Did Jesus’ disciples have a post-Easter letdown? We can read how they struggled to believe in the accounts of the resurrection, but then they saw him. That must have been awesome. But how many more times did they see him? Luke says he stayed with them for forty days, then was taken up into heaven.
Did they wonder what on earth Jesus was doing? “Lord, why are you going away again? Isn’t it obvious how lost we are without you?”
Then Pentecost, the Spirit came with power, tongues of fire and words you had no idea what you were saying, except that others said you were praising God and declaring his works in languages they understood. And the small group of one hundred disciples is now over three thousand.
Yet Pentecost was just a one day event. Normal life comes back. Questions, doubts must have come. You must have exaggerated, made up that story. It’s sure not happening now, is it?

All of Scripture really is a series of one time events that don’t repeat. But we are called to remember the God who acted, and is still present, even if hidden.

The one who is able

One of my wife's favorite passages of Scripture:

"Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen." Ephesians 3:20-21. 

I have a complicated relationship with these words. I think more often I've prayed and God did significantly less than I asked for. I can remember praying in the 70s that Soviet premier Leonid Brezhnev would come to Christ. It didn't happen (as far as I know). In the 2000s I prayed that Osama Bin Laden would come to Christ. That didn't happen (as far as I know). When I told my wife how I was praying for Osama, she said that sounds good, but don't get disappointed if it does not happen. She knows me well.

I notice Paul clearly does not say God will give us more than all we can ask for or imagine. He says God is able to do more than all we ask or im

But I have seen God answer with more than I asked. In 2001 right after a conference which had talked about mentoring, I was in church thinking I wasn't sure anyone had ever mentored me. And I prayed, God mentor me. I don't quite remember what I was expecting, but I look back and realize God has been answering that prayer for years now. I believe I have been mentored now. Yet keep it coming, Lord, I need more. 

And I'm sure when I see God face to face, I will see how much more he has done, far beyond what I have asked for or imagined. Saying he is able won't be such a theoretical exercise as it often feels now. 

However, as it is written:
“What no eye has seen,
    what no ear has heard,
and what no human mind has conceived”—
    the things God has prepared for those who love him— 1 Cor 2:9, also Isaiah 64:4

Secrets and Significance

Like anyone, I wonder if what I do matters. Who really notices?

A curious novel encouraged me last fall on this topic: Mr Penumbra's 24 Hour Bookstore, by Robin Sloan. A fantasy-like novel set in contemporary San Francisco. An obscure guy, once web designer now bookstore clerk, uncovers a secret hidden by a 16th century typeface designer, a secret that Google with all their computing power had failed to find. 

Maybe totally unrealistic, but the story touched me. I am convinced that each of us knows things that Google or Apple or Amazon do not know, that the media and politics do not know, and that these things matter to God. I could make a joke of this (altered from a quote attributed to Abraham Lincoln): "God must love details. He made so many of them." But I think it is true, not just a joke.

Along these lines, I think of the liturgy C. S. Lewis imagined at the end of Perelandra. A few snippets of it:
Each thing was made for Him. He is the centre. Because we are with Him, each of us is at the centre. ...
In the plan of the Great Dance plans without number interlock ...
All that is made seems planless to the darkened mind, because there are more plans than it looked for. ... There seems no plan because it is all plan: there seems no centre because it is all centre. Blessed be He.
God knows, God hears, something whispers to me, and I believe it. I feel joy, and think I can be calm, I can listen, I don't have to prove myself.

The persistent widow and the lamb that was slain

My devotional paired two readings the other day: Luke 18:1-8, the parable of the persistent widow; and Revelation 5, the Lamb that was slain celebrated as worthy to open the seal.
They do resonate together. The widow persists in crying out for justice, until the judge who doesn’t care decides to give in and respond so she’ll stop bothering him. How much more, Jesus says, will the Father hear those who cry out for justice day and night? He will swiftly grant justice.
“Swiftly?” I want to ask. Jesus can’t mean that literally, or else there would be no need for persistence in crying out. I suppose he’s presenting the eternal perspective; that the injustice or afflictions we suffer for a day, a week, ten years, a lifetime, all seem so short compared to the fullness of eternity. So don’t be afraid to cry out to God in suffering, he does hear and will swiftly answer (and the time will come that it will appear swift).

Worthy is the Lamb who was slain. Worthy is the one who appeared weak, gave no resistance, is also the victorious Lion who has conquered. The great Winner is the one who appeared as the Loser, helpless and weak who did not defend himself. So losing is winning, crying out and not getting what you ask for is not a loss but a gain. Can I believe that?

Are we each alone?

“Each heart knows its own bitterness,  and no one else can share its joy.”

