Saturday, January 30, 2010


Genesis 2:1-3

The second time I watched The Passion of the Christ, I knew what was coming, and I was ready. I was going to get through it without being totally destabilized, without gasping for air like a goldfish flopping on a theater seat. I wasn't going to get sucker punched again.

Emotionally I braced myself into my seat that evening, promising myself I would maintain my equilibrium and not get swept away by the gore, the horror, the violence of it. And I did pretty well until the moment when Jesus is carrying his cross down the Via Dolorosa and he stumbles. His mother runs to him and he looks her full in the face, one eye swollen shut and blood oozing from each thorn in his crown and says, "Look, mother, I make all things new!"

I lost it.

You might think it strange that this moment threw me so hard. I think there are a couple reasons. First, in the middle of my strapped-in, hunkered-down spiritual attitude, God caught me (once again) by surprise. And second, this is what the crucifixion is all about. It ties in directly, do-not-pass-Go-or-collect-$200, to this part of the creation story.

God says, "It is finished" here on the seventh day. He surveys all he has made and it's good. He's done a good job of creating, and now like any parent he's eager to see what this creation will become. Trouble is, creation gets broken and a deadly infection seeps in. What was good and whole now writhes in pain. So God enacts his plan to re-create creation, to make it whole again. To make it new. The plan hinges not on a flood that will erase everything and allow a clean slate, but on God himself entering creation, submitting himself to the infection, to fight it from the inside out. His end goal, though, is still the same -- to make all things new. The crucifixion of Jesus is not just about erasing the hash marks on some cosmic demerit board so that you can escape hell. It is about all creation being healed and made whole again. You and I are a part of this, but it's bigger than we are. If you doubt this, read Romans 8 a few times. That will expand your thinking.

On the seventh day God finished his creation. On the cross Jesus says, "It is finished." In Revelation 21 God says, "Behold! I am making all things new." This thread runs from start to finish through the Bible. God so loved his creation that he gave his Son -- so that the creation itself might be renewed, restored, healed, made whole. Right now it is happening here and there, now and then -- but someday God will complete the work and make a new heavens and a new earth. That new creation, and our place in it, hinges on the cross, where God defined the bedrock foundation on which the universe is built: self-sacrificing love. Where God reigns supreme, this self-sacrificing love flows through every molecule of creation, every relationship, every conversation. When Jesus described the kingdom of God to his followers, it was this foundation of love he was describing.

It was this love that prompted God to create in the first place. This love moved Jesus to the cross. This love will someday make all creation new.

Friday, January 29, 2010


As a preacher, I cordially dislike Thanksgiving. Not the action, but the holiday. Okay, that's not true. I like the holiday, but I struggle with preaching on Thanksgiving.

True gratitude is one of the most enjoyable things I have experienced. To be grateful to someone is to know your connection with them, to acknowledge your joyful dependence on them, and to recognize the blessing that has come from that relationship. Gratitude is fun. So "giving thanks" is a huge part of our relationship with God, and it is probably impossible to do too much "giving thanks" in our prayers. We are absolutely dependent on God for everything we have and are, and as we recognize that dependence, we can experience great joy. So I love giving thanks. Every evening when we pray as a family, my prayers start out with thanks to God for many things that day.

But I dislike preaching on Thanksgiving because there is a tremendous temptation as a preacher to say, in some way, "YOU SHOULD BE THANKFUL!" This gracious opportunity for joyful dependence becomes instead a law-laden guilt trip that says, "You're a self-centered boor; you own too much stuff and you spend too much of your income on yourself and the least you could do is be thankful for the ability to overindulge." I know preachers don't really say that at Thanksgiving, but it feels like it sometimes. Anytime we use the word "should" we are probably dropping cement blocks of Law on people's shoulders.

A friend used to say, "Don't should on me."

There's the danger with this text -- Genesis 2:1-3. God finishes his work of creating the universe in six days, and on the seventh day he rests. So he makes Day 7 holy forever. This verse became the root of the Jews' Sabbath observance, the root of the tradition of not working on Sundays, blue laws, and all the rest. We see this text as normative for our own scheduling. We recognize (and the scientific establishment has verified) the importance of taking a day out of seven to rest. This is a gracious gift from a loving God.

But it's very easy, especially these days, to beat ourselves up by how unrestful we are. Christian teachers and leaders -- myself included -- harp on our busy schedules, our overcommitments, our scattered lives, our failures to "be still and know that I am God," as Psalm 46 says. We flog ourselves with our busy-ness. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa, we say (from the old Latin liturgy, I am guilty, I am guilty, I am most guilty). Then we go back to our calendars, cars, schedules, cell phones, and all the rest of the accoutrements that clutter our lives and keep us from rest.

Maybe beating ourselves up doesn't work. Maybe it doesn't really change things. Maybe we like being busy and this idea of rest scares us a little bit. (Is it possible that we're so enslaved to the need to be productive -- see my post on fruitfulness -- that we can't bear to leave an hour unfilled?)

So the question I have to ask when I bump up against these verses in Genesis is, what am I missing? Like a kid filling himself on Doritos just before an amazing Thanksgiving dinner is laid out on the table, have I filled my life so full that there's no room for what God wants? And what is it God wants?

If you start thinking about this and start to beat yourself up, go do something else for a while. Forget it. But if the idea of rest sounds like a cup of cold water to a thirsty person, if you're dying from clutter and overcommitment and longing for peace, if you have been staying in bed just three more minutes and wishing it could be another hour -- not to sleep, just to relax -- if being busy is hurting you and you're ready to consider alternatives -- I have a recommendation. It's a book by an amazing writer, Mark Buchanan, who is a pastor of sorts in western Canada. He has written a book called
The Rest of God (pun intended) that takes on this whole idea of resting in a new and different way. Just as a for example, when he talks about setting aside a day for rest, the first question that comes up is, "What can't I do on that day?" Can I go shopping? Can I mow the lawn? Can I read a book? Can I cook supper? I really like his answer. He says his rule of thumb is, if it's a day of rest, don't do anything you have to do. So if you don't have to mow the lawn, you can do it. If you don't have to go shopping and that would be a restful thing for you, do it. If cooking supper is a delight that gives you life and you don't need to do it (you have options), go ahead.

I like it.

I think Jesus is big into our resting. He often told his disciples to go away and rest. He took time alone to rest. When he faced a crisis or had been in the middle of intensity for too long, he rested.

What am I missing?

Then Jesus said, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light. (Matthew 11:28-30)

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Spinning off of Genesis

I'm always intrigued by people who take scripture and apply it to stuff in the present day. I was reading an amazing book (re-reading, actually, and worth every moment) about what churches should really be doing with their time and energy. If you're in any kind of church leadership or if you are interested at all in churches or if you despise churches and love Jesus, you ought to read Organic Church by Neil Cole. You may not agree with him in all details but he'll certainly make you think hard.

Here is a lengthy quote that lays out some challenging ideas and ends with this concept of fruitfulness, in a very poignant way. Most of Cole's book is an answer to the problem he lays out in this quote:

American Christianity is dying. Our future is in serious jeopardy. We are deathly ill and don’t even know it. Our illness has so saturated our institutions that we are not healthy enough to live beyond the present generation. Our only hope is to try to keep current organizations alive for as long as possible, by any means possible. This is the mentality in Christian ‘churchianity.’ Many institutions are holding on to life support, fearing that death is the end of us. Do you think I am overstating our condition? Then it is even more evidence of how bad off we are. Look at the facts.

The Southern Baptists have said that only 4 percent of the churches in America will plant a daughter church. That means that 96 percent of the conventional churches in America will never give birth. On the basis of experience, I believe this statistic is true. Even worse, I suspect that the majority of the 4 percent that do give birth will do so with an ‘unwanted pregnancy’ which we call a church split.

