Needing and Needling: The Challenge to Find Good Christian Community

Authentic Christian community is hard to find. It’s even harder to create. The biggest challenge, perhaps, is to sustain it once we’ve found it. But the search is well worth the effort. Having made the rounds in all kinds of churches, fellowships, small groups, and denominations, I can assure you, it’s out there. Where and with whom might surprise you, but it’s out there—a place where the “one anothers” of Scripture are practiced, and edification takes place on a regular basis. Even when it’s hard. Even when it’s electronic or digital. True connection can transcend physical proximity. Where it often struggles to succeed is in transcending human nature.

ischope001p1

Arthur Schopenhauer’s well-known fable comes to mind—the one where two porcupines find themselves in a serious dilemma. On the one hand, the creatures need each other, so they huddle up to keep warm in the winter. On the other hand, they needle each other while they’re together, so they have to separate to avoid the pain of getting poked by each other’s quills. The cycle repeats and never ends.

We’ve all been there, haven’t we? I’ve been punctured by plenty of needles over the years, and I’m sure I’ve done my own share of puncturing. I forgive the former and lament the latter. In fact, the latter is sometimes harder for those who have a tender conscience. It’s easy to feel pain when you know you’ve caused pain. (Guilt is a worthwhile subject for another post, as is the common human ailment of hurting other people because we ourselves have been hurt somewhere back on the timeline of life.)

Here’s the perennial problem of human intimacy and fellowship: Can the individuality we display permit the closeness that our interdependence demands? Said another way, can we truly master the delicate balance of the guardedness we need for self-protection and the vulnerability we need for deep connection?

And the answer is not without grace.

Only grace can mitigate the endless cycle of needing and needling each other. Love covers a multitude of pokes. And grace says, “Let’s try this again” after a relational collapse. But grace can be its own thorn, too. According to Jesus, divine grace especially pierces the self-righteous.

Can the individuality we display permit the closeness that our interdependence demands? Not without grace.

Just ask the older brother in Luke 15. Or the religious bureaucrat in Luke 18. Or Simon the Pharisee in Luke 7, whose spiritual debt was a whopping 450 denarii less than the sinful woman’s debt—yet Jesus said he couldn’t pay his bill, either, so he forgave them both. (How humbling it must be to find yourself in bankruptcy court needing the protections of Chapter 11 when you thought you were so rich!)

Jesus’ grace toward the sinful woman was a thorn to Simon. But the forgiven woman now had more to offer her community. She had more love (cf. Luke 7:47), without which community cannot survive. It’s not the broken who destroy community. It’s the self-righteous, high-minded religious police who do that. That’s why bars often feature a better community feel than churches. Folks get real and raw with one another in an atmosphere of authenticity, even if they have to communicate between hiccups.

It’s not the broken who destroy community. It’s the self-righteous, high-minded religious police who do that.

Few people have done more reflective work on the subject of Christian community than Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Here are some gems from his book, Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Christian Community.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Wherever you are in the needing-needling cycle, may these words help you find, create, and sustain authentic Christian community.

•  “Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest, and sacrificial.”

•  “God hates this wishful dreaming because it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. Those who dream of this idealized community demand that it be fulfilled by God, by others, and by themselves. They enter the community of Christians with their demands, set up their own law, and judge one another and even God accordingly.”

•  “Because God has united us in one body with other Christians in Jesus Christ long before we entered into common life with them, we enter into that life together with other Christians, not as those who make demands, but as those who thankfully receive. . . . We do not complain about what God does not give us; rather we are thankful for what God does give us daily.”

•  “Will not the very moment of great disillusionment with my brother or sister be incomparably wholesome for me because it so thoroughly teaches us that both of us can never live by our own words and deeds, but only by that one Word and deed that really binds us together, the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ? The bright day of Christian community dawns wherever the early morning mists of dreamy visions are lifting.”

•  “The Christian community has not been given to us by God for us to be continually taking its temperature. The more thankfully we daily receive what is given to us, the more assuredly and consistently will community increase and grow from day to day as God pleases.”

•  “Let him who cannot be alone beware of community. . . . Let him who is not in community beware of being alone. . . . Each by itself has profound perils and pitfalls. One who wants fellowship without solitude plunges into the void of words and feelings, and the one who seeks solitude without fellowship perishes in the abyss of vanity, self-infatuation and despair.”

•  “There is a kind of listening with half an ear that presumes already to know what the other person has to say. It is an impatient, inattentive listening, that despises the brother and is only waiting for a chance to speak and thus get rid of the other person. This is no fulfillment of our obligation, and it is certain that here too our attitude toward our brother only reflects our relationship to God.”

•  “I can no longer condemn or hate a brother for whom I pray, no matter how much trouble he causes me.”

•  “Self-centered love loves the other for the sake of itself; spiritual love loves the other for the sake of Christ.”

When it comes to community, are we better at the “needing” or the “needling”? Will we choose the coldness that comes with isolation or the puncture that comes with interaction? Or might there be a third way—the way of Christ? The way of grace?

Image Credit: Barcroft Media.

Getting Things Done: Some of My Favorite Tools

All writers, researchers, educators, bloggers, and podcasters need to have good tools for the digital journey. (The “J” in my INTJ combo means that I really need to have some good tools in my belt—especially those of the organizing variety!) I’m exceedingly grateful that I do have a collection of wonderful resources to help me get things done. Below is a list some of my favorites.

The newest addition is an electronic adjustable standing desk for my home office. I love its flexibility and durability. Here’s a picture of it before I tucked the wires.

My only irritation with the setup is a literal irritation in my eyeballs. The amount of time I spend on Zoom these days (because of COVID-19) makes my eyes tired and bleary by the end of the day. So far, no headaches, but I do need to consult with my eye doctor about possible solutions. Can you tell I’ve “had it” here in this Zoom capture at my work office?

I need to stop wincing. It makes me look like I have wrinkles. 🙂 Anyway, here’s the list. Asterisks indicate my favorite productivity sites and apps. Feedly gets two asterisks because it’s beyond awesome. (No, they didn’t pay me to say that!)

