Saturday, July 31, 2010

Fair Warning

Over the next few days, I'm taking a break from live blogging. But I will continue to post some pieces every couple days so that those of you who are addicted to this blog (poor souls) will have something to read. Enjoy!

For today, I want to leave you with a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins. I have always loved this poem since I first met it in college (thank you, Dr. Bovard!) -- I love the use of language and the brilliant comparison of a falcon to Christ.

The Windhover
To Christ our Lord

I caught this morning morning's minion, king-
dom of daylight's dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate's heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird -- the achieve of; the mastery of the thing!

Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!

No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Genesis 12

This chapter of the Bible gets way too little attention. (Of course, that can be said of MOST of the chapters in the Bible, come to think of it.) Genesis 12 marks the moment when God goes from dealing with creation as a whole to reaching within creation to choose a path that will lead to Jesus.

Or to put it another way, in the flood or in the tower of Babel, God was dealing with all people, all creation. When he chooses Abraham, God focuses his love in a different direction. Instead of trying to suppress sin, he chooses one representative of sinful humanity. Then God promises that from this chosen one he will create a new thing: a priesthood. God will create a priestly nation, a people (Israel, eventually) who stand in the gap for all creation. And we know -- because we have skipped ahead and read the rest of the book, and now we read Abraham's story through the filter of Jesus -- that eventually Israel will lead to the Messiah, Jesus, God-with-us, who will not only plead with God for all creation but will give his life as a sacrifice to redeem creation.

It starts with Abraham and Sarah (actually their names are Abram and Sarai when we first meet them) and their nephew Lot, the son of Abram's dead brother Haran.

God speaks to Abram. "Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and I will make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed." Here is God's plan, or at least the beginnings of his plan. Abram will become a great nation, a blessing, an opportunity for the world to be blessed.

Genesis 12:4 is one of the most amazing verses in the Bible. "So Abram went ..." John Ortberg has said that "obedience is the means by which we experience (not earn) grace." Abram is not chosen because he obeys God; rather, he is blessed because he believes God has chosen him and acts in obedience to God's choice.

What small step is God calling you to obey today? We often agonize about the big choices, wishing God would make himself clear in the major league decisions. Yet we ignore, we overlook the tiny areas where God's will is so clear. Over the years I've learned that when I am obedient in small things, it opens the way for God to guide me in larger matters. Are you willing to be obedient in small things today?

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Small beginnings

Genesis 11 is a watershed of sorts. In the beginning of the chapter, we see that sin has spread throughout the world. Not only has it separated humans from God, husband from wife, brother from brother, humans from the natural world, it now separates one group of humans from another. Think of all the hurt that comes from "our group against your group" kinds of thinking. Northern Ireland. Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge. Rwandan genocide. Apartheid. The KKK. White Supremacists. The Black Panthers. 9/11. Every one of these and thousands more come from our group is different from your group thinking.

Sin has spread throughout the world at this point and has gained momentum that will not quit.

But God has a plan. In Genesis 11:27-31 it begins. Out of Ur of the Chaldees, just at the southern end of the Plain of Shinar where that tower of Babel incident occurred, lives a man named Terah.

Never heard of Terah? Not surprising. His name only occurs in those genealogies that we blip over when we read the Bible. But if you haven't done it yet, read what the Bible says about Terah.

God wanted to bring Abraham and Sarah to the land of Canaan, but it begins with a family move. Maybe the economy was better in Haran. Maybe Terah had itchy feet and was tired of Ur and all those Chaldeans. Maybe he got publicly disgraced somehow and needed to leave town. In any case, he takes his family, including the memory of his dead son, and moves. We don't know if Haran is named for Terah's son or if it had that name before. Maybe Terah renamed the settlement once he got there, or maybe the name was a sign from God that his family should settle there for a while. Doesn't matter. Out of these small beginnings -- one family moving from one end of the Euphrates Valley to the other -- God has begun to address the problem of sin.

Don't despise the day of small beginnings. Don't think the circumstances of your life are random. God is at work.

