Archive for the ‘god’ Category

Even to your old age and gray hairsI am he, I am he who will sustain you. I have made you and I will carry you;I will sustain you and I will rescue you.

Isaiah 46:4

God promises his people three things here in Isaiah.

First, he will sustain them to the end of their lives. To sustain is to strengthen or support physically or mentally. And note the logical corollary to this: We will need the most sustaining when we are the weakest.

At one point in my life I lost a precious job and in the interim, before finding another one, I was afraid. I felt emotionally weak, vulnerable. I didn’t like it. I’m not particularly fond of feeling vulnerable. Few of us are. I’ve often played the strongman, the teacher, the leader, the writer but clearly I haven’t always been the strong man.

Secondly, in Isaiah 46 we are told that because God made us and feels intimately connected to us as family, he will carry us. To carry someone is to support and move them from one place to another. Again, this carrying implies a position of weakness: A person only needs to be carried when they cannot carry themselves. It can feel quite undignified to be carried.

I once sprained my ankle playing soccer in Brazil. The soccer field had holes in it. I was wheeled through the airport by my teenage team for the plane ride home in a wheelchair. I felt both privileged and slightly embarrassed. It’s true. Sometimes I find my weakness embarrassing.

Thirdly, in Isaiah, God repeats the first point, that he will sustain and he adds one more thing: He will rescue us. To rescue someone is to save someone from a dangerous or distressing situation that they can’t save themselves from. It is also to keep something from being lost or abandoned by retrieval. Again, dangling from a rescuing helicopter or laying on a gurney is hardly a bragging point for most of us. “I had to be rescued!”

At two points in my life I have been significantly sick, recovering from surgery, dealing with chronic pain. During these times I’ve had to wait on rescue, wait on doctors, wait on appointments, wait on surgeries, wait on a gurney, wait on God. I’m not that good at waiting, particularly when there is a high degree of uncertainty and uncomfortability. 

What can we take from all this? First, that we will at times be weak, embarrassed, at times need to be carried and that sometimes we will not be able to rescue ourselves from loss, deprivation, failure, need.

Let’s be honest. None of us like to be weak, dependent, helpless, sick and needy, and yet sometimes we will be. One of the great steps of maturity in life is to realize and accept our own vulnerability. All are subject to financial, health, material, relational, physical and situational loss and and its attendant emotion — vulnerability. We are realizing this acutely during the coronavirus pandemic. How insecure we are, practically spending the entire families savings on toilet paper!

But it is in such times of personal need that we can discover our humanity that includes our vulnerability — which by the way was always there even when we didn’t know it or denied it. How much we are all alike, strong, yes, and also all sometimes indisputably, intrinsically afraid, dependent and weak.

And here’s the thing; this weakness is most hard on us at the emotional level. The emotional power position is to save; the affectively weak position is to be saved. To be the one who needs to be rescued; we must be okay with being and feeling weak, even embarrassed; we must be okay with waiting until we are sustained and rescued by another; we must be okay with not being the hero, the driver, the solution and we must be okay with letting others shine and do the saving.

Ah, needy, waiting for help to come. The help seems slow. As time passes we wonder, will it come? We may grow angry over our loss of control or we may become sad.

What else can we do?

We can accept reality, accept both our strength and our weakness and we can work on not being so embarrassed by it so that it doesn’t become impedimenta to us that we drag along with us. Note that Betty Ford was praised for raising breast cancer awareness following her 1974 mastectomy. So many women have been helped and encouraged by her model of openness. We help ourselves and others by normalizing sickness and weakness. It is strong to accept that we are weak.

And we can learn to hold on to hope. That means we can trust that God will come through when he decides to come through and not when we tell him to come through.

We can lean into our difficulty and see what it has to teach us as we wait. That too is a form of strength. Waiting and watching can teach us that we are alternately weak and strong, that life is up and down and that God will come through in his own time and way and not ours.

Finally, it has been my experience — and I know many of you have experienced this too — that the promises of God do not always come to us when and how we want. Then we trust. Then we wait. Then we mature into those who are not afraid to be what we sometimes are — the strong-weak. Then we experience latency, a normal stage of life, the state of existing but not yet being developed or manifest.

Weak-waiting —- today it occurs to me that this can be a beautiful form of strong-trusting, and that this can set up a working relationship with God, one that preps us for future times of strength and weakness, one that finds a way to deeply liaise with the God who rescues.

Competition — I’ve lived it, the good the bad and the ugly

In high school I won my gym class ping-pong championship. I glowed.

Several times I have received good chunks of money for articles I wrote. I was competing against other articles offered to the same magazine. I felt very affirmed, my acceptances, my being allowed into the conversation. It help me realize that writing was the thing for me. So I’ve worked hard on it. since.

Competition, as a positive can promote discipline, hard work and toughness, develop skills, create teamwork, lead to innovation and invention, create high-quality work and performance, fuel productivity, help people know what they’re good at and what they’re not good at and teach a person how to be a gracious winner or loser.

