giving back to God and kerygma

A friend has recently explained the word kerygma to me. Which, to use his words, means a message in us that we are likely to preach over and over again. In seminary he learned that this message would also affect how they read the Bible. I’ve been thinking about this in relation to myself. You know, reflecting again ;). I thought about the manta on the blog – the concept of if something’s easy your doing it wrong. Or to put it another way, everything worth doing will be a challenge. And, I’ve realized that in general I expect things (especially things that are meaningful to me) to be a struggle.

Recently this has backfired on me. I have a lot of very good things going on in my life right now. Kids are well, wonderful man in my life, new exciting job, etc. It has gotten to the point however where I found myself stressing over what “bad” thing was going to happen. I mean, how could everything be so good so easily right? Although some would rightly point out the getting to this point wasn’t easy. I’ve done this my whole life. I used to call them stress fantasies – where I would imagine horrible things happening, because if I worried about it that would somehow fend it off. I know, it’s crazy.

So yesterday, I was rereading the email about kerygma and contemplating how really happy I was and realized that I had to put an end to this cycle of negative stress fantasies. I had gone from accepting a struggle to expecting a struggle to actually needing it, which is never healthy. But how? My mantra or kerygma hasn’t changed. I do believe that typically things will be challenging if they are worth having. But how could I continue to accept the really wonderful things in life that I had been blessed with without the negative thoughts?

A C. S. Lewis quote about “giving back to God” came to mind. When I first read this line, I had no idea what this meant. But it did seem that if I could somehow take the burden of all these good things off me then perhaps I could also shed the expectation of the corresponding bad thing.

But how was one to give back to God? Was I to thank Him for these good things? That doesn’t work for me since I don’t see God as handing out favors. Was I to thank God for the talents he gave me that allowed me to accomplish these things? Thus admitting everything truly came from him. Well, ok, but still that didn’t feel like giving; it felt like patting myself on the back more than anything. I pictured myself “offering” these blessings back to God. It looked awkward to say the least!

Perhaps, yet again, I was being too literal with God. After all, if He’s perfect He doesn’t need me to give Him things, just to lighten my burden. But to truly give back to Him I should give to others, His other creations. Share my joy, my happiness with others. By being happy, by caring, by giving others hope in some way. This for me feels like a very real way I can take my blessings and spread them around. And the best part for me and my kerygma is that it won’t be easy. I will have to seek out ways to give, ways to use all this positive energy I have right now to negate negativity.

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5 thoughts on “giving back to God and kerygma

  1. Ken says:

    You wrote: “I do believe that typically things will be challenging if they are worth having.” Or, “If you think it is easy, you are doing it wrong.”

    In the novel by Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It, I remember Norman writing that to his father salvation comes by grace, and grace does not come easy. His father was a Presbyterian minister. His father’s understanding of God and grace came by way of John Calvin, as does the understanding of many Americans, religious or not, but especially Presbyterians, Congregationalists and Disciples of Christ.

    If I read salvation as referring to everything that is worth having and I read grace as referring to how we get that, then I see a parallel with what you have written. In that way, I see a parallel between your words – things worth having will be challenging – and those of Norman Maclean’s – grace does not come easy. (He, like his father, saw this by metaphor in fly fishing.)

    David Noel Freedman, one of the most important Hebrew and Biblical scholars of the twentieth century, titled an anthology of his writings, Divine Commitment and Human Obligation. The title refers to two covenants: the unconditional promise (divine commitment) that God made to Abraham (Genesis 12.1-12) and the conditional promise that God made to Moses at Mount Sinai (Exodus through Deuteronomy.) The promise to Abraham was basically everything worth having in life and it required nothing in return (no stated human obligation.) The promise (divine commitment) to Moses also included everything worth having, but receiving it depended on fulfilling the commandments (human obligation.) David Noel Freedman observes that actually the arrangement with Moses is easier to bear than the one with Abraham. We know exactly what our obligation is and it is mainly to refrain from certain things such as idol worship, murder, adultery, and so forth. He points out that we could fulfill that promise merely by staying home and doing nothing. The promise to Abraham is harder to to bear because by requiring nothing in exchange for the grandest gift conceivable, it creates an overwhelming obligation, to give something proportional back – one that we can never fulfill.

