Woodworking and God’s Poiema

A surprising advantage of woodworking using hand tools – one can quietly prep boards and layout dovetails during a church service. A dozen or so years ago I got to do just that. My friend Sonja preached a sermon focused on Ephesians 2, specifically, For we are [God’s] workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared ahead of time for us to do (Eph. 2:10, CSB). She asked me if I would relocate my workbench and some tools to the church sanctuary stage and then do some woodworking stuff as she gave her message.

As I prepared boards to cut dovetails that Sunday morning, I contemplated the significance that I, Curt Hinkle, am God’s workmanship. What does it mean to be God’s workmanship? And what does it mean that I am his workmanship with purpose? And what are those good works for which God has prepared for me? Some thoughts…

I notice that the Apostle Paul said we are God’s workmanship, not you (or Curt Hinkle, for that matter). In our western, American individualistic approach to faith, it’s an easy miss. I don’t doubt that this is a truism applicable to the individual, but we need to remember that Paul is addressing the Church in Ephesus. It seems that he is saying that Christ-followers as a whole unit are his workmanship, created for good works – individually and corporately.

So, let’s look at what Paul might be saying both individually and corporately. The root Greek word for workmanship is poiema (ποίημα). It describes God’s creative activity. It’s the word from which poem and poetry are derived. It has also been translated as accomplishment, masterpiece, handiwork, or a product of his hand. The Jerusalem Bible’s translation of Ephesians 2:10:

We are God’s work of art, created in Christ Jesus for good works which God has already designated to make up our way of life.

God’s work of art! In The Problem of Pain, C.S. Lewis describes us as “Divine work(s) of art, something that God is making…” Or, as Timothy Keller has been oft quoted…

Do you know what it means that you are God’s workmanship? What is art? Art is beautiful, art is valuable, and art is an expression of the inner being of the maker, of the artist. Imagine what that means. You’re beautiful … you’re valuable … and you’re an expression of the very inner being of the Artist, the divine Artist, God Himself.

As a woodworker, I know the reality that every project I work on is a unique creation. Every year I try to make gifts for each of our four kids (i.e. charcuterie boards). On the surface, they all appear to be the same but they are not. They each have nuances related to things like wood types, grain orientation, blemishes, and, of course, operator error. What they do have in common that cannot be taken away from them: They are each a unique creation of mine, an expression of my creative activity.

The Apostle Paul used poiema only one other time in his writings that are included in the New Testament canon. In Romans 1:20 he states…

For since the creation of the world, God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and all the things that make him God [his divine nature] – have been clearly seen [perceived], understood through what God has made (poiema). (EXB)

To be God’s poiema is a big deal! It’s right up there with all of creation (which we discussed in The Theology of Woodworking). We are visible expressions of the invisible God. As a higher schooler once said to me, “We get to be walking billboards.” It’s the “good works” we were created for. What a privilege!

With woodworking, there is a point where I, the artist, say “good enough.” It’s not a statement of shoddiness. It’s more of a comment about return on investment. At some point, I deem a project complete enough for its intended purpose. Satisfied with my poiema, I move on to the next project.

I am aware that not all of us consider it a privilege to be “walking billboards” due to real or perceived warts. But Paul didn’t say “For we are [God’s] workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works someday.” There is a present tense implication. God’s creative activity is ongoing in the form of transformation into the likeness of his Son (For God knew his people in advance, and he chose them to become like his SonRomans 8:29). He doesn’t say “good enough.” As we continue to follow him, the warts (real and perceived) begin to fade.

Transformation. We’ve talked about that in previous blog posts (cf. Metamorfoo). We must remember that it’s not our job to transform ourselves. Our job is to follow Jesus, positioning ourselves so God can accomplish the transformation – For God is at work within you, helping you want to obey him, and then helping you do what he wants (Philippians 2:13, TLB). This is the entirety of C.S. Lewis’ quote from The Problem of Pain

“We are a Divine work of art, something that God is making and therefore something with which He will not be satisfied until it has a certain character.”

Thanksgiving 2022

A couple of years ago while meeting with my high school Young Life Campaigner (Bible study) group, we had the obligatory conversation about thankfulness, given that it was the Monday of Thanksgiving week here in America.

In the United States, the Thanksgiving holiday is a bit of a myth that came to the fore during the Civil War when President Abraham Lincoln, to foster unity, declared it a national holiday. I am aware that other countries have also set aside annual days to be thankful. Days set aside for thanksgiving are centuries-old, though feasting is a newer phenomenon. In centuries past, days of thanksgiving involved fasting, prayer, and supplication* to God. It reminds us of the Apostle Paul’s admonition in his letter to the Philippians…

Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:6-7, ESV).

