The Lord handed over Israel because of idolatry: “You have not obeyed my voice… .” How had Israel erred? By worshipping Baal and Asherah.

Gideon is beating out grain in a winepress to keep the wheat hidden from the Midianites, who were taking by force whatever food the Israelites produced. He was working in secret. Living hand to mouth made Gideon shrewd and resourceful, yet the angel did not appear to him in the first year but the seventh year. Why did God wait to rescue his people? Apparently, both Gideon and Israel had some lessons to learn:

Disobedience opens the door to oppression. God gives us boundaries to create the best kind of life for us. When we outsmart ourselves and try to live life apart from him. We settle for less.

An angel of the Lord appears to Gideon, and speaks, “The Lord is with you…”

[Have no fear. The Creator God stands by your side.]

“…O mighty man of valor.”

[Remember who you are—a warrior. Claim your identity. Live in the truth of God’s power that resides in you. I gave you not a spirit of timidity but of power and love and self-control.]

The angel calls out in Gideon what God has already placed inside of him. He resituates Gideon in the truth: the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is above all gods. His children have nothing to fear.

Gideon wrestles with the angel’s words. He even questions God’s faithfulness:

“Please, sir, if the Lord is with us, why then has all this happened to us? And where are all his wonderful deeds that our fathers recounted to us, saying, “Did not the Lord bring us up from Egypt?” But now the Lord has forsaken us and given us into the hand of Midian.” (Judges 6)

Gideon falls into the worn trap of blaming God for his suffering and that of his people. Why do we suffer if God loves us? If he performed signs, wonders, and miracles in the past and delivered his children from oppression, why has he abandoned me in this pit? If he is all-powerful, why won’t he soothe my pain, save my marriage, resurrect my sweet child from the dead?

The angel offers no answer. God gave Job no answer. I have a hunch that God will meet our balled-up fists banging on his door with similar silence. The answer, I think, is complex and only available to us in part. As revealed in Christ, our suffering becomes our glory. The cross we take up becomes an avenue of sanctification. I also think that we live in the world that we have created. We chose life apart from God. We rebelled. We broke trust, and now we live in a broken world that breaks us. We point the finger at God rather than at ourselves. 

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Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about passivity and courage.

I spent last weekend in the Smokies at a men’s retreat. Both of these words came up in our conversations.

Do we want to live in cages? Are we willing to trade being truly alive for safety and security?

Are we willing to lay claim to those people, ideas, organizations, places, resources, and problems that fall within our sphere of influence?

Doug, the pastor of All Souls Church, did the teaching. He spoke at length about how after the exodus from Egypt but before entering Canaan, the Israelites sent out twelve spies, one from each tribe, to scout out the land and return with intelligence on its inhabitants and resources. Once the spies returned, ten of the twelve declared that the land couldn’t be taken. The inhabitants were too strong.

This news floored everyone who was listening. Had they traveled all the way from Egypt only to turn around because God defaulted on his promise to Abraham?

Caleb quieted the people, and said, “Let us go up at once and occupy it, for we are well able to overcome it” (Numbers 13:30). Joshua agreed with him. Two against ten.

No one listened to them. The Israelites railed against God:

‘Would that we had died in the land of Egypt! Or would that we had died in this wilderness! Why is the LORD bringing us into this land, to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will become a prey. Would it not be better for us to go back to Egypt?’ And they said to one another, ‘Let us choose a leader and go back to Egypt.’ (Numbers 14:2-4)

God cursed that generation of Israelites. Only those under the age of 20 at the beginning survived the 40 years of cleansing in the wilderness that followed. Caleb and Joshua were the exceptions. They rejected passivity. They chose to trust in God’s faithfulness. His power. His promises. God decreed that they alone of that generation would come out of the wilderness alive.

My favorite part of that story is what happens forty-five years after Joshua and Caleb explored the land of Canaan and followed God “wholeheartedly” (Joshua 14:8). They put their whole hearts and lives in God’s care.

Moses has died, and Joshua is the new leader of Israel. Caleb goes to see his old friend at his camp at Gilgal, and he says:

“And now, behold, I am this day eighty-five years old. I am still as strong today as I was in the day that Moses sent me; my strength now is as my strength was then, for war and for going and coming. So now give me this hill country of which the LORD spoke on that day, for you heard on that day how the Anakim were there, with great fortified cities. It may be that the LORD will be with me, and I shall drive them out just as the LORD said.” (Joshua 14:10-12)

Caleb lost no strength or vigor. He still went to battle. Can you imagine facing an 85-year-old with 70 years of training and technique on his side? Can you imagine his wisdom and experience yoked together with his physical strength and his courage? All of the people Caleb knew in his youth were dead, yet he was still a young man.