I once raced a BMW in my Infinity G 37 coupe. Blew his doors off. I celebrated. Or gloated. Not good. Later I regretted this.

Competition as a negative can cause a person to become conceited —desiring to be the cynosure of all eyes — harmfully proud, create fear and anxiety, add harmful levels of stress, lead to rushed decisions, elicit cheating, illegal or harmful behaviors, sabotage teamwork, ruin relationships, consume a person with bitterness, lead to a loss of morale and self-esteem.

So what to think of all this?

We might say that because there are pros and cons here that we need a balance between competing with others and nurturing others. Fair enough.

But how does this work out for we Christians. What does the Bible have to say about competition?

Well, we might first note that Israel competed with the other nations for land and power and survival. The Old Testament may be even be seen as the story of winners and losers. But this perhaps ignores the purpose God had in choosing the Jews. It was to make himself known to the whole world. The Jews were to win only so others could win. They were to be a light to the other nations; instead they were darkness. And when they failed to let God make them successful, God had to discipline them and let them fail.

Well, what about the New Testament?

For Christians who see competition as valuable they might point out that the apostle Paul compared himself to a runner, boxer and soldier, to a competitor. But in the context of these analogies, Paul is actually competing against himself, against his old nature. And he eventually concludes that only Christ within will win his fight. For him to win is to know Christ, to be found in God, to please God and to help as many people as possible do the same.

So we might say that we Christians compete to win a win for everyone possible. I think of it is similar to how I think about my daughters and wife. I want to be my best self possible so that they might be resourced, successful, win at life.

But we might say that Paul and the other disciples and early church leaders debated competitively for the gospel, just as have all the apologists and evangelists who have come after him. True. And we might note that there is a kind of world competition for the truth, for what’s right, for a philosophy or religion to live by. Paul contended for the gospel.

Christians still do. So we Christians do well to train ourselves and discipline ourselves to be as good and knowledgeable and excellent in all our work as possible, but not so that we might win discussions, but so that we may draw others into the win of God.

This is an interesting topic to take on. Perhaps big-idea and longview conclusions help here. First, Jesus was never about himself against the world. He didn’t define his mission or ours as us against them — the outliers, the sinners, the deceived — but instead as himself for all of them, and us for all of them, us in him loving them, as many as we can. He only spoke against those who wanted to make Christianity an elite group. Remember, John 3:17. Jesus didn’t come to condemn the world but to save it. And Jesus had no ultimate doubts about the outcome of that quest. He knew — the father would win!

Jesus came and announced, “God wins!” That’s what the scripture, what Revelations says. And it isn’t even a fair fight. All of creation and all of history is going somewhere, the place Jesus prayed for in John 17, that we might all be one within God. I don’t know how that sorts out, but it is clear that God wants no one to be left out of that win, and that the only way that they can be left out is if they choose to be.

“For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior; Who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth”

1Tim. 2:3-4

Life is a serious business. We all know that there are winners and losers. It doesn’t look like everyone wins in life. Not everyone gets a gold star. Not everyone gets a sticker or an A+ on their paper or a trophy. But everyone can be forgiven and everyone can realize their giftedness for the good of others.

With all this reasoning as presuppositionaI, I certainly don’t think then that the church is advanced by attacking the “pagans” or science or sinners or other religions or by holing up, circling the wagons and seeing itself as attacked by the rest of the world. The church’s goal is not to defeat everyone else but instead to share the win Jesus won with everyone else! Yes, it may be true that in the end everyone won’t win — only God knows that or who; only God could decide that — but it’s certainly not our business to try to decide that. That’s God’s work. Our work is to declare the win. If there is to be a loss, we leave that up to God.

At the last church I pastored we shared the church with other denominations, with other congregations, with AA support groups; we gave space to professional counselors, food distribution organizations and groups helping refugees and children in poverty. We owned it, with no debt, and we gave it away freely to anyone we had a common vision with us, vision to help people. We took a non-competitive, inclusive approach to our community. If we were competitive it was competition to win at the game of sharing.

Looking further in the new testament for commentary on competition, we find the parable of the shrewd manager in Luke 16. Faced with dismissal, the manager reduces the debts of his employer’s creditors, and thus creates friends for life. When his boss finds out, he commends the manager’s savvy, entrepreneurial, even competitive behavior.

Well, we might say this about that. God admires intelligence. After all, he made it. God admires shrewdness, for he is shrewd. God wants us to find ways to make life better, because he wants to make life better. Therefore, Christian go ahead, do well, make money, make art, be successful. You who invent products, advance knowledge by doing good science, you who are wise in the investing of time and money, who create social capital, go for it, that is if you use it for good, if you please God!

But let’s be clear, you please him not because you outdo others. You please God when you have found ways to thrive that include others. Note that thriving in the case of the shrewd manager involved forgiving others their debts. The wise steward won favor by creating wins for others, even though his master took a loss. Seems familiar. God, took a loss so we all can take win.