Thursday, July 22, 2010


I've heard so many people offer their perspective on the origin of the story of the tower of Babel. For some reason biblical scholars have a difficult time just letting the story be the story. So here are a few of the ideas I've heard:

1. The Israelites were in exile in Babylon after the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 b.c. when this story was written. The Tower of Babel story was a commentary on Babylonian society. The Israelites looked around at the ziggurats and the Babylonian religious establishment and wrote a story critiquing the pride, the arrogance, of the Babylonians.

2. One prof I had years ago translated Genesis 11:4-5 slightly differently -- instead of a city and a tower, he claimed the Hebrew should be translated "a towering city." In his view, the story of the tower of Babel was written during the reign of Solomon, when Israelite culture was moving from an agrarian, rural culture to an urban, trading culture. The glories of Jerusalem led the people of Israel to a sense of pride and their security was based on their towering cities. The story was written to critique the Israelites' own arrogance.

3. Others claim that this story was written at a time when the Israelites were starting to interact more with other nations and cultures and the function of the story is purely mythological -- that is, the story is designed to explain the existence of different languages and cultures.

It is dangerous to get too hung up on the origin of biblical stories. First of all, there's a temptation in this to make the story something that is dependent on its human origins and limited by their perspectives and insights. Second, this line of thought pushes us to focus on the details of the cultures in which the Bible was written without ever calling us back to hear God's word for ourselves and our own culture. Whatever the origin of this story, there are important messages in it for us.

First of all, see how sin has expanded its sway. Rather than just individuals behaving badly, we now have willful, corporate sin. "Let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves." Here we see humans at our insecure worst. There's no sense of trust in God or dependence on God in this strategy. Instead, it all depends on us and what we do. Let US build ... It is easy to see ourselves in this scheming. It's fine to trust God, but when it comes to my bank account, my retirement planning, my insurance, I'm on my own. I've had church council members at previous congregations tell me, "It's fine for you to talk about faith on Sunday mornings, Pastor, but you have to recognize that the church is a business!"

Second, the tower is a direct assault on God. The goal of the tower is to reach heaven. We are constantly tempted to try to bring ourselves to God. Sunday School children in a previous generation were taught to sing, "We are climbing Jacob's ladder, soldiers of the cross" -- neglecting the fact that Jacob never climbed the ladder; rather, angels were coming down the ladder to earth. The God we meet in Jesus is a God who comes to us. We do not -- cannot -- get ourselves to God. When we hold on to our moral standing, our pretty-goodness, our sense of our own ethics and integrity, we are simply trying to bring ourselves to God. (NOTE: I'm not against integrity, of course; but when we think we have accomplished something for God by behaving ourselves well, we're sadly mistaken.)

Third, we see in this story the awesome wisdom of God. He didn't need to destroy the tower, and that wouldn't have accomplished much anyway. Instead, he changed their languages. He cut off their communication, which is really one of the side effects of sin -- it divides us. God simply let their sin have free reign so they could live with the alienation that was brought on by their arrogance. This took the form of different languages that divided them from one another.
This Old Testament story has its counterpoint in Acts chapter 2. On Pentecost, God gave Peter and the other disciples the gift of different languages not to alienate them from each other, but to communicate the good news of Jesus Christ to people in their heart language. The burden of languages, the result of the sin of the tower of Babel, is transformed and becomes the means by which God proclaims good news.

This is the God we serve -- he takes what we experienced as evil, as punishment, and he transforms it into good. When my arrogance is broken and I am humbled, I feel awful. But if I let God work in my humility, it becomes a tremendous gift.

That's really what this story is about. The curse of varied languages and cultures that alienate people from each other will someday be transformed as we come together around the throne of God, where people "of every race and nation, every tribe and tongue" will join in praising the Lamb of God (see Revelation 4-5). This is God's power to transform.

What looks like evil in your life? What looks like the negative consequence of sin, yours or someone else's? Can you imagine God transforming it and making it into a gift?