Hardware

  • Apple MacBook Pro 16” (2019)
  • Apple MacBook Pro 15” (2015)
  • Apple Thunderbolt Display 27”
  • Apple Extended Bluetooth Keyboard
  • iPad Pro (2018) with Detachable Keyboard
  • HP OfficeJet 8740 Printer, Scanner, Copier, Fax
  • iPhone 7

Home Workstation

  • L-Shaped Ikea Desk Area
  • Electronic Adjustable Standing Desk
  • Lume Light Cubes
  • Sony Bluetooth Headphones

Office Workstation

  • Large Desk & Credenza
  • Personal Library Shelves
  • Brother HL-3070CW Laser Printer
  • Internet-Wifi Hub

Software Suites

  • MS Office (Word, PowerPoint, Excel, OneNote, 365)
  • Apple (Mail, Calendar, Contacts, Notes, Reminders, Messages, FaceTime, iCloud)

Software

  • Safari (Browser)
  • Chrome (Backup Browser)
  • Start.me (Start Page and Bookmark Library) *
  • Feedly (RSS Feed Reading and Tagging) * *
  • WordPress (Personal Website and Blogging) *
  • Pocket (Webpage Storage and Tagging) *
  • WavePad (Audio Editing)
  • Moneydance (Personal Finances)
  • Logos Bibe Software (Biblical-Theological Studies) *
  • Canvas (Educational Learning Platform)
  • Zoom (Teleconferencing)

Streaming

  • Netflix
  • Amazon Prime
  • Roku

Music, Radio, Podcasts

  • iTunes 
  • Spotify
  • iHeart Radio
  • Downcast
  • YouTube

Health & Fitness

  • FitBit Versa 2

What are some of your favorite tools? 

After the dissertation, the plan is to renovate the basement and turn it into a sizable home library, research center, and podcast studio.

Image Credit: challies.com.

‘Beauty and the Beast’ on Broadway (and the Bible)

“The show was dazzling and majestic in every way imaginable. The score, the voices, the lights, the scenery, the costumes, the special effects, and the sheer creativity of it all were unlike anything I’ve ever seen in a live performance. Can the stage get any better than this? With the exception of a few secondary cast members, this was as close to theatrical perfection as one can get. Love wins in the end. The curse is lifted from the castle, and happily we’re ever aftering.”


Such was my impression after seeing Broadway’s version of Beauty and the Beast about a decade ago. Superlatives failed to capture the excellence of the production and the inspiration of the moment. But what struck me most—again—was the prominence of biblical themes contained in a secular work, and the resolution of the foundational human dilemma in ways that come close to what the Bible indicates happened in Christ. These kinds of correspondences in literature are never exact, but they often come strikingly close to the biblical narrative. 

Literary Synchronisms

I see these kinds of correspondences quite often, and sometimes it gets me into trouble. When my kids were young, they laughed at me mercilessly while I sobbed my way through Finding Nemo. But I teared up because that silly cartoon is the compelling story of a loving father who will stop at nothing to find his lost son and return him safely home. Sounds a lot like Luke 15 to me, and if Disney is the one to show it to me better than the preacher, who am I to object? We believers don’t need to get nervous at such an admission, for surely the grace of God cannot be upstaged by a cartoon, even if a preacher’s sermon can be.

But here’s the question that intrigues me: How did the unbelieving author of Finding Nemo—who rejects Luke 15 as being authoritative—wind up writing his own version of it? From our theological perspective, the answer goes something like this: What fallen humanity yearns for most, as reflected in our stories, literature, poetry, and music, God has provided for us in Jesus Christ, his only Son, and it’s only spiritual blindness that prevents us from seeing it. Alas, too often we prefer our own stories to God’s, so we write him out of the script. Or so we think.

The fact is, we may go off and draft our own stories without God, but we still write as people made in the image of God, even if we refuse to acknowledge the fact. But denying God doesn’t erase the image of God inside the denier, which means, of course, that we can’t even be good skeptics without God’s help. The clenched fist we wave in his face is from the hand he gave us in the first place. Ditto the minds he gave us—with which we pen our stories. 

Writing through Rebels

The basic plot of Beauty and the Beast is well known. A curse renders the young prince and his whole castle disfigured, jaded, unkind, and less than human. But there’s an intense longing by these distorted people to have the curse reversed and become “normal” again. Significantly, the rules of the game in this fictional world insist that only a true and sacrificial love can serve as the means by which the curse is lifted and restoration can take place. As is the case in all fairy tales, this true and sacrificial love is finally realized, along with the happy resolution to which the whole plot moves. There’s even a song called “Human Again,” which talks about being reborn. Reborn? Where does that language come from?

I see this so often in good literature that I have to recognize something bigger is going on here than meets the eye. Is it possible that God can witness to himself even on Broadway during a musical production based on a fairy tale—or at least prepare people’s hearts for eventually hearing his own version of the Story? Is it possible for a believer like me to actually worship God in the theater during such a play? 

Well, I did, right there in Seat J-9 of the center section. And I worshipped because of what I’m convinced is true of the irreligious authors who wrote this show, and is true of me, too: When fallen people reject God’s story and run off to write their own, they wind up writing God’s story anyway, even if they do mangle the script a bit. Image bearers write after their own image. Broken image bearers miss the target, even if they’re firing the right arrows.

Now, that should cause us to ponder the greatness of God. Has the Almighty really made us in such a way that even our rebellion can serve to providentially boomerang us back to himself? Luke 15 would seem to suggest so. Every time that smelly pig rubbed its muddy snout against the prodigal son’s leg, it was actually pushing the boy closer to home, where a gracious father stood ready to throw a feast upon his return.

The Original Storyteller

Such a God would indeed be awesome and worthy of our worship. And such a God would vindicate Qoheleth (the Teacher) who wrote, “God has set eternity in the heart” (Eccl 3:11b). In other words, wherever we go, there we are, imago Dei and all. Surely, we can never find our way back to God’s Narrative without divine assistance, but we can yearn in the right direction for the inconceivably good climax he’s already penned. Indeed, it’s precisely because we’re made in his image that we can write something approximating his script. But because we’re also fallen, we can never get it exactly right. We need a critic or an editor who knows the original storyline to help us get it right. The prophets are God’s critics, and the priests are God’s editors. We need their voices because we tend to botch the story without them. But the underlying truth is that we as human beings tell stories because God is the original Storyteller.

