Some Gushing Words about ‘Gilead’

Note: This was originally written in 2012 and slightly edited since then.

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…and how good is a timely word! (Proverbs 15:23)

It was my Mom who first suggested Gilead to me. What a wise and blessed soul she was. At the time I’m pretty sure my response was something like: “Does it have helicopters? Spies? Global conspiracies? No?! Then it’s not for me.” I don’t actually remember what I said, but that sounds about right. At some point after that initial introduction to the existence of the book, I picked it up read a few pages. For some reason it didn’t draw me in at the time – probably the glaring absence of helicopters. It just didn’t resonate with my life and heart. I hadn’t suffered enough, hadn’t matured enough, and wasn’t yet asking the kinds of questions the book seeks to ask and answer.

What a difference a couple of years can make! This time when I picked it up and read the first few paragraphs, it was like a crisp breeze from an unseen window brushed my face, like a single ray of light from where the roof didn’t quite line up warming your skin. Now I’m not a very good writer, but that sort of description, slow, methodical description, and many, many commas, linked together in a way that would make most English teachers frown, at least the ones I had, to make epic sentences that somehow your mind follows perfectly, is kind of what you find in Gilead.

The quality of the writing is simply superb. There’s a reason this book won a Pulitzer prize. To a limping and parched heart, the beauty of this book was a river of grace. And not just indirectly, because the main character, John Ames, is an old man who’s been a preacher all his life, and his thoughts are filled with explicit and implicit usages of Scripture. The caliber of relational insight in this book is amazing. It’s one of those books where the relationships are so gripping because of the details, the looks, the unspoken words, the tones and inflections of voice, all coalesce together to paint an incredible portrait of human interaction in all of its beautiful complexity. The combination of that insightfulness with the gentle warmth of this old preacher’s soul reverberating through his writing (for the book is really a long letter that John Ames is writing to his young son) is what made the book so powerful for me.

As this old saint struggles to love within one particularly difficult relationship, he comes face to face with the humbling limits of his own character and sanctification. It’s an experience I can relate to, one that I think any believer can relate to. To see the internal struggle, the slow, prayerful processing that took place, was helpful for me. And that he divulged his innermost thoughts for his son’s future reading, making himself very vulnerable in doing so, was also special. Overall it’s just a touching book on multiple levels. Shoot – that really doesn’t do it justice. Why are you still reading this drivel anyways? Go read Gilead.

Another aspect that I really enjoyed was the simplicity of small town life that the author captured beautifully. The slower pace, the community inter-connectedness, the peaceful enjoyment of nature’s daily miracles like the sunrise, the light, the rain, the trees and the plants, the sunset, dawn and dusk, and fireflies. The writing was so good, so exquisite, that you really have to slow down and just enjoy each sentence like a delicious bite of your favorite food. And because I read too quickly through some pages, I am going to have to read it again some day and enjoy it all over.

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An Awfully Knotty Mess

From earlier this week at the ‘Great Gathering’of Republicans.

mrkburnsbened

Many people have already pointed out the blasphemous and idiotic nature of this ‘benediction’ by Mark Burns at the RNC this week, so I won’t go there. But I do want to share a thought about the use of language.
I was listening to a discussion on Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the context in which he found himself in the 1930’s and 40’s in Berlin. The Christian church in Germany was by and large supportive of the Nazi regime, long after the true nature of its aims was made murderously clear. One of Bonhoeffer’s concerns was how to prophetically communicate Biblical Christianity to a culture where the language of Christianity had been corrupted and co-opted in the service of an evil political empire.
This is no small task.
We need a word to help us understand some of this. I propose syncretism, here defined by missiologist Gailyn Van Rheenen:
Syncretism occurs when Christian leaders accommodate, either consciously or unconsciously, to the prevailing plausibility structures or worldviews of their culture. Syncretism, then, is the conscious or unconscious reshaping of Christian plausibility structures, beliefs, and practices through cultural accommodation so that they reflect those of the dominant culture. Or, stated in other terms, syncretism is the blending of Christian beliefs and practices with those of the dominant culture so that Christianity loses it distinctiveness and speaks with a voice reflective of its culture.
Syncretism happens all the time and everywhere to varying degrees, but in this case it is particularly alarming because it is paraded on center stage at one of the most televised and closely watched events in America – an event which is supposed to represent the political beliefs of about half of Americans.
The end result of all this is that it becomes harder and harder to communicate gospel truth in a way that is clearly distinguished from the culture, in a way prophetically speaks to the culture.
Once you marry Jesus to the Republican Party or political conservatism, it’s an awfully knotty mess to separate them again.
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Lewis the Prophet

