“And they called Rebekah and said to her, ‘Will you go with this man?’ She said, ‘I will go.'” (Genesis 24:58)

Rebekah would be seriously chastized in the church today. What a silly, irresponsible girl! No sensible Christian woman would enter into marriage with a guy she has never met. She did not go through a checklist from a Christian magazine telling her how to discover whether the prospective suitor was godly enough for her. She did not follow her family’s advice and delay her departure a little. What did she do? She said, “I will go.” To a land far away. To marry a herdsman still living in his deceased mother’s tent (nothing strange there). No, we would definitely take her aside and have a talk with her, dissuade her from recklessly throwing her life away.

I love the heroines of the Bible. Their strength and faith is so humbling. Rebekah’s “I will go” seems to foreshadow the faith with which Peter, Andrew, James and John will leave their nets on the beaches of Galilee to go follow Jesus, to eventually become the Bride married to the Christ.

I am not suggesting that Rebekah’s actions are to be exactly imitated or that arranged marriages are superior to “Western” marriages. I am certainly exaggerating a little. I suppose I am just tired of a culture that is obsessed with information and oblivious to thought, prayer, and faith. We are a culture that looks to politicians, pastors, and experts first to form our opinions. We need our magazines, websites, classes, and support groups first.

We do not often kneel as individuals before God and seek Him first. Rebekah saw the servant’s manner and eagerness to please her relative. She knew he had prayed. She perceived God at work. She herself had already shown a kind, serving and receptive nature (which is a prerequisite for faith–Mark 4). She believed that this new development was from the Lord. She observed, thought, probably prayed, and believed. This does not diminish the spontaneity of her faith; it merely shows its richness. Remember, she had very little time to do all of this.

Perhaps it is the influence of Calvinism (determinism) on North American culture, coupled with our materialism, insatiable curiosity, our bureaucratic checklist-oriented, propaganda-soaked minds, but it seems we are losing the ability to do the things that Rebekah did: to walk blind.

Rebekah did not see hundreds of miles of waterless wastes. She did not see hundreds of angry camels getting out of line. Or exhausted servants. Or dangerous highways infested with warlike tribes and bandits. She did not see a nondescript husband who might be frightening or churlish. She did not see 10 tips she heard somewhere or a checklist of things to remember when evaluating her potential mate. She probably did not recall her most recent lady’s Bible class or youth group session. She did not see all the cultural, dogmatic and economic clutter that obscures everything so much today. Rebekah was blind to these things. What she saw was the greater picture; the work of the Lord in her life.

Blind faith, one might object, belongs to fanatics, heretics, and the misguided. It is something we wish to avoid. We can look to the Gospels for proof: “Let them alone; they are blind guides. And if the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.” (Matthew 15:14). Jesus, however, is talking about a different kind of blindness, a blindness that comes from being unable to see with faith and reason. The apostle Paul shows us that there is a holy kind of blindness: “For we walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7). This is when we should become blind to the wind and the waves, and only see Jesus: “But when he [Peter] saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, ‘Lord, save me.’Jesus immediately reached out his hand and took hold of him, saying to him, ‘O you of little faith, why did you doubt?'” (Matthew 14:30-31). Was Peter seeing correctly? Surely he was observing!! I would say no. What Peter saw were not the wind and the waves that they were already walking on; Peter saw the wind and the waves through his fear and lack of trust in God. To observe correctly, we need to be looking to Christ (Matthew 6:22-23).

In order to see clearly and walk by faith, we need to be blind to many things, the things of the world that would tempt us away from observing, thinking, praying and living in devotion to a trustworthy God. When I look back on all the mistakes I have made, I know that they originated in the wrong kind of blindness and an absence of holy blindness. I was not Rebekah. I was oblivious to reality, I was not listening to the Voice of Scripture, and I was not spending time in
devotional prayer or meditation on the Word.

It is true that often, especially when we are young, it is hard to think for ourselves and to live without getting advice. I do think, however, that our church cultures and broader North American culture has crippled us to
some extent with the result that we are all looking for the answers in Bible class workbooks, youth group meetings, in worldly magazines, and in blogs like mine! We are programmed into thinking that we need to seek approval and guidance. The only guidance and approval that we need comes from the Lord, but I don’t think we will find it without deep devotion and holy blindness.

I meant to say more and say it more clearly, but time has run out for today. Forgive my generalizations and exegetical fallacies. And may God help us to see Him in our lives rather than the mirages we tend to follow.

