I have noticed an interesting dynamic every time I start to write one of these letters. I make a list of the couple of points I make and then I decide that (a) they really are not 'substantial' enough to write about; or (b) everybody already knows these; or (c) I need to wait until I have a few more points before I go to all the trouble to write, edit, format, add tags/footer, upload, browse the site and read-in-shock the typo(s)/errors I made, re-edit, re-post. And then repeat the re-read, get dissatisfied, revise, reupload--and finally let it go ('lather, rinse, repeat'--an endless loop?).
But this has the obvious drawbacks of (1) I never post anything; and (2) I let factors of 'how I appear to my readers' influence me unduly (and sometimes close to the borderline of vanity, self-promotion, and other such wiggly-creepy evils that have no business operating in my life at all, much less in making editorial decisions! Smile). So, that has now become my self-pious reason ('excuse') for starting an endless stream of potential drivel towards you...
But this morning, during my quiet time with the Lord, I was so struck by some elements of the story of Naaman the Syrian that I wanted to write these down and share them. The story is found in 2 Kings 5, and the part I want to comment on involves Elisha, Naaman and Naaman's servants. There are other elements of the story that have major lessons for us (e.g., Gehazi) and one of the funniest moments in the Bible (IMO) is found in here too (i.e., when the king of Israel reads the letter from the king of Aram--this ranks right up there with Haman falling on Ester just as the king re-enters the room).
The observations are just in verse order, basically:
First, I note in verse one that the Lord used Naaman to deliver the Syrians from some unspecified threat. It specifically said that it was YHWH that worked through this pagan man, to deliver a pagan nation (who constantly attacked and oppressed Israel--before and after this) from another pagan nation (presumably). Nobody would have given the Lord 'credit' in that situation, nor would anybody have actually prayed to Him. (They would have prayed and sacrificed to their idols no doubt). But God wanted to deliver these people for reasons of His own heart, and it made me wonder how many, many other 'deliverances' He must have done in the history of the world--not to get 'credit', not to answer 'theologically correct' prayer, and not to further the advance of His kingdom. Only for reasons of His heart. And how many such have been done in my life up to this point...
Second, this officer has a war-captive Israelite slave-girl in his service. We dont know if he captured her during one of their raids on Israel (described in verse 2), or if his wife had purchased her from some other soldier. What we do know is that this servant girl somehow loved her master, and told her mistress of a hope of healing. Why did the servant girl somehow care for this soldier and his household? Was Naaman a nice guy?
Third, the 'meat' of the story is when Naaman gets to Elisha's house. Elisha doesn't even go to the door but sends a servant and instructs Naaman to wash in the Jordan seven times and that he will be (not 'might be') healed. The 'seven times' part was probably just to force the trust issue--you might do it once or twice just to 'try it', but to do it seven times (in front of your entourage) requires actual commitment, faith, or obedience.
Fourth, Naaman's response is what has always hit me the hardest when I read this. He gets angry that (a) he is not treated with more 'dignity', and (b) that God's method of curing him does not fit his preconceived notions. He has a very definite view of HOW a 'real' God should heal him. He has tried to put God into a 'box'. He gets disgruntled that God is not conforming to his expectations. This is me, folks--way too much, and way too often. I still--after years of Him trying to teach me to let Him be the God in our relationship (smile)--have my stereotypes and preconceived notions about how He 'should do things' in my life and the lives of others. I am not as bad as I was 30 years ago about this, but it is still there. I see His patterns of work around me, and I am amazed at the subtlety and multi-dimensional complexity.
[For example, He seems to be able to “move” back and forth within time, in a way that makes me doubt all of our pro-and-con theological discussions about God's foreknowledge, certainty, and freedom. I have seen Him set up a person's choice of alternative futures, and then apparently back-cast into the past protection/responses to the consequences of the choice actually taken--and this back-cast 'provision' was in place for both/all of the possible outcomes. And since some of the consequence-streams were incompatible and/or mutually-exclusive, it was NOT a simple case of Him providing ahead of time for ALL possible outcomes... I have always suspected that the entire sequential framework in which those discussions take place is somehow 'wrong'--oversimplified, if you will. I can't put my finger on it yet, but I am trying to open my head up to alternate ways of looking at 'time' and 'sequence' (and, btw, cyclical notions of time--versus 'linear'--don't help, since it is still 'sequential' within each finite segment of the curves.]
