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Wrestling

Jacob wrestled with Yhwh and Yhwh wrestled with Jacob. It would be hard to say who won the match, but it lasted a long time and Jacob ended up with a limp from an injured hip joint.

Jacob’s name was changed to Israel. The wrestling match of Yhwh and Israel is a pretty good parable for the rest of Israel’s history. The people of Israel — from the time of the Exodus until the times of the exile — continually wrestled with Yhwh. In the end, I guess you could say Israel won the match but paid the price for victory. Yet the match goes on and we have assurance that Yhwh will eventually prevail.

Plato’s picture of God, imported into most of Christian theology, sees God as absolutely sovereign. God cannot lose a wrestling match.

But the Old Testament displays a different kind of God. Yhwh interacts with people. If you wanted to, you could call Yhwh a relational God. He loves his people and his love for his people causes him to allow them freedom to act, even when they oppose him.

Many theologians try to bury this God in talk of anthropomorphism, claiming that God is really like Plato described him and the Old Testament picture is just people trying to describe such a God in ways they could understand. As if the Hebrews were not able to think about God as clearly as we are. God had to accommodate their childishness.

Poppycock.

The Old Testament describes God as he is. I love the God described in the Old Testament. I cannot love Plato’s god, the god who treats his creation as a squad of robots.

Let go of Plato and Augustine and Calvin and Piper and read your Bible. Read your Bible!

Little Update of the Personal Kind

You may notice that my writing on this site has many ebbs and flows. That’s because I have blood cancer and my ability to think and write ebbs and flows with the factors of my treatment. During my week of chemo and the week after I’m sort of a blob.

There is a strong possibility that my treatment will change and surely that will have an effect on my writing. We think the chemo treatments of the last four months have not accomplished much. Whether that means that we need a different treatment for the disease, or that we have misdiagnosed the disease, or exactly what, we don’t know. The road is long with many a winding turn.

Meanwhile — though I have not gotten better — I have also not gotten worse. That gives us some hope. I’ll write when I can. I have the tenacity of the typical gadfly.

Say “No” to Marcionism

Many Christians today, and especially those in the reformed camps, are essentially Marcionites. That is, they pretty much ignore the Old Testament and get almost all their theology from Paul’s letters. They believe that the Old Testament God cannot be taken at face value; he was accommodating those who were not able to understand who he truly is.

I’ve been guilty of this same error in the past, but no longer. Without the Old Testament the New Testament makes little sense. Without the Old Testament picture of God the New Testament picture of Jesus is out of focus.

Read the Old Testament and you will discover that:

  • God sometimes changes his mind and sometimes it is because a human being asked him to change his mind.
  • God is truly interested to see how people will respond to situations. He doesn’t know how they will respond. Sometimes he is actually testing them.
  • God cares about Israel in a special way. He also cares about Assyrian, Babylon, Egypt, and the other nations.
  • God doesn’t need perfection in his followers. If he did, this thing would have been over way before our time.
  • God puts up with a lot of sin from his people, but serving other gods he won’t put up with. If you think this doesn’t apply to you, think again.
  • God allowed his people to alter the plans as they went along. God adjusted to the changing plans. He didn’t zap the people.
  • It takes quite a bit to make God angry, but if he gets angry you might spend forty years in the wilderness. He still will not abandon you.

I could make this list much longer. So could you if you would spend some time reading the Old Testament.

What We Need

  • Less “leadership”, more spiritual training and formation
  • Less life skills training, more discipleship
  • Less arguing, more compromise
  • Less building, more building up
  • Less busyness, more community
  • Less philosophy, more theology
  • Less heaven, more new heavens and earth
  • Less escape, more responsibility
  • Less politics, more Jesus’s kingdom

Stream of consciousness – these are some things the church needs.

Miraculous Deliverance

Israel was delivered from Egypt with a bang, despite the continuous grumbling that took place. God was honoring his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Yhwh was the bringer-out. It was miraculous. Ten plagues. The crossing of the sea. The drowning of the Egyptian army. Provision of water and food.

Several hundred years later, Israel cried out for miraculous deliverance from Assyria, from Babylon, from Persia, from Alexander the Great, from the Romans. And from the Nazis.

No miracles were forthcoming.

