Why Do We Call Simon Peter?

And I tell you that you are Peter,[b] and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades[c] will not overcome it.

-Matthew 16:18

Not too long ago, I was asked the nature of Simon being named Peter. 

It was a question that forced me to pause, not because I thought the answer too obvious. The question itself, I detected, had a great deal of curiosity behind it, a mining of meaning in this very formative moment in Peter’s journey as a disciple.

So why was Jesus’ disciple Simon renamed Peter?

It’s important for us to examine how the disciples show up in the New Testament.

When we look at the four Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles, we see Peter really taking center stage out of the twelve. Just behind him is John, though Peter tends to be far more memorable to us for all that he said and did whereas John tends to be depicted as more passive yet nontheless close to Christ.

It is Peter who declares boldly that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, and the same disciple that falls on his face in repentance seeing Christ bring the miracle of the haul of fish. Peter is the one who acknowledges Christ’s power and asks to be allowed to walk on water, but also is the disciple who’s doubt is manifest to the other eleven and to the rest of history. Peter boldly swears to die with Christ and draws his own blade to fight for Him in the garden, and he is also the one who denies Christ three times. While Thomas does go on record once in his boldness of saying, “let us go to die with Him” (John 11:16), Peter’s boldness is a reoccurring theme in the Gospel and Acts accounts.

Besides John, Thomas, and Judas, the rest of the disciples fade in the narrative. We get to know Judas’ deception and love for money. We get to see John’s closeness with Jesus. We get to see Thomas’ zeal before he begins to doubt. The rest of the disciples personality and works unfortunately are not well covered in canonical scripture. Peter is the star, and in just about every film adaptation of the New Testament it is Peter that is often given special spotlight.

And for good reason.

As mentioned already, Peter is the consistently bold disciple, but with his imperfections. Peter enjoys so many peaks in the Gospel accounts, but he has so many human moments of weakness. We sometimes, unfortunately, categorize Peter as a bad example of faithfulness while failing to give credence to his triumphs and later works—similar to how Thomas is ONLY remembered for doubting. Peter doubts, Peter calls himself sinful, Peter promises to kill and does even maim in Christ’s name, and Peter denies Christ three times. And yet Peter is restored at the end, and his ministry is powerful in Acts. But most of all, Simon is called Peter, the Rock, the rock on which Christ builds His Church.

This goes to Simon Peter, not to anyone else, not even John.

Consider the disciple and evangelist John for a moment. He is continually called the beloved disciple, a disciple close to Jesus. He is the author of John—or at least its narrator—and most commonly attributed as well to the Book of Revelation. John doesn’t have a negative account in the narrative. In fact, when the other eleven disciples failed to show up at the foot of the Cross, John was there. It’s often interpreted that John’s showing up at the Cross was reason for his escape from martyrdom, that he already risked his life being a witness to the crucifixion. John is not called Peter, not given this incredible new identity and responsibility from Christ. And it’s nothing against John. That being said, there’s something powerful about Christ’s appointment of Simon Peter.

Simon Peter represents both the potentiality of the Church as well as its flaws. Simon Peter is the rock the Church is founded on because he shows up in his walk with Christ and in his ministry with zeal, despite how brash it sometimes can come across. And Peter has his moments of weakness. Christ blesses Peter with this role, blessing the zeal the Church is to embody while also recognizing our human error.

Often the Church—Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant, whether it be a parish or a synod–comes under scrutiny for its ability to err. “The institution of the Church” is a too common scapegoat for the modern Christian, spiritualist, and secularist. We find ourselves allergic to the association of the church because of what we think we know about history. Yes, there have been abuses of power, from the lay level to the episcopal level. But Christ appointed Simon Peter as the rock for His Church. Peter nearly murdered in Christ’s name and had acted “un-Christian” in his denial. But just as we ought not focus solely on Peter’s shortcomings and instead consider his zeal and goodness, so too the Church should be afforded some similar credence. While members of the Church have not always been faithful and sometimes overzealous as Peter, the Church also is an agent of truth and healing like Peter. As much as we like to point fingers and shout out “but what about the scandals and crusades” we need to pause and evaluate the institutions of healing they’ve also provided, the refuge it has been in war for the ostracized, the supporter of the sick, orphaned, and widowed through its instituted agencies. 

Simon Peter reminds us of Christ’s trust to us despite our shortcomings. He didn’t call the qualified to this task, he qualified the called. 

If you think you’re unworthy to serve Christ, think on Simon Peter’s shortcomings as well as his triumphs and realize that Christ can and will teach us how to direct our zeal. If you think your priest, pastor, church cannot be trusted because of its humanness, remember you are just as human as Peter and that the institution is what Christ trusted and ordained. 

Afterall, Christ did not come for the healthy, but for the sick.

Who Are You In The Book of Job

How do we forgive ourselves when we have harmed, even maimed, someone else?

There was a man name Alan I spoke with who went to the hospital for a routine podiatrist appointment. An accident occurred while he was driving his vehicle to the hospital, resulting in a gentleman losing his leg.

“I thought my foot was on the brake. I was putting it in park.”

Alan’s foot slipped, the vehicle kept going. The vehicle struck a hospital worker, resulting in a severe injury to the hospital worker’s leg. Days later, we all found out amputation of said leg was needed.

Alan was angry, ashamed, sorrowful, and suffering of total despair. He couldn’t help but see dark and bitter irony to the circumstance, coming to the hospital for a small procedure on his foot and, in his own words, “at the expense of someone else’s leg.”

In our conversation, Alan repeated Christian motifs over and over, his knowledge of Christ saving us from our sins, forgiveness that comes through Him alone and His sacrfice. Nonetheless, he couldn’t forgive himself, indicating he should have never come to the hospital. It didn’t matter to Alan that this was an accident, and the grace that he believes Christ gives him didn’t seem to address the personal resentment he had for himself for this accident. Alan was furious with himself, calling himself a list of names and regarded his own medical needs—having cancer in addition to diabetes that was affecting his foot—as insignificant in light of the event. I think in part Alan wished he would have suffered bodily himself, to be martyr to his own medical complications rather than suffer the accident. Putting myself in his shoes, I don’t blame him for such sentiments. I can’t imagine living with that guilt, even knowing it was a total accident.

How are we to make sense of such things? Both Alan and the medical worker suffer from immeasurable grief from something accidental, something so blameless. There was no impariment. There was no malice. What is to be said to Alan? What is to be said to the medical worker? What consolation or sense can be made out of this?

We are tempted to offer our own explanation for such things, to provide some answer for the calamity. We offer this both when we are asked and sometimes we offer this unsolicited. But it is a haughty thing for us to espouse a particular meaning or message out of it, and we must be careful as we attempt to offer explanation that we do not become like Job’s friends.

In the Book of Job, we hear the tale of a righteous man who undergoes undeserved suffering. The reader sees in the beginning that Job is tested due to the devil being given certain permissions to afflict Job; Satan seems to think Job will stop praising God once his fortune turns around, and God allows Satan—with some parameters—to afflict Job. Job laments for the lives lost in the calamity, for the illness he endures. He does voice some hard questions to both God and to his friends that come to “comfort him.” But what we find at the end of the Job’s story is that Job is not satisfied with the explanation for his senseless suffering, nor is God satisfied. At the very end, God restores Job and gives Job the holy responsibility to offer prayers and sacrifice on behalf of his friends who attempted to rationalize the calamity. In short, God rewards Job for wrestling with Him and with the calamity, whereas the friends are looked down upon for their poor counsel.

Looking back on my conversation with Alan, I can’t help but see Job shine in him. Alan is a dedicated man of prayer, faithful in reading his devotionals, doing his daily prayers, and can theologize about grace. Alan carries a kind of blameless record that Job had of being an upstanding servant of the Lord. Like Job, there is wrestling for the calamity, questioning as to why he has to suffer such things. 

But no answer will suffice, perhaps because it is not our part to offer the answer and perhaps because both the sufferer and the counselor cannot examine any answer until a due time presents such clarity. In short, empathy does not come in the form of explanation, and answers cannot provide a balm of healing to such pain.

I think of another encounter I had some time ago with a grieving grandmother and her family as they were about to pull life support from a poor teenage boy who had shot himself. Why had the grandmother’s prayers not been answered? Why had this boy not been protected from such a horrible tragedy in spite of all the prayers and devotion the family had to God? 

“What am I supposed to tell my daughter who is grieving her son and my grandson?” The grandmother asked me quite angrily—and understandably irate. “What can I offer her?”

