Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Road trip

Just got back this morning from Erskine, MN -- a pretty town on the shores of a couple pretty lakes on Highway 2 in northern Minnesota. I was there last night to speak to the congregation of Grace Lutheran about their decisions to leave the ELCA. My specific task was to let them know a little about Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ (LCMC). Grace is a gorgeous brick church -- the building is from 1915 -- right on the southeast shore of Lake Cameron south of downtown Erskine, the Ness Cafe, and an enormous concrete northern pike my brothers and I used to climb on when we were kids.

Pastor Tim Lundeen is doing a great job leading this congregation. They were attentive and asked a ton of good questions. One of the delights of the evening was that my high school accounting teacher was in the audience -- she's been a part of this congregation since long before I was in her class in 1982!

Before going to Grace, I stopped by my brother's place and had burgers with him, then visited my aunt across the road. I stopped in at my oldest friend, Kevin's place and learned that Kevin and his dad had gone to Winger for parts, so I got to have coffee with his mom. Great fun.

Then I swung by Faaberg Lutheran Church where I was baptized. I wandered the cemetery for a while. Visited my Mom & Dad's headstone and sat in the grass. Kicked the dirt off the Schroeders' tombstone next door where a badger or a skunk had been digging. Wandered over to the northwest corner where my great grandparents, Even and Randi Krogstad, lie. I took rubbings from their headstones and brought the Norwegian phrases back to use Google Translate to figure out that Even's headstone says "Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord" and Randi's says something like "May your memory be blessed". The entrance to the church was unlocked, so I snuck in and sat in the quiet sanctuary for a while, just remembering. Thought for a long time about the cumulative weight of so many hours -- Sunday School, Vacation Bible School, worship services each week plus Wednesday evenings during Advent and Lent, congregational meetings, funerals, weddings, potlucks, community events. Then there were the times my friends and I broke in (they used to lock the doors) to take advantage of the church's ping pong table or to have a quiet place to talk. All those hours are built on the foundation of my parents growing up in that same church in much the same way, and my grandparents before them being an integral part of the congregation. I sat there looking at the pipe organ, thinking how as a teenager my father sat in the bay behind it, working the bellows. (He was so relieved when the church purchased an electric fan to replace the foot bellows!)

It was pretty amazing, sitting there with all that weight of my heritage around me. What a gift to have that kind of upbringing. The baptismal font where I was baptized bears a bronze plaque that reads, "In memory of Peter G. Pederson and Fritz L. Wahlin." Peter was my mother's father. Fritz's son Johnny was one of the fixtures of my childhood, and his son was working yesterday morning with a few other guys on a project to replace some siding on the church entry. The relationships run deep in that community.

When I first got to Grace Lutheran, a few of the early arrivals helped me through the Minnesota ritual of "who are you related to, and who do we know in common?" With them it was easy, because the day before they had lunch with my godmother, Elaine, who has been a dear friend of theirs for decades.

I owe a deep, deep debt.

I guess that's why I'm so passionate about the church doing what the church needs to do -- helping people discover the love of God, tying people together in relationships that provide a net of extended family, carrying the broken ones, reaching out to the lost ones, encouraging the strong ones. The church of Jesus Christ is God's great hope for the world.

Monday, June 28, 2010

2 Corinthians 5:14-15

I sat down to read my Bible this morning -- as many of you know, Central is working its way as a congregation through the book of Joshua. So I read the Joshua devotional for this morning, and figured I would read ahead a bit in Joshua -- but it felt like God was prompting me to look up the verse above. So I read it, and it connects so strongly to the sermon (should be posted here early in the week) yesterday at Central. (I love when the Holy Spirit does things like that, by the way -- when you look at something and you know God is doing it but it's subtle enough that if you're feeling cynical you can blow it off. I think Jesus enjoys doing things that allow us to see him at work, but also allow us to miss him!)

To be honest, I've been struggling lately to keep my mind in Genesis. Maybe it's a summer / winter thing. Some stories are easier to work with in the winter, when you can sit around the fire and ponder and tell and retell old stories. Summer seems to me more like get-up-and-get-moving time, time to get things done. I have an easier time with New Testament verses -- not stories, but verses. It's sort of like packing a lunch to bring along rather than sitting down to a multi-course meal.

Does that make any sense?

