Luke 7:31-35—To what, then, can I compare the people of this generation? What are they like? They are like children sitting in the marketplace and calling out to each other: ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not cry.’ For John the Baptist came neither eating bread nor drinking wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon!’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and “sinners.”’ But wisdom is proved right by all her children.”
Matthew 11:7-15—As John’s disciples were leaving, Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed swayed by the wind? If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings’ palaces. Then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written: “ ‘I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been subjected to violence, and violent people have been raiding it. For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John. And if you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come. Whoever has ears, let them hear.
What is the mission of the church today? On one level it is the same as ever: To proclaim Jesus Christ to the world near and far. But is this actually happening? Yes, but the culture in general seems to be disregarding the message. This situation may seem new but it isn’t.
After Jesus gave his commission to “Go and make disciples of all nations,” the effort to build the church got underway. Almost immediately though, Jesus’ followers ran into dangerous conflict both within the ranks of the new church and from the world beyond.
In his last prayer to his disciples Jesus says this: “I have given them (my disciples) your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world… Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.”(John 17:14-17)
In his revelation to John, Jesus speaks to the seven churches. He points to how they are abiding in the mission of faithfully establishing God’s word in a resistant world, but he also points to ways they have wandered off the path that Jesus established for them.
To the church in Ephesus, Jesus says, “I know you are enduring patiently and bearing for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary. But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first.”(Revelation 2:3-4)
Jesus is saying this to the Ephesians and to all churches through the ages: “Who or what is your first love? Is it your pastor? or the church building? Is it the music or your fellow congregents? If your first love is anyone but me, you have wandered. Come back to me!
To the church in Smyrna, Jesus says, be strong and courageous because the world will come against you with slander, hardship and even prison. “Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.”(Revelation 2:10)
The battle of the church from the beginning is this: You are in a life and death struggle. This is an epic battle and the enemy is powerful because ultimately the battle is against “the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”(Ephesians 6:12)
To the church in Pergamun, Jesus says you have been faithful to my name even under pressure of opposition, but at the same time you have been enticed away by false teachings that serve Satan’s designs to separate you from me.
Timothy warns that false teachings will compromise the integrity of the church: “For a time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions.” (2 Timothy 4:3)
To the church in Thyatira,Jesus says despite “your love and faith and service and patient endurance,” you have let the woman Jezebel into your midst to seduce you with false teaching and worship.She has been permitted to corrupt and compromise all the good you have been doing.
Who is Jezebel? She was the wife of King Ahab and she turned him against Elijah, the prophet of God. She was the embodiment of all the corruption in the world. A church that lets the spirit of Jezebel in is in danger of her spirit subverting the mission of the church itself.
To the church in Sardis, Jesus says “You have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God.”
If we think in purely human terms, we will come to believe that the good we do is good enough. Then we are redefining God’s mission for the church to suit our own idea of what that might be. Building the church on the terms Jesus gave us is really the only way.
To the church in Philadelphia, Jesus says that though they have “little power” the church has withstood hostile encroachments from outside forces. He says, “you have kept my word and have not denied my name. Hold fast to what you have so that no one may seize your crown.”
As the church was spreading, enemies of Jesus tried to infiltrate and undermined the witness of the church with deceptive philosophies. But the church in Philadelphia was steadfast in resisting the lies of the enemy. They remained true to Jesus despite outside pressures.
To the church in Laodicea, Jesus issues a rebuke: “I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot not cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.”
Prosperity has damped down the passion for Christ the church once had. “For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor blind and naked.” Money is not the enemy of Christ. Complacency, prosperity’s offspring, is.
When we know something or someone very well, it is easy to skip over the nuances that reveal the beauty, wonder and mystery of that object. So it is with the prayer given to us by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. We know it by memory, but do we really know what Jesus is actually telling us here? Along with my good friend, Pastor Chuck Davis, we’ve divided the study of the Lord’s Prayer into five devotions as a way of probing beneath the surface of Jesus’ words to the meaning he wants to convey to each one of us.
How to Pray
And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. Matthew 6:5–6
In a very different context, Jesus says to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men” (Mark 8:33). In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says much the same thing about our motives behind praying. If we pray to impress people with our religious prowess, we are subverting the very reason to pray. Jesus says that prayer is about connecting with God. It is an ongoing conversation, a dialog where we not only can speak, but we can be spoken to as well. When it comes to prayer, we need to step outside of the discourse and commerce of everyday life so that we can adjust the attitudes of our heart to hear and to be heard, to speak and to be spoken to, not in the normal way of such things, but in the intimate company of God Himself.
