22 August, 2010

Negro Spirituals

I've spent a week distractedly listening to "Let My People Go: Negro Spirituals." And I thought I'd never listen to Jazz. (That's how iTunes classifies the album.)


The songs use the word, "I," an awful lot, and that sounds pretty immature. They don't sing much about God. Instead, they sing about themselves. Most of the songs could be mistaken for children's songs, or are even childish. And they appear to be the original fountainhead of dozens of musical conventions about which I've complained over the years. They repeat themselves. They seldom seem to engage the mind, but always the emotions. They scream.

Or ...

What if it's me that's wrong.

These are the songs of people who rose from strength to strength and hope to hope and faith to faith while suffering inhumanities I can describe but not possibly imagine. Slavery in the American South was a mixed bag, with some owners dealing honorably with their property as people and others dealing out unimaginable cruelties. The faith of these Africans stood equally strong under both tests.

What's more, when the long awaited blessing of freedom came to these people, they could hardly rise up and call it blessed. Lincoln ended ended some cruelties but Jim Crow Laws ensured the blessings of liberty were yet denied to them and their posterity. In a time before welfare, a time of deep, true poverty I've only seen in foreign lands, these African-Americans continued to declare and live within the kingdom of Jesus Christ.

If it's me that's wrong. If, by some chance it's the fat and happy product of the richest generation that has something to learn about the kinds of songs that strengthen the spirit to face a world where Satan wears a size 11 boot, then I've got much to learn indeed.

I wonder.

04 July, 2010

For a Helmet, Hope

Link to first post in this series.

Friends, I really like to put well-thought-out ideas out here, and I'm afraid I can't really deliver these days. There's too much going on. Way too much. But, this Postmodernism stuff is still burning a hole in my pockets so let me put some quick summary guesses out here.

All attempts to stop Postmodernism's "erosion" of our inspired religion are both doomed and misguided. Christianity is not postmodern, but it's not anti-postmodern either. Postmodernism is an informed way of reacting to the world in which we live. Some people are doing Postmodernism in a very ugly way, but others are doing it with utmost sincerity - just the way we did Modernism and Romanticism in our time.

Postmodernism is an accurate reaction to the horrors of a fallen world when the Information Age forces us all to face those horrors honestly.

The question before the house is how Christians react to hardcore reality. For reasons I hope I've already given, we can no longer hide behind "It'll all be worth it in heaven," or "God is ordering everything for the good." Both those statements are true, but we have to face up to facts. Things aren't good now, and Jesus didn't come selling heaven. Jesus meets people where they are, not where we'd like them to be. We need to know how Jesus meets us now.

Over the past 4000 years, there've been many, many times and many, many prominent verses. Luther gave us, "the just shall live by faith." The fundamentalists brought, "The Word was with God and the Word was God," into new focus. I'd like to suggest the verse for our time is, "Jesus wept."

The urge of every youth movement is to assume no one who came before them was as passionate, caring, concerned, informed, intelligent, spiritual, persuaded, committed, or somehow just didn't get it. I know I made that mistake in spades, but I can't do it again. Now that I'm 46, I need to grab hold of "Jesus wept," but to do so without letting go of any of the other words that have come before. "Jesus wept" informs "The just shall live by faith" and "The Word was God." It doesn't replace them; it defines them.

The just live by faith in a Man Who weeps with them. The Word Who is God includes stanzas of mourning.

Jesus didn't weep when He heard His friend Lazarus was dying, nor after he'd died. He didn't weep when He explained to Martha the theology of death, resurrection, and life. He wept when Mary fell on the ground and asked Him why He'd not come sooner. He wept, just like we do, when the pain touched Him. The pain touched Almighty God in Flesh when the tears of those He loved were wept to Him.

Jesus is touched by those things that touch us.

I look out at all the disasters and pain in the world, in my church, and in my family and I'm crushed. I could as soon save those I love as win three tennis matches all at the same time. I might win or lose any one match if I practice and train, but this life shoots too many balls at us. It's hopeless.

Jesus weeps.

I don't know how to make Jesus weeping sync-up with God ever-blessed. I don't know the theological magic it takes to reconcile the God Who declares He brings disaster with the God Who weeps when the disaster strikes, but Jesus is YHWH in flesh and YHWH wept with Mary.

All of which brings us, finally, to the heart of the matter. I've come to believe Postmodernism is a failure of hope. A Christian Postmodernist can muster the faith to believe in Christ and the love to give his lif to God, but he can't hope being a Christian will make any difference. He reads God's promises and hears God declare them yeah and amen, but they don't seem to work in real life. A Christian's life looks an awful lot like a non-Christian's life, minus the sleeping in on Sunday.

Christianity makes sense when Jesus raises Lazarus, but I want Him to raise every Lazarus and He doesn't. He raised one man to make one point at one time. He raised Lazarus to show us Whom He was, but Lazarus died again a few years later and Jesus didn't raise Him again. There are Lazarus's all over this place whom Jesus doesn't raise, and that makes no sense. I'm so happy with Jesus I could bust, but then I'm a Modernist with a deep well of irrational hope from which to draw. What do I tell my children? Where's the hope? What's the hope?

