brittle crazy glass

Bob Jacobs, reflections on life in light of the gospel

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The Color of their Death

A long time ago, my nephew Leif wrote a poem for a high school English class. The poem was about the beauty of leaves in the fall. (Where he lived near Lake Superior, the leaves were spectacular!) One phrase from his poem has stayed with me all these years: they are displaying “the color of their death.”

That might sound at first rather macabre, but I think it’s actually very beautiful, and it says something that’s true about us as followers of Jesus. As we die to the power of sin and to the ways of the world, something happens: we find that the beautiful, colorful, distinctive life of Jesus is taking up residence in us. His life is becoming our life.

The thing is, we have to die. As Robert Farrar Capon has said, God is not interested in making us better; he wants to make us new. Death and rebirth is the only way he works.

It reminds me, in this political season, of something I read recently in a piece by Thomas Friedman (“Beirut’s Blast is a Warning for America” – NY Times, August 9, 2020). Friedman writes about our need locate our source of Truth in something outside ourselves and our sectarian passions. He quotes Israeli philosopher Moshe Halbertal: “For a healthy politics to flourish it needs reference points outside itself – reference points of truth and a conception of the common good. When everything becomes political, that is the end of politics.”

Whether in politics or in any other area of our lives, we gain by losing; we live by dying.

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The Power and the Glory

The novelist Graham Greene’s 1940 novel, The Power and the Glory, tells the story of a renegade, de-frocked, Mexican Roman Catholic priest in the state of Tabasco in the 1930s, a time when the Mexican government was attempting to suppress the Catholic Church. The priest tries to avoid identification as a priest, but time and again he finds himself giving priestly care to others.

Whether he means to be or not, he is salt and light to the world. In last Sunday’s sermon, I spoke about Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:13-16, where Jesus informs the people gathered around him (not commanding them, as is sometimes thought) that they are the salt of the earth and the light of the world. The question is whether our saltiness is being compromised and whether our light is being obscured.

There are times when being salt and light are in hard opposition to the world around us. R.V.G. Tasker once wrote that the church is to be “a moral disinfectant in a world where moral standards are low, constantly changing, or non-existent.”

Similarly, Martyn Lloyd-Jones said that “The glory of the gospel is that when the Church is absolutely different from the world, she invariably attracts it. It is then that the world is made to listen to her message, though it may hate it at first.”

The mainline church is often deeply uncomfortable with this role; other parts of the Christian family tree often relish this role too much. We all have to remember that Jesus was uncompromisingly clear about how rotten and dark the world can be, but he was salt and light because, and only because, he was FOR the world and came to give his life in order to redeem it. (See John 3:16-17)

Yesterday, I took the day off to attend to some work that had to be done on my garden. (The rafters had to be removed, and the whole thing needed to be cleaned and stained.) I was working hard out in the sun, listening to the Rolling Stones, when I noticed a man walking across my yard with a can of spray paint, working on some utility work. I walked over and asked how he was doing. To my surprise, he wiped away a few tears, collected himself, and admitted that he was having a bad day.

“Want to talk about it?” I asked.

“Nah,” he said after a moment, “but thanks.”

“Can I get you a glass of water?”

“That would be great,” he said.

So for the next ten minutes, we talked. Not a counseling session, but a human connection that included us both; I learned about his life. We talked as friends, and I saw a person created in God’s image. I said I would pray for him. A little later it continued as he walked by. It was salt and light, and it was why I took that particular day off; I just didn’t know it at the time.

C.S. Lewis wrote, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see it but because by it, I see everything else.” It wasn’t my role yesterday to convince him of God’s existence or of the moral wisdom of living by Jesus’ words. It was to be priestly as a human being, to be a little salt and light, to help him see the rest of his life a little clearer, to point to the power and the glory.

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A Consistent Ethic of Life

In my sermon two weeks ago, I was talking about God being not only for life (that is our biological life, as in the contemporary anti-abortion sense), but even more in the sense of ZOE, the real life that God intends for his creation. This ZOE encompasses biological life (bios) and our interior psychological and mental life (psyche), but it also goes beyond them both to refer to a quality of life in keeping with God’s goodness and delight in the well-being of his creation.