There’s a lonely thought. What sad-hearted cynic penned this? Actually it comes from the Bible. Proverbs 14:10. (Perhaps still a cynic, if Proverbs and Ecclesiastes were written by the same author).
What is the point of this proverb? Are we indeed each alone? In human terms, we may well be. If we are each unique, if the modern proverb is right (and I believe it is) that there will never be another you, then it is inevitable that we will never know anyone exactly like ourselves. If this is what true companionship depends upon, we are indeed each alone. We are each unique in our experiences of sorrow and joy, the things that encourage and the things that perturb. Whose heart knows exactly the same notes of tragedy or of triumph? No one.
I remember some years back attending a family reunion. Early morning before it started I roamed our motel parking lot wondering how much I really looked forward to this event. I wasn’t typical, I was different. But then I thought how everyone probably had their own list why they are different, the things that other people don’t just get. I summed it up with the ironic thought, “We are each alone.” No one exactly like me. But no one exactly like him or her either.

We can extend grace to one another, remembering to be kind when we do not understand. It is not easy to be misunderstood, we all know that. But can we ever really, fully understand? So let us strive to be kind when we do not understand, remembering when we were not understood. And let us turn our hearts, and encourage one another to turn our hearts towards God, the one who does know and does understand. 

I met a celebrity once

A response to Addie Zierman's new book, Night Driving

What great news. Addie Zierman, that great blogger and author of a compelling memoir about the shallowness of evangelical certainty was coming out of distant Minnesota to our odd corner of North Carolina, and we could go see her. But as the day drew closer, I began to fear. She’d come, read from her book, and go away again, and I’d never have a chance to say how I’d connected with her words. Or if I did have a minute, would it come out clear, or all tangled up. So often I have this image of something to say that looks so clear and compelling, but putting it into words comes out such a mess. Or perhaps worst of all, I’d manage to be adequately coherent, she’d listen and politely smile, say that was all so very interesting and then disappear, not getting a word of it.
After all, who was I to attempt to talk to her? She’s a celebrity. A blogger that people actually read, a writer with a real published book that is sold in bookstores. Who was I? A blogger no one read, a self-published writer whose book hadn’t sold. But surely, my heart whispered, she ought to know how much it would mean to me if she listened and accepted my thoughts. She’d validate my existence, let me know I counted for something, was on the right track. But if she didn’t, if she snubbed me, could I handle the disappointment?
When she posted on her blog that she was cancelling her Charleston appearance because she just couldn’t fit it in, I wondered if she would soon cancel the Charlotte stop too. Maybe it would be just as well. Less risky. But the blog post affirmed she was keeping the Charlotte date. So maybe it was up to me to decide to stay away, keep hidden. But I decided to go ahead.
Addie in person was pretty cool. She recognized me, just because I’d commented on her blog and Facebook. She read from her book, then summarize what happened between that excerpt and the next one she’d read, and her extemporaneous summaries were as articulate as her written text. In the QA my wife got to tell her story of reading Addie’s book just at the right time to encourage someone else. And I learned another intriguing detail. Not only had she come to Charlotte, but she was actually staying just a few miles from our house miles south of Charlotte. The kind of odd coincidence that any evangelical knows has to be a God thing. (Aside: Why do we do this? God makes and arranges so many unique circumstances, but we only celebrate the oddly coincidental ones. Aren’t the other ones any less his handiwork?).

So that was the darkness I wandered in, feeling I needed Addie’s attention to be whole, to be noteworthy. Oh a celebrity, so grand, so far above me. How wonderful if she should look down from the heights of fame and notice me — then my life would be worth something. But faith reminds me my life is truly worth something; God looks down from the heights of heaven, and not only sees me, but longs for and invites me to relationship.

The new book, Night Driving is her story of this road trip. I can't wait to get to the part where she gets to Charlotte and meets me :)

My other posts about Addie Zierman
Addie Zierman and the Second World War
Addie Zierman
The Happy Middle

