Sunday, February 28, 2010


One of my favorite e. e. cummings poems goes like this:




The poem is usually referred to by the title "loneliness" and it's worth pondering a bit to see all that cummings packs into this tiny little creation, the emotion that he communicates in a number of different ways ... I think cummings understood well what God says about you and me, "It is not good for the man to be alone."

There is a huge difference between solitude and loneliness. Jesus was a great advocate of solitude, and the rest of the Bible backs him up. "Be still and know that I am God," declares Psalm 103. Mark 1:35 tells us that "A great while before day, Jesus got up and went to a solitary place where he prayed." Solitude is almost a requirement -- at least sometimes -- for a relationship with God.

But loneliness is different. While solitude can be abundantly full of the presence of God, loneliness is desperately empty. Solitude offers the opportunity for reflection; loneliness drives me to despair. When we seek out solitude, we give God room to work in us. Sitting quiet for a half hour in the mornings, reading my Bible and praying, and sometimes just staring out my window at the pine trees, is a discipline of solitude for me. Leaving the radio off when I'm in the car is another that I practice from time to time. Do you have disciplines of solitude? God will honor these times with his presence.

Yet God can use loneliness also. There is an emptiness in loneliness that allows us -- sometimes forces us -- to face our brokenness, to face our wounds, to face the reality of ourselves in a new way. One of the formative experiences of my life was in 1998 when I graduated from seminary. For graduation, my wife gave me a wonderful gift -- three days alone in the Boundary Waters. I prepared and plotted, rented a solo canoe and chose a route that looked pretty remote. I intentionally didn't bring a novel or any other time-fillers -- I was so looking forward to the solitude. After a hard day's paddle to my first campsite I settled in to enjoy the peace and quiet -- and I was immediately uncomfortable. Nervous. Fidgety. The hours crept by. I got my fishing rod out. I paddled around the lake. I watched a moose. I tracked a bear. Another hour crept by. I began to face a hard truth: without something to do, I was nearly frantic. All the peace and quiet was stressing me out. The isolation I had longed for was killing me. At the bottom line, I had to learn a difficult truth on that trip -- I was not the man I thought I was. I had thought I was all about peace and quiet, that I loved solitude and that I was quite comfortable with myself.


So that trip became an enormous learning experience for me. It was not good for me to be alone. I began to see a lot of my drivenness didn't come from my class demands at seminary, my hectic schedule wasn't something being forced on me from outside. I filled my days because I was afraid to be quiet, afraid to be alone.


Those three days became a defining experience in my life. A few years ago I talked to a friend who spends a lot of solo time in the Boundary Waters and told him about that trip in '98. "You think three days is bad," he chuckled. "Five days is the real crazy time. If you can get past day five you're good up to about ten. But five is really tough." I don't know that I'll have a chance to do a five day solo trip anytime soon, but I'd like to try it. I'd like to plan for solitude -- including some good activities like a novel and a journal and a route that requires me to move from place to place. I'd like to plan that trip as a way to seek God. And I expect that some of it would be uncomfortable and lonely, and that's okay, because God can use that to teach me as well.

I think guys especially struggle with this business of being alone. Most of us have so many walls up that it's easier sometimes to be alone, even if we are lonely. But we want to be alone on our own terms, and come back to rub shoulders with others when we're ready. I don't think this is necessarily a bad thing, but we need to give God access to our rhythms of together and alone so that he can use our solitude and our loneliness and our togetherness and our community to shape us and to teach us. At the risk of stereotyping, women tend to be hardwired more for relationships. So there are a lot of isolated men hiding behind their walls, involved with lonely women who wish for them to come back into the relationship. But too many men haven't figured out how to invite anyone inside the walls, how to not be alone, even with someone else. Even in a marriage, even in a room full of people, these men are alone, and some of them don't even know it. They just think they're miserable because ... well, just because. Have another beer and try not to think about it.

So we discover again that God knows what he's talking about. It is not good for the man to be alone. There are deep wells to explore in this, but it starts with facing our isolation and seeking God in the solitude.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Isaiah 51

As I posted earlier, I've been living in Isaiah for a while now as far as my own devotion time goes. One of the things that always amazes me about Isaiah 40-66 is how much emphasis there is on God as the creator. Over and over again God proclaims himself the creator or Isaiah extols him as the creator or one or the other of them lays down the distinction between God, the true creator, and idols, who are pretty much created by a craftsman. There's a lot of responsibility that gets laid at God's feet, being the creator and all (see Isaiah 47, for instance).

But the other day when I reread Isaiah 51, I was blown away by the way God wants to re-create us when we are damaged, worn down, beat up, sin-stressed, or otherwise hurt. Take a look at verse 3, for example:

The LORD will surely comfort Zion
and will look with compassion on all her ruins;
he will make her deserts like Eden,
her wastelands like the garden of the LORD.
Joy and gladness will be found in her,
thanksgiving and the sound of singing.

God is speaking here to people who have lost everything, and he says that into their desert, into their barrenness, he will create anew the garden of Eden. He's using Genesis the way we've been using Genesis. He's saying, "It's YOUR story. I'm going to create you anew, and just like the world was fresh and clean and verdant and glorious, so will you be."

So guess what? If this is you, see what God wants to do?

Sunday, February 21, 2010


I've been percolating for several days now on the last entry on this blog, thinking about what it means to accept what God says about me, who he says I am, who he wants me to be is who I should be, etc. Every time I find myself starting to get ambitious -- meaning, starting to get riled up to do something with myself that is outside God's intention for me, something that is designed to improve my image or my ability (and this is the key part) so I feel better about myself, I turn away from it and turn back to what God says about me.

Offhandedly this morning my wife said, "Did I tell you the other day that I think you ought to read Isaiah 43 through 45? Actually it was more a sense that you should start reading at 43, I don't know how far you should read." So I read Isaiah 43-50 for my devotions this morning, and kept being confronted with what God says is true about me, and more importantly what is true about HIM. He is the creator. He is the one who makes plans and makes them happen.

So my recommendation for the day? Spend some time in Isaiah 43-50 and see who God is.

I guarantee you that this will come back around to Genesis and the garden of Eden, but I'm not going to give away the secret yet. Have fun!