Many people think this state of affairs is fine. I have heard people say, ‘We have plenty of churches. There are churches all over the place that sit empty, so why start new ones? We don’t need more churches, but better ones.’ Can you imagine making such a statement about people? ‘We have plenty of people. We don’t need more people, just better ones. Why have more babies?’ This short-range thinking is only interested in the here and now and does not think there are long-term consequences for living selfish lives.

… Imagine the headlines if it were suddenly discovered that 96 percent of the women in America were no longer fertile and could not have babies. We would instantly know two things. First, this is not natural, so there is something wrong with their health. Second, we would also know that the future is in serious jeopardy. This is the state of the church in America right now. It is that serious, and we need to take heed.

We need a new form of church that can be fruitful and multiply. Many of our churches do not even want to multiply. (From Organic Church, pages 91-92)

So what would it look like if churches were fruitful, instead of productive? (Lots of churches aren't even productive, but that's another matter.) What about pastors? Or Christians in general? When Jesus talked about what he dreamed for us, he used this image of fruitfulness in a very powerful way. (See John 15).

Do you suppose that Genesis 1 even has something to say to churches? How about that.

Monday, January 25, 2010


Over the last few years I have been astounded by the number of times the Bible talks about bearing fruit or fruitfulness. The first time I heard this theme lifted up was at a Central staff retreat when one of the speakers who spent time with us talked about the difference between productivity and fruitfulness.

Have you ever thought about this?

At first they don't seem so different. If I'm working hard, I'm making things happen, doing my job, I'm producing something. I'm "bearing fruit." It's kind of a poetic, biblical way to say the same thing. Right?

Maybe not so much.

The question at heart is, whose work is getting done? When I produce something, I am the driver, the decision maker, the agenda owner. I'm the one making something happen. Think how we use that word. If you are a productive member of society, you are valuable, you're worth keeping around because of what you make or do. Many jobs include an evaluation based on productivity.

I live in Minnesota, where nearly everyone is a Vikings fan. Last night they lost the NFC Championship game to the New Orleans Saints, 31-28, in overtime. One of the local pundits observed that productivity in Minnesota would be way down today due to all the after-the-fact quarterbacking that would happen around the water coolers across the state. Productivity is (duh!) about what we produce. If I am distracted, depressed, unfocused, talking too much, or in any other way off-center, I will be less productive. If I am a grief-stricken Vikings fan, I will not be very productive today.

Is this different from fruitfulness?

Think about the picture. A tree doesn't decide what kind of fruit to bear -- that is encoded in its DNA. A tree doesn't decide where to bear fruit -- that is decided by the "accident" of where a seed is dropped or a cutting established. A tree doesn't will the fruit to appear -- the tree simply does what it does, growing deep roots and leaves that reach to the sunlight, and fruit happens. God has created the tree through a bunch of natural processes and sets those same natural processes in place so that the tree can bear fruit.

Is it possible that the fruit God wants you to bear is not the same as the difference you want to make? Is it possible that you are bearing fruit, or God is preparing you to bear fruit, in a way that is off your radar, in an arena where you don't even realize you have an impact?

One of the worst tragedies in this world is that of committed Christians who are out to make a difference for God but who neglect the places they have been planted -- their spouses, children, neighborhoods. Generation after generation sees "great" Christian leaders who rise up to change the world, but then we find that their foundations are made of sand. They're striving for productivity rather than bearing fruit.

Where have you been planted? What kind of fruit has God created you to bear? How have you bought into the lie of productivity?

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Systematic vs. Contextual

As some of you have no doubt figured out by now, I don't do systematic theology very well.


Systematic theology is where you create a more-or-less eternal statement about (to borrow a phrase from Doug Adams and Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy) life, the universe, and everything. The nature of God. The condition of humanity. What, in fact, is reality?

In seminary we spent a great deal of time studying systematic theology. We dissected and analyzed reality to make it fit someone's system of thought. We categorized life into suffering, and joy, and vocation, and sin, and lots of other columns that lie beautiful and lifeless like butterflies tacked to a board. I hated it.

I don't think you can categorize reality. You have to live it, and that's dangerous. This morning, as I write, it has rained and continues to rain. Rain in January in Minnesota is a Very Bad Thing. The roads, the trees, the mailboxes, are all coated with ice. Cars shoot off into the snowbanks and find that the ice atop the snow is not thick enough to support them. Tow trucks skate and slither from there to here and back again rescuing weary Saturday drivers standing by their stranded vehicles, coming down off a terrible adrenaline high. ("Why didn't I just stay home?") THIS IS LIFE. It's slippery and dangerous and sooner or later you will end up in a ditch or you'll run into someone who is driving three miles an hour trying to be Careful.

What possible good would it do to try to categorize the experience? The result might read very much like a driver's training manual. "Under icy conditions, drivers must take extra caution to leave adequate stopping distance between vehicles. Reduce speeds and remain alert in order to avoid difficulties. If possible, travel should be delayed under such conditions. In the event that your vehicle begins to slide on the ice, steer into the slide in order to correct. Reduce speed and exercise extreme caution."

All good advice. But it bears about as much resemblance to the actual experience of driving on ice -- the adrenaline, white-knuckled, screaming-at-the-person-sitting-in-the-passenger's-seat-while-the-world-seems-to-rotate-three-hundred-and-sixty-degrees-around-you-at-fifty-eight-miles-an-hour-just-before-you-call-the-towtruck experience -- as a carefully pinned dead butterfly on cardboard bears to a gypsy moth swooping through the dark in search of a candle.

Here's my deal with systematic theology. Like the driver's ed manual, we try to categorize and quantify and understand God. We attempt, like Augustine, to pour the wide ocean of God into the tiny little hole in the sand of our brains. If you want to understand the ocean, don't try to analyze it. Take a kayak out beyond the breakers instead and you'll know the ocean in a whole new way. If you want to understand a thunderstorm, don't read about low pressure systems and cumulonimbus clouds; instead, when that purple wall cloud comes rushing in from the southwest, climb an oak tree and hang on for dear life while you listen to it creak and groan and the lightning smacks and pops into the forest around you and you wonder if the sheets of cold rain coming down would extinguish the flames and you wait to get fried. (This is also a great way to learn about prayer, by the way.) If you want to know about love, don't start with a book. Go get your heart tangled up in a relationship with someone who really matters to you.

Genesis isn't giving us a systematic picture of all the truth about God in a nicely categorized passage. The creation story in Genesis is like a chaperone at the beginning of a dance introducing us to our new partner. "Jeff, this is the universe. Universe, meet Jeff." I hold out my hands like I think we're going to do the waltz I stumbled through in fifth grade phy ed, and the Universe grabs me with an iron grip and whirls off into a tarantella. All the while God is grinning and playing his fiddle and singing faster and faster. (Look closely at Michelangelo's painting of God on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and you can see an uncanny resemblance to Charlie Daniels. Accident? I don't think so.) At this point I have a choice. I can say, "Sorry, broke a heel, thanks anyway, thirsty, need to get some punch" and go stand with everyone else who is sitting along the edge of the gym in the dark complaining about the band -- or I can fumble and flop and try to keep up and laugh and get my foot stepped on and sweat and enjoy every second of it.

By the way, I think it's only fair to tell you that dancing terrifies me and I'm horrible at it.

Theology -- the study of the things of God -- is about context. It's about living where you are, in this particular slice of life, to the deepest and fullest extent possible. So if, as we're meandering through Genesis, you think I've missed something important, go back and focus on it and figure out why that piece is stuck in your throat. What is God saying? That's your context. I'm over on the other side of the forest, climbing as high as I can, hanging on for dear life, waiting for the lightning and laughing my heart out.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Christianity & Culture weekend

Some readers in the Twin Cities area might be interested in the Worldview Academy "Christianity & Culture" weekend February 19-20 at Nowthen Alliance. Find out more information about the weekend and about Worldview here. To get registration and contact information, click here.

