Jonathan Martin

All my favorite words are dying.


I look around and see all these words falling—crashing out of orbit around my head.  I have loved these words lustily, but I have not been greedy with them.  They are all I have, since I cannot make anything with my hands like a useful person.  I cannot build anything with brick and stone that can outlive me.  I cannot make anything tactile anyone can hold or feel, anything rough or smooth or with any texture at all.


Yet, I distribute these words like a street vendor to anyone who will take them.  I have rarely sold them.  They are cheap and they are easy to shape.  I give them forms like balloon animals, some in the shape of sermons, some in the shape of books, in the shape of small talk, in the shape of 140 characters or less.  I spit on them, sweat on them, bleed on them, cry on them.  I give some away too recklessly and some far too cautiously. 


I assign them to different people for different purposes; I assign them with meaning. I cast them off, I let them go, I watch them fall.


I do not expect them to be immortal.  I do not think they need to outlive me.  Yet. I cannot help but feel a pang of sadness, because all of my favorite words are dying.  So many of them have not been written in greeting cards or recorded into microphones or tucked away in files.  These undocumented words were the ones that meant the most, the words that most embodied my hope and love and fear.  For a few moments, they contained my soul.  Ever so briefly, they contained me—they were how I existed. 


And then as quickly as they came into existence—they evaporated.  Cleared out at the end of the day along with the garbage.  I do not know where they went or how to get them back.  I cannot remember the ones I loved the most, much less resuscitate them. 


An artist paints thousands of pieces; the masterpieces endure and the lesser works are forgotten.  The best of them left behind for someone to admire.   But I am no artist and I am no architect—so much of the work I feel most deeply about does not live on; the mediocre ones do.  I do not wish to make too much of this, but you must understand my sorry state of affairs—all my favorite words are dying, and no one will ever see them again.


The New Testament says that “Every idle word will be subject to judgment,” so I assume the idle ones may live long enough and travel far enough to arrive unharmed on judgment day.  The words I love the most are not idle at all, yet I do not think they have the velocity to get them very far. 


What of these non-idle words that most embodied my heart—but died so young and could not grow?  What about all of the life and love in them?  Is there any chance they could not all be scrubbed at the end of the day, and some of them might make it to Kingdom Come, too?


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On beauty, love and transfiguration.

“Love does not alter the beloved, it alters itself.”

Soren Kierkegaard

The most beautiful thing a person will ever see may well also be the most terrifying.

Is this not the nature of true beauty?  To not just be soft and delicate, but to be so powerful, so overwhelming, so altogether other from ourselves as to threaten?  Beauty does not intimidate, but it can overpower.  Beauty is a coup to our senses.  It holds an unruly power over us.  Beauty can move us, haunt us, carry us, compel us.  To feel ourselves beholden to the raw power of something beautiful is to be upended, not just inspired but assaulted.

And so it is for Peter, James and John, having already spent years eating and sleeping and traveling with Jesus, when they stumbled into the most beautiful and terrifying moment of their lives:

Luke 9.28-36

28 Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. 29And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. 30Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. 31They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. 32Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. 33Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, ‘Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah’—not knowing what he said. 34While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. 35Then from the cloud came a voice that said, ‘This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!’ 36When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.

The activity itself had no doubt become quite common for these disciples who walked so closely with Jesus–to go to the mountain to pray.  And yet all of a sudden this familiar scene and familiar activity transformed into something else, and the Jesus they had shared so many meals and so much laughter with in a moment became something else to them.  Now the very human Jesus is revealed in all of His Sinai glory, the same bright, cataclysmic terror the people of God experienced on their own sacred mountain.  It’s a new Sinai–Jesus is even talking to the Sinai prophet Moses.  Like Moses, they behold the glory of God.  The appearance of Jesus changes, His clothes are dazzling white.  Like the Israelites of old, they are terrified by what they see when they are overshadowed by the cloud–mysteriously, when they “enter the cloud.”  

This scene is of course called “The transfiguration.”  It’s an interesting word.  By technical definition, it is “to transform into something more beautiful or elevated.”  And yet I wonder how well the word fits the description of the scene.  There is no question that they see Jesus in a more beautiful, elevated form.  But did Jesus change?  To transfigure is to transform, to transmute, to be modified, to metamorphose.  But the text doesn’t say that Jesus Himself is transformed.  It is not Christ that is transfigured but the appearance of Christ: “the appearance of his face changed.”  