During the conversation with the Campaigner guys, I asked if there was a difference between thankfulness and gratitude. In our initial responses, we thought the words basically meant the same and were interchangeable. Those who know me well would not be surprised to know that I sent them to their devices to look up the definitions of the two terms. We discovered something pretty interesting…

Thankfulness is an adjective and Gratitude is a noun.

To my English teacher friends, the significance of this distinction is not missed. The rest of us may need to dig a bit deeper. Being thankful is about being pleased and relieved, an adjective that describes how we feel. Gratitude, on the other hand, is the quality of being thankful coupled with a readiness to show appreciation and return kindness. Gratitude is about our character.

With my Campaigner guys, we developed an analogy that helped us make sense of the distinction between thankfulness and gratitude: I get the results of a difficult math test and my grade is better than anticipated, for which I am thankful! Gratitude, on the other hand, would be displayed when I connect with my teacher to show appreciation for the extra help she gave me. Thankfulness is more inward; Gratitude is outward. Thankfulness is more of a spontaneous response; gratitude, as with all character-building endeavors, takes time, effort, and intentionality, to which my wife, Barb, alluded in a FaceBook post a few years ago:

A couple years ago I decided to focus on the word gratitude. At first I just put copies of the word “gratitude” in places I would see throughout the day. After awhile the word became part of my daily thoughts. I would encourage anyone who desires to see life through a better lens to try this, I feel like it changed me for the better.

Have a Blessed Thanksgiving!

* Supplication is not a word we use much in our daily conversations. It basically means asking, even begging, for something with earnestness and humility.

Dovetails

Early into my woodworking experience of using hand tools, I was intrigued by the thought of cutting dovetail joints by hand. I had always loved the look of the dovetail joint but had never made any. There are jigs and templates to cut them with a router, but that seemed cumbersome and didn’t interest me. The first time I watched someone cut dovetails by hand, I was hooked. I wanted to learn.

So, to YouTube I went, looking for instructions on how to cut and fit perfect dovetails. I discovered that everyone had a different approach to cutting them, some with slight variations, some with significant variations (i.e. cutting the tails first versus the pins first). Interestingly, some see the tail/pin preference worthy of controversy, while the practical woodworker admits it’s a personal preference.

The Dovetail Joint

One of my go-to woodworking teachers for laying out and cutting dovetails is Chris Schwarz. He suggested learning by doing – cutting a dovetail a day for about 30 days. So that’s what I embarked on doing. I had the basic tools – a dovetail saw, a coping saw, and a set of chisels. Using pine 1x6s, I started in. Day 1 was indeed practice – cutting the dovetails felt awkward. I cut on the wrong side of the lines so it didn’t fit. On day 2 I concentrated on cutting on the correct side of the line, but overcompensated, so the fit was sloppy. The iterative process continued day after day with minimal improvement, so I discontinued the practice after a couple of weeks.

I then got the idea of making 19th-century replica school boxes for each of my four kids for Christmas. The design of the boxes required dovetail joints – lots of them! What better way to learn than to jump in…

As you can see, the boxes had a lot of dovetails – 24 each, so 96 total. I was wise enough to cut the dovetails on the backside first, knowing they would be far from perfect, hoping that by the time I got to the front they would look better (which turned out to be a good plan). Marking the dovetails was pretty straightforward. Sawing them, not so much.

As I took my dovetail saw in hand, sawing still felt awkward, and continued to feel awkward for a time. Then about halfway through the cutting of the 96 dovetails, something happened. I realized that I had become comfortable with the saw in my hand. It didn’t seem to be something that extended out from my hand anymore. Rather, it seemed to feel more like an extension of my hand! It’s hard to explain what happened, but sawing became more effortless, almost second nature.

Over the years, it’s been fun watching our children and now grandchildren develop various skills as baseball players, BMX racers, swimmers, gymnasts, and musicians. In those early days of learning and development, they looked and sounded awkward. Things were much different after a few years of practice. The baseball glove appeared to be an extension of the hand, “touch-typing” the keyboard or guitar fret became the norm, awkward cartwheels became natural-looking round-offs, BMX track berms negotiated at top speed, etc. With practice, what was once awkward for them to do (and watch 🙂) became second nature.

N.T. Wright, in his book After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters, talks about “second nature” as it applies to Christian virtue (character). With time and practice, disciplines like reading scripture (especially the Gospels 🙂), praying (Dallas Willard: Talking with God about what we are doing together), loving our neighbor, etc. become second nature. We don’t have to think about them. They become part of the rhythms of our life.