Tuesday, February 16, 2010


I thought God was a liar.

I didn't know how else to make sense of it -- God says to Adam, making sure that he knows not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, "in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die." (See Genesis 2:15-17)

But as the story goes on, we see that Adam and Eve do eat from this fruit and they live long lives and have many kids. So what's with that? I thought God was using hyperbole, overemphasizing the point to warn them. Maybe it would have just taken too long for God to say, "In the day that you eat of it you shall set forces in motion that shall cause the physical cessation of your body's functions someday years down the line ..." but that has to be what he meant.

Doesn't it?

This winter I have been struggling on and off with a nasty funk. Colds come and go, but a good funk is the gift that keeps on giving. I have been waking up crabby, snapping at people, resenting everything from my dog on up. Even I haven't wanted to live or work with me, and I can't imagine what it's been like for people who are stuck with me. Of course, being a Good Lutheran Boy I don't let my funk show in public if I can help it, and I still take out the garbage when I remember. But it seems I forget more and more often when my mind is in the hamster wheel of this funk.

The other day I was praying about some of this funk, trying to figure out why I've been strangling in its grip for so many months. I am not prone to seasonal affective disorder, so that's not it. Physically I have been pretty healthy, overall. But emotionally and spiritually I have felt like a little brown lump of infected beetle dung most of the winter. So when I got tired enough of all this, I started praying about this in more than the short, frustrated prayers ("throwing darts at God") that have become my practice. I started spending time reading my Bible rather than reading a verse here and a verse there and putting it off as long as possible. I picked up a book about growing in your relationship with God.

And almost immediately (say within four or five days, which after a three month funk is pretty immediate) I was diagnosed. I had turned my eyes from the truth of who God is and what God says about me to my own ideas. Simple as that. I had believed the lies of my own desires.

I was dying.

In my journal a couple days ago I recorded the quote that finally diagnosed me. It is from a book called Conformed to His Image by Kenneth Boa. Here's the quote:

It is only natural to shape our self-image by the attitudes and opinions of our parents, our peer groups, and our society. None of us are immune to the distorting effects of performance-based acceptance, and we can falsely conclude that we are worthless or that we must try to earn God’s acceptance. Only when we define ourselves by the truths of the Word rather than the thinking and experiences of the world can we discover our deepest identity … Loving ourselves correctly means seeing ourselves as God sees us. This will never happen automatically, because the scriptural vision of human depravity and dignity is countercultural. To genuinely believe and embrace the reality of who we have become as a result of our faith in Christ requires consistent discipline and exposure to the Word of God. It also requires a context of fellowship and encouragement in a community of like-minded believers. Without these, the visible will overcome the invisible, and our understanding of the truth will gradually slip through our fingers” (page 35).

When I set out to define myself, to create a truth about myself apart from the will of God, I am cut off from the source of my life. It may take me three months to figure out what's wrong, but immediately I am dying.

This should come as no surprise; we've spent a great deal of time already in Genesis realizing that being connected to God is life. So, to pursue my own knowledge of my identity, of my "good" or my "evil" is unlife, is death. So in the day that Adam and Eve ate from the tree -- in the day I eat from the tree -- the consequences are immediate. God has not lied; I have simply failed to understand and believe the truth.

So what about my funk? I'm retraining my mind these days (see Romans 12:1-2) to remember that it is what God says about me that counts. If I make plans or set priorities that are not based on who God says I am, I crumple them up and throw them away as soon as I can. When I find myself thinking about myself or about others in a way that buys into a lie, I consciously turn my mind away from the lie and remember what God has said.

The crux of my problem this winter has been ambition. I have wanted to be more, do more, achieve more, than what I have been doing. Ambition is fine; but along with the desire to grow I have swallowed the lie that if I achieve more, if my plans succeed, I will be more significant, my life will be worth more, I will make a bigger splash in the world and somehow I will be greater. I have forgotten who God says I am and bought into the lie that I can market myself. I have chosen to focus on my own vision of what I might become and I have set aside Jesus words, "I no longer call you a servant, but my friend." What greater status, what greater achievement, could I desire?

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Why the tree of knowledge?

Genesis 2:16-17

I was privileged to grow up with an amazing sports complex right outside my back door. Fifteen steps from the back door of my house were two -- not one, but two -- football fields. A custom-constructed baseball complex was a hundred yards to the south. A softball diamond stood just to the east. Now, to the uninitiated visitor, this sports complex looked like a yard with some trees and a wrap-around cow pasture with a few rocks scattered here and there. But my brothers and I had carefully surveyed the entire complex, setting down boundaries, yard markers, end zones, bases, and a few extras not usually known in professional sports. (When was the last time the Minnesota Twins outfielders had to deal with a thistle patch? When did you last see a shortstop calculate his dive not only to catch the ball, but also to avoid landing in a fresh cowpie? I've wondered for years why coaches don't implement these training tools, at least in camp, for additional challenge to their athletes and for the greater benefit of their sport.) When we first started playing football in the front yard, we carefully measured the dimensions of the yard and calculated that, just as we were roughly 35% the size of professional football players, so our field was roughly 35% the size of a professional field. It was all carefully proportional. In the pasture to the south, we precisely marched off the limits and boundaries of our baseball diamond in a similar way.

Have you ever tried to play baseball or football without boundaries, without rules? How about pinochle or poker? The game rapidly becomes chaos if the rules no longer apply.

People often reject the Bible because they think it is a book of rules, a compendium of "thou-shalt-not" designed to frustrate our fun. First of all this betrays their lack of knowledge about the content of the Bible; second, it betrays a warped understanding of God; third, it probably says a great deal about what these people experienced from their parents and others in authority when they were growing up. It says nothing at all about the Bible.

God, as we have already seen, is about giving life to his creation. He creates separation so that light may be known from darkness, land from water, heaven from earth, male from female. He makes knowledge possible through these separations. Humans are invited into this creation to experience its richness and fullness as a way of experiencing the love of the creator God. God creates amazing diversity of life -- plants, fish, birds, animals in amazing splendor, and then invites humans to know all these things, and even to name them (we'll see that coming up soon). Do you see? If science is the pursuit of knowledge about creation, God created this pursuit and blessed it.

