Layers of Meaning in Scripture

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I am often astonished at the beauty of Scripture.
Not only astonished at the beauty of individual books or passages, although that happens too.
What often takes me aback is the elegance of how the entire Bible fits seamlessly together, flowing in and out of itself like a river flowing into the sea.
The Old Testament points toward the New Testament, while the New Testament points back to the Old as well as forward into the future.
There are layers of meaning to everything – the personal inside the theological inside the historical – and every layer is truth.
Everything that Jesus said and did points back to what God did for Israel and forward to what He was going to do for all the nations.
Look at the Crucifixion.
It was certainly historical and political. It happened to one man in one place on earth at one particular time, a man caught between two powers struggling for supremacy.
It was theological. When Jesus died, He took upon Himself the sins of the world to atone for them once and for all.
It was personal. Jesus paying the penalty for your own sins is about as personal as it can get.
Look at the meeting between Jesus and the disciples after the resurrection. The one after the disciples had been out fishing and Jesus called them to shore for breakfast.
Jesus spoke to Peter and told him, If you love Me, then feed My sheep. That is a very personal calling.
A calling which is nestled inside of the layer of Jesus as the Passover Lamb and all of the theological meanings implied therein.
The theological meanings that are nestled inside the first Passover and Israel overthrowing Egypt in their escape through the Red Sea and all the historical and political pieces of those events.
Personal meaning burrowed inside theological meaning burrowed inside historical meaning.
You see? Go look for it. Find it everywhere and be astonished.
See the Word as beautiful.

Seeking God’s Will

I have to give my two year old a lot of specific instructions throughout her day.
Two year old
I have to tell her which arm to put in which arm hole, how to get a blanket pulled over her legs, where each toy should go when cleaning up.
Needs lots of help
And she’s two, so I’m okay with this.
My seven year old, however, I expect to have a general idea of what I want from her.

Seven year old

More independent
I would feel disappointed if I had to give her as many minute directions as I do her younger sister. As my eldest matures and as our own relationship grows, one of my hopes is for her to know me well enough to know what I want from her without me having to detail it out.
Age gap
Help each other
I have spent much of my life wanting to know God’s will for me.
Seeking God's will
I wanted to know what college to attend, which career I should pursue, whom I should date, whom I should marry. Much of my relationship with God was consumed with begging Him to tell me what He wanted me to do.
I told myself that I was seeking God’s will in order to please Him and bring Him glory, but in truth I wanted to know His will in order to protect myself. I wanted to be sure that I would be successful, that I wouldn’t make any mistakes that would cause me lasting pain.
I am learning.
I am learning that God’s relationship with me is much like my relationships with my daughters. The more I know God, the more our relationship grows and the less He has to direct my every move.
Only asking God to tell me about His will does not constitute a growing relationship. That amounts to not much more than a dictatorship.
When I am with my husband, I don’t want either of us to order the other about. I want us to understand each other deeply so that orders are not necessary.
And so it is in our union with God, a person both loving and beloved. He does not delight in having to always explain what His will is; He enjoys it when we understand and act upon His will. Our highest calling and opportunity in life is to love Him with all our being. ~ Dallas Willard in Hearing God
In recent years, rather than seeking God’s will for my life, I’ve spent my time seeking God.
I seek to know Him, to understand Him, to love Him more. In that loving, I trust that He will let me know if there is something specific I need to hear. I trust His Spirit in me to guide me when either I am beginning to head in the wrong direction or there is a specific thing He wants me to do.
And He does. He fulfills that trust.
I have a long way to go. I have not yet grown to the point of having an easy, conversational relationship with God throughout every day. But I want that. Oh, how I long for that kind of relationship with the One I love.
Rather than praying “God, help me to know Your will so that I can do what you want me to do”, my new prayer is “God, help me to know You more so that I can love you more.”
Seeking God
That is a prayer I believe He delights in answering.
And you, Solomon my son, know the God of your father and serve him with a whole heart and with a willing mind, for the Lord searches all hearts and understands every plan and thought. If you seek him, he will be found by you, but if you forsake him, he will cast you off forever. I Chronicles 28.9

