Good Friday

Good Friday

Friday, December 28, 2012

Vocation


Vocation is a funny thing. I have not written much about how I went from full-time homemaker to systematic theologian. Someday I may do that. In the meantime, God continues to surprise me. The latest surprise – Indonesia – is only a week away and I am getting a little nervous.

When I first sensed God’s call to continue my education in seminary, I agreed to give it a try but my husband made me promise that under no circumstances would we have to move to some “strange” part of the world. You see, I have always been interested in missions, and he knew it; thus the promise. But the truth is, I am not all that adventurous.

Now, nearly 15 years later, I am about to finish my sabbatical by spending a few weeks at a seminary in Indonesia. A friend of mine had asked me to come and teach. I declined several years in a row but at some point, I got the sense that this was not just a favor for a friend, but something God was calling me to do. So this year, I said yes.

And I guess the funny thing about vocation – God calling – is that it is so unpredictable. That scares me sometimes. I’m not the least bit sure I am equipped for the task I am being called to. But somehow, God always takes my submission to his unexpected call and makes something even more unexpected out of it. Often, this “something more” directly benefits others.

But sometimes, the benefit is more indirect. You see, the call sometimes involves something painful. I don’t really see the benefit to me or to anyone else. But over time, I see that the painful parts of the call shape me into someone who is better equipped to fulfill that very same call. But more about that later.

I am off on this new adventure. And I have a hunch I will learn WAY more than I am going to teach.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Tragedy and God


What does one say after the murders of this past week?

How do we wrap our minds around the terrorists all around us, terrorists who kill their own mothers and numerous little children?

But even more perplexing, how do we think about God in relation to an event such as this? And during Advent no less.

How do we sing, as I did just an hour ago, “Praise God from whom all blessings flow…”, when we see tragedy such as this around us?

And please don’t give me the theological “answers” right now. I know the options in that department better than most people. Its my job, after all.

This, of course, is the age-old problem of evil. If God is all-powerful, completely in control, holds all things in his hands, how can a tragedy like the one in Newtown, Connecticut happen? What sort of God would allow that?

As a person, as a mother, as a theologian I have few good answers. I find myself in the avenue of mystery. Great, beautiful, terrible mystery. I simply do not understand. And I get the sense that, like Job, even if I was granted a face to face encounter with the Almighty, I still would not understand the “whys” of this sort of evil. 

But this is Advent, the time we look back to God taking on human flesh, and joining us in the mess we have made of this world. And the time we look forward to Christ coming back again to finish what he started over 2000 years ago; the time when there will be no more death, or sorrow, or pain. To that end we pray, Lord Jesus, come quickly!!

Friday, November 30, 2012

Re-thinking Rob Bell and Hell


I was at a conference a few weeks ago. Because of my interest in eschatology, that is, the doctrine of the end times, I went to one seminar about hell. The young man was presenting a summary of his dissertation which happened to deal with eternal punishment.

His thesis was interesting. He was looking at various interpretations of biblical texts dealing with judgment and eternal punishment and how we can understand the eternal condition of the unsaved given the variety of pictures given to us in Scripture. I thought he presented an interesting hypothesis and defended it quite well.

When he opened a time for questions, several good ideas and challenges were raised and he answered each inquiry very well. But then came the zinger.

This person asked why the presenter was talking about the various biblical portrayals of eternal punishment as metaphors. The question caught me completely off-guard. What else would those pictures be? After all, a metaphor paints a picture of reality but does not necessarily deny the reality. In other words, if I say that God is a rock, I am not denying that God is God. I am simply saying that some of the characteristics of a rock remind me of the way God is.
The presenter answered the question well. But the questioner persisted. “Are you saying that there is not literal fire and screaming, and torture, and darkness?” 

Once again, the young presenter replied well, explaining that these are depictions of the horrors of being separated from God but not necessarily hard and fast literal representations of a particular place. After all, he explained, how can a place be both utterly dark and have fire? Good response.

Undaunted, the questioner replied that in the Bible, God tells us what he wants us to know and that God obviously wanted us to know that this (fire, screaming, etc.) was what hell really was.

I confess that I didn’t hear many “hell” sermons growing up. But I also know that Reformed theology in general is quite reticent to say much about hell and eternal punishment, leaving it to God’s eternal wisdom. One Reformed theologian even says we should all hope hell is empty. This is what I grew up with.

But it occurred to me that perhaps Rob Bell had a very different background; one with a pastor like the questioner. The questioner seemed not only to want to insist on eternal, active, tortuous suffering of the reprobate, but also seemed to delight in this knowledge. Yikes! Perhaps Rob's reading of Scripture is a bit more understandable.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Pet Death


I blogged a week or so ago about our decision to put our dog, the dog we have had for 15 years, to sleep. As it turned out, we did not have to put her to sleep. She died of natural causes just two days before our appointment. We were glad that we did not have to actively put an end to her life. But we were sad that she was gone.

In fact, I was surprised at the level of grief we all felt. She was a dog, after all.
But I guess I shouldn’t have been. After all, she was a member of our family. Our youngest child really doesn’t remember much before we had our dog.

Its lonely without her. I sit down at the piano, and she is not there to join me anymore. I walk in the door from work and realize that I am alone. She is not there to greet me, get into the open pantry cupboard, or bark to go outside. She is not waiting for me in the morning to slip her a few Cheerios. And she does not need to be put into the back hall when I leave.

Pets are more than property. They are warm, furry parts of our lives. And in my experience (and that of our kids) they are perhaps one of the best pictures of unconditional love most of us will ever encounter, outside of Christ. Regardless of how she felt, time of day, my mood or condition, Muffin always greeted us enthusiastically and wanted to be close to us. To personify further, she loved us.