One kind of knowledge is off limits -- not placed by God in an arbitrary way ("Oh, I think I'll put the fence here") but in a logical, sensible, inescapable way. If we know God as the creator of the universe, as the origin and source of all life, as the lover of creation who has designed its intricacies and longs for its fulfillment, then we cannot know what is good for creation (including ourselves) apart from knowing God. If we want to know good, we must know God. If we try to know good apart from knowing God, we are treating ourselves as the origin and the source, and we will be deceived. The boundary around the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is not arbitrary; it is part of the fabric of the nature of God and of the universe. God does not put this tree in the garden as a source of temptation; rather, his respect for and delight in the dignity of humans requires this possibility. If we do not have the option of seeking knowledge in ourselves, we are automatons without any possibility of growth or fulfillment. But God knows -- and we would do well to find out -- that our deepest knowledge, our fullest joy, our most abundant life comes as we know God, and in knowing God we delight to know his creation (including ourselves). So all the sciences -- geology, biology, psychology, mathematics, medicine, both applied and pure sciences are at their best when they seek to discover the truth about God's good creation. Even Einstein said, "I want to know the thoughts of God." Charles Darwin, who early in his life received training in what was then called "Natural Theology", in the conclusion of his On the Origin of Species, implies (though he does not directly argue) that his theory of evolution provides the mechanism by which God's original creation has grown in diversity and grandeur.

We don't have to travel far to find examples of humans deciding for ourselves what is "good" and jumping wholeheartedly into it -- only to discover some time later that what we believed was salvation turned out to be dangerous and destructive. Asbestos, DDT, and Crisco have all been hailed as the next great development to enhance human life. Each one proved destructive and costly and we continue to pay the price. These are relatively trivial examples; if we look to the way we destroy ourselves in relationships by doing what we think is right, we'll see in a hurry that we desperately need to submit to a loving God who knows us better than we know ourselves.

Thursday, February 11, 2010


Genesis 2:15

Why do we so often think of paradise being a place where we don't have to work?

Maybe it's because so much of our work here and now is a "have to" -- we don't realize what a wonderful privilege it is to have meaningful work until our work is taken from us (we get laid off, fired, we retire, we get sick or disabled) and we are lost. Work is written into our bones and our souls -- it is part of the image of God that we bear.

But work (as we'll see later on in Genesis 3) has become a curse as well. "I owe, I owe, so off to work I go" says the bumper sticker. So we get bitter and twisted about work and we begin to imagine heaven as a perpetual vacation -- lounging on a cloud, living a self-indulgent life where no pleasure is off limits and it's all about me and what I want -- this becomes our idea of paradise. Fact of the matter is, after a few days (or hours, for the more intelligent and in-touch among us) such a self-oriented life would become torture. (I can hear some of you thinking, "Let me try it and see ...") We rarely acknowledge that it was our self-indulgence that got us into the state of "I owe, I owe ..." in the first place!

Why do we think paradise is a state of being without work? The garden of Eden includes a great deal of work, some of it probably pretty difficult physical labor. But work is part of God's good plan.

Imagine if you will an existence in which work was like this:

No futility. Work never has that sense of deep frustration meaning that there are unsolvable problems, unworkable solutions, and incompatible conflicts. There is always a way forward in tasks and in problem solving.

No drudgery. Every task is meaningful because it fits into a larger whole that has real purpose.
No boredom. Imagine work that was a constant challenge to your abilities, but you were also learning and growing into more effective, more fruitful ways of working all the time. Wouldn't that be fun?

No personality politics. Work would be a community effort without all the nit-picky trying to keep people happy around their pet agendas, their defensive strongholds, and their unpleasant personal habits. (Oh, and the same about yours, too, by the way!)

No moral quandaries. Work would never put you in a place where you had to ask if, at some deep level, you are compromising yourself either by the work you are required to do or the tasks you take on or the means by which you complete those tasks.

No shirking, hiding, avoiding, sluffing off. You would never find yourself on Facebook when you're supposed to be focused on work. You would never have to deal with the guilt of giving less than a day's work for a day's wage. Work would involve a perfect blend of effort and rest so that it was a joy to pour yourself into a task, knowing that there would be well-earned down time coming soon.

Do you start to see what work in the garden of Eden is supposed to be like? Certainly work would still involve a little bit of frustration. One of the good gifts of work is that it brings us to the end of ourselves and reminds us of our total dependence on God. That is a Good Thing. So it's okay for work to present a problem that we can't solve now and then, that requires us to rely on another and ask for help. But this kind of work sounds too good to be true -- because we are used to the accursed work that is mostly frustration and meaningless toil, what the author of Ecclesiastes called, "chasing after the wind."

No, in the dream of God for his good creation, work is a total gift. As we learn to live in a right relationship with God, we begin to rediscover work for what it is intended to be. I'm always impressed by the conversations I have with new Jesus-followers. One of the consistent questions they struggle with is the question of work -- what should I be doing? I sense a call to a different kind of work -- a meaningful, kingdom-of-God work. How do I start? What training do I need? How do I move toward this vision without creating a train wreck along the way? These are the questions of people who have crossed from dark into light, from death and despair and meaninglessness into abundant life. Jesus has called them to come and follow, and part of that following involves their effort. They come at this new work with a zeal and a passion and an energy that is exciting -- and contagious! It's enough to make you feel like you're in the garden of Eden. And you are.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

A river runs out of it

Genesis 2:10-14

These verses bothered me for years. Rivers don't behave this way. You don't have four rivers rising from one source and dividing into separate headwaters. The rivers especially don't go from one spot to both Iraq (the Tigris and Euphrates) and Ethiopia (Cush, where the Gihon flowed). Doesn't work that way.

In dry country, rivers are life. I lived in western North Dakota (a climate in some ways similar to Israel) for five years, a mile from the banks of the Missouri River. Driving that mile you would see an amazing transition from brown, dry, rolling hills down the coulees to the lush, green bottom land along the river. Water changes everything. Throughout the Bible, rivers symbolize the presence of God's Spirit, the overflowing life of God, the flow of energy and power and vivaciousness that makes things grow. (See John 7:37-39 for example.) But in real life, rivers flow from diverse sources, then come together. They do not start from a common source and then separate.

