The Bible As Literature

April 30, 2013

One of the things I’ve been tossing about for the last couple of years is the concept of how we read, interpret, and apply the Bible. For anyone who treads beyond the typical fundamentalist/evangelical answers regarding Biblical authority, this becomes a very sticky subject fraught with crazies on either side.

On the one hand, I no longer take the Bible strictly literally. Meaning, I do not believe that every bit of it historically happened… I’m not denying the historicity of Jesus, or even the necessity of the resurrection (the New Testament makes no sense if that was not a historical event). But other things, usually the older stories like the flood, are not strictly necessary for belief in and an understanding of Christ.

On the other hand, I do not hold that the Bible is strictly metaphorical, or even largely metaphorical. Was there a guy named Moses? Oh, most likely. I don’t think he would feature so prominently in a culture’s writings if he hadn’t been so central to their formation.

What I think most Christians lack, and I think where I have landed, is accepting and understanding the Bible as a work of literature, based in history, but still requiring a significant amount of effort to approach it and understand it effectively.

This is not at all unlike what it requires to just be able to read it – very few Christians can read and understand Greek (though some of us like to pretend we do by picking up some good New Testament Greek dictionaries, or interlinear Bibles), and even fewer have any ability to sort out the ancient Hebrew language.

The first several chapters of Genesis – up until Abraham enters the scene – have always fascinated me, particularly in the way that Christians cling to it and define their faith by it. Since studying it as a teenager, I’ve always found it to be largely mythological. Which is not to say that the pre-Abraham elements are strictly false, but they are not a part of Israel’s history, per se, but is part of their mythos. They form the backdrop against which Abraham is introduced as a character of historical significance. The degree to which the mythos accounts are accurate is not important.

I recently picked up an amazing book by John H. Walton, called The Lost World of Genesis One. In it, Walton speaks of the difference between translating the text or culture and entering the text or culture. For instance, to fully understand the Hebrew text, you need to think like an ancient Israelite:

When people want to study the Bible seriously, one of the steps they take is to learn the language. As I teach language students, I am always faced with the challenge of persuading them that they will not succeed simply by learning enough of the language to engage in translation. Truly learning the language requires leaving the English behind, entering the world of the text and understanding the language in its Hebrew context without creating English words in their minds. They must understand the Hebrew as Hebrew text. This is the same with culture. We must make every attempt to set our English categories aside, to leave our cultural ideas behind, and try our best (as limited as the attempt might be) to understand the material in its cultural context without translating it. (Walton, p. 9)

When it comes specifically to the creation account, Walton argues that we miss the point by reading it as an account concerning material origins, and it is far better understood as an account of functional origins, and that the account’s climax is actually God taking up residence on the earth (gods “rested” in their temples when the temple construction was complete) to rule and direct the functional processes of the earth.

The Israelites were much more attuned to the functions of the cosmos than to the material of the cosmos. The functions of the world were more important to them and more interesting to them. They had little concern for the material structures; significance lay in who was in charge and made it work. As a result, Genesis 1 has been presented as an account of functional origins (specifically functioning for people) rather than an account of material origins (as we have been generally inclined to read it). As an account of functional origins, it offers no clear information about material origins.

The key features of this interpretation include most prominently:

  • The Hebrew word translated “create” (bara’) concerns assigning functions.
  • The account begins in verse 2 with no functions (rather than with no material).
  • The first three days pertain to the three major functions of life: time, weather, food.
  • Days four to six pertain to functionaries in the cosmos being assigned their roles and spheres.
  • The recurring comment that “it is good” refers to functionality (relative to people).
  • The temple aspect is evident in the climax of day seven when God rests – an activity in a temple.

The account can then be seen to be a seven-day inauguration of the cosmic temple, setting up its functions for the benefit of humanity, with God dwelling in relationship with his creatures. (Walton, p. 161-162)

By focusing on reading Genesis from our own viewpoint (which is from a material perspective), we miss the essence of the account (which is from a functional perspective), and even the primary point of it.

