Archive for the ‘Bible’ Category

Divine Kindness and Grace, Blah Blah Blah

Okay, I have a confession.  It is a confession that I did not realize I had until just now as I read Ephesians 1.  My confession is this:  I have stopped marveling at the grace of God, as shown by His forgiveness and acceptance of me.

See, my “big thing” that has consumed me for years is the idea of the kingdom of God.  I have explored it, studied it, asked others about it, prayed about it, blogged about it (obviously), and generally meditated on the concept for awhile now.  What most excites me about the kingdom of God–and what I think we so often miss–is that, not only does it exist to some degree right now on earth, we have a job to do within it.  We are citizens of this kingdom, created for a specific purpose–for our “good works,” as Paul describes them in Ephesians 2:10.  I find that idea of a purpose, a job, in God’s kingdom to be very energizing.  The idea of Christianity being a set of rituals or a group of rules and regulations drains me, but the idea that Christianity consists of work in a kingdom meant to draw people to their Creator…well, that’s just cool.

But you see, my excitement over my job presupposes that I am already a citizen in God’s kingdom–which I am–but it tends to overlook the sacrifice that allowed me to be a citizen in the first place.  I saw this reality clearly tonight when I was reading Ephesians 1:1-14.  There were several parts of this section that I liked, but I got really excited about the middle section:

 God has now revealed to us his mysterious plan regarding Christ, a plan to fulfill his own good pleasure. 10 And this is the plan: At the right time he will bring everything together under the authority of Christ—everything in heaven and on earth. 11 Furthermore, because we are united with Christ, we have received an inheritance from God, for he chose us in advance, and he makes everything work out according to his plan.

Wow!  Isn’t that amazing??  The mystery of God’s will, which He has revealed to us, is that He will bring everything together under the authority of Christ!  And I believe that that process has already started in the lives and Spirit-led actions of believers!  It is so exciting!  In fact, it was so exciting to me that I thought I would copy that whole section.  And that’s where I realized something:  to get to verse 9, you had to go through the previous eight verses, in which Paul marvels at length about how amazing it is that we even get to be citizens in God’s kingdom (he calls it children of God).  Without paraphrasing at all, here are some things that God has done for us, as elaborated and celebrated by Paul:

1.  “God…has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly realms because we are united with Christ.”

2.  “Even before He made the world, God loved us and chose us in Christ to be holy and without fault in His eyes.”

3.  “God decided in advance to adopt us into his own family by bringing us to Himself through Jesus Christ.  That is what He wanted to do, and it gave Him great pleasure.

4.  “So we praise God for the glorious grace He has poured out on us who belong to His dear Son.”

5.  “He is so rich in kindness and grace that He purchased our freedom with the blood of His Son and forgave our sins.”

6.  “He has showered His kindness on us, along with all wisdom and understanding.”

That, my friends, is the text of Ephesians 1: 3-8.  As I copied, I was so eager to get to verse nine that I found myself getting impatient with the way that Paul was going on and on about how wonderful it was that God chose us and forgave us and gave us grace and blah, blah, blah.  Let’s hurry up and get to the part where I have a job!

And that’s when it hit me.  I have gotten so focused on my role that I have stopped marveling at the fact that God has even given me a role in the first place.  That’s the real miracle.  

I decided to stop copying at verse 8 and just focus on those verses for awhile.  I think I need to revisit their message.

The Stories We Tell Ourselves

 “In the future, when your son asks you, ‘What is the meaning of the stipulations, decrees and laws the LORD our God has commanded you?’  tell him: ‘We were slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt, but the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand.”   Deut. 6:20-21

She was pretty.  She looked younger than I suspected she was, although her skin showed the effects of over-tanning.  Her eyes were an unearthly blue, aided, no doubt, by colored contacts.  Her already long lashes were accentuated by heavy mascara, and colorful tattoos snaked up and down her arms.  To be honest, I thought they were lovely and that they suited her personality well.

She came from a small town in Ohio, with very few non-White people and very low crime.  As she put it, if an ashtray was stolen off her grandma’s back porch, it would make the news.  Even though she had lived in Nashville for at least ten years, she still sometimes got culture shock from all of the different people.  It certainly wasn’t what she was expecting when she came down here at age 20, trying to break into the music business.  Unfortunately, her musical dreams fizzled out in a few years, but by then, there was a guy in the picture.  Here, she shook her head and laughed in disgust.  “Bad idea.”  Obviously, the guy fizzled out, too, but by that time, she had bought a house and now had  a mortgage to pay.  So she stayed in Nashville and worked at a job she enjoyed.  She is now dating another guy, a composer, and he is currently working on an album of reinvented covers.  He even asked her to sing vocals, which made her very excited.

I could probably have learned more, but by that time I had completed my blinds order and checked out at Lowe’s.

As I drove home pondering my chatty sales clerk, I noted how compulsive story-telling is for people.  You would think we would get tired of telling our own stories–but no.  Quite the contrary:  our own story is usually the one we hold most dear.  And we tell it again and again.  We tinker with it and tailor it to our current circumstances.  We constantly tweak it to reflect our current understanding and opinions.  But we still tell it, if only to ourselves.  The reason is simple:  we tell our story to remind ourselves who we are and why we’re here.  

