Life, Life, and More Life

We picked raspberries a couple of weeks ago — the free kind that grow along the edges of fields and in the company of thistles.  They were succulent.  I could wrap words around a description of raspberry picking:  the gentle encompassing pressure that releases a perfectly ripe berry from its stem; the empty white cone that is left behind on the bush; the scratches on hands and forearms;  the sticky red fingertips that carry home the smell of summer and bee-buzzing sweetness.  But — there is no literary technique, no class in horticulture that comes close to the essence of picking raspberries.  For this, one must go into the bushes and experience life in the raspberry patch.

This is the nature of knowing God as well, for Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, and to live from the heart what we know in our heads, we must go crashing into the bushes with the thistles, thorns, and mosquitoes.  This is the message of this first volume (2003) of Eugene Peterson’s classic series of five conversations on spiritual theology.  The term “spiritual theology” refers to “the specifically Christian attempt to address the lived experience revealed in our Holy Scriptures and the rich understandings and practices of our ancestors as we work this experience out in our contemporary world of diffused and unfocused ‘hunger and thirst for righteousness.'” (5)

Peterson borrows a theme from Gerard Manley Hopkins and expands upon it with engaging examples and sharp Scriptural observations that argue for this truth:

“The end of all Christian belief and obedience, witness and teaching, marriage and family, leisure and work life, preaching and pastoral work is the living of everything we know about God:  life, life, and more life.” (1)

He goes on to support his argument through beautifully detailed exposition of three of those “ten thousand places” in which Christ plays and in which we all go about the business of living our days.

Christ Plays in Creation

Creation’s Firstborn  invites believers into a life of wonder.  The Greek word kerygmaa “public proclamation that brings what it proclaims into historical reality,” (53) frames the impact of His miraculous birth and sends readers looking to the two creation stories in Genesis 1 and 2 for help in shaping a Christ-following life.  Firmly grounded in time and space, we find that the good news of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection are also gifts marked by the sacredness of creation.  John’s Gospel affirms in “theological poetry” (87) that Jesus was indeed “at play” in the Genesis creation.

Christ Plays in History

As creation points our thoughts toward life, history outside the Garden of Eden has been characterized by a series of deaths.  Even so kerygma — good news! — appears in the midst of the mess because the death of Jesus redeems the mess of history and takes the edge off the truth that one day death will come to each of us.

“This conjunction of death, Jesus’ and mine, is where I begin to understand and receive salvation.” (143)

Peterson takes his readers to Exodus as a grounding text, rich in the history of God’s people, but particularly in the action of a holy (and often wholly inexplicable) God.  The Gospel of Mark also deals in history, for with his succinct and economical style, Mark pioneered a new genre in which Jesus is the subject, but the content — rather than focusing on the background, emotions, or internal dialogue of the main character — is all about salvation, the redemption of every part of history:  the world’s and my own.

Christ Plays in Community

If the birth of Jesus and the creation of the world ground us in life; and if Jesus’ death has redeemed history from the stench of meaningless death; then the resurrection of Jesus is the basis for a life lived in community.  “Jesus’ resurrection is the final kerygmatic ‘piece’ that, together with his birth and death, sets the good news, the gospel, in motion and creates the Christian life.” (230)

The spiritual formation that makes community possible is the work of the Spirit, and this is nowhere more clear than in Luke’s New Testament writing about the ministry of Christ and the early church with 17 references to the Holy Spirit in his Gospel and 57 in the book of Acts.  In spite of persecution and imprisonment, Luke uses the word “unhindered” (akoluto) to describe Paul’s ministry under house arrest.  This irony minimizes the obstacles and invites present-day believers, who are “constantly tempted to use the world’s means to do Jesus’ work,” (299) into the unhindered life of prayerful obedience, hospitality, and submission to the means and methods of kingdom living. Perfection is the enemy of community and love is the fuel, a I John 4:21-style love that “purg[es] [the] imagination of the barnacles, parasites, and grime that have accumulated around the word ‘love’ so that Jesus and the Jesus story becomes clear.” (328)

Eugene Peterson and Gerard Manley Hopkins harmonize in the challenge to seek Christ in creation, history, and community and in any of the ten thousand places in which He plays.  Finding Christ in all of life is the single unifying experience that brings wholeness to our theology and moves us toward a faith that honors the risen Christ and puts His resurrection life on display.

