Seeing the Forest

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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.

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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.

 

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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.

Word, 2019 Version

insert fabulous word here

So, the word of the year thing . . . I’ve meant to. Really. And what, it’s only January 17th as I write this. Maybe I’ll go with this popular sentiment I’ve seen floating around.

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Except February is just around the river bend.

I Do Love Words

I never picked a word last year because, well, one never picked me. I find it disingenuous to force the issue if no one word is calling to me. Or maybe I’m just too lazy to search. But this year, I know I want one. I just can’t quite decide which one. And one has not decided on me.

What I’m searching for is more a feeling than a word—and I can’t find the exact word for the feeling. This coming from someone who makes her living finding the right words.

Last year was hard. Exhausting. (Maybe if I had picked a word it would have made it better?)

It was also valuable and beautiful, but these things commingle often, don’t they? We’re already facing some potential significant loss in 2019, so I’m not certain the new year promises better things. I am certain they will also be valuable and beautiful, and I will find that the anchor of Jesus holds still, giving meaning and hope to both joy and loss.

Yet I am at a loss for the word that encompasses it all.

We’re All Just Tired. And Toxic.

Last year was emotionally exhausting, too. When the Oxford English Dictionary chose “toxic” as their word of 2018, they baptized an entire year with an overlay of anger. They’re not wrong.

toxic

There are so many parts of 2018 I am angry about. So many things I simply cannot. I cannot with jailing children, erecting walls, shooting children, fine Nazis, drowning children . . . I cannot. I cannot with the defense of any of these things by people with whom I share a faith.

And yet . . . I also cannot let the toxins invade and make a captive of me. To quote, well, myself when I gave two talks on this topic last year,

“When we begin to attack other humans we are engaging in the tactics of the enemy, and he is not our friend. He will use us. We will end up being what we fight against.” 

We will end up being what we fight against.

I say “no” to that toxin in 2019.

So what words have I considered top define this longing?

Candidates have included:

  • Rest
  • Peace
  • Wonder
  • Joy
  • Adventure
  • Return
  • Restore
  • Simple
  • Me

(Yes, I’ve considered “me.” I have. I find no shame in that, even while I’ve looked for it, assuming that choosing “me” as a focus word for an entire year must contain more than a drop of self-absorption. It doesn’t. It’s time to be good to me for a bit.)

More Than a Feeling

What am I longing for this year?

  • A pulling back, a recalibrating of what I really need and what rabbit trails I don’t need to follow.
  • A reminder of what battles I don’t need to fight and which ones I really, truly do.
  • A restoration of some things that have fallen away.
  • A return to some of the joy-sparking things that I’ve let go. (Let’s channel Marie Kondo here, because why not?)
  • A peace in the midst of evil that isn’t going away but must not wash me out in its tide.
  • A solution to this perennial puzzle of what matters versus what demands my limited bandwidth.

A way to do this unhurried, unscheduled, restful thing perfectly so that I get it exactly right and accomplish all my other goals as well.

. . . . . .

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She appears skeptical. Photo by Thomas Jörn on Unsplash

I’m longing for wonder this year. The kind that gobsmacks you full in the face and and leaves you wide-eyed, smiling with dumb amazement that you never saw it before.

Because the thing about wonder is that, almost all the time, it’s always been there.

(Also, I wouldn’t mind bringing back the word “gobsmacked.” Because how perfectly descriptive of its own action is that word?)

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Photo by Kenny Krosky on Unsplash

Most years, I find a song as well as a word that I believe will, or has, defined my year. Like the words, they find me. This year, I think the song that has found me is Sarah Groves’ Expedition. She sings about going toward that next river bend—but unhurried, refusing to rush there just to say you’ve been. Not going down the river because you have to get to the next port or cross off the next point of interest on the to-do or to-see list.

Going because the bends are the exciting parts, and taking the trip slow allows us to savor those parts with wonder, not anticipate and strategize them until there’s nothing left but the same water you’ve traversed, thousands of times.

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Photo by Jack Anstey on Unsplash

In defiance of her words (you really should listen):

  • I rarely approve of extravagant, and never wasteful.
  • Striving is sometimes my middle name.
  • I don’t have time for deliberate and slow.
  • I always feel I have something to prove.

“Strategy” is among my top five StrengthsFinders, and I am an enneagram 5!!! Do you not understand these important realities, Sarah???

This simply floating stuff does not come naturally. At all.

Yet for this year, I want to venture downriver and see what God has for me there, and I want to embrace it without reservation of whether or not I have the time or the capability. (Enneagram 5’s don’t do anything unless they feel they will be undeniably capable. That’s also exhausting.) I want to go around the turns and marvel at the glory and wonder of it rather than have it already planned out and categorized.

I want to be gobsmacked.

(No, that is not going to be my word. Even though it would look great in calligraphy hanging on the wall. A conversation starter, to be sure.)

What’s your vote? What’s your feeling or longing for this year? Do you have a word? What should mine be? I’d love to talk with you about it. After all, if I want to focus on what matters, one of those things would be you.