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What Is Your Starting Point?

It's an old adage from the Bible that we should guard our hearts well.  For it is from our hearts that everything flows ... good, ill, or otherwise (Prov. 4:23).  We've seen the unfortunate truth of that statement once again as a result of the ISIS attacks in Paris and Beirut in the last week or so.

For many of us in the western world, it's forced us to see what is in the hearts and minds of those associated with ISIS.  Their hearts are bent on power and terror, control and fear.  For awhile, we weren't sure what this group was, where it came from, or even what to call it.  But, the truth has been made clear, and many - myself included - have been horrified to read about how violent and how extreme their ideology is.  A grisly violence seems to be both ISIS's fuel and purpose.

Unfortunately, the acts of terror that ISIS waged on the French and Lebanese citizens recently has revealed what's really in our hearts as Americans, even as Christians.  And, folks, some of it isn't pretty.  What we are seeing is that at the hearts of many in our country there are pools of fear and anger.  I, like many pastors, have been witnessing this fear in our people for some time.  Anyone living here the last half a decade knows about this current of anxiety, even anger.  The frustration, the pain, the blaming:  it has overtaken our political dialogues and it has inhibited not only our ability to make decisions at a national level.  It has also seeped into our local communities.  School boards, local governments, and - yes - even churches are weighed down and impeded by a looming sense of fear and insecurity.

We cannot sit long within this reality without asking one very important question.  What is our starting point?  Where is this anxiety and aggression coming from?  What lens are we looking through that is causing us to see the world this way?  Why has that lens - especially for Christians - become a lens of anxiety, of fear, and of combat.

There has to be another lens.  Surely, there has to be another grounding or narrative upon which we can build a vision for this world in which we live and for our life together.

There is.  We've just forgotten it.

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Two weeks ago, I met Alan Storey for the first time in my life.  He is a pastor in Cape Town, South Africa.  As such, he's been living in the swirl and chaos of a nation that has been captivated by fear and insecurity that goes back generations.  Because of that, I am convinced that he's been able to see better ways of navigating beyond fear.  Somehow, he and others in South Africa, even amidst all the terror and tragedy of Apartheid, have been able to come back to a more hopeful narrative.  And I was particularly challenged and moved by something Alan Storey lifted up in a video about justice in the Old Testament.  It had nothing to do with terror and militant forces ... and, yet, it had everything to do with the sweeping movement to arms.

Here's what he said.  It has everything to do with starting points.

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Most people aren't aware that before the Israelites came up with their own story of creation, there was another narrative already at work in the hearts and minds of the people of the Middle East.

Around 1200 BC, the Babylonians came up with a creation story, a way to explain how we all got here, what drives life, and what is really at work behind the scenes.  Can you guess what one word or expression best summed up this creation story known as the Enuma Elish.

Yup, violence.  Competition.  Battle.  Struggle.

In the story of Enuma Elish, there isn't just one God.  There are many gods, and all of these gods are in dire competition with one another.  It is a true battle, an all out war.  From the very beginning, the powers at play behind creation were seeking to kill or be killed.

That's not all.  Can you guess how human beings were first created in this story?

A skull was broken open.

Yes, in order to create human beings, violence was needed.  Violence was inherit.  Furthermore, since the very forces behind creation are violent, it is only natural that life itself is violent.  In the Enuma Elish worldview, it is truly a "survival of the fittest" world.  You either rule or are enslaved.

We know where this type of worldview gets us, don't we?  It leads to a punitive world where religions must be militant and where we must see our fellow human beings not as potential partners or as neighbors, but as competitors to be ruled or - worse - destroyed if they do not comply with our own beliefs, if they are not part of our "group."

In this way, ISIS is only the most recent manifestation of a truly ancient religion, a religion that baptizes and idolizes the most rebellious parts of our fallen hearts:  our pride, our enmity towards others, our dividing into groups that exclude and wound.  It is no surprise that the worldview of Enuma Elish leads inevitably to a hierarchy of power built upon fear and violence.  At the top are the violent gods, intent upon a bloody holiness and subjection.  And at the bottom are the slaves and infidels who must be subdued or crushed.  Again, the very same beliefs we now see being promoted and exalted by this twisted and unholy form of Islam known as ISIS.

Contrast the worldview of the Enuma Elish with the creation stories in Genesis and what do you get?
You get a radically and wholly different picture of creation.

Instead of many gods in battle with one another, you get one God ... one loving God, dwelling in infinite communion and relationship.

Instead of creation being a matter of violent force that sets off a chain of power plays, you get a creation that arises out of love and out of creativity ... a self-giving that is entirely about empowering and instilling us to both know and be known.

As Alan Storey says, the Genesis creation story frames everything within the context of love ... not fear or competition or violence.  In Genesis, we are created "in love, by love, and for love."  This, in fact, becomes a very basic, yet profound way to understand the whole Bible.  God has created us in love, by love and for the purpose of love ... both love towards God ... but also towards one another.

The one caveat, of course, is that God also creates us with the freedom to choose to refuse to love.  It is only as a result of that freedom that we descend down the path towards the Enuma Elish's worldview.  Having turned our back on love, we forget our first story.  We fall into the false belief that life is not about love.  It is about power.  It is about respect.  It is about winning and losing.

So, when our enemies attack, we must fight back.  We must win.

We.

Have.

Forgotten.

Our.

Story.

How else is it possible for us, as a "Christian nation" to have leaders now openly championing refusal to help or assist refugees?

Christians, I'm talking to you.  I'm talking primarily to those of you who claim to be followers of Jesus Christ, and yet have begun to default back to narratives of retribution and punishment.  I'm talking to those of us who want to apply labels or create restrictions for refugees because we are focused on our security.  And, I'm talking to myself because I'm not immune from losing track of the true story.  I'm talking to those parts in me that are still clinging to this worldview of fear and domination, the parts of my own heart that have been revealed as violent and full of fear.

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The trauma that has been unleashed upon Paris ... upon Beirut ... upon Syria ... upon Iraq ... it is a trauma born from hearts that have chosen the wrong starting point.  They have chosen the wrong story.

But, it can be so easy to see that error in the actions and mindset of others.

What is not as easy to see is how we individually and even as collective bodies can make the same mistake.

Part of my call is to help us return to our first story.  My call is to help us get back to our true starting point.

It's time for another story.

It's time for a better starting place.

If we are going to be a people of the good book ... it has to be the right book.

~Wes




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