Sunday, August 6, 2017

Pondering the possible

Twice in the last decade I have been moved to tears because someone compared me to a literary character.

The first was an occasion I've written about previously in this blog, when my daughter Erica and I were talking about Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy, and she wondered who I resembled in those great stories. We debated this character and that, until finally she settled on Gandalf. Now, if you know LOTR, Gandalf is perhaps the greatest, most noble character in the whole story. He is one who influences without power, who wields great power without demanding control, who carries immense wisdom but speaks with humility. I was moved to tears that my daughter, of all people, would make such a comparison.

The second time was more recent, when a friend with whom I'd been talking recently about Ursula LeGuin's Earthsea books casually commented that I was like Ged, one of the main characters, and then said, "Thanks for holding off the earthquake." It's a reference to a key moment in the second book, The Tombs of Atuan, when Ged does indeed (temporarily) hold off an earthquake to allow himself and Tenar, a young woman, to escape from an underground labyrinth. Again, I was moved to tears by my friend's obvious respect in saying something like that.

Comparisons are powerful things. What literary character is most like you? It's a challenging question, and the way people around you see you might be a surprise, like it was for me.

You can do the same thing with biblical characters, and I've been worrying that question like a sore tooth for the last several months. What biblical character describes me in this season of my life? The two most likely options I've settled on are either Job or David. I have a friend who would opt for David -- he called me a few months ago saying he was going to be Nathan to my David, alluding to a scene in 2 Samuel in the Bible where the prophet Nathan confronts David with his egregious sin and moves David to abject repentance.

So David's an option.

The more intriguing possibility is Job, who lives a life of obedience to God, and precisely because of that, ends up being targeted by Satan for special suffering. First he just loses his material possessions, but then he loses his physical health and the esteem of his wife and others around him.

Now, I'm not claiming to be righteous. In this season more than most, I am keenly aware of my sin. Thing is, I've been living largely "on my face" before God for months, returning again and again to repent for the sins of which I'm aware, asking God to correct me and teach me, asking God to use my sins and my repentance to do his good work. So I don't think there's unresolved pride or unconfessed sin going on in my life, at least not that I can see, and I've begged God to reveal it if it's there.

I'm struck today, however, by an excellent sermon written by Eugene Peterson, well known for his translation of the Bible entitled The Message. If you're not familiar with it, get a copy. I was recently given a copy of a collection of Peterson's sermons. Normally I think reading other people's sermons is like watching cheap paint dry, but these are something else again. The book is entitled As Kingfishers Catch Fire which is an allusion to a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem, and it's absolutely exquisite. Excellent. I highly recommend it.

In the sermon I've read today, Peterson retells the story of Job, and he points out that Job's three friends -- Bildad, Zophar, and Eliphaz -- are all mistaken about God and the nature of Job's problem. (God himself verifies this at the end of the book of Job.) Eliphaz, Peterson points out, is like a fundamentalist preacher who insists that if Job will just repent, things will get better. Zophar is like a housewife who has a picture in mind of how clean the house should be, and Job is a dirty spot that refuses to come clean. Bildad is that moralist who insists that Job just needs to get back in line with Bildad's carefully constructed moral system, and all will be right with the world.

And in my travels these last few months, I've met all three. I've been asked if I'm repentant. I've been told that my actions are "deeply disappointing." And I've been offered the services of those who would like to rehabilitate me, to reintroduce me to moralistic integrity.

What intrigues me about these three friends of Job is that they are utterly convinced that they have God figured out. Throughout, Job insists that he has not been punished for some sin, but that he is innocent of anything that might merit this kind of misfortune. God is acting unfairly toward him. (Note: That is not what I'm claiming about myself!) And at the end of the book of Job, God scolds Job's friends saying, "You have not spoken accurately of me, as my servant Job has." Wow!

So maybe I'm David these days. Maybe the major upheavals in my life are pretty simple, like David's were, and I should just call Nathan and ask him to walk me through a simple Romans Road of repentance. Problem solved, thank goodness.

Or maybe it's more complicated. Maybe, as Oswald Chambers wrote in his meditation for yesterday, "God called Jesus Christ to what seemed absolute disaster. And Jesus Christ called his disciples to see him put to death, leading every one of them to the place where their hearts were broken. His life was an absolute failure from every standpoint except God's. But what seemed to be a failure from man's standpoint was a triumph from God's standpoint, because God's purpose is never the same as man's purpose. This bewildering call of God comes into our lives as well. The call of God can never be understood absolutely or explained externally; it is a call that can only be perceived and understood internally by our true inner nature" (Oswald Chambers, My Utmost for His Highest). One of the things that makes us dumbfounded about the story of Jesus is that if you asked any observer of his ministry, his trial, and his crucifixion whether Jesus was guilty of deep and grievous sins, they would have said, "Of course." Jesus was guilty of violating the sabbath. He was guilty of rudeness and disrespect to the religious leaders. He was guilty of blasphemy. He was guilty of pretensions to kingship. And much, much more. Jesus was the chief of sinners.

Until God vindicated him on Sunday morning when he rose from the dead.

It's a cautionary tale, to be sure, especially to those of us who are pretty sure we know what God is up to. Every time I think I have God figured out, he does something to blow my mind in a new way. And so, maybe he's working in my current challenging circumstances, or in yours, to blow our minds. To teach us that he won't be shackled and chained by our expectations. That he has greater plans than we do, and he will stop at nothing to get his purposes accomplished. And oh, by the way, he's not telling up front what those purposes are. At least not in detail.

So do the comparisons. Pull out your favorite literary or biblical character, and imagine whether you fit the comparison. But don't write your story down in permanent ink -- leave room for God to surprise you. Let him have the final word about what he says is true about you and how he might use you to accomplish his purposes, in spite of what you thought was possible.

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