Solomon’s 2nd Dream (a Speculative Story)

In Gibeon Solomon had his first dream. As he slept, God appeaed to him, “Ask for whatever you want me to give you.” Solomon replied, “… Now, O Lord my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David. But I am only a little child and do not know how to carry out my duties. Your servant is here among the people you have chosen, a great people, too numerous to count or number. So give your servant a discerning heart to govern your people and to distinguish between right and wrong. For who is able to govern this great people of yours?”Image result for wisdom and suffering

God was pleased that Solomon had asked for this. He replied, “Since you have asked for this and not for long life or wealth for yourself, not have asked for the death of your enemies but for discernment in administering justice, I will do what you have asked. I will give you a wise and discerning heart.” God also promised him riches and honor. Then God added, “And if you walk in my ways and obey my statutes and commands as David your father did, I will give you a long life.”

Solomon rapidly grew in wisdom, not only gaining understanding of governance,  but also the ability to discern the true nature of matters that he had to deal with. And he was successful— wildly successful.   But in his personal reflections, he was confused. God granted wisdom, and he promised future wealth and honor. However, he did not promise a long life, but only said that Solomon would have this if he was obedient to God. But if one was wise, one would know that the obeying God is the key wisdom. To disobey God is to be the fool.  Could one be wise and a fool at the same time?

And Solomon dwelt on this matter a long time. One day, many years into his reign he was sitting in his palace, the only building in all the land more opulent than the Great Temple of Yahweh, he felt that he now understood the matter. He called out to God… but God did not answer. Many days he called out to God, but with no response. One night, however, close to giving up God returned to him in a dream.

God said, “Ask for whatever you want me to give you.”

Solomon responded, “O Lord my God. Your humble servant has served as king over Your people. You granted me wisdom, and I have sought to lead with wisdom and discernment. Yet I find failings in me. I believe I know what I should do for the good of the people, but far too often I find that what I do is guided more by what will give me pleasure, wealth, and honor. But then I recalled when you came to me the first time that obedience to your commands is not an automatic result of wisdom. A wise man can still disobey you, and thus makes himself the fool. So as Your humble servant, I ask for strength of character, a disciplined heart and mind, to live and act wisely, not just be wise.”

The Lord was pleased that Solomon asked for this. He replied, “You have asked for something great… much greater than wisdom. It is also a much more difficult thing. A man’s character is like a boat— it moves easily as the current and the wind drive it. But to move against the wind and the water takes great labor”

God continued. “I do not gift character any more than do I make a waterfall flow upward. But if you truly desire good character, this is what I will do. I will give you suffering. I will take away what gives you pleasure, and what I leave you will not bring you satisfaction. I will give you dishonor, and grant your honor to fools.  I will scatter your wealth to those who did not earn it. It is a difficult path, and very few choose it voluntarily, but it is out of the seeds of suffering that discipline can slowly grow, and out of this growth, character  may bear fruit. Think on this.”

Solomon awoke, and meditated on his dream for many days, each day becoming more disconsolate. Finally, he called his scribe and began to speak,

“With much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief.”

 

 

 

 

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Three Clean Fingers– A Mystery

This short story is based on a real event. But the mystery remains unanswered.

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Ed went to Oliver’s house shortly after lunch. Both of them were dairy farmers, and Oliver asked for some help in cutting and splitting some locustwood for new posts to repair fencing in his cow pasture. They often helped each other as most people in their community did.

Ed called out, “Hey Ollie. You there?” Ollie responded by walking out of his barn slowly. His hands and clothes were covered with mud and manure. Hardly surprising — one can’t dairy farm without getting dirty. 

Oliver responded. “I was just going in to have a bitta lunch. You are welcome to come in and join me if ya want.” Ed had already had lunch, so he declined. Ed thought it best if he just got to work on the locust while Oliver had his lunch. Oliver shrugged and said he would be out soon to join him.

Ed got to work on the posts. It wasn’t long before Ollie was done and joined him. Ed stifled a bit of surprise. His friend came out of his house with two fingers and one thumb on his right hand perfectly clean while the rest of him was as filthy as ever.

There was no way Ed would consider asking his friend about this. They did not talk much while working. Their favorite talk was about weather and farming, not things that are particularly personal.

Still, as they worked Ed got thinking. Why would Ollie have three digits clean while the rest unchanged. He tried to imagine how this could be.

