The Cowardly, Mighty General [Sunday School Review]

This past Sunday, your kids learned that “God sees the best in us” through the story of Gideon. My co-leader at Smoky Mountain Christian Camp works in this story every year, because it’s exciting and also incredibly encouraging. (Also, she’s really good at telling it and I hope she doesn’t mind me skimming a few sections.)

So Israel, per usual in Judges, is in the pits of a recurring cycle where they disobey God, get conquered, cry out, and finally are rescued. Midian and some other nations have come by to pilfer the Israelites food supplies, and the sheer number of enemies makes fighting back impossible. So the people cry out, and at first, God sends a prophet to remind the people just why this is happening, “You were told to faithfully commit to one God. You disobeyed.”

Immediately, though, the story shifts to a picturesque scene of a cowardly young man hiding in a winepress (dug into the ground) trying to thresh wheat. Threshing wheat is usually done on a hill, with wind, since the wind catches the chaff (the unwanted parts of the wheat) and leaves the grain, which is heavier. So, I imagine Gideon throwing the grain in the air and blowing on it really hard to separate the two parts and getting frustrated at his lack of success. As he’s focused on this task, an angel poofs into material being beside him and startles the heck out of him with an odd greeting.

“Greetings, mighty warrior. The Lord is with you,” said the angel.

Gideon, with as little sarcasm as possible, motions around to where he is and what he’s doing and politely explains that, no, he isn’t a warrior and asks where God has been during all of this pain and suffering. The angel replies that God has heard and is acting now… through Gideon. Gideon stares for a minute, trying to suppress his laughter. Gideon is remarkably self aware, recognizing his own cowardice and how that might be an impediment to waging war. Gideon proposes a test. A belief in the biblical period was that angels would/could not participate in human meals, so Gideon makes an enormous amount of bread and meat and brings it to his guest. As Gideon watches, the whole meal is consumed by fire and the angels poofs out of existence. Stunned, Gideon panics, thinking he’s going to die having seen God. But he’s relieved when God replies, “All is well.” And maybe adding, “Chill, man. You are so uptight.” Maybe. I’m not sure, but occasionally I sense some humor and sarcasm in the way God speaks to his people.

Anyway, Gideon is surprised when God calls him to wage war on Baal, whom some people in his town seem to be worshiping. Gideon is told to tear down Ball’s altar, and the Asherah pole next to it, and build an altar to the One True God and make a sacrifice. Gideon does… but he does it in the dead of night, with a little help from some servants. (Apparently Gideon’s family was loaded.) Anyway, the town is a little on the angry side when they woke up in the morning and obviously someone had let slip who had done the work because the town was crying for Gideon’s blood. Gideon’s dad, Joash, though makes a good point, “Let Baal fight his own battles. Check back in the morning. If Gideon’s dead, then Baal has made his point. Otherwise, maybe you shouldn’t have been bowing to that thing in the first place.”  Gideon survives. God 1, Baal 0.

The Midianite army gathers en mass and seems to be preparing for a raid. God tells Gideon its time to gear up and head out. Gideon asks for some more signs, using a square of fleece and some freaky weather patterns, and finally feels shaky enough to proceed. He gathers up 32,000 men and is ready to fight when God whispers, “That’s too many, tell anyone who’s scared to go home.”

Gideon, feeling a little confident, makes the declaration that anyone who is scared can head on home, God’s got this. And 22,000 men take him up on the offer. Gideon’s jaw drops as he watches over two thirds of his army walk away. He sighs, makes another count and feels much less confident but like this thing is still doable with the 10,000 he has left. God whispers again, “Still too many. Try this, take them down to the river and I’ll sort them out for you.” Gideon has a bad feeling about this, but does what God says.So after they all take a drink, God has sifted out all but 300 of the men Gideon started with.

Interestingly, the Hebrew for why people were chosen or not chosen is open to interpretation, maybe it was because they hadn’t “bent the knee” and worshiped another God, or maybe they were inept/cowardly. Either way, it would seem God sifted out the men who actually knew what they were doing and left Gideon with whatever was left.

After overhearing a dream while scouting out the enemy camp that highly favored Gideon and his men. Gideon explained the plan. “God is going to win this,” explains Gideon, “we’ll have no swords.” The 300 men, who were definitely not Spartans with CGI enhanced pecs and abs, squirmed a little and nodded slowly. “We’re going in dark with torches and trumpets.” The 300 men nodded slowly again, feeling their hearts sink. “When we get into place, we shout, break the jars on our torches and blow the trumpets and God will handle the rest.” One guys raises his hand. “Yes, Elias?”