To Know Jesus

I am a learner by nature.
I love to read, to study, to delve deeply into what interests me.
My current confession is that the knowledge I have about God, about the Bible, can make me prideful at times. I went to a Christian elementary school and a Christian college. I’ve taken the Bible classes (including Jimmy Allen’s Romans class which has been around so long that my parents took his class when they went through school!), studied the texts, aced the tests.
For someone who never sought after a degree in ministry, I certainly know a lot about Jesus. Knowing Jesus Himself, however, is another matter altogether.
I have to be careful. I too often read books about Jesus rather than reading His Words. I too often would rather have deep theological discussions about Jesus than talk directly to Him. I too often prefer to listen to a speaker expound on the life of Christ than listen to Jesus Himself.
I could tell whether I know about Jesus, at least when I was in school, by how well I did on tests. How can we tell whether we know Jesus?
Know His Voice
Jesus told His disciples that His sheep know His voice, that they can follow Him because they are able to recognize His voice.
I sometimes think I only recognize His voice because it is that part inside of me telling me to do something I really don’t want to do!
King David
David, the one God called a man after His heart, gives us a clue to this in how he spoke with God in the Psalms. Perhaps one of the reasons he knew God so well is because he spoke to God about everything…happiness, sorrow, anger, joy, jealousy, revenge…truly everything.
Perhaps just being in the habit of speaking with Jesus about everything throughout every day is what brings us closer to Him. Perhaps just practicing His presence is what helps us to truly know Jesus. Brother Lawrence, a 17th century monk, showed us how to do this as he went about his daily work in the kitchen of his monastery.
Brother Lawrence
Brother Lawrence spoke of conversing with God as much when he was washing dishes as when he was kneeling in the chapel.
We must know before we can love. In order to know God, we must often think of Him. And when we come to love Him, we shall then also think of Him often, for our heart will be with our treasure.
Like many things, it seems to be a matter of training our minds to continually return to God.
I think I can end no better than with Brother Lawrence’s words, words that I need to hear as I strive to know Jesus in more intimate ways than simply knowing about Him:
You need not cry very loud. He is nearer to us than we are aware. Every one is capable of such familiar conversation with God; some more, some less. He knows what we can do.  Let us begin then. Perhaps He expects but one generous resolution on our part. Have courage.
Have courage and begin.

Art credits: The Good Shepherd by James Tissot; Anointing of David by Alexandr Ivanov; Brother Lawrence in the Kitchen in a book published by Fleming Revell Co.

Piety or Knowledge?

I have written before of the battle between holiness and justice.  Some say we are to focus on our own moral purity, on becoming more like Jesus.  Others say we are to focus on social justice for others, on being Jesus to those around the world.
When describing the wickedness of Israel, Isaiah says “He looked for justice, but saw bloodshed; for righteousness, but heard cries of distress.”
It seems that one of the Deceiver’s favorite ploys is to take a set of discipleship practices, a pairing that works best when done in concert with each other, and separate them, throwing them into battle with each another.  In doing so, he not only diminishes the efficacy of both practices but he also divides the very body of Christ.
Clearly both holiness and justice are important.  We should not focus on half of God’s commands to the exclusion of the rest.
Another battle I’ve been trying to understand is the battle between piety and knowledge.
Is it better to obey God, to act on His behalf, or is it better to learn about God, to know what it is He commands?
Some would say that knowledge is too dry, that the life of the mind is on par with selfishness.  It brings to mind ivory towers and keeping oneself unsullied by the realities of the real world.
While it is true that focusing solely on knowledge and learning would keep one from ever actually helping this world of hurting people, modern church culture seems to lean too heavily in the direction of anti-intellectualism.  There is a growing spirit of pragmatism in our churches.  A spirit whose first question about an idea is not “Is it true?” but “Does it work?”.
“Young people tend to be activists, dedicated supporters of a cause, though without always inquiring too closely either whether their cause is a good end to pursue or whether this action is the best means by which to pursue it.” ~ Rev. John R. W. Stott in an address at the Inter-Varsity Fellowship Annual Conference
It seems this is another set of discipleship practices that when separated leads to reduced success.
On one hand you have people rushing crazily about for the next good idea regardless of the wisdom or truth of it, perhaps even causing more harm than good.  On the other hand you have people sitting stagnant with their books, not allowing any of the knowledge of God to seep into their hearts and affect the world around them.
Both piety and knowledge are desperately needed together.  Only with knowledge can you know what God truly wants, what is the wise action to take.  Only with piety can your own heart be changed, can the hearts and lives of other people be changed.
Paul says in II Corinthians that we are to take every thought captive toward the obedience of Christ.
Piety and knowledge.  Obedience and intellect.  The heart and the mind.
Both are needed.  Both are required to continue to bring about God’s kingdom here on earth.
Only together can these practices nourish “a warm and fruitful devotion set on fire by truth.” (Stott)