To me, this shift in focus applies to nearly the entire Bible, not just the mythology described in the first eleven chapters of Genesis. We fail to understand the Bible appropriately when we inject our modern expectations and contexts upon it.

Judaism struggled with this shift for centuries with respect to the Mosaic Law, even during the early years of the early Christian church. While the Jews in Jerusalem were dominated by fundamentalist sects (such as the Pharisees) that demanded strict adherence to the Mosaic Law, there were large Jewish populations scattered throughout the Roman Empire that took a more balanced view, still believing in God, but understanding the Mosaic Law as inappropriate for their time and place, yet still instructive. (Sociologist Rodney Stark discusses this in chapter 3 of The Rise of Christianity, another fascinating book.)

This is precisely what Paul is indicating in 2 Timothy 3:16-17 when he says that “all scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.” Far from a proof text for describing the New Testament as infallible, in this verse, Paul is talking about the Hebrew scriptures and encouraging believers to not ignore them.

Judaism continued to struggle with this balance, even in more modern times. A particular fascinating quote from rabbi Samuel Holdheim, during the reformation movements in Germany in the mid-nineteenth century, expresses the thought that divine “laws” are inherently tied to their surrounding context, and may, in some cases, no longer be applicable:

A law, even though divine, is potent only so long as the conditions and circumstances of life, to meet which it was enacted, continue; when these things change, however, the law also must be abrogated, even though it have God for its author. For God himself has shown indubitably that with the change of the circumstances and conditions of life for which He once gave those laws, the laws themselves cease to be operative, that they shall be observed no longer because they can be observed no longer. (Samuel Holdheim, 1845, as quoted by Stark, p. 53)

Judaism in the United Status went through similar reforms, as expressed by the Pittsburg Platform in 1885:

We hold that all such Mosaic and Rabbinical laws as regulate diet, priestly purity and dress originated in ages and under the influence of ideas altogether foreign to our present mental and spiritual state.

What would this mean for Christians to engage in the same kind of evaluation of what is contained within the Bible, and rather than try to apply the specific moral results from ancient days, struggled to understand the underlying Spirit at work behind them and apply that for our time? I believe such a view is supported by the New Testament itself. First, in how Jesus approached and employed the Old Testament while also blatantly disregarding many of the Mosaic Laws. Second, in the way the letters of the New Testament focused far more on the underlying Spiritual realities than on the immediate moral results of them.

For me, there’s a space that exists between a literal approach to the Bible and a metaphorical approach… Unyielding application of individual “Biblical” precepts in a literal way results in much abuse, but a figurative approach gives no firm foundation for belief or practice. A literary approach to scripture is a far more difficult one, but in the end, less lazy than either extreme and far more rewarding. To me, it represents a dedication to the authority of the Bible, yet also understanding its role in history as literature.

Four years ago, my family made the decision to move to Gainesville, Florida, seeking to pursue Christ outside of institutional church, in what many describe as “organic” church. (“Organic” church is usually distinguished by no “official” organization, pastors, or budgets, and is highlighted by meetings that include open participation.)

This year, after quite a long journey, I’m making my way back to the Atlanta area. Unfortunately, divorce and cult-like leadership are both primary characters in this drama.

Before moving to Gainesville, I knew that my marriage was having difficulty, but I had no idea just how bad things were. I had been finding freedom from some relationship-damaging addictions, yet much damage had been done, and other deep-seated relationship issues on both sides continued to confuse all sorts of things between us.

In Gainesville, we entered an environment with very friendly, personable founders, one of whom showed a little too much personal attention in some cases… whether or not it was intended that way, the attention was consistent with a pattern of predatory grooming behavior. The teachings from the founders also included a highly romantic view of the gospel, and placed the vast bulk of the burden of the happiness of a marriage on the husband. Combined, this fueled discontent and exacerbated existing problems to a final breaking point.