The covenant was still in place. God was still watching and he cared. But no miracles.

Just goes to show you.

Ecclesiastes

I just finished a 15-day study of Ecclesiastes. In conversation with several people I have heard that the Teacher should just be disregarded because the last section, and especially the last two verses, essentially negate everything that went before.

I disagree.

If that were the case, why would this book be in the canon. It should just be thrown away.

I believe the Teacher has some very important things to say. From a certain point of view life is certainly absurd. There isn’t much point to it. You live and you die. You don’t have much in the way of input on the quality of your life and on its length. You live and you die. Most of what goes on in between is absurd.

Read it and embrace it.

Biblical Criticism

Biblical criticism is not an optional occupation to you and to me. As students of sacred theology we engage in our search because we must do it in obedience to the Author of all facts and events who has made certain words, facts and events vehicles of his revelation. The problems that arouse our questions are not manmade. They are posed by God himself. Contradictions in the texts, obscurities, moral offenses are the divine spur to call forth our active, conscientious interest in the means chosen by God to reveal himself to us. These means must be treated like any other subjects of serious study. The end to which they are means, God’s self-authenticating communication to us is not an object of detached, theoretical investigation. In order to hear God speak to us through the ancient documents, we must give ourselves to him with the total surrender of faith. The personal decision of faith and the critical analysis of ancient records are two quite different things. But they are neither incompatible nor are they unrelated.

Frederick Neumann, “The Purpose of Old Testament Studies,” Where Do We Stand? Volume 1 (Brooklyn New York: Theo. Gaus, Ltd., 1978), pp. xiv–xv

This is the right way to read your Bible. It is God’s word but it is also written by men, so it requires some finesse to handle it properly. If you use the Bible as a bullwhip, you are using it wrong.

The Monomyth of Little Man

This story is from a little over four years ago. My sisters and I thought we were on a trip to Florida to say good-bye to Dad, though it turned out he lived a few more months. The incidents recounted here happened on that flight.

I posted this story on an earlier blog I had, but due to a crash I had no copy of the story. Today, my sister (M) found a printed copy. I was able to mostly scan it and rebuild it. I am sharing it today because it’s still funny to me.


The Monomyth of Little Man

He was a cowboy. The hat and boots gave him away. The smokeless tobacco was another sign.

He was afraid of flying, but he was flying anyway. Whatever purpose put him on that plane, it was a powerful purpose.

I have never seen anyone as fearful of anything as that cowboy was of flying. When we were pushing away from the gate he was already in full panic mode. I was one row behind him and across the aisle; I had a ringside seat for observing the cowboy’s angst. It was quite a show.

He was sweating. He was rocking. He would put his head between his knees. He would mop his face with his cowboy hat. He would look skyward, as if praying. He was pale. He would rock some more. His eyes were wide. He was looking around wildly and giggling like a schoolgirl.

He was afraid of flying, and we weren’t even flying yet.

Once we were rolling down the runway, the panic worsened. I feared for the cowboy.

As Providence would have it, a sweet pastor’s wife sat across the aisle from the cowboy. She was missional, it seems. She laid her sweet hand on his sweaty shoulder and patted him gently. She spoke to him gently. She engaged him in gentle conversation. I was able to overhear some of the conversation.

The cowboy admitted that he was afraid of flying. But we already knew that.

I believe I heard that he is from Oklahoma. I don’t have any idea why he was going to Tampa through Indianapolis. I do know that when the flight attendant asked about something to drink, he got two little bottles of whiskey. He mixed the whiskey with nothing else. He said he needed to drink it straight to help him get through the flight. The two little bottles of whiskey didn’t last all that long. The pastor’s wife continued her conversation. The cowboy relaxed a little bit.

Until we hit a slightly turbulent patch. That erased even the little bit of relaxation that had been achieved by the good offices of the pastor’s wife and the whiskey. He grabbed the flight attendant’s arm. She told him to think of it as riding in a pickup truck on a bumpy road. The cowboy tried to imaging that. I think his bumpy road was in Oklahoma. But it didn’t help.

The pastor’s wife and the whiskey kept the cowboy alive until we were in the landing pattern. The sweet tittle pastor’s wife took her mission seriously. The preparation for landing, though, brought on a fresh wave of agitation.