It is not Jesus that is changed here, only the appearance of Jesus.  He does not become anything or anyone different than what He had always been.  He is exactly who He has always been–the Word made flesh.  He is not anymore holy, anymore beautiful, or anymore God than He had ever been.  I wonder if that is part of the terror of the experience for Peter, James and John–that this was not a “change” in Jesus, like He suddenly transformed into a werewolf.  This was a revelation of who He was and had always been, a revelation that not only transformed this moment but all the moments they had with Jesus before now.  They now can look back over all the meals and memories and know that the Jesus who had been with them in these mundane moments all along was always this same Sinai God. Surely, this is a moment that not only calls into question their understanding of Jesus in this moment, but causes them to re-narrate every encounter they had with them before the moment came.  

The moment of transfiguration is not the transformation of Jesus, but of Peter, James and John.  He is the same person He has always been, but the grace of transfiguration is that His friends are finally able to see Him for who and what He has been all along.  It is not a transformative experience for Jesus, but for His disciples.  The radiance and brilliant glory that has always been in residence in Jesus is now revealed to them, and it is,thus, they that are transmuted, not Jesus.  

I am fascinated by how close these disciples came to missing the moment altogether.  And for the most natural, mundane, human of reasons: they were sleepy: “32Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him.”  The brightness of the glory of God in Jesus was going to be revealed whether the disciples were aware of it or not.  Jesus would have been talking to Moses and Elijah regardless of whether or not His friends would have been attentive.  But the disciples were ultimately able to witness the astonishing beauty of Jesus in a way that no one else before or after them would share, for one reason and one reason only–as sleepy as they were, they stayed awake.  Perhaps this risk is still with us in any potential moment of transfiguration.  The beauty happens around us whether we are paying attention or not; the splendor of God is revealed whether or not we are looking.  But we will miss it if we are not awake.  

But these disciples didn’t miss the moment; they did stay awake.  These are men who would go on to be known as great evangelists who would proclaim the beauty of Jesus to the world.  These are they who will speak about Jesus with great boldness in the book of Acts and beyond.  But not here, not after this.  They had never seen anything so beautiful, but they had never seen anything so terrifying.  Here is how we know that the glory of Jesus revealed on this mountain was unlike anything else we have seen in the gospels: instead of feeling compelled to run and tell, as so many people do after an encounter with Jesus, they are silent.  Their experience was so profound that to even assign words to it would be to cage it, constrain it, restrict it.  It was an experience that defied the reductionism of human speech, an experience that could not be bent to the natural constriction of language.  

There are times when we see something beautiful that compels us to run and tell what we have seen.  And then there are some experiences of beauty so terrifying–the unique terror of seeing the wonder of the one that we behold for who and what they have always been–that leave us without words: “And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.”  The beauty they saw in that moment was too sacred and the moment too reverent to tell anyone what they had seen and felt.  It was a private revelation; it was an intimate revelation.  It was a private revelation that did not leave open the possibility of “kiss and tell.”  When you see beauty like that, the beauty itself is too overwhelming to care about how you might tell of it.  The only appropriate response is to keep silent.

The relationship between the transfiguration and beauty becomes instructive to us, then, on a couple of levels: one, the grace we need so often is not that of a new miracle, but the gift of recognition.  Like the disciples on the road to Emmaus who recognize Jesus when He breaks the bread, like Mary Magdalene when Jesus calls her name in the garden just after the resurrection.  Since the ascension of Jesus, the whole world is now charged with the beauty of the resurrected Jesus, if our eyes are open to see Him.

Secondly, this is not just how God reveals His beauty and goodness in the incarnation of Jesus, but in the gift of each other as well.  Whenever we have an experience of authentic love, we are transfigured.  The object of our affection and delight is in no need of changing–beauty is not just in the eye of the beholder.  Objectively speaking, the beauty of God is already present in our beloved, whether we recognize it or not.  Rather, when we encounter beauty in another person, we are changed–we are transfigured.  Hence, the Kierkegaard quote I began with, “Love does not alter the beloved, it alters itself.”  They do not become beautiful because we recognize their beauty; rather their beauty makes us beautiful. 

If we are awake and attentive, God in His grace allows us to see glimpses of His beauty and glory in the people around us.  When we see the glory of a human being fully alive, we cannot un-see them again…not because they have changed, but because they have changed us.  And when we understand God as the source of that which is beautiful in them, their beauty does not compete with the glory of God, but instead reveals it. 

Indeed, God has given us so many beautiful reasons to stay awake.

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Feeling at home in my smallness.

Sometimes, I go all David Copperfield on myself, put on a low-rent bourgeois magic show, and convince myself that I am larger than life.  And, of course, no one is larger than life.  I am a small collection of particles, carefully ordered, wandering around in desperate need of air, water, sleep, warmth and tenderness.  I do not run very many things nor understand very much.  I have not successfully figured myself out, much less God, life and the world.

