Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The man

So what about God's word to the man?

17And to Adam he said,

"Because you have listened to the voice of your wife
and have eaten of the tree
of which I commanded you,
'You shall not eat of it,'
cursed is the ground because of you;
in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life;
18thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;
and you shall eat the plants of the field.
19By the sweat of your face
you shall eat bread,
till you return to the ground,
for out of it you were taken;
for you are dust,
and to dust you shall return." (Genesis 3:17-19)

The woman received the consequences of sin primarily in the area of relationships, in the area of her greatest strength, in the area in which she most reflects the image of God. The man receives the consequences of sin most deeply in his work. Adam was a farmer, a gardener, and he had been given the task by God of tilling and keeping the garden. He was a namer and a caretaker, a planter and tender. He was made by God in God's own image; just as God worked to create, Adam works to tend and maintain. It's what he does.

Ask a man who he is, and most often he'll answer by telling you what he does. Men identify ourselves by our work. I'm a teacher. I'm a pastor. I'm a farmer, a plumber, a carpenter. I supervise a crew. I design buildings. I own a store. I run a restaurant.

In this identity we find our greatest satisfactions. Bob Buford has written about the shift men need to make after midlife, turning their focus from success to significance. Usually this transition involves a refocusing, a change in how we value our work, rather than a decision to toss work out of the picture. How many men retire and then take on a part time (or even full-time) job doing something else? Those who try to stop working don't last long in retirement. We need something -- even if it's a volunteer position or a task like building bird feeders -- to keep us vital and alive. Men are about tasks. It's how we are created. And this is not a bad thing, it's the image of God.

Problem is, we are sinners living in a sinful world. So our focus on tasks, our being enmeshed in our work, gets distorted by sin. Just like the woman's focus on relationships is good, our focus on work is good. But sin gets into the mix and work becomes deadly.

Adam was a farmer, and when sin infected his work, the soil began to bring forth thorns and thistles. The frustration, the sense that our work is "chasing after the wind" to quote the writer of Ecclesiastes, comes because our work is frustrated by sin. This is not some mysterious infection, it just makes sense. If you supervise a crew as part of your work duties, take a blissful moment and imagine what it would be like if that crew was not a bunch of sinners. Think how delightful your supervision would be. If you are a plumber, think about how much easier your work would be if your clients, your suppliers, your coworkers, your mechanic, and all the rest were not sinners. No worries about being cheated. No worries about getting paid. No worries about people not valuing your labor.

See how it goes? Every job is frustrating and difficult -- instead of simply delightfully challenging -- because of the pervasiveness of sin infecting our work. Even those of us (and I count myself near the top of this list) who absolutely love our work find ourselves at times gnashing our teeth because of the fact that we have to deal with sinners. Worse yet, we ARE sinners. So we create all kinds of frustration for ourselves as well.

This reality, this pervasiveness of sin, leads to a sense of futility and meaninglessness at times. An old German man told me once that a German man's life looks like this:

Build a house.

In that darkly humorous statement lies a sense of futility and frustration. How do I get off the hamster wheel? If I win the rat race, I'm still a rat -- right? It's just chasing after the wind. In the end, how much difference will I make? Late at night men ask themselves these questions.

Dust you are, and to dust you shall return. On Ash Wednesday we hear these words and a greasy black cross is drawn on our foreheads. Your work, your effort, your earning, your significance -- it will all return to the dust from which you came. And if we are wise enough to hear the words, we recognize that only at the cross do we find significance. The One who died there knows my name, and He is King of kings and Lord of lords for all eternity. All my works blow away on the wind, but Jesus remains. I will remain with him.

One more things we need to address here. I've heard men joke about the opening lines of God's words to the man. "Because you have listened to the voice of your wife ..." See? they say. I knew I shouldn't listen to her. What's the problem with Adam listening to his wife? Trouble is this: He is passive in regard to what God has commanded, and he passively accepts Eve's error. This particular pattern is deadly and far-too-present in our world today. How many men sit through church because their wives want them to? How many men don't particularly care if their kids get a spiritual upbringing but it's important to their wives, so they go along with it. They are passive in regard to the things of God, and they passively accept what their wives ask of them. Not that their wives' desires are necessarily contrary to God's word, but if the man is obedient to her before he is obedient to God, how can he know what is right?

What the world so desperately needs today is men who are actively engaged in the things of God, actively weighing in and working hard on following what God has commanded them. We need men who are actively taking on spiritual leadership, spiritual authority, in submission to God and in order to love and serve their wives and children and communities.

God wants to redeem Adam's work. He wants to make it good and meaningful. But if Adam does the right work for the wrong reason -- in primary submission to Eve rather than in primary submission to God -- he will never experience the meaning, the fruitfulness, God desires for him.

Monday, April 26, 2010

The woman

God speaks three hard words after he confronts Adam and Eve with their sin. The hard word he speaks to the serpent, as we have said, points ahead to the eventual victory Jesus will win over Satan at the cross.

These words are a "curse" only in the loosest sense of the word. They are more consequence than curse. To the snake, God says, "You've deceived my beloved; therefore I will put a plan in place to defeat you." To the man and the woman, God says, "Here is the consequence of your sin -- this is what life will look like now that disobedience has infected your lives." His word to each of them is uniquely suited to their gender.

The woman is wired to focus on relationships. No matter what tasks she is doing, the woman is relationally-rooted. Even the tasks she chooses, more often than not, are important because she has a relationship with the people on the other end of the tasks. Whether she's doing laundry or making phone calls or going to work, she's thinking about the relationships involved. It's part of how she's created in God's image. So where does the woman experience the consequences of disobedience? Most painfully, in her relationships.

