Blogpost no. 900 — ponderings of significance

If triangles had a God, He’d have three sides. 

— Yiddish proverb

I come now to a milestone  my blogpost #900  but have absolutely no illusions that anyone out there has been counting down to 900 with me.  This is just a small marker in one aspect of my life, and less than insignificant in everyone else’s.  Still, it gives me pause to consider this type of thinking and writing that has been important to me for nearly four years now.  Before I take a break from blogging for a while, I can think of no better way to cross this milestone than to make this post all about God. . . .

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Job and his friends wandered into the territory of God considerations—and dared to act as though they had Him figured out.

Then the LORD answered Job out of the storm. He said, “Who is this that darkens my counsel with words without knowledge?  Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me.”  (Job 38: 1)

[ Then God proceeded to provide a detailed description of his uniquely powerful and non-understandable work in creation. ]

Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know.  (Job 42:3b)

I would suggest that we can’t hope to influence others for God . . . nor can we worship God . . . nor can we have a genuine, fulfilling relationship with God . . . if we limit Him by boxing Him in.

J.B. Phillips, in the classic Your God Is Too Small, suggested this:

If people are not strenuously defending an outgrown conception of God, then they are cherishing a [sort of “created”] God who could only exist between (emphasis mine   -bc) the pages of the Bible or inside the four walls of a church.

God is immeasurably “bigger” than our forefathers imagined, and modern scientific discovery only confirms their belief that man has not even begun to comprehend the incredibly complex Being who is behind—no, is—what we call “life.”

It’s a given:  ||: There is no way to describe God in human terms. :||   (Non-musicians and musicians alike, please don’t miss the repeat signs there!)

We do have the “plural” thing in the Genesis 1:26–“let us make man in our image,” or some reasonable facsimile thereof.  (Aside:  this God-expression was recently referred to, in my hearing in a small Christian gathering, in the same breath that related the serpent to “Lucifer.”  Like many other understandings, the common Lucifer concept results from translation and/or interpretation — and is enlarged by early, probably erroneous Christian history that relates Lucifer to Satan and, ultimately, to the Eden serpent.)  That deity is in some sense more than “one” is born out in John 1 and 1st John 1.  But what does this really mean?  That God is precisely two or three?

I, Brian Casey, am a “singular” thing.  But it’s difficult to narrow even me down to a singular thing.  (No, I don’t have MPD, although I do sometimes get moody and change personalities.)  I have many aspects — and some are fairly difficult to understand.  How about God?  Is He singular?  (“The LORD our God is one.”)  Or plural?  (“Let Us make man.”  “Let Us go down and confuse their language.”)  Wouldn’t He be infinitely more difficult to “figure out” in terms of number than a human?  Honestly, I’m more interested in the possible literary connection of 1) the “us” in the creation account to 2) the “us” in the Babel account than I am in figuring out whether God is to be considered a trinity.  After all, “trinity” is a human word-concept, not used in scripture.

It bothers me when we feel that we have God figured out!  It bothers me profoundly — to the point of considering the possibility that it’s blasphemy.

“Could it be that questions tell us more than answers ever do?” queried a favorite songwriter of mine, Michael Card.  I think he was onto something.

While I admit that I tend to forget the neat triumvirate of Matthew 28:19 — immersing “in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit,” I encourage equal thought about the non-trinitarian presentation in 2 Cor. 3:13-18.  Here, the glory of God the Father seems to be connected to the Lord Jesus, and in the final expression, which is difficult to render in English, the Lord Jesus appears to be equated with the Spirit.  The Spirit of God is surely to be attended to as we read scripture and as we attempt to live Christianly now, but could it be that the “Spirit” is more of a vain attempt to describe the eminently non-physical Essence or Nature of God?  Could it be that the question is more valuable than any purported answer?

