A riddle (of sorts)

It’s something so simple a three-year-old child can do it. It’s something so daunting that someone who has done it her whole life feels like a three-year-old at it.

It’s as simple as opening your mouth. It’s as difficult as closing it.

You can do it with one word. Or a endless stream of words. Or even none.

It’s something you do when you’re happy. It’s something you do when you’re sad. And when you’re perplexed. Or angry. Or frustrated. Or just clueless.

It’s something many non-believers admit to doing. It’s something believers recognize they do far too little of.

It’s as basic as breathing, as essential as water, as necessary as having a good cry or scream, and it can be as refreshing as cool rainstorm on a muggy summer evening.

Have you figured out yet what I’m talking about? It’s prayer.

It’s something a child instinctively knows to do, but something so challenging that those who have been praying for decades still have days where praying something – anything – is a struggle.

Prayer involves opening your mouth and speaking your needs, your beliefs, even your un-beliefs, to God. But prayer also happens when we shut up long enough to hear God – through Scripture, or a friend, or the beauty of a foggy, spider-webbed morning.

Prayer is so central to life, that more than 1 in 3 “nones” (those with no religious affiliation) admit to praying at least monthly. There’s something innate in us that cries out in prayer. When someone we love is seriously ill, there’s something inside of us that wants to cry out in anguish to Someone. When that someone recovers, there’s something inside of us that wants to thank Someone. And if that person we we love doesn’t recover, there’s something inside us that wants to hurl our anger at Someone.

There’s a word for all of those reactions, for all of those voiced feelings and needs. It’s prayer.

Prayer isn’t just something we need to do; it’s something we must do. We were made to cry out at injustice. We were created to cry out in praise at the sight of beauty. We were made to cry out for help in our frailty. We were designed to cry out in gratitude for gifts of grace undeserved.

So, whether you are confident in your faith, confident in your “un-faith,” or somewhere in between – you were made to pray. And it really does start right where you are. With what you are feeling, questioning, experiencing – right where you are.

It doesn’t have to be fancy, or flowery, or even full of faith. It simply has to be honest, and real, and from the heart. With a hope, a trust, a longing for all of that to be heard by someone – by Someone, who hears our deepest cries, and sees our deepest needs.

So, what are you waiting for? Pray. Pray now.

Be Careful What You Read

Scholars during the Middle Ages suggested that there were two “dangerous books” in the Old Testament — books that, if not handled carefully and faithfully, could do more damage than good.

The first was Song of Solomon. No surprise there, as it never mentions that name of God — but sure mentions love. A lot. Let’s just say that it’s probably not a book you’d want to study with middle schoolers.

But the other “dangerous book” was Ecclesiastes. And no wonder. It uses the word “meaningless” over 30 times — five of those times in just the first sentence of the book.

Dangerous? Well, sure, if these words from Ecclesiastes are any indication:

  • “Surely the fate of human beings is like that of animals; the same fate awaits them both. As one dies, so dies the other.” (3.19)
  • “Better than both (the dead and the living) is the one who has never been born.” (4.3)
  • “For who knows what is good for a person in life, during the few and meaningless (there’s that word again) days they pass through like a shadow? Who can tell them what will happen under the sun after they are gone?” (6.12)

And then there’s the book’s conclusion. It’s a poetic, if painful, description of the end of life. And then the main part of Ecclesiastes ends in 12.8 with a repeat of 1.2: “Meaningless! Meaningless! says the Teacher. Everything is meaningless!

Depressed yet? Ecclesiastes is not for the faint of heart, and probably shouldn’t be read in winter (oops; too late now). It really is tough reading, and, like Song of Solomon, reminds us that scripture isn’t the kind of book you just pick up and read like the newspaper. It’s helpful to know what you are reading, and what it’s purpose is.

And for Ecclesiastes, we are reading something that is simply not like anything else in the Bible. It is clearly written from the “other-side-of-the-coin” perspective. The writer of Ecclesiastes believes in God, but wonders what the point is. Yes, there’s a God, but life is still messed up — and what difference does this all make?

