Job in folklore and in our own time

We were able to get out to the churches in the South (some of our so-called “bush churches”). Thankfully, we have some good, godly leaders who, even though like everyone else have been slowed down by COVID-19, continued to care for their communities.

Meeting can be very hard for these leaders who are separated by a day’s walk in a place where almost everyone has to walk. So we kept picking up folks in our truck and carried them to the final village. They killed a goat for us and cooked us some of their meager rations of rice. These people will literally starve themselves before being inhospitable. Then we met. And we met. We met well into the night and then the morning. Then we got up early the next morning and continued meeting. We talked about good things and bad things, encouraged one another and grieved together. But everyone was so happy to see each other!

That next morning, as we all sat wrapped in blankets in that sparse, concrete schoolhouse, we presented the story of Job. We brought a recording we had just completed the day before, where a team of Malagasy created a radio drama of the story of Job. The leaders sat in rapt attention and then, when the story was done, we began asking questions and drawing out what everyone had understood and learned from Job.

Those men and women sat there, after they had told us how hard things had been and how hungry they were, and vowed to be like Job and never turn their backs on God. Satan would not get the best of them, no matter how hard he tried!

One leader, Emanda, who serves in a local government capacity and serves as the statesman and wise elder of the group, said it reminded him of a Malagasy folk story, a story I now share with you . . .

In the kingdom before there were two great friends. These guys were inseparable. It didn't matter what they were doing or where they were going; they were always together. They had been friends since anyone could remember and nothing could drive them apart.

But one day, a troublemaker came to the king of that land. The king was watching these two guys walking down the road together, laughing and enjoying one another's company. "Do you see those two?" the king asked. "There's no one else like those friends. Nothing could ever break their bond!" But the troublemaker overheard the king. "What's that, O King?"

The king again point out at the two friends. "Nothing could ever drive those two apart, they're inseparable!"

"I can do it," said the troublemaker. "I can drive a wedge between them."

"You're lying!" cried the king. "And even if you could if would take so long it wouldn't even be worth it."

"Oh no, O king," said the troublemaker, "I'll be quick. I'll have them hating each other even for this day is dark."

So as the king and others watched, the troublemaker set out ahead of the two friends. As they passed him on the road, talking and carrying on with each other, the troublemaker flagged the one down. "Hey," he said waving. "I need to talk to you for a minute. It's important."

So the one friend broke off from the other and came to the side of the road where troublemaker stood. "What's up?" Troublemaker didn't say anything, he just looked at him for a minute. "Make it quick, man," said the friend, "I've gotta get back to my friend."

Then Troublemaker pulled him in and began whispering to him, making sounds with his mouth that never formed into words.

The friend pulled back in horror. "What in the world? What are you trying to say, man?!"

Troublemaker pulled him in again and whispered still, still moving his lips but not saying any distinct words. The friend was angry. "Listen, I'm not sure what you're trying to do but you're not saying anything! I'm going back to my friend." And he left, racing to catch back up with his friend further ahead.

"What was that all about?" asked the other friend once they were walking together again. "Oh nothing. I can't even tell you anything he was saying!" His friend stopped suddenly in the middle of the road. "You can't tell me he didn't tell you anything. I saw him pull you in and whisper to you. Now, please, tell me what he said."

"He didn't say anything!" exclaimed the one.

"You're planning to kill me aren't you? You're going to kill me and take my stuff!"

And the two friends argued and went their separate way to their own houses, each now the others' enemy. And Troublemaker laughed as he watched, having separated the best of friends without ever having said one word.

The whole point of Job is that Job refuses to jump to rash conclusions while still grappling with what he has seen and what has happened to him. Job struggles mightily not to read into what’s happening to him and instead just take his complaints directly to his friend, God. In the Malagasy story, it would be as if Job stands their quarreling with his friend without storming off.

I couldn’t help but ponder our sound and fury right now during this season. It’s not that I think there’s nothing behind all the accusations we’re hurling and the existential panic we feel. But as Job and folklore remind us in our time, we never really know what’s going on behind the scenes. But trust is key, and we need to spend more time building trust than tearing down one another.

Things to Ponder: Hope

We recently did a food distribution here in our town through three of our local churches. In filling out our evaluation form afterward, the final question was something to the effect of: What other measurable spiritual benefits came from this project?  Nathan filled out most of the form, and I came behind him to fill in a few additional details. I was struck by his answer to this question. He wrote one word: hope.

