It’s snowing in Alberta today, and minus 10. It’s snowed all week. Actually, it’s snowed here since October 6, non-stop, except for a few times it stopped.
It’s almost April. And minus 10. And snowing.
Someone didn’t get the memo. This is no longer fun, funny, or charming. It ‘s no longer tolerable. I am close to organizing a petition to have south-western Alberta removed to BC, with full benefits.
In the book of Job, when God finally shows up to pepper the poor sufferer with a barrage of questions, he asks,
“Have you entered the storehouses of the snow
or seen the storehouses of the hail,
which I reserve for times of trouble,
for days of war and battle?”
The question is rhetorical. The answer is supposed to be, “Of course not. How could I?” But that was only because Job had never been to Alberta. If Premier Alison Redford hadn’t already been deposed over spending tax-payers’ money for her First-Class flights to exotic locals (a crime of passion for which I have deep sympathy), I’d write and ask her to consider changing the provincial motto. It’s currently “Wild Rose Country.” I think “Storehouse for Times of Trouble” is more befitting.
I’m especially distraught because this was the weekend I intended to finally bring my motorcycle out of cold storage. I had it all planned: the insurance kicked in yesterday, the bike was to go in the shop this morning, I was to be terrorizing the locals by mid-day.
But it’s snowing, and minus 10.
So I sit writing this, nursing a grudge, cursing the weather.
And then I catch myself. This is a hardship? This is a grievance? Why am I so soft, so pampered, so entitled?
My whole life I’ve had to push against the massiveness of my own littleness. “Nothing is as hard to suppress,” the great Jewish Philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel writes, “as the will to be a slave to one's own pettiness.” How I know it. The plight of those who genuinely suffer is often lost to me in my grousing about minor inconveniences: a delay, a detour, a disruption. Ice on the walkway.
So I teach myself, daily, to give thanks in the face of my overwhelming temptation to complain. It changes nothing. And it yet it changes everything.
Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.
I love my new job. And I loved my old job.
For 24 years, I was a pastor, and it was good (except the times it wasn’t). This past 7 months, I’ve been a professor. And it is very good, and so far I haven’t found the underside. Do I love professoring (my coinage) more than pastoring? It’s hard to say. They’re hard to compare. All I know for sure is that my heart sings now in a way it had stopped singing.
There are probably many reasons for that. One, I think, is simply practical: I am home most evenings. In the pastorate, most my evenings were taken up with some church-related duty or another. After too many seasons of that, something eroded in me. Some deep weariness took hold of me.
But now I have most evenings free. The first few months, I gorged myself on that. I went nowhere. I saw no one. I sat home and read, or watched movies, or puttered around the basement. I drank a lot of tea.
It was life-giving.
And then it got boring.
So Cheryl and I started inviting people over to our house, and readily accepted invitations to go to other peoples’ houses. In fact, in the 7 months we’ve live here, we’ve hosted more meals in our home and eaten more meals in other people’s homes than we did in our last 5 years in the pastorate.
I’m beginning to realize why Jesus placed such a priority on sitting down to a meal with someone. Something happens around a table that doesn’t, or only rarely, happens elsewhere. It’s some magic that can’t be conjured, manufactured, or faked. Stories are told. Histories are remembered. Dreams are evoked. Laughter breaks out, and sometimes tears. A depth of honesty emerges. A sense of shared humanity weaves hearts together.
It’s ironic, maybe tragic: I spent so much time as a pastor I trying to create this, and so little experiencing it.
I don’t know if I’ll ever pastor again. I just know, from here on out I don’t want to miss the simple, beautiful, subversive power of meeting another human being around the table.
I am preparing (among approximately one thousand other things) to teach this spring at Regent College a course on the story of David.[*] So I soak daily in his story and his songs, and then scrounge and rummage around in a multitude of commentaries, biographies, novels, reflections. Though David has been for me an almost constant companion since I first came to faith over 30 years ago, the better I know him the less I understand him. He is a walking contradiction: poetic, barbaric, tender, ruthless, holy, lusty, child-like, serpentine. He shows extravagant mercy at one turn, gaudy blood-thirst at the next. He can switch from piety to villainy quicker than blinking.
The man embodies paradox.
I’ll try to draw all this out in the course I’ll teach on David, as I’ve tried to draw it all out in the novel I’ve written about him (forthcoming). David is not our role model: he’s our mirror. He is not our exemplar: he’s our brother. He often inspires us, but just as often startles and disgusts us, puzzles and enrages us. He exposes our own heart’s strange wild mess, the chiaroscuro of light and dark raging in our own bellies.
But the deeper and longer I inhabit his story, the more and more one thing stands out above all: God loves David, and David knows it. “Like everyone else,” Harold Bloom writes, “from Samuel, Saul, and Jonathan down to the present, Yahweh is charmed by David…. Yahweh is the God who fell in love with David.”
