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.

Same Old, Same Old

I have continued reading through the book of Jeremiah in a couple of different translations, accompanied by Eugene Peterson’s classic book about his favorite prophet, Run With the Horses.  Peterson reminds his readers that Jeremiah is known as the weeping prophet.  A read of Jerimiah helps us to see why the epithet.

As described in an earlier blog post (see Persistence), the prophet Jeremiah persistently delivered God’s message to his people which was persistently rejected and ignored (often with harsh and sometimes physical contempt) leading Jeremiah to lament/vent:

“For twenty-three years*… I have spoken persistently to you, but you have not listened. You have neither listened nor inclined your ears to hear, although the Lord persistently sent to you all his servants the prophets, saying, ‘Turn now, every one of you, from his evil way and evil deeds, and dwell upon the land that the Lord has given to you and your fathers from of old and forever. (Jeremiah 25:3-5, ESV)

No wonder he wept.

A couple of days ago, May 24, 2022, I was reading Jeremiah 40-43.  Jerusalem had fallen to the Babylonians who removed the rich and influential citizens leaving behind the poor and destitute to serve as their labor force. Johanan became the default leader of this ragtag group.  Johanan and the people approached Jeremiah, asking him to “Pray that the Lord your God will tell us where we should go and what we should do” (Jeremiah 42:3) sealing the request with a vow of obedience…

5“May the Lord be a true and faithful witness against us if we do not act in accordance with everything the Lord your God sends you to tell us. Whether it is favorable or unfavorable, we will obey the Lord our God, to whom we are sending you so that it will go well with us, for we will obey the Lord our God.” (Jeremiah 41:5-6)

Long story short, they didn’t like the response from God, ignored it, and did exactly what God told them not to do.  As I reflected on this story in the context of the entire book of Jeremiah, I wrote in my journal (for the second day in a row)…

That same day, May 24, 2022, I watched in horror as the news unfolded of the murder of students and teachers at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas.  My mind was immediately flooded with the many other school shootings** in the United States (mostly over the past 25 years) – Columbine High School,  Sandy Hook Elementary, Virginia Tech, Stoneman Douglas High School, etc., etc., etc.  As I wept and reflected on the events of the day, I once again wrote in my journal…

Same old, same old!!

…followed by “When is enough enough?”  I’m certainly not the only one asking the question, “When is enough enough?”  On May 25, Steve Kerr, head coach of the Golden State Warriors in a pregame press conference, refused to talk about the all-important NBA playoff game, instead said…

“When are we going to do something? I am so tired of getting up here and offering condolences to the devastated families that are out there,” said Kerr, who was visibly frustrated. “I’m so tired of the excuse, I’m so tired of the moments of silence. Enough!”

I have many more questions! 

Chap Clark, in his ground-breaking research, concluded that we have systemically abandoned our young people in favor of adult agendas (Hurt, 2004; When Kids Hurt, 2009).  It seems he might be right.  Why can’t adults be willing to forgo some of their pet agendas in favor of our young people?  Why should my grandchildren be traumatized by lock-down active shooter drills in school? (I have been in high school buildings during such drills – I can only imagine what would go through the mind of an elementary student.)

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, German theologian & anti-Nazi activist, once said, “The test of the morality of a society is what it does for its children.”  I wonder what Bonhoeffer might say to us today?

A couple thousand years ago, Jesus said, Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called children of God” (Matthew 5:9).  I wonder what Jesus might say to us today?

And I wonder when we will get tired of the same old, same old and say Enough!?

*  Interestingly, it’s been 23 years since the Columbine shooting. ** Historically, the number of school shootings in the United States stands at 288.  Mexico has the second-most school shootings in the world – eight!

References:

Clark, C. (2004). Hurt: Inside the world of today’s teenagers. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.   

Clark, C., & Rabey, S. (2009). When kids hurt: Help for adults navigating the adolescent maze. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books

Let Your “Yes” be “Yes”

I have had recent opportunities to listen to and speak to the woes of young parents within my sphere of influence. As I reflect back on our own parenting experiences, I am grateful for a couple of encouragements that served us well. The first was through the late Howard Hendricks who encouraged parents to have very few rules, and the few should focus on things like the respect for self and others. Many rules, he suggested, required time and effort to enforce, drawing parental attention away from the “meatier” role of parenting (like character development).