We also have the parable of the hired workers in Matthew 20 that seems to be commentary on this topic of competition. Those who work a whole day get paid the same as those who worked only part-day. The full-day labourers plead unfairness; the vineyard owner maintains he is being both generous and just by treating all his workers the same. Again the point comes to the surface that God himself is generous and wants a win for everyone possible

This helps our thinking. In the quest to win, to be paid, it must be remembered that God so wants to bless others that he may seem to even violate our sense of justice or fairness. We may be shocked at who is included in heaven, people who didn’t seem to have faith at all, people from other religions, people who did some horrible things. It will be an omnium-gatherum, a collection of miscellaneous people.

So why do we have here? When is competitiveness Christian, when not Christian?

I think we can safely say that competition is not Christian when the drive to compete is fuelled by greed, self-interest, envy, pride or revenge. That is clearly inconsistent with Christ’s command to love and with God’s purpose to create a people, a collective, a body, a team that wins.

I know that when I have been selfish in my family that has caused problems. Sometimes I traveled too much when I was working, off on missions to far off countries, and in doing this I was sometimes insensitive to my wife’s needs at home with the children. I regret that now.

When we are only out for ourselves, and when we are so broken that we want others to be at the back of the pack, and we are willing to oppress and damage them so that we might win, so that we might be first, so that we might get what we want, that’s not Christian. It’s evil! The drive that says “I’d rather be first than human; I’d rather be first than good” — that’s not good. This is the motive behind racism and sexism and even nationalism. I believe God opposes small thinking, the formation of oppressive, enclosed societies, the institutional formation of harmful self-interest and pride.

So then is there a place for competition within Christian culture? Yes. Paul models that we are to compete against ourselves to win the prize of God’s approval in Christ. And further yes we are in competition for the truth. It is right to stand up for the truth, to compete for the truth wherever we can. But not so that others lose, but so that they win. We compete to help them win, win the win of God in Christ.

This would imply then that we are to be excellent in all that we do, not so much for a personal win, but so that we may advance the cause of God by being a model of what it is to be intelligent and rational and hard-working and disciplined and successful. All the good things about competition come into play here, but we do not compete to beat out the rest of the competitors, instead we compete with ourselves to bring out the best in us, to steward our gifts, to do the thing that we do, best for and most pleasing to God.

Through my various jobs in life it became quite obvious that I was a leader. Even in high school I was elected to the position ofvstudent council president. I was always fascinated by leadership. I read all the books I could get on it and attended all the leadership conferences and training I could.. I trained my staff in leadership principles. I often encouraged, cajoled and incentivize people to rise up and take leaderships. God wants us to succeed, but is the kind of success that is successful when others succeed.

The bottom line for we Christians is that life is not a zero sum game. Life isn’t a pie where if we get a slice someone else doesn’t. Life is a pie that we want everyone to eat from.

Competition?

How about if our goal — like God’s — is for everyone possible to win?

This morning I awoke to my wife’s warm back against my back, soft blankets over me, pillows all around me, my cat warm against the back of my legs and the sound of a central air unit heating my home. 

I give thanks! 

The simplest things are the best things and may bring us into a lucid state of robust and capacious tranquillity.

Everyday things like warm blankets create hygge, the centuries old Scandinavian concept of a moment of well being, a cozy, warm, special and charming essence. 

My sweet wife and I keep our home simple and uncluttered. We are aiming for hygge. We want to experience the essence of the simple and yet refined. 

Our hardwood hickory floors are to me the great forests of the world and I love their knots and their grain patterns and their woody imperfections too. Our granite countertops, the producets of great heat and pressure, swilled and chunked with quartz and feldspar and mica, these are our ancient cliffs and lovely mountain peaks. The many windows and glass doors in our home —  these invite in the sunshine, green trees, blue sky and evening sunsets.. 

This afternoon I walked into the family room. The light streamed through the blinds and pane windows, jalousied, glorious, lambent, splendid, divine!

I see the essence of each thing and am grateful. I want to drop into a state of allostasis, emotional stability, and be at peace with my world. I try. I move a little way in. I want to go deeper. I want to see and give thanks. 

I think of Martin Burber and his book I And Thou. Buber writes of  “I-It” relationships, it being an object or even idea that is separate in itself, which we either use or experience.

The flowering pear tree I see though my double-paned windows, what this it to me? It’s now in full bloom. It looks like a bride, decked in white. If I comprehend its essence, if I respect it’s being, if I sense its center of value it becomes to me an entheogen. Inviting me into the presence it becomes a Thou, it moves from it to you, and I enter into a reciprocal, enlarging relationship with it. I become a transparent eyeball absorbent and give thanks for all trees, all plants and all living things great and small, and we are I and Thou.

Too often the things around me are assumed by me, undervalued, under-noted, unrecognized. I see them merely as out-of-focus background.

But what I am longing for is to see things for what they are and to rejoice in them and be thankful for them.

Simple things create the Japanese sense of wabi sabi. Wabi” is  defined as “rustic simplicity” or “understated elegance” with a focus on a less-is-more mentality. “Sabi” is translated to “taking pleasure in the imperfect.”

