The God Abraham Believed In

Abraham believed in a transcendent God at a time when people still made gods of wood and stone.

I have been busy of late (what else is new?), so I haven’t written much, though I always have thoughts swirling in my head that I would like to get “down on paper”. Today, I have just a short thread I want to get out of my head.

Paul speaks of the God Abraham believed in as the God “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.” (Romans 4:17 ESV)

Many are the gods that people have believed in since time immemorial. From gods made of wood and stone, to trees, mountains, the sun and other natural objects, to the pantheons of Greek and Roman gods, the number of gods people have believed in are legion.

Today, Hindus still have a panoply of gods, and pagans still worship objects of nature (or simply nature, itself). Christians and Muslims have whittled the legion down to one, and atheists believe in, simply, one less God than they. Other than the atheists of the world, most of humanity believes in something transcendent that is labeled divine.

The human drive is to attempt to discern the transcendent. Most agnostic believe that something transcends the natural worlds, though they won’t dare to divine what it is. Even some atheists hold out some form of believe in transcendence, even if they ultimately determine it is illusory. They acknowledge, like Stephen Hawking did, that it is helpful to believe it.

There is mystery in the transcendence we sense breaking into the world. There is intrigue. There is anticipation, and there is hope in the sense of transcendence that lingers often on the blurry edges of our mundane existence, sneaking into it at times leaving us breathless and wondering.

I often allude the curious statement in Ecclesiastes 3:11 that God put eternity in the hearts of men:

“He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” (NIV)

If God didn’t put a yearning for transcendence into the human heart, where does it come from? I believe that is a rhetorical question.

For many, the idea of a transcendent being or reality is just too much to grasp. It is surrounded by too much uncertainty and requires too much strain and effort to attain even a dark understanding of it that they determine the simpler, easier and preferable course is to remain agnostic or to dismiss the idea of transcendence altogether.

Others have taken the leap to embrace one understanding or another and have committed themselves to that understanding. Thus, the legions of gods that have existed in the constructs of human thought. And that might just be what all or most of them are – constructs of human thought, attempts at putting a “face” on the transcendence we sense in he universe.

One man, Abraham, believed in a God “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.” This was a God above all gods. This was a God who spoke the universe into existence.

This was a God who Paul and other first century Judeans believed entered into the world He created in the form of a created being in whom He imprinted His own image. God could enter that being because He created room for Himself in that being. The writer of Hebrews says:

“[Jesus] is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature…. (Heb. 1:3)

In very recent times, our best scientists have determined that the universe had a beginning. It came into existence a finite time ago. Stephen Hawking demonstrated the necessity of “singularity” (a beginning) mathematically.

The trio of Arvind Borde, Alan Guth and Alexander Vilenkin determined mathematically that any universe that is expanding had a beginning (a singularity) a finite time ago. Thus, a point of singularity, a beginning, would apply to any number of multiverses.

The fact that our universe, and any universe like ours that exists or could possibly exist, had a beginning a finite time ago raises the specter of the transcendent – a Beginner who initiated our universe into existence.

This is the God Abraham believed (a God who “calls into existence the things that do not exist”) in at a time when people were still making gods out of wood and stone. Though the entire world he knew thought they could conjure up and appease gods they made, Abraham believed in the kind of God that is utterly transcendent and which could create a universe out of nothing by speaking it into existence.

Abraham also believed in a God who could raise dead things to life. Paul in the first century, and all the followers of the man, Jesus, claimed that Jesus is the vindication of that belief. That Jesus was God who became man – emptying Himself (Phil. 2:7) to take on the form of a being (man) who God created in His image. (Thus, it was a good fit!)

That man demonstrated the character of God for us in the way he lived out his life. He reflected God’s love for us by his willingness to give his own life for us. He gave us the ultimate, transcendent hope by rising from the dead in that same body and inviting us to follow him.

Now, Paul says, we only have a partial understanding of that God who would stoop to come to us and demonstrate His love for us, but there will come a day when we shall know as we are fully known:

“For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.”              (1 Corinthians 13:12)

We yearn for Him because of the eternity that He set in our hearts, and we have some understanding of him because of His image that He placed in us. We can put a “face” to God in the life of Jesus, and we have hope that we will see Him “face to face” because of the resurrection of Jesus in human body he inhabited.