God Knows What You Need
And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. Matthew 6:7–8
Prayer is the essential link that connects us to God, who is not detached and foreign, but who desires to give each one of us the good things that he planned for us from the very beginning. After David fell into temptation and sin, he implored God to not take his Holy Spirit away because that would be worse than death (Psalm 51:11). God is not impersonal; he knows everything about us, and he wants us to know him. But if we fake it and babble like the pagans and puff ourselves up like the hypocritical religious leaders, we are engaging in mere pretense that in the end leaves us unhappy, alone, and dissatisfied. God is not far away (James 4:8). He is near, and it is through the power of prayer that we can draw ever closer to him. We should be confident that he hears us and longs for our eternal well-being.
The Lord’s Prayer
This, then, is how you should pray: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Matthew 6:9–10
The Lord’s Prayer is so familiar that it is easy to miss its depth and complexity. In the first sentence alone, Jesus includes four declarations. First, he addresses God as “Our Father,” not as some stern and unfeeling taskmaster, but as “Daddy,” just as a child would address his own loving and protective father. Then he says, “hallowed be your name,” which sets this Father apart as holy and perfect and above the sinful and imperfect condition of men and women on earth. Then Jesus prays that God’s kingdom will be restored here on earth, replacing the kingdoms that are at war with God and his people. Finally, he prays for the unity that can only exist when the original design takes root here on earth, echoing the harmony that existed at the very beginning when God created the world and all the creatures in it, and he saw that it was very good (Genesis 1:31).
Give us today our daily bread. Matthew 6:11
In this plentiful and prosperous corner of the world, it is too easy to forget what would happen if all the foods we find in markets and restaurants suddenly vanished. It is difficult to imagine a world where this kind of deprivation could become a reality, but for many, getting access to food is the harsh reality of daily life. When times are good, it is easy to assume provision from the endless supplies afforded by science and enterprise. But is this a reasonable position? Jesus prays to God for daily provision because he knows that God is the only true provider. As he says elsewhere in the Sermon on the Mount, “Therefore, do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own” (Matthew 6:34). To paraphrase another prayer: “Lord, for tomorrow and its needs I do not pray . . .. Please keep me, guide me, love me, Lord, just for today.” Recognizing our daily dependence on God is the only way to live each and every day.
Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. Matthew 6:12
Whether we use the word “trespasses,” “debts,” or “sins” when praying the Lord’s Prayer, we are essentially asking God for forgiveness for the countless ways we have fallen away from him. In an earlier encounter, Jesus makes his mission on earth abundantly clear: “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17). Paul says “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23), so when we are praying, “Forgive us,” there are no exceptions or exemptions. Everyone needs to ask for God’s forgiveness because our sin causes us to betray him time and again. When Paul asks, “Who will rescue me from this body of death,” he gives us the answer immediately: “Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Roman 7:24–25) This one line of the Lord’s Prayer is liberating because without forgiveness, we will never escape the destructive consequences growing out of our sin-prone nature. But it is not just about us: We need to forgive as God has forgiven us. Just as God’s forgiveness cost him dearly, to forgive others as God has forgiven us can be costly. But from an eternal point of view, the cost is worth it.
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one. Matthew 6:13
Why would God lead us into temptation? Perhaps it is best to think of this dilemma as fundamental to our relationship with God. Jesus seems to be requesting that God not place him in a situation where he would be tempted to betray God. When Jesus was tempted by the devil three times in the wilderness, he resisted by remaining centered in the Holy Spirit. This prayer acknowledges the existence of an evil one, who wanders the earth looking for people not able to withstand the devil’s schemes. Here is the promise for those who believe: “No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it” (1 Corinthians 10:13).
Put yourself on the wind swept hill above Caperneum and the Sea of Galilee. You have been following Jesus from town to town as he has been performing miracles to the amazement of many but to the consternation of some. Now Jesus has asked everyone to sit so we hear his timeless teachings on our relationship to God and to one another. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus offers his followers a way of life that promises an eternity in Heaven. Please join me in exploring these teachings known as The Beatitudes.