But the story is about us and about our situation, not about what was true back then. So dig deeper. The river rises in Eden, in the garden. The garden of Eden is not a paradise in the traditional sense of that word, where life is all play and our every desire is sated. No, Eden includes work. (More about this in a later post.) Eden is creation as it was designed to be -- fully connected to the powerful presence of God without barriers. The man (and a bit later, the woman) are placed within that creation not as tyrants but as caretakers. The soil, the wildlife, the plants and the people all live under the lordship and majesty of the Lord God who delights in this creation and comes walking through the garden in the cool of the day.

Now we begin to approach the point. Out of this proper relationship with God (he is Lord and Master) and with his good creation (we are caretakers), the rivers flow into all the world to water it and nurture it and bring it life. Life flows from proper relationship with God.

We so often miss this. We think we must get our lives together, get the river flowing right, and then bring that goodness into our relationship with God. But outside of Eden we can't do it. First we must enter into Eden, into right relationship with God and with his creation. Then the river starts to flow. This is what we are created for. We can't manage our lives and then bring our carefully managed selves to God for his approval. Instead -- and this is only possible through Jesus Christ and what he did on the cross -- we bring our brokenness and our shortcomings to God and discover that we are welcomed into his presence. Once we return to him just as we are, he begins to transform us and our other relationships, including our relationship to the rest of creation. (Yes, I know there's an angel outside the garden with a flaming sword to prevent us from returning. But you're jumping ahead of the story. We'll get there.) The river of life flows out of the garden into the world, not vice versa.

Near the end of the Bible, in Revelation 21-22, we find these images recast. Now the river of life flows from the throne of God out to water the city where God's people are gathered together. God himself is with them, and he wipes every tear from their eyes. The separated nations are united around the throne. The four living creatures, representing all animal life, are there as well. The tree of life grows along the river banks. (You'll notice the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is not mentioned!) All creation is together in right relationship under the lordship and majesty of God and of the Lamb, and their life flows from the throne.

Okay, so that's all well and good. What difference does it make?

How about this one detail: If we get this, all the millions spent on Superbowl ads could be given to some worthwhile cause. All the hours of brilliant creativity that went into filming and computer graphics and scripts and actors and animation and special effects could be directed to something that benefits the world. All the billions of dollars consumers will spend on these products and all the billions of hours watching and rewatching and debating about the value of these various commercials could be redirected. Why? Simple -- because living in Eden, we will not be tempted to believe the lie that if we just buy these products, buy into the value of these ads, we will have life. We will know that our life comes from a right relationship with God.

Time out

I'm interrupting Genesis 2 in order to reflect for a moment or two on some local news. Central Lutheran, as some of you know, took a second and final vote on Sunday to terminate its relationship with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). I know some of you are tired of hearing about these matters, but I figure, hey -- you can type "" in the address bar and go find something interesting to read. For the rest of us, I'll plow ahead.

A few thoughts.

First, this decision has been a long time coming. Just over twenty-two years ago when the ELCA was formed, I saw the roots of this current conflict at a student ministry gathering in Houston, Texas. The conflict tearing the ELCA apart today was fully present there. I do not mean the issue of homosexuality, though then as now that issue was the presenting symptom. At that gathering in Houston we saw our own -- for at that time I bought into it, though it itched in the back of my brain and my heart that something was wrong -- our own ideas of "right" trump a sensible reading of the Bible. We chose an emotional version of political correctness over a simple (not to say simplistic) reading of God's Word. This choice has plagued the ELCA from that day to the present time.

I was encouraged by the genuine spirit of respect Glenndy Ose, the ELCA Minneapolis Synod Bishop's assistant, brought to worship and to the congregational meeting on Sunday morning. She was gracious and kind. Similarly, I pray such a spirit is possible with those who have felt it necessary to leave Central Lutheran. Several people who returned for the vote refused to make eye contact or speak to me, though I greeted them cheerfully. None of those I recognized as having left Central approached me; I approached many of them, simply to offer greetings and welcome. Some spoke to me but refused to shake my hand. One such individual did say that he continues to pray for me, and I thanked him.

I have left the ELCA, and am forfeiting my right to be critical from the inside. I have given up my right to speak as part of that family, and instead I find myself at the outskirts of town shaking dust off my shoes. I told my daughter yesterday that leaving the ELCA for me was like the heart-wrenching decision to amputate a limb in order to save the rest of the body. I grieve over this decision. But the decision has been made, and I don't know how else it could have been made. Many people criticized the process, criticized me, criticized others of our pastoral staff. I hear rumors about our church staff that I would find strange and amusing, if it was not for the malice that drives the rumors. Since Sunday, I find myself breathing deeper and feeling a sense of peace and release that I have not felt in a very long time. And in that way, I rejoice. Joy and grief are not opposites, but familiar bedfellows.

Moving on.

About a year ago, maybe a little less, I told another person on staff at Central that whenever we try to get a lot of people on board for something -- reading the Bible, praying, being a part of some campaign or other, we always get right around three hundred people. No matter how hard we push, we end up between 250-350 people. Almost a year ago we pushed the "REVEAL" study as hard as we've pushed anything in my time at Central. It was an easy thing for people to do; all it required was 25 minutes for an online survey. We communicated the importance of participation, offered to help people who were not computer literate, and talked at length about the critical importance of the survey. After that effort, 363 people completed REVEAL. My thought at that time was that we should accept this and spend 80% of our discipling energy on those 300 people who buy in to what we're doing at Central, if they could be identified, and move forward by leading the ones who want to be led. That strategy never got any traction. In fact, it pretty much fell flat. And in the timing of God, I find myself very glad. (It is humbling and reassuring to look back and see that you were completely wrong.) Now, less than a year later, we have nearly 700 people committed to reading the Bible every day in 2010. And nearly 500 households, representing at least 700 people, have taken home a copy of the book The Hole In Our Gospel that will be our focus for Lent. (I'm so very excited about this book and the impact I believe it will have on Central's people!) Our overall giving as a congregation is up significantly from a year ago. In other words, from a year ago to now, our buy-in numbers have doubled and our giving has increased. In terms of numbers and participation, it seems God is doing something significant at Central. I am excited to see what that looks like in the days to come!