His vitality was bound up in his wholehearted trust in God. His strength was preserved because he believed in the face of staggering opposition that God would follow through with his promises.

I imagine him with a mane of white hair and fire in his eyes. I bet he had a handshake of iron.

I’d like to hear him pray.

Joshua granted Caleb’s request. Caleb took his clan and chased the Anakim from the land. They were supposedly descended from giants, the Nephilim, the “sons of God” who bore children with daughters of men (Genesis 6; Numbers 14). The giants ran from Caleb and his kin.

I want to live with that kind of boldness. Caleb was truly alive his entire life. He lived alive. He never grew old.

I want to follow God “wholeheartedly.” I want my vitality when I’m eighty-five. Courage and boldness are close to God’s heart, and as we travel to God’s heart, we will discover them in ourselves.

My junior year of college, I read Walker Percy’s Love in the Ruins, and one particular passage still haunts me: 

The truth was that Samantha didn’t want to go to Lourdes and I didn’t want to take her. Why not? I don’t know Samantha’s reasons, but I was afraid she might be cured. What then? Suppose you ask God for a miracle and God says yes, very well. How do you live the rest of your life? (374)

We pray to see God. We pray for signs, wonders, and miracles to confirm that He is real and sovereign. We ask for an experience like Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus—something dramatic and irrevocable.

Let the scales fall from our eyes, and let us witness resurrections and restore sight to the blind. Allow us to speak in the tongues of angels, to cast mountains into the sea, to walk through fire unscathed. Make us freaks of faith. Sear true belief into our souls.

Tom Moore, Walker Percy’s protagonist, knew us better than we know ourselves. He didn’t deceive himself. His daughter’s miraculous healing would destroy his complacency. He wasn’t ready, and he knew it. Consumed with fear of change, he avoided an encounter with the Living God.

Do I truly desire authenticity? Am I ready for the many forms of martyrdom that follow miracles?

Jesus will wreck my comfortable life even as he saves my soul. Do I want the risen Son of God or a fairy tale?

Am I willing to take my cross and watch suffering turn my life to ash or do I want the easy hell of lukewarm faith?

If I let Samantha die, I never have to change.

I give up

April 2, 2009

I sometimes get frustrated with being left-handed. 

As I write, my hand drags across the fresh ink and smears the words. No matter how lucid or pithy what I’ve written is, the messiness bothers me. Anything worth writing should be clean and legible on the page. I’ve developed a complex—writing slower and slower and taking great care to keep my palm from dragging through my words. 

Despite my fastidiousness, my skin is always darkened with graphite or ink, half a word printed on my pinkie finger or the side of my hand because I was too engrossed—as I should have been—with capturing my thoughts to worry about something so trivial as the cleanliness of the page. I take pride in a well-written page, good penmanship, but I am left-handed so smudges and smears come with the territory. 

In other words, no matter how I careful I am, I still make mistakes. Gritting my teeth and trying harder, sticking with it for just a little longer because just maybe—trying to muscle my way through an uncomfortable situation, conversation, or friendship is exhausting. I become vulnerable to spiritual sickness. Ideal results dance in my head, and I start to believe that I am responsible for making them a reality. 

Perhaps letting go, walking away, giving up—perhaps surrender sometimes connotes the deepest faithfulness, especially if it involves the death of pride—“Father, I cannot do it by my own power”—and confession of my weakness and need of God’s guidance and protection.

I am often unable to take care of myself, and on a regular basis, I stumble into problems and messes that require more than I have to offer. 

Humility can be unbearable until we make a lifestyle out of it.

A dogged commitment to living apart from God can come disguised as perseverence in the interest of justice, reconciliation, or evangelism. We care more about “results” than we do about dwelling in God’s presence.

In what scorched places in your life do you need to throw up your hands and declare before your Maker, “I give up!”?

Confess that you want clean pages, but you’re left-handed.

No amount of effort makes us holy. Effort can kill us quicker than complacency.

Bratislava

March 7, 2009

I wanted to spend the last of my Slovakian korunas before we left Bratislava, so I bought some pipe tobacco I didn’t want. Who knew when I’d be back. We found a restaurant called the Blue Moon Café and ate dinner outside underneath a striped awning. Dusk fell on the street. Still fresh to new to the art of being respectful in other culture, we were too loud and attracted attention. People looked right through us as though pretending we didn’t exist, or they stared openly with smugness or disdain. We were noisy primates at the zoo, rattling our cages. Their unsmiling mouths and sharp eyes communicated no curiosity. I guess they thought that they already knew all about us—ugly Americans. We carried cameras. We ordered too much food. We spent money just to get rid of it.

