Monday, January 31, 2005

I Yam What I Yam, But That's Not All That I Yam

One of the most profound statements on the human condition comes from an uneducated man, not very sophisticated. Popeye had probably not been in therapy -- unaquainted with his shadow self or his inner child. He was just a simple, pipe-smoking, seafaring, tatoo-wearing, sailor man.

When he felt sad or inadequate or defensive, he would repeat his familiar refrain: I yam what I yam. If he was especially emotional, he might add: And that's all that I yam.

It's kind of a sad, melancholy statement. Don't get your hopes up. Don't expect too much. I'm nothing special.

When God calls to Moses from out of the burning bush, Moses' list of excuses begins with Popeye's defense. He says, "Who am I? They won't listen to me. I yam what I yam."

I imagine Moses thinking that if only this call could have come 40 years earlier. Back then, he had status. Now, he's just a broken down, fugitive -- an anonymous shepherd in a backwater town trying to squeak out a living. He's married now, raising a family, living in the suburbs. He's settled down.

But God calls him anyway. Moses wants to know, "Who am I?"

God says, in a grand sense, "It doesn't really matter who you are. I'm going to be with you." In other words, You yam what you yam, but you yam not what you yam gonna be!

That's the message of God from the burning bush today. All the stuff from your past that you think disqualifies you from doing really great things -- all the guilt, all the things you wish you could take back -- none of that matters now. It's not the ultimate truth about you anymore. The Immanuel Presence of God renders all that irrelevant. God is with you, so get your hopes up!

Friday, January 28, 2005

Testing Your Attention Span

Question: How long would it take a whole bush to burn up and be consumed?

I suppose it kind of depends on how big the bush is, right? But even if it was a small bush, it would still take some time. Maybe five or ten minutes. I'm totally guessing at this -- having never burned a bush and timed it. It would have to take at least ten minutes.

Here's why I ask: How long was Moses standing there staring at the bush -- just watching it -- before he realized, "That thing isn't burning up"? Have you ever thought about that?

Did he see it every day for a couple of weeks? There's that bush again -- it's still burning! Or did he just stand there for an hour one day? Any minute now, that bush is going to burn up.

We think the burning bush was a miracle. Maybe the miracle was that Moses actually stopped his normal routine long enough to notice that something unusual was going on. One Jewish Rabbi named Lawrence Kushner says this:

"The 'burning bush' was not a miracle. It was a test. God wanted to find out if Moses could pay attention to something for more than a few minutes. When Moses did, God spoke. The trick is to pay attention to what is going on around you long enough to behold the miracle without falling asleep. There is another world, right here within this one, whenever we pay attention."

How many burning bushes do I walk past everyday? Perhaps God is waiting for someone who has a long enough attention span to stop and notice and say, "I'll turn aside and see this strange thing."

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Faith Like a Fountain

I think my favorite part of that opening paragraph in Heschel's book is this:

"When faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain...its message becomes meaningless."

I love the imagery of fountains. Unfortunately, that is the kind of imagery the church has had little room for. It's too messy and hard to define.

See, a fountain is a strange thing -- always the same, always different, static and dynamic, still and moving at the same time. Not the kind of thing you can easily manage. If you get close to a fountain, some of it might splash on you. Then you'd be wet but not completely soaked.

You can see how this toys with the "step-across-the-line" mentality that has dominated theological language for the past 200 years or so -- especially in the areas of ecclesiology and soteriology. Faith, we think, should be more like a swimming pool -- something rather fixed and full, something you dive into, something into which you can be completely submerged.

Perhaps we are swimming in deep water (to mix the metaphor is a very Christlike thing indeed) by even talking about this, but I think faith -- if it is to be vital faith -- must embrace the both/and of a fountain rather than the either/or of a swimming pool.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Something to Chew On

Congratulations! You survived the most depressing day of the year. Some of you went for walks. Some of you worked out. Some of you quit your jobs. Thanks for the two comments, four phone calls and multitude of email!

Here's what I did: I picked up a book I've always wanted to read (but was a little intimidated by) and started to read it. It's Abraham Heschel's God In Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism. I'm really looking forward to it -- even more so now that I've read the opening paragraph:

"It is customary to blame secular science and anti-religious philosophy for the eclipse of religion in modern society. It would be more honest to blame religion for its own defeats. Religion declined not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid. When faith is completely replaced by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit; when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain; when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion -- its message becomes meaningless."