Our ponderings, however on- or off-target they may turn out to be, can be highly significant as we seek more insight into the nature and being of God.  We do need to take care that we don’t fashion a God that looks like something we came up with—something of our imagination, as in the triangles of Yiddish lore.  God is more significant, more holy, more indescribably other than our thoughts about Him can ever comprehend.  So be it.

Job 42:5-6:  My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you.  Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.”

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Aside from a couple of posts already written and scheduled for several days hence, I won’t be actively blogging for a while.  I’m going to take a break and will see you in a few weeks.

That’s ancient history

Reading in chapters 40-42 of Genesis recently, I was reminded of an important facet of scripture study (and, really, of any study of ancient documents):  that historians of the past seem to have had different ideas of what it was to be historians than their progeny in the modern eras.  Ancient history, it appears, is not always recounted the same way as modern history.

There is quite a bit of repetition in the Genesis narrative — and when I’m paying attention, frankly, I find this annoying.  Who needs to be told three times that Potiphar was the “captain of the palace guard” (NLT)?  Who needs to have every branch of Esau’s family tree re-hashed, just to make sure we get the picture?  But this repetition, I have come to believe, often meant something significant for an ancient writer — and for an ancient reader.

So, on one hand, there is quite a bit of repetition.  On the other hand, when certain details of the Canaan-to-Egypt story are retold, a chapter later, some details appear not merely to be repeated verbatim.  Some details are altered, or deleted, or added to.  For example, when the nine brothers (minus Benjamin and Joseph, of course, and Simeon, who has been detained in prison) are returning home after their first trip to Egypt to buy grain, one of them opens his grain sack, provided by Joseph’s servants, and finds the money used to pay for the grain  placed there.  If you take the narrative line of chapter 42 as accurate, the money was not discovered in the rest of the sacks until later, after the brothers were relating the whole chain of events to their aged father.  Yet when the brothers returned to Egypt, as chapter 43 has it, they related it differently to the man in charge of Joseph’s affairs, making it sound as though they discovered money in every sack at the same time —  while en route back to Canaan.  This amounts to a “discrepancy” to our modern ears.  But it apparently was no such problem for the ancient historian.  The truth was present in the telling, but minor details of “fact” were altered in transmission.

So, I am reminded — in the above incident and in several others, as I’ve been instructed by scripture scholars — that the historian of the ancient world didn’t view history in a precisely linear fashion.  He was telling “truth,” to be sure, but “truth” did not always equate to precise handling of the factoids of what happened.

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In my reading the Genesis story, I was intrigued and moved by several aspects.  In closing this post, and as I near my summer blog sabbatical, I’m compelled to share these tidbits:

  • many mentions of “bowing low” and worshipping (all but one instance use the same root word)
    • ch. 37 — the cows and the sun/moon/stars in Joseph’s dreams
    • in 43:26, when the brothers firs re-encounter Joseph, and again in 44:14 (different word here, but similar imagery)
    • 48:12, after Joseph’s conversation with Jacob, the latter “bowed in worship”
  • even the vengeful brothers have moments of penitent lucidity about God’s providence (possibly 42:21, and definitely 42:28, 44:16), querying, “What has God done to us?”
  • possible prophetic/messianic symbolisms
    • Joseph’s being sold for silver (predicting Judas?)
    • being captive “down in Egypt” and having the promise of coming back to Canaan — I’m thinking that there is major theology contained here
      • God’s work in unexpected ways/places, such as giving sons to Joseph while “in captivity”
      • the foreseen Incarnation of Deity (“out of Egypt I have called my son,” Hosea 11, Matthew 2)
      • the seemingly story-culminating promise of God to make of Jacob a great nation in Egypt (46:3)
    • [exodus and liberation (later, in Jesus)]
  • the father’s (Jacob’s) unending, deep relationship with his son, e.g.,  — even after the presumed death
  • the connection between the two “mixed-up” patriarchal blessing scenes — Isaac in ch. 27, Jacob in ch. 48
  • the identification of Simeon and Levi (priesthood tribe-to-be) as men of violence whose descendants will be scattered throughout Israel
    • although this isn’t specified, is it possible that Jacob prophetically knew that Simeon and Levi had taken the lead in “disposing of” Joseph? … I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find just such an oral tradition somewhere in the annals of Judaism
    • particularly on Levi, I wonder about any possible connection between this patriarchal “blessing” and the later, priestly violence and blood of animal sacrifice
  • the interesting mentions of Jacob “blessing” Pharoah (47:7,10) — perhaps simpler and more a gesture of respect than a recognition of Jacob’s greater ultimate position in history, but interesting nonetheless

