Sunday, March 01, 2009

I’m a visual learner—spoken words slip off my mind while written words have greater chance of sinking in—but I didn’t realize just how much I favor my eyes over my ears until I had a long bout of viral pinkeye. I thought the swollen, itchy, oozy stage was the worst part, until my vision became clouded. For days it has been as though I’m looking at life through a foggy windshield. Now that I can barely read or write, now that it’s tiresome to observe the world around me or watch anything on a screen, I realize that these make up the vast majority of my daily activities.

Felix Ortiz says that younger generations “listen with their eyes and think with their hearts.” As I come to grip with my own visual preference, I’ve become aware that my eyes give me more autonomy than my ears. A friend of ours is doing a project called “a month of listening” in which he interviews a different person each day of the month. As I’ve listened to the interviews. I’ve realized that when we really listen to someone, we relinquish control and let them take us where they want to go. I can look at what I want from the perspective I chose, whereas I often don’t have a choice about what comes in through my ears, whether it’s elevator, the traffic, and the downstairs neighbor boy who call out insistently “Abuela, Abuela, Abuela.”

Eyes and ears are complementary but not interchangeable. Linguistically and semantically, seeing is connected with understanding; hearing with obedience. In the Bible we see that a vision of God is not an end in itself but serves to prepare someone for what God has to say to them, for example, Isaiah 6 relates how Isaiah didn’t only see God, but heard Him ask, Whom shall I send? to which Isaiah responded, Here I am. Send me and Saul’s vision of Jesus on the road to Damascus lead him to ask, What shall I do, Lord? to which Jesus replied, Get up…and go…you will be told all that you have been assigned to do.

I hope this exercise in weak vision helps strengthen my ability to hear and maybe even obeying.
(Click here for Dietrich Bonhoeffer's thoughts on Listening)

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Yesterday when Tim asked if I wanted to watch the inauguration ceremony I realized that my normal ambivalence about politics had shifted into a bitter cynicism with an unhealthy bite to it.

In the morning we read John 2:23-25,
Now while he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many people saw the miraculous signs he was doing and believed in his name. But Jesus would not entrust himself to them, for he knew all men. He did not need man's testimony about man, for he knew what was in a man.

This lead me back to one of my all time favorite readings called “The Discipline of Disillusionment” from “My Utmost for His Highest” by Oswald Chambers. As I read though it yesterday it felt like the right antidote to my state:

Our Lord trusted no man, yet He was never suspicious, never bitter. Our Lord's confidence in God and what His grace could do for any man, was so perfect that he despaired of no one. If your trust is place in human beings, we shall end in despairing of everyone.
One of the ways I dig deeper into something is to do word studies (I’m an amateur philologist, which means I have just enough working knowledge to be dangerous) and this time it proved to be a rich exercise for me. When I read “Jesus did not entrust/commit himself to any man” it sounds to me like he didn’t open himself up or give himself over to them, in the sense that if you don’t have a close relationship with or trust someone you keep them at arms length, but it turns out that the Greek work episteuen shares its root with pistis, to have faith (in, upon, or with respect to, a person or thing), believe, commit (to trust), put in trust with. This brings to mind a verse that was read in the Northland service on Sunday, Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding (Proverbs 3:5,6),as well as the admonitions not to trust in our resources no matter how strong and secure they make us feel, like horses and chariots made armies of those days feel strong:
Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help, who rely on horses, who trust in the multitude of their chariots and in the great strength of their horsemen, but do not look to the Holy One of Israel, or seek help from the LORD. (Isaiah 31:1-3)
The idea that came to mind was resting your weight on something. When we used to go walking in the mountains of Mexico, Tim was always on the lookout for a good walking stick. He would pick up sticks that seemed like they were the right length and then he would lean onto them with his whole weight. More often than not they would snap. Tim would throw them away and keep looking for one that would bear his weight if he slipped and needed help to catch his fall.
I hear John saying that Jesus didn’t need to lean onto people to know that they would snap if he were to put the weight of his trust on them. But this didn’t make him angry or cynical. He knew that before he came to earth, in fact that is precisely why he came.

So when I find myself suspicious and bitter, it’s probably a symptom of me misplacing the weight of my hopes and desires; no matter how much I like a person or how competent they are, they are not the foundation of my hope, and I only have myself to blame it I get disappointed when I expect them to save me. Instead I want to be like the psalmist who sang, Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the LORD our God. (Psalm 20:7)

Monday, December 29, 2008

Urban Complexity 

Years ago I took a seminar class entitled, “Urban Missions and Ministry” in which the professor, Roger Greenway, claimed that throughout its history the protestant church has very few successful models of mission and ministry in large cities. Today it struck me that the increased complexity and decreased autonomy of city life might be at the root of that.

At the risk of falling into caricature, I think it is fair to say that on the whole people who live in the countryside are more independent, more self-reliant than the city dwellers. For example, think just about transportation: someone in the country is directly responsible for their personal and their work vehicles. If a given farmer or rancher can’t fix their truck or tractor, they probably have a friend, neighbor or hired hand who keeps thing running. On the other hand, living as I do in a city of thirteen million people, I don’t even own a car. I get around town in trains, busses and taxis that whole services of people maintain and coordinate. I have more options than the farmer, ranging from more expensive and personalized (taxi) to less expensive and less flexible (public transportation), of which I frequently choose to have less autonomy but I also have much less responsibility. My transportation needs are met within a complex system of superhighways, bridges, tunnels, tracks, etc. that might work much better, or much worse, than the simple system of a farmer driving his truck down a two lane dirt road.

Even if I chose to have more autonomy and responsibility by owning a car here, I couldn’t escape the implications of the complex system in which I live; every pedestrian, cross street, bus and train crossing, impinges on my self-rule.

While someone in the country might go days without seeing another person if they chose, every aspect of city life is affected by the strangers around me. Growing up on three acres of untilled Kansas prairie, I could do just about whatever I wanted inside the house without affecting the next-door neighbors, whereas now I share an elevator, hallways, and light wells with twenty one other units in a space of 100 ft by 35 ft by 70 ft, so colicky babies, social habits, and music choices affect us all.

In part, the Protestant Reformation reacted to the all pervasive system of the Roman church and engendered a style of Christianity which highlights personal responsibility to God and to our neighbors. History has shown that Protestantism fosters individualism and self-reliance. Whether you see these as positive or destructive, probably says more about you, your culture and life experiences than it does about them, nevertheless Scripture paints the picture of the progress of redemption as a move from a garden, with a very simple form of relating to other humans and to God, to a city, whose complexity of imagery boggles our imagination. Neither this knowledge nor the numbers of people who live in large cities around the world has done much to push the protestant church to learn to function well in cities.

I used to live next to one of the largest cities in the world so I thought I knew something about city life. But now that I live in a forest of apartment buildings, I realize that I my former way of life was really suburban, which seems to be a sort of happy medium between isolation and complexity. That life looks very attractive when my upstairs neighbor is still hosting a party at 4 A.M. or I can’t find an empty taxi because it’s raining. But God has drawn us to this city and it is teaching me about interdependence and complexity.

I don’t yet know how it all translates into Christian community, but I’m guessing it will necessitate some changes in my way of thinking and living that will strike at my personal boundaries that protect my independence and self-determination and the as well as the boundaries that delineate the community of faith from the community at large, as we see in God’s instructions to the exiles through Jeremiah: “Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper" (29:7).