The Japanese idea of Shibusa is similar. It is an enriched, subdued appearance of something, say a vase, or the experience of intrinsically fine quality in an object with economy of form, line, and effort, producing a timeless tranquility. 

We have many decorative vases in our home, some bursting over with dried flowers. We have placed vases in our home because they are grace and beauty, their lines form curves of tranquility.  We take in their je ne sais quoi and intuit their household salience, surd, voiceless, aphonic yet known. 

I am very thankful, but there is even more and even greater to be thankful for.

I sat with my wife this morning over hot coffees discussing the highlights of our marriage. Her pour-over coffee equipment, my espresso machine, our its that are also thou’s fueled us with the jolt that made us talk. We love our technology, how it dialogs with us, hissing and beeping and gurgling life-giving juice. In steaming coffee mugs there is hygge.

 I give thanks. 

And as we talked we entered into Buber’s I-Thou, an  “I” relating to a “Thou,” a sacred relationship with each other in which the other is not separated by discrete bounds.

My wife and I are two but we are One. Our experiences have merged. The boundaries between us have faded. Ant yet they haven’t, and yet they move closer than ever before. We have been through fire and rain and it has put us in each other more. 

I’m putting her first more often now, to honor her uniqueness and make it my own. She often thinks of me and puts me first and often thinks of others. She’s a problem solver. She bakes for others, finds books for them, recommends doctors for them, sews for them, helps them raise their  babies. To me she is a thou that leads me toward deeper relationships with other Thou’s. 

I am so thankful for her! I surge forward, seeking more thankfulness for her. I am her, and so I take care of her as I take care of myself. This comes from God! All good things come from God. For Martin Buber the ultimate thou was God. 

God is not an it but a Thou who created all the its and they reflect him and he made all the thous and they have value because his image, his Thou, is in them, and his purpose is to make them one and so I long for a relationship with all things great and small and with all people and with all of God, a dialogic, value-laden, knowledge-heavy intimacy — hygge and wabi sabi in all things. 

Oh world, you can be so savage and so horrible but at the same time you are so beautiful and so intimate and so present as essence, quintessence and incandescence of God. 

I have a new appetency for gratitude.

I long and press on with all of you as you all long with me, and we long together to be scandalously, shamelessly and infamously grateful. 

Here is the standard, modern, pervasive Christian framework, thesis, mindset, paradigm: God is made known in health; God is made known in solutions; God is made known in gain; God is made known in being made known through what we want.

I just refinanced a small real estate loan at a fantastically low rate. My response? Thank you God! Every good gift is from the Father. It’s easy to give that “thank you.”

But this God-as-gain paradigm rides on a thin, brittle epistemic rail of truth; it easily slips off and crashes into a adamantine wall of misunderstanding.

Yes, every material blessing is a gift of God, every lovely forest, towering peak, rushing stream, safe home, good meal, loved one.

A few days ago I spotted a goldfinch in my white blossomed, ornamental pear tree. Astonishingly beautiful! God — a god of beauty.

Yes, God is a God of beauty and of truth and understanding and rationality, and solutions flow out of his very essence, every income stream, every medical cure, every healing, every building plan, every scrumptious recipe — He is somewhere there behind it.

My mushroom and leek gravy today, originally his idea.

Yes, God is the Creator God, architect, founder, maker, artist and through his mighty power we have gained the universe, our gorgeous, looping, spinning solar system, stunning planet earth and all the blue-green beauty and burgeoning fecund good that lies within our small corner plot of good earth.

But God is also made known in ugliness, in pain; God is also made known in difficulty; God is also made known in loss. This is equally true whether we want to hear it or not. The gold finch will one day molder in the ground and frightening a school child along her way — a horrid rictus, an ugly death. 

Yes, God is solution, but yes, His primary, core, existential, ultimate solution involved He himself entering into and embracing pain, difficulty and loss — the incarnation of God in Jesus, God experiencing human frailty, God experiencing human temptation, God experiencing our suffering, God hammered onto a killing machine.

The good news is that Jesus healed and redeemed. And the good news is that Jesus suffered, that God suffered. Let’s face this square on. God is found in pain. How so? His essential solution involved pain.

Last night I dreamed about a broken work relationship in which I felt powerless. It’s rough. I lived that dream. How do I hook theology up to my experience relational hate, rejection and hurt? 

We know that God — agentive — is love. We love that! Let’s never lose that perspective. But the complete truth is that God — by choice, as an agency — is an ouch and a scream and has experience rejection too. God is love — as an amalgam. He is pain-love. That’s his chosen status. Yikes! We wish to rush away in a frenzy of Christian cultural cringe from heaven’s compounded, ugly-beautiful remedy. We don’t want such axiology. For many of the blithely hopeful this kind of thinking is a kind of theo-polution, a negative doctrinal bizarrerie. They won’t have it, and yet they will have it, and they will have it on a plate, and they will eat it and they will grimace and try to spit it out.

