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?

What if?

What if?

What if we were kinder, and more respectful of each other?

What if we prayed more?

What if we really loved each other?

What if we were less materialistic?

What if we laughed more?

What if we cried more?

What if we were more civil to each other?

What if we invested more in friendship?

What if we were less self-focused?

What if we talked to strangers?

What of we said “thank you” more?

What if we “judged people by the content of their character, and not by the color of their skin?”

What if we sang and danced more?

What if we spent less time pursuing happiness, and more time pursuing joy?

What if we were more careful about what we say?

What if we doodled in the margins more?

What if we looked more deeply in each other’s eyes?

What if listened more than we talk?

What if we were less defensive?

What if were less critical?

What if we smiled more?

What if we were neighborly, and not just neighbors?

What if we dreamed bigger dreams?

What if we were more compassionate?

What if we were less picky?

What if we actually lived by faith?

What if we stopped complaining?

What if we stopped to smell the roses more?

What if we told more jokes?

What if we stopped cussing?

What if we gave more compliments?

What if we hugged more?

What if we asked for help more?

What if we could not be so opinionated?

What if we could be less critical?

What if we could be more vulnerable?

What if we did more “random acts of kindness and senseless acts of beauty?”

What if we got more rest?

What if we practiced the Golden Rule?

What if we enjoyed every bite of food we eat?

What if we were more grateful, even for the little things?

What if we considered each and every day a gift?

What if we were more adventurous?

What if anything is possible?

What if…?

What’s your “What if…?”

 

Wrestling with God

Wrestling with God

Genesis 32 tells the story of Jacob wrestling all night with God.  When the morning came, God said, “You will no longer go by the name Jacob. From now on, your name will be Israel because you have wrestled with God and humanity, and you have prevailed.” (Genesis 32:28)

Of course, Jacob is a patriarch of the nation of Israel, from whom the nation received its name.  The name, Israel, means “wrestles with God.”

Besides the literal event in Genesis 32, isn’t it interesting God named his chosen people, “You will wrestle with me.”  And, Israel did.  God’s people have always wrestled with God.  We still do.

I’ve always enjoyed that little tid-bit.  As a son of the “New Israel,” I’ve appreciated God welcoming our wrestling, rather than squashing us like bugs when we challenge him.  In fact, God seems to initiate the wrestling, as life, and our ability to navigate it, is never easy.

I’ve relished digging at some deep theological question, some perplexing ethical dilemma, or some difficult passage of Scripture.  Even when I’m left dazed and confused, I’ve found the wrestling stimulating, and even enjoyable.

But, right now, I’m tired of wrestling.

A month after the terrible tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, I continue to wrestle with questions I’ve never truly wrestled with before.  Even though terrible tragedies happen all of the time, and always have, this one has literally hit much closer to home.  Even though I’ve had neat theological answers in the past, they haven’t been working so easily for me lately.  I haven’t even been directly affected by this tragedy.  Yet, being a pastor in this community, at this moment, I feel an urgency to know what to say.

I don’t.  I’m wrestling.

Why does a good God allow evil and suffering?

If we believe God intervenes in the affairs of this world sometimes, why not this time?

Why does God allow the innocent to suffer?

Is it sufficient to say, “God suffers with us?”

Is it sufficient to say, “Someday, all suffering will end?”

I’m torn between knowing that the answers to such questions exist in the realm of mystery, and needing to know the answers to my questions NOW.  I’m torn between the reasonable theological answers I’ve been taught, and the lack of meaning they have for me at this particular moment.

I’m wrestling.  But, right now, I’m tired of wrestling.

Maybe that’s the point.

Maybe we’re meant to wrestle until we’re worn out.

Maybe we’re meant to wrestle until we can’t wrestle anymore.

Maybe we’re meant to wrestle until we find some kind of peace with the One we are wrestling with.

Maybe…

Until then, as tired as I am, I’ll keep on wrestling, whether I find my answers or not.

 

 

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.

 

My New Favorite Question…

My New Favorite Question…

“If I were to wish for anything, I should not wish for wealth and power, but for the passionate sense of the potential, for the eye which, ever young and ardent, sees the possible. Pleasure disappoints, possibility never. And what wine is so sparkling, what so fragrant, what so intoxicating, as possibility!”  Soren Kierkegaard

Listening to Ian Cron’s podcast, Typology, I learned my new favorite question…

What does “this” make possible?

Replace “this” with almost anything, and a new, surprising vista of unexpected possibilities appears…

What does this opportunity make possible?

What does learning a new skill make possible?

What does accepting this invitation make possible?

What does saying “no” make possible?

What does losing weight make possible?

What does breaking this bad habit make possible?

What does being 50 years old make possible?

What does this loss make possible?

What does this trauma make possible?

What does this new friendship make possible?

What does forgiving make possible?

What does trusting make possible?

What does this new information make possible?

What does apologizing make possible?

What does simplifying my life make possible?

What does this risk make possible?

What does this idea make possible?

What does “letting go” make possible?

What does going back to school make possible?

What does reconnecting with an old friend make possible?

What does changing my mind make possible?

What does bravery make possible?

What does trying again make possible?

What does starting over make possible?

What does this disagreement make possible?

What does asking this question make possible?

etc., etc., etc.