“Today is not a day for answers. You cannot provide your daughter with that answer, and neither can I. And truthfully, I’m not sure any answer will suffice how awful this tragedy is. But here you are, pouring your soul out. You are here for your family, you are here for your daughter, and for your grandson. That’s what matters. That’s what she needs. That’s what this family needs.”

All praise to God for giving that to me in such a harrowing moment.

Similarly, I nor anyone else could give Alan a proper explanation for such a senseless and horrible thing.

That being said, Alan and I did pray, and we prayed for his health and for his needs to be met. But we also prayed for the medical worker who had lost his leg, for his needs to be met. We prayed acknowledging only God’s hand being able to sustain them both in these awful circumstances. Alan cried at that, shaking horribly as we prayed for this man. In closing of the prayer, i saw some hope in Alan’s eyes. He found some hope in this. Further, Alan seemed open to the possibility of becoming an intercessor for this medical worker for the rest of his life, to lift this man’s concerns up in his own prayers each day.

Did this accident happen so that Alan would become a prayer warrior? Did the man had to lose his leg in order to have an intercessor? It’s not for us to pose such possibilities. God has purpose, but it is His and not our own.

That being said, I do believe God uses us to two specific ends when we are witnesses to calamity, when we are Job’s friends:

-Sit in the muck of the tragedy with the Job in our life. Don’t sugar coat, silver line, or wax on about some answer we have little discernment of. Let us not presume to be God or know His will…

-But let us fervently pour our heart out in prayer for God’s hand to be in that calamity. Rather than use our words to imagine meaning, let us ask God to make meaning and make mercy in light of the tragedy.

-Lastly, encourage action, with discernment. While I think it’s not our place to offer answers, I think offering action can provide catharsis. That being said, this is something earned and not granted. We ought not lead our empathy with suggestions. In the case of Alan, at the end of the visit, I suggested the possibility of him praying for this man, and it seemed earned as it came after our prayer together and I could see both grace and hope shine forth. In the case of the grandmother, I had sat with the family for about an hour silently listening, confessing my own powerlessness in the circumstances. When the grandmother asked what she could possibly do or say for her daughter while feeling so powerless, I offered her to see to what she was already doing, to continue doing what she was doing: showing up, being present, and nothing more or less than that.

Brothers and sisters, let us forgive each other and one another and seek out the Lord for forgiveness. Let us acknowledge the suffering each of us endures and provide what Job lacked in his friends. 

The Attack on Beauty: Halloween And Humanity’s Inner Dissonace

This particular year, my daughter has been rather vocal about the impact of Halloween decoration she sees all around us.

She’s young and understandably narrates most of her day, what she’s seen, what she’s done. But the manner in which she carries on about witches, glowing red eyes, and all the particularly dark ornamentation comes across as being grossly perturbed. Even at a fall festival kids costume party my family saw a child, not even a teenager, dressed in a some pop culture killer costume that neither of us could identify but nonetheless unmistakably knew belonged to the slasher genre. My wife and I reassure her that the decoration is just that and not real, that these things cannot harm her. Nonetheless, it’s given me pause this year to wonder about American fascination for everything gruesome and evil.

Why the devils? Why the witches? Why the serial killers?

The temptation to call all these figures and manifestations as meaningless is unsatisfactory. These fascinations are remarkable and noteworthy, and beg for some analysis much as a dream or pathological behavior would require analysis from psychotherapy.

Another temptation would write off our celebration of Halloween as humanity’s outlet for death. Still, I think this is inadequate. While the Latin American celebration of Day of the Dead, as far as I can see, provides some cultural merit and de-sterilizes a culture on the stigma of death while reminding families to pray for their loved ones. It may be in part true that America attempts to get over its hang up on the uncomfortable idea of death through our morbid scenes and costumes–such cases have been made why the zombie genre was so popular in our country for so long. Still, it doesn’t account for the aforementioned costumes and figures of Halloween that are deeply satanic.

We don’t seem to be portraying monsters and demons in a cautionary or benign manner. We seem to be glorifying them, out terrifying one another by conceiving of more horrific figures. Halloween is not some lived out ritual wherein a repulsive krampus is brought out to scare the population just before St. Nicholas comes in to defeat the evil. No. Rather, it is a procession of evil without good, a long minor chord without any resolve. It’s the terrible horror movie where all the main characters die, the monster wins, and somehow we are ok with this.

Now don’t get me wrong, I have dark taste. I see value in books and movies that capture humanity’s capacity for evil. I listen to music that speaks about pain and sorrow. I am not one to sterilize all media and myth to be only bright and happy fairy tales. Ancient cultures, including those from our own Western myths, have not relented to speak about abusive gods and horrific monsters. Even Holy Scripture does not withhold painful details of humanity’s dark heart and the gore that we can conceive of. Dark media–just like all media–has its place so long as it is purposeful.

But glorifying the dark or the evil just for the sake of it isn’t purposeful. That’s just patronage.

What I have gathered about this glorification of evil is an unaligned attempt to convey one’s own inner dissonance. We prop up these figures beyond the margin of society, perhaps, because some of us feel ourselves on the margin of society. Perhaps we have a personal disconnection from our own family. Perhaps we couldn’t find our healthy niche in school. An inner exile occurs while still living within our communities. With that, we convey our own inner dissonance through an acting out, through the portrayal of the figures cast off into he margins: expelled demons, witches left to live in the wilderness, etc.

I believe most of this to be attention seeking behavior, an acting out as an attempt to address the unacknowledged pain of disenfranchisement and loneliness.

It is perhaps equally true–or even more true–that none of us have been shown or conveyed true beauty by our closest confidants and therefore we reach for the low-hanging fruit of shock, ugliness, and darkness. Let’s be honest, walking through America’s oldest and greatest cities is nothing like walking through the oldest and greatest cities of Europe. Our architecture is bland and sterile, and our iconoclastic roots of puritanism meant that America’s inception came without a great deal of beauty or art. While our country did have the foundations of Scripture as its rudder and moral compass, I believe we are seeing centuries later the consequence of the sterility that comes from a solo-Scriptura tradition that endeavors little to create, to convey beauty in new and wholesome ways. As a side note, perhaps it is only too ironic that the celebrated Reformation Day should fall on a day that has ached for art and beauty.

This is not a call to action to stop dressing up for Halloween, and stopping all together–even sheltering–I don’t think addresses our country’s real need.

Instead, I believe the answer to this malady comes from noticing those of us who are on the margins and showing them something beautiful. This could be literal in sharing with them a truly beautiful composition of music or piece of art or story. But the beauty could be just as simple as one’s own kindness and curiosity of their life. Perhaps the easiest answer of this is–in borrowing from Fr Josiah Trenham–the adopting of the beautiful life, the transformed life of truly lived and imitated Christianity that is unmistakably beautiful and bright. And within that Christianity, we ourselves have to understand what is beautiful, what we can adore and share. Yes Scripture is beautiful, and God gives us more than Scripture to rejoice about, to celebrate as beautiful: iconography, architecture, hymnography, the lies of saints, and so much more.

Let us take a moment this Halloween to recognize the catalysts of this mania, to analyze this sick hunger for the darkness. Let us stare in the face of our own sterility and mediocrity, and let us be intentional in both prayer and compassion for those around us who are on the margins that they do not adopt monsters on the margins as their heroes to celebrate.

Let us behold beauty. Let us adopt beauty. Let us be changed by it. Let us infuse it in all we do and recreate it in our works and in our living.

Happy Eve of All Saints.

Blind Man II: Would You Let God Spit On You?

After saying this, he spit on the ground, made some mud with the saliva, and put it on the man’s eyes. “Go,” he told him, “wash in the Pool of Siloam” (this word means “Sent”). So the man went and washed, and came home seeing.

13 They brought to the Pharisees the man who had been blind. 14 Now the day on which Jesus had made the mud and opened the man’s eyes was a Sabbath. 15 Therefore the Pharisees also asked him how he had received his sight. “He put mud on my eyes,” the man replied, “and I washed, and now I see.” 16 Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not keep the Sabbath.” (John 9:6-7;13-16)

When we pray, most of the time we are asking God for something.

I mention this not to stop anyone from relying on God. In fact ,I think we need to rely on God far more than we usually do. Too often is the case that we get on our knees before God when things get really bad rather than when things are seemingly going alright. Regardless, God hears these prayers from our aching heart. His ears are open to us. But are our eyes, ears, and hearts towards Him as we wait?