Tuesday, July 20, 2010


Since January, we've been slowly (oh so slowly) working our way through the first few chapters of Genesis. At first the going was almost painfully slow, because there was so much in each verse -- sometimes each word -- to be wrung out of the text. And that makes sense. You see, we have a view of reality that is different from God's view of reality. So when we start reading the Bible, it's going to take a lot of work, a lot of thinking, a lot of learning to see things differently. Eventually we start to see that our assumptions don't match up, and we learn to see things -- at least in some small measure -- the way God sees them. So we accept some difficult truths, like the following:

  1. God is. Genesis never argues for this fact or proves it, it's just there. God exists. Deal with it.
  2. God creates. This gives God rights and authority over creation. (Difficult Fact: This creation includes us. God has authority over us.)
  3. Creation is both intricate and good. God says "it is good" over and over and over.
  4. We humans are in some way the part of creation most reflective of God. There's lots of room to think and learn and grow into what it means to be "created in the image of God" but that's what we are.
  5. We are created for relationships, both with God and also with each other, and with the rest of creation.
  6. God provides for our needs -- not always our wants -- by positioning us within creation. God uses natural processes (like the growth of fruit trees) to provide for our needs.
  7. There is a tempter, one who entices us to depart from fellowship with God. He is sneaky and bad and for some reason God allows him a certain amount of freedom.
  8. Given half a chance, we will go our own way, make decisions that seem sensible to us but contradict God's direction.
  9. The consequences of this self-will are devastating. To wit: We lose fellowship with God. We become aware of our vulnerability and don't trust God to protect us. We strive to protect ourselves. We blame others for our issues. We hide from the truth, from other people, from reality, and from God. We experience brokenness in our relationships and in our work.
  10. God covers our shame, but this covering requires sacrifice and bloodshed.
  11. God's covering does not solve the problem of sin. Sin continues to multiply and in the next generation it gets worse. It leads us to the belief that I can please God by my actions, by my productivity ("Cain" means "productive," remember?). When our willful productivity fails to please God and get us what we want, we lash out.
  12. Murder begets murder.
  13. External solutions -- even to the extent of the destruction of creation -- do not solve the problem of sin. It is an internal problem, internal to us, and we can't simply be washed clean. Not even in a big boat full of animals.
In Genesis 3-11 we see a constantly widening pattern, like ripples expanding on a pond. The consequences of our rebellion expand and expand. This is not a theory like the idea of an expanding universe -- it is observable fact. Pay attention the next time you lose your temper, and watch how that little thunderstorm in your heart blows up and affects the world around you. Or think about the last time you chose to be less than truthful about a habit, an activity, an indiscretion. Your secret lie has power that affects your heart, your surroundings, your relationships.

Next time we're going to see this alienation spread not just between individuals, but between language groups, between peoples. Sin is spreading. Where will it stop?

Hang on -- God has a plan. It's coming. Trust. Wait.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Mighty to Save

Last night, like most of the region, we got caught in a storm. The picture above is one my daughter took with her cell phone just before the storm hit. Twenty minutes earlier, we were listening to WCCO (which usually does a great job with weather stuff) and they were saying this was a fairly minor system, should be passing through the Twin Cities during the evening, and the big question was, would the fireworks in Maple Grove have to be postponed?

We looked to the west at that point and watched a wall cloud sweeping up out of the west. We ended up pulling off the highway at Menard's in Elk River. Just as we drove into the parking lot the storm hit in fury -- rain lashed the parking lot in sheets, wind had vehicles swaying and bouncing. We abandoned the cars and ran inside the store, through the front door that had been thrown off its track by the wind. Four store employees who should have known better were wrestling with the plate glass door, trying to get it fastened down and closed so the rain wouldn't blow in like a firehose, but they were not successful. We hunkered down with the rest of the patrons over by the restrooms, far from windows, and listened to the giant building creak and groan every time there was a gap in the ear-splitting thunderclaps. Forty-five minutes later, the storm had moved east and we drove home past traffic signs bent to the ground, trees and branches littering the highway, and a general swath of destruction that covered the whole northern end of the Twin Cities region last night.

I was thinking about scripture and some of what it says about God:

Nahum 1:3 and following says

His way is in the whirlwind and the storm,
and clouds are the dust of his feet.

He rebukes the sea and dries it up;
he makes all the rivers run dry.
Bashan and Carmel wither
and the blossoms of Lebanon fade.

The mountains quake before him
and the hills melt away.
The earth trembles at his presence,
the world and all who live in it.

In 1 Kings 19, when Elijah goes to Mt. Horeb to meet God, God sends three "appetizers" that prepare the way for his coming -- a mighty wind that breaks the rocks in pieces, an earthquake, and a fire.