The details of how the marriage reached that final breaking point will not be shared publicly. They don’t really matter, in terms of how a church community can respond and should deal with a couple going through divorce. No matter how any particular couple finds themselves at that spot, once they both decide it’s completely over, it is. More importantly, church communities that refuse to get involved during the breakdown of a marriage have no authority to step in and make demands once it’s finished.

We decided on a slow divorce process as we tried to figure out how to handle custody and worked towards deciding where to live long-term. It is a fantastic thing that we took our time on this, as initially, I was very against 50/50 custody, and she was very against moving out of Gainesville. At this point, we’ve been making 50/50 custody work very well practically for well over a year (and has really helped the kids overall), and are moving back to Atlanta this summer, where the extended family environment will help provide a more secure spiritual and emotional environment for the kids.

Yet as we were learning how to patiently and peacefully work through the process of divorce – about nine months into that process – we were both kicked out of the church community. Their viewpoint, specifically, was that:

(a) Divorce is always completely wrong. I can understand why some would hold this view, but the Bible gives clear reasons why it can be necessary, and Christians have traditionally extended this towards other serious breakdowns in relationship. It is not up to a church community, however, to determine at what point a couple has reached a level of dysfunction that justifies divorce, and a couple is under no obligation to share their personal details with the entire community if they choose not to do so.

(b) “Legally” married means no dating. By the time we were kicked out of the community, we had both begun dating, even though our legal status was still “married” since we intended to work out details on our own rather than in court. Since “extramarital” relationships are wrong, their legalistic mindset dictated that we were in sin and must be “disfellowshipped” according to 1 Corinthians 5.

For about a year and a half before being kicked out of the community, we had been in conversation with the founders and a few other families in the group, and they were, more or less, aware of everything. While some of the counsel we received was good, much of it was completely inappropriate to our situation and often even personally hurtful.

Not long after our decision to peacefully follow a path of divorce, the founders began to publicly deride us in front of the community because of that decision. I can imagine that if it had been a publicly contentious process, if we had taken our private matters public in destructive, self-righteous ways, one of us would have won people over to “our” side, and justified in our position, able to stay. As it was, these “leaders” knew the truth, but lied to others in the community and claimed that we had no justification for it. At that point, we chose to continue to keep each others’ confidences rather than share all the details publicly and prove these leaders wrong – both for our own sakes, but also for our kids and for the community. It was more important to us to be at peace with each other than to be “right” in anyone else’s eyes.

During our excommunication, the founders sought to justify themselves to the church community by sharing all of our private problems and indiscretions. All of the things we had shared over the years, in confidence, were shared to the entire group – without our knowledge, awareness, or consent. This was well after having been told that it would have been wrong for either of us to share any of this information with the entire group… Yet they had no problem doing precisely that when it served their own agenda.

If a counselor or therapist broke those kinds of confidences and shared that kind of information publicly, it would be grounds for a lawsuit and they would end up losing their license. In many states, this also applies to clergy, as well as any identifiable “spiritual leader.”

For other people’s sake, I would have been willing to walk away quietly to prevent all of that information from being shared, but I was not given that opportunity.

To my knowledge, some of what was shared was factually accurate, but that does not dismiss the fact that they had no authority to share anything. I particularly know that after some folks raised questions about the treatment, additional things were said – and I know that some of that was outright lies. I also learned that a few folks were even a bit excited at the prospect of “handing them over to Satan,” and that those who were in disagreement were intimidated into not communicating with us.

For the last eight months, people who once called us brother and sister have considered us untouchable, like some kind of leper that’s going to infect their marriages and families, and destroy them. Those that disagreed with how this was handled have silently lived in fear, knowing that voicing their disagreement would likely mean that they would be next.

I have come to understand that the sum total of this treatment is nothing less than spiritual abuse.

After this happened, several friends remarked to me that I had gotten kicked out of a cult. That characterization is not far from the truth.