Reason and Revelation

Those who follow Jesus are, I fear, often suspicious of reason.
Some believe that the spiritual is far above intellect and cannot be discerned by the mind.  Some are simply afraid that those who are deemed intellectual will produce proof after proof to debunk their cherished beliefs.
We are commanded to love God with all of our mind.  And we are told that we cannot know God unless He reveals Himself to us.
Their eyes were opened
It seems a paradox that we can know God by reason and we can know God only by revelation.
Yet our faith is full of paradoxes: the last will be first; the King came as a servant; you live by dying; you gain by giving away.  It is one of the things I love about this Christ-filled life.  One can never get bored; there will never be a dearth of things to discover.
I love a good mystery novel.  I adore following the clues and trying to figure out the solution.  The best mystery authors are the ones who can lead you on, doling out all of the necessary clues and handing you a surprise twist at the end, a twist that you never saw coming but one that perfectly fulfills all of the clues that came before.
Beautiful Books
This is our faith.  The Old Testament prophets gave all of the necessary clues to finding the Messiah yet when He finally arrived, the way in which He perfectly agreed with their descriptions was a complete surprise.
I imagine that this is how it will be at the end of our own times.  The final revelation of God will perfectly complete all that we have reasoned out, yet in a beautifully surprising way.
Our Creator gave us reason, gave us intellect, gave us curiosity for a purpose.  I suspect that He delights in surprising us, in crafting intricate puzzles that lead us on ever new adventures of discovery.
Near Discovery
Far Discovery
Wouldn’t that be just like Him?

Art Credits: Road to Emmaus by Robert Zund; photos of space by NASA

Living in Tension

We all live in a tension between seeming opposites, sliding between one extreme and the other as though we were children sliding back and forth across the kitchen floor in our footie pajamas.
We want to accomplish much during our day, and we wish we could curl up on the couch with a book or the remote.
Accomplishing Much
We plead with a good god for help when things fall apart, and we wonder how any god but the cruelest sort could watch while life disintegrates.
Life Falls Apart
We would die for our children, and we feel a strong urge to toss them out any nearby window.
We long to dream big and serve those who are suffering and downtrodden, and we despair that anything we could do could possibly make any difference.
We desire to follow after Christ with all that we are, and we secretly speculate whether He even exists.
Emotions are fickle and are often the source of these tensions that send us skidding back and forth in an attempt to live well.  Even on our best days when we yearn to serve God with all of our heart, we feel unsure of what that really means.
One day we think that perhaps we should sell our home and move to the inner city.  The next we think that perhaps God wishes for us to love our right-now neighbor whose cat has just dug up our roses.
Should We Move?
One day we think that we should create something beautiful that will point millions to God.  The next we think that we should write a letter to our uncle who needs to hear about love.
Should We Write?
One day we think that God asks us to sacrifice much and preach gospel to those who despair.  The next we think that God asks us to be obedient in small ways with the family and friends He has placed around us.
Should We Obey?
What do we do with these tensions?  What do we do with these competing wishes and desires?  Does God ask for big dreams and risky sacrifices or does He smile upon small acts of faithfulness and childlike demonstrations of obedience?
I am learning that He gives varying numbers of talents to different people, even varying tasks to the same people in different stages of their lives.
I am learning that He asks us to wait patiently for His call, to take one step of faith at a time, to carry out one obedient act that may lead to more.  I am learning that He asks us to continue living in tension, knowing that those who get comfortable are not as easy to move, knowing that those who feel most at home in this world are not readying themselves or anyone else for a perfect home.
I am learning that just living in peace with this tension, taking each next step as He guides, is what we are meant to do, even when it doesn’t feel like quite enough.

