Seeing the Forest

IMG_0459

I’ve got a pop quiz for you. Take out a paper and number it one to ten. No phones. Go.

  1. What is the capital of Alaska?
  2. What year did WW1 end?
  3. What was the official language of Vietnam until 1954?
  4. Who was the 19th president of the US?
  5. When was the Louisiana Purchase made?
  6. What two countries make up the former Rhodesia?
  7. What was the currency of Germany before the European Union?
  8. What countries held the 1956 Olympics?
  9. What state was Custer’s Last Stand in?
  10. When did the War of 1812 begin?

How do you think you did? In case you want to answers, here they are.

Juneau

1918

French

Rutherford B Hayes

1803

Zambia and Zimbabwe

Deutsche Mark

Italy and Australia

Montana

1812

Making It Stick

The thing is, most of us probably learned many of those answers at some point in our lives. But most of it didn’t stick. We might know the capital of Alaska if we know someone who lives there, or we’re deep into the study of the tundra fox, or we really, really like Jack London. (I don’t. The dog always dies.) Or if you, like me, memorized all the capitals in grade school and strangely retained ALL of that information while still unable to recall what day your spouse said he needed an airport ride.

I don’t know most Olympic cities, but I’ll never forget Kerri Strug or seeing Jesse Owens Allee in Berlin mere weeks after its naming and knowing the stories of courage that went with those names.

Those things stick. Those stories strike something in us when their courage speaks to our hearts.

As anyone who really knows me knows, my New Year’s Eve tradition is watching the Lord of the Rings Trilogy, extended editions, every year. (That’s my idea of a party.) One of the most moving parts in the entire twelve hours or so is Sam’s speech on the ramparts of Osgiliath, explaining why he suddenly comprehends the power of stories.

“Those were the stories that stayed with you, that meant something, even if you were too small to understand why . . . But I think I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back. Only they didn’t, because they were holding on to something…”

It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo, the ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were, and sometimes you didn’t want to know the end, because how could the end be happy_ How could the world

It’s those stories that matter—the ones that show us the best, and worst, of ourselves. The ones that point us toward the values we know matter but forget in our daily busyness, where knowing things like the capital of Alaska, or the balance in our bank account and exactly where that $4.19 was spent, appear larger than they ought to.

It’s the big themes, interweaving, becoming complex, challenging my assumptions, and coming out strong that attract me, especially because of, or in spite of, the daily minutiae that clogs our spiritual arteries.

Bible Pop Quiz

I think we often approach the Bible too much like it’s a pop quiz of facts. We believe we’re supposed to know instinctively who begat whom, which gospel harbors the story of Zacchaeus, and what order the minor prophets are in, or that a thing called “minor prophets” exists.

much as to know God by it, and therefore know ourselves and our worl

Yet this ends up with a “forest for the trees” form of discipleship—a knowledge of Scripture that might be thorough in its ability to quote chapter and verse but shallow indeed in its ability to sustain faith and life in a windy world.

Scot McKnight believes that, “God did not give us the Bible so we could master him or it but so we could be mastered by it,” and I wonder if that is not closer to what God intended with his word to us. Perhaps the idea of scripture is not so much to know it in minute detail as to know God by and through it, and therefore to know ourselves and our world.

Some research into our discipleship shows a depressing link between our attitudes toward knowing the Bible and our actual ability to grasp it.

Because they know they’ll be told what is important each week, many Christians feel little need to explore the Bible on their own . . . Many Christians believe they are incapable of taking much from the Bible. At the same time, the same Christians tend to believe they know and understand Scripture because they have heard it presented so many times. So these people leave church after a really good speech feeling like their faith has been strengthened. But when they try to put those same ideas into play in the real world, they can’t quite figure out how to do it. They begin to think they are the problem.

The more we hear the Bible, the more we think we know it. The more we realize we don’t know it, the worse we feel about that. The worse we feel, the less we read and know. The cycle continues. People who think they’re the problem don’t tend to have a lot of motivation to overcome the problem. Doug Pagitt, Preaching Reimagined 

Maybe we’re reading the room, and the Scriptures, wrong.

A second issue with this focus on learning chapter and verse, and thinking we’ve learned the Bible because we listen to people talk about it, is the tendency for so many of us to choose our doctrines based on those verses we’ve learned or heard. We haven’t learned to read for overarching themes, to search for the big picture ideas, and so we manufacture our beliefs over a twenty-minute span on one or two verses—and subsequently defend them aggressively over coffee and Twitter.

This seems backward.

C9823B51-3DB9-4F32-BB7A-EC38314A5FC9

If we read God’s word ultimately to know God, why do we spend so much more of our time formulating our ideas of what God wants and what we must do and so much less discerning what he’s telling us about who he is?

Learning who he is inevitably leads us to what he wants us to be and do. We cannot see his passion for justice and not do something. We can’t hear his heart for his people and not act. We  can’t taste and see that he is good without wanting to be good ourselves.

But getting that the other way around never works. Diving into God’s words to come out with a recipe for behavior or doctrine works as well as diving into the ocean and hoping to surface with a fully cooked lobster dinner.

 

IMG_1500 (1)

This is my Scripture goal for 2020, and my preaching goal as well. I want to see the forest. I want to walk beneath its shade and experience the whole of it, while certainly looking at the trees themselves. I think it will enhance the enjoyment of and appreciation for their individuality to focus on their common purpose. What are the great themes that hold all of Scripture together? How do they help me to know God by and through them, and therefore to know myself and my world? I’m looking forward to diving in.

