“A Wretch Like Me”?

Grace. Philip Yancey called it “the last best word”. As Christians we sing about it, rest on it, depend on it. Getting the good things of God that we don’t deserve.

But it occurs to me that sometimes the way we preach about it and proclaim it is kind of dysfunctional.

“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound/That saved a wretch like me” is true, from a certain perspective. All our righteousness is like filthy rags. We fallen human beings aren’t capable of achieving the righteousness God is looking for on our own. Sin gets in the way. We’re saved by grace, not because of anything we’ve done. Alongside God’s righteousness, even the best unaided human is, well, “a wretch” isn’t too far off.

But I think sometimes we go just a beat or two too far with it. It becomes “you are junk, but God loves you anyway”. God is willing to pay an incredible, ludicrously high price, for junk. Because He loves us.

But we’re still junk.

On Sunday I heard an interesting message about God’s grace depicted in the story of King David and Mephibosheth. It was a pretty good message, but it definitely did this.

For those of you less familiar with the story, after King David’s kingdom was established, he called in his servants and asked them if there was anyone left from Saul’s family to whom he might show kindness, for Jonathan’s sake. Saul’s son Jonathan was his best friend, not sharing his father’s enmity to David. And David, for his part, never seems to have hated Saul the way Saul hated him, consistently refusing to take his life even when given the opportunity on a silver platter.

His servant Ziba, who had once been one of Saul’s retainers, tells him that there’s one of Jonathan’s sons still alive, a man crippled in both feet by the name of Mephibosheth.

David brings Mephibosheth to his palace. Mephibosheth comes, probably fearing for his life – after all, he is the last descendent of David’s enemy Saul.

“Don’t be afraid!” David tells him, saying that he intend to show kindness to him on account of Jonathan. He gives him all the property that once belonged to Saul’s family, instructs Saul’s servants to work the land for him, and invites Mephibosheth the cripple to eat at the king’s table.

“What is your servant, that you take notice of a dead dog like me?” is Mephibosheth’s response.

So often, we seem to want to let this response stand. Mephibosheth’s story is a picture of God’s grace to the undeserving. King David is the picture of God, and we are Mephibosheth. And we still think we’re a dead dog and that there’s no earthly reason why any sane God should love us and show favour to us.

Jesus died for you, with all of your mess and chaos. No matter how messed-up you are, He loves you and died for you.

You’re junk, but God is willing to show you favour anyway. Even die for you. For junk.

No!

God is omniscient. We focus a lot on His omnipresence – His nearness and with-us-ness and care for us – or His omnipotence – His power and might, the One who made the starry universe almost as an afterthought – and omniscience is a sort of poor relation that just rounds out the three but doesn’t really mean much.

But His omniscience is the foundation of many of His attributes, so when we downgrade it we’re in danger of doing violence to His character. In this case, what it means is that He sees truly. He knows all things, so He knows exactly what anything is truly worth. There are no smokescreens or marketing ploys that can deceive Him.

So if He says I’m worth the ludicrous price He paid, then that is really what I’m worth. God is not insane; He doesn’t die for junk. He knows better than we what we’re worth.

Mephibosheth is indeed a lot like us, and King David in this story does behave like God. But we’re missing the point if we think Mephibosheth’s own judgment of his value is accurate.

The first thing that needs to be brought out of this story is not actually in the story at all, but predates it. When Jonathan was the King’s son and David merely the young warrior who killed Goliath, David and Jonathan made a covenant. A covenant is like a promise, in this case a promise of friendship, but in Old Testament Hebrew culture covenants were inherited. By looking for a descendent of Saul to whom he could show kindness for Jonathan’s sake, what David is doing is exhibiting God’s character trait of Covenant faithfulness.

Similarly, God made covenants with human beings. Specifically with Israel, but study of the Scriptures can show that it was always His intention that that covenant relationship not be exclusive – that the Gentile nations would be grafted in to the same covenantal root. God shows kindness because of that covenant, which is why Abraham and Moses can both talk Him down out of destroying sinners. They appeal not only to His mercy, but also to His Covenantal faithfulness. This is also why we can rely on His grace and mercy today. If it were just like a human feeling, it might evaporate tomorrow, but He has promised to show mercy and grace. It’s who He is; He cannot turn His back on His own nature.

The second thing I want to bring out is Mephibosheth’s situation.

