Timshel: “You may…”

Timshel:  “You may…”

My favorite novel is John Steinbeck’s, East of Eden.  East of Eden wrestles with questions of human nature, and good and evil.  Are we born good or evil, or are good and evil choices?

These questions find an answer in the biblical story of Cain and Abel.  Cain is outraged that God preferred his brother’s offering to his own.  In Genesis 4:6-7, God warns Cain,  “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast?  If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.” (NIV)

“You must rule over it.”

Other translations say it differently…

“Do thou rule over it.” (ASV)

“Thou shalt rule over him.” (KJV)

“You must subdue it and be its master.” (NLT)

“Do thou,” “Thou shalt,” and “You must” are translations of the Hebrew word “timshel.”  Here’s where the genius of East of Eden shines…

“The American Standard translation orders men to triumph over sin, and you can call sin ignorance. The King James translation makes a promise in ‘Thou shalt,’ meaning that men will surely triumph over sin. But the Hebrew word, the word timshel—‘Thou mayest’— that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on a man. For if ‘Thou mayest’—it is also true that ‘Thou mayest not.’ Don’t you see?”

There are many millions in their sects and churches who feel the order, ‘Do thou,’ and throw their weight into obedience. And there are millions more who feel predestination in ‘Thou shalt.’ Nothing they may do can interfere with what will be. But ‘Thou mayest’! Why, that makes a man great, that gives him stature with the gods, for in his weakness and his filth and his murder of his brother he has still the great choice. He can choose his course and fight it through and win.”

Think of the glory of the choice! That makes a man a man. A cat has no choice, a bee must make honey. There’s no godliness there.

Confucius tells men how they should live to have good and successful lives. But this—this is a ladder to climb to the stars.”

“Thou mayest” or, simply, “You may.”

Timshel means we have a choice.  In every aspect of our lives, we have choices.  WE CHOOSE!

Will our choices serve ourselves or others?  Will our choices bless others or curse others?  What will the impact of our choices be on the world?  Are our choices God honoring, or not?  Regardless of how we answer these questions, our choices are our own.    And, the responsibility for my choices lies on me.

Timshel is both a gift and a responsibility.  I get to choose how I will use my day, who I will spend my day with, what I will accomplish, or not.  I choose.  But, I am also responsible for those choices.  Were they godly choices?  Were they wise?  Were they loving?

“Think of the glory of the choice.”

What will you choose today?

Taming Leviathan: in search of God, and an elusively acceptable explanation for suffering and evil

Taming Leviathan: in search of God, and an elusively acceptable explanation for suffering and evil

Among the ancient cultures referenced in the Christian Old Testament, a mythical sea monster, called “leviathan,” was believed to exist.

Leviathan were believed to be great sea serpents, living in the depths of the oceans, having fearsome teeth, impenetrable skin, and fiery breath.  Nothing conceivable could defeat the Leviathan; neither harpoons, spears, hooks, swords, arrows, or clubs.

“Nothing on earth is its equal— a creature without fear.”  (Job 41:33)

Leviathan falls in the same category of dragons, kraken, the Loch Ness Monster, the Abominable Snowman, and Big Foot; powerful, frightful creatures that never existed, but people have sincerely believed in at different times and places throughout human history.  I can imagine Hagrid, from the Harry Potter novels, keeping a pet leviathan in the lake outside of Hogwarts!  I can imagine a special leviathan episode of the old TV show, “In Search Of,” hosted by Leonard Nimoy.

In biblical times, the leviathan represented the most fearsome creature imaginable on the earth, and a good reason to keep your feet on dry land!  Whether or not leviathan literally existed is irrelevant to Scripture.  In biblical times, leviathan were believed to be real, and thus had significance.

The longest description of leviathan in Scripture is found in Job 41.  The book of Job describes the life of a man named Job, who experienced terrible tragedy, and questioned God’s fairness.  Most believe the book of Job was written to wrestle with the theological question of theodicy – why evil things happen to innocent people.

The Book of Job does NOT tell us why bad things happen to good people.  Instead, Job reveals the error and weaknesses of many of our pathetic theological explanations and rationalizations for why tragedies occur.  In the end, the book of Job simply describes a God that is beyond our ability to define, explain, predict, or control.

Today, I discovered a line in Job I’ve never noticed before.  God asks Job, “Will (a leviathan) make an agreement with you for you to take it as your slave for life?  Can you make a pet of (a leviathan) like a bird or put it on a leash for the young women in your house?” (Job 41:4-5)

In essence, God asks, Who can make the most fearsome creature known to man a house pet?  Who can train a leviathan to walk on a leash?  Who can teach it to sit on your shoulder, like a pet parrot?”  God’s implied answer, “I can.  Only, I can.”