My daughters have attended a week-long camp for several summers sponsored by the Worldview organization. Get this -- it's a week long camp that includes 25+ hours of lecture, and each year they can't wait to go back. Recently my younger daughter and I were talking about how it is so difficult for many high school students to take tests. She made the comment that most of test-taking was just logic and thinking the potential answers through. "But then," she said, "I guess most kids haven't been to Worldview, so they maybe don't know how to think things through." This weekend is designed for both youth and adults and does a great job helping people assess the culture around them from a biblical perspective.

As a pastor and theologian, I can almost always find some minor point to disagree with in anyone's presentation if I look hard enough. Worldview is certainly no exception. I would never recommend that you just go and swallow everything they tell you without critically examining it. But repeatedly I've seen the material that Worldview teaches used by God to help people understand that following Jesus and following the ways of the world are different.

The early bird discount ends February 1st, so if you're interested it's worthwhile to jump on it right away. If you have questions, shoot me an email.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Male and female

Here, for the first time in scripture, we find the differentiation of genders. From this point forward, the distinction between male and female will be huge. We cannot begin to imagine creation without gender differences, and rightly so. Maleness and femaleness are created into the very core of our being.

When I was much younger, it was fashionable to say -- as many of my teachers in said -- that gender was just something about the surface. Being male or female was just an accident of tissues, not something that really made a core difference. It was only a cultural bias, we were told, that made a big deal out of being male or female. I suppose at the time (in the late 70's) this was a natural outgrowth of the push for women's liberation, equal pay for equal work, and all those worthy goals that I fully support. But as in so many cases, the pendulum swung so far that we said things that were just unbelievable -- like, "boys and girls are exactly the same, it is just their plumbing that is different." Hogwash.

Genesis says,

"So God created human beings in his own image.
In the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.

Once we get into the version of humans being created in Genesis 2 things will look a little different -- we'll see the man created first and the woman later, and this will lead us to a whole new set of reflections about relationships. Even Genesis 2, as we will see, gives a sense of balance and equality between genders. It is important to recognize that Genesis first mentions gender in a symmetrical, balanced way -- not in a hierarchical system in which males are inherently better than females or vice versa. We need each other and we are interrelated in the plan of God. Gender bias, male domination, misogyny, and many other evils will appear in scripture -- but not here. In our creation we are together, united in bearing the image of God.

What do we do with the God-given gift of gender? God gives clear instructions: "Be fruitful and multiply." Fruitfulness is an idea that will come back again and again. Then we are told to "exercise dominion" or "rule" over the rest of creation. While our fallen minds immediately jump to the concept of domination, this idea doesn't necessarily stick to these verses. If we are created in the image of God, what does it mean to rule? What does it mean to exercise dominion -- literally, "lordship" over creation?

It means that we exercise authority in the same way God exercises authority. How does this happen? Jesus is our example. He is the "visible expression of the invisible God" (see Colossians 1:15). How did Jesus exercise authority? Take a look at John 13. Take a look at Philippians 2. What we see is that because he is Lord, Jesus is willing to empty himself for the sake of his beloved creation. He is willing to pick up a towel and do the servant's job. His lordship is based on loving servanthood. When we believe that our "dominion" over creation means that we can rape the land, strip mine the minerals, abuse the atmosphere, and build shopping malls on the wetlands, we have totally missed what it means to be created in the image of God. Yes, God will allow us to behave in these ways. But we will reap what we sow.

In the same way, when we look at what it means to be male and female, we treat each other in this same sense of loving servanthood. We tend each other and nurture each other as the bearers of the image of God. We get down on our knees with a towel and a basin. We empty ourselves, not because we are worthless -- far from it -- but because this is the character of the God whose image we bear.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The image of God

Genesis 1:26-31

Whole books could be written on this passage alone. There is so much packed into these few verses! What does it mean that humans are created in the image of God? What does it mean that we are created male and female in that image? What does it mean for us to exercise dominion, to rule over the rest of creation? The questions go on and on.

Michelangelo portrayed God in the image of man on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. That is, he extrapolated from human form and chose to portray God as a bearded old man, holding out his finger to create Adam. Visually, the image is stunning. Taken literally, it leaves something to be desired. In the 1970's, on the cover of his album "Aqualung," Jethro Tull stated that "Man created God in his own image ..." This is a danger we must always be aware of. We picture God as we are. If I am petty and fearful, I picture God this way. If I keep score, guess what my God does? If I am judgmental, or play favorites, or if I am unfair, guess what? We limit God by perceiving him through our own image.

So how do we get this business of being created in the image of God in proper perspective? Elsewhere the Bible makes pretty clear that being made in the image of God is not about noses, fingers, eyebrows, or any other physical feature. "God is Spirit," Jesus said in John 4. But there is something about God that we imitate, an image that we bear that reflects the Creator.

The best stab I can make toward defining this is that we are designed for relationships. It becomes clearer and clearer as you wade through the Bible that God is all about relationships. He starts them, refines them, recasts and revises and reforms them, but God is all about relationships. Over and over again we see God making covenants to try to define relationships. Abraham and Sarah. Jacob. Moses. David. Jesus brought relationships into sharp focus. "I no longer call you servants, but friends," he told his disciples. Even his opening line, "Come, follow me," was an invitation to relationship.

Think of how you became the person you are today. Without question, your strengths and your character were formed in the forge of relationships. Who was a role model, a hero, for you? Who wounded you so deeply you have never recovered? Who limps along with you from day to day, sharing the joys and sorrows of your life? We are relational beings. None of us can live without relationships, not even the most solitary hermit. We are constantly interacting and influencing those around us. If you doubt this, take a look at the boom in the last few years of social media -- the second great wave of the Internet is all about relationships.

It is in relationships we find our deepest joys, our most wrenching grief, our most twisted wrongs. It is in relationships that we experience the fullest expression of our created potential. We cannot escape this. Relationships cripple us and redeem us. As much as we would sometimes like to live totally independent, we cannot -- we must not -- do so. We are created for relationships.

This is no accident. This is God's design in creation. We need to live in community. We need to depend on people, and have them rely on us. Trust. Compassion. Humor. Interdependence. Comfort. Challenge. All of these words are lived out in relationships.

Shortly we will see that it is in our relationships, too, that we experience our greatest brokenness. But for the moment, suffice it to say that God has created us in his image, meaning that we are created for relationships. This is where our lives will be shaped, our characters formed. If we are to find our place in creation, it will depend on the recognition that God has created us for relationship with himself, with other humans, and with the rest of creation. In that web of intricately interconnected ties we find ourselves and learn who we are.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Bring forth

Continuing to read The Genesis Enigma, and finding it thought-provoking. Not because I agree with all of it, but because I haven't thought about things from some of these perspectives, and it challenges me. I've never had a long conversation about Genesis 1 with an evolutionary biologist, and that's what this book amounts to.

One of the ideas that Parker throws out is the term the King James translates "bring forth" or the NIV translates "produce." It's there in verses 11, 20, 21, and 24. As in "Let the earth bring forth" -- vegetation, sea creatures, and land animals. Interesting that God speaks of the earth bringing these forms of life to creation. Even more interesting that the next time this word appears is in Genesis 3:16-18. Twice. Hm.

So -- at the risk of yanking some chains -- does this imply that God uses another device or method to create these things? No one here is disputing that God is creator, but by what method does he create? If God says, "Let the earth bring forth ..." does that imply that there is some earthly tool used to create these things? Like, perhaps, an evolutionary process overseen and guided by God as a creative tool?

