Thursday, June 28, 2007

Santiago's Cross: The Old Man and the Sea

What a story!

I recently completed my annual summer reading of Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea.

It may just be me, but I cannot escape the Christ-symbols inherent to Hemingway's Santiago character. But it's not just me. Others smarter than I am also see these outright Christ-references. Carlos Baker, in his book Hemingway: The Writer as Artist (4th edition) has an informative chapter titled "The Ancient Mariner" and Baker definitely holds that Hemingway purposely created not only a Christ figure, but sees the novella as a "parable." Santiago's name (Saint James--a fisher man), his "faith," his time at sea (3 days), his bloodied hands (stymata), his prayers, his dreams of lions (a biblical figure), his sense of identity and purpose (mission), his battle with "evil" (the shark attacks), and most evidently the final scenes with Santiago carrying the skiff's mast and sail (cross-shaped) on his shoulders and falling beneath it as he struggles to get to his shack. How can we not believe Hemingway's intent after reading a sentence like this: " 'Ay,' he said aloud. There is no translation for this word and perhaps it is just a noise such as a man might make, involuntarily, feeling the nail go through his hands and into the wood."

The literary question is: Did Hemingway purposely craft Santiago as a Christ-figure? Or, are these symbols just part of his good story with no authorial intent to point to Christ? Opinions divide here. I am of the opinion that Hemingway's Santiago was intended to be a Christ-figure (affirmed by Carlos Baker). Could it be that Hemingway is telling this story to let us know that, in his view, Christ has failed? That whatever Christ did in his great, self-sacrificing work, it is all undone by the sharks? If Christianity is anything, according to Hemingway, it is a pitiful skeleton rocked by the waves of the sea near the garbage bins, misunderstood by the ignorant woman and man sipping their drinks on the Terrace.

What do you think?


Wednesday, June 27, 2007

When Second Place Makes You the Winner: Book of Ruth 4

“For the gospel does not address a faceless, nameless mob, but persons. The history of salvation is thick with names. The name is the form of speech by which a person is singled out for personal love, particular intimacy, and exact responsibilites.” --Eugene H. Peterson

“A genealogy is a striking way of bringing before us the continuity of God's purpose through the ages. The process of history is not haphazard. There is a purpose in it all. And the purpose is the purpose of God.” --Leon Morris

Names: Naomi, Ruth, Boaz, Elimelech, Kilion, Mahlon. ...Perez, Obed, Jesse, David. Amazingly, we do not know the name of the nearer kinsman who relinquishes his rights to Boaz in Ruth 4. He disappears anonymously in history.

Naomi, Ruth and Boaz with their child, Obed, get caught up into God's grand redemptive story. These ordinary people going obediently about their ordinary Bethlehem lives get scooped up into the lineage of Jesus himself.

"A record of the genealogy of Jesus Christ the son of David, the son of Abraham. ... Salmon the father of Boaz, whose mother was Rahab, Boaz the father of Obed, whose mother was Ruth, Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of King David." Matthew 1:1, 5-6

Did Naomi, Ruth and Boaz know what they were getting caught up into? Probably not. They did not know the whole Story. Neither do we. Like them, we must believe simply that there is a Story. We are invited to go about our lives, living obediently in light of the reality and revelation of God. We are to live and love compassionately with one another and with the alien and stranger. We are to believe that the "other" is welcomed by Israel's God, that an old woman embittered by life's struggles is still qualified to hold God's future in her arms, that a faithful farmer, who out of a gracious spirit that mirrors his gracious God, participates in purposes unimaginable in his day when "everyone did what was right in his own eyes."

Mr. No Name Guy gives up his shoe in a legal transaction before the city officials and steps out of history and out of the privilege of being in the genealogy of Jesus Christ. Boaz, who came in second, becomes the winner. Matthew picks up his name and the name of his Moabite wife, Ruth, when he opens his Gospel centuries later.

We live by faith, not by only what we see. Our stories, too, change the world.


Sunday, June 24, 2007

Good Medicine for a Pastor's Soul

Annie Dillard
Her writing brings me down to earth as a pastor. I am referring to Annie Dillard and her funny and unnerving exposition titled "An Expedition to the Pole" in her book Teaching a Stone to Talk.