First God says she will experience pain in childbirth, and then it seems like the same idea is repeated. We call this common Hebrew way of saying things "parallelism" where an idea is stated, then restated slightly differently. We see this very commonly in the Psalms. "The earth is the Lord's, and everything in it / the world, and all who live in it" (see Psalm 24). If the two ideas are identical, this structure is a way of lifting up the idea and showing its importance. But often, the second statement is slightly different, and the parallel structure is a way to say two different but closely related things. That's what is going on here with the woman. The NIV doesn't do a good job distinguishing these two statements. Here's how the English Standard Version (ESV) puts God's word to the woman:

"I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing;
in pain you shall bring forth children.
Your desire shall be for your husband,
and he shall rule over you."

Do you notice that in the second line, God refers to bringing forth children -- not just childbirth, but the process of parenting. Oh, wait a minute ... if that's what God is saying, it makes sense, doesn't it? Can you imagine how much less painful it would be to raise children in a world without sin? No rebellion, though a child would still struggle for independence. No selfishness. Instead we'd all be able to care for each other's needs - and our own - without fear. But in a sinful world, we struggle with all kinds of wants and desires and fears based on the fact that we know we're going to get hurt, and hurt badly.

Then God turns from children -- the second most intimate human relationship in the woman's life -- to the most intimate, to her relationship with her husband. Because sin is loose in the world, God says, the woman will have an inordinate desire for her husband. It's not that a woman wanting her husband is bad -- heavens, no! But because of sin, and the fear that goes hand in hand with sin, the woman focuses a lot of her hopes, fears, worries, and needs on that one man in her life. She desires him not for his sake, but for her own. She wants him to meet her needs in a way that insulates her from risk and fear and uncertainty. This desire grows beyond appropriate, godly partnership until she is willing to engineer the relationship to make sure it goes right. Though it's not what she wants, in the face of her fear she may decide to manipulate and control him to protect herself and bring about what she knows is the right outcome. Her desire is for her husband to lead her in the way she wants to go.

This introduces into the marriage relationship a dynamic that has not been present before: the husband rules over the wife. Partly because in her fear she looks to him for protection, partly because in response to manipulation he strikes back with power and "because I said so" dominance. The man rules in lots of ways -- maybe through physical strength and violence; maybe through passivity and passive-aggressive controlling behaviors, or maybe by abdicating his rightful place and staying at a distance emotionally and / or spiritually until his wife begs him to get involved. Maybe he holds the financial purse-strings and controls the family that way. But this element of male dominance was not present prior to Adam and Eve disobeying God. It is not written into the created order; it is the result of sin. And the woman is caught between her sin-tainted desire for her husband and his sinful controlling response.

God created this woman to be relational. She is designed to be connected to everyone around her, and it is in this area -- the very best part of her -- that she experiences the result of sin.

Next time we'll look at God's word to the man.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Prophecy and Prediction

Genesis 3 contains what many biblical scholars believe is the first prophecy about the Messiah, Jesus, the One who would come and defeat the serpent. In his words of judgment on the snake, God says, "I will put enmity between you and the woman, between your seed and her seed. He shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel." At one level you can read this and simply say, that means people don't like snakes. But at another level, it means much more.

The woman's seed -- or offspring -- in this case seems to point forward not to all humanity but to the one specific human sent by God to deal with the issue of sin that is now loose in the world. There is indeed enmity between Jesus and the snake, or Satan. They work at cross-purposes and are diametrically opposed to each other. Jesus sums this up in John 10 -- using the metaphor of a shepherd and his sheep, Jesus refers to the thief -- not a far leap to read Satan into that -- and says that the thief comes to steal, kill and destroy. Then he adds of himself, "I came that they might have life, and have it abundantly."

So the snake -- Satan -- is out to steal the life God gives, to kill those whom God has made alive, to destroy all the abundance Jesus longs to create in us. Jesus comes to give us life, life abundant. These two are enemies.

How will it turn out? We've seen this enmity down through the ages. Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers, Moses and Pharaoh -- down through the ages enmity continues between people. Sometimes it's clear who is on the side of the serpent and who serves God; most of the time it seems the conflict plays into the serpent's desires and a God-given peace is all-too-elusive.

But God's words to the snake point to an ending. "You shall bruise his heel" sounds like a wound, but a non-lethal wound. "He shall bruise" -- or crush -- "your head" -- now that is a problem for the serpent.

At the beginning of his movie The Passion of the Christ, Mel Gibson portrays Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane in dialogue with Satan. Actually Satan keeps speaking to Jesus, and Jesus keeps speaking to his Father, which is pretty good insight. But while Jesus stands talking to the Father, Satan shifts forms and becomes a snake slithering around Jesus' feet. After he has prayed, "Not my will but thine be done," Jesus stomps on the head of the serpent. Not a bad picture of the relationship between the two. Certainly a nod to this verse.

So far we've been talking about this as though it was all happening (as Bishop Usher calculated it out) in 4004 B.C. Back then. But I've been maintaining all along that this is our story. So?

So ... how badly we need to hear this word, at this point! When we are caught in sin, when we are blaming each other, when we are anticipating the heavy hammer of God's judgment falling on our heads, we hear this word. It is not a word of condemnation, but a word of hope. "He shall crush your head," sounds like we may someday be free from the bondage to sin, Satan, and death. Right now we live behind fig leaves, laying our shamed heads on our heavy hearts each night, but someday will come -- someday when the serpent is destroyed, when the seed of the woman will conquer the powers of hell.