Addie Zierman and the Second World War

Sometimes you read a book and it shines a light on something completely different. Addie Zierman’s memoir When We Were on Fire did that for me. She writes of growing up evangelical in the 90’s, of the certainty of that subculture that if you did and said all the right things all would be well and effortless. I became an evangelical in the 70’s and I recognized her world. She had different popular bands, and different slogans, but the certitude that you could Get It Right was the same. Now don’t misunderstand, evangelicalism does get much right — the call to a relationship with Jesus Christ and to plunge deep into Scripture are two very right things. But the belief We Can Get it Right and Must Get it Right has dangers.
I’ve had a lifelong fascination with World War II. As a child, I knew the Hollywood version, where the heroes almost never died, even when things looked their darkest. I read history some to know that wasn’t totally realistic, but still the war ended in a resounding victory less than four years after Pearl Harbor. One of my favorite books growing up was called Great American Fighter Pilots of World War II, and my favorite chapter was about the Marianas Turkey Shoot. In the war against Japan, American fighter pilots started with big disadvantages, since the Japanese Zero was a better plane. But about a year before the end of the war, the Americans had a new fighter plane, the F6F, that outshone the Zero. The result, the Americans had a battle that seemed easy, like target practice (hence the name “Turkey shoot”). I loved this story — things only stay hard for a short time, then they become easy.
Another childhood memory: sitting in my living room, the radio is playing To Dream the Impossible Dream. I listen to the words and think that is how life ought to be. To dream the impossible dream, to fight the impossible fight, to dare with my last ounce of courage. Can these two memories be reconciled? Is life an impossible dream, requiring courage and self sacrifice, or is it a crisis that can soon be resolved? I think I attempted a reconciliation; to believe when the crisis came you should dare everything, hold nothing back, break through the opposition and things would sooner or later become easy.
The evangelical faith I found in college adopted this notion of dare everything and break through to victory. Is it not what Jesus did? He suffered and died, and on the third day he rose again. Then the Spirit came upon the church at Pentecost, and the church began to spread. But unfortunately the church grew complacent and overly traditional, and compromised. We needed to rediscover the fire, get serious again and turn the world upside down.
Addie was taught the same image. Do the right things, it may be hard at first but you’ll soon be victorious. She wasn’t prepared for doing the right things, and finding life was still hard. Neither was I. When I’d been an evangelical over twenty years, a realization hit like a shock one day. I’d been a Christian over three times as long as World War II had ever lasted, (even for the British who fought for six years), and I still hadn’t gotten to the easy phase. I wondered what I might have gotten wrong, came close to giving up on the faith, but got to a new understanding. I’d been emotionally misunderstanding the promises of God for years, interpreting them as recipes to get to the easy phase. They are not keys to an easy life. They are assertions to cling to when life is hard, to remember God is with you.
At the same time I first read Addie’s book, I saw a comment Winston Churchill made to a friend during the war. Americans, he said, are prone to thinking once you have made the key decision, all will go well. Evangelical theology has the same tendency to oversimplification. If you’ve done the key thing, given your heart to Jesus (and that is key, I’m not suggesting it isn’t), all should be well. But I’ve come to realize that perhaps the standard narrative of Scripture is not the hero who finds faith in God so all becomes easy, but the hero who finds faith in God, and clings to that faith and God’s promises when circumstances remain bleak.
I’ve just recently read again the story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal. My old style of thinking returned: what great faith, what a great victory. If only we had the same faith. But I look again, and realize the story isn’t quite like that. Yes, Elijah had faith and saw a great victory. But it wasn’t the kind of victory that made everything easy from then on. Jezebel was still out to get him, king Ahab was still lukewarm in faith (at best). A real ultimate victory would have been to unite Israel and Judah together once again, make the two one kingdom, worshiping together at the temple in Jerusalem. That didn’t happen. This story too, like the stories of Isaiah and Jeremiah, and the unnamed heroes of faith in the last verses of Hebrews 11, is about someone who had faith, who say the hand of God sustain his faith, but did not yet see the resolution of all problems.

Yesterday I started Night Driving, Addie’s second book. I felt a twinge of disturbance at the beginning. She’s still struggling with those same issues of life being messy that she described in When We Were on Fire? Why? Then it dawned on me. My disturbance was the old longing for instant and dramatic victory, only slightly readjusted. You learn that life is hard, that God is with you in the hard times but doesn’t always instantly remove the hard parts; that does not bring on its own instantaneous victory where you adjust your expectations once and then proceed serenely with perfect patience through the ongoing messes of life. 

Am I a dreamer?

Two memories combine as I contemplate the modern political scene.
One, a memorable speech from a meeting a few years back. Our work group director publicly thanked an assistant director for being a voice of clarity in their deliberations. He said she had a remarkable gift for gently yet firmly pointing out where his ideas were incomplete and destined to fail unless substantially reworked. An awesome speech, inspiring to hear of the wisdom of the associate. But the speech also showed the humility of our director, who would publicly praise his assistant for showing him where he was wrong, rather than sideline her as an annoying obstacle to his plans.
Second memory, C. S. Lewis writing about his wife in A Grief Observed, stating one thing he misses greatly about her was her ability to penetrate the nonsense in his thinking. “Her mind was lithe and quick and muscular as a leopard. Passion, tenderness and pain were all equally unable to disarm it. It scented the first whiff of cant or slush then sprang, and knocked you over before you knew what was happening. How many bubbles of mine she pricked!”
What makes politicians popular today? Saying what you think, not letting “those people” intimidate you.
Is not sticking to one’s convictions a good thing? Yes. Stick to your convictions of value, but be flexible and teachable about how to implement those values. What should we value in politics? My list would include the rule of law, civility in discourse, equal opportunity and responsibility for all. But I also value being alert to complexity, ready to learn and to modify one’s default reactions in new circumstances are also virtues. I’m sure when we meet God face to face we will have much to learn. “I had no idea” we’ll probably find ourselves saying often. What did Job say when he saw God?
Where are the politicians who explain what they’ve learned from their opponents?

No one is like that. I must be dreaming, I know. But is not dreaming of the better something to be encouraged?