But because I am so prone to buy into my own little act, I need the gift of mountains and sea to protest my disproportionate sense of scale, to make me feel smaller and less necessary.  Like Job, I need to be reminded of mountain goats and sea monsters to help me get my place in the cosmos.

There is so much weight assigned to us to be special, to be unique, to distinguish ourselves.  There is a great deal of pressure to be “great.”  But what if, today, I want to enjoy my status as my Father’s awkward, backward son, absurdly treasured and irrationally loved?

Religious leaders want to help me find “meaning” and “purpose.”  In the meantime, I have no idea what I am going to eat for lunch.  I must figure it out very soon — it is almost 11:30am.  How am I supposed to find the meaning of life when I have no idea what kind of sandwich I want today?  To paraphrase Ecclesiastes, who needs meaning when you can have lunch with a friend anyway?

Today, I do not feel like putting on my magician’s hat, waving my wand, and creating illusions of my own significance for you or for myself.  I am content to make my lunch plan, and I am going to get it right.  I am not going to build a platform; I much prefer building sand castles.  I am not going to come up with reasons why I am lovable or why my life has worth.  I’ll be at home in my smallness, at peace with the knowledge that the way I am loved is largely absurd.

You can have your meaning, your purpose, your significance.  I will not feel condescended to if you look at me like I am a useless son, or if you think me half-drunk on my Father’s silly affections.  I am perfectly aware that I did not purchase this coat of many colors, and have no reasons to wear it proud as a peacock.  But I will wear the hell out of it, over-sized luxury on such a small person.

I have no pretensions of greatness. I am a circus act; I am a walking comedy.  I am infinitely ridiculous; I am infinitely loved.

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Embracing mystery. (Why Church leadership can’t always be pragmatic.)

Last week, I was at a church leadership conference.  I thought it was good and helpful, highly pragmatic, and I was glad I went.  I was also embarrassed at how bored I got at times.  As an active Twitter user, I didn’t even find myself inclined to share a lot of quotes.  It was good for me, but kind of in the way that brussel sprouts are good for me.  So then, Monday night, I went to hear Krista Tippett of NPR’s “On Being” lecture on the relationship between science and religion — and I was going bananas.  I felt like all my senses were alive, engaged, and occasionally on fire.  I wanted to tweet every single line.  I devoured the lecture like a starving man.

And I realized that the contrast probably says a lot about me.  I am grateful for people who get into the discipline of “leadership.”  You will know them by their maxims.  God bless them all.  I realize that, as much as I’ve tried to alter myself, I still get bored when people talk about mission statements. (Gasp!) I am moved by beauty in God and in the world, and I preach and write about it.  I am basically hopeless. I don’t play golf, I don’t sit around talking about John Maxwell & Patrick Lencioni books (though I do read them).  I love theology and literature. I am utterly unqualified to be a CEO and don’t try to be one. I don’t think that is superior or inferior; it just is. I love the business-savvy leadership guru pastors! I really do. I just no longer apologize for not being that guy and am okay being this guy.  I’m just saying: for those of you who are drawn more to the beauty of God than leadership maxims, there’s room for us too.

I do not think it is a contradiction to think well about leadership and theology.  What I do think we have to be careful about is the tendency in leadership, proper, to be driven exclusively by pragmatic concerns.  To be clear, I think there are times and places to think pragmatically.  I just think there are a lot of ways in which a life with God is the opposite of pragmatism.  God often does things that do not make sense to us or most anybody else.  A lot of the things I have felt like God has drawn us to do as a congregation in recent years are not pragmatic.  Sacraments, for example, have little “pragmatic” value.  The sacraments always take us deeper into the mysteries of God.  

This is the other way that we must be careful not to be too beholden to pragmatic concerns though.  The more initiated we become in the language of the world, as opposed to our native language of the Christian story, the more tempting it can become to try to reduce the mystery.  In fact I think this is what pragmatic religion often does –reduces mystery.  Monday night, Krista said that scientists often have the sense of beauty and mystery that people in religion often lack these days, and that we need to relearn mystery from the scientists.  What an indictment!  But the more pragmatic we become in our approach to church leadership, the further we get away from mystery.  Knowing God will immerse you in greater mystery, not solve the mysteries for you.  Hence, I don’t know how to package this God, nor how to easily quantify what it’s like to know this wild deity in a way that’s easy to sell.

So, I don’t know how to reconcile with religion that eliminates ambiguity, when I find knowing God often heightens and deepens it.  It is true that the road to faith in Jesus as Lord will mean that some things about our lives will move from ambiguity to clarity.  But I also find it true that the road to faith will be just as much about unlearning and will largely be a move from certainty to uncertainty, if it is indeed Christian faith.

