Bible, Christian living, creation care

Wildflowers in the Field (Earth Day 2023)

Originally written as a devotional for Creation Care Week 2023 at Wayland Baptist University.

Jesus said . . . “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear. . . .  Consider how the wild flowers grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these.  If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today, and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, how much more will he clothe you—you of little faith!”

Luke 12:22, 27-28, NIV

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Easter weekend, as I drove through Central Texas, I marveled at the fields of bluebonnets and Indian paintbrush.  I took some time to stop and photograph along the drive. The experience reminded me of this passage in Luke. 

Jesus taught his disciples to trust God and not worry about the needs of life.  If God is a gracious and good Father, why would he not care for his children?  God cares for all of his creation.  Just look out in the fields, Jesus said.  God lovingly decorates the grasses of the fields with wildflowers, so that they are more wondrous than a king’s finest robes.  God does this even though the grass and wildflowers are only here a short time.  The grass is “here today and tomorrow is thrown into the clibanos,” an earthen vessel used for baking bread (translated as “fire” in NIV).  God cares for the most commonplace elements of his creation, something so mundane that humans gather it as fuel to make their bread.  Jesus taught us to pray for our daily bread.  Here we learn that God royally clothes the very things we take for granted while cooking that bread.  If today he clothes the grass that is gone tomorrow, how much more will he care for our needs?

Just as God cares for his creation, he calls us to join him in caring for creation and for one another.  This is part of what it means to be created in his image.  Lady Bird Johnson heard this call in the 1965.  Inspired by the wildflower seeding program of the Texas Highway Department, she convinced her husband to push for the Highway Beautification Act.  Known as “Lady Bird’s Bill,” it included a provision to plant wildflowers across the nation’s Interstate highways.  Lee Clippard, director of communications at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, described her care for creation.  “People wanted to see beautiful flowers and beautiful landscapes, but she saw it as a way to heal the land.  She knew it was a way to improve the lives of people.  She always saw landscapes and people together.” (Texas Highways, 7 April 2019).

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Bible, Christian living, Jesus

Reflections on a Donkey, Crying Stones, and Jesus’ Tears

A Rebuke of Culture Wars and Religious Nationalism

Each year, Christians celebrate Palm Sunday, Jesus’ so-called “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem.  The gospels do depict the crowds celebrating triumphantly, but what if Jesus himself was rebuking his own followers? What if he did not agree with their hopes for the Messiah? What do Jesus’ actions and words really say in Luke 19:28-44, if we have ears to hear?

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A Donkey

Jesus excited his disciples’ imagination by taking the route of Joshua toward Jerusalem (crossing the Jordan into Jericho).  Then he sent two disciples on a secret mission. Was this not the same number of spies Joshua sent to prepare the Conquest? Maybe they were scouting out Jerusalem’s defenses! Instead, they return with a donkey. Readers have wondered how Jesus knew this donkey would be tied up. Some think the owner has great faith to surrender his animal to unknown people simply because, “the Lord needs it!” Yet it is far more likely Jesus pre-arranged this with the owner.  He would tie up his donkey on this day and recognize Jesus’ men if they used the correct passphrase. Perhaps this is why John abbreviates the entire story: “Jesus found a young donkey.” John and Matthew quote this event as a fulfillment of Zechariah 9:9, but they do not mean it was a series of divine coincidences. Jesus intentional acted out this prophecy as a proclamation he was Messiah, and what he understood this to mean.

Many Jews believed Zech 9:9 was part of a prophecy that Messiah would bring peace for the Jews through a war against the nations.  Their response to Jesus riding a donkey fits this common Jewish hope.  People threw cloaks down before Jesus’ path, just like Jehu’s men when Elisha anointed him to become King of Israel.  Interestingly, there was already a King of Israel! Jehu became Messiah to assassinate King Joram. People also waved palm branches and threw them down before Jesus, just as Jews did a century earlier during the Maccabean Revolt. Simon was greeted by cheering crowds and palm branches after his army liberated Jerusalem from Syrian occupation and cleansed the temple. Finally, Matthew, Mark, and John tell us the crowds shouted out Hosanna! Save us! The people had nationalistic dreams Jesus would successfully lead a rebellion against the Romans.

Crying Stones

Luke makes it clear this is how the Pharisees interpreted these events since they tell Jesus to quiet his disciples. No doubt they were eyeing the Roman soldiers standing watch on Jerusalem’s walls, fearing they might become agitated and move to put down this apparent protest movement calling for rebellion. Instead of quieting his disciples, however, Jesus replied, “If they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.” Perhaps Jesus’ disciples thought he was referencing Habakkuk 2:10, where the stones of the walls would cry out against the injustices they bore witness to within the city. After all, Luke emphasizes the crowd is descending into the Kidron Valley.  Across the valley, they could all see the massive stones of Jerusalem’s walls.

Jesus’ Tears

Then, Jesus wept as he looked across at Jerusalem. He mourned that the people did not grasp the true meaning of peace. He wept because his people’s desire to defeat the cultural intrusion of Rome through physical force would result in the loss of all the institutions they held dear. He shed tears because his beloved people loved the power and glory of Jerusalem, the temple, and the land of Israel. They hoped Jesus was the strong man they needed to make Israel great once again through a violent expulsion of the Romans.

