Have you ever had that nagging sense that you just aren’t enough? Have you ever spent copious amounts of time comparing and competing with others? Have you ever modulated who you truly are and what you deeply value in an attempt to get someone’s approval? How much of your perceived worth is linked to what others think and say about you? Do you sometimes find yourself in the role of a CPA – adjusting the bottom line of your life according to the size of your successes and failures?

These are the kinds of questions that run through all of our minds and some point or another in our lives. In a way, those things, and many others just like them, are symptoms of what it means to live in what the Bible describes as a fallen world. Things are not as God intended them to be. Relationship with God, each other and the world around us is broken. We are all east of Eden. We are all less-than-human.

What these questions reveal are legitimate and authentic needs. First, they reveal our desire to be seen, valued, and loved. They point to our need to be accepted, included, and part of a community. But they also shine a spotlight on the longing within each of us for the Holy and Transcendent. They highlight that there is something outside of and beyond ourselves that we cannot give or do for ourselves. Ultimately, they disclose what we treasure and to what or whom we have given our hearts. They are the symptoms of having lost our way on our journey with God.

Continuing along the path of seeking to find ourselves in the approval and acceptance of others is risky business. Sometimes our attempts to be recognized and praised by others fail to be acknowledged by those from whom we seek approval. What then? Try harder? Morph even further?

As painful as those experiences of rejection can be, they can also be grace-filled moments. They can be course-correcting opportunities to discover that who we are in the eyes of God is not dependent on the opinions, praise or approval of others. There is nothing we must do to gain God’s acceptance, approval or love. Our identity is found is who and whose we are – beloved children of our Creator-God. When we recognize and accept that amazing truth, we’ve taken a huge step forward on our faith journey. 

 

My wife and I celebrate 32 years together this coming December. During those 32 years, we’ve called five cities home. Chattanooga, TN is where we met, married and rented our first place together – half of a two-story hexagonal duplex with a nearly vertical driveway halfway up Signal Mountain. We moved to Memphis when I was accepted into Graduate School at Memphis State University before accepting a position at a small Christian school in Perry, MI. We moved back to Chattanooga when things went south in Michigan (pun intended) and bought our first house there. We moved to North Dallas a dozen years ago and have been here ever since.

During each and every move, we did our best to purge ourselves of any unwanted clothing, unused household items and unnecessary furniture. Three pieces of furniture have remained with us throughout the moves: the cedar chest my paternal grandmother brought with her when she immigrated from Sweden in the early 20th century, the black walnut captain’s chair that my paternal grandfather sat in every night while he read his well-worn and marked-up Bible, and our large farmhouse family dinner table. As you might expect, each of the pieces are special to us because of the story that goes with them.

The table is a product of one of my wife’s weekend garage sale scroungings with her brother while we were living in Memphis. Notice that I said the table was a product of her scrounging. She didn’t actually find a table, she found and purchased four, hand-turned oak legs for twenty-five cents a piece. I remember her beaming face when she proudly presented them to me later the night. I don’t remember being as excited as she was about them but they were solidly made and since they cost only a dollar, I was happy that she was happy.

Those legs went with us when we moved to Michigan – though I suspect it was with an argument or two from me – and again when we moved back to Tennessee. It was there in Chattanooga, after we bought our first house, that we had a local craftsman build a table out of reclaimed Michigan barn wood with those legs. We’ve raised our four children around that table. We’ve held holiday celebrations around that table. Meals were shared and stories told around that table. We’ve even signed three mortgages at that table.

Tables are one of the most important places of human connection. My family comes alive when we share a meal around a table. It should come as no surprise then that throughout the scriptures, God has a way of showing up at tables. In fact, at the center of the spiritual lives of God’s people in the First and Second Testaments, we find a table: the table of Passover and the table of Eucharist. I love how noted Second Testament scholar N. T. Wright explains it: “When Jesus himself wanted to explain to his disciples what his forthcoming death was all about, he didn’t give them a theory, he gave them a meal.”