Thursday, June 24, 2010

More windshield

So my wife's idea was to call the previous repair company, not to give them a hard time, but in her words, "If it was my business and that happened, I'd want to know." So I called and explained to the nice lady at the other company (which shall remain nameless) and said, "I'm just telling you because if it was my business I'd want to know."

Her response? "He's just telling you that so you never, ever go to another glass company ever again." I started to say, "I saw the windshield come out ..." And she interrupted, "If your windshield had been improperly installed it would have popped out before now."

Hm. Don't think I'll be going back to Previous Auto Glass Repair Company anytime soon.

Mysterious ways ...

This has little to do with Noah ... at least on the surface. But sometimes you just need to take a break and look around to see what's going on.

So Tuesday evening, my wife and I decided to attend a softball game. It was Central Fielders Team #1 versus Central Fielders Team #2. Since both teams are from our church, I knew right off the bat (!) that I would like the winning team. It was HOT. We sat in the bleachers and visited with others from Central and met a few new people. Then we went and found the smart people sitting in the shade and visited with them.

After the game (the team from Central won -- woo hoo!) we walked out to the car which we had parked WAY far away from the ball fields in the designated parking area, beyond the double fence so there's no risk of vehicle damage. And our windshield had been spiderwebbed by a home run off the other ball field.

We laughed a bit and were very grateful that we have glass coverage. After a day or so of inconvenience, having to truck both of us around in my pickup (which is actually kind of fun -- when you grew up as far out in the country as I did, there's nothing better than driving around in a pickup with your favorite girl) we are finally getting the windshield replaced by one of those insurance-company-recommended trucks that comes out to your place and does the repair onsite. Cool.

The "hmmm ..." part of this happens when the repair guy goes to remove the old windshield -- and it just pops right out. Apparently the last time we had it replaced, a year ago, the adhesive was not properly applied. Repair Guy's words were, "If I was you, I'd be pretty thankful right now that I hadn't been in an accident with this car. That windshield would never have stayed put."

So now I'm very thankful. I'm really thankful I didn't throw a tantrum about my wrecked windshield the other night. And I'm shaking my head just a little about the sneaky ways God sometimes works.

Monday, June 21, 2010

God's grace to Noah

The scene doesn't bear thinking about, but every movie portrayal I've ever seen of Noah's ark has included it. Imagine the preparation for the flood. Noah and his sons slaving over plans and planks, hammers and hardware for this behemoth of a boat. The neighbors have tailgate parties, drinking and laughing at the crazy man who thinks it's going to rain so much that he needs a ship to rescue all the animals and his family. Noah occasionally gets a fiery look in his eye and begins to rail at the neighbors, warning them of the wrath of God that will fall like a thunderstorm from the sky. They laugh louder.

The boat is finished, and the neighborhood becomes raucous with derision for Noah's foolishness. The only thing better than being a drunk is being a drunk with something worth laughing at -- and the neighbors have it. They mock and they sneer and they laugh at Noah and his sons, who righteously begin to load the animals -- all kinds of animals, two by two -- onto the ark.

NOTE: All this is based on the movies -- the Bible says very little about whether the neighbors laughed at Noah, aside from a couple obscure New Testament references.

In the movies, the scene changes as it begins to rain, and rain hard. Noah and his family and the animals are all shut up in the ark, and the neighbors suffer through torrents of rain. As the flooding starts in the low spots, they begin to become panicky, and finally they are beating on the sides of the ark in terror for their lives, but it is too late, too late ...

There is one tiny biblical detail in the story that is worth mentioning here. It appears in Genesis 7:16, where the Bible tells us that "the Lord shut them in." It was God who shut the door on the ark. Noah didn't have to bear on his conscience the weight of sealing that doorway, of closing off the way of escape to his neighbors. God did that.

Do you see what kindness this is to Noah? How terrible it must have been to think of his neighbors, even those who most deserved judgment, drowning in the flood waters. You can imagine Noah and his family shedding many tears over the consequences of wickedness, the judgment of God.

It's not so different for you and me. When God makes his covenant with you and declares you righteous, when he begins to work in your life to redeem those closest to you, there will be those around you who will resist his love. They may hear about your faith and sneer, or mock, or laugh. Or they may just go their silent way and reject the God who has found you. Depending on your style you may warn them, or try to persuade them, or pray for them, or just ache for them. In some cases they will join you; in most they will continue to reject the God you love. But you need never shut them out of what God is doing in your life.