Some characters in the Bible strike us as boring, insignificant, or lacking in dimension. By faith, we know these people were real historical figures; they had desires, dreams and sorrows; they had faith or lacked it; they followed God or rejected Him. And yet the paucity of details leaves us wondering or disinterested. It still blows my mind that The Prayer of Jabez sold 9 million copies. Although the book represents the kind of religious kitsch that I do not adhere to, ironically it is a phenomenon that tells us not to dismiss these seemingly uninteresting figures who might be little more than a name that is impossible to pronounce. Even the obscure Jabez of 1 Chronicles 4:9-10 taught nine million modern readers aspects of the Good News and the Bible some three thousand or more years after he walked this earth. Another character, whose name is repeated often in the Old and New Testaments, also seems obscure: Isaac.

Though I have always loved the story of Rebekah’s faith in God, for years I found it hard to relate to Isaac. Besides receiving a wife, digging some wells and being tricked by his wife and son in his old age, he did very little in my mind besides provide a biological link between the more multifaceted characters of Abraham and Jacob. I had made a caricature of a wise man of faith who went quietly like a sheep to his would-be slaughter, trusting his father, who prophetically said “God will provide for himself the lamb” (Genesis 22:8).

In the earlier post, “Good Hosts and Guests”, I wrote a panegyeric to Abraham as a paragon of hospitality. I even drew some moral and spiritual conclusions from his life:

“Hospitality is a great and noble thing, but it is also composed of little, humble things and simple gestures. Like the simple gesture of offering food and drink to a visitor, or walking with them for a while when it is time to go home, maybe even walking them all the way to see them safely to their doors. We need to remind ourselves that we are not alone, though we may feel lonely. If we wait for hospitality without offering it, we have no right to complain of loneliness or alienation; the choice is always ours as to how much we wish to interact with others. When we open our minds and our hearts, people will notice. They will see that we have something to share, and perhaps will be more ready to share themselves.Our own homes need to be open to others; our time needs to be open for strangers, foreigners and the poor. Instead of initiating new programs, building new organizations, or trying out new technosociological methods, maybe we need to learn how to open doors for people, talk to strangers in the park or mall, make small talk with passengers on the bus, offer a helping hand to a neighbour carrying boxes or groceries, park our cars and walk through our neighbourhoods, take off our headphones or shut off our cell phones, close our laptops, invite someone inside for a meal, or practice the lost art of etiquette and good interpersonal communication. Sometimes the best form of hospitality is to simply walk with someone and listen to them. Without hospitality, we cannot learn about other cultures and subcultures—in fact, we cannot really learn anything at all…”

Although I stand by these statements, I think they need some serious qualifications. Being alone can be an integral part of the spiritual life. Sometimes being inhospitable or avoiding direct confrontations can be the best way to preserve your sanity. The story of Isaac does not have a lot of great battles, miracles, or moments of illuminating teaching. What we find in the life of Isaac is the strength to withdraw from the world, to walk alone, to let go of things rather than fight.

“And Isaac sowed in that land and reaped in the same year a hundredfold. The Lord blessed him, and the man became rich, and gained more and more until he became very wealthy. He had possessions of flocks and herds and many servants, so that the Philistines envied him. (Now the Philistines had stopped and filled with earth all the wells that his father’s servants had dug in the days of Abraham his father.) And Abimelech said to Isaac, ‘Go away from us, for you are much mightier than we.’ So Isaac departed from there and encamped in the Valley of Gerar and settled there. And Isaac dug again the wells of water that had been dug in the days of Abraham his father, which the Philistines had stopped after the death of Abraham. And he gave them the names that his father had given them. But when Isaac’s servant dug in the valley and found there a well of spring water, the herdsmen of Gerar quarrelled with Isaac’s herdsmen, saying, ‘The water is ours.’ So he called the name of the well Esek, because they contended with him. Then they dug another well, and they quarrelled over that also, so he called its name Sitnah. And he moved from there and dug another well, and they did not quarrel over it. So he called its name Rehoboth, saying, ‘For now the LORD has made room for us, and we shall br fruitful in the land.’ From there he went up to Beersheba.”

To a modern reader, this may seem like little more than the struggles of tribesmen over scarce natural resources. And yet, the story describes a victorious retreat. Isaac moves on from well to well. It is true that traveling from well to well is typical for nomads dependent on seasonal springs or wells, but Isaac is doing more than following the seasons and watering holes. He is avoiding conflicts. Would he not have prevailed had he met the Philistines and herdsmen of Gerar head on? Did he not have the Almighty behind Him every step of the way? And yet, he chose to withdraw. He chose to yield and withdraw after rebuilding what others had destroyed. He did not give up; he continued to labour and dig wells, but he sought a kind of solitude from pointless conflict and wastes of time. The reward of this victorious retreat is a reaffirmation from God of His covenant with His people (Genesis 26:23-25) and the triumphant discovery of the springs at what would become the important city of Beersheba (Genesis 26:32-35).