To You Who Doubt

To you who doubt, I say
We are often closer to God in our doubts than in our certainties…it is all right to be like the small child who constantly asks: Why? Why? Why? ~Madeleine L’Engle
And have mercy on those who doubt…Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy,to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen.
IMG_5628To you who question God’s nature or even very His existence, I say
You are courageous.
If we begin with certainties, we will end in doubt. But if we begin with doubts and bear them patiently, we may end in certainty. ~ Francis Bacon
Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! “For who has known the mind of the Lord,
or who has been his counselor?”
To you who voice concerns over why the ugly exists and why life is unfair, I say
Thank you for speaking aloud the fears we all harbor deep in our hearts.
Love, which trusts God so implicitly despite the cloud, that it is brave enough to ask questions, no matter how fearful. ~L’Engle
And Jesus said to him, “‘If you can’! All things are possible for one who believes.” Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, “I believe; help my unbelief!
You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart.
To you who doubt the things you have been taught, who question traditional religious beliefs, I say
Search on.
To come to a doubt, and to a debatement of any religious duty, is the voice of God in our conscience: Would you know the truth? Doubt, and then you will inquire. ~ John Donne
To whom then will you compare me, that I should be like him? says the Holy One.
When people shrink back in horror from your questions, when fellow Christ-followers load shame onto your heart, remind them of the faithfulness of doubt.
This (the faithfulness of doubt) is often assumed by the judgmental to be faithlessness, but it is not; it is a prerequisite for a living faith. ~ L’Engle
Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.
To you who continue to seek through the fear of what the answers will be, I say
Take heart. God is and He will be found.
If my religion is true, it will stand up to all my questioning; there is no need to fear. But if it is not true, if it is man imposing strictures on God…, then I want to be open to God, not to what man says about God. ~ L’Engle
And I tell you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer, and by night, but I find no rest. Yet you are holy
road to emmaus zund
To you who you are brave enough to doubt, brave enough to ask questions, brave enough to keep on searching for God Himself rather than what man says about God, I say
You deserve our deep respect for your courage.
You deserve our cheers and our thanks for refusing to settle for a shallow faith that only is manifested in appearances.
To you who doubt, I say
Well done, hero.
As a deer pants for flowing streams,
so pants my soul for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for God,
for the living God.
When shall I come and appear before God?
My tears have been my food
day and night,
while they say to me all the day long,
“Where is your God?”
These things I remember,
as I pour out my soul:
how I would go with the throng
and lead them in procession to the house of God
with glad shouts and songs of praise,
a multitude keeping festival.
Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you in turmoil within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
my salvation and my God.

art credit: Road to Emmaus by Zund; Christ with Martha and Maria by Siemiradzki

This essay is, in part, for my brothers who kept searching for God at different times, in very different ways, and under very different circumstances, yet both found and were found by Him.

All Things Made Sacred

I’ve been thinking again about the idea of God being in everything, having bearing on everything, the idea that everything in our lives should be made sacred. Thus far, I have come up with two different spheres of thought (although they do overlap, of course).
In a broader or grander sense, I’ve been wondering if you can fully study anything without believing in God. (This truly is a question, not an “I have a definite opinion and am just phrasing it as a question” sort of wondering!)

Can you fully study anything without a recollection of the context in which you work? 

If, as I believe, all order, all created things, is a gift, then it seems as though if you study math or music, science or sociology, without an underlying attitude of gratitude as well as an understanding that there will always be mystery, then you are missing something. 

Without that context, are you really studying anything to its fullest potential?

As a side note, I love the idea that there will always be mystery in our world, our universe, for our curious minds to explore. The idea that we are at the pinnacle of knowledge is a bit ludicrous. As Isaac Newton said, 
I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.
I am interested to know what others think. Is it possible to study anything outside of the context of a creator God? (Forget, for a moment, what you believe about a relational God or about Jesus Christ…simply consider the idea of a creator God.)

In a more immediate and practical sense (I am well aware that not everyone is as much a lover of learning and studying as I am!), I am discovering that in order to find God in everything, to make everything sacred, I must work to develop habits of living more fully present where I am. I must truly pay attention to who and what is surrounding me. 

It is much too easy for me to just drift or skim through a day, usually focusing on what is to come rather than on what is. 

A huge part of living more fully present is completely relational. Every one of you reading this is a son or daughter, brother or sister, friend, spouse, parent, or grandchild. Finding God means developing every day habits of loving, patient, kind, selfless living in the community in which we are right now. It is discovering once again what family means, what neighborhood means, what community means.

It sounds, perhaps, too simple, but it is something that I can start doing and exploring right now and never reach the end. I can never get bored with this even if I work at it for the rest of my time on earth.

Will you join me?

art credit: photo of Eagle Nebula from NASA

His Invisible Hand

Our family has been learning over the past few years as we experienced some truly ugly things. We’ve learned about who God is and what He asks of us even when we don’t understand or like what is happening.

My learning will never be complete (for which I am grateful…I’m one of those odd ones who loves to study and learn!) and I recently was struck by yet another lesson as our church studied through the book of Ruth.

As I studied Ruth and as I thought about this book as compared with other books in the Bible, I noticed that God seems to work in two very different ways.

God sometimes uses His visible hand of miracle to accomplish His purpose. Think about the parting of the Red Sea and the manna provided from heaven. Think about the healing of Jairus’ daughter and the feeding of the 5,000

God also sometimes uses His invisible hand of Providence to accomplish His purpose. This is what happens in Ruth. Israel is in the period of the judges which means that they are bouncing around between brief periods of stability and long periods of rebellion, being conquered by foreign armies, and experiencing severe famines.

Here are Naomi and Ruth: they are widows, they are childless, they are in a foreign land, they are going home to Israel not knowing what they will find.