Time and practice and rhythms

N.T. Wright: “Character is transformed by three things. First, you have to aim at the right goal. Second, you have to figure out the steps you need to take to get to that goal. Third, those steps have to become habitual, a matter of second nature.”1 Time and practice for which there is NO shortcut.

Here’s the very good news. With time and practice, some of the character-forming disciplines not only become second nature, but they also become rhythmic in nature. We can’t not practice them. I think of my grandsons walking through the house swinging “air bats.” They can’t help themselves, they can’t not do it!

N.T. Wright was once asked in an interview how important daily prayers and scripture reading were to him. He responded, “I don’t know how to answer that. It’s like asking how important breathing is to me.” Rhythm. It’s the stuff of life!

I think of Eugene Peterson’s rendition of Matthew 11: Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace (Matthew 11:28-30, The Message).

Focused on the Master and with time and practice, we learn unforced rhythms. Who doesn’t want that?

1 Wright, N. T., After You Believe (p. 29). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

Theology of Woodworking, cont.

My foray into woodworking with hand tools came through my oldest son, Nate. I dabbled in woodworking for decades (I made a cradle when he was born 43 years ago), primarily employing power tools. About 15 years ago Nate took me to a woodworking show at the Minnesota State Fair Grounds, where we visited a section dedicated to hand tools. He had already picked up, refurbished, and tuned up some centuries-old planes and chisels for himself.

At the show, Nate tried out a new Lie Nielson smoothing plane. Turning to me he said, “Dad, you’ve got to try this – it’s amazing.” So, tentatively I took the smoothing plane in hand and attempted to apply it to the pine demonstration board. I took a couple awkward strokes and quickly decided that I was a dedicated power tool guy.

Lie Nielson Smoothing Plane

Nate was convinced that if I gave it a chance, I would enjoy woodworking with hand tools. So he located for me some turn of the 20th century, classic Stanley hand planes and showed me how to refurbish and tune them. Flattening the bottoms (soles) and honing the blades (irons) and other parts took time – a LOT of time. But there was something quite satisfying about the restoration process.

My 100+ year-old bench planes

I have often said that God is as much or more interested in process than outcome. Since the tuning up and use of hand tools is a relatively quiet process, it has allowed me to sharpen my theological mind. My shop has become the go-to place for me to take in the theological works of a number of scholars, via audiobooks, podcasts, etc. I just looked at my Audible library. This is a sample of some of the books I’ve listened to:

These are but a few of the books I’ve been privileged to listen to while quietly working away in my shop with hand tools. Not included on the list are the historical Great Courses on World and American history to which I’ve listened. To me, context is of great importance and invaluable in honing my theology.

Honing. That’s a word we don’t use a lot in day-to-day conversation. The primary definition of honing is related to the sharpening of a blade. Before my hand tool woodworking life, I viewed the sharpening of a blade as one-dimensional – a one-sided deal. That’s how I’ve always sharpened my lawnmower blades – sharpen the cutting face, reinstall the blade and get to cutting. We did the same thing with mower sickles on the farm.

I discovered there are two equally important sides to a plane’s blade (iron). Honing the back of the iron is equally important in the process. If one were to only sharpen the front and then proceed to plane a board, two things would occur. First, the iron would dull quickly leading to frustration (and possibly the setting of the plane aside in favor of a powered device). Secondly, and maybe even more important, the piece of wood being planed can be damaged. An improperly honed and tuned plane will tear out the beautiful fibers in the grain that we hoped to bring to life when we started the process.

So a woodworker spends as much time honing and flattening the back of the blade as the front. Polishing, actually. If the back of the iron is sufficiently polished, the blade holds its edge and the woodworker has the satisfaction of watching a rough board come to life. I’m not speaking hyperbolically. We get to see the board come to life!

Theologically, there is more to consider here than I should like to fit into one blog post. A couple things I think are worth our pondering…

What are we doing to hone our theology and understanding of God?

An incomplete understanding of God leads to an incomplete understanding of ourselves and the role we are called to play in our world. Remember, as disciples we are invited to join Jesus in his mission. So it’s important (imperative?) that we understand him and his mission.

And, what are we honing?

When Jesus came into the world, those charged with speaking for God were pretty one-dimensional. They focused on keeping the law and entirely missed the intent of the law. I don’t think it’s by accident that the Apostle John reminded the early followers that Jesus came to earth full of grace and truth (cf John 1:14-17).

When ministering to people around us, if we have only one-dimensionally honed our understanding of grace or truth and not both, we can quickly become frustrated. We might quit and give up or, worse, employ “power tools” (i.e. manipulation, guilt, shame, etc.). And we can do great damage to the very people God called us to serve and help come to life.