One of the classic explanations -- "atonement theories" they're called -- of exactly what happens at the cross is called the "Christus Victor" theory. It says that at the cross, Christ won a victory over the powers of sin, death, and hell. Having won a battle against the powers that enslave us, Jesus set us free to enjoy the life -- abundant life -- that he gives. We have been liberated, set free. Yes, we still live with old wounds. Yes, we have a long ways to go. But we no longer live in bondage to that scaly serpent and his lies. The son of the woman has set us free.

Monday, April 19, 2010

The Bible's authority

I want to pause in the middle of Genesis 3 and talk about the Bible's authority. I spent the last day and a half, along with a few others from Central, at the WordAlone Network convention in the Twin Cities. I've had a relationship with WordAlone (a renewal organization within the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) since the late 1990's when they began, but the relationship has had its ups and downs. At times I've left well enough alone because WA has seemed just too rigid and wooden and narrowly focused. At other times I've been supported and enriched by reading their newsletters and some of the online conversations going back and forth. But I've always appreciated how strongly WA has trumpeted the importance of having a high view of the Bible's authority.

Usually conversations about biblical authority fall into a couple of categories. On the one side you have lots of Christians who jump to a high view of the Bible's authority and in their post-Enlightenment zeal they apply labels like "inerrant" or "infallible" to the Bible, and then they have to have footnotes and essays to explain exactly what they mean by those words. What it comes down to is some version of the idea that the Bible is literally, historically, factually true in every detail, that it is (as the word "inerrant" says) without error. At least in the original manuscripts, which we don't have, so the whole "inerrancy" argument at some level becomes about having faith in the Bible. Hmm.

The other ditch people fall into when we start talking about the Bible's authority is that there's a mindset out there that makes fun of the "literalists" -- calling them fundamentalists, inerrantists, or other such equally unhelpful labels. The absurd example these people trot out to make fun of the fundamentalists is, "When the Bible talks about the trees clapping their hands, are we supposed to take that literally?" So people in this ditch believe some version of the Bible as story, the Bible as culturally bound, the Bible as ancient document that helps us understand what faith was back then so we can begin to gain some insight into our own lives.

I think both of these ditches are mistaken because they don't give the Bible enough authority.

Biblical authority is not so much about how you talk about the Bible as it is about what you do with it. When your life gets complicated or difficult, where do you turn? Is the Bible even on that list? Or when things are smooth sailing and you have time to work on self-improvement, does a discipline of reading the Bible even enter into your thoughts or better yet your actions? When you see disturbing things going on in the world, how do you interpret those difficult things? What stories, what concepts, what sources of information help you figure that situation out? Is the Bible stored up in your heart more and more so that as you confront things in your day to day life, you make sense of these things through what the Bible says?

All the preceding questions point toward your attitude toward the Bible's authority. If you read it and try to use it to make sense of your life, you probably have a pretty high respect for it.

Next question. What do you expect when you start reading the Bible? Do you expect to read a document that tells about ancient times, and you're going to have to do a lot of work to make sense of it? Do you expect a document that teaches moral lessons that have been tested over time? Or do you expect to encounter God in a real, personal way when you start reading the Bible? At some level biblical authority has a great deal to do with whether you believe God is active and present in the text.

Now push comes to shove. When you think or believe or act in a certain way, and then you learn that the Bible seems to teach a different way of living, what do you do? Do you dismiss the Bible? Do you assume that the Bible is outmoded and ancient, that things have changed? Do you argue with the Bible and try to talk it out of its position? Do you start digging into the Bible to find out if this teaching is consistent throughout or if the Bible says many different -- and maybe even contradictory -- things on this topic? Do you recognize that you might need to change to adapt yourself to what the Bible teaches?

This previous paragraph is probably the highest level of living with the Bible as authority over us. If the Bible has authority over me, then I must change if I find that my life is out of alignment with the Bible. I fully recognize how hard this is, and how challenging it can be, especially in our culture, to accept this. And admittedly, there are some bizarre things in the Bible that sound so strange to our ears. (HINT: If you're new to spending much time with the Bible, don't evaluate your life according to books like Leviticus and Deuteronomy to start with. Instead, begin with New Testament books like John and 1 Corinthians that will be a little easier to relate to. Eventually Leviticus has some amazing lessons to teach, but do yourself a favor and don't start there.) But if I believe this is in some sense God's word, God's book, and that when I read it, his Spirit speaks through the written words to me -- if I believe this (which I totally do) then I'd better pay attention when the Bible contradicts me, and I'd better be willing to dig into it and maybe even change my behavior.

At some level, the deepest contradiction to my own life that I find in the Bible is this: Over and over, the Bible calls me to change things I cannot change, to do things I seem unable to do, to love people I cannot love, to give myself away unselfishly and I find myself stingy. So at some level the Bible contradicts me in ways that frustrate me and bring me to a place where I cannot do enough, be enough, perform enough. I come to the end of myself and I recognize that I cannot meet the Bible's standard.