The Rebuke of a Prophetic Act

Jesus, however, had a very different vision for the Kingdom and his role as Messiah. Riding a donkey was not a message of conquest. The “triumphal entry” surrounding him was just Satan’s latest temptation to lure Jesus to desire the very power structures he had rejected since the voice from heaven told him his role as Messiah was to be a suffering servant.  Jesus intentionally acted out Zechariah 9:9 rather than some other messianic prophecy precisely because of his rejection of Messiah as conquering king. Zechariah was the only Israelite prophet who emphasized another aside from the king who was also anointed with oil—the chief priest. Jesus riding a donkey was pointing us to reflect on the entire book of Zechariah.  Zechariah 4 speaks of two trees pouring out oil into a single lampstand.  They are called two Messiahs (king and priest). Zechariah 6 then orders a crown to be placed on the chief priest, who will rule from his throne and bring “harmony between the two” (king and priest). Zechariah shifts the focus from the king to the priest.  Jesus proclaimed himself to be a priest-king.  He would serve his people’s spiritual needs rather than rule with might to enforce his people’s desire for power and prestige. John understood Jesus to be priest-king.  John has Jesus quote Zech 6:13 (rebuild the temple) as justification for cleansing the temple (John 2:19) and Pilate quote Zech 6:12 (here is the man) as he presents Jesus before the crowd in purple robe and crown of thorns (John 19:7).

Not only was the donkey Jesus’ rebuke of violent revolution, but his statement that the stones would cry out was not about the stones of Jerusalem’s walls. As noted before, Luke emphasizes the crowd was going down the Mount of Olives into the Kidron Valley. This area, both then and now, was a vast Jewish graveyard. There were stones everywhere: in front of tombs as well as atop crypts. The stones themselves would not be crying out, Hosanna! Save us! Rather, it would be the dead behind those stones shouting out for Jesus to remember them when he came into his Kingdom. In Zechariah, there is a promise from God attached to the one who rides the donkey: “because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will free your prisoners from the waterless pit” (9:11). Jesus’ decision to be a priest-king, to sacrifice his life, would result in the salvation of those who were in the grave (the waterless pit) as well as those of us who have yet to die. This Prophet like Moses would not liberate the people from slavery to an occupying force.  His exodus would lead people out of the grave!  This Messiah had not come to defeat the Romans.  He would destroy the common enemy of all people (whether Jew or Roman): death itself.

Jesus wept because he knew many there that day rejoicing in his enactment of a messianic claim would ultimately reject his servant priest-king conception of what it meant to be Messiah. They would instead follow after various revolutionaries who rose up before and after him, until the Romans eventually had enough and destroyed Jerusalem and the temple in A.D. 70.  As with this “triumphal entry,” Jesus’ whole life was a repudiation of power politics and cultural wars. Jesus foresaw the exaltation of religious nationalism as the destruction of his people . . . and he wept. When will American Christians put off the power dynamics of Cain and put on the servant righteousness of Jesus the Messiah?

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Reflections on a Donkey, Crying Stones, and Jesus’ Tears

Advent, Christian living, Jesus

The Peace of Divine Purpose (Advent 2022)

Matthew 1:18-21; Matthew 2:1-15; 2 Timothy 1:7; Hebrews 2:17-18

Paul told his young assistant Timothy that God’s Spirit does not make us timid.  Instead, it emboldens us to live a life of love and self-discipline.  Paul wrote this from prison awaiting execution.  Clearly, there is a peace about living in God’s will, even when the way is unclear or involves suffering.

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In the Christmas story, we find many people who discovered peace in the midst of suffering and confusing situations because they placed their faith in God.  They believed he had a plan and trusted him to guide them through the darkness into light.  Mary had an unplanned pregnancy.  Joseph was confused how his girl could cheat on him and what to do about it.  The magi thought they knew where God was taking them, yet they ended up in the wrong city!  They almost became political pawns in the process.  Joseph, Mary, and Jesus found themselves on the run from authorities.  Eventually, they became political refugees living as immigrants in Egypt, wondering when they could return home.  They had to live in a culture not their own, learn a new language that was foreign to them.  Many they encountered day after day probably hated them because of their foreignness! 

This was just in the first few years of Jesus’ life!  No wonder the writer of Hebrews tells us Jesus was made like us.  He was human in every way.  He understands our needs because he has suffered as we have.  Jesus came into our Egypt, our captivity, our exile.  He did not break sins’ shackles from the comfort of heaven.  He was “born into shit and straw” (to quote the ever-colorful Bono from U2).  This helpless babe had to trust not only his heavenly Father, but also his parents to protect him and love him.  Jesus suffered as we suffer.  He was tempted as we are tempted.  Through it all, he trusted his Father’s plan and walked in accordance with the Spirit of God.  This is what made him the Prince of Peace.  This is how he was able to save us from our sins.

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Christian living, Jesus, World Religions

Christian Reflections on the Taoist Way of Water

Nothing in the world is softer and weaker than water;
But, for attacking the hard and strong, there is nothing like it!
For nothing can take its place.
That the weak overcomes the strong, and the soft overcomes the hard,
This is something known by all, but practiced by none.

Tao Te Ching 78, Lao Tzu, translated by John Wu, 1961

When I lived in Hawaii, I used to walk along a beach that had beautiful beige sand interspersed with the occasional outcropping of black lava rock.  As I would walk, I would hear the soothing sound of the crashing waves and watch the waters wash in and out on the shoreline.  The water was constantly giving way to the hard shore, crashing down on the beach before yielding and retreating.  Or so it appeared to me in the moment.  If I had a longer perspective, however, and could stand at that location for several millennia, I would see the shoreline slowly erode and dissolve into the unrelenting sea.  In fact, the sandy beach on which I loved to walk was actually created by the unrelenting waves pounding the lava rocks, coral reefs, and shells.  Ultimately, I would watch the island disappear entirely under the ocean’s constant advance and retreat, yet the sea itself would remain.  The soft overcomes the hard.  The rigid falls to the yielding.