I’m grateful for the rich, true stories of Genesis — and for the God of ancient, pre-Christ Israel, Who is now the God of spiritual, new Israel (Rom. 9; Rev. 21:2; Gal. 6:16).

Getting a sense of “calling”

Another one has bitten the dust. Another one has decided on a new course of action, ostensibly to lead to a different career field.  Another one has claimed “calling” or a “sense of call” or the “results of prayer” in making the decisions.

And I simply have trouble believing it when I hear it.

Basically, I think what is happening is this:

  1. A believing student begins to feel uncomfortable in a major academic field
  2. The student searches around and finds something s/he feels more comfortable with, at a given moment.
  3. The student figures the easiest way to tell believing professors in field X of the impending change is to say “I’ve prayed about it, and I sense the Lord calling me into Y now.”

But when Y doesn’t work out, either, what does that do to our concept of God?  Is He fickle?  Does He push us one way and then pull us another way, just to see what we’ll do?   I suppose there are a few biblical examples of that kind of thing, but those examples don’t mean that moving this way is to be thought of as an M.O. for God throughout the ages.

Aside:  it strikes me today, in completing my reading of the Genesis narrative, that there can be an element of arrogance involved in suggesting that my present situation, for example, is a result of providence, as Joseph’s situation was in Egypt.  God was working an eternal purpose for an entire nation-to-be then, and history was summed up in Jesus the Anointed One.  Why should I brazenly suggest that I am in NY under a similar arrangement with the Almighty?  I know, I know, God loves me and pays attention to me and “sings over me” (thanks, Zephaniah and Dennis Jernigan).  I believe He loves me, but I don’t believe I have the historical, redemptive significance of Isaac or Jacob or Joseph or Ruth or David.  Maybe of Zaccheus?  🙂

Back to our thoughts on the present now.  One college junior has already been through two major curriculum-changes — once during the summer after his freshman year, and again a few months later — all supposedly based on a sense of “calling.”  I was embarrassed for him when he told me all about “God’s call” from the second area into the third, but he didn’t seem sheepish at all.  On the contrary,  he was confident.  I tried to listen empathically and tried to say something supportive, but down deep, I found his rationale, well, not rational and very subjective.

I really don’t intend to be questioning the potential work of God in a human life today, but I don’t see as much evidence of His actually, observably working in this way as some claim to see.

So many students seem to hear a “call” into the arena of worship leading.  When one has some music talent and a pretty good work ethic, one’s peers can easily push one into a state in which more and more sense of self-worth comes from this “worship leading” activity.  Add to this picture the portrait of a cool mentor in the “worship band” and sound field — someone with a good deal of charisma — and you have an even more magnetic pull.  But is this attraction the work of God, or of human thought and emotion?

Now, I would hasten to add that I have for many many years found exceptional value in worship leading.  There is something deep within my soul that exclaims, in response to such senses of call. “Yes, yes!  Do this great thing for the kingdom.  Serve all your brothers and sisters.  Usher them into a consciousness of the presence of God.  And, as you do this, I will live vicariously through you, for my heart has the same longing.  Thank you, thank you for your affirmations of what I have meant to this point in your life … and now I know you are going on to something better.”