The Theology of Woodworking

I love woodworking. I have all my life. As a kid, I had my own Handy Andy tool chest (see Veritas) and built everything imaginable, including farming implements that could be attached to my old tricycle. Some of my favorite memories were related to doing woodworking of some sort with my dad – building hayracks and feed bunks, barn remodeling, etc. These pre-power tool days taught me to use a hammer and handsaw. Maybe I was predisposed to working with hand tools (again, see Veritas).

I keep saying that I should write a book on the Theology of Woodworking, but that has yet to happen. Then it occurred to me that a good start might be the writing of a related blog post(s). So, here goes…

The first thing that comes to mind is creativity. Everyone is created in God’s image as we know from the creation story (Genesis 1:26-27). Notice I said everyone – don’t miss the significance of that. Everyone means everyone – people we like and people we view as enemies. Billy Graham and Karl Marx. All humans were created in God’s image. That sets humanity apart from all the rest of creation (see Tov Meod).

What does it mean to be created in God’s image? As God’s culminating handiwork, we possess some of the same characteristics as God. God is a relational God and we are relational people. God is just and thus we hate injustice. I assume our love of music and humor comes from God. And, of course, God is a creative God, thus our creative nature. And we all possess a creative nature. We all have significant creative potential. How do I know that? Because…

We were created in God’s image and I have watched children at play

On the surface, creativity and woodworking seem to be at odds. Woodworking would appear to be a left-brained sport – math, science, geometry, and all that. As a structural engineer, one would think the left-brained challenges would be my favorite part of woodworking. But not so. I get a lot of satisfaction when I get to be creative.

I fully understand that some people are created with a left-brain leaning while others are blessed with a more active right brain. However, I suspect we were created with a more “balanced brain.” Then conditioning takes place, especially in western-thinking parts of the world. Not the same for eastern thinking. Westerners are focused on outcomes and feasibility. Easterners tend to be more at home with process and story. And we cannot lose sight of the fact that God’s story with humanity is rooted in eastern culture.

Conditioning can be fatal to creativity. Practical thinking* can snuff out creativity. Howard Hendricks, in his classic book Color Outside the Lines, describes what “snuffing out” looks like. He suggests readers jot down several comments about a child’s proposed wheelbarrow design…

If you are like me, your initial thoughts would primarily be negatively critical – things that would tell the child it’s ridiculous, not practical, and won’t work. Yes, conditioning can be fatal. From Hendricks…

Walt Disney, arguably among the most creative individuals America has ever produced, was drawing flowers in his elementary-school classroom. His teacher looked at his paper and remonstrated, “Walter, flowers do not have faces.” He answered, “Mine do!”

Fred Smith is the founder of FedEx. At Yale University he wrote a paper proposing a reliable overnight delivery system. His professor: “The concept is interesting and well-formed, but in order to earn a grade better than a ‘C’, the idea must be feasible.” Conditioning can be fatal!

I am extremely grateful as I think about what I get to do in my wood shop. It’s all about creativity. It helps me overcome my western conditioning. When my creative juices get going, I become a better image-bearer of God, the Creator. If I become a better image-bearer, I suspect that spills over to the world around me. “Blessed to be a blessing,” God’s covenant expectation of his people (cf Genesis 12ff).

The theology of woodworking? As a creature created in the image of the Creator, I get to use some of His creation (wood) to progressively become more creative.

* It’s not lost on me that I call this blog Practical Theology. Hmmm.

Babette’s Feast

The past couple of blog posts focused on the goodness of God – Taste and See and God is Good. So What? At the end of God is Good. So What? I indicated that we would consider Babette’s Feast and how it relates to experiencing God’s goodness. Babette’s Feast is a little-known short story written in the mid-20th century, later turned into a film in the 1980s. It’s a great little story, filled with metaphorical symbolism, and well worth the time to read or watch.

Babette’s Feast is an 18th-century story of two spinster sisters who lived in a small coastal village in Denmark.  They had committed together to care for the small and dwindling parish that their late father had founded. Both had opportunities to leave the village, but at their father’s request, they stayed to help care for the community, even beyond his death.

One day, at the request of an acquaintance, the sisters agreed to take in Babette Hersant, a refugee of the French revolution, employing her as a cook.  They taught Babette to cook the cod and bread the way they always prepared it – dry and bland.  What they didn’t know was that Babette was a very good (tov meod) cook.  Before escaping Paris, Babette had been the head chef at one of the most famous Parisian cafés.

Unbeknownst to Babette, in her absence, someone continued to pay her annual entrance in the Lottery – which she won!  The sisters and community folks all assumed that Babette would use the winnings to return to France.  She did not. Instead, she used all of her winnings to put on a dinner of gratitude in honor of the sisters’ father’s 100th birthday.  She spent all of her winnings on an extravagant meal for a dozen people.