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As the Tao Te Ching says, everyone knows water gains its power from its yielding nature.  We wash food off pots and pans with water.  We spray down homes or cars to remove dirt and grime.  We should know the way of yielding is powerful, that the weak eventually overcomes the strong.  So why do we seek “power” in the rigid, in the uncompromising, in the illusory “solid”?  Why are we so quick to fight for our “rights” or our vision of how the world should be?  Worse still, why do we double down when others make it clear that our view of reality is askew or our accusations against others are false rather than confess or mistake?  It is so hard for us to yield, much less to deny ourselves.  Speaking of sand, the Tao’s thrust can also be seen in the truth that you can hold more sand in an open hand than in a clenched fist.  The harder you try to cling to a loved one, the more you push them away.  The open hand is the beneficial way of truth, fairness, and goodwill that builds better friendships and achieves more through love and trust than the clenched fist ever will through control.

The only clenching of the fist, for a Christian, should be to grasp firmly onto your cross as you follow after Jesus.  The Taoist statement fits well with Jesus’ emphasis on dying to self, turning the cheek, going the extra mile, and loving your enemies.  We are called to be the yielding yet unrelenting presence of love.  This is the way ultimately to achieve justice in the world.  Consider Martin Luther King’s open handed work in the Civil Rights Movement.  He learned it from the Gospels and from Mohandas Gandhi’s open handed work to liberate India from British rule.  Gandhi learned this from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount as well as the Jain concept of Ahimsa.  Interestingly, the Jain symbol of Ahimsa is the open palm!

The prophet Amos used this imagery of water overcoming rocks to communicate what God desires from us.  Amos says worshiping God isn’t through sacrifice or beautiful music.  True worship is when we let “justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” (5:24, NIV)

When someone makes false accusations against us, we instinctually respond with fight or flight.  But we need to engage them in love, quietly endure the accusations, and trust others to defend you.  Too many Christians are hardening themselves into culture warriors, yet Jesus wept for Jerusalem for just that issue.  He knew his fellow Jews wanted to overthrow the Romans through force and foresaw that this would destroy their city, their witness, and many of their lives.  

It will be interesting to see what happens in Iran.  The government is approaching the people’s outcries with hardened clenched fists.  Will the peaceful protests overcome?  Will they devolve into hardened tactics?  Likewise, Putin keeps hardening his position against Ukraine.  Putin sees himself as a defender of Orthodox Christianity against a corrupt West, but does he walk the way of Jesus, denying himself and taking up his cross?  The same chapter of the Tao Te Ching tells us the way of water for politics.  “To bear the calamities of a country is to be the prince of the world.”  This sounds more like Volodymyr Zelensky’s wartime leadership to date.  Yet can he practice true weakness or will the Ukrainians eventually harden in their fight with Russia and commit the same types of atrocities inflicted upon them?  The way of water is “known by all but practiced by none.”  None, perhaps, but Jesus, who took the calamities of his people upon himself and has become the King of Kings.

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Christian living

Marking the Trail

I recently hiked a mountain before sunrise.  In the pitch-black night, it was very hard to see the little blue spray paint strips that marked the trail.  A few times, I had to stop and search for several minutes before I could find that I was still on the path.  (Or at least once, how to return to the path!)  I was very thankful that frequently there was a much more visible marker to guide me—the Bates cairns, like the one in the photo.  These rocks are intentionally stacked in a pattern to be easily recognizable as well as directional. (The top rock points out the direction of the trail.)

These rocks remind me of our calling as followers of Jesus.  If Jesus is the Way (Jn 14:6), then we are to point others toward this Way.  We have this high calling.  Peter tells us that we are to be holy as God himself is holy (1Pt 1:16).  Holy is actually a good way to describe the cairn.  The rocks that make it up are holy rocks.  They have been set apart (the literal meaning of the word “holy”).  These rocks are set apart for a special purpose.  They are not like the common rocks lying around in the foreground of the photo.  Instead, the cairn rocks are living stones built by a Master Craftsman (1Pt 2:4-5), “living” because they guide people each and every day. 

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We should be like these living stones.  We should live up to our special calling, pointing others toward the Way, guiding them upward along the path.  Our purpose is to serve–guiding those on the path, helping them succeed in their journey.  We accomplish this by the way we live our lives each day.  Our good deeds should lead others to glorify God (1Pt 2:12).  We are to be a witness to the Way. This witness must be consistent, even when others mistreat us.  Some hikers intentionally deface the cairns.  Others build their own cairns, imitating what they do not understand.  Both actions create problems for later hikers, who are impacted by such destructive tendencies (intentional or not).  In a similar way, there are times when we will be abused or maligned.  Some will see our good deeds but will assume evil intentions or ascribe false motives.  When this happens, we are called to honor those who mistreat us and not to seek retaliation.  Jesus himself gave us this example when he endured the cross (1Pt 2:15-17, 23).  Let us follow his lead as we point the way toward him.

1 Peter 1:13-2:25

Bible, Christian living, creation care

Creation Cries Out

A devotional written for Creation Care Week at Wayland Baptist University. Published on Earth Day 2022.