From the Screwtape Letters (letter 7):

“I wonder you should ask me whether it is essential to keep the patient in ignorance of your own existence. That question, at least for the present phase of the struggle, has been answered for us by the High Command. Our policy, for the moment, is to conceal ourselves. Of course this has not always been so. We are really faced with a cruel dilemma. When the humans disbelieve in our existence we lose all the pleasing results of direct terrorism, and we make no magicians. On the other hand, when they believe in us, we cannot make them materialists and skeptics.
At least, not yet. I have great hopes that we shall learn in due time how to emotionalize and mythologize their science to such an extent that what is, in effect. a belief in us (though not under that name) will creep in while the human mind remains closed to belief in the enemy. The “Life Force,” the worship of sex, and some aspects of Psychoanalysis may here prove useful. If once we can produce our perfect work—the Materialist Magician, the man, not using, but veritably worshiping, what he vaguely calls “Forces” while denying the existence of “spirits”—then the end of the war will be in sight. But in the meantime we must obey our orders. I do not think you will have much difficulty in keeping the patient in the dark.”

 

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The Pre-Scream Post-Thump Silence and the Incarnation

The first thing that happens is you hear a really big thump, which is the unmistakable sound of 40 pounds of human hitting the floor or the wall. The second thing that happens is silence. Now pay attention – the length of the silence will be in proportion to the seriousness of the injury.

The longer the silence, the worse it is. A short silence and you might as well stay sitting down. Anything longer than 2 seconds and you better move.

The third thing that happens is the screaming. Ah yes, the screaming. This too can serve as an indication. The particular timbre of the scream lets you know if this is a typical nothing-to-see-here kind of injury or if it requires an interruption of our regularly scheduled programming.

One thing that is tough about tending to injured kids is that usually you can’t do anything about the pain they are feeling. You rub the spot, kiss it, get their blankie, ask them what happened, and generally try to distract them. But when it’s a quasi-serious injury and the pain is pretty bad, I find myself scrambling for ever-better ways to comfort.

About a year ago, during one of these little incidents and in a moment of inspiration, I said to my son, “You know, I hurt myself like that too when I was a kid, and I remember how much it hurt.” Amazingly, this seemed to have a notably positive effect on him.

“Really, Daddy? You did this too?” he said, the crying turning to sniffling.

Encouraged by my unexpected success, I piled it on: “Oh yeah, tons of times. It hurt like crazy!”

And so this quickly became one of my go-to comforting techniques. Hit your head on the kitchen counter as you ran by? Done that. Fall off your chair during supper because you can’t possibly sit still or properly like a normal human being? I did that so much my parent didn’t think I’d ever sit with two cheeks on a chair. Fall off your bike? Mmmhmm – more times than I can count. Knee yourself in the chin while landing a leaping somersault? I know allll about it, kiddo. And on and on.

Soon enough, it was my son Jackson prompting me, in the midst of his pain, “Daddy did you do this when you were a kid?”

It’s almost like kids have a longing to know that the one they see as the strongest, smartest, and best person was once just like them and has experienced the same things they are going through. It’s almost like knowing the one who cares for us has shared our pain helps with that very pain. I wonder if we really ever grow out of that?

The more I think about it, the more I think we do not. And that is probably part of the reason why Hebrews 4:15 is such a cherished and oft-quoted verse:

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.

We still long to know that the One who cares for us knows what it’s like to be us; knows what it’s like to be bone-weary, to cry from joy and from a broken heart, to be misunderstood, to disappoint others, to be hated, and to be loved. To be human, and in this world. To be such as us, in such a place as this.

This knowledge brings comfort to children of all ages, even gray-haired ones. And such shared experience fosters intimacy in any relationship.

That is one of the many world-changing wonders of the incarnation.

 

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This Kind of Finger-Wagging Nanny

I saw this billboard while driving through Montreal a few weeks ago.

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My first thought was: Good! Glad to see the government raising awareness about sexual exploitation and human trafficking.

But after reading it again, something about the choice of wording felt off. Never mind the word sport, which is odd but neither here nor there. No – the word I’m thinking of is criminal. Because that’s really the big punch of the whole thing. They grab your attention with the word SEX (or SEXE, in French, because, as you know, adding an E to the end of the word makes it more romantique). Then they hook you with the notion that you may be the victim of some misconception about buying sex. And, finally, the hammer of truth comes down: In Canada it’s criminal. Whabam!

