More Than You Know

Mystery can be an inconvenience.

Recently, a friend of mine was in a difficult situation. She was facing a consequential decision and needed help understanding what the Bible had to say about it. Consulting several believing friends had only left her more confused, because it turned out these friends didn’t just disagree on the issue at hand. They also differed on the very way to interpret and apply the biblical passages related to it. Struggling with these unknowns, she reached out to me to find out what I thought about it all.

I suspect many Christians have experienced similar occasions. It’s common, as we make our way through this life, to face difficult conundrums and tricky situations that give us pause and send us back to Scripture for instruction on how to act. Sometimes the solution is obvious. Other times, though, the answer is obscure, and we’re left in an uncomfortable state of uncertainty as we try our darnedest to pass the square peg of culture through the round hole of God’s Word.

I think I need another concordance.

As a pastor, I’ve been approached by folks hoping I can offer some significant and irrefutable insight into their rock-and-hard-place circumstances. After all, if you can’t make heads or tails of a biblical teaching, it makes sense to seek out someone who seems more astute. And pastors are often viewed as a higher authority to whom discernment is bestowed in abundance. The truth, however, is we’re just as often caught off-guard by Scripture’s teachings, and as dependent on prayer and reflection as everyone else. For as many instances in which I’ve been able to offer a helpful perspective, unfortunately there’ve been just as many times I’m forced to say, “I really don’t know” or “The Bible just isn’t clear in this regard.”

It’s deeply frustrating to collide with the limits of our understanding of God’s Word. Whether it’s determining the meaning of a particular command from Scripture, or when the circumstances of life suddenly deposit us into a fog of uncertainty, rarely does God provide his answers on-demand. Unlike King Solomon, our own requests for wisdom are often met with silence, forcing us to sit uncomfortably in our finitude. In the meantime, and for as long as that meantime lasts, we must learn to live with mystery.

And mystery can be very inconvenient. Sometimes it can seem like a cold shoulder or a slap in the face, like when someone with a terminal illness asks to know what’s in store on “the other side,” or when a grieving spouse asks what the Bible commands of him after his wife walks out. Oh sure, there are passages to read and discuss, but just as my friend discovered when she sought others’ advice on how Scripture illuminates her own dilemma, often the conclusions offered in the text are either faintly drawn or contradictory. What we want is certainty. But, sometimes, all we get is indecision.

You think we’re divided now? Try bringing up the correct way to serve the Lord’s Supper.

The Dangers of Avoiding Mystery

Resisting mystery can be hazardous. There is always the temptation to force a black-and-white conclusion when one isn’t there. To read our own preferences and cultural attitudes into the text in order to uphold a predetermined view, or to validate a personal opinion. This practice, known as eisegesis, is how despicable people throughout history have used Scripture for their own selfish ends, such as justifying genocide, slavery, or discrimination. But, on a micro level, it’s also how you and I avoid the awkward silences to which mystery subjects us.

The problem with eisegesis isn’t merely incorrect interpretation. Its greater detriment is the discord it sows among believers. Desperately scrounging for answers, we can end up muddling the Church’s witness by prematurely introducing contrary readings and counter-interpretations when all along God’s way of strengthening our faith could be that very lack of interpretative certainty.

In which case, this guy might just be a prophet.

Mystery is no accident. It’s a special tool in God’s renovation of the soul, and it has sharp edges. It should be handled with great care, with reverence from both head and heart. If we reject it, we can do damage to both. Sitting with an unknown may not be pleasant, but it can be a powerful exercise for the heart. Unfortunately, it’s much more comfortable to selfishly proof-text verses, or take a story out of context, in order to force a solution or bolster an argument. Rather than learning how to peer into the darkness, trusting light will emerge, we flee from mystery and our faith remains frail.

On the other hand, if we too easily appeal to mystery whenever we encounter a difficult teaching or an obscure text – “Who knows? We’ll just have to ask God when we get to heaven.” – we end up dulling our minds, not sharpening them. Sometimes the question is as important as the answer. Learning how to not simply ask questions, but also sit with the uncertainty of them, is an essential part of loving the Lord our God with all of our minds.