This year has done a number on our hope. I think if you looked the whole world over, you would be hard-pressed to find one community not touched by COVID-19 . . . by sickness, death, loneliness, job loss, uncertainty, fear, upheaval, grief, anxiety. Where do we find hope in a time like this?

I’ve witnessed hope in the faithful lives of Malagasy believers. I want to share that hope with you. From 2017-2019, we worked through a series of stories from church history that emphasized different doctrines with the Mahafaly leaders. We started with the first church in Acts and followed along with stories up through today.

One week we were concerned as we prepared, because our topic was God’s sovereignty and suffering. From our own cultural perspective, we expected this topic to be tough. We wrestle with how a good, powerful God can allow suffering. We’re always asking, “Why?” In fact, we struggle with that question often personally here. We see significant suffering around us every day. Why? Why is life so hard here? Why is our life so much easier? How can I fix this suffering around me—make it stop! 

But when we taught through this lesson, the Mahafaly leaders didn’t bat an eye. The principle is basically that a loving God calls His people to suffer in a fallen world. When I’m confronted with this reality, I buck against it, either from one side or the other. Maybe God isn’t really loving. Or maybe He can’t really control my circumstances. Or there will be some “silver lining”—visible very soon, I’m sure—something that shows me WHY!!!

But our people here just aren’t asking those questions. They are following Christ faithfully. And they are suffering deeply. And these two things simply aren’t incongruent for them. One doesn’t threaten the other. I don’t have either the theoretical or the experiential framework for that, yet I see it over and over in the convicting testimonies of the believers here. 

I’m beginning to hear this conviction too from the testimonies of people of color in the United States. I have always assumed that our propensity to insulate ourselves from suffering is an “American” problem. But I am realizing that I can only speak as a white, American evangelical. I’m learning that right alongside the America I’ve experienced are communities of believers of color worshipping God through deep suffering on a daily basis. 

Please understand. I’m not denying that everyone in the world suffers—it’s a part of being human. Please, don’t hear me diminishing your personal experience of suffering. I know many of you reading this have experienced suffering unlike anything I’ve never known, and my heart aches for you. But God has been bringing specific stories of suffering and faith—from people of color in the United States—before Nathan and me over and over the last few months. I confess I was unaware of so, so much of what these brothers and sisters are facing. I’m committed to continue listening and learning, and to try, as much as I can, to weep with those who weep, whether here in Madagascar or there in the United States.

One of our local pastors here shared with us about the challenges they had faced as a family during the “confinement,” as it’s called here—the time when people were supposed to stay at home, churches were restricted from meeting, and travel was extremely limited due to COVID. He admitted that yes, things had been very hard. Then he continued, “But sometimes you forget how good God is, until you truly need him every day, like we do now.”  

“Sometimes we forget how good God is, until you truly need him every day, like we do now.”

Pastor Manentesoa

How have the challenges of this year helped us realize our true need for God? Every day? That’s the gift of suffering.

This year has been tough. I know it’s been hard on us. I know many of you have faced significant struggles. If you find your hope flagging, please take courage from communities practiced in suffering. Some of the circumstances we find ourselves in now, we probably never thought we would face. But even if . . . 

You’ve lost someone, there is hope.

You don’t feel confident in the future, there is hope.

You’re worried about you or someone you love getting sick, there is hope.

You’re separated from an elderly person you love, there is hope.

You don’t see anything getting better with the coming election, there is hope.

You’ve lost your job, there is hope.

You feel threatened, there is hope.

Because, as Ekemini Uwan says, 

“Hope is not an abstract concept. Hope is a person.”[1]

Ekemini Uwan, Truth’s Table Podcast

[1] “Truth’s Table Classroom: Why We Can’t Wait : Eschatology and BLM,” Truth’s Table podcast, 4 July 2020, recording from lecture at Westminster Theological Seminary, 2014.

Things to Ponder: Chyella’s Concept of “English”

Our daughter Chyella is four. She is a huge talker. She goes to French preschool—or at least she did, before COVID-19. She also talks with Malagasy people as we visit them and go to church with them. She knows words in French and in Malagasy, and likes to practice. She has a category for the French language, and one for the Malagasy language. One day, we started talking about English. She learned a new word, and asked if it was a French word. No, I told her, it was just an English word that was new to her. She gave me a very puzzled look. 

C: Mommy, what’s English?

Me: You know, English. The language we speak here at home. What we speak all the time.

C: (still super puzzled) You mean French? 

Me: No—you practice French at school, and Malagasy at church. But English is most of what you know, everything we’re saying right now.