In short: when we ask God for something, do we have expectations?

Do we imagine an answered prayer should look a certain way? Do we have a timeline when a miracle should manifest? Would we be upset if God’s response was an indirect answer, addressing perhaps not the symptom of our problem but the disease?

The healing of the blind man is a perfect manifestation of our tendency to have expectations on prayer, specifically, on how God should answer them.

When we line up the various miracles that Christ did, we see that He doesn’t operate in a one size fits all manner. For the centurion, He speaks a word from afar and the servant is healed. For the paralytic, He forgives his sins. To the lepers, He gives them the task of walking with faith to the high priests, and to Peter’s mother-in-law He rebukes (as though chastising a child) the illness. In most cases, we see that Jesus gives a word alone and the illness is healed, the demon is cast out, and the spirit returns to the body. Jesus Christ is the Word of God, the Divine Logos, and we so we see how powerful God’s Word is through His speech. It’s hard to imagine if the people around Him would have preferred Jesus touching the infirm over speaking a word, but the alternative to this wasn’t always so palpable.

In John 9, and even in Mark 8, Jesus performs a miracle in a way that might hit a nerve with our disgust sensitivity. Imagine if you were told by someone they could heal you with their saliva. Would you feel comfortable with that, let alone believe them? In the aforementioned healings of the blind men, Jesus spits in dirt, makes clay, and heals the blind.

But looking before at all the cases wherein Jesus heals merely by speaking a word, it begs the question why Jesus would suddenly use this tactic? Why did He use dirt and spit instead of just some water, or saying the word? Why didn’t He just reach out and touch the eyes with His fingers and leave out all the other elements? Perhaps none of those questions were on the Pharisees mind when they witnessed a Jew healing on the Sabbath.

If anyone were in need of a Scriptural basis for how low dirt was regarded, one need look no further than Christ telling the Disciples to “shake the dust off your feet” when they enter a town that would not receive them, noting that even the lowest thing the town offered to the Disciples was not worthy of being carried out by them. Dirt is under trod by the masses, a stain, and even associated with death as we remember God speaking to Adam, “from dust you were born, and to dust you will return.”

It’s not much further of a stretch for us to associate spit with something just as demeaning. All bodily fluid was regarded as an unclean thing, and the timeless manner in which people are insulted was through spitting on someone’s face. Ancient peoples had a sense of the unsanitary nature of human saliva, and so one can imagine what those around Jesus must have thought or felt seeing Him create clay with His spit instead of blessing and pouring water.

But the Lord has His purposes with these elements, He has reason to “spit on us”.

To begin, we can regard Jesus using elements instead of speaking as a testimony to Christ favoring using vessels of His Grace instead of performing a miracle without a means of extra elements. What I mean by that is that God is not a micromanager, that the Lord seems to delight in using His Creation as a vehicle for His Grace. Jesus can, has, and will heal by His voice alone, but we still see so many cases of Jesus healing through His saints, His relics, His creation (human and otherwise). The symbol of the dirt and spit combining together into the clay of healing is an image of God and man working in tandem to heal. God exhales His Grace into you and I, and we are responsible for participating and retaining that Grace so that the blessing may multiply.

The other component of these elements of spit and dirt is the reminder that humility is what’s needed in our hearts to receive a miracle, to receive God’s message to us. Again, dirt and spit are lowly elements, things that you and I would prefer not have on or in our faces, and yet the Lord heals by it. Onlookers may have cringed seeing this display of healing, and were the young man germophobic perhaps he would flinch if he saw what was happening. But this healing reminds us the need for humility when we approach God for a request in prayer. We cannot go to God with our lofty ideas of how He should answer our prayers and needs. Instead, we go with bowed head and bended knee, expecting perhaps nothing but total humiliation…but in said humiliation finding unfathomable treasure.

As we already touched on, it wasn’t merely the elements that were scandalous in this healing, but the timing. Why did Jesus have to intentionally do this on the Sabbath, on a day that would upset so many? Another way of putting this is why didn’t Jesus heal on a day easier for everyone else?

That often becomes a question after we put our petition to God. Sometimes we suffer so greatly and the healing comes days, weeks, months, years later. Sometimes our misery is not immediately relieved, and we are indignant like the Jews, thinking God has done something unlawful by not abiding in our time and expectations. The difference between a “late” answer to a prayer and an answer to a prayer on the Sabbath is not that far when we consider that God—outside of time—has the best understanding of when a miracle or answer ought to come.

The healing of this blind man is not only a commentary on spiritual blindness. It’s also a message to us who go on bended knees before the Lord. When we pray, there is a need for us to humble ourselves first to God’s will. Asking for God’s mercy and expecting to be humbled and having to be patient is a good posture, because humility and patience are already qualities God is aiming to grow in our hearts. This is not to say that we should pray with pessimism or with a lacking of trust or confidence. Rather we address our real needs, we ask for God to see to these needs in the wisest manner, to open our eyes to see how and why He works the way He does, and ultimately that whatever we ask leads us to glorify Him and become a closer disciple of His.

Let us stay attentive to God’s abundant mercy in our lives.

Blind Man Part I: Sins, Suffering, Purpose

AN: I recently reread the Gospel reading of Jesus healing the man born blind. I was struck this particular time by all its implications and spiritual meat that it offers. I’ll be writing a few blog entries on this periscope, unpacking as much as this lesson presents to me. I pray that this is a particularly edifying series and appropriate for this Paschal season.

As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him. As long as it is day, we must do the works of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” (John 9:1-5)

We begin the Gospel reading of the Young Man born blind with a snapshot of the ancient idea of sin and malady.

We begin to see this precedent as we page through the Old Testament and find more than a handful of correlations of how sin can lead to suffering or death. King David is perhaps the most memorable case, having committed a double sin of fornication and murder and then having lost his first child. Recently Fr. Stephen DeYoung expounded on this relationship in his Lord of Spirits podcast, as he unpacked how the actual word of blessing means “things being in proper order” as we align our spiritual posture and personal will to God’s purposes, whereas a curse is when things are out of order, out of God’s order/design due to our falling. This relationship with sin and suffering is even addressed in the Gospel of Matthew, when we see that the Paralyzed man is healed specifically by Christ forgiving the sin; Christ forgiving the man’s sin was not merely a public declaration of His Grace and divine nature, but an illustration that forgiveness of sins is too often the root of our suffering with disease being merely a symptom of it.

That being said, we see how suffering in the Old Testament seemingly has no correlation to sin. Such is the case of Job. He is a righteous man, charitable, and even at the first sight of calamity doesn’t even begin to question God dispute his wife’s jadedness. The man suffers terribly, more so than David even, but to no fault of his own. The snapshot of Job that we receive is that the devil is looking to test Job, but he does so with God’s permission. At first glance, Job’s case seems to propose an inextricable nature of suffering, how cruel and unfair life’s circumstances can be and sometimes without a particular point.

A similar case of this testing by the devil is echoed in the life of St. Anthony when he is assaulted by animals (demons) in a cave, left for dead, found and restored by a friend, and thereby goes to return to the cave to fight again. After the second encounter, St. Anthony is not assaulted again, but asks God why God didn’t fight for him the first time, wherein God answers that He wanted to see St. Anthony contest on his own first, that God was there in the gauntlet, and after his perseverance and courage would make St. Anthony’s name great across the world.

We also see in the Gospel of Luke how Jesus addresses blameless suffering using two different examples. In Luke 13, we read how Jesus speaks on the “mingling of blood” that was from Pilate, which according to Fr. DeYoung was an insurrection put down by Pilate by use of crucifying hundreds of random Jews, despite their particular allegiance to said insurrection. We also read about the tower of Siloam that falls and kills so many. In Luke, Jesus shares both accounts because His audience seems to have rationalized, “those that Pilate killed or died by the tower collapsing, probably deserved it.” Jesus uses these examples to break the wholesale assumption that all death and malady are caused by sin, and returns His audience’s attention to the necessity of repentance. While the examples Jesus has here don’t speak about the beauty, sanctification, and purification of perseverance (ie is the case for Job & St. Anthony) it does leave room in interpretation of suffering to not always be caused by sin. This doesn’t dismiss interpreting of suffering, because whatever the “cause” of suffering there is work for the sufferer and the witness to it to make something good and holy from it.

