I have often wrestled God down by the river…and everywhere else. There was a time in my life where I wasn’t sure He was there. Truth be told, I hoped He wasn’t anywhere at all. A great deal of my inner conflicts would be resolved or put at rest if I could be certain there was no God.
Those conflicts revolved around two main centers of angst: the “gotcha” nature of the church I knew and the difficulties I had with scripture. I was also concerned about the problem of pain but, frankly, that was a minor issue compared to the others. It didn’t matter why there was evil if God had made religion so slippery and difficult that it was impossible to escape evil and make it to heaven. And if the book we had was unreliable…what was the point of even trying to find God?
Please note: I don’t think the Bible is unreliable…but I did back then. Why? The different rules about slaves that seemed to change from chapter to chapter; the different views of the Moabites that differed according to which section of which book you were reading; the lack of historical (re: archaeological) evidence for a forty-year sojourn in the desert by upwards of a million refugees…you get the idea. Reading the Books of Kings and then the Books of Chronicles made my head swim at the different take on the same stories. I needed relief. I needed help.
I can remember telling my wife that I was done reading books about the Bible and I was done reading scriptures here, there and everywhere. I was going to do something different: I was going to read the Gospels over and over for six months. I still had to read my scientific journals and books and I wouldn’t mind reading a newspaper or two but when it came to religion it was going to be the Gospels and the Gospels only. In retrospect, I can see the hand of God in that idea/decision but at the time I had no real explanation for it.
Fast forward six months later: I told my wife I would be willing to follow that man (Jesus) to hell and back. I had fallen in love — and in like — with him. He amazed me, the way he treated women and stood up for them, the way he stepped in to touch a leper or engage a Samaritan woman, and the way he would stop what he was doing, step off the road, and speak to a blind beggar. Reading the Gospels like that, taking time to enter each story, visualize it over and over, and allowing the words to sink into me helped solidify my eternal membership in the Jesus club. I was pro-Jesus and that meant I was pro-God since he said they were “one.” Later, I would read Hebrews and see it confirmed: Jesus is what God looks like, sounds like, and acts like. And that was good news. That was Gospel.
No longer was religion a “gotcha” where you had to worship with precision according to an unwritten but required liturgical pattern (some said it WAS written but grabbed it here and there in scattered books and contexts like some sort of desperately difficult but important scavenger hunt). You could follow Jesus and not “get” that we shouldn’t use instruments in worship or that you could reduce the Lord’s Supper into a Sunday only minimal contact snack. It wasn’t about the liturgy or pattern but about the person.
But what about my questions about the Old Testament? Let me stress here that I am not a scholar and that some of my friends can write hundreds of pages testifying that the Old Testament scriptures are perfect matches for the New and that we should embrace them more than we do at present. They’re smart so I’ll take their word for it. Still…those books can confuse and frustrate me. So what do I do? I go back to Luke 9.
In Luke 9:28-36 we see the story of the Transfiguration. To me, this is one of the most important events in history and the lesson we are to get from it is one of the best bits of advice God ever gave us (Yes, it was a command. Please, knees, do not jerk). Jesus is praying and his best friends are with him but, once again, they are sleepy. I appreciate God letting us know that even the apostles could get sleepy during long prayers. That’s good news. Anyway, Jesus’ appearance changes and the thin curtain between our world and the real world becomes “see through” for a time. There are now three people where there was one; Moses and Elijah have joined Jesus to speak to him about the death he was about to go through – or “accomplish” as some versions put it. This wakes the apostles up! They are excited, minds blown. This is their entire Marvel comics universe come to life in front of them. For a Jewish boy/man there was nothing better than Moses and Elijah stories and being like one of them was every man’s goal.
Peter wants to build a place of honor for each of the three of them (altars or tents according to version). This wasn’t meant as an insult to Jesus but as a compliment; he was elevating Jesus to the stature of the nation’s/faith’s highest heroes! But then the cloud came in…
At this point, I recommend you go back to Ezekiel chapter one or the accounts of the dedication of the temple and read about those clouds and what they meant. Here comes God complete with his honor guard – seraphs, cherubs, creatures of heaven. In fact, if you really want to “get” Luke 9, go to Ezekiel one and read verses 4-28 out loud as quickly as you can with emotion and awe. Then come back and see what happened when that cloud hit the area where Jesus and his three best friends were gathered. God interrupts Peter’s excited statements with “This is my Son. Listen to him.”
I sometimes have to focus and just listen to Jesus, look at Jesus. Jesus warned us that if our eye didn’t focus we would go dark (Matthew 6:22). We’d best focus on the right thing/person.
Hi, my name is Patrick, and sometimes the Old Testament confuses or upsets me. I hallow it. I honor it. I read it. And I plan to continue to wrestle with it…but when it gets too much for me or threatens to bog me down I go back and listen to Jesus. I read his stories. I reconnect with him.
Hi, my name is Patrick, and sometimes Paul confuses or upsets me. I was recently at Pepperdine for the Bible Lectures and saw NT Wright. He wrote about 1700pgs on Paul and his writings. If it takes Tom that many pages to describe and explain what Paul said and meant ,maybe I can be forgiven for shaking my head from time to time and saying “whaaa?” By the way, others have written even more books with many pages to say NT Wright was wrong about this or that portion of Paul’s teaching. Whew. In my tribe, we often scour Paul’s writings in search of laws, requirements, and boundary lines. Predictably, we clash with each other over what is what. When that happens, I go back to Jesus and read Jesus stories.
For it is Jesus who is The Way, The Truth, and The Life. No one comes to the Father except by him. I don’t know why I set out to read the Gospels over and over for six months but I’m glad I did. I met Jesus there in a way I’d never met him in sermons or Bible classes. I know him now through the Gospels. They saved my life. I learned his voice. While I’m still a difficult sheep, at least I know the shepherd.