She shook her head. We repeated this conversation in some form or another for at least a week. She never got it. I’m not an early childhood development expert (if you are, please chime in! :), but I think I can imagine why she struggled with this concept. English is equivalent to just talking for her. It was a “does a fish know it’s wet?” moment for me. For Chyella, English is not a language to be learned or studied or practiced (as she does with French and Malagasy, because her exposure is more limited). It’s just talking. Removing herself from her daily speech to examine it is nearly impossible. 

I believe this same struggle is true for many of us who are white when we think about race in the United States. We’ve never examined our experience, stepped back from it and considered the role our race plays in it, because to us, our experience is the “American experience.” Race has nothing to do with it. We don’t even realize uniquely white elements of our experience. We don’t understand African-American struggles, but the depth and breadth of what we may be missing never occurs to us. We don’t often step back from our own and other Americans’ experience because we expect it to be our own. 

With the murders that have taken place in recent weeks and months—at least, those that have come to the attention of the news—and the protests that have followed, I have found myself in the midst of a powerful lesson. I’m humbled to admit that I haven’t learned this lesson before now, that I’m new to this conversation on racial injustice. When the protests and rioting started, I felt the impulse to reach out to African-American friends, to check on them and ask how they were doing. And then I realized—again, with shame—I hardly know any African Americans. Suddenly I realized—I don’t know anything about African Americans. How could I possibly, when I know so few?

Nathan and I are missionaries in Madagascar. We have the privilege of working among people who are culturally different than we are, and having many deep relationships with Malagasy people. We have worked for years on language learning and cultural observation. We have learned to enter every conversation with open ears and open minds, assuming throughout that we’re missing something, determined to reserve judgment and keep learning. That doesn’t mean we do this perfectly, but we have seen that regular and prolonged exposure to another culture has given us an incredible gift—we now know just how wrong it is possible for us to be. 

When we first came to Madagascar, we were enamored with the differences—it’s called the honeymoon phase on the culture shock continuums. Then, we developed some real relationships and found ourselves reveling in the similarities . . . this culture wasn’t so different after all! Humans are the same, the world over! Then, as time went on and language and culture comprehension grew, a deeper reality set in. We are different . . . very different in many ways. This is not a statement of value—different isn’t bad. But it is real. There are significant differences between American culture and Malagasy culture. If we ignore those, we will not be good missionaries. We will not share our message or our lives in ways that are meaningful here. We will miss huge swaths of what is happening around us. And the more we learn, the more we discover is missing or inadequate in our earlier understandings. The more we know, the more we know we don’t know.

This experience has changed the way we view life. We now have a growing instinct to listen first, learn first, expect to be wrong, expect to adapt. We are eternally grateful for the development of this learning muscle in our hearts and minds.  

And yet, here I am, failing to practice this discipline in my home culture. I’ve discovered a huge gap in my experience, a whole group of people I’ve lived alongside, yet ignored. And yet I’ve drawn conclusions, as if I could know. 

I’m determined to change this, to listen and learn intentionally to African American voices, to minority voices, especially those who are brothers and sisters in Christ. Even in beginning to listen, I’ve heard stories of suffering I can’t imagine—would not have thought possible. Romans 12:15 calls me to “weep with those who weep” . . . and yet I have brothers and sisters weeping and I’ve been oblivious to their needs. To friends of color who are reading this, I know you don’t need me . . . but I will be doing my best to learn to listen. To those of you who are white reading this, will you join me in learning? 

Darkness and Light: Psalm 139

Tessa here for a quick devotional! This week I want to share a Scripture that has become especially meaningful to me during this strange time of pandemic. Many of us are familiar with Psalm 139. I have loved these verses:

11 If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
    and the light about me be night,”
12 even the darkness is not dark to you;
    the night is bright as the day,
    for darkness is as light with you.

This is the version I was used to. However, back in March I heard someone read aloud these verses from the New American Standard Bible.

11 If I say, “Surely the darkness will overwhelm me,
And the light around me will be night,”
12 Even the darkness is not dark to You,
And the night is as bright as the day.
Darkness and light are alike to You.

For some reason these minor changes shifted my idea of this Scripture, especially at an unprecedented time like this. I think I’ve always understood these verses to mean that God’s presence will make darkness light . . . I won’t notice the darkness because God is right there, lightening things up. 