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This book was provided by William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company in exchange for my review.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

If you are interested in pursuing the topic of spiritual theology through more of Eugene Peterson’s writing, I can recommend book five in the series, Practice Resurrection, through my review here.  And his most recent book expands Peterson’s thoughts on the writing of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem As Kingfisher’s Catch Fire along with a collection of Eugene Peterson’s sermons.  I’ve shared my thoughts on the book here.

And . . .. . . stay tuned for details and a reading schedule for Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry. I’m looking forward to a discussion here each Thursday from September 7 through November 16.

If you enjoy reading Living Our Days, subscribe to get regular Bible studies and book reviews delivered to your inbox.  Just enter your e-mail address in the field at the top of this page.

I link-up with a number of blogging  communities on a regular basis.  They are listed in the left sidebar by day of the week.  I hope that you will take a moment to enjoy reading the work of some of these fine writers and thinkers.

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Grow Up! (The Practice of Resurrection)

One of my favorite fringe benefits in this mothering life is the broadening of my world.  I routinely listen to conversations about welding and truck repair, have sat through hours and hours of livestock shows, and a few weekends ago, I witnessed my first triathlon.  I watched in awe as, one by one, the participants crossed the finish line after a grueling half mile swim, 11 mile bike ride, and 3 mile run, and I asked myself this question:

“What would happen if I put one tenth of that kind of effort and focused attention into the areas of my life where God has put His finger and said, “Grow up!”

I’m working on that in a small and quiet way by memorizing Colossians 3.  Paul begins the chapter with a reminder that it matters what we think about, and that the resurrection of Christ from the dead resonates today in every decision to purposefully focus on the “things over which Christ presides.”  And since I do not hold to dualism between the secular and the sacred, that includes everything!  This mindset celebrates the largeness of God and invites me to exercise my imagination in a discovery of the beautiful and the sacred in my everyday routine.

Community and accountability are always key for me in a memorization project, so I’m enjoying the fellowship around Colossians 3 at Do Not Depart.  I invite you to join with us in memorizing and meditating on this important passage of Scripture.  Lisa has developed a variety of helpful resources to get you started, and they’re all available here.  There’s also a Hide His Word Facebook gathering where the focus is on encouragement to memorize Scripture in community.

“Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.  Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.”

Paul’s opening words in Colossians 3 remind his readers that the basis for all our right thinking and right behavior is the resurrection of Christ and the believer’s participation in resurrection living.  Eugene Peterson has been helping me in my understanding of this as I have read and pondered Practice Resurrection:  A Conversation on Growing Up in Christ.  “Jesus alive and present” changes everything, and “a lively sense of Jesus’ resurrection, which took place without any help or comment from us, keeps us from attempting to take charge of our own development and growth.”  (8)

Understanding the Practice of Resurrection Living

Mining truth from the book of Ephesians and laying it down beside the words of poets, novelists, and theologians, Peterson said-without-saying-it that a wide and rich reading life will enhance ones ability to read and learn from Scripture. Continually making “organic connection[s] from what you can see to what you can’t see,” he employs vivid metaphors to invite readers into Paul’s exhortation to practice resurrection:

  •  “I, therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beg you to live [or walk] a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called.” (4:1)  In the Greek, the word “worthy” comes embedded with a picture of a set of balancing scales.  Does my life demonstrate a balance between my walk and my calling?  It is interesting that the entire structure of Ephesians models this balance with chapters 1-3 focusing on God’s calling and chapters 4-6 examining the believer’s walk.
  • Paul’s body of Christ metaphor emphasizes the homeliness of the church gathered.  On one level, we see a building; on another level, we witness the reality of people and relationships that make up the family of God; on a “spiritual” level there is the truth of the believer as the “dwelling place for God.”  With thirty plus years as a pastor on his resume, Peterson urges believers that “when we consider church, we must not be more spiritual than God.”
  • In the practice of resurrection, we work, but it is far more accurate to think that “we are God’s work and doing God’s work.”  This takes the focus off me (and all my valiant efforts to rescue God) and puts the spotlight on the truth that the entire revelation of God is the story of God at work alongside the invitation to join Him.

