the pulled punch (part 1)

Anything worth fighting for should be given, not taken. I’ve been basting this line in my mind after a few weeks with David and Saul, turning it, coming back to it, layering it. There’s a lot of irony here and even questions: a fight of mostly standing still. As one scholar pointed out, “David… is bound on the one side by his own anointing by Samuel and on the other by Saul’s prior anointing. Both come from God…” (Francesca Murphy, I Samuel). David knows God’s will for his life, specifically and directly, but he waits for it rather than takes it.

David is an interesting character in so many ways, one of which is his sheer renaissance-reminiscent plethora of abilities. This guy wins battles, writes poems, plays music, woos women and is, you know, “after God’s own heart.” You almost feel bad for Saul. And Saul, in fact, was in many ways a very successful king—he protected Israel valiantly from her enemies (which is why they wanted a king in the first place). The problem with Saul is that he thought it was his responsibility to do so. You get the feeling that he was trying to bring God into the picture, but the conversation just could never get going. Saul builds altars for incriminating sacrifices, makes rash vows he can’t keep, sends for the priests and then shoos them away, wants the ark, doesn’t want the ark, etc. When Samuel comes to him at Gilgal he reminds him “Jehovah anointed you king over Israel and Jehovah sent you on a mission…” And his question, which is probably best translated as “Are you so little in your eyes?… Jehovah anointed you king…” hits the bullseye of Saul’s simultaneous inferiority/superiority complex. We’re well indoctrinated on the sad missteps of the self-esteem movement (mainly its failure to account for the fact that we actually are pretty crappy on our own), so it sounds a bit backwards to us for Samuel to be challenging Saul that he thought too little of himself. But in the context of the previous and following statements, his point is not that Saul attached far too little value to himself, but to what God wanted for him. By treating the fine print of God’s commands so flippantly, Saul revealed that he gave no weight to the role God had given him and his responsibility. He apparently thought it was his to rearrange and adjust—as though he could bargain with God, assuaging him with offerings while still furthering his own ambitions. He had forgotten who made him king and whose mission he was on.

Then there’s David, anointed and successful, encouraged on all sides to simply take what everyone knew was rightfully his, but who refuses to tamper with any of the fine print especially the anointing of the man hunting him down. As he would later declare, I have kept the ways of the Lord, and have not wickedly turned from my God. For all his rules were before me and his statutes I did not put away from me. Although it would be an error to oversimplify the spiritual processes going on in David’s life, there is one theme that keeps popping up that seems key to this steadfast yet unambitious resolution.

David knew, more than anything, that God was with him. This simple statement summarizes the way God viewed David, David viewed God and what everyone around him saw. This became the core of his identity and David knew that to jeapordize that relationship (by sinning) meant to jeapordize everything he had, even his very life. Although a very talented and charismatic person, Scripture wants us to realize that David was king not because of his abilities but because of God’s choice. It was his story after all in which God can make the point that He “looks not on outward appearance as man does, but on the heart.” Because when we meet David he’s so far down the totem pole that God practically has to kick Samuel in the head to even consider him as future king. But from that point on, he’s God’s man and everywhere he goes people say that the Lord is with him. The narrator repeatedly points out to us that David was successful in everything he did, in everything Saul asked him to do, that everyone loved him, that Saul’s entire family abdicated to David in one fell swoop, that even former enemies did not harm him, that God continually provides for and protects David, that although Saul sought him every day, God did not give him into his hand. David knew that the source of his every success was God—and he believed it even more when “success” was defined as mere survival.

