Saturday, June 29, 2013

running lightly on his toes

But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God. Acts 20:24

Things are very quiet now, in my parents’ room.  Dad’s temperature is rising.  His blood pressure is dropping. His heart rate is rising.  He is no longer thirsty or hungry. This earthly body is shutting down, one switch at a time.  The only sound is the quiet bubbling of the oxygen machine.  And sometimes Pandora country hymns.

He has finished the course laid out before him from the beginning of time. With perseverance.  In triumph.

I cannot find it right now, but somewhere in the stacks of letters piled high paper boxes there is a typewritten letter from dad to Scott, in response to Scott’s description of his daily Bible reading.   A warning.  One can never be too careful reading those Psalms.  And dad supported this caution with a story from that morning.  

My parents were on every plea-for-money-sucker list.  They printed for over 1000 missionaries, and of course each mission organization added them to each and every database.  They had figured out that my dad methodically read each letter, opened every envelope with his dad’s metal letter opener which sat in the window sill. So the sticky web spread around and around in every direction.  The mailbox was certainly full to the brim every day.  This particular morning he received a plea from a missionary who very much needed money for a very worthy project where he was working in a very poverty-stricken corner of Africa. But alas, my parents’ checking account carried a balance of -$450 dollars, so my dad set the letter aside, and picked up his Bible for his daily quiet time.  

I do not remember the exact verse he read, but I imagine that it was along the lines of Psalm 82:3-4, Defend the cause of the weak and fatherless; maintain the rights of the poor and oppressed. Rescue the weak and needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked. Or it could have been Psalm 140:12, I know that the LORD will maintain the cause of the afflicted, and justice for the poor. Or maybe Psalm 10:14, The unfortunate commits himself to You; You have been the helper of the orphan... O LORD, You have heard the desire of the humble; You will strengthen their heart, You will incline Your ear to vindicate the orphan and the oppressed.  

And the point of his typed letter to Scott was, in this date-stamped carbon copy, is that you can never be too careful in reading the Psalms because you must obey what you read.  These are David’s psalms and he was a man after God’s own heart. And by the time he had pushed back the chair from the kitchen table, there was -$500 in the Coverdale checking account.

My parents’ house is a vintage sixties tract house, plain and simple in every way.  That first night in Tucson, in November 1972, I cried myself to sleep because of this ugly house that represented everything this decision of my dad-the-rocket-scientist, to print children’s bible studies for free, meant to my very materialistic fourteen-year-old heart.  

The kitchen is classic, in the push button fold-down electric burner sort of way. Very hipster.  Yellow appliances. Sliding glass cupboards that never failed to whack my 6’ 4” dad in the head.  Sticky silverware drawers that require carefully honed jiggling.  One summer my parents decided to modernize and the counters were piled high with Home Depot flyers, graph paper sketches, and paint samples. Excitement hummed.  Finally we were going to be more like other families.

But the evening before the big project was to begin, my dad started reading one of those brochures stacked up on the microwave.  It too was full of calculations.  Like how many Bibles in Russia could be printed up and distributed for a hundred dollars.  For a thousand dollars.  For two thousand dollars.  And the Coverdales never got new kitchen counters.

So Andrea and I just got back from visiting the cousins in the South, all of dad’s kinfolk, Southern gentry in every sense of the word. Gracious, generous and well ensconced in the Belle Meade Country Club, they knew that our family, way oh way out west, was a little peculiar.  We spent many a long afternoon exchanging stories on the dock of their eleven-bedroom river cottage, laughing over the shared memories of spilled salt and jumping off the bedroom balcony into the pool.  It came out that they always thought we didn’t have a television in the house because we couldn’t afford it. Which at first I denied and begged off on more philosophical and literary reasons.  

But upon consideration, perhaps my sweet cousin were right.  In the big race, finishing well requires throwing off everything that hinders and entangles.  Televisions weigh a lot.  

Well done, good and faithful servant. Dad passed from this old body at 1:22 a.m., June 30, 2013.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Even the silence is just fine

And Paul went to see Aquila and Priscilla, and because he was of the same trade he stayed with them and worked, for they were tentmakers by trade. Acts 18:2


Of course animals enjoy this too.  One only has to wander past any old dogpark to smile at the tail-wagging happiness leaping around in those small enclosures.  Or the rows of hunched up pigeons lining phone wires in the early morning hours.

