A Vile Torrent: Gulliver #4

If you are following along in the Summer Read, this post assumes you’ve finished Chapter V of Gulliver’s Travels. If you happen to be reading the kiddos’ version, it would help if you’ve read through pg. 37.

On Pace

Despite the extensive vocabulary and the centuries-wide gap in manners of speech, I’m still enjoying Gulliver. I am excited to serve as family narrator for the summer, reading the nerd version aloud to my wife and the kiddos version to our four young ones. At different points, I’ve caught everyone in the family laughing, even our littlest. All along, everyone has listened intently and stayed on board to at least have an understanding of the story. I hope you’ve found a sense of enjoyment in the book as well.

I’ve also enjoyed reading quite slowly. I’m often one to swallow a book quickly, which can have its benefits. But there is a wonderful delight in chewing on the chapters for awhile in order to let them smack me around a bit. If, as Swift has said, truth convicts, then we must let truth speak no matter where we find it!

On Making Water

Mr. Gulliver is not shy about sharing stories involving bodily functions. In fact, they provide some of the lighter moments in his Travels thus far. As I considered the event of the flames in the royal palace (and the unorthodox effort to extinguish), I was again drawn to consider the incident from multiple perspectives.

With the palace on fire, Gulliver used the only viable resource available. He considered it lucky, in fact, to have such an opportunity. And so naturally he availed himself, though I’m pretty sure it would take a Gulliver-sized bladder on a Lilliputian for the effort to have lasted a full three minutes. In any case, the flames were out, the mission accomplished, and the day sufficiently saved.

Despite the preservation of the palace – with a lingering funk – the people are unsure of the method employed by the Man Mountain. Gulliver himself worries that the Emperor will resent his actions. In the end, though Gulliver receives a pardon for the crime (punishable by death!), the Empress chooses to move across the grounds rather than live near such a vile act. She distances herself from the offensive action rather than see (or smell) the effects. Gulliver’s time on the island has taken a turn for the less comfortable. It would seem as though, on a certain level, the royal family might have preferred their home to burn than to be saved in such a manner. Imagine the horror of the scene through the eyes of one 1/12th the size of the giant!

Perspective.

As the footnotes declare, the palace fire is possibly a reference to Queen Anne’s hesitation to elevate Swift in the Anglican church because of his occasionally crude and impious way of telling stories. (Go figure!) If this is the case, then the goal is to join Swift in his smarmy satire and view the situation through the cynical eyes of the author. Maybe we’re supposed to see the whole situation as ridiculous and cheer as the overconfident Lilliputians get theirs. But there is a strange draw in the story that leaves me sympathetic to the Lilliputians as well. I am curious, this time around in reading the book, if I’m drawn to the inhabitants of the other lands as much as I am this first bunch.

Taking the Lilliputian perspective, then, I can’t help but think of sovereignty and blood.

Really, Bob?

Really.

I cannot count the number of times in my life I’ve heard or been asked, why would a good God _________? The question is posed as a response to doubt and pain. If I may toy with the notion of our current chapter, though, I would propose that often times providence feels like the vile torrent of Swift’s Chapter V. Caught within the circumstance, with a perspective far too small and marred by sin, it might appear that we are being defiled in the hands of a irrational God. As a result, we respond in a manner not unlike the Empress… disgust and distance. We stay away from the pain, away from the damage, away from the redeeming quality, because to face the damage is to possibly face the uncomfortable means by which we received care.

Could it be that God might work through pain – not only by passively allowing it, but also by actively ordaining it as his agent in this cursed world – in order to bring the greatest redemption? To be quite honest, sometimes our palaces need a little “made water” in order to let go of them as a means of ultimate security. The irony of Swift’s beef with the Queen is that in what seems like taking out his frustration through a tale of filthy firefighting, he was illustrating the point he may have failed to believe… that sometimes the vile torrent is a means of grace. Setback and pain are warning signs that something is amiss, and a clear signal that our eyes may be fixed on the wrong mighty fortress.

I think of biblical redemption and what is often considered the vile torrent that brings peace – blood. And this all in the name of supreme love? For those who cannot bring themselves to find comfort in the bloody reality of salvation, typified in animal sacrifice and fulfilled in the cross of Christ, they too respond with disgust and distance. Yet it is the disgusting and vile blood that saves. At the risk of sounding irreverent in the face of a story such as the palace fire, there is something very real to consider… God’s ordained means of saving have rarely if ever resembled the expected. And to be quite honest, if we’re not willing to embrace mystery in humility, his means are often downright difficult.