Our story defines us.  We cast ourselves as the victim, the hero, the anti-hero, the saint, the sinner.  We have our allies and our villains, our plot twists and our slow parts.  Our stories take the random, chaotic events of our lives and give meaning to them.  They are able to give that meaning, b/c our stories have an overarching plot.  That plot tells us why we’re here (created by God?  an accident of evolution?  something in between?).  The plot tells us who the good guys are (Christians?  America?  A political party?  Some combination?) and who the bad guys are.  Our stories also have characterization.  Not only do we “flesh out” other characters through our personal judgments of them, our stories tend to characterize all of humanity.  Is humanity good?  Bad?  A combination?  Our stories will tell us.

I think that our propensity for storytelling is by design.  Either that, or God caters to our species’ idiosyncrasy, because He chooses to speak to us in the form of a story.  He could have simply given us a list of facts or rules; in fact, that seems a little more logical, if you ask me.  Less room to misunderstand. Less cause for confusion.  But no–He revealed Himself to us mostly through stories.  And within those stories (collected in the Bible), He told about His Son, who in turn preached largely through stories.

The story of Jesus is one of God’s big stories.  But before that, He had another biggie:  the story of the exodus from Egypt.  When God saved the Israelites from four hundred years of slavery, He made sure that they remembered that story and passed it down.  It is clear from reading the Pentateuch that God intended the exodus story to define His people.  From His insistence on that point, I learn two important things.

1.  Stories > Facts

In one of my college psychology classes, I learned that we tend to interpret data in a way that conforms to our own preconceptions.  For example, if you have a preconception that women are bad drivers, you will tend to remember the woman who absent-mindedly cut you off more than you will a man who did the same thing.  That’s because we make a clearer mental note of the behaviors that reinforce our stereotypes, while we are more likely to let conflicting data slide by unconsidered.  I think that phenomenon is an example of how our stories determine our reality.  If, in your story, women are bad drivers, then facts are at a considerable disadvantage.

On the flip side, our stories can convey truth to us in a way that facts simply cannot.  Perhaps that’s why God instructed His people to explain the “facts” of the Law to their children in the form of a story (see the verse at the top).  He knew that facts don’t stick unless they work into our personal story.  One application of that principle for me is that people are not going to be convinced of the reality of God or of Christ’s love simply by a presentation of the “facts.”  While there may be a place for apologetics in evangelism, the most important, powerful tool we have is the reality of our own story.  We must live a better story for the people around us, so that they will want it to be their story, as well.

And that brings me to my second point:

2.  Stories are meant to be lived, not just told.

When God gave the Israelites their Exodus story, He made clear that it was not simply to be a nice narrative that they shared and celebrated.  That story was supposed to affect their lives and their behavior.  Several times throughout the Law, He references their story.  Here is a sampling:

“Do not mistreat an alien or oppress him, for you were aliens in Egypt.”  Ex. 22:21

“Do not oppress an alien; you yourselves know how it feels to be aliens, because you were aliens in Egypt.”  Ex. 23:9

“When an alien lives with you in your land, do not mistreat him. The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt. I am the LORD your God.”  Lev. 19:33-34

Clearly, God expected the Israelites’ story to affect their behavior; I think the same is true for us today.  On an individual level, the different experiences God gives us should increase our empathy for others who share those experiences.  Our pain should make it easier to help others in pain; our joy should make it easier to rejoice with others who have joy.  Similarly, the Israelites were to use their experiences as aliens to help them sympathize with foreigners in their lands.

On a collective level, the story of the gospel, which casts us as sinners in need of redemption, should make us more empathetic to other sinners in need of redemption.  That empathy should, in turn, lead to action.  The Israelites were supposed to treat people more kindly and mercifully because of their common heritage.  Shouldn’t our common heritage as sinners cause us to treat others kindly and mercifully, as well?

Today, I want to remember that “my story” is not simply found in the pages of the Bible or in the narrative that exists in my own head.  On the contrary, my story is embodied and enlivened by all of my actions.  Today, I want to live in a way that reflects the truth of the story in my head.  I want to live in a way that points others to God.

(This post is linked up with Word-filled Wednesday and iFellowship.)

The Collectors of Suffering

“He was…a man of sorrows and familiar with suffering.”  Isaiah 53:3

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened…”  Matt. 11:28a

Is there any thing weirder than the prayer request session before Sunday school starts?

Really, guys.  I have been in tons of these things–lots of different classes and lots of different churches–and I have to say that from an outside perspective, they must be totally bizarre.  Just picture it from a stranger’s point of view:  people file into class dressed in the spectrum of clothing that constitutes “Sunday best.”  We sit and smile and laugh and joke and make sometimes awkward, often shallow small talk, chit-chatting about the weather and the ball games and the small illnesses that are going around.  The conversations consist of the safe stuff, the type of light banter that suits a group that consists both of lifelong friends and barely-acquaintances that make up a typical Sunday school class.  And then, the class is called to order amidst jokes of never starting on time (always a feature, no matter what class it is).  Next, it is suggested that we open with a prayer, and the class is asked if they have any requests.