He holds out the promise to all of us that He made through Abraham thousands of years ago – a promise that Abraham could not even articulate other than to say that, through him and his descendants, God would bless all the people of the earth.

And Jesus left for us the Holy Spirit, which is God in the form of Spirit who is available to come into and reside in each one of us (John 14:15-21) who have invited Him in to reside with us to bear witness with our spirits that we are children of God. (Romans 8:16)

These things characterize the God of Abraham who was revealed more completely through the incarnation of Jesus. These things set one conception of God apart from all other conceptions of gods, and even the conceptions of one god that remains aloof. The hope of the God of Abraham is Christ in us!

The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together…. [and he is] Christ in you, the hope of glory.” (Colossians 1:15-17, 26)

On the Willows There

One of the most hauntingly beautiful songs ever written and recorded is On the Willows from Godpsell, the musical. Take a moment to listen to the song and the words.

The song lyrics are found in Psalm 137 from the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Old Testament:

“By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our lyres. For there our captors required of us songs, and our tormentors, mirth, saying, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’ How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?”

Psalm 137:1‭-‬4 ESV

The Psalm is a communal lament of the exiled people of Abraham’s ancestry in Babylon yearning for Jerusalem in their homeland. The rivers of Babylon are the Tigris and the Euphrates and their tributaries.

As I meditate on these things, I find it ironic that the region of the Tigris and Euphrates are thought to have been the location of the Garden of Eden. When the Psalm was written, the area was governed by Nebuchadnezzar II, the most powerful ruler in the known world at the time, who had sieged Jerusalem, captured its inhabitants, and driven them to Babylon.

The song captures beautifully the sorrow and longing of a people who had recently lost their homes and all that was familiar to them. Not just their homes, but their way of life, their safety and security, their community, their culture, their ancestral roots, and their spiritual sanctuary – the Temple. Everything they valued most highly was lost in the exile, even their purpose and reason for living.

Jerusalem was the gem of the land God had promised to their ancient father, Abraham. Abraham had wandered from Ur, not far from Babylon, at the direction of God over one thousand miles to a “land God would show him”, a land God promised for his descendants.

Several generations after Abraham, his descendants were forced by famine to find refuge in Egypt where they were initially welcomed with open arms. They were eventually enslaved there for the ambitions of the Egyptian Pharaohs. They labored there, captives in slavery, for approximately 400 years.

Through a miraculous series of events, Moses led them out of Egypt and out of the grasp of their captors. They wandered 40 years through desert regions between the land of their former captivity and the land God promised many, many generations earlier to Abraham. God lead them by cloud during the day and by fire at night.

When they finally arrived in the land God promised so many years earlier, a land flowing with milk and honey, it was a homecoming of epic proportions. They lived and flourished there for many generations and centuries.

They were able to fend off the surrounding threats and to establish an Eden of sorts for themselves. Their safety and security that allowed them to construct a grand Temple where they could commune intimately with their God who rescued them out of slavery and delivered them to the promised land.

But all was not well in this Eden. Much like the first Eden, choices were made that ran counter to the designs and intentions for their wellbeing.

Through the Prophets, we learn that they became complacent in their comfort and abundance. They forgot the God who rescued them and delivered them into the land and gave themselves to idols. They stopped doing justice among one another, and they became as corrupt, wicked and evil as the nations that were driven out of the land before them.

This cycle of Edenic living, exile, longing, deliverance, redemption, Edenic living, exile and longing is the story of humankind. The exile is long and the yearning for Eden is great.

Continue reading “On the Willows There”

The Borderlines: A Place Called Earth

When we stand at the borderline and understand the limitations and futility of our lives, we have begun to see as God intended for us to see.

Oh, how I long for heaven in a place called earth
Where every son and daughter will know their worth
Where all the streets resound with thunderous joy
Oh how I long for heaven in a place called earth

Song writers have common themes and images that run through their work. Jon Forman is one of my favorite song writers because he resonates with a theme that has run through my thinking over the last decade: the transience of this life and the transcendence of the life to come.