I have seen God at work 'inside' the most horrific of events, creating amazing-but-tiny miracles among the charred remains of our human self-centeredness. I have seen Him wait years and decades (it looked like 'waiting', but i suspect the subterranean work on our hearts is much more difficult/deep than we might suspect, and so it might have simply taken that long to change out the substrate) to act on something. I have seen Him build a crescendo of goodness, only to see human (or angelic?) treachery destroy it in an instant. [I have also seen the opposite: accumulated malice and hardened bitterness melt in an instant, and the universal mastership of sin/death crushed/overthrown in a single afternoon one Good Friday.] So I am learning, but I still try to fit his 'future deliverance' from some problem I face into one of the various patterns I find in the Bible--when the variability in those very patterns may be intended to teach me NOT to 'map His options' into those of the past. I really, really still have to work at letting God be God... Since He can do 'exceedingly, abundantly, beyond all I can think or ask', that is perhaps a reasonable response for now...(smile).
Fifth. Along this same line, it is interesting to note what specifically he expected: a glorious, powerful god to work in glorious, spectacular, powerful ways. Noble rivers, dramatic gestures, important people. He expected God to be a 'showman', with flair and a 'distinguished grandiose manner'. [Contrast this with the Centurion of Galille's approach to Jesus...] Instead he got a small, muddy river, an 'otherwise occupied prophet', and a simple 1-2 sentence set of instructions from a household worker. He expected 'pop and sizzle' and got instead quiet and serious. Imagine what he would have thought to have seen this God take on common flesh, live as a peasant, and go to the shameful cross for Naaman's REAL cleansing! He would have probably been angry at THAT solution, too... And so it comes back to me again: do I really believe that God chooses to work in the mud, and in the hot sun, and through dirty, 'less presentable', commonfolk people like ME?
Six. And so he wouldn't believe--he would take the 'easy, free grace' that God offered him. He would rather have the self-righteousness of wounded-pride (for its obvious 'therapeutic' value for self-esteem...smile), than even entertain the possibility that this 'easy believism' was in fact true... But some other servant cared for this man (why did they all like him? Was God's hand on him all his life, like a Cornelius?). And he listens to them--he is corrected by them (is that part of why they cared for him? He took them seriously? I know in modern times, that's often all it takes to 'win' someone's care--to take them seriously, and treat them as significant.)
Seven. After he is healed, then Elisha meets him in person. It looks like the first no-show behavior on the part of E was merely a test for Naaman. When E refuses the generous and large gift of Naaman, Naaman should have gotten upset (at the protocol-insensitive indignity), but he didn't this time--he had learned that God is not about 'pomp and circumstance' or 'you scratch My back, I'll scratch yours'). He learned even better from this, that God's heart-gifts are free, solid, and without expectation of 'reciprocity'.
Eight. He asks for some dirt from the land of Israel to take back with, for he intends to offer sacrifices to YHWH on top of the dirt. Notice that he is NOT going to use the 'appointed' Levitical priests for this, but just do it 'pagan-style'. He tells E this. He then asks for permission to bow to an idol in his homeland, as part of his official duties to the king of Aram. And E says 'go in peace'--!! How far does God go to meet us?! How much stuff does He overlook when our simple little Jesus-washed (John 13) hearts are in the right place?! How little do we have to worry about our Father being 'petty' over mistakes we make that we are not even conscious of?!
This is an amazing story to me, and one that encourages me greatly every time I read it. It shames me that I often seem to be acting in the “Honey, I shrunk the God” mode. But it encourages me that my precious Lord sees through my overall ineptitude and misguided belief structures, and loves me, stays with me, delights in me, befriends me, walks with me, comforts me, and teaches me the 'better' way, as fast as I can practically learn it.
“Thus endeth the lesson” for me/for now... (smile).