In the classic hymn, "O Worship The King" one stanza declares,

"His chariots of wrath the deep thunderclouds form / And dark is his path on the wings of the storm."

I'm always amazed at how lightly we take God. I keep him around, sort of like my car keys -- when I need access to something, when I need help getting myself from here to there, when I need a temporary shelter, he's right there and I can take advantage of him.

This all-powerful God who dwells in lightning and thunder, who sends storms that shatter the foundations of buildings, and I treat him like a key ring, forgetting him or remembering him as it serves my purpose.

But this God, whom I glimpsed last night in the wall cloud and the lashing rain, who tears oaks limb from limb, is so far beyond me. If I begin to contemplate his power, his strength, the capability of what he can do, I should rather be terrified ... except for one thing.

God chooses to be merciful.

He is powerful beyond my comprehension, yes. But he harnesses that might and turns it toward saving, not destroying, me. Like the song says, he is "Mighty to Save." His wrath lasts but for a moment, but his mercy is for a lifetime.

Luther said that apart from Jesus, the face of God is hidden and God's character is indistinguishable from the devil. If all I knew was the God of the storm, it would be impossible to trust him. But thanks be to God, in Jesus I meet the God who heals, who washes feet, who raises the dead, who forgives sinners. I meet God at the cross and the empty tomb.

I need to remember that though Jesus is merciful, that in him I meet God who loves me, that doesn't change his power or his authority. His mercy, his love, give me all that much more cause to fall at his feet and worship him.

This picture was taken about an hour after the first one as we drove home into the brilliant sunset:

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Misusing Scripture

Noah's curse on his son Ham -- and specifically on his grandson Canaan -- has been much abused over the years. The Israelites without doubt saw this curse as a part of God's mandate that they should take over the land of Canaan and destroy or rule over the Canaanites. (They also had the specific command of God telling them to take possession of the land and God offered some other reasons for this conquest.) But this curse was also used during America's history to justify whites ruling over slaves kidnapped from Africa. When Noah says that Ham's descendants should be slaves to his brothers, it seems to justify enslaving Africans (the "Hamitic" or descended-from-Ham peoples) to the middle eastern peoples (Shem's descendants) and the European peoples (Japheth's descendants). So when white Americans of European descent wanted to justify an economic system that kept them in power, they used this text to legitimize slavery.

Now, the Bible recognizes slavery as "the way things are" in the ancient world. Our political sensibilities see slavery as one of the Ultimate Evils, and we rightly reject any sense that one race is inferior to another. I'm not at all saying that the Bible justifies bigotry or racism.

What I am saying is that we who read the Bible seriously and want to live by its guidance have to be very, very careful. The main danger is that we are all too prone to justify our actions and our systems, and we can easily read the Bible in a way that makes our preconceptions and preferences seem like the Ultimate Good.

We have to, HAVE TO learn to read the Bible for what it really says. It's way to easy to make the Bible say what I want it to say. It's hard but necessary to let the text read us, rather than us picking and choosing our way through the text. So when I run into something in the Bible that makes me uncomfortable, rather than simply dismissing it or ascribing it to primitive cultures and their ignorance, I need to investigate. Dig into what the Bible says in other places about this topic. Wrestle with it. See how it relates to other places in the Bible. Then -- and here's the hard part -- when the Bible contradicts my assumptions of the way things are, I need to ask myself -- am I willing to submit to this word? Am I willing to let God's Word shape and form my perceptions?

God's Word is eternal and inspired. My interpretations of it are fallible and culture-bound.

Take a step farther. Can we also see that the Bible reads our culture? What the Bible has to say might not only contradict my point of view, but it might also contradict and confront our shared perceptions of how things are. For example: The Ten Commandments includes a commandment, or two, depending on which version and how you number them, that prohibit coveting. You shall not covet your neighbor's house, nor his wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor anything that is your neighbor's. But every day in my mailbox I receive vivid flyers advertising everything from lawn services to law offices, from new cars to new hairstyles. All this advertising has one specific goal. It is all designed to make me covet. Listen to the financial reports and you rapidly get the idea that our economy is built on covetousness. If I'm not coveting enough that I spend rather than save, our economy will not recover as fast.