As David’s story begins we see him with two main enemies: Goliath and Saul. Goliath looms large in every way—he makes David famous. Saul is a much more complex enemy, lurking everywhere in the shadows, but he makes David’s fame just. One of my professors taught that David deserved his brother’s taunting remarks at the battle, that David was a cocky, know-it-all brat. I’m still not convinced of that reading, but David certainly does begin his warrior career with flourish. He is so sure of God’s pursuit of His glory he literally runs to take on a fight saying “the Lord will rescue me.” He brazenly warns this giant that he has “defied the name” of God and unbelievably goes against everyone’s better judgment stating that “it is not by sword or spear the Lord saves; the battle is the Lord’s!” Underneath this impossible courage, though, lie a few significant things. First, although I’d never seen this before, David really knows what he’s doing. As I read about this passage I learned that slings were legitimate weapons, not children’s toys and that David counted on the element of surprise and used it quite advantageously. Everything he does is calculated to make Goliath assume they will engage in hand-to-hand combat (the carrying of his staff and his last-minute run towards the giant) essentially throwing him off his real strategy. And his shot, finding a tiny opening with maximum impact, was certainly no accident. And as he told Saul, although probably only 15 or 16, he was no stranger to a fight. “The Lord who delivered me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear will deliver me from the hand of this Philistine.” David had skill, but he knew where that skill came from and this is the fine line between confidence and arrogance. Saul was always looking for the magic bullet: the best warrior, a great sacrifice, an oath, and yet he was never confident. David had skills and mighty men and a priesthood (that came running after Saul killed most of them off), but he knew that these were not the source of his success, only the tools. When David says, over and over again, that God is his rock, his stronghold, it was because he knew that every cave he ever hid in and every outcropping he was shielded by was from God’s hand. David was confident, bold, courageous, and wonderfully afraid of nothing but his God.

In his battle with Goliath we see that David is afraid of nothing, but in his hiding from Saul we see that he feared God. Service for God is not something achieved but something given. The only way for David to live without sinning (in other words, really live), was God’s deliverance—and he waited for it till it seemed utterly impossible. He would rather be endangered, humiliated, questioned, and in hiding than in sin. It doesn’t seem like anyone else was on the same page with David regarding the whole not-killing-Saul-thing and yet he never succumbed to the excuses and justifications. David waits perhaps a decade for a kingship already promised to him but still in the hands of a raving lunatic. He is enabled to do this by the same faith that ran headlong towards a giant with a cowardly, taunting army behind him; any success he had would come from God. This kind of faith can make you look like a crazed daredevil on one day and a pitiful wimp on the next. If God is the giver of all true good, we should display both boldness (because He is able) and patience (because we are not). As David told the king of Moab, he was waiting to “know what God will do for me.”

I said that no one was with David on the subject of preserving Saul, but I’m going to take that back. There was one who stood up to David and allowed him no excuses at a time when he was tempted to take them. Abigail comes at David with more true courage than all his mighty men.


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June/July Update

Here is our latest update about going to England.

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i don’t advise the yelling

(post from August 2010)

That we’ve already let our son fall prey to television’s deception is evident because he lives under this misconception: every construction project begins with a demolition. See, he watches “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” on a fairly regular basis and this is the order of events: an old, broken house is torn down (or blown up or shattered merely by Ty Pennington’s habitual yelling), then a new one is built. So it seems an incontestable truth to Clive that every new building being built was preceded by an old, broken one that was demo’d.

I thought of this today when reading Phil 3. This passage (verses 3-11) is one of my all-time favorites and I re-visit it often to do battle with my self-sufficiency and pride. Several years ago I began to see Paul’s thinking in these words from a slightly different angle. Paul doesn’t just say that he won’t brag about his qualifications or achievements or rely on them to gain favor with God, but that it is only to the extent that he discards his confidence in himself that he is exercising faith in Christ. In other words, it’s a simple choice between living based on Christ’s merits or my own. Visually, I imagine it as a balance scale that can only tip one way or the other and my ability to live in the reality of Christ’s accomplishment for me on the one side will weigh heavier as the Spirit chips away at my “confidence in the flesh” on the other side. Or emptying out to be filled. We will not be found “in Christ” as long as we are primarily allowing ourselves to exist as ourselves, standing on our virtues rather than His. I’m convinced (by Scripture and experience) that we’re born living for ourselves and our own glory and that a lifestyle of glorifying Christ is only built by on the wreckage of self-glory. I am constantly glorifying myself and the only way to glorify Christ is for the Spirit to reveal how I’m using my thoughts, words, actions, responses, etc. to do this and then where that lifestyle can be torn down and a new way of living (faith) constructed. Unlike the order of events on Extreme Makeover, though, the old, broken woman I am takes a lifetime (and a death) to demo, so rather than a deconstruction then a construction, both are constantly going on.