Reading these different stories, we see that there is room for nuance in our exposition of suffering. Jesus doesn’t outright criticize the opinion that someone could be born blind or sick as a result of someone’s sin (again, Matthew shows us Jesus addressing this reality). With the blind young man, Jesus sets the record straight saying that the cause of this case was not sin, but that there is another purpose behind it.

Now we arrive at the crux of our pastoral theology of suffering: suffering ought to serve some purpose. In counseling, I often share Tolkein’s account of the creation of the cosmos. There are divine powers that sing things into being, but also demonic figures (ie Sauron) that add a dissonant chord, a bad malady. The divine beings don’t make Sauron mute, but rather weave his song into the greater melody, providing a cathartic resolve in the ballad. Minor keys and dissonance are powerful tools in music, and they serve well provided there is some resolve at the end of the piece.

Suffering can be like this poor cord struck. It upsets us, but it weaves into a bigger and more beautiful composite. A season of grief and suffering is hard to endure, but it’s woven into something greater and more beautiful. Job’s answer from God is actually just that. God lists so many beautiful and incomprehensible wonders from the farthest reaches of space to the unfathomable nethers of the ocean. It’s a hard answer, but it’s a beautiful one and it’s a sight that so few figures in the Bible are privy to. After Job’s season of suffering, his wrestling with his friends, wrestling with God, he is ultimately restored, and his story is among the famous ones in Scripture.

Conversely, King David’s suffering bears a different kind of fruit. The loss of his child is on one hand the fruit of his sinful heart, revealing how murder and fornication unfolds into destruction. But that’s not the end of that tree’s life or purpose. King David then produces new fruit, the fruit of repentance. He fasts, laments, and ultimately goes to worship God. We even get a taste of David’s contrite heart through his Psalter, producing for the world beautiful psalms and poems for all men to worship God by. King David’s fruit goes from spoiled to sweet, and out of the suffering of his sin, something beautiful is born.

Suffering can be woven into something greater, which is also to say that there is an opportunity for the sufferer to orient their attention and will to God towards this purpose. When the suffering is product of sin, there is an opportunity for repentance and beauty being born from that repentance.

But in this Gospel reading of the man born blind, we see that the suffering will bear a different and even more beautiful fruit…for the glory and manifestation of God’s work and power. The curing of the young man’s blindness is truly remarkable, a miracle that astounds many. But also remarkable (perhaps more remarkable) is God’s work THROUGH the young blind man. As we continue reading, we will see that the young blind man’s testimony and dialog with the uneducated is so very bold and sophisticated. Here we have a young and uneducated man who bests the educated Pharisees and remains steadfast in his testimony, unflinching to public opinion of Jesus.

In the end, the blind man is the one who sees the light in the world that Jesus speaks of in the end of this passage. The light is seen by the one who was physically blind, while the light is too bright to those spiritually blind.

Where I’d like to conclude with this is that there is sometimes a temptation for someone witnessing someone else’s suffering (be it friend, family, or pastor) to immediately rectify and explain the suffering. While the aim of suffering should be to refashion it so something beautiful can be born of it, it really takes the work of the one suffering to come to this epiphany. The witness, however, is called to stand side-by-side in it, to not be so brash or loud like Job’s friends were. Any wisdom we think we might immediately have to share should be tempered first by compassion, a readiness to sit in the suffering with the sufferer, to hear their story, and become a companion in it. Only in this marathon approach can we hope to intercede and provide some small epiphany for them.

But ultimately the sufferer must ask for their sight restored to see such glories, such as the young blind man.

Childhood Nightmares – Scorpions & Mazes

In my previous blog, I put one of my own childhood nightmares under scrutiny of its themes and implications. I’d like to follow that note up on a childhood nightmare that a friend confided in me as I feel it may have some similar parallels to my own nightmare.

The Scorpion and the Maze

The description of this childhood nightmare is pretty straightforward.

My friend shared with me a recurring nightmare he had of being trapped in a labyrinth, a Greco-style maze. Though he didn’t necessarily possess the height or birds eye view to see that he was in a maze, he found himself met with many boundaries, many walls, and coincidently many choices. And because this maze felt like a classical labyrinth, it meant that danger could lurk around any corner (like the all famed Minotaur).

Frustrating and frightening as this scenario might already seem, there was another component that made it more perilous.

My friend knew that there was a giant scorpion chasing him as he traversed the maze. So not only did my friend feel the pressure of danger awaiting each turn in this labyrinth, but he felt pressure breathing down his back as this hideous creature followed him, forcing him to choose his paths rather than granting him any respite to relax or think through his decisions.

The scorpion for some time didn’t mean anything in particular to him that would be different to you and me: scorpions are regarded as venomous creatures and unseemly to look at. What I was struck by was how he shared with me a real incident he experienced many years later when he was traveling abroad and had been stung by a scorpion while putting on his shoe. In that country, the physicians said the venom was too weak to use any antidote for remedy, that the sting would not be fatal. They sent him off with a bag of ice to help the swelling. My friend said the pain of the sting was indescribable and lasted the entire day, and then some.

My friend has always had a rather benign regard for all animals, including insects (choosing to trap and let outside even spiders and cockroaches). But scorpions he’s always had a deep disdain for, likely due to the dream and his painful incident of being stung by one.

“Prophetic” & Therapeutic Power

I am almost tempted to say that there was something prophetic about the dream. 

My first question to my friend was if he had this dream AFTER having been stung by a scorpion, but he told me this dream plagued him in his early years, well before the incident with the real scorpion that stung him. Had this dream occurred after his sting, the obvious implication is that the trauma of the event has allowed his subconscious to assign scorpions as the symbolic representation of adversity, fear, pain, etc.

I don’t believe his childhood nightmare was a warning to him that he’d encounter a traumatic experience with a scorpion later on and end up hating them. That being said, the fear of the dream mingled with the trauma of the experience solidifies this symbol in his waking and subconscious mind. 

I believe God sometimes uses symbols that carry these tangible meanings to communicate something or challenge us to do something. What I often see occur in phobias is that God uses the symbol of that which we are afraid of to challenge us to grow bold in other areas of our life. 

An example of this is to take the fear of spiders, which is largely irrational (unless you’re encountering a spider that with one bite can kill you). Someone who has a fear of spiders can encounter a spider and conquer their fear of spiders through different means of exposure. When someone learns the techniques used to develop courage against this harmless fear, fear itself can be inoculated against. It’s like the spider is the harmless version of a virus put into our bodies, so that our mental antibodies (courage) can learn to take on a REAL threat.

Again, while I have suspicion of placing too much emphasis on prophetic power of dreams, I do wonder if God allowed this childhood nightmare and allowed the later scorpion sting to serve as a phobia for my friend to triumph over in the pursuit of courage.

Symbolism At Play

L0027293 The gyri of the thinker’s brain as a maze of choices in biom Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org The gyri of the thinker’s brain as a maze of choices in biomedical ethics. Scraperboard drawing by Bill Sanderson, 1997. Drawing 1997 By: Bill SandersonPublished: [1997] Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

A maze carries a rather obvious connotation of decision making and uncertainty. We cannot see beyond the walls of the maze and without having a bird’s eye view cannot discern which path leads to our exit or goal. While carving a path in a maze by foot, we can get overwhelmed not knowing if we’ve taken a previous path before, unsure if we are getting any closer to our destination. Things blur together, a sense of progress becomes amiss to us. 

The symbol of a maze is the dread we experience in life. Each of our futures are indiscernible as a maze. Just as we would traverse a maze with a sense of hopelessness, we too can go through life feeling like we have missed the correct turn, feeling a sense of impossibility of finding happiness or accomplishment typified by the end of the maze. The maze therefore communicates both an anxiety to make decisions and a lack of trust for the future.

We also see the symbol of the scorpion in this dream. In mediteranean/near eastern mythologies, scorpions seem to convey symbols of life and death simultaneously. This unusual connection to life that scorpions bear is predominantly due to the antidote that ancient civilizations were able to discern from scorpion venom. 

The symbol of death tied to scorpions can be elaborated on when we consider an indomitable nature of scorpions. Scorpions possess a great deal of features that make them apt fighters of things their size and greater: The armor of the scorpion, the features of its claws added with a stinging tail (an advantage over most animals that might only use jaws and claws for fighting), and their covert nature (not really making any noises as they move and hide). They are symbols of nature’s finest warriors in these terms, having many weapons, a strong defense, subtle movement, while also possessing a lone-wolf image as not being a hive-minded being (perhaps like wasps which might seem to be a strong counterpart). They are nature’s soldiers of death.