It’s a neutral question:  prayer requests can be either happy or sad–or neither.  But generally, the prayer requests break down like this:  5% thanksgiving, 10% neutral concerns (safe travel, etc), and 85% suffering.  In just a few minutes span, the class’ conversation has shifted from breezy analyses of the latest basketball game to detailed descriptions of close friends’ cancer battles.  In a whiplash-inducing shift, the class puts away their happy, small-talk masks, and unearths all the troubles of their world.  News pours forth of terminal diseases, of biopsies and test results, of not knowing how much longer so-and-so has.  Requests are brought forward, sometimes with tears, for marriages that are crumbling, drug addictions that are destroying, job searches that are seemingly unending.  Often, these prayer request sessions go on for fifteen or twenty minutes, as if the dam has broken and more suffering keeps pouring through the breach.  It seems that everyone knows someone who is in some state of crisis–if they are not in the crisis themselves, which is also often the case.   Sympathetic groans and sighs fill the room as the tales of pain, and often death, are shared.  In short, we collect all the suffering that’s willing to be shared; we draw it out and present it all to God.

And then, we start class.

Can you tell me anywhere else, outside of group therapy, where that happens?  Maybe I don’t get out enough, but I can tell you that I never had any other class, or was a part of any other group outside of church where people set aside time to pour out their suffering to each other.  And what’s more, Sunday school classes (and whole congregations) often compile these prayer requests, and the good Christian is expected to revisit this liturgy of pain daily.  It is desired that at some point during our mundane routines of survival, we will pause and rehash this collection of suffering before God.

I think it is a really beautiful thing, perhaps one of the best things about church.

See, no one likes suffering.  We don’t want to suffer, and what’s more, we don’t want to think about suffering.  The human desire is to escape the idea of suffering as much as possible.  I’ve been struck lately by the degree to which even the music we listen to (besides Adele) and the movies and television shows we watch downplay suffering.  Kelly Clarkston thanks the man who broke her heart for making her “Stronger” in a song that assures listeners that they need not mourn even after an intimate relationship implodes.  Mission Impossible 4’s Ethan Hunt (as well as every other action hero in the movies or on television) takes beatings that should land him in the hospital, if not the morgue, but he faithfully emerges, no worse for the wear.  Even the bad guys have supernatural strength!

Because really, we don’t want to see our hero lying on the ground, crying, even if that’s what he should be doing.  We can barely stand the thought of people in real pain, and we don’t want that stuff around us.  I think that it is the human tendency to busily construct little bubbles around ourselves and our family, bubbles that keep all that suffering and misery safely out.  Even though the bubble is always perilously thin, we find its presence strangely reassuring.

Church pops our bubble. 

In church, you can’t escape suffering.  For one thing, we talk about it practically every time we gather.  For another thing, if someone in your church family is suffering, it’s definitely expected that you darn well do something about it.  When you are an active member of a church family, there’s no real option to turn your back on your suffering brother or sister.  I think about my parents’ church right now.  They have been hit with death after tragic death lately.  The news coming out of that beleaguered church is positively grim.  And even though none of the deceased is related to my parents, their lives have been transformed by the suffering of their Body.  Practically speaking, that means that their existence has consisted of way too many hospital visits, way too many meals cooked for grieving families, way too much time sitting and crying with bereaved family members, way too many funerals and visitations, way too many sorrowful Sundays.  And on an interior level, I know it has been hard on them.  After all, when your church suffers, you suffer.  It becomes a part of your life until the suffering passes.

Perhaps this all sounds pretty depressing.  Like I said, it is not our natural tendency to seek out suffering.  On the contrary, our default setting is to seek pleasure and avoid pain.  That’s just how we roll.  But it occurs to me that when we embrace the suffering around us instead of running from it, we are following the very steps of Christ.  He was after all, a man of sorrows and familiar with suffering.  Suffering didn’t scare him, which is why he could invite the weary and burdened to come to him and find rest.  To me, that means a disciple of Christ should be able to do the same thing.  We should not let our distaste for suffering cripple us; on the contrary, we should be able to open up our arms to those who are hurting, to carry their burdens alongside them.  Hurting people were drawn to Jesus.  They knew Jesus would not shrink away from them.  They knew he would see them, touch them, help them.  And so they came from everywhere, a parade of suffering, to see this man who could handle it.

And we are the body of Christ now.  And I know, I know we get a bad rap sometimes about how we treat hurting people, and some of it is deserved.  But I also know that I have been blessed my all of my church families, and from my personal, limited experience, I would say that the church is better at this than we have been given credit for.  In my life, church is the one place where people don’t shrink from suffering, where they allow it to flow out into the open, where they face it head on through prayer and tears and hugs and meals and cards.  Yes, we drop the ball sometimes, but we do try.

My time is up for this post, and I haven’t even gotten to the coolest part.  That will have to wait for Thursday, I guess.  Until then, though, I just want to leave you with the image of Jesus opening his arms out to the world, saying, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”

He still says that.

And He still does it.

And He does it through the church, the collectors of suffering.

The Fountain of Life

Your love, O LORD, reaches to the heavens,
your faithfulness to the skies.
Your righteousness is like the mighty mountains,
your justice like the great deep.
O LORD, you preserve both man and beast.
How priceless is your unfailing love!
Both high and low among men
find refuge in the shadow of your wings.
They feast on the abundance of your house; 
   you give them drink from your river of delights. 
For with you is the fountain of life; 
   in your light we see light.