One of the guests at the dinner was a visiting general who had spent a fair amount of time dining at the finest cafés of Paris.  Familiar with the pallets and fare of the locals, he was prepared for a typical bland meal.  Babette’s feast was far from bland. Course after course, the general was astonished by the taste and quality – taste and quality he was familiar with.  He appreciated and savored every morsel. He knew an outstanding meal when he was presented with one.

The townspeople, however, merely tolerated the unusual fare of Babette’s Feast.

God’s goodness surpasses all that we can imagine.  Tasting and seeing, asking, seeking, and knocking opens our eyes to a goodness that exceeds our limited imaginations and expectations.  If we are not consistently tasting and seeking the goodness of God, I wonder if there is the possibility that we won’t know it when it shows up.  Something to ponder.

Addendum September 7, 2022. I just read this today from Luke 5 in The Voice*:

Look, nobody tears up a new garment to make a patch for an old garment. If he did, the new patch would shrink and rip the old, and the old garment would be worse off than before. And nobody takes freshly squeezed juice and puts it into old, stiff wineskins. If he did, the fresh wine would make the old skins burst open, and both the wine and the wineskins would be ruined. New demands new—new wine for new wineskins. Anyway, those who’ve never tasted the new wine won’t know what they’re missing; they’ll always say, “The old wine is good enough for me!” (Luke 5:36-39)

* Ecclesia Bible Society. The Voice Bible, eBook: Step Into the Story of Scripture (p. 1247). Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition.

God is Good. So What?

In the previous post, Taste and See, we started a conversation about God’s goodness, and what it means when we say “God is Good.” When leading small groups, I like to follow discovery with application – What we just discovered followed by “Now What?” or “So What?” In the last post, we discussed the intrinsic goodness of God. A great “So What” question might be…

How does one know and experience the goodness of God?

Let’s start by looking at something Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount related to God’s goodness:

“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.  “Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? 10 Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? 11 If you, then, though you are evil (sinful), know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him! (Matthew 7:7-11)

This passage is notoriously misused, especially if we tend to lean toward a gospel of prosperity.   “Ask and seek” followed by “receive and find” coupled with that statement of a Father in heaven who gives good gifts – we immediately assume this passage is about asking for and getting stuff from God. 

A good Father doesn’t give his kids what they want.  He gives them what they need, what is good for them.  The Amplified translation helps us see how Jesus describes the goodness of God…

11 If you then, sinful by nature as you are, know how to give good and advantageous gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven [perfect as He is] give what is good and advantageous to those who keep on asking Him.

Keep in mind the context of Jesus’ words.  They are part of the Sermon on the Mount.  In that famous sermon, Jesus was describing to his followers what life in God’s economy looks like.  And the life he described was proving to be significantly different from anything they had heard before from their religious teachers. 

These words about asking and receiving are found deep into the “Sermon.”  He had already told them of their call to be salt and light to the world.  As salt and light, he suggested they love their enemies (likely the Roman occupiers).  And by the way, if a Roman soldier forced them to carry his pack for a mile, he suggested they carry it a second mile.  He had admonished his followers to not judge others.  Oh, and also that they could live without worrying.

I can envision his followers looking at each other, wondering how they could live and operate in such a manner – an obvious question.  A question anyone of us might ask. I wonder if Jesus might have been saying to his disciples (and to us) to ask and seek the answers to their questions about kingdom living.  I wonder if Jesus might have been saying that God will honor your seeking and asking, giving you what is good and advantageous so that you can live without worrying or judging others; so that you can actually learn to love your enemies.

He wouldn’t suggest such things if he didn’t also provide a way for us to live thusly.

So, how does one know and experience the Goodness of God? What does that look like practically?   In the last post, we looked at Psalm 34: Taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the one who takes refuge in him (34:8). Out of his experiences with God, David was saying to the rest of his religious community, “Taste and see if I’m not right.  Taste and see for yourself that the Lord is indeed good.” 

What does taste and see look like?  What is something that you love to eat or drink that you had to develop a taste for?”  We don’t acquire a taste by trying something once. It comes with time and consistency. And with surprise.  I think that’s what Jesus was communicating in the Matthew passage…

“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.  (Matt. 7:7-8)

Asking is not a one-off query.  Nor is seeking or knocking.  Ask, seek and knock are imperatives.  An example of an imperative might be “Shut the front door when the air conditioner is on.” However, ask, seek and find are present imperatives as in, “Always shut the front door when the air conditioner is on.”  So here it means ALWAYS be asking, seeking, knocking.  The Amplified translation captures the essence of the present imperative…

 7 “Ask and keep on asking and it will be given to you; seek and keep on seeking and you will find; knock and keep on knocking and the door will be opened to you.  (AMP)

David understood this as well when he said, I sought the Lord, and he answered me (Psalm 34:4). The Hebrew word for sought implies following, not a one-off query of God.  David was a follower – he sought the Lord on a continuous basis.  Thus David was able to experience the Lord’s presence and goodness in the midst of running for his life from King Saul.