Submitting to Mystery

Of course, there’s no greater bout with mystery than when a Christian asks, “What is God’s will for my life?” This is something I’ve asked whenever I’ve found myself on the precipice of a major life decision. I know I’m not alone in this. We want to make the right decision, one that honors God. At the same time, we want our choice to be a successful and prosperous one, something that, despite what some fancy-pants televangelist may insist, is not a divine mandate.

The desire for divine direction is a good thing. It’s noble for a believer to say, as the chorus goes, “I won’t move until you speak.” However, there’s an important difference between a believer who is patient and one who is spiritually inert. We exhibit patience through humble prayer, laying our uncertainties or our difficult choices before the throne of God and asking for the courage and confidence to move forward in a manner that honors him. We fall into spiritual inertia, however, when we refuse to move forward until we’re not only certain of the direction, but also that the way is safe.

Sometimes you feel like punching Robert Frost right in his deeply poetic face.

“We are not among those who shrink back and so are lost, but among those who have faith and so are saved,”insists the writer of Hebrews. “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hb. 10:39-11:1).

It seems a contradiction in terms to define assurance by way of hope, or conviction through what is invisible. And yet, this statement is backed up with the famous “Hall of Faith” list of Old Testament saints, who walked in the way of righteousness despite not being privy to what God’s endgame for their own lives was, let alone how their faith would reverberate down through the ages.

What those men and women did do was practice obedience in the moment. Sure, they slipped up now and again, but on the whole the way they worked out God’s will for their individual lives through moment-by-moment obedience – by doing, as the saying goes, “the next right thing.” Even when it was hard, or when the way forward didn’t appear logical, let alone safe, they obeyed God’s command. Or, in lieu of an explicit command, they clung to righteousness as they perceived it. Though the command didn’t make sense, Abraham trudged up Mount Moriah with his son and a pile of wood. Though he believed it could only end in disaster, Jacob limped toward a confrontation with his hoodwinked brother, Esau. Though he’d been designated an enemy of the state, Moses walked back into Egypt’s capitol.

“You threatened the line of succession, you killed an Egyptian soldier, and, if that weren’t enough, the royal librarians just informed me you owe more than $80 in late fees!”

And then there’s Gethsemane.

Nowhere in God’s Word is the collision of uncertainty and obedience more starkly realized than in the prayer Jesus utters in the garden. While his closest friends sleep off their heavy meal, in eerie loneliness the Son of Man grapples with the uncertainty of his circumstances. Christians often take for granted the divinity of Jesus, assuming the fact that he’s God’s Son must have made him some sort of clairvoyant who knew every single thing that would happen before it took place, from the Transfiguration to Lazarus’s death to the crown of thorns. But while his spiritual discipline no doubt granted him matchless wisdom and acute perception in a variety of situations, full preternatural knowledge would have removed Jesus’ need for faith, the very thing that makes his example of obedience so extraordinary.

Time and again, Jesus appeals to the Father’s omniscience, not his own. He expresses unwavering trust and even dependence on what the Father wills. “I can do nothing on my own,” he tells the religious leaders of his day. “As I hear, I judge; and my judgment is just, because I seek to do not my own will but the will of him who sent me” (Jn. 5:30). And it is in Gethsemane that his trust in the Father shines brightly, not because Jesus knew exactly what lay ahead, but precisely because he didn’t.

Oh, he could perceive the net was closing. He understood Judas wasn’t just off somewhere distributing alms. He was well aware his demonstration in the Temple had been like initiating the countdown on a bomb. He knew that, in this powder keg of a society, he and the Twelve had long since passed a point of no return.

No, what lay ahead wasn’t a complete mystery to him, but it was shrouded in the murk of unpredictability and risk. It makes sense that what Jesus desired in that moment wasn’t to rush headlong into those distressing shadows, but rather to bypass them. He wanted to avoid the tribulation bearing down on him, to sidestep the unjust retribution aimed his way. He was overcome with anxiety about what lay ahead, so what did he do?

He brought his difficult choice before the Throne, seeking the courage and confidence to move forward in a manner that honored his Father: “If it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not as I want, but as you want” (Mt. 26:39).

It’s a prayer of obedience, a decision to do the right thing even when the outcome isn’t clear or safe. Essentially, Jesus was saying, “Father, I’m afraid of what’s coming. I don’t like it and I don’t want it. But, no matter what, I trust you. No matter what, I will obey.”