But the louder thoughts arise and supplant:  “I know you think you’re moving into something more important, and true worship is more important, but you will find that all this flurry of churchy activity and flashy sound stuff ultimately fizzles.  Your prayers and your idea of God’s call are sincerely perceived, I am sure, but such sincerity does not necessarily translate into long- or even short-term Kingdom reality.”

Oh, and did I mention my bicycle?

[Caveat Lector:  This post is not all that cohesive, and I know that.  It starts somewhere, travels multiple paths simultaneously, and ends up where none of those paths were going.  Maybe you can relate, anyway.]

Sometimes it just seems that everything is run down and broken.

  • the shower plumbing is leaking
  • 1) my push-mower and 2) my little tractor are in different shops, and 3) my neighbor’s tractor, which he kindly lets me borrow, mysteriously conked out, too
  • the garage roof desperately needs a roofer
  • my nearly-antique pickup has been on its last, brittle-boned leg for more than a year now — I gave it a merciful oil transfusion on Friday, all the while thinking I could just as easily be pulling the proverbial plug and sending it into junkyard heaven
  • the SUV mileage is getting high, and it has a computer-glitched airbag light on, so I need to get that reset before we try to trade it in on a smaller car
  • the rear storm door spring-arm-thingy is pulling out of the frame
  • the tire valve stem on my motorcycle is broken
  • there are concrete cracks in the sidewalk (but I did semi-successfully patch a hole in the disintegrating asphalt in our little car-park area)
  • the porch wood needs treating

As for the human frame,

  • my eyes are degenerating; I think I need bifocals
  • my knees are weaker, resisting hiking to some degree, and my joints feel the strains of everyday tasks more than they used to
  • etc.

Oh, and did I mention my bicycle?  I’ve had more than my share of flat tires in the last few years.  I also broke a derailleur last summer.  My brakes are iffy, and I have the sense that the whole bike is about to succumb (could be just my mindset).

On the upside, we feel blessed by two new, little window A/C units — un-burdening us from the oppression of heat and humidity.  Thank God for cool blessings.  And the township finally poured new sidewalks on our section of the road, making it possible to walk on them without dodging puddles and mosquitoes all the time …  AND, they installed a brand new mailbox post for us, to boot!  We did fix or positively alter a few things last week–cleaning and straightening, touch-up painting, etc.  But, all in all, more things seem to be broken than fixed.  This speaks metaphorically of the human condition, it seems to me.

Many millennia ago, the human condition actually started out in a sparkling gleam of wonder.

This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created, in the day that the LORD God made earth and heaven. Now no shrub of the field was yet in the earth, and no plant of the field had yet sprouted, for the LORD God had not sent rain upon the earth, and there was no man to cultivate the ground.  But a mist used to rise from the earth and water the whole surface of the ground.  Then the LORD God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.   The LORD God planted a garden toward the east, in Eden; and there He placed the man whom He had formed.  Out of the ground the LORD God caused to grow every tree that is pleasing to the sight and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
Now a river flowed out of Eden to water the garden; and from there it divided and became four rivers. . . .
Then the LORD God took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep it.  The LORD God commanded the man, saying, “From any tree of the garden you may eat freely. . . .”  (Genesis 3, NASB)

See — things were terrific for a time.  Nothing broken, nothing messed up.  And then, with a careless, rebellious act or two, everything changed. I was edified by reading Genesis 1-3 on Saturday morning (and glad to have been spurred to do so by the host/facilitator of the house church leader of the group we met with Sunday).  So many things to ponder in Genesis.  For instance, I truly had a sense of awe, trying desperately to conceive of God-without-beginning.  What was it when there were “waters” and “blackness” with God’s essence/spirit hovering and moving about — no earth, no sky, no anything but Him, really?