I don’t want to press to far in aligning Gulliver with God in the story. I don’t believe that to be the point. But I can’t help but see the parallels when the so-small-yet-so-puffed-up race encounter the giant beyond their comprehension. I don’t see God in Gulliver as much as I see myself in the Lilliputians.

 

“… For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.” (2Corinthians 1:8b-9 ESV)

“So to keep me from being too elated by the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” (2Corinthians 12:7-9 ESV)

 

 

 

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The Man-Mountain: Gulliver #3

If you are following along in the Summer Read, this post was born of Chapters I-III of Gulliver’s Travels. If you happen to be reading the kiddos’ version, it would help if you’ve read through pg. 27.

On Selecting Your Shoes

Rather than combine two ideas into a single post, I’ve opted to post twice this week, figuring maybe one would bless you. Reading can be such a chore. 😉

Throughout Gulliver, we as readers face the task of deciding whose shoes we are to wear in the moment. Gulliver provides the primary perspective. As literary historian Pat Rogers noted in an essay, it is curious that the one item Gulliver would not give up to the Lilliputians was his pair of spectacles. He is prepared to give up “his money, his watch, his guns, his razor, his handkerchief, his knife and even his ‘Journal Book.’ Rogers contrasts this to Robinson Crusoe, who saw no value in those things which helped him maintain perspective. To Gulliver, sight is critical, so it is easy enough to read the story and become Gulliver.

However, as Swift’s task seemed to be drawing out the absurdities of others through observation, it is helpful to assume the role of the Lilliputians, even if we are slightly taller than six inches. It is in the notion of the little people that we often find curiosity and conviction. Rather than reading with a finger pointed, it is sometimes helpful to read with a mirror.

 

On Control

The contract between Gulliver and the Lilliputians struck me, particularly from the vantage point of the smaller folk. As I considered the terms of the agreement, I found myself asking, If I knew someone HUGE, what would I require of them in order to keep them in my life? What would be the boundaries? 

Gulliver’s terms, in very brief:

  1. The Man-Mountain cannot leave without permission.
  2. The Man-Mountain cannot come too close without permission.
  3. The Man-Mountain cannot interfere with infrastructure.
  4. The Man-Mountain must not trample.
  5. The Man-Mountain must serve as a delivery system.
  6. The Man-Mountain must fight for the Lilliputians.
  7. The Man-Mountain must provide labor.
  8. The Man-Mountain must pursue and share knowledge.
  9. If he complies, we will provide for the Man-Mountain.

By virtue of Gulliver’s size he is “dangerous.” Apart from his exhaustion following the shipwreck and/or the Lilliputian’s deception involving a questionable drink, he cannot be controlled. He submits to their requests in his benevolence. But even in gentleness, there are still aspects of his person that they cannot comprehend or handle.

Perhaps these terms make sense when their knowledge of such a being is limited. The Lilliputians had received glimpses of Gulliver’s kindness, but they had not the time nor the evidence to completely trust him. Their time had been consumed cleaning up, restoring self-determined order to a world invaded by such a presence. In their ignorance, their primary interest was control. They saw the potential of having such a Man-Mountain on their side, but they could not surrender sovereignty. Instead, they chose to deliver terms of surrender to a being whom they so precisely calculated would contain 1724 of their own.

In a moment, I am prone to look at the Lilliputians demands and think them silly. Did you laugh there as well? Walk through the terms of the contract, though, replacing Man-Mountain with God, and the mirror falls firmly into place. I’m not so foolish as to see deep parallels between Captain Gulliver and the Creator, but rather in this instance I choose to put on the shoes of a Lilliputian and ask myself a few questions. I ask myself when I’ve treated the Sovereign King in similar fashion. Granted, we aren’t as likely to do so through a written contract, but through our behavior, we often make similar requests.

Don’t leave me, but don’t get too close.
Help me, but only when I ask.
Serve me, and I will serve you.

Sometimes it feels as though we have to clean up the mess of having God around – explaining his actions, questioning his motives in the events of the past and the minutiae of everyday living. In our ignorance, we choose to live under the illusion of control. We extend the contract in foolishness, expecting the Sovereign of the universe to surrender to our terms.

The trouble is, if God is God, that means we are not. His terms, not ours. His sovereignty, not ours. His glory, not ours.

In the gospel, though, God has given us a lens through which to view all of his actions, a filter through which we understand all of his words. What might seem a mess without the cross becomes quite clear in light of such amazing love. He has given us the ultimate act of sacrifice as the linchpin to our own existence. He gave his only Son to die in our place, suffering a fate our sin deserves, offering the life he earned in perfect obedience, so that we could find redemption in him. And with that redemption comes surrender, mediated by the Son of God – Jesus. We tear up the feeble contract we might contrive and live to know God on his terms – through the person and work of his Son as revealed in the Bible. The “terms” are found in the story of Scripture. We leave our ignorance in the past and seek first his kingdom and his righteousness. Love demands as much.