Mind you: that's how the book starts! Chew on that for a while. I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Monday, January 24, 2005

I Don't Like Mondays

Actually, I don't mind Mondays usually. But today is apparently the most depressing day of the year. At least it is according to Dr. Cliff Arnalls. He's been doing research on seasonal affective disorders (aka S.A.D. -- I'm not making that up -- it's a real clinical diagnosis) and has determined -- through an extremely complex formula -- that today is likely to be the most depressing day of the year. Here are some of the factors he takes into consideration:

Weather. Interestingly, SAD is extremely rare within 30 degrees of the equator -- where days are long and skies are bright all year round. Cold, damp, grey skies make many of us more introspective and melancholy. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but if left unchecked (and added to the other factors in the equation) it can lead to a full-blown bout of depression.

Debt minus monthly income. Anyone gotten the credit card bills from Christmas yet? Anyone thinking about paying the minimum? Anyone noticed that your minimum payment might not even cover the interest on your outstanding debt? That's right -- many of us will make the minimum payment and our balance will increase. Depressing indeed!

Time since Christmas. All that holiday cheer can pack quite a hangover. All the build up of Christmas -- it starts earlier every year -- leads inevitably to a let-down as we forget about all the peace-on-earth-good-will-to-men stuff and get back to the dog-eat-dog reality of life.

Quitting. Most people break their New Year's Resolution within the first week of January. However, most of the most tenacious have also broken down by the third week. I've noticed that the gym isn't as crowded these days.

There are other factors, and I'm not a mathematician. I tried to figure out my depression quotient but couldn't. However, I do know that most years I experience something like SAD in early February. I always attributed it to the fact that my birthday comes at the end of that month. I thought I was just mourning the passing of another year, but Dr. Arnalls' theory probably makes more sense.

I also know that I've recently started to pull out of a month-long funk that has had me bogged down in the worst writer's block I've ever experienced. Maybe I'm ahead of the curve this year.

How about you? Are you feeling the winter blues? What do you do to counter them?

Friday, January 21, 2005

Maybe These Words Don't Mean What We Think They Mean

I'm a big fan of creedal Christianity -- the Apostles' Creed, the Nicene Creed, etc. I grew up in a movement that pretended these great statements of faith didn't exist. "No creed but Christ" was our motto. "Speak where the Bible speaks and be silent where the Bible is silent."

That's what we said. It's not what we did. We created our own creeds -- ignorant of the history and tradition of creedal Christianity -- deaf to the wisdom of great thinkers of the past.

So, when I started studying Christianity academically, I was suspicious of the creeds. I thought there must be something wrong with them. They must be some kind of non-biblical construct which led the church into darkness until guys like Alexander Campbell and Barton W. Stone came along to liberate us all and restore the church to its original purity.

Wow! That sounds pretty arrogant when you write it out like that!

Anyway, I soon found that the creeds are helpful statements -- brilliant in their simplicity. Short synopses of what orthodox Christianity holds near and dear. The best way to stay out of an unneccessary fight and distinguish between core essentials of the faith and matters of opinion is to stick with the creeds.

At least that's what I thought until fairly recently. I have spent a lot of time in 1 John over the past several years, but I'd never connected the dots until lately. It seems that 1 John 4:8 is one of the clearest statements in the Bible: "God is love." Yes, love is more than mushy-gushy-touchy-feely-warm-fuzzies. Love is tough sometimes. Love calls the beloved to maturity. Love rightfully demands fidelity. But love also covers over a multitude of sins and always believes and hopes for the best from the beloved.

All this to ask this question: Why are the creeds mostly silent on this? God the Father is the Almighty Maker of heaven and earth. Jesus Christ -- his only begotten Son -- is our Lord, and he will return to be the Judge of all people. But there's nothing I can find that even hints at the concept that God has chosen to identify himself as love.

In fact, the Westminster Shorter Catechism -- a document I have benefitted greatly from and frequently quote -- says that God is "without body, parts or passions, immutable." I've never noticed this before, but I must not be reading the same Bible as the guys who finalized this statement. The God I read about is passionate! Passionate for justice. Passionate for mercy. Passionate for people. Passionate for his own glory.

Do we have to make him dispassionate in order to maintain his sovereignty and immutability? Maybe those words don't mean what we think they mean.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Anabel's Prayer

Okay, this is what my daughter said when she was praying tonight:

"Dear God, I know this is probably going to make you dance all over the place, but...I believe in your Son. Amen."

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

The Highest Virtue

The more I think about it, the more I realize that most of our false assumptions about God's character and nature arise out of our imagining what we would be like if we were God and had access to his resources. It's no wonder that we're scared and confused by him; we've been so heavily influenced by the Greek philosophers that their assumptions have become ours.