Cripples in Bible times were looked down on. Most cultures excluded them; they couldn’t fight or plough or do much of anything. Even the descendent of a king might be reduced to beggarhood. In a society in which good physical circumstances were seen as evidence and result of Divine blessing, a man crippled in both feet would be looked at as under God’s curse.

Worse, Mephibosheth’s family had been fighting against the current king. It seems like all the other descendents of King Saul had died fighting David. Mephibosheth was the last one left, maybe surviving only because no-one thought he was important enough to be worth killing.

He has, however, apparently had all or most of his property taken from him. He wasn’t able enough to stop people from taking his stuff, and with the King being the enemy of his family, no-one else was going to stand up for him either.

His response to David’s kindness shows what he thought of himself and his situation: “What is your servant, that you notice a dead dog like me?”

A dead dog. An animal doubly unclean – it’s a dog, for a start, but it’s also a corpse. “I’m junk. Worthless. Why are you doing this?”

How like our response to God sometimes!

And we think it’s the proper response!

“I’m junk. Messed up. Crippled by sin, and I’ve been Your enemy. I’m worthless. Why would You die for me?”

“Because I love you” is true, but not as helpful as we like to pretend. Because “because I love you” doesn’t address the issue of our value. I’m still junk, but God happens to like junk and is willing to pay a high price for it.

Tosh.

The real response of God to our junk self-image is not “I love you anyway” but “you aren’t junk”!

Trust Me. I know all things. I know what you’re really worth. I don’t lie. If I say you’re worth the price I paid for you – that is your true value!

The third thing I want to bring out is what King David does for him. What Sunday’s message focused on was that David brought him into his palace to eat at his table. It’s a picture of God bringing us into fellowship with Him. We eat at His table, in His presence from here on.

But it’s not the only thing David does for Mephibosheth. It’s not even the main thing; in fact, without the other, Mephibosheth is left in the position we often think of ourselves in. I’m at God’s table, in fellowship with Him, for some bizarre nonsensical reason, because I’m a dead dog.

No, what David does first is to restore Mephibosheth’s dignity and value. He restores his property. By Old Testament inheritance law – encoded in the Law of God – as the sole surviving descendent, all the property that belonged to Saul was rightly Mephibosheth’s. He didn’t have it, because people had stolen it from him and he hadn’t been able to stop them. But it ought to have been his.

David’s first response to Mephibosheth is to give him back his own. This doesn’t say “you’re junk, and the only way you’ll amount to anything is because I’m going to feed you”. It’s not “you’re worthless, so I have to give you stuff for you to have anything”. It’s not patronising charity, it’s a hand up. Here is what belongs to you. You are a valued human being and ought not to have been stolen from like that. You can’t get it back on your own, and you have no-one else to fight for justice on your behalf, so I will provide you with justice. You are valuable, valued, worth it.

Here are the servants you should have had all along. They will take care of the land for you.

This is also what God does for us. As fallen human beings, we’re in Mephibosheth’s shoes. The devil has stolen from us all the stuff that God intended for us to have – joy, peace, dignity, value, integrity. Relationship with the Father. Ability to walk in righteousness. The prosperity of our souls. We weren’t strong enough to stop him, didn’t understand what was happening, couldn’t or wouldn’t fight it. Fell for his lies. Whatever. And with God our enemy because of sin, there was no-one on earth who could or would plead our case in the heavenly courts.

What God offers is ourselves back. Here are all the things you ought to have had, but for sin. It’s a restoration of our dignity and a flat contradiction of the lie that we are actually junk that God just happens to love.

Being brought to the King’s table is just the icing on the cake. Without the other, Mephibosheth is right about his value. But King David isn’t seeing junk. He sees a son of Jonathan, the inheritor of his covenant. Son of kings.

And this is who we are! Sons of the King by creation, through Adam. Inheritors of the covenants made by God to all mankind through Adam and Noah. Valued. Worthwhile.

Like with Mephibosheth, the devil has stolen our perception of our value right along with everything else. We think we’re dead dogs, and get utterly amazed that God would pay that high a price for us. We’re so convinced we’re junk that it sometimes feels wrong of God to do that.

But God is omniscient. He knows all things. He knows the real value of everything.

And if He says that what I’m worth is Jesus dying on the cross, that is really what I’m worth! He’s not lying to make us feel better. Not trying to butter us up – why should He? Anyway, He doesn’t lie. He’s not paying a ridiculous price to give us value, but to affirm our value.