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

“Roots is a philosophy of ministry that focuses on processes not on events”: our ministry partner Felix Ortiz teaches this over and over again but I don’t think I ever fully appreciated God’s use of process until my study this week study of Exodus. This year Mae, Janelle and I have been on a whirlwind trip through Scripture as we try to get the big picture of who God is and what He’s up to without getting bogged down in specifics like, “what do those ten horns stand for?” We started with Job (job.doc) where we saw God as both transcendent (“Did you put the stars in their place? Do you storehouse the wind?”) and imminent (“So Job… Let’s talk…what do you think now?”) both free to do what he chooses to do and responsive to Job’s request for a face to face meeting.

Then we moved on to Genesis where what stood out to us was the depth and breadth of mankind’s sin— The LORD saw how great man's wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time. The LORD was grieved that he had made man on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain (Genesis 6:5,6)—as well as God’s decision to enter into covenants with humanity in general, though Noah, and with one group specifically, though Abraham. Next we flew ahead to Revelation to see how the story ends…to get a glimpse of God’s “end game” where what hit me personally was the realness, the solidness if you will, of sin.

Matter seems real, especially what you can touch. In school we’re taught that matter can neither be created nor destroyed; it exists and won’t stop existing even though you can change its shape. For example, although a log disappears when you burn it, anyone who cleans fireplaces will tell you it’s still around. Because we don’t “see” sin, maybe its effects but not the sin itself, we don’t think it’s real in the same way that a book or water is real. We forget about it and we think it’s gone. But Revelation made me see that that perspective is as naïve as when children cover their eyes and think that because they can’t see you, that you can’t see them. Sin is real; it has a solid presence and it has to be dealt with as witnessed to by the pouring out of the bowls of God’s wrath.

All my life I’ve had a tension in my mind between the passages of the Bible where it talks about people being held accountable for what they have done and where it says “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” but in these readings it became clearer: I am accountable for every one of my sins. They don’t evaporate because I’m “a Christian.” They are real, solid, registered in my account… BUT, and of course this is why it is really good news, if I “die with Christ” then his death pays for them. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Our pastor has been preaching on the 10 commandments so after Revelation we jumped to Galatians to help us put into perspective the relationship between Christians and the Law. As I mapped out the contrasts Paul emphasizes (Galatians.pdf), I saw the great divide is not between the law and grace but between human efforts, or “works” of any kind, (it just so happens that for the people at that moment it was trying to keep the Jewish law) and Jesus’ work. What I took away from that study is the desire to live more aware of the fact that I died with Christ so my fleshly desires are dead and the life I live is Christ’s, which is a peek ahead at the process I mentioned earlier.

From Galatians we flipped back to Exodus with the idea of looking for what we can learn about slavery and freedom because Galatians talks a lot about the two. None of us got more than halfway through the book and none of us had any notable insights into slavery or freedom but our group isn’t about sticking to a schedule, but following where God leads us as a result of the time and energy we choose to put into it.

We were all very familiar with the story of the plagues and the Passover but that didn’t keep us from being struck by the process of it all. Why did God put up with Moses whining and waffling? Why did God harden pharaoh’s heart? Why so many plagues? Why not just soften pharaoh’s heart and get the people out as soon as Moses walks into the country? Why could the sorcerers produce some of the signs like frogs but were stopped up at gnats?!?

For quite a while now the idea of “multifaceted good” has been at the forefront of my thinking about God and his actions. If I can accomplish something, one good, worthwhile thing, with my actions, I’m pleased. But God accomplishes a wide variety of good things through every step of his plan—various kinds of good in the lives of each individual touched or involved as well as good in the community, in the world and in the heavenlies. So as I look at the process of the exodus I assume that He is working out a multi-faceted good in the lives of each individual as well as in his overarching plan. I trust that the process did not include an ounce of unnecessary suffering for man or beast. The fact that the Exodus happened 430 years “to the day” after the Israelites had gone to Egypt shows me the detailed precision of God’s process; it may be mysterious, inscrutable to me, but I can rest in the assurance that no detail has been overlooked or underestimated.

Process chafes me. I am impatient: although it is incomprehensible for Tim, I often read the end of books first; I like knowing how a movie ends; I tell jokes badly because I just want to get to the punch line. God however is not impatient. He is more like our chef friends who are willing to cut pasta noodles by hand or let meat cook all afternoon because they know that the process produces the best results.

In Exodus we see that the process from slavery to freedom does not end as soon as the Israelites leave Egypt or cross through the Red Sea. From our vantage point we know that God’s people are on a path that will leave many dead in the wilderness because of their lack of faith and will eventually send the whole lot of them into exile. Living in the promised land of milk and honey and in the intimate exclusive relationship of being His people and having Him for their God seems to be almost a mirage, something that looks like it could be a real possibility but quickly vanishes, or more accurately a shadow whose reality is found in Christ.

Since I undervalue process, I want to jump in my own life from the Passover (“Thank you Lord for providing a way of escape from the just punishment for my sins through the blood of Jesus”) to eating grapes in the Promised Land. But Exodus reminds me there is probably much more process ahead.

After crossing the Red Sea Moses and the people sang, “In your unfailing love you will lead the people you have redeemed” (Ex. 15:13). The images conjured up in my mind which by those words contrast sharply with the very next thing that happens: they travel for three days without finding water and then when the do find some it’s bitter. I don’t think this is a coincidence; I think it illustrates Galatians 3:3, “Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?” I think there were Israelites who thought “Thank you God for getting us out of Egypt. Thank you for the land you’ve promised to give us. We’ll take it from here.” And God is saying to them, “Uh, hello down there. Yoo Hoo. Remember me? I do have big, wonderful plans for you but you can’t make it without me. Really, you can’t. That’s not a criticism, just a fact. But it’s fine because as we work this out together you will get to know me and we will have an amazing time. The truth is that I am what makes the promised land so good, so really you can have the best part right now, though I don’t deny that there are parts of me you will enjoy more when you get where I’m taking you. But please don’t slip into thinking that I’m an accessory to your plan. That won’t work and I’ll have to let you find that out the hard way. So if you’re thirsty, hungry, whatever, tell me and I will answer that request in real, sometimes really surprising but always real, ways.”

I don’t think I’ll ever become a gourmet chef, or do anything else that requires patience and process on an hourly basis, but at least now I see my impatience in stark contrast to how God works. And hopefully next time I feel like I’m wandering in the desert thirsty, instead of questioning His love, I’ll try to remember that it probably is in fact a sign of his love that He won’t let me get too far own my own.

Monday, August 14, 2006

“There might have been a time when canned foods were considered good. Maybe when fresh fruits and vegetables were hard to find out of season, people were glad to have them available in a can. But when you’ve had good corn right off the cob, the canned stuff is, well, it’s a disappointment.”

My friend Susan agreed with me, just as much about fruits and vegetables as about her small group Bible study, the actual topic at hand. Her group had been watching a teaching series on DVD over the summer and she was ready to be done with it already. As she talked, I was struck by the parallels between canned teaching and canned food. Something is usually better than nothing and the canned product was designed to take the place of the labor intensive and spotty quality of home canning. But my hunch is that something canned it most enjoyable when it is not served by itself but as one ingredient of something prepared fresh, like the can of corn added to the worlds best cornbread recipe.

