The Most Fascinating Person in the Universe

When I was serving as the Director of Youth Ministries at Central Lutheran Church in Elk River, MN, we developed some core values – we called them “non-negotiables.” We agreed that we would focus on Jesus, the most fascinating person in the universe. A couple concurrent values: (1) every kid has the right to know the most fascinating person in the universe and (2) it’s a sin to bore a kid with the most fascinating person in the universe.

Recently I was checking in on my pastor friend, Matt Woodley. He is the Cathedral Vicar of the Church of the Resurrection in Wheaton, IL. Like most churches, their website is designed with typical drop-down header menus, like “About Us,” “Connect,” “Next Steps,” “Sermons,” “Give,” etc. The Church of the Ressurection’s website has a curious menu option – Jesus. After clicking on “Jesus” and reading the content, written by Matt Woodley, I immediately wanted to share it in a blog post. So here it is – enjoy!

Christ Banner by longtime Resurrection artist Ray Wu

The British mystery writer and playwright Dorothy Sayers noted there’s one thing we cannot say about Jesus Christ—that he was a bore. “On the contrary,” Sayers once wrote, the people who opposed Jesus, “thought him too dynamic to be safe.”  

When I first started reading the historical accounts of Jesus, I was captivated by Jesus’ life and teaching. After spending most of his life as a refugee and then a blue-collar craftsman, he started announcing a dynamic new message. The Kingdom of God is here, he said, so turn your whole life around to get ready for it. He claimed his message was the best good news the world has ever seen. 

He made outlandish (unless they were true) claims about himself—like “I am the way, the truth, and the life” or “I have authority on earth to forgive sins.” He railed against the religious leaders of his day, calling them hypocrites and “white-washed tombs.” 

And yet he often displayed remarkable tenderness to normal or even “bad” people—like the owners of a small family fishing business, low-level government officials mired in corruption, a terrorized woman caught in the act of adultery, or a father and mother grieving the death of their twelve-year-old daughter. Through these simple, tender encounters, Jesus offered a new vision for dignifying and redeeming a broken but yearning humanity. 

Jesus is utterly un-boring, fresh, and fascinating.

Yes, Jesus is utterly un-boring, fresh, and fascinating. The award-winning essayist John Jeremiah Sullivan once joked about the “Jesus phase” that he and many of his friends passed through in high school. But after snubbing the faith of his childhood, Sullivan said he often has doubts about his doubts. He admits that he still can’t get over the Jesus of his “Jesus phase.” “My problem isn’t… that I feel a sucker for having bought it all,” Sullivan laments. “It’s that I [still] love Jesus Christ.”  Jesus Christ—his life and teaching and also his death and resurrection—are at the center of everything we believe and do at the Church of the Resurrection. To us he’s not only a fascinating historical figure; he’s also the world’s deepest hope and only savior. (Matt Woodley, Cathedral Vicar, Church of the Resurrection)

Kyrie Eleison

I am presently in the midst of a chronological read of the Bible. Many years ago, I came across a plan that allows a person to read through the Bible in a year, reading the stories fairly chronologically – reading concurrent Old Testament stories from Kings, the Chronicles, the Psalms, and/or the prophets. Or gospel stories from the writings of all four evangelists (Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John).

If you know me, you may not be surprised that I’m not a big fan of read-through-the-Bible-in-a-year programs. I have nothing against them per se – but they can be a setup for failure. I’ve watched far too many people start the year-long process in January and peter out by mid-February. (In the same vein, I’ve witnessed far too many people start January fitness plans with similar shelf lives.)

So why am I engaged in such a plan? For the chronology, not the associated time frame. I started this particular read-through in June 2020. Following the laid-out chronology, I’m slowly working my way through scripture using two (and sometimes three) translations. My go-to translations are The Voice and the NIV supplemented by listening on Audible. I might be going slow but I am, in fact, successfully reading through the Bible chronologically, which was my original intent. (If you’ve ever read The Story, you understand the value of chronological scripture reading.)