The only way to life is through death, the deconstruction of confidence in ourselves for the construction of faith in Christ. Being conformed to his death in order that I might attain to the resurrection… (Phil 3.11) I would rather boast in my weaknesses so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. (2 Cor 12.9) For indeed He was crucified because of weakness, yet He lives because of the power of God. For we also are weak in Him, yet we will live with Him because of the power of God directed toward you. (2 Cor 13.4) In his book Jesus and the Spirit, Dunn says that the new birth begins the forces of life working in you so that both death and life are always present. If you do not believe in Christ, death has the last word. If you believe in Christ, life begins to combat the forces of death in you, gradually overtaking them until it conquers death, creating the life of resurrection even out of the experience of death (p. 337-338). So we are always in the midst of demolition and new construction, death and life.

When we first believed in Christ and accepted salvation, part of the statement we’re making is that we cannot be right with God on our own—therefore, we need a righteous Savior who will stand in our stead. We must continue participating in the Gospel by continuing to grow in this truth, understanding it more deeply and applying it more thoroughly to our lives. To be a Christian is to understand that I cannot solve my own problems, that I don’t have the answers to life, that I cannot get what I need on my own, that I don’t make the right choices, that I can’t work hard enough or do anything well enough to gain God’s approval, that even the best of the best by the world’s standards cannot stand before God. Only Jesus can does. But, in the world and flesh, I still live as though it matters what others think of me, that it matters how much I get done and how well I get it done, that what is important in life is what I want, dream about, plan, and work for rather than what Christ has done and how God is forming me after His likeness. It’s usually obvious who the main character in a story or book is, right? Because the plot and everything that we as the audience know in the story revolves around that person or group of people. Well, I still live life as thought I’m the main character. Time for a rewrite.

And now for some massively postmodern reader-based hermeneutics on U2 (“Walk On”):

You’ve got to leave it behind.

All that you fashion
All that you make
All that you build
All that you break
All that you measure
All that you steal
All this you can leave behind.
All that you reason
All that you sense
All that you speak
All you dress up
All that you scheme… 

The only baggage you can bring is what you can’t leave behind. Love is not the easy thing. Walk on. Press on to lay hold of that for which Christ laid hold of us. The new is only built on the ruins of the old.

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May Update

Our latest update letter

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why David’s getting extra hugs this week

I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children. Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.