I was also caused to think about the uninformed, simply obedient, trusting life — as opposed to the knowledge glut that is the “life” of so many today.  There’s something about that tree of knowledge of good & evil that God wanted to keep us away from for a reason.  Google wants to give us every tidbit of extant knowledge, but we’d probably be better without it.  Maybe more on that later, but in the meantime, I should rely less on Google and more on God as the supplying Fountain.  Knowledge provided by a this-worldly source is helpful at best, but more likely misleading in its brokenness; wisdom from God is eternally significant.

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“If you’ll walk around with a Bluetooth headset hanging from your ear, you’ll probably walk around with a Google chip in your brain.”

Nicholas Carr, Computing the Cost
The Sun, March, 2009

Angels who touch

Pretty much on a weekly basis, I used to be moved by the TV show “Touched by an Angel.”  Letting alone that Monica, the “angel” character (below, middle), is blessed with genuinely beautiful eyes and countenance, there were many more inspirations than those based in physical appearance.

These days, I think I would find too much of that series hokey; still, the poignant situations that found people in trouble–making positive steps toward belief, or toward healing, or toward overcoming a serious life-problem, or toward reconciliation with others … all those things would still be inspirational to me.

Still, the whole “angel” thing is troublesome, isn’t it?  There’s one short utterance in all the NC scriptures that I can call to mind that supports the idea of a “guardian angel.”  Jesus Himself said it.  But I’m not so sure that everything we put in the angel “package” is really angelic.  Like Archie Bunker, who attributed “Silence is golden” to the Bible, we are sometimes mixed up as to where ideas and phrases originate.

In Genesis 32, Yakob encounters someone who is apparently supernatural in some respects but human in others.  Yakob recognizes something special and demands a blessing, and the other figure agrees (acquiesces?).  It seems to me that inasmuch as this being is delivering a word/message from God, he might be considered an “angel.”  I’m not familiar with the Hebrew word, but the Greek word aggelos (pronounced, roughly, “ahngl-auhss”) means “messenger.”  The word has simply been transliterated into English and probably doesn’t connote as much holographic mystery as TV has led us to expect.

The man-messenger- wrestler-blesser of Genesis 32 brought a message from God—and, as such, was an “angel,” although the scripture never calls him that, per se. Sometimes, “angel” might be a term applied figuratively, and s/he might or might not be “sent from God.”

It’s remains quite remarkable that Yakob/Israel is said to have “won” in the struggle “with God.”  With eyes wide open to the richness of relationship between God and His people, the original iteration of which was named after this very man, this aspect of the story strongly implies God’s openness.  He will deal with His people, and He will struggle with them, and He will be influenced by them.

Patriarchs

The intrigue of the story of Isaac, Rebekah, Esau, and Jacob is … well, intriguing.  I read some of this story aloud this morning.  I was struck by at least these elements:

  • Isaac’s (and Rebekah’s and Jacob’s) belief that the father’s blessing was effectual and irrevocable
  • Rebekah’s unabashed deception
  • Jacob’s submission to Rebekah over Isaac
  • Wondering whether Rebekah or Jacob ever had a thought of God during their goings-on
  • Esau’s apparent mistreatment and resultant dejection
  • Esau’s begging for some blessing, wondering perhaps if the irrevocability wasn’t quite so irrevocable
  • Division among people, as part of the fallout of deception
  • God’s plan behind it all, despite human weakness and sin

As a family, we also read some this morning from a book my Granddaddy Ritchie had given me long ago about how God speaks.  Jedd liked this time very much, and Karly and I did, too.

Both reading times were very important!

Response

Abraham’s servant, as you might recall, was on a mission … a mission from his master, and, in effect, a mission from God.  (See Gen. 24.)

When he found that the beautiful girl who had treated him hospitably was in fact the relative he sought–namely, Rebekah, the granddaughter of Abraham’s brother Nahor–the text doesn’t say he whooped “Yes!” and did a fist-pump or danced around or texted his fellow servants back at the ranch.  The text says he credited God:

“Then I bowed my head and worshipped the Lord.  I praised the LORD, the God of my master, Abraham, because He had led me along the right path to find a wife from the family of my master’s relatives.”