In a captivating interplay between attending both Catholic Mass and Congregational services and the adventures, hardships and tragedies of Arctic and Anarctic explorers, Dillard expresses the wonder and absurdity of human beings trying to reach God, "the Absolute [as] the Pole of Relative Inaccessability." The Pole she terms as "the Pole of great price."

"Every Sunday for a year I have run away from home and joined the circus as a dancing bear." This is Annie's description of herself (and others ) who join together to meet God in a church service.
"Week after week we witness the same miracle: that God is so mighty he can stifle his own laughter. Week after week, we witness the same miracle: that God, for reasons unfathomable, refrains from blowing our dancing bear act to smithereens. Week after week Christ washes the disciples' dirty feet, handles their very toes, and repeats, It is all right--believe it or not--to be people."

Early Polar explorers, standing on their dignity and own beliefs about what they needed to explore the Pole of Relative Inaccessability, left comic-tragic debris of their misunderstandings of just what they were attempting. Unprepared food-wise, clothes-wise and carrying the least likely to help supplies---sterling silver tableware embossed with each officers initials. One officer whose feet froze and made him a liability to his men, announced to his men as he stepped out of his tent to freeze himself in a blizzard, "I am just outside and may be some time."

"The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies' straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake up and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return."

"Wherever we go, there seems to be only one business at hand---that of finding workable compromises between the sublimity of our ideas and the absurdity of the fact of us.... If, however, you want to look at the stars, you will find that darkness is necessary. But the stars neither require or demand it."

Pastors can get so full of themselves. Leading their crews to the Pole of Relative Inaccessability, they end up dying as they stand in their dignity and supposed understanding of the Wholly Other. God, to quote Annie, "does not give a hoot" about what we think impresses him. We can die on the Polar ice with our silverware and chocolate in hand with our diary reporting how we froze to death in "the icy halls of frozen sublimity."

Thank you, Annie Dillard, for a reminding us of our inescapable humanity.


Saturday, June 23, 2007

Sasha Savich Visits Our Home

Last Thursday evening Julie and I hosted a get-together for friends who support my mentoring ministry to Ukraine pastors. The guests were invited to meet Sasha (Aleksandr) Savich, Pastor of Calvary Church, Lutsk, Ukraine.

Sasha is on a 4 week tour of U.S. cities and churches to speak about his life and ministry in Lutsk. He spent a week in Philadelphia, PA speaking at a Ukrainian youth camp with his fellow pastor from Lutsk, Pasha Myronuk. Sasha's grandfather (on his mother's side) came to the U.S. years ago and settled in Philadelphia. Sasha spent 31/2 days with us in Grand Rapids and visited Brightside Community Church, Bella Vista Church, and the church I serve--Fellowship Evangelical Covenant Church. He left this morning for Houston, TX, visiting good friends there.

We welcomed about 25 guests who came Thursday to meet Sasha, learn more about his ministry and to enjoy some excellent food prepared by Julie. Some folks have been giving to the Ukraine ministry since I began. It was fun having friends from Bella Vista Church and Fellowship Evangelical Covenant Church hang out for a few hours. Our deck became delightfully crowded as we all enjoyed an almost perfect Michigan evening.

I count it a privilege to know Sasha and serve with him to strengthen the missional churches in Ukraine--churches that have a passion to express the Gospel in word and compassionate deed.

"A new world needs a new church. Ukraine in a new world."


Wednesday, June 20, 2007

When Love Makes You Risk--Book of Ruth 3

When Frodo finally threw the "One Ring to rule them all" into the fires of Mount Doom, the fierce battle on the Fields of Pelennor dramatically turned in favor of middle earth. The simple action of an ordinary, bumbling Hobbit altered the course of a grand cosmic battle between good and evil.

In the fields of Bethlehem, three ordinary people make simple, down-to-earth choices and, by those choices, enter into and dramatically influence God's grand purposes in history. Naomi, Ruth and Boaz get swept up into God's great Story.

Each made choices bristling with risk.

Naomi. In her love for Ruth, Naomi plays her role as match-making parent to find Ruth a husband. Did Naomi also know there was a kinsman-redeemer nearer in line than Boaz? If so, her risk in suggesting Ruth play her part is compounded. Naomi knew that there was no guarantee how Boaz would respond, other than her hunch about his gracious and good character. Boaz was under no legal obligation to care for Ruth and Naomi in view of the nearer kinsman-redeemer. Second-guessing other people's choices is tricky business.