You don't close the door on them. You don't speak judgment on them. If that sentence needs to be pronounced, God will do it. This is God's grace to you -- not only that your sins are forgiven, but that God spares you from having to bind them to their sin and pronounce judgment on them. You can live in love with God and let them see; you can speak a word of invitation to them when you are called to do so. But the final evaluation of their lives, the final closing of the door, is God's business. Because we know the grace of God, we grieve when we see a life ended by those who reject the love of God. For we know that their many sins (though no more numerous than our own) became the bars of the cell that held them back from Jesus. And we know that all the while, God was yearning to unlock the door and release them from the cell of their own making -- but in pride or in despair, they held the door fast shut.

When a life like this ends, we weep. We can be thankful that the consequences of a life squandered are not left to you and me. This is his mercy to us, even as others experience it as judgment. It is the same door. What matters is which side of the door you are on when the storm hits.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Who started it?

Genesis 6:17-19

Two boys, clenched fists, swollen lip, tear stained glaring faces. Mom asks the inevitable question: "Who started it?"

The initiator bears responsibility. It takes two to fight, of course, but the one who started it ...

God started it, and he's willing to take responsibility. Not just for a good creation -- its goodness including freedom, an incredible good, such that there is possibility in freedom for growth and maturation -- but also for its brokenness, its waywardness. God is willing to take responsibility here too. He will purge his creation, wipe out the sin. But -- and this is the important part, this is the amazing part -- he will make his covenant with Noah. God the covenant-maker creates something new: a covenant that preserves not only Noah's life, but also the lives of his wife and his sons and their wives and many, many other creatures. God creates a covenant that preserves life.

It is one thing to initiate punishment. That is usually just a reaction to circumstances, reaction to other people's initiative. But God wipes creation clean AND initiates a life-giving covenant with Noah. Whenever someone lives in a relationship with God, this is God's agenda. He initiates his covenant, defines the relationship so that not only is that person preserved, but God works through them to preserve life in their family, in their home, in their neighborhood. Each one who knows God is an outpost of God's love in a broken creation.

Here we see the poverty of western Christianity at the end of the 20th century: God wants to work as he worked through Noah to create a covenant, and those who live in that covenant will become God's means to rescue creation. We took this amazing vision and said that living in covenant with God is a way for one (1) individual person to "get to heaven" -- a biblically suspect phrase at best. God is about rescuing and redeeming creation and we think it's about me getting saved. God's vision extends to our sons and daughters, cousins and uncles and nieces and dogs and the rabbits that live in the trees behind my house. It is all creation God wants to save, and Noah is a picture of how he does it. Where there is relationship with an individual, God works to save the neighborhood.

You see, now, how important it becomes, this choosing that God does? God chooses and a small corner of creation is drawn closer to him. God makes a covenant and a bit of creation is redeemed.

So are you living in covenant with God? His call is to you just as much as it was to Noah. His agenda for you is no less -- build a mighty ark, a solid home, a loving family, a strong network of friends, a thriving business in which people, dogs, rabbits, trees, can be drawn into relationship with God.

God started it with Noah. God started it in your life. His agenda, driven by his limitless love for his creation, is the same.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Hope amid the destruction

Noah is an anomaly. He doesn't fit with the whole pattern. If God is out to destroy the earth, to wipe it clean of sin and evil, why save someone? Why not just start over with a robotic planet that does whatever it's told? Yet God spares Noah and uses him to save his family and lots of animals.

The answer to this and to most questions about God, is found in God's love for his creation. God yearns not for perfection, but for relationship. So instead of destroying creation, he wipes it clean -- but saves Noah and an arkload of others.

There's an important lesson to learn here about how God works. God does not delight in destroying anyone or anything. God doesn't wait for you to mess up and then smack you. Rather, God is constantly on the lookout, even in the middle of brokenness and wrongdoing, for things he can use to bring about good. So your stubborn streak, brought through God's redemptive processes, becomes the root of your unwillingness to turn away from your faith. Your suffering through difficult times opens a compassionate place in your heart, and God uses this compassion to extend comfort and care to others who are suffering. God is always looking for something to redeem. So Noah becomes the symbol -- not of things in your life that are perfect already, but things in your life that give God raw material to work. Noah is not that great on his own -- we'll see this after the flood -- but he's willing to be obedient when God tells him to build an ark.

It's less about perfection and more about availability.