When pragmatic leadership drives Christian communities, the end result is always the same: we tell people, “Here are the things you’ve always wanted to be and to do…follow Jesus and He will help you be successful at these things.”  Jesus becomes a means for people to get better/be better at something. Ironically, people who are “failures” seem to know Him best.  It is beautiful, but it is messy, counter-intuitive, and largely not pragmatic.

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why what we say about women in ministry matters.

At Renovatus, we are in the middle of a series called Seen: Jesus through the eyes of women in the gospels.  A couple of weeks ago, I got an e-mail from a young woman in seminary thanking us for the series that I just haven’t been able to get over — it brought me to tears.  I am extremely passionate about women in ministry, having been greatly shaped by some amazing women of God in my own life.  And this letter just fired me up all over again as to how much is at stake in these matters.  Of course, I am grateful that the Holy Spirit used these messages to encourage her, but at the same time I’m incredulous that women with a strong sense of calling still have to endure this kind of resistance in order to pursue ministry.  I have more to say about all of this (as usual), but for now just wanted to pass along the letter for you to read her first person account of what it has meant for her to press forward in her call in the midst of such opposition.

For obvious reasons, I have not included her name or any details about the seminary she attends, though I did obtain her permission to publish the letter.  The only agenda I have in publishing this is that I feel like I meet a lot of leaders who share my convictions on these issues, but who do not feel like they can share their views publicly.  I want to encourage you to step up to the plate for your mothers, daughters and sisters in the Lord when you get the chance — it really can make a difference.

I just had to send an e-mail to express the amazing, overwhelming gratitude I have for Jonathan, and the Renovatus community.  I am writing all the way from _____ where God has used Jonathan to encourage me in one of the lowest and most confusing times of my life.

I attend a very conservative seminary, where my desire to be a youth pastor is called into question because I am a  woman.  It is something I have prayed and wept over, having been raised in a very conservative southern church where my decision to go to seminary was met with intense scrutiny, I had a lot of preconceived notions concerning women in ministry that God has been reworking and, at times, totally obliterating. I met his call into youth ministry with A LOT of resistance, believing that my passion, my love, and my desire must be mistaken, because God didn’t call women into pastoral ministry of any kind.

But Jesus has always been in the business of tearing down boundaries, crossing lines, making the comfortable uncomfortable. And he was making me VERY uncomfortable, bringing writers, people and pastors into my life who loved Jesus and were living out the kingdom unlike anyone I had ever seen. Through these people, through prayer, through reading, through the Holy Spirit working on my soul, I started to think maybe, just maybe, I didn’t have to say “I love high-schoolers, I’m good at talking, living and crying with them…guess I’ll have to marry a youth pastor.” My language began to change, my framework began to change, it shifted from power language and roles to the liberating grace of Christ.

All of this led me to seminary, where I am studying counseling.  I was immediately put in my place, as the pastor who led chapel “prayed for the young men who came to serve the Lord and the women who are learning to walk beside them.” As someone just coming into my views on women in ministry, I was brokenhearted and felt the familiar twinge of guilt.  But I prayed my way through it and have continued to grow and learn so much at my school, and am thankful every day that God brought me there, and facing the constant subtext or footnote on women in ministry forced me to continue to rework my thoughts on it and the Holy Spirit constantly reminded me of his presence and encouraged me.

It was only this past semester when I felt the despair return as I faced a CONSTANT bombardment of sexism and hierarchy. I get along very well with those who hold a different view of women in ministry then myself, having come from that position for so long.  But there has been a recent hateful spitefulness of questioning and doubt in regards to my calling. Friends and family members, who I respect, have called me heretical for reading Rachel Held Evans and for asking the question “well, what if women CAN be pastors.” I have been accused of “leading people away from truth” and failing to be an example “of biblical womanhood” and as “usurping power from men, contributing to an emasculation of men in the church.” I have been pointed to Piper and Driscoll resources which left me feeling belittled and hurt. I felt myself once again slipping back into what was “comfortable,” maybe they were right?

Then, through a blog that led to a blog that led to another blog that contained a link to the Seen sermon series, from a church I had never heard of and from a pastor I have never heard of, I felt such an intense relief and reassurance that I wept.  I listened to Pastor Jonathan, who spoke with so much love and grace that I cried even more, it was such a balm to a heart that had been wounded very deeply over the past few months, a heart that was on the verge of failing.  He spoke with so much respect, and love, there was no chauvinism that condescendingly elevated women while simultaneously putting them down; it was respect that came from seeing and recognizing the inherent dignity in both men and women. His intense intelligence with the most incredible humility, helped speak hope to me when the stings of bitterness were creeping into my heart toward those who had brutalized me with their PhDs and Greek translations.  I have since then listened to all the sermons in the Seen series that are available and am working my way through past series. Pastor Jonathan’s blog has provided the same refreshment that his sermons have.  His blog post on “Why Mark Driscoll Is Wrong About Women in Ministry” was a stirring, beautiful battle cry against the systematic sexism that does not, and CANNOT, exist in the kingdom of Jesus.