And, in a way, he’s right. Life is a mess, and sometimes the wicked prosper while the righteous suffer. And no matter how hard you work, or how honest you are, or how faithful you try to be — you still die in the end.

So Ecclesiastes agonizes over the struggle. And by its inclusion in the Bible, we are faced with a stark and brisk reminder that life isn’t always peach tea and puppies and peppermints. Ecclesiastes is a theological slap in the face — and a reminder that without hope beyond this life, we are no different than the animals.

You see, the writer of Ecclesiastes couldn’t see into the future. He couldn’t see the day when God’s plan would fully be revealed; when death would be defeated; when Jesus would take on this life’s meaningless, and overcome it. In other words, without hope beyond this life, we ultimately lose hope in this life. Without a purpose beyond our 70 or 80 years, then the best we can do is enjoy the moment.

But there is more. And it’s not a “more” that is pie-in-the-sky heaven someday. Instead, the hope we have through Jesus is the kind that transforms not only our future, but our present. Because we have hope, we can live life to the fullest, right now — filled with joy (not just happiness), peace (not uncertainty), goodness (not simply a good life), love (with abandon), and meaning (not meaninglessness).

That’s where Ecclesiastes points us. It doesn’t get there itself, but it knows there must be a way there. And there is. His name is Jesus.

Blogging the Bible: This Ain’t No Math Textbook

It’s unfortunate, really. Almost a shame that it got stuck with the name, “Numbers.” It’s not about math. It has no complex formulas. And while it does start out by opening with a few chapters of “census data,” which counts out the sons of Israel and their tribes — the book of Numbers picks up steam. Fast. Because Numbers isn’t really about “numbers.”

The word “Numbers” comes from the Greek title for the book, “Arithmoi.” If it sounds like arithmetic, well, it’s because that’s where we get that word. But what a shame that a name connected to math is what stuck to the book of Numbers. The Hebrew title, meanwhile, is MUCH better, and much better at describing what follows in the words on its pages: “In the Wilderness.”

To me, that sounds more interesting. More inviting. And it has the added benefit of being truer to the content of this book we call “Numbers.” For that is what this book is about: Israel, wandering in the wilderness. And, as it turns out, Numbers is hard to read — and not because of the math. Because of the mess. Israel is truly in the wilderness, struggling to find its way — and complaining most of the time.

Israel struggles with Moses. Israel struggles with her situation. She struggles with manna, having to live by bread alone.

But most of all, Israel struggles with God.

And in the midst of the struggle, there is a lot of death. It seems as if there are bodies strewn all over the desert. For me, this is the hardest part of getting In The Wilderness; all this death. I can’t explain it; all I know to say is this: Israel was being formed in the wilderness, and the book of Numbers — far from being a book we want to avoid, ends up being a book about the human condition. Will Israel trust God when it has to live day-by-day, moment-by-moment? Will Israel follow God when it can’t see the outcome? In short, will Israel find its identity in God, and God alone? In that regard, In The Wilderness is the perfect name for this book, and the perfect setting for this book. For it’s in the wilderness, stripped of everything and anything that it wants to hold onto, Israel has to decide: Is God really enough?

Someone has pointed out that the one thing where the title “Numbers” fits is when we look at how the book is laid out. The book includes two censuses (censi?). The first (chapters 1 & 2) introduces the generation of the Israelites that chooses not to trust God; and the second (chapter 26) introduces the generation that ends up taking the land. The first is largely faithless; the second seems ready to go where God is taking them.

In short, Numbers is a book about us — and what we do when we are in the wilderness. Do we trust God, or not? When life is rough, do we trust that God is at work, even in the desert? It’s not that we can’t doubt, or get discouraged. Ultimately, I think, the problem of the first generation is not their dissent, but their distrust. They simply won’t trust God in the midst of their doubts, their disagreements, and their dissent. And so they choose to turn away from God, In The Wilderness, where, in fact, they need God the most.

In the end, that’s the challenge — and the opportunity — for when you and I are In The Wilderness. Do we, in the midst of the struggles, trust God — all the way through the Desert Days?