I am presently reading through the four Gospels, following Jesus’ final journey up to Jerusalem for the Passover and his ultimate execution. The typical route from Galilee required traveling through Jericho, about 20 miles East of Jerusalem. During this particular trip through Jerichico Jesus encountered Zacchaeus, inviting himself to dinner, and spending the afternoon with the tax collector (Luke 19). Inviting oneself to dinner was an honor in first-century Jewish culture. It was a transformative afternoon for Zacchaeus and I assume for the townspeople. And I’m sure for his disciples as well (though three years into their journey with Jesus, they were maybe starting to get used to his radical and revolutionary behavior).

As Jesus and his entourage headed out of town, they were confronted by two blind men sitting by the roadside (Matthew 20). When they heard that Jesus was passing by, they shouted…

Lord, Son of David, have mercy on us!

Lord have mercy! These guys knew their scripture. Their scripture, the Hebrew Law, Prophets, and Psalms, were laced with “Lord have mercy” language. Following the traditional understanding of the covenant relationship between the one true God (Yahweh) and His people, they called out to Jesus for mercy.

The Greek word for mercy is eleison. The corresponding Hebrew word for eleison is hesed, which we have discussed a number of times in this blog (see Hesed and Emet, Persistence, Veritas). Hesed is a rich and robust term that surpasses our understanding of mercy. It describes covenant loyalty and relational fidelity. It is freely given, often unexpectedly, without requiring anything in return. (I think of Barrington Bunny.)

When the blind men called out to Jesus, they were making assumptions about his connection to Yahweh (Son of David reference) and the associated covenant loyalty. Based on rumors they probably heard about this Jesus, they called out to him, “Lord have mercy!” They preceived that Jesus might be willing and able to heal them, so they called out for mercy. Moved by compassion, Jesus touched their eyes, giving them sight. And they followed him.

Central to following Jesus is the concept of trust. “Lord have mercy!” It seems the two blind men trusted Jesus before there was any hope of receiving their sight. In fact, the crowd rebuked them but they persisted in their appeal to his eleison. “Lord have mercy!” is a prayer model worthy of our attention.

I discovered eleison in this story by employing a Greek Interlinear New Testament. In the process, I discovered the Greek for “Lord have mercy” to be kyrie eleison. Kyrie eleison may be familiar to you. It certainly is in Eastern Orthodox traditions, embedded in their worship liturgy as Kýrie, eléison; Christé, eléison; Kýrie, eléison (“Lord, have mercy; Christ, have mercy; Lord, have mercy”). It is traditionally known as “The Jesus Prayer.” Not a bad prayer to pray.

Kýrie, eléison; Christé, eléison; Kýrie, eléison.

A side note: If you are of an age that remembers 80s music, you may recall the Mister Mister song, Kyrie Eleison. I always found the beginning of the chorus intriguing: “Kyrie eleison down the road that I must travel…”

ADDENDUM 1/31/2023: Annie F. Downs has created a podcast that will help listeners experience all four Gospels twelve times during the year 2023. It’s called Let’s Read the Gospels. Enjoy!

Barrington Bunny, The Story

A couple years ago I mentioned in a blog post Martin Bell’s short story, Barrington Bunny, from his 1983 book, The Way of the Wolf: The Gospel in New Images. Here’s the story, should you want to read it this Christmas season…

ONCE upon a time in a large forest there lived a very furry bunny.  He had one lop ear, a tiny black nose, and unusually shiny eyes.  His name was Barrington.

Barrington was not really a very handsome bunny.  He was brown and speckled and his ears didn’t stand upright.  But he could hop, and he was, as I have said, very furry.

In a way, winter is fun for bunnies.  After all, it gives them an opportunity to hop in the snow and then turn around to see where they have hopped.  So, in a way, winter was fun for Barrington.

But in another way winter made Barrington sad.  For, you see, winter marked the time when all of the animal families got together in their cozy homes to celebrate Christmas.  He could hop, and he was very furry.  But as far as Barrington knew, he was the only bunny in the forest.

When Christmas Eve finally came, Barrington did not feel like going home all by himself.  So he decided that he would hop for a while in the clearing in the center of the forest. 

Hop.  Hop.  Hippity-hop.  Barrington made tracks in the fresh snow.

Hop.  Hop.  Hippity-hop.  Then he cocked his head and looked back at the wonderful designs he had made.

“Bunnies,” he thought to himself, “can hop.  And they are very warm, too, because of how furry they are.”

(But Barrington didn’t really know whether or not this was true of all bunnies, since he had never met another bunny.)