I’m not a dead dog. Really!

A Doe Set Free

The genesis of this post (pun intended, given the subject matter) was actually several years ago in a conversation with a good friend.

In the course of our conversation, he shared that in one of the discipleship programs he’d been a part of, they’d had some teaching on identity and the twelve tribes of Israel. He could explain it better than I, but from what I recall the gist of it was how each of the tribes had its own identity, which was revealed through the tribal blessings given by Jacob and Moses. They each had their place in the camp of God’s people, each had their name and their marching order. And just like that, we each have a God-given identity and purpose that may not be the same as someone else’s. There are different “tribes” within the people of God, and that’s ok.

Since the Bible says that Gentiles are grafted into Israel, the teacher had them each get alone with God and ask Him which of the tribes He was grafting them into. My friend’s was Asher, as I recall.

It’s not important enough to make a big deal out of (“what’s your tribe? If you don’t know, you’re missing out on God’s blessing!”), but this sort of thing appeals to me and I wanted one too. So I prayed and asked God what tribe He wanted to put me in, and to my surprise, what I believe I heard was the tribe of Naphtali.

It seemed an odd choice, especially as I began to study the tribal blessings, their history, their place in the camp. Some parts of it I liked immediately, but a lot of it was almost offensive to me. Kind of weak. Wimpy. Not very forward-looking. This is no identity for a man!

But the more I’ve looked, studied and meditated around it, the more truly fitting I find it is.

What a surprise; God knows what He’s doing.

Anyway, I thought I might share some of what I’ve found.

Naphtali was the second son of Rachel’s maidservant Bilhah, and his name means “my struggle”. Rachel named him, saying that “I have fought a great struggle against my sister, and I have won”.

Not the most promising of identities. A name tied up with that ridiculous baby war between Rachel and Leah. Familial strife; Bronze Age version.

But in many cases, God imbues the rather messily-named tribal ancestors’ names with Divine prophetic import; could this also be true of Naphtali?

His name, as I have said, means “my struggle”, and was associated by the mother who named him with victory therein.

Victorious struggle? Now we’re talking!

As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, sometimes I feel like I have the soul of a Mediæval knight trapped in the body and mind of a 21st-Century nerd. A large part of my identity, bedrock-deep, is as a warrior, and this God-given tribal identity of Naphtali affirms that as a Divine imprint, not an accident.

The imprint is one of victory, too. To channel my nerd side and quote the sci-fi TV show Babylon 5: “No hopeless struggle against ancient and terrible forces; we were the good guys and they were the bad guys. And they made a very satisfying thump when they hit the ground.”

Silly, perhaps, but it’s an important point. This isn’t some Viking-style valiant last stand in which everyone dies. There is the real possibility of victory. God is, after all, for us. In Him, I may be stronger than I think, and wiser than I know.

The first of the blessings isn’t all that promising either, at first glance: “Naphtali is a doe set free, that bears beautiful fawns” (or possibly “that speaks beautiful words”). Really, God? A doe? Couldn’t it at least be a stag? Something a bit more masculine and warrior-like?

Nope. It’s a doe. A deer. A female deer.

Gazelles and antelopes have horns. Stags have antlers. But a doe is defenceless.

And as I’ve thought and ruminated on it, I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s something rather apt about the apparent harmlessness of a doe. You see, for all my warrior self-image, I don’t actually go out of my way to look for conflict. I avoid it if possible; I’ll fight if I have to, but I’m not looking for one. Even my stance on the bearing of arms is doe-like: unarmed by choice. My Defender is the One with the antlers.

A doe is a shy, retiring creature of the forest’s shadows. This seems appropriate to a tribe that’s in the background a lot. They don’t have a lot of time in the limelight; they’re not the visible ones like the Levites and the kings from Judah. The one Biblical hero from the tribe of Naphtali, Barak son of Ahinoam, gets told that “the honour will not be yours, for the LORD will hand Sisera over to a woman”, and he seems ok with that.

It’s very doe-like. Shy, almost.

There’s an identity here of humility, of shunning the limelight, not thrusting oneself forward, letting the glory go where it may so long as the LORD’s will is done.

I can work with that. More importantly, God can work with that.