 

 

Tune in next week! Until then, press on and enjoy!

 

 

Cru @ SRU : Ask Anything Night

I am excited to have had the opportunity to sit on the panel last night (Thursday, March 31, 2016) for Cru’s Ask Anything Night on the campus of Slippery Rock University. The evening was quite encouraging to me. I appreciate honest reflection and an atmosphere that welcomes discussion, so I was glad to take part. At the event, students were able to text questions to be addressed by a panel of four believers. The evening was only an hour, the texts were numerous, which means many were not answered ‘live’. Even with the invitation to face-to-face conversation afterwards, we just couldn’t tackle them all. As such, there is a heaping pile of text messages on my phone – questions asked by college students about the nature of God from a variety of perspectives. I thought I’d take the time to post the answers here for two reasons:

  1. I am not exactly adept at texting long answers. I struggle not seeing the whole answer in front of me, and I struggle with typing – even with swipe.
  2. I thought many if not most might like to see some of the questions, and ponder some of my proposed answers.

If I’ve answered YOUR question here, know that I am still available for extended conversation. I welcome the possibilities! But I wanted this to be a starting point and a resource for you (maybe even for me!). I’m not pouring hours into the aesthetics of these posts, just aiming to answer honestly the questions I’ve received.

Finally, know that I could not possibly exhaust the full possibility of every answer to the 40 individuals and nearly 100 questions currently on my phone. However, I will attempt to draw from every topic covered with at least a nugget of my feeble understanding. Without further delay, here we go:

 

Why is God portrayed as having much more wrath in the Old Testament than Jesus does in the New Testament? For example, God destroyed the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah for not having any righteous people… why didn’t he try to save the sinners of Sodom and Gomorrah instead of passing judgment on them and destroying the city? 

I’ll offer thoughts in two parts for this. First, with regard to the perceived different portrayal of God’s character in the Old and the New Testaments, I might point you to Hebrews 1:1-3. If you want to see the fullness of the revelation of God’s character, you look no further than the person and work of Jesus Christ. Admittedly, it is not particularly easy to understand every decision God has made throughout history, but he is best understood by the fullest expression of his nature – that being the person of his son with the work of his cross. Justice and mercy converge at the cross. In an instant, God was both pouring out wrath and extending grace to undeserving sinners. That is the perfect imprint of his nature.

Jesus experienced the fullness of God’s wrath – something not even Sodom & Gomorrah tasted. And for that, I would argue the New Testament contains the fullest portrayal of separation and punishment. However, the shadows of the Old Testament – real life events that reveal the character and nature of our Creator – serve to foreshadow the depth of the deserved penalty for sin. But temporal pain does not carry the same gravity as eternal separation. In addition, S&G demonstrate the breadth of sin AND the depth of mercy, as God was willing/wanting to spare the entire city for even 10 righteous.

A fair look at the Old and New Testaments reveal every aspect of God’s character which we are capable of ingesting. His mercy is as great as his wrath in all of Scripture. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are portrayed as the embodiment of every divine attribute – whether we like them or not. His character is quite consistent, but we are prone to hang on the stories we don’t like and/or don’t understand. As an extension, might I suggest this thought: In Scripture, we have received that which we require to find the truth of God unto salvation in Christ. We do not have every tangible aspect of the story (we so rarely do in this broken life!), and so we do not fully understand. We have been given the story in order to seek the truth – and in this case we find the truth of the severity of sin, of the justice of God, of the desire for mercy, and the provision for the redeemed (Lot!). We cannot presume to understand the entirety of the story or the eternal implications for every human life, but we can learn from what God has revealed and preserved as true. His desire is for us to see and trust his son, not to become omniscient ourselves.

 

How can God be benevolent, all knowing, and all powerful, but there still be unnecessary evil in the world? 

We talked at the event about the danger of definitions. In this case, I stick on the word unnecessary. I’ll ask a question: what if God granted Adam the freedom to choose evil? And what if, by choosing evil, Adam was introducing a depth of depravity that he could not have foreseen, but against which God issued a stern warning? What if God, despite man’s decision to rebel and choose evil over love, decided to carry out a plan of redemption that would ultimately quench and defeat evil and all of its consequences because he knew that an eternity won by love would outweigh the pain it would take to get there? I would call that benevolent, all knowing, and all powerful. In light of what has happened, then, I might ask what a necessary level of evil would entail? At every exposure, we would ask for less, yet the consequence of our sin is far greater.