Six years ago, our church leadership was given a piece of artwork that hangs in several offices around the church, including mine. The backdrop looks like a sailboat in the tumult of a hurricane, maybe, if you use your imagination. Superimposed on this image are three phrases that have guided our staff since that time:

Passion for Jesus

Spirit led

Genuinely love one another

It is an honor to serve a church where these three phrases are at the root of all we do. Of course we fall short, time and again. We confess our sin, we turn away from it as much as we are able, and we move forward again in that same passionate, guided, loving mission. May God grant that all that we have been through -- and all we continue to go through, for I'm quite sure the hurricane has not passed -- may serve this end: that people should come to know Jesus as Lord, and knowing him as Lord, they would take the Bible as his trustworthy Word.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Excellent question

Why did God put the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the garden?

Bruce asked this in response to my last post, and it's an excellent question. I think this is typically the way we respond to these things. Why did God set it up that way? Why make it so that it's so easy for Adam and Eve to fail?

Here's where my interpretation of Genesis drives people a little nuts. Because I don't think this is a story about what happened back then. I think it's a story about what is happening now.

So the fact that God places the tree of knowledge in the garden is descriptive of the present, not the past. The question to ask is, why did God place the tree of knowledge (so to speak) in YOUR garden? Why is that option always there, where you can choose to rely on your own knowledge, your own choices, your own tendency to rely on yourself? Because the garden of Eden is really about you and me and where we find ourself. That tree is in the story because it's in your story. The tree is in the middle of the garden because it's in the middle of your life.

So as we watch God's desires -- and human rebellion against God's desires -- we have to ask, What is God's desire for me? Why am I always fascinated by the other options besides obedience to God? Why do I choose to rely on myself?


God puts two trees in the garden -- the tree of life, which makes sense if life is really about the presence of God's Spirit like we've seen before. But he also puts the tree of the knowledge of good and evil there, and then tells Adam not to mess with it, which is a little confusing to us. We think that knowing good from evil is a good thing. Right? We call it "discernment." We teach it to our children. We expect it of ourselves. Someone who doesn't know good from evil is a little scary; we call such a person a "psychopath." But if we read the text carefully, the mistake Eve makes in the next chapter is that she wants to do a good thing. She sees that the fruit of this tree is pleasing to the eye, that it is good for food, and that it makes you wise. What could be wrong with that? What is the Bible getting at here?

There's a problem with our knowing good from evil. Fact is, we too often get it wrong. Our discernment is not trustworthy. We set out to know good from evil on our own, and we mistake the two. Worse, we put our own sense of good and evil, right and wrong, ahead of the command of God.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Lutheran pastor who was hanged by the Nazis in 1945, wrote about this problem in his book, Ethics. He never finished the book while he was alive, but after his death the notes were collected and published. Here's Bonhoeffer's take on this issue. Feel free to take some time to ponder this:

Already in the possibility of the knowledge of good and evil Christian ethics discerns a falling away from the origin. Man at his origin knows only one thing: God. It is only in the unity of his knowledge of God that he knows of other men, of things, and of himself. He knows all things only in God, and God in all things. The knowledge of good and evil shows that he is no longer at one with this origin.

In the knowledge of good and evil man does not understand himself in the reality of the destiny appointed in his origin, but rather in his own possibilities, his possibility of being good or evil. He knows himself now as something apart from God, outside God, and this means that he now knows only himself and no longer knows God at all; for he can know God only if he knows only God. The knowledge of good and evil is therefore separation from God. Only against God can man know good and evil.

But man cannot be rid of his origin. Instead of knowing himself in the origin of God, he must now know himself as an origin. He interprets himself according to his possibilities, his possibilities of being good or evil, and he therefore conceives himself to be the origin of good and evil. (From Ethics, pp. 17-18)

I have a confession to make. I have started to read this book at least twenty times, and never gotten beyond this quote. If we understood this concept, it would revolutionize the way we think about good and evil, about a relationship with God, and about what it means to follow Jesus.

We see the consequences of our misunderstanding in well-meaning people who "believe in Jesus", but they see Christianity as a structure for living a good, moral life. In their minds the gospel can be summarized, "Be nice." Functionally these people are no different than the guy next to me on the airplane who, when he hears that I am a pastor, responds quickly, "I'm a pretty good person." Morally and socially, these are both good people. One has given intellectual assent to the person of Jesus, but the belief has no power to change their life. The other sees himself as an outsider to Christianity, but is still caught up in its moral framework to the point that he feels defensive when confronted with a pastor. Neither of these people has a clue what it means to know Jesus or of the power he has to transform the life of his followers.

It is only when we know Jesus first, last, and only that we begin to experience the power of his transforming presence. In his book Life Together, Bonhoeffer asserts that for the follower of Jesus, all relationships are mediated by Jesus. That is, no matter how close our relationship, we receive only as much of each other as Jesus Christ desires for us to have. Even for Christian husbands and wives, parents and children, the relationship is mediated by Christ. If it is not, to the extent that they know each other apart from Christ, they are cut off from the fullness of life that Jesus desires for them. In essence, this is what it means when God declares from Mount Sinai, "You shall have no other gods before me." When Jesus is all we see, all we know, and we know all else through him, we begin to experience what it means not to know good and evil in ourselves. We receive life in all its abundance as Jesus leads, as Jesus gives.

This life is the edge of the knife, for we can fall off either side all too easily. On one hand we may mistake who Jesus is and substitute a mental or emotional idol of our own creating without every really knowing Jesus. So the person who substitutes a social gospel for the truth of Christ believes they receive all things through the need, the demand, that social structures should line up with their "gospel". This is a favorite error of liberal Christianity. We choose a particular social agenda du jour (advocacy for women, for gays, for the poor, for HIV/AIDS victims, for whales, for the environment, whatever) because we believe it is "good" and we superimpose it on Jesus, and from that moment on we hear Jesus recommending our social agenda. But this Jesus is an idol of our own creating. The error of conservative churches on the other side of the knife's edge is not really any different; they just substitute a "personal relationship with Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior" (we used to abbreviate it PRWJCAMLAS) for the social agenda. Their error is to believe that this personal relationship is my only concern and now that I'm saved, I have nothing to worry about except perhaps helping to save another individual here and there. I can take my fire-insurance policy and go back to my self-oriented life. Again, we have missed the real Jesus in favor of an idol of our own personal creation.