As to the importance of gathering around a table, Dr. Barry Jones put it this way: “I’m convinced that one of the most important spiritual disciplines for us to recover in the kind of world in which we live is the discipline of table fellowship. In the fast-paced, tech-saturated, attention-deficit-disordered culture in which we find ourselves, Christians need to recover the art of a slow meal around a table with people we care about.”

Over the next couple of posts, I will be sharing more about the table as the center of our faith community as a place of blessing, a place of brokenness and a place of givenness. Stay tuned.

 

This past weekend, The Table tackled one of the First Testament’s most difficult texts in Genesis 22. Our Jewish forefathers referred to it as the binding of Isaac or the akedah. In an attempt to understand, explain and resolve the text, Jewish midrashim has volumes devoted to this story. Without doubt, Judaism struggles with this passage as much as you and I.

The story begins with these words from Yahweh: “Take your son, your only son Isaac, the one you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I will show you.” Now I can’t resolve the tensions found in this story for you or me. I’m not sure anyone can. The best I am able to do is to encourage you to do what we at the Table have done: honestly and deeply engage and struggle with the text, ourselves and the God whom Abraham heard utter these horrific words.

The traditional interpretation is that Abraham proved his faithfulness by his willingness to sacrifice Isaac. We revere him for his faith and obedience; the writer of Hebrews enters him into the Hall of Faith for this very act (Hebrews 11). If you’re like me, you struggle with the many questions this story raises. Why didn’t Abraham tell Sarah his plans? Why didn’t he tell Isaac? Or the servants he brought along on the journey?

By the far the biggest struggle I have with this text concerns Abraham’s response. If Abraham was willing to question, argue and negotiate with God over the fate of the strangers residing in Sodom and Gomorrah why would he not do so for his very own son? As a father of four, I cannot imagine any circumstance where I wouldn’t fight tooth and nail or at the very least attempt to bargain my life for theirs. What was Abraham’s response? Basically, nothing. Just where and when.

So how are we to understand this test. I think we all agree it was a test – the text tells us that clearly. But what kind of a test? A test of faith? A test of obedience? Both? Neither?

The Table’s narrative/historical approach to scripture really comes to our aid in this instance. This test is the tenth of ten increasingly difficult tests that Abraham has undergone in the ten chapters that precede this one. We could think of those previous nine exams as true/false or yes/no obedience tests. Abraham has done remarkably well on each of these previous tests. This one feels like a final exam to me. Len Sweet suggests that this test is actually a two-part exam: a yes/no obedience test followed by a relational test in the form of an essay. All of the language of the chapter – including the first occurrence of the word love in the First Testament – points toward this interpretation.

Abraham passed the obedience test with flying colors. He was willing and obedient to the command God had given him. He’s rightfully placed in the Hall of Faith for his consistent obedience. But what about the relational test? I believe that Abraham failed that test miserably. While God wanted Abraham’s obedience to his command, I can’t help but believe that God wanted him to fight for Isaac with every step he took toward that mountain. God wanted Abraham to battle for Isaac the way he did in an earlier chapter for people he didn’t even know.

His failure can be evidenced by the results of the story. Isaac is spared. God mercifully and gracefully intervenes and provides a lamb. But things are never the same between Abraham and Isaac, Abraham and Sarah and Abraham and God. The text tells us that Isaac “went down another way,” never to see or speak to his father again. After returning to the foot of the mountain and the servants waiting for him, Abraham never speaks or returns to Sarah again. In fact, when Sarah receives word of what has happened, the Scriptures tell us she died shortly afterward. Jewish tradition says she died of a broken heart.

Though Abraham went on to marry again and father many other children, never again do we hear of Abraham and God having conversations like they had before. Abraham went from speaking TO God to speaking ABOUT God. One has only to do a cursory reading of the events that precede and follow this text in Genesis to see disastrous relationship skills – or lack thereof – on full display.

It seems that Abraham’s greatest gift was his willingness to obey no matter what the cost but his greatest blindspot was his inability or unwillingness to battle with God when it mattered the most.

Those are my thoughts. What about you?

