Life In A Canoe


I heard a really good analogy this week about marriage being like a canoe. The idea is, when people get married, they get into the same canoe.

The thing is, not just marriage is like a canoe. All of life is. Granted, we aren’t all in the same canoe, or maybe only in the same one for a short period of each day. But if you are part of a family, a work force, a team, a club, a church, you are in the same canoe as those people with whom you share that common goal or desire.

If you know anything about canoes, you know they are not particularly steady. In fact, movement inside the canoe can create a lot of swaying and tipping. If one person leans left, a proper response from the other people in the canoe must follow or you end up in the drink.

I know because that actually happened to me. Literally.

I was a young teacher working at a school for missionary kids, when one of the families gave me a weekend with them and another family at a nearby lake. The place was beautiful. The lake was ringed by volcanoes and deep! It had presumably been created when one of the volcanoes erupted years ago.

At any rate, someone suggested all the young teens and I go out onto the lake in the canoe. I’m not big on water sports, but I agreed. The ride out away from shore and back was going fine until one of the kids decided to jump into the water and then get back into the canoe. (Or maybe he’d been swimming along side and decided to get in. I’m not clear on that detail). All that movement and change of weight affected the balance of our canoe.

When the young man decided to get into the canoe, he started a quick chain of events. First, someone jumping from the canoe and climbing in, creates movement. The rest of us compensated for all the rocking and swaying by shifting our weight accordingly.

At some point, he gripped the side of the canoe and hoisted himself up. Lots of lean which caused some of us to compensate by shifting our weight to correct the balance. Problem was, when he was back in the canoe, we were still shifted in the opposite direction. The canoe did a perfect roll and dumped us all into the lake.

By this time we weren’t far from shore so we managed to drag the thing in. But I got a first hand look at what it means to be in a canoe together. In that instance, it wasn’t pretty.

Later I learned that our leaning to counter the guy jumping into the canoe was actually an over compensation. Once he was in and not pulling us to the left, all of our right leaning had no counter balance. And over we went.

All this to say, what we do inside our canoe affects the other people in our canoe. There are no Lone Rangers. Those folk are all in kayaks.

Published in: on January 28, 2020 at 5:00 pm  Comments (2)  

The Wisdom Of Samwise Gamgee


HobbitonOne of the things that I love about Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien is the truth that the characters live out. One of the hobbits, Meriadoc Brandybuck, known as Merry, feels useless but slays the King of the Black Riders. Boromir, a valiant warrior of Gondor and eldest son of the current ruler, feels powerful but falls to the temptation of the Ring.

How true to life they are. Those feeling weak and insignificant are often the ones who do great things simply because of their faithfulness, and those who see themselves as great often stumble over their own reach for greater glory.

Of all the characters that offer up truth in Tolkien’s epic fantasy, Samwise Gamgee, companion to the Ringbearer, might be the best. First, he is faithful. He is devoted to his master and willing to go where otherwise he would not dare to set foot.

Second, he recognizes his own propensity to get things wrong. Such awareness of his own weaknesses keeps him from stubbornly continuing in the wrong direction. He’s quick and willing to make corrections.

Third, he refuses to let the darkness squelch his love for light, and consequently, even when he doesn’t feel hopeful, he acts as if there is hope. When he cannot see his way, he remembers the Shire, his garden, the elves, the lady of Lorien, grass and growing things, stars, and light. His mind dwells on the pure, lovely, honorable, and right even when all around is evil, cruelty, hatred, violence, and death.

There’s more Sam Gamgee wisdom, but those are three pretty good traits to learn from and hang onto in the new year.

This post is a revised version of one that appeared here in January, 2013.

Published in: on January 15, 2020 at 4:34 pm  Comments (1)  
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Job And Our Organic God


My church started a short sermon series in the book of Habakkuk this month. This fairly obscure prophet wrote at the end the Judean Kingdom. He saw idol worship and all kinds of evil things, and he took his concerns to God. Sort of a, “Aren’t You going to do something about this” question. God answered by saying, in part, “Yes, I’m sending the wicked, violent Chaldeans against Judah.”

Habakkuk’s response was so much like any of us might have given: Really? You’re sending a nation that is more wicked to punish a wicked one? How does that work?