Case in point: Most people today -- if they believe in God at all -- believe that his highest attribute is power. He is nothing if not all-powerful. And he uses that power to dominate others. It's really Nietzsche's Will to Power with a thin veneer of theology.

Love was a lower virtue than power, the Greeks thought, because love implies some sort of need. Power, on the other hand, could be absolute -- not lacking anything. This kind of power made the one holding it perfect and invulnerable.

Thus the Greeks imagined Zeus as the ultimate god of power. He had to break the rules every now and then -- he had to be capricious -- had to break his word -- had to smite someone periodically just because he could. Otherwise, if he submitted to some kind of code, he would be thought to be lower than that code.

Plato came along (stick with me here) and refused to believe that the gods would be arbitrarily violent. But he still maintained this idea that they were invulnerable. They could do anything they wanted to anyone they wanted and no one was allowed to take offense at that. No one could affect them or cause them pain.

Obviously, this painted Plato in an interesting corner. To get out of his dilemma, Plato argued that the gods must be emotionless beings. In fact, if they were tied emotionally in any sense to anyone or anything that would unravel all their power.

Aristotle further developed this idea and gave it a name: Divine Impassibility. This is the belief that the gods cannot be affected by any outside source. The gods are unaware of the joy and sadness experienced by mere mortals. The gods not only do they not know about how we feel, they don't care. They have their agenda, and that's all they're focused on.

Is this an accurate reflection of the God we find in the Bible? If so, what do we do with passages like 1 John 4:8? If not, why do we wonder whether or not God might actually hear us when we talk to him and do something in response?

As a systematic theologian (almost anathema in these postmodern days), I know it's somewhat futile to consider a taxonomy of God's attributes. None of them is more important than another. Still, what is the highest virtue? Does God possess that virtue?

Monday, January 17, 2005

The God Who Suffers

I'm reading the controversial book The Lost Message of Jesus by Steve Chalke and Alan Mann. As far as I can tell, the first 50 pages or so are just a restating of the central argument of Dallas Willard's The Divine Conspiracy. Steve tells a story, though, that really resonates with me, and it's really making me think through some things.

Like many of us who grew up going to Sunday school, he had an array of teachers who tried to make the hard parts of the Bible easy to understand for kids. One difficult portion is the story found in Exodus 33 where Moses is allowed to see God's backside -- seeing something of his glory. But Moses isn't allowed to see God's face because, as the text says, "Anyone who sees [God's] face will die" (v. 20).

What's up with that?

Well, Steve's Sunday school teacher did what a lot of our Sunday school teachers did. He took a kleenex and lit a candle. Moving that tissue slowly closer to the candle's flame, it ignited before the two even touched. God is like that! God is an all-consuming fire, and we are thin and sinful -- like tissue paper. No one can get close to him without being burned up. That's why no one can see God's face and live.

Well, that's scary. That's the premise behind Jonathan Edwards' famous sermon: Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. But is it accurate? I suppose in one sense it may be. And yet....

I have a friend whose mother is gradually losing her battle with Alzheimer's while his father is going blind. I see how hard this is on my friend. He looks miserable sometimes and feels helpless. I have another friend who suffers chronic pain -- everything he does hurts. There is no comfortable position for him to sit or stand. I am afraid the pain will drive him mad. I know a couple who cannot have children biologically. Sometimes I catch them watching me with my kids, and I see the confusion and sadness.

These are not the most horrific sights. Certainly, none of my friends would compare their situation with those who are suffering in Sri Lanka or Rwanda or even the ghettos of Brazil -- where it's a miracle of you live to be my age. My friends live in relative comfort compared with those whose lives are wracked with the torture of AIDS and abject poverty. And yet the pain of my friends is most accutely felt because...well...because they're my friends. I'm emotionally attached to them. The people in other parts of the world are easier for me to ignore. All I have to do is turn off the TV.

I sometimes look at the suffering of my friends, and it reminds me of just how deep the reservoir of pain is in this world. In those moments, when I stare deep into the well of human suffering, I just want to die. I don't want to live with the pain of what I've seen. Going on with the knowledge that such suffering exists in the world is difficult.

Now, imagine how God feels.

If he is who the Bible would have us believe he is, he has witnessed every act of suffering, every time innocence has ever been lost, every example of depravity. He has heard every cry, every agonized silent scream.

Perhaps it is this, rather than our sinfulness, that explains why we cannot look at God's face and live. If God is love -- it says that in the Bible, you know -- then it makes sense for the one who loves most to also be the one who suffers most. I imagine all that suffering etched on his face. I also imagine that no one could bear to see a face marked with that much pain and live.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

One of Those Questions

Periodically, someone asks me a question that just stops me in my tracks. You know what I'm talking about -- one of those questions that's been banging around in your head for a while -- you may not have the exact words for it until all of a sudden -- BANG -- there it is! And you're not sure you want to answer it, because you know there will be ramifications.