At this point, the Bible -- if I believe it -- has an amazing thing to teach me: God knew I couldn't do it. And he has already done all that needs to be done. All the expectations, all the performance, all the behavior modification -- he's already taken care of all those things. He came to earth in Jesus of Nazareth, taught about love and God and the Bible and compassion and behavior and pride and lots more, and we couldn't stand it so we killed him in the most gruesome way possible. But somehow, in the mysterious ways of God, Jesus dying on the cross took my imperfection, my falling short, and Jesus died for what the Bible calls my sin. In return, Jesus gives to me his godly perfection, his perfect performance, his exactly right behavior -- not so that I can do these things myself, but now when God looks at me he sees the perfection of Jesus. He treats me as if I had done all these things perfectly in myself. He knows I fall short, but he pours out his love and his acceptance and his grace and his blessing on me as a freely given gift.

Perhaps the ultimate sense of the Bible's authority is when I am willing to accept all that the Bible says about me and about my world -- all the details of sin and falling short and imperfection and my behavior that turns God's stomach -- and I am willing to look in that difficult mirror and accept God's word about me and those around me. Then I can also accept God's other word about us -- not a word of judgment, but a word of grace, a word of mercy, a word of love freely given at the cross of Jesus. Thanks be to God!

Friday, April 16, 2010


Do you notice how Adam and Eve invent blame? When God asks Adam, "Have you eaten from the tree I told you not to eat?" Adam immediately responds that it is the fault of this woman "whom you gave to be with me" -- in other words, it's her fault, and by the way, God, it's your fault.

So God plays along. "What is this that you have done?" And Eve's response is "The serpent deceived me" -- the serpent, God, that you created and allowed to be in the garden, so in the end it's your fault.

Both Adam and Eve (and you and me) are quick to blame God for things. We don't do it out loud, however, and we don't dwell on it. It just lays under the surface and begins to create a wall of separation between us and God, a chasm of resentment that keeps us apart. But perhaps the most amazing part of the story is that God never defends himself. He doesn't say, "No, it's not my fault, it was your choice" or "If you're going to be free to love me you have to have choices not to obey me as well" or any of the stock answers we give to defend God's honor. In fact, God seems quite unconcerned about his honor. And other places in the Bible he out and out says that if we're just going to have one God, he'll have to take responsibility at some point for the existence of evil. (See for example Isaiah 45:7)

This is a branch of theology called "theodicy." It is the question of how God can be righteous. We know that God is righteous, of course, but how is that possible when so many bad things happen? Frederick Buechner has put a fine point on the problem by laying out three statements:

1. God is all powerful.
2. God is all good.
3. Bad things happen.

Logically you can have any two of these statements but not all three. It just doesn't work. If you say, for example, that humans have freedom of choice (which, by the way is a suspect statement if ever there was one), you have just limited God's power (see #1), so you can hold on to #'s 2 and 3. (This is the solution Rabbi Harold Kushner adopts in his popular book, Why Bad Things Happen to Good People, by the way.) Or if you say God is sovereign, but we don't understand the "why" of God's activity, so like John Calvin we say that God consigns some to heaven and others to hell, and this is a mystery and above our pay grade so we should just accept it and not question too deeply, then we hold #'s 1 and 3 but we let #2 slide a little bit, because how could a good God consign people to hell? Or maybe we say (as is becoming increasingly popular among Christians these days as the pendulum swings) that "everything happens for a reason" and God is at work in all things to do good, well then nothing that happens is really bad, so we can hold on to numbers 1 & 2, because we have let go of #3.

You can't have it all three ways.

Trouble is, the Bible seems to make all three statements. Evil things happen. God is all powerful. God is all good.

People tried to pin Jesus down on the question of theodicy and he didn't do a very good job answering their questions. In Luke 13, they come to Jesus with a gruesome story about some Jews who had been killed by Pilate while they were in the act of offering sacrifices. They were hoping for some sense of meaning, of justice, in this awful killing, but Jesus refuses to say the people deserved their fate. Instead, he says, this story offers you a great incentive to repent and turn away from your own sin, and turn to God in the face of such uncertainty. Then Jesus ups the ante a step. He tells a story about a tower in Jerusalem that collapsed at random, killing thirteen people. Life is uncertain and death is coming, he seems to say -- so turn to God while you have a chance.

Is this helpful?

Probably not, if our goal is to understand what C.S. Lewis called "the problem of pain." But if the goal is that our suffering -- or the suffering of others -- should be the occasion that brings us closer to God, then Jesus' answer is exactly spot on helpful.

Adam and Eve miss their opportunity, really, because they explicitly stop at blaming each other. Their blame for God is simply implied, just like ours usually is. If they would go a step further and rail at God, it would do them good. If they gave in to the impulse to vent their anger and say something like, "This is such a comedy, God! How could you set this up this way -- with one tree right at the middle of the garden with the best fruit in the whole place, and then you say 'Do not eat of it'? This is stupid! Then to top it all off you allow the snake to come in here and lie to Eve! Is this fair? Does this make sense? NO." If they'd vent a little bit, they might come to the end of themselves and realize they need mercy, not fairness. They need love, not justice. They might come to a point of throwing themselves at God's feet and weeping for their sin and the brokenness they've brought upon themselves and on all creation.

The Psalms is the Bible's book of railing at God. Oh, sure there are some beautiful worship passages as well, but the psalms are full of passages in which David and the Israelites lay out their laments before God. They blame God for evil, for suffering, for unfairness, for his silence, for his failure to act, for his absence. It's scandalous, really, to read some of these things. We can't say things like that. We know God is just and fair and righteous. We can't blame him for stuff.

But Jesus did.