Monday, July 31, 2006

Running through a wooded area in New Jersy I stopped a few times to enjoy the deer and rabbits i saw along the way. My impression of the "darling bunnies" reminded me of friends who have battled deer and rabbits destroying their gardens and lawn. I thought how it is only possible to to romanticize things when we aren't actually in frequent, prolonged, uncontrolled contact with them.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Behind the words of the worship songs, historic Christian art passed by. A Byzantine looking Jesus healed a blind man. A medieval Jesus stood among his disciples. Then the hand of God creating man from Michelangelo’s Sistine chapel appeared. “Look how purposefully God reaches out toward man and how the man can hardly be bothered to even hold up his arm,” I mused as the image panned out for a fuller view.

The presentation zoomed back in to focus on the two hands. The next thoughts came to my mind in a jumble together: “Look at that big crack in the picture. I wonder where they get the pictures they use? I guess they use images from slides taken of the originals. I wonder why it’s preferable to have the cracks there instead of PhotoShopping them out? I guess it’s because it lets people know they’re looking at the real painting, at the very images that Michelangelo himself painted, instead of at a replica.”

The images kept changing but my mind was stuck on the cracks in the pictures of the Sistine chapel and how those cracks indicate authenticity. I remembered our friend in Mexico teaching that “sincere” means “without wax” because merchants would glue broken bits of pottery or fill up cracks with wax so people would pay full price for something when in reality it was damaged goods. I thought about how often we try to fill up the cracks in our lives and act like our life is perfect and we’re fine when in reality what we do is keep people away from the real us. But it is the cracks that show that we are authentic.

We had just been working at a Christian festival where skateboarders and BMX and motocross riders had put on a show followed by a “gospel presentation.” At the time I had wondered why the guys doing the sports didn’t tell their story instead of bringing out the “professional Christian.” I figured that the organizers must have thought the speaker would do a better job speaking than the athletes, but I think they missed the point. Whatever “cracks” or deficiencies might have been present in the athlete’s talk would have been outweighed by its authenticity, by the power of the interest the audience had in the athlete because of his abilities.

Near the end of the church service that evening a woman with Cerebral Palsy stood up to share some of her story. I frequently had trouble understanding her as she labored to speak but the power of the words I did understand would have been missing if they had come from a less “cracked” source.

Note to self: don’t worry so much about your “cracks”, your deficiencies and inadequacies; they might be the very thing that gives authenticity to your life in the eyes of others.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

For some it was just another party, just another glass of wine. Maybe some were connoisseurs who swirled the wine in their glasses, savored it in their mouths and exclaimed “Heavenly.”

Then there was the steward, anxious, facing great shame. He was saved by the unexpected supply. Now he could finally focus on the other details of the party.

But there were others who saw something more, something supernatural – a shaft of God’s glory piercing the ordinary. For the newly called disciples this was their first taste of His miraculous power.

But there were those who never forgot: the servants who carried the water.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Slow Twitch Muscles Find Their Purpose 

"I just realized how perfect it is that we got married,” Tim called down to me as I slowly made my way up the steep mountain path.

“Really? Great! Why is it perfect?” I asked, fishing for a compliment.

“Well it’s perfect for me that you’re slow,” he began. (Not quite the compliment I was looking for.) “If you were as, um, well as fast as I am then I wouldn’t have time to stop and catch my breath. And with my McArdles disease, my muscles need that rest time to get new energy. For example, when we’re skiing and I stop and wait for you, that’s exactly what I need so my muscles don’t get a constricture. Whereas if you were faster than me, I would keep going all the way down the mountain, which could cause me real problems.”

“Well I’m delighted to know that something that I’ve never liked about myself has some value.”

And truthfully I love the fact that sixteen years, almost to the day, after we met, we are still discovering new ways that we were truly “made for each other.” This incident reminded me of something that struck me after watching the movie “A Beautiful Mind”: the path of loving someone so well that you help them become all that God created them to be is a long one. The mathematician’s wife in the movie could have deserted him; indeed, in real life she did for a while. But if we give up on someone, we can hinder rather than help the process and we will miss out on much joy in the long run.

As I’ve been thinking on these things I came across a bit in Desiring God that drove the point home for me. A student of author John Piper's referred to someone whose experience of loving when there was no joy led her to say, "Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing." Piper responded:
Don't jump to the conclusion that there is no joy in things that are "harsh and dreadful." There are mountain climbers who have spent sleepless nights on the faces of cliffs, have lost fingers and toes in sub-zero temperatures, and have gone through horrible misery to reach a peak. They say, "It was harsh and dreadful." But if you ask them why they do it, the answer will come back in various forms: "There is an exhilaration in the soul that feels so good it is worth all the pain."

If this is how it is with mountain climbing, cannot the same be true of love? Is it not rather an indictment of our own worldliness that we are more inclined to sense exhilaration at mountain climbing than at conquering the precipices of un-love in our own lives and in society? Yes, love is often a "harsh and dreadful" thing, but I do not see how a person who cherishes what is good and admires Jesus can help but sense a joyful exhilaration when (by grace) he is able to love another person.
As we’re surrounded by friends, and a whole world, who have bought into the belief that “love” is all about present gratification, I’m grateful for the reminders that loving someone is a long journey. (And I’m grateful that our journey is so full of joy.)

Friday, March 25, 2005

Monday Thursday 

When i was little i thought "Maunday Thursday" was Latin or something for "Monday Thursday," which made no sense of course but lots of things in life don't make sense and everyone acts like they do so i figured it was just one of those things....

We went to church last night, in great part because Veronica told us it would be short. No such luck, but God met us there anyway.

My mind was wandering while the pastor droned on and on. At one point my eyes focused in on the communion table. We had eaten the bread and were waiting to be served the "cup" so I started thinking how just awful the"grape juice" is that they use at our church. It can't be real juice, instead it's some syrupy, chemically, fake, purple stuff. It struck me how far that purple drink is from blood, especially from the lifeblood of Jesus that somehow not only pumped through God incarnate but also had the power, the "Deep Magic from before the Dawn of Time," to pay for our sins.

The contrast of those two liquids became for me a great image for the contrast between the syrupy thinness of what we do here on earth compared to the richness and power of the eternal reality. At the same time, as I looked at emotion on the faces of people around me (we were seated sort of "in the round") and heard several people share ways that specific verses they had been given at the comunion table minutes before spoke directly to them, I couldn't avoid the fact that God shows up and infuses our thin efforts with eternal richness.

Nontheless i'm not sure whether I can deal with more long-winded rambling and lots of syrupy hymns tomorrow at 1 pm. :-)

Sunday, March 13, 2005


The other day we had this great hike in the Marquesa National Forest between Mexico City and Toluca. It was a perfect day; the sky was azure and totally clear; the sun was so bright it made the yellow wildflowers and the clumps of tall alpine grass shine.

As we were walking down towards the road where our car was parked, I looked back up the hill and the beauty stopped me in my tracks. The sun was pouring in the spaces between the tall pines, lighting up the new green grass below.

I thought how a scene like that gives rise to the idea of fairies because you recognize that something is infusing it with a quality beyond the natural reality of the place. There is a beauty, a delight, that you know is unique to that moment; it is transitory, ephemeral. You know that next time you go, or maybe even next time you look, it won’t be there.

