October 11, 2007

Pictures and Conversations—Part 2

Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, “and what is the use of a book,” thought Alice, “without pictures or conversations?”

—from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Several weeks ago, I pulled up to a stop light behind a car that had a leather-bound Bible wedged between its back headrests and the rear window. The book’s cover had been dulled by the sun to the point of nearly matching the faded upholstery in the car. Clearly, it had not moved from its shelf in quite some time. That’s a shame.

Whenever someone concludes that the Bible is a rather useless book—whether such a conclusion is actually declared or simply evidenced by an unworn cover and crisp pages—I can always tell that this person has never actually read it. After all, no one who has seriously walked in these extraordinary pages could ever be so dismissive. Between the true-to-life narratives in the Old Testament, the from-the-gut prayers of the psalmists, the in-your-face demands of the prophets, the curiously-quirky parables of Jesus, and the practical how-to bits in the epistles, I imagine that no one could truly engage this book and walk away unaffected. Yet in these frenzied times, too many possess Alice’s short attention span: One hasty glance and a snap decision is made as to the usefulness of a thing.

A Bible makes a poor window dressing, but its content makes for great conversation. And in fact, sprinkled throughout the canon are some truly great conversations. Surely this would delight Alice, whose attention, if not caught by glossy pictures, will at least be held by the back-and-forth of a good tête-à-tête. Indeed, a good conversation is a like playing a good tennis match: After a while of back-and-forth, back-and-forth, it’s not so much that you are playing a good game as it is a good game is playing you. It draws you in, changes you, affects you. A good conversation makes all the difference in a relationship. Just ask your spouse.

So, here are three conversations in the Bible that have captured and held my faith-imagination. I pray they will bless you as they have blessed me.

Joshua 24 – My grandmother Pauline stitched for every one of her Hawkins grandchildren a needlepoint of Joshua’s bold statement in this famous chapter of the Old Testament. Not certain if the people are really up to faith in this holiest of Gods, Joshua differentiates and at least speaks for himself: “… but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord” (24:15). Such words hang near the front of the manse.

Chapter 24 is a long conversation between Joshua and the people of Israel. Joshua’s time as their leader-pastor is growing short, and he knows it. He also knows that they have some serious decisions to make. He recounts for them God’s miraculous history in their midst, reminding them from whence they have come. Joshua almost paraphrases Francis Schaeffer’s famous question to the contemporary church: How should we then live? Indeed, faith in God always requires decisions. One cannot remain neutral before this God. There is no holiness in ambivalence. As such, what choices will we make this very day?

Read for yourself and listen to what resonates for you in Joshua 24.

Ezekiel 37 – As I’ve suggested in several sermons, I don’t think we Christians have much use for optimism, at least not when it is confused with hope. Optimism is often about trying to reinterpret reality with a positive spin. The danger comes when too much optimism gives birth to denial, and we are no longer in touch with what needs to be changed, mended, or transformed by God’s grace. Obsessive optimism makes one too numb to hurt … and therefore too numb to hope.

Round about Ezekiel chapter 37 in the Old Testament, things are bad for Israel. Really bad. The nation is decimated and in exile; they are deported from their homeland and demoralized in spirit. The prophet catches a vision from God, who promptly takes him “down in the valley.” (Don’t think geology here, think theology.) Ezekiel sees tired old Israel as a heaping pile of bones in a valley of death. After taking it all in, God eventually asks the obvious but haunting question: “Can these bones live again?” Ezekiel wonders. This is no time for the prophet to be cheeky-optimistic. Reality says no way! Hope says maybe! Wise Ezekiel turns the entire matter over to God (v. 3).

How many of us at one point or another have stood over some heap of rubble-bones in our lives and quietly asked (prayed), “Can this live again?” Sure: One can try to be positive, try to think the best, try to spin the matter this way or that … or one can pray, naming the truth of death but hoping (trusting! believing!) in the promise of new life. Old Ezekiel chooses the latter, and the results are incredible. rattle-rattle-rattle. snap-snap-snap. Israel is reborn. This is the Bible’s first glimpse of resurrection faith.

Read for yourself and listen to what resonates for you in Ezekiel 37.

John 3 – The biggest danger in a significant conversation comes when two people think they are “on the same page,” but later turn out not to be. Unmended misunderstanding only leads to further confusion and complication. When an exchange really matters, when there is much at stake in our speech, we would be wise always to take a moment and mirror back what we think we are hearing. “I hear you saying … Is that right?” One can never be too certain about this kind of accuracy.

Nicodemus thought he was on the same page with Jesus. After all, he was a wise old Jew, no dummy; one the best among the Pharisees of the day. How hard could it be to talk to a rabbi about his signs and wonders (v. 2)? But when Jesus informs him that “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above” (sometimes rendered ‘born again’), Nicodemus assumes Jesus is talking obstetrics, not obedience. It is hard to tell whether old Nicky chuckles or chokes on the mental image of an old man like him crawling back into his mother’s womb (v. 4). Either way, he is now irreparably off-track in this most important conversation. After all, there is hearing and there is hearing, seeing and seeing. In gospel of John, Jesus is always dealing in the latter, while those around him seem hopelessly stuck in the former. Jesus speaks in the Spirit; people seem prone to hear in the flesh. Look closely Nicodemus, church: “Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness rather than light.” Beloved, let us learn to see while the seeing is good. Let us listen, not with eardrum alone, but with our whole lives. Let us be born from above.

Read for yourself and listen to what resonates for you in John 3.