The danger here is tremendous. In both cases, we have substituted a societal agenda -- one from the political left, another from the inner-focused fringe of evangelicalism -- for Jesus. We are not governed by Jesus and his words to us, but by our sense of what is right. Many times I have heard "good" church-attending people -- even church leaders -- confronted by a statement straight out of the mouth of Jesus in the gospels, say "I don't think Jesus would ever say that." Sometimes we dress our prejudice up a little better than that., but once we make this shift away from an external understanding of who Jesus is, we can justify any behavior, any prejudice, any judgment, because we believe we're following Jesus. So the self-focused PRWJCAMLAS Christian can read the gospels over and over but never hear Jesus' heart for the poor, the sick, the blind, the leper -- all these things are spiritualized beyond any connection with reality. Similarly, the social liberal Christian can read the gospels over and over and like Nicodemus in John 3; all Jesus' words about being born again, born of the Spirit, run off their hearts like water off a duck.

External accountability is critical, because we are so capable of deceiving ourselves. If we are simply left to make Jesus in our own image, the gospel is no hope and no help. A good friend of mine is a master at equipping leaders for ministry. Early in their discipling he turns them loose on the gospels, recommending that they read all four in order to get to know Jesus. "Then what?" they ask. "After that, read the gospels," he says, "And then read the gospels again." We need to know Jesus for who he is, not for who we think he is. And knowing Jesus as he is, we need to surrender more and more of our lives to him -- relationships, beliefs, spending, saving, entertainment, social action, rest, laziness, parenting, driving, work, shopping, everything. Otherwise, if we hang on to our "right" to decide for ourselves what is good, all we have done is to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and we have missed God.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Real men ...

My daughter Erica recently had a scholarship interview with a university professor. She was asked, "What are a couple of issues that you feel are extremely important in the world today?" Her answers were first, society's tendency to see women as sexual objects, and second, the surrender of true masculinity. I think she's on to something. As we read Genesis 2, the Bible lays out a thought-provoking sense of what it means to be male and female.

In Genesis 1, God creates male and female together. There's a sense of balance, of equality, of symmetry in this creation. And that is important, valuable, true.

The Genesis 2 story highlights the contrast, the complementarity between male and female. This perspective is not contradicting Genesis 1, but enhancing it. It is also important, valuable, and true. In Genesis 2, the man is created first. So let's take a look at the man.

Interesting that God creates him outside the garden. Did you notice that? John Eldredge makes a big deal about this in his book Wild At Heart, and rightly so. The man is created out in the wilderness, and then God puts him in the garden to till it and keep it. There are a couple things to notice here about men. First, there is something ungroomed, undomesticated, outside-the-garden in the male heart -- and this is a God-given gift. Society has tried again and again to file the rough edges off men, and when we have done so we have put ourselves at risk. Collectively, we need the rough energy, the barbarian capabilities of men. We need this not just in times of overt conflict, but perhaps even more in the quiet times of life when all seems peaceful and we are tempted to become complacent. There is a wildness to male assertiveness that stands in tension with -- not necessarily in conflict with -- female strength.

There's a great deal more to be said about this, and we could go on at some length. For the moment, I strongly recommend the books Wild At Heart and Captivating, the first by John Eldredge and the second by John and his wife, Stasi. These two books take a personalized, thoughtful, biblical look at maleness and femaleness. They are easy to read but also highly thought-provoking. Or, if you're looking for something different, find a copy of Where the Wild Things Are -- the children's book, not the movie -- and read slowly, look at the pictures, and ponder what it means to grow up male, how it puts you in tension with domesticated life, and how every man at some point needs to go away to where the wild things rumpus. For those of you reading this from a female perspective, think: what is there about undomesticated man that is good, valuable, and necessary? Too many women have been hurt by men who are immature and out of control; that is not what we're talking about. The question we need to grapple with is, how can male wildness be redeemed without necessarily being tamed?

When men allow themselves to be tranquilized, (literally, "made peaceful") by society, by the expectations of women, or perhaps most damaging by their own mistaken sense of what is "right" and "mature" for a man, or when men rebel against these mistaken perceptions and fall into a Peter Pan existence where they refuse to grow to maturity, we all suffer. Look at the church if you doubt this. There is a drought in churches today of authentic male leaders. Men who succeed in the church are generally either good politicians, telling people what they want to hear, or they are tranquil men who meekly serve without ever offending, even for the sake of truth. It is a rare and precious thing in the church today to find a man who will faithfully, lovingly follow Jesus and proclaim his word without compromise even in the face of conflict or hardship. If you know such a man, stay close and hang on for the ride! So often men, especially young fathers, reject the church because they perceive it as a place where the rule of "Be Nice" will be forced on them. So they avoid church and cling to their bass boat, their tree stand, their golf clubs, their widescreen TV, their football games and beer bottles and barbecue grills, and as a consequence they find themselves living a life that feels full but is in reality tragically shallow. But bring men like this alongside an authentic, Christ-centered man who can lead them in the high-risk life of following Jesus, and they will be challenged to a whole new level of excitement that is a far cry from simply "being nice."