I'm not arguing for a synthesis of science and religion, not in any way. But I think too often those who see themselves as the guardians of the Bible (as though it needed guarding!) are quick to say, "No! God created it just like this because THIS IS WHAT I BELIEVE!" The danger, of course, is that we look only at our beliefs and not at what the Bible actually says.

"Let the earth bring forth life." Why would God say it that way? Why would the writer(s) of Genesis write it down this way? I don't want to make a mountain out of a molehill (no matter how either one was created) but it's enough to make you think.

And maybe that's the point.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Space and life and beauty

As I write this I'm on a Confirmation retreat with about 50 freshmen and another 20-25 adults. It's great. We're at Castaway, a Young Life Camp near Detroit Lakes, MN. This is an amazing, beautiful place. I'm one of the fortunate leaders who get to stay in the Clipper. (All the buildings and rooms at Castaway have nautical names.) At left is a picture of the fireplace here. The cathedral ceilings and open beam construction, the intricate ship models and just overall amazingness (that's my daughter's word) of the place -- it feels good.

I was listening to an NPR broadcast -- Krista Tippett's "Speaking of Faith" program -- in which she interviews John Polkinghorne, a British scientist and Anglican priest. (Click here for the full interview.) One of the things they talked about was the presence of beauty in creation.

Why is beauty so important to us? Why do open spaces or beautiful settings move us so powerfully? Or for that matter, why do we like cathedral ceilings? They're terribly impractical from the perspective of heating, dusting, and use of space. Yet there is something in this space here in the living room at the Clipper that draws my heart upward toward the open-beamed ceiling and outward, through the expansive windows, to the broad stretch of lake ice that opens out for miles, starting at the bottom of the bluff below me.

As you read the orderly account of creation in Genesis 1, you can begin to sense that beauty is dear to God's heart. From the intricate beauty of the stars to the majestic movement of a pod of orcas to the wheeling flight of pelicans, God enjoys -- I don't think we're stretching the truth to use that word -- beauty.

Part of what makes something beautiful, I believe, is the interplay between space and abundance. "Abundance" might not be the right word; I'm thinking of the words here in the creation story like "teeming" and "filled" and "variety" and such. Or where in John 10 Jesus says, "I came that they might have life, and have it abundantly." The night sky would not be beautiful without the backdrop of a starless void. The unbearable beauty of falling in love would be less if we had never known loneliness. I remember the joy of finding a patch of blackberries in a forest when we lived near Seattle -- a joy that was only memorable because it was a dry year and the blackberry bushes that filled the road ditches and the vacant lots were bare, but somehow this patch had found an underground source of water, and the berries were full and rich and luscious and the juices dripped down my chin. Beautiful. When space and abundant life are arranged in a way that balances them and sets each off against the other, it is beautiful.

This idea of beauty, that it is about the presence of abundant life starkly contrasted against its opposite so that we can actually see it, tells us something about the heart of God. God is all about giving life. The chaotic void becomes the arena for God to create. The empty world becomes God's garden. The quiet garden needs voices. God brings life, and life abundant, to fill the emptiness of the void.

And we are created in God's image. (We'll have more to say about this soon.) So we go looking for life, especially when our lives seem to have become a tepid canvas without form or beauty to fill them. We seek out all kinds of abundance to fill the empty depths of our souls. New cars. New careers. New lovers. New addictions. We turn to all these things hoping for something that will bring life to us. But John 1 tells us that it is in Jesus that we find life that lights up the darkened space of our days. Beautiful.

If you're looking for more on God's enjoyment of his beautiful creation, just for kicks take a look at Job 38-41. Wow!

Friday, January 15, 2010


Genesis 1:14-19

Have you noticed how the word "awesome" has been stolen? It used to be if something was "awesome" that meant it shook you to your core. Now it means nothing.

I don't know another word, however, to explain what happens in this passage. God has created vegetation -- life has begun -- and now he sets himself to create an orderly system of lights that will govern days, and seasons, and years. (I read a book once that claimed the zodiac was originally designed by God to point the way to Christ, not to predict whether you were going to have a good day or not. Fascinating.)

But the piece that is awesome here hasn't shown up yet. Hang on.

Ever since growing up in northern Minnesota far away from the bright city lights, I've been fascinated by the night sky. Look up on a cold January night when there's no moon and you can see thousands and thousands of stars. The Milky Way looks like a bright ribbon of light across the cold sky. Bundle up and watch long enough and you begin to see the entire sky pinwheeling around Polaris like some gigantic nightly dance, which of course means that it's really the earth that is dancing some marvelous pirouette so we can see the whole sky every 24 hours.

Astronomers tell us that our own galaxy, the Milky Way, has about 100 billion stars organized in a pinwheel-like formation with either two or four arms extended from a bulging disc at the core. The Milky Way sits in the center of a group of "satellite galaxies", sort of our close friends in this part of the universe. Farther away are many other galaxies -- in fact, roughly another 100 billion galaxies. Do the multiplication and you come up with an amazing -- awesome -- number of stars. Somewhere in the neighborhood of a 10 with twenty-two zeroes after it. It is a number far greater than we can imagine. In 1995, the Hubble Space Telescope spent ten days focusing on a tiny fragment of sky near the handle of the Big Dipper. If you had a friend stand 75 feet away from you and hold up a dime, that's how much of the sky Hubble used. Taking picture after picture of this same slice of sky in various formats, Hubble looked deeper and deeper into the sky to see farther and farther and capture objects that were far too faint to be seen by our eyes. Scientists cobbled together the multiple images of this same tiny fragment of sky and here is the result:

This image shows more than 1500 galaxies -- not stars, galaxies -- in that one tiny core sample of space. (The scientists who organized this project intentionally chose a portion of the sky that would have few or no stars in the foreground.) Astronomers tell us that the density of the universe -- the distribution of galaxies -- is roughly the same in all directions from us. So if you could get rid of the foreground lights and look all over the night sky, and if your eyes were sufficiently sensitive, this is what you would see in every direction.

When God describes our planet, and our sun, and the lights that hang around to help us gauge times and seasons, almost as an afterthought Genesis adds, "He also made the stars." Like, oh, yeah, I almost forgot to mention it.

Our God is awesome.

Thursday, January 14, 2010


Continuing the thought from the last entry:

By God's grace, you are not me. I have my own baggage, my own strengths, my own sins, and you have yours. You own yours and I own mine, and perhaps we can live in relationship. If we don't own our own stuff, relationships cannot happen because they are just chaos. I become just a projection of your inner garbage, and you are just a tool I use for my own ends. This need for appropriate boundaries is true in any relationship, whether we're talking about friendship or marriage or about a relationship with God. And sometimes in the wisdom of God the separation needs to be greater. The sun cannot come into contact with the earth, or life on this planet would end. That relationship has to be distant. The polar ice caps cannot rub up against the tropical seashore, or both will be destroyed. It's just part of the order of a diverse creation.
In some human relationships, too, we recognize that it is wiser to maintain a distance. Occasionally I will talk with someone who has been deeply wounded, and they struggle to forgive the one who wounded them. They somehow believe that if they forgive that person, they have to open themselves again to that relationship in a way that may well put them at risk to be wounded all over again. Sometimes that is necessary and appropriate -- but often forgiveness means letting go of the hurt, and letting go of the desire for vengeance, and then living at an appropriate distance.