Understanding Prayer and the Church

When the Apostle Paul calls the church at Ephesus to grow up, his exhortation reverberates through the centuries, incorporating a call to live in fellowship with a local body of believers and to spend plenty of time speaking “the primary language that we use as we grow up in Christ” — this is prayer.  Ephesians resonates with prayer language and comprises some of the richest and most fluently theological material in Paul’s writings.  When my children began to reach the age when my own prayers for them seemed shallow and limiting, I memorized Ephesians 1 and the prayer in Ephesians 3 so that I could join Paul on our “knees before the Father” — instead of prescribing to God a plan of action that suited me.

The more I enjoy a book, the more difficulty I have in writing a review. Therefore, after having dog-eared pages and made a list of books that I need to read in follow-up, I feel as if I’ve only just begun to understand the words of Paul the Apostle and Peterson the Pastor on the practice of resurrection.  This may be the best possible outcome, for I’m seeing that “growing up in Christ means growing up to a stature adequate to respond heart and soul to the largeness of God.” (130)

This, of course, we know is a process that will take all the long leisure of eternity to realize.

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This book was provided by William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company in exchange for my review.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

If you were part of this year’s book discussion group around C.S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces, you’ll be interested to know that Eugene Peterson references the book in his appendix as recommended reading on the practice of resurrection with these words:
“The last novel [C.S. Lewis] wrote, Till We Have Faces, he thought was his best.  I agree.  But it is also the most difficult, the most demanding.  The root of the difficulty is that it is about the most demanding of human tasks, becoming mature, growing up to the measure of the stature of Jesus Christ.”

As with all of Peterson’s Conversations in Spiritual Theology, this volume is best read in concert with the text.  When I read through and later taught the book of Revelation, I used Peterson’s Reversed Thunder to help my understanding and then wrote about it here.   Currently, I’m reading a leisurely path through the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah alongside Run with the Horses.  And . . .one last thought:  if you are ever curious about what it might have been like to sit under Eugene Peterson’s preaching ministry for a series of decades, he has released a collection of his sermons this year, As Kingfishers Catch Fire, and I happily reviewed that book here on the blog.

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I link-up with a number of blogging  communities on a regular basis.  They are listed in the left sidebar by day of the week.  I hope that you will take a moment to enjoy reading the work of some of these fine writers and thinkers.

Attending to the Details of Congruence

No one has to remind the forsythia bush outside my dining room window to break forth into yellow luminescence as an announcement that spring has come.  The sassy gray squirrel steals shamelessly from the bird feeder “according to his kind,” and the chickadee scolds and stitches up the air behind her — because that is what chickadees do.  Of all God’s creation, it is only humanity that struggles toward congruence of our inside with our outside, of our calling and our walking.  Gerard Manley Hopkins captures the beautiful true-to-essence behaviors of stones and dragonflies, of violin strings and bells in his classic poem As Kingfisher’s Catch Fire and nodding in agreement with his conclusion, Eugene Peterson has borrowed the title for his 2017 compilation of sermons taken from 29 years of preaching from a pulpit in Maryland.

Peterson concludes that part of spiritual formation is living into this congruence between “the means by which we live” and “the ends for which we live.”  For humans, this is not a mindless outcome of biology and physics, but rather a living out of the Christ life, one glorious manifestation of Hopkins’ “ten thousand places” in which Christ plays.