Does, too, are swift and have an amazing leaping ability. Not to blow my own trumpet or anything, but I have a pretty swift mind and the ability to “jump” ideas from one area into another. I make weird connections. I do languages; “jumping” fairly easily into the strange sounds of a foreign tongue. Again, doe-like.

Ok, God; I’m beginning to get it.

But that “bearing beautiful fawns” business? “Speaking beautiful words” is somewhat better; as I said, I do languages. I write poetry. I write stories sometimes. I blog. Being a wordsmith is apparently Naphtaline.

But “bearing beautiful fawns” is in the NIV’s main text. As a man, it’s… motherly and feminine-seeming. Not obviously masculine as conventionally understood.

However, it’s one of my pet peeves that the way our culture sometimes defines “masculine” expectations isn’t very helpful. We miss out, and our children miss out, when we relegate child-care exclusively to women, for example. There’s a nurturing aspect to proper masculinity which we seldom see in these days; we’re too busy with our bravado and machismo and that stupid man-card nonsense. Being a man and a father is much more vital and relational than we often make it, and in a culture that has fallen for a whole pack of lies about what manhood is, perhaps it takes a man who is a doe to understand this.

The second blessing, the one in Deuteronomy, is on the face of it far more immediately pleasant, but strangely, it’s this that it’s taken me longest to really get a handle on:

“Naphtali is abounding with the favour of the LORD and is full of His blessing. He will inherit southward to the lake”.

Yeah! Finally something good!

And then you dig a little deeper, and you begin to wonder. Really? Is that really… me?

Does “abounding with the favour of the LORD and full of His blessing” really characterise my life?

Well, yes, actually.

Even as I write, this feels like boasting, but it’s not. None of it is my own doing, after all. I have a wonderful wife who may be even smarter than I am and is certainly better to look at, three lovely children (here’s that doe-like familial nurturing side coming out), I have a home, a job, a church. I live in a place where I can follow Jesus without getting thrown into prison for it. I’m smart, gifted at languages, I have many talents. My family isn’t in debt. Full of His blessing sounds like a fair description.

And why?

The favour of the LORD. “Favour” in the Bible is the same word as “grace”; it’s not something I merited or earned, but because God is gracious. I’ve focused a lot in this blog on grace and works; perhaps this might explain why. Naphtali is abounding with the favour of the LORD.

Graciousness is also something I strive for in my dealings with others. Generosity of spirit; largesse, courtesy and giving the benefit of the doubt. It’s perhaps another expression of the Naphtaline “abounding with the grace of the LORD”.

“He will inherit southward to the lake” I’m still less certain about, but that’s ok. Even the NASB’s rendering of it as “Take possession of the sea and the south” is still unclear as to how, or whether, it actually means anything personally. So much of the rest of the tribal identity I find meaning and resonance in that I’m reluctant to write it off, but on the other hand, this is Bible application not fortune-telling.

Naphtali’s place in the tribal camp of the people of Israel in the wilderness was on the north side of the Tabernacle, in the division of Dan. They camped and marched under the serpent standard of the tribe of Dan, and in setting out to march, it was the division of Dan which set off last, and Naphtali last of all.

Again, this is uncomfortable reading. I’ve heard people connect the marching order of the tribes with the idea of heart-willingness to follow God’s leading: “Don’t be like the tribe of Dan. Be swift to set out to go where God is leading”. The idea that I’m the last of the last in that isn’t a good one.

And a serpent standard? The animal representing Satan in the Garden? Eek.

Let’s deal with the serpent first, shall we?

The tribe of Dan’s emblem is a serpent the way Naphtali’s is a doe. It’s connected with the tribal blessing in Genesis 49. “Dan” means “He has judged”, or “He has vindicated”; the name expresses the Divine characteristic of justice, and the serpent emblem may remind us that justice plays no favourites but bites everyone equally.

Being someone with a deep concern to see justice done, I can live with being part of the camp of Dan.

Then, too, the serpent in the Garden of Eden isn’t the only serpent in the Bible. There was also the bronze serpent on a pole, lifted up in the wilderness so that those afflicted by snake bites could look on it and be healed. And Jesus likened Himself to this serpent, so even Jesus isn’t afraid to use snake imagery for righteousness at times. In the Middle Ages, Jesus was even occasionally referred to as “the Good Serpent” in reference to this.

Maybe there’s something here speaking to my love of the oddball, the unexpected image, the weird way of looking at things. I’ll find expressions of God’s goodness and truth in unlikely places. Even a snake.