My daughter is sure Muffin is in heaven. I will leave that perennial question unanswered. But I am sure that she was a gift to our family and is greatly missed. And I also know that I understand more fully how important a pet can be and will never minimize pet death again.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Abstract vs. Concrete


I’m a pretty logical, rational person. I can usually discuss things without letting too much emotion enter in and come to a good decision. Usually; not always.

Our dog is getting very old. She has been a part of our family for 15 years since she was 2 months old and 2 pounds small. She can’t eat much any more. She is skin and bones. She is deaf. And she has begun having seizures which temporarily debilitate her.  We have known that we could not let her go on this way or let her deteriorate to the point of ongoing suffering.

Over the past week, we have discussed putting her to sleep, killing her that is, although I hate to put it in those terms. I have cried with everyone else but am usually the first one to bring things back into perspective and encourage a reasonable, humane decision.

But today I had to call the vet and make the appointment. That was a different story.

I couldn’t get the words out of my mouth without crying. And I am still crying as I think about telling the kids the date and time. I wish I could just call and cancel the whole thing, prolong the inevitable. There is a significant difference between thinking about something, and doing it. . . 

Sunday, November 11, 2012

God and Job


One of the Scripture readings the other day was from the book of Job, chapter 38. Despite having read and studied Job numerous times, a particular phrase caught my attention this time through.

Job has been questioning God for most of the book. He has repeatedly asserted his innocence against his friends’ accusations of guilt. And he has frequently asked God to give him a hearing, to explain to him why he is being tormented. Here, in chapter 38, God shows up to respond to Job. Speaking out of the storm, this is what God says:

“Who is this that darkens my counsel with words without knowledge? Brace yourself like a man; I will question you and you will answer me.”

After 38 chapters of Job asking questions of God, often from a position of despair, now God will ask questions of Job.

Funny, isn’t it?

Job has dared to protest to his Creator, has begged for an audience. Now he gets exactly what he has asked for but not at all what he expected.

I like to picture God, a twinkle in his eye, speaking these words to Job.

Why a twinkle in his eye?

Well, the Bible repeatedly tells us that God is our father. Good parents often do things and demand things that puzzle their children. They understand a bigger reality than the child does. So God, like a good parent, holds back a smile as he in good Socratic form, responds to Jobs questions with a series of questions.

That is comforting because I, like Job, have spent a fair amount of time questioning God—his ways in the world, his action or lack thereof—you name it. And I know, that although I, like Job, do not have the big picture, God must have a reason for what I observe. It is good to know that God does not get angry. He is not offended by Job’s questions or cranky that he has to take time out of his schedule to address Job, or me. And thanks to information that I have, that Job was not privy to, I know that I can take all my fears, questions, and uncertainties before the throne of grace, knowing that the One who is like me in every way, except for sin, hears and has compassion on my child-like concerns.


Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Remembering


I spent yesterday afternoon having tea with my daughter, a senior in college. Some events over the weekend had prompted the invitation to come and chat. Most of what we did, as it turned out, was reminisce. You might think that at the ripe old age of 21 there is not much to reminisce about. But we have always had a close relationship so sitting and thinking about the various milestones in her life could have gone on much longer than the 2 hours we spent.

As it was, we spent our time smiling, laughing, and crying together as we remembered.

We laughed about the skinny, awkward middle school years. We smiled about the insecurity of her high school years, time she spent (as do many young people) trying desperately to figure out who she was. Our hearts warmed as we remembered some significant events and people of her junior year of high school, one in particular, who helped ease that insecurity and move her self-awareness forward. And we cried as we recalled a devastating, life-changing event her freshman year of college, an event that left her mentally bruised and battered, yet significantly stronger.

And perhaps that was something of our mutual take-away yesterday.

I remember at the time of her tragic experience wondering if, when, and even how she would recover from what happened. For months afterward she would say that this event had “killed her.” But as she recovered, I remember thinking to myself that this young woman – this post-trauma young woman – this was the young woman I had hoped she would become someday. And in fact her ‘becoming’ had happened not in spite of the tragedy, but because of it.

Tragedies can often lead to a sort of remembering that tries to press the rewind button on life, remembering that asks ‘what if.’ She and I have done plenty of that.

But ‘what if’ remembering is both unproductive and despair inducing.

Productive remembering looks at the past in a way that takes the full weight of tragedy and triumph into account. It learns from these events recognizing that while we cannot change the past, we can use it to shape the future.

Perhaps this is why one of God’s most frequent commands to Israel is to remember. In looking back, Israel could not only see their mistakes, but see God’s healing hand at work, bringing new life out of death.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Obedience


It is not particularly uncommon to hear Christians talk about what I will call ‘weekend behavior’ in ways not all that different from their non-Christian counterparts. Somewhere along the line, the very true idea of salvation by grace alone has been warped into the notion that what I do doesn’t really matter that much. After all, I am saved.

Christian Smith, a sociologist and author of Soul Searching and Souls In Transition has made exactly this point with respect to 14-28 year olds. Morality, for this group basically means being nice and not offending anyone. This holds true for the conservative Christians he interviewed, as well as those from other religious backgrounds. In further studies, he has noted that this attitude was caught from parents (my age group). So the problem runs deep.

In my time with God today, two texts leaped off of the page. One was from my ongoing personal reading which brought me to 2 John 6 today. That text said, “And this is love: that we walk in obedience to his commands.” The other text, from the assigned reading in my devotional book was John 14:21. It reads, “Whoever holds to my commandments and keeps them is the one who loves me.”

In other words, to ignore God’s commandments is really like saying to him, ‘I don’t love you.’

That’s worth thinking about.

What does the ever-growing-in-popularity choice to live with one’s boyfriend or girlfriend rather than marry that person say to God?

How about partying like a rock-star on the weekend?