Followership is key to knowing and experiencing the goodness of God.  Unfortunately, we Westerners find following rather difficult because…

  • Following implies a life-long process of discovery.  We would rather have the answers and outcomes now.  My educator friends fully understand this! Standardized testing flies in the face of discovery.
  • Following is unpredictable because we are following a Jesus that is unpredictable.  Remember The Chosen?  “Get used to different.”  By the way, though Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Hebrews 13:8), he’s certainly not predictable.
  • Westerners prefer clarity.  Following is about trust.  Trust and clarity tend to be at odds with each other. Example…

Toward the end of his life, the late ethicist and professor Fr. John Kavanaugh, went to Calcutta to seek an audience with Mother Teresa.  He was desiring to find out how to best spend the remainder of his life.  When he met Mother Teresa, he asked her to pray for him. “What do you want me to pray for?” she replied. He then uttered the request he had carried thousands of miles: “Clarity. Pray that I have clarity.”

“No,” Mother Teresa answered, “I will not do that.” “Clarity is the last thing you are clinging to and must let go of.”  Kavanaugh said that she always seemed to have clarity, the very kind of clarity he was looking for.  Mother Teresa laughed and said: “I have never had clarity; what I have always had is trust. So I will pray that you trust God.

Trust is central to following. And following is central to tasting and seeing, knowing and experiencing the goodness of God.  And the best way I know how to do that is by spending large amounts of time with the embodied goodness of God – Jesus.

Next: Babette’s Feast and how it relates to experiencing God’s goodness.

Taste and See

What do we mean when we say “God is good?”  I suspect that for many people, it’s a bit like saying “God is love.”  Each statement is a good, proper Sunday School-type statement.  But they don’t serve us well or take us deeper into an understanding of or relationship with God.

A few months ago I was talking with one of our grandchildren about what they were learning in Sunday School.  They said, “All they tell us is that God loves us, and I already know that!”  Statements like “God loves us” or “God is good” can easily become what one might call, a simplistic bumper-sticker theology (or window decal).  Great sayings, but out of sight (or in the case of decals, backward when we see them in the rear-view mirror).  I suspect that most of us want something more than a bumper-sticker theology.

What does it mean that God is good?  In Psalm 34, the psalmist, David said: Taste and see that the lord is good; blessed is the one who takes refuge in Him (34:8). In a previous post, we tasted and saw the goodness of God in the creation narrative (see Tov Meod). Our understanding of God’s goodness comes from the biblical narrative.  The creation story points to God’s intrinsic goodness.  It’s who he is.  It’s an objective reality of his character. (If you’ve ever read C.S. Lewis’ Abolition of Man you will understand what I mean by “objective reality”).

As the biblical narrative developed, we continue to see His goodness manifested, especially as it relates to humanity.  Sin entered the picture, disrupting God’s good creation.  To restore and redeem his good creation, God called Abraham and his descendants to be integral to the redemption project.  Abraham’s decedents, God’s people, were called to be a blessing – to communicate God’s objective goodness to the world.

As you may recall, they taxed God’s goodness.  They constantly turned away from Him, chasing after other gods, proving to be unfaithful to him and to their calling.  But God, in His goodness, remained faithful and loyal to the people and to his commitment to redeem the world.  The story culminated with Jesus entering history with the good news that God’s kingdom had broken in and complete redemption was on the horizon.  This is what we call the Gospel – GOOD news.  Don’t miss the significance of that.

In the middle of the narrative, about a thousand years before Jesus, David found himself running for his life – the jealous King Saul was out to get him.  Though David had been anointed to become the next king, survival itself was in doubt.  It was during this time that he likely wrote Psalm 34.  What we know of David is that he was a man after God’s own heart, and we see this in his song:

1 I will extol the Lord at all times;
    his praise will always be on my lips.
I will glory in the Lord;
    let the afflicted hear and rejoice.
Glorify the Lord with me;
    let us exalt his name together.

Given his personal history with God, David could say with confidence: I sought the Lord, and he answered me; he delivered me from all my fears… Taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the one who takes refuge in him. (Psalm 34:4,8). He could say, with confidence…

God has my best interests in mind.