He pictured Ollie going into the house. He doesn’t clean up but immediately goes to the icebox to perhaps grab a sandwich put together by his wife before going off to a church function, and maybe an apple. As he ate, using his right hand, holding his food with his dirty thumb and two fingers, perhaps they became clean as he ate.

The thought made Ed sick.

But then Ed had a different thought. He pictured Ollie going into the house and walking over the kitchen sink and carefully washed his right hand so that only the thumb and two fingers were clean. At first that was a more comfortable thought.  But then he reconsidered. In the first scenario, Ollie is way too comfortable with mud and manure getting into his mouth. But in the second scenario, it would be so strange to clean his right hand in such a way to make sure that most of his right hand, and all of his left hand remained unclean. It would actually take more effort to do it that way than to simply wash both hands.

Upon further reflection, Ed realized it would have  bothered him less if Ollie came out of his house with fully dirty hands. At least then he could imagine that Ollie wore gloves while he ate, or maybe was especially skilled with using spoon and fork without defiling his food. Or maybe Ollie decided not to eat.

Ed could not figure out which story was correct, but he would never ask. It must remain a mystery.

I don’t know the answer, but the story does remind me of the passage in Matthew 23:23-25.

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You pay tithes of mint, dill, and cumin, but you have disregarded the weightier matters of the Law: justice, mercy, and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence…”

There are differences, but it occurs to me that there are similarities to the story. The pharisees and scribes were described as people who clean the trivial and missed what was more important.

It sounds a bit like the first scenario…. swallowing a camel as they drank, like Ollie being defiled by his dirty hands. In this sense, their “piety” actually defiles themselves.

It also sounds a bit like the second scenario. Picture the hyperbole– carefully cleaning the outside of a cup while a camel is overflowing the inside of the cup. The behavior is then obeying the details of the law while ignoring the spirit (true substance) of the law, One could argue that it may actually be hard to pick and choose one’s piety to address trivial matters while ignoring issues of true love and justice.

One might imagine Jesus being more comfortable with a person who lives without a fastidious hypocrisy much like Ed preferring that Ollie had come out with dirty hands.

So the mystery remains, but maybe the story is not as strange as it first seems.

 

Willy Wonka and the Advent

Well I do love the 1971 movie, “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory.” I did enjoy the book it was based on (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory). but it has been over three decades since I read it and its sequel, so I would rather base the story on that movie not the book. The revisioning of the story by Tim Burton could have, should have perhaps, been better, but ultimately wasn’t.

In the 1971 movie, what was the reason for the “advent” of Willie Wonka, the breaking of years of mysterious absence? A few options could be suggested:

  • To give out several golden tickets.

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  • To give an amazing tour of the chocolate factory
  • To find a mentor to be trained to be his replacement as the head of the chocolate factory
  • To sell more chocolate
  • To deal with dangerous candy manufacturing competitors.

The fifth option was shown to be a red herring at the end of the movie, but the first four have more potential. At the end of the movie, the “real reason” given was to seek a mentor. However, the methodology of getting there was quite poor. The plot has two major sections that point towards the first two options— the search for the golden tickets and tour of the factory. However, the search for the tickets was more of a means, rather than an end of itself,  and the tour is joined by the participants all with very different motives.

Perhaps the only option that really makes sense is the fourth one. Willy Wonka opened the doors of his factory to sell more chocolate. It alone justifies the awkward method of seeking a mentor, and justifies putting tickets into the wrapping of chocolate bars that must be purchased.

And yet, that is unsatisfying. The movie is not just a business strategy, it is a story. That story depended on the entire plot, not just reduction to a single purpose or plot device. The story would not exist without the golden tickets or the tour. As part of the plot, they have more value than seeking a mentor or selling more chocolate, regardless of their centrality to the “purpose” of the story.

And then, you really can’t overlook Charlie either. His role as poor child, who cares for others, (the ultimate underdog) must be considered if one seeks an overall moral to the story.

So what does this have to do with the “Advent” of Christ?

A bit of a “Twitterstorm” started some days ago when Tim Keller put up the following Tweet:

“Jesus didn’t come primarily to solve the economic, political, and social problems of the world. He came to forgive our sins.”