The Poor in Spirit
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 5:3
Jesus begins the Beatitudes with a statement that throws into question the direction of our striving hearts. Many of us build our lives stone by stone, thinking that our economic well-being will relieve our thirst for something more than the riches and real estate we may acquire through a lifetime of effort. But wealth by itself cannot quench our thirst or satisfy our longing hearts. The poor are blessed because they are less prone to be blinded by the smokescreen of riches that obscures God’s authentic role in this world. The poor are not blessed because they are better. God calls all men and women into relationship with himself. It is just harder for the rich to put their trust in God because they may have decided to trust in the power and position that wealth can bring. “A man who has riches without understanding is like the beasts that perish” (Psalm 49:20).
Those Who Mourn
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” Matthew 5:4
When we experience the loss a friend or a family member, we cry out from the bottom of our hearts because we know something irreversible has taken place. We mourn, but Jesus tells us that God comes beside us to mourn with us and to comfort us. We are blessed at these moments because in the midst of our profound aloneness we experience the presence of God. And when we experience his presence, we realize that when we invite God into our lives, we are not alone and will never be alone. “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Joshua 1:5).
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” (Matthew 5:5)
Again, Jesus takes a counterintuitive tack when stating who will inherit the earth. In his novel Bonfire of the Vanities, Tom Wolfe’s anti-hero, Sherman McCoy, is the “Master of the Universe,” a “god” of Wall Street who exudes antipathy for the nameless swarm of humanity that surrounds him in the city of New York. Sherman is a type that can be found in all the major financial centers in the world. He is trapped in a limousine reality and would have no understanding of what Jesus is telling him and us. When Jesus points to meekness, he is emphasizing humbleness of character. The meek are meek not out of a reservoir of weakness, but through the experience of knowing God and knowing that he is God and we are not:
O Lord, you have searched me and you know me.
You know when I sit and when I rise;
You perceive my thoughts from afar.
You discern my going out and my lying down;
You are familiar with all my ways.
Before a word is on my tongue
You know it completely, O Lord.
Those Who Hunger and Thirst
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” (Matthew 5:6)
If we hunger and thirst for something, we will not stop until we get it. What is your desert thirst? What do you hunger for above everything else? Jesus is using physical appetites common to all men and women to point to the one thing that will actually satisfy. Solomon asked God for the wisdom of “a discerning heart to govern your people and to distinguish right from wrong” (1 Kings 3:9). By asking for wisdom he was asking God to bless him with the righteousness that can only come from God. Jesus came down to earth to make that righteousness available to all: “Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:20–21).
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.” (Matthew 5:7)
As God has shown mercy to us, so we should show the same measure of mercy to others. In the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant, Jesus tells of a servant who cannot repay his master a large amount of money. The servant begs for mercy and it is granted. But soon enough, the servant demands repayment of monies owed him, and instead of showing the same kindness when the debtor cannot pay, he has the debtor thrown into prison. When the master is told of this, he asks the forgiven servant, “Shouldn’t you have had the same mercy on your fellow servant just as I had for you?” (Matthew 18:23–35) Think of the master in the parable as God, and think of the wicked servant as each one of us. We have received God’s mercy; in fact, we receive it everyday and we can never pay it back. But we can show it to others every time we have the opportunity. We can represent God in the world by forgiving just as we have been forgiven.
The Pure in Heart
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” (Matthew 5:8)
If we have the means, we wash away the grit and grime that naturally accumulates during our daily engagement with the world. If we don’t go through the daily rituals of bathing, we begin to feel out of sorts. But outer cleanliness does not necessarily equate with inner cleanliness. Jesus compares the Pharisees to “whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean” (Matthew 23:27–28). The unclean and diseased heart infects the whole person from the inside out, making it less and less possible to “see God.” Jesus is the ultimate heart surgeon who repairs and restores, beginning with the heart and working out from there.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.” (Matthew 5:9)
We hear people speak of peace all the time, but how can there be peace when, in the deeper recesses of the heart, we are often at war with God? It might be said that human history began with the rebellion in the Garden of Eden. One thoughtless act of defiance led directly to all the enmity, pain, suffering, murder, and mayhem that characterize so much of the historical narrative. Peacemaking, as opposed to peacekeeping, can only take root if we first make peace with God through Christ. Then genuine peacemaking can begin, one person at a time.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:10)
From our earliest days, we expect to be rewarded for good behavior. When the opposite occurs, we feel the pain of injustice to our very core. This correlation of good behavior and reward is so pervasive that we often expect that our life will get better if we follow Jesus. But the weight of the narrative thus far suggests the opposite is just as true. Jesus’ life was threatened by Herod’s troops when he was a young child, he was persecuted and reviled by the religious elite for performing miracles on the Sabbath, and he was even rejected in his hometown of Nazareth. Jesus experienced persecution, his disciples experienced persecution, and the church has experienced persecution down through the ages and even to the present time.
