My name is Jeff and I'm a pastor of a small, local, Christian fellowship

It's a wonderful thing to love your work; to know that when you do it you are doing something that you were born to do. I am so fortunate to be both. I don't say I am the best at what I do. God knows that are so many others who do it better. But I do feel fairly lucky to be called by such a good God to do work I can only do with his help, to be loved by a beautiful woman, and to have a workshop where I can work my craft. These musings of mine are part of that work.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Unholy juxtaposition: A meditation on Exodus 32:1-6

The Bible employs all kinds of literary devices to tell its story – narrative, parable, proverb, metaphors, similes, poetry and things called chiasms, and hyperbole (as in, “If your right hand offend thee, cut it off and cast it from thee...”), only to name a few. In Exodus 31-32 the Biblical author uses juxtaposition by placing two events side by side to great affect.

As soon as the Covenant has been ratified and Moses, Aaron and the 70 elders finish their amazing meal in the Lord's presence at which they “see God” ( Exodus 24:10), Moses is invited to go further up the mountain to receive “the tablets of stone” on which will be placed the terms that the people have agreed to. So Moses goes up and Aaron and the rest of the leaders return to the plain below. As chapter 24 closes we're told that Moses enters the thick cloud that lays upon the heights and disappears from view for “forty days and forty nights” (the exact time that Noah and his family were in the ark). From the plains below, however, it looks like he enters the doors of an immense blast furnace.

Within the cloud, time becomes meaningless and over the next seven chapters, Yahweh reveals to Moses the design of the Place wherein he will dwell in the camp, the specifications of the furniture that will be set within the Tent as well as in the adjoining courtyard, the design of the priests' garments, the mixture of the incense that will burn before the Ark that will contain the tablets of the Covenant, even how they will pay for it as well as who will oversee the project and ensure that all is done according to plan. These aren't just blueprints he's receiving; everything will have a purpose in revealing the character and the heart of the God who has redeemed them from a life of slavery in Egypt. The very structure of the Tabernacle will be a sermon in physical form that will speak of God's majesty and power.

Moses will always look like this to me
What glories Moses must have seen while within the Cloud. What mysteries that were impossible to speak of later. And when it was all over, as he leaves the cloud the tablets of Testimony - “inscribed by the finger of God” (31:18) – are placed within his arms. Talk about a mountaintop experience! I can't help but think of Charlton Heston's version of Moses in Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments emerging from the cloud with that ethereal, far-away look, his face singed by glory. Even if the Biblical author doesn't tell us that his face glowed like it would later, Moses must have been on Cloud Nine. Think of all that had transpired in such a short time. Six months ago – more? less? - he had been an octogenarian shepherd too afraid to heed the summons that Yahweh was commanding him to do. But he returned to Egypt and a mighty kingdom was driven to its knees in a demonstrative way. And here he was now in a personal face-to-face encounter with the Creator of all the earth receiving the revelation that will shape a nation and the world for ages to come.

The tablets are then placed in his hands, the Cloud withdraws and then God speaks:  “Go! Get down there! Your people whom you brought up from the land of Egypt have fallen to pieces. In no time at all they’ve turned away from the way I commanded them...” (32:7, Msg) After a knock-your-literal-socks-off encounter atop the mountain you would expect something like the “Hallelujah Chorus” as a benediction but instead we hear a commanding voice of rebuke and Yahweh sounding like he has already disowned his people. While he's been in Glory, the people – or, at least some of them – have fallen apart. In the interim while Moses has been gone, the nation has fallen away. In fact, an argument could be made that in his absence they have broken all Ten Words that capture the essence of the Covenant.

While the chapter designations in the Bible are a human convention to help us distill the epic the “Story of stories” is, the demarcation between heavenly revelation (Exodus 25-31) and human invention (Exodus 32:1-5) could not be more stark: atop the mountain, there is purpose and design that communicates the holy from the unholy; beneath the people essentially return to a default setting of their life in Egypt and rip-off a form of Egyptian worship. As Thomas Cahill puts it:

Exodus calls it a “molten calf,” though this is by way of denigrating the idol. It was actually a bull, probably rampant and in rut, the aboriginal symbol of potency. This, cries Aharon,

“This is your God, O Israel,
who brought you up from the land of Egypt!”