This witness from a poem — along with his realization that there was a disconnect between his preaching and his deepest convictions of what he should be doing as a pastor — marked the beginning of a new way of viewing ministry for Eugene Peterson.  He began to see his congregation “just as they were, not how [he] wanted them to be.”  He stopped viewing them as “either problems to be fixed or resources to be exploited.”  The new collaborative relationship, in worship and in life, is reflected in this collection of forty-nine sermons arranged in seven sections:

Part 1:  Preaching in the Company of Moses

Although Peterson addresses his introductory material to those who preach for a living, those of us who teach or write (for a life) will be enriched by insights like this:

“Is it possible to take the Torah apart historically and then put it back together again as a book of faith with theological and literary integrity?  I think it is.  It is not only possible but worth any effort it might take.”  (6)

With that in mind, the seven sermons in this section are designed to “nourish the storytelling imagination” (7) through stories in Genesis that reveal the nature and character of God.  Abraham, the friend of God; Moses, the signpost pointing to Christ; and a stunning analysis of Leviticus 19:18 that takes the focus off the law and the lists and puts it on love:  “the primary verb in our Scriptures.” (37)

Part 2:  Preaching in the Company of David

Sermons based on the Bible’s prayer book, the Psalms, drive home the truth that “prayer is an act of attention.”  Reading through the Old Testament right now with my patient husband, we are hopping back and forth between David-on-the-run and David the lyricist.  Since “everything that happened in David’s life became prayer,” I am encouraged to let my own context flow seamlessly into conversation with God.  Seven sermons from the Psalms bridge Old and New Testaments with surprising connections that encourage me to look for ways in which  my own story is woven around and through listening prayer.

Part 3:  Preaching in the Company of Isaiah

I saved this chapter for last (like dessert) because Isaiah is my favorite prophet, and I was not disappointed.  The jarring realism of the prophetic word gets ample play in Peterson’s analysis:

“Prophets insist that God is the sovereign center, not off in the wings awaiting our beck and call.  And prophets insist that we deal with God as God reveals himself, not as we imagine him to be.”

A right reading of the prophets protects us from dividing the secular from the sacred, setting off a safe place for a tame God to act, and then tending to our own business in the “real life” category.  “Prophets will have none of this.”  Everything is God’s, and the flood of His holiness knocks down the dividing walls and brings everything under His scrutiny and jurisdiction.

Part 4:  Preaching in the Company of Solomon

I doubt if I’ve heard seven sermons in my whole life taken from Old Testament Wisdom literature, so I’m in dire need of the enhanced “quotidian imagination” Peterson writes of: an “imagination soaked in the ordinary, the everyday.”  With characteristic clarity, Peterson notes a “polarity” among these books in which the Song of Solomon and Job contrast ecstasy with devastation while the Proverbs and Ecclesiastes contrast the sacredness of the everyday round with the determination to persevere in spite of the mundane details.

“In these books, human experience as the arena in which God is present and working is placed front and center.”

Part 5:  Preaching in the Company of Peter

In addition to his letters, Peter’s voice vibrates behind Mark’s in the second gospel.  With this in mind, the “incarnational storytelling” of the New Testament takes on an electrical quality.  Peter’s confession that Jesus is “the Christ” arises from three years of intimate research, meals on the road, sharing of daily space. While we may struggle to embrace the human side of the Jesus portrayed in the Gospels, Peter would have had no doubt.

When he made his insightful statement that Jesus is “the Christ,” what Peter was really saying was this:  “You are God among us.”  And no sooner had he come to this elaborate conclusion, but God the Son began the process of introducing the notion that He would die.  Nowhere else do we witness this degree of conceptual whiplash between the idea of Jesus as “God through and through” and “human through and through.”

Peterson’s inclusion of his sermon on “the manure story” feels almost like bonus content, for it presents a four verse parable about an unproductive fig tree as an invitation to join God in the slow (and sometimes messy) solution to a presenting problem:  Be quiet in the presence of death while waiting for new life to emerge.

Part 6:  Preaching in the Company of Paul

Prolific Paul is described as “the gold standard in the world of theology,” and Peterson dips his brush into seven of Paul’s letters to illustrate four elements of Paul’s “theological imagination:

  1.  His submission to Scripture —  “Paul is not an independent thinker figuring things out on his own. . . As he writes his letters, Paul’s mind is entirely harnessed to Scripture.” (269)
  2. His extravagant embrace of mystery — “There is a kind of mind, too common among us, that is impatient of mystery.  We want to know what is going on.  But such impatience short-circuits maturity.” (271)
  3. His use of language — “Ivory tower intellectuals and rubber-hits-the-road pragmatists like things organized and orderly.  That is not the kind of language we find in Paul.  Paul uses words not to define but to evoke.” (272)
  4. His words came to us through letters in accessible terms – “Theology is not talking about God but living in community with persons in relationships . . . [Paul’s} theology was written in community with a host of people in the context of living out the faith.”  (273)