Our stories, then, consist of faded glory yearning for Eden, and the implications for outreach are profound. Maybe God is greater than we had ever imagined, and maybe the gospel is far better news than we had ever thought. Should we not be more hopeful, knowing that God is always at work? (Cf. John 5:17.) Should we not love people more, even unbelievers who don’t agree with our theology? They do have a theology; it’s just not complete yet. The boomerang hasn’t come all the way back yet to the hand that threw it. Patience is required. So is perseverance.

Lost and Found

That’s why we share the gospel in places we think it might not prevail. The Parable of the Sower teaches, among other things, the need for liberality (to the point of carelessness) in spreading the Word. Why? Because good soil—life-sustaining soil—can be found in some pretty surprising places. The cracks in my driveway bear witness to that. Surely the hearts of many in our day have been paved over by the cares of this world, but there are many cracks out there desperately waiting to be seeded.

For the most part, Jesus called people who were far from God “lost,” which invites genuine compassion, not self-righteous condemnation. To be lost implies the possibility of being found, and this dynamic is a universal tug of the heart. Miners trapped in a shaft. Hikers buried beneath an avalanche of snow. Children plunged to the bottom of an uncovered well. Astronauts locked inside a hobbled space craft. We want them back. We want them to be rescued. We want a happy ending to the story. And we want a savior who can make it happen. We want a champion who will set things right again. Such yearnings and resolutions are ubiquitous in literature.

  • Snow White
  • Sleeping Beauty
  • The Little Mermaid
  • The Wizard of Oz
  • Phantom of the Opera
  • Lord of the Rings
  • The Chronicles of Narnia
  • Dorian Gray
  • Rigaletto
  • Beowulf
  • Beauty and the Beast

Lifting the Curse

In Beauty and the Beast, all the members of the castle staff are under a spell that renders them less than human. They’ve all become “things”— household objects, dishes, kitchenware, furniture, and the like. They’ve been objectified and dehumanized, and they’re demoralized because of it. But word is out that someone has come to the castle who might be able to break the spell. They long for that moment. And as they see their day of redemption coming, they burst into jubilant song:

Human again! Think of what that means!
We’ll be dancing again, we’ll be twirling again
We’ll be whirling around with such ease
When we’re human again, only human again

We’ll go waltzing those old one-two-threes
We’ll be floating again, we’ll be gliding again
Stepping, striding as fine as you please
Like a real human does, I’ll be all that I was

On the glorious morn, when we’re finally re-born
And we’re—all of us—human again

Re-born? That’s our word. A Christian word. A Jesus word (John 3:3). And to that I can only say, God is beautifully sneaky. He’ll give a whole theatre audience an echo of his gospel in a dazzling, captivating production. It’s not the gospel, but it’s a half-decent echo of the gospel. Are we listening? God is always speaking. History (“his story”) is the stage. We might mess up our lines from time to time, but the playwright gets his way in the end. So, the tales are true after all. The God of Scripture is the God who lifts curses, turning beasts into humans, even today. 

Tale as old as time
Song as old as rhyme
Beauty and the Beast

The True Myth

The gospel according to Broadway. They almost get it right, but they’re far enough away from it to be dangerous. That’s why they need a prophet and a priest to connect the dots and finish the story. Christ is the beauty, and I am the beast. The spiritual spell I’m under needs to be broken, and by the sacrificial love of Christ crucified, it is. Moreover, by his resurrection from the dead, the curse is finally lifted, and I can be reborn.

C. S. Lewis was on to something when he considered the possibility that all our stories, myths, and aspirations down through history came to fullest expression in the actual Christ of history. (And for that insight, we have J. R. R. Tolkien to thank; see below.)

If that’s the case, then let the Church continue to sing—on behalf of others as well as herself—“Come, Desire of nations come, fix in us thy humble home.”


VIDEO: “Lewis and Tolkien Debate Myths and Lies” on Addison’s Walk, a footpath around a small island in the River Cherwell on the grounds of Magdalen College, Oxford, England. I watched this video clip on my phone while walking the same path in the spring of 2019. Knowing the far-reaching impact this conversation has had, I prayed a simple prayer of thanksgiving—through tears, of course—for the lives of these two men.

Image Credits: wall.alphacoders.com.

Trinity and Church: Unity and Diversity on Mission Together

The Holy Trinity is not a math puzzle (1 + 1 + 1 = 1), it’s a clue to the relational heart of the universe. That clue is precious to believers because the prime reality of existence is not matter. It’s not energy. It’s not quarks. It’s a divine relationship. Specifically, it’s an eternal reciprocating relationship of personal diversity and unbreakable unity. As the well-known hymn puts it, “God in three Persons, blessed Trinity.”

In polytheism, there are many gods and many persons (or personalities), but they all have different wills. Sometimes those wills are in competition with each other. Sometimes they even fight for supremacy. They have different desires and different agendas. So, in polytheism, we have a lot of diversity but no unity. It’s a loose community with hostile communication. 

On the other hand, in strict monotheism, there is only one god and only one person (or personality). In this view, from eternity past, the solitary god was all by himself until he began to create angels, humans, animals, and any other sentient beings in the seen and unseen realms. (Only after he created these other beings did he begin to have a relationship with them.) So, in strict monotheism, we have a lot of unity but no diversity. There is no community and no communication. 

The Divine Trinity

In Christian theology, of course, we do not have many gods and many persons (or personalities). We do not have one god and only one person (or personality). We have one God in three Persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. While we may struggle to understand that conceptually, we know intuitively that if that were not the case, then God is not (and cannot be) love. Twice in 1 John we read that “God is love” (1 John 4:8, 16). That can only be true if God is personal community in some way, as we cannot have shared love without more than one person. We cannot have relationship without more than one person.

The Scriptures reveal a God who is three Persons and one essence—all working together for the salvation of humanity. “For through him [Christ] we both have access to the Father by one Spirit” (Eph 2:18). It’s a conspiracy of love by the divine Trinity, whose members seek to bring unity out of the myriad and conflicted diversities of a fallen world broken by sin. 