In the song, A Place Called Earth, he focuses on the “borderlines” between the transience of our lives and the longing for transcendence. It’s an age-old theme. It’s a theme that has been the subject of some of the greatest writers in the history of world from the author of Ecclesiastes to Shakespeare.

The video embedded above was a recent live performance of this song off the new EP, Departures. Linked below is the studio recording of A Place Called Earth that was written by Jon Foreman with his brother, Tim, and Lauren Daigle. I encourage you to listen to it in all of its orchestral fullness.

The hope of the Christ follower is the longing for heaven, a place where everyone knows their worth through the eyes of Jesus who will greet us face to face. We have this hope, however, this treasure, in earthen vessels. (2 Corinthians 4:7) We long for heaven in a place called earth.

Oh, the wars we haven’t won
Oh, the songs we’ve left unsung
Oh, the dreams we haven’t seen
The borderlines

Jon Foreman’s plaintive voice captures the angst of these lines perfectly. We try to notch our belts with victories, but what of all the defeats? The songs we have left unsung? The great dreams we dared to dream that we haven’t seen?

All our victories are hollow trophies at the end of our days. Memories of them begin to fade from the moment of victory. Like the entropy to which our universe is subjected (Romans 8:20), those memories will fade into utter obscurity long after we have taken our last breaths.

We see this on the borderlines. On the borderlines, where we peer out over an endless expanse yawning out into a far distant future, and beyond it into an eternity we can’t even fathom, we realize our utter insignificance…. if we can see that far.

Continue reading “The Borderlines: A Place Called Earth”

Ravi Zacharias and the Greatness of Our Hope

We shouldn’t put our leaders on pedestals. Our faith and hope is in God, and God alone.

The buzz in the Christian world over the scandalous details that were reported and corroborated about Ravi Zacharias have subsided a bit, but they will linger in our collective memories. It seems he led a double life for years before his death from cancer in 2020.

The stories that have emerged expose a man who was driven by lust and sexual sin to groom woman for his own personal pleasure. Because he was such a beloved defender of the faith, the news came like shock waves. We have recoiled in horror and tried to process the fact that he turned out to be so different than his public persona.

He was a gifted orator, intelligent, winsome, personable and commanding in his presence and ability to respond to the most difficult challenges skeptics and hostile audiences threw at the Christian worldview. He was a champion defender of the faith. He went boldly into the world’s top academic institutions and unashamedly proclaimed the gospel in the most intellectually rigorous environments in the world with aplomb, tact and grace.

I found connection with him, perhaps, because his approach was filled with a command of literary style and nuance that really spoke to me, a college English Literature major. Thus, the sordid details of a very seamy private life hidden largely to the world until after his death have hit very hard. I, personally, can’t stop thinking about it.

I have watched people wrestle through explanations. People have grappled with “what went wrong”. People have advanced lists of solutions to the perceived problems in the Christian world that allowed this duplicity to go on so long unnoticed and unaddressed (even when allegations came to light).

Disappointment from Christian leaders in my life have rocked, previously, when. I have made the mistake of putting too much trust and personal capital in them (and not enough in God. Himself). So, I am not completely dismayed. Though every man be a liar, still God is true!

Many people have done a good job at dissecting what went wrong and how to avoid similar scandals in the future. I don’t think I would add value to provide my own list of things we should do or not do…. Not that there is a magic pill for the Church to take because it’s messy… People are messy!

I have just been trying to find perspective.

Perspective requires taking a step (or many steps) back. This is hard to do in the immediate wake of such a scandal. It’s hard to do when it hits “close to home”. It’s hard to do when we are personally invested in some way.

Before the facts were known, the natural tendency was to brush off the rumors and give a favorite son the benefit of the doubt. I did that. After the facts of such a scandal are known, we tend to want to wring our hands, wipe our hands from it, and condemn it and the man behind it.

I have taken down most of my references to Ravi Zacharias in this blog, though not all of them. Truth is truth, even if spoken by a duplicitous person. If I can find a reference from someone else, though, for the same proposition, I will use it before referencing Ravi Zacharias. The value of using his voice has been diminished to practically nil.