When our kids were young, whenever I needed to make a Saturday run to the hardware store or the lumber yard (they were two different stores 30+ years ago), I would always grab whichever of our four kids was available to go with me.  The excursion usually included a stop at the local Food Bonanza to visit all the Saturday morning food-sampling stations.   As the kids got older, it took a little more encouragement to get them to drop what they were doing to join their dad as he ran errands.  My usual enticement came in the form of “Have I ever steered you wrong?”   

When Jonathan, our youngest, was about 11, we were living in the Memphis, TN, area.  One Saturday I needed to make a Home Depot run and took Jonathan with me.  As we were driving along, I asked him, “Do you know how much I love you?”  We drove in silence for a while as he pondered his response.  Then, in classic Jonathan-style, he said, “Well, you’ve never steered me wrong.” I suspect that David not only knew that God had his best interests in mind, but also that God had never steered him wrong. 

We are going to continue to discuss the goodness of God, especially as it relates to our day-to-day living. Remember, this blog is about practical theology. In the meantime, as you read the biblical narrative, taste and see that the Lord is good. Maybe check out some images of his good creation via the Hubble telescope. Or via the new James Webb Telescope (which is 100 times more powerful than Hubble). And keep in mind the objective reality that the one true God who created this vast universe…

Has our bests interests in mind!

AutoCADD and the Lord’s Prayer

Circa early 1990s. I was working for a company that manufactured steel structures for high voltage transmission lines. Though a structural engineer, I found myself managing the drafting department of a couple dozen people. At the time, all the drawings were created by hand, requiring full-scale, time-consuming layouts of some of the parts, many quite large. For years, manufacturers of small machine parts had used the computer software, AutoCADD (CADD = Computer Aided Design and Drafting) to aid their work. We owned a couple copies of AutoCADD, but they largely laid dormant.

I discovered that one of the features of AutoCADD was a built-in programming language giving the software the ability to create drawings of parts with a few input parameters. I was thinking that if only we could program AutoCADD to do the full-scale layouts, what potential manpower savings! So I found a trusted colleague who did AutoCADD programming and said, “Teach me how to do this?” After a few hours with him, I had a pretty good idea of how to program in AutoCADD. I began to write programs to alleviate the need for many full-scale layouts. The drafters, knowing what I was working on, would check in on the progress and watched in awe as drawings appeared before their very eyes. Heck, I was in awe. It was ‘revolutionary.’

Here’s a great exercise – Brainstorm with a group of people and ask this question: Apart from his performance of miracles, what drew people to Jesus? We read in the Gospels that people were constantly amazed and in awe of what Jesus taught (c.f. Matthew 7:28-29). On the surface, this makes perfect sense until we stop to think of the radical and revolutionary nature of his teaching – things like “Love your enemies.” But the people were drawn to him. Though revolutionary, his teaching was new and fresh and with authority.

Jesus also showed his disciples (or apprentices) how to live life – a full and complete life. The disciples were drawn in by what he said and did, which was completely different than anything they had ever seen. They were people in awe. I picture them observing Jesus’ relationship to the Father, witnessing something new and revolutionary. I suspect this was particularly true as they watched Jesus pray and converse with his father.

One day they asked Jesus to teach them to pray – “Show us how to do this. We want to learn to pray like you pray.” So he taught them the prayer we refer to as The Lord’s Prayer. It’s easy to look at the simplicity of the prayer and see it as Jesus telling the disciples what to pray. That is certainly there and there is comfort in reciting the prayer. But their question was not what to pray, but how to pray.

So he taught them.

And I suspect they were in awe as he taught them. The prayer was radical and revolutionary. And simple – right from the onset. The prayers they grew up with did not reference God as Father and certainly did not use vernacular. During Jesus’ time on earth, Aramaic was the common, vernacular language of the day. In Aramaic, the term for Father was Abba, a term of intimacy and familiarity. In other words, Daddy! Radical and revolutionary indeed!

I grew up in a mainline church in which we recited the Lord’s Prayer at every worship service. It was tradition, even a bit ritualistic feeling. Because of our many moves over the years, we have had numerous opportunities to find new worshiping communities. We tended to gravitate toward churches that would describe themselves as evangelical, biblically-based communities. None of them included the Lord’s Prayer as part of the worship experience. And I didn’t miss it. We were above ritual. In fact, I was a bit proud that we didn’t need to lean on an unspontaneous prayer.

Proud…and a bit arrogant.

About 20 years ago we landed back in a mainline church, regular reciters of the Lord’s Prayer. Surprisingly there was comfort in the familiarity of the prayer. I had missed it. More surprising was the awe that overcame me. I began to consider the significance of the prayer. And the simplicity. But one Sunday, a thought came to me that that really caused me to pause…

As we began with “Our Father,” it occurred to me that on any given Sunday, a billion or so people were praying the same prayer around the world in thousands of different languages and dialects. Our father, not my father. I stood in silence that day, reverently listening to a full sanctuary of people recite, in complete unison, the prayer Jesus taught his followers.