But there is a made-in-the-image-of-God depth to the human need for relationship that stems from the three-in-oneness of the Creator.  And there are hints of it in the Chicago streets after a Blackhawks’ game. And the gracious cordiality in 5:15 a.m. crew in the second slowest lane in Hilldebrand pool. And the appreciative cooing over Everette as we watched a women’s soccer C team race back and forth in the cooling summer evening.

There is an even sweeter tie that bonds in the brotherhood.  How good and pleasant it is, a shared Spirit which kindles the creativity and joy in the bustling Desert Christian summer office, which weaves comfortably throughout the monthly gathering of oldsters who had volunteered at The Press, or even that strings tightly across the miles and years, sight unseen, but still sturdy.

Seth and Karen Barnes graduated from Wheaton College with us, the same year,, and although at first there seemed to be very little shared commonality beyond a few jokes about flying pigs and Perry Mastodon, the years have worn away the differences.  We all did small business loans in the DR where both of our first children were born, we have all adventured with people in short-term missions, and now we are walking through this stage of life together, celebrating life with the births of grandchildren (Everette beat theirs by a day) and sitting by the bedsides saying goodbye to parents crossing over. We also share the same bucketlist, and this summer Seth made the El Camino de Santiago pilgrimage.  

The time on the Camino was life-giving. I fell in love again with simplicity, community and grace. 

After seeing the movie The Way, I sensed that a walk on the Camino might be in my future at some point in my life. There's something about it that has pulled pilgrims like a giant magnet down its 500 mile length. At first the 5:30 wakeups and dawn departures were a struggle. But the magic of the place soon took over - we were in the Spanish countryside as the sun rose over poppy-speckled fields of grain, medieval castles in the background. 

I returned from the Camino to people I love, but a lifestyle in America that has grown too rushed and complicated.

Sometimes the Camino is not a choice.  The Coverdale family is making its Way down that path right now, as we sit piled high on the kingsized bed next to the rollaway hospital bed and watch my daddy breathe.  It is a not too rushed and complicated path, pretty much controlled by Mr. Clock who dictates when it is time to readjust his pillow position or administer a few more drops of morphine. We sort through the boxes and boxes of letters; my dad date-stamped them all and printed both our letter and his response.  Or there are carbon copies of old Underwood typewriter missives.  There are a lot of tales in those pages, mostly about a large rambling family trying to live each day to His honor and glory.  At least that was the struggle that made it into the letters to the patriarch.  There was an envelope with a scrawled warning: Life is not as bad as this letter sounds.  It’s kind of fun to hear the stories before they grew and stretched over the years.  Although often, the immediate includes even more dramatic details that were lost in the telling.  Occasionally we flip through a few hands of Spades, watch a free library movie or go for a walk.  Tom and Brandon are chopping down dead oleanders in the 116 degree weather.  It’s a pretty quiet companionlyness.

Simplicity, community and grace.  We are walking it.  

But there is another Way, another Camino, that I can choose every day.  I can turn off the clutter.  Yes, that means you, NPR radio.  I can choose meaningful conversation.  Yes, that means a prayer walk around Desert with Sue. And of course, twaddling Miss Everette Tess on one’s knee makes the hours melt.  

Of course it doesn’t hurt that it is summer vacation.  No nervously racing down Speedway trying to hit the traffic signal sweet spots.  But I certainly used to tuck one last assignment into each student’s folder at the end of the school year which required establishing a new habit following the twenty-one day rule.  Perhaps this time of imposed companionlyness will settle down deeply in my soul.  As we sift through the reminders of a life well-lived, deliberately and very much counting the cost, may I never forget as I choose my Way through each day.

So be it.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.

And Paul went in to the synagogue of the Jews, as was his custom, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, “This Jesus, whom I proclaim to you, is the Christ.” Acts 17:2-3

So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. And He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find Him. Yet He is actually not far from each one of us, for “‘In him we live and move and have our being’ (Epimenides of Crete) as even some of your own poets have said, “‘For we are indeed his offspring.’ (Aratus's poem “Phainomena”) Acts 17:22-28

“Be still, then, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations; I will be exalted in the earth.”  Psalm 46:11 

Aslan is on the move.

On one hand, it is absolutely crazy for me to pick up the now-tiny-thin local newspaper tossed in the front yard gravel every morning.  Huge knots start twisting in my gut as I scan through the worldwide happenings, whether it be the rainstorms in India and the droughts in northern Africa, or the corrupt powers across the spectrum: Turkey, Brazil, Iraq, Texas.  In pursuit of happiness, Phil Drysdale stopped reading this sort of stuff six years ago, and hasn’t missed a blink.

