making sense of nonsense

As humans, we are rational beings. We want to understand as much as we can, and try to make some sense of things. Necessarily, we factor in reason, as well as our experience, and at best, together. And if we’re wise, we surely will consider how generations past have grappled with life: their thoughts and practices, in a word, their tradition.

In some sense this is a never ending process, open to refinement, or just to the application necessary to the times in which we live. In another sense, for people of faith, there are certain matters that are fixed. The basis for that is both scripture and tradition. The church of the Great Tradition: Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and the like, will put both on an equal par, actually on the basis of scripture. Other churches such as those within Protestantism, will see scripture as the authority, but if they’re wise, I think, will understand that scripture does give some serious weight to tradition, particularly how the church has interpreted the point of scripture, the gospel, over the centuries. So that even within differences of understanding that, essentially the heart of the gospel is the same, found in Jesus, and in his death and resurrection, and all that’s related to that.

What can become a crisis of faith is experience along with thoughts which seem to give the lie to God. And specifically the great, good God of the Bible. But if we read all of the Bible, we’ll find that it mirrors life: the good, the bad, the beautiful, and the ugly. We are often left with no answer to our question, “Why?” both in terms of life, and sometimes within the pages of scripture itself. Although there are explanations, some of them tied to the idea that the secret things belong to God, left to God’s understanding, while the things revealed belong to God’s people, to hold on to for life, what is called truth (Deuteronomy). So that in the end we have to trust God.

The answer for us in the here and now is simply to learn to live in the never ending tension of life, both what makes sense, and what from our perspective is sheer nonsense, and maybe the case from God’s perspective, as well. Though God is at work to bring good out of it all, even what forever will be evil.

In the main point of scripture, the gospel, God used the greatest evil to bring about the greatest good at the cross, in the death of Christ. We hold on to that, both in terms of understanding God and life. There is something which ultimately will override all the nonsense of this world. And sense will take care of it all in the end in God’s good judgment and justice to come, and the salvation which follows.

In the meantime, I continue to hold to this, the idea that what makes sense will prevail, only through faith. Certainly the resurrection of Jesus as given to us in the gospel accounts, being a major factor for acceptance of the faith. But also a faith which amounts to a trust in God, even when it seems that the bottom has fallen out in our experience, or maybe even thought, so that there’s nothing left to stand on.

God is underneath, and around all of that. And the truth of the gospel, the good news in Jesus is the hope and even assurance we have that all will be well in the end.

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the heavens declare the glory of God

The heavens declare the glory of God;
    the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech;
    night after night they reveal knowledge.
They have no speech, they use no words;
    no sound is heard from them.
Yet their voice goes out into all the earth,
    their words to the ends of the world.
In the heavens God has pitched a tent for the sun.
    It is like a bridegroom coming out of his chamber,
    like a champion rejoicing to run his course.
It rises at one end of the heavens
    and makes its circuit to the other;
    nothing is deprived of its warmth.

Psalm 19

Yesterday was the solar eclipse making its path through the United States. It was a wonder to behold. My favorite part of it was NASA’s coverage, which I was able to enjoy on a computer in the midst of work, seeing the first sighting of it in Oregon. It was so exciting, my heart was full of praise for its Creator, and I couldn’t help but think of Dean Ohlman who has helped us learn to appreciate more, the wonder of creation.

I was surprised to find out that besides the big screen in the break room with NASA’s coverage and some snacks, there was a party of sorts going on outside, with solar glasses, and even a couple of welder’s masks on hand. I was able to get a nice view of the partial eclipse with one of the solar glasses which were provided.

Scientists, whether they have faith in God or not, ooh and ah over nature. The more they learn, the more astounding it becomes. It might seem simple in its singular beauty, but it is also complex beyond simple human understanding, as quantum physics has demonstrated. Somehow I believe it reflects the endless creativity of the One who made it. John Polkinghorne is especially helpful here.

One of my regrets in life, especially when we had our daughter was not taking in sufficiently the beauty of our national (and state) parks. We have an immense variety of this beauty right here in the United States, and set apart for our enjoyment. As the psalm above suggests, something of the reality of God in God’s greatness is revealed in the grandeur of creation. We miss a lot, if we don’t see it firsthand.

Amazingly, even though in our warped mindset we’ve made a concrete jungle, life won’t be denied. Creation is still in our face, even in our tiny yard, which my wife has so artistically landscaped. As my dad used to say, reciting a line from a poem I’m sure he had to learn as a boy, “Trees”:

I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.

Joyce Kilmer

I end with one of my favorite hymns, This is my Father’s World:

  1. This is my Father’s world,
    And to my list’ning ears
    All nature sings, and round me rings
    The music of the spheres.
    This is my Father’s world:
    I rest me in the thought
    Of rocks and trees, of skies and seas—
    His hand the wonders wrought.