Part 7:  Preaching in the Company of John of Patmos

John’s writing emphasizes Jesus’ conversations and His prayers.  As a lover of the Word, Peterson throws the spotlight on John’s easy familiarity with the Old Testament:  in Revelation’s 404 verses, there are 518 references to earlier scriptures.  John wrote in three different genres, but all with the heart and soul of a pastor, communicating in love to a group of believers.  Perhaps it is for this reason that Eugene Peterson’s pastoral heart is apparent in this final section:

“As it turns out, in this business of living the Christian life, one of the most neglected aspects in reading the Scriptures is reading them formatively and imaginatively, reading in order to live.

“Worship God. . . Worship gathers everything in our common lives that has been dispersed by sin and brings it to attention before God.”

As Kingfishers Catch Fire captures the heart and wisdom of a pastor with a sense of calling and a deep knowledge of Scripture.

With an overwhelming volume of content available online and so many new books being published every month, these “kingfisher sermons” stand by themselves in their timeless application of Scriptural truth to boots-on-the- ground living.  I can’t think of a thing on Netflix or anywhere else that I would bother to “binge watch,” but I most heartily enjoyed (and highly recommend) the “binge-reading” of Eugene Peterson’s sermons.

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This book was provided by Waterbrook, a division of Penguin Random House via Blogging for Books in exchange for my review.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Read more about Eugene Peterson and As Kingfishers Catch Fire at these sites provided by Multnomah.

If you enjoy reading Living Our Days, subscribe to get regular Bible studies and book reviews delivered to your inbox.  Just enter your e-mail address in the field at the top of this page.

I link-up with a number of blogging  communities on a regular basis.  They are listed in the left sidebar by day of the week.  I hope that you will take a moment to enjoy reading the work of some of these fine writers and thinkers.

 

Musings — April 2017

Returning from a family vacation (and a blogging break!), it’s great to be rested and to have stored up some delightful memories with my patient husband, our two youngest sons, and with dear friends who love us so much and so well that they even welcomed our big slobbery dog!

Did you know that the roller coaster was invented by the French in 1817? Two hundred years later, our guys enjoyed this “history lesson.”

 

Obviously, the cool people are sitting on each end.

On the Nightstand

Not because I deserve it, but because God is gracious, I have a friend who has stuck with me through a dozen or more years of reading Scripture together.  Even though we are geographically far apart, we read the same passage each day and hold one another accountable to the practice of showing up in the presence of the Word.  Our plan for the foreseeable future is to read through the book of Jeremiah, using Eugene Peterson’s Run with the Horses as our road map.

“Before I shaped you in the womb,
    I knew all about you.
Before you saw the light of day,
    I had holy plans for you:
A prophet to the nations—
that’s what I had in mind for you.”

Jeremiah 1:5  (MSG)

Already, the first chapter is breathtaking with its reminder that we are known before we know, that we have been enlisted by God before we were even qualified for anything.  Then, since “giving is the style of the universe,” we have been given to our families, our friends, our neighbors — and to our enemies.

“Our life is for others. . .  We don’t think we can live generously because we have never tried.  But the sooner we start the better, for we are going to have to give up our lives finally, and the longer we wait the less time we have for the soaring and swooping grace of life.”

This was true of Jeremiah, and it is certainly true of believers in 2017.

On the Blog

In April I shared my first offering as a contributor to God-sized Dreams, an on-line community where you can say your dream out loud and find the glorious encouragement of others who are also familiar with the joys and pitfalls inherent to dreaming.   When fear threatens to extract all the air from my dreams, I’m thankful for the courage and strength that come from an upholding God.  You can read more here about letting your fear drive you to the One who casts out all fear.

Ruby Magazine included a couple of my book reviews in their April edition.  I always enjoy sharing children’s books, and, of course, the best part is test-driving the books with the adorable grandson.