Why would he wait thousands of years to redeem a nation/family from slavery, only then to wait over one thousand more to bring into the world his incarnate son through that nation/family, only then to have his perfect sinless son die in order to pay the required penalty of justice, only then to wait two thousand years more while people turn to him in faith? Why is a difficult question. But let me ask, what would you call a god who does only what you agree with, only at a level you can understand, using means that only you might produce? I would call him no god at all, but rather an extension of broken human thought. There is comfort in the mystery of God when the fullness of his revelation demonstrates that he has in fact, in utter love – yet without compromising holiness or justice – provided a solution that enables eternal bliss, albeit only after a lifetime of enduring the messy world we’ve created.

 

What happens to people living in 3rd world countries where they are unable to hear the gospel? What about people never given the opportunity to hear about the Son, if he is the only way? 

I have to be honest, this question breaks my heart. The Scriptures are indeed clear that the only way to the Father is through the Son. And as Paul said in Romans 10, how will they know if they’ve not heard? And how will they hear if no one goes to tell them? This question underscores the desperate need for Christian mission. There are countless stories of missionaries giving up their lives in order to pursue the Great Commission to tell the world. I read a book about Dr. Robert Foster this year – an amazing story of faith, hope, and love. And there was fruit of such a mission, but there are so many who need to hear. The encouragement of Revelation 7 is that every nation, all tribes and peoples and languages will stand before the Throne in praise of God – the Great Commission will succeed!

But in the interim, what about those who fail to hear? The truth of Scripture is devastating. Creation itself is enough to reveal the fact that God exists and is worthy of praise. (Romans 1), but creation is only enough to condemn, for creation cannot redeem. Only the gospel of God’s kingdom in Christ can redeem. The gospel must be received by grace through faith. The gospel must awaken repentance in the sinner. There is no way around this truth in God’s word. I have heard many stories of the Lord visiting remote villages through dreams and visions. I have heard stories of faith that give me hope that no one is beyond the reach of God should he reveal himself in such a way. But because we are called to participate, I believe our emphasis must be on praying, equipping, sending, and going – leaning on his everlasting arms. God has revealed himself to be good, and I believe he will be vindicated when our faith becomes sight. Yet until that day, we must weep and pray that many would come to Jesus.

 

Do you feel that God has abandoned us? Considering he is omniscient, why would he allow Adam and Eve to fail in the garden of Eden? 

I’ll give two thoughts. No, I do not believe he has abandoned us. He has provided for us two great gifts. First, he has given us the gift of his son – God in flesh, walking the earth, revealing perfect obedience and dying sacrificially to save sinners deserving of torment. Second, he has given us the gift of a written word. Think about it – an incomprehensible being has accommodated lowly rebellious creatures in order to be certain that the message of his grace, mercy, and love, is within the grasp of our darkened understanding through a written word. God who, were we to see the fullness of his glory, would consume us has made a way that we can know him intimately. Far from abandonment, God has given us every means and reason to embrace him.

Why would he allow Adam and Eve to fail? Again, asking why can evaporate our sanity. Perhaps a more interesting question is, why would he create at all knowing we would fall if given the choice? What I believe is that he is best glorified in his loving rescue of creatures who chose to be enemies rather than friends. I can’t answer why that is true, but I believe it to be true. He was so moved to share love and relationship that all this mess must be worth it. And if he believes so, and is willing to sacrifice deeply to enact a blessing, I am inclined to think he knows what he is doing.

 

Do you believe that everything happens for a reason? 

Yes. The world is not a random place. God has revealed himself to be sovereign. And sovereign means sovereign. This means nothing happens apart from his knowing. If God is sovereign, this means even if he allows something to happen, by virtue of withholding his sovereign hand, he is in fact exercising dominion over the moment. This makes people uncomfortable. At times, this makes me uncomfortable. Yet the glorious mystery is that God’s sovereign hand in no way removes the responsibility of every man, woman, and child for the consequences of their actions. In Scripture, God is revealed to be at work in the most devastating of moments, in fact bringing about the most glorious redemption. (Genesis 50:20, Acts 4:28)

The truth of God’s sovereignty is that he is not obligated to explain his motives or the full implications of every occurrence. But by showing through his word his benevolence and his unyielding drive to bring about good in the life of the believer by bringing glory to his son, he opens the door for us to trust his intentions in the strangest and most difficult trials.

Understanding God to be sovereign does not guarantee our comfort in every moment. BUT…

Understanding God to be sovereign means we can view every moment as an opportunity to draw near to him, to grow in wisdom, to grow in faith by virtue of our surrender to his gracious hand.

 

Look for more posts as I am able in the coming days!