If you missed it somehow, a war is raging in Ukraine the past two months.  While stories of the war seem ever-present in our newscasts and newsfeeds, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is by no means the only war presently occurring in the world.  What, you might ask, does war have to do with Creation Care?

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War does not only have a heavy human toll through death, dismemberment, and mental trauma.  Nor is it limited to the destruction of cities and infrastructure necessary for civilization and human thriving.  War also affects the environment.  One study of greenhouse gas emissions released by weapons of war discovered 1.2 million metric tons of gases were released during the twenty year global War on Terror—an annual emissions rate more than double that generated by all U.S. automobiles.  Wildfires from incendiary bombs or simply human negligence is another threat.  In 2008, a wildfire destroyed large portions of the forests of Borjomi and Khagarauli national parks during Russia’s war with Georgia.  During the battles around the port city of Kherson, fires erupted in the Black Sea Biosphere Refuge, fires severe enough to be seen from space.  The biosphere was the winter home for many migratory birds and an important breeding habitat.  Even when habitats aren’t destroyed, the frequent movement of troops and equipment and the constant noise of war leads to disruption of the animal population.  According to a Georgian environmentalist, there was a noticeable migration of animals fleeing over the Caucasus Mountains from Chechnya to Georgia during the Chechen insurrection against the Russian Federation in the 1990s.

War also creates ecological damage when human industry is targeted.  Intentional damage to oil export equipment along the Black Sea has destroyed marine habitat.  The sudden closures of mines in the Donbas region as civilians flee the current Russian assault may result in toxins seeping into aquifers as no one is at the mines to ensure proper pumping operations.  Chemical plants and nuclear power plants could being hit, releasing toxins or radioactive material into the atmosphere, land, and watershed.  And the ecological impact of this war isn’t limited to Europe.  Ukraine and Russia account for a third of grain exports worldwide.  Between the Russian blockade of Ukrainian ports and Western sanctions against Russian exports, the United Nations warns a food crisis will likely impact Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. 

Creation is in distress because of human actions.  As Paul puts it, “creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it” yet there is still “hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into . . . freedom and glory.”  This hope is rooted in creation’s “eager expectation” for the disclosure (apokalupsin) of the “Sons of God.”  Creation waits for this hope, groaning in its suffering and crying out in its anticipation of this apocalyptic moment when the Sons of God reveal themselves as healers, redeemers, and liberators (Rom 8:18-22).  Now, your English translation might have “children of God” (as the NIV does) instead of the literal “Sons of God.”  “Children” certainly is a more inclusive term and does fit Paul’s overall meaning, but “children” loses the symbolic nuance of what Paul is asserting. 

The term “Son of God” was a term for the kings of ancient Israel.  When Jesus was called “Son of God” during his earthly life, those who used the title meant the human king who would restore David’s kingdom.  (Only after the resurrection does the title begin to develop divine signification.)  Paul says Christians are kings (and queens).  We are part of Christ’s mission.  We are to work to establish the Kingdom of God.  Paul tells us we are adopted as sons (and daughters) by God to be “co-heirs” with Christ, sharing both in his suffering and in his glory (Rom 8:15-17).  Jesus himself referred to believers as Sons of God.  “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. . . .  Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called Sons of God” (Matt 5:5, 9).  Patriarch Kirill of Moscow has argued that Vladimir Putin is the Defender of the Russian Orthodox faith on a divine mission to reclaim the sacred lands of Holy Rus (a land that includes Ukraine).  Yet Jesus says the true Sons of God are not warmongers or authoritarian strongmen, whether Tiberius Caesar or Vladimir Putin, but are instead meek peacemakers.

As we strive to see the Lord’s Prayer realized, working with the Father to bring earth into alignment with his will just as heaven already is (Matt 6:10), we should be reconcilers, peacemakers, and healers—not just for humans, not only for societies, but for creation itself.  While we will not fully realize our potential until Jesus returns and the Kingdom comes in its fullness, we are called today to live in the Spirit and to strive to live up to our calling as kings and queens (i.e., Sons of God) co-reigning with Jesus.  Can you hear creation?  It cries out with Jesus, “Blessed are the meek!  Blessed are the peacemakers!”

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Image by Anastasia Vlasova from Getty Images as used in the ABC News story below. “A rocket sits in a field near grazing cows on April 10, 2022 in Lukashivka village, Ukraine.”

The Holy Bible, New International Version, NIV. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011 (with clarifying modification).

Anthes, Emily. “A ‘Silent Victim’: How Nature Becomes a Casualty of War.” The New York Times, April 20, 2022.

Jacobo, Julia. “Experts Predict Lasting Environmental Damage from Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine.” ABC News, April 20, 2022.

Kekenadze, Davit. “The Environment: The Silent Causualty of the Ukraine War.” Euronews, April 17, 2022.

Bible, Jesus, sermon

When All Is Lost, Look to the Cross!

There is perhaps no better known verse in all the Bible than John 3:16.  “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (NIV).  Tim Tebow wore this scripture reference on his eye black during the 2009 National Championship.  During the game, Google reported over 90 million searches for the verse!  Even though the verse is well-known even by non-Christians, however, many Christians read the verse in isolation and do not consider its context within John’s gospel.  In particular, the two verses that precede it state, “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him” (John 3:14-15, NIV).

The story of the snake Moses lifted in the wilderness is in Numbers 21:4-9.  Jesus says that he himself must be lifted up as the snake, so it is important to understand what this snake was and how it functioned in the story of Moses to understand better the love of God for the world and why he would send his Son.