Since the tragic shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, I’ve been wrestling, a lot, with the question of why God allows evil and suffering the in the world.  Frankly, the comfortable theological explanations I’ve believed and preached in the past, have felt a bit thin, as of late.  Though I haven’t discovered any new explanations I like any better than the old ones, somehow the image of a tamed leviathan sitting on God’s shoulder provides some perspective.

Though leviathan are mythical – especially tamed ones – and the real-life tragedies of this world are definitely not, this image – literal or not – reminds me that God is not defined by my simplistic definitions of good and bad, right and wrong, just and unjust, fair and unfair.  Though I still want to believe God is good, right, just and fair, who am I to call “foul” when God doesn’t act on my terms or schedule?

Thomas G. Long, in his book, What Shall We Say?:  Evil, Suffering, and the Crisis of Faith, asks, “Do we ultimately want to offer our own scheme of moral order, the very one we employ to determine that some human suffering is unjust, as a replacement for God?  Do we want in other words, to be God, or are we willing to move toward being the kind of human being who, even in the midst of inexplicable pain, trusts the One who is God?”

I love the contrast of Job 41:8, If you lay a hand on (a leviathan), you will remember the struggle and never do it again!” versus the image of God taming a leviathan to be a house pet.  Though it doesn’t explain “unfair” human suffering to my satisfaction, and though I can’t comprehend why a leviathan-training-God can’t or won’t intervene in human tragedies, and though leviathan aren’t even real, I sense that God is saying, “I’ve got this.  Even when evil things happen, even when the darkness seems to rule the day, even when you doubt me, I’ve got this.  You can trust me.”

Perhaps we aren’t suppose to trust God AFTER we understand why bad things happen, which we likely never will.  Perhaps, we have to trust God first, to find peace in our inability to understand.  Of course, that doesn’t make tragedy “ok.”  Perhaps it helps me to be more “ok” with God, even when I’m devastated, and can’t begin to understand.

If God can tame the one who, makes the depths churn like a boiling caldron and stirs up the sea like a pot of ointment…” (Job 41:31), perhaps he is greater than the sum of our real world tragedies too.


Who is My Enemy?

Who is My Enemy?

My day began, preparing for my Friday morning Bible Study.  We’re currently studying the Sermon on the Mount, and our passage today was the end of Matthew 5, “You have heard it said… but I say to you…”

Included in that group of teachings is the instruction to love our enemies, which raised the question, “Who is my enemy?”

I’ve been chewing on that question all day.  The Greek word for enemy, used in the New Testament, is “echthros,” which means someone who is openly hostile, hateful and actively seeking to do me harm.  With that definition in mind, “Who is my enemy?”

A few moments ago, I had an unexpected visit from a family from New York, who are members of a Bruderhof community.  Members of Bruderhof communities are Christians, living in community, sharing all things in common.  Their purpose is to live as close to the values and ways of the New Testament Church as possible.  Bruderhof communities began in Germany, but now exist all over the world.

This particular family is here, in Coral Springs, to serve our community in the wake of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School tragedy.  Their primary message is the need for love and forgiveness.  Can you imagine traveling across the country, giving more than a week of your life, to share about forgiveness?

So, my day has been bookended by two common themes – “Who is my enemy?” and forgiveness.

I know I’m not everyone’s favorite person, and that some may not like me at all.  But, I sincerely hope no one thinks of me as an enemy.  Though I’m the target of an unfriendly word from time to time, I know that comes with being a pastor and a leader… and being an imperfect human.  But, the messenger, no matter how harsh the message, is not my enemy.  As the New Testament defines “enemy,” I’m grateful to say I don’t have any that I’m aware of.

You’re not my enemy if you disagree with me.  Your’e not my enemy if you yell at me.  You’re not my enemy if we vote for different candidates.  You’re not my enemy if we have different theologies, or interpretations of Scripture.  You’re not my enemy if you leave an angry reply to this post, or any other.  You’re not my enemy if you leave something distasteful on my social media (though, I’ll likely delete it).  You’re not my enemy if you cut me off in traffic… well, maybe…

Jesus, undeniably had enemies.  They crucified him.  The earlier Church had enemies.  They were persecuted.  Though I’m not always popular, I’m thankful I’ve never experienced having an enemy, actively seeking to do me harm.  At least, not yet.