Lately I’ve been rereading my journals, looking to glean insights for the future from what God has taught me in the past. Much of what I have written down is passages of Scripture that were particularly meaningful to me at the moment when I wrote it. But as I look at them now it’s like looking up that hill without the strong afternoon light falling on new grass. I see the words but what made them special — the illumination of the Spirit falling on the fresh growth of the moment — isn’t there. It’s just a hill with trees, all well and good, but not magic.

Monday, December 13, 2004

Christmas Meditation 

Odd as it sounds today I've been reading the first few chapters of Ezekiel. I know it doesn't sound particularly Christmasy, but what started out as setting my mental stage for praising God by reading a vision of his glory appearing to Ezekiel has turned into an interesting Christmas reflection. So I thought I'd share it with you.

What Ezekiel saw (I find I can hardly even get a glimpse of what it looked like with my most vivid imaginings, but anyway...) was accompanied by some of the basic elements of an appearance of God, or theophany, throughout Scripture: a whirlwind, fire, and thunderous noise.

Remember what the Israelites experienced at Mt. Sinai?

On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning with a thick cloud over the mountain and a very loud trumpet blast. Everyone in the camp trembled. Then Moses led the people out of the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain. Mount Sinai was covered with smoke because the LORD descended on it in fire. The smoke billowed up from it like smoke from a furnace, the whole mountain trembled violently, and the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder...and the LORD said to [Moses] "Go down and warn the people so they do not force their way through to see the LORD and many of them perish. Even the priests, who approach the LORD must consecrate themselves or the LORD will break out against them."

When the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance and said to Moses, "Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die."
Moses said to the people, "Do not be afraid. God has come to test you, so that the fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning."

The people remained at a distance, while Moses approached the thick darkness where God was. Exodus 19: 16, ff

Now contrast that with how Christ appeared at his birth:

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby...An angel of the Lord appeared to them and the glory of the Lord shone around them and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger....

So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. Luke 2: 8, ff

As I had these two images in my mind--a burning, quaking, trumpeting darkness on a mountain and a tiny, defenseless, baby--I was reminded of when God appeared to Elijah,

The LORD said, "Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by."

Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.

Then a voice said to him, "What are you doing here, Elijah?" 1 Kings 19:11-13

To me this shows that although wind and earthquake and fire, demonstrations of God's greatness and power, accompany his presence and are normal ways for him to "appear" to humans, they don't preclude him from appearing in an unexpected and very personal way. I don't know what Elijah expected when God told him he was going to "pass by" him, but I doubt it was a whisper and a repeat of the question Elijah had already answered.

I've always loved the phrase in the Christmas carol, "veiled in flesh the Godhead see, hail the incarnate deity" and these passages deepen my understanding of how God veiled his deity when "the Word became flesh." Now when I sing "Silent Night..." I can marvel that the night was filled with normal noises and angelic singing, and as such, silent compared to his coming recorded in Isaiah, "with thunder and earthquake and great noise, with windstorm and tempest and flames of a devouring fire." (Is. 29: 6)

If you are delighting in the wonder of this, praising God for his heart that sets aside His visible manifestations of glory in pursuit of a personal relationship with you, then please stop here and come back to read the rest some other time. And if you weren't doing that before, maybe stop anyway, sing, "Hark the Herald Angels Sing," and then come back and read the rest.

But part of me wants to understand why sometimes God comes in thick darkness up on a mountain ready to have anyone killed who touches it, only accessible by properly consecrated priests, and one time he comes born like any other baby and greeted by unsanctified shepherds at angelic enticement.

There are lots of possible answers. The most "obvious" one --that the Old Testament God is harsh and punishing and the New Testament God is love--I reject right off because it is the same God and because punishment and love are not mutually exclusive. Although I do believe that there is a developing nature to how God has communicated with mankind. Along this line of thought, God had to teach us about himself, and part of that is that he is GOD--bigger, more powerful, more holy, more just, more anything than you can even begin to imagine; "I am the potter, you are the clay," GOD. So sometimes He shows up in a way that we humans can get a small glimpse of his majesty, power, and holiness, but actually just a little bit because no one can see God and live. (Ex. 33:20) All of which makes Elijah's personal conversation with a whisper, and a baby in a manger mind-boggling.

God himself gives an explanation for the show on Mt. Sinai. In Exodus 19:9 he says to Moses that the thick cloud is so that the people will respect Moses forever. Moses gives the people two reasons: "Do not be afraid; for God has come in order to test you, and in order that the fear of Him may remain with you, so that you may not sin.'' (Ex. 20:20) I'm using the NASB here. The NIV says the testing is to bring fear of God so they won't sin, but I think that the testing and the bringing fear of God are separate, though related, purposes. I think the general idea of what it means for God to test people has been distorted by our school experiences when we work to rapidly become proficient in something we have little knowledge of in order to perform well in tests from teachers who at times seem intent on highlighting our lack of proficiency. But the purpose of a test is to show up what is there. Think about a pregnancy test. The results only show up what is already true whether you take the test or not. So God's awesome coming shows up the attitude that people have towards him and serves as a reminder of who he is and why he deserves to be obeyed.

So we're back to earth(quake), wind and fire, understandable from God, but small, dependent child, beyond comprehension.

I think one of the reasons why people who don't appreciate or accept the incredible grace of God wrapped in a baby are nevertheless drawn to celebrate Christmas is that something in them believes that God has become "tender and mild" and that they don't have to worry about the judgment of a God who comes with earthshaking thunder and blazing lightning anymore. But that is what comes from only reading one chapter of a book with about 1,240 chapters.

Just What I Needed 

We were at a foster home where we had been hanging out, playing soccer, and talking with the kids. I was talking with one of the older guys when he brought up the war in Iraq, how it’s all about oil, how bad and greedy Americans are, etcetera, etcetera. My usual approach in the face of an inflammatory topic of conversation is to try to change the subject, gracefully if possible, but with him I actually confronted a few of his statements because I figured he was just parroting what he had heard from adults and teachers and on tv.

This incident stuck with me and has bothered me for lots of reasons. Being an American living overseas during this moment in global politics isn’t fun and its always painful for me to hear my country maligned. But I’m also bothered by how emotionally I react inside to criticism or to people who disagree with me; I don’t like how that incident got under my skin and months later still puts a bad taste in my mouth. And I’m not comfortable with the implications of my “conflict-avoidant” modus operandi. I’m not wanting to talk politics all the time, however I know that by steering clear of some topics, or even some people, I’m letting my fear, of my discomfort and my anger, shut the door on something God might want to do in me and or in them.

That’s why a sermon “Receptive Grace” by Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in NYC, was just what I needed to hear. It provides simple but very insightful answers to the question “How should I relate to people with whom I deeply differ, even people whose views or actions might be truly offensive to me?”

We all know that intolerance isn’t the answer, but Dr. Keller showed me that simple “tolerance” as it is touted today -which doesn’t evaluate the other person negatively but neither does it enter into relationship with them- is a shallow counterfeit of what God modeled, and calls us to: having the strength of character and conscience to enter into relationship with them even though we still believe they are wrong.

I liked it so much that I listened to it again and took notes, then I turned those notes into a summary outline that you can download and read {click here). I don’t know if it will translate without hearing the sermon but I hope so. (You can purchase the sermon at Redeemer’s web site, just put “receptive grace” in the search field for individual sermons on the “buy sermons” page.)

Sunday, October 31, 2004

Traveler's Tale # 1 

In the face of all the chaos and pain in the world, it’s hard sometimes to believe that God is really in charge of what’s going on. But frequently in insignificant details I see His hand, lovingly taking care of His people, and these remind me that He on top of the big stuff too.