So what does "reconciliation" mean? Paul says it best in Ephesians 2:

"13But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility 15by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, 16and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. 17And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. 18For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints ..."
First of all, reconciliation does not change the fact that we are separate. But it introduces a relationship where before there was only a "dividing wall of hostility." Paul is first speaking here to the separation between Jews and Gentiles and all the rules the Jews had developed to create a chasm of separation between the two. Paul is not saying that from here on out there will be no such thing as Jews and Gentiles -- but rather that what they have in common is greater than what separates them, namely that all together are restored to relationship with God through the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. We can extrapolate this to other separations in our world. When we are alienated from an individual, or when we isolate and insulate ourselves from a group of people (the poor, for example, or AIDS victims, or people of another race or culture), the blood of Christ brings us together on common ground at the foot of the cross. What we have in common -- our dependence on God's grace at the cross -- is greater than what separates us, and makes relationship possible. (Notice also that reconciliation is not just about you and me, but about being ushered into a wider community. But that's fodder for another post.)

When we begin to grasp this idea that God has created difference, that God has created separation, we begin to delight in it. This distinction is part of the goodness of creation, and we get in trouble when we blur the categories. When I recognize that I am different from another person, I can begin to value their unique perspectives and learn from the things they do or believe that are different. It doesn't mean that I should give up what I do or believe. Instead, I can learn from them and value them for who they are.

This has huge implications for how Jesus' followers live in the world. We do not discard the world, but we also don't give in and become like the world. This is the world, after all, that "God so loved" that Jesus came to build a relationship, to make reconciliation possible.


Have you noticed how much separating happens in Genesis 1? God separates light from darkness, heavens from earth, land from water, and on it goes. In our culture today many people make God all about reconciliation, by which they mean that it doesn't matter if you're this or that, we should all get along. I'm all for getting along, but God is about relationship -- and relationships require good boundaries. So as God creates order out of chaos, he first creates separation.

A few years ago there was a popular book called Boundaries that spawned a series of sequels and workbooks and individual studies. These books were helpful to many, many people because when our lives are chaotic, one of the first casualties is that we fail to have good boundaries. Who I am and who you are gets blurred and I end up owning your baggage and you end up suffering for my mistakes. Boundaries help us have healthy relationships.

So what does it mean to have relationship? It means that heaven is not earth, land is not water, I am not you. But our eyes and our hearts are drawn to the places where what has been separated meets. We look to the horizon. We play at the beach. We adore images of lovers holding hands, lips meeting, a head on a shoulder, the electricity of eye contact. Even in the natural world, life is most abundant in the transition zone where one kind of terrain meets another. But in order for that to happen, the river needs to be different from the forest needs to be different from the prairie.

We don't necessarily like it when God separates things, because when he does he also names them. When God names me for what I am, it makes me a little uncomfortable. The truth can be hard to take. A professor of mine once said that the most offensive message the church can speak to the world is, "Your sin is forgiven for Jesus' sake." I've seen this myself -- the world's reaction is most often to indignantly say, "My sin? What do you mean, 'my sin'? Who are you to label me a sinner?" The message of reconciliation gets lost because the world is offended at being separated and named. We don't want to hear it.

I would like to believe lots of things about myself that are just not true. I would like to believe I'm right, I'm logical, I'm pure. But while these things may sometimes be true of me, often I am wrong, I'm irrational, I'm polluted. So when God speaks the truth about me -- whether he uses the voice of his written word in the Bible or the voice of my wife or the voice of my coworkers -- and about my separation from what I want to believe about myself, I cringe. But if I reject this word, if I refuse to see what is true about myself, I remain cut off from relationship with God and with others. If I refuse to recognize the boundary that fences me in, I can never come up against it in order to have relationship with anyone beyond myself.

In short, what God is doing in this act of separating and naming creation is an act of love. He creates the universe -- and you and me -- in such a way that we can come to the end of ourselves, where we can have relationship with that which is beyond us.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Curve ball

Okay, now that I've made my claim about how Genesis is all about what happened at my house yesterday afternoon, etc., that it totally misses the point of Genesis to speculate about what happened back when -- I still hold to those points of view, by the way -- I need to share with you a book I've been reading.

I was at a bookstore not long ago looking for something by N.T. Wright (highly recommended) and they didn't have the book I was looking for. But I did run across something else. It's called The Genesis Enigma and it's written by Andrew Parker, an evolutionary biologist from England. He subscribes to Darwinian evolution and writes rather tongue-in-cheek about how the church has been on the wrong side of so many scientific advances. But the subtitle of this book is "Why the Bible is scientifically accurate." Parker's claim to fame is his research into the evolution of the eye, which he says first appeared in trilobites about 521 million years ago. He writes in great detail about the whole process of evolution from the Big Bang down through the formation of the solar system, the earth, and the appearance of life. For a non-scientist like me, he writes very accessibly and not only tells what scientists believe happened, but also about the scientists through history who made the discoveries that lead us in these directions. It's a fascinating read.

The thrust of his book, though, is that he makes a detailed and specific set of claims that the Genesis 1 creation account is matched in great detail with evolutionary chronology. The deeper he dug into the resemblance between the two sequences, the more mystified he became. How could a desert people like the Israelites come up with a mythology that tells about the appearance of life in exactly the same order (according to Parker) that evolutionary biology does? He has finally come to the conclusion that this sequence in Genesis 1 is strong evidence for the divine inspiration of the Bible. Parker himself is uncomfortable with his conclusions -- it's almost funny to read when he gets squirmy about claiming divine inspiration. But he follows the evidence resolutely where it leads him (I skipped ahead and read the end of the book already.)

There are some holes in Parker's argument that even I could drive a truck through. But those holes don't necessarily threaten his overall assertion -- that there is an uncanny resemblance between the chronology proposed by evolutionary biologists and the sequence of creation in Genesis.

So while I don't believe arguing about what happened back then is particularly helpful when it comes to Genesis (I still say that's missing the point) it is fascinating to me to think that God might have been planting seeds in that account through which Andrew Parker and others like him might someday be drawn to know him. Good stuff.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Sort of another rabbit trail

I was reading an excellent article (click here to view the whole thing) from Christianity Today -- I highly recommend that you read the entire article. I only post here an excerpt that smacked me in the face today. As I read these words, I realized how often I am tempted to worship at the altar of effectiveness. I serve the idol of "making an impact" rather than serving God. In some very real sense, I'm tempted to measure my worth by how much of a difference my life makes. These words brought me up short and helped me (again) to see where I've been getting off track. While this excerpt refers to what happens when God creates light (referencing Matthew 5) and so connects to Genesis 1, and though we'll come back to some related issues of productivity and emptiness in Genesis 4, I share this here more as a sidebar than a direct commentary on Genesis. It is however a good reminder that the verses we've been discussing in Genesis are indeed connected to nearly everything else:

The fact that everything we undertake will fail to produce the results we hope for is not a reason to do nothing. Far from it. The mistake we sometimes make is doing only those things we imagine will make a difference. When that is the case, our motive—the thing the drives us—is change. If change doesn't happen, or happen in the way we expect, we have no recourse but to fall into a funk. But there is a more excellent way.

That is the way of love, or more particularly, loving obedience. Jesus doesn't call us to make a difference in the world, let alone to transform the world. In the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:13-16), he does tell us that we will be "salt"—that is, we will preserve the world from complete self-destruction. No small thing that, but hardly world transformation. He also tells us we will be "light," that is, we'll help people see his truth. But when people see truth, often only hardness of heart sets in. Or worse: hostility erupts, and the bearers of the light are thrown into prison and killed, and the recipients of light remain in darkness.

Salt and light—that's about the extent of our effectiveness. Nothing about transforming the world through our efforts. Make no mistake: Jesus does indeed call us into the world to do stuff: preach, baptize, teach, and heal. But he does not promise results. Faithful diligence in such tasks will sometimes change lives and change communities. Whenever this happens, we can rejoice that God has permitted us to see him at work! But a lot of times when the church has obeyed faithfully, we've only received hardship—violence that seems to make things worse for victim and perpetrator alike.

How do you read Genesis?