On the other hand, reaching down each morning has also become a daily act of worship. The dip down is an act of submission. Be still, then, l and know that I am God.

The redemptive God is at work.  He who made every nation of mankind has determined that they should seek Him and His provision, first the Jews and then the Gentiles, And He is not far off from each one of us.

I got to the respite care place pretty early this morning.  And it was hard to imagine that daddy was squeezing my hand in greeting, although that is what I was pretending.  But, since the last sense to close down shop is that of hearing, I reached for the Bible waiting next to his bed and read psalm after psalm out loud.  Not knowing what else to do in the darkened room, silent except for his raspy breaths. 

Whatever the LORD pleases, He does,
in heaven and on earth,
in the seas and all deeps. Psalm 135:6


Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Little ones to Him belong

Paul wanted Timothy to accompany him, and he took him and circumcised him because of the Jews who were in those places, for they all knew that his father was a Greek. Acts 16:2

Paul really meant it when he said that For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a servant to all; to the weak I became as weak, that I might win the weak. He became all things to all men. Thus it is very important to carefully consider the strengths and weaknesses of each culture to whom he preached the gospel when reading his letters.  He was clearly not setting up universal guidelines for the Church, but demonstrating what it meant to be a servant to all. Although, it was actually Mr. Timothy who paid the uncomfortable price, to be all things to all men.

This works both ways.  First when I am speaking of Jesus to those who do not know Him it is worthy to not be distracted by the jot and tittle, the arguing over the political and philosophical minutiae.  Keep the message focused on the love of God and the forgiveness of sins through Jesus.  

And when I am speaking to my brothers and sisters in Christ, it is worthy to not be distracted by the jot and tittle, the arguing over the political and philosophical minutiae.  Keep the message focused on the love of God and the forgiveness of sins through Jesus.  

 I imagine that complexity of doctrine and wondering what people thought about him and wanting to depend on his own good works were the besetting sins that Paul battled.  The sort of things that I battle.  But Mr. O’Reilly had it right: KISS.  So simple that even a child can understand.

Jesus loves me! This I know, 
For the Bible tells me so.
Little ones to Him belong; 
They are weak, but He is strong.

Jesus loves me! This I know, 
As He loved so long ago, 
Taking children on His knee, 
Saying, "Let them come to Me."

Jesus loves me still today, 
Walking with me on my way, 
Wanting as a friend to give
Light and love to all who live.

Jesus loves me! He who died
Heaven's gate to open wide; 
He will wash away my sin, 
Let His little child come in.

Yes, Jesus loves me! 
Yes, Jesus loves me! 
Yes, Jesus loves me! 
The Bible tells me so.

Dear LORD may I be tender to Your Spirit, the gentle prodding to hear and speak how You hear and speak.  In my weakness, You are made strong.  

Monday, June 24, 2013

and the third and fourth as well, seventy times seven

Paul and Barnabas had such a serious argument about this that they separated and went different ways. Acts 15:39

I forget sometimes that these early Christians were flawed sinners just like me. Paul doesn’t forget: For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.

This must be one of those moments.  

Here, Barnabas, whose real name was Joseph, but was nicknamed, “Son of Encouragement,” which is the same word Luke uses for the Holy Spirit, Paraclete, stood against a decision of Paul.  And it’s pretty fun to imagine what kind of guy Barnabas must have been, that he was nicknamed, “Son of the Holy Spirit,” and how closely that is tied up with encouragement and walking alongside the outcast, the stumbling, the discouraged.  This was the guy who stuck up for Paul when everyone else rejected him, and sought him out.  And brought him into the community.  

And so John Mark had wimped out, been a goof ball of some sort, and headed back to Jerusalem before the trip was over. Or the commentators guess that he wasn’t so happy with the Law-less Paul’s mission to the heathens. And the important thing is that Paul was tired of messing with him.  John Mark just slowed him down. But Barnabas clued into what was important, of the Holy Spirit, and gave him another chance.  And thus, we have a gospel which grips the reader with the immediate passion and active voice of Jesus.  Who later earned the name of “John Mark the Evangelist.” Who was later a comfort to a lonely, imprisoned Paul. 