The idea of scorpions as antagonistic also fits in mythology as we consider that this was the creature sent to destroy the great hunter Orion. Though the stories of Orion’s fate differ, a common theme of hubris seems to play out in Orion’s life–believing he could hunt all creatures down or he was a better hunter than Artemis–always resulting in his death by the means of an enemy that could best him.

Scriptural Symbolism of Scorpions

The Bible happens to afford us a great depth of symbolic painting on many elements, and it’s interesting to see the different ways scorpions have been represented in Scripture. 

In various books of Scripture, scorpions seem to carry a theme of cruelty that can come from tyranny or admonishment. We see this when King Rehoboam (son and successor of wise Solomon) threatens a fractious group of Israelites to subdue the people not with whips but with scorpions, indicating a “piling on” of punishment (1 Kings 12). This story of tyrannical punishment is echoed in Luke 11:12 when Jesus compares the merciful Father to humanity’s penchant for cruelty or imagining cruelty on others, indicating that going to God in prayer should be like expecting an egg (to nourish us, a symbol of life) instead of expect a punishment, a scorpion. 

The theme of tribulation (especially a long period of testing) could also be related to scorpions when we consider how the Israelites are stung by scorpions in their journey to the promised land, or the scorpions in Revelation that we are told have a sting that lasts 5 months. Scorpions are threats of pain to be endured that precede paradise, for in Exodus/Deuteronomy we expect the Kingdom of God through Israelite rule, while in Revelation we expect God’s Heavenly Kingdom following the tribulations of the end times.

The last theme from Scripture I’d like to point out is not an overt reference to scorpions, though the language certainly paints the tail of a scorpion. In 1 Corinthians 15:55-57, St. Paul mocks death by saying “O death, where is your sting, o grave where is your victory? The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, which gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” These verses pair powerfully when we look into the Gospel of Luke where Jesus speaks about giving over authority to the apostles to tread on scorpions (Luke 10:19). Here, again, we see scorpions as a representation of death (something ancient cultures already agreed upon in this image) and more than that it is a manifestation of the lethality of sin. While there’s evidence to support Jesus speaking literally in regards to treading on snakes and scorpions, we cannot overlook His symbolic speech of the apostles having an even greater victory: treading on & overpowering death & sin through Christ’s authority.

How To Traverse Our Own Mazes

The symbols of this dream convey a deep anguish we all feel when presented with big choices to be made in life. The childhood nightmare carries an insight that the future will be rife with big decisions, and not only that, but that there will be peril in this process of decision making. We all feel the same pain of not knowing our future, and thus choosing an option becomes a burden because our traversing of the maze of life will leave us with wondering if we choose the right path and if we are ever any closer to our goal (happiness, salvation, whatever manifestation the end of the labyrinth takes on).

What actually is liberating in the manifestation of the scorpion in this dream is that the dream wisely puts: you won’t have time to rationalize what’s the best option. The scorpion at our backs is death, and we cannot wait for death to catch up to us while we stand idle at the start of this maze. If scorpions truly are a manifestation of death, then the rich symbolism of this dream tells us that action is needed, that idleness is unbecoming for this seemingly indomitable foe at our backs.

Taken from a pagan or non-religious perspective–looking at Orion and Scorpio–we would view this threat to our backs as the punishment of hubris. There’s value in seeing the scorpion even as a manifestation of hubris’ punishment, as traversing a maze/labyrinth is often caught up in hubris, performed by a proud soul who believes they can discern the path with their own reasoning, without a bird’s eye view or any added perspective. The scorpion at our backs reminds us that hubris pushes us through the maze, and that it will be through hubris/pride that we fall and fail to meet our goal.

How can any of us discern our own paths and feel a sense of hope that we will reach the blessed end of the maze? How can we alleviate ourselves from regrets of a mistaken path? If we face a dead end, will we not turn to see the sting of the scorpion cornering us? What can guide us through the labyrinth of life that possess so many tough decisions? What can arm us to face this giant scorpion that pushes us through the maze?

Christ is the only one who promises an antidote to this venom. His antidote is life-giving, is resurrectional. His antidote is also humility, inoculating us from the sting of pride. Looking at a Scriptural interpretation of this dream, we can see the futility of human reason, and the need to place our every deed, action, and decision at the feet of the Lord, the Most High God, who possesses this bird’s eye view of our labrinth, of our life.

I can personally attest to how crippling, paralyzing (like the sting of the scorpion) making decisions in life can be. I faced this when discerning my vocation/occupation, when dating/courting before I was married. The only remedy to this anguish and sting of uncertainty was through casting my eyes above the walls of my labyrinth and asking God for His perspective, to lead me, and to crush my own understanding and hubris along the way. 

Safe journeys as you traverse through your own maze!

Genesis 9-Scandal, Wrath, and Justice

Genesis 9:18-28

18 The sons of Noah who came out of the ark were Shem, Ham, and Japheth. (Ham was the father of Canaan.) 19 These were the three sons of Noah, and from them came the people who were scattered over the whole earth.

20 Noah, a man of the soil, proceeded[a] to plant a vineyard. 21 When he drank some of its wine, he became drunk and lay uncovered inside his tent. 22 Ham, the father of Canaan, saw his father naked and told his two brothers outside. 23 But Shem and Japheth took a garment and laid it across their shoulders; then they walked in backward and covered their father’s naked body. Their faces were turned the other way so that they would not see their father naked.

24 When Noah awoke from his wine and found out what his youngest son had done to him, 25 he said,

“Cursed be Canaan!    The lowest of slaves     will he be to his brothers.” 26 He also said, “Praise be to the Lord, the God of Shem!     May Canaan be the slave of Shem. 27 May God extend Japheth’s[b] territory;     may Japheth live in the tents of Shem,    and may Canaan be the slave of Japheth.”

28 After the flood Noah lived 350 years. 29 Noah lived a total of 950 years, and then he died.

A Heart That Condemns or a Heart That Protects

I find my thoughts on Chapter 9 of Genesis relating to much of what we spoke about in terms of Adam & Eve and the Fruit of Knowledge of Good and Evil.

We read here how Noah takes up cultivating a vineyard and happens to have too much wine. It’s not a proud moment for Noah that he should end up naked after drinking so much–I admit this story conjures up images of frat parties and the poor decisions made when one is under the influence.

We hear that one of Noah’s sons catches sight of this poor state his father is in. His first response is to tell his brothers about it, though we don’t hear the tone nor do we know exactly what he said. What we do know is that his first action is to share this vulnerable sight with others and that he is nowhere to be found in the next part of the story…

Noah’s sons, Shem and Japheth, take action with this news…a very prudent and careful act. Not only do they take a garment to cover up their father, but they put forth the extra effort to walk into the tent backward, to not catch sight of their naked father. They cover him and leave without scandal.

Somehow Noah gains insight into what Shem and Jepheth have done for him, and of what Ham spoke of. Noah speaks curses against his son.

Is this fair?

This is perhaps a hard story to read, especially when we are employing some guesswork as to what exactly has transpired. We could reason in this story that Ham was trying to spur his brothers into taking some action of decency or perhaps prepared to host an intervention for their father. But these details and assumptions are missing, just as much is the tone of gossip from the story. 

That being said, Ham’s only action in this story is to tell his brothers what he has seen–he does not help with covering his father. Conversely, the brothers take specific action to cover his father, not to investigate to see if it is true but to cover their father’s shame. Ham’s lack of action to protect his father, to cover his father, and only to share this information versus his brothers’ actions to cover, respectfully, their father is a stark difference.

Another thought we might have reading this story is that the two brothers are conspirators and that only Ham is an agent of truth. Ham looks to expose his father’s shame by telling of this news, and perhaps the two brothers look towards sweeping this under the rug by covering their father, so no further accounts of their drunk, naked father might be shared. In this light, is Ham the hero of truth, a just reporter looking to expose filth?

This sentiment I believe harkens to our current feelings towards scandal. Whatever your political leaning, when a figure on the opposite side of the aisle is caught having spoken or acted indecent, our immediate reaction is to blast the truth, to put a spotlight and microphone to the scandal, to become indignant as though that person personally attacked us. We have a secret craving for these stories and scandals, an appetite for dirty laundry that I think is worth us calmly sitting down and reflecting on.