Then, too, in the ancient world snakes were associated with wisdom. The prophet Daniel (whose name includes the same “Dan” element that the tribe is named after) had wisdom from God to interpret the king’s dream; and was deemed wiser than the king’s wise men. So maybe a snake isn’t so bad after all.

And the “last of the last” business. When the people of Israel broke camp, the division of Dan set off last, and Naphtali last of all. And though some preachers may connect the tribal marching order with willingness to follow the LORD, it’s something God Himself never does. He never turns to the division of Dan and says “and because you’re so wishy-washy, you have to go at the back”.

Given the tribe of Dan’s association with Divine justice, I’ve begun to wonder whether this position at the tail end of everything isn’t connected to God’s self-declaration to Moses in Exodus 34, in which justice (“Yet He does not leave the guilty unpunished…”) is the last-mentioned of God’s attributes. Grace, mercy and forgiveness lead the way; justice follows. This is right. The camp of Justice ought to set off last.

The other main aspect of this tail-end position that I want to mention is something that understanding of which I owe to my wife’s Texan perspective and knowledge of the world of cattle ranching:

Naphtali are the eaters of everyone else’s trail dust.

All of the rest have already gone ahead, with their sheep and cattle and donkeys and people raising such clouds of dust as to probably blot out the pillar of fire and cloud. At the rear end of the trail, all you can see is the rear ends of those in front of you, and the great dust-cloud that says “the people of God passed this way”. You get occasional glimpses of the pillar of God way off in the distance, but mostly it’s just dust.

And this is my place: with the eaters of trail dust. I’ll put up with huge amounts of metaphorical trail dust if I know I’m following the LORD. Inconveniences, uncomfortable circumstances, stuff that would set an Issachar or a Levite screaming – to me it’s all part and parcel of following. The price of faith, and it’s worth paying, because even Naphtalis are following the same LORD as the other tribes. We camp around the same Tabernacle, and God is far less interested in when you get there than in whether.

There’s one other time the tribe of Naphtali is mentioned, of course. We hear it every Christmas: “Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali, by the way of the sea; Galilee of the Gentiles… The people walking in darkness have seen a great light, and on those living in the land of the shadow of death, a light has dawned.”

It can get pretty dark down here in the trail dust of everyone else. But we’re by no means dishonoured or forgotten by God. It was the land of Naphtali that God Himself came and lived in, taking the low place, at the end of the line. The humble King, down and dirty in the trail dust along with even the last of us all.

So this is “my” tribe. Naphtali. A doe set free. Abounding with grace and blessing. Eaters of trail dust. Followers of the Lord.

Moose?

What is a lodge?

Americans seem to have a lot of these weird groups, and I’m still not sure what they are. There are Shriners and Elks or Whelks or whatever they call themselves, and there seem to be a lot of others, too. Maybe the Knights of Columbus; I know nothing about these beyond the name and that they are Roman Catholic. “Lodges” seems to be the usual generic term, but it’s one that doesn’t hold a lot of meaning for me. A “lodge” is a beaver’s dwelling or a communal house in a tribal society. Or possibly a ski châlet or Mediaeval hunting cabin.

My first encounter with the phenomenon was with some fez-wearing strangers collecting money, encountered shortly after we came to the US.

“What are they collecting for?” I asked my American wife. “And why are they all wearing Turkish hats? Are they some sort of religious cult?”

“They’re Elks,” my wife explained.

“Huh?” And internally:

Elk (n): A wild animal of cervine kind. In North America it refers to the local subspecies of Red Deer; in Europe it refers to the animal Americans know as Moose.

“Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks”. Puzzled look. “It’s a lodge”.

“You’re not helping me. Why are they collecting?”

Years later, and I still have no idea who these strange “Elks” are or what they’re about or why they think they deserve my money, nor really what this whole “lodge” phenomenon is.

I don’t think we have anything like this in Britain. Well, apart from the Masons, maybe, and they keep a distinctly low profile. You’d never, ever see Masons out collecting in an identified group; it defeats the point. If you’re a Freemason, no-one’s supposed to know about it except other Freemasons. So I don’t actually know if these “lodge” things are anything like the Masons or not, because the Masons won’t tell anything about their organisation to any non-member. Would they be defined as a lodge? I don’t know. I think so, but I can’t be sure.