We serve the God of second chances.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

A blank patch of sky

We bring you good news, that you should turn from these vain things to a living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them. In past generations He allowed all the nations to walk in their own ways. Yet He did not leave himself without witness, for He did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness. Acts 14:15-17

This is the good news that we are to carry to the ends of the earth.  Meg, my mom and I talked a lot yesterday about what it is exactly we are to proclaim, and how do we do it in the day-to-day of life to a people whose understanding of Jesus is certainly jumbled from way too much information, and yet, and yet not enough.

Meg was talking to a friend, a righteous man whose life shines with grace and kindness and wisdom, yet cannot believe that Jesus is the One.  And she got to the point in the story, where he was shaking his head slowly and saying the spirit within him simply did not see God in the various churches that he had visited, that she asked, What about this does not sound like good news?  Because that is what I am proclaiming, and anything else is not the gospel.  

We as the church have complicated our message with lots of postscripts that may or may not be part of the message.  Paul and Barnabas had a pretty straightforward message, an ancient version of the Four Spiritual Laws: 
  • There is a living, powerful God who does good
  • He satisfies our lives with food and gladness
  • Our lives are caught up in empty vanity
  • Through Jesus there is forgiveness of sins

This simple message was enough to get Paul dragged outside of the city gates and stoned and left for dead.  Some folks, particularly the religious leaders and businessmen, have a lot of investment in empty vanities.  

And this morning I watched a YouTube of the Hubble telescope pointing to an empty spot in the universe.  And am reminded once again of His glorious demonstrations of His power and majesty and beyond anything we can comprehendness.  

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Prying our fingers off of the old dusty ways things have been done

Be it known to you, therefore, brethren, that through this very one is preached to you the forgiveness of sins: And by Him all that believe are justified from all things, from which you could not be justified by the law of Moses. Acts 13:38-39

So Meg and my mom and I are up at the cabin. The little cabin perched up on a pile of rocks just before Marshall Gulch. Once again, like so many times before, I am wrapped in some sort of odd blanket watching the rising sun glint off of the backside of the Catalinas. From the very same chair that I used to watch the glints trickle down the mountainside so many years ago, when all I could do is watch and doze, watch and doze, as I recovered from valley fever. The only Bible I could find at the cabin is The Holy Bible, from the ancient Eastern manuscripts, translated from the Peshitta manuscripts which have comprised the accepted Bible of all of the Christians who have used Syriac as their language of prayer and worship for many centuries. A bible that was here when my parents first bought the cabin so many years ago. Waiting on the shelf next to the Big Book of Tell Me Why and the Birds of North America and The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin. Waiting for me to blow the dust off the cover and consider the words within.

This little cabin is full to the brim of other things however, just like my second cup of "do you want a little more" coffee. But there is also an echoing emptiness of unanswered Ungame cards, unmet bridge doubles, and most of all, "Does anyone want to go for a little hike?" My snow-shoveling, hammock-hanging, pine cone-gathering father will never again stride about restlessly or sort through the picture basket and toss yet another memory at me to ask, "What about this one?"   Except, perhaps in his dreams. He is still dreaming in his rollaway bed, reaching for the unseen, smiling at some private glimpse. Preparing to splash across the one last river which separates him from home, home at last.

But his ashes will indeed linger, and work their way into the very roots of the rustling pine tree tops, the one that remind me of Heidi when she rushed outside into the city streets of Frankfort looking for her home.

And the law is the old comfortable way of doing things. I am really very good at following lists. I don't even have to look at them, I know them so well. For example the neatly typed list clipped to the refrigerator delineating how to flip up the electricity switch, remove the bag of styrofoam bits, unlock the already unlocked lock, twist on the water with the two-pronged pole leaning up against the drawer of plastic bags and paper plates, remove the double-headed nail to the big green gas container swinging door and rotate the four-pronged handle,  open the heavy wooden shutters and clip them back so they don't swing in the wind, kneel down to plug in the hot water heater, and roll the gas grill down the awkward doorstop. This I can do, follow lists. And it is cozy and tight and makes me feel like I am in the know and I belong and I am fairly competent. I am a good kid. Well, pretty much.

If I could receive forgiveness of sins through obeying the law of Moses then Jesus died in vain.

It was really hard for those early disciples to believe that they were justified from all things. That the work on the cross was complete. Done.

All of the comfortable, list ways of doing things were destroyed on the cross, lest any man should boast.

That's it.


All the things that were written have been fulfilled.

