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.

 

 

Mental Post-It Notes

A friend of mine tells the story of his father, who once rolled a tractor into a ditch and severely injured himself. As his father lay in the ditch, waiting for someone to discover his predicament, he comforted himself by reciting psalms that he had memorized. In my work as a pastor-in-training, this story has stuck with me. It’s stuck with me because now, more than ever, people find themselves without a pastor. And I don’t just mean people who don’t go to church. Even devout people find themselves in perilous situations without pastoral care. The causes are diverse. Sometimes its transience, moving to a new community and not being able to find a church home. Other times, it’s pastoral incompetence that leads people to strive with death and the devil all by their lonesome. Whatever the cause, the need has arisen for pastors to equip their congregants, both devout and occasional, with resources for comfort and reflection.

I think of these resources like Post-It notes, stuck in the corners of people’s minds. Mostly ignored, but at crucial junctures, reminding people of things beyond their consciousness. But with my mental Post-It notes come two questions:

First of all, how do I help my parishioners to build their own personal Post-It note stack? At least in the Lutheran church, membership used to come with a ready-made expectation of memorizing the Small Catechism, a treasure trove of resources for fighting the battles of the Christian life. However, in the present day and age, where educators scorn memorization as a relic of the “banking model of learning,” and where information is easily accessible, how can I kindle the desire for memorizing Scripture passages and other resources for the comfort of souls?

Second, tied together with the first question, what should go on those mental Post-It notes? While it’s possible that every member of my church may know John 3:16, can such an over-sentimentalized passage be of use in moments of need? These Post-It notes are not meant to be trite greeting card material; they need to be sharp tools. In other words, they need to pack a punch.

Unfortunately, while I possess the inkling that such work is important, the tools to make it a reality are still lying beyond my grasp.

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With that all in mind, if you wish to start your own mental Post-It note stack, I’ll leave you with my recommendation for the first note to commit to memory. It comes from the prophet Ezekiel 37.13-14: The Lord said, “You shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act.”

Go Away from me Lord! Hallesby on Luke 5.8

But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down on his knees before Jesus and said: Lord, go away from me, for I am a sinful man! – Luke 5.8

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If the Lord will live in a person’s heart, He first must crush it. And the hearts which He will use in His work, He will crush the most thoroughly.

It was not only Peter who recognized the terror in his heart. If the Lord will make us useful, we must be able to see our sin, and seeing sin breeds terror. We must look so deeply at our own heart, our own god-fearing, our own Christian work, such that it becomes our despair. If we shall receive “the wisdom which comes from God,” we must first see our own stupidity.

Therefore, do not become discouraged, my dear co-laborers, when you experience this crushing blow from the Lord. You think that everything is impossible, but nothing is as impossible as you doing something righteous in God’s kingdom.

You think that you are unworthy? Yes, but who is worthy? No one. It is only through grace that we become co-laborers in the Lord’s work. As long as you realize this, it will go well with your labors.

You realize that you’re ill-fitted for the work? Good. As long as you realize it, the Lord can use it. For there is nothing which can make you fitted that you don’t receive from God, and He gives grace to the humble.

No one is so well-suited to win over people as a humble person. A humble person never takes a high position among the believers. A humble person never sows splits and disagreements in the Lord’s flock. And a humble person has an entrance into the heart and conscience of the unconverted that nobody else has.

From Hallesby, Ole. Daglig Fornyelse: Andaktsbok for Hjemmet. Translated by Kristofer Coffman. Oslo: Lutherstiftelsens Forlag, 1951, 104.

 

A Meditation for Long Friday

For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God. – 1st Corinthians 1.18

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God has spoken to us many times and in many ways through the prophets. “In these last days,” He has spoken to us through the Son. And it was a powerful speech, spoken both with his words and his deeds.

But the cross is without comparison his most powerful sermon.

The cross on Golgotha is history’s and the world’s turning point.

It is the most dreadful and the most lovely place on our earth.

There, on the cross, God reveals the two most powerful and secret realities in existence: sin and grace.

No person knows sin before they stand at the feet of Jesus’ cross. And because the majority of people will not stand at the foot of the cross, they look thoughtlessly and heedlessly upon their sin.