But, forgiveness, is a different matter.  I need to be forgiven, for a lot.  There are lots of people I need to forgive, that aren’t necessarily my enemy.  I need to forgive family, friends, co-workers, brothers and sisters in Christ.  I need to forgive people I love.  I need to forgive some people I don’t particularly like.  I need to forgive myself.  I may even need to forgive God.

And, I wonder if the longer we don’t forgive someone, the more likely we may begin to see them as an enemy?  I wonder.

Whose your enemy?  Who do you need to forgive?



Ignoring the Bible

Ignoring the Bible

I’m always reading fiction, along with whatever else I might be studying.  I’m currently ready Annie Dillard’s, An America Childhood.

Dillard speaks as a girl, growing up in Pittsburgh, in the mid-Twentieth Century.  About midway through the book, she describes the character’s exposure to church, summer church camp, and the Bible.  She writes,

“The adult members of society adverted (referenced) the Bible unreasonably often.  What arcana!   Why did they spread this scandalous document before our eyes?  If they had read it, I thought, they would have hid it.  They didn’t recognize the vivid danger that we would, through repeated exposure, catch a case of its wild opposition to their world.  Instead they bade us study great chunks of it, and think about those chunks, and commit them to memory, and ignore them.”

Read it again, and let it sink in.

Now, read it again.

“this scandalous document…”

“they would have hid it…”

“vivid danger…”

“its wild opposition to their world…”

“and ignore them…”

According to Dillard’s character, the Bible is a scandalous, dangerous document, that through repeated exposure can awaken us to the fatal flaws of this world, and that we act like we believe, but usually just ignore.

What if Dillard is right?  What if Scripture is dangerous?  What if we didn’t ignore Scripture?  What if we, instead, through repeated exposure, caught “a case of its wild opposition to their world?”  

I think we need a lot more of that!


God “Bless?” America

God “Bless?” America

I led a new Bible study, this morning, on the Sermon on the Mount.  I intended to start last week, but delayed due to the swirl of activity in the immediate aftermath of the  Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School tragedy.  Today’s class focused on the Beatitudes, found in Matthew 5:1-16…

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”  

What does it mean to be blessed?  What does it mean when we say, “God bless America?” Health?  Wealth?  Prosperity?  Protection?  Favor?

The Greek word, used in the New Testament, for “blessed” is “makarios,” which means something akin to, “being in an enviable position,” particularly in our relationship with God.  Being “blessed, spiritually-speaking, is a good, desirable, godly place to be.

Jesus says we’re in an inviable position with God when we are poor in spirit, when we are mourning, when we are meek, when we are hungry and thirsty for righteousness, and when we are persecuted, when we face opposition for our faith.  I don’t know about you, but that sounds VERY different than the way most of us typically use the word “blessed!”

Is it possible we understand the word “blessed” correctly, but expect the wrong outcome? After all, we live in the wealthiest, most prosperous nation on earth.  But, what’s all of our wealth and welfare doing for us?

Being close to God does NOT automatically lead to health, prosperity, protection and favor.  Instead, being close to God may mean the opposite.  Being close to God will break your heart for the sins of the world.  Being close to God will reveal your insufficiencies, and need for God.  Being close to God means working for justice and peace, even when it brings opposition.  Being close to God requires seeing the impurities in our own lives, and our desperate need for refinement.  Being close to God requires personal sacrifice.  Being close to God can be difficult… and blessed.

Being close to God is undeniably an inviable position.  It’s where we want to be, whether we get that or not.  But, God blesses us to bless others, not to bask in the blessing ourselves.  Being close to God is joining in God’s work of healing and redeeming this broken world.  Being blessed is less about the temporal blessings we may or may not receive, and more about the blessing we can be for those less blessed than us.

This world needs a lot of blessing!

Though I’ve read the Beatitudes countless times, I’m hearing them differently this time.  I can’t help but read them through the lens of our recent tragedy.  I hear the call to mourn and show mercy – Christians are good at that.  But, I’m also hearing God’s call to work for justice and peace, even if it means facing painful opposition.

In fact, just a few verses after the Beatitudes, Jesus adds, “Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”  (Matthew 5:16)  

The “blessed” do.  The “blessed” put blessing into action.  Friends, there’s a lot of blessing for us to do.

Yes, God, please bless America.  Bless us with the poor in spirit, the mourners, the meek, the workers for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peace-makers, and those who are persecuted for doing what is right.  Bless us with your Kingdom.  Bless us, please.