Want more? Sign up for my daily podcast with Pastor Chuck Davis that follows the life of Jesus as told in the four gospels.
Storytelling is our way of bringing meaning to what might otherwise appear to be random events in everyday existence. Stories answer questions. John Eldredge, who I referenced in the Contours of Story, says the great philosophical question is really quite simple: “How did all of this get here?” or to put it in the words of Tolkien’s heroic hobbit: “I wonder what sort of tale we’ve fallen into?”
Have you ever wondered what kind of tale you’ve fallen into? Many of us do not think of ourselves as being on a quest to save the world from the dark and evil forces concentrated in the shadow of Mordor. But could we be wrong? It could be that we are more like the characters in Lord of the Rings than we might image. And it could be that our world resembles Middle Earth more than we might think.
And if we are living within the framework of the battle between forces of good and evil, does that change the way we look at the purpose and meaning of our own lives?
When my son Arthur and I departed the Lodge at Cardigan, we thought we were embarking on an easy journey that would take us to an open mountaintop with inspiring views and then, after that, on to a nearby hikers’ cabin to spend a safe and warm winter night.
The Cardigan summit, though, turned into a battleground. We had walked into a turbulent and unpredictable world putting our safety on the line. We had to draw on instinct and experience to find our way down to the cabin. Without saying a word, we both understood the dangers of the world we crossed through and were grateful to arrive at the place that would provide warmth and rest.
I have thought about this experience long and hard since it happened. I could have dismissed it as just another winter mountain walk, but the contrast of the dangers of the storm and the safety of the cabin were so stark they demanded further reflection.
Many years ago, in another time of great personal challenge, I discovered the Bible. Even though I was in my middle years, my understanding of the world was not built on a strong biblical foundation. I had been brought up in a Christian culture, but that world was not a culture of the cross; instead, the church had been transmuted into a diluted remnant of an earlier, more vibrant expression of the faith. The institution of the church was accepted as long as it did not impose itself too severely on the wishes of the people and their communities. This was the world I knew as a boy and young man; you might call it the world of “Cabin Christians” where the safe and pleasant environment of the cabin is substituted for the difficulties of being a Christian in a more turbulent and unpredictable world.
This is what Jesus prayed for those who will follow him after his crucifixion and resurrection: “I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.”(John 17:14-18)
And in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus says, “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”(Matthew 5:11-12)
On the summit I longed for the safety of the cabin, but I also knew that we would need to depart the cabin soon enough to go back to the world Jesus describes. Jesus was warning his disciples that they would encounter resistance in this world, but he also promised that he would be with them “always to the end of the age.”(Matthew 28:20)
The truth is this: If we accept the great commission of Jesus Christ to go out into the world to make disciples of all nations, we will experience dangers and discomfort. It may even seem like a hopeless battle at times, but do we have a choice? If we accept the call, then we must accept the conditions that might come with the call. Sam and Frodo did not choose the journey to Mordor for themselves; they knew their whole world was at risk. The seemingly safe Shire was not really safe at all. They did not know it, but these two improbable heroes were part of a much bigger story that transformed a mere journey into an epic mission. The odds at times may seem insurmountable, but the mission commissioned by Jesus Christ is all about overcoming the impossible.
“I wonder what sort of tale we’ve fallen into.”
—Sam as he approaches Mordor with Frodo in Tolkien’s Lord of the Ring
Since writing my last blog about the unanticipated dangers my son and I encountered on the summit of Cardigan Mountain, I have thought often since then about what happened and why I recall it so vividly.
When we passed the opened shelter at the base of Firescrew Mountain, we made our decision to forge on. We had no idea what that meant. We did know that daylight would soon fade to darkness and we knew we might be exposed to the full brunt of the winter wind as it gusted over the summits of the two mountains.