Jesus wasn’t asking what was God’s will for his life, because he already understood the Father unveils his will as we obey. It is the same for every person’s life. God’s will is for you and I to obey moment after moment after moment, and to trust that our good and gracious Father will concern himself with the rest. “Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness,” Jesus told his followers, “and all these things will be given to you as well” (Mt. 6:33).

The Desire to Please Him

But, some may ask, what about when we’re not sure how to obey? What about when we’re faced with a choice that isn’t explicitly addressed in Scripture? What about when the counsel we seek is divided or even at odds with one another? What then?

And what about when the other way is just as fair, and has perhaps the better claim?

In his extraordinary work, Thoughts in Solitude, Thomas Merton records an extraordinarily honest prayer expressing his desire to remain faithful in the face of mystery. I have no idea where I am going, Merton confesses early on. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so.

But it’s at this point in his prayer that instead of fleeing from mystery, Merton chooses to embrace it, allowing the unknown to do its edifying work. Though he’s confessed his lack of understanding, he follows it up with these words:

But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope that I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it.

So, don’t flee from mystery, or try to explain it away. Embrace it. In your head and in your heart, make room for it. Sit with it not as an awkward stranger, but as a newfound companion.

And pray. Fill the gray silence of mystery with your prayers. Bring your confusion and distress before the Throne, but don’t merely request an answer, for God is not cheekily holding his hands behind his back waiting for you to pick one. Instead, with the same assurance by which you approach a close friend, ask him for the courage and confidence to move forward.

And, finally, trust. When it seems he hasn’t spoken directly to your situation through Scripture, know that the word of God speaks also through our consciences, to the hearts and minds that refuse to run ahead of him.

Mystery can be an inconvenience. But it can also be one of God’s greatest lessons.

Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.

Ephesians 3:20-21

All Who Take the Sword

“You’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength, and you have to be strong.”

President Donald J. Trump

Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”

John 18:36-37

I wonder what was going through Simon Peter’s mind the moment Jesus rebuked his act of violence. As the servant of the high priest dropped to his knees with his hands pressed against his gushing wound, and the guards charged forward, and Peter took a step back and prepared to meet them, sword in hand, he and the rest of his fellow disciples must have believed this was the moment. This was the day they would take back their country.

Of course, they were no match for the Temple police. But what must have left Simon flabbergasted was his master’s statement, which immediately followed: “Put your sword back into its sheath. All who take the sword perish by the sword. Am I not to drink the cup that the Father has given me?” (Mt. 26:52, Jn. 18:11).

Or what was he thinking only a little while later when the woman, who was guarding the courtyard gate of Annas’s house, asked him whether he was a Galilean sympathizer (Jn 18:12-18)? His response was a quick, “I am not.” It was a denial of convenience, a little white lie that gained him access to the proceedings within, where a contingent of the Sanhedrin were set to condemn Simon’s master.

Two thousand years removed from that fateful night, Christians consider all of Simon’s actions – the drawing of his sword, the three denials – to be blatantly sinful acts. But I suspect Simon Peter thought little of them at the time. His goal was to draw closer to Jesus – first to protect him, then to remain nearby, ready to do what needed doing for the sake of God and country. He was convinced that peace and order were on the line. Morality and righteousness and truth and justice were being threatened. In this scheme of things, what was one small denial?

So, it wasn’t the actual words he spoke that left Simon Peter weeping before a Judean sunrise. It was the dawning realization of just how misplaced was his passion, how misguided was his patriotism. What brought him to shameful tears and chased him into the dusty street was a recognition of just how far he had strayed from the will and way of Jesus, his Teacher and Lord.

A Tale of Two Cities

Simon Peter exemplifies an important truth for all who profess belief in Jesus, who call themselves “Christians.” It is that even the most fervent believer can disobey. Even the most ardent follower can get it wrong. He can mistake the vision. He can misconstrue the path.

Simon Peter spent years in Jesus’ inner-circle. He had the extraordinary privilege of sitting in his presence, listening to him speak, asking questions, witnessing first-hand the way his master spoke and acted. And yet, at the climax of that experience, when everything he had seen and heard was coming to a head, Simon chose a worldly kingdom over a heavenly one.