Though I’m sure this is true, after hearing it in the NASB, I have another impression. The verse ends, “Darkness and light are alike to You.” As in, it makes no difference to God if it’s dark or light, if things are easy or hard, if I feel happy or sad . . . He is the same (yesterday, today and forever) (Heb 13:8). He is always good, always powerful, always at work. His work in the world, His work in His Church, His work in our individual lives, doesn’t change. He is always working. Whether we feel frantic and terrified and confused and are desperately seeking Him, or we feel pretty good about things—He is the same. Whether we recognize sin in our hearts or are blind to it—He is the same. Whether we see the big picture of His work in the world or can only see our own individual struggles—He is the same. 

Darkness and light are alike to You.

Psalm 139:12 (NASB)

I am praying during this time to see Him as He is, to let Him show me sin in my heart, to seek forgiveness, to have greater awareness of His work around me—because He has been and is working always, no matter what personal concerns I’ve been consumed with. I want to look up, and see Him.

A Sunday with the Church

Sitting with everyone there in that small hut I felt like I got a glimpse of the “real” Church. Throughout the history of the Church, people have always tried to narrow the thing down to its essence. What makes a church a church? Is it the bread and wine? Is it the Bible? I’m no closer than anyone else to figuring it out. But as I sat with a man who had just walked away from a dark life of what we would call witchcraft, I marveled at the simplicity and power of God’s people.

Michel, the man on the left in the picture above, is known here as a tromba, a medium for spirits. He’s been in contact with one of our local pastors before. They grew up together and Michel has watched as God’s Spirit has slowly changed his friend. See, Michel is no stranger to spirits changing people. After his father died when he was a child, he also came down with a bad fever. Then the spirits came. He would wake up far from people in the sand near the sea. But the water made no noise and it wasn’t wet. His feet left no tracks in the sand. Then the spirits appeared before him in kinds of forms. His sister, in the middle of the above picture, testified that during these spells he would get extremely cold. Only when they warmed him with fire would the spirits leave, even after they tried to drive the spirits away with a Bible.

As he got older, the spirits would summon him at different times. They would guide people with different illnesses to him. As soon as they told him what was wrong, the spirits would possess him and lead him to different plants which he was able to combine into healing potions and solutions. You might think that’s wonderful these spirits were so helpful. But the tromba is tormented by the spirits. Often they are possessed by different spirits, one after another. There is no time to earn money for their own family or even feed themselves. When the spirits come, they need to satiate themselves first. Often they need blood, and a lot of it. The tromba, possessed by the spirits, will drink bowl-fulls of fresh, animal blood. Sometimes it’s booze the spirits desires as the mediums will drink themselves within inches of their life.

Michel wanted out. But how in the world could he escape this fate? How are you supposed to get out from under the thumb of these oppressive spirits?

Recently, Michel ran into his old friend again, a fisherman who pastors of one of our local churches. He saw how his friend’s life has slowly improved under the influence of Jesus and those following him. Also at that time, this pastor was helping us to lead a feeding project in his community. Michel watched as the church fed the local community, regardless of whether they were Christians or not, even giving away their own portions to those in need. His own family was fed. And Michel saw a way out.

As the church, we all sat in Michel’s hut and listened to this story as he told us how he met Jesus through them. I say, “the church.” There was the local pastor and his mentor, Edia, a man who has helped us craft multiple Bible stories here (you might know him as “The Traveller” from the Bible stories we’re posting here). There were also handful of young guys and girls, along with about six women and our Grandma Melina.

As we huddled together in the dim hut, I couldn’t help but marvel how we all worked together to follow Jesus. Edia led us in prayer and opened our visit by reminding us God loves everyone, even those who deal in darkness. His love is for all people, even when his wrath is against the evil forces of this world. I then told the story we call here the “Two Fences”–a big summary of the whole story of Scripture that our friends here have crafted. It puts special emphasis on the role of evil spirits against God and all humanity, who specifically usurped us humans as the God-appointed rulers of earth. The human kings and queens were enslaved as evil reigned as king. But then Jesus came . . . a man who steps on the scene as the GodMan: not less than God, but more than your average guy, the King of heaven and earth. And he fills those who follow him as king with his own sovereign Spirit to become kings and queens again.

For someone like Michel, that is the only way out. Only by trusting in the King of the Cosmos who can fill him with the indomitable Spirit, can Michel break with his abusive spiritual masters. Only with the backing of a spiritual family who will take care of him and his family can he finally tell them, “NO.”

We then all turned to Grandma Melina. No one knows how old Melina is; not even Melina knows! Years ago, she began to work with Tessa crafting Bible stories. Growing up in a poor, patriarchal society, Melina never learned to read or write. Every time she speaks she apologizes for the way she talks. She speaks in the pure and riveting Tandroy dialect, which is looked down upon by some here. But Melina knows God and his Word. We all sat in rapt attention as she began.