In reality, I can understand anyone having those convictions about marriage, divorce, separation, and dating. And I would lovingly support anyone as they lived out those convictions. What I can’t understand is treating others with this kind of disgust and contempt if they don’t hold to or live by the same set of beliefs. Then again, that kind of legalism and condemnation happens all the time throughout Christianity, on many more issues than this, so I shouldn’t be surprised to find them poisoning an “organic” church, including through its founders.

I have since learned that some of these founders have had their own struggles with similar issues in the past, and their public persona would be seriously damaged if such information was thoroughly investigated and made public. Because of this, there has been a concerted effort to rewrite that history and keep it covered up. I’ve also learned more of their many failures to build communities that are sustainable. I have begun to suspect that being condemned by them and cast aside from the organic church community was simply their way of trying to continue to protect the public face of their organic church movement, though many who know the inside realities of it are well aware of how shallow it can be.

“Organic” church leaders are building their own mini-kingdoms, too, and are as likely as other leaders – if not moreso – to protect their kingdoms vehemently, through manipulation and coercion. Their guru status combined with their need to maintain a spotless public persona makes them more likely to rely on cult-like behavior to keep their “flock” pure, fuel their elitism, and entrench their control and authority over their groups. They claim to be against hierarchical leadership, but in the end, they don’t trust the groups they’ve founded to deal with their own crises, and employ their stardom at the local level to maintain every bit as strong control over their communities as traditional “pastors” do in typical churches.

Thankfully, God continued to provide for me, as I had already been making connections into another local church here, whose body life and community was open and accepting, and I’ve been fortunate to find folks who are as dumbstruck by my story as I am. I’ve also come to a simpler understanding of the gospel of Christ that has helped me put this kind of leadership abuse into perspective, one that strongly believes that differences of belief and conviction are simply no basis for division and condemnation.

Perhaps the biggest lesson I’ve learned, though, is that Christianity will continue to fail at helping people with struggling marriages until it learns how to love and support people dealing with divorce. Anything less is compassion based on conditions, love with strings attached.

I’m glad that I’m able to begin to close this chapter of my life, and share some of this now… and to be able to do so honestly, and without anger or resentment. I want to be careful to say things publicly in a way that my children can read one day, but I also want to be honest with them about the way religion infects even the best of us. And I simply can’t stay quiet about the fact that the “organic” church approach ended up being just more of the same, and specifically failed me when I needed authentic church community the most.

Update (25 April 2013): This blog post, more or less, says all I intend to say publicly regarding the circumstances I’ve described.  I do not intend to comment on details that I do not have first-hand knowledge of.  To me, the details of someone’s past is not nearly as important as whether or not they are genuine about it.  A large part of my motivation to write this blog post was to be genuine, myself, and to tell my story as publicly as I can.

Stone-Throwing Zealotry

October 18, 2012

It completely astounds me… the way some people willfully provide misinformation and twist theology to justify actions that are destructive against those they once called a brother or sister, and intimidate others into blindly following along.

I know humans are humans. We’re screwed up, depraved. Selfish, and self-righteous.

But when it happens within the body of Christ, it still surprises me.  I suppose it shouldn’t.  The pattern of religion is that it tempts people into behaving like idiots.

In John 8, the religious elite brought a woman before Jesus who had been caught in the act of adultery.  According to the law, the religious elite were perfectly within their right to throw stones at the woman they caught in the act. The law of Moses was clear. She was to be stoned to death.

Christ did not pick up a stone to join them.

He stood in between these religious zealots and the woman they wanted to destroy. He was ready to take the stones on himself, in order to shield her from what, by all legal measures, was their rightful and righteous judgement, their duty.

And he told them…. “Those of you without sin can cast the first stone.”

And then he wrote something on the ground in the dirt… we don’t know what it was. I’ve heard a million theories, some of them more plausible than the other. But my question has always been…

How did they catch this woman in the act?

Do you think, by any stretch of the imagination, that they knew what was going on all along, and waiting for the “right” time to act, because perhaps, what they really wanted to do, was exercise their “God-given” lawful right to destroy?  Do you think, perhaps, they waited and watched while this was about to take place, while all the while it was within their power to lovingly prevent it?