What follows is an orgy of prostrations, animal slaughter, feasting, drinking, and, as the Book of Exodus puts it discreetly, “reveling” - that is, sexual indulgence in the manner of a pagan liturgy. The bull...was a common image of divinity in Mesopotamia, as it was in Egypt.; and though we cannot be certain that the people thought they were worshiping a bull-god (they may only have meant to worship YHWH as the invisible God who stands on the bull at his
footstool), they have surely made a “carved image” of a visible figure. They have mistaken YHWH for his creation. They have broken the first two Commandments. They have dishonored their forebears – their ancient fathers and mothers – who had so long refrained from idol worship; and, in the course of their reveling, it is most unlikely that they managed to refrain from adultery and sexual covetousness. With a little ingenuity, we might even conclude that they succeeded in breaking all Ten Commandments – but even five out of ten is a pretty good average for so short a time. (The Gift of the Jews, pp. 148-49)

I wonder if this moment in his people's history is what inspired the writer of Proverbs 29 to conclude:

Where there is no revelation, the people cast off restraint;
but blessed is he who keeps the law.” 29:18 (NIV)

While Aaron and the elders anxiously waited for Moses they caved to the mounting pressure “to do something”, to appease the need of a nation to have something to bow down to and connect with (see Exodus 32:1-6). It's like King Saul who breaks with custom and performs the sacrifice himself before the army goes into battle because Samuel is late and the troops are beginning to slip away and the ones who remain are “quaking with fear” (1 Sam 13:9, NIV). What he does is expedient from a worldly point of view but from a heavenly perspective it reveals that whatever else he is he lacks the kind of faith a godly king is required to yield and it costs him the kingdom.

Admittedly, I don't always know what God is doing nor saying as far as Refuge is concerned. I'm not good at discerning “the times” because in so many ways it feels like trying to focus on the tip of your nose – you get all cross-eyed and blurry while you do it. While having “vision” or discernment as to what God is saying right now to the fellowship we serve is a good and needed thing, the “revelation” referred to in the proverb is that which begins with a capital R, as in the word of the Lord already revealed in Scripture. As in, Jesus is Lord and Master and Savior and calls us to deny ourselves and follow him even if it means to a foreign land or a smaller house or a poorer neighborhood. When the people of God lose sight of his authority over our lives, we begin “to cast off restraint” and reshape our lives and seek to conform them to whatever are the accepted norms of the culture we live in. We see this force at work in our own society in real time now. More and more moral confusion, more and more righteous ambiguity.

Even though Moses has been forewarned, when he sees with his own eyes how “the people were simply running wild” (v. 25) he is galvanized into action. With his nostrils flaring with holy zeal, he deliberately smashes the tablets at the foot of the mountain, melts the golden idol and pulverizes it to powder. Then with a loud shout, he commands the people to make a choice - “whoever is for the Lord, come to me!” (v. 26, NAS) – and then to radically deal with the spirit of rebellion at work in the camp -
This only makes sense if God hates sin
like a doctor hates disease

 “God’s orders, the God of Israel: ‘Strap on your swords and go to work. Crisscross the camp from one end to the other: Kill brother, friend, neighbor.’”

The Levites carried out Moses’ orders. Three thousand of the people were killed that day.” (v. 27, Msg)

This is one of those passages that offends every person who has ever been perplexed about what appears to be the “angry Old Man” God of the Old Testament and the “loving and meek” Jesus of the New. And yet this same Jesus said some pretty stark things himself:

If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple.” (Luke 14:26, NAS)

Don't run from suffering; embrace it. Follow me and I'll show you how. Self-help is no help at all. Self-sacrifice is the way, my way, to finding yourself, your true self.” (Matthew 16:25, Msg)

And the aforementioned hyperbolic statement:
Yes, if your right hand leads you astray cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than that your whole body should go to the rubbish-heap.” (Matthew 5:30, PHILLIPS)

The long and short of it is, God - the Lord of Old and New Testaments together - is grieved by the presence of sin in our lives as well as in our Christian community and the way out is not in denial or forbearance but in brutal, decisive action though it look like a Klingon bezerker running through the camp. Honestly, it makes me squeamish but can a holy God ask any less of us than our undivided love and loyalty? When we lose sight of Who He is and how He has commanded us to live, all kinds of trouble can find us and threaten the health of our spiritual life.