When the big wheels hit the solid ground, the biggest smile you have ever seen on the face of a cowboy broke out. He was glowing. Whiskey and wheels-down did the trick for him. He was home again, although he was in Tampa and not in Oklahoma.

When we disembarked, I couldn’t help but notice that this cowboy was not full-sized. He was definitely not a little person by the standard definition, but he was about a three-quarter sized cowboy. He was a full-grown adult man, but of small stature. His size is of no consequence to this story except for the new characters I am about to introduce.

For I was traveling to Florida in the company of my two sisters. The were seated in front of this little theater and seem to have been totally unaware of the minor drama that was unfolding on the impromptu stage.

Nearly everyone on the plane went immediately to the restrooms, myself and my sisters and the cowboy included. While the cowboy and I were it the bathroom, he dropped his cell phone. The flip- broke off from the -phone and the battery scooted across the floor under the row of sinks. I looked at the cowboy and said, “You’re having a bad day.” His response: “I’ve had worse.” I like the attitude.

As we headed for ground transportation—my sisters and I—we were walking behind the cowboy, who seemed to be heading to the same place. His trouble was continuing. His jacket wouldn’t stay on his bag and he dropped it a few times. I’m not sure if he was embarrassed by his plight, or if it was the whiskey, but his face was a little red.

As we walked, I recounted quietly to my sisters the story of the cowboy on the plane. My sisters listened attentively.

We all waited for the shuttle. When the tram doors opened, the cowboy stepped on.

Then he stepped on out the doors on the other side.

Try to imagine it.

My sisters are compassionate women. They are every bit as compassionate and missional as that sweet pastor’s wife. My sisters—let’s call them Y and M—care about people.

Y and M knew, having flown into and out of this airport multiple times, that the cowboy would be in trouble if he let those tram doors close. He would find that his only way back to civilization would be to go through the security lines again. lie was in a place where you come to the airport, not a place where you leave the airport. Having heard about his bad experience, they were worried that his day was about to become worse instead of better.

Sister Y is a quick thinker. So is sister M, but she has a governor in place that allows her to think before her mouth works. Sister Y and I have in common a system that is missing that governor. We are blurters. What we are thinking comes out our mouth before we have a chance to censor it. No end of trouble has come because of the missing governor, but that’s not the point of this story.

Sister Y thinks/says, `’Come back, little man!

Try to imagine hearing that.

The small cowboy on the exit platform heard it.

There is some dispute as to whether sister Y intended to be heard by the cowboy or just by those of us standing closer to her. But whatever her intentions were, in actuality the cowboy heard her say it.

Come back, little man!

The little man came back. He came back through the exit doors onto the tram before the doors closed. Disaster averted. The little man heard the admonition to come back, and he came back.

What happened next is the stuff of legend: the cowboy thanked sister Y.

The incident is already wrapped in mist, even though only a few days have passed. In my creative memory, the cowboy looked at my sister,—looked up at my sister—tipped his cowboy hat by holding the crown and lifting the hat slightly, nodded his head just a tad, and said, “Thank y”, ma’am” But I think he simply said, “Thanks.”

At this point, both sister Y and sister M were in serious danger of losing their composure.

Sister Y, who had caused the scene to begin with, withdrew to the far reaches of the tram car, leaving sister M, who was an innocent bystander, to stand face to face with the little cowboy. Sister M somehow managed to keep her act together for the minute or so we were on the tram. Once the cowboy was gone and we were all back together, she was no longer able to keep it together. She let it come apart.

And thus, another catchphrase enters the family annals: “Come back, little man!” And you can use it if you want to.

New Covenant

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt — a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more. (Jeremiah 31:31-34, NRSV)

The history of Israel of one of repeated “exile” and “return”. If you look carefully at this passage in Jeremiah, you won’t see a prophecy that has been fulfilled. Perhaps you will see a prophecy that is in the process of being fulfilled.

Couple of things to note:

  • Covenants — even covenants with God — do not last forever. They can be replaced with improved covenants.
  • Breaking of covenants by the people does not disqualify them as God’s people.
  • It is possible that this covenant mentioned by Jeremiah will not be in place until God’s kingdom is established on earth, that is, after the return of Jesus.

Read it for yourself.