I was quite surprised at the ruckus this fairly straightforward statement made. I do remember being a bit uncomfortable with it. I don’t like reductionism, and I wish Evangelicals weren’t so fascinated by “bumper sticker theology.”  Of course, some of the concern hinges on what one means by “primarily.” After all, if primarily means the one main central reason, presumably God could have come up with a method of forgiveness that was a bit more… direct. Other reasons could also be given:

  • Demonstration of God’s love. This comes, in part, from John 3:16. One might make the argument that it demonstrates God’s love because the incarnation provides the means for forgiving sins. But that is quite reductionistic. The method itself says much about God’s love, as God chose to humble Himself, and identify Himself with His creation.
  • To bless all peoples. The Abrahamic Covenant sees itself fulfilled, in part, by the Advent of Christ. This blessing has a universal quality to it that transcends issues of salvation, election, free will, and atonement.
  • To be the anointed one. Our Bibles are not just the Epistles. They are also the Gospels and the Old Testament. One could probably just as accurately say that Jesus came, primarily, to fulfil God’s promise for the anointed liberator of God’s people.
  • To provide a way. While we often focus on forgiveness coming from faith, faith is generally described in terms of a path. In Jesus we have not just the life and the truth, but also the way. Jesus came as a prophetic teacher, to provide revolutionary ethics in how we are to live. It is hard to see how that can be seen as secondary.
  • To give ultimate victory in spiritual battle. While many like to reify the spiritual war metaphor,this seems much less than a primary purpose for the advent. God is not in some uncertain struggle with the devil. Much like with Willy Wonka, the struggle with competition is more of a red herring.
  • To inaugurate the Kingdom of God. The reign of God has implications with regards economic, political, and social problems. I guess that is the reason that I struggle with Keller’s quote. Can one say that the inauguration of the Kingdom of God is secondary to the establishing a means for forgiveness? I’m not sure.
  • To reveal Himself. Much like in the above movie where Charlie is character is part of the purpose of the story, so is Jesus in the advent. Jesus is Immanuel, God with us. He is the revelation of God “in these last days.” Presumably, God could have come up with a way to forgive that maintained His own personal splendor and transcendence. Islam, for example, prefers a merciful God that lacks the messy self-involvement of identification and incarnation. But in the Christian faith, how could one place this below the strategy of the atonement?

In the end, the Advent of Christ is a story. I believe it is ill-advised to suggest that elements of the story are subordinate to others.

Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory was not primarily about a business strategy, it was not primarily about selling chocolate, it was not primarily about finding a golden ticket. and it wasn’t primarily about a tour of the factory. They were all critical elements. Willy Wonka could find a successor in a more efficient manner, and sell chocolate with thousands of different strategies. In a story, the method is still part of the story. And so are the primary characters.

Is Jesus primary reason for coming to provide a method to forgive sins (the “golden ticket” purpose)? Maybe, but if it is primary, that doesn’t make the other reasons secondary, nor is the method secondary, nor Himself secondary.

I like a lot of what Tim Keller says even though our theology is different in some ways (Frankly, I feel good that I would fail the TGC litmus test),  His tweet isn’t bad, even if I would struggle to agree wholeheartedly. Maybe his biggest error is to try to speak broadly on the Advent of Christ in 280 characters.

 

Christmas and “The Gift of Garigolli”

This is a follow-on of my previous post on the Golden Rule and how it is affected in cross-cultural situations. If you haven’t yet, you can read the post HERE.

An interesting story that points this out is “The Gift of Garigolli” by Cyril M. Kornbluth and Frederik Pohl. It can be found in an anthology “Critical Mass,” published in 1977, among other places. It is science fiction, but in doing so it takes to an extreme case a difference of cultures making it (nearly) impossible to apply The Golden Rule, or The Great Commandment, in a way that is teleologically or contextually ethical.

It has been years since I read the story. However, the story is about microscopic aliens that have come to earth for research, I believe. However, part of their protocol is to do more than the National Park Service concept of “Please take nothing but pictures. Leave nothing but footprints.” In their culture, since they benefited from their hosts, they must leave behind a gift. A good cultural value. The problem was, being microscopic, that were unable to communicate with humans, and could not figure out what these giant creatures (us) would appreciate. The aliens understood that a gift was not really a gift unless it was recognized as a boon to the recipient.  Early attempts were a failure as humans failed to even notice the attempts of gift-giving. Humans were in fact totally unaware that they were sharing space with extraterrestrials.

Eventually, through some experimenting and a bit of dumb luck, the aliens made something that humans recognized as a wonderful thing. The aliens satisfied the requirements of their culture and they were finally able to leave.

It is still under copyright, I am pretty sure, so I can’t point you to a webpage to read it. Too bad, but I don’t want to spoil the story. It also has an interesting second “parable” of sorts regarding a plastics manufacturing executive and how his ethics and aesthetics are driven by economics. I don’t think his perspective is uncommon.