The most viewed post in April was my review of Gary Thomas’s book, Cherish:  The One Word that Changes Everything for Your Marriage.  Gary encourages his readers to go beyond merely loving our spouses and to live our way into “a marriage that feels more precious, more connected, and more satisfying.”

Just for Joy

What is it about fiction and the imagined words and experiences of well-developed characters that can leave the heart aching with the beauty of truth?

In The Maytrees by Annie Dillard, Toby leaves his wife Lou and moves to Maine with Deary.  Twenty years pass, and with Deary in the process of dying, Toby falls, breaking both arms.  He returns to Lou and asks her to care for them both.

Spoiler alert:  She says yes.
All incredulity aside, this excerpt from Lou’s processing of the decision stopped me in my tracks:

“At this age, forgiveness could be child’s play if you know the ropes.”

Is this “knowing the ropes” another word for grace?
Am I better at forgiving now than I was twenty years ago?

What are you working on these days?
Are you seeing evidence of God’s knowing, choosing, and launching you into His agenda?
I’d love to hear your thoughts, and am thankful for your eyes in this place at the end of another month.
Blessings and love to you.

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Diligence and Focus: Thoughts from the Garden

Since the blossoms are turning into green beans;

Since the tomatoes are crowding each other for a peek of the red-ripening sun;

Since going to the garden feeds my soul as well as my family, I look forward every year to the season of hunkering down between the bean plants.  It’s challenging this year with a summer job, but this is my twenty-seventh garden, so I’ve definitely signed on for the long haul of canning and sticky jam-making on hot July afternoons.

Weeding was terrifying in my early days of gardening.  How can you tell a beet seedling from an imposter when both are tinged with red?  And I truly thought I would perish before finishing our first season of bean canning —  sixty-five shiny new pint jars full of green beans.  Ironically, in 2015, I canned 63 quarts and 55 pints, and never once thought I would perish.

 From my garden, I am learning about diligence. 

The garden yields its treasures to the worker who plants, weeds, picks, prepares, and preserves its bounty.    When I pick veggies, I have learned to use my sense of touch as well as sight.  For example, green peppers blend in so well with their bushy plant that last fall I underestimated their number and carried a small bucket to hold the harvest.  When that was full, I requisitioned a decrepit Tonka truck from the sandbox and loaded it too!

Where had this unexpected bounty come from?

Picking, I had used two hands, holding onto each plant and feeling every inch.

I wish I could say that my devotional habits mirrored my gardening practices. Do I read as if I were working in the garden, ransacking every verse for every morsel of truth to feed my soul?

I’m afraid that sometimes I pick up the Bible as if it were a sales flyer.  “Anything good on sale this week?”  A quick scan for bargains, and then on to the next item in the junk mail pile.

I have friends of the heart who talk to me sadly about their truth-harvesting habits.  As I listen and commiserate, I think of Paradise Lost  by John Milton, the book that sat on my night stand for three years.

I knew I should read it.

I knew that when I did read it I would love it!   (“He also serves who sits and waits,” wrote Milton on his blindness.  Beautiful.  Who wouldn’t want to read more of his writing?)

One thing I know for sure:  when I harvest my green peppers, I’m not thinking about eggplants (as lovely as eggplants are!).

From my garden, I am learning about focus.

When the psalmists wrote about this kind of concentration, they used the Hebrew word hagah, usually translated as “meditate.”  (See Psalm 1:2; 63:6)  In Eat this Book, Eugene Peterson connects the dots to Isaiah 31:4 where the prophet uses the same Hebrew word to refer to a lion growling over its prey.  Our St. Bernard, Tucker, concentrates on his bones and chewy toys in the same noisy and focused state of mind.   In Peterson’s opinion, “Meditation is too tame a word.  Isaiah’s lion chewed and swallowed when he meditated.”  I am interested in cultivating this kind of reading — spiritual reading that feeds my soul.