It’s this tragic mistake we’re witnessing more and more starkly in America right now. As I write this, throngs of protestors are storming the Capital building in Washington, D.C., threatening and demanding that Congress overturn the results of the presidential election. Their actions today are akin to Simon Peter drawing his sword. They have offered up their lives not for a heavenly kingdom, but an earthly one. We can see quite clearly the tale unfolding – it is a tale of two cities. No matter what religious affiliation they claim, if any, these trespassing protestors have chosen the city of Man over the city of God. I suspect some have trouble envisioning how the two might actually be different.

A Kingdom Not of This World

To follow Jesus requires a shift in one’s allegiances. This isn’t something a lot of Americans want to hear, but it’s clearly on display in the Gospels and throughout the New Testament. For the first disciples, it required being labeled religious blasphemers and political insurrectionists. It put them in the cross-hairs of the Temple authorities and eventually led to derision and bloody persecutions at the hands of the Roman Empire. So it is that even for those modern-day believers who are convinced our religious freedoms are being systematically stripped away, our instruction from Scripture is to assume the positions of humility, peacemaking, and non-violence.

By no means must Christians assume a position of indifference to governmental rule, but their allegiance to any worldly government – friendly or not – is fundamentally a limited allegiance because it isn’t their highest allegiance. The highest is reserved for a King who insisted his kingdom was not of this world, that it must never be confused with any earthly government.

Perhaps one of the most extraordinary transformations in the entire Bible is the one that takes place in the years between a zealous Simon Peter drawing his sword in Gethsemane and a timeworn Saint Peter, who toward the end of his life held out the following teaching:

For the Lord’s sake accept the authorities of every human institution, whether the emperor as supreme, or the governors, as sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right… As servants of God, live as free people, yet do not use your freedom as a pretext for evil. Honor everyone. Love the family of believers. Fear God. Honor the emperor.

1 Peter 2:13-14, 16-17

As a reminder, tradition tells us that soon after this teaching was offered, the emperor whom Simon Peter encouraged all believers to honor ordered that Simon Peter be crucified for treason.

I don’t doubt Simon Peter was concerned about the government’s injustices. Nor do I think he was turning a blind eye to the crescendo of ostracization and persecution against Christians. But what old Peter understood that young Peter didn’t was that our responsibility as followers of Jesus is to be the hands and feet of our Savior in this world. It’s to embody his way, to cling to the example he offered even as he was accused without cause, tried without evidence, and executed without remorse.

To follow Jesus is to choose peace over contention, humility over cynicism, and forgiveness over fairness. We are commanded not to stand up for our own rights, but to surrender them that we might inherit God’s greater plan. Doing so isn’t always convenient or comfortable, of course. It may indeed look more like weakness than strength, like you’re letting the world walk all over you. Even though they profess to serve Jesus, some believers may not be able to stand the idea of not taking their stand, especially when it seems their world is falling apart.

But as it is, his kingdom is not from here. It’s not a kingdom that must be guarded or contended for or fought over. Just as his salvation is not a battle but a gift, so it is with his kingdom.

It cannot be won. It can only be received.

A Few Moments of Peace in the Peaceable Kingdom

Outside my window is a pallid sky, an unremitting drizzle, and the kind of mugginess you get when autumn reports for duty but summer stubbornly contests the election. It’s a sunless day. Gloomy, lugubrious, melancholy. Pick your adjective.

On boring, featureless days like these, hope feels hard to come by. The pandemic continues to siphon our nation’s positivity. The relentless cacophony of politics drowns out our optimism for the future. We keep talking past each other on issues of race, climate change, the economy. And so, while hope has become a precious commodity we need more than ever – more valuable than toilet paper in March – unfortunately there seems less and less to go around.

Maybe that’s why today I found myself daydreaming of heaven.

My imagination wandered into that mysterious realm, that inscrutable kingdom that lies both in our future and outside of time itself. I did not picture the eye-rolling stereotypes of clouds, golden gates, and Roman columns, since none of those come anywhere close to sound interpretations of Scripture and the handful of enigmatic images it provides. No, I pictured that prophecied coupling of heaven and earth from Revelation 21-22, in which every inch of our world is saturated with the goodness, beauty, and truth of God’s presence. Skeptics and atheists may say this is a desperate and pitiful reverie, an utterly incongruent idea when placed next to what we know of human history. Still, the thought of this heaven is the boost my heart needs when the streams of hope run dry.