I felt like someone out there was believing in me, even if he didn’t know it and even it was in North Carolina.

The Holy Spirit has used Pastor Jonathan and this church to re-energize my heart, to rekindle my excitement for ministry.

So thank you so much for that.  Thank you for speaking to me in a broken time in my life.

Thank you for loving me well.

Thank you for loving me like Jesus.

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On being an ecumenical Pentecostal.

“…that they may be one, as we are one.”  That’s what Jesus prayed in John 17.  The unity of the Church was critical to Jesus, so I figure it should be critical to me.  So I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the one holy catholic church in its Catholic, Protestant, Pentecostal and Eastern Orthodox forms.  All who trust in the death and resurrection of Jesus and proclaim Him as Lord comprise one global family.

This does not mean that I can say that I am “just” a follower of Jesus, of course.  There is no such thing as a context-less Christian.  Every believer participates in the global Church through a particular church in a particular place with particular emphases and a particular tradition (including the tradition of those who despise tradition).  For me that means I’m a Pentecostal Christian, and part of a denomination called the Church of God (Cleveland, TN)—in shorthand, I am a hillbilly Pentecostal.  Being non-denominational or calling myself “just a Christian” would not make me any less of particular Christian in a particular place in a particular tradition.  I don’t think God is so much calling Christians to leave their respective traditions so much as to recognize their temporal, ephemeral nature.  We should, generally speaking, embrace our respective Christian traditions/denominations, just have the good sense to recognize this isn’t what God had in mind and it won’t last long.  In this spirit, we can stay true to the people who marked us but hopefully be humble about it.

Pentecostals of all people should care a lot about the unity of the Church, because we are shaped primarily by the gift of the Holy Spirit poured out on the Church on the day of Pentecost.  The empowering presence of the Holy Spirit is of course the birthright of the whole Church though, and the day of Pentecost is the birthday of the whole Church.  By no means was the Spirit given to validate or set apart one sect of Christian tradition from the rest of the body of Christ, which is where Pentecostals have often gone wrong.  We have distinctive gifts within our tradition we should embrace, but we must do so always aware that the Spirit is given for the unity of the Church and not its division.

The day of Pentecost is the reversal of the curse of Babel; the tongues of Pentecost are the language that unites rather than the language that divides.  Hence it is problematic when Pentecostals create too radical of a distinction between tongues speakers and non-tongues speakers, or turn supernatural phenomena into merit badges.  The task of the Pentecostal tradition is to help the whole Church to discover the ways she is Pentecostal, to help her claim her own native Pentecostalism, not to stand in judgment over her.  A schismatic Pentecostal is a walking contradiction.

My own sense is that the only hope for the unity of the Church is a return to the centrality of the table.  It is the Eucharistic meal that unites us, not just symbolically but actually.  The Lord’s Supper is the sacramental celebration that lies at the heart of Catholic tradition, Lutheran justification, Wesleyan transformation and Pentecostal power.  Christians need not share a common understanding of the nature of communion in order to be united by it.  We need not understand how communion works in order for it to mystically re-member us every time we remember the death and resurrection of Jesus.  It would take nothing less than the body and blood of Jesus Himself to put the bride of Christ back together again, His backwards but beautiful Humpty Dumpty.

There are many reasons I find myself challenging Christians of all traditions to return to the centrality of the table, as we do weekly at our church.  It anchors us experientially in the presence of Christ, for whatever else is different about our respective traditions.  It delivers us from the tyranny of personality (even for those as large as my own) when it is the Lord’s Supper that is the climax of every Christian celebration.  But beyond all of this, it reassembles the Church.  Every time we come to the table, we participate in the prayer of John 17 in our unity, not only within our local Church but within our global one.

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Finding God in the ambiguity.

My assistant Elizabeth was at one time the Public Relations Director at Sea World, prompting me to joke onstage once that it well prepared her to work for me, since there are doubtlessly many similarities between managing me and managing Shamu.  Her husband Dennis, one of my best friends, told me afterward, “Actually, you and Shamu are nothing alike.  There is nothing black and white about you, Pastor.”