“So, what happens then?” asks Elias, genuinely puzzled how this one’s going to turn out.

“Well,” said Gideon, “that’s uhm… a… surprise! Yes! God will surprise us!” A few skeptical looks let Gideon know his improvisational skills need work.

Everyone is in place. The signal is given. “For Gideon and for the Lord!” goes the cry! The trumpets sound. The torches alight, burning bright with more oxygen! The Midianite camp below sees the massive army overhead. The Midianites panic, run about, and begin killing one another.

God saw that Gideon could lead. He saw that Gideon could trust, which could overcome his cowardice. God saw the best in Gideon. He saw the best in the unlikeliest 300 casting call in history. Even when we cannot see our worth, or why we should be loved, God treasures us and loves us more than we could ever know.

Your child is a unique creation. You are a unique creation. Despite your hang ups, problems, failures, and quirks, you are loved and God sees the best in you. Work this week to see the best in your child and others in your life. Pray for them, especially when you’re annoyed.

How do you model seeing the best in others? When do you point out the positive in your kids? Are you on the hunt for the negative or the positive in others? Why?

Advertisements

A Little Off the Top, A Festive Meal, and a Horn Line to Bring the House Down (Sunday Review)

On Sunday, our kids heard the story of Joshua and the Israelites marching around the wall of Jericho, and that wall’s fateful collapse. The main Bible point is that God gives us courage. And how big a deal is that in today’s world where you might find yourself on the metaphorical firing line of public opinion? So let’s dig a little deeper into the story and get some context.

Jericho, historically, was probably a smallish town of no real significance. However, declaring war on this territory was of huge significance to the Israelites, because this land would have been under the authority of Egypt. In a turn the former slave nation has come to challenge the former slave masters.

Before any of the fighting happens, the Israelites cross over the Jordan River on dry land, echoing the act of leaving Egypt on the dry land through the Sea. From this moment, and from a few other scenes, we are meant to see Joshua as Moses’ true replacement. So after crossing the Jordan River, an order comes from the top brass that the men of the group were probably less than enthusiastic about… everyone’s getting circumcised! Woo hoo! Wait… I mean… Well, it needed to be done since none of the Israelites in the current generation who had grown up in the wilderness had been circumcised. It was an important moment of literally cutting the Covenant (God’s promise of protection, blessing the world, a land to live in, and a family to continue the promise) into the male’s flesh. (And as a side-bar to put to rest the idea that a man can let his sexuality run free. This is a literal “cutting down to size” of the male sexual ego.) So after the pain and bleeding, and, let’s face it fellas, the moaning, groaning and whining, died down, the whole people sat down to celebrate the Passover, using food and materials gathered in the land promised to them. This was a huge moment! Imagine: years of wandering and celebrating this meal in the wilderness with no home, and finally celebrating the defining moment of your people in the land you would call home! (As a side-note, this is a moment of God turning over responsibility to His people since the manna stopped after this celebration.)

As he was walking outside the camp, Joshua comes face to face with a messenger of the Lord with drawn sword. Now, Joshua wasn’t blessed with a faithful donkey to keep him from getting too close like Balaam, but Joshua wasn’t on a mission to disobey God, either. This moment shows that God is with Joshua and this is Joshua’s “burning bush” moment.

Joshua takes the orders to the people about marching around the city. The descriptions of this action, the length of time involved, and the repeating number 7 all point to a more ceremonial or a kind of ritual. In other words, this victory won’t be won with swords and spears, but with God’s own intervention. We humans like to take credit, and God wants to make sure His people understand whose leading this endeavor.

So the marching happens, the people follow the rules to the letter. (Which if you’re familiar with the biblical narrative is a rare occasion, indeed.) The walls fall down and the whole city is designated for destruction. Consider this city as a kind of “firstfruits” a giving of the first part of any harvest or growth to God. No spoils of war were to be taken, and any treasure given to the Tabernacle. (Also, this story has some echoes of Sodom and Gomorrah with Rahab playing the role of Lot and the spies playing the role of the angelic messengers who visited at night.)

Now, this whole action took courage. As Rabbi Sacks points out, this is a defining moment of Israel moving from slavery to freedom. They had responsibility now, God was pulling out the training wheels, while still maintaining the lead. Israel would now have to work, to build, to clear away. The reason for the wandering in the first place was because of a lack of courage, a slavish mindset of dependence. At this moment, though, God had spent the time and trained His people to be stronger, braver, and reliant on him in a more mature way.