One of the devil's favorite tricks is that he gets us to believe we have to make ourselves good enough for God. So we hold ourselves back, trying to live better, be better, when all God wants is really what we've just taken from him -- the possibility of relationship. It is in the middle of the relationship that God cleans us up and heals our hurts. Outside the relationship, we are hopelessly on our own.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Noah's ark

This story is such a weird mix. And the way we treat it is even weirder. This is one of the first stories children learn, I assume because we think it's like going to the zoo -- Noah and two of every kind of animal, so we have pictures of bears and lions and zebras and giraffes and water buffalo and they're all lined up waiting to go on the big boat and the kids just love it.

That's great. Captain Kangaroo plays Noah.

There is something charming about this story on the surface. You can just about see the newspaper headlines: "Local man rescues bevy of wildlife" or something. It warms your heart to think about it.

As long as you don't think too deep.

Because under the patina of Noah rescuing a bunch of animals there is a nasty dark side to this story. Namely, the earth has become so violent, so corrupt, so sin-infected (sinfected?) that God doesn't see a way out except to destroy it all and start over.

So how do you tell your kids that part of the story?

Mostly we don't. Mostly we just tell the kids' version and let it go at that. In fact, across the whole Bible we often stop at telling our kids -- or even ourselves -- the children's version of the various stories and never dig into the adult-level truths.

About the time your kids turn ten or twelve, as a parent you need to intentionally start letting them see what the world is like. This is tricky. If they haven't seen some of the dark underbelly of life by that time, you need to find ways to help them. Careful, now. This takes a delicate touch. You don't want to get them in too far over their heads. What about volunteering at a place like "Feed My Starving Children" or the Union Gospel Mission? Take them into an agency that is doing real things to help with real problems. Then -- and this is the important part -- talk about those issues at a level your kids can understand. Why are people homeless? Why don't people have enough food? What is a "refugee"? Why are there wars?

Lots of adults don't talk to kids about these things because they're not comfortable with the answers in their own minds. Guess what? Start this conversation and you might grow.

Noah pushes us to this growth. We would rather believe that sin is just what everyone does, and God winks and smiles and goes back to managing the universe. But Noah forces us to see that sin has terrible consequences. God does not wink at sin; it breaks his heart. He has to wipe it clean, scrub it away, drown it. God has not set up the universe so that sin can coexist with his righteousness. His holiness overpowers sin and destroys it.

But even in the midst of this terrible realization that God is going to destroy the world, there is a word of hope, a possibility of redemption. Noah wasn't perfect -- we'll see that clearly later in the story -- but God chose Noah. Noah obeyed when God came up with a crazy plan to build a giant floating box (that's what "ark" means -- "box"). So God used Noah and spared his life to repopulate the earth, to save the cute animals (and the not-so-cute ones).

No matter how sinfected your life is, God can wipe you clean, bring you through the flood, redeem you. This is the other truth that your child needs to hear and experience from you. No matter how bad you are, God's love is deeper. God's love will work to clean the sin out of your life, but he will preserve you and protect you and purify you because he loves you.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Brokenness and redemption

Creation is broken.

As I write this, oil is pouring from a failed oil well in the Gulf of Mexico. Everyone from British Petroleum executives to shrimp boat deckhands to President Obama is scrambling to figure out how to deal with the brokenness of creation.

Not all of creation's broken state gets so much press, however. Locally botanists are wringing their hands about a little bug called the Emerald Ash Borer. Pretty name for such a noxious critter. It is destroying trees and scientists don't know how to stop it.

A little over a decade ago my family visited the Kenai Peninsula in southern Alaska. In the middle of the gorgeous scenery we saw mile after mile of spruce forest, dead and dreary, pointing barren tops like accusing fingers at the sky. They tell me a beetle was responsible.

We are tempted to romanticize the natural world. Whether you're for or against reintroducing wolves in Yellowstone, there's a temptation to believe that your version of the natural world -- either elk without non-human predators or elk and predators in a life-and-death struggle -- is better than the alternative, is more beautiful, is somehow good and right. But the Bible is pretty clear that sin's effects have spread far afield and now it is not just humanity that suffers from the effects of sin. Sin's impact is not even limited to that which we touch or that which we indirectly pollute. But creation's inherent goodness is somehow compromised by the presence of sin. Notice in Genesis 6 that when God decides to wipe sin from the scene, he not only has to take out the people; he has to eliminate "men and animals, creatures that move along the ground and birds of the air" in order to clean things up.

Lest you think I read too much into a simple Old Testament phrase, let's go look at Romans 8. There's a fascinating passage in the middle of this chapter that I quote here:

19The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. 20For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. 22We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.