The Divine Team

Likewise, God’s church in essence is community—a people bearing the marks of unity and diversity. The church is not simply an aggregation of people; it is ideally a tight community of love, truth, communication, and mission because that’s who God is. When people become baptized followers of Christ, they are vitally, organically, and spiritually joined to the Triune God. They are also vitally, organically, and spiritually joined to each other. Being the church, then, is simply living out the image of God corporately as the people of God. Indeed, the only way to fully experience the God who is community is to participate in his new community, the church. 

The Divine Image

The New Testament speaks of the church—the company of Christ followers down through the centuries—in a variety of ways. It is the body of Christ, the bride of Christ, the household of faith, the new creation, the royal priesthood, etc. Minear numbers these images at more than 80, and he suggests that the list swells to over 100 if each Greek word is counted separately.[1] The basic function of these images, says Minear, “is to relate the contemporary Christian generation to that historic community whose origin stemmed from God’s covenant promises.”[2]

While many theologians regard “the body of Christ” as the most important image, Küng holds that “the people of God” is primary.[3] I concur. As people are on the move in this world, so God’s people are also on the move, taking their gifts and graces into whatever situation they find themselves. They have something good to give to the world, and many good things to receive from the world as well. Indeed, the blessings of a “ministry of presence” can flow both ways—from the servant to the recipient, and from the recipient to the servant. People made in God’s image can bless each other whether they live in a state of redemptive grace or not. (Cyrus the Persian comes to mind in this regard.) As Niringiye has said: 

“Mission strategy must first and foremost be about listening to the Holy Spirit to discover what he is doing, and then in obedience following. After all, it is the Holy Spirit in whom we live and he in us. . . . [But] mission strategy should also be about listening to those among whom the Lord takes us. Philip did not only listen to the Holy Spirit; he also listened to the eunuch.”[4]

While God’s “church on the move” can be used by God for the sake of mission, her presence on earth is more than just instrumental; it is sacramental and—by necessity—communal. Believers, for example, cannot baptize themselves into the church; another believer must do that for them. Quite significantly, then, in the very act of entering the church through baptism (symbolically in some traditions, efficaciously in others), an enacted statement is made that believers are putting themselves in each other’s hands as well as Christ’s. 

What is enacted at the entry is then reinforced by “the meal of sustaining,” when believers gather together for Holy Communion. Moreover, whenever the church gathers and prays together, the prayer is directed to “our Father.” As Volf writes:

“Because the Christian God is not a lonely God, but rather a communion of three persons, faith leads human beings into the divine communion. One cannot, however, have a self-enclosed communion with the Triune God—a ‘foursome,’ as it were—for the Christian God is not a private deity. Communion with this God is at once also communion with those others who have entrusted themselves in faith to the same God. Hence one and the same act of faith places a person into a new relationship both with God and with all others who stand in communion with God.”[5]

The Divine Mandate

Together as believers—that is, the people of God “on the move” beyond the weekly worship gatherings—mission takes place. Very often it takes place among “the least of these” (Matt 25:40). In Christian theology, these “least” matter to the church because they are persons who have life. It is life given to them by God, who has graciously given his Son to all. As Gushee has said:

“Every life means every life, without exception. That includes two-month-along developing human beings in the womb, poor babies in Bangladesh, impoverished children in ghettos, abused wives and children, civilians in war zones, wounded soldiers at Walter Reed, imprisoned detainees in the war on terror, aging people in nursing homes, mentally handicapped people, people convicted of heinous crimes. Everyone.”[6]

Here, then, is the church’s mission, broadly conceived. God’s work of resurrection—of new creation—begins in a wounded world. Whatever the hereafter may hold (and we have hints in Scripture that it is going to be amazing), the here and now holds great significance, too. Jesus was fond enough of this world to linger in it forty days after his resurrection before his ascension back to the Father. During that time, he helped his friends believe in him, and he gave them strength and hope for the journey. By God’s grace, we will do the same in our day. But that will take a concerted effort at working toward internal unity and the reconciliation necessary to realize that unity.

The Divine Prayer

A unified church is a powerful witness to the truth of the gospel. In John 17:20-21, Jesus prayed to his Father that his church would be one “so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” Has Jesus’ prayer ever been answered?

Some years ago a magazine carried a series of pictures depicting a tragic story. The first picture was of a vast wheat field in western Kansas. The second showed a distressed mother sitting in a farmhouse in the center of that field. The accompanying story explained how her four-year-old son had wandered away from the house and into the field when she was not looking. The mother and father searched all day long, but the child was too short to be seen over the tall wheat stalks. 

The third picture showed dozens of friends and neighbors who heard of the boy’s plight and had joined hands the next morning to make a long human chain. Together they “combed” the field, searching intently for the lost boy. The final picture was of a heartbroken father holding his lifeless son who was found too late, having just died of exposure. The caption underneath read, “O God, if only we had joined hands sooner.”

Jesus continues to intercede for his church (Heb 7:25). I suspect he prays especially for our hands.

Image Credits: shutterstock.com; pexels.com.


[1] Paul S. Minear, Images of the Church in the New Testament (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), 28.

[2] Ibid., 67.

[3] Hans Küng, The Church, Ray and Rosaleen Oekenden, trans. (London: Burns and Oates, 1967), 119-20.

[4] David Zac Niringiye, The Church: God’s Pilgrim People (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2015), 144.

[5] Miroslav Volf, After Our Likeness: The Church as the Image of the Trinity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 173.

[6] David Gushee, “Opinion: Retrieving a Consistent Pro-Life Ethic,” Associated Baptist Press (March 6, 2007).

Weekly Fun with My Beloved Son

Today’s morning brew is Cosata Rican. It’s a full bodied yet mellow blend given to us by a friend. I’m deviating from the norm today because I was up late last night watching The Avengers with my son, and I can use the extra jolt. Nearly every Friday we get together for dinner and a fun flick. 