Now, upon further reading--I notice in 2 Kgs 14, that the king who wept in humility at the illness of Elisha loots the temple of YHWH in Jerusalem, and tears down a major section of the wall of Jerusalem. And then there's the earlier on-again/off-again repentance of Ahab!
These are almost perfect models of the mixed character of God's people in this pre-mortem state. We are a contradiction of intentions, impulses--a blend of treachery and transcendent love, a bubbling cauldron which often spits out noxious fumes and purest gold--almost simultaneously.
I look into the depths of my heart and I am appalled at how fickle and disloyal I am--the slightest 'excuse' and I am instantly ten miles down the road of rationalization, of morbidity, of self-justification, of 'fantasies of public righteousness' or of “secular significance”, of consumer materialism, of good-instead-of-the-best, of 2D-only minutia. And I am not being tricked anymore by this--I know what I am doing, and I could almost swear that I seem to be manipulating myself into situations where it is easiest to get off track with my time, talents, and/or thoughts.
Plus, on a personal note, I am having large-project challenges on this 2007 project. I know from change-management theory, that you MUST have early-wins and frequent 'deliverables', to sustain momentum in a large project (e.g., ERP). Yet I am finding it difficult to get used to this 'fruitless' period... I imagine it sort of like a research Sabbatical, maybe, in that no results show (external results that is--I personally am profiting TONS from this reading) for an extended period. It is just frustrating to not be able to answer the many, important (and fascinating!) questions in the Tankbaklog. Being as morbidly introspective and self-doubting as I am, I am constantly having to wrestle with questions like “is this God's way of putting me on the shelf, and taking me out of use?” and “is this a project of my own making, to avoid facing other issues?” and “is some personal sin/failure/weakness stopping me from working hard enough to do BOTH this project and the Tankwerke?-- have I become lazy or fatigued through moral failure?”... etc, etc, etc... ad despair-um...
It's been another day or two, and I have been sideswiped yet again by another short-term, non-ministry project (or two)... and I have read this letter so far, and it started out okay and then degenerated into whining... so, less about me and more about our dear God---
I went for a drive in the country today, to try to get my head clear, and found myself in a tirade of anti-glenn, self-worthlessness, self-castigation... (all in prayer, of course--I am constantly telling my every thought to my Companion)... and I commented that I was sort of 'bored' with self-deprecation (LOL), so that it was time to change the subject and talk about/reflect on God... My monologue (or dialog-with-self) went something like this:
“Lord, I could talk endlessly about my shortcomings, self-pity, morbidity, failures, self-inflicted misery, etc. But that is so boring, and so obvious to us both... let's shift gears and talk about Your amazing and wonderful self!”
“First of all, You are so awesome and amazing--it's amazing!”
“But I just realized that that superlative is relative to me--so that's nothing special, really. It's not amazing that you are so superior (in essence, ability, character) than me...”
“In fact, now that You prompt me so, Your awesomeness is sorta trivial if it is based on a relative-to-humanity comparison--my understanding of You is so far above comparison to us it isn't even funny.”
“So, where is the platform for comparison, for you to qualify as 'amazing' or 'awesome', in a way that is not ridiculous, like a colony of bacteria (single-celled) telling an algae (multi-celled) that it is 'awesome' and 'amazing' and 'way beyond us'...?”
“Clearly not the earth-eco-system, as amazing as that is... or even the finite-but-unbounded universe... My understanding of You as Ultimate means even that comparison is useless... You could create a billion, billion such universes and never find a basis with which to compare Yourself to...”
“If I remember correctly, didnt you say as much in Isaiah somewhere? “With what will you compare me?” --- when we were trying to compare you to localized, geography-bound idols... but am I any better when I try to compare You to the universe's footprint? Or even some notion such as “all potential derivative realities” (sounds impressive, eh? ... smile)... but that is still just some more 'dust on the scales' to be blown off before the REAL measurements begin (Is 40:12-15)...
“Hmmm... okay, Lord... so what does 'awesome' mean? It's sorta useless if it is simply describing how a meager human creature (“mudballs with hair and teeth”) emotionally responds to You... CS Lewis talked about praying to You with something like “to You as You know Yourself to be”... to make sure the proper notion of 'God' was invoked, and not just our seriously diluted versions/concepts!