The snow, the dark and the wind together conspired to confuse us with false signals as to the way forward, making us turn back time and again until we could hunt down a better way. But with all the forces of nature seemingly against us, we pushed on determined to find the cabin somewhere below the summit. It helped having one another as we made our way.
When Arthur finally called out that he had found the fire tower, there was no elation because the summit offered only danger. We could hardly hear one another over the roar of the wind, but we did not pause. We began a search for the trail that would take us to safety.
The cabin itself was dark and cold inside, but it was a refuge in the night and as soon as Arthur built a fire, the room began to warm. Now that we were secure, it was sobering to recall the conditions on the exposed summit of Cardigan. While we were searching for a way down, we had no time for reflection, only action. But now in the warmth of the cabin, I realized Arthur and I had just lived through the drama of a survival story.
John Eldridge wrote a short book on the centrality of story to the process of understanding the meaning of the life we live. Madeleine L’Engle has written, “All of life is a story.” Eldridge elaborates: “It goes far deeper than entertainment. Stories nourish us. They provide a kind of food that the soul craves. ‘Stories are equipment for living,’ says Hollywood screenwriting teacher Robert McKee. He believes that we go to the movies because we hope to find in someone else’s story something that will help us understand our own. We go (to movies) ‘to live in a fictional reality that illuminates our daily reality.’ Stories shed light on our lives.”
Philip Yancey tells us that behind the human condition is an epic story that has fragmented into countless mysteries. He describes what he means by giving us GK Chesterton’s picture of the human story as “a sort of cosmic shipwreck.” Chesterton believes “a person’s search for meaning resembles a sailor who awakens from a deep sleep and discovers treasure strewn about, relics from a civilization he can barely remember. One by one he picks up the relics-gold coins, a compass, fine clothing-and tries to discern their meaning. Fallen humanity is in such a state. Good things on earth-the natural world, beauty, love joy-still bear traces of their original purposes, but lost of memory mars the image of God in us.”
To Chesterton and to me the ultimate version of this story is contained in the pages of the Old and New Testaments of the Holy Bible. The question for each one of us is to try to discern where we believe we fit into that larger biblical narrative as we discover patterns and context to the life we live here and now.
How I Found Identity & Purpose Through Reading The Bible Every Day
At the threshold of a new year it is fair to ask: Why do I bother reading the Bible every day? What is the purpose? What is the benefit?
The question of purpose is a good one; in fact, two of the great struggles for nearly every person are to seek and find, if possible, true identity and purpose for this short life we have been gifted.
As far as I know, we did not ask for life; we just seem to wake up into a strange and wondrous world as if from a very deep sleep. Where there seemed to be nothing before we awoke, now there is color, noise, activity and people. There is a mother to cling to; a father to follow; brothers and sisters to play with, and even possibly an extended family of uncles and aunts, grandparents and cousins. It can be a very populated world we have entered, and it is the first place that provides an important level of identity.
But this world we entered so mysteriously is time bound. At some point things will change. We will even change, and with all the changes comes a challenge to the comfort of that original identity. For some, this can be a terrifying experience. Our world can become unfamiliar and isolating; As we shed part or all of the old identity, we grow a new one that at some point will be shed as well.
During the course of my own life, I put on one identity after another. Some worked, some didn’t, but as long as I was responding to what others seemed to want, I was able to get by, even if that identity did not fit very well.
What changed for me was my encounter with the biblical narrative…. all of it, from Genesis to Revelation. This did not happen overnight. I understood very little of what I read when I started out, because I was overlaying the biblical stories with my own story. It was as if, at first, I was reading to find myself imposed on this person or that in the biblical account. I was making them into me, and so, until I allowed the stories to flow through me into my heart as well as my head, I was unable to hear and understand what was being said.
It wasn’t that I was like King David; no, it would be more accurate to say that there was something of King David in me. The more I read, the more I began to understand the full sweep of the human condition, not just the one I was living in my own time and place. And the clearer that became to me, the more I came to stand along side the entire parade of human experience as a participant in this difficult and mysterious world I had entered as an infant.
Ultimately, it was a question of which identity fit. Ultimately, my story became a quest to know Jesus and then, to do what I could and can do with all of my limitations to make him known. My identifying with Jesus led directly to my purpose for living through all kinds of circumstances. Living through Jesus meant turning the assumptions behind my perspective upside down. It was not about getting the world to dance to my tune. It really was about hearing the music emerging from the pages of the Bible and learning to dance in tune with it.