Or stealing from the government by cheating on your taxes?

Or gossiping?

So we sing “I love you Lord” on Sunday morning but participate in behaviors like these during the week. According to the two texts I read today, as well as the understanding of what love is throughout the Old Testament, actions like these make our words fall flat.

If I want to respond to God in love, I must obey. That will likely cost me something. And it might offend someone. But in our response to God, as with our lives in general, actions do, in fact, speak louder than words.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

God and the Lake


I have been on a silent retreat for about the last 20 hours. We were at a camp on Lake Michigan about 25 minutes from my home. The weather was perfect: mid-70’s, sunny, with a mild breeze.

Over the years, Lake Michigan has become a place where I often feel God’s presence in a unique way. For me, it is one of those places that Celtic Christians might identify as a “thin place.” A thin place is a place where it is thought that heaven and earth come close, where God’s presence can be keenly felt. While I sometimes get this feeling at the top of a mountain, I nearly always get it at the shore of Lake Michigan or at the ocean.

There is something about being on the shoreline of a vast body of water that pushes one’s mind toward the Infinite. The perceived lack of boundaries combined with the uncontrollable power of the lake reminds me of God. Like the powerful lake, God is not a being you approach without due caution. As the Beaver’s in C. S. Lewis’s classic tale say of Aslan, he is not safe, but he is good.

And indeed that is true of both God and the lake. To not respect the lake is to court death. And so it is with God.

This past summer I learned to sail. It was a beautiful, thirty foot boat (that’s the technical term J), with a single mast. As I looked at the lake this morning and at a sailboat on the lake, I thought of my experience. In a sailboat, the captain can make decisions about the direction the boat will take to some extent. But she cannot tell the lake or the wind what to do. To try to ignore the currents and the wind and do her own thing would be foolish.

The first thing the captain must do is submit to the wind and the lake. Only then will she make progress.

Unfortunately, as I thought about my relationship to God, it seemed to me that I spend much of my time fighting with him, rather than submitting to him and his will. Perhaps that is why my progress is limited.

Sailing can be a struggle when the wind and the lake seem to be against you. You can get stuck in one spot if the wind suddenly stops. Or you can get blown in a direction you did not intend if you are not paying close attention. It can be frustrating. And God’s ways in my life can be frustrating too. But deciding to do it my way will inevitably be even more frustrating.

The key, of course, is trusting the One who knows me better than anyone, the one who knit me together in my mother’s womb and loves me more than any human ever will. Trusting a God who is not safe can be hard. But remembering that he is good and will always do what is best for the kingdom can make that task just a bit easier. I am so glad today that my life, my future, my hope, is in his hands.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Camping and Daily Bread


I like to camp.

When the children were young, camping allowed our family to travel to a variety of places on a limited budget. Plus, kids really like being able to fool around in the woods with sticks, stones, leaves, and whatever else they can find. Boring and camping just don’t go together in our experience.

And we were not the sort of campers who had to bring along everything from home. We didn’t bring bikes, television, or toys. We did bring books, board games, and marshmallow sticks but other than things like that, entertainment was as wide as our children’s imaginations.

Over the years, we probably tented the most, although we did have a nice little pop-up camper for about seven years. It was pretty basic as campers go with very few comforts of home. But it was more comfortable than a tent.

A few years back, having camped in a tent for about six more years, I decided I had done enough sleeping on the ground. I also thought that, unlike our old pop-up, I would like a bathroom on site. Midnight walks to the bathroom can be scary. So I bought a new little trailer.

And it has some bells and whistles. It has a fridge with a freezer, a small bathroom, an oven, and even a microwave (although we so rarely have electricity where we camp that the microwave is more of an extra cupboard than an appliance). It is really nice.

I love camping because I love waking up in beautiful places and going to sleep with the sounds of the woods all around me. But I also like camping because it reminds me of what is necessary in life.

In this modern world, it is so easy for me to think that I really need this or that new thing. Maybe it’s a new phone, or an iPad, or a pair of shoes, or a new countertop. But when I camp, I realize how little I really do need. In fact, back in our tenting days, I realized that I could get by with the barest of necessities. Even my new little trailer, although much less work than tenting, still has very few of the things that people at home would think they could never live without.

And that is the best reason for me to camp. It reminds me that when I pray for ‘daily bread,’ it is a prayer for necessities. My mind tends to have a list of banquet-like “needs,” but Jesus’ own prayer helps me remember that not only should I be sharing the abundance that God has entrusted to my care, but that my ultimate need is not for more stuff, but for more bread from heaven. Jesus said “I am the bread of life.” That is what I most need. And having little, even if only a few times per year, keeps my true need in focus.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Rainbows


It is not new news that much of the United States has been experiencing record heat and drought-like conditions this summer. In Michigan, my home state, this has also been true.

Now don’t get me wrong, I love our generally sunny summers with wonderfully warm temperatures, usually in the mid-80’s with occasional jumps into the 90’s. And I don’t really mind our humidity unless it becomes particularly high and oppressive. I actually much prefer it to the skin-shriveling dryness of some western states.

But this summer we have experienced numerous periods of above 90 degree heat, often with high humidity, and even several short periods (3-5 days each) of temperatures that soared above 100 degrees. Given that a good part of the year in Michigan we live with our windows closed because of cold temperatures, I detest having to turn on my air conditioning and live with my windows closed in the summer as well. Under these conditions, however, I did exactly that. Our newlywed daughter and her husband even moved home for a few days at one point because they simply could not stand their upstairs, un-airconditioned apartment for one more day.

At least as strange as the high heat were the weeks on end with no rain and no prospects of rain. Rarely does a week go by in Michigan where there are not at least some clouds in the sky. A “Pure Michigan” sky is a beautiful blue with a few white puffy clouds hanging around to add interest.