Ruth. Did this young Moabitess know what she was getting into when she owned the Israelites as her "people"? Gleaning in Boaz's fields is one thing, marrying this older man because he was a near relative of Elimelech is another. I can hear Ruth ask, "Levirate marriage? What in the world is levirate marriage?" Deuteronomy 25:5-6 were new to her. Yet, for the sake of Naomi and Mahlon, her dead husband, Ruth accepts the religious customs of this new people and dutifully carries out Naomi's instructions. Risking both her life and Boaz's good reputation, Ruth, clean and perfumed, walks into the night and slips under Boaz's covers as he sleeps at the threshing floor. In the ancient custom of Bethlehem, Ruth asks a startled-awake Boaz, "Will you marry me?" as she says, "Spread your garment over me."

Boaz. After a good harvest and some hard winnowing into the evening, Boaz, having made his heart merry with wine, sleeps near the grain pile. In the middle of the night, somehow shocked into alertness, he turns and finds a beautful young woman between his legs (probably the meaning of the euphemism "at his feet"). Discovering it was Ruth, the alien girl, who pops the question then and there, Boaz, honored at being asked, tells the truth: "There is a kinsman-redeemer nearer than I." Boaz now takes a risk by saying that if the nearer kinsman does not do his part in redeeming her, Boaz will. Why does Boaz commit to this when he is under no legal obligation whatsoever to do it? Could it The plot thickens. Naomi's, Ruth's and Boaz's decisions all hinge on the pending decision of some unnamed relative. This is risky business for all of them.

The intertwining of human choices makes for a great story. The little Book of Ruth is a great story. We now wait as Boaz goes to the city gates (the courthouse) and initiates a negotiation with Mr. Nearer-than-Me.

Ruth chapter 3 reminds us that we do not just find meaning in life. God invites us to make meaning. As we make choices that interlock with God's will and the wills of others, a story unfolds. Famine and marriage and death and changing culture and happening to pick the right person's fields in which to glean are one thing. To get caught up in the uncertainty of other people's decision-making is another. Great meaning is forged out of daily, ordinary decisions by ordinary people.


Monday, June 18, 2007

The Book of Ruth 2.1

I will be commenting on the Book of Ruth chapter 3 soon. In the meantime, consider this: Of the 85 (English text) verses in Ruth, 50 are devoted to dialogue.

Stories are about people and the conversations that people have. God advances his grand Story through ordinary people talking redemptively with one another. Boaz is "Exhibit A" as a redemptive conversationist. Yes, there are events---the famine, the trip to and return from Moab, the multiple deaths, the wheat and barley harvests, a night rendezvous at the threshing floor, a meeting of the town elders---but these are made meaningful by human beings in daily, ordinary conversation under the arch of God's voice speaking from the written Word (Leviticus 19 and Deuteronomy 24).

I think a lesson from Ruth would modify Nike's slogan from "Just Do It!" to "Just Converse It!" Redemption proceeds from the inside out. Events do effect us, but they don't get inside us. Words do. Speech connects our souls. Redemption isn't about modifying behavior; it's about transforming human lives at the core, the heart.

As a hurried people conditioned to act, we perform and speak mostly from shallow interior places, not from deep inside ourselves. So, we end up lamenting or cursing, "Why did I do that?!" "Why did I say that?!"

The Book of Ruth, an intriguing short story permeated with conversation, invites us to speak and to act not from our egos, not from minds, not from social pressures, not from our all-to-evident flaws, not from our "Mr. (or Mrs.) Fix-It" tendencies, and not from some TV sit-com script, but from caring hearts yielded to the eternal Voice outside ourselves and from hearts that deeply respect and express hope for one another.

Stories create reality.


Tuesday, June 12, 2007

When Grace Sneaks Up on You--Book of Ruth 2

God's grace wears a human face.

In Ruth chapter 2, we meet Boaz. Boaz, without sword or shield, becomes Ruth's rescuing knight (a term suggested by Leon Morris). Boaz is called a "worthy man," a man of high moral integrity. The phrase is translated "mighty warrior" in Judges 11:1.

How does this single, simple Judean farmer become God's new kind of warrior for a Moabitess named Ruth?

Boaz embodies grace. He's curious ("Who is this young woman?"), caring, and quite capable of taking charge of Ruth's welfare. Also, shhhhh, he's a relative of Naomi's now dead husband, Elimelech.