Anyway, it will be Christmas in three days. It is a time of giving and receiving gifts. It is a time to remember God’s great gift to us. It is also a time, I believe, to remember that a gift has failed to be a gift until it is recognizably a blessing to the recipient.

If Jesus born over 2000 years ago in Bethlehem, Judea, is a gift for all people, how can we help people understand that it is indeed a gift?

If we are supposed to express God’s love to others, and yet fail to do so in a way that people can recognize and appreciate, have we truly expressed God’s love?

 

A Parable of Three Cars

My wife and I were having an a somewhat impromptu conversation with a couple of our ministry partners (they know who they are). As we talked the issue of achieving one’s dreams (or failure to do so) came up, along with the issue of regret. That led me into what I hoped was a somewhat inspirational speech of sorts. With further reflection, it occurred to me that I could have done better. This is what I should have said…

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John and Bill were next-door neighbors and were in their 60s. Bill came over to John’s yard where John was working on his car. John had a sports car. It was pretty obvious that it once was a sleek powerful machine. But now it looked quite beat up, and the oil stain on the driveway suggested that this car was really struggling. Bill asked him about his car.

John said, “Oh I have had this baby since soon after I could drive. I loved to go out and cruise through town in it. I loved to go out into remote stretches and floor it. I just loved it. I, ummm, still love it, but it seems like I spend more time now trying to keep it running and held together than I do driving it. I see,” looking at Bill’s car in his driveway, “that you have a nice— practical car.”

And Bill’s car was practical. Safe. Reliable. It was the type of car one might expect of a man entering his retirement years.

Bill replied, “Yeah, it is nothing fancy, but it really works for what I need it for. I use it to get around town, go out with my wife, and the grand kids. It’s really what I need. But I do have a sports car as well. I also got it soon after I could drive.”

John wanted to see it, so Bill invited him over to look in his garage where there were in fact two vehicles. The first car was a fiery beast much like what John’s car used to be. But while John’s car was falling apart, Bill’s looked to be in excellent condition. John expressed admiration of it.

“I don’t drive it much anymore,” said Bill. “Once in awhile I will bring it out of the garage for old time’s sake. But you know, when I started getting into my upper 30s, the car didn’t really suit me very much. I had a wife and kids, and a sport’s car isn’t very practical– too small for the whole family. Also a sport’s car works great for the open road and for cruising around town, but sometimes one wants to get off the beaten path, so one need’s something a bit different. So I got the SUV.”

Bill pointed to the second vehicle in the garage. It could hold a family, and get off-road when needed. It also looked to be in pretty good condition.

Bill continued. “This car,” pointing to the SUV, “treated me well for many years, but when the kids grew up and moved out, and my wife and I began to slow down just a bit, we decided to get the car we now use most of the time. But, there are still times to bring out both the sports car and the SUV. Not much of a point to keep them if I don’t, you know?

Let’s consider those three cars.

The first car is AMBITION. When we are young, we have big exciting dreams. These dreams drive us forward, like a powerful sports car drive us where we want to go. But, much like a sports car, youthful ambition tends to take people on the well-used roads— quests for love, success, wealth, and fame. But this sports car, ambition, starts to become a problem as years go by. As one begins to have others joining, spouse, children, friends, community, and such, the car is simply too small. It lacks the seating to bring others along. Also, the car only works well on the smooth roads that many others have gone before. But the less traveled paths, dirt roads with bumps and holes, as well as places with no roads at all, cannot be handled well by this car. Further, often upon reflection, the dreams of youth are found not practical, or not feasible, or no longer desirable. The sports car just doesn’t run like it used to. It doesn’t meet needs anymore.

So many consider a second car. Some as they enter their middle years choose to get another sports car, seeking to recapture the former thrill of youthful ambition even if it does not meet one’s real needs anymore. Other’s however, go for a different vehicle. This vehicle is REEVALUATION. One has family and community that one wants to travel with. Speed and thrill are not so important now. Upon consideration, where one now wants to go may not be the roads that average people choose. One wants to go off-road, the road less taken. One still has dreams, but these dreams are more in line with where one is in life today, based on one’s present true aptitudes and passion, rather than 20 years before. Fame, Money, and Success, as they are commonly understood, may not be so important anymore. Now one wants to find Meaning and Purpose. One wants to find one’s personal niche or place in the world. One wants to be connected with others. This second vehicle allows others to join in the journey to places that others ignore.