In the air halfway from Miami to Buenos Aires, Margie sat up with a start. “Azure, I totally forgot to pack underwear!” she said the friend next to her.

“Don’t worry about it,” replied Azure, “I’m sure we’ll figure something out.”

But you know how it is when you do something like that. You mentally kick yourself, “If only I had taken a bit more time to pack, this wouldn’t have happened”; you think through strategies, “Well I can wash out the pair I have on every night. But what if they don’t dry enough by the next morning? I wonder if the house where we’re staying has a dryer? Do people use dryers in Argentina?”; and just generally stress out about something you know is fairly non-transcendental, “I can’t believe that one of the first things I’m going to talk about with this pastor who is hosting us is that I need to buy some underwear. How embarrassing.”

When the long flight was behind her and Margie was taking a shower at Pastor Muniello’s home trying to scrub off the scummy feeling and exhaustion from the long trip, she decided once and for all that she would just wash her underwear every day and dry it as best she could.

Then while Azure took a shower, Margie unpacked her clothing. She pulled open the top dresser drawer, saw two pairs of underwear and thought, “How nice of Azure to have gone and gotten these for me.” The underwear were not anything Margie would have picked out for herself at home, but in another country facing the prospect of wearing the same pair of underwear for three days, they were more than acceptable.

It wasn’t till later in the day that Margie had a chance to thank Azure for taking care of her problem. “But I didn’t get any underwear for you,” Azure replied, surprised. “Those must have been already in the drawer when we got here.”
The next day after they had gotten to know the Muniello family better, Margie mentioned the underwear to their hostess, Adriana. “I guess Annette (who had stayed in the room two weeks before) must have left them there,” Adriana responded to the query about the origin of the underwear. “Why don’t you take them back with you and you can give them to her when you see her.”

I hadn’t left any underwear in Argentina, but I knew exactly what Margie was talking about because those two pairs of underwear had been in that drawer since the first time I stayed in that room two years ago. I have no idea whose they are or where they came from but I love that God’s economy doesn’t waste anything, not even lost, ugly underwear.

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

If you were a tree, what kind would you be? 

I was talking today about natural disasters with a friend, Adriana. Since she is an architect, the conversation naturally turned to the importance of the construction of a building in how well it weathers a storm. Earthquakes are the primary natural disaster in this area so Adriana explained that for a building to survive them it is important that the construction not be either too weak or too rigid. If it is too weak, it falls apart. So it might seem like the best thing to do would be to create a very strong building with lots of reinforcements and the best concrete blocks held together by the strongest cement. But she went on to explain that a rigid construction runs the risk of cracking so the perfect building is an equilibrium between strength and flexibility.

This strikes me as very helpful reminder. Storms will come in life and the key to weathering them well is balancing strength and flexibility in my character, belief systems, etcetera. My tendency is to think that “firming up” my self-discipline, or my knowledge, for example is what will get me though the hard times, but talking with Adriana I was reminded that a resulting rigidity could be counterproductive. Yes I need to develop more strength in character, conviction and completion of tasks but those qualities need to be complemented by flexibility.

I have always loved palm trees. I love their shape. I love them for their association with all things beachy. And now I am reminded that I have admired them for their strength and flexibility, for the way they can survive hurricane winds where a more rigid tree would snap or be pulled out by the roots. Lord, please help me become more like a palm tree, able to stand firm yet adapt to the winds of change that blow through my life.

Tuesday, August 10, 2004

Just in Case... 

“Years ago I came up with my answer to the question, ‘If a genie came to you and gave you one wish, what would it be?’” Tim explained to me at lunch the other day. “I decided I would ask to be the happiest person in the world, who didn’t have to suffer to get that way and who would stay faithful to God my whole life (which is really part of the ‘happiest person’ request cause I know that by staying faithful to God I will stay happiest.)”

“So what would your wish be?” he asked.

Four days later I have a start at an answer :-)

In “A Diary of Private Prayer” by John Baillie, I came across the following line, “Make this day a day of obedience, a day of spiritual joy and peace.” (Morning Prayer for the Ninth Day)

I think a good wish would be that each of my days would be days of obedience, spiritual joy and peace.

Obedience – This is not one of my strong points, but one of my deep longings is to be used in other’s lives. I know that God created and gifted me for a unique part in bringing about His purposes, which are constantly seeking the best for people. So if I am obedient to Him, I’ll end up reaching my goal of impacting others far beyond what I could do with just my own powers and abilities.

Spiritual Joy and Peace – I have had lots of wonderful experiences in my life, covering a wide gamut of types of fun, happiness and joy. Through them I’ve concluded that most experiences wash over me, leaving just a good memory and a desire for more. But the taste I’ve had of spiritual joy and peace is different. It wells up from deep inside and can fill the most commonplace, even drudgerous, thing – sitting somewhere waiting or washing dishes – with pleasure so that every moment of life can be satisfying.

Saturday, August 07, 2004

The Long Silence 

I know I hold back. I know I’m the person in the parable who buries their talent for fear of losing it.

What I don’t quite know is what I’m afraid of.

When it comes to physical stuff, I’m afraid of getting hurt. I guess that’s probably the same in the rest of my life too. So how can I overcome that?

By just stepping out and doing it. By pushing myself beyond what I feel are my limits.

I guess wanting to is a first step too and recognizing that burying the talent displeases the Master.

Lord, please help me step out of the boat. I don’t know what you want me to do out there, but I know that if I keep my eyes on you, sink or walk, you’ll take care of me and you’ll take care of the results that you want to see happen.
Illustration: Benjamin Uzziel Leon Casasola

Thursday, June 24, 2004

Spike wishing he were running. Posted by Hello

The Trouble with Expectations 

Since it was our day off and the sky looked sunny, we decided to drive up to the foothills of the volcano with our dog Spike to let him run and to do a bit of rambling (to me “hiking” conveys exertion and even purpose, whereas “rambling” is technically “to explore idly”, which is exactly what we did.)

As frequently happens when we head out into the world, things turned out differently than we had envisioned.

I don’t think we’ve ever been up on the mountainside when we came across more activity. We saw at least four shepherds with their small flocks, a herd of cattle being driven by a mounted cowboy, and lots of people working in the fields, most of them plowing with teams of malnourished horses. And we saw lots of dogs.

Our rule of thumb when rambling about the Mexican countryside is where there are people, there are dogs. Country dogs aren’t generally mean-spirited watchdogs like in the city. Even so, after an embarrassing incident in which Spike delightedly chased a herd of cows, much to consternation of the boy and the dogs who were herding them, we prefer to have him on a leash when there are other animals around. So, between the sheep and the ever-present dogs, poor Spike didn’t get much of a run.

As he was pacing from one side of the dirt road to the other at the end of the leash, I imagined that he was grumbling, “This isn’t exactly what I had in mind when I jumped into the car this morning.” And I thought about all of the times when I feel the same way towards God; “this sure isn’t what I had in mind.” My answer to Spike was “Well buddy, life has a lot of variables and sometimes we have to adjust to reality as it presents itself. Just enjoy that you got out at all today.”

Which I guess is a pretty good perspective to keep in mind myself.

