Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Meet the Family

Nearly every budding relationship has this pivotal, defining moment—a kind of relational rite of passage. I picture it this way: a young man, after a few sleepless nights, walks with his beloved up the concrete steps to a door, biting his lip, convinced that everyone on the entire block can hear his heartbeat. He’s imagined every possible scenario of what might happen next, as the door swings open…

It’s no surprise that countless stories have been told, and in recent years an entire movie franchise launched, off the premise of this kind of moment—that sacred (and at times scandalous) moment when young lady or young man takes their new loved one home to “meet the family.” It’s an anxious time: because there is risk—what if the family doesn’t like her? What if mom doesn’t approve of him?

But you know, of course, the deeper fear isn’t what the family thinks, it’s what your beloved thinks. You see, it’s harder to hide now that you are surrounded by those who know you best; it’s harder to maintain the image of what you want that special person to think about you. Now that she’s met my family, he wonders, what if she wants to run? She’s thinking: what if he decides to opt out, now that he knows who I am and where I’m from?

This sacred moment is far more than an ancient custom or an empty ritual. This moment is critical to any relationship because there is a real sense in which you cannot truly know someone until you know the people closest to their heart. You do not truly know someone until you know who they love and to whom they are connected. That’s one way I think of the role that Israel plays in the Story of God. In the OT, when we hear the stories, sing the songs, pray the ancient prayers, it is as if God is taking us home to meet the family—to learn something of his character and his heart by seeing the company that he keeps.

This is one reason that I encourage and try to practice entering into Israel’s story. Three practices I might suggest are these. First, pray the Psalms. The liturgical collection in Scripture that makes up the book of Psalms has been the prayer book and hymnal of the people of God throughout the ages. Every conceivable emotion is contained in its pages: every possible struggle we face, every longing we experience. I learned to lament, to grieve honestly and openly to my God, through the Psalms. I continue to learn the language of praise and adoration through the Psalms. As I’ve said so many times, we do not learn to talk in an English or Grammar class. We learned to speak by mimicking those who already knew. Prayer is no different: we learn to communicate and commune with the One who made us by mimicking the masters we find in the Psalms.

Second, I would encourage all of us to “go East.” Although there is much in the Western historical and philosophical heritage to be embraced and appreciated, the faith revealed in Scripture is an Eastern tradition. Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ was a Jewish man. To know him, then, we must know the Story that defined his life, the Story of Israel. One great resource I have been given in recent years is the website, Ray Vanderlaan’s online resource to help Jesus followers reconnect with our Jewish roots. He has a brief slide presentation on the site to help people understand the difference between Eastern and Western thought. I also have appreciated the book by Philip Yancey called The Bible Jesus Read, which opens up the Old Testament and its worldview as the framing story of Jesus. Another resource I’d mention is any of N.T. Wright’s historical material—the chapter on Israel in Simply Christian, or for particularly ambitious readers, his work Jesus and the Victory of God, which explores how Jesus’ mission and activity was defined by the Jewish mindset and expectations of his time.

The final practice to help us meet the family of God in Israel is to see their stories as our stories. At its simplest, this means to actually attend to the Old Testament texts and to allow God to shape us and locate us in that narrative. A friend put me on to a phenomenal article by Donald Miller (on the one thing that will allow you to “rise above your peers,” i.e., reading great books: and this sentence struck me as strangely familiar: “I started reading Shakespeare, even though I didn’t understand him. It didn’t matter that I didn’t understand him, because I could understand parts, and the parts were worth the reading of the whole.” I feel the same way about the stories and writings of the Old Testament. Let’s be honest: parts of the Old Testament seem so distant from our time and understanding that it makes reading them difficult. But in those same pages there are also countless stories, prayers, experiences and testimonies of God interacting with his people that stir our souls in such a way to make it worth the effort. As my beautiful bride put it so well the other day, “I feel different when I open the Bible; just reading this book affects me in ways that no other writing does.”

At least in my better moments, I long to know God. I long to connect with the One who has given me life and given life to this world. I long to know his Son, who is willing to sacrifice everything so the world might be renewed and reconciled to his Father. And I long to know the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life, who works on the stage of human history to consummate the Father’s plan. I sense this God calling me, and all who share this longing, to come and “meet the family” in the Story of Israel.

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