Of course, whenever I envision the light of the New Jerusalem gleaming like some divine Minas Tirith, I end up with more questions than I do certainties. Not what will such a land look like, necessarily, but what will life in that great new age be like?

OK, cue the predictably lame “I Can Only Imagine” jokes…

That’s the point of the exercise, right? Not simply to picture a beautiful place, but also to cast our hearts and minds to an existence rescued from all the societal unrest, ugly partisanship, and tragic wilting of truth.

And so I wonder…

Will There Be Politics in the Kingdom of God?

You laugh, I know. After all, right now the very thought of politics brings a grimace to the face of Trump and Biden supporters alike. But if I read what is inarguably the most beautiful scene in the Book of Revelation to its conclusion, I find this curious detail:

The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring its splendor into it.

Revelation 21:23-34

Did you catch it? Alongside that divine capitol city, there are nations… and kings… and state visits, apparently. Which means even in the glorious kingdom of God in some form or another there are gates and borders and territories. There are regions and locales, dominions and jurisdictions.

It seems John’s vision, or at least his perception of that vision, unfolded according to something like a system of suzerainty, in which tributary states prosper as protectorates under a greater sovereign state. Whether or not this form of international relations is simply a way for our finite minds to comprehend the incomprehensible, or is actually God’s chosen structure for his consummate Kingdom, one fascinating aspect it assumes is that eternal life progresses within a perfected governmental structure, of which the Lamb is the head. There will be monarchical oversight, perhaps a Camelot-like administration, yet completely devoid of scandal, hypocrisy, and duplicitous agendas.

Thankfully for everyone, God is not on Twitter.

I know, I know… I’m already lost in the semantics of this otherworldly reality. Still, with every bombastic tweet, every puerile power grab, every legislative bottleneck, and every vindictive political meme a friend callously posts on Facebook, the promise that God will not merely eradicate politics but rather teach us what governing truly looks like is the kind of hope I want to cling to on gray days like this one.

Will There Be Art in the Kingdom of God?

I remember how my friends and I used to regularly pester our poor youth minister. Only in his early twenties himself, Stephen somehow dealt with our impertinences with the patience of Dumbledore. That didn’t mean he didn’t get fed up sometimes, though. One night in particular, we were peppering him with ill-conceived questions about heaven. After patiently fielding as many ridiculous inquiries as he could, in exasperation he finally held up his hands and said, “Look, guys, here’s what I think heaven is going to be like. I think we’re going to sing praises to God all day, and we’re going to like it.”

We winced and looked at each other. Praise God… all day? Like, all day? Just some endless worship service? Ugh! Would we have to wear church clothes?

“So, like, is the heavenly banquet like a big church potluck? Will I get in trouble if I bring deviled eggs?”

Thinking back to that moment, I smile. Stephen was doing his best to sketch us a picture while remaining true to Scripture, and yet we had worn him down so much he had little imagination left. Don’t worry, he assured us. In heaven, church’ll be fun.

Scripture does not paint a full picture of heaven, least of all what our main activities will be, but it does allude to moments of congregational praise of God for his glorious power and love. And rightly so. Worship would certainly underscore life in God’s kingdom. But we also know there are all sorts of ways to worship God – to express our awe, our adoration, and our thanksgiving. Music is one way, but so is writing, painting, sculpting.

Art is the expression of ideas and concepts too important for only one mind to possess. It’s a creative act bestowed by a benevolent Creator. For me, preaching a sermon is a form of art, while for another it may be photography, playing a great round of golf, composing a musical, or fine-tuning a stand-up routine.

If art is how we experience all that is good and beautiful and peace-giving in life, then art also extends beyond those activities commonly considered part of the medium. Thus, art is found in a fisherman expertly casting his fly, a carpenter deftly sanding down a length of wood, or a gardener gently guiding her plants into full bloom. It is expressed in that magic space where one’s power, patience, and passion meet.