–Psalm 36: 5-9

Yesterday, I was driving home from teaching.  I was alone in the car and listening to the radio, and all of a sudden, I heard the most heavenly strumming on a guitar.  I know nothing about music and notes and such, so I can’t tell you how complicated or intricate the notes were.  They sounded pretty simple to me.  And yet, they were just so beautiful.  They spoke straight to my soul.  You know how when things feel so good, they make you want to close your eyes?  Whether it is a soft breeze while you are totally relaxed, a bite of a surprisingly exquisite morsel of food,  the feel of a back rub, or a really good kiss, there is something in your instincts that tells you to close your eyes so that you can enjoy the feeling more.  That’s what I wanted to do when I heard those guitar chords; I just wanted to close my eyes, sigh deeply, and say, “Thank you, God.”  Unfortunately, I was driving, so closing my eyes would be unwise, but I still felt the deep, abiding peace wash over my soul.  And in that second, I was transported from the surface of my day’s tasks to the depths of enjoyment and fulfillment.

I think that the music was a gift from God.

And I think that sometimes we are scared of those gifts.

I know that I am tempted to live in fear:  fear of enjoying this life too much, of being too worldly, of living as a glutton and and a sinner in a lost and dying land.  I desire to be holy;  after all, that’s what God calls me to be.  I long to live for God completely, and not to be distracted by the things that would take my eyes off Him.  And of course, those desires are right and good.  Of course, those desires are God’s will for us.

Here is what I have found, however.  I have found that when I pursue God with all my heart, when I immerse myself in His word, and put my eyes and my heart on things above, I find that despite all of its darkness, the world is absolutely saturated with God.  It is, after all, His creation.  Thus, we can see Him all throughout it.  Because we are each unique in composition and background, different parts of God’s creation speak to us in different ways, but the common ground is that we can experience His presence in basic things, like nature, music, exercise, food, sex, dancing, playing, and being with people.   At their root, all of these things are God’s invention.  They are gifts He chose to give us.  Yes, they can all be distorted; our fallen nature and the “powers of this dark world” are masters at distorting God’s good and perfect gifts.  But I think it is an absolute shame when we allow our fear of distortion to cripple our sense of enjoyment.  When we do that, we allow sin and darkness to take away the good things that God tries to give us in this life.

Truth be told, I believe that a lot of our fear comes from our view of the Bible.  I think we sometimes try to make the Bible into something that it is not.  We make God’s Word to us into a book of rules instead of door that leads us into a life-giving relationship with our Creator.  We act like we still live in the time of Uzzah, and we use his story as a warning against deviating from the narrow way.  I have two thoughts about that.  The first is, we don’t live in the time of Uzzah.  We are not under the Law (and thank God for that, because I am in Leviticus right now in my daily Bible reading, and I cannot imagine having to slaughter that many animals on a regular basis).  And when we put ourselves under that “law of Uzzah,” we become fearful even of our own capacities for enjoyment.  We don’t trust our thoughts and feelings; after all, Uzzah was just trying to help, and look what happened to him!  And so even though we are told that we have God’s Spirit within us, and even though everything in us tells that there’s nothing wrong with fervently enjoying a succulent bite of salmon or a riff on a guitar or a piece of beautiful art, we still worry that somehow that enjoyment makes us worldly.  And to make matters worse, the law of Uzzah tells us that we can’t view those things as worship or a connection to God, because the only way we can worship God are in the ways that He explicitly prescribes.  I have actually heard more than one sermon making that very point!  It’s like we completely skipped the central message of the New Testament and are back under the Law again, like the book of Acts is the sixth book of the Law!  (And again, apart from the theological absurdity of that position, let me tell you as one wading through Leviticus that, on a literary level, there is no way those two books are parallel.  If I learned anything from the Torah, it’s that when God wants to spell out a bunch of rules, He does it very clearly.)  The irony is that in our fear of being worldly, we separate God from the things He uses to reveal Himself to us.  In doing so, we tell ourselves that we can’t experience God in those things.  And because we cut out God from them, we make them worldly.  The result is that we live compartmentalized lives where we “worship” and “commune with God,” in certain contexts, which leaves the rest of our lives–the stuff like eating and running and being outside and kissing and listening to music and playing games– to be experienced apart from Him.  How sad is that?  I don’t want to live one second apart from God!  I want every moment of my life to be lived in worship to Him!

Secondly, though, I don’t even believe that the “time of Uzzah” is what we think it was.  It is so easy to get overwhelmed by all of God’s many laws in the Old Testament, and to be terrified by God’s treatment of those who step out of line.  I am still working through my understanding of all that, but from my understanding of the New Testament, it seems to me that the point of all those rules was to show us that they didn’t work.  And even with all those laws in place, people still communed with God through the normal elements of their lives.  For me, perhaps the best thing to come out of the Old Testament is the example of David.  David messed up all the time (and not just the Bathsheba thing:  when you read his story, there are all sorts of lies and acts of deception mixed in with the good stuff).  And yet, David was called “a man after God’s own heart.”  It’s hard to pin down exactly why he received such a wonderful title, but my running theory is that David was a man after God’s own heart because he saw God in everything.  He saw God in nature, in music, in sorrow, in dancing like a crazy person.

Perhaps that’s why David described God as a fountain of life.  “In your light we see light.”  Even as a sinful man, David was able to see the light in nature and dancing and music and such because he was already immersed in God’s light.  And so perhaps those today who “walk in the light,” as John puts it, are able to see all the sources of light that are already around them.  Perhaps God’s light helps them to test everything, hold onto the good, and avoid every kind of evil.  Maybe the fountain of life that comes from God allows us to connect with Him in everything He gives us.