I think we who love God want God to be Valentine’s Day, all kissy, gifty and lovey-dovey, chocolate and hearts and seduction. I do. And He is.

I bought beautiful, expensive Valentines gifts for my sweet thing this week, fine pour-over coffee equipment. God too gifts us because he loves us. We are his valentine.

But look around — unblinkered — if you will. All love, even true love, involves also the gift of suffering, involves making a place for things we don’t want in another person. My wife and I have both broken down recently in the face of some overwhelming circumstances. True love involves some ugly tears. It also involves some sacrifices, and it comes to accept the chronic pain of loss, the loss of former glories, and eventually the loss of loved ones from our lives.

Here is the truth: God is made known by being made known in some things that we don’t want. Our response? It is to fight, take flight or freeze or reject.

But what about acceptance of the things we can’t control? What about a salutary acceptance of reality, reality God himself has allowed — your pain, your loss, your relational derailments and deplorements.

What is needed involves a tender, merciful love for ourselves and others, no matter what the unwanted and unvalued physical and material empainments we and they and we-they suffer?

Quite lately, I’ve been learning to be kind to myself, to be tender with my less-than-perfect body, to titrate a new bifurcated identity, powerful and powerless, a new mixed bag of a man extruded out of difficulty, both compensated and decompensated.

In Greek mythology, the Minotaur is a mythical creature, head and tail of a bull, body of a man. The Roman poet Ovid, gets at it: part man; part bull.

God is kind of like the Minotaur, very loosely. He is one thing, comforting, and another, allowing and even embracing discomfort, and we don’t get only part of the great complex of Him. And this is no Minotaur myth. We get all of God; He is a God of comfort and of a tolerated pain and he unifies these much in the way he is unified as a Trinity.

Proof? God once entered our pain, and carried it on his shattered shoulder, and he is still entering into your pain and mine, entering with a keen specificity into our mounting losses. This is the truth, the same as it was with Israel. In all our distressed he too is distressed. Don’t believe those who want to present you with an impassable God, a god who can experience no pain.

Jesus was God, and he took a brutal bag of horrible for us and the Father himself saw it and was moved to weep for in that moment of his kenosis all the horrors, jealousies, atrocities, lies, abuses, rapes, murders and wars in the world were gathered into Christ as God and dealt with them to forgive them. And in this, God’s spiritual agony far outweighed his physical pain. 

Latch on to this. You experience and you hear God speaking to you in your pain too! Amazing! Not our way. Not my way. His way — not our way.

David Brooks has this to say about a life that is a mixed bag of goodies — and badies.

“The valley is where we shed the old self so the new self can emerge. There are no shortcuts. There’s just the same eternal three-step process that the poets have described from time eternal: from suffering to wisdom to service. Dying to the old self, cleansing in the emptiness, resurrecting in the new. “

“One task in life is synthesis. It is to collect all the fragmented pieces of a self and bring them to a state of unity, so that you move coherently toward a single vision.”

Brooks has it right. The great task of life is synthesis, a divine synthesis of our view of God and of ourselves, a synthesis that paradoxically combines comfort and suffering. We take our stand there within suffering and comfort, and we stand there within an enigma, we stand as a theologically branched tree standing strong in a orthodox forest of many other staunchly dual-trunked Biblical truths. 

Fellow warriors, honor the complex truth, this divine complementarity, honor the reality that stretches from you to the very horizon of your life, and  leave nothing out so that we might be complete.

He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge.

Psalm 91:4

So what are the feathers of God? And what is his wing?

Immediately I think of the red tail hawks that fly over the canyons by my house. They float so effortlessly on the updraft, hardly flapping at all. But raptor wings don’t quite seem to capture the mighty, global wing of God.

I imagine an owl’s wing, gorgeously layered, translucent in the sun, but again so small for the billions God watches over.

I imagine an owlet in the nest, sheltered under the wing the mother or father owl. That feels safe.

But then I imagine something greater, more omnipresent.

The sky and clouds overarching me, our atmosphere, protection from cold space, protection from the sun, the great blue dome, the wing of God for all.

And I imagine our Milky Way Galaxy, 100,000 light years across, its great spiral arms wrapped around our sun, enclosing our planet, hundreds of billions of stars wrapped around me and you and everyone, held in place by great swirling forces, and that just begins to hint at the vastness and power latent in the wing metaphor. Our Solar System is located in a region in between the two arms called the Orion-Cygnus arm. We are cradled safely there in the arms, in the wings made by God about 25,000 light-years from the galactic center and 25,000 light-years away from the rim. 

We are always enveloped in God’s, perfectly designed bright, physical wings of beauty, love and wonder. We are, know it, sense it or intuit it or not. This does not mean we will not suffer, feel lonely or die. It does mean we will do so within a refuge of ultimate safety, redemptive safety. You are covered. Rest and peace hover overhead.

And when these present protective wings pass away, a new wing, a redeemed heaven and earth will cover us and there will be no harm and there will be no end to our safety.

“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.

Luke 15:20

This is the high point of the Biblical story of the prodigal son.