I could be reading too much into the text, but where Abraham shows hospitality and an ability to wait on the Lord, Isaac shows the strength to withdraw from the world and its entanglements, depending solely on
God for provision. They are related qualities, and yet not the same. Sometimes our spiritual walk requires walking alone, being semi-detached sojourners like the patriarchs.

I have often not walked like Isaac. In my pride and misguided hospitality, I have allowed people to steal from me. Sure, they stole from Isaac, too, but he departed. I have wasted hours, days, years “babysitting” people who were not really interested in walking with the Lord, but were very interested in dominating my schedule, taking me away from my family or personal time with Jesus so that they could have their egos stroked, massaged and pampered. I did not depart, though. In some cases, I may have actually helped them stop up any springs I had dug for the Lord rather than move on and dig new ones. I had somehow hoped that by being patient and yielding to them, I could make them see Jesus. Now I think this was just pride and weakness. I wanted to be the saviour, rather than letting Jesus be the saviour.

The New Testament gives us so much wisdom for life. The Lord Himself may have spent years with the disciples, but that was because the disciples wanted to walk with Jesus, and it was the Lord’s will that they walk with Him. Despite their human weakness, they were not always trying to make Jesus walk with them (although this does seem to be Judas’ problem in the end). Like Isaac his forefather, Jesus moves from well to well, from one town in Galilee to another, an itinerant rabbi intent on walking with the Lord rather than getting too comfortable. Jesus was not afraid to withdraw or move on:

“And rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed. And Simon and those who were with him searched for him, and they found him and said to
him, ‘Everyone is looking for you.’ And he said to them, ‘Let us go on to the next towns, that I may preach there also, for that is why I came out.'” (Mark 1:35-39). This is not a blueprint for short term missions. Remember that Jesus stayed largely in Palestine throughout his entire ministry; Philip spent years in Caesarea. This is, however, an indication that the man of faith must seek desolation at times to be alone with God. The man of faith must go into the next towns, that is to say new situations, to avoid being held captive or enthralled by the demands of this world, which are contrary to the will of God. Sometimes he must walk alone. Our walk is to invite others to walk with our Lord, not to stray from the path and sample the various other walks in the world.

One of my favourite books in the Bible is Ruth, because it tells the story of my favourite missionary: Naomi.

Naomi is a strange and unlikely candidate for a favourite missionary. First of all, she did not go to school or receive training, and I am an advocate of the scholarly life. Secondly, her beliefs might have been heterodox, if not outright henotheistic and universalist (Ruth 1:15)—again, qualities I tend to find most irritating in believers. To further complicate the matter, she does not strike the reader as terribly positive or as possessing great faith (Ruth 1:11-13, 2:20-21). She wants to change her name to “bitter”! I confess, I cannot judge her on that one. Lastly, she did not travel very far to an exotic location. She basically went to the country next door, Moab, and ended up only converting one person! And her daughter-in-law Ruth at that! Not a stranger she actively met on the street and proselytized, not an influential, intellectual or wealthy man who could have planted a new community of monotheists in pagan Moab. Not even a poor beggar, to show the power of charity and to set a fine example for later generations. No, just someone she happened to live with under the same roof. In the history of missions and conversions, she is even less successful than David Livingstone. Moreover, Naomi makes the mistake of bringing her convert home with her, instead of leaving her in the target country as a missionary apprentice to teach her own people about the Lord. She should have handed things over to the local before retiring.

None of that matters to me, and missions is not about our models, standards, and criticisms. Missions is defined by the type of spirituality we read about in Ruth. I love this story and everything in it. I love to imagine their journey out of Moab, how they might have skirted the pale blue waters of the Dead Sea, how they crossed the lush Jordan and arrived in time for the harvest. The golden barley covers the hills, and the young maidens of Israel are out working to gather grain.

The key to this deeply spiritual and, in my opinion, typologically prophetic book, lies in what is not said. For years, Naomi had to live side by side with Orpah and Ruth, foreign women with different gods, customs, and speech. She was an outsider, a sojourner, but she made a home warm and peaceful enough that both her daughters-in-law wept twice when she resolved to go home (Ruth 1:9, 14). How many times did she patiently endure something culturally bewildering? How many times did she gently advise or encourage her daughters-in-law with words of wisdom planted by the Lord? How many nights did she weep and pray? How did she strive day by day to be a role model for them? It is not written directly into the narrative, but it is there from beginning to end. Ruth is about Naomi. It is perhaps out of concern for their well-being and safety that she tells them to go back: travel was dangerous in antiquity. She would gladly bear more sons if she could and give them in marriage to these women, but she knows this is impossible, and would be impractical even if it were possible (Ruth 1:11-13). She wants them to have a good life. Her good will and love are so powerful that, although Orpah returns to Moab, Ruth exclaims: “For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God” (Ruth 1:16). It is in the character of Ruth herself that the spirituality of Naomi is written. Ruth can trust Naomi and follow her, because Naomi–despite life’s hardships—is seeking what is good.