I was in awe. And humbled.

$4.79 and Counting…

As I write this, gas prices in my area have reached $4.79 per gallon ($1.27/liter). That means the cost to fill the 20+ gallon tank in my vehicle approaches $100. Ouch! In the United States, we have experienced gasoline price increases of about 50%. Ouch indeed!!

As hard as it is to fill my gas tank and watch the numbers mount, it pales compared to the many farmers in our region that not only are experiencing a 50% increase in fuel costs but were unable to get their crops planted in a timely manner this year because of poor weather conditions. Crop planting was delayed to the point in which farmers were forced to set aside the seed dedicated to this year’s seeding to purchase new, faster maturing, lower-yielding hybrids (if available) at exorbitant prices.

But that pales in comparison with the devastation entire communities experienced when recent tornados ripped through their towns and cities. And that pales with the devastation caused by mass-shooting gunmen in the United States communities like Buffalo, NY, Uvalde, TX, and Tulsa, OK.

And then there are places in our world like Ukraine in which life has been (and continues to be) disrupted at the pleasure of a tyrannical dictator/president of neighboring Russia. Death and destruction because Putin and his oligarchs decreed it to be so.

As I’ve continued to read the story of Israel’s demise at the hands of tyrannical kingdoms and their leaders, I am realizing that $4.79/gallon isn’t such a big deal in the grand scheme of world history. From what I can gather from reading the history of the times, the barbarism that Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar displayed would make the war on Ukraine seem a bit tame. Building siege works around cities was standard procedure for the Babylon armies, leading to the natives turning on each other for survival, even reverting to cannibalism. (The TV Mini-Series, The Bible, gave us a slight understanding of period barbarism when Nebuchadnezzar had King Zedekiah’s eyes gouged out!)

This barbaric treatment of his people is what Jeremiah witnessed during his life as a prophet. As a spokesman for God, he tried to warn the people again and again. And they ignored him again and again. So he lamented and wept! (See Persistence and Same Old, Same Old).

Jeremiah’s laments have been recorded in the Hebrew scriptures, known as (appropriately named) Lamentations in the Old Testament of our Bible. The book is a mix of lament for the people and for himself, given the life-long contempt he suffered as God’s spokesperson. An example: I became the laughingstock of all my people; they mock me in song all day long… I have been deprived of peace; I have forgotten what prosperity is. So I say, “My splendor is gone and all that I had hoped from the Lord.” (Lamentations 3:14-18)

Jeremiah didn’t have a lot for which he could be hopeful. Nor did the people. The Hebrew scriptures are laced with songs of lament. The Psalms are especially replete with lament, both individual and communal. Depending on who’s doing the counting, upwards of one-third of the Pslams contain significant levels of lament. Jeremiah’s lament was not uncommon.

And yet in the middle of his lengthy lament, Jeremiah was able to say, “Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope:

22 Because of the Lord’s great love [hesed] we are not consumed,
    for his compassions never fail.
23 They are new every morning;
    great is your faithfulness.
24 I say to myself, “The Lord is my portion;
    therefore I will wait for him.” 25 The Lord is good to those whose hope is in him,
    to the one who seeks him;
26 it is good to wait [hope] quietly
    for the salvation of the Lord.”
(Jeremiah 3:21-26)

Regardless of circumstances, God was the source of rescue and hope for faithful people like Jeremiah. They understood the covenant relationship between Yahweh and his people. They understood their role in his new creation project. They understood that he chose them to be a blessing to the nations. They understood and had hope.

And they understood loyalty as central to their covenant relationship with God. God initiated the covenant (see Smoking Pot in the Old Testament) and was thus the prime loyalist. We see it throughout the Hebrew scripture as love and faithfulness, usually linked together (some translations use “mercy and faithfulness” or “steadfast love and faithfulness”). The Hebrew words are hesed and emet – words rich with the loyalty implications associated with God’s character (see Hesed and Emet).

Faith and loyalty are tightly linked. When God asks us to be faithful he is primarily asking for our loyalty. Loyalty does not require perfection. Loyalty requires, quite simply, loyalty! Thus the Shema: The Lord is our God, the Lord is one [the only God]! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and mind and with all your soul and with all your strength [your entire being]… (Deuteronomy 6:4-9, AMP). Loyalty!

Those who are faithful – loyal to God – can be hopeful. I suspect those whose loyalty wanders, lose hope.