Wait – really? Criminal? I mean, yes it is (for now!) and that’s good I guess. But that’s the best we can do? Something in my strange little brain says that word should be wrong. “In Canada (like everywhere) it’s wrong.”

Feel free to laugh out loud. Who am I kidding? Is this the 1870’s? We can’t make moral statements in public. We certainly can’t make absolute moral statements – my goodness! What kind of meddling bigoted hypocrite are you? What kind of sex-hating nail-biting Victorian Puritan are you? What kind of fun-hating, long-skirt-wearing, finger-wagging nanny are you?! article-0-045713D60000044D-93_468x352

A quick glance at the comments section of a local news article about this makes it clear that the peoples here are decided: leave it alone – people will do what they do and it’s not our business.

Ah. But of course the steady stream of robbed and raped girls and boys who are pulled and pushed into the sex industry to feed endless appetites are our business, as long as justice for the oppressed is our business.

The fact that we are now appealing to the assumed desire of citizens to not commit crimes in order to educate and dissuade sexual exploitation is rather telling, isn’t it? Hmm, that’s probably still too generous. We are appealing to not wanting to go to jail and be in the papers.

To me, that’s setting the bar a little low. In terms of a vision for human flourishing, that’s some thin gruel. Some thin, no-sugar-added, low-fat, nutrient-free kind of gruel. Not even a hint that some desires are good, some not so good. No clue that human dignity is part of the equation.

But that’s no criticism of the billboard itself. It’s a fine billboard – one for a time such as this.


 

All of that can get categorized under fumbling attempts at cultural commentary, which I personally find interesting, but ultimately falls well short of being ultimate. Now you might assume that I think this is a bad thing! And okay – in one sense I do. But that’s what I mean by it not being ultimate. It’s a bad thing that might lead to better things.

The gospel and God’s kingdom are ultimate in a way that society and culture isn’t. If Canada and the U.S. go headlong into moral relativism and all manner of ethical upsidedownery, as is the charted course, all the more reason why people will find themselves longing for an anchor for their heart and minds, and forgiveness for the wrongs which they can only deny doing for so long. It might all end up being a gospel opportunity – and I certainly hope and pray so.

 

 

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God’s Jealousy, Part 2

It is in the writings of Hosea (the entire book, but especially chapters 1-3) and Jeremiah (chapter 3) that the metaphor of spiritual adultery is developed and clarified. God is Israel’s husband; Israel is God’s bride. But while God is a good, loving, and faithful husband, Israel is described as an adulterous, wayward, promiscuous, whoring wife. Portions of Ezekiel (chapters 16, 23) are so graphic that I wonder how many churches could even stand to hear them read out loud. No wonder Ezekiel didn’t rank atop the podcast ratings… his message was not often pleasant. The language in these passages is jarring, profoundly unsettling, and offensive. And that is precisely the point.

We, like the Israelites before us, are far too adept at euphemising, excusing, minimizing, and denying sin. Needless to say, God seems to take a different view – judging the unfaithfulness of his covenant people to be heinous, evil, and personal. And perhaps that personal element of betrayal is what this metaphor of spiritual adultery really conveys like nothing else. It is one thing to sin in a judicial sense against the law of a good judge, and it is one thing to fall short of the standard of your benevolent master, but it is something quite different to blatantly cheat on your spouse with other lovers.

Just think about the relational dynamics of the first two pictures of sin in contrast with the third. As a lawbreaker and a stumbling servant, I could still look my Lord in the eye, admit my mistake, and vow to do better. But not so easily if my unfaithfulness is personal betrayal to such a jealous and faithful spouse. This is what makes the metaphor of spiritual adultery so powerful, and for the guilty party (that’s you and me, folks) so devastating.

But in that moment of terrible realization, when all the excuses and side-stepping is done, and you find yourself sitting slumped on a pile of ashes, a new light shines. That new light is the incredible promises of reconciliation, mercy, and restitution that we find in the very same passages that moments ago revealed the ugliness of our sin.

Consider Hosea 2:14-20

“Therefore I am now going to allure her;
    I will lead her into the wilderness
    and speak tenderly to her.
There I will give her back her vineyards,
    and will make the Valley of Achor a door of hope.
There she will respond as in the days of her youth,
    as in the day she came up out of Egypt.