God, as our pastor pointed out, reserves the right to do surprising things. Actions we can’t always get our heads around. He made the comparison with what Job experienced.

I found this post, that is an expanded and revised version of an earlier one, that addresses the issue.

– – – – –

One of the things writers talk about is creating stories organically. The alternative is to force a story to become what you want it to become by reducing it to a formula. Organic stories are the ones that seem real, that last long after you’ve closed the book, that affect you rather than merely entertaining you.

There is no one key to writing organic stories, but they must have characters that seem like real people with believable motivations, realistic emotional patterns and true-to-life psychological mechanisms for handling problems.

The formulaic characters are little more than place holders. In a formulaic romance, for example, insert heroine on page 1, the opening paragraph; slot in romantic lead in chapter 2. Almost it doesn’t matter who these people are. They will have some problem that keeps them apart for a third of the book, then they will begin to draw close, only to run into a wedge that drives them further apart for another third. When all seems hopeless, after the heroine experiences the black night of the soul, the two resolve the conflict and come together. Or something like that. You get the gist. There’s a pattern, one that romance writers are taught in writing workshops to follow.

I’m not trying to pick on romances. I think westerns can be just as formulaic and so can mysteries. Character X discovers crime Y with suspects A, B, and C. With a little detecting, he uncovers clues 1, 2, and 3. A formula.

I don’t know enough about any of these genres to say whether there is a way to write them organically—to make them come alive and therefore to separate them from the pack. I do know that readers of formulaic books have a hard time remembering if they’ve already read Busted, Bashed, or Butchered. (I just made up those titles, but that kind of title connection in a series is another part of the formula). Even by reading the back cover, readers can draw a blank. Is this the book they read? It sounds vaguely familiar, but so do the other two.

What does all this have to do with God and the book of Job?

Job’s friends saw God as a formulaic figure. He was as good as programmed, in their minds, and had to act in manner y if person A did action x. In other words, they were not seeing God as organic—alive and relational. They were talking about Him as if He were an it, a force, a thing they could predict. Perhaps a thing they could manipulate.

While Job was wrong to complain against God and to accuse Him of wrong doing (which is why he repented in the end), he nevertheless got it right that God is a free and independent person, transcendent, able to act however He wants to act. He’s organic. He’s more than that, of course, because He’s sovereign.

In the past some professing Christians have accused traditional, Biblical Christianity of putting God in a box. Let him be organic, in other words, by which they mean, let him bend with the culture—change to fit the changing times.

Well, funny thing. The most organic thing a person can do is reveal who he is. “You want to know me? Let me tell you about myself so that you’re not reading your own thoughts or feelings or motives into my actions.”

This, God chose to do.

However, instead of embracing His story about Himself and His relationship with humankind, many people, even “religious” ones, decide they get to say who God is and what He is like. What these people are doing is “re-imaging” Him into the formula they’ve created.

That is what Job’s friends did.

They determined that God dealt with people in a formulaic, foreseeable way. He punished sin by bringing suffering down on the sinner. He rewarded those who lived righteously by giving them prosperity and long life.

Consequently, they left no room for God to do anything else with an unrighteous man other than bring disaster down on his head. And since disaster hit Job five fold, he was clearly, according to their formula, an unrighteous man.

People today do essentially the same thing: God is loving and kind and forgiving and tolerant and an advocate for peace. Therefore he would never send people to hell, order the death of . . . well, anyone but most certainly not a whole nation, though He said they were people who lived in debauchery. Above all, the loving and kind and tolerant God would never punish the entire human race because one person ate a bite of forbidden fruit. That’s not God, they say. (I mean, it’s just fruit!)

Maybe punishing sin is not the formulaic God these progressive Christians have concocted, but the organic God who is sovereign, just, and good, can do, and does do, all the things He revealed in His word. And more.

He’s not bound by a formula. He can, and did, take the form of a mam. He can, and did, live a sin-free life. He can, and did, sacrifice Himself to pay for the sins of the world. Why? Not because we did a satisfactory quota of good deeds, certainly. He, being living and self-existent, chooses to do what He chooses to do.