It all looks rather suspicious from the outside, particularly as no-one I’ve asked seems to be able to give me a good answer for what a “lodge” is. You hear the phrase “Masonic lodge” mentioned occasionally in Britain, but public Freemasonry is as oxymoronic as dry water. Or “law-abiding criminal”. These Elks and Shriners and so on do public things like collecting money as if they are some sort of charity, but Freemasons, as far as I know from the UK, shun the limelight with a passion.

Sort-of-but-not-exactly-Freemason is no recommendation to me. Freemasonry is one of those things which the perception in my country – at least in the churches I attended – was that it’s not compatible with being serious about following Christ.

I don’t buy this whole satanism/Illuminati/secret-world-rulers-of-this-present-darkness conspiracy theory, but that doesn’t mean I’m comfortable with the idea that you can be a Mason and follow Christ with a whole heart. Where is your allegiance really? To the organisation or to the Son of Man? You cannot serve two Masters.

And the whole secret-society thing the Freemasons have going is suspect, too. I’ve seen Yes Minister. To quote Sir Humphrey Appleby: “If they don’t know what you’re doing, they don’t know what you’re doing wrong”. No accountability, no way to know what you’re really up to at all. “Men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil”. Together with the persistent rumour that you’re supposed to do whatever it takes to help a fellow-member, up to and including lying, preferential treatment over a more qualified non-member, and bending the law if within your power, it gives the firm idea that you can either be a Mason or you can follow Jesus, but not both.

From the outside at least, Freemasonry looks way too close to the ancient mystery cults of Mithras and Diana to be anything compatible with worship of Christ. So the fact that so many of the US Founding Fathers were identified Masons (and what’s up with that? I’ve never heard of any self-respecting Freemason identifying themselves as one) does not encourage me about the depth of their touted Christian faith, I’m sorry to say.

And this whole American “lodge” thing looks a lot like more of the same. You call yourselves “Benevolent” this and “Fraternal” that? Fine. That’s exactly what I’d do if I were up to no good and wanted to throw people off the scent. No-one’s actually going to call themselves the “Secret Megalomaniacal Federation of World-Dominating Evil Villains”, now, are they? Who are you in reality?

“It’s just a lodge” is no answer for what you’re about. I have no clue what a lodge is! “It’s just a blongsnarf”. Everyone already knows this.

Not me.

I lack even the most basic knowledge. What is a “lodge”? Is this apparent semi-secret society open to anyone? How do you join? Why would you join? What do you do? Why all the apparent secrecy? Are these different “lodge” things all related, or totally separate? Are they national or local, or even international? Are they just for men, or are there women’s ones as well, or unisex ones open to both? Why wear a Turkish hat – do you think you’re a reincarnation of the Ottoman Empire? What is the society for? What’s it supposed to be for?

And these “Fraternities” and “Sororities” – are they more of the same? I don’t understand them either. We don’t have anything called that in Britain, or anything that looks like it might be that by a different name. And my American wife’s university didn’t allow them, so she’s almost as clueless as I am and can’t explain it.

From what I hear, fraternities and sororities are about drinking, promiscuity, ritual abuse, and possibly racism. But if that was their real purpose they wouldn’t be allowed anywhere. At least, I hope not.

And if I’m right in my suspicion that fraternities and sororities are kind of like a lodge for students, this reputation doesn’t make me any more comfortable with this strange lodge business in the adult world.

My working definition of a lodge now has to include heavy drinking, possible promiscuity, racism and ritual abuse, as well as secrecy, lack of accountability, ultimate allegiance to an organisation that won’t tell you what they’re up to or who’s a member, and probable bending of the law and morality when it benefits a fellow member. And silly hats.

Yeah. Like that’s something I want to give money to.

The response I normally get at this point is “no, no, it’s nothing like that. It’s… It’s just a lodge, you know?”

No. I don’t. I don’t have this word. I don’t have this concept. It’s just a… beaver’s house? Mediaeval hunting cabin?

Now will someone that knows more of what they’re talking about than I do please explain in terms someone that really has no clue can understand? In the most general terms, if you insist on your secrecy. I’m hopelessly lost on the basic idea here.

I Want…

How many times have we heard the accusation that Christianity is just an angry God telling me not to do stuff I want to?