Thinking about David’s words about the fountain of life reminds me of James’ description of God’s gifts:  “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.”  Today, I’m so thankful for the good and perfect gifts of sunrises and good music and homemade tomato soup and my son’s drawings.  I’m thankful that I don’t have to wait for heaven to get a drink from the fountain of life.

How do you experience God in this life?

(In case you were curious, the guitar riff in question was the first thirty seconds here.)

The Baby in the Bathwater

Let me begin with a fictional story:

Thousands of years ago, when the Israelites were enslaved by the Egyptians, Pharoah passed a law that ordered all the Israelite baby boys to be killed upon birth.  One woman, Jochebed, resisted the law and hid her baby son, Moses.  When she realized that she could hide him no longer, she put the baby in the basket and sailed him down the river.  Moses floated along in his basket until he got hung up in a patch of reeds.  It just so happened that Pharoah’s daughter had come down to bathe in the river by that very patch of reeds, and thus, it just so happened that the royal woman saw Moses and took pity on him.  She decided to raise him as her own, and in a fortuitous twist, Moses’s sister convinced the princess to let his mom nurse him until he was old enough to come live in the palace.  

This is how I understood the story of Moses as a child.  I don’t know why I pictured it like this, but I did, and the image of poor baby Moses sailing helplessly down the river stayed with me through most of my childhood and even most of my teen years.  One day, however, I actually read the account in the Bible and realized that it didn’t happen that way at all.  Moses’ mother didn’t sail him down the river.  Instead, here is what she did:

“…she got a papyrus basket for him and coated it with tar and pitch. Then she placed the child in it and put it among the reeds along the bank of the Nile.  His sister stood at a distance to see what would happen to him. Then Pharaoh’s daughter went down to the Nile to bathe, and her attendants were walking along the river bank” (Exodus 2:3-5).

See?  Clearly, Moses didn’t go for a basket ride down the river.  Instead, his mom put him in a basket and set the basket in a stationary position among the reeds.

That’s weird to me.

The obvious question is, why would someone do that?  I guess it is weird to sail him down the river, too, but at least there is a chance of him arriving somewhere cool…I guess.  But to just set his basket in a place and leave it there–what’s the point?  She can’t stand to drown him, so…she’s going to leave him to the elements?  Does she want him to die of exposure, or what?

I might be wrong (it’s been known to happen before), but I can only think of one explanation.  Moses’ mom knew that Pharoah’s daughter was coming to bathe there.  It’s the only possibility that makes sense to me.  And the more I think about it, the more sense it makes.  Jochebed is desperate.  She can’t bring herself to kill her son, but he is getting too old to hide any more.  Once he is discovered by an Egyptian, he will surely be put to death.

Unless.

Unless she can get him to someone who might have mercy on him, someone powerful enough to spare his life.  Reading the story with fresh eyes, I see Jochebed’s placing of Moses in the princess’ path as a desperate protest.  I theorize that she knew where the princess went to bathe, and she arranged to put her son in the woman’s path.  It’s almost like she was saying, “Here he is:  you kill him.”  It was definitely a gamble.  But maybe she saw it as her only choice:  As risky as it was to reveal the baby’s presence to the ruling class, her only alternative was to kill her son.  Thankfully, in selecting the person to which to appeal, Jochebed chose well:

“[The princess] saw the basket among the reeds and sent her slave girl to get it.  She opened it and saw the baby. He was crying, and she felt sorry for him. ‘This is one of the Hebrew babies,’she said.”

Whenever I read the story of Moses, I tend to focus on, well, Moses.  After all, he is both the victim and the hero of this tale; clearly, he is the center of the story.  But reading it in my journey through the Bible this year, I found that I was full of questions about the princess.  What was her life like?  How much power did she have?  How much did she know about the oppression that enabled her to retain her position in the ruling class?  Clearly, she knew something.  She knew that the baby was a Hebrew baby, and she didn’t think of returning him to his mother.  That alone tells me that she understood the danger he was in, which meant she knew about the law.  But when the baby was put in her face like that, she just couldn’t kill him.  Instead, she felt sorry for him.  And thus, she decided to make a stand.

To be honest, her stand seems a little…limited.   As one who has dabbled in small stands of “social justice,” I can already hear the objections, and I am tempted to join in the chorus:

“Just one baby?  Are you not aware of the widespread genocide that is occurring all around you?  Are you not aware of how you are even complicit in these human rights violations by maintaining your wealthy lifestyle?  Your wealth and power comes on the backs of slaves, lady!”

And what about that rationale:  She felt sorry for the baby?  How emotional!  How weak!  We are not supposed to be driven my emotions, right?  Logic, firm logic, should guide our steps.  And how is it logical to spare one baby, while so many others die?  She is either unwilling or unable to change the whole crooked system, so what’s the point of feeling sorry for just one child?

Reading the old story yet again, I saw the princess in a new light.  I could even see the similarities between the two of us.  We both live wealthy lives, and sometimes we get hints that our status in our powerful society comes at least in part through the oppression of others.  The princess’ society was maintained by infanticide.  My comfortable life is made possible by cheaply made products that sometimes even depend on slave labor.

But what do you do?  What can one person do?

I’m not saying that the princes was a crusader for social justice, and I understand that I’m projecting onto the text.  Rigorous biblical scholarship this is not; Fee and Stuart would be appalled at me right now.  At the same time, though, I gained some encouragement from the princess’ actions in this case.  I know nothing else about this woman, but I do know that when there was a baby in her bathwater, she didn’t push it to the side.  In this case, at least, when she crossed paths with suffering, she stopped and did what she could.