The point is, God isn’t limited by our expectations. He can forgive the repentant, even someone like King Manasseh who had instituted child sacrifice. Undoubtedly Job’s three friends would have demanded that God strike the wicked king down in the midst of his wickedness.

But God, who is merciful and all-knowing and just, forgave that man instead.

God can be trusted to do what is right with the lives and souls of the people He created. He doesn’t have to fit the formula Job’s friends created—in fact, He doesn’t. Theirs was a works theology—do the right things and God has to bless. Stray from His demands, and He will rain suffering down.

They didn’t understand what it meant to believe God to be sovereign, to trust Him to do what is right, even when His action is surprising and unexpected and even sometimes painful. They didn’t know Him and love Him. They more nearly knew about Him and used Him—in Job’s case, to chastise a man suffering horrific loss. But that’s what happens when someone believes God must follow their formula.

Published in: on January 14, 2020 at 4:42 pm  Comments (4)  
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Tornadoes, Drought, Fire, And Death


Some years ago, a handful of Christians infamously claimed that hurricane Katrina was God’s judgment on New Orleans, or later that the devastating earthquake that hit Haiti was His judgment on the culture of voodoo and the occult practiced there in times passed.

But what about events in Mid-America such as violent tornadoes? That would be the area of the US famously known as the Bible Belt. A number of years ago, spring tornadoes, numbering more than a hundred strong, tore through Oklahoma, Iowa, Kansas, over to Nebraska and Missouri, and up into Indiana, killing and destroying.

Not to be outdone, wildfires devastated Colorado, and drought consumed crops throughout the Great Plains and over to the Appalachians. In fact, the USA Today reported that 64% of the US was experiencing drought conditions.

And of course there are the shootings that have become all to common in all parts of the US.

All this, of course, comes to mind because of the horrific fires currently devastating Australia.

In the after-math of the natural disasters, news cameras often catch survivors picking through the ruins, thankful that they lived and vowing to keep going. Some way. Some how.

After shootings, there’s talk of the gun culture and insane people trying to grab the spotlight so that the world will look at them for a few fleeting days. Undoubtedly gun legislation again comes under discussion.

All of it is white noise to the real issues that we need to talk about. God works in the world today, as He has throughout history. Because we understand and can predict weather patterns does not mean God has no part in them. Because a psychotic killer picked up a gun and attacked a theater full of people does not mean God is indifferent or uninvolved.

These events remind me so much of the things Job experienced, all engineered by Satan, but permitted by God, used by God. Why do we think He has changed?

No, He did not cause shooters to open fire on unsuspecting victims. That’s an act of evil, and God doesn’t tempt anyone to do evil (see James 1:13). But He works His will in and through these circumstances. And He does so in order that we will look to Him rather than to our own supposed strength and goodness.

God allows fires and floods and wind and drought so that we can see we are weak, not strong. He allows evil men to kill and steal and destroy so that we will see, Mankind is not good.

Only God is strong. Only God is good.

When will we look to Him instead of looking to ourselves for answers?

We are so much like Israel of old. They were a religious people, keeping their feast days, offering sacrifices in their holy cities, and God said, I’m not interested. Instead He brought war and famine so that they would turn to Him.

Offer a thank offering also from that which is leavened,
And proclaim freewill offerings, make them known.
For so you love to do, you sons of Israel,”
Declares the Lord GOD.

“But I gave you also cleanness of teeth in all your cities
And lack of bread in all your places,
Yet you have not returned to Me,” declares the LORD.

“Furthermore, I withheld the rain from you
While there were still three months until harvest.
Then I would send rain on one city
And on another city I would not send rain;
One part would be rained on,
While the part not rained on would dry up.
So two or three cities would stagger to another city to drink water,
But would not be satisfied;
Yet you have not returned to Me,” declares the LORD.

“I smote you with scorching wind and mildew;
And the caterpillar was devouring
Your many gardens and vineyards, fig trees and olive trees;
Yet you have not returned to Me,” declares the LORD.

“I sent a plague among you after the manner of Egypt;
I slew your young men by the sword along with your captured horses,
And I made the stench of your camp rise up in your nostrils;
Yet you have not returned to Me,” declares the LORD.