How do you model courage through your home life? Your generosity? Your work? How do you encourage your family to show courage in the face of difficulty? What was a time recently you had to show courage? Have you told your kids about that time?

Your Kids Will Read What You Post

Being a Millennial parent, I’m going to throw out a word of warning to other parents of today: nothing is ever gone from the internet. Unless you’re highly trained [or have an enormous amount of petty cash] and willing to get into some questionably legal territory, what you post, even if “deleted” is still in a cache somewhere and can be accessed.

That said, it may be cute to talk about your kids online. It may be cathartic to bemoan your kids negative traits or new habits or obsessions. It may be fun to poke fun when they don’t have an online presence. Yes, indeed all of these things may be true, but it is also true that someday your children will be online and will have access to a large list of what you said. You remember the Miranda Rights speech from Law and Order: “…anything you say can and will be used against you…” Keep in mind that search engines and technology continues to improve, meaning that your child’s access to what you have posted online may be more thorough than you could ever imagine right now.

It could be devastating when a child is suddenly confronted by what they may consider a “more true” opinion of them from a parent’s online posting than what they hear from that parent face-to-face. Words have power. The way we speak about people when they’re not in the conversation often colors the way we think about them. This explains part of the Bible’s prohibition against gossip.

How do your online posts speak about your children? Do your posts show annoyance? Pride? Love? Hatred? What changes would you make knowing that your child could and would read the posts you have written and will write about them?

So Two Israelites Spend the Night in a Brothel… [Sunday Review]

Our kids learned about Rahab and her incredible faith in God on Sunday. But of course there were some details our lesson skimmed over in the pursuit of being age appropriate. So let’s look at the story with a little more depth.

First of all, Joshua sending more spies to check out Canaan seems like a poor choice at first glance. He was in the first group to do this, and the disastrous results left himself and Caleb as survivors of an extra 40 years wandering in the wilderness. Regardless, Joshua takes the risk and sends two guys (seems he at least realized less is more) to check out the first city they would come across, Jericho, and the area surrounding it.

The two spies logic in the story is sound, but a little suspect. From our familiarity with fantasy and the old west and spy thrillers, we all know that the best place to get info is usually the bar or inn. They say that in wine there is much truth. The spies apparently came from an even older school of thought that said, “If you wanna know what’s going down, talk with the ladies who sleep with the powerful and in-the-know.” So, they went to the brothel. We also have the hindsight of the Bible’s wisdom literature (Job, Proverbs, Ecclesisates, etc.) that implies that the foreign prostitute is a dangerous person to associate with. Still, the two spies merrily, but carefully, skipped into the local brothel probably run by our intrepid heroine, Rahab.

The spies, whose only active decision at this point was to visit a brothel, find themselves taking a backseat in their own heroic spy story to Rahab, who covers for the two of them. She even takes the initiative to hide the spies up on the roof and lie through her teeth to throw the city guards and the ruler of the city off of the spies’ trail.

Again, we really forget just how surprising this story is. We’ve heard it so many times, it kind of loses its punch. Let’s put it this way, how would you react if two male missionaries were trying to evangelize a region hostile to Christianity and took refuge in a brothel in order to escape the authorities? We’d all probably have a few follow-up questions, right?

Despite the questionable motives of the spies, they find a believer in Rahab who glorifies the God of Israel and declares His power and miracles and asks for her family to be spared. I mean, what else are the spies gonna do but agree? They give her a red rope to tie in her window as a sign to not mess with anyone inside. The spies return to Joshua delivering an encouraging message of the Canaanite’s fear and awe in the face of their God’s actions in Egypt and at the Red Sea. Once again Joshua is reminded that he can be strong and courageous because God is with him.

This story should be surprising. It should make us pause and think about what it means that a foreign prostitute saved these spies and encouraged God’s people. It should make us really think when we hear the speech Rahab gives concerning her knowing that God is the true God.

And yet, we pass over this story as if it were just the way things are. And then in real life we’re surprised when God works through unlikely people. We’re all pretty unlikely candidates to be on God’s invasion squad. Have you taken a good look at us? We’re not exactly [insert favorite branch of miliary’s elite force here]* are we? No, we’re more like the rag-tag militia group George Washington had to keep in line long enough to fend of the British… and that’s if we’re being really generous.

But we can take a lot of hope and encouragement from Rahab. No matter our gender, race, class, place of birth, or opinions on sweet tea, God can use any one of us to make a difference. The catch is, like Rahab, we have to acknowledge God and be willing to follow His lead.