"My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" It's the first line of Psalm 22 and Jesus cries out from the cross in abject misery with this line that leads into a poem of self-indulgent grief and pain. At the end of the psalm the poem turns again to faith and hope ... and that's nearly always the way of it. If we can be honest with God about our pain, sooner or later we will empty our reserves of anger and self-pity -- and we will come to the throne of God emptied of ourselves and ready to acknowledge him as Lord.

God isn't afraid of our blaming him. He just wants us to come to him honestly, with what is really going on inside us. That way our frustration can become a bridge between us, rather than a wall to keep us apart.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Going for a walk

Genesis 3:8 says that they -- the man and the woman, busily sewing up garments for themselves -- heard the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day. Some translations say "at the time of the evening breeze." The idea of wind is there in the Hebrew language. So given the Hebrew play on words where wind and breath and spirit are all the same words, is this saying that the Spirit of God is blowing around the garden? Or is it the pre-incarnate Christ in his physical body walking around in the breezy garden? Or as Martin Luther indicated, is it just that Adam heard the leaves rustling and his guilty conscience drove him to hide?

Who knows? But if it's our story, you know as well as I do that it's less important how God gets your attention than that he does in fact get it. How does God get your attention? I've noticed that he does this in a variety of ways.

In the last year, I've had God grab me through songs on the radio. Seems like this is a more frequent way for him to get hold of me when I'm jaded and insensitive to his Spirit. He knows I need an audible voice, so I'll turn the radio on and I'll hear someone singing words that suddenly pierce my heart. One particular five hour road trip about a year ago, I turned the radio on at three different times for a total of about ten minutes. In that ten minutes I heard the same song three times. The first time I heard the song the words, "Why are you striving?" jumped out at me. But I thought, "I'm not. I used to be a perfectionist, but I got over it. I really don't struggle with that any more." When I heard the song two more times, I finally became convinced that God was talking through the words of the song. And in that honesty, God was able to show me that I was indeed still in bondage to my striving for perfection. (It was on that same road trip, after opening that door and beginning to understand this, that I turned the radio on one more time, asking God to please play something else ... and the next song that came on had the line, "Perfection is my enemy." He just doesn't let go!)

Other times God confronts me through the voice of someone I respect and care about -- my wife, often, or my children. My pastor. A friend who sees past my defenses. Frequently these people have no intention of confronting me with anything, they just comment on the truth they see. I do my best to surround myself with people who speak clearly and honestly about the truth. As they speak from the perspective of their own relationship with God, often the Spirit uses their words to confront me and I face the truth about myself.

Another way God often gets my attention is in solitude. One of the things I love about bowhunting is that it includes hours of sitting perfectly still in the woods. Granted, much of my time on a deer stand is given to thinking about deer, and that's okay. (I struggled through this one several years ago, when God made clear to me that he wasn't intimidated or bothered by my love for hunting and for the outdoors. He let me know in no uncertain terms that he created me with that love of losing myself in the wilderness.) But other times on stand, in a canoe, stalking through the woods or holding absolutely still, my mind has time to go quiet and listen. A couple years ago God used the words of a friend combined with an afternoon on a deer stand to let me know that it was time to finish a book, and that was the beginning of my book on the Exodus.

Sometimes God gets my attention by thwarting and frustrating my plans. I've wanted to teach a class on my book ever since I first learned that it was going to be published. So three different times I planned for that class, and three different times doors closed and I was convinced that the time was wrong. So I gave up on the idea, convinced that God knew what he was doing. Then, when I didn't expect it, those doors opened and others on the team at Central told me they thought it was the perfect time for me to teach a class on the Exodus, using my book. We just finished the first session of that class today, and it will continue for six more weeks. Great fun -- but the timing had to be right.

How does God get your attention? And when he does, do you pay attention, or do you continue to hide? God not only comes walking through the garden, he calls out. He desperately wants a relationship with us. He goes looking. God is a missionary, coming where we are to seek us out. How will you respond when he calls?

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Fig leaves

Isn't it amazing what we do in our shame? Adam and Eve recognize, in this new experience of sin, that they are naked. Why is this a problem? They've been naked all along and it hasn't been an issue. But now, when sin is loose in the world, in their relationship, they feel the need for self-protection, to cover up their nakedness. They feel vulnerable, and they are.

We do exactly the same thing. We cover ourselves because we know that there are people in the world who will hurt us. Sometimes they hurt us because they are malicious and they are seeking to do us damage, but more often they are simply acting out of their own hurt and shame and we become incidental victims to the consequences of their sin. A teacher has had an argument with her husband before she leaves for work in the morning and her students get an extra helping of stern-and-demanding all day. Your boss dresses you down and you kick the dog on the way in the front door. It's almost a cliche.

But there's a deeper level to all this. First, notice that the fig leaves are an attempt to cover, to deny, our sin. But our nakedness is not our sin. We think our vulnerability is the problem and we try to "fix" it. So we build walls around our vulnerability. We promise ourselves we won't ever let anybody get close enough to hurt us in that particularly tender spot. We deny that tenderness even exists in us. If anyone or anything gets too close, we close off and wall up and walk away. Nothing to see here, folks. After a while we start to believe the lie that we don't feel, don't hurt, don't care, don't love. It's all rooted in a hurt and vulnerability we'd just as soon deny. This is so often the story behind a married couple who say, "We just don't love each other any more -- there's no point in keeping up this sham." They head for divorce court thinking next time they'll get it right, but the root issue -- the fear of wounding, the fig leaves over their unresolved vulnerability -- is still there and it destroys the second marriage, and the third.