“I overthrew you, as God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah,
And you were like a firebrand snatched from a blaze;
Yet you have not returned to Me,” declares the LORD. (Amos 4:5-11 – emphasis mine)

Are we somehow beyond God’s reach, that He would not be at our shoulder, calling to us, telling us we need to return to Him? Are we so oblivious to our egregious behavior, putting to death thousands and thousands of unborn babies year after year; calling evil good and good, evil; giving credence to false prophets who lie about God and His character, that we think God is pleased with us and will continue to bless us as a nation?

What will it take for us to realize, God might be trying to get our attention because He wants us to look at Him, listen to Him, bow before Him, and recognize that He is God and we are not.

This post is a revised version of one that appeared here in July, 2012.

Following God


King David followed God, to the point that God identified him as a man after His own heart. As it happens, David was also filled with the Holy Spirit:

Then Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the midst of his brothers; and the Spirit of the LORD came mightily upon David from that day forward. And Samuel arose and went to Ramah. (1 Sam. 16:13; emphasis mine)

Still, as any Christian who is honest will admit, the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives does not mean we have some kind of insulation against sin. Hence, King David sinned, and grandly so. He also confessed his sin and returned to God, more than on one occasion. As it happens, we have some of his prayers of confession in the book of Psalms.

King Solomon stands in contrast to David. God made an incredible offer to this newly anointed king—ask whatever you want, and I’ll give it to you. He asked for wisdom. God blessed him with wisdom all right, but threw in riches and honor as well.

He gave Solomon the same promise He gave David: follow Me and there will be one of your descendants on the throne . . . forever.

I think Solomon tried. He went about building a temple where the nation of Israel could worship the LORD. But he had a divided heart. He also made places for his wives, who worshiped idols, to perform their religious activities.

And when he was confronted with his sin, he did not repent. We have his spiritual journey recorded in Ecclesiastes, and it does have a hopeful end:

The conclusion, when all has been heard, is: fear God and keep His commandments, because this applies to every person. For God will bring every act to judgment, everything which is hidden, whether it is good or evil. (Ecc. 12:13-14)

Following Solomon was his son, Rehoboam. This guy came to the throne and immediately faced a request from his people. As near as I can determine, he had neither the Spirit of God or the wisdom from God that his more famous predecessors had. His solution to a crisis of confidence from those he was to govern? As for counsel.

No, he didn’t ask God. He asked the men who had advised his father. The he asked some guys like himself who had never ruled before. He liked their advice better. Clearly, Rehoboam was depending on himself. Not God. Not God’s gift of wisdom. Not even the men God had put in place who could give him God’s perspective.

The result was a national split—a civil war. The nation that had been one, became two. There’s much more to say about the Hebrew kings, but the point for this post is this: David had the Spirit of God and followed God; Solomon had the gift of God and turned to it to guide him; Rehoboam had advisors and followed the ones he found to be more to his liking. In other words, he followed his own way.

During the period of the Judges when there was no king, Scripture says that “every man did what was right in his own eyes.” Now Israel (and soon after, Judah) had a king who did what was right in his own eyes.

I don’t think much has change when it comes to following God. We can look to His Spirit, His gifts, or our own way. What constitutes God’s gifts? Maybe spiritual gifts like love and joy and peace and patience. Maybe the Church God is building. Those are obviously very, very good, as was the wisdom Solomon had. But they are not substitutes for God Himself. We are not to follow “church tradition” or the “sense of peace” we may or may not feel if either of those take us away from God.

For instance, the woman who leaves her husband because she’s sure God wants her to be happy—or be at peace. Well, yes, God does give us peace and His love means He desires the best for us. But “the best” may not mean the kind of peace we think.

There’s a peace that comes from depending on God that is beyond comprehension, and may not override external turmoil. As a radio minister pointed out today, the apostle Peter was in jail, awaiting trial that would end in his execution, most likely, and he was asleep! The external turmoil surrounded him, but his soul was at peace. And as it happened, an angel broke him out of prison so that he didn’t die then—though Peter had no way of knowing that was God’s plan. His peace simply allowed him to have a good night’s sleep.

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