And even harder for the religious leaders who had spent lifetimes carefully scribing up long lists that showed how very good and worthy they were, and how very much different they were from Them. But the Jews were filled with envy, and they bitterly opposed the words of Paul, persuading the great congregation to accept the grace of God. All of their hard earned works were of naught.

Therefore you are inexcusable, O man, to judge your neighbor; for in judging your neighbor, you condemn yourself. Do you stand against the riches of His goodness and forbearance, and the opportunity which He has given you, not knowing that the goodness of God leads to repentance? Romans 2:1-4

And the disciples shook off the dust of their feet upon them. And were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit.

Love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. Which says, Thou shall not commit adultery, Thou shall not steal, Thou shall not covet; and if there is any other commandment, it is fulfilled in this saying, namely, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. Love does not work evil to his neighbor, because love is the fulfillment of the law. Romans 13:8-10

And really, that is all I need to understand. Actually, it's all I can understand, until the veil is rolled away and I will see clearly. Reading through Romans in a single sitting gives me mental whiplash. Lucky for me, He has said that we are to enter the kingdom, simply, like children.

For God has included all men in disobedience, that He might have mercy on every man. O the depths of the riches, the wisdom, and the knowledge of God! For no man has searched His judgement, and His ways are inscrutable. For who has known the mind of the LORD or who has been His counsellor? For of Him, and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be glory and blessing for ever and ever. Amen. Romans 11:32-36

Thursday, June 20, 2013

And the chains fell off his hands

When she recognized Peter’s voice, she was so overjoyed she ran back without opening it and exclaimed, “Peter is at the door!” 

“You’re out of your mind,” they told her. When she kept insisting that it was so, they said, “It must be his angel.” Acts 12:13-14

Once again, these early church guys, the ones who walked and talked with Jesus for three long years and chockful of the Holy Spirit, still struggled with the same old issues I face each and every day.

Lord, I believe, help my unbelief.

It’s the same old thing that the people of Israel faced, the walking through the river while the wheels of Pharoh’s chariots twisted to a fallen standstill and the six-days-a-week manna from heaven folks, suffering from short-term memory loss every time the page flips.  

What’s with that?

I was talking to Cousin Steve about miracles and what it is like to be in the middle of a big obvious one, like busted radius and ulna bones sliding back into place and raw flesh wrapping itself up smooth again without even a seam, and really, it’s just like Peter, it feels like a dream.  Mundane day-to-day expectations has dulled my senses; I gobble my food, not even noticing the subtle seasoning mingled with the sustenance.  And much like gobbled food, a moment on the lips, an eternity on the hips, it melts into the blob of the unconsidered life.  I am not wanting to live there, while the waited for, but unexpected miracle waits pounding on the door.  

So once again, as I click on the daily prayer list, let me enter into His presence with open eyes and a keen ear. 

And a heart of gratitude. Because, really, of course, each moment is a miracle.  

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The old wineskins are shredded to bits

And the other brother.  Our family didn't have a television when we were kids, so we read and wrote a lot.

“I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, "Know the LORD," for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD."
Jeremiah 31:33-34

Alene and I went to seminary for a year right after we got married. We studied Systematic Theology and we studied the Bible, cover-to-cover. We studied Old Testament History and New Testament Epistles. We studied Prophets and Poetry and Revelation. We studied Apologetics and Hermeneutics and Liberation Theology. We read books and wrote papers and stayed up late memorizing the finer points of the Christian Faith.

This passage from the book of Jeremiah tells us about a new plan. The Lord says that the old covenant, which relied on people following the Law and the Protocol and the Tradition, basically didn’t work very well. We the People could not seem to walk a straight line. We messed it up continually. The new plan, says the Lord, is for the people to know God. Not “know” him like memorizing the finer points of the Christian Faith. Not “know” him like being experts in the Law and Protocol, or getting good grades in seminary. Just to know him as we know our friend–to know God in our hearts and lives. We will live in relationship with God.

So the question for us is whether this is possible. Are we living in the New Plan or the Old Plan? Are we trying to memorize the Law and the Protocol? Are we trying to discipline ourselves and study ourselves into the knowledge of God, or can we live in relationship with our Creator? Maybe we are doing both. I went to seminary for a year. I read the Bible. I read books about the Bible, and books about the books about the Bible.

What we can aspire to, though, is to live in such a way that our lives are infused with the love of God. I am thinking of a secure, living love that comes out of a real relationship, and not out of the book–any book. Maybe this love and relationship can become our first language–the means in which we live and think and experience life.