“But this raises an obvious question--are You 'awesome/amazing' to Yourself? Would such a predication be meaningful at all. You have never struck me as being very Narcissistic at all. You see Yourself as You are--in all your perfection--but I doubt that this is anything more than being simply truthful about Your nature and/or character.
“Obviously, You know much better than we how awesome/amazing/superior You really are relative to us (we dont really see it that clearly, from this side of the relation)... but that's not a source of 'wonder' to You (unless our thick-headedness and/or insensitivity is such)
“So, all Your omni-attributes and hyper-essence are a 'given' to You, but a source of wonder, amazement, reflection (and occasionally, terror or comfort) to us... So the phrase 'greater than all gods and all idols' is 'awesomely trivial' (in a theological sense) , since the ontic-gap between creature and Creator (in this case) is so 'great' (actually, not even on the same spectrum--derivative reality being a different kind of 'thing' than ultimate/non-derivative 'stuff'..
[Aside to the reader: The phrase 'greater than all gods etc...' does have immense importance in our daily lives, though. I am constantly trying to assert my divinity (lol!) as the center of the known universe (to myself, others, and occasionally, to God...sigh), and I need to remind myself that I dont really fare well in a 'contest' with the real God. Not only do I not have any omni-things (even my dullness is imperfect and inconsistent--smile), but I dont really have enough true-love-for-glenn to qualify either. My 'royal actions' as a self-enthroned deity are all pleasure-centered/escape-centered and dont come close to being real love... All of my 'divine decrees' and initiatives are short-sighted, anti-fulfilling, death-dealing, and have an awful aftertaste/backwash... gross...yuck... I have neither enough wisdom nor love to even qualify as a good son-of-Adam, much less the God--who-went-to-the-Cross... I try to avoid my cross countless times per day, and in countless ways...sigh.]
“Okay, I give up--there IS no base of comparison for your power, existence, authority, etc, right? ... but I'm looking at the wrong thing, aren't I, Lord?
[As I write this, I sit back in my chair and talk to the Lord about how wonderful it is to reflect on His awesomeness--smile--and I am reminded that although the recognition of His 'awesomeness' is perhaps 'automatic', the enjoyment of that recognition--as a pure joy of the heart!--is not... it is a gift of His great heart! -- not of His 'incomparable essence'! He made this experience of Him into a transcendent joy, a thrill and warmth of beauty, an incandescent spike in an otherwise mostly-grey mortal existence...]
(next night... see why I whine about these interruptions? ... smile)
“So, if You are not amazed/awed by Your own essence, then what about your character? You generally use this aspect of Your life when You compare Yourself to us. You talk about the fact that You are not fickle like us, that you are loyal (like we are not), that You are patient (like we are not), that You are soft-hearted while we are hard-hearted, that You are generous and we are tight-fisted, that You seek only the good of others while we are self-seeking, etc...
“I can see that this might still fall into the category of a 'given'--since You would see your perfect Heart in simple truth, but what about the relationship between Your various persons--in the Trinity, in which each Person loves, honors, seeks the exaltation of the Other...? Father, are you awed and amazed by Your Son's dedication to You? Lord, are you amazed at the Spirit's orchestral grace? Gentle Spirit, are you amazed at the beauty of the Father's heart?
“Or have I moved from amazement to appreciation? There is no doubt that each of Your Persons delight in, enjoy, appreciate-FULLY the others... and perhaps 'appreciation' and a true-view-and-assessment of Each's personal qualities is very close to 'amazement' and 'awe'...
“And I just now realize that I probably am smuggling too much 'surprise' into my notion of 'amazement'...? I know amazement can involve an element of surprise, but I also know it doesn't have to...