The father welcomes the wayward son home.

Who do we identify with in the story? It’s easy to think of ourselves as the prodigal son seeing that we have all had our times away from God. It’s also easy to think of ourselves as the older brother. We have all been jealous when someone else got the attention that we needed or felt we deserved.

Of course, we are both the prodigal son and the older brother, but as Henri Nouwen has pointed out we are also the father.

One of the great pathways to safety with ourselves is in welcoming ourselves home. To forgive oneself, to love oneself, to hug and kiss oneself with the affection and safety of a good father, we all need that.

Looking back is helpful to see that our lives were led. God was always there. When we went away he followed us, and when we came back he was right there also. Our mistakes are forgiven by him in Christ.

The question is: Can we forgive ourselves?

This is not always easy. We must work at it. We must say, “Yes I am loved. Yes, I am forgiven. Yes, I am accepted. I am in the family of God.”

We must see that sometimes we are a harsh, judgmental father; we are the one standing in our own way of being home. We are the one with judgment of ourselves. We are the one who needs to become the gentle, compassionate father. We must model ourselves after God, the perfect father and gently love ourselves as the needy child.

Do this: Fill yourself with compassion for yourself. Run to yourself. Embrace yourself. Drop the negative narrative about yourself. It’s incorrect. Welcome your whole self home, just as God does.

Two thousand years ago was the human incarnation of God in Jesus, but before that there was the first and original incarnation through light, water, land, sun, moon, stars, plants, trees, fruit, birds, serpents, cattle, fish, and “every kind of wild beast,” according to our own creation story (Genesis 1: 3–25). 

Richard Rohr

What a fascinating and under-applied understanding of scripture we have here —  nature as an incarnation of God!

We usually refer to what Rohr describes as general or natural revelation. The creation isn’t God, that is a theological misunderstanding — it isn’t incarnate God like Jesus was God — but it is from him and of him and retains his image in we who were created by him, so yes, in same ways God is incarnate in nature, most startlingly in us. 

Nature shows us God like Jesus did, his characteristics, his nature. Nature holds together because of Christ and he will redeem it in the end. Rohr’s use of “incarnation” implies that the creation’s relationship with God is deeper than we have fathomed.

This is Biblical. 

For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made … His qualities, they are in nature.

Romans 1:20

He [Jesus] existed before anything else, and he holds all creation together. He is a force in nature, divine gravity!

Colossians 1:17

So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. Both male and female, attributes, coming from God. 

Genesis 1:27

God’s power runs creation. His image is in us! His divine nature can be seen the earth and sky. He holds all it together in a web, in an ongoing way. 

Of course the godly have always admired sunsets, high mountains and flowers along with most everyone else, and we have our Saint Francis, but what has often paralleled these token acknowledgements of God’s connectedness to nature is an utter disregard for stewarding earth’s resources, a shocking lack of the development of a excited global theology, and a dishonoring of our fellow humans. 

Our waters are polluted, the element of our sacrament of baptism dishonored. Every year, 8 million metric tons of plastics enter our ocean on top of the estimated 150 million metric tons that currently circulate our marine environments. Plastic has been found in more than 60% of all seabirds and in 100% of sea turtles species. 

 Our forests, a show of God’s renewable beauty and power are decimated. Between 1990 and 2016, the world lost 502,000 square miles (1.3 million square kilometers) of forest,  — an area larger than South Africa. Since humans started cutting down forests, 46 percent of the trees have been felled according to a 2015 study in the journal Nature. 

Our skies, His wonders, are full of smoke. Air pollution cuts the average lifespan of people around the globe by almost two years, making it the single greatest threat to human health. In the United States, even people with the lowest energy usage account for, on average, more than double the global per-capita carbon emission. We are literally smoking out the image of God. 

Space, the glory of God,  is now full of junk. The U.S. Department of Defense tracks more than 500,000 pieces of space junk in orbit around Earth. 

And tragically, instead of propagating love toward the different kinds of people on earth, those claiming to represent God have often participated in religious sectarianism, culture cancellation, isolationism, divisive nationalism, religious wars and racism. How does this honor the image of God in created humans, in those who Jesus taught are our neighbors?

This is what we have done to the power and glory of God in the natural world, we have wasted, harmed and ruined it.  Most terribly this include our fellow humans. It’s horrific! We have plundered the earth, poisoned the well, rendered the sky deadly and slaughtered each other. 

Furthermore and surprisingly the godly haven’t often been the leaders in stopping this, in honoring and preserving the intricately webbed ecology that keeps every living thing alive. 

I just finished reading The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World, a nonfiction book released in 2015 by the historian Andrea Wulf. Humbolt’s 18th Century journey through Central and South America and later in his travels through Russia and the wonderful books he published based on his discoveries made Humbolt the pre-eminent scientist of his time.