When it got too dark to see the tracks he was making, Barrington made up his mind to go home.

On his way, however, he passed a large oak tree.  High in the branches, there was a great deal of excited chattering going on.  Barrington looked up.  It was a squirrel family!  What a marvelous time they seemed to be having.

“Hello, up there,” called Barrington.

“Hello, down there,” came the reply.

“Having a Christmas party?” asked Barrington.

“Oh, yes!” answered the squirrels.  “It’s Christmas Eve.  Everybody is having a Christmas party!”

“May I come to your party?” Said Barrington softly.

“Are you a squirrel?”

“No.”

“What are you, then?”

“A bunny.”

“A bunny?”

“Yes.”

“Well, how can you come to the party if you’re a bunny?  Bunnies can’t climb trees.”

“That’s true,” said Barrington thoughtfully.  “But I can hop and I’m very furry and warm.”

“We’re sorry,” called the squirrels.  “We don’t know anything about hopping and being furry, but we do know that in order to come to our house you have to be able to climb trees.”

“Oh, well,” said Barrington.  “Merry Christmas.”

“Merry Christmas,” chattered the squirrels.

And the unfortunate bunny hopped off toward his tiny house.

It was beginning to snow when Barrington reached the river.  Near the river bank was a wonderfully constructed house of sticks and mud.  Inside there was singing.

“It’s the beavers,” thought Barrington.  “Maybe they will let me come to their party.”

And so he knocked on the door.

“Who’s out there?” called a voice.

“Barrington Bunny,” he replied.

There was a long pause and then a shiny beaver head broke the water.

“Hello, Barrington,” said the beaver.

“May I come to your Christmas party?” asked Barrington.

The beaver thought for a while and then he said, “I suppose so.  Do you know how to swim?”

“No,” said Barrington, “but I can hop and I am very furry and warm.”

“Sorry,” said the beaver.  “I don’t know anything about hopping and being furry, but I do know that in order to come to our house you have to be able to swim.”

“Oh, well,” Barrington muttered, his eyes filling with tears.  “I suppose that’s true – Merry Christmas.”

“Merry Christmas,” call the beaver.  And he disappeared beneath the surface of the water.

Even being furry as he was, Barrington was beginning to get cold.  And the snow was falling so hard that his tiny, bunny eyes could scarcely see what was ahead of him.

He was almost home, however, when he heard the excited squeaking of field mice beneath the ground.

“It’s a party,” thought Barrington.  And suddenly he blurted out through his tears, “Hello, field mice.  This is Barrington Bunny.  May I come to your party?”

But the wind was howling so loudly and Barrington was sobbing so much that no one heard him.

And when there was no response at all, Barrington just sat down in the snow and began to cry with all his might.

“Bunnies,” he thought, “aren’t good to anyone.  What good is it to be furry and to be able to hop if you don’t have any family on Christmas Eve?”

Barrington cried and cried.  When he stopped crying he began to bite on his bunny’s foot, but he did not move from where he was sitting in the snow.

Suddenly, Barrington was aware that he was not alone.  He looked up and strained his shiny eyes to see who was there.

To his surprise, he saw a great silver wolf.  The wolf was large and strong and his eyes flashed fire.  He was the most beautiful animal Barrington had ever seen.

For a long time, the silver wolf didn’t say anything at all.  He just stood there and looked at Barrington with those terrible eyes.

Then slowly and deliberately the wolf spoke.  “Barrington,” he asked in a gentle voice, “why are you sitting in the snow?”

“Because it’s Christmas Eve,” said Barrington, “and I don’t have any family, and bunnies aren’t any good to anyone.”

“Bunnies are, too, good,” said the wolf.  “Bunnies can hop and they are very warm.”

“What good is that?” Barrington sniffled.

“It is very good indeed,” the wolf went on, “because it is a gift that bunnies are given, a free gift that bunnies are given, a free gift with no strings attached.  And every gift that is given to anyone is given for a reason.  Someday you will see why it is good to hop and to be warm and furry.”

“But it’s Christmas,” moaned Barrington, “and I’m all alone.  I don’t have any family at all.”

“Of course you do,” replied the great silver wolf.  “All of the animals in the forest are your family.”