[Aside: when I see a beautiful abstract painting in the art gallery, I can be so amazed and in awe, but I am not 'surprised' per se. I am relationally 'caught up' in a 'slow, intimate dance with beauty', and my heart moves forward toward the beauty in the painting. It's like worship, and it clearly has transcendent elements in it, but it's not really a 'surprise' (unless I know the artist personally, and that this is clearly above his/her work to date...smile). I do not doubt for a second that God's experience of/unity with beauty--both within and outside the Trinity--is intense, emotional, exuberant, and passionate. Sin, death, and decay would have emaciated and monotone-d our universe far more than it has so far by now, had God not kept on 'making daisies' (to use Chesterton's image), painting sunsets, and preserving the ear's responsiveness to mathematically-based harmonies... I have also omitted aesthetic aspects of perception in this discussion. When God looks at Himself, a true view of the beauty of perfection might provoke this intense appreciation-response I am describing in the experience of art. So, in some real sense, God could be awed by the perfections of His essence, as one is pleased/amazed by beauty.]
................ break for the night // gotta 'cool down' enough to sleep...
[at this point, the conversation part was over, for I had arrived home from driving around in the country...so the rest of the musings--although some of the sentiments WERE in the conversation--are worded here as simple reflection...]
I know that God 'in His essence' is very 'other' to us, but in the aspect of His agent/personhood, He is not. We are NOT on a spectrum with Him re 'essence' or 'substance' (whatever in the world those things are...sigh), but we DO sit on a spectrum of personal characteristics. We are told to 'be like God' in matters of love, patience, forgiveness, etc.. and we can move into closer and closer approximations of Christlikeness (which was “Father-likeness” in His case) in our pre-mortem lifetime. So, personal characteristics may be adequate 'ground' on which to base 'comparisons'--and it is to this type of 'superiority' that the child of God runs, clings, and warms himself with. And it is this type of 'awesomeness' that grounds the heart, launches the spirit, and frees the weary life-traveler.
It is His more-loving-than-us, His more-forbearing-than-us, His more trustworthy-than-us, His more-honest-than-us, His more-'together'-than-us life that distinguishes Him from all other personal agents. He is an 'existing God' (His essence), but it is his 'living God' (His agency/personal existence) life-in-history that He was experienced by His people in history. They did not call Him “the existing God”, but “the LIVING God”. They experienced Him as personal, as engaged/involved, as companion, as relational.
To the extent I spend too much time pondering the ontological essence and substance of God, to that extent He seems 'less real', more philosophically 'problematic', and more static/inert. He seems 'further away' to me, the more I try to plumb His metaphysical/essential nature. On the other hand, to the extent I spend more time reflecting upon the fact that He is 'alive', the more drawn to Him I am, the more I want to interact with Him, the more I treasure His companionship in this life. My heart soars highest when I just take a few minutes and reflect on His being 'alive' , having the good-heart He shows us in scripture, and being engaged-for-good in my personal, little life. He seems to 'move closer' to my experience when I remember that He is alive.
Of course, I do experience awe at the immensity of His nature/power, but without the awe/knowledge of His supremely beautiful character, the former awe could easily morph into the terror that so many experienced when confronted with God's presence in theophany, revelation, or mediated action. Being in the very presence of such 'close work of God' was enough to cause the best of those among us to shake (with fear?)--Daniel, Ezekiel, John of Revelation. And I have been overwhelmed with this presence myself, a few times, during moments of music-thick worship.
But when this awesome, terrifying, numinous power clothes itself in humble flesh, walks and speaks as He did in Galilee and Judea long ago, and vividly (and viscerally, in this case--praise Him!) sends a message of 'you can trust Me--I am safe for you to approach--I am not a threat to you--I am on your side--I am not like the others' from the Cross, the fear becomes confidence, the terror become intense feelings of acceptance and 'being home', and the flee-from-Him impulse becomes the 'hide-behind-Him' impulse (big, big smile)... His face-of-love, His demonstrated care for our true good, His humility and integrity, His honesty about our need and weakness--these features so colored His immensity, His power, His otherness-in-essence, that I am left with a savior who is trustworthy (because He wont betray me, because His 'personal resources' means that His loyalty is unshakeable) and who is trustworthy (because He has the 'essence resources' to make good on His commitments)... I am assured, I can breathe easy, I can 'rest' for once in my heart... And I can go anywhere in this difficult life and hard-hearted world and confusing bundle of ambiguous experiences with confidence--and even delight--with such a Companion beside me...