It was a truthful observation, and could be a compliment or a criticism, depending on where you sit.  Dennis didn’t mean it as a criticism, but if he did, I’d own up to the truth of it all the same.  It is true: there is nothing black and white about me.  Pastor Tracey says I am the king of nuance.  I paint the world in a palette of grays.  I think many of the most virtuous saints have a lot of ambiguity and complexity in and them, and many of the most notorious sinners have their own kinds of virtues.  (This is why Frederick Buechner’s Godric is one of my favorite novels—such a textured, complicated saint, but a saint, no less!)  I tend to think that the truth, when it is at its most beautiful or when it’s hardest to behold, is almost always more complicated than we think, that easy labels for people are generally failed attempts to reduce them until they make sense to us.

There is, of course, a general movement in culture right now to capture the gray and embrace the ambiguity of our stories.  The trend in television in particular toward shows like Breaking Bad, in which it is almost impossible to sum up anyone entirely as a hero or a villain (as the heroes have their own darkness and the villains have their own moments of humanity), is pervasive.  Some would see this as postmodernity fully grown, a deconstruction of any clear ethics.  Perhaps in some cases that is true, and there are times and ways where the embrace of ambiguity seems to follow all the way down the line to an anything-goes nihilism.  But from where I sit, I tend to just think that ambiguity is most often more truthful.

The interesting thing for me is that I didn’t learn to embrace the ambiguity and complexity from television or contemporary storytelling in any form—I honestly believe I got it from reading the Bible since I was very young. Scripture is as undomesticated as the Spirit who breathed it, and thus is full of tensions that will not and should not be prematurely or easily resolved, if resolved at all.  When the story of your faith is mediated through texts that tell of Jacob, Moses, David, and Peter, and yet bears witness to the reality of God, you will either gloss over the texts or learn to live with a certain amount of tension. (Note: You can always recognize good systematic theologians by their stubborn refusal to seriously engage critical texts that do not fit their tradition or system.)

There are times where I, too, may long for the simplicity of white hats and black hats.  But I would never go back.  I’ve seen too much, in myself, in others, in the world.  For whatever I might miss about simplistic systems, what I don’t miss is the cardboard god I created within them.  That god was a glorified Santa Claus, a referee to enforce karma, the product of my own imagination.  He only existed when I felt good about myself; he stopped existing when I felt bad.

The real God revealed to us in Jesus of Nazareth is the God who is real enough to touch us in our own ambiguity.  When I’m clear or when I’m cloudy, He is no less real, because He does not exist simply to prop up my own limited understanding of how the world is ordered.

Here’s an example of that God in action.  I have a dear friend who had an abortion in her 20s.  She is one of the most powerful women of God that I know.  She grew up in a family where she suffered severe sexual and psychological abuse.  After she became a Christian and married a caring Christian man, she began to experience healing, and eventually would even go into ministry.  But a few years into their marriage, she got pregnant and hit a wall.  The old hurts and insecurities began to wreak havoc in her mind.  She decided she didn’t feel like she could be a good wife, and certainly was not in a place to be a mother.  So for a season, she ran away from her new husband, and without his consent, decided to have an abortion.  Weeks later, when she came out of her season of depression, she was overcome with shame.

They stayed together, and ultimately would even have a thriving ministry.  But she has a remarkable testimony about that dark season of her life:  just before she was about to be wheeled back for the procedure, she says she had a visitation of the Lord.  To this day, she claims it was not a dream, but a physical presence—she says she can still feel His right hand over her heart and His left hand holding hers.  Wordlessly, He comforted her.  That was all.  She did not change her mind; she did not run out of the clinic, screaming.

Looking back, she tells me that if she had not had such a tangible manifestation of God’s presence then, she doesn’t feel like she could have survived the guilt and condemnation she felt later.  She didn’t feel like Jesus somehow affirmed her decision.  Only that He held the hand of His daughter, and stayed with her when fear drove her to this decision she would later regret so bitterly.  That experience did not stop her from having the abortion.  But it would ultimately convince her, when the healing began, that she really was seen and known by Jesus, even in her darkest moments, and yet completely loved.

When I told that story in a sermon a few weeks ago, the room fell silent.  I don’t think it was because the congregation didn’t recognize that as something God would do, but because they knew it was exactly like God, which makes it all the more interesting.  He did not come to condone my friend’s choice.  But He did not come to condemn either.  He came to enter the ambiguity and awfulness of that season of her life, and assure her that His love for her was real, no matter what choices she made.  Doesn’t that just sound like Him?

I would eliminate ambiguity if I could, if not for the fact that I usually find God at work in it.

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the God of the sea and the sea monster.

The sea is beautiful to observe from a distance. But have you ever encountered the wildness of the sea?