She explained she knew nothing but prayer. We had to talk to our Father. And like a mother teaching her children, she spoke to God. It was not formality but familiarity that we heard. She then began to tell the story of David appointed by God as king of God’s people. It sounded as if she was talking about something that had happened the day before. It was so clear and real. Then she finished by pronouncing, sake-like, “Today, God has made you, Michel, king, just as he did with David. He has not looked at your appearance but at your heart. You are king of your family and of this community, and it is your responsibility to take care of them and tell them about Jesus.”

And as we sat and listened to Melina, I looked around at all of us, different ages, different cultures, different pasts, looking to our illiterate matriarch as she spoke God’s Word over us. Here was the church. Indeed, the Church, like David, is not judged by God by outward signs and marks but by the heart. We are a family, each with our different parts to play, riffing off of one another as we remind ourselves of our heritage, how we all trace back to the man called Jesus. We are all kings and queens, filled with the Spirit of the King of Kings, no matter if we can read, no matter our personal history, no matter what gender, color, or creed.

Theology Tuesday: God and Unsolved Mysteries

Recently, we gave the revitalized Unsolved Mysteries a try. The first episode is about Rey Rivera, a guy who goes missing suddenly after he runs out unexpectedly one night, only to be found days later in an old, hotel conference room where he has, supposedly, plummeted to his death. Props to the show, it pulls you in immediately and gets your mind to working.

But I was disturbed by the time the show ended. Obviously, Rivera’s case is unsolved; but there are so many things that stick out like and cry foul-play (would someone please decode that freaky, little note he left!). It leaves you dissatisfied because you know Rey and his family didn’t get justice and don’t have the peace of mind knowing the bad buys were exposed. Theologically, there’s actually a lot that could be said for this. Our insatiable impulse for justice in unsolved mysteries and foul-play coverups speaks to God’s character, the need for every act to be held to account at some point, and what God is doing in the meantime.

I don’t think it was running at the time, but Job could very well have been the subject of an Unsolved Mysteries episode back in the day. In fact, if we didn’t have the supernatural backstory of how a shadowy figure is running Job through the gauntlet to challenge his trust in God, Job’s story would be every bit dissatisfying as Rey Rivera’s. He’s goes from a respectable, wise leader to a deranged, homeless guy. And from Job’s perspective it’s actually God abusing him.

Job doesn’t get enough credit. In chapter 19:25-27, he burst out with his fundamental belief in God:

But I know that my Redeemer lives,
and at the end he will stand on the dust.
Even after my skin has been destroyed,
yet I will see God in my flesh.
I will see him myself; 
my eyes will look at him, and not as a stranger.
My heart longs within me.

What is kinda crazy is that Job has been railing against God for treating him like an enemy. Job trusted him and this is how God treats him? And what is Job supposed to do? God’s too powerful and too smart for Job to get anywhere lamenting his situation with him (9:19). But here, Job tells us what he believe deep-down about God. He pushes past his present suffering to say the God he believes is hurting him is still the God who is good enough to save him.

As one scholar puts it, “Job is beseeching the God is whom he has faith to help him against the God who is punishing him. While this view seems irrational, this paradox lies at the core of Job’s struggle. These two conflicting views of God are at war in his own mind. Although he believes that God is just, he is overwhelmed . . .”

Is Job crazy? To be honest, this sounds more like the excuses of an abuse victim than it does sound logic. However, I think Job is just honestly struggling with two sets of experiences (1) God’s proven track record, with him personally and in history, of personal love and care, and (2) God’s present indifference to his suffering and impersonal silence to Job’s injustice. Which one is the real God? Someone like Luther would say God #2 is not God wearing the mask of evil but actually evil posing as God. Still, Job fundamentally believes that even in God is responsible for his suffering, he will personally come and sort things out.

The resurrection is the ultimate evidence of God’s personable love and care even in the face of horrible injustice. His love and justice can never be too late; they extend beyond the grave.

For Job, this clearly meant he believed God would restore him before death. But Job also sets the stage for Jesus, the who suffers injustice (seemingly at the hands of God) and yet is restored even after death. The resurrection is the ultimate evidence of God’s personable love and care even in the face of horrible injustice. His love and justice can never be too late; they extend beyond the grave.