This week I read this book. First, let me say how immensely grateful I am for modern medicine’s contribution to childbirth. On other days you may have heard me saying the opposite, but I am aware now what a privileged position the fight for natural childbirth has been waged from. And what else to even say about the picture this book paints…? Did you know that during civil war in Liberia, 90% of women over the age of three said they had been raped? 90%! That if you’re a girl born in India you are 50% more likely do die in the first 5 years of life than a boy—not because you might be killed (although that does also happen), but simply because you will not receive the same medical care. Boys get shots; girls don’t. A sick boy is taken to the doctor; a girl lies at home and dies. That every year in China 39,000 baby girls die because of lack of medical attention they would receive if they were a boy.  That on average, the death of 15 infant girls can be avoided by allowing one hundred female fetuses to be selectively aborted. (That’s not an argument for abortion, but evidence of female oppression—they die either way.) That 21% of South African women have been raped by the age of 15. The numbers of people currently being killed simply because they’re women or girls far surpasses any genocide we have numbers on. And the numbers of women currently being trafficked for sexual slavery far surpasses the numbers on the slave trade at its peak crossing the Atlantic to America and Europe. Women raped or mutilated by childbirth are often left to be eaten by wild animals—one 14 year-old, after enduring 7 days of labor entirely on her own (due to child marriage and an immature pelvis), her baby’s death and severe internal injuries and nerve damage found herself unable to even walk and left to die at the edge of the village. She fought off hyenas all night by waving sticks (since she couldn’t run), then at daylight dragged herself to the doorstep of a missionary she had heard of. On the flip side of these atrocities, it was joyous to read these (I assume) unbelieving journalists talk about the ubiquitous presence of missionaries in the most difficult places in the world. They said that the UN and WHO and big charity organizations are in the cities, often with lots of money but also often very ineffective in helping the people who need it most. In the rural areas where people have no access to basic quality of life and cultural abuses hold out longest, they kept running into Christians. To use their own words, these people (!) burrow themselves into the culture, (!) even send their children to local schools, and (!!) often stay for life. I was doing some festal shouting reading about a single girl who left a church in Minneapolis to go to the Congo where she educates and trains women to support themselves after childbirth injuries. And another Christian woman who buried her husband on the hospital grounds in Ethiopia and just kept on doing operation after operation day after day on injuries sustained during childbirth. I’m praising God for these women and for Karis, Barb, Carole and Beth. And praise Jesus who burrowed himself into our culture and gave his life so that we might live for others.  And he is praised—by a woman in India who says that although she’s a devout Muslim she greatly admires Jesus Christ after her time spent working alongside a Catholic missionary. And I want to tell the feminist Muslims (yep, you read that right) about Jesus—that instead of fighting for the right of a woman to be in the same room as a praying man, they can meet One who pointed His disciples to a woman as an example of worship. One who told women to leave the kitchen and sit at his feet with the men. One who told women that it was not the children they bore that defined them but their obedience to His words. That the virtue of their love for husbands and children was found virtuous by the church not because it was obedience to their husbands or cultures but to Him. And then I wondered whether these women would meet Jesus in our churches and whether the men they grew up under would feel a little too much at home there. “The historian David Courtwright has argued that one reason America is relatively violent, compared to Europe, is the legacy of a male surplus. Until WWII, the US was disproportionately male, and the frontier was overwhelmingly so… The same analysis, while controversial, may also help explain why male-dominated Muslim societies have similar threads emphasizing self-reliance, honor, courage, and quickly resort to violence. All this is compounded when the men are young. In Western countries, the cohort aged 15 through 24 makes up an average of 15 percent of the adult population. In contrast, in many Muslim countries this share has been more than 30 percent… Youth bulges may be particular destabilizing in conservative Muslim countries, because women are largely passive and silent… Moreover, in other parts of the world, young men aged 15 through 24 spend many of their waking moments chasing young women. In contrast, in conservative Muslim countries, some young men make war, not love. In strict Muslim countries such as Afghanistan, many young men have little hope of every finding a partner. Typically in such nations, there are at least 3 percent more males than females, partly because females don’t receive the same medical care as males. Also polygamy means that the wealthiest men take two or three wives, leaving even fewer women available for the poor. Young men in such countries grow up in an all-male environment, in a testosterone-saturated world that has the ethos of a high school boys’ locker room.” In this part of the world, a young man may well have never once had a substantive conversation with a women except his mother. How many pastors and elders in our churches have never had a substantive conversation with a woman on theology or even the Christian life? How many of our seminaries and church offices have the “ethos of a high school boys’ locker room”? Fortunately every pastor I’ve had has had much more maturity than the image those words bring to mind, but the point is this: if the image of God is communicated by men and women working together, what kind of an incomplete representation are many of our church platforms and offices giving? I believe that 1 Tim 2 limits the office of elder to men, but this is only a narrow slice of the ministry and leadership gifts needed in the life of a church.  And as the authors point out, focusing only on men doesn’t just hurt women but everyone: “To deny women is to deprive a country of labor and talent, but—even worse—to undermine the drive to achievement of boys and men. One cannot rear young people in such wise that half of them thing themselves superior by biology, without dulling ambition and devaluing accomplishment.” If more women were contributing to the theology, ministry philosophy and day-to-day decisions of our churches, would we have better churches? If you believe that women are equal partakers of the Spirit and the providential gifts of God, then you must say yes. The authors share the story of a girl born to poor farmers in a Chinese village. She went to the first few years of school and tested better than all her fellow pupils, but her parents were preparing to take her out of school because they saw no need for education when they needed her to work in the field (and all the money went to sons’ education). The authors were able to procure a donor willing to fund her ongoing education and her parents begrudgingly agreed to let her continue. She graduated, went on to college, now owns her own company, replaced her family’s one-room shack with a 6-room house, built a road to their village and continues to fund schooling for other children in the village. Her family’s vision of what she could help them with was entirely too small—they wanted two hands to pick rice and she wanted to build roads and schools. All over the world girls are denied education because it is considered more profitable to educate the boys. We do the same thing in our churches by educating men in theology because we think they can minister to more people in occupational positions. Not to mention what this communicates to the women needing ministry—why would we invest in someone who would be focused on ministry to you? As if there are not plenty of women needing Christ and growth in him and preparing women to minister to them would be unprofitable. Perhaps our vision is too small. Are we offering the unique grace of Christ to the world, including women and in contrast to false religions? “Although volume upon volume is written to prove slavery a very good thing, we never hear of the man who wishes to take the good of it, by being a slave himself.” Abraham Lincoln Except one. Who being in the form of God though equality with God not something to grasp at, but emptied himself and took the form of a slave, being born in the likeness of men and humbling himself even to the point of death on a cross. Have this same mindset, doing nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility of mind regarding others as more important than yourselves. Let each of us look not only to his or her own interests, but also to the interests of others.