And what, exactly, did Jesus think of that?

In the story itself, John 8 offers the commentary that they were trying to test Jesus, to get him to say something incriminating. Apparently, this author didn’t actually believe that these religious zealots would literally throw a stone.

(Or at least he didn’t want to suggest to his hellenistic readers that Jews were really that crazy, a case that I consider far more plausible, because these same religious zealots were the ones who nailed this self-proclaimed messiah onto the cross for violating the very same Mosaic laws they were so concerned about upholding.  Or, perhaps they were simply more worried about protecting their own little kingdom and using whatever power they could to crush those they perceived to be a threat – I highly doubt Jesus was the only weirdo they pressured Rome to crucify.  In any case…)

Those who would throw the stones are, apparently, even more misguided than those who would simply use the situation to test the self-proclaimed messiah.

Those who would wield the Word of God as a weapon do not know love. Or, if I want to put it more politely, do not understand anything about how to express it. And yes, dear brothers and sisters, there is a time for tough love. But when “tough love” is following isolation, blame, condemnation, and requirements of silence, and additionally coupled with lies, gossip, and slander, then it is not tough love, at all. That is schadenfreude and sadism.

After throwing the stones and walking away, such zealotry pats itself on the back and congratulates itself on its dear self-righteousness, encouraged by its efforts to uphold the law and follow the written word.

Meanwhile, Christ stands in between such zealotry and those it is targeting. And he takes the stones on himself. This is what the Living Word does. This Living Word expresses forgiveness, patience, support, suffering together daily, and (at the risk of conjuring cringe-worthy Christian clichés) carrying those who are unable to walk. It protects those who are under attack, even if those attacks are fully justified, according to the law.  Because in the end, the law is not what most matters to the heart of the Living Word.

Stone-throwing zealotry may provide a false sense of unity and pride, but it destroys the foundation of love that is the bedrock of a community.

God help us all, but particularly those who lead the way into such senseless ecclesiology.

Divorce and Peace

June 24, 2012

I’m in the process of a divorce.  Have been for a while, if you weren’t already aware of it.

Very few of you know the whole story, and if you don’t, please don’t expect to find the entire story here. Such stories are better shared over coffee or a beer than by writing about such life-altering things on a blog or on Facebook. Though I admire the people who publicly write openly about such things, I’m not sure that I’ll ever do it.

What’s been on my mind, lately, is how others have been reacting to things.

I understand the hope and desire of so many for things to work out… family, friends, and fellow saints all hope to see what is “best” for the situation. Yet when someone has dealt with something for so long, must accept reality for what it is, and has done so through peace and grace, it does little good to quote scripture and push obligations onto that person.  Especially when they’ve been required to walk a path that meant letting go of their own prior beliefs and principles about such things.

Making the shift from an incredulous husband into a forgiving and helpful ex has been both peaceful and incredibly freeing.

I’ve learned a lot of things over the past couple of years.

  • I’ve learned that as much as we’re called to forgive completely, cheap forgiveness is related to what Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace” – which is forgiveness without repentance, without true confession or a resolve to recommit and repair. Such forgiveness does not build up a relationship. It may allow it to continue, but it continues on with a weaker foundation, not a stronger one.
  • I’ve learned that even the wisest of people can be completely wrong and misguided in foundational ways.
  • I’ve learned that religion has a tendency to make people feel empowered and entitled to tell you precisely how you should act and respond in any given situation.
  • I’ve learned that the New Covenant of Christ is far more concerned with the way we treat others than it is with legalistic concerns.
  • I’ve learned that our greatest strengths are directly tied to our greatest fears and weaknesses.
  • I’ve learned that I’ve been as guilty as anyone for viewing others who have gone through divorce with eyes of judgement and condemnation.