While not Scripture itself, Gerard Manley Hopkins’s oft-quoted “As Kingfishers Catch Fire” reinforces the idea that our attention to beauty – and our recognition that there is beauty even in our most instinctual and mundane actions – is a core part of worship. The poem concludes,

Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is — 
Chríst — for Christ plays in ten thousand places, 
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his 
To the Father through the features of men’s faces
.

– Gerard Manley Hopkins, 1877

Is it too much of an extrabiblical stretch to believe our Creator will allow us to retain the capacity and love for creating, even within the perfection of our imperishable bodies? That in addition to singing the Lord’s praises, we might also write in reverence of them, paint in reverence of them, make music and movies and even amazing meals in reverence of them?

This may be just me wanting to take some of this world with me when I die. Or, perhaps it’s me wanting these beautiful things we get to experience in this life – things like Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, or Tom Colicchio’s braised short ribs – to be more than just beautiful things, but rather genuine traces of heaven itself.

Will There Be Seasons in the Kingdom of God?

The expectancy of the seasons is a fundamental aspect of life on earth. Cynical philosophers may declare that time is merely a human construct, but scientific research actually reveals we don’t count hours, days, and months for arbitrary reasons. It’s actually a response to immutable natural forces. The concept of a twenty-four-hour day, for instance, is how we acknowledge the intuitive rhythm of our internal circadian clock.

The dang circadas are keeping me awake!

So, let’s talk seasons. While today’s mugginess isn’t pleasant, we’re nonetheless entering the time of year I treasure most. The welcoming cool of autumn, and its crisp scents and colors, is coming on. The season of harvest. Every year, it lifts my spirit. I marvel at God’s imagination, his astonishing attention to detail.

I know the same could be said for summer, but I’ve never been near as fond of it. It’s hot, humid. You have to schedule your morning run before 7 AM or you risk heatstroke. Even evening strolls make you want to shower afterward. Granted, I grew up in Texas and I live in Georgia, so you get what you pay for. But this is all the more reason why I adore fall, and why I hope the same unique and sublime sensations it brings will be present in the heavenly kingdom.

Here’s the thing, though. Again, the cynic will say, “Well, technically, autumn signals death and dormancy. It marks the withering of life (even if only temporary).” The leaves may change into beautiful colors, sure, but they end up a lifeless, brown pile on the yellowing lawn. Crops are harvested and fields are mowed. Sunlight retreats. It’s darker in the mornings, and it’s darker in the evenings. This is a season of senescence, old age preparing for expiration. As lovely as an autumn breeze may feel, what place would such morbidity have in the renewed and eternal kingdom of God?

A valid point, I suppose. The description of the kingdom in Revelation 21-22 does repeatedly claim there will be no need for the sun or the moon, for all illumination will come from God himself. So, if there is no day or night, how can there be a harvest season? How does one even sow seeds or reap their fruit?

On the other hand, the final image of John’s prophecy is of a restored Eden, in which there are indeed crops which yield fruit each month (Rev. 22:2). So, either there are no seasons and these crops are as magical as everything else, or in heaven the harvest season is a permanent state rather than a passing one.

Now available FOR ALL ETERNITY!

I don’t know. But here’s what I do know, or at least, here’s what I believe.

The gospel is the story of hope emerging, struggling, dying, and living again. It is the way of Jesus, who reigns as King of heaven, and every year hence the earth has, in its skies, its climates, and its seasons, retold his story. Through both splendid songs and harrowing groans, through both mountain vistas and dissolving glaciers, this world tells the story of its once and future King. It has offered its very being unto its Creator.

When you think of it like that, even the mugginess of this gray day is put into a greater perspective. In these times when all hope seems lost, the earth itself reminds us that these moments, however long they feel, are fleeting. They are but a single page in a grand book about the triumph of hope. And I can’t fathom why the telling of this glorious gospel would ever cease once heaven and earth meet. No, in the peaceable kingdom, I believe it will be on display with even greater eloquence than it is now.

I know, I know. It feels like an outlandish fantasy, even for the devout. No doubt I’m playing and bit too fast and loose with Scripture here. But, you know, given the spiraling fear and acrimony being sown today in our politics, our national discourse, even our homes and our churches, I’ll take a few peaceful moments in this heavenly daydream however I can get them.