 

We, at The Table, empty a narrative historical approach to Scripture born out of the ancient Hebrew tradition of Midrash. The Ancient Rabbis read the sacred text as questions and then answer the questions with questions that suggest answers with stories of possibilities. Differing interpretations of the text are placed side-by-side with debate and discussion following. Any conclusions were held tenuously because all interpretations were thought to be partly wrong and partly right, which I why many perspectives need to be included so that that something resembling accurate truth could be glimpsed.

Even today, when Rabbis engage the First Testament, you might say they walk into the text. It was by this walking into the text act the Scriptures came alive and exposed their Sacred roots. It is a relational way of reading. Consider this description of the process of a Rabbi walking into the text: “They bring themselves to it and step across the edge of the scroll, jump up onto its body, bouncing a little, believing it will hold their weight. And then on hands and knees, they crawl through the furrows of words, examining, brushing away dirt, not like an archeologist hoping to unearth some dead, hardened thing but like a botanist examining growth patterns and evidence of the soil’s mineral content, water content or whether there is deep clay. And then they look for the cracks in the soil from which the word emerged. It is the cracks, the gaps that will allow them a way in.” That is definitely not how I was taught to read the text. I was taught to search for answers; to determine the calculable, defendable, incontrovertible truth. To the Rabbis it is not a book of monolithic answers it is a porous book of brilliant questions.

How would we be changed if we began to see the Bible less as a book of answers but as a book of the best questions there are about what it means to be created in the Image of God and what right relationship with God, each other and the world around us looks like?

 

Temptation has a bad reputation. We are told to avoid it, guard against it and to pray not to be led into it. Yet we read in Matthew 4:1 that after Jesus is baptized, he is led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the Devil. There we find him taunted to make bread from stones, jump off the top of the temple and to worship Satan.

You’ll note that two of these invitations to sin begin with the phrase, “If you are the Son of God….” We might even view that statement as a fourth temptation, the one that is at the core of each and every temptation that we face – the temptation to doubt who and whose we are. We tend to focus on the tempting person, thing, or situation. But our temptations say more about what is going on inside of us than what is happening around us.

When I was a young boy, I remember helping my grandmother make her famous cinnamon raisin rolls. We would make the dough from scratch, patiently wait for it to rise, and then carefully role it flat and slather it in cinnamon, butter, brown sugar and raisins. We’d then roll it into a log shape, cut it into one in spirals and squeeze them side-by-side into a cast iron skillet. I remember asking my grandmother how she was able to make these delectable treats without sitting down and eating too many of them. In her best Nancy Reagan voice she said, “just say no.”

I don’t believe it ever limited my cinnamon bun consumption and I’ve since learned that “Just Say No” is an overly simplistic and inadequate response to temptation. Temptation is not only about choice; it is also about our identity and direction in life.

What if temptation is necessary? What if temptation can be our teacher or a diagnosis? What tempts us? What tempts us into living less than who you really are?

 

Rest.

Sabbath.

Two words describing a concept I’ve struggled with all my life. My mind is always in motion. I notice the stack of books in my reading queue yet to be read. I see the ceiling damaged from a leaky pipe that needs to be repaired. I can see the post-it note of resources that need to get written prior to my next trip to Uganda. Everywhere I look, I see things that draw me toward more DOING. But amidst the beckoning of these things for my attention, I sense the voice of my Companion inviting me to simply BE.

St. Benedict of Nursia is the 6th century founder of western monasticism. He is venerated in the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion. His main achievement is his Rule of St. Benedict that can be summed up this way: ora et labora – pray and work. In other words, find a balance between our calling to care for our families and all of creation and our need for connection with our Creator. He believed that connection happened best in silence.

Benedict used 2 words for silence: quies and silentium. Quies is the is the silence that comes with the absence of noice. It is what we experience when we turn off the TV, disconnect from our streaming devices, silence our phones and put away our computers. This kind of silence is something each of us knows we need down in the deepest parts of our soul and yet we struggle mightily to make it happen.