And you know what?  God used her, emotions and all.  Her limited actions made a difference, to say the least.

I think this story resonates with me this year, because I have a lot of babies in my bathwater, metaphorically speaking.  Yes, there is the whole social justice thing, as I am still trying to buy fair trade chocolate.  But more immediately, it seems that there are several real babies floating in my metaphorical bath water.  For instance, I just delivered dinner tonight to a new mom and saw her adorable baby.  At the same time, I have another friend, a single mom, about to have a baby, and I’m getting progressively more worried about her mental state.  There is also another baby:  her mom is still pregnant with her, and I know the mom from way back.  I haven’t had any contact lately, but a mutual friend reached out to me when the mom learned her daughter’s stomach was on the outside of her body.  Other details emerged:  the mom is on drugs, she is basically homeless, and her boyfriend is in jail.  Lastly, another pregnant woman reached out to me, a single mom-to-be, and invited me to her baby shower.  I’ve been meaning to make contact with this last person, and I didn’t even realize that she was pregnant.

All these babies keep popping up in my life, and they keep bringing my thoughts back to Pharoah’s daughter.  What do you do when you see a needy baby (or four) in your path?  If I’m honest with myself, I admit that a few of those situations are really overwhelming to me, and I don’t even know where to start getting involved.  If I’m being extra honest, I’ll admit that I’m also really busy these days, and I am feeling selfish about my time.  And if I’m being brutally honest, I don’t really think that I can make much of a difference in some of the situations that have been put in front of me.

Reading the story of Moses, though, I am reminded of a simple, time-worn fact:  if there is a baby in your bathwater, you don’t leave it bobbing among the reeds.  That’s not so much to ask, is it?  We don’t have to change the world; we just have to help the people in our paths.  In this era of global technology, sometimes people across the world get thrown in our paths.  But more often, it is our neighbors and their babies who need our help.  And we have the choice to ignore the need, to continue with our routines…or to step in and help.

I have some babies in my bathwater.  And now I have to decide what to do about them…

Snowflakes in the Machine

When I drive back and forth from my college class, I often listen to an “independent” radio station.  Because their playlist is not determined by money from record companies (or however that works), they can pretty much play whatever they want.  That means that when I listen to them, I get to hear a number of completely weird refreshingly unique songs.  Sometimes when a song is different, it’s uniqueness draws my attention to the lyrics.  Such was the case with this song I heard the other day, by a band called Fleet Foxes.  The song is called “Helplessness Blues,” and the opening lyrics say this:

“I was raised up believing I was somehow unique
Like a snowflake distinct among snowflakes, unique in each way you can see
And now after some thinking, I’d say I’d rather be
A functioning cog in some great machinery serving something beyond me.”

Those lyrics really got me thinking about the nature of our existence.  I was particularly struck by the starkness of the dichotomy introduced by these beginning lines.  A snowflake is beautiful, complex…and useless.  A cog is simple, unoriginal…but useful.

Which would I rather be?  Special, or useful?

After short reflection, I sided with the lyricist:  I would rather be useful.  In many ways, mine is not a romantic personality.  Snowflakes are pretty, yes, but machines get things done.  And I want things to get done.  In fact, what romantic component I do have in my makeup is absolutely enchanted by images of being part of some glorious cause, something bigger than myself.  If I have to be a cog to do that, then I will be the best cog I can be.

It occurred to me, however, that the Bible rejects the dichotomy between “special” and “useful.”  Scripture tells us that we were created to be both.  That’s because the Kingdom of God is not pictured in Scripture as a machine (or a snowstorm); it’s pictured as a body.

Now, throughout my life, my understanding of Paul’s metaphor of the body of Christ has evolved, and each stage of my understanding has been helpful and true in its own way.  That’s what I love about figurative language; its truth breaks free of the confines of materialistic exclusivity to encompass many different interpretations.  In my first interpretation, I viewed the body of Christ as the local church.  That understanding was formed by the nature of Paul’s examples about the hand and the eye and the foot.  After all, if you are talking about body parts as big as hands and feet, then how many body parts can there be in the whole body?  That level of dissection breaks the body into big parts, like limbs and bones and internal organs.  I figured that it broke the body down to about the number of parts that would make up a congregation.  And since it pictured members as hands, feet, and eyes, it stood to reason that as a member of said body, I would be something as big as a hand, foot, or eye.

Later, my understanding of the church as body grew to include all of the congregations in my particular fellowship.  After all, didn’t we work together to provide disaster relief and fund missionaries?  Maybe then, one congregation was the hand, and another the foot, and so forth.

But as I grew, my thinking expanded.  I began to get involved with interdenominational organizations such as Compassion International, or Samaritan’s Purse, or more recently, Amazima.  The organizations and I worked together toward the same goal:  to spread the love of Christ to the world.  It made sense, then, that the body of Christ encompassed more than the congregations in my particular fellowship; it also included all of those individuals and congregations who served served Christ as Lord with all of their hearts.

But wait:  what about the Christians who lived before us, or the ones that will come after us?  Are they parts of different bodies, or are we all one?  I decided that they had to count as parts of the body, too.

By the terms of Paul’s metaphor, my new “super-huge body image” makes sense.  Paul only talks about one body of Christ.  If the body is the local congregation, then Christ has, like, a bazillion bodies.  And if different groups throughout history make up different bodies, then that means the body of Christ keeps dying on us.  Neither of those possibilities really fit my perception of what Paul is saying.  Instead, I now picture the body of Christ as being made up of all the Christians that have ever lived.