What does the Bible have to say to a society whose cornerstone is covetousness? What might the Bible say to us collectively about our view of "stuff"?

This is just one example. Dig deeper and you'll find dozens of other areas where the Bible confronts our shared assumptions about reality and how the world works.

Part of the problem with those slaveowners and their supporters in the mid-1800's in America was that they jumped from "this is how reality works" to "the Bible supports my view of reality" without seeing what the Bible said at a deeper level about their economic and social institutions. It's easy for us to condemn them, but are we willing to do differently?

Are we willing to let the Bible read us?

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Noah's righteousness

It's amazing how little we pay attention to what the Bible really says. Stories we tell about Noah's Ark most often portray Noah as a gentle man, caring for his neighbors, heartbroken for the evil around him, in earnest conversation with God. The Bible doesn't show any of that. In fact, up to this point we know next to nothing about Noah.

It was God who chose Noah, and the Bible says that "Noah found favor with God" (Genesis 5:8). It does go on to say he was blameless and walked with God; but hold on to that for a minute. Have you noticed how quiet Noah has been so far? In fact, we haven't heard him speak a word. All we've seen is Noah obeying God's specific commands (see Gen. 6:22 and 7:5, for example).

Now the flood is over, and we see Noah freed from God's specific commands and having to figure things out for himself. What's the first thing he does after leaving the ark? He plants a vineyard, raises some grapes, makes wine, and gets himself passed-out drunk without a stitch on. (See Genesis 9:20-27) His son Ham sees him and jokes about it with his brothers, who respectfully cover dad up with a cloak. Noah wakes up, probably quite hungover, and the first words we hear him speak are to curse Ham's son, whose name happens to be Canaan.

Is this the guy you learned about in Sunday School? I don't think so. This Noah is a bit of an embarrassment, drinking and cussing like a sailor, verbally abusive to his grandson, playing favorites among his children. This from the man who is blameless?

Maybe it's post traumatic stress. After all, Noah has been through a lot.

Two things this story accomplishes. First, it gives us fair warning that the flood God sent to purify the earth didn't finish the job. While we learned in the process that God takes sin seriously, we also learned that sin resides in the human heart -- including Noah's -- and we'll need a better cure than just water to make us clean. So this story points us forward to the cross, where God washes us clean inside and out with the blood of Jesus.

Second, it reassures me. Because too often, I find myself acting just like Noah. Me and God, we're tight, and we accomplish great things, and then I turn around and disappoint my wife, or I'm too harsh with my kids, or I'm lazy, or gluttonous. Noah's sin doesn't change the fact that God used him to do an amazing thing that preserved life. But even after the flood, Noah is still a sinner.

It is God's grace that chooses Noah, just as God's grace chooses me. And you. God doesn't pick us for his team because we're the best players. Instead, he picks us because he loves us, even though we don't deserve his love. It's a gift, just like it was for Noah. And the gift of God's choosing you is intended to overflow through you and benefit all creation, just like with Noah.

So don't get obsessed with your imperfections. They're real, and they're not something to be proud of. But God has a lot of experience working with imperfect people. If you're going to get obsessed with something, how about the amazing grace of a God who chooses you in spite of those imperfections, and then works in and through you to do his work?

Thursday, July 8, 2010

After the flood

I was driving down Highway 1 the other day and saw two crows hopping across the road. That was not unusual, but the fact that they hopped, stopped and pecked at something, then hopped again and pecked again, almost like it they were after a moving target, was a little strange. Usually when I see crows on the highway they're tearing up some poor animal that is not moving anymore because it's been thoroughly pulverized under the wheels of dozens of cars. So as I got closer I slowed down a little bit and then I understood. A salamander was trying to cross the road, and these two crows were trying to eat it before it got away. As I watched, the salamander made a mad dash (as much as half inch long legs can dash) the last three feet into the ditch, dodging and weaving to avoid sharp beaks the whole way. The crows finally gave up and flew away.