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The Snake Lifted Up in the Wilderness

First, we find that the people rebelled against God.  They grew impatient and questioned God’s ways.  They said he brought them to the desert to die, when in reality he was leading them through the desert to a land promised to their ancestors.  They complained there was no water, even though, by this point in the narrative, God had provided water on two occasions when it was desperately needed.  The people even asserted there was no bread, even though each morning they found a miraculous substance on the ground, a gift from God, which they could harvest, grind, and bake into bread.  But instead of being thankful for this bread from heaven, they despised it and called it “miserable” and “detestable.” 

What the people don’t seem to understand is that God was providing the best for them in the midst of a very bad situation.  They began to romanticize their old life in Egypt.  It isn’t stated in this story, but we read elsewhere how they reminisced about the diversity of food back in Egypt—forgetting they had been suffered as slaves there.  They also ignore the reality that the only reason they are even in the wilderness at this point was their lack of faith.  God had taken them rather quickly to the very edge of the Promised Land of Canaan, but instead of trusting God would help them conquer the land, they rebelled in their fear, so God cursed them to wander for forty years in the wilderness.  Yet despite their complaints and rebellion, God remained with them, guiding them and providing for them daily.

Even today we often think we know better than God and so we go our own way.  Sometimes we make destructive decisions for short-term moments of pleasure.  Other times, we act on what we think is a great opportunity only to discover many hidden traps.  Perhaps worst of all are the times we act like the these Israelites, following God half-heartedly but grumbling the entire time.  We neglect to see how our choices lead to slavery, lifelong consequences, hardened and embittered hearts, and/or even death.  This, however, is what the Israelites soon discovered.

Second, God judges the people’s sin.  Snakes came among the people and began to bite them.  Many of the affected people died.  If they thought God’s gift of Manna was miserable, just imagine how they felt now!  While some see the story as the act of a vengeful or vindictive God, the bigger picture emphasizes God is with the people through both good and bad times.  He is judging them not to punish so much as to discipline them.  Like a parent, he sees the direction their immediate choices will have on their future and the future of their children.  God hopes to correct them now so that they will mature in their faith and enjoy a better in the future.  He want to make them aware of their sinful state and its impact on their relationship with him and with each other.

Third, the people repent of their sins.  They agree with God that their actions are wrong (“we sinned against God”) and they ask Moses to pray for them.  Asking Moses to pray doesn’t mean they need a “professional” to whom they confess their sins.  Rather, it is a recognition that their sin wasn’t just against God but also against Moses’ leadership (“and we sinned against you”).  Asking Moses to pray for them was an act of repentance and reconciliation, acknowledging him as their appointed leader.  What is far more significant than who should pray, however, is what they ask him to pray: “take the snakes away”!

Finally, the Lord provided deliverance.  Moses is told to make a bronze snake and put it on a pole.  What God does is take the object of their suffering and affliction—the snakes—and turn it into the source of their healing and deliverance.  Death, in the shadow of the bronze snake, is transformed into life.  Chaos is given order.  Despair gives way to hope as one looks in faith upon the very image of despair.

Notice God says anyone “can look.”  When someone was bitten, they didn’t have to look.  If they did so, it was an act of trusting God, an act of faith. . . . but they didn’t have to.  In fact, what sense did it make?  There was a far more obvious solution: kill the snakes!  Don’t wait to get bitten.  But if you were bitten, there was a a more sensible action: take steps to remove the poison before it filtered through your body!  Imagine if a man showed up in Mariupol, Ukraine holding a staff with a bronze artillery shell on it.  If he told the people there, whenever you hear the whistle of an incoming shell, you’ll be fine if you just look at this bronze shell and trust God, they would think he was mad!  There are far better options!  Find an evacuation route to get out of the city.  Why stay in harm’s way?  Flee to a bunker to ride out the shelling.  Why remain in the open?  But this is just how ludicrous Moses probably sounded to the people back then.  Yet salvation doesn’t come through our own actions.  It comes from God and we need to trust him to provide for us in our times of need.

Also notice that God didn’t take the snakes away as the people requested.  Instead, God gave the people a bronze snake.  We are told that “when anyone was bitten,” if they looked at the symbol, they lived.  But God didn’t remove the snakes, at least not right away.  He provided a way through the situation, a way to bear up under it.  When someone becomes a Christian, they aren’t immediately translated into the Kingdom of God.  Rather, they remain here in this world of suffering, pain, and death.  But now they have been reconciled to God and he promises to provide them a way through the suffering, a way that leads towards healing and hope.  For the Israelites, they endured the snakes for a time.  They endured the wilderness for even longer.  But their story didn’t end there.  The goal was the Promised Land, the Land of Canaan that became the Land of Israel.  So we look to a future full of healing, joy, and life in the Kingdom of God, a hope made possible through the death and resurrection of Jesus.

The Son of Man Lifted Up on Calvary

Here is the meaning of John 3.  Just as the snake was lifted up, so the Son of Man would be hung on a cross.  In the first century world, the cross was the most humiliating form of execution.  It was purposefully torturous to emphasize why no one should consider rebelling against the Roman Empire.  It was a symbol of rebellion, futility, and death.  Yet today, Christians see the cross as a symbol of forgiveness, hope, and life.  Many wear it as jewelry or hang it as art in their homes.  The snake and the cross were both objects of suffering and death that were transformed by the creative work of God into sources of healing and life.  Both were means of his salvation.  Christians hope for new life because the cross wasn’t the final word.  The cross was followed by the empty tomb, Jesus raised from the dead now seated in heaven.  Jesus suffered and died for us that we might live for him as we look to him in faith.