Dear loving God, we hope to know you. We hope to live in faith and love that comes from inside of us, where you have written on the flesh of our hearts. Please lead us into true life. Amen.

True and undefiled religion

Another one from my brother... 

Years ago, I remember sitting in the small, New England congregation, people sparsely dotting the timeworn pews. The pastor had asked for prayer requests, and after the customary health concerns for the Mabels, Portias, and Harolds had been voiced, a father of a couple youth group teens stood up to put in a petition for his daughter’s upcoming softball tourney. I was a bit surprised when I realized this dad was not asking for the vibrancy of his daughter’s “Christian witness on the field,” nor even her bodily safety. He was out for the win.

“Yeah, the girls’ team has been workin’ real hard, an’ I wanna say a prayer that God would reward them for their efforts. They shore have worked hard for this’n. I’d like to see ‘em bring home the trophy.”

Really? Praying for God to pull the game? The house of God becoming a bit of a bookie agency? Say it ain’t so, Joe….

Now I have been developing a theory for some time about the intent of the Third Commandment, Thou shall not take the name of thy Lord God in vain.... I’ve always thought—at least as a kid—that I had an easy with the Third. I’m not a swearer myself: Family mythology recalls me exclaiming, “Oh no!” after I almost cut my thumb off with a circular saw, and my son who has joined the construction industry, often jokes about my list of milquetoast explicatives, ranging from, “Rats!” to the inexplicable, “Sheesh Mateeya!” or “Chow Mein!”

Anyway, I was raised in a culture that using “God” for anything but a title of the divine was similar to swearing. I can pretty safely say that at my robust age of forty-nine, I have never used God’s name in vain. In fact, just last night, when my seventeen-year old uttered, “Oh my God!” at the dinner table, I was a bit surprised and saddened, and I told him so; Tracy nodded in agreement. He looked a bit embarrassed, and I suppose I would have preferred my paternally-modeled “Sheesh Mateeya” even though it doesn’t have any meaning, or at least turn it into a Oh my gosh (lower-cased, of course) because I guess that’s “far enough away” from the original. I would consider the spelling out of the letters, O-M-G as too crass. Frankly, I’m still a little queasy about “Jeeze,” or “Jeesum Crow,” because the former sounds so similar to Jesus, and the latter—well if you revert to acronyms, it’s pretty easy to see that you’re talking about, you know, “JC”—not only that, but Jeesum has two syllables, just like Jesus. I don’t, however, find much wrong with “Jeepers Creepers.” I thought my son knew all of this.

I hope you understand my declensioned rationales surrounding the Third Commandment, but it’s what we religious folk spend our time doing—making up systems of behavior based on some personal extrapolation of a few verses, or in this case, a few words of a few verses.

There are a number of adults I know—neighbors and colleagues with whom I teach—who will remember in mid-conversation who it is they are talking to, and revert to the verbal scrubber on the top of their conversational smokestack. I know because they make the word gosh into two syllables. They’ll start out by saying, “Oh my God!” realize they’re conversing with Mr. Bible-Thumper, and change mid-word from “God” to “gosh.” The happy result is the word, “go-sh” spoken with a slight downbeat and a usually elongated shhhh, as if the conversationalist realizes she has just escaped the impardonable sin. Somehow, this is how the good fight is fought these days in modern American society concerning the Third Commandment. It is a skirmish around a redoubt of the Fortress of Christendom, besieged with acronyms, alliteration, and syllabication.

Well, maybe the Third Commandment is a little bit bigger than determining what someone says when he doesn’t know what else to say. It seems as though it should be of greater significance if Thou Shalt Not Take thy Lord’s Name in Vain made the cut in becoming one of “the Big Ten.” I can’t really see “Oh my gosh!” as lingually kosher versus “Oh my God!” as fit for infidels that is, unless God really is all about jots and tittles. (Charlton Heston probably did some quick soul-searching as God was writing the tablet—number three is pretty high up.)

And, of course, that’s what I now think the Third Commandment really is about: reducing God to an explicative, a thoughtless remark, even a theological construct. I guess using his name in vain is more about using Who He Is in the interests of my vanity—y’know kinda like praying to make the baseball home run happen so I can bring home the trophy.