Right now we’re making our way through the Marvel comic series in order of release date. So far we’ve watched Iron Man (2008), The Incredible Hulk (2008), Iron Man 2 (2010), Thor (2011), Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), and The Avengers (2012). 

There are many more films in the series, so we’ll be living our “Fantasy Fridays” for months to come. That’s not a problem since the Saturday morning coffee is good. Besides, it’s always a joy to spend time with him. He’s still “my beloved son in whom I am well pleased.”

Image Credit: moviedwall.com.

Infinite Grace for a Finite Number of Tears

You have kept track of my every toss and turn;
You have collected my tears in your wineskin.
You have recorded each one in your ledger.
Psalm 56:8 

Easter Surprise

Many more tears will wash my face,
But each one a promise that God is mine;
For only the breakable heart can break,
And show forth the gold of image divine.

Love is exalted in grief-stained loss,
And hope brought near to vanquish the pain;
In weakness a Lamb has led the assault
On darkness of soul to Paradise gained.

Dreaming of Eden, longing for home,
Screaming for comfort and striving alone.
Then in breaks the angel of Easter surprise,
And suffering must kneel at the Savior’s throne.

Heroes indeed are my wisest friends
Who embrace their wounds as sovereignty’s call;
Fighting for courage when the mind is bent
By bitter trials where God seems small.

Yet true faith is strong, a resilient force,
Which anguish of soul lacks power to kill;
On earth, even now, every scar and thorn
Is scoffed by a Tomb lying empty still.

Dreaming of Eden, longing for home,
Screaming for comfort and striving alone.
Then in breaks the angel of Easter surprise,
And suffering must grieve at the Savior’s throne.

Soon we’ll see Him face to face.
Soon we’ll we understand the grace
That led us on a path of loss—
A path that vindicates our cross.

Dreaming of Eden, longing for home,
Screaming for comfort and striving alone.
Then in breaks the angel of Easter surprise,
And suffering must die at the Savior’s throne.

Many more tears will wash my face,
But numbered tears only can have their place.
Numbered tears only can have their place.

An Exegetical Note

Psalm 56:8 presents a translational challenge in the original Hebrew. My own resolution to the difficulty is as follows:

v. 8a

“You have kept count of my tossings (nôḏ)” = (1) moving back and forth, wandering, as of an aimless fugitive; or (2) lamenting, mourning. The first sense yields the translation “my tossings” (ESV, NRSV) and “my wanderings” (NASB); the second sense yields the translation “my sorrows” (JB, NLT) or “my lament” (NIV). Both senses can fit the larger context of Psalm 56, though the first seems more likely

v. 8b

List (śîm) my tears on your scroll (nōʾḏ)” = set, put, place, install; set down, arrange. But where are the tears “placed” or “set down”? The word nōʾḏ usually refers to a leather bottle (i.e., a wineskin or waterskin), hence the NIV footnote and other translations: “Put (śîm) my tears in your wineskin (nōʾḏ).” But some have suggested that in this occurrence, nōʾḏ should be translated “scroll” or “leather scroll” because: (1) there is a documentation/record keeping motif in the three lines of this verse, with the word “scroll” being a corresponding element to the word “book” in the next line of the parallelism; and (2) there is no record from the ancient biblical world of a practice of keeping tears in a bottle.

To these objections one could reply: (1) the word nōʾḏ is translated as “scroll” nowhere else in the Old Testament; (2) there is a poetic quality to the image of “tears in a bottle” that would need no literal attestation for it to be valid; (3) recording tears on a scroll would be just as poetic as putting tears in a bottle—“tears” being a metonymy for all kinds of negative personal thoughts and feelings that God records; indeed, tears are poetically “in the book/record” in the next line of the parallelism; and (4) HALOT cites a later use of “the little vase for tears mentioned in fairy-stories, Meuli Romanica Helvetica 20 (1943):763ff.”

Resolution

The psalmist is asking God to transform his situation in the first verse of the center section of the chiasm (i.e., v. 7). Might he not also be asking God to transform his thoughts and/or emotions in the second verse of the center section (i.e., v. 8)—just as liquid is transformed into wine inside a wineskin? Various translations go in this direction:

  • “Put my tears in your bottle.” (ESV)
  • “Put my tears in Your bottle.” (NASB)
  • “You have collected all my tears in your bottle.” (NLT)
  • “Collect my tears in your wineskin.” (JB)

The JB captures it well, I think, and the implications are devotionally rich. Not only does God notice his people tears, he collects them and transforms them (over time) into new wine. By trusting in God, then, life can go from salty to sweet, from fear to freedom, from anxiety to joy. David experienced these transformations firsthand. So can we.

old-wineskins

Image Credits: unity.org; charismamag.com.

Created to Create: Imagineering Our Way through Life

  • “I am imagination. I can see what the eyes cannot see. I can hear what the ears cannot hear. I can feel what the heart cannot feel.” (Peter Nivio Zarlenga)

  • “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.” (Albert Einstein)

  • “If we have learned anything else it is that the ideas of the poets and artists penetrate where everything else has failed.” (Norman Cousins)

  • “The value of the cleansed imagination in the sphere of religion lies in its power to perceive in natural things shadows of things spiritual.” (A. W. Tozer)

  • “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.” (Michelangelo)

One of the first things we learn about God in Scripture is that he is creative (Gen 1:1). He is both original and originating. Setting aside the important question of why there is something rather than nothing, the universe as an object to be observed bears the marks of order, design, artistry, and imaginativeness. Have you ever seen a giraffe up close? Or an otter? Or a platypus? Can all such oddities be chalked up to biological happenstance, or is God is the original “imagineer”? It is reasonable to conclude the latter.

Moreover, as human beings made in the image of God, we are people who can create. Don’t pass over that truth too quickly. God creates people who can create! Indeed, we often find some of our greatest fulfillment in life by creating things—songs, poems, paintings, novels, sculptures, clothing, cabinetry, etc. By cultivating our inner lives—by nurturing and living out the image of God in us—we can use our imaginations for the glory of God, leading to much personal satisfaction as a byproduct. The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis are a perfect case in point. Lewis was a gifted and effective “imagineer” for the gospel, and writing children’s stories was a great personal delight to him.