And now the 'bad news' (sigh)... the higher you soar, the further the fall back to earth... and, since gravity is accelerative, the higher you soar, the harder you hit the ground when you fall further...
I am 'soaring' as I write this--borne aloft by the Spirit of the Living God, infused with tangible grace, warmth, goodness, glow. And there are no temptations in my 'normal sphere of moral combat' that can touch me now... I am as clean as I can be, transcending the pull to feel 'sarxy' (fleshly, from the Greek work for NT flesh--sarx), to get off track, to settle for less, to settle into comfortable despair, and other normal-glennlife challenges. [I am the beneficiary of God's love/outreach to some of you out there--something in this writing He intends more for you, than for me--but I get to learn it too, because I am in the media path(yes!). Otherwise, I might NEVER learn some of this stuff, honestly.]
But I know I will fall back to earth again soon, and dance with sin and conceive some micro-death down here... and it will hurt my heart more than ever before... the higher I soar in love for our good-hearted God, the greater the loss of innocence in the next betrayal of that love... I really hate the little betrayals I do, to my Loyal Lover... and I hate them more and more, the more He grows my beauty within... Someday I will be free to soar in delirious-dance with this One--without stopping! But for now, I will continue to need His Cross, His foot-washing, and His pulling me out of the thorn bushes and thistles.
It's a sad thing, really, that while the Spirit lifts my heart up to share with you precious people--you beloved of our tender-hearted God--my mind knows that my Judas moment is only minutes, hours, days away... and He knows it, too, and has made ample provision for it, but it doesn't lessen the sadness in my heart BEFORE I fall, nor the sense of grief AFTER I fall into betrayal.
I will 'get up' and dust myself off, as always (“for a just man falleth seven times, yet riseth up again”--Prov 24.16), and I will know that I am forgiven (I Jn 1.9), and that my sin has not impacted His 'paid in full', and that I am still 'winning' in His work of progressive sanctification in my life (the sheer witness of my increased grief over this is proof that my moral sensibilities are growing more like His). But I will still feel that post-denial experience of Peter's in the courtyard (Luke 22.61, “and Jesus turned and looked at Peter”), and yet--like him--I will probably not see a trace of anger, disapproval, harshness, “I told you so”, or anything but a quiet love in His face.
This is just a consequence of a lengthening (and hopefully, 'deepening') walk with our Lord, but there is one practical problem it has begun to raise in my life. If the falls are too close together in time (even for different kinds of falls--omission, commission, apathy, over-zeal, appetites etc), then --being a creature of extremes--I will be tempted to over-compensate. I will create a 'fit of righteousness', in which I 'purge' elements from my life, in my zeal to not lose the next moral battle. But I tend to over-do this, and rip out elements which are good, honorable, constructive, sweetness-from-God, all because I might have misused them, mis-valued them, or blended them with less-noble elements into a not-good compromise. This has never proved effective for me (just like the thorough purge/revival of Josiah in 2 Kings 23 didn't clean up the people really -- the book of Jeremiah alone proves that!), but it has actually removed some good influences/gift from the Lord from my life instead!
Of course, I know that some gifts can be disfigured/twisted into becoming enemies (the Bronze Serpent of Moses, for example), and that there is a time to break with such things. It's just that I do not always act in 'truth' in such witch-hunts, but rather sometimes use 'disposal' as a surrogate for 'seeking the good' or even worse, as a self-centered tool to assuage guilt feelings. So, I try to avoid hasty-purges, and always talk a lot with my Lord before removing elements of daily life. I do lift all this up of course--”should I drop this? Should I trash this? Should I schedule this instead of that? Should I spend more/less time on this?”--and I beg Him to help me be honest about what should go and what should say... “All things are lawful for me, but not all things are profitable”...
And this temptation to over-react (or 'mis-react' might be a better word) seems to increase in force the further the fall to earth is...
[I have to stop here and prepare for some technology briefings I have to give tomorrow... hopefully I can edit this (without throwing it all way, in disgust, disapproval, or despair...sigh) and post tonight... glenn miller, April 18/2007]