Seems like an oh-so-appropriate response to me.  Wish I had it more naturally, and more often.

Water

Genesis chapter 26 tells of Isaac’s moves and whereabouts after Abraham had died. One theme of the chapter seems to be the discovery, digging, and ownership of water wells, not to mention the discovery of a spring, which must have been quite the event in that day. (I’ve been to the area and remember being struck, for instance, by the sight of Jericho, which is a veritable oasis. In a sea of dead browns, the green there stood out like the little girl in Schindler’s List who was dressed in red when everything around was in black and white.)

Isaac did well (whoa! pun!), and the Philistines got jealous and filled up Isaac’s wells with dirt. Isaac moved at King Abimelech’s request–apparently just to the other side of the wells–and then reopened the wells, naming them what Abraham had named them.

Isaac’s shepherds found a spring. There was a territorial dispute. They dug another well. There was another territorial dispute. They dug another well. The Philistines finally left them alone. Isaac and his people were grateful. They worshipped God and dug another well. And they dug another one after a peaceful covenant was made with Abimelech. Other wells appear in the book of beginnings, such as the one at which Rebekah drew for the servant who came to find a wife for Isaac.

In Colorado today, there is a fairly extensive set of legal codes known as “water rights law.” In some cases, water rights are owned by progenitors yea, unto the fifth or sixth generation. And rights are sold for big bucks. In a dry land, water is crucial. I daresay water was even more important to the people of Isaac’s land than to the people of Colorado and Nevada and Utah and Arizona (and the Sudan, and Ethiopia, and …).

And it was probably just as important to the daily sustenance for the woman at the well, in the story John told.

“Please give me some water.”

“Huh? This well is pre-designated. We’re segregated, remember?”

“If you knew who I am, you would have asked me to give you living water.”

“Our ancestors dug this well and drank from it.”

“The water I give takes away thirst altogether.”

Lord, give us some of that water.

Commemoration

Genesis 12:7 mentions Abram’s commemoration of the “Lord’s visit” (at least this is the wording of the NLT) in the form of an altar. This little event in the life of one of our spiritual forbears seems significant: that Abram recognized the coming-down of YHVH and did something tangible to acknowledge it is an example for us.  Later, Abram was at the same place and worshipped the Lord again there.

I think there is more to commemoration of spiritually significant events than your garden-variety observance of the “Lord’s Supper” would seem to imply.

Mind you, I still can’t stomach the notions of consubstantiation or transubstantiation, but I do wish there were more sense of “presence” in communion.

Babel and fundamentalist biblicism

It strikes me to comment on something I’ve supposed for 10 or more years now: that the intriguing account of the introduction of various languages at Babel (Gen. 11) relates to how we read scripture today.

By this I mean that if God had wanted us to obsess over literal, word-oriented hermeneutics, he wouldn’t have inflicted language variation on His earth. Think about the very issue of translation from language to language: it’s simply not possible to find precise equivalents for the German “doppelgänger” or the French “alors” or “oeuvre.”  What about the Greek “logos” or “doxa” or “proskuneo”? Any linguist, I should think, would be wary of anyone who thinks he can take a sentence in one language and convert it to another language without potential loss of meaning or misunderstanding of some element.

Now, I’m more interested in uncovering meanings of Greek NT words and syntax than just about any non-Bible-degreed person I know. I still have notes from an old friend who used to teach Greek on the college level and who offered me some free lessons years ago, and I sometimes carry my Greek NT with me to studies. But I think there’s a limit to the efficacy of such pursuits. It’s more important that we understand–and act on, as appropriate!the general meaning of a passage than to root out the exactitude of a word from two millennia ago.

If God had intended us to be fundamentalist biblicists and not disciples of The Life, he wouldn’t have allowed multiple languages in the world.