Scripture

The Bible itself bears witness to the power of the imagination:

  • The delightful description of growing older in Ecclesiastes 12
  • The curious visions of Ezekiel, Daniel, Zechariah, and John
  • The earthy parables of the kingdom by Jesus in the Gospels
  • The heartening portrayal of the New Jerusalem as a radiant bride in Revelation

The list is long. Consider the story of David and Absalom in 2 Samuel 17. David has been forced out of Jerusalem by Absalom, who now possesses his father’s throne, wives, and leadership of the army. But in the midst of his achievement, he has a problem. What should he do with his father-king who has escaped into the wilderness? Absalom solicits advice from two sources:

Ahithophel (17:1-4)

  • His advice is “left brain” (i.e., objective, precise, logical).
  • His emphasis is on information, analysis, the factual.
  • His approach is to be a conduit of information.
  • His message is “heard.”

Hushai (17:7-13)

  • His advice is right brain (i.e., subjective, affective, emotive).
  • His emphasis is on the hearer (“you” . . . “your”).
  • His approach is to be a painter of word pictures
    • “as fierce as a wild bear robbed of her cubs”
    • “whose heart is like the heart of a lion”
    • “will melt with fear”
    • “sand on the seashore”
    • “dew settles on the ground”
  • His message is “seen and felt.”

Absalom and his advisors like Ahithophel’s plan, but Absalom still wants to hear Hushai’s counsel. When Hushai is finished offering his (more imaginative) presentation, everyone regards his plan as superior to Ahithophel’s, and that is the plan they follow.

Had they followed Ahithophel’s advice, they would have routed David. Instead, David’s life is spared (17:14). This turn of events is a fulfillment of David’s prayer that God would turn Ahithophel’s counsel into foolishness (cf. 2 Sam 15:31).

Clearly, the impact of a presentation laced with imagination can be profound. Like any other capacity we have, imagination can be corrupted, but as A. W. Tozer noted (above), a cleansed imagination has much power.

Jesus

Jesus himself made use of the imaginative to communicate his message. His parables, for example, were not “Bible stories” when they were first told; they were short, simple, earthy stories invented to communicate important spiritual truths. Regarding these parables, Haddon Robinson writes, “[Jesus] didn’t read them out of a book. He made them up on the spot. He created them out of life. He used his imagination.” In other words, Jesus was not merely propositional in his teaching ministry. He was not static, flat, dull, or uninteresting. He was dynamic and pulsated with divine life. Michael Card, in his book Scribbling in the Sand: Christ and Creativity, describes the famous scene in John 8 where the woman is caught in the act of adultery, and Jesus curiously stoops down to write on the ground:

“It was art and it was theater at the same time, but it was more. It was what he did not say that spoke most powerfully to the mob that morning. It was a cup of cold water for a thirsty adulteress and an ice-cold drenching in the face to a group of angry Pharisees. To this day we have not the slightest idea what it was Jesus twice scribbled in the sand. By and large the commentaries have asked the wrong question through the ages. They labor over the content, over what he might have written. They ask what without ever realizing that the real question is why. It was not the content that mattered but why he did it. Unexpected. Irritating. Creative.”

Card goes on to suggest that Jesus’ stooping to write on the ground was his way of drawing the angry stares of the Pharisees and the nosey gawks of the crowd away from the woman and onto himself. The leers and hostility were now falling on him instead of the accused. That’s the gospel. Jesus became her substitute. It was an enacted parable of grace, verified by those climactic and memorable words, “Let he among you who is without sin cast the first stone. . . . Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.”

Wonder

This re-presentation of the text is imagination at its finest, producing a true sense of wonder in the listeners. C. S. Lewis suggested that wonder is “the echo of a song the soul has not yet heard.” That is, it is a song coming to us from the Original Singer who sang all of creation into existence.

In his book Recapture the Wonder, Ravi Zacharias writes, “Wonder is that possession of the mind that enchants the emotions while never surrendering reason. . . . It interprets life through the eyes of eternity while enjoying the moment, but never lets the momentary vision exhaust the eternal.”

Let us, then, be “wonder-full” people. Let us keep creating good and beautiful things that speak well of our Creator, in whose image we are made. Let us imagineer our way through life.

Image Credits: pexels.com; stacksnap.io; saltradioministries.com.

‘Give to Caesar’: Jesus, Politics, and Uncle Sam

It’s Election Day here in the United States, and the presidency—our nation’s highest office—is on the ballot again. This happens every four years, but the campaign never seems to end. In fact, tomorrow the presidential push for 2024 will begin anew. Few people look forward to this quadrennial spectacle, but that’s how we roll in the good ole U.S.A. The nation is severely polarized again, and many of us have grown weary of the incessant political theater. It’s in our faces every day, depending on what we allow on our screens. The OFF button is a beautiful thing.

I was voter #262 this morning at our polling place. The line was long, but the volunteers were doing an excellent job of keeping us moving. Nearly everyone in our section was showing some form of I.D. to the registrars even though it’s not legally required. We were showing it on principle—a minor protest of sorts. Many of us thought identification should be required to vote. How do they know it’s really us? That should matter not only here in the battleground state of Pennsylvania, but in every state in the union.

Some people live and breathe politics. I do not. Some people ignore the process altogether. I do not. A famous scene from the life of Jesus grants me the posture of balanced engagement from a thoughtful distance—one that’s realistic, non-Utopian, participatory, and respectful. If others wish to be more engaged, so be it. Good government requires good people. The encounter in Mark 12:13-17 reads as follows:

13 Later they sent some of the Pharisees and Herodians to Jesus to catch him in his words. 14 They came to him and said, “Teacher, we know you are a man of integrity. You aren’t swayed by men, because you pay no attention to who they are; but you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not? 15 Should we pay or shouldn’t we?” But Jesus knew their hypocrisy. “Why are you trying to trap me?” he asked. “Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.” 16 They brought the coin, and he asked them, “Whose portrait is this? And whose inscription?” “Caesar’s,” they replied. 17 Then Jesus said to them, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” And they were amazed at him. 