There's a lot to be said about this passage, but for the moment, see this: Humans in rebellion against God were the downfall of creation. Humans in submission to God through Jesus Christ will be its redemption. Whether this happens through the efforts of people who love and care for creation on this side of heaven, or whether part of our work after Jesus comes again will be the completion and tending of the "new heavens and the new earth", I don't know. I'm content either way, or more likely with a little bit of both.

The Buddhists have an intriguing idea. They talk about the interconnectedness of all things. One of their teachers has said that "all things inter-are." I have no intention of becoming a Buddhist, but I think that's part of what the Bible teaches us. As our sin infects all creation, so our nurture, our love can bring healing to it. Because we are connected in Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all creation, of water, earth, and sky, as the song goes.

So pick that spot you care most about and tend it. Make it beautiful. Let it become a signpost, a preview, of heaven. Why else would God give some people the gift of flower gardening? Without this understanding of creation and beauty and interconnectedness, it is such a pointless pursuit. But given the fact that God uses our sense of beauty to enhance and redeem a broken creation, gardeners should be held in high honor. If you doubt me, look again at the story of Jesus' resurrection in John 20. Is it possible that Mary mistakes Jesus for a gardener because the risen Lord had been digging in the garden and had dirt under his fingernails?

Monday, June 7, 2010

Moral agency

Genesis 6:5-8

Here we have a paradox. Sin is loose in the world like a hurricane; it sweeps over creation, breaking boundaries and reducing God's good order to anarchy and chaos. We, and the rest of creation, get tossed in this tempest. Yet in the midst of this terrible sin-storm, human beings are both victims and violators. We who are broken by sin are also the law-breakers. We are innocents who suffer the consequences of the power of sin; we are also moral agents who choose rebellion over and over again. It is a classic both-and.

Thus God can say that our wickedness had become great upon the earth. Our wickedness, not the generalized sin of others. Thus in the face of the irresistable power of alcohol, the drunk confesses that he is responsible for his uncontrollable actions. The addict who has no choice repents of his destructive choices. And this is just and right and proper, because we are responsible in the midst of forces we cannot change. At the heart of our createdness we are made in the image of God, and so we are free agents. But in our free agency we are in bondage to sin and unable to free ourselves. In the midst of universal chaos and destruction, in what the Germans call the "zerrissenheit" -- the torn-apart-ness -- of creation, in our own small yet significant way we turn our backs on God, adding our small flow of putrid rebellion to the tidal wave careening down sin's sewer.

So God diagnoses us accurately. Our wickedness has become great upon the earth. Every inclination of the thoughts of our hearts is only evil all the time. Some people object to this diagnosis, saying that humans are beautiful and wonderful and amazing. It is true. But we are infected with self-interest, and every thought, every action, every loving gesture, every altruistic breath is invested with your desire to make yourself look good, to be loved in return, to make your own world -- or the world of your precious children -- a better place because you will benefit. Could you really give up your life if there was nothing in it for you? Probably not. Because sin turns every thought, every action, back in your own mind until you don't know how not to calculate the return on your investment. You don't know how to give yourself away with no thought of return, no sense of satisfaction in the doing of a good deed.

Don't get hung up on this. You can't not be that way in this world. C.S. Lewis pointed out that one of the greatest things about heaven will be that we can live without selfishness, and what freedom that will be! But don't try to tell God he's mistaken about your heart, either. When you recognize the pollution in your motives, when you see the depth of the infection of sin in your soul, when you recognize the truth of what Calvin called "total depravity" -- not that everything you do is totally rotten like a fish dead on the beach three steamy days in July, but rather that everything you do is infected with sin, like milk two weeks past the expiration date. It just smells -- and tastes -- a little off, and you can't make it whole again no matter what you do. When you recognize that you are depraved in the totality of your being, in every organ and every pore and every moment, then you need the cross of Jesus Christ. At that moment you are finally ready to bring everything -- the good and the putrid, the noble and the diabolical -- to the cross. At that moment of total frustration with your bondage to sin, you are ready to die to yourself.

We're poised at the beginning of the story of the flood. If we do not recognize our need, our infection, our disease, we will not see the point of this story. We need this flood. We need to die. We need to be drowned in the waters. This is our baptism. This is our crucifixion. This is our death. And oh, how we need it. Without this death there can be no resurrection. Our old body is beyond cure; the only answer is death and resurrection. The paradox comes full circle. When we finally let God put us to death, when the waters of this hurricane wash over us, when we drown in the baptismal flood like Titanic in the waters of the North Atlantic, we can finally be raised to new life.