(For this, I have to thank my wife. I flat didn't see where to go next, but she found it.)

Heb 5:7 While Jesus was here on earth, he offered prayers and pleadings, with a loud cry and tears, to the one who could deliver him out of death. And God heard his prayers because of his reverence for God.

Jesus wept again before He died. He wept strongly and prayed ... hard ... for fear of personal suffering. Jesus even understood fully why He would suffer. It didn't help. Knowing "why" didn't end the tears. Jesus even had the assurance God heard His prayers. He had every benefit we imagine might make our suffering tolerable, and He wept all the same. He died all the same. And so must we.

I would like to hear whether any Postmodernists can find some hope there. Jesus wept for us and He wept for Himself, but the evil still came. He prayed and God answered by delivering Him over to His enemies, but the story didn't end there. A couple days later God delivered Jesus. He delivered Him from death, from shame, from tears. Jesus is not just the Firstborn from the dead, but Firstborn from tears. Jesus wept, but weeps no more, and He will deliver us from our tears. Jesus earned the power to dry our eyes.

Jesus' death has not yet removed evil from this world, but He told us it wouldn't for a while. We weep when pain comes to those we love and we weep when pain comes to us and we pass through the valley, just like our Lord did.

We answer pain with hope, hope founded on the victory of our Forerunner, Jesus the Annointed. His victory was not over pain but through it, and ours will be too. He promised it would be that way, and we need to grab hold of His example.

To do that, I might recommend we grab hold of an example of Americans who've done this before, beautifully and brilliantly. America's slaves learned to hurt and hope through pain, injustice, grief, and unanswered prayers. They composed songs that called out every pain honestly to the Lord and waited on Him for a deliverance they could only expect after death. I suspect the best answer to Postmodernism is going to sound a lot like a negro spiritual.

On this July 4th we'll celebrate our freedom, but maybe we really need to celebrate the hope of some who lived an American Nightmare.

20 June, 2010

Hope: Where We All Fail

(Link to first post in this series)

I keep struggling to understand the mystery of Postmodernism. My kids see the world in a radically different way than do I. Radically. Where I keep trying to perceive a coherent tapestry in the confusing threads of pain and joy entangling me, my kids observe, "We're screwed." They think in biological, gritty terms of despair like that, when I never could. I keep seeing hope and they keep seeing reality. It's disconcerting.

I think I've found a clue, though, where we're both wrong.

I saw it first in my younger friends. Paul said God left us with Faith, Hope, and Love. My friends are capable of believing unbelievable things and you can count on them for love. They just can't hope. They can hope for little things; jobs, friends, families. Ask them, though, whether God's goodness can redeem and they'll kind of freeze. Whether they parrot or reject the party line, it seems the comfort of real hope will elude them.

Postmodernism is cobbled together from a thousand little bricks of despair.

Modernists, aka the good guys, look nothing like that. Modernists rest unfailingly in richest hope. Modernists know God is going to make sure everthing works out for the good. Modernists know we're learning more about everything every day, and we're growing stronger, smarter, spirity-er.

Modernists, I'm coming to see, fail by resting on unfounded hope.

We really looked at the Western World's steady progress from benighted medievalism to rationalism to the capstones of democracy and freedom, and ascribe that progress to divine intervention. God was on our side. We're rich and brilliant, aren't we? God must be blessing us. We hooked our faith to the wagon of progress and urged the horses to give it all they had.

When the West ascended to lofty heights we saw the hand of God. We even called it "Manifest Destiny." It was obvious to anyone with eyes in their head that God was going to get us to wherever we needed to be.

Us Modernists have kids, though, who don't think so much of the emperor's new clothes. All that hope in which us Modernists invested smells to them like so many fish tales. We all know what happened to our economy when the Housing Bubble burst, but Modernism inflated a Hope Bubble that couldn't last. Our hope was leveraged out of proportion both to the reality of God's promises and to the realities we live with on the ground.

The answer to both Modernism's hyper-inflation of hope and Postmodernism's recessionary deflation of hope is a correct valuation of what God has promised and what He's delivered. The false overpromises of Modernism won't work any more, but the hopeless fears of Postmodernism won't work either. There's a valid comfort in God's promises rightly valued, and we need that comfort to survive. Even after the bubble a house is really worth the land its on, the materials of which it's constructed, and the neighborhood into which it's joined. The only value the housing collapse stole is the speculative worth it might have had upon resale.

Even so, the Christian life has measurable worth. The relationship it gives to God and people, the growth we experience in the Spirit, and the strength the unified love of His people embodies are true and lasting riches. The false promises of a recipe to make America great, end divorce, and free the subjected people of the world are gone, but the value of knowing God hasn't shaken at all.

Jesus eased the lives of many for the three years of His ministry, but not of all. Health and wealth did not radiate from Jesus in 30 AD into all the corners of Africa, South America, and Asia. He touched the Jewish lives He touched and was content to be limited in that way.

The church today has the same powers and limitations. We can make a difference in our community, and if we do we'll have done what our King could do.