At the same time, I think we need to dig a little deeper and confront this scandal a bit more squarely in the face. Not that RZIM (the organization Zacharias founded) has not done that with the investigation and disclosure of the news, but I think we can gloss over some sober truth in the process of wringing and washing our hands of the scandal.

Stepping back from the immediate shock and disappointment some thoughts occur to me that (I think) should be discussed. Too soon? I don’t know.

Continue reading “Ravi Zacharias and the Greatness of Our Hope”

The 2020 Election: Daylight Had Spoken

I woke yesterday to these words:

Daylight had spoken 
So clear and so plain 
I’m the keeper of nothing 
But an old flame 
Consuming the shadows 
Caught in the light 
Blinded by hunger 
And fed to the night 

I went to bed with the presidential election in the balance, teetering on the brink of madness – madness that we are so divided as a country over, perhaps, the two most unpopular candidates in our country’s long history.

We have gotten used to the “lesser of two evils’ voting mantra. Not that each candidate doesn’t have their crazy fans. And, that’s part of the madness too.

But daylight broke once again. Like Groundhog’s Day the movie, its constancy is inimitable. So, it is fitting that the Book of Lamentations states thus (3:22-23):

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;
    his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
    great is your faithfulness.

In my daily Scripture reading, the passages were no less apropos:

As evening approached, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who had himself become a disciple of Jesus. Going to Pilate, he asked for Jesus’ body, and Pilate ordered that it be given to him. Joseph took the body, wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, and placed it in his own new tomb that he had cut out of the rock. He rolled a big stone in front of the entrance to the tomb and went away. Matthew 27:57-60

So, it was the night Jesus was crucified.

The passages for the day also included the description of a small entourage of women waking in the morning to bring spices to the tomb. When they got there they found the tomb empty. (Mark 16:1; Luke 24:1-3)

Finally, the passages for the day included the appearance of Jesus to Mary Magdalene, the woman from whom he had cast out seven demons. (Mark 16:9) Mary was the first person to whom Jesus appeared. That significance can not be understated.

The men back were still hunkered down where they had been since darkness draped over the world the night Jesus died. They didn’t believe her when she told them she saw Jesus. (Mark 16:11)

So it is that we arrive quickly at assumptions and hold on to them. Jesus died before them and the onlooking world. Jesus was dead. Who would believe otherwise?

Of course, he had been telling them since they met him that his body would be destroyed, and he would raise it up three days later, but they never quite got what he was saying.

I left for the office pondering these things.

The votes are still being counted today. The outcome is less than certain. There is talk of fraud, injunctions and refusing to step down, and I can’t bear to think of four years of Biden… or Trump.

But the new day has dawned. God’s mercies are new every morning. Great is His faithfulness. Jesus defied sin and death, rose again and ascended into heaven. He sits, now, at the right hand of the Father. He will come again to judge the living and the dead – so the creed goes that was canonized over three centuries after Jesus died.

Pontius Pilate, the leader who presided over the death of Jesus, is nothing but a footnote to the world’s greatest event – the death of God at the hands of His creation, for the sins of His creation, to provide His creation a real hope that cannot not be eliminated by an election, injunction or even crucifixion – and the resurrection!

So, Donald Trump or Joe Biden will become their own footnotes in history as the purposes of God unfold. The world may seem to be teetering out of control at every turn, but the only thing teetering is our illusion that we are in control. God’s word goes out, and it does not come back void. Jesus is still on the throne.

The song that woke me yesterday morning ends like this:

My search was unending 
And my soul was bare 
And Darling, you came to me like a midnight flare 
Out of the ocean 
The stars had all gone 
My heart was broken 
Lost and alone 

[Outro] 
Darling, you came to me like a beacon, leading me home

Substitute Jesus, for Darling, and it’s just about perfect.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Job poetically says of God that He gives orders to the morning and shows the dawn its place. (Job 38:12) Because of the tender mercy of God, the “Dayspring” [Dawn/Jesus] came to us from heaven to shine on us who live in darkness – in the shadow of death – to guide our path into peace. (Luke 1:78-80)