That is the heart of missions: wanting others to have a good life. A good life is a life filled with love, truth, righteousness, holiness and enduring peace. The good life is life in God (John 14:6). Naomi may not have had her theology completely straightened out, but she knew enough about God to want to be a blessing to others and to want God’s mercy for others: “May the LORD deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. The LORD grant that you may find rest, each of you in the house of her husband!” (Ruth 1:8-9). Of course, Naomi is also an unwitting prophetess, for the blessing she bestows is deeply Christological: where else can we find rest and the kindness of the Lord other than in the Bridegroom?

Ruth is filled with Gospel typologies; it has to be, it is the story of one of David’s ancestors, and the Messiah is the Son of David (Matthew 1, Mark 10:46-47). Thus, Naomi, the bereaved “mother” of David (in one sense) wants to be called “Mara”, or “Bitter”–which is one of the meanings of the name Mary. The gentleman Boaz who feeds grain and wine to the sojourner (Ruth 2:14) is surely a type for Jesus, who feeds physical bread to the hungry, while promising to become a banquet of spiritual bread and wine to those who believe (John 6).

What, then, is Naomi’s role in this narrative? She advises and prepares Ruth for marriage to a “redeemer” (in this case, a legal term relating to inheritance and perpetuating the family name). Naomi’s words to Ruth are very significant: “My daughter, should I not seek rest for you, that it may be well with you?” (Ruth 3:1). Isn’t a missionary precisely like this: a person who seeks rest and well-being for others, serving to introduce them to their Redeemer who will wed them to Himself in unbreakable, immeasurable love? Just as Boaz weds Ruth both out of lovingkindness and so “that the name of the dead may not be cut off from among his brothers and from the gate of his native place” (Ruth 4:10), Jesus weds us because He loves us and wants our names and our souls (body and spirit) to be perpetuated among our fellow saints in heaven for eternity.

To have a heart like Naomi’s! To live in such a way that others are attracted to the truth, and throw down their gods and homelands willingly, regardless of the risk, to cling to the saints and follow God! To journey the extra mile, advising and sharing, to ensure that the outsider comes into the Kingdom and finds the good life! That is what it means to be a real missionary.

Originally posted on another blog of mine under the title “The Model Missionary”

“When the men got up to leave, they looked down toward Sodom, and Abraham walked along with them to see them on their way.” (Genesis 18:16)

One of the most beautiful aspects of Abraham’s faith was his hospitality. When the Lord and the angels visited him at the oaks of Mamre, Abraham made dinner for his visitors. When it was time for the angels to depart, he saw them off, walking part of the way with them. This gesture showed his respect for his guests and a reluctance to part. It may look ritualistic and old fashioned, but there are places in the world where this is still the norm.

Abraham’s dinner guests are on their way to Sodom and Gomorrha, where the citizens will violate the ancient rules of hospitality by attempting to prey upon their visitors without cause. In Greek mythology, Paris violated the rules of guest-host relations when he abducted Helen from Menelaus his host, an outrage that sparked the war with Troy we read about in Homer’s Iliad. To the ancient mind, being a good host and being a good guest were, at least ideally, the signs of civilization and humanity. When these two qualities were absent, war and chaos broke out. The pages of Herodotus and the Old Testament offer numerous examples of how men and women lived up to these standards or utterly failed. Peace or tragedy depended on how generous people were willing to be.

Abraham is a model of faith, because his beliefs are not just abstract ideas or formulaic doctrines. His faith takes shape in how he lovingly relates to God and to other human beings. In sharp contrast to the men of Sodom who want to molest their guests, Abraham treats his guests well and even prays for the salvation of Sodom (Genesis 18:21-33). Though good guest-host relations make civilization possible, civilization itself cannot often maintain noble conduct among its citizens, with the result that civilization itself erodes and crumbles. This seems to be the norm in the world today. There is no room in our hearts for others or the ultimate Other (God). We are inundated with ourselves, and thus drowning in ourselves.

Walking with God requires cultivating a loving guest-host relationship with both the Godhead and with our fellow humans. As hosts, we must open our hearts to others as Abraham did. As guests, we must behave respectfully, thankfully and without ulterior motives or malice. Christ teaches us that our spiritual life depends on being both guest and host to the Trinity in a mystical mutualism: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you” (John 14:15-17); “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him” (23); “Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples” (John 15:4-8). We abide in Jesus by living in Him, making our abode or home in Him; we do this through living His word. If we love him as good guests, then He will be our guests. He wants us to be hosts to Him, just as He wants to be our eternal Host in heaven.