  2. This is my Father’s world:
    The birds their carols raise,
    The morning light, the lily white,
    Declare their Maker’s praise.
    This is my Father’s world:
    He shines in all that’s fair;
    In the rustling grass I hear Him pass,
    He speaks to me everywhere.

  3. This is my Father’s world:
    Oh, let me ne’er forget
    That though the wrong seems oft so strong,
    God is the ruler yet.
    This is my Father’s world,
    The battle is not done:
    Jesus who died shall be satisfied,
    And earth and Heav’n be one.

 Maltbie D. Babcock

letting God be God

Sometimes, I’m afraid we lose hope or vision, or kind of throw in the towel so to speak, because we have been trying to take matters in hand ourselves, or thought somehow an outcome depended on us. And part of this problem may have been with reference to timing; we don’t see what we want to see, or any sign of it, and so we give up hope. A big part of this can be control.

What we need more than anything else is the faith to step back and simply let God be God. We may well have our role in what might unfold, but more often than not we are likely getting in the way of what God is doing, or wants to do. Yes, again we may be involved in what God is doing, but that can only be the case if we step back first and wait and pray. We then might see enough light to move forward and do something, but until then, we best remain still. Better yet, we should do nothing until it becomes clear to us what we’re called to do. It’s not like we can’t make mistakes in this endeavor. It’s only that our number one priority should be to make sure we’re not getting in the way of what God may be doing.

We need to check our attitudes, and then some of them we will have to check in the door. God is great and God is good, and God is a God of grace, all in Jesus. Before we apply quick judgments against others, we need to remember God’s grace in our own lives. Do we believe that God is active in the world, and that God cares about each person he has made? It’s not like it all depends on us; God is at work. But God wants to use us as his witness and instrument of peace and love. Most of us need to learn a kind of passivity of faith, which will enable us to become active in ways that our helpful in harmony with God’s working. The same kind of help that has made a difference in our lives from others in God’s working in and through Jesus.

gently leading others

He tends his flock like a shepherd:
    He gathers the lambs in his arms
and carries them close to his heart;
    he gently leads those that have young.

Isaiah 40

Isaiah 40 is truly one of the great passages of scripture, like Romans 8. I hesitate to say that, because I believe we should consider every part important, even the most obscure passages that we might not understand well, if at all. But this passage comforts God’s people both with God’s immense greatness and immeasurable goodness and in terms of God’s great salvation.

What seems especially helpful is the idea of God’s gentle leading. Oftentimes when people, when any of us think of God, we think of an extension of our experience with authority figures, which too often has not been encouraging, but quite the opposite. Or perhaps for some of us, those people were largely absent from our lives. The picture of God given to us in scripture is that God is beyond everything and yet nearer than the breath we breathe. That God is just as much intimate as God is transcendent. That means that the God who is not overwhelmed in the least enters into the picture for humankind, for the world, yes, for us. And God cares for us.

I love the imagery quoted above (see NRSV in link, “[God] will gently lead the mother sheep.”) That God leads the sheep, us, gently. We need that. And in turn, that is how we’re to help the young among us. Not pushing them, or being gruff with them. But gently leading. In fact, we can take that as the cue on how we’re to influence each other. Not that we’re in life to manipulate, but instead we want to learn to follow God’s leading, and hopefully help others to do the same, since we know that is best, and in fact is wonderful.

When one looks at the entire Story in scripture, one also sees that God leads out of weakness, that actually God’s weakness is strength. It is the way of the cross, the way of suffering love for us and for the world. And a part of our salvation for us now in this world, is to learn in and through Jesus to take that same road for others in our commitment to Christ and the gospel.

Let’s pay attention to those who gently lead, and especially to our Lord God, and then learn to follow in those steps. In and through Jesus.

do we really believe?

In liturgical churches every Sunday, worshipers recite usually the Nicene Creed, which begins with:

We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, the maker of heaven and earth, of things visible and invisible.

I like that practice, though it’s seldom used in churches we’ve been a part of. It is suggestive of the reality that our faith is not just an indiviudal faith, but communal. Like Paul said, we can be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith. And it is about what we believe in terms of what God has revealed in what theologians call general and special revelation. Fulfilled in Jesus and the good news in him.

The intellectual belief shouldn’t be underplayed; it is important. But if we really believe that, it means we’re taking God at his word, and therefore trusting him. It is a personal, experiential faith which concerns all of life. We believe in and trust the God who created everything, and promises to make all things new in the new creation in Jesus.

When it comes right down to it, our faith is pretty well worthless if it doesn’t involve the nuts and bolts of where we live, and if it doesn’t get beyond just our concerns to concerns for others, to God’s concerns, the interests of Jesus. Faith isn’t some mere religious belief which is nice for Sunday at church, but is hardly an afterthought in real life. It is about nothing less than all of life, or it is nothing at all since it’s not living up to what it is said to be.