And then the wolf disappeared.  He simply wasn’t there.  Barrington had only blinked his eyes, and when he looked – the wolf was gone.

“All of the animals in the forest are my family,” thought Barrington.  “It’s good to be a bunny.  Bunnies can hop.  That’s a gift.”  And then he said it again.  “A gift.  A free gift.”

On into the night, Barrington worked.  First, he found the best stick that he could.  (And that was difficult because of the snow.)

Then hop.  Hop.  Hippity-hop.  To beaver’s house.  He left the stick just outside the door. 

With a note on it that read: “Here is a good stick for your house.  It is a gift.  A free gift.  No strings attached.  Signed, a member of your family.”

“It is a good thing that I can hop,” he thought, “because the snow is very deep.”

Then Barrington dug and dug.  Soon he had gathered together enough dead leaves and grass to make the squirrel’s nest warmer.  Hop.  Hop.  Hippity-hop.

He laid the grass and leaves just under the large oak tree and attached this message: “A gift.  A free gift.  From a member of your family.”

It was late when Barrington finally started home.  And what made things worse was that he knew a blizzard was beginning.

Hop.  Hop.  Hippity-hop.

Soon poor Barrington was lost.  The wind howled furiously, and it was very, very cold.  “It certainly is cold,” he said out loud.  “It’s a good thing I’m so furry.  But if I don’t find my way home pretty soon even I might freeze!”

Squeak.  Squeak. . . .

And then he saw it – a baby field mouse lost in the snow.  And the little mouse was crying.

“Hello, little mouse,” Barrington called.

“Don’t cry.  I’ll be right there.”  Hippity-hop and Barrington was beside the tiny mouse.

“I’m lost,” sobbed the little fellow.  “I’ll never find my way home, and I know I’m going to freeze.”

“You won’t freeze,” said Barrington.  “I’m a bunny and bunnies are very furry and warm. 

You stay right where you are and I’ll cover you up.”

Barrington lay on top of the little mouse and hugged him tightly.  The tiny fellow felt himself surrounded by warm fur.  He cried for a while but soon, snug and warm, he fell asleep.

Barrington had only two thoughts on that long, cold night.  First, he thought, “It’s good to be a bunny.  Bunnies are very furry and warm.”  And then, when he felt the heart of the tiny mouse beneath him beating regularly, he thought, “All of the animals in the forest are my family.”

The next morning, the field mice found their little boy, asleep in the snow, warm and snug beneath the furry carcass of a dead bunny.  Their relief and excitement was so great that they didn’t even think to question where the bunny had come from.

And as for the beavers and the squirrels, they still wonder which member of their family left the little gifts for them that Christmas Eve.

After the field mice had left, Barrington’s frozen body simply lay in the snow.  There was no sound except that of the howling wind.  And no one anywhere in the forest noticed the great silver wolf who came to stand beside that brown, lop-eared carcass.

But the wolf did come.

And he stood there.

Without moving or saying a word.

All Christmas Day.

Until it was night.

And then he disappeared into the forest.

The First Last Supper

A couple of Sundays ago, we celebrated communion (often referred to as the Last or Lord’s supper) during worship at our church. My wife and I were privileged to serve others in our congregation. After the service, I reflected on an email conversation I had earlier in the week with a friend regarding the first Last Supper that Jesus celebrated with his followers.

The timing of Jesus’ Last Supper was the annual Passover celebration meal. As Jesus’ followers settled in for the all-night celebration, it became apparent that this one wouldn’t be a typical Passover meal. What made it untypical? Jesus!

A little context as a reminder of the significance of the Passover celebration and meal for the first-century Israelites (i.e., all of Jesus’ followers), which had been celebrated every year for about 13 centuries. The back story…

The Israelites had moved from Canaan to Egypt during a drought (cf. Joseph and his Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat). In time, they outnumbered the Egyptians, were conscripted and enslaved, and moved off their land and into ghettos. They were enslaved for 430ish years.

How long are 430 years? Some American context: 430 years ago, around 1600, England had just begun to colonize North America. Think about what has changed in our world since then.  430 years is a long time.

God, through Moses, demanded the release of his people with the familiar “Let my people go” command. The Egyptian ruler, Pharaoh, refused. God sent a number of plagues to encourage Pharaoh to rethink his stance. Instead of softening, after each plague Pharaoh dug his heels in and treated God’s people more unjustly.