Saturday, May 15, 2004

Rivers & Roads 

Looking out the plane window and down on the Rio Grande winding its way to the Gulf of Mexico, I was amazed to see just how curvy the river is; there were times when it practically doubled back on itself. This struck me as a convoluted and inefficient way to get water to the sea. The loopy path contrasted starkly to the straight roads, which formed grid lines that ran directly to the horizon.
As I observed these two paradigms of movement I realized why the natural form of progress is more like a river than a road. Although roads are the most efficient way to get somewhere, they require a lot of resources and effort, both to build them and to maintain them, whereas rivers develop and are maintained naturally.

Not only are rivers self-creating and self-sustaining, they readily adjust to their environment. No water? No problem. The riverbed dries up, but its channel is ready for the next inundation. When a river hits resistance in its path, it finds an alternate route. This makes the water flow in a less than straight line, but that is insignificant compared to accomplishing its principal mission: arriving at its destination. And even though the river finds an alternative route, it also deals with the impediment, slowly, patiently, wearing it away.

Roads are born of our economy and efficiency. That is not a criticism; I like roads, especially good, straight, smooth ones. Here in Mexico we frequently pay good money so we can travel a straight road instead of a loopy one with potholes and speed bumps to boot. (The toll between Mexico City and Toluca is now up to eight dollars for a 15 minutes stretch.) But as I have reflected on this since that flight last October, I have realized that roads help mollify our limitations. We have limited time on this earth; we have limited energy and limited resources so we (especially we, Americans) want to do things as efficiently as possible.

Rivers, on the other hand, emanate from another economy all together different; a system defined by receiving and being faithful with what is given. It seems to me that rivers illustrate God’s economy, one unconcerned with our limitations or sense urgency but defined by His sufficiency and ability to accomplish His purposes.

When I am frustrated by obstacles in my path or by how slowly my projects feel like they are advancing, I remind myself that the shape of the work God is doing in and through me is that of a river. He will accomplish His purposes, although the path might look inefficient and loopy to me.

This image has really stuck with me and has been a great reminder to wait on God and rest in His timing. I hope it can do the same for you.

[Just in case you're wondering I didn't take that picture and that's not the Rio Grande. Its from the great site Webshots and the river is the Gunnison in Colorado.]

Monday, April 26, 2004

On My Nightstand 

I’ve been working through The Pilgrim’s Regress by C.S. Lewis, his first “Christian” book (written the year after his conversion.) I’ve always loved it even though I always feel like there is a lot of it that I’m not getting.

It tells about the round trip journey of a boy named John from “Puritania”, where he was taught about the country’s Landlord who was “very, very kind” to let people live in his land but would throw them in a “black hole full of snakes and scorpions” if they broke any of his rules, through the world, where he encounters major philosophies and lifestyles of Lewis’ day (hence some of the obscurity.)

I’ve been reading bits of it with Tim so today I asked him what his journey would look like, and thought about my own. We decided that, on one hand, ours would be very different from John’s because we grew up as “children of the Landlord” under the tutelage of “Mother Kirk” (the Christian church) and never wandered and searched in such confusion. On the other hand, we have known people, or at least known of people, like those John encounters on his journey, so we have weighed our beliefs against theirs. At different times we may have flirted with some of the “Enemy’s” ways, especially the “Northern” pride of intellectualism and the “Southern” pleasures of paganism, but we knew they were empty and destructive and never gave ourselves over to them.

As I thought more about the story, I realized that very soon after John came to understand the truth about the Landlord he crossed the brook of death; the end of his journey took him out of the besieged land. We, however, don’t need a map out of this land, what we need is a guide that shows us how to live in this world, how to see through the Enemy's strategies and how to love those who are blinded by them. For those who are willing to wade through it, The Pilgrim’s Regress does an admirable job of the former.

If you do decide to tackle it remember what Lewis said about allegory, it “is best understood by not trying too hard to understand it. Like loving, going to sleep, or behaving naturally, reading an allegory is done worst when we try hardest.” (Kathryn Lindskoog Finding The Landlord, quoting Lewis from an article he wrote about Edmund Spenser)

And since I’m on Lewis, I have to recommend a nice interview I just came across with his stepson Douglas Gresham. I’ve read a lot about Lewis, but had never heard this particular, much enviable, ability:

He also was a very fast reader, but he had honed the talent and perfected the strange memory that resulted in never forgetting anything he had read. Now he could, he could ask you to pick any book off of his shelves, and you would pick a page and read him a line and he would quote the rest of the page; in fact, quote the rest of the book until you told him to stop. He had this enormous capacity to remember everything he'd ever read.

Friday, April 09, 2004

Our Impotence 

I know that part of the power of a Blog is its ability to point to something beyond itself, so here is a quotable section from a good article by Virginia Stem Owens I found on

Good Friday:

"All week I had been reading the penitential psalms and examining my sins. The exercise had been a satisfying one since my sins were clear and undeniable, and what was required of me to be rid of them was just as clear.
But now it was Good Friday. What did you do after you'd confessed all your sins and cleaned out all your closets? ...

But what else was there to do on Good Friday? ...

Nothing. Quite obviously just nothing. The soldier who confessed, 'Truly this man was the Son of God,' and the one who pierced his Savior's side with the spear, both were equally helpless there, I suddenly saw. Because Good Friday is the day when you can do nothing. Bewailing and lamenting your manifold sins does not in itself make up for them. Scouring your soul in a frenzy of spring cleaning only sterilizes it; it does not give it life. On Good Friday, finally, we are all, mourners and mockers alike, reduced to the same impotence. Someone else is doing the terrible work that gives life to the world. Good Friday is the day we can do nothing at all.

No matter that I repudiated my old transgressions. On Good Friday, all one's fine feelings count for nothing. If there was to be anything new about life after today, it had to come from some source beyond myself. That is why there was nothing more to do on Good Friday ."

Maundy Thursday 

The Maundy Thursday service at our church last night was awful.

The A/V person kept messing up the power point slides so only the people who knew the words to “Christ the Rock of Horeb” could keep singing. Then there was some sort of confusion about the tune or the tempo. At one point the pianist stopped playing and held out her hand to stop the congregation so she could explain whatever we were doing wrong, but we kept right on going acapella, incidentally the moment when the silly song sounded best (after all what does it mean that Jesus is the “Rose of Sharon” and the “Lily of the Valley”?).

The slide for the next song had a glaring spelling error (vever instead of beber) which cracked Tim up and sent Veronica and I off into a gale of giggles.

During the sermon the pastor’s four-year-old daughter, Milka, who was sitting directly behind us, talked incessantly to Nahum and since neither of them knows how to whisper this was quite a distraction. I didn’t say anything to them however because I figured it really didn’t matter, as I was so sleepy I could hardly concentrate.

Then we took communion by tincture. If it had been with unleavened bread, that would have been one thing (I always wonder why we don’t use matzo bread. Its not like it’s impossible to find.) But these were generous strips of whole-wheat wonder bread made soggy by the very sweet grape flavored drink. Ugg. It tasted so awful, I almost gagged.

But at some point I realized that all of this awfulness was homey and reassuring. All this bumbling and stumbling made me feel like one of the original disciples, who were called by grace, not for what they could offer, and who demonstrated the hope and promise that what God can do for and through us does not depend on our capacities to understand clearly or perform flawlessly, but because this “all surpassing power is from God and not from us.”