Hospitality is a great and noble thing, but it is also composed of little, humble things and simple gestures. Like the simple gesture of offering food and drink to a visitor, or walking with them for a while when it is time to go home, maybe even walking them all the way to see them safely to their doors. We need to remind ourselves that we are not alone, though we may feel lonely. If we wait for hospitality without offering it, we have no right to complain of loneliness or alienation; the choice is always ours as to how much we wish to interact with others. When we open our minds and our hearts, people will notice. They will see that we have something to share, and perhaps will be more ready to share themselves.

Our own homes need to be open to others; our time needs to be open for strangers, foreigners and the poor. Instead of initiating new programs, building new organizations, or trying out new technosociological methods, maybe we need to learn how to open doors for people, talk to strangers in the park or mall, make small talk with passengers on the bus, offer a helping hand to a neighbour carrying boxes or groceries, park our cars and walk through our neighbourhoods, take off our headphones or shut off our cell phones, close our laptops, invite someone inside for a meal, or practice the lost art of etiquette and good interpersonal communication. Sometimes the best form of hospitality is to simply walk with someone and listen to them. Without hospitality, we cannot learn about other cultures and subcultures—in fact, we cannot really learn anything at all in any discipline.

Jesus, whose birth was marked by closed tavern doors, proclaims that in His Father’s house there are many rooms (John 14:2-3) waiting for those who love Him. What is the Good News if it is not the greatest wedding invitation in
all of history?

The world cannot see Father, Son or the Holy Spirit, but it can see Him dwelling in us and moving us to love and receive love. At the end of the day, to love and believe in God must begin with a hospitable, open, and welcoming attitude or disposition to His grace. It is time to invite the other into our lives; it is time to open gates and doors; it is time to walk with our guests and hosts, praying for the salvation of others.

“These are the generations of Noah. Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation. Noah walked with God.” (Genesis 6:9)

The story of Noah is so renowned it is almost unknown. It is more than just an introduction to our debate of the day: Was it a universal flood? Was it the cataclysmic flooding of the Black Sea circa 5600 BCE? Is it all a metaphor? Is it about divine wrath or prehistoric attempts at ecological conservation?

The heart of the story is this. Noah lived at a time when almost nobody believed in God or cared for human life. Violence was widespread, civilization was all but nonexistent, even if its technological aspects were still intact, and the days were so evil that “The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Genesis 6:5); “Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence. And God saw the earth, and behold, it was corrupt, for all flesh had corrupted their way on the earth” (Genesis 6:11-12). The deep antiquity of this story and the level of violence makes it hard for us to imagine or believe. Biblically speaking, the world has never been that bad again, since we haven’t yet been blotted out again (this time with fire). And yet, there are surely some indirect ways we can relate to this story. We could begin by counting the war dead from the last century, or tallying the number of human beings harvested for organs or bought and sold as slaves in this century already. We could remember the stories of Frank Serpico, Gustav Schroeder, Hans and Sophie Scholl, or all people who have had to try and stand up for righteousness, while being surrounded by evil-doers and obstacles to good works.

The story of Noah is filled with contrasts. Noah “walked with God” unlike most of his generation. He built a seemingly useless floating zoo that his contemporaries must have ridiculed, given that the ark had sat on dry earth year after year. The animals only added to the surreal aspect of Noah’s art installation. Moreover, he did not worship the sun, moon, or stars, lightning, thunder, or trees and animals—all which can be seen and observed—he worshipped an invisible God, whose existence seemed to lack any sort of evidence. Noah is a strange character. On the one hand, he is the archetypical culture hero, mastering marine engineering, animal husbandry and agriculture; on the other hand, he is the first counter-cultural figure in the Bible, refusing to give in to the cultural norms of his day and stubbornly following the commands of a seemingly absent God. Noah was, by today’s standards, insane.

Noah’s madness was righteousness. Although an honest faith does involve human reason, faith often looks unreasonable to the godless. Noah was “blameless in his generation.” He did not follow the Zeitgeist; he refused to join the pathological struggle for power and security through wanton murder. He trusted in God, even in the darkest moment of history, when humans had created a living hell and were on the verge of suffering near extinction.

Jesus was accused of being insane and possessed (Mark 3:20-35); Paul was thought to be mad from excessive learning (Acts 26:24). Righteousness means to have the courage, peace and patience that Noah had to walk in a different manner from his generation, as well as the strength and comfort that God reserves for those who want a relationship with Him rather than with the world alone. We tend to glorify or ridicule “generations” based on our personal biases; we study the history of the Greatest Generation, the Hippie Generation, Generation X and Y, etc. And yet all these generations are one and the same generation of men and women walking after their own lusts and failing to follow God. While others were killing and destroying and acting immorally, Noah was planning, building, caring, and preserving animal and human life. While the world was busy with the very practical questions of acquiring and asserting power, Noah laboured on a seemingly impractical and idiotic project, all the while speaking to an invisible Friend in heaven.