Because they remind me that hope remains. It endures.

All the Answers

For The Ink Well Creative Community

Word: Unexplained
Parameters: Write for 15 minutes without stopping

Warnings-in-The-Bible-Read-Me-

“The Bible has all the answers.”

Surely you’ve heard this folk saying before, whether stated confidently by someone who actually believes it, or sarcastically by someone who might once have believed it but no longer does because when he or she finally brought a question to the book, nothing in its pages seemed relevant.

Often, when you encounter people of the second group, you learn that they have laid aside their trust in “an ancient book full of superstitions” in favor of science or reason or rationalism or humanism or methodological naturalism. In other words, what they’ve set aside is any form of mysticism. Whether because it failed them in the past, or because it never seemed a viable option in the first place, they are not comfortable with any knowledge that is apprehended outside of the intellect.

This, of course, is perfectly understandable. In the absence of cold, hard facts (though why facts must be “cold” and “hard,” I’ve never understood), having faith in something will always mean holding hands with doubt and uncertainty. Some people would rather avoid the feeling. Certainty is a matter of the will, and if it can’t always be effected, it can at least be feigned.

I’ve talked with people who’ve told me, among other things, that they don’t like how the Bible addresses the formation of our planet and the rest of the cosmos. They claim that if there really was a divine being behind its creation, then certainly the Bible would include more details. But, instead, there’s just a short poem that scientific research has already proven to be inaccurate.

Sometimes, I ask them why they can’t have the kind of unwavering faith in God that they seem to have in the scientific method.

They respond by saying that their allegiance to science has nothing to do with faith, but rather with facts. They tell me that science explains mysteries, while religion merely hopes that one day Someone will reveal the purposes of those mysteries.

I don’t ask the questions that come to my mind next, usually because I already sense the conversation has taken a turn for the worse. I’m not sure they’re mindful of it, but I’ve found that when you begin speaking about faith to a person who has cast it aside in favor of reason, you’ve often encountered a point of view that believes the two are mutually exclusive. That faith and reason have no relationship with each other. This, of course, is a fallacy, but in a culture consumed by competition, it is difficult to see past the versus archetype.

But if I could ask them my questions, I would ask them, “Why do we laugh?”

It is one of the questions I took to the scientific method, but found no reasonable explanation. It is a mystery that has yet to be sufficiently answered

I would ask them, “Why are human beings so often kind to each other?”

It is another question I’ve turned to science and reason and methodological naturalism to explain to me, but the only answer they can give is a shrug of the shoulders and the words, “We shouldn’t be.”

The Bible doesn’t explain these questions either – at least not in the way a rationalist would appreciate – but that is the point. Such fundamental elements of human existence remain unexplained. They remain mysteries. And even if someone rejects mysticism, he or she cannot fully escape mystery. Sure, perhaps one day the scientific method will finally reveal the reason why human beings laugh, or why we offer kindness to others even when no personal benefit comes of it. After all, science has shown a great track record for discovery.

But amidst these answers, other mysteries remain. Because the two are not polar opposites. They are not at odds, but in relationship with one another.

I don’t know about you, but that thought fills me with joy. I’m not sure why.

A Great Wind is Blowing

I’ve been thinking about what it’s like to be guided by the Holy Spirit, and a one-word answer keeps shoving its way into the forefront of my mind.

Windblown.

It took me a while to figure out why that particular word should mean anything. But the other day I got one of those questions pastors often get from church members:

“What’s your favorite story in the Bible?”

Now, most of the time, these questions are posed by the younger members of the church – those in VBS classes or, when they’re not preoccupied with shaving cream shenanigans, the church youth group. I have to say, I appreciate this question more than some related ones like, “What’s your favorite Bible verse?” or “What’s your favorite Psalm?” Here’s the deal: I’ve been going to church all my life, and I’ve been a minister for thirteen years, but, in all honesty, I have never been able to arrive at a favorite verse or Psalm. The former requires selecting one statement out of over 31,100 statements, and anyone who thinks he or she can pull that off with confidence probably hasn’t given equal time to all 31,100 of them. The latter involves ranking incredibly personal and historically poignant prayers that will only hold up until Chris Tomlin or Matt Redman finds a catchy new hook for one you hadn’t cared about up until that point, and then your whole echelon crumbles.