A second helpful parental admonition came through a few different sources and was something akin to “Let your yes be yes and your no be no,” especially in the moment. Attempts to overexplain decisions often go south. If you are a parent, you know what I mean. Sometimes we just need our kids to trust us. Hmmm – sounds like something God might say, too.

Both admonitions point to an intentionality associated with steadfast parenting.

As stated in previous blog postings, I have been in the habit of spending daily times with God reading through the Psalms – a 25-year habit (see Fore-Edge Paintings). For the past few weeks, I have been immersed in Psalm 119, the long one focused on the psalmist’s love for God’s word, precepts, statutes. The psalm is written acrostically, 7-8 verse stanzas for each of the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet. This week I read from the stanza associated with the letter Nun (נ):

Your word is a lamp for my feet,
    a light on my path.
I have taken an oath and confirmed it,
    that I will follow your righteous laws. (Ps. 119:105-6, NIV)

The first verse brought back memories of a classic old song based on the passage. What caught my attention is the beginning of the second verse – I have taken an oath and confirmed it. The wonderment that caused me to pause: “How and what does it mean to confirm an oath?” On the surface, the answer seems quite straightforward, even black and white. One either took an oath or they didn’t. The question kept ruminating in my mind. Maybe there was more to it…

What IS an oath? My dictionary says an oath is a solemn promise, often invoking a divine witness, regarding one’s future action or behavior. By this definition, the psalmist was making a solemn promise to God to follow his righteous laws (precepts, statutes, or judgments, depending on the biblical translation). The Hebrew word used here for oath is shâba‛ (שָׁבַע) which literally means “to seven oneself.”

A common practice in Hebrew antiquity was to make seven declarations when making an oath. This could mean making the oath seven times or doing seven things to show the sincerity of the oath (i.e. seven sacrifices). Keep in mind that the number “seven” was sacred in Jewish tradition signifying that they took their oaths quite seriously.

But what does it mean to confirm one’s oath? I would think that declaring the oath seven times would be confirmation enough. Dabbling a little deeper into the text, we discover the root Hebrew word for confirm to be qûm (קוּם) which suggests the psalmist was steadfastly purposed in fulfilling the oath. Steadfastly purposed would lead me to believe there was intentionality associated with the oath – intentionality in following God’s law.

Over time, oath-making had gotten a little out of hand. When Jesus arrived on the scene, the religious leaders and their lawyers had turned “oathing” into something that served them well. They had invented a system of traditions laced with loopholes. They took the position that only when they made an oath were they required to be truthful. Oaths were commonly sworn in such a manner that unless the name of God was specifically mentioned in the oath, it wasn’t binding (first-century fine print!). And thus lengthy arguments and debates ensued over when an oath was or was not binding. It seems like a pretty significant departure from the psalmist’s intentionality to follow God’s laws.

It was enough of a departure that Jesus addressed oath-making during his discourse we know as the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). Employing his oft-used “You have heard it said, but I say to you” formula, Jesus negated the use of oaths…

But I say, do not make any vows [or oaths]! … Just say a simple, ‘Yes, I will,’ or ‘No, I won’t.’ Anything beyond this is from the evil one. (Matt. 5:34-37, NLT)*

What Jesus was saying was profound and simple. Cultural Judaism and traditions were focused on oaths, promises, and rules. Their time and energy were focused on either keeping their oaths, promises, and rules or developing workarounds to suit their needs. God was left out of the equation. Thus his rebuke of their tradition-focused behavior in which they neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. (Matthew 23:23)

It’s an easy trap to fall into. In wanting to live an exemplary Christian life, we can easily be drawn to cultural Christian traditions that focus on what and how and end up neglecting the weightier matters (the why) of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. It requires intentionality.

* Some translations read (and the Greek affirms), “Let your ‘yes’ be ‘yes’ and your ‘no’ be ‘no.'” By the way, this must have resonated with Jesus’ own brother, James. He reiterated the thought in his epistle. See James 5:12

Persistence

One word that described all of our children when they were young was persistence. As toddlers, they never gave up getting my attention: “Dad, Dad, Dad…DAD!” Though it took on different forms, they exhibited persistence well beyond their toddler years. In all honestly, though sometimes frustrated by such persistence, I was mostly appreciative of their sticktoitiveness.

From Merriam Webster – Persistence: firm or obstinate continuance in a course of action in spite of difficulty or opposition. Persistence can be a positive thing – firm continuance. Or negative – obstinate continuance. Two types of persistence with day and night outcomes.