I'll be back to look at this from another perspective.

12 June, 2010

All Odd Postmodernists are Primed

(First post in series)

It's an old joke, really, but I'm going to make a point from it anyway. Sorry.

How a mathematician, physicist and an engineer prove that all odd numbers, (greater than 2), are prime.

  • Mathematician: "Well, 3 is prime, 5 is prime and 7 is prime so, by induction all odds are prime."

  • Physicist: "3 is prime, 5 is prime, 7 is prime, 9 isn't prime, (bad data point), 11 is prime, and so is 13, so all odds are prime."

  • Engineer: "3 is prime, 5 is prime, 7 is prime, 9 is prime, 11 is prime 13 is prime, so all odds are prime."

I think maybe it's a good thing aspiring theologians aren't told by their professors that God said all odd numbers are prime and then asked to prove it. I suspect their proofs might look a little bit like this:

  • Calvinist: 3 is prime, 5 is prime, 7 is prime, 9 is ... Who art thou that repliest against God!

  • Arminian: 3 is prime, 5 is prime, 7 is prime, Christ's atonement sufficed for 9, but 9 didn't heed the call of prevenient math.

  • Pentacostal: 3 is prime, 5 is prime, 7 is prime, Oh! Hallelujah oh Lord! We praise you for the mystery of 9. Your ways are glorious and the sight of your glory ... la! la! holelulalalaleboo!

  • Fundamentalist: 3 is prime, 5 is prime, 7 is prime, 9 was good enough for Paul, and it's good enough for you! Repent sinner, or face the judgment with factors for 9 that the Bible, the HOLY Bible, testifies against!

  • Ecumenicist: 3 is prime, 5 is prime, 7 is prime, 9 is not a doctrine over which to divide. Sure, some say it has factors, but division over oddness brings tears to the heart of God. Where some would divide we must add, and even multiply! Instead of factoring 9, let it be a factor. ... Ummm. We don't know what to do with 81, but 81's clearly a non-essential.

  • Postmodernist: 3 is prime, 5 is prime, 7 is prime, ... Ummm. 9's not prime. Ummm. Neither are 15, 21, 25, 27 .... Hey! Who made up all this garbage!?!

  • Calvinist, Arminian, Pentacostal, Fundamentalist, and Ecumenicist in concert: Off with their heads!!!

I'm beginning to really feel the plight of the Postmodernist. When the Modernists (and all denominations and non-denominations over 40 years old are modernist) answered the questions of the atheists, higher critics, and apostates of 50 years ago, their answers were merely human. They had the divine revelation in front of them, but they were humans working to parse it out. Their answers had gaps.

Then came the information explosion.

My children heard about God's sovereignty from me. Then they heard about the burning of Falun Gong members in China, the genocide in Rwanda (perpetrated by Christians on Christians), the plight of Muslims in Palestine, the deaths of aborted babies by the millions, the fall of Christian leaders, the weirdness of the bible and how no one can agree on what it should say much less what any of it means, the fact that history is written by the winners, and that everyone who holds power is corrupt.

They are bombarded with information every day that says a sovereign God is either a figment of some oldster's imagination or He's pathetic.

To which Modernists reply, "God has a wonderful plan for your life. You are separated from Him by your sin...."

God has been mocked before. He's been rejected before. He's been forgotten, disproven, and declared dead. Today, He's being called out on His record. The Internet has catapulted "The Problem of Evil" (Theodicy) straight at the heavens and not bothered to wait for an answer. Every evil in the world, and every failing of Christianity in the face of those evils, is published to anyone who cares to subscribe.

Faith seems almost impossible with a high pressure pipeline spewing (honest) bad news into each of our minds, but the church's answers seem stuck in the 1950's. So many churches just keep asserting 9 is prime. God is sovereign. This world is the best of all possible worlds under the loving care of a loving God. God has a wonderful plan for your life.

I can hardly blame my children for rejecting my apparent naivette.

Time has expired for the evening, but the skepticism of Postmodernism seems very honest to me. I don't blame them for digging their heels in and wondering where the real answers are hiding.

05 June, 2010

Accepting The Challenge of Jesus

NT Wright, in The Challenge of Jesus, continues to turn my thinking about real life inside out. And he does it in the best way, by splattering my thinking about Jesus.

The first six chapters of the book are a studied attempt to show wrest Jesus from the shaky throne He holds in our minds. Wright doesn't capitalize "He" when using pronouns to reference our Lord, and that's true of the whole book. Wright de-capitalizes Jesus, and unearths an uncomfortably alien Man in the process. Jesus is not a Western man, and we all know that. Many authors fill in Jewish details about Jesus. Wright goes further. Jesus is also not a universal man . Jesus is wholly Jewish. He wouldn't have connected with Postmodern American folk any better than Peter or Paul.

Six chapters of unwrapping what it means to this American to follow a Man (for the record, it will be a while before I quit capitalizing pronouns referencing the divine Man) with limitations more than covers the price of admission for this book. Wright tied my mind in knots as I slowly unwrapped the implications of the kingdom of heaven being Jewish, the sacraments of Christianity being substantive, the crucifixion in light of zealot history, and so much more. Each layer Wright peeled away cleared my mind, and somehow buried all my mental housekeeping. The book left me with years of rebuilding to do.