The first dozen chapters of Genesis probably spark more controversy in our culture than any other part of the Bible. Creationists bang the drum for God getting it all done in a literal week; evolutionists roll their eyes and dismiss the whole thing as mythology. Advocates of intelligent design try to find a middle road and take the whole thing as some kind of wider parable that assures us there really is a driving force behind the whole business. The average church-goer is stuck somewhere on this spectrum, maybe believing that each day played out like Genesis 1 says, maybe believing it's just intended to assure us in general terms that God created the world and it didn't come about by accident. People on the extremes tend to fight about this creation debate in school board meetings and on talk radio shows, in books and interviews and occasionally in a face-to-face debate.

The whole thing generates a lot more heat than light, which this time of year in Minnesota is maybe okay.

A "literal" reading of Genesis 1-12 brings up a few questions. Having spent seven years in youth ministry and eleven years as a pastor, I've heard most of the questions that go with these chapters. Here are a few of the best:
  • What existed before all this story started?
  • How long ago is "in the beginning"?
  • Do snakes really talk?
  • Of course the classic, Did Adam & Eve have belly buttons?
  • Where did Cain's wife come from?
  • Why did Cain found a city if there were a dozen people on earth?
  • What about cave men? Where do they fit?
  • What about dinosaurs?
  • What about the fossil record?
  • How could the earth really be repopulated from the animals on one boat?
  • How could a wooden boat the size of the ark hold together in heavy seas?
  • Could people really live 900 years or more?
  • And of course there are more.
These questions are all very entertaining. But they totally miss the point. I'm about to give away my bias, so pay attention.

All these questions assume a post-enlightenment view of the Genesis stories. It's a way of understanding that says you get to know something by taking it apart, like a toaster -- you can disassemble your toaster and figure out what connects to what and why it works. (Please unplug it before trying this at home.) On non-living things, this works just fine, though I always had trouble getting things put back together again, and frequently they didn't work quite the same as they did before I took them apart. But this way of "knowing" doesn't work so well on living things, for example your cat. You can't take the cat apart and put it back together again. You have to live with the cat in order to know it, and the more time you spend with it the better you'll understand it. (Reading a little Kipling might help as well: "I am the cat who walks by himself, and all places are alike to me.")

The Enlightenment, that period of time when we believed that pure logic and rationality would solve all our problems and Science held all the answers, has made it very hard for you and me to understand the Bible. I think to "understand" the Bible we have to live in relationship with it, get to know it, treat it like a living thing.

In short, I don't find it helpful to dissect Genesis in order to understand it. It isn't helpful to me to ask questions of truth and falsehood, accuracy or inaccuracy. I find it much more helpful to live with the stories and relate to these stories like a living thing, because I believe that's exactly what they are. And as I do that, I find that these are stories about me. I learn about myself as I read Genesis. Who am I? Where do I come from? Why was I created? What is my relationship to the rest of creation? Why do I do the things I do? Why do the people around me do the things they do?

So in short, Genesis isn't about what happened back then. It's about what happened at my house this afternoon. Reading it for the sake of ancient history might be fun and entertaining in a speculative kind of way, but it totally misses the point.

I know many of you are thinking, "Yeah, but ..." and you're going to tell me it's accurate, you can trust it, or it's mythological, or whatever. I know. Really, I do. But for the moment, let it go and listen to what the story says about you and what you see when you look out your window, or across the dinner table, or on the evening news.

Friday, January 8, 2010

And it was good

Genesis 1:3-5

Here's an important question that might seem at first like just so much philosophical trivia:

Is something "Good" because God says it's good, or is there a greater idea of "good" that God is bound to follow? Another way to ask the same question -- does "good" reflect some moral abstraction, or does it reflect the personality of God?

I believe God determines what is good based on his own nature. So if something -- beauty, intimacy, relationship, courage -- lines up with God's character, it is good. We might use those same words to apply to things that appeal to us, but are far from God's heart, and then our notion of beauty or of courage is a twisted mistake.

Why is this important?

Because, simply, if we can know "good" apart from knowing God, we have the authority to make up our own minds about what is beneficial, what is positive, what is preferred, without ever submitting our wills to God. This is precisely the sin of the garden of Eden (to jump ahead a couple chapters) and is often the reason why strong Christian movements get derailed and turn in on themselves to pursue their own agendas. Well meaning Christians who decide they know what is "good" and pursue it apart from the primary agenda of knowing, loving, and submitting to God, tend to end up in a swamp.

Eve and Adam chose to eat the fruit in the garden in order to know how to discern Good from Evil apart from God. But here in Genesis 1, God himself declares what is "good." Making up our own minds is an ongoing temptation for us. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his final work, Ethics (which he never completed but which was assembled and published after his death under the Nazis in 1945), states that pursuing the knowledge of good in itself means we are missing the mark, for only through Jesus Christ can we know what is good for us, i.e., what it is that God intends for us.

Yet over and over again we are tempted to make up our own minds about right and wrong, good and bad, without ever seeking Jesus or his guidance on these questions. We decide a thing is good and we pursue it to the bitter end, not realizing that the good we are pursuing has turned on us and become evil before our eyes.

The whole thing reminds me of a line from the classic western "The Outlaw Josey Wales." A brutal, despicable northern officer has sworn to bring in the hero, Josey Wales, and has pressed one of Wales' friends into helping him. At one point in the movie he talks about all the other outlaws they'll go after when they've gotten Wales. The other man protests, "Once we get Wales it ends." But the evil man responds, totally sincere, "Doing right ain't got no end."

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Rabbit trail

Departing from Genesis for a moment ...

I just read this news release from the ELCA news service about the church's publishing house having considerable trouble with retirement accounts for its employees. Late in the article the publishing house says they cannot cover their employees' retirement deficits out of their general fund because of "our own operational challenges resulting from fewer sales to shrinking ELCA congregations, and increasing competition from the Internet and publishers outside of the Lutheran tradition." The whole article -- and especially this statement -- is a harsh reminder of one of the biggest problems the Lutheran church as a whole has had for the last three hundred years.

Namely, we have operated as a closed system, believing it is better to be strictly "Lutheran" in all our ways rather than interacting with other Christians in our context. So Augsburg Fortress, our publishing house, has avoided selling to a general Christian market for fear of watering down our "Lutheran" identity. They have counted on sales within ELCA congregations, but those congregations have started looking at AF as only one option among many -- and sales have suffered. This downward trend is that much worse because growing Lutheran churches have tended to look elsewhere for resources. They are growing because they have a strong emphasis on boldly proclaiming Jesus as Lord and they have a high view of the Bible's authority. Sadly AF has not done a good job of providing resources for these congregations. Because AF doesn't see themselves in direct competition with other Christian publishers, they've not felt the pressure to assess their market and provide the resources their market is demanding.

What's the point? I'm not trying to bash Augsburg Fortress or the ELCA. As a friend of mine said recently, "The ELCA is old news." But as we move forward, it is important for us to realize that being Lutheran doesn't mean we isolate ourselves in a bubble. Note: I believe being Lutheran is one very, very good way of being a follower of Jesus. I'm proud of that identity. But we have to first know what it means to follow Jesus, and then know what it means to be Lutheran well enough that we can be out in the world, out in the mix of other flavors of Christianity, with the confidence that we have a voice, we have a contribution. The Lutheran distinctives of Law and Gospel as the lens through which we view the Bible, salvation by grace alone through faith alone, the priesthood of all believers, and the other distinctive teachings of the Lutheran tradition are an important piece the whole Christian church needs. So we cannot keep to ourselves and smugly feel that we've got it right -- Lutheran Christians need to be out in the world with the rest of the body of Jesus Christ, bringing our perspective and learning from the gifts other members of the body bring. Together we can help the world know Jesus.