Just as in the wilderness, God doesn’t want to condemn the world.  He sent his Son to be lifted up so he could draw all people to himself.  But we have a choice, just as the dying Israelites did when bitten by the snakes.  “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.  Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son” (Jn 3:17-18).  Just as the snakes were already destroying the people because of their rebellion, so we are already separated from God and dying on account of our own sinful actions and choices.  There is only one choice that can heal.  When all is lost, look to the cross!

Father Brian Jordan ministered to the workers at Ground Zero during the months of cleanup after September 11, 2001.  One day after mass, one of the construction workers, Frank Silecchia, approached him and asked, “Do you want to see God’s house?”  Soon, Father Jordan found himself descending with Mr. Silecchia into the rubble of the fallen towers.  After a while, they reached the lowest-most level where the foundation had been lain.  Eventually, they stood in front of a steel column that had survived the destruction.  Attached to the column that rose from the ground was a steel girder, a crossbeam, which held fast despite the weight of the building’s collapse.  As the priest looked into the eyes of the workers there, he saw hope rising within them from this remnant.  In the midst of the rubble and chaos of death and destruction all around them, these two steel beams stood in the shape of a cross.  These beams weren’t not simply part of the wreckage.  They were something far more significant.  These beams were a symbol of hope and endurance.  All was not lost in the shadow of the cross.

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When All Is Lost, Look to the Cross!
John 3:14-18 / Numbers 21:4-9

Bible, Christian living

When Life Comes Crashing Down

How do we respond to life crashing down around us? The prophet Jeremiah understood this question all too well. He was called to be God’s servant in Jerusalem during the final decades of the Hebrew monarchy. Jeremiah had to help his countrymen wrestle with trusting God while the Babylonian army laid siege to their city on multiple occasions. He wrote to the first wave of exiles to Babylon, encouraging them to make sense of the radical changes in their life. He attempted to help those left behind to understand how God could possibly be in control of all the chaos surrounding them. He himself felt the weight of years of seemingly fruitless ministry and cried out to God: How long did he have to keep doing this? What was the value of his existence? Ultimately, Jeremiah wasn’t even able to remain in the land of his birth. He was kidnapped by Jews fleeing to Egypt–Jews who subsequently refused to listen to his encouragement to rebuild their relationship with God.

Within the book of Jeremiah, there are two stories placed back to back to emphasize the two different responses we can have whenever the very foundations of our life is shaken to the core. These stories appear in Jeremiah 18:1-12 and 19:1-15. Whether it was the nation of Judah in the sixth century B.C., America in the twenty-first, our community, our church, or our individual lives–these two stories show us the right and wrong way to respond to crisis.

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In the first story, God tells Jeremiah to go and watch a potter at work on his potter’s wheel. Jeremiah sees a clay pot being made by the potter, but as he watches the pot becomes imperfect. The potter then smashes down the clay pot and begins his work all over again. Soon, a new pot rose up out of the clay that once had been the first pot. The new pot did not retain the imperfections of the first pot. It was new . . . yet it originated from the same old lump of clay. God spoke to Jeremiah in that moment. God asked Jeremiah if he could not do the same thing to the nation if they would turn to him and trust him. God told Jeremiah that even though life as the Judahites had known it was going to be completely upended by the terrible destruction that was coming, he could use this troubling time to rebuild the nation into something better . . . if the people would trust him through the chaos. Isaiah, at a different point in time, used the same imagery to emphasize that we are nothing more than clay; God alone is the potter. We cannot reform ourselves or work away the flaws within us. We must trust him with our lives–flaws and all–and believe that he can rework us into something beautiful and useful to his service. And so we pray not only that God will remake us but will not remember our sins forever (Is 64:7-9).

In the second story, God told Jeremiah to purchase a finished pot from the potter’s home and take it, along with the elders, to the valley of Ben Hinnom, a place containing shrines to various foreign gods. Jeremiah told the people judgment was coming to the nation and it would be as destructive as what was about to happen to the pot in his hands. Jeremiah then threw the pot down to the ground and it shattered into irreparable pieces.

What was the difference between these two pots? Why did one shatter so it could never be put back together while the other could be remolded and reformed? The answer is in the character of the pots themselves. The pot in the first story was still made of soft clay while the pot in the second story had been hardened in a kiln’s fire. Jeremiah was telling the people that the life-shattering events coming to Jerusalem could not be stopped. The city would fall. The temple would be destroyed. Many would be killed and others taken into exile. Only a few would remain in the land, but life as everyone knew it was coming to an end. Life was going to crash down around them. That was inevitable. But how it would impact them wasn’t? If their hearts were still soft, if they trusted God and held on to the steadfast hope that the potter was compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in love and faithfulness (Ps 86:15), God could reform them into something new. This did not have to be the end, even though the smashing was coming. God could work even that destruction for the good of those who love him and are called according to his purposes (Rom 8:28). If they resisted, however, if their hearts were hardened to his work and his call, if they loved the other gods more than him, then the very same smashing would destroy their lives and leave them irreparably damaged.

You can see these two responses play out in life-shattering events all the time. The same situation can hit two families or two individuals. While both have their lives upended, one family comes closer together through the experience while the other is ripped apart; one individual finds new life and new purpose even in the midst of heartache while the other turns to drugs or alcohol to numb the pain, or even to suicide in hopes of escape.