I don't want to talk about those six chapters. I need to talk about them, but time doesn't permit me to do everything I need to do. I want to think out loud about the last two chapters.

Wright closes this book with a good old-fashioned challenge.

Wright takes a long, hard look at today's mental landscape and acknowledges the valuable contribution of Postmodernism to humanity. The words "valuable" and "postmodern" have never cohabitated in a single sentence of mine before. I'm so Modernist I still believe stories should have happy endings and villians should be punished. Wright looks at Postmodernism and finds the value in their rejection of all things certain. He finds accuracy in their depiction of the fall, in their assessment of its reach, in their ultimate hopelessness facing the world that really is.

Frankly, I'm as unhinged by the frank revelation of the foundational hopelessness of my children and their peers as I am by Wright's reconstruction of Jesus. To say I'm Modernist is to say I still hope "it can all be fixed." I foundationally assume anything wrong can be put to rights and we're all together in trying to find the best way to do it. My children know better. They know we're all screwed, and no one else really even gets anyone else's pain, much less is working together to fix everything. (I wanted to use another word than "screwed" back there, but there's no synonym. It means bad things were done to us that left us crippled, but it doesn't quite mean we're doomed. And crippled is an antiseptic word, where my children mean a very, very septic act has been done to everyone.)

Wright says Postmodernists have forsaken all metanarrative, and after I unwrap for myself what that means, I see he's right. My children don't believe there's a big puppetmaster in the sky making sure it all turns out for the best, but I do. My parents did and all my peers still do. Christian or not, us Modernists believe there's a happy ending out there waiting for us to get to it. My children don't believe. They know. They know divorce happens to everyone and "winning" the Cold War births a War on Terror, and if we win that war we'll need to kill someone else until someone finally kills us. My children know that if there's a puppetmaster out there, he's a .... Well, I won't use the words they'd use, but they don't like him very much.

Wright doesn't challenge these Postmodernists. He challenges me. He tells me to embrace their accurate understanding of the fall. I weep as I type this, because I don't want to live in their world. I don't wish them to have to live in their world, but I certainly don't want to join them there. I don't want to release the metanarratives that've comforted me through these two generations, and certainly not so I can wrap their cold, accurate, crushing view of reality around my terrified heart each night as I go to sleep.

Wright's right. I must.

Before I'm done thinking out loud, I hope to have thought through one of his challenges. Wright applies his sweaty Jesus to the Postmodern mindframe, and it works. The Modernist Jesus Who's simultaneously puppet, master, and bliss-filled guru spoke to us who never really grappled with the horrors of real life. It takes the real Jesus to wrestle real life to the ground and take victory over it (a Modernist reinterpretation of Postmodernism if ever there were one.) The money paragraph for me is where Wright directly applies his sweaty Jesus to guys like me who program computers for a living.

I intend, over the next few posts, to work my way through to a real way of programming within the context of the real kingdom of the real God. I have no idea where this is going, but it sounds like a helpful metanarrative. :-)

04 June, 2010

The Rooster Crowed

At that moment the Lord turned and looked at Peter.

Up until that moment, Peter was riding high. He was tracking with his Lord. He was an undercover agent gathering critical intelligence about the events of his Master's arrest and torment. He was lying low and staying close.

He was a hero.

And then the rooster crowed and the bloodied Man Whom Peter loved turned and looked at him.

He'd denied being with the Lord to a servant girl, a servant of the high priest, and some bystanders. Nobodies. Peter didn't look the high priest in the eye and deny Jesus was the Christ. He cunningly kept his cover to servants and bystanders.

Jesus said we'd be judged by every little word said in passing, and here we see it. Jesus valued Peter's response to that servant girl. Denying Jesus to a servant girl was one with denying Him before Caesar. And He didn't brook spying as an excuse. Astounding.

Lord have mercy.

28 May, 2010

Picture Mosaic

You've probably all seen things like this picture mosaic of Jesus.

In itself, it's really a pretty cool picture of the church. All of us, assembled carefully, make a bird's-eye picture of Jesus on Earth. I post this, though, because it occurs to me the picture only works because some of the shots that make it up are pretty dark. It's impossible to bear the image of God on Earth without bearing the unbearable some portion of the time. He did.

07 March, 2010

The Sacred Perspective

Last night Dana and I watched the 2007 clip of Tom Cruise browbeating Matt Lauer on the evils of antidepressants. Dana was blown away by the odd way Cruise sounded. She couldn't put her finger on it, but she really didn't think he sounded right.

Mr. Cruise was conned.

He bought into a very simple con job. He's a good guy (barring a normal dose of sin and a superstar level of narcissism) who really wants to make the world a better place. He cares deeply about things, and L Ron Hubbard's folk told him a shortcut to helping the whole world. On the subject of antidepressants, for example, they told him something like, "You could dedicate a lifetime of study to pharmaceuticals, or you can study what we've already learned about them. You can sift through hundreds of experts' opinions, and spend years trying to figure out which of these experts has sold out to big pharma, and eventually you'll work your way down to the results we've already compiled. Or you can study our results and start helping the world TODAY."