I’ve slowly been reading chronologically through scripture using a less familiar translation, The Voice. “Slowly” is the operative word. I’m using a chronological “read through the bible in a year” plan that I started in January 2021 and am presently in the book of Jeremiah. Slowly.

Jeremiah, the prophet, was the epitome of persistence. Yahweh, the One True God, called Jeremiah into service as a prophet in 626 BC, the thirteenth year of Josiah’s reign as king of Judah (the southern kingdom of Israel). He continued serving God as a prophet until the destruction of Solomon’s Temple in 586 BC. He served God under five different kingly reigns in Judah – Josiah, Jehoahaz, Jehoiakim, Jehoiachin, and Zedekiah. As a prophet, Jeremiah’s main job was to speak to the people on God’s behalf, regarding both present situations and future events.

Jeremiah’s call as a prophet seemingly came at an opportune time. Josiah had been instituting religious reforms and the people of Judah were returning to God. It was a good time to be a prophet in Israel. But the reforms would be short-lived. The region was already in upheaval. The Assyrian Empire, soon to fall to the Babylonian Empire, had captured the northern kingdom of Israel. Jeremiah and his countrymen found themselves caught in the chaos of “international” changes. The shalom of the southern kingdom of Israel (Judah), her leaders, and her capital, Jerusalem, was in jeopardy.

Did Judah’s leaders look to God in the midst of the chaos and uncertainty? Not at all. Jehoahaz disregarded his father, Josiah’s, reforms and things went downhill from there. Each of the subsequent kings followed suit. They were persistent in doing things their way, ultimately returning to false prophets and idols. Jeremiah’s role during this? To speak to the people – kings, and commoners alike – on behalf of God. It came at great personal cost. But he hung in there. He was persistent.

“For twenty-three years, from the thirteenth year of Josiah the son of Amon, king of Judah, to this day, the word of the Lord has come to me, and I have spoken persistently to you, but you have not listened. You have neither listened nor inclined your ears to hear, although the Lord persistently sent to you all his servants the prophets, saying, ‘Turn now, every one of you, from his evil way and evil deeds, and dwell upon the land that the Lord has given to you and your fathers from of old and forever. (Jeremiah 25:3-5, ESV)

Persistence abounded – on every level. God had been persistent in his loyalty (hesed) to his people for generations, a persistence not lost on the people. He was persistent in reminding them of the simplicity of his covenant formula – I want to be your God, I want you to be my people (cf. Exodus 6:7, Leviticus 11:44-45, Leviticus 26:11-12, Deuteronomy 29:13). Through Jeremiah, God repeatedly and persistently reminded the people of the security associated with adherence to the covenant formula. For example:

Obey me, and I will be your God, and you will be my people. Do everything as I say, and all will be well! (Jeremiah 7:23 NLT)

Unfortunately, the people obstinately continued to ignore God, replacing him with images they had created. They replaced the God of creation with gods they created – gods that they thought would serve their purposes. And all was not well. King Nebuchadrezzar and his Babylonian armies overran Judah, laid siege on Jerusalem, decimated the Temple, and carted a majority of the people away into exile.

None of this was a surprise to Jeremiah nor should it have been to the people. Jeremiah had firmly continued to warn the people. They persistently (obstinately) chose not to listen as evident in the chapter 25 passage above. Oh, and they persistently abused Jeremiah for delivering God’s message. Throughout the book of Jeremiah, we can feel his anguish, also evident in the above passage.

But God is persistent in his covenant loyalty. Though exile would last 70 years, a whole generation, he promised to bring the people back from captivity and restore them in the land with a new covenant which Jesus ultimately brought to fruition:

“This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel
    after that time,” declares the Lord.
“I will put my law in their minds
    and write it on their hearts.
I will be their God,
    and they will be my people
” (Jeremiah 31:33 NIV)

God’s covenant formula transfers from the old to the new covenant. Let me be your God (He’s’ good at that) and all will be well. He never said, “all will be easy.” But he did say “all will be well.” It’s the essence of the Lord’s Prayer.

Eugene Peterson wrote a book about 20 years ago, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society. Peterson captured the essence of the covenant formula from our perspective: persistence in letting God be God. Perhaps Merriam-Webster needs revising…

Persistence: firm or obstinate continuance in a course of action in spite of difficulty or opposition; a long obedience in the same direction.