Humbolt got it! He, and he was not a person of faith, understood what the godly didn’t. At 19,000 feet on Chimborazo — an Ecuadorian volcano — Humboldt, writes Wulf, “realized that nature was a web of life and a global force. He was, a colleague later said, the first to understand that everything was interwoven as with ‘a thousand threads’. This new idea of nature was to change the way people understood the world.” Humbolt changed the way we look at nature. He revealed it as an interconnected whole, an ecology, a world of interdependence. This is 5he way God made it and how he sees it!

Humbolt had massive energy and enthusiasm to study, understand and explain nature, and by doing so excite others about it’s wonders and the need to preserve them. In his day, everybody read Humbolt — Darwin, Marsh, Haekael, Goethe, Thoreau, Whitman, Muir and countless others. Humbolt’s book Views of Nature was  read around the globe. His poetic descriptions of the rapids of Orinoco, where he described rainbows dancing, ”optical magic,” reveal a man astonished and enchanted with nature inspired wonder, travel, research and preservation.

He understood the power he was witnessing. “What speaks to the soul,” Humboldt wrote, “escapes our measurements.”

What can we take from this?

All churches and mosques and temples and people of faith should encourage the study of nature and promote involvement in the sciences. As in the 17th Century women and men of faith should lead in rational and empirical exploration of our world. We have hidden too much in dogma and doctrine and neglected our father’s revelation in creation.  We would know him better if we honored the creation more. And we should lead the way in preservation of the earth and the honoring of all people.

And to know God better we  would advance if we looked closer at our world, at our neighbor and then ask what they existing as they are tell us about who God is. 

Today I tried to see Him in it. 

The clouds — big white and grey —  they reminded me of his care. They bring shade, rain, beauty and remind me that God is shade, rain and beauty for me.

The grab grass growing along my driveway — even this small unwanted life form possesses his power, especially his perseverance, his holy stubbornness. Like God it can’t be killed. 

The food chain? Often I’ve hated the violence of it — a lion running down an antelope. And yet all thing live on and in other things. One dies for another to live. The egg on my French toast this morning, given for me. The meat in my soup tonight, the glory of God given for me. The food chain is communion, the Eucharist. We eat what is holy, grain and oil and wine in remembrance of him who gave it, his life, to us. 

The delicate flowers of the purple and white lantana in my yard.  God is subtle, delicate, a beauty that keeps morphing, that dies back (Christ) and comes back. 

My friends from India, lovely, beautiful, their food, their clothes the different beliefs. They are God lovers for me to treasure and love. 

Today my wife was at the zoo.  She took a video of a red panda. I love him! I want him! I want to hug him. His reddish-brown fur, white nose and ears, long, fluffy, banded tail and waddling walk. If I approached him for a tete-a-tete he’d probably rip my face off. I do want the lamb to lie with the lion, the panda with me. But God has given the panda a solitary nature. He reminds me of Jesus’s need to be alone. God too must enjoy his own company at times. I also need time alone. 

To see, to take note, to honor, to enthuse, to celebrate, to understand, to nurture,  to share with others, to live at peace with our astonishing world as much as we are able — this is our holy mandate before the creation. 

Look! There’s God.

  

As we end the holiday season, we could ask ourselves where did we see the face of Christ?

My attention was drawn to one kind of seeing his face this Christmas season, although someone had to take me in hand and point this out to me because I’m so obtuse sometimes. I saw Christ in my wife’s face, my friend’s faces and my daughter’s faces. There was a divine complementarity going on where his qualities found space in them. .

Those smiles, warm cheeks, those bright eyes and those wet tears — there were some of these for each of us — in these was Christ. Christ was with us also to console each other. My wife sat with me and comforted me I was in pain, stroking my face — the very hand of Christ touched me. I held her when she cried one day. The arms of Christ. I comforted my daughter on another day when she was sick. The comfort of Christ.

One evening we ate looking into a table full of dear faces, faces of church friends. We shared talk, games, laughter. We were Christ to each other. I played cards with Christ. He let me win.

Did you serve someone this season? You were Christ to them. Did someone serve you? They were Christ to you.

This will be acknowledged at the end of time in a profound moment when the King will say to you and me, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

Matthew 25:40

Two of the great archetypal stories of the world are Job, from the Bible, and Faust, written by the German literary light Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. 

These iconic tales have this in common: Both Job and Faust are tempted by the devil. What is different, however, is the devil takes things away from Job, but he gives things to Faust. 

Job loses his health, his family and his property. 

In Faust, Mephistopheles, the tempter, offers Faust three temptations: first, the pure love of an innocent girl; second, the artistic fecundity of Helen of Troy and third the creation of a new land and a new people according to his desires. Faust makes a deal with the devil, unlike Job, but Faust fails to create a satisfying life with his opportunities. He bungles them. 

And yet there are similarities. Both men, Job and Faust, in their dark days, make great efforts to resist the devil, and they both struggle to try to understand nature, the world and God. 

It’s the endings that I find most interesting. After confronted by God about his ignorance, Job says, “I abhor my words, and repent, seeing I am dust and ashes.”

At that point Job is restored as well as his fortunes, and the Bible says that, “The Lord blessed the latter part of Job’s life more than the former part.”