It’s sometimes a fair accusation. Sometimes we Christians act as though angry is God’s natural state, and a lot of the time our “standing up for moral principles” involves a lot of telling people not to do things. Combine the two, as we’ve all seen happen, and it’s entirely understandable that someone who doesn’t know any different would come to that conclusion.

And then we come to Luke 11:9-13.

Jesus is teaching on prayer. He’s just taught the disciples what we now call “The Lord’s Prayer”, and told them a parable about a man knocking on his friend’s door late at night asking to borrow some bread.

Even if the friend won’t get up just for friendship’s sake, Jesus tells them, he’ll get up because their friend asked boldly. They exhibited faith that their friend would help them if they asked.

And now Jesus says “Ask, and it shall be given to you. Seek, and you will find. Knock, and it will be opened. For whoever asks, receives, he who seeks, finds, and to him who knocks it shall be opened”.

In order to ask, you have to have a desire. You need to want it. Jesus doesn’t say that’s wrong. He doesn’t say stop wanting. Buddhism does, but this is one of the big differences between Christians and Buddhists. From the same problem – people want to do wrong things – two vastly different solutions. Buddhist teaching, as I understand it, is to stop wanting anything. Followers of Jesus trust Him to purify our hearts so that we stop wanting what is evil.

“Whoever asks, receives” is pretty broad. So broad that we often want to try to protect God’s reputation by hedging it about with conditions and nuances. We have to have pure motives. We have to be seeking first His Kingdom. We have to ask according to His will.

It tends to become an exercise in what I call “magical thinking”. Fulfill all of the preconditions and you can manipulate God into giving you a pony.

Jesus pares all of that away, leaving the crux of the matter.

“Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion?”

God is a good father. He’s not going to give His child something harmful when they ask for something good. He’s not going to give them something harmful if they ask for it directly, any more than I’m going to leave my four-year-old unsupervised around power tools, or give him a cup of WD40 to drink if he asks for one.

We fallen, fallible human beings – human beings who do terrible things and commit all manner of crimes against one another – know how to give good things to our own kids when they ask. And we think that God, the Source of goodness and the One from whom every good and perfect gift comes cannot be trusted to do the same?

When he says no, we can trust Him that what we’re asking for really is power tools in the hands of a four-year-old. We might hurt ourselves and other people with it if He lets us have it.

“If you, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him!”

Give what now? The Holy Spirit? Well, that’s nice and all, but what I was needing was food. A healing. Wisdom and guidance. Whatever.

Sometimes we act like the gift of the Holy Spirit is a nice extra for church time and the spiritual part of life, but not really what we need.

Wait a minute, though.

We believe and teach that the Holy Spirit is God. So what God is saying He wants to give us is the gift of Himself. Provision? He’s Jehovah Jireh. Healing? He’s The Lord Who Heals You. Wisdom? He’s the only wise God, our Saviour. Cleansing? With Him is forgiveness.

And on a God-sized scale, too. This is the One who created billions of galaxies full of trillions of stars each many thousand times bigger than our own sun. This is the One who fills meadows with hundreds of wild flowers, who created the Paramecium and the Parasaurolophus. Whose greatness – perhaps the least of His divine attributes – no-one can fathom.

He gives royally, because He’s a Royal giver. He gives greatly, because it reflects His greatness. Not with a dropper, but with a downpour. We can trust Him to meet our needs with His abundance.

Happy Birthday America

Maybe I just found the key to being able to truly enter in to Fourth of July celebrations in a way that has eluded me so far.

On Father’s Day I wrote about the apparent American obsession with the father-figure, and connected it to the War of Independence. And here’s my thought:

If America is the “child” in that relationship, and Britain is the “father”, maybe I can approach Independence Day as…

My child’s birthday.

I don’t necessarily like or enjoy everything that my child does. I’m not completely like my child, nor am I expected to be. We’re different people, and that’s ok. I can still celebrate them and their birthday.

And like with a physical child, there was blood and pain on both sides during the birth process, but now there’s a new human in the world. That’s reason for celebration.

The analogy breaks down regarding postnatal care. Perhaps a better one would be the Rite of Passage: the ceremonies some cultures have in which a boy becomes a man.

Very often there’s blood and pain in those, too. It’s a severing of parental authority, a child becoming an adult and taking their place in the world of adults.

The Western world has lost the idea of the Rite of Passage. I’ve seen some attempts to manufacture one, and they look contrived and artificial. But birthdays? Birthdays we have.

So Happy Birthday, America!