We believe because of God’s testimony to us in Jesus, in the gospel, and because of God’s grace through that testimony. We have the witness in ourselves by the Holy Spirit, that even as the gospel accounts compellingly make clear, Jesus indeed rose from the dead, a bodily resurrection. And God’s promise in him won’t stop until all evil is judged, and all things are made new. And that hope begins in this life, with the faith and love which accompany it.

What we truly believe because of God’s grace in and through Jesus.

something more needed than answers

Reason is an important part of our humanity, and is honored time and again in scripture. God reasons with us, even when in our sin we are unreasonable and irrational. But appeals are part of the mix in God’s “prevenient” (going before) work of grace, which is present to help us come to our senses and repent, and like the lost, prodigal son return to the father, whose heart and hands are always open.

Even if we were given answers that would suit us, it ends up being that we need more than that. We even need much correction in our thinking to begin with, though as a rule there is enough of God’s imprint through creation left on us for something of God’s work to go on in appealing to our minds.

In the last couple of years, a passage of scripture has been particularly impressed on my mind, and I hope on my heart and life, Proverbs 3:5-6:

Trust in the Lord with all your heart
    and lean not on your own understanding;
in all your ways submit to him,
    and he will make your paths straight.

It has been well said, I believe from Thomas Merton and surely from many others, something like: It’s more about accepting mystery than receiving answers. There surely are all kinds of reasons for that, one of the most basic of all: we simply can’t comprehend the wisdom and knowledge of God any more than we can take in all of God.

We must simply believe in the end that God is great in God’s goodness and good in God’s greatness. “God is great and God is good.” We must be like little children before the Father, trusting in the Father’s good will and love for us and for the world in and through Jesus. Growing and becoming more and more mature in that belief and appreciation, so that hopefully we’re changed.

In the end, about many things we’ll have to simply admit and freely acknowledge that we just don’t know. We are not capable of sorting out and fixing, or even understanding what needs to be fixed in the first place. We have to leave that in God’s good hands. Both in a faith that prays in commiting everything to God and waits for God’s grace and power in the already present and coming kingdom of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

an Advent meditation: taking God at his word

An angel appeared to a humble maiden with the message that she would become pregnant, although she had not yet come together with Joseph, to whom she was engaged. The message was clear as to the special nature of this child: the son of God, the long awaited Messiah. But it was also confusing since babies don’t come apart from relations between a woman and a man.

The angel told her that she would conceive by the power of the Holy Spirit. Of course this was not what happens in ordinary life, does not happen, period. And we know at about the same time John the Baptist’s father-to-be had not believed the word from the angel who had appeared to him, that he and his life Elizabeth would conceive a child. Although that would be through normal processes, they were well past the age of child bearing. Hence another miracle. In Zechariah’s case he did not believe the word of the angel, the message from God. But in Mary’s case, even though the word was even more challenging, no relations at all, yet Mary took God at his word, accepting the message from the angel.

Mary is rightfully honored for being the mother of our Lord, indeed as the church has called her, “the mother of God.” Of course she was a sinner like all the rest (some church tradition teaches that by grace she was preserved to be without sin so that she could bear the sinless one, but that seems to me to be an unnecessary theological move lacking exegetical support in scripture itself). What stands out to me for this post is her unwavering faith in God, in the word of God given through the messenger angel. She soon “sings” or “chants” (actually only speaks, but the words come across like a song, hence called “Mary’s Song” in the NIV 2011 headings, as well as the Magnificat in church tradition) a wonderful burst of poetic summation of something of what God was up to in all of this.

I rather treasure this aspect of Mary, how firmly she took God at his word. Of course this was a great honor, and that was not lost with her. She was a humble, lowly servant of God, one who had no pretense to greatness as the world sees it. Her greatness was to humbly trust and obey. And so, along with Joseph, she was an exemplary parent to this Child who not only had humble, believing parents, but uniquely had God as his Father.

All my life, nearly six decades now I have struggled with worry. As a recent, excellent book helped me see from scripture (Anxious: Choosing Faith in a World of Worry, by Amy Simpson), worry is simply at its root the failure to trust God, to simply take God at his word. And that is more than just the failure to exercise the needed faith. One might have all the discipline in the world, but still falter at this point because they really don’t understand both the greatness and goodness of God as revealed to us in scripture and ultimately in and through Jesus.

And so during this particular Advent season, I want to especially meditate on the faith that Mary had. Praying that God will help me imbibe and grow into the same faith, one that can rest in God’s promises in and through the one who came and is to come.

In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”

Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”

“How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”

The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month.For no word from God will ever fail.”

“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” Then the angel left her.