We rarely encountered open hostility. Most of the time, we could slide through the open spaces without feeling eyes on us, without feeling self-conscious. I got the feeling that to the Viennese, the Parisians, and the Romans American tourists, especially college students, are a necessary evil, helping the economy while spoiling the local flavor.  

We were young and green, as far as traveling graciously and inconspicuously goes, and we wanted to enjoy ourselves, to savor our Wiener Schnitzel and knödel, to smell the zinnias in Salzburg and the roses at Schönbrunn.

However, while I was developing an appreciation for tapas in Madrid and Bernini’s sculptures at the Galleria Borghese in Rome, I was also developing a taste for anonymity. If Herr Ober wanted to pretend that this flock of caffeinated college students abroad had not just seated themselves and ordered cheese pizzas and tap water, then we could pretend his long absences were a very professional austerity and respect for our privacy. Being ignored is a sort of freedom. Even more, what if after awhile we just blended in? What if we spoke in German?

We finished dinner at the Blue Moon Café, and I walked with Josh Elmore and Brandon Lokey back to the train station. People were waiting for their buses in the sheltered stops. His back to the road, a homeless man had pulled himself into the fetal position to fit on the bench. His pants had come down, and his dirty butt crack frowned at us.

A few benches closer to the station, a woman sat with her knees far apart bracing herself with her arms on the bench. She had a look of concentration fixed on her face, but she was gazing at nothing. Another moment, a few more steps, and I understood why. I heard a sound that did not fit in—water hitting a hard surface. The woman was urinating—in public, in plain view.

She sticks in my mind like a splinter. I cannot say I thought much about it then. I’ve seen plenty of homeless men relieving themselves behind dumpsters, in parking garages, and against the nearest wall. So, we passed by the woman, made sure not to stare, and found the bus that took us to the other train station across town where we could catch a late train back to Vienna. I was happy to hear German again.

I did journal about that woman later:

Another, a woman, fastened her eyes somewhere far away until they glazed. She sat with her hands propped on either side as if she would fall without the support. Her rigid form would not have attracted our attention had she not been urinating. Liquid splashed to the ground through the slats in the bench, spreading a dark puddle on the concrete. She wore a sweater and skirt. My heart sought to help her somehow, but I could not, for I was intimidated by something I had never witnessed and never wanted to witness again.

We told the story to the other students, and they, of course, responded with disgust. I cannot remember where we were, if we were eating dinner or walking and smoking pipes or having dessert in a room with centuries-old frescoes and vaulted ceilings. We probably finished our coffee and torte at Hotel Sacher or Hotel Imperial and went outside to breathe the magic of the opera house, Jugendstil architecture, and Stephansdom. Pistachio gelato and Gustav Klimt, Red Bull and Kinderpunsch, shopping at the Rathaus Christmas market—we were too busy making memories.

Now, I wonder where the woman slept the night we told our story about her.

I was alive. I was awakening to see my childlike curiosity fallen asleep beside me. I nudged it awake, and together, with my friends and their curiosities, we rode the Eurail across our years of textbooks, through the history of our collective way of thinking. After sitting through two years of Latin in high school, I was standing three and a half years later in front of the Colosseum. Outside, vendors hawked beaded skull caps and postcards, and inside, tourists stroked the feral cats lounging in the Italian sun. I thought of tigers and mock naval battles and Christian martyrs. A spring semester of art history my freshman year of college then four months later, I saw, on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, the sliver of atmosphere between Adam’s finger and God’s. God’s breath jumped the lacuna and gave life to us all. The breath of life.

I was thinking recently about a phrase I have heard more times than I can remember, especially in prayers: the less fortunate. Please, God, be with the less fortunate. The least of these. “Please, God, be with those who have less fortune or no fortune.”

God gives and He takes away, but to some does He even give? “I need to refill the honeypot of blessings,” he says to the unborn soul, “but I’ve got to enflesh you before I can go out back. Too bad. Sorry. You were at the wrong place at the wrong time.” And these are the people, these children of God, who end up wetting themselves on a bench in Bratislava. They get the breath of life, but they do not get good fortune. The lucky souls hurry past to their hot meals and warm beds, to their glorious memories still so new that they cannot shake them or the colors will run.

Good thing I bought the Old Dublin pipe tobacco and Danneman Sweets. Did I really need the venison kebabs, rice pilaf, and orange Fanta I ate for lunch? The caviar and sour cream on crepes for an appetizer? The beef filet in herb butter with potatoes, ketchup, and fried champignons for dinner? A Coke? And for dessert blackberry jam wrapped in crepes and drizzled with blackberry syrup and topped with whipped cream?