Amanda and I went to the island of Kauai a few years ago.  There was a little spot called “secret beach” we hiked to each day.  When we got to the shore, there was a small inlet flanked by a light house to the right.  I had never seen natural beauty quite so moving.  The waves were especially rough there, but I foolishly will attempt to swim in anything.  As I waded out, over and over again the waves would take my 6”5 frame and fling me to the ocean floor like a rag doll.  After taking a few beatings, I finally landed back on the shore with my swim trunks on my head.  This part of the island has had numerous deaths by drowning over the years.  I finally was starting to appreciate not just the beauty but the wildness of the sea.

On the same trip, we traveled to the North Shore of Oahu near where Lost was filmed, and there was another day I swam alone in a rocky area (very smart, I know).  The waters themselves were relatively calm.  But I had the most odd and wonderful experience when I found myself suddenly surrounded by a bale of sea turtles.  I couldn’t believe how enormous they were.  And while, of course, they were beautiful, there was something unnerving about the scene too.  These turtles often live to be 150 years old.  As their heads would bob up out of the water, there was something so prehistoric about them, something that reminded me of how young and small I am in a big sea in a bigger cosmos.  These sea turtles could have swum with Abraham Lincoln for all I know.  I was struck again by the wildness of the sea, its unfathomable depths and creatures and secrets.

I haven’t been back to Hawaii.  But in the last year, I’ve spent a lot of time at sea.

That is not to say I’ve spent a lot of time at the beach.  In antiquity, the sea is representative of chaos, of the uncontained, uncontrolled and unknowable.  The sea is not a place of comfort but a place of unfathomable darkness beyond our imagination.  This is especially true in Jewish literature.  It is the reason, for example, that in Daniel’s dreams the monsters come out of the sea.  It is the reason that Revelation describes a day that is coming in which “there will be no sea”—which at first seems sad for those of us who appreciate the aesthetic beauty of the sea.  The point is not that there will be no waves or sand to enjoy, but that the chaos will finally be domesticated and the unknowable will finally be known.

Between now and then, we live in a world in which there is still very much a wild sea that we are very much subject to.  And while Job talks about the boundaries of the sea God has established, there is also a strange way in which God seems to celebrate the wildness of the sea and even the ancient sea monster Leviathan, which the psalm says God created “to sport in it.”  There is a certain beauty to the sea, even a tranquility, that can be appreciated from a distance.  It is only when we get close enough to be pulled by its tides and overcome by its waves that we understand it is as dangerous as it is beautiful.

The story of Job in particular is of a man who finally has to contend with the sea.  A righteous man, Job lives in a tightly ordered world.  He seems to embody the wisdom of books like Proverbs and Ecclesiastes—Job is the one who does the right thing and flourishes as a result.  Job is the sort of man who thinks he understands something about how the world works, because the world has always worked for him.  That is until the script goes off the rails and he experiences unfathomable loss and suffering.   His friends, easy to vilify, genuinely try to help him when they offer what seems to be legitimate communal wisdom—“Job, everybody knows that the wicked suffer calamity but the righteous prosper.  The only possible explanation is that there is sin in your life you need to repent of.”

But of course Job didn’t have a “sin problem.”  Job was discovering the sea and the sea monster for himself.  More directly, he was discovering the God of the sea.  When God finally starts talking back to Job in Job 40.9-11, He says, “‘Or who shut in the sea with doors
when it burst out from the womb?— 9 when I made the clouds its garment,
and thick darkness its swaddling band, 
10 and prescribed bounds for it, and set bars and doors, 
11 and said, “Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stopped”?  And then in Job 40.16-17:16 ‘Have you entered into the springs of the sea,
or walked in the recesses of the deep? 
17 Have the gates of death been revealed to you,
or have you seen the gates of deep darkness?”

In Job 41, God even celebrates the wildness of Leviathan, the sea monster He has also created.  From Job 41.1-5: “Can you draw out Leviathan with a fish-hook,
or press down its tongue with a cord? 
2 Can you put a rope in its nose,
or pierce its jaw with a hook? 
3 Will it make many supplications to you?
Will it speak soft words to you? 
4 Will it make a covenant with you
to be taken as your servant for ever? 
5 Will you play with it as with a bird,
or will you put it on a leash for your girls?”  God seems not only comfortable with Leviathan, He is playful with it.  Can you imagine this?  The sea monster whispers soft words to God and makes a covenant to serve him…what an evocative section!

What is so disturbing about the book of Job is that it blows the lid off the theology of retribution.  That is that theology that says, If you do good then good things will happen to you; if you do bad then bad things will happen to you.  That is the kind of world we can understand, order, and best of all, control.  When Job encounters the sea, He encounters the chaos and disorder within the creation.  He is presented with an undomesticated God who is not the originator of the chaos, but who does in fact allow it for a time until the creation will be restored to its intended beauty.  There are no tightly ordered systems, there is no guarantee that any created thing will avoid the wildness or even suffering.  Job must learn how to confront a world like that where there are no guarantees, and yet learn to live without fear.  I think here of Frederick Buechner’s beautiful quote: “Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.”

