Category Archives: God in a Box

Expecting to Fear No Man

I’m pretty sure that it has been at least 20 years since I attended my last Kansas City Chiefs game at Arrowhead Stadium. That changed Sunday when my son bought us tickets to see the home team play the Jacksonville Jaguars. All week long, the hubbub from people who know things about football had been trumpeting the “elite” Jacksonville defense. “Sure,” they suggested. “The Chiefs have a good offense, but they haven’t been up against a unit like this one.”

By the end of the day, the Chiefs offense had scored a healthy 23 points on this elite defense (the KC defense adding another touchdown), and the Browning boys went home happy. We can be certain that the Chiefs knew very well how talented their opponents would be, but they believed in themselves, in each other, and in their leaders.

Why do I mention something as unspiritual as NFL football? Am I dealing with my feelings of guilt for playing hooky from worship? I don’t think so. Instead, I’m reminded of a simple fact about life: when we expect ourselves to fail, we usually come through and live down to that expectation.

Read Numbers 13 and consider the differing responses of the scouts sent by Moses into the Promised Land. After some vocal members of the scouting party have bragged on the place, somebody, Numbers 13:28 tells us, voices that troubling word: “however.” Yeah, the land is great; however, the people are giants. We can’t beat them.

In response to these words, up jumps Caleb: “Let’s go up now and take possession of the land because we can certainly conquer it!” What a guy, this Caleb! Wouldn’t you be inclined to follow his leadership. He heard the same things that the others heard. He saw the same walled cities and tall enemies. So why was Caleb saying “Let’s go up now” while the others were drifting toward the rear?

Clearly Caleb believed in himself. For some reason, despite what he’d heard, he believed in his fellow Israelites, but most importantly, he believed in their leaders–yes, Moses and Aaron, but their ultimate leader, God himself.

When we believe that we will be defeated by whatever faces us this week, we’ve taken the first step to failure. Rarely do we succeed when we expect to fail. On the other hand, we sometimes fail when we expect to succeed, but the odds are far stronger.

This week, I expect to face a few challenges from other people. I can shrink from them or I can assume that God will be beside me. Like Caleb, I can say, “Let’s go up now!”

A Shortstop’s Kind of Readiness

I’ve just suffered through one of the worst seasons that the Kansas City Royals have ever played. The team that won the World Series in 2015, lost 104 games, topped (bottomed?) only by 106 losses in 2005. As painful as their season proved, they showed signs of hope with some promising young players.

Watch baseball for very long and you’ll see that there are players who are in the lineup mostly for their fielding and some mostly for their bats. When you see a powerful hitter who plays in the field like he’s competing in a sack race, that player will normally be positioned in right field, the spot where he’s least likely to do much damage.

On the other hand, a shortstop who cannot field is a terrific liability. Sure, you’d like him to be able to hit, but he absolutely must be able to range around the left side of the infield, snag balls hit his direction, and make long, accurate throws to first base. Without that talent, the team is sunk.

Any shortstop worthy of playing professional baseball wants the ball to come his way in critical moments. With the game on the line, he should be not just thinking, “What do I do when the ball is hit to me?” but also, “Hit it here. Hit it here. I dare you.”

On the other hand, that right fielder, the one who wouldn’t be on the team if he couldn’t smash the ball with his bat, might be excused for standing out there at the crossroads between victory and defeat, whispering, “Don’t hit here. Please don’t hit it here!”

Which player do you more resemble in the ballgame of Christian service? Are you the shortstop, eagerly wishing for the chance to start a game-winning double play or the right fielder hoping beyond hope that the ball goes somewhere, anywhere else?

Esther initially wanted to hide in the outfield. When encouraged to bring the Jews’ problems to the king, she tried to get off the hook. In Esther 4:14, Mordecai lays it on the line for her. Unlike in baseball, God’s tasks will get done if we don’t do them. But if we fail, if we try to avoid the play, then the glory will go to someone else.

In 1985, when my Royals won their first World Series, the right fielder, Daryl Motley, caught the twenty-seventh out in game seven, clinching the series. I’ve remembered that for thirty-three years. My guess is that I’ll remember it for another several decades.

While we might be frightened to see the ball coming our way, we need to overcome fear and get ourselves into the game. A bad season for a baseball team is no big deal. A bad season for the church is regrettable. And the individual Christian often gets only one significant season to play.

A Farmer’s Kind of Comfort

My forebears, the generations before my grandparents, were farmers. I’m not entirely certain how successful these people were as farmers, but they listed themselves as such on the census reports. My grandfathers, born on farms, made an exit toward better economic pickings, eventually making their ways to Kansas City where two of their children met and became my parents.

Why did so many people in America, from the late 1800s and into the early decades of the 1900s make that farm-to-city move? Somewhere in the 1870s, the segment of the population working on farms moved below 50% for the first time. By 1940, as the Second World War drew near, that number dropped to 18%. And the reason is fairly clear. With increasing industrialization offering steady jobs and the relative certainty and comfort of urban life, the move seems sensible.

Think about it. If you work in a steel mill, as my maternal grandfather did, you don’t need to worry much about the weather. A drought will not ruin the steel. Blast furnaces, unlike hogs or cows, don’t die, and if one does go off line, it’s not the worker’s problem so much as the company’s. When the potatoes succumbed to a disease on the farm, that typically meant not having potatoes that year. In the city, unless the problem was catastrophic, it meant that you paid more for the spuds at the market.