Finally, God sent an Angel of Death.  As payment for Pharaoh’s relentlessness, this angel of justice would fatally visit Egypt, resulting in the death of the firstborn of every household in the land – Egyptian and Israelite. God provided a means of protection for his people. They were to slay a lamb, spreading the blood on the doorframes of their homes.  If they obeyed, this angel of death would pass over the house, saving the firstborn. Finally, Pharaoh relented and let the Israelites go.

This is what the Israelites celebrated every year. Each of Jesus’ followers likely made an annual 80-90 mile trek from Galilee to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover. This particular celebration was no exception. Throughout the Gospels, we can read the story associated with the trek to Jerusalem for what turned out to be their last Passover celebration (cf. Matthew 19-26, Mark 10-14, Luke 17-21, John 11-13).

So, in the first-century Jewish culture, Passover was a BIG deal. Like Christmas or Easter.

The Passover meal kicked off the week-long celebration. Meal preparation began early afternoon with the slaying of a lamb at the temple whose blood was sacrificially sprinkled on the altar. The lamb was then roasted to be served at the Passover meal. The Jewish historian Josephus recorded that 255,600 lambs were slaughtered in the temple in 66 AD, the year the temple was completed. From that, Josephus calculated that approximately 2 1/2 million people were present in Jerusalem that year (assuming one lamb to about 10 people).

The Meal was more than just a meal. It was a well-scripted (think liturgy) religious celebration in which the host helped the participants remember the Exodus story, that event 430 years prior in which God rescued them from the Egyptian slave-holders. That’s not a short story to tell. I recently listened to Flavious Josephus’ rendition of the Exodus story in his Antiquities of the Jews, a rendition that took over two hours to narrate. Not a short story!

There were four distinct parts to the six-hour meal, each followed by a cup of wine. First, the host (presumably Jesus, in this case) offered the first cup of wine and a scripted prayer of blessing, something like this: “Blessed art thou, O Lord, our God, King of the world.” Then someone (usually a child) asked, “Why is this night different from other nights?” and the host retells the WHOLE story.

Thirdly, was the meal itself. Finally! The host blessed the food and the people began to partake. The meal consisted of unleavened bread, herbs, greens, stewed fruit, and roasted lamb. The evening was concluded with the singing of the Hallel (i.e. halleluiah) Psalms (Psalms 113-118).

The evening was so scripted that any variance would not go unnoticed. Kind of like reading to a child their favorite book and getting a sentence wrong. They would know and let you know of any discrepancies.

Jesus varied from the script that night in discrepant ways.

First, he announced that one of the Twelve would betray Him. The evening started with a mic drop of colossal proportions. When it was time to eat, Jesus took the bread and gave thanks, presumably saying the scripted prayer, “Blessed art thou, O Lord, our God, King of the world, who brings forth bread from the earth.” Then he deviated with “Take it; this is my body.” (Mark 14:22). I can envision his disciples, well aware of the deviation, looking at each other in wonderment. “What could he mean?” Another mic drop of sorts.

As if that wasn’t enough, Jesus deviated from the script one more time. He took one of the cups of wine*, gave thanks, and passed it to his followers to drink. As they were drinking the wine, he deviated greatly from the script with “This is my blood of the [new] covenant, which is poured out for many” (Mark 14:24). This deviation was completely outside first-century Jewish thought. Touching blood resulted in ceremonial uncleanliness, which is presumably why the priest and Levite went around the beaten man in the good Samaritan parable. Drinking of blood? Totally forbidden.

Jesus had, in one evening, reshaped the entire belief system of his little band of followers.

Which turned out to be a very good thing as we look back on history. Jesus, in deviating from the expected script, turned his followers’ heads toward a different and more complete understanding of God, his kingdom, and their role in his kingdom. The scripts they were familiar with were part of the story, but not the whole story. Jesus crashed through the comfortable and familiar to give them a new, more complete perspective of God and their calling.

May we always be willing to let Jesus disrupt the comfortable and familiar certainties of our faith with broader perspectives.

* It is believed that it was the Cup of Redemption that Jesus instructed the disciples to partake of in the last supper since both accounts in Matthew and Luke describe the cup being taken after the meal.

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.

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.