    I see parallels between what David Noel Freedman wrote, what Norman Maclean wrote and what you wrote. Do you?

    In the Old Testament, many passages say that goodness will be rewarded and wickedness punished. But other passages note that this is not always true – often it is the wicked who are rewarded. And in Job, there is a frightening story of God’s own role in the affliction of Job – a good man, one who had already met the challenge.

    I see a parallel between your kerygma and the passages that say that goodness will be rewarded – things worth having will be challenging. Do you?

    In other postings you have written about not finding a place to fit Jesus into the picture. I think it was Alfred Kazin, in God and the American Writer, who observed that for those American’s most influenced by reformed theology, by John Calvin, it is hard to fit Jesus into the picture. When I think about the parallels that I described above, it strikes me that your struggle to place Jesus in the picture is related to this theological heritage as much as it is to your studies of history.

    It is tough for someone influenced by reformed theology to say, “I am saved,” the way so many other Christians can say it. In the reformed tradition, it is emphasized that salvation occurred when Jesus died on the cross. It is generally not something that people in the reformed tradition say happens, for example, when we are saved at an alter call or by participating in the mass. So, Jesus is in this sense in the past. And in the reformed tradition, salvation is purely a matter of God’s discretion – no one can ever know they will be saved for certain when they die, which is unlike the beliefs in other traditions. We fear things will turn out bad. Max Weber wrote about how this uncertainty over salvation led early American settlers to work so hard – worldly success was taken as comforting sign that one was receiving the blessings, the promises, of God, and would continue to receive them into eternity.

    In the reformed tradition, the freely given gift, the unconditional promise, grace is followed not only by all things worth having, but by an urge to do good things in our life, an urge to bless God. In David Noel Freedman’s writings, this is the urge to repay the overwhelming gift that can never be repaid. It can express itself in guilt and in charity.

    It seems likely that your kerygma is a variation of these themes. And if it is, then it means that in your journey you have never really left home. But I don’t know. What do you think?

    It is extremely hard to bless God – to find the words, to find the ways.

  2. Jodi says:

    Ken, a couple of things you said here definitly struck home.

    the first “David Noel Freedman observes that actually the arrangement with Moses is easier to bear than the one with Abraham. We know exactly what our obligation is…” Yes. This is something that I relate to. Especially becasue even when we understand the obligation there are still so many interpretations on those obligations. One’s prone to guilt would see no end to frustration.

    the second “In the reformed tradition, the freely given gift, the unconditional promise, grace is followed not only by all things worth having, but by an urge to do good things in our life, an urge to bless God. In David Noel Freedman’s writings, this is the urge to repay the overwhelming gift that can never be repaid. It can express itself in guilt and in charity.” Facsinating concept. I’ve been falling on the guilt side for a long time and I’m sick of it. but this is the feeling I have, like I have to give back for what I’ve been so lucky to have.

  3. Benedict says:

    Great stuff here! This is also the answer that many of the medieval mystics give, such as Benedict (the REAL Benedict) and Bernard and many others who I’m too tired to remember specifics. The irony is that with Protestantism’s rejection of “salvation by works”, the patron saint of guilt as the response to the gift of grace, Martin Luther, practically created a pathology of spiritual guilt.

    To bring this back to how this affects our children, since we both have young children, I think it’s important to instill in our kids this urge and to cultivate it in charity and thanksgiving more than guilt. I’m not saying that we should get rid of the guilt part; heck no. But it should not be guilt that forces us to act, as was the case with Luther; rather, guilt is a check on becoming self-righteous as we express our joy and thanksgiving for the gift of grace through our acts of charity.

  4. Jodi says:

    I couldn’t agree more. Interestingly my daughter goes to a Lutheran school and one of the things I’m concerned with is her talk about how “bad” she is. (she’s 5!) There is a real sense of sin they are instilling in kids.

  5. Benedict says:

    Unfortunately it’s not just Lutherans; in my own experience and observation, it’s much of the entire evangelical spectrum that goes this route. Rather than start with instilling an ethic of praise and thanksgiving in kids, the first thing they learn is “I’m a sinner” and at bedtime prayers “confess to Jesus what you did wrong today.” I’m a big fan of confession, but I’m not a fan of spiritual negativity, as I call it. Ugh. I better stop before I get myself all depressed.

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