It got to the point that I felt like Elijah after the showdown on Mt. Carmel. If I saw a cloud the size of my fist in the west, I hoped it was bringing rain. But even when we did have a few clouds, they managed to scuttle by without dropping any moisture at all. There was frequently not even any dew on the ground in the morning.

About a month ago the sky was quite dark because of some clouds that were passing over but, as usual, not producing rain. I was feeling a bit glum that day. Some circumstances of life were getting me down. Some prayers I had been praying seemed to be hitting heaven and bouncing back down. I was having a bit of a pity party.

That morning, I walked out of my garage to let my dog out and saw the most beautiful rainbow stretching from just above the house across the street all the way to the farmer’s field to the west (or so it seemed). It was beautiful not just in color, but because I knew that somewhere close by it was raining.

And then I thought about the occasion for the rainbow: God’s sign of his promise to Noah and Noah’s descendants. A promise God has kept. And I realized that just as God has kept that promise, so also has he kept his promise to be a God to his people, to be with them, as the divine name suggests. That, of course, meant that he was with me, and listens to me, and loves me, despite my feelings to the contrary. I felt as if that rainbow was placed right there, just for me.

And maybe it was.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Grace


As I walked today, I was thinking about how people change or rather, if they change. It seems that humans by nature—fallen nature, that is—choose to act more like beasts than images of God. Everything in culture pushes in that direction: science, advertising, movies, ‘that’s just the way I am’ mentalities, to name a few examples.

But Scripture offers quite a different picture of humanity. Scripture radically claims that we are not animals; we are not just the most developed being on the evolutionary trajectory. Genesis 1 already makes this clear in the structure of the chapter, a structure based on separation. Each component of creation is separated from the next with the aim of preparing a place for the grand finale: humans. This final creative act is clearly different from those that precede it in both form and function.

So regardless of the messages that culture sends, and regardless of the ways our own fallen nature tries to convince us that we are nothing more than naked apes, the Bible is clear that we are intended to be so much more.

And this is where grace comes in. Proverbial wisdom tells us that a zebra can’t change his stripes. Or, we might say, a human can’t change their fingerprints. The point of this proverb is, of course, that people don’t change and you shouldn’t trust someone who says she has changed because, after all, ‘zebras don’t change their stripes.’

Grace, however, in fact changes our ‘stripes.’ Grace picks us up, turns us around from a trajectory toward beastly behavior, and points us toward and enables truly human behavior. Grace, in other words, not only changes our stripes, it moves us in the direction of the stripes God intended us to have: image of God stripes.

And maybe, that is one part of what is so amazing about grace.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Contentment


I wonder a lot about contentment. It seems like a characteristic that is similar to peace. If one is content, one will be at peace. Paul writes, from prison no less, “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.” (Phil. 4:11) He then goes on to list a variety of physical situations that he has lived through and in which he was “content.”

This contentment that Paul writes about clearly comes to him from God (vs. 13 and 19). And contentment in all circumstances seems to be a goal that Paul advocates, given the general context here.

But my question in all of this, is whether it is ever ok to be discontent. Are there circumstances in which we actually should lack contentment?

So, for example, should we be content with poverty in the world? Should we be content that women and children are regularly exploited in various places? Ok, so those examples are rather extreme.

What about our own spiritual growth? Should we be content with where we are spiritually and not strive, in cooperation with the Holy Spirit, toward holiness even though it often feels like we are making little progress? Should we be content when a friend, or loved one, or acquaintance is content with where he or she is at spiritually or should we gently prod them to strive for more? For example, perhaps you have a friend who doesn’t think they need to go to church anymore. They can worship just as well on a hike. Should we be content with that, allowing them to find their own path, as it were, or should we carefully and pastorally call attention to this spirit-killing behavior?

Or is contentment, the sort Paul is talking about, something like being discontent with situations like these and striving for change, and yet being content as we work and pray knowing that ultimately God is in control? And maybe is that even true with Paul’s situations? Could it be that the learned contentment  with being imprisoned, for example, had to do with praying for release – a lack of contentment with the immediate situation – yet an overarching contentment knowing that whether in prison or out, God would accomplish his purpose.

So maybe contentment, at least in certain cases, must always be mixed up with a dose of holy lack of contentment.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Fire and Prayer


My sister lives with her family in Colorado Springs. The past several weeks have been a very difficult time for them and many others in that area. The country overall has been very hot and dry, as we all know. And we probably also all know that a large area in and around Colorado Springs has been on fire. My sister’s neighborhood was one such area.

Today, she emailed me and others in our family a slide show she made that both narrated their story of the past several weeks, and showed the devastation caused by the fire in their neighborhood. Although I had seen some pictures on the news as I followed the progress of the fire, the photos of her street before and after were numbing.

And the story itself, with the pictures attached was almost surreal. They wake up seeing smoke on the ridge that is visible from their house. As the day progresses, so does the fire. In the later pictures, the fire itself is visible in the smoke. I can’t begin to imagine what it feels like to see an inferno advancing toward your home. By the time the evacuation orders came, the air was thick with smoke and ash and, of course, they left their home having no idea if it would be there when they came back. Also horrifying.

The path of the fire was erratic. There were pictures of cement foundations where houses once stood. Yet just a short distance away, houses stood unscathed. It looked more like the path of a tornado than a fire.

My sister’s house was spared. They didn’t even lose the food in their freezer from the power outage. We all said it was an “answer to prayer.”

But right down the street were foundations and ash, all that remained of the houses of their neighbors. Those people lost everything except their lives. And while we are grateful to God for sparing the lives of these folks, one cannot help but wonder why my sister’s house was spared, but these other houses were not.

Did we pray harder than the friends and families of those who lost all their possessions? Did God choose to listen to us and not them? Was God only able to save a certain number of homes and no more? Was my sister somehow more deserving than the others?