Soundtracking your quiet times since the mid-90's.

Soundtracking your quiet times since the mid-90’s.

But I’m confident in naming my favorite Bible story. Unlike the others, my preference for it seems to endure.

It’s John 20:19-23. You probably know the story. The disciples (most likely referring to the Ten, culled by an absent Thomas and a dead Judas) are back in the upper room featured in chapter 13, and they’ve got the door locked “for fear of the Jews.” In other words, they believe they’re next on the Temple Guard’s list. Now that the Sabbath has ended, perhaps the High Priest will be gunning for them. Perhaps they were also part of Judas’s treacherous deal. Perhaps the reports that the tomb has been robbed will bring centurions to their door. They are disorganized, inhibited, and terrified. Whatever confidence and strength they once possessed was lost in the woods outside Gethsemane.

Into this anxiety-filled room, however, steps Jesus. He is just… there. As flesh and blood as his followers, but somehow no longer bound by pesky hindrances like deadbolts or walls. “Shalom,” he says to them, and then he allows them to inspect him – to climb out from underneath the weight of their doubts and fears and behold that, yes, what the woman from Magdala had told them was indeed true. Their Master is alive!

Pictured here. The disciples' expressions suggest Jesus may not be pulling off the stripes as well as he thought.

Pictured here. However, the disciples’ expressions suggest Jesus may not be pulling off the stripes as well as he thought.

But it is in this moment that the high drama of the scene takes an odd turn, and John includes a detail that at first, second and even third glance does not always stand out to readers.

Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that, he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

He breathed on them? Was that… um… customary? A Jewish thing? Something you did when you blessed someone?

It took me a while to grasp the deeper meaning here, but the mystery started to come together when I looked up “breathed” and discovered that the word in Greek – emphysao – shows up nowhere else in the entire New Testament. However, it is the exact word used by the translators of the Septuagint (the Hebrew-to-Greek translation of the Old Testament by Jewish scholars in the second century BC) when they rendered Genesis 2:7: “And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.”

Michelangelo, however, preferred a less intimate, "phone home" interpretation.

Michelangelo, however, preferred a less intimate, “phone home” interpretation.

There’s something deeper than the drama going on in John 20. John – whose narrative resonates on many different levels – isn’t just describing a resurrection appearance and proclaiming the peace that Jesus brings. He is insinuating that what went on in the upper room that day was none other than the beginning of the new creation. The original creation was completed by the breath of God placed into Adam, making him more than what he was – more than an ineffectual clod of dirt. And on the day of his resurrection, Jesus spoke words of peace to his friends and then he breathed on them and said, quite intentionally, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” It was his way of inaugurating a new age – and a new covenant – in which faith in the Risen Savior changes everything.

Funny thing about the word spirit – pneuma in Greek. It can also mean “breath” as well as “wind.” Even funnier thing, so can its Hebrew equivalent, ruach. The Old and New Testament writers, by the way, have all kinds of fun with this wordplay.

For instance, think about the other famous story of the gift of the Holy Spirit, found in Acts 2. How does Luke describe the coming of the Spirit? With the sound of…

Google Image search would like to offer this picture of a person's face being met by "a violent wind."

Google Image search would like to offer this picture of a person’s face being met by “a violent wind.”

According to both the end of John and the entire book of Acts, the mark of a Christian is the indwelling of the Holy Spirit – the Counselor and Teacher Jesus describes earlier in John’s Gospel. The One that would guide the disciples into all truth. It comes to us as if on a breath, unseen, but filling us with a purpose and a conviction we could never produce on our own. Like Adam, we are made more than what we are. Like the disciples, we are transformed from fearful doubters into bold witnesses.

What is it like to be guided by the Holy Spirit? What is John trying to communicate to the Church? What does this mean for us?

Simply that there is a great wind blowing. It is the wind of God, the pneuma of transformation. It cannot be contained, it cannot be stopped, and it brings with it the glory of the new creation.

The Spirit prompts us like a stiff wind at our backs. It is as close to us as the breath we take into our lungs. To be guided by the Spirit is to be transformed into something a little less like ourselves, and little more like the One who created both.