In Louis Ginzberg’s monumental 7-volume work The Legend of the Jews, a skillful compilation of the Jewish haggadah or oral tradition, he retells the story of David in Paradise. According to the legend, David is the superstar of the afterlife, a personage of “glory and grandeur,” whose throne sits opposite God’s and from which David “intones wondrously beautiful psalms.” David’s “crown… outshines all others, and whenever he moves out of Paradise to present himself before God, suns, stars, angels, seraphim, and other holy beings run to meet him.”
But the main thrust of the legend is David’s relationship with God. God throws a lavish feast on the Day of Judgment, and God at David’s bidding himself attends. At the end of the banquet, God invites Abraham to pray over the cup of wine. Abraham declines on grounds of his unworthiness. So God asks Isaac, who for similar reasons declines. God then turns to Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Joshua. All beg off for reasons of unworthiness.
Finally, God asks David to bless the cup. And David replies, “Yes, I will pronounce the blessing, for I am worthy of the honor.”[†]
At first blush, this shocks us. It seems brazen effrontery, damnable hubris, reality-defying delusion. Who do you think you are?
On second thought, this sounds biblical. The heart of the Bible’s message, muted in the Old Covenant but shouted aloud in page after page of the New, is the improbable, astonishing, breathtaking good news that I am the one Jesus loves.
I am the tax-collector whose house Jesus had to enter, so that salvation could invade it. I am the leper who cried out to Jesus on his way past Samaria, so that he could speak wholeness into me and then woo me back to worship him. I am the lame man whose friends lowered me down through the rafters, so that Jesus could speak forgiveness and healing to me. I am the invalid Jesus found in a dark part of town, bed-ridden and complaining, so that he could say to me, “Get up, take up your mat, and walk.” I am the prodigal he saw a long way off, who ran to me, threw a feast for me, put his robe and ring and sandals on me. I am the elder brother who refused to join the party, and so he went out to me and begged me to come in. I am Lazarus, the one he raised from the dead and then invited to recline with him at the table.
I am not worthy to bless the cup, except he makes me so. At great cost, all by his own doing, Jesus makes me his own, loves me without condition, forgives me without remainder, places his own name on me, puts his own Spirit in me, and goes ahead to prepare a place for me. He’s made me a chosen people, a holy nation, a royal priesthood, one who belongs to God.
I am the one Jesus loves.
As are you.
I never tire of telling my students at Ambrose Seminary[‡] this. It is the wellspring of all we do and all we are. All life and ministry is overflow. And the inflow is this one thing: knowing and relishing and never forgetting that I am the one Jesus loves.
There is a famous story about the theologian Karl Barth, maybe as legendary as the story Ginsberg tells about David – and yet, like that story, resonant with deep truth. It goes like this: near the end of Barth’s life, having written the most monumental theological work of the 20th Century, having read virtually every other theological work ever penned, a journalist asks him, “What is the greatest truth you’ve ever heard?”
To which Barth replies, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible the Bible tells me so.”
Amen and amen.
[†] Louis Ginzberg, Legends of the Bible, 550-551.
Just released through Amazon, available in Audio or ebook format:
I had the pleasure and honor of speaking this past week at two events – MissionsFest Vancouver and, a few days later, a retreat for the students and faculty of Ambrose Seminary.
MissionFest was held at the sprawling, glittering Conference Center poised at oceanfront in the heart of downtown Vancouver.
The seminary retreat was held in small, homey facilities nestled in the mountain-shadowed woods outside Calgary.
The streets of Vancouver spill and teem with thousands of people – business men and women, tourists, shoppers, workers. Every form of transport converges here, and the city never sleeps.
The woods of the retreat center lie silent and white beneath a thick quilt of snow, stitched by deer tracks and, occasionally, human footfall. All manner of wild things roam here, or hibernate in burrows beneath the hard earth.
MissionsFest has 35,000 visitors over the stretch of 3 days. Altogether, 16,000 of those visitors – up to 1500 at a single event – attend dozens of sessions taught by a multitude of presenters.
The retreat had, I think, 60 attendees at its peak. Around 40 were there at any given session. Mostly, I was the sole presenter.
At MissionsFest, I stared into spotlights.
At the retreat, I looked into faces.
I loved both.
The wonder is this: God uses both to move hearts, change lives, redirect paths. I saw and heard stories of this at MissionsFest. And I saw and heard stories of this at the retreat.
Some of us have a preference for big and bold, others for small and intimate. And sometimes, if we’re not careful, we theologize and moralize our preference: the big is shallow, or it’s potent, it’s a sign of compromise, or it’s evidence of God’s favor; the small is deep, or it’s shoddy, it’s a sign of authenticity, or it’s proof of mediocrity. I’ve heard both – indeed, sometimes out of my own mouth.