I think it is safe to say that the answer to all of those questions is a resounding “no.” Which in fact is why I am hesitant to exclaim, “what an answer to prayer.” Because God listened to and answered all the prayers lifted on behalf of those affected by the fire. But for some, his answer came in a form quite different than that my sister experienced.

This is all very difficult to understand. And our tendency to act as though God is more like a cosmic Santa Claus than the Holy One of Israel doesn’t help much. But the fact is, that God’s ways with us are “unsearchable,” as Paul writes. And we must learn to accept good from God as well as bad, something two Old Testament sufferers, Naomi and Job, knew well.

All this is to say that thankfulness for God’s protection is a very appropriate response. But we might want to be cautious about how we talk about prayer and God’s response to it.


Monday, July 2, 2012

Manna and Quail


In reading through the book of Numbers the other day, I came across the passage that describes Israel’s complaints about their hardships in the wilderness after leaving Egypt. In case you haven’t found yourself reading Numbers lately, let me remind you of the story.

Israel was enslaved in Egypt for many generations. By the time of Moses’ birth, the work was hard, and the Egyptian midwives had been ordered to kill all Israelite baby boys. Moses was spared because of God’s provision of two faithful midwives who refused to kill the Israelite babies, and a courageous mother who made sure he would live.

God spared Moses’ life for a purpose. Through Moses, God miraculously led Israel out of Egypt, out of slavery.

After leaving Egypt and arriving at the “mountain of the LORD” and receiving their marching orders, Israel set out for the land of Canaan. But they soon grew tired of the wilderness. Although God had provided not only freedom, but nourishment for the journey in the form of manna, it was not enough. The people wanted other food. They even suggested that life was better for them in Egypt. In Egypt, they claimed, there was a wide variety of food: fish, cucumbers, melons, leeks, onion, and garlic. They were tired of manna cakes for breakfast, manna bread for lunch, and manna porridge for dinner. They wanted more.

What is interesting about this story is that in and of itself, there is nothing wrong with wanting good food. Fish, cucumbers, and the like are God’s good gifts to humans. That the people would want these sorts of things is, at some level, natural.

The problem seems to be in the timing of the desire and the lack of gratitude for what God had provided.

On this particular journey, God’s gift to his people was manna. Instead of gratitude for God’s gift of life in the place of death – for that is what the wilderness is – the people’s response was complaint. Instead of being content with what God had provided for the journey, or perhaps asking God if there were any alternatives, the people looked back to Egypt. Like picky children, Israel did not want what God had offered. They wanted a banquet, not daily bread.

The funny thing is, with a little patience, a banquet would be theirs, for the promised land was said to flow with milk and honey.

God gave them what they wanted. But desiring God’s gifts in the wrong way or at the wrong time came with consequences. Israel would get meat to eat but by the end of the month, they would loathe it. Why?

Because in rejecting the gifts God had offered, they had rejected God.

I can’t help but wonder how often I crave God’s good gifts in the wrong way or at the wrong time. How often do I complain because I want the promises of the future now? And how often does that complaint amount to ingratitude for the many good gifts I already have? Its worth thinking about.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Weddings and Such


Just over one week ago, our youngest daughter got married. It was beautiful – the service, the reception, the sermon – everything. It was a wonderful day.

A few days before the ceremony someone wrote on Facebook that she hoped the wedding was everything my daughter dreamed of and more. My immediate thought was ‘I hope the wedding is great. But I hope their marriage is everything they dream of and more.’ Weddings are fabulous, celebratory events. But weddings are only one day. The marriage, by contrast, will comprise the rest of her life.

The wedding day might be everything the couple dreamed of. I hope that is true for every couple. Weddings should be marvelous beginnings filled with the best things. Planning for this event is no small task, especially, as I found out, for the mother of the bride. But planning a wedding is nothing compared to the work and attention that must go into a good marriage.

Marriage, like the Christian life, is hard work. And nearly every cultural trend will push against that idea.

Hollywood makes love look simple, uncomplicated. Happy endings are the rule, and are usually quite effortless. Love just seems to happen to people. “Fate” brings couples together and moves them apart, seemingly without much human exertion. And if the relationship does not work out, it was clearly not ‘meant to be.’ If an individual is not ‘happy,’ it is on to the next relationship.

Hollywood romance is self-centered. It’s all about my personal happiness. It is, in fact, about what I am getting out of this relationship.

But Christian marriage is all about God bringing two people together. Those two people make vows to love and serve each other and through this union, to serve the world around them. In other words, it is not inward focused, but outward focused.

Marriage is not about self-fulfillment, but self-sacrifice. Try selling that on daytime TV.

The Christian community is not immune to the cultural trends. We need to keep reminding ourselves that regardless of what culture says about the meaning of marriage, the Christian calling to marriage is quite a different thing. I appreciated, for example, how in my daughter’s ceremony the pastor asked first the families, and then congregation for their promise to support this new couple with encouragement and prayers.

I hope the friends and family gathered took that “I will” seriously.

Marriages, you see, like children, are nurtured best in community. The going will not always be easy, as every married person knows. The support and prayers of the Christian community are crucial if these new families are to survive the rough cultural currents. But when nourished in the community of faith, Christian marriage can be wonderful partnership for kingdom service.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Preference for the Poor?


A fairly common idea in theological circles the past number of years has been that God has a “preferential option for the poor,” or, to put it in the words of the Belhar Confession, that God “cares in a special way for the poor.”

What exactly this phrase means is a matter of interpretation. But the way it is often used suggests that the financially poor somehow figure more prominently in God’s field of vision than the more wealthy in the world. The result, is that this phrase is frequently used as a way to marginalize the wealthy, making them feel like second-class citizens in the kingdom of God, regardless of how they use their wealth. It is, in fact, guilt by association.