To ask, “What does ‘this’ make possible?,” suggests that certain possibilities wouldn’t have been possible, except for “this.”  “This,” whatever “this” is, positive or negative, opens the door to new possibilities, that were previously impossible – or at least not as likely.

My new favorite question is making me think about my “this”s, and new exciting possibilities I hadn’t been aware of.  What your “this?”

 

 

Why do we pray?

Why do we pray?

“What’s the point of prayer?”  I’ve been asked this question more times than I can remember.  Lately, I’ve asked it, myself.

People of faith pray.  It’s what we do.  Even people, claiming no faith, sometimes find themselves praying in difficult situations.

Often, we pray for wants or needs.  Often, we pray for the people we’re concerned about.  Sometimes, we ask others to pray for us.

But, what’s the point?  If God already knows what we need, why pray?  Does God need convincing?  And, why do we ask others to pray for us?  Do more, or other’s, prayers motivate God more?

What about when prayers go unanswered?  Did I pray the wrong prayer, or did I not pray long enough, or fervently enough, or say the right words, or ask enough others to pray with me?

These are hard questions.  But, these are questions many ask.  We pray.  But, why?

C.S. Lewis said, “I don’t pray to change God.  I pray to change me.”  Is that the point of prayer?  Maybe.

Sometimes, though not often enough, we offer prayers of thanks.  Sometimes, we pray to worship.  Sometimes, we pray to repent.  Sometimes, we pray just to be with God.  Sometimes, we pray to listen.

Sometimes, we lament.

Do I believe there’s value in prayer?  Yes, of course.  Do I believe God answers prayer?  Yes, but…  Do I believe there’s value to praying for others, or asking others to pray for me?  Yes, but not for the sake of ganging-up on God.

Increasingly, I’m thinking of prayer as connection, and less about the requests I may or may not make.  Just as an electronic device needs to be connected to an electrical outlet to function, I’m thinking of prayer as connection to the “Source.”

Sometimes the connection may lead to answers and outcomes.  Sometimes, not.  Sometimes, God might speak.  Sometimes, not.  Sometimes, I might feel something – peace, or forgiveness, or refreshment.  Sometimes, not.

But, regardless of the outcome, I need the connection anyway.  I need the connection, because I need God.

Maybe it’s like the conversations I have with my wife.  Though we certainly talk about all kinds of things – from basic information like the grocery list, to decisions we need to make, to sharing our hearts – the main reason for our talking is connection.  If we just need to pass information or make requests, we could leave each other notes, or send each other texts.  But, we need more than that.  We need to hear each other’s voices.  We need to look into each other’s eyes.  We need to see the joy or concern on each other’s faces.  We need to connect.

I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t bring our requests to God, or that we shouldn’t pray for others.  I’m not suggesting God doesn’t answer prayer.

I’m saying the specific outcomes of prayer aren’t the point, at least not to me.  Connection is the point – connection with the God who created the universe, the God who became human to redeem a fallen world, the God who is love, the God in whom I live, and move, and have my being.

The point is connection.

What follows your “but”?

What follows your “but”?

Somewhere, along the way, I started thinking of the word “but” as an erasure.  Add “but” to any statement, and everything before it disappears…

“I think you’re really great, but...”

“I really appreciate the gesture, but…”

“Thanks for the kind offer, but…”

“I know you didn’t mean to hurt my feelings, but…”

“I’m sorry, but…”

Often, as soon as the “but” shows up, you know the jab is coming…

“…, but you’re just not my type.”

“…, but it’s just not good enough.”

“…, but I’m not interested.”

“… but I think you’re a jerk.”

“… but you deserved it.”

Etc., etc., etc.  “But” always seems to be followed by criticism, complaint, or rejection.

I need to confess, I’ve been saying a lot of “but” prayers lately.

“Lord, I know you are good, but…”

“Lord, I know you are in control, but…”

“Lord, I know I should trust you, but…”

It occurred to me, this morning, that the Biblical writers often reversed the “but.”  Often, in Scripture, the “but” follows the negative, instead of the positive.  Throughout the Psalms, for example, the negative precedes the “but,” followed by hope and trust in God…

“My enemy will say, ‘I have overcome him,’ and my foes will rejoice when I fall.  But I trust in your unfailing love.” (Psalm 13:4-5)

“Weeping may stay for the night, but rejoicing comes in the morning.” (Psalm 30:5)

“For I hear many whispering, ‘Terror on every side!’  They conspire against me and plot to take my life.  But I trust in you, Lord; I say, ‘You are my God.'” (Psalm 31:13-14)

“Many are the woes of the wicked, but the Lord’s unfailing love surrounds the one who trusts in him.” (Psalm 32:10)

“My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.”  (Psalm 73:26)

I’ve always appreciated that Scripture allows for lament.  Lament is a raw, honest, human form of prayer.  Lament cries out to God in anger, pain, anguish and despair.  Lament, often, is a complaint to God, against God, about perceived unfairness.  Lament, sometimes, even blames God for the complaint.

There are times, we all need to lament.  I’m thankful God is graciously willing and able to receive our laments, even when they are less than kind, respectful, or faith-filled, without holding our complaints against us.

In the wake of recent events, I’ve been lamenting a lot.  “But,” my laments have been mostly ranting and raving, without a lot of faith or hope.  What my laments have been missing is the properly placed “but.”

“…, but I will trust in you.”