Which means…the body of Christ is a giant.  (Or, to think of it in terms of the song’s lyrics, I am part of one big. honkin’. machine.)

So…thus far, I have demonstrated that I tend to overthink metaphors.  (What can I say, people?  I love language.)  Believe it or not, though, my growing perception of the body of Christ has had some practical effects on my thinking.  For one thing, it’s made me more content in the smallness of my life.  My friends, I am not a hand.  I am not a foot.  In the body of Christ, I am more like a part of a cell.  (Maybe the hands and feet are like, all Presbyterians and all Methodists, or something like that.  But I digress.)  It also gives me more peace about my lack of understanding of just what the Sam hill Christ is doing with His body.  When I thought of myself as a hand, I felt more conflicted about my ignorance.  I mean, after all, you would think that a hand would have at least some level of perspective about what the body is doing as a whole.  Instead, my reaction to the church’s actions (including the internal conversations we have)  generally trends more toward wide-eyed confusion than any type of definitive insight.  But if I’m just a little bitty cell part, then my confusion is okay.  It’s even to be expected.

Also, even though I’m just a teeny tiny part of the body of Christ, that doesn’t mean I’m not special.  In a recent guest post for Housewife Theologian, Tim Fall (faithful commenter to this and many other blogs) described God’s intricate understanding of our bodies:

“But God sees deeper than that. He sees the cells that make up my body, and the components of those cells, and the molecules that make up those components, and the atoms that make up those molecules, and the protons and neutrons and electrons and whatever other subatomic particles are in me. Not only does he see them, but he sees them more clearly than we can imagine. There is nowhere that is out of focus to him, nothing hidden away from his sight. He is the creator of the universe and the creator of every single thing in it. (Isaiah 42:5.) Every single thing.”

Science isn’t my strong suit, so I couldn’t tell you how small a body part I could reasonably expect to be, given the number of Christians who have ever lived.  But even if I am a subatomic particle, God sees me and knows me perfectly.  He knows my purpose in the body, even if I am too small to see it.  He made me that part for a reason, and my microscopic actions, as tiny as they are, ultimately serve the whole of Christ’s body, the body that has been growing through history.  

I like that.  I like that I don’t have to choose between being a snowflake or a cog; I like that, as part of Christ’s body, I am both special and useful.  Plus, when I think about it, the smaller the role I play, the more glorious is the larger cause.  Because seriously, how great and effective can the body of Christ be if I am a whole hand?  I don’t do that much in the grand scheme of life.  However, if all of my efforts in this life amount to the work of a subatomic particle, then WOW.  Christ’s body does a lot.  And thus, my romantic hopes of being part of something much bigger than myself are realized even more fully.

I’ll leave you with this:  today, in all your actions and thoughts, I hope that you are the best proton or neutron…or mitochondria…or nucleus…or blood cell…or elbow (hey, I could be wrong) that you can be!  I hope that you don’t lose sight, even for a second, that you are part of a gigantic, glorious body that is marching purposefully toward the goal of reconciling all humanity with God.  I pray that you don’t lose faith, even for a moment, that the Head of your big, beautiful body knows what He is doing, even if you don’t have the slightest clue.  And I pray that your faith keeps you going even if your bodily function is difficult, or unrewarding, or seemingly hampered by external circumstances.

Keep the faith, my fellow electrons!*

*or whatever you are.

Given the choice, would you rather be a snowflake or a cog?

An Epic Saga of Bible Reading

Do you have any big plans for the new year?

I do.

I plan on getting chewed up and spit out by the Bible.

Again.

Don’t get me wrong–I love the Bible.  LOVE it.  This year, I have had some amazingly profitable Bible studies.  I read through the New Testament this summer and found it to be incredibly inspiring and enlightening.  I also studied Hosea in August, and really got caught up in the story of God’s passion for His people.  In the fall, when my family was going through a tumultuous time, I immersed myself in Philippians, and it kept me spiritually afloat (mixed metaphors, anyone?).  Right now, I’m going through a Beth Moore study on James with my best friend, and good ol’ James has been predictably hard-hitting and motivating.

But there is something about reading through the whole Bible that completely confuses and disorients me.  Recently, Jamie the Very Worst Missionary had a post on her experiences with reading through the Bible, and I was laughing out loud at her description of all the ickiness that goes on in the Old Testament.  I think it was just refreshing to hear someone else articulate the feeling.  Besides all the raping and slaughter and such, the Old Testament is also disorienting because it comes to us in 39 books, and I know precious little about their backgrounds.  By this time in my faith, I’m pretty familiar with the structure and background of the New Testament.  But the Old is a whole ‘nother story.  The books aren’t arranged chronologically, and sometimes even the content of the books isn’t arranged chronologically (see:  Jeremiah); they come in a variety of genres, each requiring its own set of interpretive tools; and often when you start a new book, you are thrown into a historical setting about which you have NO information.  It’s not uncommon to begin a book of prophecy and have no idea who is talking to whom, and at what time, and in what set of circumstances.  I do use several books on the Bible as I study, such as introductions and commentaries, but even then, it’s often hard to get my bearings and to put myself in such a foreign context.

