A God that doesn't need a flashy introduction
By: Pastor Nate Mason
“He said further, "I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob." And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.”
Remember how cool the first Avengers movie was? There’s a lot of talk about “Superhero Fatigue” in the movie industry. I’m too much of a biased dork to have an objective opinion on the subject. I’m still excited to see movies about the B and C list heroes pursing the D list plot lines because those were the comics I read as a kid. However, I have to admit that the current string of superhero movies lacks the mystic and grandeur of the Comic Renaissance of the ‘10s. Remember how ominous and powerful Thor’s introduction was in the first Avengers movie? The good guys had just captured Loki, the bad guy, and were flying a jet through a storm. Loki looks nervous, because he knows what’s coming, then in a flash of lighting Thor forces himself into the jet, eyes ablaze and hammer held high. That’s how a god makes an entrance! The Wonder Woman movie had a great villain reveal. Towards the end of the movie, we figure out that the bad guy is really Ares, the god of war. Ares gives a creepy monologue before he starts throwing tanks and airplanes at the heroine, an attack that perfectly symbolizes Ares portfolio of authority.
These two movies do a great job of showing how the ancient world understood deities. If you were the god of “x” then you would use “x” to solve your problems. Thor, the god of lightning, would tend to use lighting to smite whatever is bothering him. Ares, the god of war, would send warriors to fix all of his problems. Moses, raised as a prince of Egypt, would have adopted this worldview, so it would be very confusing if a “new god” pops up and proclaims themselves the “the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” It really seems like lighting or war would be much more effective at solving problems than people who died hundreds of years before Moses was ever born. Even the mode of communication seems a bit subdued. A bush that’s burning but isn’t consumed is pretty cool, but it initially inspired a sense of curiosity rather than awe or fear like throwing lightning and tanks around would inspire. Later on, God would give into that flashy trend and start doing arena rock style entrances (see Ezekiel, Daniel, and Revelation), but God’s first revelation to Moses was comparatively subdued. I think God didn’t want a flashy entrance to overshadow the message.
A God of Process and Method
“Then the LORD said, "I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings” Exodus 3:7
A big reason I am Methodist is because of our missional focus, but man, so often mission committees really have no idea what we are doing. Growing up in South Dakota during the 80’s and 90’s, there was a big movement to collect Bibles and take them to the Native American Reservations. The objective was to “bring Christianity to the natives.” Nobody bothered to learn if they were already Christian or not. They were. Indigenous Americans are only marginally less Christian than the white population.[i] By the mid 90’s the mission work expanded to include more service and work projects, but to this day these projects focus on what WE think they need, rather than any actual need. I don’t want to rag on the churches I grew up in too much, because the churches I currently serve have a similar mentality. We want to help food insecurity, but we don’t want to take the time to learn about food insecurity. The committees consist of nobody who currently or ever has experienced the need we are trying to address.
God works a little differently than we do, thank God! God sees us, God hears our cries, God knows our suffering. Due to the omniscient nature of God, I would imagine it would be a lot easier for God to do the background learning on mission work than it is for us. By knowing the mission field so intimately, God understand the best way to make a difference. Sometimes, the best way to make a difference seems absurd, or even just too simple to work.
Right tool for the job
The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt. "But Moses said to God, "Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?" Exodus 3:9-11
No pressure Moses, but I’m sending YOU to go and liberate my people from 400 years of oppression from the greatest empire on the Earth at the time. You’d think the untold legions of angels, divinely produced natural disaster, or an old-fashioned pillar of fire would do a better job, but God chose Moses. So often, the solution we want will fail horribly. Just look at the track record of our international aid programs. If a country is suffering a famine, we should just ship them food, right? USAid has notoriously failed at providing food assistance to struggling nations and has often done more harm than good. We tend to ship massive quantities of corn, wheat, and soybeans to nations that don’t traditionally eat corn, wheat, or soybeans.
Furthermore, the aid frequently comes at inopportune times such as during the local harvest season. Providing an over abundance of food aid to agrarian economies tends to feed people, while creating an economic environment that will lead to even more, longer term famine.[ii]
God’s solution goes back to that “God of your Father’s” title he claimed back in the beginning. First God comes to know the people’s suffering, then, like Thor sends his lightning, God sends his people. God sends the Abrahams, Isaacs, and Jacobs of the day to go and make things right. God had the ideal pick when he called Moses. Moses knew the suffering of his people. He witnessed the brutality of enslavement in Egypt. Moses also knew the life that the Egyptians lived since he was an adopted prince of Egypt after all. Moses saw the saw the misery, heard the cries, and knew their suffering, just as God did.