It's a shortcut, and it's an appealling one.

I've been there and done that.

Gene Edwards once told me I was the foremost expert in the world on church history. I'd very much imagine he's since rescinded that opinion (forcefully) but he appeared to say it in complete sincerity. And when he said it, I believed it might be true.

They say you can't sucker an honest man. They're right. Gene offered me a too-good-to-be-true deal, and I bought into it because of my inner dishonesty. He'd written a handful of books and gave us personal talks touting his incredible insights into a grabbag of subjects: family, church, Trinity, missions, child-rearing, psychology, emotional development. One of his core subjects was church history. I could either study hundreds of books written by hundreds of authors on the subject of church history and do the hard work of weeding out all their conflicting errors, or (for the amazing low price of a few of Gene's books!) I could have the world's most complete view of church history.

I placed my confidence in Gene the same way any mark hands his savings over to a huckster. I went all-in, as they say in poker, with a pair of deuces. (For non-poker readers, I gambled everything I owned on the weakest possible pair.)

One day, I took all my cheap brilliance to an Internet News Group dedicated to church history, and floated a couple leading questions their way. I remember asking what they thought the literacy rate was in first century Europe. Those historians answered me in ways I'd never imagined. I learned more about literacy from that one question than I'd learned in all my studies of Gene's work. Those men and women knew their history deeply and widely and verifiably. Gene's pitch was rich in promises and conclusions, but devoid of peer-reviewed data. I walked away from that news group knowing I'd been rolled, and the diploma Gene had spoken to me wasn't worth the air it had briefly disturbed. It was a sick, unsettling feeling, but I owned my loss and started the process of reevaluating my "investment."

What happened to me, and what I'm sure happened to Mr. Cruise, is that instead of learning a single subject from many perspectives, I learned every subject from Gene's sacred perspective. Instead of the humility that comes with learning to respect experts in their fields, I thought I could quickly rise above all the experts in every field because I had the magic feather of Gene's divine insight.

Beware the expert with divine insight into everything, and run in terror from the man who needs your trust. When a man needs your confidence, look closely to what he's offering. All too often that free lunch costs your life savings.

07 February, 2010

The Soloist

For reasons that fascinate me but don't belong here, I'm not going to give a full review of The Soloist. You will enjoy this movie as much as you can relate to its subject, homelessness. If you have a schizophrenic homeless person in your life, this movie will resonate deeply with you. If you care about the homeless at all, it will touch you. It is based on a true story, and you feel the reality of it the whole way through.

The moral of the movie is simple. The homeless don't need to be fixed nearly so badly as each homeless person needs to be known as a person, and every person needs a friend. It's a great moral.

Here's the rub of the movie. You can't always fix the things that make a man choose homelessness. Sure, sometimes you can do things that make room for a miracle, but when a person has chosen a life outside of the culture there's always some root cause. We like to think they just misunderstood something or had a run of bad luck, but sometimes it's nothing like that. Sometimes it's nothing anyone can explain, fix, or prevent. The co-protagonists of this movie tried everything to improve this man's life and got nowhere the hard way.

The movie asks a tough question (and answers it to its own satisfaction) that I think Christians need to answer.
Can you be a friend to a broken man, apart from needing to save him?

06 February, 2010

Where are all the good pencil sharpeners?

Just whining.

I've not had a good pencil sharpening experience in years, and good pencil sharpeners used to be everywhere. Is everyone completely sold out to "engineering" and "efficiency?"

I wonder where I've sold out.

04 February, 2010


I don't read Nahum very often. I don't know anyone who does. There's that one little line, "Behold on the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news," but Isaiah said it first and that little bit more beautifully.

And come on, what's Nahum really got to say, anyway. Hey! Nineveh! God used you to scourge Israel, but you shouldn't have taken such pleasure in the job. Now you're going to pay worse than you made Israel pay.

It's not the world's most inspirational message. So, why's it there? Why would I say it's there in light of my new thoughts about scripture? Care to take a guess?

It's only 3 chapters, so why don't you give it a little look?

Here're some thoughts to entertain as you read it.

The Ninevites are the children of the folk who heard Jonah and repented.

The Lord opens this book by describing Himself, and never quits. He's defining Himself to His enemies.

In between describing Himself and the things He will do to His enemies, He describes some pretty clear things He'll do for His own people.

He tells them how to wait for Him.

And He makes a great point of making sure Nineveh understands that it's for violence everywhere they are judged.

This is Jesus speaking. There is no difference between the voice of Yahweh here and the voice of Jesus in 2nd Thessalonians or the Revelation.

And speaking of the Revelation, what we see Jesus claim in Nahum is more than passingly similar to what He claims is coming at the end of time.