As I looked around at the faces around me – Veronica’s parents who serve and love so well, Flor’s grandmother clinging to God in her pain and loss (26 yr old Flor died last fall), the teenage girls I’ve never seen before (could they see the glory through the homeliness?) – I knew there was something important about being there together, about suffering through our weaknesses as we assemble to remember what Jesus did that Thursday.

I could prepare a better service at home, at least one more meaningful to me, but then it wouldn’t be church, the body of Christ, it would just be one lone appendage.

Lord, thank you that our salvation and our value to your kingdom don’t depend on us and our abilities. Thank you for your grace, which condescends to use us in all our frailty and imitations and laziness and sinfulness, and for the worth and purpose this gives us.

Thursday, April 08, 2004


I love “Semana Santa” (Holy Week) in Toluca. Being one of only two weeks in the year that everyone has vacation, the city empties out. The streets are quiet and the sky clears up. (I don’t know how much of the grime in the air is blown over the mountains from the 5 million cars in Mexico City and how much is the pollution from local factories and cars, but during Easter vacation there is a noticeable change in the air quality.)

Yesterday we left the house a bit more than normal and we surprised at the appearance of our volcano, El Nevado de Toluca. Even though we’ve lived here for eight years, it was like we had never seen it this way before. It looked so close. We could see so clearly the newly tilled fields, the pine trees (I almost thought I could see individual trees at the tree line), and the gray slag of the peaks accented by creases of snow.

All day we noticed views of the volcano we hadn’t known were there – a full view down a familiar street, the peak rising clearly above the houses behind an empty block. Tim said, “It really dominates the city.”

How can we be so surprised by something that has been in the same place for the eight years we’ve lived here? Ordinarily there is a filter of dust, haze and smog that obscures it so we can only see it dimly, if at all. (Several years ago during a record drought we couldn’t see it at all for six months.)

Which leads me to think about how we humans are so bound by our individual perceptions—and our pride—that we think that what we see is all that’s there, that what we perceive is an accurate perception of reality, when in fact our perception is very limited and quite obscured by the dust of our limitations and the pollution of our sin. I think if that dust and pollution were blown away, reality would surprise us and we would see with clarity the way God dominates the landscape of our lives.

El Nevado gives me a way to remember this truth. When I can’t see it, or it seems far away, it’s not that it has moved but something has come between us. I can’t get rid of, or see through the smog, but I can remember the glimpse I have had of reality at its most accurate and know that the mountain with its fields and trees and peaks is just as close as ever.

This reminds me too that my perception of life is just as flawed as my view of the mountain, which calls for a bit of humility. And it helps me remember that God and His love are the dominating feature of the landscape of my life, even if I can’t see it at the moment.

(Just have to note that the title of this blog is in my mind because of a song on John Mayer's latest CD "Heavier Things" which has some great songs)

Monday, March 15, 2004

On Wineskins 

Saturday we took Veronica, Nahum, and Victor to a Youth Specialties conference in Puebla, Mexico. On the way home we were debriefing, talking about the state of our local church, of youth work in our city, and even the state of the evangelical church in general in Latin America, and I was reminded of a verse Félix mentioned when we were in Spain:

[And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the new wine will burst the skins, the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, new wine must be poured into new wineskins. And] no one after drinking old wine wants the new, for he says, 'The old is better.' "

I have to confess that when he mentioned this verse I didn’t believe it was really from the Bible because it didn’t sound at all familiar to me. Of course Félix was right; the other day I found it in Luke 5:39. When I first read it, it seemed odd and unrelated. But in the car as Nahum talked with frustration about the resistance we face as we try to help people be more effective in their efforts to carry out the Great Commission, I understood the truth and the relevance of Jesus’ words.

Although I have no experiential proof, I imagine that a skin would flavor the wine stored in it. In the same way the methods, tools and traditions the church uses to communicate the Good News of God’s love for humanity flavors that content. People who are used to drinking “old wine from old wineskins” think that the flavor they are used to is how wine should taste. When someone offers them new wine from new wineskins they don’t like it; they think that because the container has been changed the wine has been ruined. They say, “The old is better.”

In Mexico, where the culture of the Evangelical church is so different from the general, predominantly Roman Catholic, culture, we have a real wineskin problem. People inside the evangelical church are used to the taste of their wine, as a friend of ours Lucas Leys says, “They have been domesticated”. In the best of cases, they love God and have tasted His goodness being poured out of a particular “wineskin” (style of music is one of the most visible “wineskins”, but every method or tradition we have is a “wineskin” while the essence of God’s message is the wine.) They want others to know God, to taste His goodness for themselves, so they reach for the wineskin of the practices and traditions of their church.

This becomes a problem when the other person rejects the wine because of the flavor of the skin. (Tim, for example, is so sensitive to any food product of goat origin that he can’t even eat “cajeta” – a Mexican caramel sauce – made with goat’s milk. I, on the other hand, can’t tell the difference between cow’s or goat’s milk cajeta.)

Several years ago Nahum led an evangelistic Bible study with several friends from school. It went very well and most of them even make a commitment of their life to Christ. Now, five years later, despite continued follow-up by Nahum, none of those friends is growing in their spiritual life. Each person has their own story, but in short, none of them could/would get involved in a community of other believers where their new faith would be encouraged. The evangelical church was inaccessible to them. (I’m not minimizing their personal responsibility but the compassion that Jesus showed for “sheep without a shepherd” doesn’t leave room for us to be complacent in the face of this situation either.)

I think there are some important things we, God’s ambassadors to a broken world, need to learn about wineskins. The first is we need to learn to discern between the wineskin and the wine. Although the medium does influence the message, that old skin flavors the wine, you can change containers without compromising the essence of the wine.

This gives us the freedom to be creative and discover better ways to store and distribute the wine we’ve been entrusted with. All of the wine I’ve seen is sold in glass bottles – a transparent medium that doesn’t flavor the wine. I think the wine business just might be on to something there. The world needs to see and experience Jesus in the most direct and unadulterated way possible.

But we have to be honest. This change of containers will give the wine a different flavor, and some of us will say, “Aw, I don’t like this. The old is better.” So the next thing we need to learn is how to sacrifice the styles and traditions that we personally prefer out of love for our neighbor.

This might sound simple; it might even sound obvious; but it is a tall order. And honestly our eight years in Mexico lead me to feel a bit hopeless about the prospects of it happening any time soon and in an extensive way. (I know that Mexico doesn’t have a corner on the market for old wine. I hope this is thought provoking for you in terms of your life and your context, but since I’m sitting in Mexico wanting you to understand what we face here that’s my focus.) Hopeless, however, is not really a bad place to be because it reminds me of lots of hopeful truths:

Therefore, since through God's mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart…But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair… 1st Cor. 1, 7,8

Even though the situation is not hopeless, there continues to be a huge gap between the reality of a tiny minority (around 4% of the Mexican population is evangelical) sitting in their church buildings drinking their grape juice out of old wineskins and the dream of a generation of young people having a personal encounter with the “heart-gladdening wine” of God’s love made available through Jesus. The bridging of this gap will be, in a word, a miracle. And the Bible shows us that miracles happen when people ask for them.

O Lord, hear our prayer…”

Sunday, February 29, 2004

Bondage to Decay 

After three months of working outside of Mexico, I was so ready to come back, ready to do what we do, instead of just talking about it. Sitting on the plane Monday morning high over the Gulf of Mexico, I felt euphoric about coming back. I was ready to get back to our well-balanced daily routine and our exciting projects.