 

At a concert I was at the other night, the headlining act came on stage, and was very good… they definitely had their act together. The singer had this great stance in the middle of the stage, and was nailing the vocals. At acoustic breaks in the songs, stagehands would bring an acoustic out for the 8 bars of the break for either the bassist or the guitarist to play during the low-key part of the song, and it was very slick. The drummer had his chops down, and would bounce the sticks off of the drums rather regularly, catch it, and keep going.

The performance was really, really good, and I was quite enjoying it.

Then some things seemed to go wrong… the audio never completely cut out, but things started sounding a little different, some of the effects going on cut out, I could tell that they were using some backing tracks that had quit working, and while they kept playing, you could tell the band was distracted.

The next song, the guitarist came out to start, and then kind of stopped. Awkward. And then the singer came out and apologized, that they were having technical problems, and they couldn’t give the performance that we had paid for, but that they’d finish the set with an acoustic.

And dramatically, things were far more amazing for the second half of the show. Rather than a huge production, suddenly it was one guy on a guitar and two guys singing. You could hear the emotion in their voices far better. It was much more moving, more authentic. It was real.

Yet the singer, after each song, kept apologizing. He kept talking about how sorry they were, and that people backstage were doing they best they could to get things fixed.

As a musician, I get it. You work hard to design a great performance, and it’s disappointing to not be able to share all of that hard work.

But the simple expression of the songs, with basic instrumentation and raw vocals, was far better, and nothing to apologize for. I left with a far higher appreciation for the band and their talent, but more importantly, the messages of the songs.

How often do we do this in our own lives? We work hard on the outer performance, how things appear, and prop that up with a lot of stuff in the background that can fall apart at any time.

What if we simply lived out an expression – with both the good and the bad stuff visible to those around us – and let our faith, our love, and our hope pour out by that expression of the life within? How much more does the expression of Christ’s life, through us individually and collectively, speak grace and mercy to those around us, rather than our religious performance?

I’m not just talking about music and worship services, either. We perform in our daily lives… that’s the kind of thing that “religion” encourages. Rather than being real, we choose to be someone that others expect us to be, instead of living out the life that Christ freely provides.

Ironically enough, one of the songs in the acoustic set was a cover of “Simple Man” by Lynyrd Skynyrd. “Follow your heart, Lord, and nothing else… be a simple kind of man.” Amen, Ronnie, well said.

One Sabbath I went to the synagogue as usual and began to teach. A man was there whose right hand was shriveled up. The Pharisees and legal experts watched me carefully to see if I would heal the man’s hand on the Sabbath. If I did, they would have a basis for leveling a charge against me. I knew all along what they were scheming, so I said to the man with the withered hand, “Come here and stand where everyone can see you.”

Then I turned to those who were anxiously watching and posed this question: “If your only donkey, ox, or sheep should fall into a pit, would you not get it out without delay, even though it was the Sabbath? Of course you would! Surely this man is of greater value than a donkey or sheep!”

“I ask you, is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good [as I intend to do] or to do harm [as your view of the Sabbath would lead you to do] – to restore this man’s hand or leave it withered as it is?” Dead silence filled the room.

I was deeply distressed by their indifference to human distress. Looking around the room at each of them in anger, I said to the man, “Stretch out your withered hand” (and act beyond what the crippled man could do). The man stretched out his right hand, and at once it was fully restored, as sound as the other.

(from Jesus, in His Own Words, by Robert H. Mounce)

I love this story. Partly because of the state of my own right hand – while my hand is not useless, my use of it is somewhat limited and it shows the scars of a car accident from over over 20 years ago, and I literally cannot “stretch out” my right hand.

But there are some important things to take away from this story.