The Passions

This appetite for such truth and “gossip” comes from a passion: wrath. We should note here that the passions are innately positive motives in our being, things that move us towards something that is necessary or good. Gluttony is actually a healthy appetite, a realization we need to nourish ourselves. Lust in its purest form is communion and sociability, a need to find intimate and meaningful relationships with others, not necessarily carnal. Even pride, the highest and riskiest of all passions, is a holy drive to behold the image and likeness we are sculpted in, and to therefore treat our bodies, our minds, our image with dignity and respect. Any of these passions, when out of check or indulged in, spike into their namesake, into their vice that is detrimental to us and to others.

Take wrath for example. In its wholesome and proper form, wrath is justice, a righteous indignation against things that are unholy, cruel, or abusive. The proper action of wrath is one that intervenes, one that protects the abused, one that deposes unrighteousness, one that speaks the truth to power. That being said, wrath obviously has a dark side, and although we typically see it through the lens of violence, it manifests in other ways as well. Wrath can be wielded with our words, using our disappointment of others’ actions to humiliate, to expose, to chastise. 

Consider the adulterer brought before Jesus who was to be stoned. The men who brought her to Jesus to be stoned were likely none of those offended by this woman, though they were indignant with her unchastity, hungering her defamation, chastisement, and death. Jesus does not respond to the crowd’s indignation, but rather looks for this woman to be restored, for her shame to cease, seeing within her the weakness that had led her to be unfaithful as well as seeing her potentiality of repenting and becoming someone new. Jesus counters the crowd by writing their sins in the sand and says, “go ahead, any of you who is without sin: cast the first stone and get on with it.” The crowd is trapped, realizing they themselves have shameful deeds, and as they consider their own imperfections and embarrassing secrets, they drop their stone, as though petitioning for the rest of society to drop their stone against them should their shame ever be exposed.

Another place we might look in the Gospels to this end is how Jesus instructs us to correct one another and settle disputes from Matthew 18

15 “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. 16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.

The Lord instructs us to a kind of progression of redemption and accountability. He does not inform us to proclaim the sin to the court or broadcast at all in the first step. The sin, the shame, is to be handled with discretion first with the individual. It is only when the person does not listen that another witness is brought into the fold, but this step is really only done as a proper intervention, as a means of providing more objectivity for the sake of that person’s repentance. Should this intervention not work, it is brought to the “gathering” or church, but it should be noted that this was a religious community to be aware of the sin as an act of helping that person transform rather than to indict. Only after those steps have been navigated and not proved to save that individual are they treated as a “gentile or tax collector” which perhaps implies legal action.

I imagine there is some hesitation seeing this passage of the Gospel presented next to this topic, especially the story of Noah. Would Jesus have informed Ham to speak to Noah first before speaking to Noah’s brothers? Perhaps, though it’s hard to say if Noah would have listened in his current state. Still, to address the problem immediately before broadcasting the shame would perhaps help Noah see his error instead of his shame being multiplied.

The Fine Line: Justice Vs Wrath

There is a fine line between exposing someone’s sins and giving truth and justice its proper podium. Casting light on the abuses of organizations and individuals is important so that we do not repeat the sins of the past. Doing so to demand a pound of flesh in return goes beyond the scales of justice. To imprison someone who is a threat to society for their deeds is an opportunity for society to heal and an opportunity for the individual to repent. To incite the population towards disgust and dehumanizing an imperfect individual by stoking the fire of said scandal does not progress humanity at all, but rather makes us into appetitive beasts.

Again, there is a very fine line between justice & truth vs wrath & gossip.

For us to return to Noah, we can see in his weakness–perhaps out of despondency or stress from enduring the crisis of the flood–turned to strong drink to ease his pain; this is not an excuse, but rather some perspective so we can understand Noah rather than put him at our feet for his shameful deed. Noah gets drunk and gets naked, and this weakness does not deserve to be broadcast. 

Yet too often we see the poor decisions of our youth being broadcast, text chains, and online bullying that makes one bad photo or post into a lifetime of regret…and that person and their shame is devoured like hyenas on a fresh carcass. Don’t our hearts break for our youth who are pressured into such compromising situations and make poor decisions in the crisis of their circumstances, and if we are inclined to feel pity, mercy, and compassion for them can we not do the same for Noah and for all our neighbors?

Our culture seems fixated on justice and broadcasting the shame. But which of any of us, were we to become a public figure, would not have a skeleton waiting to be shown the light of day? Which of us would come clean after the scrutiny of a reporter, after immense pressure of whatever flood we have endured?

Our culture continues a witch hunt against the drunk and naked Noahs, though it does not at all care to examine the times it has been drunk and naked. We salivate over scandal, but we are all starved of mercy, shivering for a cloak of empathy.

Today, consider the following:

  • Who is the drunk and naked Noahs of our time, and of our own lives? Who do we gossip?
  • Who do you think is in need of a cloak of dignity/compassion? How would you extend this?
  • Who have you gossiped about this past week and to whom? What did speaking about this help you with? What could be a productive way of sharing with someone else your feelings without tearing someone else down?
  • What do you find yourself focusing on the most? Do you look for shame, nakedness, or scandal? 
  • What is your drunk and naked secret (contemplate that to yourself)? What skeleton do you keep locked hidden up? Can you think about that next time you consider lashing against someone else for their poor decision?

Genesis 7-Life is Full of Floods

Genesis 7:1-10

The Lord then said to Noah, “Go into the ark, you and your whole family, because I have found you righteous in this generation. Take with you seven pairs of every kind of clean animal, a male and its mate, and one pair of every kind of unclean animal, a male and its mate, and also seven pairs of every kind of bird, male and female, to keep their various kinds alive throughout the earth. Seven days from now I will send rain on the earth for forty days and forty nights, and I will wipe from the face of the earth every living creature I have made.”

And Noah did all that the Lord commanded him.

Noah was six hundred years old when the floodwaters came on the earth. And Noah and his sons and his wife and his sons’ wives entered the ark to escape the waters of the flood. Pairs of clean and unclean animals, of birds and of all creatures that move along the ground, male and female, came to Noah and entered the ark, as God had commanded Noah. 10 And after the seven days the floodwaters came on the earth.

Humanity’s poor trajectory

In the last reflection, we spent some time discussing the cyclical nature of violence. Humanity seemed to calcify into a feedback loop of cruelty which attributed to wickedness. Then the flood came. Humanity was destined to self-immolate itself, and instead God washed it all out, quickening the process in a kind of baptism. The world would be made anew, and hopefully humanity would have a fresh start to repent, to be clean, just like any bath or baptism.

But this is not what I’d like to spend too much time focusing on in this chapter of Genesis. We have read about the conditions leading up to the flood, and we will read what takes place after, but for now I think it important to give some credence to the thing that saved humanity from the flood: the Ark.

The Ark is a vessel, and vessels are more remarkable than what we give them credit for. Imagine how long it took for us to discover the principles of buoyancy, and imagine having to describe this principle to a child. I once taught a Bible Lesson on the concept and found myself so ignorant and speechless, unable to convey something we take for granted.

The great reset

Water is a symbol of death and chaos. We typically think of it as life because we need it, but drinking from the ocean doesn’t bring life, and being stuck underneath it for any extended period of time drowns us. The sea is a tumultuous thing, seemingly with a life of its own, and the waves we admire and surf upon from the beach or an entirely different thing when we are rocked upon them by them on a boat.

Water is a fitting symbol in this story to illustrate what can and will happen for all of us. Perhaps we will not live through a literal deluge or tempest that will take out everything we know, love, and found comfort in, but we will all experience a surge, a storm, a long period where we feel robbed of sunlight and hope. The flood might be a break-up, a death, a dire consequence, physical or mental malady, the list is inexhaustible. Not to make these experiences of sufferings a kind of utility, but much like the flood, such deluges and tempests will put an end to old cycles and habits, washes out the sullen dirt of our sins, and the salt of the rising sea is akin to our tears of repentance. What I have noticed in suffering is that a change can emerge, a new human is born, priorities shift, and there is a sense of a “fresh start” that happens when one enters, dwells within, or exits such trying times.

a foundation, a boat

Nonetheless, suffering is trying, and sometimes the waters of life do seem to rise up above our heads without respite. Not everyone makes it out of grief and sickness unscathed or transformed. Too often the suffering multiplies as the misery is taken out on others or ourselves, quickening our own demise.

Such was the case for mankind, a boat is required of us. Our boats in life come in many forms. Sometimes its people. Sometimes its work or a vocation. Sometimes its a dream or personal goal. Having worked with individual suffering from depression especially after loss, I have seen many kinds of boats built/prepared for such types of floods, and the two qualities of these boats seems to remain constant: transcendent and everlasting.