Naomi, especially, knew the traditions of her God. Perhaps Ruth had heard the stories. The miracle stories of Noah saved from the flood, of Israel rescued from Egypt. I imagine they may have wished for that visible hand of miracle.

Instead, they got hard work gleaning in a field, an owner of that field who just happened to stop by and act with kindness, the surprise of that very owner being a close relative, a desperate and courageous request from Ruth. The result? A marriage, a baby, perhaps a bit of stability. Several small blessings along the way, but certainly no miraculous raising of the dead.

And yet.

From that marriage and that child came the greatest king that Israel would ever know, bringing wealth and stability and godliness to the nation.

From that marriage and that child came the greatest King that our world would ever know, bringing rescue and mercy and grace to all the nations.

My honest confession? I want the miracle. I don’t want the invisible hand of Providence. When Kristina was fighting for her life, we begged for miraculous healing. That’s not what we got.

And yet.

Even though the miracle is what I wanted, I can still trust in God’s unseen hand. I can know that God is still working, even though we, like Naomi and Ruth, may not see the end of the story.

Even though I am now pleading for another miracle, I am so grateful to be assured that while I pray out my sadness, my anger, and my bitterness, God is right now at work healing hurts not even felt yet and creating answers to problems I haven’t even yet encountered.

Abba. Thank You.

(if you are viewing this via email/in a reader, click here to view this video)

art credit: Whither Thou Goest painting used with gracious permission by artist Sandy Freckleton Gagon

special thanks to our Pastor for his thoughts on Ruth

A Year of Writing

One year.

That’s how long I’ve been here at this space, writing about life and culture, things in our daily lives and in the world around us, pain and death and ugliness, life and hope and beauty, and how God resides in all of these things and fills them up with Himself. 

Here is what I wrote in my very first post:

Writing is a difficult thing. It requires one to be vulnerable, to trust the world with a piece of oneself while knowing that the world can be a cruel place.

Perhaps this is why I have declined to join the world of blogging until now. 

Perhaps, too, it seems as though everyone is a blogger. Everyone has something to say and not many wish to listen. Perhaps no one will wish to listen to me. 

Yet I still feel that God is asking me to write. Not to write and hide but also to share. 

I have resisted this for quite a while now. Why? Partly due to the work involved.

Even now, I am only agreeing to write once a week. 

A large part, however, is that I don’t feel that I have anything new to say. To add to the over-quoting of Solomon, “There is nothing new under the sun”. (Ecc. 1.9) Who am I to think that I could say something new or even to say something old in an improved way? 

Perhaps God is simply asking me to restate old things for a single reader.

Perhaps God is even more simply asking me to write so that I can grow to be more like Him as I think through various ideas aloud.

Whatever the reason, here I am. Obeying, even though afraid. I will write. God will listen. I pray He will be pleased.

There is not much about these thoughts that I would change, even after a year. It is still difficult to send out my thoughts and ideas, my hurts and my hopes. I still feel almost silly telling anyone that I have a blog. 

And I still feel that God is still asking me to keep writing.

There is a lot that I have learned this year. 

I have discovered that there is a huge world out there called the blogosphere. It is, mostly, a world that I don’t interact with very often. Partly because I only write once a week and haven’t yet made the space for interacting with other blogs. Partly, too, because many in this world have begun their blogs to make money, mostly for very beautiful reasons, yet I have decided that I don’t want to clutter up my space with advertisements and buttons. Not that there is anything at all wrong with any of that. I simply want something different, something more simple for this place.

I have discovered that the more I write, the better I am at this art. The more I write, the more my heart craves to create. The more I write, the more ideas that flood into my mind.

I have discovered that I love the art of writing in this sort of a place, love how I am able to craft and mold my words together with other arts. Photographs, paintings, sculptures, music…it fills something inside of me to bring them together to make words even more beautiful than before.

One of the most beautiful things I have discovered is how my love for God has grown with my writing. When I committed to writing once a week, I was also, inadvertently, committing to continue reading, studying, listening, pursuing God and the things of God. This has expanded my heart and mind and caused my view and knowledge of God to hugely grow. 

Perhaps this is why God asked me to write. 

I still wish to have others read what I write. I still have a dream of being published. 

Yet if all that happens through my writing is that I become more like Christ, I am satisfied.

So. I will close this first year as I began: 

Whatever the reason for my writing, here am I in this space. I will continue to obey, even though it is hard and often causes my heart to feel fear. I will write. God will listen. I pray He will continue to be pleased.

(By the way, I will be changing things around here fairly soon and moving to my truly very own space. I’ll let you know when that time comes, but I pray and hope that you will continue to join me on my journey.)