“Rights” vs. “Righteousness”

“Rights” vs. “Righteousness”

Inevitably… predictably… another mass shooting has inflamed the gun “rights” debate.  Again, politicians and pundits are debating the “rights” of gun-owners, guaranteed by the U.S. constitution, versus the “rights” of the innocent victims of gun-violence.

I must confess, I don’t like guns.  I don’t own a gun.  I don’t want a gun.  I’ve never fired a gun.  I’ve never, once, needed a gun.  I don’t hunt.  I haven’t felt the need to defend myself.

That being said, I respect that our laws allow others, who do have the need or desire, to do so.  And, law is the issue.

Humans create laws.  We decide what is legal, or illegal.  We decide, by creating (or amending) laws, who can sell, own, carry, or use a gun, and under what circumstances it is legal to do so.

Some argue that gun ownership is a “right,” guaranteed by our Constitution.  And, legally, they are correct.  But, for a moment, I would like to reflect on the word “rights.”  What are my rights, and what are my rights based on?

The Declaration of Independence says, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”  Inspiring words, penned by Thomas Jefferson.

“Unalienable rights” is a political/philosophical concept attributed to the “Creator.”  But, on what basis is such a claim made?

We have a “Bill of ‘Rights’,” that guarantees certain freedoms, and limits the powers of the government in specific ways, including the “right” for U.S. citizens to legally “keep and bear” arms.  The original “Bill of Rights” was written by James Madison, and approved by the United States Congress in 1789.  Numerous additions and amendments have been made to it over 200+ years.

The Congress – men and women elected by the people of the United States – have determined our rights for us, on our behalf.  Courts of law have defended those rights.  Hypothetically, those same laws can be amended by the same process.

What does God say about our “rights?”  To answer that particular question, Christians turn to Scripture as the primary authority for what God says, or doesn’t say.

You might be surprised to discover that the Bible has VERY little to say about “rights.”  Having “rights” is not a biblical concept.  Certain “rights” in marriage and inheritance are mentioned, which are mostly archaic.  The Prophets spoke of the “rights” of the poor, the widow, and the orphan to mercy and justice.  The Apostle Paul talks about having the “right” to food and drink, to being paid for his work, to having a wife – and yet, he didn’t demand his “rights,” for the sake of those he was called to serve.

Throughout the Bible, the word “right” appears primarily in two ways.  Repeatedly, the Bible talks about “doing” what is “right,” according to godly principles.  And, more importantly, the Bible talks about being “righteous” as God is “righteous.”  A “right,” biblically speaking, has nothing, whatsoever to do with what I am allowed or entitled to.  “Right,” biblically, is about correct, godly action.  Doing “right,” or being “right,” has to do with loving God and neighbor in thought, word, and deed.  “Righteous” living is godly living, which calls for obedience, faithfulness, and self-sacrifice for the sake of others.

That bears repeating.  Being “right” biblically means sacrificing my “rights” for the good and well-being of others.  “Demanding my rights and freedoms,” is inherently un-biblical, when it places my rights above another’s needs.

Let me be very clear.  “Liberty,” as in a Constitutionally-guaranteed freedom or right, is a political concept, not a biblical one.  The laws of the United States of America guarantee her citizens certain legal “rights.”  The Bible doesn’t.  That doesn’t make “rights” wrong or bad – they’re just not biblical.

Ultimately, whether or not laws are changed regarding gun ownership will be determined through a legal process of bills, debates, and votes – which may, or may not happen.  My point is this: Christians are called to “righteousness” – to do what is right, for the sake of others – not to defend our own “rights.”  My “right” as a U.S. citizen to “bear keep and bear arms” does not take precedent over God’s expectation of righteousness.  As a Christian, when demanding my legal “rights” supersedes my call to righteous living for the sake of others, I am not “right” with God.

Ultimately, my point – my opinion – really isn’t about the rightness or wrongness of gun ownership.  A “righteous” Christian can own a gun, and still be righteous!   I am NOT against responsible gun “rights” or laws, even if I don’t choose to exercise that “right.”  My point, Christian brothers and sisters, is that we must seek a “righteous” solution to gun-violence, based in biblically principles, not just legal ones.

We must offer a “righteous” perspective and voice into this legal debate.

Are we willing to sacrifice some degree of our legal rights, in order to make our children and our schools safer?  Are we willing to forgo some degree of our legal rights, to protect the innocent?  Are we willing to relinquish some of our legal rights, for the sake of righteousness?

Do we care more about our “rights” or our “righteousness?”