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All I Have Is Christ

David’s latest blog post:

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waiting words

Because there is so much that we can’t fight. When we are waiting we are often painfully aware that we are not in control. This agitation can push us into badgering others, anxiety attacks or the occasional misplaced obsessive compulsion. On our better days it pushes us into prayer. And in this waiting place, prayer can be like walking into an empty room, a conversational cul-de-sac. When you most need Him, God doesn’t show up. The God who spoke all life into being, from whom “every good and perfect gift” comes, who died to defeat death, pain, sin and hell for us—where is He now with His good gifts and power to save?

After the death of her mother and crumbling of her marriage, Lauren Winner describes her feelings this way: “When you find that God is absent, you do many things… You narrow your eyes at your absent God the way you would narrow your eyes at your lover, in a fight, when he has just said something awful and mean and true about you, the way you narrow your eyes before you say Fine, then! And storm out of the room. You are growing a carapace, to protect yourself from this absence. You begin to turn your attention elsewhere, to any elsewhere that might pay you some attention back.” My husband and I recently wondered whether we are getting more skilled in trusting God or just getting numb to the ups and downs of anticipation and delay. Are we just looking elsewhere for attention, distracting ourselves with more urgent concerns than an absent God? If so, then we are not waiting well.

Psalm 22 is some good waiting: fully voiced despair, demand for God alone and unflinching, steely-eyed hope in Him. If the psalm itself doesn’t charm you, Jesus’ meditation on it through the cross experience ought to lure you in. And for both Jesus and the psalmist, declaring God’s victory was best done in the midst of apparent defeat. The timing of faith is crucial; it’s not faith when it’s over and the answer is clear and the pieces have all fallen into place—faith is most faithful when the object of its hope is utterly unapparent.

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
                       Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer,
                        and by night, but I find no rest.

The first irony here is that the psalmist is still calling out to a God that he accuses of absence. The Septuagint’s translation of the cry here is something akin to “why don’t you pay any attention to me!?” And his enemies’ taunts only prod his fear awake: Let Him rescue him if he delights in him… The implications of this unmet reality are devastating for one whose life centers on the covenant, who from birth has called on my God. We wonder… maybe He ignores me because I am insignificant to Him, because He disdains me and my inability to hold it together, my pathetic pleas.