This is not another discourse on gender politics. Actually, “What is Man?” would be the title of a dream course I would love to teach to college freshmen. What a wonderful antidote to so much of the nonsense being shoveled to students today! Here are some of the things I would teach in this imaginary “Introduction to Man” course.
“What is man?” is an ancient question, and most of the answers offered up move to the plural tense of “man” whereas the question, I believe, is truly singular in intention.
In Genesis we are given more than a clue when we read:
So God created man in his own image (Genesis 1:27)
In the image of God he created him; (Genesis 1:27)
male and female he created them (Genesis 5:2)
But soon enough these creatures made in the image of God find themselves exiled and alone in a world full of suffering and death. Cain kills his own brother and cries out in anguish:
My punishment is more than I can bear.
Behold, you have driven me today away from the ground,
and from your face I shall be hidden. I shall be a fugitive and
a wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me. (Genesis 4:13-14)
Basic human themes are embedded in these passages from the first book of the Bible. Man is an exile, a wanderer, a sufferer and he needs to account for this condition. Why does this happen? Why does life seem so tragic when each one of us seems to have been designed for relationship and community?
Job, a virtuous man, experiences unspeakable suffering. He has lost every good this world can provide and no explanation can answer the questions that spill forth from his broken heart. Here is the ultimate question:
Has not man a hard service on earth,
And are not his days like the days of a hired hand?
Like a slave who longs for the shadow,
And like a hired hand who looks for his wages,
So I am allotted months of emptiness,
And nights of misery are apportioned to me….
What is man, that you make so much of him,
And visit him every morning
And test him every moment? (Job:7)
These questions (and many more like them) rise out of a heart struggling with dashed expectations. I believe we are born into this world with expectations that arise out of eternal longings. When we find ourselves yearning to escape our alienated plight, we are merely avowing the reality of the condition of a heart seeking to recover an essential element in our nature lost long ago. This is the condition of man after the Garden and before the crucifixion of Christ. Without Christ we remain exiles and the desires of our hearts are never assuaged. What is man? One of the best answers ever given ironically came from the mouth of one of Christ’s enemies: “Here is the man.”
“Josh?” I was resting, attending to my own aching body. We had reached the final leg of the 4.5 mile ascent of the right edge of Exit Glacier. My son Arthur and I had climbed part of the way last year, but this time around, he decided that we should climb to the viewpoint that looks out over the vast Harding Icefield, now part of the Kenai Fjords National Park in Alaska.
Exit Glacier is one of 40 Glaciers connected to the Icefield and is easily accessible to the town of Seward on Resurrection Bay.
The climb to the top had taken about 3.5 hours. We were lucky because this year August has been particularly wet, but not on this day. We could see for endless miles and yet we were looking at only a small fraction of an icefield that nearly equaled the area of the state of Rhode Island.
“Josh?” Arthur had gotten up and had begun walking over to some people resting nearby. I assumed Arthur had run into one of his kayak guide friends and so continued to settle in. Then, Arthur called out to me “Eric, It’s Josh.” I still didn’t register what he was saying or who this Josh might be. Then I saw who it was he was talking to.
Josh Schneider had worked for my company from 2009 through the first half of 2012. He had overseen the launch of the company’s new website, a very complex and crucial job. Then he departed to get a law degree and after graduating, he moved to Anchorage to serve as clerk for a Federal judge.
Before I set off for Alaska, I had contacted Josh but we had never followed up. Then this. Often when hiking, you can be 5 or 10 minutes ahead of or behind someone and never know they are there. It turned out that Josh and his wife Haley had left the visitor’s center about an hour before Arthur and myself. They had taken a few long breaks on the way up and so they reached the top shortly before we did.
So what are the odds? I had been in Alaska for one full day before we decided to climb up the side of Exit Glacier. Josh knew I was coming back to Alaska, but did not know when. He lived in Anchorage, a 2.5 hour drive from this place. I had wanted to meet up with him, but had not followed up after the first phone call.
Maybe it was the sheer size of Alaska that made this meeting seem so improbable. Maybe it was the distance I had travelled to get from New York to Seward. Maybe it was the vastness of the icefield. But I kept wondering what are the odds? I am still wondering about that. What are the odds? Maybe Alaska is the perfect place for questions like that. What indeed are the odds?