Our churches will only be vessels of salvation and hope when we can learn to be blameless and peaceful idiots once again, building and preserving, caring and waiting, all the while avoiding the ways of the world. Our lives as Christians will only reach the safety of Ararat if we first dare to build a boat in the desert. We cannot hope to change the world by being like the world; we cannot hope to preserve the good things in this world by aping the destructive and selfish practices that dominate all aspects of modern civilization and culture. Righteousness is to walk in madness. It is to walk differently from the others, and to invite others into that strange walk.

Monasticism most likely began as a response to the growing affluence and hierarchical politics of the state church in the Roman Empire. Monks and solitaries went into the deserts of Egypt and Syria to practice a more primitive form of Christianity. Only fragments of what the early monks taught survive in the Sayings of the Desert Fathers. Legend now veils the real lives of Anthony, John Cassian and Benedict of Nursia. Whatever our theological objections might be to their extremist and perhaps misguided teachings on total withdrawal, living by strict rules and practicing celibacy and rigid fasting, their daily life was filled with gospel-like simplicity, prayer, and reciting the word of God. Moreover, their exodus into the desert to recapture what they believed to be the essence of their faith reflects a very Biblical concept that we see time and again in God’s relationships with key prophets, from Abraham to John the Baptist–the escape from the world.

Abraham is our human spiritual father in the sense that he lived by faith: “For we say that faith was counted to Abraham as righteousness. How then was it counted to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after, but before he was circumcised. He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised, so that righteousness would be counted to them as well, and to make him the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised. For the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith” Romans 4:9-13). To really understand what the Bible means by a faith that pleases God, it helps to look at the life of Abraham.

In the Epistle to the Hebrews, the author says this of Abraham: “By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God” (Hebrews 11:8-10). Although anything but celibate, Abraham is the first monk to leave the comforts and distractions of civilization to follow God and live by faith in things unseen. Sojourning and traveling in foreign lands seems key to Abraham’s faith. Today faith is often defined by the exact opposite: civic responsibility, nationalism, politics, technological innovations, and cultural tradition. We have drifted far from the empty deserts, herds, starry skies and humble tents of our forefather in the faith. We are not even remotely monastic; we are very clear that the world is very important to us, whether it is the natural world of the environment or the social world of laws, rules, mores, and standards for fellowship. Are we able to live “not knowing where we are going”? Not all of us will have the opportunity to travel, but are we able to leave Ur and dwell in our own lands as though they were foreign lands? Abraham’s journey into the unknown, and his departure from any patriotic relationship to Ur, were marks of his obedience to God! Before we condemn Ur as a godless state worthy of being abandoned, let us consider the possibility that every nation is godless in some way, and every nation is Ur, mired deeply in the world.

In the quotes above, we have seen that belief and obedience involving withdrawal from worldly living were key aspects of Abraham’s journey with God. There are two other ideas that seem worth noting. The first relates to holiness: “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless, that I may make my covenant between me and you, and may multiply you greatly” (Genesis 17:2). God invited Abraham into a relationship of righteousness. The narrative of his life does not hide the moments when Abraham made mistakes, but we do see him living as God has commanded, avoiding idols, politics, power, and worldly entanglements. Though the Hittites do not fear God, he lives at peace with them, knowing that the punishment of a civilization depends on divine will and not on human desires. His involvement in the war of the kings is really a tangent that shows his love and generosity for his family; he does not become a great warrior, although it seems he could have. Neither Ur nor Mesopotamia nor Egypt nor Canaan nor the land of the Hittites is able to draw Abraham away from his new life. It is true, at one point in his life he must have beem accustomed to living, thinking and worshipping the way the people of Ur did. His whole worldview depended on that city. In order to please the God who called him, he abandoned his native city: its politics, economics, its cultural traditions, its lifestyle. He entered the desert where God spoke to him. And it is here that Abraham lives a nomadic life of learning from the Father in heaven. To walk before God is to walk blamelessly; Abraham is a wanderer with an otherworldly destination.

Living this otherworldly life is another key aspect of Abraham’s faith. On the one hand, God’s covenant with Abraham comes with tangible rewards: safety, a place to sojourn, and progeny. And yet, Abraham is never going to see most of the things promised to him: the possession of the land and the many nations descended from him. Even so, God says: “Arise, walk through the length and the breadth of the land, for I will give it to you” (Genesis 13:17). The land is a symbol of something greater–it is a symbol of grace, of love, of rest, of heaven itself, “the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God” (Hebrews 11:10). Abraham’s walk of righteousness involves responding to God’s invitation by walking through the length and breadth of hope. For Abraham, God is a giving Father, an honoured guest in his tent (Genesis 18), and the trustworthy guide for his caravan. In another sense, the land is like a great sandbox where God has placed his child to play, to teach him to find true delight and unfading happiness in the eternal exploration of God Himself. Abraham’s sojourn teaches him to hope in eternity and to find the true promised land in God Himself.