It is understandably disruptive when Job discovers that the world is not as ordered as he thought.  It is disruptive to find out that the secure land Job had built his house on had been an illusion—that he, like all the rest of us, had always been living at sea, a place where beautiful and terrible things happen…seemingly indiscriminately.

Yet when Job is being tossed by the waves, facing the terrible truth that even a life of faithfulness will not be without chaos, he is also on the verge of something wonderful—the reality of a God who blesses indiscriminately.  A God who is not the summation of a system of demerits and rewards, a God who does not exist as an existential Santa to hand out merit badges.  This is the God who will be fully revealed as the Father of Jesus, the One who “makes the sun to shine and the rain to fall on the just and unjust.”  The same waves that took Job down to the depths of the suffering also took him, unwittingly or not, to the brink of the greatest revelation in the history of the world—the revelation of grace.

Gustavo Guttierez’s On Job: God-Talk and the Suffering of the Innocent has a section that picked me up higher than the waves in Kauai and flung me to the ground with my swim trunks again on my head.  I will never forget what it was like to read it for the first time, and it haunts me still:

Inspired by the experience of his own innocence, Job bitterly criticized the theology of temporal retribution as maintained in his day and expounded by his friends. And he was right to do so. But his challenge stopped halfway and, as a result, except at moments when his deep faith and trust in God broke through, he could not escape the dilemma so cogently presented by his friends: if he was innocent, then God was guilty. God subsequently rebuked Job for remaining prisoner of this either-or mentality (see 40:R).

What he should have done was to leap the fence set up around him by this sclerotic theology that is so dangerously close to idolatry, run free in the fields of God’s love, and breathe an unrestricted air like the animals described in God’s argument — animals that humans cannot domesticate. The world outside the fence is the world of gratuitousness; it is there that God dwells and there that God’s friends find a joyous welcome.

The world of retribution — and not of temporal retribution only — is not where God dwells; at most God visits it. The Lord is not prisoner of the “give to me and I will give to you” mentality. Nothing, no human work however valuable, merits grace, for if it did, grace would cease to be grace. This is the heart of the message of the book of Job.

This is the God of the sea, the undomesticated One who is not beholden to any of our systems.  It does not negate the fact that there are negative consequences for some of our choices within the created order and positive consequences for others.  But God Himself does not play by any such rules.  It has never been true that good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people.  It is rather true that we all live at sea where there are forces beyond our control at work that we cannot fathom, much less understand.  What has also been true is that God’s heart toward His creation has always been to show kindness, mercy, tenderness and grace.  It is grace available to all people.  Any and every good thing we ever experience in this life is a gift; any and every good thing is grace.  It has always been grace and grace alone.

When people begin to encounter the undomesticated reality of the sea for themselves, they often get nostalgic for a time in which there was no sea.  I find this especially true when tragedy strikes, and people of faith begin to wax poetically about days when there were not swear words on TV and times were simple and life was easy.  But of course those days never really existed.  The times they get wistful for were also the days of Jim Crow laws and segregation.  If they felt like easy times for some, they certainly weren’t easy times for others.  There have never been “good old days” when there was no sea—there has always been chaos and violence in the world.  And thank God, there has always been grace too.

The theoretical time “before the sea” is a myth.  It never existed.  The sea has always been here, and we’ve always been living on it.  What changed was not the world itself but our understanding of it.  Life didn’t get complicated when it got complicated for you; it was just that we hadn’t lived long enough to recognize the wildness that really had been there all along.

So we can either be nostalgic for a time that never existed and attempt to go back to a place where there was no sea, or we can receive the undomesticity of creation for its diverse gifts.  There are not many guarantees.  But what we can know for certain is that we will feel some hurt and do some hurting.  And that even so, there will be grace.  None of us deserve it, and yet it is poured out in the world on the just and unjust.  The only constant besides the wildness of the sea is the constancy of the One who “makes the sun to shine and the rain to fall on the just and the unjust.”

The only constant is the God who loves, the God who blesses.  His love is the only thing deeper and more unfathomable than the sea.  When we encounter the bottomless mysteries of the sea, the bottomless love of God is more mysterious yet.  The deeper the revelation of the sea in all of its wildness, the deeper revelation of the love that is wilder still. 

It is the constancy of this love — and this alone — that gives us the confidence to continue to face a world that is comprised primarily of seas, and not be paralyzed by its terror or its incomprehensibility. And here, I think Job would give a hearty amen to Buechner: “Here is the world: beautiful and terrible things will happen, don’t be afraid.”

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