Silentium is something different and arguably far more challenging. It’s not so much a silent PLACE as it is a silent SOUL. Richard Rohr says, “Prayer is sitting in the silence until it silences us.” St. John of the Cross said this silentium is “God’s first language.” I find this kind of silence difficult because it doesn’t just mean entering a electronics free zone. It means establishing a quiet inner attitude in which I set aside all the things vying for attention in my brain, draw from the stillness that is within me and simply BE with God.

Richard Foster in Sanctuary of the Soul suggests that constant distractions create noisy hearts, wandering minds and perpetual inner chaos. If he is right – and my experience tells me that he is – then we need help to slow down and focus our attention on what really matters. The practice of centering prayer, scripture meditation, poetry reading, journaling or rhythmic activities like knitting, walking, or weeding can slow us down, calm our spirits and open new doorways through which to encounter God.

What are the practices that bring silentium to you?

 

Saturday must have been a long and dark day. Not only did they hide in fear of their lives, but even worse, they grieved deeply. Jesus was gone. His disciples had watched the soldiers carry him off to his execution the day before. Now it was Saturday, their master was dead and the grief cut deeply, leaving them utterly hollow.

They had not signed up for this. Jesus was supposed to be the Messiah. He was supposed to lead them to victory over their oppressors. He was supposed to establish Israel as a strong nation once again and allow them to bask in the joy of sweet justice. Pain, grief, and sorrow were not part of the package.

But we forget that the way of Jesus is a way of pain, grief, and sorrow. Jesus suffered much in his life – even before his arrest and execution. As a child he knew what it meant to be hidden in Egypt in fear for his life. He knew the loss of his stepfather, Joseph. He wept over the death of his friend, Lazarus. He grieved over the blindness of the citizens of Israel. He agonized to the point of blood in the garden of Gethsemane. He screamed out in the words of his ancestor, David, as he hung on the cross, “My God, My God, why have you abandoned me?”

That is the way of Jesus – the way of God’s love and grace. God purifies us with pain. The disciples learned this and went on to write to the churches about it. James said to consider it pure joy when we suffer various trials, because in the end it makes us complete and strong. Peter told us that suffering refines our hearts like fire refines gold. Then Paul, as he described the painful process of working through persecution and breaking down the walls of prejudice, reached the climax of the whole process with one word – hope.

Saturday will soon be over. On Sunday the disciples would come came face to face with a reality that is deeper than grief. They would meet hope. Jesus plowed through pain and grief and came out the other side alive once more. Saturdays will come. Of that you can be sure. They will come and they will be painful. They may last a day; they may last twenty months. When they come, remember this – without Saturday we don’t get to Sunday. The love of Jesus is our hope for today and forever. We will grieve, but we can grieve with hope.

-Steve Thomason as excerpted from Mosaic Bible commentary

 

The resurrection account in Mark’s gospel begins in the usual fashion: it’s dark on Sunday morning, women come to the tomb with baskets filled with spices to tend the body of Jesus, they are surprised upon arrival to see the stone has been rolled away, an angel gives them the news that Jesus has been raised, and they’re sent back to tell the other disciples the good news.

But then the story, and Mark’s gospel, makes an abrupt 180 degree turn with these concluding words: “Overcome with terror and dread, they fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.”

What, what? No appearance by Jesus? No joyful celebration? No obedient disciples running in haste to share the exciting news? Their silence is especially surprising when you consider that every time we read in Scripture of an angel starting a speech with the words, “Do not be afraid,” good news ALWAYS follows.

We can sum up the response of the three women in three words: FEAR, FLIGHT and NONCOMPLIANCE. Certainly not words we’re comfortable associating with Easter! Theirs is a fear gone wrong. I doubt that any of us would have responded any differently.

Of course, fear is a part of human experience, and it’s not always a bad thing. We all need a healthy dose of appropriate fear to navigate society. If you’re hiking deep in the forest and you see something quickly slithering through the leaves just a step in front of you, you should fear it. If you’re walking alone along a dark street late at night and you sense that you’re being followed, you should feel fear. If I had come to you a dozen or so years ago and asked you to watch my four kids, you should be afraid, very afraid! I’m wondering if we, as a society, are not suffering from our version of fear gone wrong. Rather than responding only to real threats, we are reacting to imagined risks.