In contrast to his forefathers, who were delivered, he is ashamed. Denied the security of the primary relationship of his life, he doesn’t even feel human: But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by mankind and despised by the people… He feels eyes upon him, the discomfort of unanswered questions, the tsk-tsking as heads wag, the eventual vocalization of long-held suspicions and finally outright attacks on his integrity—this from his own community! Much like Job, he realizes that only the solidarity of God is useful.

He comes to this argument perhaps less nobly than Job. He is less convinced of his righteousness in his desparation, but desperation for God is still good. Sometimes our faith is little more than a shoulder-shrugged statement like Peter’s “to whom else would we go?” He fights doubts of God’s pleasure in him with something of a blameshift: I’m not sure how you feel about me now since you’re ignoring me, but don’t forget that you’re the one who made yourself my God! As you sit by watching me face death, don’t forget that you’re the one who brought me here in the first place. I have no one else besides you—for good or bad, you’re my God! His enemies are closing in, encircling him while God is nowhere to be seen—but his eyes are still scanning the horizon for a savior.

The psalm gradually turns from despair by way of several halting jerks back and forth: current absence but past presence, pragmatic but nonetheless loyal attachment to his God, and then a commitment to fully explain God’s faithfulness to a community that now disdains him. While still under the calculating eyes of his enemies, the psalmist envisions a day of praise and this is what he plans to say: That God doesn’t scorn the lowly. That He is not annoyed by the desperate pleas of the poor. That He doesn’t look away, averting his eyes from our pain. That when we cry, He is listening. That He saves.

He has not despised or abhorred
                        the affliction of the afflicted,
             and he has not hidden his face from him,
                        but has heard, when he cried to him.
The afflicted shall eat and be satisfied;
                        those who seek him shall praise the LORD!
All the ends of the earth shall remember
                        and turn to the LORD…All the prosperous of the earth eat and worship;
                       before him shall bow all who go down to the dust,
                        even the one who could not keep himself alive.
Posterity shall serve him;
                        it shall be told of the Lord to the coming generation;
they shall come and proclaim his righteousness to a people yet unborn,
                        that he has done it.

The Gospels unanimously portray Christ meditating on this psalm throughout his suffering and finding its honest resolve fortifying. Even the accusers are painted with this psalm’s language—they wag their heads and echo “He trusts in God; Let God deliver him now if He desires him…” One scholar interprets Jesus’ cry of “It is finished!” (Jn 19.30) as a restatement of the psalm’s final phrase: “He has done it!” In light of the timing (pre-resurrection), it at least borrows its boldness. While still in his precarious position, the psalmist vows to God that he will someday tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will praise you. Then Hebrews 2.7 tell us that we are those brothers. That when Jesus was on the cross he was gaining the voice of experience and planning to use it to convince us of God’s faithfulness. For it’s not angels that he helps, but people. Therefore he had to be made like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God… for because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.

Jesus waits with us. The One who could do anything, with all things at his disposal, chose suffering. God does not give into demands, but He stays by those who pray.

So here, in brief, are some waiting words:

–       keep calling—stay loyal
–       remember God’s goodness in the past and let those memories form your actions. This is not dishonest—it is accurate. (We know more about the past than the future or even present.) And then push yourself a bit more to use it to shape the way you imagine the future.
–       Put the shame to shame, giving it no weight. You may feel shame before people, but never before God. He knows every sin, hears every cry, sees every impatient sigh, every shallow and easily frightened spot of our souls. And is still our God. If there are taunts, lifted eyebrows, and uncomfortable questions they are not from God. He does not squirm in the face of evil like the powerless do.
–       If you are crying out to silence, assume it is the silence of One listening, hanging on to every word.

And, finally, it helps to imagine the devil writhing in agony over your well-timed faith. “Do not be deceived Wormwood. Our case is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.” (C. S. Lewis’s master tempter Screwtape)

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