One of the most tragic lies men believe is that retirement is a time for them to become more tame than ever. I understand the value of well-earned rest, absolutely. But the pool of experience and talent and wisdom present in a group of retired guys is truly awesome -- and when such a group gets their hearts and their feet pointed the same direction, wow! I am reminded of Tennyson's poem in which he portrays the aging Ulysses, hero of the Trojan War and adventurer par excellence:

It little profits that an idle king,
By this still hearth, among these barren crags,
Match'd with an aged wife, I mete and dole
Unequal laws unto a savage race,
That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.
I cannot rest from travel; I will drink
Life to the lees. All times I have enjoy'd
Greatly, have suffer'd greatly, both with those
That loved me, and alone; on shore, and when
Thro' scudding drifts the rainy Hyades
Vext the dim sea. I am become a name;
For always roaming with a hungry heart
Much have I seen and known,-- cities of men
And manners, climates, councils, governments,
Myself not least, but honor'd of them all,--
And drunk delight of battle with my peers,
Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy.
I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro'
Gleams that untravell'd world whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move.
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnish'd, not to shine in use!
As tho' to breathe were life! Life piled on life
Were all too little, and of one to me
Little remains; but every hour is saved
From that eternal silence, something more,
A bringer of new things; and vile it were
For some three suns to store and hoard myself,
And this gray spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.
This is my son, mine own Telemachus,
to whom I leave the sceptre and the isle,--
Well-loved of me, discerning to fulfill
This labor, by slow prudence to make mild
A rugged people, and thro' soft degrees
Subdue them to the useful and the good.
Most blameless is he, centred in the sphere
Of common duties, decent not to fail
In offices of tenderness, and pay
Meet adoration to my household gods,
When I am gone. He works his work, I mine.
There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail;
There gloom the dark, broad seas. My mariners,
Souls that have toil'd, and wrought, and thought with me,--
That ever with a frolic welcome took
The thunder and the sunshine, and opposed
Free hearts, free foreheads,-- you and I are old;
Old age hath yet his honor and his toil.
Death closes all; but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks;
The long day wanes; the slow moon climbs; the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends.
'T is not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down;
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho'
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are,--
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

What is God's design for men? There's lots more to say. But it certainly does NOT mean that we give up adrenaline or a yearning for wild things.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010


God breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being (see Genesis 2:4-7).

I think most of us read this verse sort of like watching Dr. Frankenstein and his monster. The lightning flashes and God raises his fists in the air and exults, "It's alive!" Maybe Gabriel is hunched there doing his best Igor imitation while the man, who a moment before was just dead as dust, stirs on the slab and sits up. Hmmm. Maybe our imaginations need some help.

If we gloss over this, the next couple chapters -- for that matter, the rest of the Bible -- won't make a lot of sense. It helps here to understand that in Hebrew, the words for "breath" and "spirit" and "wind" are all the same word -- something like "ruach" if you accent the last syllable and make the final "ch" sound way back in your throat. (If nobody's paying attention, try it. It's a fun word.) So the man gets his lungs filled, but there's more than that. He receives God's spirit -- the breath of God. The old hymn has it right, I think:

Breathe on me, breath of God,
Until my heart is pure,
Until with Thee I will one will
To do and to endure

Breathe on me, breath of God,
Blend all my soul with Thine,
Until this earthly part of me
Glows with Thy fire divine.

This is the defining moment in human existence. This lump of dust is filled, infused, enlivened with the Spirit of God. This is the moment, the action, the presence, the quality that defines life. All the scientific debates in the abortion wars about when, exactly, life begins are dancing around the biblical point -- in biblical terms life begins when the Spirit of God is poured into this lump of dust. With God's Spirit, we are alive. Without the Spirit, we are lost, dead, hopeless.

The other way we misunderstand this verse is we imagine some kind of divine CPR where God plugs Adam's muddy nostrils and makes a good seal and gives one quick breath, watching to see if Adam's chest rises ... Adam coughs and sputters and begins to breathe on his own, and voila! He's alive! If life is about the presence of God's Spirit, Adam never does begin to breathe on his own. His life depends not on his own respiration, but on the Spirit. It's about God's presence in the heart more than it's about oxygen exchange.

Human beings have a deep, driving hunger for life. The genius of a Roman crucifixion was that it pitted a deadly, inescapable bondage against the human will to live -- so that for hours, days sometimes, the crucified person without hope would push the weight of their body up against the spike driven through their feet to take the weight and strain off their diaphragm, to exhale, to draw one more painful breath rather than relax and surrender. Time and again we are amazed at what humans can endure in the quest to survive.

But this is not about surviving, as though a ventilator in the intensive care unit could maintain life. It is about living. There's a difference, and we too often surrender the ground between the two. I like the slogan on the commercials for Bear Grylls' show, "Man vs. Wild": "Bear doesn't just show us how to survive -- he teaches us how to live." (By the way, did you know that Bear came to know Jesus through Alpha, and is now a strong advocate for the Alpha course?)

In my teens I pondered off and on why God says to the man and the woman that if they disobey him and eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they will die. More than that, God very specifically says they will die that day. But they go on for years and years, having kids and grandkids and great grandkids. Did God lie?

No. Because from God's perspective, the moment they turned from trusting him to trusting their own decision-making abilities, they lost his Spirit. They lost their reliance on his presence. Life -- Spirit-driven abundant life as God designed it -- ended in that moment. After that all Adam and Eve had was survival.

An old German man once explained to me what life is for a German. "Go to school. Work. Work. Work. Work. Build a house. Work. Die. That's it." Basic survival. Getting by.

What does it mean if "being alive" really means being filled, animated, empowered by the presence of God in us, and without that presence we are effectively dead? What if, like in "The Matrix", the hordes of people walking down the sidewalk each day are not really alive, as God defines life?

It might have some implications for how we read the Bible, even how we understand Jesus. If this is the case, and if what Jesus said is true that he came so we might have abundant life (John 10), then the whole push of the biblical story from Genesis 3 onward is a drive not just to the cross and the empty tomb, but it is a push to Pentecost. God is laser-focused not just on getting our sin-slates wiped clean, but on placing his Spirit in us, making his home in us, living within us, giving us life. Eternal life is not so much about how long it lasts, but about how alive it is. It is not "ever-lasting life" so much as it is "the life that carries the qualities of eternity, the life God lives."

The question that begs asking is, of course, the most basic of all: are you alive?

Monday, February 1, 2010


"The Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground ..."

I had a Kirby Vacuum Cleaner salesman in my living room once. He demonstrated to me over and over again how his beautiful vacuum cleaning system captured so much more dust and dirt than my pathetic old relic. He told me horror stories of how much dust inhabits the average home, of the chemical composition of your average dust sample, and how most household dust is actually human skin tissue. With science, with emotion, with fear he tried and tried to get me to spend the price of a good used car on his beautiful vacuum cleaning system. Strangely, though, the longer he talked the more I felt a sort of kinship with the dust in my house. A sense that I didn't want to get rid of it all. At least, not enough to spend $1500 on his metal-framed high-horsepower suction machine. Besides, I wondered what else might get eliminated by this powerful tool. "Honey, have you seen the cat?"