And some people stay there in either their sports car or SUV. But some reach a point that they need a third car. That car is SATISFACTION. One has found one’s purpose, and achieved at least some of the goals of youth or the middle years. Now one doesn’t need to fly down the road at breakneck speed. And one does not need to blaze new trails. One needs a practical vehicle for self and family, and to go to the places that one really needs to go today.

Of course, SATISFACTION may not be the only car of later years. One may still choose to find new goals and explore the unknown and so needs to go back into REEVALUATION at times. And perhaps once in awhile have the excitement of youthful AMBITION. After all, no matter how old one is, the child, teen, young adult, and middle-ager are present. They never completely go away.

What is not healthy, however, is to hold onto youthful dreams that no longer fit later in life. It is also not healthy to keep reevaluating and look for new purposes and goals, without finding some level of satisfaction where one presently resides.

What car(s) do you have? What does it (or they) look like. Does your transportation meet your needs now?

Story Arcs and Ministry

Nice little article in the Atlantic Magazine,  “The Six Main Arcs in Storytelling, as Identified by an A.I.” by Adrienne Lafrance. (Click Here). It looks at some interesting research as far as how stories flow in terms of emotional arcs. That particular research can be seen HERE. There are many ways to categorize stories, but one can look at six main ones from an emotional standpoint.

Story Arcs

This is not the total limit of possibilities. For example, there can be Quadro-directional or more. In fact, many novels can look like a rollercoaster. Still many of them trend towards one of these types— or a long story with many sub-arcs.

Additionally, some stories can be seen as different depending on more specific details of the flow. For example, on www.honorshame.com, they talk about two common types of stories in the Bible: Guilt-Innocence Arc, and Shame-Honor Arc. Both of these stories are essentially variations of the “Man in a Hole” arc. In the case of Guilt-Innocence, the story restores the main character to the same condition as the start (same normal). In the case of Shame-Honor, the story brings the main character to a new, higher normal. Likewise, Kurt Vonnegut, in a youtube presentation referenced and attached to Lafrance’s article describes two types of stories: “Boy Meets Girl” and “Cinderella” stories. However, both would be described in the graph above as “Cinderella” Arcs. With “Boy Meets Girl” the main character starts out neutral and in the second movement dips below neutral. With “Cinderella” the main character starts low, and in the second movement probably does not dip below the starting condition.

Curiously, in the research referenced above, based on Project Gutenburg downloads, the three favorite arcs are:

Icarus

Oedipus

Man in a Hole

Man in a Hole is classic because it describes the classic plot. Normal, Problem, Resolution to the Problem, Normal. We love people who get into trouble and then get out of it.

Oedipus and Icarus are harder to understand because the end is “sad.” But people do like cautionary tales, as well as people who “get what’s coming to them.”

Rags to Riches and Riches to Rags are less popular, perhaps because they lack the classic tension of a normal plot. In one the problem exists before the beginning of the story. In the second, the problem comes into the middle of the story, but without a resolution. Or perhaps the issue is that they are just too simple. They don’t resonate with real life. Good things happen to good people may seem “right” but doesn’t feel that much in touch with reality… or even if viewed as normative, is not all that interesting. The same can be said about bad things happening to bad people. Real life ebbs and flows more. A athletic event is one in which the winner appears to be in doubt until the very end.

One reason that parables in the Bible appear to be successful is that they avoid the unidirectional story— the first become the last, and the last become the first. The one who is supposed to be the hero acts like the villain– while the one we expect to be the villain, becomes the hero.

Stories that are told for purposes of ministry should take this to heart. A lot of preachers like unidirectional stories (Victory stories… essentially Rags-to-Riches). Perhaps they think the listener cannot handle more complexity or nuances than this… but they would be wrong. The story should not be unidirectional— simple and expected. The story should resonate with the interests of the hearer. This resonance doesn’t necessarily mean giving the hearer what he or she expects. After all, one thing the hearer wants is to be surprised.

Preaching is a bit of a dying art… but its death is more of an act of murder than of natural causes. Preachers remove the narrative from sermons to be replaced by propositional statements, along with a few very predictable unidirectional illustrations to “drive the point home.”

I remember a sermon/lecture in which the speaker was speaking on raising up children to follow God. It was a propositional sermon with several bits of advice. The illustrations were all built on the same story line:  I did the right thing and my children became better than they were. My only real memory of the sermon was how uninteresting and uninspiring it was.

There is a better way.