Five Images of God

Because we’re just returning from a thankful Thanksgiving together, and because chapter three of my thesis is of the devil and allowed me no time to be prepared, today is a rerun of an old favorite, May you feel God in these images.

Images Speak

Words enthrall me. This is not news. I am a lover of words, and words that paint pictures draw me into their world. They may say that a picture is worth a thousand words, but in my experience, the best words are worth far more than a picture. The best words let us feel them and imagine them on our own.

Words and images intertwine for me. As a lover of the imagery words can create, I get excited about images of God. What images does the Bible give us, what pictures does it paint with its words to show us God in ways that sing to our souls?

And–in keeping with the Live Free Thursday prompt–how does pondering images of God offer rest to our souls? It does to mine, when I think of God as these five things.

Father of lights

43160-533652_4624500284437_1219894898_nOr more literally, Father of the heavenly lights. The maker of the sun, stars, and moon. The creator of mist, fog, and filter that never, ever completely block the light of the sun but only amplify its raw power. The one who said, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness can never extinguish it.” (John 1.5)

Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.(James 1.17)

I am the light of the world. If you follow me, you won’t have to walk in darkness, because you will have the light that leads to life. (John 8.12)

The Lord is my light and my salvation, so why should I be afraid? (Psalm 27.1)

IMG_9266I love light so much that none of my windows has curtains. To know that the Father of lights has called me into His light that, yes, shows all my flaws and errors for what they are, but does so with the healing precision of a laser surgeon? That’s what it feels like to laugh freely in sunshine and turn my face to its warmth. That’s God.

A hen with her chicks

I watch birds all the time outside my window. I see them, tucking their heads inside their wings to fend off the unholy Chicago winter winds. I worry for them, as I notice a hawk sitting in the tree eying my feeder, waiting for one to stray. I hear the tiny peeps of baby robins when spring nest-building inevitably ends up in the eaves of our porch, and I watch the new parents feeding their young. I know how hens shelter their chicks for protection beneath their own bodies, willing anything to harm them before it reaches their helpless, dependent offspring.

I know how I still would if need be for mine, who are by no means helpless and dependent.

IMG_5296God wills so much more than that for us to run to his protection. He loves so much more strongly. The image of Him folding himself around me, keeping me from myself and my own tendency to stray too far from the safety of his words, brings gratitude. The realization that He did, in fact, put His own body between me and death brings awe.

“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones God’s messengers! How often I have wanted to gather your children together as a hen protects her chicks beneath her wings, but you wouldn’t let me. (Matthew23.37)

An eagle

IMG_2514

At first, this might look like the same thing as a hen. Both are birds. Both care for their young in these images. But the eagle does something different than the hen. She fights. He soars. An eagle will not simply protect her young passively, but she will take on any enemy that comes near. Also, he will not leave those eaglets in the nest but will force them into fearful, vertigo-inducing flying. Eventually, soaring.

The image of God fighting for me I cannot even fathom. The knowledge that I have no knowledge of all the times he has kept harm from me is humbling. The idea of him then ensuring that I can go out and fight my own battles, that I have been equipped to soar and dive and live freely because he takes me on his wings and lets me feel what it is to fly? It makes me brave, because what other response can I make?

As an eagle that stirs up her nest, that flutters over her young, He spread abroad His wings and He took them, He bore them on His pinions. (Deuteronomy 32.11)

A Teaching Parent

Have you ever taught a child to walk? This image is so potent if you have. You watch them getting ready. They pull themselves up, and you hover near, ready to catch their faltering little bodies. They venture one step, fear and excitement both in their tiny eyes. You watch. You wait. You want to jump up and keep them from crashing down. Sometimes you do, but not always. They know your hands are always there, but they also want to try on their own; you have to let them. And when their sense of adventure wins out and they toddle across the floor, you cheer them on. You encourage, you clap, and you envelop them in a hug at the finish line of their first steps across the room. You know this story if you’ve done it. You will always feel it.

IMG_3200Can you imagine God at that finish line for you? Cheering? Clapping? Screaming, “You’ve got this!” God proves in his story of the prodigal son that he is perfectly willing to be undignified for us when he runs to his son, robes flapping in the breeze. So yes, he screams.

He grieves when we walk the other way. He beams the joy of a parent when we take our steps in the direction he sees best laid out for us, however faltering they may be. God as a teaching parent makes me want to try.

I myself taught Israel how to walk, leading him along by the hand. I led Israel along, with my ropes of kindness and love.” (Hosea 11.3-4)

It’s difficult to choose just one more . . . Rock, bread, shepherd, but I will settle on . . .

Potter

And yet, O Lord, you are our Father, we are the clay, and you are the potter. We are all formed by your hand. (Isaiah64.8)

He is creating masterpieces. Some of them are more difficult to mold than others. (Oh, don’t I know that.) There are streaks of darkness in the clay where hard things happened, layers of color where dreams interwove. Each creation is different, each one handcrafted perfectly. I cannot begin to grasp the significance of God sitting at a potter’s wheel caring enough about the final testament of my life that he folds in the beautiful and out the muck. Individually. By hand. Again, I am awed, humbled, and grateful.

IMG_6897What images of God speak to you? Which one do you need today to know how much he loves you and is surrounding you right now? I’d love to hear.