  • The Lord is not terribly interested in what is legal – or with what is proper or technically correct. We see this again and again in Scripture. He blatantly disregards some aspects of the law (Sabbath rules, death penalties, uncleanliness), and highly intensifies the standards for others (lust, divorce, anger, love, sacrifice). What we find consistently is that He ignores the ritualistic outer expressions of the law, and focuses in on what is going on inside us.
  • The Lord is looking to heal and restore us. We see this everywhere in the gospels. Absolute, complete, full restoration. And not only physically, but He constantly forgave sins and breathed new life into desperate, impossible situations. And sometimes, as with Lazarus, He waits an impossibly long time to respond. Why is that?
  • The Lord is waiting for the moment of His greatest glory. We can cry out to the Lord, beg and plead with Him, and it may seem like He ignores us. It may take days, weeks, months, or years. At times, we may even completely give up hope. And at other times, something has died and has already been placed in the grave. But He is looking for His glory to be revealed in the healing and restoration. This is so that when we look back, we will have no choice but to say – “it was the Lord.”

As He passed by, He saw a man blind from birth. And His disciples asked Him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he would be born blind?” Jesus answered, “It was neither that this man sinned, nor his parents; but it was so that the works of God might be displayed in him. (John 9:1-3, NASB)

Many times, there is little reason for us to understand why things happen the way they do… and we can only trust that the Lord was seeking His glory to be revealed.

The next day John the Baptist was standing outdoors with two of his disciples, and I walked by. “Look!” he exclaimed. “There is the Lamb of God!” When John’s disciples heard him say that, they left him and came to me.

I turned and saw that they were following me, so I asked, “What do you want?”

“Rabbi,” they said (the word means “Teacher”), “where are you staying?”

I answered, “Come along and you will see.”

(from Jesus, in His Own Words, by Robert H. Mounce)

Sometimes, we are desperate to know what Jesus is up to and what it is we are supposed to do. We want to know where things are going, and we want to know how to get there. We ask God for these kinds of answers all the time – about personal choices, about the way out of a crisis we are facing, etc.

John’s followers had been looking for the Messiah. John preached Christ, and was preparing the way for Him, and his followers must have had an intense amount of expectation of what this would have looked like. So when they asked “where are you staying?” it signified that they were looking for the path, the goal, the direction. They also had an expectation of the kind of dwelling the Lord had – they probably figured it would be impressive, and that it would represent power and authority.

It’s also like the rich man that said, “what else must I do?” We want specifics from God. We want a list of steps to take. We want to know how things will turn out. And most of the time, we want to know the steps we need to take to get there.

But Jesus rarely provides the kinds of answers we’re looking for. He says, “Come along and you will see.” He didn’t invalidate their desire at all – neither their desire to be where He was going, nor their desire to know more about Him. But they had the wrong question. The question isn’t, “How will this turn out?” or “What must I do?” In fact, there really doesn’t need to be much of a question, at all. The response to seeing Christ, to wanting to see more of Him and experience His fullness, is simply to go along with Him. If we dwell in His presence, we will go where He is going. We will experience His power and grace in ways far beyond and far different from our expectations.

Yet, remember what He told His disciples – “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me.” (Luke 9:23, NASB) The disciples didn’t know of the cross as an instrument of redemption. They knew of the cross as a death sentence. As an instrument of torture for the worst criminals. Christ tells us that following Him – committing our lives to Him and seeking after Him daily – will daily lead us directly through death.

And what we find in those moments of death is more of Him.

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
     I fear no evil, for You are with me;
     Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
     You have anointed my head with oil;
     My cup overflows.
Surely goodness and lovingkindness will follow me all the days of my life,
     And I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever. (Psalm 23:4-6, NASB)

He is with us in those times of death, and He anoints us even in the moments of our greatest struggles and our darkest places.

But we do not always know the exact destination, and He will not tell us the path for us to get there on our own. He wants us to follow Him there – and in the following, we can be sure that He is with us on the journey. What an amazing Lord, to treat us so gently, and to provide such a measure of Himself – His comfort and strength – in times of our greatest suffering, all so that we will see Him more clearly!