A commitment to ZOE LIFE includes (and this is a partial list):

  • Visiting prisoners
  • Respecting women and minorities and treating them equally
  • Feeding the hungry
  • Meeting our neighbors in their need
  • Clothing the naked
  • Speaking for those who have no voice
  • Treating people who disagree with us with humility and respect
  • Protecting the unborn
  • Loving the mentally ill
  • Caring for the creation
  • Welcoming refugees and immigrants
  • Standing up for the abused

And those are just things that we DO. This life is more than that, resurrecting and giving life to who we ARE, a new creation!

ZOE is such a deep and multi-faceted idea, there’s no one place in the Bible that describes it fully. It so so broad and inclusive that it transcends discreet concepts like spiritual, social, political, relational, physical. The whole Scriptures point to it, though. This should keep us from reducing our concept of the kind of life that God is FOR to one single issue. (It should also enable us to commit ourselves wholeheartedly to specific parts of this beautiful biblical vision.)

For starters, here are a few Scriptures that help us start to see the breadth of God’s vision of LIFE – a vision that cuts across our categories and ideologies:

  • Exodus 23:1-9
  • Leviticus 25
  • Deuteronomy 5:6-21
  • Psalm 139:13-15
  • Isaiah 58:6-9
  • Micah 6:6-8
  • Matthew 5-7, 25:31-46
  • John 17:3
  • Ephesians 3:14-19
  • 1 Peter 1:3-4

Zoe Life is more than we can possibly know in this life. But we are given a wonderful promise: “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” (1 Corinthians 13:12)

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Get the Grandpa!

Well, that was humbling.

Yesterday, Facebook sent me a photo with a reminder that it had been taken eight years ago. It was a snapshot of me and the other members of Hupomene (Greek for perseverance), my men’s group from Princeton days. We are a picture of sunburnt mirth, grinning like Cheshire Cats.

We exchanged a few jokes and comments during the day, mostly referring to hair turning gray or receding (or disappearing altogether). One friend, who had originally said “We’re aging well” later amended it to “Well, we’re aging.” At one point someone commented that I had changed relatively little (but who knows, the picture was a bit grainy). I took this to the bank.

Then during Chill-30, Westminster’s after school hangout for teenagers, I strolled out at one point to say hello and decided, in my well-preserved state, to jump in on a game of gaga-ball. This is a game, you might realize, that requires a considerable degree of dexterity.

And then it happened. At first I thought I misheard it, but no. A couple of the kids – 7th graders, I think – were chanting it, and then it seemed to rise as a chorus: “Get the grandpa, get the grandpa!”

All in a fraction of a second, I stood up like a meercat to see who was saying it, and I realized that these kids might well have had grandpas my age. Just as this thought formed in my mind, the ball ricocheted off my leg and I was out.

Sobering? Yes. Funny? For sure. But most of all, I was glad to hear it from their mouths, and I hope it hear it for a long time to come.

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“A Third Thing”

Water is H2O – two parts hydrogen, one part oxygen.

But there is also a third thing that makes it water,

and no one know what that is.

D.H. Lawrence

The English writer D. H. Lawrence wrote this prose-poem to ponder the mystery of life. There is chemistry, for example, that can account for the scientific reality of creation. But science alone doesn’t amount to life. There is something else – a wondrous “third thing” – that makes it all possible. He admits he doesn’t know what that third thing is; he also supposes no one knows.

In a way, he’s right. How can something so creative and so powerful be reduced to words and fit inside our human minds? On the other hand, we know what the “third thing” is: it’s the life that can only come from an unimaginably creative, powerful, and good God.

The Bible has a Greek word for this kind of life: ZOE. It’s more than exterior physical life (bios), and more than interior mental and psychological life (psyche). ZOE is the deepest kind of life – the kind of life we are created for (see John 1:4 &10:10), the life that includes all the best of our experiences, the life that God intends as we love God and love our neighbor (even our enemies) as ourselves, and the kind of life that is finally and only centered in Jesus himself.

Why am I writing all this? First, we all need to be reminded that no matter what our own lives are like right now, we are part of the grand Story that God is at work restoring ZOE to the whole creation (including us), and that one day that work will be gloriously complete – so live in hope!