So that’s some of the stuff that makes the Old Testament (and sometimes the New Testament) hard to understand.  But as Mark Twain said, “It ain’t the parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand.”  And I from the other quotes on the Bible I read by Twain while searching for the correct wording for that one, I think I partially mean it the way he does.  Yes, I understand Jesus’ plain words about loving our enemies, and that bothers me, because I know I must follow them.  But I also understand the story of Nadab and Abihu, and that bothers me because I can’t get how God would do that to them.  And I understand the story of Jehu, and that bothers me because I don’t know why God would use such a brutal murderer.  I understand the story of the Israelites taking over Canaan, and that bothers me because of all the genocide involved.  I understand David’s words about wanting someone to dash his enemies’ babies against the rocks, and that bothers me because I am generally against dashing infants.  And so forth.  

Now, believe me, I have sought and received several different answers to the questions that bother me, and have received much wise counsel from people much more educated and further along in their spirituality than I.  I have also spilled a considerable amount of ink and an even larger amount of pixels trying to sort out these issues myself.  And most importantly, I have prayed to God for guidance repeatedly while reading Scripture, and His Spirit has helped me in the process of discernment.  But the end result is generally the same:  by the time I limp through reading the whole Bible in a year, I am spiritually beat up, disheveled, and disoriented. I’ve only done it twice, though, and the second time was much better than the first time.  So I have even higher hopes for the third time.

Now, you may be thinking, Why do it, if it is so challenging to your faith?

I have asked myself the same thing, after each time I’ve finished.  The first time, I honestly thought I would never try to read the whole Bible again.  I finished it at the end of 2006, and I had read it in isolation, never getting to compare notes with other readers.  The sad part was that there was a year-long Sunday school class at church that was reading the same one year Bible that I was, and they met to discuss it each week.  But I was already scheduled to teach for most of the quarters of the year, and so I didn’t get to attend.  I would often pass that class on the way to the one I was teaching, and wish so badly that I could go in and just ask, “Okay, was anyone else completely weirded out by this week’s reading?”  But there was another part of me that thought I might get kicked out of church if I asked the questions that were rattling around in my head.

And so it was that I put the Bible away with a sigh of relief the end of that year.  I decided to spend 2007 just reading the psalms, a book which, baby-head-bashing aside, is like chicken noodle soup for the questioning soul.  I took heart from David’s honesty, from his unwillingness to pretend that his faith was perfect or that he had all the right answers.  I appreciated his rawness, his seeking, his frustration and sadness, intermixed with his joy.  My faith rebounded, and I went on to study the Bible piece-meal for a few more years.

And then in 2010, I decided to try again.  Why?  Because I wanted to know God.  Reading the whole Bible had given me a jolting wake-up call that God was very different than I was.  I tend to unconsciously make God in my own image, which is a form of idolatry.  The best antidote to that self-delusion, I found, is the strong elixir of the whole Bible.  It provides a shock to my system that forces me to acknowledge how different God is from my conceptions of Him.  And since I want to know who God really is, and not just who I want Him to be, I confess that the battering of the whole Bible has become somewhat addictive to me.

Also, I believe that the Truth is strong.  I believe that it–no, that He–can handle our questions, our confusion, our honesty.  I have faith in an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-present God.  And because of that, I know He is more than a match for the struggles of my limited intellect.  Armed with that faith, I began again in 2010.

My reading in 2010 was much better, for two reasons:  1) I took the time to process my thoughts through typing them out in an ongoing Bible blog, which helped immensely, and 2) I read through it with several different Christians (and one atheist!) who chimed in with their two cents.  Reading it this way proved to me that the Bible is meant to be read and interpreted in community.  I was still worn out by the time I crossed the finish line, but even then, I knew I was going to do it again in a year.

And now we are here:  2012.  Time to start again.  I’m going to use the same Bible I did in 2010:  The One Year Bible.  That way, I can refer to my blog to laugh at get insight from my old thoughts, as well as the thoughts of others.  It will also be interesting to see where my interpretations and responses have changed.  As I start, I want to formally invite anyone to join me who so desires.  And I also want to say this to anyone who needs to hear it:  I know it’s hard to read the Bible sometimes.  And I know it’s even harder to understand parts of it.  I know that while it is amazing and uplifting and life-changing and inspirational, it can also be confusing and disorienting.  I know that.  So if you ever read the Bible and come away feeling further from God instead of closer to Him, please know that there is someone who understands those feelings.  When I felt that way, I often wondered if I was the only one.  Maybe I was:).  But if you have ever felt like that, or ever feel that way in the future, please know that you are not alone.  And if you are ever confused or uncertain about something you read in the Bible, and you just want to talk to someone about it, I will talk to you.  I can almost guarantee you that I won’t have hard and fast answers for you, but I will jump in there with you and work through it.  One way to get my attention is to leave a comment on either this blog or the Bible blog.  Even when I am not actively referring to the Bible blog (as I will be in 2012), I still get email updates whenever someone leaves a comment.  I will go so far as to guarantee that if you leave a comment on the Bible blog about Scripture, I will respond to you.  As one who is extremely indebted to those who have responded to ME when I’ve been lost and confused, I would be remiss not to pass on that blessing (albeit with a lot less wisdom and insight).

So those are my Bible reading plans for 2012.  I also have bought or plan to buy a few books that I think will help with journey…in addition, of course, to the faithful references and commentaries that I have already accrued.

Wish me luck…and feel free to join me!

Have you ever read the whole Bible?  How did you take it?

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