So paint the picture in your mind. Think of it as a movie, and Nahum happens at about the 1/3 point. In an old time sheriff movie, you might see John Wayne deal with some petty criminal early on. That's significant. You know when the climax of the story arrives the standard he's set. You know that sheriff. You know whether he's kind or cruel, brutal or lax, consistent or creative.

As you read Nahum's pre-history, don't expect to read a roadmap of what God will do. Expect to meet God dressed for vengance and coming to relieve His people of their punishment. Not everything I read in this book sits well with me, but it's all true. It's Who He IS.

24 January, 2010

A Perfect Circle

When I was a kid, I tried really hard to draw circles. I imagined a circle was a line that bent around smoothly until it met back up with itself. I could draw a perfect circle if I could just bend the line around at exactly the same rate until the end met back up with the beginning. I got pretty good at it even.

And then I took geometry. Did you know a circle is the collection of all points the same distance from a center? That's a completely different way of looking at this shape. A circle is no longer a bendy line over which I have to sweat to make sure it bends just right. Give me a compass setting and as long as I know where the center is, I can fill in little bits of the circle anywhere I want to. They'll always meet up. Understanding "center" makes circles very easy.

It can be hard to tell the difference between freehand and compass-drawn circles, though. They're both just round lines.

Seeing the bible as a novel rather than a theology feels the same. My new conclusions look the same as the old ones. I'm relieved to feel a little surer my theology is round, but I doubt I'm really going to believe much differently. The joy comes when I feel a passage's impact before I categorize it, when I can tell where it fits in the narrative before I think about which theological team might claim it as a proof-text.

Take this earth-shattering promise from Isaiah:
Isa 54:8-10
With a little wrath I hid My face from you for a moment; But with everlasting kindness I will have mercy on you," Says the LORD, your Redeemer. For this [is] like the waters of Noah to Me; For as I have sworn That the waters of Noah would no longer cover the earth, So have I sworn That I would not be angry with you, nor rebuke you. For the mountains shall depart And the hills be removed, But My kindness shall not depart from you, Nor shall My covenant of peace be removed," Says the LORD, who has mercy on you.

This is staggering.

Matthew Henry responds to it like this:
He will not be so angry with them as to cast them off and break his covenant with them (Ps. 89:34), nor rebuke them as he has rebuked the heathen, to destroy them, and put out their name for ever and ever, Ps. 9:5.

Jamison, Fausset, and Brown have this to say:
I am about to do the same in this instance as in Noah's flood. As I swore then that it should not return ( Gen 8:21 9:11 ), and I kept that promise, so I swear now to My people, and will perform My promise, that there shall be no return of the deluge of My wrath upon them. LOWTH, on insufficient authority, reads (the same will I do now as), "in the days of Noah."

Those statements don't sound staggering to me, and that's a problem. They sound correct, but this is a staggering moment in scripture. If you look at this as just another promise about God restraining His wrath or as a prophecy of the end times or as a commentary on God's free will trumping man's free will, it ends up sounding like the 4th line of a 12 line geometry proof. It might be critical, but it sure ain't compelling.

If I were to provide Cliff Notes for this passage, to comment on it as a part of the ongoing story of God's self-unveiling, it'd sound more like this:

What just happened!?

We've known this God for a couple thousand years now, and suddenly He changes all the rules? Yahweh made Eden perfect, then cast out the man who ruined it. He destroyed every living thing when the men He'd cast out of Eden corrupted the rest of His Earth. He flooded it all out. Gone. He only narrowly decided to gamble on His creation one more time and spared Noah. He did vow He'd see this second chance through to the end, but not before He'd shown us His driving obsession with perfection.

We saw it again when He brought His people out of Egypt, then killed all but Joshua, Caleb and their families in the desert. And again when He established a nation, then brought the Assyrians to sweep most of them away. And according to Isaiah, the Babylonians were coming to sweep the rest away soon. Yahweh is not afraid to be angry. He's not afraid to sweep everything away and start over fresh. He's unafraid to fail, but utterly incapable of settling for second best.

And with this one promise He closed the door on Himself.

In this promise He did nothing less than monkey-trap Himself. He promised to hold on to Israel, without ever letting go and without any conditions. All His previous promises had conditions. We spent hundreds of pages learning this about Him. He's a cagey God Who promises the moon to those who meet His conditions, but Who curses the man who tramples on His promises just as enthusiastically.

What's He got up His sleeve?

Who is this Yahweh that He can dare us to disbelieve Him this way?

I want to ask the perfect question of this verse, but I can't, and I hope you won't expect it of me. But there's something at the edge of my mind. What is He planning? Is He excited? Does He feel anything like that rush of adrenaline I feel when I double-down on a bet and put my house up as collateral? Is He showing something like the smug glee of a magician flamboyantly reaching down into his hat when he knows the rabbit's up his sleeve the whole time? Or do we see the confidence of a skilled craftsman turning a lump of gold into a pomegranate?

But who cares if I don't know the perfect question. I'm in awe. God reveals Himself in a new light here.