Although Job’s confession as interpreted does not explicitly support the doctrine of resurrection, it is built on the same logic that will lead to that doctrine becoming the cornerstone of NT faith. Job is working with the same logic of redemption that stands as the premise of the NT doctrine of resurrection. Both hold to the dogma that God is just even though he permits unrequited injustices and the suffering of the innocent. God, himself, identified with Job’s sufferings in the sufferings of his Son, Jesus Christ, who suffered unto death even though he was innocent. Jesus overcame his ignominious death by rising from the grave. In his victory he, as God’s Son and mankind’s kinsman-redeemer, secured redemption for all who believe on him. While his followers may suffer in this life, he is their Redeemer, their Advocate before the Father. In this way Job’s confidence in God as his Redeemer amidst excruciating suffering stands as a model for all Christians

John E. Hartley, The Book of Job (NICOT), 297.

Justice is coming for Rey Rivera, just like it did for Job. How do I know? Because a man named Jesus is representing him. Do we really think Jesus is not interested? Was he not killed in an enormous, political hit-job which was quickly covered up? Did he not die to, in one fell swoop, take down the bad guys and restore the victims? The biblical hope is not that God will magically sweep away all wrongdoing. He’s going to stand in the flesh in front of us all and bring justice for all.

Meantime, Jesus has left us here as his deputies. Whether it’s Rey Rivera or any other silent victim, our job is to represent the Redeemer, advocating and working for justice on behalf of the vulnerable. And if we’re going to look anything like Jesus, we have to be ready to do what he did and stand between evil and the suffering, taking the hit so they have a way out. The boss is still coming, in the flesh, to set everything right. Meantime, we’ve got work to do.

Clean Hands

Who feels like they’ve washed their hands more in the last six months than the last 6 years combined? Probably an exaggeration—still, between COVID-19 and a newborn, disinfecting groceries and dirty diapers, daily wiping surfaces and soaked spit rags, my hands have been chapped and red for a few months now. With all the washing and disinfecting, I’ve been pondering what makes something clean or dirty. Tell me if y’all can relate . . . or if I’m just crazy and need to study germs more! I wipe a door handle with a bleach rag, then I grab the door handle to wipe the one on the other side . . . now do I need to wipe the first handle again? What if I washed my hands, but then turned on the light before wiping the switch? It’s like that funny video that went around where the guy has to disinfect his whole environment before washing his hands. 

And then I wonder—is my ratio of bleach and soap and water on the rag right? Is my hand soap strong enough? If I wipe my baby’s bottom with baby wipes, could I also use those same type of wipes to wipe down groceries? Or are only Chlorox wipes enough? When is the dirty chain broken? When does a cleaning agent come into enough contact with dirtiness that it no longer cleanses? 

Now, get ready for the turn. It’s a little cheesy, but it made me think. Some of you already know where this is going. Spiritual cleansing works this way too. In Christian circles and in the Bible, the language of cleansing is used to describe how God takes away our sin. Our sin in Scripture is at times compared to dirtiness, and at times compared to illness, infection—and it is the cleansing of Jesus that removes that. 

The story of the bleeding woman is one of my favorites. This story comes right in the middle of the story of Jairus in the book of Mark—which is another favorite—you can read why here. the story of the bleeding woman, a woman approaches Jesus secretly who has suffered for twelve years with a bleeding illness. She has visited doctors, tried all kinds of remedies, spent all her money and ended up even more sick—and broke!—than at the start. She’s hopeless . . . except for a tiny possibility that maybe this Healer she’s heard about can make her well. 

She’s apparently afraid to approach Him openly—maybe because her illness would have made her “unclean” in Jewish culture, maybe because she’s a woman, maybe because it just felt shameful and embarrassing. According to Jewish law, she should have secluded herself . . . because everyone she bumped into in her effort to get close to Jesus would have been rendered unclean by contact with her (Leviticus 15:19-30). Our current concerns about the contagion level of COVID might give us a glimpse of what people felt interacting with this woman. In my description above, her condition is the ultimate dirty rag . . . literally everything she touches gets dirty. She is desperate, though, and risks it. She weaves her way through the crowd, reaches out, touches his clothes. 

Then an amazing thing happened. This woman’s touch did not defile Jesus. In fact, at the moment of contact with Him, she was healed!  “And immediately the flow of blood dried up, and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease” (Mark 4:29). His power of healing and cleansing superseded her contagious uncleanliness. Jesus’ goodness wasn’t threatened by her sin or her sickness. She posed no risk to Him; rather, proximity to Him would eradicate “immediately” the disease that had held her captive. 