And the other side of this coin is that Lutherans need what other Christians bring. We need the charismatics' passionate desire for the presence of the Spirit. We need the Calvinists' stand on God's sovereignty. We need the Wesleyans' longing for personal holiness. We need the Baptists' emphasis on personal salvation and the Roman Catholics' sense of the history and tradition of the body of Christ throughout the world. We need the Salvation Army's (did you know they're a church?) heart for the poor.

These other parts of the Body are not the enemy. Rather, the enemy is the one who seeks to keep us in conflict with these other Christians so that we are not engaged in making Jesus known to the world.

... and there was light

Genesis 1:3

And there was light. Seems so matter-of-fact, doesn't it? God said it, and it happened.

Two questions.

First, what would happen in your life if you had this ability?

Second, what would happen in your life if you really believed this about God?

First topic. Our words have power. When we speak, things change. Maybe it's not so obvious as "let there be light, and there was light," but what about other words? What about these:

"I'm proud of you."
"You are beautiful."
"I love you."
"I hate you."
"You are a failure."

Do these words have power? Better believe it. When you speak things change. We see this most clearly with the hurtful words. Even if you don't mean those words, they change things. Even if you're just speaking out of the woundedness of your heart, those words change things, create wounds in other hearts. A friend of mine says, "Hurt people hurt people." Our words most often carry that hurt and inflict it on others.

But it's also true of the words that build people up. Have you ever known someone whose words were consistently positive, upbuilding, helpful, loving? As long as there is sincerity behind those positive words, you want to be with that person. You want to spend more time with them, because it's a healing thing, a life-giving thing.

So maybe we do have this ability, more than we know. Our words change things. The Bible says it a little differently -- "Whatever you sow, you will also reap" (see Galatians 6:7). When we plant bitter, hurtful words, we will reap a terrible harvest later. When we plant deceit, when we plant arrogance, when we plant duplicity, the harvest is coming. Similarly, when we plant truth, compassion, gentleness, integrity, the harvest is coming. Count on it. It starts with our words.

But what about God's words? This brings us to the second topic. What would happen if we really believed that God was as good as his word? So look at some of the words God speaks in scripture. Do we believe these words?

"Do not be afraid."
"Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name."
"You are mine."
"I know the plans I have for you, plans for good and not for evil."
"When you pass through the waters, I will be with you."
"In this world you will have trouble; but take heart, I have overcome the world."
"I go to prepare a place for you."
"I no longer call you servants but friends."

What would it mean to believe, down at the core of our being, that these words are true, and directed to us? What would change today if you knew that God called you his friend? If you knew beyond any doubt that God has good plans for you?

This business of speaking is powerful stuff. God says, "Let there be light" and the light appears. We say, "I love you" and the words call forth love in response. God speaks to us and says, "Do not be afraid." Are we willing to listen and let the words shape us and call forth a God-given confidence in the face of trouble?

Lord, let your light shine in us!

Wednesday, January 6, 2010


Genesis 1:1-5

God speaks. Two words in Hebrew. "Let there be light" in English. The immediate result is "and there was light." God's word is powerful and has immediate results.

Anticipating the turn of the millennium ten years ago, Life magazine made a list of the hundred most influential people in the last thousand years. When you think back over the last thousand years of history, lots of names come to the fore -- scientists, explorers, statesmen, even a theologian or two. Who would you choose for number one on a list like that? They chose Thomas Edison -- because his invention of the light bulb has totally revolutionized how we live. If you want to do an amazing experiment, try doing without artificial light for 24 hours. No inside lights, no flashlights, no headlights, no LED lights, no illuminated clocks or watches or computer screens. I spend lots of time in wilderness situations -- backcountry canoeing, hunting, and camping -- and I don't think I have EVER gone without artificial light for 24 hours. It's an intriguing idea.

Think of the difference light makes in your life. Think how dependent most of us are on our eyes. Some of the people I've learned the most from are those who live without physical sight. They learn to rely on other ways of gaining information, other ways of navigating, other ways of "seeing". They have a lot to teach!

When God starts creating, he begins with light. Whether you imagine this first moment of creation as a brilliant Big Bang 14 billion years ago, or as a sudden appearance of light emanating from God's being six thousand years ago, doesn't matter a great deal. God begins the creation by creating light.

1 John 1 helps us understand part of why this might be. John tells us, "God is light and in him is no darkness whatsoever." What might this mean on a literal level? What might it mean metaphorically? Think of all the associations we have in our language with light. Look at this list and think through what it might mean to use each of these words or expressions, especially if we use them to refer to people:

In the dark

Can you think of others that belong on the list? In our language and in our thinking, light is almost always a positive thing. We treasure brightness and color, both attributes of light.

Think what light makes possible. From a biological point of view, there would be no life without light. Photosynthesis in plants becomes one of the key building blocks for all life. Your skin absorbs sunlight and miraculously manufactures vitamin D. Sensors in your brain release chemicals in response to light that make you feel happy and well balanced. The lack of these chemicals sends some people into seasonal depression. (A few years ago I turned down a job offer on beautiful Resurrection Bay in Seward, Alaska. I had lived seven years in Seattle with 50 inches of rain each year, and I wasn't bothered by that -- but I couldn't imagine living in a place that gets three times that!) The very act of reading could not happen without light. The deeper you dig, the greater you realize is your dependence on light. Most of us have never thought about this. It is staggering.

So if God is light and in him there is no darkness, such that your reading lamp, my laptop screen, the hundred watt bulbs in my garage, and even the sun are just dim reflections of his glory, what does that say about your utter, largely unrealized, dependence on him?

Monday, January 4, 2010


Genesis 1:1-3

One of the hardest things for us when we start reading the Bible is that we think differently than the Hebrews. Our minds have been trained to value a certain kind of logic, to see things in categories of "true / false" and to separate things into neat categories. A long line of human history has trained us not to get what the Bible has to say.

To the Hebrew mind, chaos is very close, if not identical, to evil. So when Genesis says that "the earth was formless and void" it's a statement about chaos. There's no order, no system, no function, no good. It's just chaos, and the result of chaos is that the earth is void. It's empty in the sense of its value, its usefulness, its connection to the purposes of God.

Ever feel like your life is formless and void? So many of us do. Think how much structure is imposed on your life -- structure that was foreign to the ancient Hebrews. How many clocks can you see right now? How many appointments are on your calendar for the next week? What schedules -- school, work, television, trains, flights, appointments, whatever -- do you hold in your head? What structures have you memorized if you start to think about road maps, store maps, mall maps, airport maps? We are structured down to our toenails. Yet -- and this is partly because of the structure -- our lives so often feel formless and void, totally chaotic.

The creation story is largely about God imposing order -- good order -- onto chaos. So many of us have taken the good gift of God to the nth degree and created a whole new kind of chaos. We have overstructured and overscheduled our lives to the point where the form has become void, the structure has become chaotic.

The earth was formless and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. Is it dark over the deep places in your heart? Is there an impenetrable veil over the canyons of your heart? One of the truths the Bible tells us that is sometimes hard to hear is that the depths of our hearts often betray us. We are prone to hide things away there -- old hurts, fears, bitterness, abandoned hopes get piled up in the depths of our hearts but they do not go away. We find ourselves acting and speaking in ways that mystify us because we do not realize that "out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks" (Luke 6:45). The things hidden in the depths still move and manipulate us. The word of God reveals a whole new level of chaos in our lives when it points our attention toward the depths of our hearts.

But the story doesn't stop there. That is the "before" picture. The next line is critical, and (as often happens in the Bible) there are some word plays going on here. The Hebrew and Greek words for "wind" and "spirit" and "breath" are identical. So you could say in the next line (as some translations do) that a wind from God was blowing over the waters, or (as other translations do) the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters, and there are lots of other possibilities as well. I like the term one translation uses, that the Spirit of God was "brooding" over the chaos.

