God is a Trout Fisherman

(Author’s note: I could say that the lack of posting is because I have been absolutely swamped with work, or that I have been working long days and nights perfecting this post. However, neither of those two would be true. Rather, I’ve been bad about making time to write, and so my apologies for that. And special apologies to those of you who have been waiting for the next two entries in the Socrates and Lutheran theology series. Hopefully those will be coming soon.)

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Recently, I spent a couple of days on the North Shore of Lake Superior, north of Two Harbors, Minnesota. During my trip, I received hundreds of bug bites, a rodent chewed into my food, my sleeping pad sprang a leak, and the nights were so cold that I couldn’t sleep. In the midst of my misery, after hours of trying to force my way alongside rivers overgrown with weeds and infested with mosquitoes, I caught a trout. In fact, it was the trout featured in the picture at the top of this post. My trout wasn’t puny at all, but it definitely didn’t qualify for lunker status. After admiring it for a short period of time, I slipped it back into the water, and proceeded to catch zero more. And yet, despite my lack of success and despite the trials I endured, that one trout made the whole trip worth it.

You see, I’m crazy about trout. And as anyone who’s crazy about trout knows, there’s nothing like the feeling of catching a trout. The feeling of holding a trout in my hands makes up for any bug bites, lack of sleep, or rodent espionage that I may have to endure to experience it. But, and I’ll be the first to admit it, it’s not a universal human experience. There’s no rational reason that catching trout brings me such great pleasure. And there’s absolutely no obligation on my part to go out and catch trout. In fact, the vast majority of people don’t go out and catch trout because in their arithmetic, one 11 inch trout does not make up for two days of misery.

So, what exactly does trout fishing have to do with God? Trout fishing, dear reader, is an opportunity to re-frame the way that we think about God, because we’ve been taught so often to think of everything God does as necessary and rational. The whole reason that theodicy is so popular is because it allows people to put God under the microscope of “what makes sense.” But what if it doesn’t make sense? To take creation as an example, what if God didn’t create the world because it was “necessary” or “inherent to God’s nature?” What if God created the world simply because it brought Him extraordinary pleasure to do so?

Or, let’s push the metaphor a little bit further: What if God is a trout fisherman and you’re the trout? You’re hiding deep down in the waters of death, scared that everything around you is going to devour you. God could be a stamp collector, and, then, you’d be out of luck. Instead, because God’s a trout fisherman, He endures a cross and death just to chase after you, you sinful trout. And he does it for no reason, other than that He really likes trout. And the immense pleasure of holding one sinful, redeemed person in His arms makes up for it all, because Jesus means it when he says that He rejoices more in one redeemed sinner than a hundred righteous people.

It’s a clunky metaphor at points, I get that. But, it’s also an opportunity to play around and to try and escape the trap of thinking of God as some sort of divine bean counter, who meticulously calculates the necessity of His actions, moves accordingly, and then, once He’s done, expects you to do the same. Maybe God chases sinners, simply because, against all reason, He likes them.

 

 

God Made Ducks: A Gospel Meditation on the Environment

Recently, my wife and I stood at the lake near our house and watched a pair of wood ducks swim back and forth. Pretty soon,  a mallard hen with a dozen ducklings swam up, and we watched as the ducklings skittered back and forth over the water. And as I stood there and watched the ducks, I thought about the environment, and how I could make sure that my children would have the opportunity to watch ducks one day.

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That line of thinking turned me towards reflection on the lectures that I’ve heard on a Christian response to the environment.Those lectures sometimes made great points, especially when they emphasized that scientists and engineers have important Christian vocations like everyone else. But, part of the lectures I’ve heard felt lacking to me. They focus on themes like “Christian stewardship,” “Christian duty,” or “Christian responsibility.” And while I’m sure all these themes are well meaning, I can’t help but think that they all have the same flaw. They all attempt to take justified Christians and present them with a new set of requirements that they have to check off in order to maintain good standing with God. With every strategy and conversation about the environment comes the inevitable subtext: “You’re not a good Christian if you don’t…” “Christian environmental stewardship” has become a new form of moralism, a way of measuring our sanctification through Priuses, fluorescent bulbs, and bee gardens. The problem with Christian environmentalism is that it has become a new way to tell who’s in and who’s out, who’s a sinner and who’s not. All this talk on the environment has become a new way for us (and not God) to decide who gets grace. The criteria now isn’t Jewish ritual law, it’s how green you are. And while it may be a lot more hip than circumcision, it’s the same problem that Paul faced when he started that church in Galatia.