Second, in our tense and divisive political climate, let’s agree not to define “life” by anything less than ZOE. Our identity is grounded in the Life that comes from God! That’s the “third thing” we are all made for.

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We don’t know what we’re talking about.

How easily we misjudge what’s going on in someone else’s life.

I do this regularly. That’s hard to admit for someone who likes to think they are fairly good at “reading” people and situations. On most days, I trust my intuition on most interpersonal interactions, until… Until I am reminded how easily I can get it all wrong, and confuse intuition with assumption.

In my world (such as it is), so much is deduced from whether or not a person shows up, or what they may say or not say in a short conversation, or whether they return your calls or emails. But that deduction can be badly misinformed.

You just don’t know what you don’t know. I recently spoke with a friend whom I haven’t seen in a while. Regardless of what I assumed about the long hiatus, I heard my friend pour out a litany of painful events, like a line of explosive dominoes: financial loss, personal struggles, frustrations with circumstances beyond our control, and an evil action perpetrated by a sick individual. I had no idea.

G. K. Chesterton once said, “With every step of our lives we enter into the middle of some story which we are certain to misunderstand.”

I’ve been reading the book of Job lately. There’s very little scholarly agreement about what Job is – a history, an epic poem, a drama – but whatever it is, it’s brilliant. Like a Greek tragedy, from the beginning, the readers/audience know something the characters don’t: Job really is innocent, and so his well-meaning (and sometimes arrogant) friends consistently put their feet in their mouths as they bloviate about his suffering.

But at the end of the book, Job gets his wish: an audience with God. It’s terrifyingly beautiful. I would have thought that God would come and tend to his emotional wounds, like the angels attending to Jesus after his ordeal in the wilderness. But no, God comes and puts Job on trial. Sit down, sonny, because now it’s time for me to question you.

Job has been right about so much, but now as he stands before God Almighty he has nothing to stand on. Before his friends, he was respectable in his righteousness. But now before God, he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. As Brian Hardin says, talking about God isn’t the same as being in the presence of God. (Listen to this episode of the Daily Audio Bible:

That should make us think twice about our assumptions. Do people sometimes disappoint us? Sure. Sometimes people just get pissy or lazy or cocky – just like us. They, and we, don’t always make the best decisions. But more often than we realize, there’s more going on in someone’s life than we would ever guess.

Maybe that’s why Job said, “Anyone who withholds kindness from a friend forsakes the fear of the Almighty.” (Job 6:14)

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I do not think that word means what you think it means.

In the movie “The Princess Bride,” Buttercup’s captor Vizzini repeatedly describes unfolding events as “inconceivable.” After Vizzini cuts the rope the Dread Pirate Roberts is climbing up and sees that Roberts doesn’t fall, he exclaims once more, “Inconceivable!” To which Inigo Montoya replies, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

It’s hard to unlearn something.

Case in point: I believe that God is sovereign. (That’s a word that doesn’t see much daylight outside of theological conversations, unless you’re referring, for example, to a tribe being a “sovereign nation.”) It refers to God being independent, above all, in control. To believe this means having some difficult conversations as we try to make sense of all the brokenness, suffering, and horrors of this world. Correction: I should say to believe this should mean having difficult conversations. God’s sovereignty isn’t just a trump card that we blithely play to avoid the hard stuff.

How is God sovereign? One of the scriptural verses at the center of our understanding is the beloved Romans 8:28: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” (NIV)

I love this verse, and maybe you do too. It’s one of the first verses I ever put to memory, and I have turned to it many times. It’s just that it might not mean exactly what I have assumed it means. N.T. Wright, in God and the Pandemic has stirred the pot for me, and I’m working through it.

This verse (and the context it’s in) is like a sharp knife. It can cut into the joints and marrow of my life in a helpful way. It has also cut people painfully. I mean, it has often been quoted to hurting people or in painful circumstances to mean something like Don’t worry, everything will be alright. God will use even the bad, painful, evil things for an ultimately good purpose.