I thought then about God's words to Noah after the flood in Genesis 9:1-7. For the first time in this story, God pronounces a word that fear will be the normal state of things. It's a little hard for us to imagine, but Genesis seems to imply that before the flood, there were no predators, no eating of meat by any creature. It was like Isaiah's vision of the messianic age in Isaiah 11, where he describes the predators and the prey lying down together and the lion eating straw like the ox. "They will not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain," he says, and we begin to see that whatever the reality of this is for the predators, it is our own predatory selfishness that first needs to be subject to the Messiah's rule. It is our own prey-like vulnerability that God desires to protect. So it seems that Genesis 1-8 assumes this kind of harmony, and life after the flood is radically different. Now predators will hunt, and prey will be eaten, and all animals will be afraid of humans. The crows were right to pursue that salamander. They were just following the order God has placed in creation. They are scavengers, first, but also predators second.

Sometimes this natural order makes us intensely uncomfortable. We don't want to examine this predator-prey relationship too closely. On a grand scale, we recognize that without the wolves, the deer become overpopulated and begin to die of disease and starvation. But very few of us are comfortable watching a pack of wolves pull down and devour a fawn. I grew up watching Wild Kingdom where most of the time, at the end of the chase the film crew made sure that the predator went off in search of easier prey. But the reality in nature is that life usually ends brutally.

This becomes even more difficult for us when we become the predator. We've exterminated the wolves from most of the country -- just good business to eliminate the competition -- and so now we keep the deer herds in check as millions of orange-clad hunters wander into the woods each November. Even here, with high-powered weapons killing at a distance, there is often enough gore to turn your stomach. A friend of mine wounded a doe badly several years ago. He's careful about his shooting but this time the bullet opened her up too far behind the vitals, and suffice it to say that the blood trail was an unpleasant thing. There is a touch of sadness, of grief, in the cleanest and most humane killing of a beautiful animal. Yet the alternative -- not to kill the animal -- is in the long run far less humane. Rarely does any animal in nature die of old age. A little over a hundred years ago, conservationists with the best intentions cordoned off the Kaibab Plateau north of the Grand Canyon. They hunted down most of the predator populations and forbade hunting by humans with the idea that the Kaibab would become a paradise for mule deer. Sure enough, for three years the deer population grew and filled the area, as though God's words in Genesis 9:7 were being fulfilled. But two years later, it was nearly impossible to find a mulie on the Kaibab. Carcasses lay everywhere; trees and underbrush had been decimated, and disease and starvation had killed hundreds of thousands of deer. Overpopulation is far less humane than a stable predator-prey relationship.

What does this mean for us? We find ourselves in a world where life comes only at the expense of death. Veganism is no refuge from this cycle; resources being what they are, you eating your broccoli means that the ground cannot be used to provide food for another creature. While there may be sound reasons for people who choose a vegan lifestyle, the ethical concern not to cause the death of an animal is not a reasonable basis for this choice. There is no life without death.

This plain and simple fact -- that life happens on the shoulders, on the carcass, of death -- is a bit of natural law that leads us again to the cross. In the death of Jesus my life appears. Out of his sacrifice I am spared. By his blood I am healed. At some level I may wish it was not so, but my wishing doesn't change reality, any more than I can rescue the fawn from the teeth of the wolf pack. Jesus sees reality more clearly than I do, and knows I cannot live without his death. So he, the willing victim, goes to the cross for my sake, and out of his death I receive life. I cannot turn aside from this or avoid this reality. It is truth.

Jesus is not ashamed of this. He is not resentful about losing his life, or powerless to save himself. "No one takes my life from me," he said, "I lay it down of my own will, and I have power to take it up again." A change begins when Jesus goes to the cross -- a change that he called "the kingdom of God." This kingdom is only a foreshadowing now, only a foretaste, but someday, in its fulfillment, we will begin to see what Isaiah meant when he described the scene in which the lion lies down with the lamb, the child plays above the adder's den, and there is no more loss of life.

Thanks be to God!

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Living the gift

My daughter gave me a gift the other day. I have been savoring and pondering it for several days.

We were coming home, and we were talking along the way. Those conversations on the road home can be important. Sometimes the important conversations just happen -- they appear like mushrooms after a rainy week. Other times you have to plant them, like tomatoes, and pack some dirt around their roots and put a framework around them to support their growth. So I planted this conversation with a question: "What story -- Bible story or other story -- best defines you?"