There are so many layers of mystery in this passage. So far I've only looked at the surface! Remember that it was Jesus Who led Israel out of Egypt, and Yahweh Who walked on Earth. God never changes, only our understanding of Him. There's only one God yesterday, today and forever. The great and mysterious revelation of Isaiah 54 is consistent with Yahweh's wrath at Israel all those generations before and consistent with the mercy of God in Christ. Paul's God of propitiation, sanctification, and manifestation is unchanged from Job's God of fearful trials and burning correction.

No matter what I see in God at any point in scripture, it's there in Him at every point of scripture. That He would leave so many generations to live and die with so little insight into His sacrificial mercy is yet another powerful insight into His nature. He is comfortable with Who He IS, even when we misunderstand Him. He feels no need to explain Himself to anyone. If Jonah mistakes Him for some local god, only powerful in the region of Canaan, and seeks to flee to Tarshish, Yahweh does not lecture him on the true scope of His power. He simply tells Jonah what he needs to know and do, and places him back on the path to Nineveh.

Does the magnificence of God's self-confidence not strike you? Does it not impact you that He promised Israel never to rebuke them again? And does it not floor you that He never made that promise before?!

Do you want to dilute that feeling, or dry it up like a tangerine baked in the desert? Try to solve the mysteries of the millenial kingdom with this verse. Or look for some root principle of sovereign grace that's been eluding you. Talk about all the things God does and will do, instead of Who He IS. The beauty of even the best well-formed proof cannot compare to majesty of God Himself pulling back the curtain and letting us get to know Him.

As I've read through the Old Testament, my ears have been slowing down. The rhythm of my reading is changing. I was raised on critical half-verse proof-texts, but I'm finding the value of whole chapters and books. God gave us a Bible rich with verses that prove nothing, and I've always wondered why. Why bog us down with so much trivia?

I'm starting to believe He's given us all those long passages for the same reason parents talk in front of their babies so much. A lot of it's over our heads, but we hang on His every word. We get to know our Father in heaven by listening to Levitius and Chronicles and Zechariah. We absorb His words and see generations of His acts, and are made ready to talk to Him. I've done my time indexing the exciting verses and ignoring the "unimportant" ones, and maybe now I'm done with it. We'll see.

And when I'm done drawing Isaiah 54 my way, what I have before me is a circle. It looks round to me, but I just don't really know. Does it look round to anyone else? I don't know. I don't think God cares how round it is any more than I cared if my babies said, "Dada," all wrong, but I'd like to be drawing my circle from a true center.

Right now, I am revelling in looking at the Bible in this new way. I feel like a kid rereading books 1-6 of the Harry Potter series for the 4th time and waiting anxiously for that 7th book. There's so much we know know about Yahweh that Abraham only felt. There was so much revealed in Christ that David only suspect due to his own calling and character. It's amazing to think about David succeeding at things because God knew one day He'd succeed at those things Himself. God gave David's victories to foreshadow His own, to unveil Himself.

And it's amazing to know there's yet more to be revealed. As much as was revealed in Jesus' first coming, there's a tome about to be written. The plot of God's novel only seems simple if you ignore the complications of His long-awaited return, Israel's restoration, the holiness of His Name before His enemies, the full realization of His kingdom, judgement and so many other themes.

I'm still unsure how many ways there are to profit by the Bible, but I'm loving this new way.

22 January, 2010

The Sound of One Bible

What is the sound of reading the bible as a novel instead of as a complex key to the universe?

Is it not the sound of a wall on which a thousand heads have quit banging?

HT: Larry Wall

18 January, 2010

Deity Development

Peter Bodo doing an analysis of Andre Agassi's autobiography said,
This is an extraordinary book on a number of levels, starting with the fact that it reads like fiction. In a good novel, the characters reveal themselves; what you need to know about them is conveyed in their actions and words, without a lot of explanation by the author. Andre's book takes the same tack.

All sorts of things fell into place when I read that quote.

Novels are about getting into the skin of the protagonist, without necessarily even knowing it happened. The protagonist makes a decision, and you know why without being told. You smell the things she smells or do the things he does, and you know exactly what you were feeling while you were there. You don't have to be told about yourself and you don't have to be told what the protagonist is thinking.

I wonder if maybe God hasn't written a textbook, a history, or a theology. Yahweh's given us a novel. And He's the Protagonist!

The many things this means are just beginning to open up to me. Do you want an example? The Bible cannot be Googled. Take Hamlet for example. You can google up great quotes from Hamlet and you can pull up Cliff Notes on it, but you can only experience Hamlet by riding the ride. You've got to strap yourself in and slowly go mad with unrequited jealousy to "get" Hamlet. Google might tell you what you'll feel, but you'll never feel it on Google.

My favorite Bible search engine accidentally insulates me from the Bible!

And theology? It takes on the same role as any other form of critique. It can elevate my opinion of the story, but not my experience of it. I can only know God by experiencing Him.

And that lines up well with my experience of life with this God. There've been no seatbelts on my life, no guardrails at the cliffs, and no way to take His foot off my gas pedal. I don't know which of us has been crazier at some points. I only know He's kept all the promises He made and broken every one my Sunday School teacher made for Him.

This life has been hard.

And so has His book.