Amen! Come, Lord Jesus!


It's like ripples on a pond. Eve has a conversation with a snake and disobeys God. That's just one tiny interaction. But then it expands out to impact her marriage, and Adam's vocation, and their living arrangements, and their children, and society as a whole ...

Sin is insidious and it spreads like a bad cold. Sometimes you can watch the disease leap from one person to another; other times it seems like it's just borne on the wind.

In Genesis 6 sin makes a leap from humankind into the cosmos in general. What's this business about the "sons of God" lusting after and marrying human women? Various interpreters have had a field day with what is actually being talked about, but it's clear there's a pretty significant boundary being crossed. When God created the universe in Genesis 1, there was a place for everything and everything in its place. Out of chaos (meaning, things go just anywhere), God created an orderly existence. But now sin has broken the boundaries and the result is a return to chaos. So here we see even the existence of orders of creation breaking down. Angelic beings have sexual relationships with humans, which was never part of God's intention.

Nearly every ancient culture in the Mediterranean world had some story about the gods producing children on human women. The Greeks had the Titans; the Babylonians had Gilgamesh. The Egyptians believed Pharaoh to be a son of the gods. Each of these cultures looked to these cosmic cross-breeds for salvation. But the Bible is saying that this kind of half-breed divinity is not enough to save you. In fact, it results from a breakdown in the boundaries of creation. You need more than a half-divine warrior to rescue you from the powers of sin.

The irony is that like most counterfeits, this one is almost right. Because when God acted decisively to save this world, he engineered things so that he himself was born of a human woman. Jesus was not half divine, he was all divine. And all human. 100% of each. And rather than exalting himself as the mightiest warrior the world has ever seen, he humbled himself. His road to glory went through the cross.

So as sin expands farther and farther into the created world, breaking down relationships and throwing order into chaos, God is anticipating that someday soon he will move to create order, to heal the brokenness, to sacrifice himself for his beloved creation. In the next few verses of Genesis 6 we see the impact that sin's spreading has on God's heart -- he is in agony over it, broken by the brokenness of his beloved.

Thursday, June 3, 2010


It's always tempting to skip the lists. Lists of names, interminable lists of who begat who. Then there are other lists -- lists of sins, lists of sacrifices, lists of festivals, lists of laws. I once owned a Bible that put the lists in smaller print, as if to say "Nothing to see here, folks, just skip over this part ..."

And most of the time that's okay. I would never encourage someone new to reading the Bible to plow through Leviticus, for instance. I would never encourage a newcomer to ponder the genealogy in Matthew 1 or the one here in Genesis 5. It's not worth their time.

But later ...

Later on, when you've read the stories in the Bible, when you know the characters and the names and the incidents in the Bible's overarching story, then it can be fun to dig through these lists, sifting through a lot of gravel to find an occasional nugget of gold. It's in the genealogy in Matthew 1, for instance, that we learn that Jesus is descended from some women who highlight the sins of Israel's past -- Tamar the unfairly shamed daughter-in-law of Judah (see Genesis 38) Rahab the prostitute from Jericho (see Joshua 2), and "the wife of Uriah" more commonly known by her own name, Bathsheba (see 2 Samuel 11). These three women, specifically highlighted in the genealogy of Jesus, bring up some of the most troubling, most unpleasant aspects of Israel's history. Where's the gold in that? Well, isn't it comforting to know that out of these disgraceful things, God brought about Jesus? And isn't it comforting to know that out of the disgraceful episodes of your life, God can bring good? (See Romans 8:28)

So what's in Genesis 5? Lots of really old people, for one thing. But the gem here comes late in the chapter, when Enoch "walked with God" and so didn't suffer a normal death -- he "was no more, for God took him." What does that mean? We don't know exactly. But out of this humdrum list of names that reads like reading stones in a graveyard, we get this little glimpse of something better. Enoch walked with God. In Jesus' own time, Enoch was something of a folk hero. They had written a book about him, the Book of Enoch, that made up all kinds of interesting tales about the derring-do of Enoch and the way that angels and demons fought in the heavens and what would come about in the end times. It was very popular reading in the time when Jesus walked the earth, though no one ever thought it a proper book to be included in the canon of Scripture. Many New Testament books are influenced by the Book of Enoch, however, and Jude even alludes to it. I suppose in that day it would have been equivalent to the Left Behind series of books today, or maybe The Shack. Interesting, thought provoking, but it will get you in trouble if you try to make it a book of the Bible.