The problem with our collective missions’ committees and our attempts at foreign aid is that we haven’t taken the time to know their suffering. If we don’t know, then we can’t really fix it. One of my favorite podcasts is Planet Money. It’s a mix of pop culture and economics. They did a piece once on a group called Give Directly.[iii] The simple premise of this organization was that they give financial donations directly to people in areas of need. With the mass use of cell phones powered by solar panels, very few places on Earth are inaccessible to the digital age. This group uses cell services to wire transfer funds directly to people in need. The theory is, we as Westerners in the most developed country on the planet really can’t know the precise needs of people a world away and so disconnected from our way of life. So we trust them to use the resources available to bring about the best result possible. They followed a community in Kenya after everyone in the village received a payment equal to about what the average Kenyan would earn in a year. They saw that the money went to things such as upgrading from a grass thatch roof to a tin roof, getting beds that were raised off the floor to avoid snake bites, and cultural needs such as paying a dowry. These are all things that are part of the every day life in that village, but I have yet to see any Western nonprofit fund raise to meet those basic needs. A decade ago Give Directly did a comparative analysis of the work they did and compared it to the work Heffer International was doing in a neighboring village in Kenya. Now, I know this might seem like blasphemy since we United Methodists LOVE our Heffer International, but they found a 4 to 1 return on investment for Give Directly versus Heffer International. Meaning, for every dollar you give to Heffer, Give Directly would do four times the amount of good with that dollar if you had given it to them. Now any giving is better than no giving, so if you love Heffer International, keep supporting them, but Give Directly found that other countries just don’t use dairy to the same extent we do. When we give them cows that are radically more productive than the cows they currently have available to them, there gets to be an issue of diminishing returns. We are giving them what we think they need, rather than getting to know their struggle.
God of Hope
I serve in rural churches, so I’m about 2/3rds the age of my average congregant. Several of the older folks I spend time around lament the state of the world. They decry the moral degradation of society[iv], the sky-high rates of violent crime[v], and the “dumbing down” of younger generations[vi]. By every observable measurement, all those beliefs are completely wrong. I shouldn’t pick on the older generations, people of all ages feel that way, but, again, they are wrong in that perception. Apart from creation care and social stratification[vii], the world is a significantly better place than it was a generation ago. I try put it into perspective by comparing the world my father grew up in, the world I grew up in, and the world my kids are growing up in. For all of my dad’s youth, segregation was still the law of the land. He was a freshman in college when the Stonewall riots happened. He also had to register for the Vietnam Draft. My dad was 22 when women finally had autonomy over their own bodies. Compare that to the life I’ve lived thus far. I was 8 when the Cold War ended. I was 27 when the first black president was elected. I was 33 when same sex marriage was legalized. My kids are growing up with technology and social advantages I could have never dreamed of twenty years ago. Iowa has universal pre-K, which, without exaggeration can positively affect all the problems facing society[viii]. Our educational systems are so much better equipped to identify emotional and developmental issues than they ever were in my day. We can figure out ways to help kids learn and adjust to their surroundings to make them live into their fullest potential. A lot of these advancements are at risk of going away, but still it really is an awesome time to be alive!
So why doesn’t it feel that way?
I’m sure there are lots of reasons for why we don’t see our privilege and prosperity, but I one of the big reasons I see is that many of us have decided to hear the cries of God’s children who are still struggling. We are seeing a resurgence in social activism. Millennials and Gen Z are more socially conscious than all previous generations still living[ix]. Objectively, racial justice, LGBTQ+ inclusion, and issues of poverty are radically better than they were back in my dad’s day. But better isn’t good enough, not for those who are being hurt by the current system, not for God who knows their suffering, and not for those who have answered God’s call.
I find a lot of hope in what’s going on in our country right now. I dislike the vitriol, the hate, and the conflict, but the issues we are fighting over have always been there. There has always been racism, but now we talk about it. LGBTQ+ people have always been around, but now we recognize them. Groups have always tried to ban good books, but now we see them do it.
The key factor is how we include those who we seek to serve. On the grander scale of social justice, we are listening to people who know the problem. Successful justice works are often lead by the people who know the problems best. Criminal justice reform is often lead by formerly incarcerated people, inclusion campaigns are led by LGBTQ+ people. The challenge for the church on the local level is to find people who have experienced the problem before we try to jump into the ministry. Just think of all the “children’s programing” that have failed because parents of the children weren’t involved in the planning. Now imagine what actual justice issues look like from that perspective.
I find hope in the fact that we are finally starting to address the problems in our world. We see the suffering. That’s how
Admittedly HUGE issues