How are you encouraging your children to serve regardless of their gifts? Do you encourage your child’s talents, interests, or uniqueness? How do you model treating every one you meet as a person made in the image of God?

 

* What, you think I’m gonna tick anyone in the military off by listing a particular one here? I don’t need that kind of fight in the comment section.

Who’s the [donkey] now? (Sunday Review)

This past Sunday, our children talked about the story of Balaam and his talking donkey. That’s the part we all remember, but there’s way more to the story.

See, Balaam was a man who could at least receive messages from God. This is a huge point, especially since he’s one of the few non-Jewish Hebrew Bible figures to hear directly from God – Job was another member of this notable club. Balaam had enough of a reputation that a king in the area who was afraid of the Israelites decided to hit him up for some divine smiting of these upstart Israelites who were traipsing through the land on their way to Canaan. Balaam, not quite realizing the situation, agrees to check with God and see if he could provide this service. God was emphatically against the offer, and Balaam refused. But the next time the king asked, Balaam asked God again, and God “allows” Balaam to go along but only say what God dictated. I put quotes there because God allowed Balaam to go the way my mom allowed me to do something she knew was a bad idea after I begged and pleaded. My mom or dad would say in a cold, measured tone, “Fine. Do it.” With those three words, a bit of wisdom would shiver down my spine and I would relent and find another activity. Balaam, however, didn’t get the hint.

On the way, Balaam’s donkey kept veering off the road and getting beaten for it. Finally, the donkey stopped, and Balaam beat the donkey mercilessly, showing that Balaam was less than an ideal prophet. While this beating was going on, the donkey straight up asked Balaam, “What’s your damage, man? You’ve beaten me so much today! How often have I done something you didn’t want?”

Balaam responded sheepishly, “Well, never, I guess. You’ve been a great donkey.”

“Then why on this green earth would you beat me? Trust me a little, man. I saved your life!”

I would like to pause the story here and reflect a moment. What would your reaction be if your trusted pet animal suddenly spoke to you? What if your cat’s purr suddenly became a litany of soothing poetry? What if your dog’s barks suddenly became excited shouts of the traits they loved about you? Well…?

I’d freak right the heck out is what I’d do. Are you kidding me? And Balaam just answered calmly like he was talking to an old friend! How astounding does your relationship with God and the supernatural have to be that a talking donkey doesn’t even phase you!?

Regardless, the donkey points out that there was an angel ready to take Balaam’s life and the donkey’s multiple turns and stops were to save its owner’s life. The angel has a few words to say to Balaam as well about how this mission is against God’s desire and Balaam better watch himself dealing with the Israelites, because they were God’s people. Balaam expresses his deepest understandings and proceeds to bless the Israelites multiple times.

Balaam had his attention everywhere but where it needed to be. He had his attention on making nice with royalty. He had his attention on some fat cash coming his way. He had his attention on the popularity and business working with a king would produce. Ironically, however, the prophet did not have his attention on God. The donkey did. So in this story, the roles of prophet and donkey were flipped. [Hence, the title.]

All creation sings God’s praise. Creation is groaning and waiting for the day when God restores everything to the way it was meant to be. Creation, including donkeys, have their focus where it needs to be: on God. We, though, tend to let our attention wander and we find ourselves in some tricky spots because of it. Maybe not “angel with a sword ready to strike us down” spots, but, you know, similar. By keeping our focus on God, it helps us to see the world clearly and keep our priorities in check. Modeling this for your kids can certainly help them develop a focus on God and God’s desires for us and the world around us.

How can you model a focus on God for your kids? Was there ever a time when you found yourself in a tough spot because you lost focus and your attention wasn’t on God?

The Problem with Biblical Heroes

When I was younger, I really looked up to King David. And in some respects, I still do. He was the man to stay loyal to God in a culture of idolatry. He fought bravely on behalf of his people and His God. He worked tirelessly in his early years to benefit his people and prepare the way for the building of the Temple. Honestly, he’s got a decently long list of positive achievements even outside of his battle acumen – not forgetting, of course, that famous battle with a giant.

That said, the older I get the more the veneer seems to be wearing thin on David’s shine. He’s described when we meet him as basically a second, better Saul, a Saul 2.0, if you will. David is handsome, well built, tanned, and plays the guitar. You know, one of those guys. He’s a serial polygamist, which starts pretty early in his career. And he’s distinctly cold in the love/kindness department, outside of his best bro, Jonathan. His parenting could also have been a bit better in the role model department. But David is loyal, a man of his word both to God and man.