So what about Enoch? I keep coming back to that phrase, he walked with God. It takes me back a couple chapters to the garden where God walked with Adam and Eve. Enoch walked with God, and somehow his death wasn't like a normal death because of his relationship with God. The implication, I guess, is that God took Enoch bodily into heaven after 365 years, sort of like God took Elijah bodily into heaven when he was too burned out to continue his ministry (see 2 Kings 2). I'm not too concerned about what happened to Enoch at the end of his earthly life, but the association between his non-death and his walk with God intrigues me. Because I've seen it. I've walked with people right up to the edge of death many, many times, and I know that there is usually a striking difference between the death of one of God's holy ones -- those who intimately know what it is to be carried by Jesus' love and mercy -- and one who has limped along on their own two feet all their lives, never trusting quite enough to be carried. Those who know from experience how to trust Jesus face death with the assurance that here, too, Jesus will carry them as he has carried them many times before. Those who always have to stay on their feet tend to grasp at straws at the end of their lives, even as those straws dissolve one at a time until finally they are left holding nothing, and they exit this life in a sort of helpless wishing for more to hold on to. When Jesus carries his beloved from this life, they look like they're getting away with something, slipping away like the delicious punch line in a joke that the rest of us, standing around the bed in tears, can't quite get yet. When the schemers and the limpers leave this life, they hang on to their last breath like it was their last nickel and they didn't want to go broke.

It's about trust, I think, and trust comes from walking with God. As we spend time in his presence, in his holiness, we begin to see life from a radically new perspective. We begin to find ourselves a little pathetic, a lot humorous, and unbelievably loved. We rediscover wonder. We begin to see ourselves and our surroundings -- even if we're in a vacant lot in downtown Chicago -- as examples of a fearful and wonderful creation. The God who made this is the one who, in Jesus, promises to meet me on the other side of death and carry me through.

Peggy taught me this. She was in her mid-40's and about to leave a husband and two children. Several days before her own death, we talked frankly about her relationship with God. She was having a ball planning her funeral, picking out songs and enjoying the opportunity to throw one last big party. She had worked through the anger and frustration and resignation and grief of leaving her beloved ones, and she and I shared a few quiet moments while her family went for lunch one day. I asked if she had any concerns about her relationship with God, if she was at peace. She straightened up just a bit and stared me sternly in the eye. "Pastor Jeff, I figure all I need to do is die, and Jesus will take care of everything else. If there's something else I need to know, you'd better tell me right now!" I laughed and said, no, Peggy, I think you've got it straight. More straight than anyone else I know. Peggy knew about trust.

Part of the truth of this is that when we walk with God, we can't choose the pathway. He gets to direct the route. We end up walking in a lot of places we might not choose to go. The valley of the shadow of death from Psalm 23, for example, or the deep waters of Psalm 69. Difficult places. But he leads us in green pastures and still waters as well, and he restores our soul, and we learn to know his voice and follow his lead.

Enoch walked with God. I like the sound of that.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010


Apologies for not posting here for several days -- I was delivering my daughter Erica's graduation gift, which was a four-day trip to the Boundary Waters with her dad. (Aw, do I have to?) We had a GREAT time there including visits from Mike and Ned from Eau Claire WI who ended up on a remote stretch of the Frost River without a campsite late on Friday evening, so they pitched their tarp (yes, tarp) on our site ... da schnapper, as Erica called him, a ginormous snapping turtle with the longest turtle tail I've ever seen, who came around to investigate us, a particular and heretofore undiscovered species of bird Erica labeled "gizmotic mallards" (though they looked suspiciously like mergansers to her father), Herman the warp-capable woodtick, and an 18-hour flu bug that caught me right in the solar plexus and taught Erica that she is indeed able to take charge on a Boundary Waters trip if she needs to.

So thanks for your patience. We had a great 36 miles of paddling, portaging, and lifting over beaver dams, spent some significant time having conversations about who God is and what he's up to, and generally just enjoyed each other and one of our favorite playgrounds. I'm hoping to get back into Genesis in the next 24 hours or so.

P.S. About the picture -- if you ever have the chance to play in the rapids on the portage between Mora and Little Saganaga lakes, TAKE IT.