“Open my eyes that I may behold wondrous things out of thy law.”  Psalm 119:18

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Just One Thing: Gates

“They laid its beams and hung its doors with its bolts and bars. “*

Not exactly the stuff of which a “life verse” or a New Year’s Resolution is made,

But five times in Nehemiah’s counter-clockwise tour of the wall we are confronted:

What’s the point of a walled city if the gates are not secure?

Shore them up!  Every beam; every door; every bolt; every bar,

Not just for the glory of Old Jerusalem, but for the glory of God,

Who is, after all, the Center, the focus of Nehemiah’s renovation.

“Where there is no center, there is no circumference,”**

And how we need a circumference–

A boundary–

Not to hem us in, suffocation-style,

But to correct our warped geometry,

To free us up,

To establish the playing field:

“Here is the goal.”

“This is my responsibility.”

“Someone else will cover this area.”

After all, didn’t original sin sprout from the refusal of a boundary?

What if, instead of an outreached hand to harvest death,

Eve’s response had been,

“Let me not be like unto God.  Let me be instead what I was created to be.

Let me be a woman.”***

Today, and everyday, let me secure the gates.

All day long we choose

With eyes, ears, lips, fingers —

Trivial pursuits, mindless entertainment,

The gates wide-open to the corrosion of our souls.

Lay the beams, tighten the bolts and bars.

Guard your heart and live free.

 

* Nehemah 3:3, 6, 13-15

**Eugene Peterson, Reversed Thunder

*** Elisabeth Elliot, Let Me Be a Woman

For further study, read Nehemiah 3 in a sitting.  It may be second only to “the begats” in its repetitive monotony, but if your Bible has a map of Nehemiah’s Jerusalem, follow it around the wall as you read.  It really does help!

Just One Thing: Politics

“The moment one life impinges on another, politics begin.”

Well said, Eugene Peterson (as usual), and certainly Nehemiah learned this lesson repeatedly in his quest to rebuild the walls around Jerusalem.  There is no avoiding politics because there is no avoiding power and its use and misuse.  In Nehemiah’s time, the minor officials of the lands surrounding Jerusalem had pulled their strings and ground their axes and the result was a smoking pile of rubble and the loss of all the progress the Israelites had made since King Cyrus had given permission for the first wave of rebuilding to begin.

Sometimes, however, political shenanigans work to positive ends.  Unbeknownst to Nehemiah, letters had been flying back and forth between tattle-tale governors and King Artaxerxes.  When someone finally asked the Israelites on whose authority they were rebuilding their city, their reply was clear and bold:  “We are the servants of the God of heaven and earth.  We disobeyed Him and were punished with the destruction of our city.  King Cyrus has given us permission to return and rebuild.  Go and search the records, and see for yourself!”

Thus began a scrambling in the royal archives for a certain piece of paper, which, in the providence of God had been preserved.  Not only had Cyrus granted permission for the city of Jerusalem to be reconstituted, but had also set forth the punishment for those who resisted or interfered:  they were to be impaled on a beam from their own house.  Ouch.

Meanwhile, Nehemiah was preparing for his role in God’s redemptive plan by praying for four months, blissfully unaware of the political machinations that were paving the way for a successful meeting with King Artaxerxes, the misguided monarch who had initially issued the stop-work edict.  Thus, the exchange between cup-bearer and king show the pre-work of prayer and politics, working hand-in-hand to bring about the design of God.

In this season of Advent, we celebrate the outcome of Nehemiah’s efforts:  the birth of a Savior, the “Ultimate Nehemiah” who will, one day, preside over the New Jerusalem for all eternity.  The fact that He was raised within an intact Israelite culture is, in part, because of politics. (Without walls, the people would have been absorbed into surrounding cultures.)  The fact that His message was able to travel quickly and safely over Roman roads in a time of relative peace is also, in part, political.

Kathy Keller has summed up this partnership of politics and grace in a single statement:

“God’s people do not need to be powerful culturally or in power politically to be obedient to Him and accomplish His purposes in the world.  All we need to do to join the great sweep of redemptive history is to be faithful to the One who has called us by His own name.”

Amen and Merry Christmas.

(For further study, read Ezra 4:8-21 and 6:2-12 . . . or  join us at Spruce Head Community Church for my Sunday School class on the book of Nehemiah!)