What does the cross say about people’s sin?

It says that people are enemies of God. It says that people are not only evil; they are so evil at they can’t endure good. So evil that they killed the one good person. And they didn’t kill him by accident. They killed him deliberately with an expertly prepared execution. And it was our world’s most religious people who did it.

Further, Christ’s cross proclaims that sin is so awful that the almighty and all-loving God cannot forgive it without atonement.

But he cannot demand the atonement of anyone else. Instead, God himself becomes human in order to suffer and die for his enemies.

Dearly beloved children of God, let us behold sin’s horrible seriousness. Let Jesus’ lament from the cross pierce us to the bone, so that Jesus’ suffering can give us the fear and trembling that preserves us from despising his grace.

From Hallesby, Ole. Daglig Fornyelse: Andaktsbok for Hjemmet. Translated by Kristofer Coffman. Oslo: Lutherstiftelsens Forlag, 1951, 82.

 

 

 

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.

A Meditation for Palm Sunday

Immediately the boy’s father cried out and said, “I do believe, help my unbelief! – Mark 9.24

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Thus cried out the believing father in his need. And thus cry out all the faithful in their need. The Scriptures tell about faith’s secret, and, in truth, faith is a secret-filled thing. Among others, we find the secret of faith, that one can never be born again without the old self dying. The self’s death and faith’s birth are inseparable.

And death is always painful; the death of the old self is no different, and so, there will always be a painful side of faith. A sinner cannot come to faith in Christ, without at the same time losing faith in himself.

Therefore, in its beginning, faith is always a sorrowing, sighing, crying, doubting faith, because a sinner doesn’t see his faith; a sinner only sees his unbelief. And so we pray unceasingly, like the desperate father, “Help my unbelief!”

But, in other ways, we can see that faith is there. First and foremost, because the sinner suffers on account of his unbelief, and prays for faith.

At that point, faith is already a reality with him, for to believe is to come to Christ with your sins, as the Haugeans say.

He who comes to the feet of Christ’s cross with all his daily sins, he believes, even if he can only see his own doubt, and cannot yet see his faith.

Faith only lives as long as it is wrestling, says Luther.

Here this, you dear children of God, who so often are unsettled and never can grasp your faith as well as you wish.

Cry out like the father in the text: I believe, Lord, help my unbelief!

From Hallesby, Ole. Daglig Fornyelse: Andaktsbok for Hjemmet. Translated by Kristofer Coffman. Oslo: Lutherstiftelsens Forlag, 1951, 81.

A Meditation for Failed Lenten Disciplines

And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion on the day of Jesus Christ.” -Philippians 1.6

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He began. He began in baptism. With us all. But unfortunately it hasn’t gone so well with all of us; we’ve interrupted his good work. We’ve abandoned our father’s house and gone out into a strange land.

But even if we’ve abandoned him, he hasn’t given up on us. He’s followed us the whole way. And he calls after us where ever we go. Even in the middle of sin’s vilest moments, we hear his mild and serious voice.

Already in our childhood years, at confirmation time, as teenagers, he overwhelms us with his grace. Finally, we stop and he convinces us that there is no doubt that we need to turn ourselves around.

And then he puts our old selves to death. He talks with us about our sinful lives and our sinful hearts, until all our escape routes are closed off and we can’t believe that there is any way for us to be saved. But at the same time he grabs hold of us. The grace of baptism which we had closed ourselves off from comes streaming back into our souls. We were baptized into Jesus’ death and now we behold the Word and see the Lamb of God.

And then? What do we do with all of this? We screw it up. Before repentance, we fled every time his gentle voice called to us. We fussed and lied about ourselves and about God, trying to find peace in sin. But he came to us and he melted our defiant will. He gave us repentance.

And after repentance? Have we given him up screwing up? No! We grieve him and disappoint him every day with our selfishness and self-indulgence and quarreling and indifference and mistrust!

But he continues the good work that he had begun and picks us back up when we’ve fallen. What incredible dependability!

From Hallesby, Ole. Daglig Fornyelse: Andaktsbok for Hjemmet. Translated by Kristofer Coffman. Oslo: Lutherstiftelsens Forlag, 1951, 75.