Here in the West, there are two things we usually don’t talk about in polite company—politics and religion. The reason for that is obvious. The subject of politics is controversial, so we tend to avoid it to keep the peace. The subject of religion is controversial, too, so we tend to avoid it for the same reason. (It’s not like this everywhere in the world, but it is here, so we go with the flow, looking for gospel opportunities whenever they might present themselves.)

Instead of talking about politics and religion at work and family gatherings, we talk about the weather, sports, hobbies, technology, pop culture, and the latest news coming out of the Kardashian family. We stay shallow so we don’t have to argue. But even more controversial than the subject of politics or religion themselves is the subject of politics and religion together. What is the proper relationship between the two? Raise that issue, and there’s a grenade ready to explode.

As it is today, so it was in the 1st century. When Mark 12 opens, Jesus is responding to a barrage of questions, and one of those questions is basically this: “Jesus, what are your politics? And how do your politics relate to your religion?” We expect an explosion, and we get one, but not the kind we might have expected. The questioners raise a specific hot button issue to smoke Jesus out politically. They’re trying to get him to come down on one side of the aisle or the other. “Jesus, are you red or blue? Are you liberal or conservative? Are you with us or with them?”

Jesus says in response (Tim’s paraphrase): “You know, guys, this isn’t my circus, and these aren’t my monkeys. And, while you’re at it, ‘Send in the clowns. Don’t bother, they’re here.’”

Well, maybe his response isn’t that derisive, but he does deal with the question obliquely—intentionally so. He has to teach them something before making a pronouncement on policy. Something more important than politics. Here are a few takeaways from the passage for me, presented in outline form:

1. Jesus rejects political SIMPLICITY.

That is, political sloganeering isn’t going to work with Jesus.

a.  Jesus is asked a “gotcha question” by strange bedfellows; it’s a clear trap rooted in the controversial head tax implemented 25 years earlier, which launched a bloody revolt led by Judas the Galilean.

b.  If Jesus says, “No, don’t pay the tax,” he would reveal himself to be a zealot, calling for an armed revolt against the state and the establishment of a new earthly kingdom.

c.  If Jesus says, “Yes, pay the tax,” he would reveal himself to be a mystic, calling for total compliance to the state and the establishment of a new (merely) spiritual kingdom.

d.  If Jesus says, “I won’t answer the question at all,” he would reveal himself to be a cynic, calling for a total abandonment of the state and the establishment of a new cloistered kingdom.

e.  Jesus doesn’t dodge the question in the end; rather, he reframes it in order to set forth a higher understanding of the kingdom of God.

2. Jesus rejects political COMPLACENCY.

That is, political abandonment isn’t going to work with Jesus.

a.  Using the coin that’s given to him, Jesus teaches that “Caesar” is entitled to a certain amount of allegiance from the citizens under his authority.

b.  Jesus does not allow his followers to “opt out of the system” and become completely non-political; they are called to function within the established order of the day. 

c.  Jesus affirms that the state has a measure of legitimate authority to conduct its affairs and provide for the common good through taxation.

d.  The rest of the New Testament shows how the followers of Christ can function as good citizens in whatever country they live (e.g., Romans 13:1-7; 1 Timothy 2:1-2; 1 Peter 2:13-17).

3. Jesus rejects political PRIMACY.

That is, political Utopianism isn’t going to work with Jesus.

a.  Using the coin that is given to him, Jesus teaches that God, not “Caesar,” is entitled to ultimate allegiance from the people he has created. (You bear the image of God, so give yourself to God.)

b.  Jesus does not allow his followers to “depend on the system” and put all their hope in politics; they are called to address the ills of this world through spiritual means as well.

c.  Because the believer’s highest allegiance is to God, Jesus implies there are times when his followers may have to stand against “Caesar” and his requirements.

d.  The rest of the New Testament shows how the followers of Christ resisted the state, sometimes at great personal cost, when it usurped the authority of God (e.g., Acts 4:19-20, 5:28-29, 22:22-29; Rev 13:15).

Some Reflections

a.  The followers of Christ are to obey the earthy king—until that earthly king usurps the authority of the heavenly King.

b.  The brilliant and nuanced answer Jesus gives explodes our political categories. Believers are to be good citizens and loving revolutionaries at the same time.

c.  What could make a person both a good citizen and a loving revolutionary at the same time? Only Christ, and him crucified—the “King without a quarter,” as Tim Keller puts it.

d.  What kind of a king has no money? What kind of a king doesn’t have a quarter to his name such that he has to ask for one to be brought to him?

  • Only a King who is poor by choice.
  • Only a King who gives away his wealth.
  • Only a King who surrenders his power to empower others. 
  • Only a King who gives his life for the sake of the people he rules over.

e.  Unlike many politicians who amass power for themselves, King Jesus surrenders it all for the sake of a loving revolution—a revolution that actually revolutionizes revolutions.

f.  The Apostle Paul wrote: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9).

g.  Whatever the election results are tonight (or tomorrow, or in the coming days or weeks), King Jesus will still be on his throne.

So, who did I vote for today? As you probably could have guessed, I’m not going to tell you. It’s a secret ballot for a reason. And that’s especially important to me as a minister of Jesus Christ. If my politics ever become a stumbling block to others who do not yet know him, I have failed miserably in putting first things first. What I’m willing to reveal is what I’ve already written on the About page:

Political convictions? Yes, we have them, but we’re not completely sold on either of the major political parties in the United States. In fact, neither party wants us nor claims us as their own, and we’re o.k. with that. It allows us to address the issues of the day from a non-partisan, worldview perspective. It also allows us to practice civil disobedience when our conscience demands it, as happens periodically throughout the Scriptures.

Sometimes we think the Republicans are right. Sometimes we think the Democrats are right. All the time we think King Jesus is right. In the end, we believe that politics, like humanity, is broken, so we pray for all the civil magistrates and governing officials as the Bible directs, even the ones we severely disagree with. Let’s aim higher and find another way to be friends.

Image Credits: mycanyonlake.com; rectorymusings.co.uk; ldsliberty.org; pexels.com.