In all of our lives, there are times when the world crashes down upon us. When those times come, some of us cry out to God in the midst of our brokenness while others try to rebuild our lives on our own. Peter and Judas both experienced the sorrow of Jesus not starting the revolution they hoped he came to lead. Both saw Jesus sentenced to crucifixion. Judas let it destroy his life. He only saw the crucifixion but didn’t wait to see what lay beyond. He only focused on his role in bringing it to pass. On the other hand, Peter, even though he ran away instead of defending Jesus and denied knowing him in order to avoid his own death, discovered hope on the other side of the sorrow. He experienced the resurrected Jesus. Both these men’s stories revolve around the story of Jesus, who himself experienced the crashing down of life in his betrayal, suffering, and agonizing death. Yet in the midst of the darkness, Jesus entrusted himself to his Father, who proved himself faithful by raising Jesus from the dead. So when life crashes down, be like Jesus and trust God all the way through to the end. Keep your heart soft and attentive to God in the midst of the chaos. Avoid the temptation to harden your heart and reject the help of God and others. The same Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead is living and active today in the midst of your chaos.

newborn – we are tender and weak
in death – we are rigid and stiff

living plants are supple and yielding
dead branches are dry and brittle

so the hard and unyielding belong to death
and the soft and pliant belong to life

an inflexible army does not triumph
an unbending tree breaks in the wind

thus the rigid and inflexible will surely fail
while the soft and flowing will prevail

Tao Te Ching 76
Christian living, religion, World Religions

Christian Reflections on Kabbalah and the Hasidim

Kabbalah has a long tradition, with origins stretching back at least a century prior to Jesus.  One influential leader was the Medieval Rabbi Isaac Luria, known as Ari (the Lion), who lived in the 1500s.  The Ari said that at creation the divine light filled ten vessels, some of which shattered under the weight of such glory.  Fragments of light from these shattered vessels scattered throughout creation, along with fragments of darkness.  It is now the responsibility of humans to help end chaos by gathering together these divine sparks of holiness in an effort to help repair the world (tikkun olam).

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This is very similar to John’s view of the pre-incarnate Logos, the Word that became flesh in Jesus (1:14).  He was the light that was coming into the world to enlighten every human (1:9).  John (or Jesus) even said that, when the full light comes (the good news of Messiah Jesus), those who have lived by the truth (the light they have received) will step into the light so all can see the works they have done were because of the Logos (3:19-21).  Second century apologist Justin Martyr further developed John’s Logos Christology in a way similar to the Ari’s scattered fragments of light.  Justin said the seeds of the Logos are scattered throughout creation.  Wherever we discover truth (or goodness) in the world—whether in the Bible, in culture, or even in another religion—it is there because it is a seed of the Logos.

Unlike the Ari’s view that there were only ten vessels for this light, Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4 that, through the gospel of Jesus, the light of creation shines in the darkness of our hearts.  We do not need to fear that we are damaged “jars of clay,” however.  The stress cracks, the flaws, even the brokenness of our lives—they are all simply opportunities for the light of Christ to stream out of us.  In our weakness, all can see that his light and life are the true source of our strength and our hope (2Co 12:7-10).  Elsewhere, Paul tells us the world groans for the sons and daughters of God (that is, the kings and queens of the kingdom) to be revealed.  Creation cries out for us to be ever more conformed to the image of Jesus, so that our actions reflect his and we join him as co-creators in the work of restoring the world (Rom 8:14-30) and redeeming the beauty and truth scattered throughout all cultures (Rev 5:8-10).

While the Ari saw this gathering of the light centered in the individual, through ascetic practices, prayer, and Torah observance, two centuries later Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer took these ideas in a different direction.  Called the Baal Shem Tov (Master of the Good Name, abbreviated Besht) by his followers, he led many Jews to embrace Hasidism (ecstatic piety) in the midst of anti-Jewish riots and severe poverty.  Without denying Torah observance, rituals, and rules, the Besht emphasized the importance of embracing the inner, mystical Torah.  This loving embrace of God could come from any Jew, whether they were a Talmud scholar or not.  Because God is immanent, he taught we can worship God through our everyday actions, whenever these acts are done in joyful thanks to God and loving service to others. 

As Elie Wiesel notes, the Besht took the Ari’s idea of gathering the scattered sparks and turned it into a communal experience.  When we are isolated and alone, we can study the Torah and observe it well, but all that is nothing if it is not for our neighbor, for our community (Souls on Fire, 32-33).  Just as embers die out when separated but kindle hot and bright when gathered together, the Besht emphasized the need for community.

Certainly, Christians can hear the call of Paul to love one another and overcome selfish ambition (Phil 2:1-5), as well as Paul’s emphasis that gifts are nothing unless they are used in service for the community (1Co 13).  We can also agree that everyday tasks can be acts of worship, for the most mundane tasks of life are transformed into moments of worship by Jesus.  The drudgery of walking along a road became a new way of thinking that caused two disciples’ hearts to burn (Lk 24:13-32).  The daily task of drawing water from a well became one woman’s opportunity to find living water (Jn 4:1-30).  A routine task of mending fishing nets became a lifelong calling to follow Jesus (Mk 4:21-22).  The same Jesus who encountered these people is living and active in each of us through his gift of the Spirit (Eph 3:14-21).  Paul’s invitation to give our lives as living sacrifices is not a call to grandious actions (Rom 12:1-2).  We are to consider every moment a moment of prayer, a moment of service, just as he sang praises in a dark prison cell after being beaten with rods (Ac 16:22-25).  But where the Besht seemed to limit this community to fellow Jews, Jesus pushes us far beyond our own community.  He calls us to love enemies (Mt 5:43-48) and reconcile divisions (Col 3:11-17).