Beeswax Candles

I have traveled to a few foreign countries, each time aware of smells and aromas different from what I am familiar with. My first journey was to Paris where I was inundated with the smells of all kinds of perfumes and colognes. Now anytime I pass the cosmetic section of a department store, the aromas make me think of that trip to Paris. Anyone who has traveled to a foreign country knows what I mean.

While navigating the narrow shop-lined streets of Old Jerusalem a few weeks ago, I was confronted with a particularly sweet smell that seemed to permeate everything. I discovered the common source – virgin beeswax candles. Almost every shop was selling them in preparation for the upcoming Easter celebrations. They were sold in bundles of 30-40, thousands and thousands of bundles. (They are apparently available on Amazon, as well). I had never seen these pencil-thin beeswax candles before in my life. What was their significance?

I discovered that the candles are of particular importance in Eastern Christian traditions. We got a little sense of their use while in Jerusalem visiting various Christian shrines like the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. After returning from our pilgrimage to Israel, I did a little more digging…

Our Eastern Orthodox friends celebrated Easter this past weekend (April 24, 2022). This is my abridged understanding of how Greek orthodoxy celebrates the resurrection of Jesus: The celebration actually begins the night prior to Easter, the day often referred to as Holy Saturday (the “forgotten day” of Easter week). Parishioners gather for a typical lengthy liturgical service. At midnight, in a completely darkened church, a priest steps out from the altar area with a single lighted candle (the Holy Light), announcing “Christos Anesti!”– Christ is Risen!

“Christos Anesti!”– Christ is Risen!

The parishioners arrive with candles in hand, prepared to receive the light of the world. While continuing to chant “Christos Anesti!” the priest begins passing the Holy Light to nearby parishioners who in turn pass the light to one another, saying “Christos Anesti!” with the recipient replying “Alithos Anesti!” (Truly He is Risen). The light, representing the Risen Christ radiates out into the congregation, then out the door into the world. The candles, usually beeswax, remain lit and carried home, bringing the Light into their homes.

As we witnessed when in Israel, light from candles permeates Eastern Orthodox tradition, culture, and worship. As it apparently should! The Apostle John began his Gospel narrative by reminding his readers that Jesus is the light of the world:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it…  9 The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. (John 1:1-5, 9)

Jesus’ teaching likely shaped John’s thinking regarding this “light of all mankind.” In John 7, we find Jesus in Jerusalem attending the Festival of the Tabernacles (or Booths). It was one of three annual festivals to which the Israelites were to make a pilgrimage to the Temple, if at all possible. As typical, Jesus used the opportunity to teach “the people” about God’s Kingdom. And as typical, opposition arose from the religious leaders, specifically the chief priests and the Pharisees.

The feast associated with the Festival included a lamp lighting ritual. It is possible that Jesus was alluding to this ritual when he said to the people (anyone within hearing – pilgrims, his followers, the opposition)…

“I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12)

John would also have remembered Jesus’ teaching in what we know as the Sermon on the Mount. Speaking specifically to his disciples, his close followers, Jesus passed the light onto them:

14 “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven. (Matthew 5:14-16)

As Christ-followers in the 21st century, maybe we should light a few beeswax candles as a reminder that we, too, are the light of the world. We possess the light but are not to be possessive of that light. We are to let it shine. We are to pass it on to others, so it can radiate out into a dark and broken world. A statement N.T. Wright made at the Wheaton Theology Conference in 2010 comes to mind…

Politics is the constant to-ing & fro-ing between tyranny and chaos.  But we believe in Jesus Christ and in the sovereign saving rule that he exercises from the cross and in His resurrection.  And we have the task of modeling before the world what that sort of polis would look like.  Not as an independent thing hiding away from the world, keeping the light to ourselves so that we can then say, “look at the rest of the world, isn’t it dark?”  Well, of course it is if we’re not shining the light there!

Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.

An addendum (4/29/2022). I invited my friend and Young Life Colleague in North Macedonia, Brook Filipovski , to critique my description of Eastern Orthodox Easter. Her response: I think you did a great job of explaining the Orthodox practice. We have actually not been to a service here as our kids are so little and there’s no good place to go in the church, but maybe next year… This year I was at a friend’s house until just past midnight as she turned 40 on Easter morning. As I drove our mutual friend and me home, we got detoured as a huge Orthodox church in the neighborhood was spilling out thousands on the street in the 12:15 AM time slot. It was very moving to see everyone with their candles.