I believe that. I want to believe that. I need to believe that. There is so much that is simply ugly – including in myself. It would be good to know – and fascinating to see – that God can use it in a redemptive way. (It reminds me of the beautiful sculptures in the Black Hills made from trash by local artist John Lopez – see

The thing is that if this verse simply means “everything is going to work out fine,” – that either God’s going to work it out or that things have a way of working themselves out – that is a deeply unsatisfying, escapist, and not-fully-Christian answer to someone who’s lost a child or a parent, or to the reality of systemic racism, or to someone crushed by mental illness.  (Add your item to the list here:     )

Then there’s this: the operative verb in Romans 8:28 (usually translated “work” or “work out”), Wright points out, is not ergazomai, the usual word for “work.” (We will all be forgiven for not noticing this right away.) The verb Paul uses instead is synergeo (you can see the cognate word “synergy”). This far rarer word (used by Paul only two other times), it turns out, means something like “co-working” (see 1 Corinthians 16:16 and 2 Corinthians 6:1).

Consider that at least part of the way God exercises his sovereignty is by working for good with and through us. Not simply cleaning things up for us. That doesn’t mean God being any less powerful in any way (see 2 Corinthians 12:9). This is perfectly consistent with God’s counter-intuitive plan to bless and redeem the whole fallen creation by working through a covenant relationship with Israel, as messed up and unworthy (and loved) as they/we are.

One word. Big deal. (Really, it’s a big deal.) Think of what this might mean as we try to understand and respond to the pandemic (or whatever the problem du jour is today).

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Lasagna for the Soul

I’ve told the story before of the time when I had rotator cuff surgery. I had received several well-wishes from sincere, caring people, almost always accompanied by the offer, “Let me know if there’s anything I can do.” This is something we say, often because we don’t know, or haven’t thought about, what to offer. I’ve said it countless times. Just like we say we are “fine” when someone asks how we are. But one woman from our congregation called me with an unexpected message. She said, “Bob, I’m making you a lasagna. Do you want it on Tuesday or Wednesday?”

It would have been really strange if she had said she had been struggling with why God would have allowed my rotator cuff to become so damaged. Or wondered what sin in my life had led to so much pain in my shoulder. Or wondered what part of my body with give me problems next. Or lectured me on throwing rocks or that time when I shouldn’t have tried to trim that branch in my mother’s tree (long story).

She just made me a lasagna.

N.T. Wright reminds us of the time in Syrian Antioch (recorded in Acts 11:27-30) when a prophet named Agabus stood up and prophesied that a severe famine would spread over the entire Roman world. The disciples there, stated very matter-of-factly, decided to provide help for the brothers and sisters living in Judea (about 300 miles to the south). So they made a lasagna and sent it. (That’s shorthand for taking up a collection.)

Note that Acts doesn’t record them questioning how God could allow a famine, or wondering if the famine is a sign of the End, or strategizing how the famine could help them get more converts, or worry over how quickly they could get over the famine and get back to normal. They ask three questions: Who is at risk? What should we do? Whom can we send?

I know lots of people who are way better than I am at showing practical care. I’m grateful for their example and the way they challenge me to not get lost in my own head. Truth is, the big philosophical and theological questions of life only get worked out in practical ways.

Incidentally, this is true of great art of any kind. It reminds me of a comment made by American author Flannery O’Connor as she reflected on the writing of Gustave Flaubert:

All the sentences in Madame Bovary could be examined with wonder, but there is one in particular that always stops me in admiration. Flaubert has just shown us Emma at the piano with Charles watching her. He says, “She struck the notes with aplomb and ran from top to bottom of the keyboard without a break. Thus shaken up, the old instrument, whose strings buzzed, could be heard at the other end of the village when the window was open, and often the bailiff’s clerk, passing along the highroad, bareheaded and in list slippers, stopped to listen, his sheet of paper in his hand.”

The more you look at a sentence like that, the more you can learn from it. At one end of it, we are with Emma and this very solid instrument “whose strings buzzed,” and at the other end of it we are across the village with this very concrete clerk in his list slippers. With regard to what happens to Emma in the rest of the novel, we may think that it makes no difference that the instrument has buzzing strings or that the clerk wears list slippers and has a piece of paper in his hand, but Flaubert had to create a believable village to put Emma in. It’s always necessary to remember that the fiction writer is much less immediately concerned with grand ideas and bristling emotions than he is with putting list slippers on clerks.” (Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners)

The pandemic can make us get lost in our own head. It can also draw out perceptive, creative and practical responses of care and kindness, lasagna for the soul.