Boaz incarnates God's gracious provision for the widows, orphans and aliens by not harvesting the corners of his grain fields. Boaz knows from Leviticus 19:9-10 and Deuteronomy 24:19 that YHWH cares for the lives of those who have become hardship cases. Living in a time of moral corruption and religious rebellion, Boaz could have done what was right in his own eyes. Yet Boaz adheres to God's word. Ruth is the beneficiary of Boaz's obedience.

Boaz commands Ruth's protection. As a foreigner, some of the the young men, the thugs, could have molested her, shamed and mocked her, even harmed her. Boaz will have none of that. Boaz provides her with social status by welcoming her to his workers' meal and by personally offering her special recognition. He provides enough food for Ruth to share with Naomi. He makes sure that the harvesters purposely leave extra for Ruth to glean. Grace is abounding.

Boaz recognizes Ruth's fierce dedication to Naomi and he blesses Ruth as a worshiper of YHWH. Boaz knows that Ruth is a hard worker, not a free-loader.

Grace always surprises us. "Why have I found such favor in your eyes that you notice me--a foreigner?" Ruth asks Boaz in shocked, genuinely humbled surprise.

Boaz turned his workplace into God's place. Notice his morning greeting to his workers--"The LORD be with you!" His fields of grain became fountains of grace for a young, poor widow. Boaz's loyal obedience to some old harvesting laws opened up a new future for Ruth and Naomi.

A simple Judean farmer's devotion to YHWH's hesed ("loyal love") transformed that same farmer into God's gracious knight. God's grace in Ruth's life had a face and a name: Boaz. We become like what we worship.

Israel's gracious God calls out and creates a gracious people who in turn bless others.

Centuries after Boaz, the Word would become flesh and live among us...with a face and a name: Jesus. Jesus---full of grace and truth.


Saturday, June 09, 2007

When Life Changes Your Name--Book of Ruth 1

Touted as one of the earliest and best short stories, the Book of Ruth introduces us to ordinary, down home people. No majestic kings, no warring armies, no ragged, craggy prophets. We meet instead an old widow, a young widow and a farmer.

Naomi, Ruth (the Moabitess), and Boaz.

Some background (from Ruth 1).

Elimelech takes Naomi, his wife, and his two sons, Mahlon and Kilion, to Moab to avoid dying of starvation in famine-ravaged Bethlehem of Judah. As it turns out, Elimelech's decision does not ward off death. He dies, and so do his two sons after they had married Moabite girls, Orpah and Ruth.

Three widows remain. Naomi hears after some 10 years in Moab that the LORD had visited Bethlehem and there was food there once again. Naomi sets out for home, strongly urging Orpah and Ruth to stay in Moab. Orpah does stay, but Ruth, in a rare and deep commitment, stays with Naomi, declaring to Naomi that she, Ruth, now owns Naomi's people and God--Yahweh.

Naomi and Ruth enter into Bethlehem and the women of the town are startled, "Is this Naomi?"

Naomi responds, "Don't call me Naomi ('Pleasant'); call me Mara ('Bitter') for the LORD has dealt harshly with me."

Life, especially the struggles and trials of life, changed Naomi's name. She reported that she "went out full." Life had been good---good husband, good sons, apparently a fair life, but for the famine. She goes on to say, "But I came back empty." She is now a hardship case. She is a poor widow--no husband, no sons, and an alien daughter-in-law to care for as well.

The LORD gives and the LORD takes away.

So, why did Ruth so passionately cling to Naomi? Wouldn't you and I cut and run? Why was this young Moabite woman so taken with Naomi and her God, Yahweh, and her people? Why was she willing to abandon Moab and all that it offered for being a poor widow and living with a bitter, old widow in Bethlehem, a strange town in a strange land?

I believe it was Naomi's honesty before God that riveted Ruth to the faith. Something about Naomi's relationship to God even, maybe especially, when things got rough, and Naomi laid it all out before God. No painting a pretty face on hardship; no pretending things were good when they weren't; no shame about the tragedies. Naomi accepted life as it came and "told it like it is." She didn't have platitudes to give Ruth; she didn't have a "nice" God (she even refers to God as her enemy). Yet, she had Yahweh--I AM WHO I AM--and even though she was dealt a bad hand as we say, she still brought all of life to God.