Am I walking blamelessly?
Am I walking the length and breadth of God’s promises?
Am I walking towards the city that has foundations?
Am I walking with God and within God?

Not enough. Although we may not be called to become monks and nuns, there is something monastic in the Christian faith that needs to be rediscovered. It is the life of otherworldly values, sanctification, and sojourning. Jesus taught us to store up treasures in heaven and not on earth. I want to walk into the desert; I want to walk where there is nothing but the Lord Himself.

“Enoch walked with God, and he was not, for God took him” (Genesis 5:24)

The skeletal story of Enoch in Genesis is told in seven verses, and at the end we know very little about him. His father, Jared, was 162 when Enoch was born, and lived another 800 years after his birth. As for Enoch himself,  apparently he lived 65 years before fathering Methuselah, and he “walked with God” 300 years after that, fathering other sons and daughters. In total, he lived 365 years (Genesis 5:21-23), far fewer years than his father had lived. The only thing that really stands out in his story is that “he walked with God”–it is mentioned twice–and that “he was not, for God took him.”

In the New Testament, however, we learn that Enoch is an ancestor of Jesus (Luke 3:37). The author of Hebrews offers this explanation of his story: “By faith Enoch was taken up so that he should not see death, and he was not found, because God had taken him. Now before he was taken he was commended as having pleased God. And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him” (Hebrews 11:5-6). This is a fascinating thought. In order to please God, we must not only believe in His existence–we must believe in His justice and good will as well.

It must have been hard for the early patriarchs. Their close ancestors were from Eden, but they themselves lived outside of paradise–indeed, had never known paradise–in a time when many of the civilizing skills we take for granted were either not yet invented or still in primitive form. Life was not easy. Primitive nomadic herding and agriculture probably meant that humans existed largely on a survivalist or subsistence level. It is tempting to romanticize it as a carefree age of noble savages, who wandered freely over the earth, unburdened by government, luxury, laws, or the complications of urban life. The Bible suggests that it was not easy; Noah is viewed as a type of neolithic culture hero and innovator: “Out of the ground that the LORD has cursed this one shall bring us relief from our work and from the painful toil of our hands” (Genesis 5:29). Agriculture did not come easily to humanity (it is still not very easy at all). Most of life must have been a combination of exhausting work with meager profits and a continuous waiting for better times or signs from God. Modern humans can probably relate to that, even if the environmental and technological factors are different. If Noah is considered to be a turning point in the agricultural situation of the people, then Enoch who came before him lived during the difficult years. And yet, it is during these difficult times that Enoch walked with God, believing in His reality and in His goodness, and hoping in Him, even if the earth seemed to offer no reason to hope in the invisible God. Enoch, as the author of Hebrews tells us, lived by faith.

Enoch is the first sign in the Bible that there is hope beyond death. In the story of Cain and Abel (Genesis 4) and in the genealogy leading up to Enoch’s story (Genesis 5:1-20), we hear of ancestor after ancestor dying, facing the consequences of Adam and Eve’s rebellion. And yet, now we hear of someone who is taken up to God! There is something beyond this life, a way to heaven! And this way to heaven seems intimately connected with Enoch’s faith. The way into heaven–into God–is to walk with God during our lives. It is absurd to think that one can reach God without God’s help. To walk with God is the only way we can be with God forever. There is something else in Enoch’s story that is striking. It says that “he was not”, as a way to say that he was no longer on earth, he was nowhere to be found. It is a way of saying that he departed without dying. And yet, there is more to it, perhaps. Enoch had walked with God for so long that Enoch “was not”–the selfish ego had melted away; his own identity was less important than his relationship with God. By God’s grace, Enoch’s faith  had drawn him upward into eternity.

Our walk into God must be a walk with God. We are not walking or acting alone. Once we have believed and been baptized, we have the Holy Spirit, who pours love into our hearts and counsels us in divine wisdom, joining us to the heavenly Father. Thus, our work must be done in God and with God’s grace and help. It is not ours alone, and if it is, it is not godly or good. It is merely vain. The more God fills our lives, the less there is of our old selves. It is in God that we find our true selves, the human beings that God intended us to be, our new identity that is inseparable from Him (Revelation 2:17, 3:12). If we cling to our old selves, our aggressive, selfish natures, then we can never know God. Jesus said: “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it” (Mark 8:35).

