Israel.
Our relationship with God through Jesus Christ defines us as Christians. Let me explain what I mean when I say “relationship with God.” Our relationship with God does not just happen out of nothing. If we review the Bible, God chose a community of people and made a special relationship with this community, Israel. God made God-self known to the world through God’s relationship with Israel. Therefore, our relationship with God happens by becoming part of that community of God’s chosen people. We become part of that chosen community through our faith in Jesus Christ. To state it differently, Jesus invited us to be part of the community of God’s chosen people, to be part of Israel. Thus, our relationship with God only happens by entering into the community of Israel. Now that we know our relationship with God, we ask what kind of God we have.
Our God is a great God. God encompasses everything in the universe. As God is the creator of heaven and earth, that means God crosses all boundaries and categories in the world. When I say categories in the world, I mean time, gender, humans, animals, diseases, emotions and similar other categories. Since God created all including these categories, God contains the categories. It is important to remember that even though God contains these categories it does not limit God to exist within those categories alone. The categories of this world cannot contain God. When we understand God as a God that is beyond any category in this world then we can understand what we mean by a great God.
If God is beyond any category then God encompasses everything. With this understanding, we now have an idea of how God relates and works in the world. Since God created everything in the universe and God also encompassing every category, then God has authority over everything. This is God’s providence. God’s providence is not the luck that we think we have when we win in a lottery. God’s providence is not God’s intervention when somebody gives us food when we are hungry. God’s providence is not in the death of a person. Yes, not even in the presence of bone cancer in a faithful Christian. God’s providence is fulfilling God’s plan for the world.
God’s plan for the world is to call back the world into God’s household where the world could worship God. If God’s providence is to fulfill God’s plan then God’s providence means that everything in the world happens for us to be able to comeback to God’s fold to worship God. What does it mean for God’s providence for us and a person with bone cancer? We know that God is working in every aspect of our lives. If we are Christians and we have allowed God to take control of our lives then we know that God is working through us. But God working through us does not make us robots to God’s will for us. Rather, this is saying that we now belong to God’s community of chosen people.
God will lead us and guide us through any difficult journey and this will eventually lead us to God’s own will for our lives. Because God knows what is best for us, we can only trust in God that God will keep God’s promise as Jesus said in John 10:10 that “I [Jesus] came to give life and have it more abundantly.” If God’s providence means that God encompasses everything including diseases then God has authority over our health – including bone cancer. If God’s providence aims to bring everybody back to God’s fold through the incarnation of Christ, then one need not worry about diseases like bone cancer because our salvation has assured healing and restoration of our body when we are in God’s fold.
In closing, I am not offering you any easy answers to your questions. You have a valid right to question God about your condition. I will not say that it is a punishment for your lack of faith. I will not say that it is a trial for your faith to strengthen. Only remember that as Christians, we are in a relationship with God – the God of Israel. We must perceive the sufferings, problems and trials in our lives with respect to our relationship with God. Our human minds may fail to give us reasons to comprehend God’s own reasons but God our relationship with God will always reconcile and bring us back to God’s loving embrace. I will pray that God will continue to give you strength as you go through this difficult time in your life.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Covenant With Israel

The old tradition have taught Christians that the Christian Church has supersedded Israel as God's chosen people. When God became human incarnate in Jesus, faithful Christians have now become the chosen people replacing israel. But a deeper understanding of Christian roots have pointed Christians back to the Jewish faith - Israel's Covenant with God. Marshall and Wyschogrod have already emphasized that God's covenant with Israel still holds true. Jesus, a Jew, became the way for Gentiles to enter into the Jewish household and become part of the covenant with God. Christianity could not exist apart from the covenant with Israel. The understanding of "being grafted into the covenant" gives a wider understanding of Cristianity's shared history with the Jews. It replaces the "supercessesionism" - Christians replacing Israel as God's people, that has been tradionally understood. I hope this would open up new understanding among Jews and Christians and hopefully will also lead to understanding the Islam faith as well.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Persecution and Providence

I just read chapter 8 in the book The Elusive Mr. Wesley and I never realized the extent of persecution that the early Methodist went through. John Wesley wrote an account in his journal his experience when he went to preach in Wednesbury. After he had preached that day, the mob came and wanted his head. They disperesed for a while but later came back with more people with more force and angrier this time. But Wesley believed that God's providence will carry him through this danger. he recalled that he asked for one of the mob's leader and talked to him. He became peaceful and his anger was gone. Wesley then talked to several leaders more of the mob. Then he went out to talk to the mob who called for him to be brought to the judge and be punished. Wesley believed that it was providence because if he had not talk to the leaders of the mob before he went out, he would have been attacked right then and there. And so he was brought later that t night to the judge, but the judge would have nothing to do with him. It was already raining and so some of the mob went home. Others still went to another judge for Wesley to be punished but still the judge had nothing to do with Wesley. Again, as Wesley recounted, that it was God's providence that no judge would punish him for he did nothing wrong. And yet another mob - Wesley's supporters, came and a riot broke. Men and women fought barehands. One women knocked three men down to the ground. The mob retaliated and she was tackled to the ground and beaten almost to death. Each one was grabbing another. Wesley was in the midst of the riot trying to hold back the people. Despite being in the middle of the riot, God's providence was still at work as Wesley only got managed to be hit [softly] in the head, scratched in his arms and had his coat half-torn. Of course they were those who protected him but God was there to protect Wesley too. It is unimaginable that a riot this big could arise because of a preacher's sermon. What was more strinking was the fact that this did not happen just once but almost in any place that Wesley preached. Wesley recalled how many times he was persecuted and the same number of times God's providence have saved him from the angry mob.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Asian Christianity

I am reading a book on Asian Christianity entitled, Asian Expressions of Christian Commitment. It presents the Asian economic and political situation and then shows how Asian Christians live through it. From this experience and perspective develops Asian Theology. What this book offers is an understanding [for the students and Westerners] of the relevance of Christianity in Asia. The Christians themselves tell the stories and their stories shape Asian Theology.

This analysis assumes that Christianity brought from the West also brought within Christianity a Western culture irrelevant if not inapplicable for the Asians. I believe so, if we are to say that Christianity was corrupted when it was introduced in the 1500's by the colonial west using sword and cross.

Then, does Asian Theology doing a different version of a Christianity corrupted by Western culture? No, what Asian Theology is doing [at least from what the book presents] is to express the reality of Christ within the community of Asians. That to experience God, one need not have a Western background... but Asians can experience God even in the Asian situation.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Dilemma: Theology and Medicine

I have always been troubled by my situation. I am a medical doctor studying to earn an M.Divinity degree. Or what my friends would describe as a student of Science learning about Religion. What may seem weird and contradicting about this is the popular idea that Science is a school of logic and reason while Religion deals with mysticism and supernatural. But I always believed that at some point, Theology and Medicine intersect one another. In the first place, the mission work of Jesus included healing the sick and preaching God's message. In any case, Jesus was giving this broken world a hope of new life. Both Science and Theology have the same object - human body [and soul]. But what about the human body? Is it the physical body? The mind? Could they only have dialogue in Bioethics? Practices of caring? As I continue my theological journey, I hope and pray that God will open my mind to know the answers.