I don't think Ruth had ever experienced a person's relationship to God with that kind of honesty. Brutal honesty. You didn't experience that reality with the Moabite gods. There must have been something about Elimelech, Naomi, Mahlon and Kilion---this Bethlehem family---that aroused curiosity, a hunger in Ruth and in Orpah. These two Moabite women wanted in on this Judean family's faith, so they married into it. And death itself could not turn Ruth away.

How has life changed your name? Are you honest with God, yourself and others about it? Honesty is the identical twin of holiness.


Thursday, June 07, 2007

Strong Caffeine for the Soul

Commenting on the conversation between the religious scholar and Jesus, Eugene H. Peterson notes that Jesus asks the scholar "How do you read?" [the text], not "What did you read?" Peterson continues,

"Why does the scholar ask for a definition? Clearly, because he needs to defend himself against responding to the text [love God, love your neighbor] personally. Defining "neighbor" depersonalizes the neighbor, turns him or her into an object, a thing over which he can take control, do with whatever he wants. But it also depersonalizes the scriptural text. He wants to talk about the text, treat the text as a thing, dissect it, analyze it, discuss it---endlessly. But Jesus won't play that game. The scholar has just quoted words of Holy Scripture that witness to the living word of God. They are words to be listened to, submitted to, obeyed, lived. So instead of inviting the scholar to join him in a Bible study of Deuteronomy and Leviticus under a nearby oak tree, Jesus tells him a story, one of his most famous, the Good Samaritan story, concluding, as he had begun with a question, "Which of these three, do you think, proved neighbor to the man...?" The scholar is impaled by the question: The words of Scripture can no longer be handled by means of definition, "who is my neighbor?" The text insists on participation, "will you be a neighbor?" Jesus insists on participation. Jesus dismisses the scholar with a command, "Go and do..." Live what you read. We read the Bible in order to live the word of God."
Eat This Book, 83-84.

Sadly, there is a way to read the Bible, even enjoy the Bible and yet not obey the One Whose Voice is the very life of Scripture. That's not how you read it.


Monday, June 04, 2007

Eat This Book by Eugene H. Peterson

Eat This Book.

"Or to put it in the terms in which we started out: It is possible to read the Bible from a number of different angles and for various purposes without dealing with God as God has revealed himself, without setting ourselves under the authority of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit who is alive and present in everything we are and do.

"To put it bluntly, not evereyone who gets interested in the Bible and even gets excited about the Bible wants to get involved with God.

"But God is what the book is about."

Eugene Peterson is concerned that we have learned to read the Bible for intellectual (theological) stimulation, for moral guidance to the good life, and for personal inspiration and comfort--all of which are good things. Yet, each of these purposes falls woefully short of personally relating to the personal, relational, interactive and present living God.

I know people who really like the Bible: like to study it, like to debate it, and like to almightily defend it. Yet, all their biblical bluster is a way to not have to deal personally with the Living God and be personally changed into a more Christlike person. Christianity for them is an argument to be won or lost, not a relationship with the Triune God to be lovingly lived. Sad.

Eat This Book:A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading is the third volume in Eugene Peterson's series of books on Christian Spirituality. Eat This Book was preceded by Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places and The Jesus Way.

Correction: Eat This Book is actually the second volume in the series. The Jesus Way is the 3rd.


Saturday, June 02, 2007

"Legion" Meets LORD III

To be with Jesus.

In Mark 3:14 we read that Jesus chose the Twelve in order that "they might be with him." They would hang with Jesus and pick up clues and be instructed in how to live the Kingdom of God life.

We read in Mark 5: 18 that the marvelously liberated, formerly demon-possessed man wanted "to be with Jesus," too. That is, he wanted to be a disciple; a follower.

To the eager man's disappointment Jesus refuses his loyal attempt to follow and, instead, sends the man back to his Decapolis family with the directive to "tell them how much the LORD had done for you."

What we learn is this: To be with Jesus is not just a matter of proximity, but obedience. The man was closer to Jesus by obeying his directive, than if he had actually gotten into the boat with Jesus.

Sometimes our desires for contemplation, being near to Jesus, getting away and alone with God--are forms of disobedience. Why? We are under a clear directive, as well, to go and announce the Good News of the Kingdom. A spirituality that does not readily engage the unbelieving world both with compassionate deed and gracious truth is a deficient spirituality.

Obedience to Jesus is the highest form of companionship with Jesus.