The other part of this -- and we don't like looking in this mirror -- is that our disobedience to God hurts other people. Because our walls, our inner vows, our determination to avoid pain, are all disobedience to God who says, "Come to me and I will give you rest" (see Matthew 11:28-30) and "I am the Lord who heals you" (Exodus 15:26). We decide to cover and protect ourselves -- and as we deal with our own wounds, everyone within range gets to share our pain. We don't like to admit it, but most of the wounds we inflict are involuntary. We don't want to cause pain, but my friend's saying is true of us -- "Hurt people hurt people."

Instinctively we know that our sin needs to be covered. That is true. But instead of going to God in repentance (which is very different from shame) we patch together leaves and make an ineffective suit that cuts us off from others and from God. We spend our time rearranging the leaves, patching the holes, and our attention is taken from a God-given focus outward -- love -- and we turn inward, concerned about ourselves and our self-protection. God wants to cover our sin AND protect us in our vulnerability, but these fig leaves are not his chosen instrument. He is wise enough to know that covering our sin, healing our hurt, and protecting us from sin's consequences will take much more than this breezy underwear we've woven. So notice (leaping ahead in the story) what God does in Genesis 3:21. He makes effective clothing for Adam and Eve. What is required for them to be clothed in "garments of skins"? The shedding of blood. Something had to die to cover their sin. This animal that gave its life to clothe and protect Adam and Eve becomes a precursor, a foreshadowing, of Jesus who gave his life, shed his blood, so that our sin might be covered and we might be healed in the refuge of his love.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Going to the doctor and the doctor says ...

Reading Genesis 3 is hard. A few of you have commented on this -- it feels like we're getting beat up, like we're more sinful than we thought, like this is bad, bad, bad news. And it is.

But if you don't have an accurate diagnosis, the doctor can't help you much. The deeper we dig into Genesis 3 (and by the way, we have a looooong ways to go yet) the worse things look. We find out that we are in bondage to sin, that we sin in thought, in word, in deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone. We have not loved God with our whole hearts. We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. The list goes on.

So how do we deal with this? Stop reading? Decide to read something else? Get a second opinion?

God's desire is that our sin should finally have its way with us -- that it should beat us down and beat us up until we are willing to turn to him. At that point everything changes. We come to the cross of Jesus and there, hanging between heaven and earth, we see the full measure of our sinfulness. We see that our sin has earned us death. That we are thoroughly corrupt. And in our corruption, while we were yet sinners, God did for us what we could not do for ourselves. He came in Jesus of Nazareth to live and die to rescue us from the deadly consequences of our sin. He came to die and to rise, to conquer the death we have earned, so that we might have his life -- not our own old worm-eaten corrupt life, but the new, holy life he gives. As we turn to him and to his cross, as we welcome the risen Jesus into our lives, he begins to live his life in us.

This morning, as I write this, there are about 80 people from Minnesota Teen Challenge at Central Lutheran, singing their hearts out and telling how Jesus saved them from the death they deserved. He has rescued them out of addiction, abuse, crime, homelessness, death of every kind. He is living his new life in them, a little more each day as their sinful past comes to death on his cross.

We need an accurate diagnosis -- otherwise we may never realize that our problem is so great that it demands our death. If we do not know how desperate things are, we may settle for something less than dying at the foot of Jesus' cross and accepting the new life he offers. So in the end, an accurate diagnosis of our sin -- while it is difficult to hear -- is good news.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Say something, Adam!

So what's with Adam? He'd be off the hook in this story except for four words, in English -- "who was with her" -- that place Adam's guilt front and center. You see, up till now it's all Eve. She's having the conversation, she's evaluating the options, she's choosing the fruit, she's making the decision, she gives some to Adam and sucks him into her fall from grace.

But Adam was there the whole time.

That's the problem, isn't it? Look around churches today. Who takes charge of passing on faith to a new generation? By and large, the women of the church do. Who takes charge of making sure dollars, time, and energy are given to feeding the hungry, helping the poor, clothing the naked? Mostly the women. Who drives the fellowship activities of the church? The women. Who leads music, with a few notable exceptions? Probably more women than men in most churches. Who is taking the role of spiritual leader in most church members' homes? Usually it's mom. Who sets out high expectations of moral, ethical behavior for children? Mom. Who encourages children to make worship a habit? Mom.

Where is Adam?

He's right there. He's standing there the whole time. Once in a while he'll even get into the spirit of things, with a hearty, "You need to listen to your mother." That's convincing. NOT. Because then he spends Sunday morning watching television or going through his tackle box, and the kids know enough to watch his example rather than listen to his words.

No, Eve is having the most important conversation of humanity's life, and Adam is looking for the remote. Eve is making decisions that will affect her progeny down through the generations, and Adam says, "huh?"

Imagine if Adam took his role seriously. Imagine if Adam overheard part of the conversation between Eve and the snake and stepped up and said, "Honey, don't listen to Slither over there. Remember what God said? I know it looks good, but everything we have today we have because God gave it to us. We need to obey what he told us." Or better yet, Adam could turn to God. "Eve, we need to pray about this before we make a decision."

Most of the time Adam -- me and other guys like me -- is either clueless or he's scared. Plain and simple. Some of you guys read the last paragraph and the idea of praying out loud with your wife scared you to the bottom of your tennis shoes. Some of you are vaguely disturbed by the whole topic because you sort of think you're getting scolded for something you didn't do, and you're not sure what it's all about.