This story reminds me that my sin is like the woman’s sickness, and like germs on a rag. Even the slightest little bit can contaminate my whole self. “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it” (James 2:10). Recently, God has been exposing us as a couple to our blindness in the area of racial injustice. We have more to learn than we could have ever imagined—and as we go along, we’re forced to face our sinful thoughts and actions. We’ve got a lot of listening, learning and repenting to do. Only the grace of a Savior who will never change, never lose even a smidge of His beauty and glory and love, no matter what untapped depths of ugliness we bring to him, can walk us through a journey like this. Hopefully more on this topic later—but I’d like to listen a lot more first. 

At the same time, the story reminds me that Jesus—His life, death, resurrection, and presence in my life, are un-contaminable . . . I have no sin too ugly for Him, no struggle He can’t transform. The reality of His presence in my life makes me clean in His eyes, and makes me daily more clean and healthy as I surrender more of my life to Him. By His grace alone, then, I can carry that cleansing, healing Gospel into the heart of disease and lostness and watch Him transform the world, starting with myself and, I pray, touching those around me. 

Theology Tuesdays: Wisdom

Tessa and I are trying to communicate more regularly here on more of a schedule. So every other Tuesday we’ll start adding some theological reflections like this one. They say routine and schedule can add some semblance of order to our lives these days. We’ll see!

I’ve been doing what little I can, having a few people over here at the house to pray, reflect on God’s Word and work in the community. That has taken the form of crafting the biblical story of Job to broadcast on the local radio and some community development as we walk through the book of James together.

Job and ill-timed truths

Job has always fascinated me. As a former theatre junkie, it reads like a dramatic production to me every time. Maybe I’m trying to realize some of my dreams with this radio theatre venture now! James, however, I consider a more familiar book . . . except it’s kicking my butt right now. Both are steeped in the biblical, Jewish wisdom tradition. Along with Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, Job is a reflection on how to live. If Proverbs is the optimist and Ecclesiastes the pessimist, Job is the realist of the wisdom books.

We were reading through Job a month ago. It struck me how much more poignant the story is now. I imagined certain people sitting here in the slums or on the side of the road voicing Job’s cries of injustice. I could see their pastors shaking their heads at them, or the local Christian ladies dressed in their Sunday best doing their best to comfort them by telling them to repent so that things would go back to normal, rubbing salt in an angry wound. I could see myself, speaking platitudes about God’s care to them from a place of privilege and health while they wail and moan and dare to ask why this is happening to them.

Derek Kidner, one of my favorite scholars on the Hebrew Writings for his clarity, put something into words I’ve never noticed before about Job’s friends. It’s not that they’re wrong, per se . . .

“A closer look at the material shows that the basic error of Job’s friends is that they overestimate their grasp of truth, misapply the truth they know, and close their minds to any facts that contradict what they assume.”

Derek Kidner, The Wisdom of Proverbs, Job,& Ecclesiastes, 61.

The Bible has a category, an ensemble of characters even, that teach we can be technically right but contextually, relationally dead-wrong. To say it another way, if I could speak every language that exists, have the solution to every problem down to global poverty, have enough faith that I can actually physically toss mountains into the ocean, but don’t know how to treat people . . . I’ve got zilch, nada–I am nothing (1 Cor. 13:1-2).

How in the world are we any different than Job’s friends right now? It was startling for me to realize early on in this crisis that I did not need the barrage of spiritual encouragement sent my way. Faith over fear? Really!? As if a catchphrase will help me sleep at night or calm my pent-up three-year-old or suddenly open the borders of the country in which I feel stranded without help.

Then I thought about those around me. How many times do I do the same to them. Instead of sitting with them in their pain, I offer trite solutions. It’s not that “Faith over Fear,” or “God’s in control,” “She’s in a better place now,” or “All Lives Matter” are patently false statements. They aren’t. Neither are they helpful when someone is in pain.

Job’s friends all understand something true about God’s character. But then they misapply that truth and use it against one made in God’s image. And God makes it clear he is not cool with how they’ve handled the situation (Job 42:7-8). He calls their words of wisdom, “foolish.” They kept blabbing on about stuff they didn’t understand, making up excuses for God, it seems like, to help themselves feel more in control. Job gets his own remedial wisdom class, but he passes the test because he loves God too much to accept pat answers about him. He knows something’s up and he won’t rest until he figures it out and knows his relationship with God is solid.