The story of Enoch is short, but it is a type of proto-evangelion. It anticipates the key marks of Christianity: intimacy with God, abandoning the self, and hope and faith in an eternal God who would draw us into heaven beyond death, if we are willing to walk with Him and trust in His goodness. To walk with God means to walk away from our evil desires, to walk in hope of a better tomorrow, and to walk each day in prayer to God, trusting Him and seeking Him.

 

“And they heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day” (Genesis 3:8)

Man was made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). Since we do not see God, it is difficult to grasp the meaning of this. In one sense, we might understand this to mean that God has given us an immortal spirit. Our souls are thus a meeting place between the earth from which we were formed and the spirit that God breathed into us (Genesis 2:5-9). There are, however, other things that we have received from God’s own nature: reason, language, and emotion, for example. These enable us to have a relationship with God, and they are the building blocks of our personality. Our God is a personal God, not a mere force like gravity and not a mere abstraction like Aristotle’s first cause. He has given us aspects of Himself to draw us into Himself. This is why He pronounced His creation “good” (Genesis 1:31). In the beginning, the creation lived in harmony with our Creator.

Motion is another important aspect of our nature. It is true that animals also move, but our motion is different from that of the animal kingdom, and it is certainly different from that of all plantlife. Animals largely migrate because of instinct or immediate necessity, such as the search for food or the avoidance of danger. Human beings move for other reasons: to explore, to meditate, and even to just relax. We walk just to walk, and we often walk in social contexts to enjoy each other’s presence and conversation. Although there are many kinds of animals with varying degrees of bipedalism, it is really only the human being that can be seen as a perennial walker. Most of our life is a long walk from infancy into the grave.

I believe we walk, because God walks. The notion of a moving God is perhaps alien to conventional or traditional theology. We like the idea of a static God, an unmoved mover. Too much movement is suspicious. After all, it is Satan who is supposed to be wandering (Job 1:7), and Cain was banished to the Land of Nod, which literally means the “Land of Wandering”. I believe wandering and walking in these instances are examples of pointles movement; those who do evil are “waterless clouds, swept along by winds…wandering stars, for whom the gloom of  utter darkness has been reserved forever” (Jude 1:12-13). God’s movement is purposeful and delightful, part of His eternally perfect being. It is hard for us to think of a God that can move or travel, because that suggests a God that can change. I do not believe God changes. Scripture says: “God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind” (Numbers 23:19); “For I the LORD do not change” (Malachi 3:6). Nevertheless, an unchangeable God can still theoretically move, and I believe God has been moving and working throughout eternity. God’s eternity, omniscience and omnipresence may be poetically  imagined as His long walk through time and space. Logically, this is not quite possible, because the universe is in God: “In him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). And yet, when speaking of the Saviour, the prophet depicts a great shepherd walking over the earth: “In a time of favor I have answered you; in a day of salvation I have helped you; I will keep you and give you as a covenant to the people, to establish the land, to apportion the desolate heritages, saying to the prisoners, ‘Come out,’ to those who are in darkness, ‘Appear.’ They shall feed along the ways; on all bare heights shall be their pasture; they shall not hunger or thirst, neither scorching wind nor sun shall strike them, for he who has pity on them will lead them, and by springs of water will guide them. And I will make all my mountains a road, and my highways shall be raised up” (Isaiah 49:8-11).

Our long walk of existence is a gift from the ultimate walker. In Genesis, we read that God was walking in the garden in the cool of the day. Why was He walking in the garden? Most likely, because it was His desire or custom to walk with Adam and Eve, to spend time with them, and pour out His love and affection for them. The apostle Paul connects God’s walking with worship, too: “For we are the temple of the living God; as God said, ‘I will make my dwelling among them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people'” (2 Corinthians 6:16). In the Genesis account, we see that sin became an obstacle to our communion with God. To walk with Him in the intimacy and purity of Eden was no longer possible, because of the rebellion of Adam and Eve. And yet, this seems precisely to be the original purpose of creation, of Eden. Eden was the place where God walked with us. It is thanks to the Good Shepherd, mentioned in Isaiah and numerous other passages of the Bible, that we finally walk again, in intimate closeness to God, where He loves us, and we love Him in return.

To walk with God suggests good kinds of change. God’s goodness will not change, but the landscape will change for us. We can grow, we can learn,we can change to be more like Jesus. If we are not walking with God, we are rotting. There is a park where I love to walk late at night, because the trees are very beautiful, and there are open spaces that let you see the stars. Whenever I am walking there, I am usually praying and talking to God. And for a short, too short, period of time, I feel that I am in Eden with God in the cool of day, enjoying the intimacy that God intended–and this only because of His boundless love and grace for His creation and His great work of salvation for it through the Shepherd, Jesus.