Spiritually passive men. Since time began this has been a huge problem for God's people. All through the Bible you can see this story repeat time and time again. And all through churches today. And all through your house and mine. Far too often it's the woman who drives the family spiritually, and when she suggests that the family attend worship together, the best she gets from her husband is, "Okay, if that's what you want." As often, she hears "That's fine for you, but I'm not going."

Adam just stands there. His family, his marriage, his relationship with God, are all falling apart, and he just stands there. And when his wife screws things up and offers him the fruit of disobedience, he takes it and starts munching. Later he'll blame her for his fall. It's not a pretty picture.

Is it any wonder so many of our heroes are men who have shaken off their passivity? Look at William Wallace in "Braveheart" or Maximus in "Gladiator" or Neo in "The Matrix" or any of dozens of others. These men have grabbed hold of the meaning of their lives with both hands. They still have questions, fears, and uncertainties but they are acting in the face of it all. They make mistakes, but they are scrambling to do the right things. You've got to admire guys like that, even when they fail.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Making good decisions

What's the problem with the choice Eve makes?

We need to learn to read the Bible for what it says, not for what we think it says.

So when you read Genesis 3 and pay attention to the decision Eve makes, what's wrong? She notices three things about the fruit of this particular tree. First, it's good for food. Nutritious. Eve is reading the label. Totally organic. Part of a balanced diet. She's thinking about the good of her body and her family, and this is a good choice.

Second, the fruit is "a delight to the eyes" (ESV). It's beautiful. It's attractive. Eve, like most women, pays attention to her aesthetic sensibilities. She notices when things are out of harmony. She appreciates coordination and beauty. So the fruit is not only nutritious, it is attractive, it's beautiful, it's pleasing. Having this around her will enhance her home and her life.

Third, it is "to be desired to make one wise." Eve is not only thinking about food on the table and about visually pleasing surroundings. She is looking ahead, trying to improve herself. Like the woman in "Drops of Jupiter" (Train)

She checks out Mozart while she does tae bo
Reminds me that there's room to grow, hey, hey

So what's wrong with Eve's decision? She sounds like an informed consumer. She is making a responsible, ethical, good choice. How come the Bible -- and generations ever since -- have condemned this choice as evil? Even the Apostle Paul says she was "deceived" (see 2 Corinthians 11:3 and 1 Timothy 2:14) by the serpent. How so?

It's fairly simple, actually, and it's disturbing to the core for those of us who try to live good lives because we want to please God. Eve made a decision on her own. That's all there is to it.

Well, there is one tiny detail more: Eve made a decision on her own regarding something about which God had already given instructions.

So when someone comes to me and says, "I know the Bible says __________, but I've really been thinking this through and I believe doing this other thing is a better decision" I hear the echo of the serpent's voice. For example, think about the many, many people who are stuck right now in financial hardship because they overextended themselves to get into a bigger house or a larger mortgage. They made good decisions based on what seemed wise and the good advice they were getting at the time from their mortgage broker. "I know the Bible says I shouldn't go farther into debt, but the housing market just keeps going up and if I don't get in now, I'll never be able to afford this house ..." Or think about the many, many people who have overextended themselves by buying toys (plasma TV's, ski boats, second or third homes, timeshares ...) who thought, "I know the Bible says to live a modest and quiet life, but you have to enjoy life a little, too, and I've earned this." Or those who got in over their heads using credit cards, who thought, "I know the Bible says debt is foolish, but the Bible was written in ancient times, and this is just the way things are today."

It's not just finances, either. Plenty of people have bailed out of marriages or given up the habit of regular worship because they think they know better. And they suffer the consequences. That's the thing -- we always want to make up our own minds, make our own decisions, do what seems right to us, and we never want to live with the negative consequences of our actions. Just like Adam and Eve.

So biblically speaking, is there any such thing as a "good decision"? I don't think so. I think there are godly decisions and ungodly decisions. The only people who could possibly, in biblical terms, make a "good decision" are those who have never heard God's word and are trying their best to live wisely without the knowledge of God. The rest of us are accountable to seek God and make godly decisions. When we don't do this, we carry the consequences of our actions. Of course, God's good promise is that he works -- even in our foolish decisions, even in random evils that occur in the world, even in the face of systemic evil that overcomes us -- to bring about good for our sake (see Romans 8:28). He is faithful, even when we are faithless.

Thanks be to God!

Monday, April 5, 2010

Theological conversation

Let's be clear about something as we read Genesis 3. The snake doesn't have any problem talking about God. Speculating about God, wondering about God, thinking about God -- doesn't bother this serpent at all. Eve and the snake have a great theological conversation. In fact, it's the first theological conversation recorded in scripture. And if we pay attention, we might learn a really valuable lesson here. Namely:

Talking about God, being interested in God, even being fascinated with God and the things of God will not save you from falling into sin.

Shouldn't this be obvious by now? How many great Christian leaders fall each day and we shake our heads because we are thoroughly jaded? As I write this, the vatican itself is embroiled in the latest string of accusations and counter-accusations about who knew what about which priest was molesting which kids -- and believe me, as a Lutheran I am anything but smug because my Roman Catholic brothers and sisters are suffering right now. We have enough skeletons in our own closets, and so does every other group of Christians.

Thing is, we need to learn this simple truth. Talking about God is no defense against sin.

But think about this for a minute. Eve (and Adam, because he's standing right there, which we'll get to before too long) has the option of, at any moment, crying out to God instead of speculating about him. Can you imagine how different the story would be if Eve said, "Lord, what do you think of what this scaly critter is telling me?" Speaking to God -- as opposed to speaking about God -- short-circuits temptation more often than not.