Let Them Come

March 7, 2011

We had a Lord’s Supper meal at our house yesterday with some folks in the church.  It was awesome, but perhaps the best part was that shortly before we ate, our six-year-old son and a couple of his friends were found singing a song from our songbook (to the tune of When Johnny Comes Marching Home):

We’re here to have a feast tonight – Hurrah! Hurrah!
We’re here to eat and drink of Christ – Hurrah! Hurrah!
We’re going to open up our mouths
And let the living Christ come out
And we’ll all be satisfied by the Lord in His house
For we know each member

Has a portion of this Christ – Hurrah! Hurrah!
And when we come together, we’ll display, display
The depths and riches of this Christ
The newness which is in His life
And we’ll all be built up into the house of God

It is absolutely awesome to see the life of Christ growing in our kids – without Sunday school, without programs, without making them sit through 3-hour meetings (yes, our meetings regularly go that long), but simply by being around people who are devoted to pursuing Christ and sharing Him with each other. I often feel like they understand more of Christ at six years old than I did at thirty.

Already In Him

November 23, 2009

This poem – actually, a hymn written by Watchman Nee – was shared at our church gathering the other night. It spoke volumes to me, and I wanted to share it. (I removed the KJV style from it, except where it would have affected the rhyming.)

You have said You are the Vine, Lord,
And that I’m a branch in Thee,
But I do not know the reason
Why I should so barren be.

Bearing fruit is my deep longing,
More Your life to manifest,
To Your throne to bring more glory,
That Your will may be expressed.

But I fail to understand, Lord,
What it means – “abide in me,”
For the more I seek “abiding,”
More I feel I’m not in Thee.

How I feel I’m not abiding;
Though I pray and strongly will,
Yet from me You seem so distant
And my life is barren still.

Yet You are the Vine, You said it.
And I am a branch in Thee;
When I take You as my Savior,
Then this fact is wrought in me.

Now I’m in You and I need not
Seek into Yourself to come,
For I’m joined to You already,
With Your flesh and bones I’m one.

Not to “go in” is the secret,
But that I’m “already in!”
That I ne’er may leave I’d ask You,
Not how I may get within.

I am in, already in You!
What a place to which I’m brought!
There’s no need for prayer or struggling,
God Himself the work has wrought.

Since I’m in, why ask to enter;
O how ignorant I’ve been!
Now with praise and much rejoicing
For Your Word, I dwell therein.

Now in You I rest completely,
With myself I gladly part;
You are life and You are power,
All in all to me Thou art.

One of the things that is so striking about this song, to me, is how honest it is about struggling to feel like God is present. Which is something most Christians struggle with, if they’re honest with themselves.

But the response is so full of truth, yet in all my life it lacked power – I am already in Christ, and He is already in me. I’ve heard this probably a million times, but I’ve never been able to rest in it. God’s presence has always been a pursuit, whether something I was supposed to attain through Bible study and prayer, or by attending (or creating) a stirring worship experience, or by seeking His presence through intimate worship. All of those approaches miss the point. We are in Him. He is in us. There is no work for us to do to attain it. We can simply rest in Him. When we gather, we are giving expression to that reality. What a blessing!

Take care! Don’t do your good deeds publicly, to be admired, because then you will lose the reward from your Father in heaven. When you give a gift to someone in need, don’t shout about it as the hypocrites do – blowing trumpets in the synagogues and streets to call attention to their acts of charity! I assure you, they have received all the reward they will ever get. But when you give to someone, don’t tell your left hand what your right hand is doing. Give your gifts in secret, and your Father, who knows all secrets, will reward you.

And now about prayer. When you pray, don’t be like the hypocrites who love to pray publicly on street corners and in the synagogues where everyone can see them. I assure you, that is all the reward they will ever get. But when you pray, go away by yourself, shut the door behind you, and pray to your Father secretly. Then your Father, who knows all secrets, will reward you. When you pray, don’t babble on and on as people of other religions do. They think their prayers are answered only by repeating their words again and again. Don’t be like them, because your Father knows exactly what you need even before you ask him! (Matthew 6:1-8, NLT)

Kind of puts Matthew 25 into a different perspective, doesn’t it? I ask you – how does campaigning for public charity fit with the private, secret approach to charity commanded us in Matthew 6?