Monthly Archives: November 2013

Bioluminescent Saints

Glowing Fish
After watching “Edith Widder: The weird, wonderful world of bio-luminescence” I cannot help drawing an analogy between John’s gospel and creatures who live in constant, utter darkness and generate their own light.

“And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.” (John 3:19–21 NRSV)

Why do these creatures create light and why only when they’re not alone? Since it doesn’t lead to reproduction or food, Widder suggests it might be defense. However, it attracts the squid in the video instead of repulsing it. It must be something else.

Maybe the bio-luminescent sea creatures produce light in response to interaction because that is when they know they have an audience. Perhaps they are making their best effort to bear fruit and bring glory to God.

“My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.” (John 15:8 NRSV)
Can tiny sea creatures bear effective witness to the glory of God?

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Define Miracle

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I’ve been tracking my weight at the same time every morning for several months now – ever since I admitted I was powerless, gave responsibility for my fitness over to God, ballooned up to 290 pounds, and took responsibility for my fitness back with God’s help.

Last Saturday two things happened. I got a group text from my local mentor about the Christian joys of recognizing our utter powerlessness . That grabbed my attention since I don’t necessarily agree.  After all the bibles says, “… God is working in you, giving you the desire and the power to do what pleases him.” I think the presence of the Spirit in each of us combined with God’s gift of freewill gives each of us amazing agency.

Not directly after reading that text, but a bit later, I exercised my freewill quite robustly.  I spent the entire day eating: bacon, potatoes fried in bacon fat, a total of eight chicken sausages with bacon and cheddar inside, about the same number of bacon wrapped jalapeno poppers, six cookies, and an assortment of other tailgate food at the UNLV game including shrimp, party wieners wrapped in crescent roll dough, and pasta salad.

Walking to the bathroom this morning and reflecting on my online discussion with Sarah RussoJP Kim and Matthew Wimer about witnessing a miracle first hand, I asked God for one. I laughed out loud and said, “Yes. I’m asking for a miracle. Affirm my faith for me. Do a little trick miracle just for me. Make me smaller today than I was yesterday. Grant me miraculous weight loss. Make me 248. Yup, 248. Make me 248 Jesus, please. Just because you can. Do a miracle for me!”

It was one of those real conversations where I was speaking from the heart and God was listening. My stomach tingled. Something was going on. I stepped on the scale praying for joyful affirmation and boom! 247.2. I had filled my face all day, shoveled in one last sausage at the end of the night, and lost 2 full pounds.

My giggling woke my wife (I’m neither boring nor easy to live with).

Miracles, at least this one, aren’t defined objectively.  There is always an alternate explanation available or a lack of video documentation.  Miracles are personal.  Mine is defined by a complete disconnect between rational expectation and reality.   I won’t be able to convert Ed Wing with this evidence, and I’m sure it’s far less powerful for others, but for me. It’s like a huge bell ringing in my head.

I love the tension it creates between me being in charge of my weight loss and me being completely powerless with God in charge. Obviously those two things are mutually exclusive and completely true at the same time.

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Prayer and Trust Are Not Sufficient

m9h359b maple blue

When I was growing up in Moscow, Idaho in the early seventies I wanted to play Little League baseball. So, my dad took me to the hardware store and let me pick out a bat from their small circular display. I choose a huge, blue, wooden beauty of a bat. It was way too big for me. I could barely lift it let alone swing it effectively. I have no idea why my normally wonderful and responsible father let me pick that one.

We played in our blue jeans and t-shirts.

I don’t remember a single thing my coach ever said to me.

I never got a hit.

But, I played baseball, and it was incredibly important to me.

This was back when I believed in God the first time. I had learned again and again that if I prayed and believed hard enough God would give me what I asked for. “You can ask for anything in my name, and I will do it, so that the Son can bring glory to the Father. Yes, ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it!” (John 14:13, 14). Challenge accepted!

I prayed hard for us to beat the best team in our Little League, the widely hated Yankees. I prayed powerfully like only a foolish little kid who believes in a very literal translation of the bible can pray. I prayed and believed and prayed and told my friends that we we’re going to beat the Yankees.

After I recovered my faith a couple of months later, I prayed for something much simpler. I prayed that God would help me catch bugs and put them in the tent I had erected in our big front yard. I prayed and believed. Hard. Again, this was very important to me. Although, I must admit there was a bit of an edge to my faith, kind of a one eye slightly open, heart not wanting to get hurt again, believing but maybe not really able to believe all the way anymore kind of edge.

I didn’t catch any bugs, at least not any decent bugs. I was crushed.

I did what any rational person would do. I walked away and pouted…for about thirty years.

God let me pout. God let me do a lot of really ridiculous things, but eventually one of us decided I’d had enough. I started learning about praying and trusting all over again, but I never forgot about baseball and bugs.

I spent four years begging God to let me go to seminary (or God spent that time convincing me I could.). Two years later, after I had prayed, believed, and trusted my family, finances, and fitness to God I had ballooned up to 290 pounds (see “Should I be Mad at God for Letting Me Get Fat?). It was baseball and bugs all over again.

Me and God, we had it out, several times. I cussed, yelled, doubted, threatened, and pouted, the whole nine yards. God just chuckled patiently and invited me to a deeper faith that involved my active participation in his providence and my sanctification. Despite the fact that I had absolutely no time available after addressing family, full-time work, ministry, and full-time grad school I had to menu plan, shop, cook, and work out.