“In that day,” declares the Lord,
    “you will call me ‘my husband’;
    you will no longer call me ‘my master.’
 I will remove the names of the Baals from her lips;
    no longer will their names be invoked.
 In that day I will make a covenant for them
    with the beasts of the field, the birds in the sky
    and the creatures that move along the ground.
Bow and sword and battle
    I will abolish from the land,
    so that all may lie down in safety.
 I will betroth you to me forever;
    I will betroth you in righteousness and justice,
    in love and compassion.
 I will betroth you in faithfulness,
    and you will acknowledge the Lord.

Or Jeremiah 3:14-15

“Return, faithless people,” declares the Lord, “for I am your husband. I will choose you—one from a town and two from a clan—and bring you to Zion. Then I will give you shepherds after my own heart, who will lead you with knowledge and understanding.

Or lastly, Ezekiel 16:60, 62-63

Yet I will remember the covenant I made with you in the days of your youth, and I will establish an everlasting covenant with you… So I will establish my covenant with you, and you will know that I am the Lord. Then, when I make atonement for you for all you have done, you will remember and be ashamed and never again open your mouth because of your humiliation, declares the Sovereign Lord.’”

The language of spiritual adultery is the nuclear weapon of sin-exposition. It’s God’s most potent form of argument, and to those with ears to hear, it is profoundly humbling. Embedded in the book of Hosea is this idea that God would come at his people with such severe denouncements so that they might realize their sickness and seek him.

We see this amazing interaction in Hosea 5:13-15, followed by 6:1-3.

“When Ephraim saw his sickness,
    and Judah his sores,
then Ephraim turned to Assyria,
    and sent to the great king for help.
But he is not able to cure you,
    not able to heal your sores.
For I will be like a lion to Ephraim,
    like a great lion to Judah.
I will tear them to pieces and go away;
    I will carry them off, with no one to rescue them.
Then I will return to my lair
    until they have borne their guilt
    and seek my face—
in their misery
    they will earnestly seek me.”

“Come, let us return to the Lord.
He has torn us to pieces
    but he will heal us;
he has injured us
    but he will bind up our wounds.
After two days he will revive us;
    on the third day he will restore us,
    that we may live in his presence.
Let us know the Lord;
    let us press on to know him.
As surely as the sun rises,
    he will appear;
he will come to us like the winter rains,
    like the spring rains that water the earth.”


Here are five things I think we can take away from reflecting on God’s Jealousy.

1. Seeing God’s jealousy forces us to un-domesticate God.

There’s an element of unpredictability in God’s jealousy. He is merciful and patient, but woe to the one who experiences the heat of his holy desire! As C.S. Lewis put it so well, he is good, but he is not safe. This is such a needed remedy for us sleepy believers who have a strong tendency to domesticate God with our selective memory and reading. Even Psalm 23 underscores this when at the end David writes “surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.” The verb  translated “follow” literally means “to pursue, chase, persecute.” There’s an intensity and an intentionality that is lost in translation. Instead of capturing the predatory spirit of the verb, we are left with the rather limp image of a puppy following a child.

2. Seeing God’s jealousy sobers us about our sin, and our redemption.

I touched on this earlier, so just a quick word. In light of all that we’ve seen, our sin is uglier than we thought. But the beauty of the gospel is that this ugliness only serves to humble us further (to remember and be ashamed and never again open our mouths, as in Ezekiel 16), and to underscore, highlight, and magnify the depth of the mercy and the sweetness of the grace that would so completely forgive such misdeeds.

3. Seeing God’s jealousy helps us realize the seriousness of God’s covenant with us.

Here’s one where the Scriptures really have to renew our typical way of thinking. We are so accustomed to the optional, leave it if you don’t like it, take it for a spin, no strings attached kind of deal that we can import that kind of thinking into our relationship with God. But the truth is that we are in a covenant with God, with covenant obligations to be faithful and to worship Him alone. This is not the typical we way we frame our Christianity, but that is probably more due to our cultural bias than to a balanced Biblical understanding.