When we arrived at our house in Toluca, our dogs greeted us enthusiastically. Friends stopped by and invited us over for a welcome home lunch. It was good to be home.

The house was dark and smelled different; “it always smells different after someone else lives there,” I reminded myself. “After a few days of having the curtains and windows open it’ll be back to normal.”

The house was full of suitcases and it began to fill up even more as we started digging through them to find our toothbrushes, deodorant and the assorted “travel schwag” we had brought for friends. “Let’s try to get everything put away as soon as possible,” suggested Tim. “Before we start working and catching up on all the e-mail waiting for us, let’s get the place in order.”

The carpet in the guest/exercise/tv room was filthy. “We have to get the carpets cleaned soon,” I told Tim. When we’re in there we’re usually barefoot or I’m in my exercise shoes that I don’t wear out on the street. Nahum (who house-sat for us) stayed in here so I’m sure it got dirtier from more use.

Maria (a trustworthy and needy lady we employ once a week to help us around the house) came on Wednesday. By the time she left the suitcases were put away, the house was clean and in order, except for a few pockets of resistance: papers in the office, books in the living room, a pile of clothing for the dry-cleaner, assorted odds and ends that need to be wedged into the remaining crevices of our 600 sq. ft house.

To celebrate our progress we took our golden retriever, Spike, up to the foothills of the volcano outside of town for a good run. He loves to run and when we watch him run it give us joy. He was created to run.

While we hiked, Spike dashed up the dirt road, or off amid the tussocks of high altitude grass. Usually we either catch up with him when he stops to mark his path or he circles back around to us, but when we were about halfway back to the car, we stopped and called him because we hadn’t seen him for a while. He didn’t come and was nowhere to be seen. For 20 long minutes Tim retraced our steps, calling for him, while I sat watching the path below in case he had gotten past us.

I really thought he was gone. At one point I stopped asking God to let us find him and just asked if He would please let him find some farmer there on the mountain who would feed him after we had gone home. As Tim walked up one final gully, Spike came bounding up to him, unaware of our concern or of his near fate.

Our third day home should have been Day One of being back in the groove. But instead of being eager to get to work, I felt drained. “It’s the letdown from the trip; it’s the altitude (you can always blame anything on the altitude when you live at almost 9,000 ft); it’s jet lag (we had been in Spain less than a week before); it’s PMS,” I told myself. All of those seemed like viable scapegoats and the good thing about each of those is they have an end. They all go away and when they’re gone, you’re fine. But I sensed that none of those were at the true root of my ennui.

The near loss of our fifth dog in eight years, the endless chore of getting and keeping things in their place, the unconquerable dust of the dry season, which will be followed by the unconquerable mud and mold of the rainy season, are weighing me down. In Romans 8:21(NIV) I found the phrase that exactly described what I felt, “bondage to decay”, a result of Adam’s Curse. Everything around me is constantly decaying -- getting dirty, falling apart, tending towards disorder (my family nickname was sometimes “messy Bessie” so I guess I’m particularly “decay prone” J). The direction of my life cannot be a straight line of upward progress because I am bound to this decaying body and this decaying world.

Usually we face this entropy in small bits. We wash the dishes after each meal, not at the end of a week. Coming back to Mexico, however, I faced disorder and degradation everywhere. Just thinking about the endless battle for cleanliness, order and progress wore me out.

I pulled out my Interlinear New Testament to find the Greek word Paul used for this decay (what can I say, I love to research and study) and made a delightful discovery. The NIV of verse 21 reads, “…the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God” but in the Greek there is a beautiful parallel construction: “slavery to decay”, “freedom of glory.”

The idea “glory” is hard to get a handle on. Glory is definitely positive, but somehow very abstract. It has always seemed more like an adjective than a noun, more like the glow around something than a thing itself. But the Bible definitely uses “glory” as a noun. RC Sproul talks expressively about the “heaviness” of glory and C.S. Lewis wrote a definitive essay called “The Weight of Glory”.

I’ve been thinking about glory lately. Our second night in Spain Tim and I had jet lag, bad. We had been lying in bed for hours (not an exaggeration, I saw them tick away on my backlit watch) but we didn’t want to turn the lights on for fear of delaying the resetting of our bodies’ internal clocks. “Why don’t you go over some of those long passages of the Bible that you’ve memorized”, Tim suggested. I decided to start with Psalm 1. My grandparents taught this to me when I was about seven and they were staying with my sister and I while my parents were in Liberia for a month.

“…Do not stand in the way of scoffers, or sit in the seat of sinners…”. The alliteration drew me in.

“But his delight is in the law of the Lord and on that law does he meditate day and night.” I was still trapped in sleepless exhaustion but felt deep joy somehow, knowing that I was doing just that; I felt connected to the great king David who would lie in bed and think about God’s word.

“He is like a tree planted by rivers of water which yields its fruit in its season.” I had always like this image of the tree and its fruit. “Season” means that the tree does not always have fruit on it but when the time is right the fruit will appear. That is a comfort to me because I get thinking that I need to see fruit all of the time, and preferably lots of it. But this image says that if the tree is drawing from the streams of water the fruit will be there, when the season is right,

“…Not so the wicked. They are like the chaff that the wind blows away.” I pictured the empty shells of the wheat being blown away. I thought about the “lightness”, the unsubstantial-ness, the worthlessness, of those husks. I thought about the desperate horror of having a life with no “weight”, a life whose results blow away leaving no trace.

I have never been worried about “leaving my mark” on the world. I don’t recall carving my initials on things; I don’t care if future generations think of me. (I figure I’ll be dead so what good would it do me anyway.) I don’t have children, so I won’t even pass on my genes. However, I do believe that God has used me for good in other people’s lives. I believe that in heaven one of the great joys will be seeing and celebrating what God did through our prayers and through us. Then we will finally see our fruit, fruit that is eternal and “weighty.”

The opposite of slavery is freedom and the opposite of this world’s decay is glory: lasting, increasing honor.

Sometimes I struggle to feel the “good” part of the Good News. I asked Jesus to be the Lord of my life when I was 4 ½ so I don’t have a personal experience of radical transformation to look back on. But as I feel bound to the decay of this world, the promise of release is good news.

With these thoughts running around in my mind, we went to church where we took communion. I was struck by how bread and wine are examples of the way something’s decay can be transformed into it’s source of glory. Like good Mexican Protestants we use grape juice, not wine, during communion. But even a teetotaler can appreciate on a symbolic level that wine gets its value from the process of its decay. And Jesus was explicit about the decay needed for wheat to reach its potential: “I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” (Jn 12:24) (Of course most bread also is made with yeast, a biblical symbol of decay.)

As I have gone down this mental path, facing the decay around me and seeing the door open to glory at the end of the road, I have experienced hope and joy. I understand a bit better the “abundance” of the life we have in Christ: “…Christ in you the hope of glory…” (Col. 1:27). And I am grateful, grateful for the joy of seeing spiritual truth more clearly and grateful for the “freedom of the glory of the children of God.”

But, as Lewis says in “The Weight of Glory”, “Meanwhile the cross comes before the crown and tomorrow is a Monday morning.”

Tomorrow really is Monday and I still have those piles of papers, books and clothes to face. (Did I mention I’ve had wash in the dryer since Thursday? I’m thinking I should deal with that too. ) I hope that understanding what I’m up against helps me face it better. Or at least that my body gets used to the hour and the altitude.

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