So guys, it's starting to get warm out, and you know what that means. It means the women who jog these days are wearing considerably less, and so when you're driving or biking or golfing or whatever, your thoughts are going to be rushing down channels that are pretty seriously unhealthy. So what do you do with that kind of temptation? Best solution I've found: When you recognize the temptation to let your thoughts go in unhealthy directions, pray for her. That woman you see jogging. Pray that she'll have a good run. That the runner's high she gets out of her workout draws her closer to God. That she has good relationships at home, whoever she lives with. That God would work in her life. Talk to God about the woman you see and she will no longer be a temptation for you, in your actions or your thoughts. (Ladies, I know you have your own areas of temptation but I'm confident you can translate. Talk to God about what tempts you.)

Do you see how simple, but how radical, this is? If we talk to God, it invites his power and his presence into the temptation in our lives. It changes things. Doesn't fix 100% of everything, no, but it changes things in real ways. If we just agonize about temptation, if we just wish it would go away, we're roasted.

But Eve (and the silent Adam) ignores the possibility of inviting God into the conversation. And she falls, and he falls, just like we do. Oh, yeah -- remember? It's our story.

Full disclosure

Good morning, and I hope you are living in Easter today! In Minnesota at least it's not hard to do when the sun is shining and there's no snow on the ground. It feels like gorgeous spring weather, and I'm loving it.

I want to offer two very brief comments:

First, an apology. My "mythology" post earlier -- the long excursus -- was probably more than anyone needed to read about a topic that obviously pushes my buttons a little bit, and I should have let that sit for a while before posting it. It's too easy to get wordy and self-absorbed in responding off-the-cuff like that.

Second, regarding the whole "historicity of Genesis 1-11" topic, it's only fair to add -- as I promised Bruce I would do -- that the question of what happened historically is not settled for me, but I'm not willing to surrender all the shreds of history from Genesis 1-11 either. The reason I went off like I did is that I get frustrated when we make it all about what happened back then -- and we don't realize that this story is describing us, that we are Adam, that we are Eve. So I probably go too far over to the other side of the pendulum, overemphasizing that these stories are designed to tell me who I am and to show me what my life is like. But that doesn't mean I don't think there could have been a literal garden of Eden or that Cain really did physically kill his brother Abel. I think there are some great questions to speculate about wrapped up in all that, but if we focus on "what happened then" we miss the more immediate and helpful question of "what does this story tell me about me and my life".

Nuff said, at least for the moment.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Back to Genesis 3

Okay -- so getting back to Genesis 3:

Have you noticed how the snake works? We see a pattern here which is so often the way we get tempted.

First, he gets us to doubt God's word, and to focus on the things God prohibits. So instead of seeing the entire garden of luscious fruit around us, we focus on the prohibition, the one tree God has placed off limits. God has spoken clearly to most of the issues we face. If we know God's word at all, the serpent's tactic is to get us to question or doubt it. This is subtle most of the time -- it's not like one day we face a decision and start to say, "The Bible is false!" No, it's more like this: I know God's word says that "in repentance and rest is my salvation," (Isaiah 30) but I feel the pressure of my to-do list, so I focus on the tasks I want to do rather than on the rest God provides. I think, "I'll rest tomorrow. Or maybe the day after. Today I have to get things done." So I doubt that God knows best, because if he saw all the things I'm responsible for, he would have written that verse differently, right? Or maybe I just think to myself (and this is really subtle) "Yes, God's word says I should rest; but it also says I should work hard, and you have to know how to apply the word." So I step back from the word and begin to debate with myself rather than simply accepting it as the authority over my situation. Step one accomplished.

Second, the serpent denies the penalty for sin that is contained in God's word. "You will not surely die," he says, in direct contradiction of what God had said in Genesis 2. So in the above illustration, I start arguing with God's word. "My salvation doesn't depend on whether I rest or not," I tell myself. Salvation is by grace, after all, and saying it's dependent on rest is some wacky kind of works righteousness. So I get to work on my to-do list, having effectively listened to the voice in my head that says something which, while theologically true, directly contradicts God's word. What I don't realize is that my salvation in this sense is not just about my eternal status, whether I will go to heaven or not; it is a question of whether I will begin here and now to experience the "abundant life" (John 10) that Jesus came to give. So my theological correctness keeps me from experiencing my salvation here and now. Step two accomplished.

Third, the serpent casts doubt on God's character. "God knows that when you eat of it, you will be like God, knowing good from evil." In other words, God isn't willing to share his power, his knowledge, his God-ness. He's holding out on you. How many of us somewhere along the way have bought into the idea that God is something less than entirely good? He messes with us, he holds out on answering our prayers, he creates trouble in our lives for his own hidden purposes, he is not really trustworthy, he is not really good. While he doesn't give me more than I can handle (who came up with THAT idea?) he still dumps bad stuff into my life, or at least lets it hit me. We have believed the snake over and over on this one. The issue is not that we believe God allows bad stuff to happen -- it is that deep down we believe that God has something less than our best interests at heart. Step three accomplished.

Now the snake has inserted enough of a wedge into my relationship with God that rather than knowing only God and receiving all things through God, I'm dealing with the questions on my own. And in doing so, I have already walked away from the relationship with God that he desires, and for which I am created. Taking a bite of the forbidden fruit is only the consummation of a shift that began with me "thinking for myself."