I remember a while ago someone asked me this question: "John, what would you do if you really believed that God was with you? I mean really with you in a Romans 8 sort of way. What would you do?"

That question altered the course of my life.

Last night while I was teaching about the life of Moses, I asked one of those questions, and I wonder if this one is going to change my life (or yours) as well. There's a story in the Book of Exodus where God and Moses are talking on top of a mountain. The people below get tired of waiting around and start worshiping this idol that they make out of gold. It kind of looks like a baby cow.

God says to Moses, "Look at those people down there. I'm going to kill them."

But Moses begs him not to. And -- here's the weird part -- God doesn't do it. Moses actually talks God out of doing something. In other words, the conversations we have with God really matter. They actually accomplish something -- especially when we talk to God on behalf of other people (what is often called "intercessory prayer").

I'm not talking about Open Theism. At least I don't think that's what this is. I'm talking about whether or not our prayers can actually alter the course of history.

Now here's the question: "How would you pray if you really believed God would hear and respond? I mean, respond in the same way he responded to Moses."

Monday, January 10, 2005

Heroes of the Exodus

I teach a Bible study on Wednesday nights, and we've been crawling through the Old Testament since September. There is very poor video of some of the classes -- you can watch by clicking on the links on the right side of this page. Good audio will soon be available. In fact, if you're interested in purchasing cds of the current material, let me know.

So much for the commercial.

Last week, I did a basic overview of the first part of the Book of Exodus -- a remarkable story of how God was working behind the scenes to get his people out of slavery in Egypt and back into their promised land. The story is told in such a way that there can be no doubt: God delivers them. They did not deliver themselves. And one reason why this story has survived is to let us know that the same God who delivered them, promises to deliver us as well.

Something struck me as I was prepping for last week's class, though.

The Bible is a book that tells the story of how God has dealt with his people throughout the ages. And I'm fairly conservative in how I deal with the text of the Bible. However, I often try to show people that what the Bible actually says is often very different from what we think it says or have been told it says.

Case in point: many people think the Bible is anti-woman. This is simply not true. Historically, people (mostly men) have used the Bible to subjugate women, but one must twist Scripture to do so -- just like you would have to twist Scripture to justify slavery.

When you look through the first part of Exodus, you read several stories where people engage in heroic acts. But it's not Moses. It's the midwives of Israel -- the ones who defied the order to kill Israelite babies. It's Moses' mother who risks her life in order to save her son. It's Moses' sister who stands guard over him. It's the Pharaoh's daughter who defied her father to raise Moses. It's even Zipporah -- Moses' wife -- who corrects his disobedience.

It's very striking that early in the Bible, in this grand patriarchal society, the writer of Exodus goes out of his way to show how God uses women to keep the story moving forward.

What was ironic is that while I was sharing this insight with the 50-75 people crammed into an overcrowded and overheated room, directly across the hall people were bickering over what women should and should not be "allowed" to do.

Thursday, January 06, 2005

A Startling Absence of Mystery

I guess my biggest problem with Enlightenment-era theology is the notion that everything has a rational explanation. I used to believe that, but I'm less certain now. The Bible itself affirms that for now we only know in part -- we can only see things dimly, like in a fogged up mirror. None of us knows completely.

In fact, to use the words of Jewish philosopher Abraham Heschel, "Religion begins with wonder and mystery." I fear that the modern church's attempt to dispel all the mystery from Christianity has robbed us of a way of dealing with evil. Whether it is "natural evil" like a tsunami or "personal evil" like genocide in the Sudan -- saying, "Well, it must be God's will" just doesn't cut it. That is an insufficient answer for a suffering world.

The world (and the events of the world) is a mystery, a question, not an answer. Perhaps even a rhetorical question at that. Any attempt to answer a rhetorical question is really an exercise in both redundance and futility. The mystery of a Creative Genius rather than the aloof concept of power -- the God of mystery rather than the Master Mind who stands apart -- in other words, the God of the Incarnation, the God who became the Suffering Servant, the God in relation to Whom the here-and-now world derives meaning -- this is the only idea adequate.

Our admission that we do not completely understand this mystery is more honest and compelling than outlining the abstract concept of a Grand Designer. Our willingness to emulate this God by entering into the suffering of others with a firm commitment and resolve to roll up our sleeves and respond to evil with goodness (with holiness, even) -- this is the righteous response. May it be ours.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Interesting Comments

Interesting points were made yesterday in response to my post about blaming God. I'm not going to address them all, but there are some I think shouldn't stand unchallenged.