So let us be co-creators with God, making the world a better place.  In humility, we should love our neighbors and rejoice in our labor.  May we pray that God’s kingdom come on earth, and may we do our part to bring all things under the feet of King Jesus.  “Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Mt 5:16). 

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Christian living, religion, World Religions

Christian Reflections on the Tirthankara

In Jainism, the central figures are twenty-four Tirthankaras.  The word Tirthankara means “ford-maker,” one who creates a path through the river of death and rebirth (samsara) to the shores of Jain heaven (siddha-sila).  They are seen not as gods or redeemer figures, but as pioneers who discovered and taught the path that all Jina (conquerers) can follow.  Jains revere the statues of Tirthankaras, they meditate on them, reflecting on their life and manners in order to discover how to follow after them.  Mahavira, the final Tirthankara, was the son of a king, who renounced his royal luxuries and adopted poverty and an ascetic lifestyle to attain liberation from the cycle of death and rebirth.

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Jesus’ life is similar in many respects to Mahavira’s.  Like Mahavira, Jesus was the son of a king.  But his father was not the king of a realm in India; his father is the King of Loka (the universe).  Like Mahavira, who renounced his plush life for a humble life of homeless poverty and insult, we are told that Jesus, “did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant” (Phil 2:6-7).  Both men had a small group of disciples with whom they wandered the countryside, preaching and teaching parables about “the beauty of poverty, of spirit, of meekness, of righteousness, of mercy, of purity, of peace, and of patient suffering. . . [and] how much greater a thing it was ‘to be’ than ‘to do’, and how perilous ‘to have'” (Stevenson, The Heart of Jainism, 1915, 291-92).  Whereas the Tirthankaras pioneered a path through the river of samara, Jesus alone has the most accurate knowledge of how to ford the river beyond this life, for he alone has made the journey twice, from heaven to earth and from earth to heaven.  Therefore, he is the True Tirthankara.  Through his double-crossing, he is not only a pioneer but also a perfecter of this crossing (Heb 12:2).  In fact, he himself is the Tirtha, the Ford (John 14:6).

A key concept of Jainism is that we do not see all of reality.  There is a manypointedness (anekantavada) to ultimate reality that is far beyond our human comprehension.  Christianity has always viewed the cross of Christ as a manypointed act beyond our full understanding.  It is sacrifice, substitution, ransom, satisfaction, victory, example.  One view of the cross is the moral influence theory of Peter Abelard.  Abelard saw the cross as the great demonstration of God’s love that enkindles a similar response of love within us.  This is similar to the Jain approach to the Tirthankaras.  As Paul Dundas notes,

Ancient tradition . . . is emphatic that worship of the fordmakers does not actually elicit a response from them but rather brings about an internal, spiritual purification in the worshipper[.] . . . So, while it might be the case that worship destroys karma, such an effect is regarded as having been brought about by the inner transformation which worship effects.

Paul Dundas (The Jains, 1992, 180)

How much greater Jesus is to both inspire and respond? A scribal addition to the Jain text Tattvarthadhigama (1.1) states, “I bow to him who is the guide on the path to liberation, the destroyer of mountains of karmas and the Knower of the principles of the universe, so that I may attain these qualities belonging to him.”  This could be a prayer of any Christian to Jesus, “the pioneer of their salvation [who was made] perfect through what he suffered” and so he can now “bring many sons and daughters to glory” (Heb 2:10).  Although Jains see the Tirthankara as an example and not a redeemer, still they can pray, “Lord, you’ve become almighty, omniscient.  I want to be just like you.  Give me the power and the wisdom to do this, so I can leave this world and attain salvation” (Salgia, Areopagus 7:3, 1994, 36).  This almost sounds like Paul’s admonition to Christians to continue working out their salvation with fear and trembling by becoming more and more like Jesus, who has been exalted to the highest place (Phil 2:1-13).

While Christians affirm that Jesus was fully human and learned obedience from his suffering (Heb 5:8-9) and that through this he has made a ford to the shores of liberation (moksha), we cannot agree with Jains that there is not a higher being who can assist us with attaining this liberation.  The cross has always been a confrontational object to every group of humans, whether as “a stumbling block to Jews, foolishness to Gentiles,” (1Co 1:23) or weakness to Jains.  The supreme ethic of Jainism is ahimsa, non-violence to all creatures.  The second is aparigraha (non-attachment), because the chief problem that keeps me (my jiva or “self”) from attaining liberation is “attachment”: the desire for things or longing for relationships.  Yet the story of the cross reveals a desire for own ways that is achieved through violence.  We humans put to death the very one who came from heaven to reveal the ford back to the Father, the path to the shores of liberation.  All of us—Jain or not—in one way or another have violently rejected his forgiveness and love.  We have clung to the self, to our own selfish desires.

The resurrection, however, reveals Jesus as the Conqueror (Jina) over sin, death, rebirth, and any other enemy that keeps us from liberation.  Through his rising from the dead, Jesus demands recognition not only as the human Tirthankara of Tirthankaras but also as the Living Kara, the Creator of the universe.  Anyone who would follow this one to the shores of moksha must be willing to fully practice aparigraha by letting go of that to which she or he is most attached: the self and its preservation.  “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.  Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit” (Gal 5:24-25).

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