I guess what I’m trying to get at is the fact that it is mighty hard to have a biblical hero because the Bible does a thorough job of listing out their flaws quite clearly. We are left with no ambiguity whether or not these men and women had issues and shortcomings. And it’s probably for the best.

See, the less we know about someone, often the more able to idealize and eventually idolize them we are. They become the goal, the finish line, the summary of all we want to be. We can build entire worldviews around these heroes, only to watch them crumble into dust when our hero inevitably fails us in some way. It’s a constant reminder against idolizing others and keeping the main thing the main thing.

How wonderful is it, then, that we have a God that has no problem using the broken, out-of-sorts, and misfits to further His story? Even his son conducted his ministry from a place of poverty, itinerancy, and outsider-ness. It’s encouraging to know that we can be used and that we can rely on our God so thoroughly.

Cutting Down God’s Image

I’ll be honest. I’ve tried writing a blog every week for the past few weeks (except for that camp week, and VBS.) Each time, however, I found myself at a loss for words. And for as wordy as I get on this thing, some of you are probably wondering how that even works. Most of my reluctance to publish has been a nagging question at the back of my mind: “Haven’t you said this already?” I freeze, and wonder what else there is to be said.

Then I remember an idea C.S. Lewis (I think) tossed into my worldview a while back: that the moral thinkers and prophets we remember weren’t writing anything new, just reminding their time period of what we all know is right. I can certainly see his point with the biblical prophets – they seemed to be stuck on repeat. And, yet, I still see people ignoring them, plugging their ears and pretending that certain passages aren’t in the Bible.

As Rabbi Sacks points out, the greatest single idea that the Bible has given to modern society is that every human being is created in God’s image. And, might I add, no status or action can take away that truth. For example, a convicted felon in prison is no less made in the image of God than a minister boldly proclaiming the word on a Sunday morning. Please mull that over for a moment.

Why use the example of a prisoner? Well, because America has one, if not the, largest prison population in the world. And I am so happy to say that my church family is highly involved in prison ministry. Our kids even make cards and notes for the prisoners each semester. Dominique Gilliard pointed out in a recent interview on Seminary Dropout that, “without prisoners, we wouldn’t have the Gospel.” Peter, James, Paul, John the Baptist and others were all prisoners at some point. (Also note that nearly every one of them ended up on the “death row” list as well.)

I bring this up because for years the language surrounding prisoners, the poor, and foreigners has been, frankly, dehumanizing and ungodly and unworthy of a child of God. Words like “animals,” and “predators” have been tossed around by both ends of the political spectrum, so neither group is let off the hook. For generations, children have heard these terms applied to different people, and I don’t have to wonder what the effect has been.

Jesus, in particular, was very clear about humanizing the enemy, going so far as to pray for them as he was being killed. He also spent a large amount of his time and energy with the poor, the sick, the hurting, and the “sinners.”

Can you imagine Jesus teaching an ESL class? Can you imagine Jesus volunteering at the local community kitchen? Can you imagine Jesus leading a prison ministry? Sure, right? We can all agree these things are what good people do. But, remember, Jesus was lumped in with the sinners. He was called a glutton and a drunkard. Jesus also lived a life of an itinerant, traveling everywhere, and calling nowhere “home.”

So can you imagine Jesus sitting at the bar in your local drinking establishment? Can you imagine Jesus sleeping in the homeless camp out in the woods behind the subdivision? Can you imagine Jesus at Burning Man? Can you imagine Jesus mingling with people at a gay pride parade? Can you imagine what people would say about this Jesus? You don’t have to! Read Mark, or Matthew, or Luke, or John! We know exactly how people responded: the sick, poor, and sinners rejoiced at Jesus’ message of the Kingdom; and the church people, community leaders, and government felt their power and status quo threatened and reacted with violence.

Remember, when Jesus arrived at the party, lives changed. Hearts melted and were remade. People found themselves transformed in the radical love, firm challenge, and life-altering compassion Jesus exuded. Jesus saw each and every person as being made in the image of God, and it clearly affected the way he interacted with others.

Have we been transformed? Do we really see the world as it should be: flipped upside down in the new Kingdom worldview of the first being last and the last being first? Do we truly see the image of God in every human being? Can we evaluate the way we act, speak, and listen based on the Kingdom of God rather than this kingdom of air?

Let’s work on this next generation now. Let’s change the way we speak about people, particularly the vulnerable and those who need a hand. Let’s model how to speak about others by offering respect and compassion. Let’s teach our children that respect doesn’t mean agreement. Compassion doesn’t mean signing on to someone else’s beliefs. These things are what we should offer to everyone.