Friday, January 13, 2017

God in the banana tree: A reflection on God's extravagance


Musa species

Common Names: Banana, Bananier Nain, Canbur, Curro, Plantain

Growth Habit: Bananas are fast-growing herbaceous perennials arising from underground rhizomes. The fleshy stalks or pseudostems formed by upright concentric layers of leaf sheaths constitute the functional trunks. The true stem begins as an underground corm which grows upwards, pushing its way out through the center of the stalk 10-15 months after planting, eventually producing the terminal inflorescence which will later bear the fruit. Each stalk produces one huge flower cluster and then dies. New stalks then grow from the rhizome. Banana plants are extremely decorative, ranking next to palm trees for the tropical feeling they lend to the landscape.
Source: California Rare Fruit Growers

I just returned from a 10-day trip to Belize and while I had a plethora of good experiences that included meeting lots of wonderful people, I learned something there that, forgive me, blows my mind: a banana tree grows but one cluster of bananas and then dies.

Tocho by anybody's standards is a wealthy man
Everybody knows that, right? Well, before taking a stroll with my new Belizean friend, Tocho, through his yard the day after New Year's, I sure didn't. After all, I live in the neck of the woods where apple trees bear apples year after year as sure as raspberry bushes produce raspberries and blueberry bushes blueberries. But a banana tree is literally one and done. As I stood there looking up at his banana trees and ruminating on this little fun fact, I was stunned by the weight of it. All this energy and time and natural resources thrown into making one “hand” of bananas [Note: technically, a cluster of bananas is called a “hand” and the individual bananas referred to as – yes - “fingers”]. And yet, Tocho doesn't seem to worry about. It's life as he knows it in Belize. This tree will bring forth its fruit in due time and then will be cut down. In fact, scattered here and there in his yard that day were the remains of old banana trees like yesterday's trash. At the same time younger banana trees are growing out of the base of the stem of the current tree, ensuring a seemingly endless supply of future hands.

The longer I mused on this the more I marveled at God's largess, his reservoir of incalculable abundance, even after the Fall, that he has put in the earth. I think of the psalmist's words as he meditated on the God's lovingkindness,

Your love, O LORD, reaches
to the heavens,
your faithfulness to the skies.
Your righteousness is like the
mighty mountains,
your justice like the great deep.
O LORD, you preserve both
man and beast.
How priceless is your
unfailing love!
Both high and low among
find a refuge in the shadow
of your wings.
They feast on the abundance
of your house;
you give them drink from
your river of delights.
For with you is the fountain
of life;
in your light we see light.”
Psalm 36:5-9, NIV

In the KJV translation, the word “fatness” is used instead of the NIV's “abundance” to describe the bounty of God's house. Maybe it's because on January 2nd I am not accustomed to being outside in sandals and shorts admiring banana, papaya, coconut and mango trees. Maybe my North American mind was having difficulty processing this truth about the banana tree in particular. But whatever the case even though we live in an age where girth is frowned upon “fatness” was just what I was feeling as looked up at Tocho's banana trees. It was something akin to a epiphany.

My new friend, Tocho

Well, you get the drift...
I think I believe too much in a stingy, Northern God – one who metes out his blessings piece-meal, whose pockets are large but not deep and Who withholds some of his provision because, well, you never know – one bad frost can wipe out your apple crop (like it did a year or so ago). It causes me to be careful, to be cautious, to withhold “just in case.” But the God of the tropics is not that way at all. He's a spendthrift who throws his wealth around as if it's going out of style. Like the Jay Leno Doritos® commercial years' ago where the tag-line was, “Crunch all you want. We'll make more,” God's awesome creation of the banana reminds me that his lovingkindness and goodness and mercy simply never runs out so he invites me again to “Taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8, NIV).