Jesus and Java—Ready for a New Week

“I thank You for the temporal blessings of this world—the refreshing air, the light of the sun, the food that renews strength, the raiment that clothes, the dwelling that shelters, the sleep that gives rest, the starry canopy of night, the summer breeze, the flowers’ sweetness, the music of flowing streams, the happy endearments of family, kindred, and friends. Things animate, things inanimate, minister to my comfort. My cup runs over.

Do not allow me to be insensible to these daily mercies. Your hand bestows blessings; Your power averts evil. I bring my tribute of thanks for spiritual graces, the full warmth of faith, the cheering presence of our Spirit, the strength of Your restraining will, Your spiking of hell’s artillery. Blessed be my sovereign Lord!”

From a Puritan Book of Prayers (ca. 1700)

Jesus and java. (Eight O’Clock Dark Italian Roast with Land O’Lakes Half and Half, and Splenda.) What a great way to begin what looks like it will be another tense week in our nation’s history and a new phase of writing, research, and teaching. The schedule is thick, but so is God’s grace. And this coffee.

Update: The brisk morning walk was indeed brisk today. It was 37 °F here with snowflurries—against a golden-streaked gray autumnal sky and fallen leaves along the road. Totally gorgeous. 

Be blessed by the sovereign Lord.

Random Thoughts from Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina

Spent a lovely day at Wrightsville Beach today, reading and relaxing one last time before the next dissertation “push” consumes my life. The crisp, gentle breeze and bright sunshine made for a lovely outing. Here are some random ruminations with no rhyme or reason—just some nuggets that wafted in and out, sort of like the waves at my feet.

1.  Walking on the sand always reminds me of God’s promise to Abraham, “So shall your descendants be.” That metaphor was all around me today. He is faithful as far as the eye could see—and then beyond. I may have to do some stargazing tonight and celebrate the same truth (cf. Gen 15:5, 22:17, 26:4, etc.). Apparently there are more stars in the universe than grains of sand (roughly 7.5 x 1018 vs. 1 x 1022). Either way, the message is clear: “The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do it” (1 Thess 5:24).

2.  Scrunching my toes in the sand reminded me of those swimming training trips we used to take in college. Whether it was in Florida or St. Croix, our days consisted of triple sessions, with the middle block of agony featuring long runs on the beach. Running on the sand is a lot more difficult than running on hard surfaces. Those jaunts were grueling, and I don’t miss them. Then again, I do miss having chiseled calves.

3.  I also miss those days when the media were (mostly) honest and evenhanded. Indeed, there was a time when our national news outlets were content to be our eyes and ears on the events of the day. Now they try to be our brains, too, telling us what to think. No thank you. We can do that ourselves. Who do you think you are? You’ve done more to polarize our country than any politician. And now you’re playing censorship games to aid and abet certain candidates. This is a flagrant corruption of journalism. Knock it off.

4.  The undulating waves reminded me of Enya’s song, “The Humming,” a clever musical reflection on the cycles of the universe. The ending (“Then all of this begins again”) makes me think of the references to nature in Ecclesiastes chapter 1. There’s a rhythm to the cosmos. A pulse. And, more importantly, a story. “The heavens declare the glory of God,” said King David. As Max Lucado put it, “Nature is God’s first missionary.”

5.  I started re-reading Michael Heiser’s The Unseen Realm, which is a good and necessary corrective to those branches of the faith that have been so modernized as to be devoid of anything supernatural. Kudos to him for helping the church rediscover, as Hamlet put it, “There are more things in heaven and Earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” 

6.  I polished off a bag of Mint Milanos, my favorite non-homemade cookie. I mentioned that fact in class two weeks ago—just in passing—and this past week a bag magically appeared in my classroom. How kind of that particular student. (She’s an auditor, so there’s no possibility of grade inflation in this case!) And how kind of the Lord to give us taste buds, especially when flavors like chocolate and mint can swirl together inside a cookie. And then inside my mouth.

7.  Speaking of cookies, it’s probably time to mortify the flesh a bit. Chiseled calves don’t come easily. Likewise, I should probably finish my Alias binge this weekend, too. Dissertations don’t write themselves. The road ahead is long and lonely. I trust it will also be rewarding.

Enjoy the journey!

‘The Blessing’: God’s Gracious Character in Action

Once in a while a praise song will grip me so tightly or touch me so deeply, I find myself playing it over and over again. “Knowing You” (Graham Kendrick) was like that when it first came out. So was “No Higher Calling” (Jonathan Butler). It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, this INTJ can get very un-Spocklike, and I start to reach for the tissues.

Lately I find myself repeatedly going back to “The Blessing” as sung by Cody Carnes and Kari Jobe. It was the song of the week last week on This New Life. (I also like Jobe’s inspiring rendition of “Revelation Song” and “Forever.”) Cue the waterworks. 

“Blessing” is one of those words that believers use a lot, perhaps without a whole lot of thought. The Hebrew word for “bless” (bārak) has two general meanings. 

First, it can mean to express one’s gratitude and admiration or praise—normally to a superior, such as to God or a king. That’s the sense in Psalm 103:1a: “Bless the Lord, O my soul (= I would like to express to the Lord my gratitude and praise).”

Second, “bless” can mean to be benevolent to someone, to cause good things to happen to, or to give good gifts—normally to a subordinate. That’s the sense in Psalm 67:1: “May God be gracious to us and bless us (= be benevolent to us) and make his face to shine upon us.”

As Clair Davis writes, “While blessing can refer to human praise and worship to God in acknowledgement of his provision (Gen 24:48; Deut 8:10), a more specific emphasis is on the blessings themselves, the gracious character of God in giving them, and also on the identification of those who receive God’s favor.” 

The Aaronic blessing of Numbers 6:22-27 is one of the more famous blessings, often spoken as a benediction at the end of a worship service. The text reads:

The Lord said to Moses, “Tell Aaron and his sons, ‘This is how you are to bless the Israelites. Say to them: 

“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 peace.” ’ 

“So they will put my name on the Israelites, and I will bless them.”

Below is Carnes and Jobe in action with this particular text (and a few others). If the waterworks begin for you, too, enjoy the moment. Either way, may you be blessed as you listen.

Image Credit: pexels.com.