Who is responsible for the man curled up on the park bench? Me or God? What about the woman urinating on herself in public?

I cannot shake the image out of my mind. I will never see her again, but I will see someone like her. I will do something about it this time. I think God gave himself to us in Christ so that we can give ourselves to the least of these.

Complacency

January 29, 2009

I’ve been thinking a lot about complacency. I started a job on October 13 that I still like. Who would have thought that enjoyable jobs are out there. I’m paying off the credit card debt that I accumulated in graduate school. I’m paying all my bills on time. I’m trying to make my apartment comfortable without the help of my mother and two sisters who are much better at nesting than I am. I’m even putting a little money from each paycheck into a savings account and a Simple IRA.

In other words, I appear responsible. Perhaps I’m not building equity through home ownership, but a year ago, I wouldn’t have been able to explain what I meant by that. I do now. I have business cards, for goodness’ sake. I take my truck in for routine oil changes. I’m like good ole reliable dad without a wife or children.

How did this happen? I remember having a conversation with my parents about finances. My mother was trying to convince me that financial security was very important–and thus, very attractive–to most women. So, if I wanted to attract a good woman, I should practice more financial prudence. I think this conversation came up in relation to my sharing my plans with them for another adventure. My habit was to gut my bank accounts and travel to a far off country and take pictures and write poems and return knowing that the world was, in fact, my playground. After my mother tried to offer a reality check, I delivered what I thought was a brilliant counter-argument: the right woman would love me for who I was, not what I could offer her.

Now I see that both our points-of-view had problems. My mom was making a generalization, and I was more concerned with justifying my spending habits than thinking long-term. I criticized people my own age who followed the life-itinerary they accepted passively from Western culture or church culture or a “Christian” education: graduate high school, go to college, earn a degree, get a job, find a spouse, start making payments on a mortgage, have babies, and so on.complacency3

I resisted this itinerary. It seemed like unquestioning acquiescence to the status quo. Shoot, so many people get divorced these days that you’d think more young adults would get to know themselves and their motivations really well before entering a covenant relationship. When I get married, I want to stay married. I don’t want loneliness or insecurity or horniness or discontentment to drive my decision to spend the rest of my life with a woman. I want that decision to be about her. Sure, I’ll bring all sorts of hidden fears, wounds, and needs to the table. That’s unavoidable. We’re bound to blindside each other with junk from our families, past relationships, and sins. However, I’d like to think that deeper self-awareness might enable me to focus on what is within my power to change–myself, by the grace of God–rather than try to change her.

For example, I get irritable right before dinner if I’ve been drinking coffee all day. As the caffeine leaves my body, I tend to be negative and critical. I also need time by myself. If I don’t have some space for solitude, silence, and prayer on a regular basis, I don’t treat people well. I develop tunnel vision. I only see how people have failed and disappointed me. I take on a posture of defensiveness. If other people can’t meet my needs, I’d better protect myself from their needs. In other words, who I want to be gets turned upside down. I am most content when I am serving other. I most like being me when I respond with kindness, gentleness, and patience rather than fear, sarcasm, and criticism. When I die to myself, I gain myself. When I look after the needs of others, my own needs are met.

If caffeine withdrawal makes me irritable but I didn’t know it, I might point a finger at my wife rather than myself. Why did she forget to pick up milk? Why does she leave trash in her car? Why doesn’t she turn off the lights when she leaves the house?

sea11If solitude, silence, and prayer keep me centered in the reality of God-with-us in Jesus, then I will be much less likely to attribute my best friend’s failure to call me back to his lack of respect for me and other. I may have the grace to acknowledge that I am a victim of my own expectations rather than some grave injustice.

In his goodness, the Father provided me a job. I have shown my gratitude by saying, “Okay, God, I can take it from here.” Then, I mess up a good thing. I know that what I do is less important than who I am becoming. The Father is transforming me into a person who can meet others where they are without putting pressure on them to be who I want them to be.

My prayer is that I not wake up as a 45-year-old husband and father and realize my relationship with Jesus lost its intimacy and fire years ago, when I stopped trusting him for my welfare from moment to moment. I am afraid of that kind of complacency. Even more than a wife and family, I want to be a saint. I want to be one of the holy ones of God. I long for purity and holiness.

My deepest desires are for things that I cannot provide for myself. I hate to admit it, but I am in need. I have a need. I need Jesus right here, right now, to walk with me on the Way everlasting.