City dwellers didn’t have to contend with long dirt roads. Coyotes mostly chased roadrunners in cartoons rather than eating the chickens. Water, sewer service, electricity, and phones came to the city far more quickly than to the country. To this day, the broadband Internet availability in rural areas is limited. Who wouldn’t want to move from the farm to the city?

Elijah presumably didn’t want to make that move. After serving as God’s emissary to bring about a terrific drought, Elijah had to make himself scarce lest the officials make him dead. In 1 Kings 17:2-4, he is told to “hide” in the Kerith Ravine to drink from its brook and eat what ravens brought.

As a result of the drought, Elijah had to move to town in 1 Kings 17:9. Couldn’t God have kept some water running in that stream for him? He could have done so, but I don’t think God wanted Elijah to get too comfortable.

Those who remain on the farm, who move from cities back to farms, or who just have a farmer mentality understand that comfort is not something that we should always desire. We might have to tend the animals in sub-zero weather. That’s just the truth.

Moving from our comfort zone is frightening but less so when we trust that God is directing our steps. Successful farmers have a self-reliant streak, but successful Christians couple that with a God-reliant streak. Put those together and a little discomfort is just–well–a little discomfort.

 

An Astronomer’s Kind of Vision

There was a day in the past when people–understandably, I think–believed that the earth stood at the center of the universe. In that cosmology, all of the planets, the sun, and the moon revolved around the earth. The stars inhabited a single sphere that marked the outer edge of the created realm. It was a magnificent model, however flawed.

Today, we see things far larger and far smaller. The development of telescopes and other tools for astronomical research have revealed galaxies upon galaxies, while the discoveries of chemistry and biology have shown us DNA and the staggeringly complex biochemistry necessary to keep our bodies working.

While some use these discoveries to argue for the necessity of a creator, I’d like to go a different direction. Once we assume that a creator exists, the revelations of the very large and the very small demonstrate more and more the greatness of God. If God was amazing when Ptolemy described the model above, how much greater can He be seen to be when we realize the vast complexity of the universe? How much more remarkable will God be shown when we understand still more of His creation?

I see that greatness and I claim to believe it. So why is it that I don’t behave as if I believe?

  • Why would the God who can create over 6,000 of species of toads have any trouble seeing me through life if I take the rather feeble step of tithing on my income?
  • Why would the God who designed and deployed human brains with 100 trillion synapses not be able to move upon one of those brains either to give me words to speak (Luke 12:12) or move upon my listener for persuasion (John 6:44)?
  • Why would the God who gave the Israelites food enough to come out of their nostrils (Numbers 11:19-20) have any trouble feeding a wealthy nation like the United States without us needing to pollute our land and waters so badly?

When Moses, after all he had seen, has his doubts about the ability of God to provide meat, God’s response is quick and forceful: “Is the Lord’s arm weak? Now you will see whether or not what I have promised will happen to you” (Numbers 11:23).

Why do we, who supposedly believe in the limitless power of God, box Him in by living as if we thought Him limited? If God can only do so much in our world, doesn’t it stand to reason that He can only save so much? Or so many? Maybe He can only partially forgive sins.

The God who can keep the cosmos arranged and the electrons orbiting can easily handle anything that I need. That’s the truth. Now I just need to live like I believe it.

A Leper’s Kind of Risk

I have to admit that when my pastor used the lepers from 2 Kings 7:3-4 as examples of those who didn’t lose out on opportunities from playing it safe, I found myself skeptical. These guys were living just outside the city gate of Samaria, unable to go inside because of their illness and unable to leave because a Syrian army had the city throttled in a tight siege. Rather than slowly succumbing to the siege, they elected to try their luck with the enemy camp. “If they kill us, then we were going to die anyway,” they essentially say as they make their way to the Syrian camp.

These guys really weren’t taking a risk, were they? I’m sure they had been depending on gifts of food from the people inside the city. With the siege in full force, nobody inside would be sharing food with them now. They were most likely starving a little more quickly than the people inside. So what did they have to lose by heading to the enemy camp? That was my thought as I listened to the pastor’s sermon and checked my memory for some better examples of those who truly risked themselves rather than playing it safe.

Matthew left a lucrative tax-collecting franchise to follow Jesus. So did Zacchaeus. Peter, Andrew, James, and John all left the family fishing business to traipse about the Galilee with a homeless guy. And Paul was on the fast track to Pharisee superstar status when he ditched it all to follow Jesus. All of these seemed like better examples than those lepers.

As admirable as the risk-taking of the disciples mentioned above proves, as bold as the steps taken by Abraham and Noah and Daniel appear, there’s something to be said for the action of the lepers. Those guys recognized that they had nothing. They not only had nothing but they had nothing to lose. Unlike most people, these men saw reality. They were as good as dead already.

Look at Thomas in John 11:16: “Let’s go so we may die with Him.” It seemed foolish to the disciples to head back to the environs of Jerusalem where the powers wanted to kill Jesus. Still, Thomas couldn’t do anything but follow. He seemed to have understood on that day that if following Jesus was a risk, then it was a risk too good not to take.

Like most people, I like safety. I keep good insurance on my house and car. I’ve saved money for emergencies and for retirement. Somehow I don’t think these are moves that God would mark off as foolish, but I also hope that when the opportunity to take a risk comes along, I won’t be encumbered by my safety and security. Instead, I’d like to think that I would behave like these men with rotting flesh, stepping out with nothing to lose. Because in reality, I have nothing of value to lose.