Too often we fail to consider our purpose or inappropriately assign our purpose to tangible things that will not last forever: affluence, comforts, people, a job, etc. Too often we stake our happiness or confidence within ourselves, our dream of becoming something without any consideration that we on our own perhaps are insufficient and not built to stand alone. What is left when nothing outside or in is sufficient to hold us up in these storms is the only thing that is transcendent and everlasting: God & His Church.

The Church is often described in nautical terms, involving rules called by a “rudder” and a sanctuary wherein the people gather together in a “nave”. But the Church is not merely the rules and the books, not merely the place to worship; it is those elements, and MORE. It is those who are with us rowing on earth, and those who are spiritually rowing from us–the saints and the blessed reposed–that have gone before us. Prayer is the mast, and the virtues are the floor boards. This is our only hope to brave the storm as we are told, for in faith and in the Lord is our only chance at miraculous buoyancy.

And yet, we see many faithful people crumble under grief, walk away from hope after sickness. It’s painful to see when strong men and women of faith crumble under these pressures as it hurts our own sense of hope, that people we might regard as stronger than us falter to the storms of life.

A judgement call should not be made in regards to “did they really believe” or “were they really good people”. Instead of prescribing to anyone how to “make right” in the face of a storm, I think we ought to stay with Noah and his Ark, and realize the answer to any storm is rather simple.

It is a kind of obedience, a deliberation, a labor, and a perseverance. Noah followed God’s orders to build an Ark when there was no sign for a storm–he prepared for it. Noah had to do quite a bit of work creating such a marvelous piece of technology, a feat that could withstand against nature. Noah had to endure the long days and nights of constant clouds and downpour, perhaps battling seasonal affection disorder to some degree, stuck up in the smelly confines of a rickety, feces ridden boat.

What kept noah afloat

I think it important to keep these virtues in mind that Noah exhibited in the face of total catastrophe, but even more than that I think we ought to take some stake in his primary action: building.

Noah built himself a structure to the right dimensions that he was given. He didn’t try to make the boat on his own, but rather rose to God’s challenge to make this giant thing. How often do we receive instructions from our leaders, our pastors and priests, our friends and family to rise to a challenge of goodness, prayer, fasting, almsgiving, and we find ourselves short of said instructions. How often do we piece together this boat of ours, putting off the work of responsibility, mercy, and prayer until we find ourselves in a storm with a half-made boat? How often do we overlook the pitch needed to plug the holes, forget to consider our own weaknesses, personal flaws, ticks and neuroticisms without any careful introspection or quiet contemplation?

What is guaranteed in life is that each of us will be met with a storm, of one kind or another. We should consider this our warning and give some thought as to what we have already built for ourselves to withstand the deluge, what we can do to keep reinforcing its hull, and if the thing is really sea-worthy.

Today, consider the following

  • When have I been in a time of great sorrow or suffering? What did I do to get through it? Was that helpful?
  • When have I seen someone else in such a time of great sorrow or suffering? What I do? What didn’t I do? What do I imagine I’d like someone to do for me in such a scenario?
  • What habits, rituals, schedules have I laid out for myself that help me grow into a better person?
  • What is one quality of myself that could be “washed out” before life takes me by storm? What are some reasonable steps I could lay out to scrub that out?
  • What is my life’s vessel? What is my purpose? Will it stand against a flood? Will it float?

I’d like to thank Dr. Jordan Peterson for instilling a great deal of inspiration in this reflection of the Flood. You can watch his lecture on the Flood on Youtube.

Genesis 6-The Loop of Violence

Genesis 6:1-8

When men began to multiply on the face of the ground, and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that the daughters of men were fair; and they took to wife such of them as they chose. Then the Lord said, “My spirit shall not abide in man for ever, for he is flesh, but his days shall be a hundred and twenty years.” The Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of men, and they bore children to them. These were the mighty men that were of old, the men of renown. The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the Lord said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the ground, man and beast and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.” But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord. These are the generations of Noah. Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation; Noah walked with God. 10 And Noah had three sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth. 11 Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence.

So, how bad was it?

Two pressing questions I find in this reading of Genesis relate to the state of humanity just before the flood:

  • What exactly was this wickedness and proclivity towards evil?
  • How far are we today from this wickedness of old?

We are not given a detailed picture as to what this mess looked like. The fuzzy details that stand out have to do with wickedness/violence as well as carnal relationships that developed between humanity and spirits, resulting in the Nephilim. The latter is a fascinating rabbit hole of a conversation that we won’t deviate too far into, though I recommend reading the Book of Enoch for more on this. Though this unlawful union of spirits and humanity does seem to be part of the conditions that lead to the flood, I believe there’s something we can all gain by focusing on the other details–vague as they may be–of this pre-flood world.

A blessing or a curse?

The mentioning that the earth being filled with violence is a rather important detail in this story. We may not think much of this detail in the 21st century, looking back on humanity’s history of war, genocide, and the like. Again, thinking about the horrors that took place in the 20th century begs the question how bad things were in the pre-flood world, and if with all our innovation and ideology we have surpassed such level of wickedness without punishment.

But to fully appreciate this detail of the earth being filled with violence, we first must consider that we aren’t looking at a world too far from Adam and Eve, especially considering the age of these figures we read about. Perhaps 10 or so generations down and the world is so destitute to the point that a great reset is being issued. Is this unfathomable?

We ought to draw our attention back to Genesis 4 as we consider the violence and mentality of mankind in Genesis 6. We read at the end of Genesis 4 that Cain is given a kind of special protection after his murder of Abel. It’s a bit of a headscratcher to read how Cain is given this protection of avengeance from God, yet it seems this was done in order to prevent any types of fueds or human vengeance upon Cain for his murder. Perhaps God desired Cain’s repentance and/or desired humanity to end its cycle of violence.

And yet, out of our free will, we see a descendant of Cain, Lamech, who tells his wives at the end of this chapter that he kills a young man who wounded him. He seems to proudly indicate to his family the promise of Cain being upon he and his kin, and that the family should rest knowing that he expects 77-times over retribution should he be killed. This thinking reveals a great deal of not just the character of Cain’s lineage, but perhaps some insight into fallen man, a proclivity towards recompense, entitlement, and retribution. Lamech repays the wounding for death–he escalates the violence–and he wears the protection of Cain proudly as though to say, “don’t worry, we can get away with murder”.

Though we may be tempted to question God’s foresight in giving this protection to Cain and his family in the first place, I believe it important that we value the risk He is willing to take with us, the efforts He makes in assuring mankind peace, even if blessings are misused. To use an analogy, we might say that the authority given to clergy is a blessed protection and grace from God to ensure peace, and yet with this also comes abuse of power, be it through lust, pride, vanity, or greed. Should we throw the baby out with the bathwater, or is it humanity’s turn to take responsibility of what God gives us?

entitlement and violence

The issue of Lamech we see repeat throughout history and it lives within our society today. We enjoy protections, stability, structures, and comforts that we take for granted. These rights we have unconsciously inflate our sense of self-importance, instill within us a “god” like sensation that permits us to feel indignation when we are wronged. Standing up for oneself and being bothered by injustice is one thing, but to escalate a wounding for death, a pound of flesh for a mere cut, this is humanity’s bloodlust, pride, and greed all coming together. This is perhaps the wickedness of the pre-flood times.

If someone else can be killed for hurting us, they invariably become beneath us, for we become the victors and the writers of that history. What’s worse, we can justify the punishment, and that person becomes the demon, the villain, while we are the injured, moral victim.

The indignation of Lamech is not far from the unhappiness of Cain. It is the pitfall of comparisons that leads us to mistreatment of our neighbor. It is harder to look at our own shortcomings and what agency we have in our own life and happiness than it is to hope for happiness at the cost of someone else. Is it not easier to cast blame on our ancestors and the world rather than to consider what our own potential is, what our own responsibilities are with what we have?

I would wager a great deal of the violence we read in the pre-flood state stems not far from Lamech’s world view, a apple that had fallen not too far from Cain’s dehumanizing envy.

Easier to break than build

Related to all this is this notion that it is easier to knock down a tower of bricks than it is to build it up.

Enter Noah.

God’s task to Noah is to build an ark, to save creation, to do some hard work. Nobody else will profit from this work, labor, and incredible feat. Noah does not look at the chaos of the world and participate in it, does not look at his authority over creation and abuse it. Noah takes creation, transforms it into a magnificent vessel, and uses that to SAVE creation.