And like Paul wrote to the Galatians, all this talk about who’s green and who’s not misses entirely the way that God speaks to us through  the Law and the Gospel. The point of the Law isn’t to help us to “be the best steward that we can be.” The point of the Law is to help us see that no matter how well we’re taking care of the environment by human standards, we’re still failing miserably. While a Christian environmentalist may not be burning coal in their backyard or actively chopping down rain forests, they’re still not saving the environment from the massive destruction that happens every day. Christian environmental thinking abuses the Law when it thinks that doing slightly better than your neighbor fulfills the obligations that Christians owe to God’s creation. It’s true, the Prius driver may be doing slightly better than their Hummer driving neighbor, but this system of gradations is still thinking in the categories of the old sinner. But it’s even more true that the minute we make saving the environment an obligation on baptized Christians, there’s only two things we can do: We can throw up our hands in despair and acknowledge that no matter how well we’re doing, the blood of the environment is still on our hands, or we can become smug idolaters, proud of our own progress.

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In making the environment an obligation, Christians not only abuse the Law, but they also miss the true beauty of the Gospel. When Christ said, “It is finished,” He meant it. He didn’t mean “I’ve done a little part, Christians go do the rest.” When Christ proclaimed that He had done everything for us, that everything includes the environment with all its problems. Christ has taken the environment, redeemed it and given it back to us as a wonderful gift. Instead of being slaves to the obligations of preserving nature as pristine, or cruel slave drivers wringing every last drop out of the world around us, Christ has freed us to be recipients of a world that God has created for us. From Christ, we receive a world to feed us, a world to clothe us, and a world to dazzle us with wonder.

And so if we take seriously the way that God speaks to us with the Law and the Gospel, our Christian response to the environment receives a 180 degree reframing. Christ turns us away from the desire to prove our own goodness, and hand us a world created for our benefit.  Christ takes away the necessity to plant a garden, and gives us an opportunity to nourish God’s creation. He removes the obligation to eat locally and frees us to taste the bounty of the earth that God sustains every day. Christ removes nature as an opportunity to bash our neighbors for owning plastic Tupperware, and gives it back to us as a testament to the love and care of God. All nature, all gift, all opportunity to rejoice.

 

Recommended Reading: Bread From Beggar’s Hands

Dec 17Although I try to post twice a week here, the vagaries of my work schedule and my own distractedness often interfere. At this point, if you’re looking for an everyday devotional, this is not the place. That said, if you’re looking for an everyday devotional, you ought to be reading Bread from Beggar’s Hands, a morning feature over on The First Premise. Written by Donavon Riley, a Lutheran pastor in Webster, Minnesota, Bread from Beggar’s Hands is 500 words of straight up Law and Gospel truth. It’s kind of like the espresso of Lutheran devotionals. I recommend one dose a day with your morning coffee. More than that may make you jittery.

Whale, Whale, Whale, It’s Maundy Thursday Again

Moby Dick by Herman Melville is not the easiest book to read. A large part of it has to do with the way that Melville swamps his readers with details. For an example of his minutiae, look no further than the sermon delivered by Father Mapple in the Whaleman’s Chapel. Another author may have simply written “From the pulpit, Father Mapple began to preach about Jonah, describing the prophet’s sin and God’s wrath.” Melville, on the other hand, writes out every word of the preacher’s sermon. In the Oxford University Press paperback edition, Melville’s sermon takes almost nine pages.

And truth be told, not only does Melville write an entire sermon, he writes a good sermon. In preaching on Jonah, Father Mapple illustrates a point of Lutheran preaching that’s often misunderstood. When people hear about Law and Gospel preaching, it often conjures up images of balance: Half the sermon should be Law, half the sermon should be Gospel. Don’t go into either ditch, but keep on the narrow road. Find the proper mix of responsibility and freedom.

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However, for Luther and those who follow in his footsteps, the key is not balance. The key to Lutheran preaching is to preach 100% of the Law and 100% of the Gospel in every sermon, and that almost never leads to a sermon equally divided between the two. Father Mapple understand this and illustrates it. For eight pages, Mapple thunders, hammering home Jonah’s sins and God’s wrath. He leaves Jonah and his hearers no escape from the hand of God. He drowns his readers in a sea of Law until they sink straight to the bottom. But then, when his hearers flounder in the watery depths, in two sentences, he preaches the Gospel: “Yet even then beyond the reach of any plummet-‘out of the belly of hell”-when the whale grounded upon the ocean’s utmost bones, even then, God heard the engulphed, repenting prophet when he cried. Then God spake unto the fish; and from the shuddering cold and blackness of the sea, the whale came breeching up towards the warm and pleasant sun, and all the delights of air and earth; and “vomited out Jonah upon the dry land.”

That’s it. Eight pages of Law, 2 sentences of Gospel. But each preached 100%.

Quotations from Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988. 41-49.