The problem is, God doesn’t appear to have a preference. He likes big and bold. He likes small and intimate. Jesus met a woman at the well and changed her life forever. Jesus spoke to the masses, and ditto. The early church met in houses, and experienced transformation. The early church drew thousands in a single day, and ditto. He’s God of the unnumbered multitudes and God of one lonely heart. He’s God of the thunder from the mountaintop and God of the whisper in the night.
My awe at His power to show up anywhere, anytime grows by the day. The last thing I want to do is put my puny human limits and dumbed-down expectations on a God this creative, this big, this wild, this free. For God, large, small, bold, intimate – he makes no distinction, shows no preference. Our two worlds are only one to him.
He owns it all, loves it all, invades it all.
Just don’t miss him – anywhere, anytime.
Recently I was interviewed by Daniel Darling of Leadership Journal on my transition from Pastor to Professor.
I’m becoming simple-minded.
And it’s a good thing.
Well, mostly. Some of my simple-mindedness is just old-fashioned stupidity, a failure to grasp the obvious. I spent, for instance, considerable time on the phone last Saturday morning with a con artist posing as a Microsoft rep. It took me almost an hour to confirm my initial hunch that he was the modern equivalent of a highway robber. When I finally hung up, I promised myself to be shrewder next round.
To be less simple-minded.
But there is a simple-mindedness I desire, and need, and can’t get enough of. It’s singleness of heart. It’s purity of devotion. It’s uncomplicated affection. It’s giving myself wholly and freely, without calculation or manipulation, to the One who gives himself wholly and freely to me, and it’s loving others without agenda or ulterior motive.
Let’s call it simplicity, and let’s name its opposite: duplicity. Duplicity is double-dealing. It’s being two things – a pretend self, polite and pious, parading in the spotlight, and the real you, devious and spiteful, crouching in the shadows. Duplicity is treachery. It is posing.
An example, from the gospel of Luke.
Keeping a close watch on him (that is, on Jesus), they sent spies, who pretended to be sincere. They hoped to catch Jesus in something he said, so that they might hand him over to the power and authority of the governor. So the spies questioned him: “Teacher, we know that you speak and teach what is right, and that you do not show partiality but teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Is it right for us to pay taxes to Caesar?”
He saw through their duplicity and said to them, “Show me a denarius. Whose image and inscription are on it?”
“Caesar’s,” they replied.
He said to them, “Then give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”
They were unable to trap him in what he had said there in public. And astonished by his answer, they became silent (Luke 20:20-26; my emphasis).
This is such a great story, not least because it serves up such a clear distinction between shrewdness and duplicity. Jesus is shrewd. The spies are duplicitous. Shrewdness sees through, duplicity hides behind. Shrewdness exposes, duplicity evades. The duplicitous sets traps, and the shrewd catch them in them. I wish I’d had such shrewdness with the fake Microsoft rep. Such shrewdness is a virtue.
Not so duplicity, and this story is also great because it gives us a vivid portrait of duplicity in action. Duplicity’s hallmark is the contrast, comical if not so tragic, between words and thoughts. Note the gushing flattery from these men’s lips, and yet the treachery in their hearts. They’re spies pretending to be students, betrayers posing as believers, stoolies acting as seekers.
And the key symptom of that is this abyss-wide gap between their words and their thoughts. Their words hide rather than reveal their intent. Their words mislead rather than disclose. Their mouths speak love while their hearts plot destruction. What is said and what is thought bear zero resemblance to each other.
Jesus sees through it. He knows their duplicity. The word in the Greek for duplicity – panourgian (literally “all act”) – indicates Gollum-like trickery. The outward bearing is all façade. It’s utter sham. It’s all act.
Which is the exact opposite of simplicity, where what you see is what you get, and what is said is what is meant.
Add love to this, and a revolution is underway.
There is too wide a gap, for most of us, between what we say and what we mean. Between our words and our thoughts. The first thing the Prophet Isaiah said when he saw the living and exalted God was, “Woe is me, I am ruined. For I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips” (Isaiah 6:5). Isaiah was one of the most godly men who ever walked the earth. But seeing God, he sees also, abrupt and stark and grief-making, his own duplicity. Then God does what only God can do: he sears his lips clean (Isaiah 6:6-7).
And herein lies our hope: truly seeing God, we truly see ourselves, in all our woe-begotten duplicity; but crying out to God, we are truly and greatly helped.
So how then shall we live? The Apostle Paul, urging the church to attain to “the measure of the fullness of Christ” and to no longer be “tossed back and forth and blown here and there… by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming” lays out a basic condition: “speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:14-16).
It’s a lofty vision: being a people whose every word conveys truth and love in equal measure, one never diminishing the other. It’s a vision of a people free of duplicity, within and without, neither practicing it nor falling prey to it. A people whose words and thoughts exactly align, and the whole thing steeped in love.
I long to be part of a church like that.
All it will take is all of us being gloriously simple-minded.