We come from the dirt, and if we're honest we never get very far from the ground. Humus, that's what it is, that dark stuff that makes the plants grow so well, and so we are human, and at our earthy best we enjoy a good sense of humor, and it's all interconnected. From the Pope down to the paupers, we have this in common. "Dust you are, and to dust you shall return," we say on Ash Wednesday to the hobbling old and to the bright eyed teenagers and to the baby in his mother's arms. We place a cross of ashes on their foreheads, the symbol of death, the symbol of new life in Jesus Christ. As much as we would like to deny it, this is who we are: we are fragile. Psalm 103 is a comfort here; it says that God knows us, and remembers that we are dust. You may expect yourself to be strong, infallible, to soar without error above your humble beginnings -- but God knows you better than that, and in love he remembers the dust you come from.

We invent so many ways to try to get past our origins. Even Jesus struggled when he went home, reading the scripture in the synagogue (see Luke 4) as the patriarchs and matriarchs of Nazareth smiled and patted him on the head and said, "What a nice boy! Why, I remember when he was just this big, Mary!" Is it any wonder so many kids from small towns can't wait to shrug out of the graduation gown and leave home? Many never really go home again. It pains us to go back to the source of our humility. We'd rather live with our illusions. There are still middle-aged men (they look strangely like the fathers of my classmates) in my home town who call me "Clenchy," the tooth-gnashing nickname of my childhood, though they've forgotten why they call me that and they mean nothing but good by it. After this many years away, the nicknames lose much of their sting. So I exercise the grin-lines around my middle-aged eyes and slap them on the back and recall some embarrassing story about our mutual childhoods, and we have a good laugh, remembering.

It's good to go home, back to the earth. Back to the place where I'm Art and Pearl's third son, back to Faaberg Lutheran Church's cemetery where the bones of my parents and their parents and their parents lie, going back to the dust from which they came. The day before my mother's funeral, my father and I walked out in the cemetery so I could see the plot he'd chosen for her, and eventually for him as well. We looked at the view across the fields to the home they had shared for thirty-five years, looked at the row of stately pines around the perimeter of the cemetery as though to keep the dead from wandering off. We looked at the headstones close by -- I recognized many of the names. Dad glanced down at the one nearest to Mom's fresh grave. "Well," he said, "Schroeder's will be good neighbors." He'd lived his whole life with his hands in the soil, and the thought of going back to the dirt was not a fearful thing.

I walk out in the north pasture sometimes when I'm home, down in the far corner. The summer I was eleven Dad and I dug a deep hole into the dirt there to set a corner post. That sweaty afternoon is one of the best memories of my childhood. I look at that post now, leaning into the loose tension of the wires, old and weather-beaten, half-rotten and slowly going back into the soil, and I think about the dust I will someday become. Ashes to ashes, and I will return to the earth. It's incentive to live now with a sense of dependence. A sense of finiteness, of the limits around my life. A sense of humor.

Changing gears

In the winter of 1988 I was desperately trying to escape from college. I needed a few extra transfer credits to make that happen, and to get the transfer credits I needed to talk my way into a religion minor. The transfer credits hinged on whether or not I could get the approval of John Helgeland, the head of the religion department. He knew I had been to a Bible college, but he wasn't impressed by that. He didn't have much time for piety of any kind, and he assumed the college I'd attended was all about devotions and not much for academics.

I sat in his office and he proceeded to give me a one-question oral exam that he figured would determine the extent of my academic biblical knowledge. "What are J, E, P, and D?" he asked.

Genesis 2:4 is a watershed in the creation story. According to some analysts, Genesis 1:1-2:4a is one version of the creation story, probably formulated by priests in ancient Israel. God is remote in this story, reigning over the heavens and the earth from a distance. The "second" creation story, according to this way of thinking, is the one that starts in Genesis 2:4b, is from a source that is older and tends to make God seem more accessible, more human-like, so God can come walking through the garden in the cool of the day. According to this view, these two stories came from different sources and were woven together later by a "redactor" or editor.

Scholars call this way of thinking the "documentary hypothesis." It sees various strands of source material -- conveniently labeled J, E, P, and D -- woven together throughout the first five books of the Bible. So if you sit in on some seminary classes or university religion classes that deal with these books, you will hear comments about the Priestly source (P), or the Elohist (E) or the Jahwist (J) or the Deutoronomic (D). The Jahwist and Elohist are named for the word they usually use for God; the priestly source is very orderly and includes many of the laws and genealogies. The D source includes most of the book of Deuteronomy along with a few other snippets.

For all I know, the documentary hypothesis people have it right and that is an accurate way to think about how the first books of the Bible were compiled. But the net effect of focusing on all this is that we start to position ourselves above the text and analyze why this writer or that writer might have thought such-and-such. We don't look at this so much as God's word anymore, but rather as the Jahwist writer's word, or the point of view of the Priestly source, and so on. We get infatuated with our own analysis of the text rather than letting the text stand over us and tell us how things are.

I passed John Helgeland's test, and got the transfer credits and my religion minor. I did indeed escape from college in the spring of '88. Whew. Almost a decade later I sat in another class, this time at seminary, in Terry Fretheim's class on the first five books of the Bible. A student asked a question about some uncomfortable part of the story, asking if that wasn't just the Jahwist's anthropomorphic view of God, and we didn't need to take it all that seriously. I was so impressed with Dr. Fretheim's response. "Well, wherever that story comes from, it's in the Bible, and we have to deal with it." He was willing to stand under the text -- to submit to it, to recognize it as scripture, to deal with it.

Whatever the sources behind the Bible's text, at this point the creation story changes gears. We will continue to read it as a narrative that tells us what is true here and now, not so much a story about historical events. This is one way to stand under the story, and hopefully to begin to understand it. It's the story of you, and me, and who we are created to be and where we find ourselves today.