It is true, of course, that the Bible carries some stern warnings about the dangers of wealth, particularly when wealth is used in an oppressive way. The minor prophets in the Old Testament and the gospel of Luke in the New Testament are perhaps the most obvious places where these warnings crop up. The question is whether warnings about the dangers of wealth warrant a theology of preferential treatment of the poor by God.

That seems questionable at best. If God cares in a special way about anyone in Scripture, it seems to be his people, those called out of the world and into relationship with him. That includes rich and poor and middle-class and every other class. And of his children, God seems to pay special attention to those who suffer in one way or another in the same way that a parent might take special care of an ailing child.

To suggest that God’s cares in a special way for the poor, seems to imply that poverty, in and of itself, leads to God’s special care. And it implies that the brokenhearted rich, whether they are God’s own children or not, are somehow less the objects of God’s love and care.

What Scripture is consistently demonstrating, however, rather than a special concern for the poor, is God’s special concern for God’s people who suffer or are marginalized. Over and over we are reminded that God is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in mercy to his people. Repeatedly Scripture tells us that God is near to the brokenhearted, that they can trust him for everything they need. And throughout the Bible we are taught that God will never leave nor forsake his people, indeed not even death can separate his people from him.

And who are the marginalized? Wealthy Christians can bear witness to the fact that great wealth carries with it great—sometime almost overwhelming—responsibility. And it can marginalize one in even very simple things like friendship. Imagine having to always wonder whether someone you meet is really interested in getting to know and love you, or simply wants to be with you because of your wealth. And the last time I checked, the wealthy are not immune to disease, broken relationships, children who leave the church, and the like. Money cannot, in fact, buy comfort. Comfort is found by all only in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Unless we are willing to include in the word “poor” all of God’s children who suffer and are marginalized in one way or another, we should take care with how we throw this phrase around.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Love Your Neighbor


Recently, in my little town, we were asked to vote about an additional tax that would bring public transportation to our town, connecting us with the nearby city where many people work. The tax would have amounted $120 per year for a $200,000 house.

Now of course, if you have read my blog in the past, you realize that I am not particularly unbiased where public transportation is concerned. For a substantial part of the year, I take the bus to work, although I drive to get to the nearest stop. So I am a believer in the importance of the city bus.

What is impossible not to notice when I do ride the bus, is the number of people who, unlike me, have no choice. This is, in fact, their only means of transportation. Many of them have to transfer routes, wait in the rain, and spend more than an hour getting to a place that would probably take only 15 minutes if they could drive a car.

Some of the people on the bus have lost their driver’s license for one reason or another. Some are simply unable to drive because of physical or mental disabilities. Some are too young to drive. But what is characteristic of nearly all of the riders, is that if they want to get to work, school, a doctor’s appointment, or even the welfare office, the only way to do it is via public transportation.

Enter the Tea Party. Worse yet, enter the local Tea Party pastor. Yes, I did say pastor.

Just days before the election, one of our local pastors who identified himself as a co-organizer of the local Tea Party, wrote a letter to the editor of our paper. In it, he urges voters to “vote no on this request.” The reason? Affirming the proposal for public transportation would “increase the size of government and taxes.”  He asks, “If we are fed up with the size, growth, and cost of government elsewhere, why would we vote for a government-run, tax-funded public transportation system?”

Well Pastor Tyler, perhaps because we care about those around us who do not have access to transportation without such a system. Unless of course, you are proposing to organize your parishioners to provide such a system to those who cannot get their children to the doctor, are unable to find reliable transportation to work, or even are unable to find a way to get to church on Sunday.  And maybe you would be on the top of the list of those willing to spend several hours a week driving the elderly, disabled, and others who cannot drive to their destinations.

Not that I’m cynical, but I doubt that our good pastor thought that far. After all, doesn’t everybody have a car or relatives to take them where they need to go? And if they don’t, isn’t that their fault? And why should I pay for them to get to work? Wouldn’t I rather complain about all those people on public assistance who are “too lazy” to get jobs and just ignore the reality that without transportation, they can’t work?

I wonder whether the pastor thought about how the non-Christian community would view a church that is so myopic that they cannot see the most basic needs around them. I wonder how the church's message of “love your neighbor” sounds to those people. I have a pretty good guess.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

My God, My God . . .

The church that we are members of commemorates Maundy Thursday of Holy Week with what is known as a service of shadows. Each of the shadows represents some aspect of Christ’s final hours before and during his crucifixion.

The service is always moving. The full weight of what Christ suffered so that I could have life never ceases to bring tears to my eyes. Each year, however, moves me in a unique way. This year was no exception.

During the “shadow of death” the pastor read Jesus’ agonizing cry from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” As I sat there thinking about these words, the awful reality hit me: God turned his face from his son!

Now this was not new news to me. I have heard those words and thought about them dozens of times over the course of my adult life, and even more since I became a theologian. What struck me was that what happened to Jesus is the exact opposite of God’s promise to his people.

You see, the story of the Bible is really a story about presence, the presence of God with his people. It begins in garden where God walks and talks with his people in the cool of the day. But the first couple does not want God’s presence on his terms. They rebel, deciding that they will live the way they want to regardless of God’s instruction.

The result: loss of the presence of God. Adam and Eve are cast out of the garden, cast out of the presence of God, a presence that brings the flourishing life God intended for them.

The rest of the story is God’s project to bring his rebellious people back into his presence in order that they would have abundant life. God offers a relationship with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God comes to his suffering people in Egypt, rescues them and dwells with them in the wilderness, bringing life to the desert. God directs the high priest Aaron to bless the people saying “The LORD bless you and keep you. The LORD make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you. The LORD turn his face toward you and give you his peace.”