CalTech professor Ralph Adolphs notes that modern life is “constantly triggering our fear in all kinds of ways that our natural world didn’t” He goes on to suggest that we have scores of false positives when it comes to fears and that the hyped-up state of our freaked-out-ness is doing something terrible to our souls.

I like what Mike Foster, Founder and Chief Chance Officer at People of the Second Chance has said about the cost to our souls: “God spurs us on to greater possibilities; fear holds us back with imaginary insecurities.”

Here’s what I’ve come to see in my own life. Most of the things I am scared of – public speaking, medium-sized dinner parties, standing with those in grief – are really not that scary. Fear, like the pesky rabbits that attempt to eat every new plant in my back yard, love to multiply. Before I know it, my brain, with a little help from life’s circumstances, has concocted a dozen worst-case scenarios.

 

It’s been said that motion is the great American virtue, and waiting is the ultimate un-American act.

If you doubt it, consider how you deal with checkout lines. Well, consider me as I checkout the checkout lines in my most recent trip to Uganda. I found myself with a huge cart full of supplies for an event we were holding at a local church. From the moment I put my last item in the cart and made my way toward the registers, I began calculating which would be the speediest lane. I quickly noted the number of items in each person’s cart and did my best to gauge how fast-moving or inefficient each line was likely to be. (In retrospect, fast-moving is not an adjective I would ascribed to just about any activity in Uganda but that’s another post). I chose the line I thought would move the quickest but kept a wary eye out for another line that I could switch to if I thought it would get me out quicker. I made my calculations and chose the line with only one person who had just placed their last item – a bag of fresh English peas – on the counter to be checked out. Unfortunately, since it was just a baggie with peas and tied with some string, there was no SKU and no price. A manager had to be consulted and a stock person sent on what seemed to me to be a safari-like expedition to go and find another bag of the approximate size and weight from which to price the item. I was forced to wait – impatiently at that!

There is an unwritten law when it comes to waiting in queues (lines) in Uganda. It doesn’t matter if that line is at Customs and Immigration, the airport check-in counter or the local grocery store: the other line always moves faster. There are two corollary laws as well. When you switch from one line to another, the line you left moves faster and no matter what line you are in, and the more you think about how slow the line is, the slower it gets.

I find comfort in the fact that I am not alone. The impatient nature of humans has given rise to a new filed of study known as queue management which is all about easing the strain of customers waiting in line. Mathematicians are consulted to determine which of the various line configurations like take a number or first come first serve. They’ve even considered the Ugandan favorite – the mob! Meanwhile, psychologists have explored the feelings and responses related to waiting to try an explain why, after remaining seated contentedly for the three-and-a-half hour flight from Dallas to San Francisco, passengers suddenly scramble to get in the aisle the moment the plane comes to a stop.

So what do these queue management specialist suggest to forestall our impatience? Suggestions include giving exaggerated wait time estimates; providing mirrors, magazines, and electronics to those waiting; using frequent communication to ease anxiety and uncertainty; and clustering those waiting into groups to create a sense of “community” among those who are similarly inconvenienced.

When most of think of waiting, we think of wasting time. Waiting can only be endured, not redeemed. But God’s view of waiting as expressed in Scripture is decidedly different. It speaks repeatedly of “waiting on the Lord” and “redeeming time.” We tend to think of waiting as waiting UNTIL – until the line moves, until the workday ends, until things change. For me, waiting UNTIL lends a flavor of antsy impatience and c’mons, c’mon, c’mons. Waiting seems like enduring.

So when I read repeatedly that I am to “wait on the Lord,” I generally overlay the sense of angst of waiting on slow cars, waiting on slow grocery lines – for things that are late. Could it be that when the Scriptures invite us to “wait for the LORD” (Psalm 27:14), it intends more than the knotted-up, anxious, clock-watching impatience for which I am famous (or should I say infamous)?