4. Seeing God’s jealousy helps us understand some of the ways God works in our lives.

If God is a jealous God who, in the words of Zechariah 8, is “very jealous… burning with jealousy for” his people, then this might help explain how he deals with us. Looking back on my own life, I definitely see God’s jealousy as one of the reasons he allowed me to go through burnout in ministry. When ministry becomes a rival lover, it becomes very dispensable to God. I suddenly go from Very Important Leader to entirely replaceable. Indeed – for my soul’s sake, I must be replaced, rebuked, brought to repent, and then perhaps restored. Likewise, in all our lives, a function of God’s love is that he brooks no rivals. A redefinition of love for some of us, maybe, but love indeed.

5. Seeing God’s jealousy reminds us that we don’t get to pick and choose which attributes of God we like.

There is a counter-intuitive argument to be made that I first heard from Tim Keller. The argument rests simply on the nature of relationship. If we deny the authority of Scripture, and do away with the troublesome aspects of God’s deeds and character (as defined by our enlightened cultural moment, of course), what we are left with is inevitably a glorified reflection of ourselves. A deified mirror image of our own beliefs. But this is plainly not a God with whom you can have a real relationship, if by real relationship we mean, among other things, the ability to challenge, surprise, and rebuke. The God of orthodox Christianity is revealed to us, and we must change our minds and our beliefs to line up with that revelation; not change the revelation to line up with our own thoughts.

 

 

 

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God’s Jealousy, Part 1

Having recently studied and spoken on God’s Jealousy, I thought I would take time to put down in written form some of what I shared with the good people who were willing to listen to me.

In James 4:4-5 we encounter some unusual language.

You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world means enmity against God? Therefore, anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. Or do you think Scripture says without reason that he jealously longs for the spirit he has caused to dwell in us?”

Specifically, the words adulterous and jealously seem strangely out of place. The context makes it clear that physical adultery is not what James is currently addressing, and the idea of God as jealous is not a common one in the New Testament. So how do we make sense of this? What is James trying to say?

Interestingly, the only other place in the NT where adultery is used in a clearly non-physical way is in Matthew 12:39, where Jesus says “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.” Even more tellingly, the parallel passage in Luke excludes the word adulterous from the same phrase. Luke 11:29: As the crowds increased, Jesus said, “This is a wicked generation. It asks for a sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah.”

This underlines the Old Testament roots of this language and metaphor. Because why, you say? Well because Matthew was written to a Jewish audience that would immediately have connected the adultery language to those scathing passages in Jeremiah and Hosea with which they were familiar. Luke’s audience, however, was primarily Gentile, and would not have made that connection (thus, I’m assuming, he left it out to avoid the confusion).

So to the Old Testament we must go! We begin all the way back in Exodus 20, in the smoke and thunder of Mount Sinai. In delivering the second commandment, God explains the prohibition of images by saying “for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God.” Remember that these words, spoken by the Lord, are some of the very first revelations of himself to his people, who at this point did not have the written law, and were only now receiving the tablets of stone. God is explaining to them what kind of God he is, in contrast to the gods of Egypt or Canaan.

Follow the story to Exodus 32 and we find that the people, having waited 400 years for rescue in Egypt, couldn’t wait the full 40 days for Moses to finish up his business on the mountain. They violate the second commandment in creating and worshiping the golden calf, and then when Moses comes back down the mountain he is, as they say, not impressed, children. Kind of like when I stomp down the stairs and find the kids’ playroom looking like a tornado, a bomb, and a group of chimps had a rave, except very much more so.

So in Exodus 34:14 God says “Do not worship any other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God.” He has gone a step further from using jealous as an adjective to describe himself and has made it a proper noun – God’s very Name. Jealous. In the next verse, he describes the pagan worship of the Canaanites by saying “they prostitute themselves to their gods and sacrifice for them.” This use of sexual language to describe religious practice begins a long theme winding through the whole of the Old Testament, even if at this point it isn’t clear what exactly is meant, but it is growing clear that there is a link between God’s jealousy, the covenant, and this language of sexual sin.

We find the same language used in Deuteronomy 31 to describe Israel’s future covenant unfaithfulness. “And the Lord said to Moses: ‘You are going to rest with your ancestors, and these people will soon prostitute themselves to the foreign gods of the land they are entering. They will forsake me and break the covenant I made with them.'” Here we see that this language of prostitution is clearly linked to breaking the covenant – an important clue as to the full meaning of this metaphor.

As with so many Biblical themes, what we find in seed form at the beginning of redemptive history grows and unfurls as that history progresses. At this point it would make sense to come away thinking what does this mean?; but further revelation, especially through the prophets Hosea and Jeremiah, will make it crystal clear.

And that’s what we’ll look at in Part 2.

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