She pondered for a while and then offered a couple thoughtful responses. We talked fairy tales and Tolkien and a few other stories. After about fifty miles of this, she said, "Okay, your turn."

So I talked about the Gerasene demoniac from Mark 5, which has become a tremendously important story to me, a story of how I have lived among the tombs and how Jesus has set me free from my bondage to death, my bondage to myself, and sent me back to tell what God has done for me. It's a powerful story.

I had been mentally roving my way through Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy. I first read these books when I was about twelve, and I have lived and relived and imagined and reimagined these stories hundreds of times. My oldest brother and I used to linger over long conversations about the potential of a movie version of Tolkien's work, who we would cast in what roles, etc. (I have lots of opinions about Peter Jackson's version of the trilogy -- some places it's amazing and some places he totally misses the boat, like when the archers of Lothlorien show up at Helm's Deep ... what's with that???) So I floundered a bit, looking at a couple characters and finally settling on Strider in Bree, when the four hobbits first meet him, when he's not King of Gondor but just a Ranger out of the wilderness who is there to help them.

My daughter chewed on this for a bit and finally said, "I don't buy it. It doesn't work. You're not scary enough to be Strider." I wasn't sure at this point whether I should be offended or not. "You are too easy going, you draw people in because you're so comfortable. You like to play with little kids. I can't see you threatening them with a broken sword like Strider does -- you'd be trying not to laugh." True. Too true. Then she gave me a gift I have pondered ever since.

"I think Mithrandir. You're Gandalf. He likes to set off firecrackers with little kids and play games with them. He loves to laugh and he pulls people close to himself -- he draws people in. He goes from one group of people to the next, offering wisdom and guidance. He digs deep into ancient texts looking for the secrets that will set people free. There's a lot more to him than most people understand. I think Gandalf is a lot better fit for you than Strider. There's tremendous strength and joy in you, but so often it's hidden. And you don't want to do it, but if you have to you'll stand on the bridge and fight the balrog."

At this point my eyes had welled up and I was about to drive off the road. I would never, never have chosen this for myself, compared myself to this wizard who is probably more the hero of Tolkien's trilogy than any other character. I'm astonished by her comparison not because I think it's accurate, but because I see tiny wisps of truth in it. There are tiny parts of my life -- the parts that give me hope that someday I may do something worthwhile -- that match up to Gandalf's example. My daughter gave me an example to follow, a literary role model, a mythical mentor. A story.

Joseph Campbell once said that the function of the artist is to mythologize life. I would take it a step further and say that an unmythologized life is probably not worth living. We need to know what story we are living and how it defines us if we are to understand life and our place in it.

This is why I was talking about baptism in my last post. Baptism is the story that defines the life of the Jesus-follower. Death and resurrection. Crucifixion and new life. The flood in miniature, lived out in my life as my flesh -- my old self -- dies and Jesus in me comes alive.

So what's your story? What tale, what character, what plot defines you?

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Back to the flood

Genesis 7:17-24 gives a detailed description of the destruction caused by the flood. All living things that breathe on land were blotted out by the flood. Only Noah and those with him on the ark were saved.

If, as I have asserted many times over the last few months, this is OUR story, what do we do with this?

One of Martin Luther's nuggets that has enriched the church for centuries now is the principle that we let scripture interpret scripture. In other words, if something in the Bible is confusing, let the rest of the Bible shed light on it. So interestingly enough, the Bible offers a perspective on the flood that deals directly with this story as our story. In 1 Peter 3 we read that the flood prefigures baptism; so just as Noah was saved through water, we also are saved through the waters of baptism. Peter clarifies that this saving happens not by the removal of dirt from the body (it's more than a bath) but rather as the pledge of a clear conscience toward God -- or as another translation puts it, "as an appeal to God for a good conscience". On what basis do we appeal to God for a good conscience, or pledge our clear consciences toward God? The phrase which immediately follows is the basis for the whole thing -- "through the resurrection of Jesus Christ."

Genesis 7:21 says that "all flesh" died -- some translations say "all living things" but I like the ring of the older translations that say "all flesh". This is another phrase that points out the connection between the flood and baptism. In baptism, the "flesh" of the person baptized -- their sinful nature -- is drowned. (See Romans 6:6 in context.)