The blessing of God, salvation, is tied up with God’s face being turned toward his people. In fact, at various times God’s people of the Old Testament cry, when they are feeling forsaken, for God to turn his face to them once again (e.g., Psalm 80).

But here, on the cross, Jesus quotes Psalm 22 in a way that sounds like a reversal of the Aaronic blessing. God not only has not turned his face of blessing toward his only son. God has turned his face away from him. Jesus hangs cursed. And he obviously feels the agony of that curse.

Worse yet, the anti-blessing is because of me. Me.

Just prior to this reading, the congregation sang “The Power of the Cross.” The text of one verse starkly states that Jesus hangs on the cross with  “ev’ry bitter thought, ev’ry evil deed crowning your blood-stained brow.” As I sang those words and then heard Jesus’ cry my heart was pierced. The bitter thoughts and evil deeds were not abstractions to sing about. These were my bitter thoughts and evil deeds, specific things that I could name.

God turned his face from his own Son, so that I could have his face turned toward me.
This the power of the cross: Christ became sin for us. Took the blame, bore the wrath, we stand forgiven at the cross.”

God’s face turned toward me, I stand forgiven at the cross.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Escape

In a current hit song, popular country music star Kenny Chesney sings about escaping from reality.

For me it's a beach bar
Or on a boat underneath the stars
Or with my band up on a stage
For a while everything's okay

For some it's a fast car
Moonshine in a mason jar
And everybody has their way
Somehow to escape

Reality, yeah, sometimes life
Ain't all that it's cracked up to be
So let's take a chance and live this fantasy
'Cause everybody needs to break free from reality

Its true isn’t it? Don’t we all get tired of the day-to-day routine at times and dream about our next vacation, our next chance to ‘get away from it all,’ our next escape from the work-a-day world, whether that world entails teaching, writing, crunching numbers, changing diapers, or whatever?

Not too long ago, I attended a worship conference. It was three days packed full of stimulating intellectual discussions, impressive preachers, and worship services that few churches have the resources to duplicate. It was truly a highlight, an escape from reality.

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that although this did feel like an escape, it would probably be better characterized as an escape to reality, not from it. You see, humans were created for worship of their Creator. The Westminster Catechism states that the chief end of humans is to “glorify God and enjoy him forever.”

Aside from the fact that three days is not forever, that conference felt like rest for my soul because I was doing exactly what God created me to do: glorify and enjoy him.

The truth is, every Sunday should be like that conference. We should look forward to having the chance to escape to the reality of our ultimate purpose or “chief end.” The Heidelberg Catechism, another confessional document, actually hints at this in its interpretation of the commandment to keep the Sabbath holy. It says that this commandment allows us to “begin [already] in this life the [promised] eternal Sabbath.”

Although we should glorify God in all that we do, the idea seems to be that formal times of worship are previews of the ultimate future reality of life in the immediate presence of God.

Its too bad that so many Christians look at communal worship as more of a duty to be endured, than a restful escape to a foretaste of the eternal Sabbath. There are probably a multitude of reasons for that. But maybe this weekend, whether you are able to take a vacation or not, you will consider spending part of your weekend getting away to reality.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Ash Wednesday Identity

For the western church, this past Wednesday was Ash Wednesday. It is the day that marks the beginning of the liturgical season of Lent. Lent is a season of preparation for Easter. It begins 40 days before Easter (not including Sundays). Lent is a time set aside to focus on the suffering and sacrifice of Christ. It is characterized by repentance and may include such practices as fasting and other spiritual disciplines.

Many churches commemorate Ash Wednesday with a service focused on repentance. The service itself is usually quiet and solemn, in keeping with the theme of repentance. It frequently culminates with people going forward and the pastor or worship leader making the sign of the cross on each person’s forehead with ashes. As the leader does this, she might say something like “repent and believe the gospel.” Or sometimes he will say “remember that you are dust and to dust you will return.”

Repentance is nothing other than turning from one direction and heading in the opposite direction. It is dying to self and rising with Christ. A change of direction that includes a change of allegiance.

The service I attended was in the morning so I walked around the whole day with this peculiar looking black mark on my head. Several times I had a polite person let me know that I had smudged myself and might want to take care of it.

But of course I did not want to remove the mark. Throughout my day, each time I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror, I was reminded of who I am.

Better yet, I was reminded of who I was and who I am in Christ.

And I was reminded that this acknowledgement of my identity is a process.

I have been adopted by God in Christ. As with any adopted child, I must let go of my old identity and begin to live into my new identity. Or, to put it slightly differently, I must put to death my old self, the self that is attached to sinful practices, and I must put on my new self, the resurrection-life self given to me by Christ. This life is a gift of sheer grace, but a gift that is also a task. As the great German theologian Karl Barth wrote, “When one is called to discipleship, one abandons oneself resolutely and totally.”

That sounds so easy in some ways. Until I start looking at all the habits and practices that I need to let go of. Until I begin to see the loyalties and loves that compete with what should be my ultimate love: God.

This dying is not for the faint-hearted.

But dying and rising is the rhythm of the Christian life. Dying and rising is what Christian identity is all about. Ash Wednesday is nothing other than a focused time of what we should be practicing all the time: dying to self and rising to new life in Christ.

This is our true identity. This is who we are in Christ.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Super Bowl Ads

While I generally enjoy at least some of the Super Bowl ads every year – the eTrade ads come to mind – this year there was one ad that I not only did not enjoy, it infuriated me. That would be the Teleflora Valentine’s Day ad.

Victoria’s Secret model Adriana Lima was the sultry star of this ad. And while many people thought it was either drool-worthy or funny, I could not believe the message given to the thousands of viewers last Sunday evening.