The hinge of the book is chapter 28, where Job declares, “Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom! And to depart from evil is understanding” (28:28), which bookends the wisdom books at the opening of Proverbs (1:7) and the close of Ecclesiastes (12:13). This is wisdom distilled: Fear God, flee evil. But as we see with Job, this lesson is refined in the furnace not learned in the classroom; it will take our full attention to maintain the tension of standing in awe before the God of the whirlwind as we sit scraping our sores on the trash heap.

Too often, we fall into the trap of making excuses for God to make ourselves feel better instead of honestly wrestling with him. We either say he is too good to let us suffer (though it clearly happens) or we say he is obviously not good at all (which we clearly owe him our very lives!). But for those who say “maybe . . .” and try to push for answers, struggle to find real footing with God, we show only resentment. For some reason, we (and I am right in the middle of we) seem in short-supply of empathy, and it may be because, just like Job’s friends, we would be better off just sitting, listening, and not getting angry at things that contradict what we assume to be true of the world. In a context where, in real time, no one knows what’s really going on, it’s better to wrestle with God than lean on dogma. Because as Job shows, the world is a confusing place, and we don’t even know how much we don’t know.

James and double-talk

Speaking of being quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry (1:19), James stands out as the wisdom book of the New Testament. Reflecting on various proverbs, psalms, the storyline of the Old Testament and also Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount,” James is giving the first Jewish church in Jerusalem Wisdom 2.0, in light of “glorious Lord Jesus Messiah” (2:1). He even references Job . . .

As you know, we count as blessed those who have persevered. You have heard of Job’s perseverance and have seen what the Lord finally brought about. The Lord is full of compassion and mercy.

James 5:11 (NIV)

I recommend James to you as a 2020 read, especially in light of the vitriol, double-talk, and double-mindedness that we’re seeing. James is concerned the church has double-standards:

  • They pray for wisdom, but don’t actually want to be given any (1:5-8)
  • They blame God for the bad without thanking him for the good (1:12-18)
  • They think everyone should hear their opinions, but don’t listen to any others (1:19-27)
  • They help out the upstanding, yet stand on the downtrodden (2:1-13)
  • They claim to follow Jesus, but never do anything for others (2:14-26)

And that’s just the first two chapters!

The wisdom of James is to not forget our history in the faith, the wisdom of God’s word, but to live our lives in gratitude before king Jesus. Re-verbalizing Jesus’ own teaching, his little brother says, “Say what you mean, do what is true, and love others like you want God to love you.” Most of the time, we say, do, and love only in a way that benefits me, myself, and I.

Last week, me and the guys were looking at James 1:19-27; this week we were in 2:1-13. Both times I’m struck by what I’ve never noticed there. James clearly is talking to a stratified congregation of Haves and Have-nots. He says it several times (1:9-11; 2:1-7; 2:13-17; 5:1-6). Let that sink in, because it permeates the whole book. I’ve never understood that being quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger are conversation guidelines for Christians in different socioeconomic positions. But it clearly is, as some people were claiming to know Jesus yet hadn’t been listening to the needs in their own community. They were listening to the sermons on Sunday but they hadn’t visited with the poor (1:27). Is there a more Jesus-like thing to do?!

In 2:1-13, James lays down the law (literally), saying “Don’t have faith in Jesus and partiality.” Partiality, discrimination, favoritism, racism, they’re all talking about the same reality. And the passage that I have used as an apologetic for how all sin is equal in the eyes of God (2:10-11) is actually making a much different point in context. As Craig Blomberg, another of my favorite Bible scholars, writes:

Discrimination is sin and breaks the law. The word here for “show favoritism” is the verb from the same root as the noun in 2:1, again with the connotation of viewing people’s external appearances only instead of seeing them as whole persons.

Craig Blomberg, James; ZECNT

God hates our unequal treatment of any person as much as he hates murder and adultery. It doesn’t matter if they have Corona virus, it doesn’t matter if they are or are not wearing a mask. If we are going to take Jesus’ name, we better start treating all people as “whole persons.” Not to improve our position, not just people who agree with us, not just people who look like us. The “law of the kingdom,” as James calls it, is a law of freedom based on the mercy of Jesus who did not come to yell at us but loved us, even as broken people. At a deep level, James is saying to the extent we have a distorted view of others we are distorted ourselves. We have become double-minded.

Wisdom is the opposite. Wisdom is an integrative principle. It is the truth of the living God lived out in loving relationships between God and his image bearers. It is a truth that survives the strongest scrutiny in the worst circumstances, and it is a truth that pulls us together instead of fracturing us. It derives from the fact that how we love all humans has direct bearing on how we love God and even ourselves. But we’ll save that for another Tuesday.