So, I choose a goal (this was about four months ago). I wanted to be able to jump up and casually run over to wherever I wanted to go. No big deal. I don’t need to look like Vin Diesel or play running back for the Ducks. I just want to be able to hustle. I want free and easy mobility.

Now that God and I are working together, things are going pretty well. I’ve dropped a ton of weight. But, you know what? My goal has been ripped away from me. My right knee is killing me. It used to come and go, but now it just hurts all the time. I can still walk, ride my bike, work out, and do all the things I need to do to get in shape. But, I can’t run or jump. Getting up is a chore. It takes time and it hurts.

What is going on with our wacky, all powerful, purely loving God? First, I thought it was pick a goal, pray, trust, and get blessed…Nope! Then I thought it was pick a goal, pray, trust, work with God, and get blessed…Yes, I’m far thinner, and that is wonderful, but no. Moving hurts and I’m less able to hustle then I was at 290.

So…finally…here is my point. Gratitude is hard. It requires flexibility.

This is not one of those weepy blog posts about how wonderful God and Christianity are if you’ll just “let go and let God.” It’s a heads up. Following Christ isn’t easy. Prayer and trust are not sufficient. You need to get in the game, and when you do you may not get to pick your own goals. You have to work consistently and despite pain to choose gratitude over bitterness.

Consider praying for awareness of the blessings God has already given you. Embrace the mercy we all float in rather than demanding justice. Accept God’s invitation to develop an understanding of faith as belief in the unseen, as hope and love without proof, and find astounding peace and joy exactly where you are right now.

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Book Review – “The Misunderstood Jew” by Jill Ann Levine (available from HarperCollins)

stagnant-water

My dad never let me drink stagnant water. It’s slimy. Gross stuff grows in it, and drinking it will make you seriously sick. In fact, I’m not sure my dad could bring himself to drink stagnant water even in an extreme survival situation. It’s that bad. In nature, water needs to stay in motion to offer life to those who consume it. The same truth holds for theology. I am utterly convinced that too much time spent affirming what we already know leads to stagnant faith. To give life our theology needs to stretch, grow, and accommodate tension.

I opened “The Misunderstood Jew” by Jill Ann Levine with hot anticipation. The Jewish faith has produced millennia of excellent theological scholars. They see the Old Testament from a very different perspective than mine, and Judaism stands founded on the concept of havruta (learning in fellowship with those who disagree with you).

Levine did not disappoint. She opened with an examination of how effortlessly the Christian faith dispenses with the Jewishness of Jesus. That makes sense since the Jews made a shambles of Judaism and Jesus came to trade new wine for old…right? After all, he was born Jewish, and he kind of lived Jewish, but just to introduce a new religion…right? Maybe not.
According to Christian interpretations of the gospels, “Jesus becomes the rebel who, unlike every other Jew, practices social justice. He is the only one to speak with women… (teach) nonviolent responses to oppression… (and the only one who) cares about the ‘poor and marginalized.’” In fact, throughout much of the NT Jesus looks great specifically because he is contrasted to the negative foil of Judaism.

Theologians support this interpretation by focusing consistently on the Jewish leaders angered by Jesus and out stop him at all costs. We end up just like the Pharisee most Christians scorn for rejoicing that he is not like the tax collector. We praise God that we are not like the Jews. We somehow miss that the crowds, the majority of Jewish people, are not shocked but support Jesus and his works. Recall, these are not new Christians but Jews. Not incidentally, in the Jewish reading of that story the Pharisee is indeed righteous and receives positive status. In fact, it is that very standing that elevates the tax collector in comparison. Well, OK I thought. Maybe the Jewish people weren’t so bad, but what about the law? Jesus clearly came to free us from the law, right?

Not quite. Instead Jesus participates in the time honored Jewish tradition of creating a fence around the heart of the law. This process puts a more restrictive prohibition around the actual law in order to help people avoid breaking the law inadvertently. Torah prohibits murder and adultery. In the Sermon the Mount, Jesus condemns anger and lust. The Torah forbids swearing falsely. Jesus says to avoid swearing altogether. Not only does Jesus affirm the law, his position is highly conservative. Now I was thinking, “Well OK, but Jesus did start a new religion, one that does not follow the law. Aren’t we just arguing over technicalities?”

Unfortunately, no. The distancing of Jesus from Jewishness has spawned a world of misunderstanding and a great deal of mistrust between Jews and Christians. It matters, and there is a better perspective. Levine spends ten pages near the end of the first chapter detailing the deeply Jewish nature of the Lord’s Prayer in very convincing fashion. She describes one profound purpose of this foundational Christian prayer, steeped in Jewish traditional and theology, like this: “Jesus truly does provide a bridge, rather than wedge, between Christians and Jews.”

If you believed that Jesus did not come to establish a new religion, how might that affect your faith? What about your view of Jews and Judaism? Levine makes that point well in a laudable effort to combat the frequently venomous dialogue between Christians and Jews. However, she in no way advocates an erasing or even blurring of the line between Christianity and Judaism today. Instead, true to the tradition of havruta, the truth is in the tension between distinct and well defined perspectives that seem to sharply contrast or even contradict one another.

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