Yesterday, my oldest son, Reed, came home from a different church than I attend, where they watched a video-recorded preacher tell the audience that as things stand, two billion people in the world are on their way to hell because they are not going to be exposed to the Gospel. Two billion folks will be eternally separated from God because they did not receive the right information. That was what Reed pulled from the meeting, and that was the topic of his spirited discussion with some men of that church. “How can God damn people for eternity for having the wrong information?” he demanded from me when he got home. It is a question with which I have struggled in the confines of my evangelicism for the past thirty-five years. That’s one of the reasons that those in my theological camp have spent so much time and effort disseminating the Good News in handheld tracts and nifty object-lessoned strategies to share with strangers while waiting for the bus.

Speaking from my own experience, the major part of my “walk with God” can pretty easily be turned into a highly-polished apologetic with which I am to destroy an opposing worldview—and trample on any tendrils of possible relationship. I was ecclesiastically raised to believe that my primary joy in life should be to sow seeds of the Gospel, as if the fulfilling the Great Commission is the surest way to satisfy the Great Commandment.

There was a time when honing my apologetic was actually perhaps my highest religious calling in the vein of Paul’s charge to Timothy, his young apprentice, to be a “workman who needs not to be ashamed.” JW’s and Mormons were not shooed from our stoop. In fact, they were whetstones to sharpen my spiritual acuity. I remember Tracy commenting once that, although she couldn’t hear all of the details of my conversation with the visiting Jehovah Witnesses in the driveway, she could tell “how the conversation went” by the volume and tenor of my carping voice from across the yard.

“But,” I explained after the two had retreated down the road, “it was the John 1:1 argument—y’know, what does the original text say about that definite article before the word God!” I knew that I had nailed them because last week I had spent some of my spare time reading up on the original Greek and the use of the definite article—just in case I happened across some JW’s “on mission.” I better do some more study on the tetrgrammaton. I was a little rusty on the ancient Hebrew, but I sure got ‘em on John 1:1.

I guess I’d say that’s approaching blasphemy—reducing God’s grace to a supply-side economy of doctrinal information with the hopes of counting coup—or better yet, taking home the trophy. At that point in my life, this was the walk, fighting the good fight, running my course.

I remember two statements my dad made to me concerning my primary role as a beginning public school teacher some twenty-six years ago. He said, “Tom, every conversation you have at school should be in pursuit of leading someone to Jesus. Secondly, in the first class of every year, you should fully explain the plan of salvation to all of your students.” In short, he was telling me that dissemination of the Good News was the most significant thing about what I do and how I find my meaning. In short, the relationships I had with students and their AP test scores were second only to the altar calls that he suggested I incorporate into the text of my class syllabus. In twenty-six years of teaching, I have had six of my students make professions of Christ who told me about those decisions. Not an impressive track record, especially in light of the number 2,000,000,000. Perhaps I should have spent my time in the streets passing out handbill tracts or going door-to-door in neighborhoods, taking Saturday-morning “spiritual surveys” under the auspices of a national poll (two activities that I have participated in numerous times).

I remember being “on mission” with Campus Crusade in the borderless region of northern Kenya, showing The Jesus Film to the Turkana living in the bush. Once, an English-speaking imam asked me to clarify my message.

“You come here to my land for a little time to tell me to give up all I have—my lifestyle, the way I raise my children and have my family, my friends and business—everything that you see that Allah has given. You come here for a little time, and ask me to do this? Do you understand me? Do you have children, a home? Do you speak my language, and know my ways? Do you have camels that you need to keep alive and move in different seasons? Why do you tell me that I need to say some words from my heart about Jesus because of a cinema that you have shown from a camera that you have brought from far away?” His eyes took in his surroundings, and then he looked back at me in disbelief.

I racked my brains for what it was they had instructed us to do back at the compound in Isiolo if we ever actually got into conversation with someone, which had not been expected in our job description. Mostly, us white guys were just supposed to drive the truck and run the generator and projector—leave the soul-winning to the indigenous translators. My silence was his answer, so he nodded and took his leave. 

Is it blasphemous to reduce a relationship with God to a particular body of interpreted information about him?

I have been meeting on a weekly basis with a friend who is a Moonie in what I believed was to be his inquiry of my Christian faith. What a surprise I had when I figured out that I was the object of his proselytization. This fact dawned on me when my acquaintance became frantic one night trying explain some of the more enigmatic doctrines coming from Sun Myung Moon. He ended the meeting with an invitation to partake of some “holy, unifying wine” along with my non-present wife.
I was shocked. Here I was thinking that our meetings were about an emerging friendship and some mutual interests, but it turned out to be more of an attempt to fulfill a religious quota. I was turned off almost to a point of disgust.