Coming into a relationship with God through Jesus does not mean that I get a pat on the head and God says, "Good job! You have it almost right; here, let me help you with the rest." Rather, the Bible tells us that when we come to God he puts us to death with Jesus, crucifies us like Jesus was crucified. Not one shred of me gets to remain alive. Even that which is best in me has to die. Why? Because only that which is dead can be raised to new life. If I cling to something of myself, if I cling to my sense of humor or my standing in the community or the fact that I'm a good driver or whatever -- God cannot raise that part of me. Only when I surrender to Jesus, let him take me to the cross, can I experience resurrection.

This is terrifying. Don't you suppose Noah and his family and all those animals experienced some anxiety in the bowels of that giant wooden box? As they realized what was happening, they must have been terrified. But at that point, the ark was their best hope of being saved. So for us, the waters of baptism are a torrent that washes our life away, drowns us, destroys us. We cling to the cross in the midst of the flood and there God raises us to new life. Now what I am, the gifts God has given me, the talents and experiences of my life, can be brought to new life in Jesus. Now all these things can find their fullness because they are no longer mine, but God's. Now my life, too, can find its fulfillment because I am not my own, I have been bought with a price.

Before the rain started, all the people and creatures, as many as there were, were not a source of life for creation. They were operating in and of themselves, cut off from God's desires. When God finally washed the earth clean and saved Noah, his family, and a few animals, there was more life in the ark -- in that big box -- than there had been on the whole surface of the earth before.

It is the same in me. When I operate in my own strength, my own wisdom, my own understanding, there is little life in me. What life there is, is overshadowed and polluted by my sinful nature. But when I surrender and let Jesus have my life, when the cross becomes my cross, when I am united with his death, then I become truly alive. This is the shape of the Christian life. Surrender, death, and resurrection. My life is the flood in miniature.

Saturday, July 3, 2010


It's been busy lately. Tried to cram a full week's work into two and a half days; left Thursday to go up to Fargo to spend part of the weekend with my wife's outstanding family, playing in the pool, hanging out, eating way too much. Good times. We made a quick run up to the farm where I grew up this morning and spend a couple hours hanging out with my siblings, two nieces, and six dogs. Great fun.

This evening Erica and I drove home so we can be at church in the morning. You know how you look at all that needs to be done, calculate exactly how much time it will take, and then allow exactly that much time for each task? Yeah. So we got home, everything was exactly on schedule, got the dogs out of the kennels in the back of the pickup and made sure they were settled in, unpacked luggage and bikes and kennels. Heard my other daughter's ducks offering their plaintive little greetings (honestly, they look like bowling pins with legs and they are the most soft-spoken birds) so I went to check on them and make sure they still had plenty of food and water, and to collect any eggs they might have deposited. Got into the duck shed and collected a couple eggs, found that they had plenty of both food and water ... and then I saw the snake. A four foot bull snake had gotten inside the duck shed and was laying, as bull snakes like to do, right in the crease where the floor meets the wall. Tough to see there in the straw under the table, and if he hadn't hissed at me I might have missed him altogether.

Now what? I locked him in the shed and the ducks out, got Erica to hold a flashlight, and disposed of what I really think is a gorgeous predator. Just not one I want taking up residence in my shed. (Following the same reasoning, with a somewhat guilty conscience I also kill spiders that I find in my house.) So now I'm coming down of a bit of an adrenaline rush.

Not sure why I'm telling you this except that it fit so well with a conversation Erica and I had for about a hundred fifty miles on the drive home tonight. We talked about how you have to see and experience the adventures contained in daily life. Life is pretty ordinary most of the time, sort of like a firefly you might see during the day and not think twice about it. But at night, those amazing little critters are like stars hovering over a meadow of dewy grass, or like tiny foglights blinking back and forth as the mist settles over the fields. If you can't enjoy the beauty in your own life, if you can't see the tiny bright spots that might just mean God is at work, you miss a lot.

So our bull snake wasn't a fire breathing dragon, but it was plenty close enough for tonight. I enjoyed the adventure, my heartbeat is pretty much back to normal, and now I'm going to bed. Whew.