My mind often goes to the image of the petulant child that throws or breaks when they do not get what they want, or even when they cannot accomplish something great while being surrounded by the success of others. The temptation is to knock over the Jenga blocks, to tear apart and topple the Lego set, to set fire or stain the well-crafted masterpiece of someone else’s hand.

A mundane example of this from pop-culture is the scene from the Office when Michael Scott sees the hard work, the complicated achievement of Holly and her new boyfriend, and becomes jealous. The thoughtful gift of the Woody doll, the work it took for the two to achieve their state in that relationship–even if we, the audience, don’t approve of it–is all immediately undone by two simple acts: toss the doll into the garbage, and pour coffee upon it.

This spirit is the spirit of the arsonist, of the jealous lover, of the despondent killer. It is a spirit that followed Cain’s family five generations, and then multiplied further generations down to Noah. By this I mean to say is that for any of us to assume we are immune to such malicious or sadist tendencies is an assumption based on hubris.

We ought to give some serious contemplation towards our penchant for destruction, to rip order and beauty apart, and to spend some time considering what we have ever done to save, preserve, transform, or build, or to at least give consideration to how we may grow in these areas.

Today, consider the following…

  • Am I happy or unhappy?
  • Is there anyone I feel I am morally justified to be indignant with? Why is this?
  • What gifts or blessings do I have in my life? What responsibilities do I have for them? How do I honor these blessings and responsibilities?
  • In what ways do I use or justify violence?
  • How can I cultivate peace within myself first? How can I cultivate peace in the world?
  • What can I build, save, bring order to, or instill beauty within in a way that is not done for selfish gain?

Genesis 5-The Blessed Life of Nomadism (Nomads)

The famous American Gothic painting, an evoking image of the banal sedentary life.

Genesis 5:1-5, 18-24;

This is the written account of Adam’s family line.

When God created mankind, he made them in the likeness of God. 2 He created them male and female and blessed them. And he named them “Mankind”[a] when they were created.

3 When Adam had lived 130 years, he had a son in his own likeness, in his own image; and he named him Seth. 4 After Seth was born, Adam lived 800 years and had other sons and daughters. 5 Altogether, Adam lived a total of 930 years, and then he died.

18 When Jared had lived 162 years, he became the father of Enoch. 19 After he became the father of Enoch, Jared lived 800 years and had other sons and daughters. 20 Altogether, Jared lived a total of 962 years, and then he died.

21 When Enoch had lived 65 years, he became the father of Methuselah. 22 After he became the father of Methuselah, Enoch walked faithfully with God 300 years and had other sons and daughters. 23 Altogether, Enoch lived a total of 365 years. 24 Enoch walked faithfully with God; then he was no more, because God took him away.

The Apple that fell a little further from the tree

Genealogies tend to be quick reads for me as the list of names and repetitive writing style used in conveying Biblical family trees is often dry and overwhelming to me. That being said, these trees are still important documents, and if we take some of these under a microscope we may end up finding some nuggets of truth.

Of the genealogy we read in Genesis 5, there was one particular figure that stood out to me: Enoch.

I’ve recently been encouraged to go through the apocryphal writing of the Book of Enoch. It’s a rather illustrative and fascinating “Old Testament” Book that tells of Enoch and the visions he had, such as those of heaven, hell, the underworld, angels, demons, and the like. It’s at times a difficult read, but you might be surprised what you find in there.

It is no surprise to me after going through Enoch that his name is given some attention in this family tree. It’s actually a curious thing to me how of all the sons of Adam Enoch is the only one mentioned as walking faithfully with God. We aren’t given details in this family tree as to what that looked like, but I thought we’d hone in on that little detail.

Reading through the laconic descriptions of this family tree is a bit disappointing at first, having to go through 7 generations before we hear something holy and good about Adam’s kin. Finally we hear about Enoch who walks faithfully with God, though it took us seven generations to get that accolade. As a father, that detail is a concerning one. I’m no more perfect than Adam, and to hear that even Seth is given no accolades and not even his grandchildren is a sobering message to me of how truly difficult it is to lead a blameless life.

walking faithfully

But what of this walking faithfully? Does that make Enoch blameless? Righteous? Perhaps neither, though the word choice of “walking faithfully” ought to grab our attention. The text could have merely described Enoch as “faithful” or used an entirely different word. Enoch is perhaps the first man given any accolades, and what is praised so simply is that he “walked faithfully”.

Walking implies movement, it is the opposite of stagnancy. There’s a number of possible interpretations of what that may have looked like. Perhaps Enoch left the settlements of his forefathers and traveled. Perhaps his relationship with God was not that of rote ritual and professed belief, but action. Perhaps he endeavored to adventure in his relationship with God, further than any of his forefathers. Perhaps he simply took walks and gave some sacred time to God in quiet contemplation.

What seems to be a constant theme of the noble Biblical characters is that of travel. Abraham left his father’s home and traveled to different countries and lands, hearing from God as he traveled. Joseph left his father’s land and became something great in Egypt. Moses and the Israelites ventured for a long time then after Egypt. Jonah travels to a distant land to preach repentance. Jesus, the Son of God, seems to have never had much stagnancy at all since His Birth and infancy, and this is repeated throughout the Gospels as Jesus tells us “a prophet is never welcome in his own hometown” and “foxes have dens, and birds of nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest.”

But let us venture all the way back to the beginning, to perhaps the first and most subtle “praise” we see in the BIble: Abel. We might forget this in the detail of the story, but Abel’s profession is not one of stagnancy. Although Shepherds had pens, this profession was largely nomadic given the needs of the herd to continue to find greener fields to graze. Abel had signed up to a life of adventure and movement, and with said movement came a great deal of risk, a great need for one to trust in God. What if he entered into lion territory, or stumbled into a land struck by famine or plague? Abel’s life is not one of comfort, but of noble danger, of constant movement and vigilance in order to keep his herd safe and well fed.

Not so with Cain. While we never really understand why Cain’s sacrifice does not gain much acceptance, I think we can infer here that there is something less noble about Cain’s profession by comparison. Cain is a farmer, the primordial “planner”. Within this life, Cain can form a schedule of rising and rest, can structure out the work needed to work the soil, fertilize, and nourish his crop, and he has the seasons to inform him when it’s time to plant, to reap, to rest. Cain’s life is one we can all appreciate, because it is a life of routine, of normalcy, of comfort. Most of all, Cain does not need to travel for his work…on the contrary…he needs to stay still.

modern nomads and farmers

This is not meant to be a criticism on work that keeps us sedentary or in a routine; there ought to be praise of schedules and routine, especially when it assists our health and our spiritual lives. That being said, there is a challenge in this life that one grows less reliant on God, finds fewer reasons to trust in His power and protection. Sure, we can pray for good crops and good weather, but even the wise farmer saves up for dry spells, and we all learn in this sedentary way of life to be self-reliant and perhaps even lazy in our spiritual lives and our personal growth as human beings.

And so, of all the accolades we read in the Old Testament, the first we hear given to mankind is that Enoch “walked faithfully with God”. Enoch may have not been a shepherd, but I think it’s very likely that this man stepped outside of his comfort zone, trusted God to go on some sort of adventure, and through this journey grew closer to God and grew as an individual. Enoch is remarkable not for winning any outstanding battles, not for appearing a certain way, not for having a certain amount of offspring or wealth. Enoch stands out merely because he walked faithfully with God.

To close, we can’t forget about the “faithful” adjective here. Faith carries a connotation of conviction and reliability at the same time. When someone is “faithful” to a spouse, they come through on their vow to their spouse, they invest in that union, they do not compartmentalize that person to specific times or needs. Enoch examples the spousal relationship we are meant to have with God as “co-yoked,” a relationship that requires of both parties to lean on the other, to come through on their part, and to stick it through even when the going gets tough. More over, like any good relationship, it does not become comfortable in the routine. Any good relationship will require effort to keep things “exciting” or “fresh.” This too is where the kinetic nature of Enoch’s life is important: we do not sit or stand in stasis with our loved one, but rather walk, move, try new things, and learn to trust the other along the way.

Some things to consider today:

  • Which parts of my life are sedentary or comfortable? Are those aspects necessary to remain as such?
  • What parts of my life invite growth or newness? How have they changed me?
  • What adventure or travel would I find edifying to partake in?
  • What venture or goal could I set for myself to bring some life, some movement, some growth into myself?
  • What relationships could use some more “movement” or trust?