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The Questions We Ask

The questions we ask reveal a lot.

I’m not sure exactly how news traveled in the first century, but these were things that would have been all over social media today. I’m talking about the two tragic news items mentioned in Luke 13:1-5. People ask Jesus about the scandal, Did you hear what happened to the Galileans? (Pontius Pilate had allegedly killed some of the infamously seditious Galileans and as an insult mixed their blood with animal blood at the Temple.) Did you hear about those who died when the tower of Siloam fell on them? (A tower in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Siloam crumbled, killing bystanders.)

Both were truly tragic – one as a result of an evil act, the other an unfortunate accident (possibly due to shoddy construction, but who knows?). The question implicit in the people’s bringing the scandals to Jesus’ attention is Why? As in, why would God cause or allow this? Why do bad things happen to good people. It doesn’t make sense, Jesus. It’s not right! Give us an answer so we can believe that the universe makes sense! Why?

We may have the exact same question about many things in our world and in our lives, the COVID pandemic included. Why?!

It’s interesting – not just interesting, but maddening, perplexing, infuriating – that Jesus, as he so often does, doesn’t answer the question that’s being asked. He redirects the questioners. He talks about repentance. (We should be careful not to assume we know all of what this loaded religious word means.) He’s speaking of the need to examine the direction of our lives. He’s not threatening a similar tragic fate as punishment for refusing; he’s saying there’s more than current events to consider when you talk about death. More on that another time…

But the fact remains that Jesus doesn’t answer the original question. He’s not interested in maintaining the questioners’ sense of order.

Consider the questions some have so quickly asked about the pandemic: Whose sin in responsible for this? (Is God executing judgment on some group or some issue?) Is this a portent of the end of all things? What opportunity does this give, since people might be (temporarily) open to entertaining existential questions?

Might we be assuming that these are the questions Jesus is eager to answer?

To be continued…

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Philosophy Matters

In the early summer of 2020, British biblical scholar and theologian N. T. Wright published a short book (76 pages) entitled God and the Pandemic. How someone writes, much less publishes, a book in such a short time boggles the mind. But he is N. T. Wright, probably the world’s foremost New Testament scholar, and a prolific writer. I once attended a panel discussion at which Wright was a participant. At the beginning of the hour, the panelists took turns responding to various questions; by the end of the hour, all the other panelists had conceded the rest of their time to “Tom” because they, like everyone else in the room, were transfixed by his responses.

As Albus Dumbledore says in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, “Being me has its privileges.”

It’s unwise to agree with and support everything any individual says or does, whether that’s a scholar or a politician. So I have to own the fact that I am a fan of Wright’s, and I need people to help remind me that he is not infallible. But I do find his thinking to be very lucid and orthodox, even while it challenges me to think differently on occasion.

In this book, Wright lays out a simple overview of the dominant schools of philosophy in the ancient world.

  • The Stoics were fatalists who believed everything was predetermined. You can’t change it, you just learn to deal with it.
  • The Epicureans agreed that you can’t do anything about the world, not because it’s predetermined but because it’s random. The best you can do is find as much comfort and pleasure as you can.
  • The Platonists thought that this broken world is just a dim shadow of a real world somewhere else. We endure this world because we’re destined for something better.

The thing about these ancient philosophies is that they’re still very much with us today. You can recognize elements of all of these all around us and even within us. You may even equate elements of these schools of thought in what you have experienced of religion – Christian or otherwise.

But as familiar as these may be, they aren’t our only options. Take COVID, for example. As destructive, disruptive, and frustrating as it is, we aren’t limited to these responses to it (though they may be revealing of the ways we DO respond). We have responded in certain ways, and we still have responses to make, and we will for a long time. Wright’s reminder is that authentic Christianity is different from all of these, though there may be points of contact.

Can we ever experience a faith that’s independent of the philosophical air we breathe? I don’t think so. Not here and now, anyway. But being aware of it can help us keep pressing in to God, and the renewal of our minds God desires to accomplish in us, for the sake of the world.