When the Bible concludes that Job died full of years, there’s a sense of peace and satisfaction in the ending.

In contrast, while Faust also realizes his errors, struggles against the devil and makes efforts to be right, he never finds the enjoyment of life and satisfaction with it that he longs for. 

In the end, Faust is not thriving like Job. He is struggling, with everything.

Both stories dig deep. Both stories reveal the universally frustrating effort to understand life and grapple with evil.

But perhaps the story of Faust is more parallel to many of ours than the story of Job. Not many of us lose it all, and then — as if winning the total-life lottery —  get it all back. Not many of us are as righteous as Job, particularly when it comes to loss, suffering and enduring mystery.  He weathers difficulty with dignity, despite the advice from his foolish friends and remains quite noble. 

But we don’t see a noble, peaceful, provided for or restored Faust at the end of his life. Faust’s experience is more like ours, the losses and the failures and confusions mount along the way and the deep rest so longed for and the deep understanding so desired is not forthcoming. And for Faust, his family life spirals into disaster.

And yet right here is precisely where the classic, mythic narratives get interesting and Biblical, in the endings, and the story of Faust falls closer to many of us that the story of Job. Grappling with our own convoluted theological narratologies, our own imperfect families, we find that Faust is us and we, him. 

Just before the devil is to take Faust to hell, Angels  arrive as messengers of divine mercy  and declare, “He who strives on and lives to strive/ Can earn redemption still.” And they take him with them.

Another interpreter phrases it this way. Faust is carried to Heaven by angels who sing, “We can redeem him who bestirs himself striving.”

Here Goethe got it right. 

Strivers all! Or most! And yet by grappling and pushing and shoving our stories around — helped by the devil or not — we don’t get at the true knowledge of nature, God or even ourselves. Despite our cri de cœur, we are a bunch of conflicted, disfluent, ambivalent, equivocal ideological wavelets. We are theological tidelets! We wash and wish and wonder  —  and yet the grace of God saves us anyway. 

We never arrive at the state of ataraxia, the Greek term for a lucid state of robust tranquility, characterized by ongoing freedom from distress and worry. 

If we arrive at all — anywhere! —  we arrive by grace.

Natality is in Christ.

”For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.”

Ep. 2:8-9

Ah! 

Grace! 

We don’t fly our own wings to heaven; we are carried by angels.

I love this! I love the picture of Faust, of me, of you, carried by angels — virtually kicking and screaming our way into heaven. 

Then arriving a hot mess, I imagine the gentle, powerful angels will set us down — we totally confused and exhausted strivers — and we will be quiet for a long, long time — along side Job and all the other strugglers present there. 

I heard a fiery sermon this morning. The preacher was good. Made some excellent points. The crowd laughed, and clapped. At the end speaker shouting. I got a feeling people were duly impressed.

Me, I just felt guilt. The text was Philippians 4:12-13.

I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.

Great text. I’ve memorized it. It’s in my most recent journal. The point of the message given by the pastor was that it if you aren’t content and full of joy in hard times, in the storm, then you’re not an authentic Christian. You’re a fair weather Christian. If you’re only content in good times, prosperous times, times when you have nice stuff, times when things are going well, then you aren’t for real.

He ended shouting “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus!”

The whole thing made me feel somehow in adequate. I think it was because it felt like the pressure was all on me to do something to be more authentic. I know that in Corinthian’s Paul spoke of dispairing of “even life itself.” Nobody is up, positive, content all the time. That’s just not reality. 

I wanted to know more. I was left with questions?

I don’t tend to feel content in storms. How do I draw on that strength that comes from Jesus? Is there something I have to do? My efforts to be content in Jesus during storms don’t seem to work that well. On the other hand, I know I try to he authentic in my faith.

Thoughts: Looks like Paul’s strength was from Jesus, not from himself. Paul’s secret was that it was Christ strengthening him. Paul wasn’t strong. Jesus was. This distinction is important. Paul was quick to know his weakness in other places in Scripture. So what we make of all this?

Being content isn’t something we do, but something Christ does in us when he gives us strength. Paul learned that the strength wasn’t from him. He learned that we can’t make ourselves more content in hard times. Christ is the one who makes us content to suffer through the storm.

I suppose you could assert that we have to have the faith, but the Bible says even faith is a gift of God.

I think what helps me here is to see that this text is more about God being authentic than Paul or me. I’m pretty dodgy. Paul himself didn’t always have it together. But Jesus, he’s authentic, and he can do what we can’t do.

His strength that he brings to me by his initiative is what can get me through the storm.

So my, our, humble, broken Philippians 4 prayer might be, “God we seem to lack the power to do the very thing we want to do, be content with hardship. So it’s up to you. Christ be strength! Christ be the one who gives us even the faith that your strength is there for us. Jesus, it is you, not me, so be you in me.”

So in a sense I’m off the authentic making hook. Jesus is on the hook for me. He’s the one that is going to come through.

Thank God for that!

“I’m open. Christ be my contentment, Christ be strength in me.”