Lima is pictured getting ready for a date. She slowly pulls on her stockings, applies lipstick, glancing provocatively at the camera on and off throughout this routine.

That is, in my opinion, bad enough. But I admit that I have become so used to those sorts of images on screen and in print that it barely registered with me. The rub was in the punch line.

At the end of the advertisement, Lima is shown with a vase of flowers. She looks at the camera and says, “Guys, Valentine’s Day is not that complicated. Give and you shall receive.”

I thought I had seen it all. Apparently not.

I was furious! In one of the most watched events on television, women had just been told that indeed, good treatment by a man – gifts, a nice date, etc. – demands payback. And payback equates to some sort of sexual favor!

It was insulting to our intelligence. Apparently women are the sorts of creatures that can easily be teased into sexual acts of one form or another by something as small as a bouquet of flowers. Sounds like Esau selling his birthright for a bowl of porridge.

But worse yet, it was insulting to our humanity both as males and females. Are men really so tied to their genitals that they would stoop to giving gifts merely to get sexual pleasure in return? This isn’t about oneness or fellowship with another human being but merely purchasing pleasure with dinner and roses? Is that a fair portrayal of men? They don’t really care about enjoying an evening with a woman unless there is some physical reward at the end of the night?

The female side of this all should be obvious. Are we merely objects that can be purchased with a night out and a bouquet? Are we, in fact, for sale? And if we receive something beautiful from a man, does that mean we owe something to him?

Relationally, is this the sort of ‘give and take’ that we are talking about when we think about equal partnership? Are male/female relationships to be characterized by mutual self-giving or by the exchange of products, like everything else in the marketplace?

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Pastors

I have spent the past several days at a Worship Symposium at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. It is one of the highlights of my year. We spend three days immersed in doing worship and talking about the various aspects of worship, always centered around a particular theme.

This year the theme was the psalms.

The psalms are probably my favorite part of the Bible. I am in the habit of reading the entire psalter through every ten to fourteen days, depending on circumstances. I love this book, studied it in seminary, and have built my devotional life around it in some ways.

In addition, it has been my passion over the past several years to bring the psalms into my teaching, particularly the psalms of lament. What better answer to the problem of evil than the psalms of lament?

In case you don’t know about these little gems, the lament psalms are those in which a suffering person cries out to God for relief. Lines like, “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?” and “Out of the depths I cry to you; Lord hear my voice” are commonplace in these poems. They are often cries of desolation and despair.

Yesterday morning, the opening worship service focused on lament. The service centered particularly on Psalm 13 with an especially brilliant sermon by Frank Thomas.

Due to a variety of circumstances, the service moved me deeply and I spent a good part of my time crying.

Now comes the interesting part.

Here I am, in the assembly of those united with Christ, surrounded by pastors and worship leaders, and at the end of the service, not one of them asked me if I was ok or if I wanted to talk.

Of course, if you knew me you would know that I would have said “I’m fine” and “no I don’t want to talk.”

But I did find it curious as I thought about it last night, that no one even asked.

Maybe its simply that we don’t want to invade someone’s personal space, this is the Midwest after all. Or maybe we just don’t want to take the time to hear someone’s issues.

And I’m not saying I would do any better. I am introverted and would have felt very awkward sitting next to someone like me yesterday.

But doesn’t it seem odd that in the assembly of God’s people, theoretically the safest place we can be, that we can’t even reach out to someone who is quite obviously in distress? I think, perhaps, that should give us pause.

Monday, January 23, 2012

The 9th Commandment

I don’t generally watch much television but this morning, because the weather was looking rather uncertain outside, I decided to turn on the morning news and weather report while I was getting ready for work. The news and weather were helpful. The advertising was not.

In fact, I found the advertising disturbing. It seemed to alternate between someone slamming the current President of the United States, Barak Obama, to someone slamming a person from another party hoping to win that office in the next election.

Because I don’t watch TV, this sort of obnoxious advertising is not something I normally have to endure. Of course I have heard about these political ads. But I have not seen them that often.

As the fourth ad in a row came on this morning, I turned the TV off.

Contrary to popular understanding, the 9th commandment is less about lying in general than it is about slander. The 9th commandment reads: “You shall not give false testimony about your neighbor.” It seemed to me as I listened to the political ads this morning that the purpose of these soundbites is to do exactly what the 9th commandment forbids – give false testimony about your neighbor. And if the testimony is not blatantly false, it certainly bends the truth so that those listening will come to pre-determined false conclusions about the person in question.

That seems like a pretty fine line of moral distinction to me. And it seems wrong.

The Christian church to which I belong happens to use a particular 16th century document to help us understand and explain a variety of biblical truths. One part of this document goes through the meaning of each of the Ten Commandments.

Here’s what it says about the 9th: “God’s will is that I never give false testimony against anyone, twist no one’s words, not gossip or slander, nor join in condemning anyone without a hearing or without a just cause. . . And I should do what I can to guard and advance my neighbor’s good name.”

Did you notice both the negative and positive force of this explanation? I should not twist someone’s words or slander them. I should guard and advance my neighbor’s good name.

From my limited exposure to political advertisements, it appears that they violate both the negative and positive force of this commandment. And even if one thinks that this explanation of the 9th commandment pushes the boundaries too far, there is always the summary of the law given by Christ. There, after love for God, the second great commandment is to “love you neighbor as yourself.”

In what possible world could those sorts of advertisements be construed as loving one’s neighbor?

So what’s a Christian to do.

Well, at the very least, it seems that we could ignore the ads, mute the TV, or not watch it at all. But perhaps we should also take care to find out, to the best of our ability, what the truth of any given topic is. With that in hand, we could make sure that any discussions we are involved in do not allow for the slander or defaming of persons from ANY political party, not just our party of choice. By so doing, we show honor both to God, and to our neighbor, his image.