First, there is no way to draw a connection between earthquakes and environmental irresponsibility (some have suggested that global warming may have contributed to the tsunami -- I am not aware of any evidence to support such a claim). I am not debating whether or not we have been poor stewards of creation -- clearly, we have. But I do not think we can see this tragedy as some kind of payback from mother earth.

Second, KR may be mistaken about some things. God did not wipe all of humanity off the the face of the earth via a flood. The story says that Noah and his family were spared, and the rest of the folks were given 120 years' worth of Noah's message -- plenty of warning. Also, God's sovereignty does not necessarily imply that every event falls into the category of God's causative will. There must be a distinction between his causative will (that which God actually causes) and his permissive will (that which God simply allows). Later Calvinism of this sort often has a difficult time distinguishing between the two. Also, humans were not cursed by God as a result of the Fall. If you look at the text, it says God cursed the serpent (Genesis 3:14) and the ground (Genesis 3:17). Again, later Reformed theology -- theology developed during the time known as the "period of orthodoxy" (1559-1622) -- is better described as philosophical, rather than biblical, theology. Writers like Theodore Beza, William Ames and John Owen largely built upon philosophical premises (such as the sovereignty of God -- especially in terms of predestination) instead a strict adherence to sola scriptura. other thing: theodicy (a theoretical justification of God's goodness in the face of the presence of evil in the world) is really a product of the Enlightenment period -- much like the particular brand of Calvinism subscribed to by KR. The only two theologians to really address the issue prior to the Lisbon earthquake in the mid-18th century are Irenaeus and Augustine.

On the other end of the spectrum it seems that DennyPet comes close to Deism. Of course, I know DennyPet, and he would never admit that. Still, he comes awful close. I really like the second point -- the one about how this should serve as a reminder of our own mortality and call us to live in a state of readiness. But he may overstate the case by suggesting (though not actually saying) that God is only concerned with the saving of souls. I arbitrarily inserted the word "only" -- a frequent point of contention between DennyPet and myself -- we're both guilty of doing this to each other. Still, it seems that God is also concerned for many other things. In fact, upon our resurrection we will not be disembodied souls floating around; we are promised new bodies. I assume these bodies will have physical properties.

Wow! This has gotten really long, and I didn't intend for that to be the case. I'll say two other things and then wait eagerly for the next barrage of comments and email.

Dribble wants us to buck up and take responsibility for this -- as if it's our own fault for getting in the way. But that seems overly simplistic and callous. I was born in a particular time and place -- I can only assume this was by God's gracious design (how's that for a nod your way, KR?). However, most of the people who have lived on planet earth were not as fortunate as I have been. Most people cannot choose where they live. They simply live where they are born. They make less than $100 a year, concerned mostly with survival. The thought of picking up and moving to some other place -- some "safer" place -- is unthinkable for them. Besides, as the tragedy of 9/11 demonstrated, there are no safe places anymore.

Finally, I do not pretend to have all of this figured out. People way smarter than me have wrestled with this issue. If I come across as smug or arrogant, I apologize. I am merely continuing my theological and philosophical education in a public forum. Please give me grace in my ignorance.

Monday, January 03, 2005

Whom Shall We Blame?

It's almost impossible to get my mind around the death and destruction left in the wake of the tsunami. More than 150,000 are confirmed dead -- a number that will continue to rise over the coming weeks and months. If you'd like to make a contribution to the relief efforts, you might want to consider Samaritan's Purse (

In light of disasters like this, it is our natural inclination to look around for someone to blame. In a society that still has traces of a biblical heritage, the most natural response is to blame God. This happened in the aftermath of 9/11, so it's not surprising that people are now asking if God had something to do with this.

Oddly, it seems some Christians are more than eager to place the blame squarely on the shoulders of God. Defending his sovereignty (what is known as a theodicy) has become all the rage among our Calvinist brethren. But I don't buy it. I do not believe that God was "up there" and said, "Well, this is going to kill a bunch of people -- probably consigning most of them to hell -- but they weren't elect anyway, so here goes."

That doesn't sound like the God I read about in the Bible. I know the passages in Job. I know what the psalmist said. I even believe those ideas are divinely inspired. But I can't square the idea of a God who arbitrarily kills hundreds of thousands (many of whom are innocent children -- original sin notwithstanding) with the biblical portrait of a compassionate, merciful God who is determined to set things right-side up.

What about you? Do you think God's to blame? If not, then who? Whom shall we blame? Is that even an appropriate question?