Fact is, God comprehends the depths, the chaos, the formless void. But it is unable to comprehend God. The nature of chaos leaves it alienated from God, unable to reach out -- but God hovers, broods, plots for good in the midst of chaos.

Is it helpful to know that in those chaotic places in your life, God's Spirit is brooding, hovering, flowing? That the hidden depths of your heart are hidden to you, but not to God? God will speak and bring light into that darkness ... but we're getting ahead of ourselves.

For the moment, look at the world around you. What examples of chaos, emptiness, darkness do you see? What evidences do you see that the Spirit of God is moving?

Visions of heaven?

In Sunday School in about third grade we were assigned the task of drawing a picture of what we thought heaven looked like. I drew a giant triangular something-or-other with a cross on it and a doorway underneath, clouds all around, and scrounged a yellow crayon to somehow include my impression that the light from the throne of God was leaking out. Even at the time the picture underwhelmed me.

I think that's what we so often do with this idea of heaven. We make it about a place, a nice place, a place we all want to go because it's so nice, and we imagine it to be just like Minnesota but without winter or mosquitoes. And the Scandinavians will all be happy.


But the Bible doesn't say that God created heaven. It says he created "the heavens and the earth." Then the text goes on in great -- GREAT -- detail about the earth, but we don't talk much about the heavens. A little bit with creating stars and birds and stuff that flies above our heads. But we don't get much detail, only a wistful sense that there's something good -- heavenly, even -- that is out of our reach.

In ancient Hebrew culture, or in any culture prior to the Wright Brothers or Sputnik, it was easy to imagine God "up there somewhere" and to make "heaven" -- the place where God lived -- synonymous with "the heavens" by which we meant whatever is above the sky.

Is that what the Bible is talking about? The Bible doesn't seem interested in revealing some otherworldly place where God has set up shop. Rather, the Bible seems quite interested in helping us see that God is present here, and we just fail to see. (Read Isaiah 6:1-9, for example.)

What if "the heavens" is referring not to some separate abode of God, such that God has to leave home to come to earth, but what if "the heavens" is referring to a spiritual realm that exists alongside but hidden from our physical reality? So that "the heavens" is the abode of God not separate from the physical creation, but simply hidden from it? If you do a Bible search and look at the term "heavens" throughout the Bible, you'll find initially that in most places early on in the Bible, it sounds like "heavens" is just another word for sky. The Bible refers many times to the "birds of the heavens," for example, and doesn't seem to mean some strange kind of spiritual birds. But watch later on -- starting with Ezekiel and some of the other later prophets, and especially in the New Testament -- and you begin to hear about God "opening the heavens" to reveal spiritual things to his people. In fact, when Jesus was baptized, "the heavens were opened" and God was in some sense revealed in Jesus.

That would make sense of a lot of the Bible. When Ephesians 2:6 says that we are seated with Christ "in the heavens" it doesn't mean that we have a spot reserved in that great picnic shelter in the sky, but rather that the spiritual reality of our lives has changed in a way that is at least partly hidden from us but is potent and important nonetheless.

So if this is true, God is not bound by the spiritual world, but he created that as well. He created both the spiritual and the physical. He is not limited by his nature as a spiritual being any more than he is limited by Jesus taking on physical flesh. And especially if you take 2 Peter seriously, when God decides to redo all of creation, it will mean a total recreation of not only the physical world but the spiritual realms as well.

Saturday, January 2, 2010


Genesis 1:1

In the beginning God created. It's part of what God does.

A cabinetmaker designing a corner china cabinet to custom-fit a space in his mother's house. A farmer manufacturing a part to coax a few more years of life out of old equipment. The consummate hostess planning a party. The chef creating a masterpiece. Painters and musicians, writers and mechanics and city planners and teachers and architects and plumbers all bear the image of God by creating stuff.

What is this act of "creating"?

Luther's explanation of the first article of the Apostles Creed in the Small Catechism says this:
"I believe that God has made me and all creatures; that He has given me my body and soul, eyes, ears, and all my limbs, my reason, and all my senses, and still preserves them; in addition thereto, clothing and shoes, meat and drink, house and homestead, wife and children, fields, cattle, and all my goods; that He provides me richly and daily with all that I need to support this body and life, protects me from all danger, and guards me and preserves me from all evil; and all this out of pure, fatherly, divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness in me; for all which I owe it to Him to thank, praise, serve, and obey Him. This is most certainly true."
Creation is a diverse and complex business. It involves everything from aardvarks to zebras, from shoes to family, the spending money in your pocket and the Himalayas. Seeing God as creator is a view we will never fully grasp, for we can never fully grasp creation itself. Yet God stands over and outside his creation (as well as being deeply present within it and to it in some sense) as the Creator.

When we think of God as Creator we are often tempted to envision him in a static pose much like Michelangelo's God on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, reaching out his finger to touch Adam and bring him to life. But I like Tony Campolo's picture of God as creator. He says, have you ever watched a little child playing a game? Swing them in the air and they giggle and as soon as their feet touch the ground they say, "Do it again!" Campolo pictures God making something simple, trivial, like a daisy, and out of his thought, his hands, his words springs a flower, and he's so excited he giggles and says, "Do it again! Do it again! Do it again!" And over and over again until pretty soon there's a whole field of daisies. Think how many times you have to rinse and repeat this idea to get just Minnesota, let alone the universe!

Two key ideas we can't leave this word "created" without touching:

First, God created you. He is absolutely madly crazy in love passionate about you, because you are his creation. You look in the mirror and see a worn leather bag of sin, fault, trouble, wrinkles, failures, disappointments, and tragedy. God looks in your face and sees the pinnacle of his creation. I am not making this up. This is just the tip of the iceberg of what it means when we say that God loves you. Just the tip.

Second, (jumping ahead a little bit) God made you in his image. We'll have a lot more to say about that later. But for now suffice it to say that you are creative because God has made you creative. There are activities that bring you deep down joy because God wove those into your being. Yes, there has been some trouble along the way, and yes, there are some things you do that maybe aren't what God intended. Don't focus on those things for the moment. Right now, we need to see that we are created -- you and me -- to do certain things that bring joy to us because God wired that desire and that appetite for joy into our beings. Maybe it's teaching. Maybe it's rebuilding an engine or talking with a lonely person or baking pumpkin bread. Knowing God as creator means that you acknowledge his Godhood by doing what he created you to do. Coyotes are created to hunt. Trout are created to swim. What are you created to do? What activities bring deep, deep joy to your heart? This doesn't mean you have to make your living at these activities. (Why do we make this so complicated?) It just means you find a way to do that stuff that's deep in your heart.

A few years ago I got down on myself in serious fashion because when I go to the Boundary Waters (one of my joy activities) I sometimes neglect to read my Bible or even pray much. I came back from a canoe trip and had a really rough time getting back into the spiritual disciplines of prayer and Bible reading. I started to beat myself up pretty badly, and for a while I thought maybe I need to cut way back on my wilderness time. Finally one morning when I couldn't sleep for worrying about this, I got up, made a pot of coffee, and watched the sunrise from my screen porch. Sitting out there listening to the cardinals and robins, I began to think about all the "wilderness" stuff in the Bible. Reading that book, it sounds like God has an interest in the natural world. (I wrote a 30 page paper on this in seminary, by the way -- you'd think I would know by now.) Finally as I sat, a little confused, God's Spirit nudged me hard. "You think I'm afraid of your love of wilderness?" he said. "I created you that way. I wired that love into you. Stop worrying so much. Be who I created you to be."

God has a deep delight in creating. He is passionate about his creation, like the cabinetmaker or the chef. He created you to be passionate about some part of his creation as well, and to live in his image. Following that design will bring you joy and will benefit the rest of creation.

Who did God create you to be?