I've known the Bible since I was a tiny bugger. There are a lot of men and women who know it a far sight better than me, but I've known it! Those Sunday School teachers told me it was a roadmap that would take me safely to heaven. They told me it'd keep me out of the ditches. Upside down at the bottom of some cliff, though, I couldn't help but wonder from which ditch I'd been saved, and whether I mightn't have been better off with Google Maps.

But what if the Bible really is a novel, and not a roadmap to all places theological and moral? If that were true, then I'd need to ride it more than study it. If it were a novel, then I'd have a chance to enter into what it is for God to be God. I'd know Him, and maybe even His Son Whom He sent.

At the beginning of the novel, I'd form initial impressions of God. Then some twists would come, and I'd learn more from how He reacted. I'd learn from both His tone of voice and His actions. Then there'd be some surprises and outright shocks. Eventually, I'd decide how to relate to this God. I'd enter into His story, or I'd reject it. I'd be feeling what He feels, or I'd be bored.

To call this increasing flavor for God, "character development," seems a little profane, but that's what it is. God is slowly unrolling His character to us in scripture. I'm going to call the process, "Divinity Development." From before the first word of creation until after the last prophecy is fulfilled, Yahweh IS but our sight of Him changes with every word.

I'll try to give a flavor of the way the Bible reads in my next post.

09 January, 2010

What you do with good ol' boys like me?

I've shared this before, but I had new thoughts about it today:
...but I was smart
and I could choose
learn to talk like the man on the 6 o'clock news
When I was 18 I hit the road
but it really dudn't matta how fa' I go'd ...

The singer crawled his way out of his backwoods heritage, and made something of himself - only to find his changes didn't change him a bit. He wanted to be something, something special, something worthy of respect. In the end he says ...

I can still hear the soft Southern wind in the live oak trees
and those Williams boys they still mean a lot to me, Hank and Tennessee
I guess we're all gonna be what we're gonna be
But whadya do with good ol' boys like me?

I've resonated with that song all my life. I grew up hick and always will be. I rose to soldiering and then to mechanicing and then to white collar success as a programmer, and I did it in a lot the same way. I listened and watched and Googled my way to grasping things that were above me.

I tried to do the same thing with God.

I figured out how to talk like the man in the pulpit and on the radio and in the books and on the blogs. I can define the Trinity just like Matthew McMahon and actually understand what I'm saying. It feels almost like being someone.

But I still hear the soft wind of real life. I'm not really that man. I'm me. And I wonder what God does with merely human men like me.

I wonder if maybe God didn't wire me never to understand the Trinity. I wonder if maybe perichoresis is *supposed* to be beyond me. But I think being me is maybe within my grasp. I'm supposed to be transformed, but transformed into simple old me with Christ and without sin. I'm not a hero. God is the Hero.

Life may be as simple as loving the people I love, richly.

I vaguely see an outline of a new life in which the old man of my theology is dead. I've been hungry for him to die for a long, long time, but I think maybe I'm beginning to see scriptural evidence God doesn't care much for that man to live either. And I need scriptural reassurance to make such a big change.

It's all well and good for people to applaud populist rants like this one, but I need good theoretical underpinning for releasing my theoretical underpinnings. Go ahead and laugh, but it's the truth. I need to feel assured solid theology says solid theology is unnecessary. And I need to check three time to make sure I haven't checked three times to see whether I turned off the iron, too. The only way I know to get over OCD is exercise constant vigilance. :-)

I may blog about this from time to time. If I do, I think I'll call it Divinity Development.

God IS

Codependency is tremendously misunderstood. It's thought of as enabling addiction, but that's only codependency's shirttail. If you dig a little deeper, you find something much more complex and harder to nail down.

Codependency is understanding yourself through the eyes of another. In the classic case, it's a wife measuring her worth through her husband's eyes. When he sees her rescuing him from his drunken blunders he sees her as an angel, and on the strength of his worship she can continue with him for years. Of course, when he sees her as a conniving shrew, she shrivels and dies.

Codependency festers in hundreds of avant-garde hidey-holes, too. It's the man who whithers when his boss misunderstands one of his decisions. It's the child who crumples when she gets a B in advanced calc. It's the alcoholic who swells with hope when his wife reminds him how she still sees him sometimes.

Codependency is the engine of failure. There's no success in codependency because we can't control how other people see us. When they see us better than we are, we're set up for the failure pride brings. When they see us worse than we are, we're bled dry of the hope we need to take the hard steps each day demands.

It amazed me to realize God IS.

God's knowledge of Himself is accurate and complete. If I despair and vent my exasperation on Him, He realizes He is faithful. If I "feel lucky" and swell with assurance He's going to work some miracle for me, He knows He's the God He is, not the One I wish He were.

There's a quiet manipulation we all work on each other. We praise and correct each other to shape the way we're treated. God is not shaped by our praises and corrections. God IS. Amazingly, neither does God manipulate us. He very directly tells us Who He is, and whom He is willing to make us. He tells us what we can do for ourselves and what we can do for Him.

God IS, and that makes relating to Him the simplest thing we'll ever do ... once we figure out how to relate to such confidence.