It took me to about the half of the drive home to realize that my bitter feelings of “being used” for his religious gain was exactly what I had planned for him: a quick couple-month introduction to the doctrine of salvation, a point of decision, then some mentoring and discipleship. I winced with hypocrisy. How many times had I done this same thing: looked at acquaintances, students, colleagues, neighbors, random passersby as possibilities of conversion to a system of beliefs rather than real people in need of relationship. Had I used God’s name in vain—that is, for the purposes of my own vanity?

Yesterday, Pastor Charles said in his sermon from Galatians 2 that the people who were entrusted with the “law” don’t necessarily have anything over people without the law. It’s not enough to simply know the rules, because the rules—by themselves—don’t hold any sort of justification in God’s eyes. This seems to say that the information that is in the law doesn’t matter as much as what someone does with it. In fact, when there is someone who “doesn’t have the law,” that person can often live out the intent of the law better than someone who holds the actual copy. Maybe that way there’s less to distort.
The idea that I could probably scrounge up around thirty copies of the Bible that lie around our house, in probably six or seven versions (along with assorted commentaries), says nothing to the real point, which is—do I live according to the law’s design? And, of course, Paul says a lot in his writings that the actual law is not really the point. Those who live “by the law” are actually doomed to destruction. In my mind, this parallels Romans 2 and 3 where Paul makes some dangerously big statements that folks who live without the law become a law unto themselves, either condemning, or justifying themselves. Such statements seem to indicate that the actual information that I have may not be as important as the way that I actually live my life.

I recognize that these revelations are not at the cutting edge of emerging Christian thought. In so many ways, this is the basic message behind Christology 101, to wit: “For God so loved the world….” The message is all fairly simple; it’s just what we in evangelicism do with that message. We hammer and shape and embellish, often forgetting and betraying the intent of the original armature. It’s taking God’s name and using it in (our own) vanity. When I look at the Third in this light, it seems much more significant than my son’s rather flippant “Oh my God!” at the dinner table.

Reed and I have had conversations about the rich irony embedded in the idea that during the American Civil War, both sides of the conflict were absolutely confident that they held the banner for God and Righteousness. If you read some of the primary sources—letters and meditations—of some of the Confederate officers, such material puts the highest of my spiritual longings to shame. These guys were after God for the real deal of pleasing him, and the elimination of the Union enemies (remember—the Union were the good guys) was easily applied to the longings of deliverance spoken by David in the psalms. But hold it! So too were the Guys in Blue. Can it be that men from both sides of the war could be pleasing God simultaneously, regardless of their martial objectives? Maybe it’s less about what we’re doing and more about how we’re doing it. Maybe that imam wasn’t off at all in terms of righteousness before God, even though he had never strolled down the Romans Road.

I’ve begun to wonder if the spiritual laws that govern salvation through Jesus Christ are more like foundational principles that are theologically impossible to comprehend, and for that reason, the law-based intricacies of how it all works is supposed to stay in the background. It allows those who will fully live and pursue right relationship with God to actually do so, without having to rehearse and obsess over the laws that make such a relationship possible. I should be really conversing with those JW’s about living, loving, and the pursuit of a relationship with God rather than boning up on my ancient Hebrew lettering regarding the rendering of the name Jehovah.

It’s sorta like quantum mechanics. These are laws which govern how the physical world works and is organized, and the substance of these laws is what makes living possible. But their study and dissemination is not what true living is to be about. The esoteric workings and nature of our Creator, compared to our puny knowledge, is similar to the failure of my untrained mind to begin to grasp quantum theory. My whole existence depends on quantum realness, but my living is independent of its minutiae and stipulation. It’s more that God gives the message, “Love others, and I’ll take care of the rest,” rather than, “You’ve got to figure out how I put it all together and bash people over the head with it.” My over two decades of pursuant study of scripture supports the former. For some reason, we in evangelicism opt for the latter. I wonder if that’s blasphemous, putting up a construct in the place of a real and loving God.

I wonder….

So I can ruin a perfectly good friendship arguing about the personhood of the Holy Spirit; I can turn off my students by insisting that their pursuits are eternally void and empty without a regenerate heart; I can reject anything that a pastor has to say because of her gender.

Or, I can pursue a loving relationship with any and all of these people, even though I may not know all there is to the way that people approach God. Is there anything, based on personal experience, that I can say about the way that He might approach people?